By Naginder S. Sehmi
1 – Palace in Wheat Fields
I sleep so deeply that I rarely remember dreams in the morning. This rule was shattered after my return from India. I had gone there “to lose myself”. That is what I told everyone before I had left Geneva on 8 March 2000. My plan was to spend at least three months. In my 63 years whatever was formally planned was never realized. Things just happened and continue to happen! Circumstances or karma or kismet or God (or whatever name humans might like to give) handled everything differently and brilliantly. I returned from India as fit as when I had left Geneva, exactly after a month. After that I woke up every morning some where in India rushing to catch a train or chatting with people in a country bus or trekking in the tea estates. I continued to remain “lost” in India for another twenty days. Can any one tell me of such a wonderful extended cost free journey without travelling?
One morning I woke up having landscaped the ground around a newly built palace into an undulating paradisiacal garden.
The palace is real. It’s the “Tamana Palace” inaugurated on 12 March by my old friend “Earl” Davinder of Earls Court, London and his two brothers, one settled in Australia. Hardly a month earlier, Davinder’s formal invitation card was followed a few days later by a stern telephone “commanding” me to book my air travel. That decided my pilgrimage to India.
I took off from Zurich on Swissair but on a seat loaned to Air India. The Swiss had turned the seat into a flying carpet; it landed me softy in Delhi in less than seven hours: magic carpet stolen from Air India hooked to the Swiss speed.
Next to me was seated a clean-shaven Sikh Jat, Surjit, leader of a team of social workers from Manchester. The team was heading for Jallandhar (Punjab) to build a temple in a nearby village.
“Is there a shortage of temples in India” I queried worryingly because I was finding it difficult reducing the number of temples on my “get lost” provisional itinerary.
“Our project is different. It is “made in UK” with funds collected in the name/memory of Baba Balak Nathji”
“There must be a few existing temples in that village?”
Avoiding my question, he continued, “We want to use it as centre for social work in particular to help widows. We also want to ensure that our children in Manchester remain in contact with their roots. So we bring our families to the village every year. The centre will provide us a base”. When I told him that I was also going to Jallandhar, he invited me to his village.
Some are building temples others build palaces! I chose the palace.
My cousin, Nirmal, retired Lt. Colonel, now almost fully “civilianized”, received me warmly at Delhi airport and took me home in his Miruti. I stayed with him and not with other more comfortably housed close friends because I wanted to know him and his wife Amrit. They gave me wonderful time. Amrit badly misses her son Gulu, a computer expert who had been recently “brain-drained” to Singapore. Well, these are nearby friendlier and more convenient economic destinations than Germany, USA, Canada, and UK!
As expected of an army officer, Nirmal had planned all my trips. This allowed me time to meet and have nostalgic lunch with Harwant and Balbir (ex-Geneva friends) and their lovely daughter Dr. Nilu.
On the cool, sunny spring morning of Saturday 11 March, Shatabdli Express took me 300 kilometres north to Jallandhar. My wagon halted right in front of the station main gate. My first visit and what honour! The city offers such welcome only to VIPs. In less than a minute I walked out of the station into the snugly warm late morning. I waited carrying a backpack, wearing jeans and Reeboks trainers and bearing a well-trimmed white beard. I felt a little uncomfortable and odd among people of my own type: the usual “first time” feeling. For good ten minutes Davinder was nowhere to be seen. I scrutinized the dusty traffic of all sorts: rustic looking city people, two- three- and four wheeled vehicles and sternly warding off taxi drivers asserting: “Some one is coming to receive me”. Nobody appeared. I was getting impatient and crest fallen. Some fifty meters to my left I saw some UK-attired Indian. “Davinder” I shouted. It was he accompanied by unique Soma, also ex-Kenyan, and Kirit.
“Where were you? We’ve looked for you everywhere in the train and on the platform.”
What a reunion! We hugged warmly. “Isn’t this the main gate where you’d asked me to wait?” I queried.
“We entered through this gate. I told Soma to go to the left and I went to right to ensure that you did not escape,” said Davinder with his usual air of competency.
“Well, you did not wait in the middle and forgot that important persons alight from the centre coach”.
Carrying four of us his little Miruti took the narrow road in front of the station and squeezed between bullock carts loaded with steel rods, bicycles, three-wheelers, scooters, ten-ton Tata trucks and people. If the train were not destined to be confined to the rail, it would also have passed through this street. This scene is a common feature of the station area in most Punjab cities.
We invited ourselves to a cold Coca-Cola in Skylark Hotel where Amarjit, another Kenyan from London joined us. Davinder nosed the Miruti northward on Pathankot road, which links Kashmir with rest of India. The road is so deeply potted that even tanks would be scared to use it! Evidently Indian trucks do better than the tanks because they can manoeuvre around the holes. A left turn drove us through a few villages and across vast lush green wheat fields pregnant with seed. Soon I faced a white red tiled “Tamana’s Palace in the Fields”, near Rahimpur village, twenty-two kilometres from Jallandhar. (See photo).
Why build a palace in the middle of fields, was the subject of discussion with Amarjit and Kirit during the evening walk through wheat fields and Rahimpur village, which now looked unimportant in the shadow of just one new building. Even if the three brothers would not return to live in mother/father land from Britain and Australia, it is potentially a good long-term investment. Punjab is changing fast.
The first part of the inauguration ceremony early on Sunday morning was prayers, which were recited in a small hall of the palace through one-metre high loudspeaker. Ear-splitting loudness woke up not only those still asleep; but made sure that the words penetrated my dumb ears. I can assure you that they blasted out of the other ear at the speed of sound.
An hour later, coming from the ground floor, I heard a familiar melodiously singing of hymns, which soothed the earlier agony. What a pleasant surprise; the singer was no other than G.S. Diwana accompanied by his two sons who for a number of years had delighted Sikh congregations in Kenya. After the ceremony I exchanged greetings and news with Diwanaji. Noting that he was in great demand, spontaneously I stated, “Having met you I have done my pilgrimage. Now I do not need to see the Golden Temple of Amritsar” – one temple less! Another time!
The scene moved to an enormous tent, which had been raised in the palace grounds the night before. Young turban-less jean-clad males danced Bhangra robustly in response to equally robust live music and singing. I was told that they were all Sikhs and that their uninhibited dancing is the effect of a good dose of drug. To me they looked normal!
“Why aren’t the girls dancing?” I asked Jyoti. “They are the first to take the floor in Britain. It looks so unwholesome”.
“Parents in villages associate dancing with prostitutes”, she explained. “Girls dare not dance in public”.
“But the songs of the singer beautifully unclothe pretty Punjabi girls”, I reacted.
No wonder all girls were sitting with their glum and serious parents. Punjabis do not like to be described as humourless people. They claim that they are world’s most fun loving people. This claim should be accepted with a pinch of salt. The happy ones were a few sitting next to the tent round a bottle of local whisky, one of which I shared.
At the flower-decked front palace gate, “Earl” Davinder and his Gujarati “Baroness” Jyoti held court to receive women of the poor sector of rural society including gypsies. These visitors use colourful irritating flattery to wish “happiness in the “kothi” (house), long life, more wealth, many sons, grandsons to the present family clan and to all future clans….”. The rhetoric stops only when the “royal couple” hands them some rupee notes; food alone was not good enough. News of such an event does not require publicity through radio, TV or Internet to attract these professional beggars from the region.
It is not common to see an elephant in wheat lands. The previous evening I went out for a walk/jog and I saw one elephant at the back of a farmhouse and men nursing it. I did not realize then that they were camping there for the night and would appear with the full-grown decorated elephant next morning on the newly laid passage to the “palace”. In addition to money and food, it took a lot of heavy weight persuasion to see them off.
By the time it became dark most outside activities came to a rather rapid end. Every time electric power got cut, ever-ready generator took over. Soon we settled down in the palatial sitting room, which resembled super deluxe Maharaja lounge. More whisky and beer lowered our inhibitions and led by Amarjit we sang old songs, told jokes and made fun of each other.
I had already dropped the idea of going to Amritsar. The next day after a drive through Jallandhar, Davinder stopped at the far end of the famous station road because he dare not drive through it again. He stopped a cycle rickshaw and helped to load my backpack and me. He firmly instructed the cyclist to take me to the rail station. It was through the same tortuous street that had brought me in but with a difference. This time there was no barrier between my lungs and exhaust pipes of trucks belching out smoke hardly a yard away. This was my initiation for the next phase of my journey when I would be on my own.
The train ticket to Ludhiana was 25.00 rupees, exactly one Swiss franc. The same journey in Switzerland costs fifty times more. I shared the compartment with four other passengers. Two Punjabi snobs (one was turbaned) who did not return my greetings, or they were so preoccupied in their loud verbose business talk that they did not hear me. These tight shirts disembarked at Phagwara. One of the other two was Sita Ram, a 28-year migrant worker returning home in eastern Uttar Pradesh. He had worked as assistant nurse in a big hospital in Jallandhar for six years. All these years he had missed his family and had finally decided to set up his “alopathic” practice in his village near Ajodhya.
Discussion with him in Hindi for the next half-hour was an invaluable refresher course on India. Finally, he said, “I know you are “pura” (full) Indian, but you speak such good Hindi that you must be from overseas. Where do you live?” The train stopped at Ludhiana, and I landed more sure of myself than I was at Jallandhar – it was my home territory and no one was coming to receive me.
2 – Back to Roots inTajpur
(Week 1 March 13 – 15)
My niece, Melo’s three daughters fall in the same age group as my daughter? All three are doing university degrees from home and give private tuition to students and help in a school. This was my first contact with them and I found them all very charmingly affectionate and communicating. The youngest (18 years) impressed me because she could recite from memory nearly two thousand verses of “Sukhmani”, the Hymn of Peace as well as the five long daily prayers.
Melo and her husband, Ranjit, were convinced that attending university fulltime was not good for girls; it “spoils” them. I decided to remain silent on this issue. I knew that in the Punjab there are not only more graduate girls than boys but more are better educated. Times have changed. Parents value daughters almost as much as sons. Breaking away from dependence on male! A social revolution accomplished!
Ranjit and his three brothers operate a small engineering workshop in a narrow dusty crowded street. In line with the workshop each brother has his own house. Two of them and their sons operate various types of machines and the other two handle marketing and accounts. Some twenty years ago they transferred the workshop from Jagraon, a small rural town, to Ludhiana, a sprawling dangerously polluted industrial-rural city. A cutthroat competition has not permitted them to expand much. But they all look happy and contented.
At mid-day I had phoned Ranjit from the rail station to come and pick me up. On reaching home before I sat down I found myself surrounded by members of four families. They all knew me. I spent the afternoon getting to know them. I am still unable to associate correct names with faces. Yet, in no time, I felt as if I had never lived elsewhere all my life. I looked back at my thirty years of comfortable life in Switzerland and could not sense much feeling of “belongingness” there; it is totally missing.
After dinner the entire family thronged into a small bed-sitting room. Someone produced a harmonium and a dholak (drum). We sang all types of songs until midnight. I slept in the same room, which was shared by three others. Absence of a mattress did not bother me because I am used to sleeping on the carpet in Geneva: good for the back.
Next morning (Tuesday, 14 March) Ranjit and Melo were going to take me to my village. Ranjit was delayed because he had to prepare some product delivery. I explored the narrow street, its dust, unsanitary drains, pollution and smells. I noticed that human- bicycle- and scooter-traffic respectfully accommodating children playing cricket in the middle of the street.
Opposite the workshop I saw a big arched signboard with neatly painted “Florence Nightingale Public School”. Does it train nurses? I was curious. Nervously I pushed the corrugated iron-sheet gate. Before it was even open a foot, a woman guard daunted me in Hindi, “What do you want?” Before I could complete my fidgety explanation, a gorgeous slim young lady wearing an off-white blue sari came towards me and smartly greeted me with joined hands in the Indian way with a knowing smile. Promptly she directed me to her office. “I’m the principal of this primary school. I heard that you are around and I wanted to meet you”. When my nervousness was turning into stunning shock I saw two of my grand nieces running towards us, all excited bearing broad smiles. That explained; they were helping the school and have been talking. Behind her table, Amarjit Gharyal looked intelligent, knowledgeable and correctly projected the image of a headmistress. “Uncle, I’m related to Ranjit’s family”. No wonder the two girls were feeling so at home in her office. That put me at ease. A handsome young man also entered and sat down quietly on a bench on my left. In no time a glass of milk-tea was served. We talked rather freely on school children, their background, school systems, fees and facilities in Europe. I was greatly impressed by her knowledge of educational and funding issues at home and abroad. When a student’s parent came in, I reluctantly proposed to go. “Please stay; don’t worry, you do not have to go”.
I stood up and offered to shake hands. But she folded her hands the Indian way. I apologized for my impoliteness. “When you return from your village drop in again”, she said when I was dissipating my hand shaking energy with the quiet young man. The girls accompanied me out and told me that he was her husband!
Ranjit and Melo were waiting for me. Their Indian Jeep drove me to my family roots some 25 miles away in a small village, Tajpur. Six years ago my uncle died at the age of 96 survived by four sons who form the link to my roots. It was an emotional reunion. My cousins all older than me looked in good health. They and their sons were occupied in small-scale saw milling, flour milling, farming, house building and providing technical services to farmers. For me they have been models of simple and honest living. For over 50 years they have selflessly looked after our interests, an uncommon trait. Fifteen years ago they sold our part of farmland and a building in the nearby town of Raekot. We decided not to sell our small village house which will remain as a signboard should our Swiss, Kenyan and British children and grand children might be inspired one day to look for their roots. Hope is slim. Our contact will be reduced to almost zero in a decade or two when most of my generation would have died. With new roots established elsewhere, is the idea of roots in India still valid?
My father, Hari Singh, died in Tajpur in February 1980. I arrived two days later just in time to accompany my uncle to pour the ashes in the Satluj River. A few years later the village committee built a school near our house. One classroom is dedicated to my father.
Dignity of not jogging
Milk-tea accompanied with Indian sweets is the usual welcome offered to guests. After breakfast I was entertained with a second cup in the factory while I was waiting Ranjit to finish his affaire followed by a third a few minutes later with the school principal. Half an hour later our Jeep landed us in a small village, Burj Naklyan, where I met my nephew, Melo’s younger brother. I was obliged to enjoy another cup of milk-tea, much fattier than all previous ones. A late lunch with one cousin in my village was followed by a visit to the eldest cousin and more milk-tea. We drove to the neighbouring village hardly a kilometre away to find out if our family friends from Canada had arrived. They had gone to visit relatives in Ludhiana and would be back soon. While they were being contacted by mobile telephone milk-tea was served again.
I decided to jog back to Tajpur. Ranjit and Melo grudgingly accepted my request to take the Jeep without me. Did I insult them or their Jeep? I noticed a peculiar expression on their faces. I had hardly started to breath in fresh evening air blowing over lush green wheat fields when I turned into the main street and I had another two hundred metres to run. There the Jeep was waiting for me. Meekly Ranjit said, “Uncle from here it is better to go in the car, it is not “dignifying” to run in the village. What will people think?” I have got the reply to my question: it is downgrading for the hosts to see their visitor jogging in an Indian village when they have offered a car!
3 – The Village Pond
Jyoti Dhaliwal is the chairperson of the village committee (Panchayat) of Nawan Pind (New Village) also called Chhanna/Kishangarh. It is hardly ten-minute walk from Tajpur. She in her thirties lives with her husband Sabha and three lovely children in a house that from out side looks like any other in the village. Sabha and I missed meeting each other since 1974 when he was still in his early teens. I could not have recognized him if I had met him in the street. I reached there at about five and was unsure which of the gates would lead me to his house. A handsome young Sikh supporting a neatly tied orange turban noticed my hesitation and advanced towards me. There was no need of introduction. We had surprised each other. Sabha greeted me with a big hug and then “Unclejiiii!”
We walked through the familiar gate and the yard into a new modern house at the back discretely merged into the old one. From outside I could not have imagined that a large lounge and bedrooms had been furnished in Canadian style equipped with gadgets ranging from a big-screen TV to mobile telephone and a four-wheel drive Commando – Tata’s rustic version of Mercedes M class.
For decades the destiny of the Dhaliwal family and ours has been knotted together. Their grand parents and my parents had migrated to Kenya in early 1930s. We all lived in Eldoret sometimes under the same roof. Sabha’s parents normally live in Mission near Vancouver, B.C, Canada with his elder brother Gurmeet. Two weeks earlier they had visited us in Geneva on their way to the village. Sabha’s uncle has migrated from Kenya to Perth, Western Australia; so has my nephew, Ravinder, to Melbourne. Here I am in one of the smallest villages of Punjab. It does not even have its own post office. Yet it communicates with the rest of the world as a matter of routine.
Adjoining their house is a Sikh temple (Gurdwara) looking over centuries old village pond. In 1941, I was four years old. I vaguely remember walking to the temple with my mother on the narrow dusty track winding round fields and jumping over irrigation runnels invariably getting wet. While the adults sang hymns inside the temple and listen to discourses on spiritual life, children played under spreading banyan trees bordering the pond or joined the water buffaloes cooling themselves in it. Another mental picture I retain is that of the temple priest Sant Kirpal Singh especially when he came to bless our home in Tajpur. He had a black car covered with a white sheet garaged in the temple compound. Can it be that his car enhanced his spiritual popularity? Or did his spiritual popularity earn him the car? That’s a long time ago when I could not have thought in such critical manner. May be my mind is being pricked by the ninety Rolls Royces of Rajneesh Osho.
Since those good old days, the pond has become a cesspool, a village sore breeding mosquitoes and polluting groundwater, the source of drinking water. Modern version of Sant Kirpal Singh is the Board Chairman of surrounding villages who had sought their cooperation to fill the pond. Villagers came forward with their trucks and tractor-drawn trolleys and on the evening when I was there I was told that 900 loads of soil had been dumped and the pond had been filled. Moreover they have collected enough funds to build a staffed-health care centre and a library on the reclaimed land. Amazing, villagers are on the move. Peasants are in control of their destiny. They will not wait external initiative or funding.
To celebrate the occasion the Board chairman had arranged a dinner in Hotel Friendship in Raekot, a near by town. Sabha’s father, Hardial Singh, who is more than elder brother to me, insisted that I must go with him to the dinner. (See picture attached). Plenty of thirst-quenching beer, good food and jolly but purposeful group made my evening invaluable. Just in one afternoon without having to ask questions or having to show off my learned ignorance, I was brought abreast with healthy progress that was shaping up the rural society. But there was not even woman to brighten the evening, not even Joyti, the village chairman. She was at home feeding her children and putting them to bed so that they get up in time to go to school next morning. I’m convinced that soon the housewife and husband would change their roles in society and village management.
The evening was warm. I opened the window and got into the comfortable soft-quilted bed. It must be much before four in the morning when the window seemed to have got connected to into a 1000W loudspeaker tied to the temple flag post blasting out morning prayers. I suspect that the temple priest must have perceived that I was sleeping next door in comfort that I did not deserve. Was it to punish me? Only God knows. I did not close the window and continued to listen to the broadcast in half-sleep mode.
After eating a delicious Pratha with home-made yogurt for breakfast I walked back to Tajpur, my village, absorbing the spring morning sun. Just opposite our house, I saw two elderly white-bearded gentlemen sitting on a bed as if in meditation hallowed by soothing sun light as if very nature was pouring into them. A picture of purity and simplicity, something I was trying to attain by “losing myself”. They stood up and greeted me warmly with joined hands, “Sat Sri Akal, Naginder Singh”. “We heard that you had come. I’m Dhanna Singh, you remember? You know Ujjagar Singh your childhood friend and class fellow: He was your neighbour”. We embraced each other. I had met Ujjagar during my previous visits but a long time ago. His glowing face contrasted with his flowing white beard expressed an unusual image of calm. Addressing Dhanna Singh I said, “Yes, I remember; your karkhana (workshop) used to be in Nanju barber’s lane”. “Look he remembers all that!” said Dhanna Singh. If I were not told I would not have recognized these people if I encountered them even in the village itself. My childhood images of fifty-five years ago are indelibly etched in my mind.
4 – Ganga Yogi
(March 15 – 21, 2000)
I have not yet been able to “lose myself”. I must escape from the Punjabi ambiance. It took me four days to disentangle myself from affairs in Chandigarh. I cannot forget my bus journey from Ludhiana, my first this time and the worst. Almost every piece in the bus rattled. The loudest was the engine. It did not seem to have a clutch. The whole bus shuddered out of the bus station and halted ten metres away. The hefty Sikh driver raced the engine and pushed into some gear ratio with great difficulty making discomforting crunchy metallic noise. The bus shuddered again and launched forward grudgingly in prolonged jerks until the clutch plate found the engine. Absolutely sure that the bus would break down in no time, in my mind I drew pictures of the transmission strapped not bolted to the engine, while all other passengers appeared unbothered. I was entertained with series of jerk-starts every time the bus stopped or had to be put in the first gear. I reached Chandigarh only half an hour late.
I flew away from Delhi to Varanasi, popularly known as Benares on Monday morning of 20 March. From the dusty airport a rusty Ambassador driven by a Muslim chauffeur accompanied by his 14-year son took me to Hotel Barahdari. Just about that time President Clinton had landed in New Delhi. I checked in and a serious looking man led me to my room. He informed me that for some reason all incoming phone calls came to my room. “That is normal”, I retorted “I expect a call from President Clinton any moment. Put the receiver back on the phone”. That cheered him up and my story humoured others at the reception counter.
It was lunchtime. I quickly descended to the eating room. Some young white travellers occupied three separate tables. At least one of them did not look too well: “Indian jelly-belly”! This backpackers’ medium comfort hotel is advertised as “Two star hotel with 5 star facilities”! Looking at the rather unhygienic atmosphere of the dinning room I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision to undertake such a trip. “If they can, why not me?” To be on the safe side, I ordered fried eggs and toast for lunch. The waiter’s white clothes were as grey as the well-greased napkin he was using to clean tabletops, cheap-metal cutlery and cracked crockery. What should I expect for US$12.- for a room with AC? Later during the trip I discovered that even that can be luxury.
I did not wait for Clinton’s phone call! Equipped with a bottle of mineral water and a tourist map I braved into the crowded street in Kotwali and headed towards the sacred Ganga Ghats, Varanasi’s famous attraction. Many shops were closed. People were celebrating the spring festival of Holy, the day when people spray coloured water or powder on each other. I crossed some groups of youngsters carrying loaded plastic pumps. Either they did not find me to be an attractive target or they had expended all their ammunition in the morning.
An inconspicuous signboard pointing to Vishwanath Temple led me into a metre-wide lane. Inevitably the sacred mother cow and dogs shared it. The lane taking me to the holiest and the purest spiritual focal point of Hindus is far from those attributes. I walked around a fire in the centre of almost every street crossing fuming out nauseating smoke. Some one tries to burn rubbish so that more could be dumped soon after! Small temples on each side of the street offer solutions to different types of physical and spiritual malfunctions. On my left I hardly noticed the obscure entrance to Vishwanath Temple. It was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore dedicated to Shiva, the lord of the universe. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab had donated gold to plate its domes. Was it left-over from Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar!
The temple is small. Its shining golden domes are hidden between the street and the Great Mosque behind it. It is pointless to question why a Mosque had to be built over bigger and older temple. The place must be sacred! The space between the small temple and the derelict mosque is just enough to accommodate policemen and a steel barrier.
The head policeman advised me not to photograph this farcical human folly and insanity. I could not help laughing: one type of spirituality strangling another type as if it were not one. Fragrance of incense emanating from the temple merged with urine and dog shit stench in the narrow alley between two symbols of religion.
One sees this antithesis in almost every city in India. A few years ago I saw it in Lahore (Pakistan). My agitated mind soared to Jerusalem the pinnacle of spiritual stupidity epitomized in symbolic claims for remnants of walls, domes and cradles bereft of human and spiritual values. Imagine how exciting it would have been if symbols of Greek phallus and Shiva “lingum” were also there!
A little further eastward I found myself looking at the sacred River Ganges just south of Manikarnika Ghat. Seven main Ghats are north of this point and the other ninety in the south. At this time of the year the river level is low. I walked over two kilometres southwards along the bank up to the last main Ghat of Asi. I saw and photographed people bathing, buffaloes taking their afternoon nap in the warm sand and of course some sadhus.
One body had just been cremated and a Pandit flung an earthen pot over his head thus sending the soul to paradise. Cremation of the next one was being negotiated. His destination to hell or heaven was in question. I walked over concrete platforms, zigzagged around bank structures and jumped over smelly feeders from the city. Every niche in the Ghat walls is an open urinal producing a stench, which nullifies holiness, and the purifying capability of the place.
I have no doubt about the spiritual and psychological comfort that people attain by bathing in the river. However I decided not to follow their example because I thought that I would pollute it. I do not know how much spiritual muck I am carrying.
Looking back northwards the view of riverbank with its boats and dilapidating ghats is indeed spectacular and soothing.
What made this site sacred? What attracted the Maharajas and their Maharanis to build their palatial Ghats here? There is the Rana Ghat, Jai Singh Ghat, Scindia Ghat, Raja Man Singh Looking back northwards the view of riverbank with its boats and dilapidating Ghat and Ahalya Bai Ghat to name a few. These are old versions of modern hotels for rich tourists who now clog beaches of Goa in India and numerous others in the world.
Climbing to the road that runs behind the ghats I headed north. A number of cycle rikshawalas offered to take me wherever I wanted. They seemed to wonder why I was walking. I absorbed the old town scenario. A mentally retarded gesticulating women, stark naked, failed to engage anybody’s attention. A young rikshawala decided to give me company when I declined to hire him. He rode while we talked about his family, education and his daily income. “If you don’t hire me how can I earn more?” he said politely and paddled off and left me struggling with the question: “What makes Ganges so sacred at Varanasi?”
My mind trekked to primeval times when the raised green wooded west bank still in virgin state. I see no huts; only holiness manifested in natural beauty of the site. I imagine myself looking across the apex of the gentle river curve. Wide-mouthed I watch the Sun rising and pouring out a flood of gold across the glittering almost still river water. I would not have looked for paradise elsewhere. No wonder naked yogis replaced the heavenly green patches of soft grass with shacks. They planted signposts inviting the living and the dead to be taken to heaven. Since then Varanasi has been irrevocably emptied of its godliness.
Before dawn next day, I took a taxi to Mughal Sarai railway station, aspiring to see on the way the pristine glory of sunrise. I thought the vision would erase my souvenir of acrid smell of urine along the ghats. Alas, all I saw was a sickly sun having great difficulty to emit its radiance through a cloud of polluted fog hanging over the river. Looking backwards from the bridge I saw only a hazy outline of the Ganges and the ghats which looked so picturesque the day before.
Before dawn next day, I took a taxi to Mughal Sarai railway station, aspiring to see on the way the pristine glory of sunrise. I thought the vision would erase my souvenir of acrid smell of urine along the ghats. Alas, all I saw was a sickly sun having great difficulty to emit its radiance through a cloud of polluted fog hanging over the river. Looking backwards from the bridge I saw only a hazy outline of the Ganges and the ghats which looked so picturesque the day before.
I saw a few yogies and sadhus. My opaque soul did not receive any holy signals from them. May be they were tired after having poured out all their spirituality to the needy during the Holi festival. There was one that drew my attention and left a permanent imprint on my mind. His neck was delicately doused with pink and blue Holi colour. He has dug a grotto in the sandbank just big enough to give him shade and shelter. He sat comfortably in perfect posture of meditation, eyes closed softly as if another sphere. I took my camera close to his nose to preset the light inside the grotto, yet he remained absolutely composed, undisturbed by worldly tourist antics. He projected an air bliss that many of us seek. I am talking too much. My words cannot depict the serenity that the picture of the Ganga Yogi portrays.
If I were prepared to receive bliss, this Ganga Yogi would not tire of giving , that too, without baksheesh or alms!
5 – Muslim-Brahmin
(March 21–23, 2000)
Soon after boarding the seven thirty train from Mughal Serai (Varanasi) to Patna, I ordered egg and toast and drank tea from a mini thermos flask, watching the flat green countryside roll by. I had learnt to override my prejudice regarding food ordered in the train. But try not to visit the kitchen wagon because you might lose your appetite after that.
The train approached Patna on schedule exactly in three hours and 25 minutes. I reached the exit door loaded with my backpack ready to disembark when the train braked to halt just outside the station waiting for line clearance signal. Another tallish passenger wearing very white Indian shirt and pajamas had occupied the rest of the space with his baggage. Nothing happened except that minutes continued to tick. I was in no hurry. My pack found a place on the floor and I started to talk with the gentleman. It did not take long before I learned that he lived in Patna, the Capital of Bihar State, and that he had just retired as its Director of Education. For nearly one hour while the train awaited clearance, we exchanged talk about every thing pertaining to education and its bearing on development in Bihar, India and the world. Did the train stop knowingly so that could learn from this unassuming person? The value of delayed passenger trains is always underestimated! He alerted me that Patna does not attract many tourists.
As Buddha had predicted in 500BC, two centuries later, this city under its old name of Pataliputra, became the capital of India under Ashoka the Great. I decided to see the remains of the old capital first.
Bewitched by Indian beauties, President Clinton did not phone me in Varanasi! To compensate, I decided to stay in Hotel President in Patna. I quickly descended to the dinning room. Most of the restaurants I have been to in India are dimly lit. This one was so dark that I could hardly read the scanty menu. Is the dimness intended to stop looking at others wives, or replacement of wives? Or is it to conceal big holes in the tattered carpet? Or is it to mask the quality of food being served and insects that might have fallen in it? A cold beer helped me to forget all those questions and gulp down half-cooked rice and lentils- tandoori chicken was not chewable.
I walked back to the rail station and hired a 3-wheeler to take me eastward to Kumrahar to see excavations of Pataliputra. Expecting to see something like Greek and Roman edifices I was disappointed. There must be much more than those few lowly foundations uncovered so far.
I had a mission to accomplish in Patna: my uncle in Chandigarh gave me his new book to donate to the Sikh Temple (Patna Saheb) which is 4km further east. The white marble temple built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh pleases the eye especially its clean compound (see picture attached). The pot-bellied Manager received me courteously and honoured me with a scarf and a bun (parsad) from the temple kitchen. It was very tasty indeed.
Having accomplished my mission I walked into the street, which in contrast appeared unpleasantly dirty and smelly. I could not resist pondering. Why isn’t the wealth amassed by this temple (later I learnt that Hindu temples like the one in Tirupathi near Chenai collect millions daily) used to clean up its neighbourhood? I found myself wishfully proposing a project:
In the first year the project would concentrate on 10 to 20-metre area from the temple boundary. With technical help of the local administration and cooperation of residents, the temple managers would take lead to:
- Rebuild and cover the open drains,
- Provide each household with piped- or pumped water supply and a toilet connected to the existing sewerage system,
- Train the residents how to use and keep them clean and organize supervision.
Second year would cover the next 10 to 20 metres and so on. How pleased would be the Gurus if their Sikhs ventured out and undertook social service beyond the temple kitchen and extended their humility beyond wiping shoes of devotees?
In the evening I walked to the west of Gandhi Maidan to see sunset over the Ganges. I climbed 142 steps to the top of beehive-shaped Golghar, a 1786 British granary. To go to the riverbank, I crossed a compound with a strange-looking unfinished concrete construction in its middle. It looked like a wartime bunker composed of a number cubes standing on edges one over the other. One young man standing in the balcony between two cubes told me that late Mrs. Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, had ordered its construction. Now it provides shelter to local policemen. They could not tell me why it was built like a bunker. Did Mrs. Gandhi make provision to hide herself should dire days befall?
It was already dark when I returned to my room. I could not see the rusty old curtains or the patches of wall paint. I switched on the TV to see what was Clinton up to in India. Who do I see? Ram Godoomal a Sindhi friend who lived in Geneva some ten years ago. He is an enthusiastic Christian involved in social help projects in London. BBC was interviewing him because he was a candidate for election as Mayor of London. What a coincidence!
Early next morning (Wednesday 22 March), I went to Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library to see the only books to survive the sacking of the Moorish University of Cordoba in Spain. I was curious and wanted to see the Quran inscribed in a book only 25mm wide. The ordinary mortals in the library guided me to the manager himself who received me very courteously. He could not show me what I had come to see; but what he told me that morning I would have never found out – a rare opportunity!
Bakhsh was a lawyer born in 1842. His foster mother was a Brahmin woman, who breast-fed him. In recognition of her love, he never ate beef, although permitted in Islam; nor did his son Khuda. Bakhsh, an intellectual, was keenly interested in collecting and preserving manuscripts and works of art. He greatly valued the need for archives and reading facilities for all people. In 1876, his last wish to his son, Khuda, was that he should collect manuscripts and publications and set up a multicultural library. Khuda engaged people for 50 rupees a month and sent them to Syria, Iraq, Persia, Spain, and North Africa. They brought back some rare and unique Arabic and Persian manuscripts including a book on surgery from Cordoba Spain. It details surgical instruments the types of which are still in use.
Khuda, also a lawyer, launched a similar campaign within India. He paid the cost of return journey and price of the manuscript brought to him. One of the most famous he acquired is Tarikh-e Khandan-e Timuria (Timur Nama), a stupendously illustrated history of Timur family from Uzbekistan down to Akbar in India. Akbar had requisitioned its preparation. It is a priceless work of art. Sometimes Khuda even bought manuscripts, which he knew had been stolen from his collection. He spent all his savings on this pursuit and died a poor sick man. The Government (then British) loaned him 8000 Rupees to get medical treatment.
Now the library is well staffed, funded by the Federal Government and complemented with 50,000 Rupees from the State Government. Catalogues are being scanned and would be put on Internet. A quarterly journal publishes good quality articles in English and Urdu.
Patna might not be a great tourist attraction, but I departed a more cultured person carrying a booklet containing 12 reproductions from Timur Nama.
6 – Kali’s Black Lamb
(March 22–24, 2000)
“Go to Calcutta. My father would love to see you again. I have talked to him. He is thinking of taking you to his tea estates in Orissa. You will like it,” Bharat Dube had insisted in Geneva.
I had taken a guided tour of Calcutta in December 1994 on my way back from Nepal. I had walked in the throngs of people during the evening rush. I have seen Calcutta in the film, “City of Joy”! Mother Theresa’s mission did not attract me to it. I did not want to be found yet! I wanted to take a train from Patna and go south across Bihar and Orissa straight to Bhubaneswar and Puri on the eastern coast of Orissa. Alas, there is no such easy shortcut; the quickest route is through Calcutta.
“There is a comfortable hotel walking distance from where I live”, said Basant Dube when I phoned him. “The rate is about seven thousand rupees, bed and breakfast.” When I told him how I was traveling he booked me in Lytton Hotel on Sudder Street at two thousand rupees including luxury tax. This is about five times the highest rate I paid during my trip.
Sahara Air flew me from Patna to Calcutta. Before I was tempted to lapse in the snug air-conditioned room, I decided to venture out to the Maidan, the Hyde Park of the city and see the sunset and get a feel of the streets. On reflection I felt that I should have left out Calcutta from my itinerary.
It was seven thirty. I was hungry. My “Lonely planet” guidebook directed me to eat at Khwaja or Khalsa restaurant, both on Sudder Street. My last try to phone Basant found him.
Dinner was waiting. A fifteen-minute walk in the warm evening, probably cold for the Bengalis, brought me to an old colonial office/residential building. An elderly caretaker took care of me and drove his rickety lift to the apartment bearing at least two very prestigious looking signboards. I crossed a wide office buzzing with fax machines and computers into Basant’s residential quarters.
The interior decor is a nostalgia of British colonial times. Phone calls and clerks seeking Basant’s attention, approbation and signatures frequently interrupted our dinner. We agreed to meet the next evening at five; it was not convenient for him to visit the tea estates.
Basant reminded me, “Kali Temple is worth a visit. Darshan(vision) of the statue of goddess herself is a must”. I had other much simpler plans. Next morning at six-thirty I crossed Nehru Road into The Maidan which was engulfed in a thick morning haze. I jogged aimlessly southwards feeling proud of being an early bird. In less than a minute I was pleasantly surprised to see youths playing a full-scale cricket match, then another and another. I zigzagged around their unmarked pitches. On the way back I tried to get into Fort William, but an army guard abruptly straightened his gun across my path. Since the British rebuilt it in 1781, it has remained in the hands of the Army and even its surrounding area is out of bound. After a short pleasant chat with the Jawan (soldier) I crossed the Maidan back to my hotel sweating profusely. A relaxing shower followed by a copious English-Bengali buffet breakfast made me feel mighty brave ready to confront the potent and fearful Kali Mata.
A Sikh taxi driver, originally of Mohi village near Mulapur (Ludhiana), landed me near Kalighat Mandir. He cautioned me, “Watch out pundits; they will ask you for big money for Kali Devi darshan“. Seeing a big throng trying to enter the temple, I decided to circumambulate it, naturally barefoot. At the back, I saw a hefty stocky man enter a quaint fenced square carrying under his arm a lovely young black lamb. Its soft pelt glimmered even in the dull sun. Its eyes emanated the purest innocence I have ever seen. That image remains imprinted in my mind. What a contrast to the flaming eyes of Kali! Starkly casual, the man sprinkled holy water on its forehead. In a flicker of my eyelid he turned round, placed its head between two stakes, chopped off its godly head and offered his bloody finger to touch foreheads of spectators. I wonder how much innocence has been sacrificed and yet goddess Kali’s blood lust has not been quenched.
According to Hindu mythology, Shiva’s first wife, Shakti, had transgressed. Was it adultery? She was punished. Her body was strewn over India. One of her fingers fell at Kalighat (hence Calcutta). Her “yoni” fell at Gawahati in Assam where in mid-year Hindus celebrate the end of the earth’s menstrual cycle. The menstrual blood is derived from lamb sacrifice. Why don’t they chop off human lingums(phalluses) instead?
To quell my anti-Kali sentiments, I decided not to see her at all and walked to the Metro that took me to Gandhi Road stop, the nearest point to Howrah Bridge. Unhurriedly and aimlessly, I paced through the bazaar towards Hooghly River. Approaching a small crossroad even my insensitive nose encountered a blast of pungent smell. A big tractor was shovelling a three-metre-high pyramid of rubbish into a truck. How long it has been accumulating only the seagulls, picking maggots from it could tell.
Crossing the Strand and the railway line I landed in the flower market. Piles of strings of fresh marigolds look immensely better than in the photo.
Slow walking made my rusty knees stiff. Yet I could not resist the temptation of walking across and see the world’s most frequently crossed bridge. I am glad I did it. I would have missed a unique encounter with men and women of all ages carrying farm produce and other merchandise usually on head. Humanity, rather than humanness, on the move! I just watched, watched, walked limply, and descended to the equally famous Howrah railway station.
Inside the station, I sat on a railing. Greedily I pulled out a bun from my small backpack. I had received it as prasad in Patna Sikh Temple the previous day. It was big not too sweet but tasted heavenly. Chasing it down with mineral water bought from the nearby stall, I had mini bananas for dessert. I watched country people sitting on the floor in groups waiting for their train. Others shuffled from one platform to another. Couples of college students sat just close enough to each other not to be noticed and romantically shared lunch. An hour passed in perfect bliss.
I walked out through the riverside gate and joined people lined up to board a ferry. The ferry took me across the Hoogly back to Strand at Babu Ghat. Again I walked across The Maidan and passed by a sports club where I stopped briefly to rest and watch a field hockey match.
After a refreshing quick shower, I was out and sweating again marching to Basant Dube’s residence. I had some time to spare. On the way, I visited the Indian Museum. Its huge galleries display the finest collection of archaeological, historical, cultural, and natural history artefacts.
As we had agreed, I rang the bell exactly at five. Basant’s cook received me hospitably and I landed into a comfortable sofa. Directing the fan at me he announced that sahib was playing tennis and would be coming soon.
A blessing in disguise: I rested for a good hour before Basant turned up and was lost again for half an hour in his bathroom. Just when he was pouring our whiskies a charming smiling lady walked in wearing a bright sari and matching jewellery. Her husband, she said, was occupied so she had come alone. She claimed her gin tonic and unhesitatingly provided the feminine touch the evening needed.
Bose is a common Bengali family name. Shunanda Bose quickly denied any blood link with India’s independence hero, Subash Bose. The spirited ambiance liberated our thoughts and tongues, and we traversed the entire history in particular the British Raj. We talked about the clash of Indian culture with the Occident. Basant adorning his high-backed colonial-looking chair portrayed the Raj, whereas Shunanda charmed us with her knowledge of literature, modern times and trends in India and abroad. I know that Bengalis are very cultured people. Well, she exemplified them well.
The next morning, I flew to the unknown again: to holy Bhubaneshwar.
7 – Lady with a Handbag
(March 24 – 27, 2000)
Puri is one of the four most sacred centres of Hindu pilgrimage; the others are Badrinath, Rameswaram and Dwarka. Since my youth I have heard of Puri in a story told or read innumerable times. In early months of 1509 (Indian travelers shun keeping a diary), Nanak Dev, the first Guru of Sikhs, arrived in Puri. Was it also Friday 24 March, the day I was there but 491 years later?
The story goes like this: Pundits of Jaganath Temple were performing Aarti which is an evening worship involving circumambulation of the statute of Jagannath, Lord of the universe, accompanied by singing, lighting lamps in platters, ringing bells, burning incense and offering flowers. Nanak sat outside blissfully attuned with nature. Angry pundits confronted Nanak because he did not participate in the worship. To appease them Nanak sang his famous song, which many Sikhs recite before going to sleep.
The sky is the plate.
In it, the sun and the moon are the lamps
And the celestial stars are like pearls.
The sandalwood scented wind from the Malai hills is the incense,
It sways like a whisk.
The entire plant life supplies sacred flowers for You, O Light.
What a wonderful evening worship!
The heavenly music is the beating of temple drums. (Adi Granth , page 13)
At one o’clock, I hired a Hindustan car from Bhubaneswar airport for Rs460.00 to go to Puri. Before long the young driver convinced me that for another Rs200.00 he would take me to the famous sun temple of Konrak which is the eastern apex of the sacred triangle formed by Bhuwaneshwar and Puri some 60km apart
Four centuries ago, the sea bathed the walls of Konark temple. Of the many beautifully carved erotic carvings, my guide directed my attention to that of a lady carrying a trendy handbag with its strap passing over her right shoulder, as women do now. It is difficult to imagine what splendour it must have been a thousand years ago.
The Muslim invaders in the 14th century could not tolerate the religious music and “erotic” dances staged morning and evening with sunrays illuminating the performance. They tried to destroy the temple. Its granite blocks were too heavy for them to move. Portuguese Catholic sailors found it even more repugnant to their religious mores. Those ignorant sailors did not know what their popes had been doing to nuns and one of them even to his own daughter back in Europe. Roping the temple domes to their ships with sails at full mast they managed to topple them and were happy to destroy a most precious work of human heritage. No regrets, what is left now attract a lot of Christian tourists.
The temple is good two kilometres from the sea. Even if it were to be restored it will not have the same magnetic charm produced by sunrays projected by the rising sun and enhanced manifold by reflection on shimmering seawater.
Konark town and its surroundings had not yet emerged from the devastation caused by the tropical cyclone that had swept through it a few weeks earlier. Driving along the crudely repaired coastal road I saw houses torn down and coconut palms flattened to the ground as far as the eyes could see inland.
At five o’clock, I checked in at Tanuja family guesthouse in the old part of Puri about a hundred metres from the beach. My young host, Robby, offered to take me on his scooter to the 7th Beach Festival of Puri opening at six. Normally this festival is held in February but was postponed to March because of the cyclone. Or was it because I was coming!
Before the formal opening, I visited numerous stalls selling local artefacts and food. In the middle, half a dozen young artists were absorbed in a sand sculpture competition. Two pretty girls attracted more spectators than the others. They had reproduced voluptuous figures like the ones I had seen a few hours earlier in Konark.
Next morning, riding Robby’s old bicycle, I felt that I had no strength in my legs to paddle it. Vijay did not turn up at the tourist office in front of the temple. After waiting a little I ventured to get in the temple with the crowd. In side I watched devotees perform rituals and prayers inhaling air heavily loaded with incense and smoke of purified butter.
At 11.30 I return to the guesthouse feeling feverish. I slept until 16.30 and then, as guided by Robby, I cycled to Dr. N. Pandit’s clinic near the railway station. Dr. Pandit had been to Geneva and had lived in Paris for a few years but had not spoken French for ten years. He was more interested in practicing his French than his profession. He diagnosed a viral infection, sold me antibiotics and prescribed a diet of Britannia Arrowroot biscuits, apple juice, bananas, coconut, weak tea and rice with “moong” lentils. Afraid of getting very sick by eating in not too clean eating-places in the area, I asked my host if I could eat with the family.
I had just enough day light to deliver my Uncle’s recently published book to Puri Sikh Temple, which is actually a low back street derelict building composed of two small rooms one housing the Sikh Adi Granth and the other on the left displayed Lord Jagannath’s idol.
The Udasi (non-Sikh) caretaker told me the story that Nanak Dev had gone into such deep meditation (samadhi) that on the third day Lord Jagannath got worried about losing his status. Jagannath himself walked from his temple to meet Nanak. That is why his idol sits next to the Adi Granth. It was quite dark when the caretaker showed me the steps going deep down to a well (Baoli). So I did not test the freshness of its water. There is a legend associated with this well.
One morning Guru Nanak went on the seaside for a stroll. There were many people bathing, just as the pilgrims do now in their customary fully attired manner. His companion, Mardana, felt thirsty. The water all around was insipid. The Guru with his staff dug up the sand near him and there appeared a spring of cool drinking water, from which Mardana drank to his satisfaction. It would be interesting to find out why the surface of well water is now so much below and far from the seashore.
The caretaker did not know what to do with the book that I handed him. May be I should have taken time to go to the other Sikh Temple known as “Mangu Math” near Jagannath temple.
Early next morning I walked to the sandy beach two blocks behind Tanuja Guest House. From far the sandy beach looked wide and long. I was attracted to walk/jog eastward to the fishing village. I was disappointed and disgusted when I saw human excreta everywhere. What shame! I cannot dislodge from my brain the sight of a well-dressed young man. The track back from the beach passes along a scattered grove of trees. The man took off his trousers, neatly folded them and placed them near a tree trunk. When I saw him wrapping a white cloth around his waist, I thought he was going to take his morning swim in the sea. No, he surveyed around insensibly lifted the cloth over his knees and squatted down to enjoy his toilet a few metres from the track.
With its beautiful beaches, temples, the famous annual Rath Yatra (Car Festival) and a rich natural and cultural hinterland, Puri has a tremendous potential for tourism, if developed and managed properly. Robby’s family living in the adjoining house invited me to a rice and lentil dinner. The children loved the bar of Swiss chocolate I offered in return. Not long ago, the family had migrated to Puri from the countryside near Chilka Lake. Two brothers and their families and the young widow of the third live in three congested rooms under the supervision of the old father. The widow runs a small grocery shop and a small adjoining eating-place. She sleeps on the floor behind the counter.
The next day (26 March) I boarded the 9am train to Bhubaneswar. I deposited my pack at the railway station and paid 40 rupees to ride an auto straight to Lingaraja Mandir, the great temple surrounded by a high wall and dedicated to Bhubaneswar, the lord of three worlds.
I noticed pundits manipulating pilgrims. Although a non-Hindu, no one stopped me. Two priests holding trays for receiving “toll” money guarded the entry to the lingum-yoni carved out of granite. I could see devotees going round it taking a sip of liquid composed of milk and coconut water previously poured over the lingum and flowing around it in the yoni. I watched a handsome well-dressed young couple led by a priest. After making an offering of a coconut and fruit they stood with folded hands and eyes closed while the priest recited Sanskrit verses mechanically, indifferent, his eyes rolling in all directions watching other visitors. Surely, the young couple’s dedicated prayer would have reached its destination without him.
After having a lunch of vegetable pilao in Ashoka Hotel (Rs180.00), I visited the State Museum Just outside I captured a scene of road workers.
Then I lingered towards rail station in the hazy afternoon sun. Bharat Dube (Geneva) wrote: As kids, we often made trips to Puri. I’m sorry to hear that the scatological imprints in my mind cannot be erased as yet. It seems that in feeling unwell in Puri you were in exalted company!
8 – Temples and Buns
(March 27 – April 4, 2000)
I rested on a bench at Bhubaneswar station for over an hour. Coromandal Express screamed in grudgingly. It departed on time at 20.47h for a 20-hour journey to Chennai (Madras). Just when I sat down in my airy compartment a family of six poured in. Dev, a young man of about thirty, with his wife, baby son, sister and elderly parents were going on pilgrimage to Rameswaram, where the Hindu God Ram had crossed over to Sri Lanka walking on a bridge he had built of “floating” rocks.
Was I an undesirable intruder? They all looked rather serious and talked little even with each other. I managed to break ice with Dev. He is a GIS (Geographical Information System) expert in Orissa Government. He briefed me on the usual inefficiency of State civil service and low salaries. I offered him to choose their berths to suit family needs. I got the upper one. A train attendant distributed rust-coloured bedding. A waiter took my dinner order of fried eggs and toast and a bottle of water.
For breakfast I flushed down soggy jam-toasts with tea from a mini-flask. In order to allow the family to sort themselves out for the long day ahead, I decided to explore the train. I saw the kitchen, every thing black with smoke and cooking. If I had seen it earlier, probably I wouldn’t have ordered my meals. Next to it was an empty staff cabin with wooden benches and air blowing in from the open window. I sat down there to watch the land roll by occasionally getting a glimpse of the sea. Mr. Beg, young Moslem, joined me to chat. Originally from Hydrabad he lives in Calcutta. He is in-charge of maintaining the train’s air conditioning system that breakdown frequently. He earns about Rs 6000.00 per month just enough for the family. He is happy to be living in Calcutta and he does not experience any religious tension there. How nice!
The train crawled into Chennai’s (Madras) Egmore Station on time at 17.35. I checked in Hotel Pandian nearby. Realizing that there is so much to see in and around Chennai, I booked myself in a 50-ruppee-guided tour of Tirumala and Tirupathi.
Next morning, I got up at 5.00 a.m. to catch the bus and had an uneventful relaxed journey to Tirupathi. We had a south Indian breakfast/snack somewhere on the way. On average 100 000 pilgrims flock daily to Tirupathi, the world’s busiest and the richest temple of Venkateshwara, an avatar of Vishnu. My 50-rupee-ticket allowed me special darshan (viewing of god) and also priority over all those others who had paid nothing. They often have to queue for 12 hours in the claustrophobic steel serpentine cage. God, the economist, fixes his prices according to demand: to secure a position of minimal waiting one has to pay considerably more than 50 rupees. Luckily it was one of the less busy days and I was expectantly nearing the famous statue. From far I saw garlands completely hiding the carver’s artistic accomplishment deep inside the temple. Then I saw bands of white cloth covering the middle of his eyes vertically. I was told that his gaze would scorch the onlooker. I wonder if the smart pilgrim behind me sensed anything through her binoculars. It was after nearly two hours of shuffling that I found myself right in line with the idol, still too far to see much. Before I knew that I had viewed Venkateshwara two hefty ladies manhandled me pushing me forward ensuring that no one stopped too long and got scorched!
I saw several bearers in their priestly white dhotis (loin cloth) coming out of the temple carrying on their heads heavy trays piled with sweet buns, the size of a grapefruit, having freshly been blessed by the Lord. Just as I emerged from the temple I received prasad in exchange for my 50-rupee ticket: two of those big buns with plenty of whole cardamoms. Hardly had I turned round when a hungry-looking boy of about seven extended his hand for money. My quick reflex made me hand him one of my buns. The boy ran away looking extremely happy. My Indian co-travellers stood wide-mouthed and one of them exclaimed, “You gave away prasad; just like that!” In the evening back in my hotel I ate part of the bun for dessert. It tasted so good that momentarily I regretted having parted with the other bun; at the same time, I understood why the boy was so happy to get it instead of money.
The idol of Venkateshwara grants any wish made in front of him. You might have noticed that it has to be very short and quick. So come prepared. For best results come with clean-shaven head. I saw only a few with heads shaved. The temple barbers must have earned very little that day.
For snacks the bus brought us downhill to Hotel Bliss in Tirupathi. This newly built hotel looked very inexpensive (Rs 700/-) for the good comfort and facilities it offered among temples inhabited by so many gods.
Next day (Wednesday, 29 March) I was up at 5.30 a.m. to join the bus tour to Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram). Besides boasting of its one thousand temples of which 200 remain, Kanchipuram rivals Varanasi and Mysore for its fine silk.
By the time we were taken to the silk handloom factory I befriended a newly married young couple Nitin, a Gujarati, and Rajni, a Punjabi, both from Nottingham, UK. In the factory outlet-shop I saw Rajni looking at saris. I had no intention of buying but ended up spending Rs. 3900/- on one. Our bus stopped momentarily in front of a temple gate beside a high pedestal. I found myself looking at an exquisite Indian “washing machine” elegantly doing her job indifferent to snobs like us!
In Mahabalipuram I shared lunch table with Nitin and Rajni and looked at nearby seashore temples and rock carvings.
Intense heat made us very thirsty. I ordered a bottle of water, which was ice-cold. Forgetting my previous experience, I drank it. An hour later my throat-glands swelled and swallowing became a painful effort. Drinking hot tea frequently during the rest of the day relieved the disorder. At three o’clock I broke off from the guided tour and boarded a rickety local bus that took me to Pondicherry in two hours.
9 – Ashram to Ooty
(March 27 – April 4, 2000)
It was just after five in the evening when I arrived at the bus station in the southwest of Pondicherry. It is easy to find places here because roads are laid on a grid plan just like towns in North America.
It was quite hot, and I was feeling languid. So I decided to walk the one and a half kilometre to Park Guesthouse located at the south-eastern end of the town, right on the seashore. Sri Aurobindo Ashram runs this guesthouse mainly for visiting devotees. Fortunately, the Ashram was not having any meeting and I was offered an excellent large clean room with private bath and a spacious balcony overlooking a well-manicured garden and a heavenly view of the sea. A strong evening breeze drove fairly big waves against rocks lining the shore. I could not resist going out again. I walked the entire length of Beach Road. On the broad walkway evening crowd of local people was soaking in the breeze from the Bay of Bengal. I dined at the in-house vegetarian restaurant run by a very pleasant Gujarati.
After checking out early next morning, I walked to Aurobindo Ashram. In the courtyard are two samadhis (tombs). One is of Aurobindo, a venerated sage of modern times and the other of his successor The Mother. In his erudite prolific writing, Aurobindo has synthesized yoga and science. At one time he became very popular among westerners. In the yard a dozen people meditated in perfect silence.
One sad looking young man sat embracing the tomb itself with his head placed on the cold stone as if he had his ear plugged in and recording the sage’s spiritual message emanating from inside. At the back, I noticed an old black Humber car. If restored it should have considerable antiquity value.
The nine o’clock bus took three hours to reach outer Chennai and another hour to the station. The rest of the day I visited the city. First I walked to Fort St. George and its Museum. The atmosphere here does not appear to have changed since the British East India Company built the fort in 1653. I felt taken back in time. Probably it was nicer then. The porches of the dilapidated outer wall house small craftsmen and workers. Being a tourist attraction, some attempt should have been made to keep this area clean and less smelly.
Tracing my steps back I decided to see the Kuvam (Cooum) River, which on the map seemed to be city’s main beauty attraction. Langs Garden Road is filthy, but the river is filthier. Ignore the slums on the other bank, do not see what is floating in the placid river and do not breathe through the nose, the scene is beautiful. I spent considerable time in bookshops in Anna Salai and walked back to Hotel Pandian tired and hungry.
On Friday 31 March I boarded the 7.15 a.m. train to Bangalore. It was a pleasant journey. On the plateau clumps of eucalyptus trees and granite interspersed by tawny grass reminded me of Kenya.
The train was about to stop at Bangalore Cantt Station and I happened to look out. I saw a turban; I knew the bearded face under it. It must be my cousin, Harmandir. Since we last met thirteen years ago his beard has gone greyer. I had thought he would meet me at the City Station. I grabbed my backpack and landed on the platform before the train started rolling again.
“Daddy from Punjab and brother from Delhi have phoned many times to find out if I had heard from you. Daddy is quite worried. I was expecting a confirmation from you”, he said inquiringly. “I had told them not to worry if they did not hear of me for the next ten days because I wanted to lose myself in India”.
I had seen Bangalore in 1971 when it was still very British: clean roads winding around big green parks, numerous well-looked-after gardens, colonial style hotels, and neat shops. The term “Silicon Valley” was not yet known then. But the Government had already located here key defence, telecommunications, and engineering industry. It was still a very attractive city. A number of Punjabis from Kenya have made it their home. Harmandir is a senior engineer in MICO, the Bosch of India. I had first met him in Geneva in 1983 after his technical/business trip to Bosch in Germany.
Bangalore is a sprawling city. I saw large estates with ultra-modern buildings and houses mushrooming in all directions inviting national and multinational companies. I was in this city again in 1987. Environmentally, it has changed to the worse.
My aunt (Harmandir’s mother) was extremely happy to see me again. She told me of my childhood days. On Saturday (April 1), we walked in the city centre and drove through outskirts to see vast new construction zones. The spring festival of Hindu Holi is celebrated a few weeks later than in the north. Computer age and traditions go together. Early next morning I saw a lady making the sacred design in the entrance of her house.
A little later a few houses down the road I was taken to young Ramandeep Singh, the local computer expert, to seek his help to obtain Urdu font. The way he treated his keyboard was impressive. Finally, he was not able to meet my request. He was not yet twenty and had stopped going to the university. He believed in the power of information through computer network. He would soon start selling information and billions were waiting for him. So, he aspired.
In the evening I invited the family to the 5-star Caesar’s Restaurant. Immaculately dressed waiters in black suit and bow tie served us a highly spiced dinner. It was a good change from eating at bus stops and in trains. But the next day my turbulent stomach made the first part of my eight-hour bus trip to the Nilgiris Hills quite uncomfortable.
During my bus trip to Mysore and Ooty (Udhagamandalam) I ate nothing but fresh oranges, bananas and biscuits. Talking with a student nurse, Shani, made me disregard my discomfiture, until she disembarked at a small hill village near Ooty. Bus had been climbing steeply. Hilly-forested landscape drew my attention. Looking for wild game all I saw were occasional monkeys and a lot of birds. When I arrived in Ooty (2,240m above sea level) at 4 p.m. it was already beginning to get chilly. Rolling green hills, lakes, forests and tea plantation reminded the British of southern England. So they made Ooty the summer headquarters of Madras government more than a hundred years ago. Remnants of those days can still be seen in hillside bungalows, cottages, tearooms, gardens, and churches. Once paradisiacal Ooty has now become filthy.
I was booked in Karnataka Tourist Guest House on Fern Hill about four kilometres from the town centre. The three-wheeler that had brought me to the guesthouse took me back to town. I explored the town. And booked a tall Tamil guide for trekking the next day.
At nine o’clock we took a crowded local bus to a Toda tribal village.
The Todas consider themselves to be direct descendants of Pandavas of the Mahabharta. They are the caretakers of soil and cultivating land is against their culture. They worship the buffalo. While men take care of buffalo herds, women embroider shawls. They still maintain igloo-type wooden houses, now mainly for tourists.
By invitation, I crawled into one of the huts on my knees and the old lady made coffee for us on an open hearth in thick buffalo milk I could imagine how exciting an experience it would be for many western tourists. In my village, where I had been three weeks earlier, as in every village in India, meals are cooked in that way.
It was the hut that interested me; a similar hut nearby served as a place of buffalo worship. I am surprised that women are not allowed to go in; they must stand out side at a certain distance, while men pray for them.
Then my guide announced that he was going to bathe at the village watering point and showed me the track to the Pykhara River Dam and Reservoir. On the way I saw a truck collecting dry cattle dung. Across the blue reservoir a herd of wild buffaloes waddled in mud and water. The water level was low. The blue lake beautifully adorned the forested shores. In order to safeguard the reservoir from pollution, human activity in the area seemed restricted. The boating club near the dam must be quite busy during the high tourist season. A lonely woman was gathering dry eucalyptus leaves, which she sells to the local oil mill to supplement the family income.
For two hours I walked along the reservoir and then through the mainly eucalyptus forest. I expected to see the gaur, sambar, flying squirrel, langur, antelope and elephant. For that I should have spared more time and gone to Mukurthi National Park which is only a few kilometres further upstream towards Nilgiri and Mukurthi peaks (2556m).
Back in the village I was introduced to Asha, a very pretty well dressed girl of eighteen. She spoke Hindi and English. Recently she had had a successful “hole-in-the-heart” operation funded by some external benevolent person. She intends to continue her studies. During the return bus journey, the guide told me that he had inherited 140 000 Swiss Francs from an elderly European friend; but the Swiss concerned bank would not except his documents!
I reached Ooty at 5.00 p.m. I visited the Botanical Gardens, which are maintained quite well, a paradise for a botanist. Having enjoyed eating a burger at the popular Hot Bread, I phoned Geneva, the second time during the entire trip.
I could not conveniently travel, as intended, to Goa through the port of Mangalore along the West Coast. Making a mental note that I should return to that region one day I retraced the route back to Bangalore by bus the next day. That evening I told my cousin, “I’m sure there is a good simple fish and chips place in Bangalore. I do not feel like eating spiced Indian meal for a few days”. He was alone; the family had taken the train to the Punjab that morning. He took me to Koshys Parade Café on St. Mark’s Street, A popular restaurant still run in the British way. He said that he used to frequent it when he was not married. For four hundred rupees, we ate excellent fish and chips, followed by butter chicken chased down with beer. Probably the most satisfying meal I had in India.
10 – Vasco to Bhagwan
(5 – 8 April, 2000)
Indian Airline landed me at Goa’s Dabolim airport, on time at 11.50 on Wednesday 5 April. I decided to stay in a small coastal town, Vasco da Gama, and not in Panaji (Panjim), the capital, about 25km further to the north. May be I wanted to pay respect to the famous Portuguese sailor, Vasco da Gama, who was the first European to sail round southern Africa and with the help of an Indian pilot hired from Malindi in Kenya, reached Goa in 1497. The tourist map of the region also drew me it. It showed a beautiful bay with a sandy beach at a walking distance from the hotel, The Citadel. After a quick lunch I inquired at the hotel reception the way to the beach. “You must not go to that beach to walk or swim. It is not good. You go to Bogmalo”, advised the young man.
For 5 rupees, a small rickety bus took me to Bogmalo, 8km from Vasco. People in the bus were friendly, soft-spoken and talked freely. On the beach there are no public toilets and changing facilities. The 5-star Park Plaza Resort occupies the left end of the small but clean sandy sea front. Resisting the temptation to go there I entered the nearest ordinary beach restaurant and I changed in a scummy bathroom at the back. I could not stand straight in it; the floor was wet and muddy and it has a well-stocked live insectariums. I swam and walked to the other end of the beach, where a young soldier stopped me from going further because beyond is the Naval Centre. I chatted with him for a while. He told me about life in the army and his village. Like most young people in India, he wanted to go to a foreign country.
Back in the beach restaurant, I ordered hot tea that was served in a pot in the English style – a perfect finish to a very refreshing and fulfilling outing. Waiting for the bus I whiled away time visiting a few souvenir shops some owned by Kashmiris; but I found nothing of my liking to buy. During the rest of day light, I saw Vasco and visited the fish market.
Before going to bed I decided to combine my morning jog with solving the mystery of Vasco beach. I woke up at about 4a.m when I felt my bed sliding head-wards and foot-wards. The next day the newspaper confirmed that the area had experienced a mini earthquake. At daybreak I jogged towards the rail station and a well-trodden dirt path took me to an old rickety steel footbridge over the railway yard. On the other side I landed in a poor area. Some small food shops had just opened, and owners were sprinkling water in front to keep the dust down.
A short distance away was Vasco beach. The emerald seawater gently splashing a welcoming white sand beach must have rapt Vasco da Gama. When I surveyed the broad stretch on my left I saw rows of men crouching on their naked hunches and like penguins occasionally moving forward a short step having made their first scatological imprint. It is difficult to erase that image in my mind – I have seen people do that before, but not so many in so beautiful a place. What waste, just because people do not like using toilets. It can be a booming tourist centre.
The minibus that picked me up from the hotel at 9.30 for a guided tour was still waiting at the bus station for more passengers at 11.00 when it was already packed like sardines. Being single I was asked to sit on the engine cover. We were told that the bus would not go to Old Goa because strikers had blocked some roads. Tour of sea resorts on northern coast did not interest me. As I had not yet paid, I abandoned the bus. The bus owner commented, “We have to earn our meal as well”. It seems everything had been predestined; the local bus across the road was ready to drive off as if it was waiting for me only. At the main bus station outside Vasco, almost within the minute I departed in the bus for Panaji. Half an hour later in Panaji I was on the bus to Old Goa.
The layout of Old Goa and its numerous churches and historical buildings on each side of the wide road do not look Indian but a fragment of Iberian Peninsula. Of all the churches Basilica of Bom Jesus is fascinating, especially looking at the silver casket containing the body of St Francis Xavier perched high in a vault between intricately carved pillars.
I returned to Panaji at 3.30pm and I walked to the Government Tourist office to purchase a ticket for a sunset boat cruise on River Mandovi. I casually talked to the officer about my visit to Vasco Beach. He expressed keen interest in my story and took me upstairs to meet the Deputy Director. He knew the situation and informed me that a set of public toilets was built, and authorities concerned had tried to educate the people in the area. He said that it is difficult to break the habit of using the beach. The problem is complicated by continuous inflow of rural population that is not familiar with the toilet system. A bigger problem is intransigence of local politicians.
Panaji is an attractive city especially parts of Fontainas which remind of houses in Portugal.
I visited a number of art galleries and saw a church service in the Chapel of St Sebastian. The church was full, a lot of devotees stood outside. The evening boat cruise wasn’t as spectacular as I was told. On board music and folk dances satisfied ordinary tourists. I watched the sun sink in the Indian Ocean.
In the last bus to Vasco, I met a couple and their small child who had taken the guided tour and had seen me get off the bus. “You did the wise thing. We were very hot and uncomfortable in the bus all-day and there wasn’t much to see”. The man is in the Indian Army spending his leave on the coast.
I was checking out of the hotel when I mentioned to the manager my discussion with the Deputy Director of Tourism regarding Vasco Beach. “You should talk to the owner this hotel. She is the Chairperson of Vasco Municipality”, he said. Just then she walked in and we started to talk. “That is a red-light zone, you should not go there”, she advised. “We have a serious problem of drugs and aids there. We have built six public toilets, but no one uses them. Decisions taken by the Council can not be implemented because local politicians do not co-operate. They demand that free water and electricity to the slum dwellers to maintain the toilets. Educating the people in personal and public hygiene is not easy because most of them are poor and are afraid of paying for water supply and sanitary services.” Evidently she is very well informed and keen to bring about changes. Authorities are conscious of the problem; but progress is very slow. I hope I would be able to swim next time I visit Vasco.
My niece, Cheeru, and her husband, Praful, received me with broad smiles at Pune airport. I had first met them soon after their marriage, in Hong Kong in October 1992 on my way to China. They fell in love when doing hotel management course in Pune. Cheeru is a Sikh from the Punjab and Praful a Hindu from Maharashtra. Their happy marriage is an indicator of rapid opening up of social values. Their three-year old daughter Ilvaki quickly charmed me into her playmate.
In Hong Kong Cheeru worked with Cathay Pacific in charge of flight catering and Praful was a stockbroker. Both continue to practice the art of cooking. I savoured their dishes first in their apartment in Hong Kong and now in Pune. When Hong Kong was returned to China they returned to India and started a neat little restaurant “Malaka Spice” in Pune specializing in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking. It is located quite near the Osho Commune International (Ashram of Bhagwan Rajneesh), which is run and attended mainly by German, Italian and Japanese devotees. When they are tired of eating from the Ashram kitchen, Malaka Spice provides a good change.
Cheeru manages the restaurant kitchen. She also sets up the menu for home and a house cook takes over. An appetising Maharashtrian dinner and talking with Praful’s father, Raghuvir, made the evening unforgettable.
Saturday 8 April, my last day in India, turned out to be an unexpectedly, “spiritual” and educational. A refreshing early morning walk with Raghuvir was followed by yoghurt and pratha breakfast. A quick drive through Pune City did not remind me much of my 1968 visit. Like Bangalore, Pune is mushrooming in every way but a little more elegantly being a rich dormitory of crowded Mumbai. While I was enjoying eating vegetable noodles Indonesian style, Praful proposed that we should visit the Osho Ashram because he had never been there. It was like living in the dark shadow at the foot of a world-illuminating candle. I supported the idea although I had not planned to go there. He reserved us for the 2.30 visit. I have read some of Osho’s books and listened to a number of cassette tapes; all very impressive and convincing.
We were casual visitors and did not wish to meditate. So, we did not have to buy and wear maroon tunics nor prove HIV-negative to an on-the-spot test. Ultra modern facilities and computerised systems remind of Mediterranean Club without spiritualism. Praful inquired if we could visit Nalla Park. The soft-spoken receptionist said, “A senior member of the commune must recommend you”. Just than Praful was greeted by a rich Indian friend wearing a maroon tunic. Permission was granted and immediately the caretaker alerted by telephone.
Our guide requested us to observe complete silence during the tour. The moment we entered the inner yard, we heard very loud disco-psychedelic music and saw in a hall without walls a big crowd of mostly white devotees dancing themselves, probably, into a trance. The rest of the tour did not interest to me much.
Nalla Park is a short walking distance away. We were told that the tiny stream (nalla) had become so filthy with industrial and domestic waste that it was only unsightly but it putrid smell pervaded the holy commune. With great difficulty, Osho managed to buy a stretch of the stream. Under his leadership and using financial resources available to him, he had the stream water cleaned employing sanitary and environmental experts and educating riparian population. Now clean water tumbles over arranged stones, although not totally odourless. On both banks is a well-maintained narrow park of tropical plants and trees. I admired Osho’s effort. He has created a model which should be emulated by numerous traditional but rich religious institutions like the ones I visited in Tirupathi and Patna to clean up their surrounding and educate the residents in public hygiene.
In the evening Praful took me to the station and helped me to locate my seat in the express commuter train to Mumbai. Praful greeted a young man sitting in the adjoining seat. They knew each other well. He is a Bhagwan Osho’s devotee who came frequently to eat at Malaka Palace. He spoke English well enough so that we were able to converse during the entire journey. He is an Italian and has been to the Ashram a number of times. This time he spent six weeks. His main objective was to learn to cook all vegetable dishes served in the Ashram so that he could introduce some of them in his own restaurant in Italy. I wonder if meditation he really benefited spiritually. We got off at Dadar and shared a taxi driven by young Sikh who brought us to the airport rather fast.