Jallikattu, moral relativism and the rights of bacteria.

jallikattu

Last year I’d gone to Kullu in Himachal Pradesh to observe the Dushehra celebrations there.  I had heard that at the festival 5 animals were typically slaughtered  before being offered to the gods and then consumed.

The Raja of Kullu had made the point that “what we did is no different to what a butcher does”.  (I wrote about my experience here.)

Still, the practice was banned by the Himachal High Court in 2014, who took the position that “it is a grey area whether the animal sacrifice can be termed as religious practice or not……. The faith, rituals and its continuation must change in the modern era”.

The underlying message was: it is OK to cull animals by the hundreds of thousands and put them in your modern-era-McDonald’s- burgers, but it is archaic to do the same thing at the village level in the name of your beliefs.

Even if in both cases, the animal ends up just as dead, and just as consumed.

A similar sort of double standard underlies the faux-outrage I see in many urban sophisticates apropos the present Jallikattu-ban debate.

When in a society the slaughter of animals is considered acceptable for the purposes of consumption and commodification (leather), and where livestock is routinely used to plough fields and transport goods, often in dreadful if perilous conditions no less, as has been the case for millennia, not to mention be made to march in parades, on what basis can one argue that a festival in which a running bull is released into a crowd, with participants attempting to grab its hump (not unlike, but far less brutal than the Spanish bull run I believe– as there is no bullfight), is particularly cruel?

Why and how is it any crueler than so many other things we do all the time to animals without batting an eyelid?

I get the argument to put in place greater controls and regulations so as to minimize abuse and improve general safety, but to ban the practice altogether seems like another example of moral/cultural imperialism under the guise of egalitarianism.

Or is it that we are so rigidly convinced about the superiority of our own value system that we take it as given that our beliefs must be applied without question to all subcultures in a land as multicultural as India?

There is a time and place for taking an absolute stand on morals of course –Sati and Cannibalism shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere (for example), and everybody generally thinks so because we have arrived at a point where we as a society don’t just believe in the sanctity of human life but strictly adhere to the principle in practice too—but this selective outrage at a custom that is supposedly ‘regressive’ seems both conceited and hypocritical.

It is not as if we yet live in a culture in which everybody is overwhelmingly virtuous, vegan (seeing as the use of livestock for dairy harms animals, too, it has been argued) and totally eschews antibiotics.

Because bacteria are life too.

And by the same token shouldn’t microbes also have rights?

If the world current affairs are any indicator as to how bizarre reality can actually become, maybe it isn’t so absurd to think that our ethics will in fact evolve to such a degree. Someday.

X-Men Apocalypse Review: Resurrected Mummy Meets X-Men

x-men-apocalypse-poster-international

“Why be different when you can look like everybody else?” Nightcrawler (the blue-hued teleporter) questions Mystique (the also naturally-blue-hued shapeshifter) in X2, to which she pointedly responds, “because we shouldn’t have to”.

In The Last Stand, Storm, at learning that non-mutants have developed a cure that permanently suppresses the Mutant X-gene, cries, “a cure for all mutants? But we don’t need a cure. Since when have we become a disease?”

And yet, yet there are others who feel quite differently. Those who will give anything to feel ‘normal’ and are only too willing to give up that which makes them special. Because as there is no doubt that innate (and often intimidating) extraordinariness renders a mutant as formidable, so too it is certain that it makes one aberrant in the eyes of others, such power-possessors only just about managing to outpace vilification, then rejection, social ostracization and even the threat of extermination.

Which path then should the gifted choose for themselves? Should one live as a proud pariah or eternally condemn oneself to a fate of inert impotence? The question itself poses a seething paradox, because even if one were to pick the former things won’t grow easy, the risks attendant with pacifism or aggression, the only two approaches available, then springing to life, accentuated further by the one immutable dimension to the mutant conundrum: the inability of humanity to rise above prejudices.

It is these emotionally resonant thematic threads that have since its inception set the X-Men series apart from other superhero productions, interwoven as they are through deftly layered and penetrating allegory: the omnipotent thesis being the trials and inner conflicts of social misfits, the discrimination and dilemmas faced by minorities, be they ethnic, sexual, religious or whatever.

Should a people assert the right to coexist under the umbrella of a proud and distinct identity or should they always aspire to blend in with the mainstream? Is society hardwired to fear those who look and behave differently? Is it really possible to convince people to think in a manner that runs counter to their primal instincts?

Apocalypse is a great spectacle, as are all the X-Men movies without exception. (OK, we can forget about X-Men Origins:Wolverine for the time-being). But let’s be honest here. Really honest. It is certainly not the best film of the series, the thus far unsurpassed one being Days of Future Past followed closely by First Class and X2.

And this loss is chiefly down to the fact that this latest instalment, save for Magneto’s backstory, which in retrospect appears tired and stale, fails to pose any searing questions or to explore the internal thought-processes and predicaments of the characters.

Instead we’re served just another superhero movie populated with a galaxy of CGI-enhanced mutants, whose motivations despite the actors’ tremendous performances (especially from the latest entrants), fall emotionally flat.

What’s more, whilst the previous two instalments in the series draw on historical events of the time-periods in which they were set (The Cuban Missile Crisis and  The Vietnam War), Apocalypse could well have occurred in any time frame. The film is none the richer for being set in the 80s.

The plot is straightforward enough. In 1983, the mutant Apocalypse, having amassed the powers of many other mutants over millennia, awakens from a slumber and vows to destroy mankind and take over the world. With the help of his Four Horsemen, Psylocke, Storm, Archangel and a broken Magneto, Apocalypse plans to create a new for mutants-only world order. As the earth convulses in doomsday throes, the X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier work together to prevent Apocalypse and his team from succeeding.

The performances are as usual all superb and the CGI eye-arresting. But the two performances that stand out are those of Jean Grey, whose perceptivity and latent vigour are brought alive to pitch-perfection by Sophie Turner, and of Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters, whose comic relief is so good that I will re-watch the film for just his scenes. The one disappointment however is Oscar Isaac from whom I had high expectations. It seemed like his talents have been ‘overmasked’ by CGI, so much so that he appears as generic a villain as any and his actions are the less menacing for it.

Nevertheless, the closing battle scene is as grand and edge-of-the-eat nerve-racking as one might expect of an X-Men movie despite the fact that its enjoyment, as that of the film’s as a whole, will be somewhat compromised for those not familiar with the events and characters featured in the earlier films.

I give X-Men: Apocalypse a 7/10.

Cambodia: My Family And Other Temples

PART I  (A lightly edited version of this Part I was published on Youthkiawaaz.com. It can be read here)

“Sir, a taxee vee be de ad aaepo tomoro to pi you ub”, our prospective tour-guide said over the phone. “Da ca numba e 4-1-9-7. OK?”  

“ya, thanks, Johnney”, I said. “I’ll be on the look out.”

Scores of westerners and a handful of Asians came streaming into the petite airport arrivals section. As we snailed forward in the queue terminating at the immigration desk I was struck by a mural displayed on the far side of the hall: a scene of tug-of-war between two mythical factions, the rope taut and serpentine.

“That’s a painting of the Samudra Manthan, isn’t it?” I nudged my mother.

A pleased yes-nod.

A half hour later, passports-stamped and a total of eight bags trollied up, of which mine was but one, my mother, her sisters, my aunts, and I trundled out of the wood-pannelled oriental-palacelike building. 

“So where is your Johnney?” asked my aunt, shading her squinting eyes from the sharp noon light. 

“He should be around.” Although there was no sign he was.   

Wekkum! Wekkum to Anko!” I then heard a warm voice. A stout man of roughly my age was smiling and holding a placard bearing my name.

“Hi Johnney.” Haro, Haro! You cuddan fin da ca? It e der, in frun ov you!

“Huh. Where? You said the car number was 4197. This one is 4971.”

Bu e e same-same na!” Johnney beamed.   

An annual pilgrimage is a compulsion for my family. I should clarify—it is a compulsion for my mother’s side of the family, with my mother acting as the perennial and avid group-leader. I usually end up the compliant tag-along. But this year, I took charge and decided to take her together with my aunts to some place new and foreign.

Owing to my tepid but enduring interest in Indian mythology, the historical Khmer relics had been on my bucket list for a long time. “Enough with poojas and rituals”, I’d persuaded. “It’ll be a nice change to look at monuments purely for their aesthetic appeal”.  My mother, I knew, ever-keen to add a place of worship to her credentials, never least the one listed as the largest Hindu temple, wouldn’t turn down this opportunity. My aunts, too, though nowhere near as idolatrous as my mother, I had expected to be agreeable to coming along. I wasn’t let down.

Johnney slid the door open to van number 4971.

I chuckled as my aunt grinned in a manner that seemed to say, these guys are like us only. Same-same.

We had landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

***                          

              As a little boy I spent my Sunday mornings, much like how everybody else I knew spent theirs: at home, transfixed to what in my planet was universally regarded as the thing to watch on Sundays: the televised renditions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For one godly hour, shops shuttered down and road traffic hummed to a lull. Servants would gather all agog and grandparents’ features matured yet to wholesome glows.  

In those guileless and more imaginative years, before the unstoppable flood of Cable TV and 3D effects and other such happening things had begun to happen, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were considered The Most Happening Things of All Time. Even then, my six year old self had a sense he was in witness of something bigger than mere drama; for not only did these classics open portals to worlds at once surreal and too-real, they were also believed by those around me to be the very manuals to living life. Indeed, these were the primordial trees—bearded Banyan trees, I liked to imagine–laden with fruits of meaning.

For me, though, always it was about the Super-Powers.

The galaxy of god-powers, the curses liberally dished out by quick-tempered sages and the herby potions vied for by all were the sorts of things that drew me to that fabled fold. The Sudarshan Chakra—the disk that spun fiercely on Vishnu’s index finger–was the most exciting choice of weapon; the shapeshifters and the morphers, avatars of the ever-mounting wickednesses, frightened me more than anything. Half-chanting and half-mumbling half-memorized mantras, eyes closed, I’d perform the bow-and-arrow scenes of Ram and his brother Laxman fighting evil, praying I could in someway conjure to myself their talents. Only then would I be able to vanquish some bully I’d decided looked just like a Rakshasa.

Growing up, my sister and I imbibed from our mother a great many stories on the continually colliding constellations of Hindu avatars. Parables that bespoke the timeless pull and tug for primacy between the gods and their lesser divinities; stories that wove into me the skein of honourable battles and justifiable deceptions and petty conceits playing out between the Asuras, the demons, and the Devas—Deva, the Sanskrit word for deity, has the same Indo-European root as the Latin word for God, Deus—not to mention the tussles amongst the gods themselves.

Once, as a 10 year old, I breezed into the Shemaroo video rental store near our home in Bombay and asked to rent the Mahabharata series.

The salesman’s eyes widened. “Ya there are 94 episodes. Which one you want?”

“The one with the most magic!” I’d said.

So it was perhaps understandable when years later, as a Sci-Fi-obsessed adult, while watching the superhero movie, X-Men, I felt something in my mind ricochet: a memory cobwebbed to a stored-away alcove. Where before had I observed this same situation –in which two opposing forces had come together for a common objective before going their own separate ways? Was I imagining a link where none existed? But the echo lingered; it dogged and gnashed until it untangled and rose to clarity.

Yes, the same thing had occurred in the Samudra Manthan, or in “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk”. In that account the Devas and the Asuras had for once, for a time, joined hands in pursuit of a single quest: the obtainment from the deepest depths of the ocean, Amrit, ambrosia, or the nectar of immortality.

And it was this affair that I was to find depicted on its grandest, most intricate canvas in the architecture and imagery of the once Hindu and now Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

***

                          “This place actually feels like India only”, my aunt said, massaging a cube of butter into her breadroll during breakfast. “Like South India. There’s no difference only”.

A better description I thought might be India-lite. For one thing, all of Cambodia was home to fewer people than just Delhi and its environs. Though it was true, Siem Reap did at any rate remind of Goa; here too, tourism seemed to have seeped into the town’s every feature. Shops and tuk-tuks routinely accepted US Dollars, and some even regarded dollars the only acceptable currency.

“We should get going”, I said, “Johnney will be waiting for us in the lobby.”  

The previous evening we’d dawdled down the tourist-brimming and justly named Pub Street—my jeans amid the tri-flutter of salwars—pausing for dinner at a restaurant specialising in Cambodian Barbecue, the decision to halt being firm and unilaterally mine. As I marvelled at the selection of meats on offer my aunt sought certain essential clarifications from the waiter.  

“We are pure, pure vegetarians. We are looking for something totally vegetarian. No meat and no stock-shock or anything.”

You hab no mee? Fee you hab?” came the baffled response. “No, no. No Meat, No Fish. We are Pure Vegetarian”.

We do for you. Can-can.

“But please, no meat stock. We want pure vegetarian. To-tallee pure.”

OK. OK. No probrem. We pu mirral votta.”  

Soon three bowls of steaming vegetable noodle soup placed beside a platter of raw chicken, shrimp, pork, shark and crocodile landed on our table. Additionally available were kangaroo, frog and snake, but seeing as my aunt said between meagre gulps and watery eyes, “Beta, I don’t know how you can put that… stuff in your mouth!” I thought it practical to refrain from further gastronomic misconduct.  

“Oh I hope the smell isn’t bothering you”, I tried, feebly apologetic, the aroma of smouldering meat issuing from the tables around us. My mother said she loved her portion of soup—“it is like Tom Kha!”—and my aunt reminded she’d long since lost her sense of smell.  

“Oh, ok Thank God!” I exhaled, continuing with my chopsticks to roast my bits of dinner.                        

         

           Johnney had been a guide for getting on six years. He flaunted a picture of his wife and son, which he said he kept all the time with him in his wallet. Da Khmer Empire”, he said seriously, craning his neck to face us, the 4 Indian subjects sitting in the car’s backseat, “wa biggit in whore South Eet Asia”.

The morning was bright and the air warm. A scent heavy with sodden leaves blew through the windows leaving behind a sweet trail. Clear of the thick-trunked trees edging the road, rice fields opened out for miles upon miles under the cloud-puffed skies.

We were on our way to the temple city, Angkor Thom.

Burma, Tailan, Veenam, all came under Khmers ad one taiym.” Johnney waved his hand to incorporate the countryside falling past.  

Though our guide was proud of his country, he was not exaggerating. At its peak the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire had ruled over most of mainland South East Asia. Angkor (or city)—a vernacular form of the word nokor, whose origin lies in the Sanskrit word, nagar—is the supreme legacy of that period, satellite imaging having revealed it the largest pre-industrial urban centre of the world.

We reached a bridge leading up to an arched stone gate, one of many, to the Angkor Thom. Below, a moat encircled the 9 square kilometre sprawl of ruins; and on its bottle-green shore, not three feet away from us, barefooted kids leapt in and out of the water, cackling, snorting. Railings to either side wore the form of a rock-hewn naga, or serpent; while to the right side, a row of gods strenuously pulled on the length of its tail, on the left side demons tugged the reptilian stretch controlled by an upright and engorged head.

20141221_102341 The story went that Vishnu using his wiles positioned the demons on the fanged-end so that the gods would be kept safely distant from the venomous fire-jets spouted by Vasuki, the king of serpents–a sure side-effect of the bodily stresses he was to undergo. Accordingly, throughout the joint exercise of ocean churning, the demons’ hair and vitality scorched and singed, and were by the end of it all but shorn off, while the clouds driven downward to the snake’s tail by the breath of his mouth refreshed the gods with invigorating showers.  

The Angkor gate ahead was the pivot round which the churning had taken place. Though yet another interpretation suggested the pivot might actually be the city’s central temple, Bayon. For in the original story, as the gods and demons started to pull back and forth on the snake hugging Mount Meru—the centre of all physical and metaphysical universes and who’d taken on the role of the churning rod–they felt themselves being dragged to the ocean bed by the weight of the rapidly sinking mountain.

It was then that The Preserver of the universe, Lord Vishnu, came to their rescue; adopting the avatar of a Turtle he supported the mountain on his impregnable back.

Now be go buy tree day tikke” Johnney said to nobody in particular. “It e 30 dorra for 3 day. But unlidded endree!” The dutiful expression on his face hinted at the pleasure he took at this aspect of his job.

“Every bloody thing is charged in dollars here.” My mother rummaged in her bag. “It’s 64 rupees to a dollar. Thailand was much better that way”.

“Thailand is waaay more commercial than here”. Though Cambodia is fast catching up I reckoned.

We made our way past the immortally-strained boulders, and on through the gateway. I’d just entered what looked like a craggy and foliaged compound, and was waiting for the next cue from our guide when a concerned, vaguely out-of-breath-voice from far back chimed in,

“Johnney, bhai, can you please make sure that for lunch you give us clean, hygienic, pure vegetarian South Indian food.”

***

            At first glance the Khmer temple Bayon appeared a muddle of stacked up boulders, a wild sprouting of rubble that was withdrawing into the jungle. It was a structure barren of its function, but seemed also to have been robbed of its allure.

It was only when you lifted your gaze that the eyes came to rest on the temple’s majesty: the multitude of stone-faceted Buddha countenances, thick-lipped and thin eyed, each as placid as they were expressive, and every one haloed by a nimbus sky. It was remarkable: the way in which a face could bring focus to the beauty of an everyday thing that otherwise hangs behind ordinarily.

Lore said King Jayavarman VII built the Bayon in the late 12th or early 13th century as an exhibition of his own likeness; that is to say as Himself in the incarnation of Devraja or god-king, an avatar of the Buddha represented in the 216 faces etched on the temple’s towers. Though illuminations in such vein were consistent with the royal order of the day, as they can still sometimes occur today, where the king departed from custom was in adapting his persona to the Buddha rather than with Shiva.

(Following his death nevertheless, the temple was modified by succeeding rulers in keeping with each one’s persuasion, a number pulling towards chaste Buddhism, others tugging to the Khmer kingdom’s Hindu past.)

Incised on the hardened grey walls were hundreds of dancing apasaras, nymphs of the waters, such water naturally signifying the swelling ocean from which they’d arisen: the enticing portents to the elixir of life that was to finally surface.

Afterwards mother and I climbed up and then down some prohibitively steep stairs creeping up a tomb while the aunts relaxed on a couple of the masses of embellished stones studding the surrounding lawns below.

Descending, our ears caught a tempo of beats: a lilting cadence, chants and singing. A clapping of cymbals. And predictably, if unwittingly,  my mother melted into a stream in search of its fount, my legs wading behind.

A pulsating Buddha temple: white-robed female priests, their heads shaved, sat on the floor in concert with a huddle of kids enfolded in prayer. Some palms clasped, some held incense sticks, but all minds present called on the powers that be.

Except for the difference in the language employed—Pali, not Sanskrit— the god(s) invoked and inveigled, mother was at home. I could tell she was eager to join the energy, but alas she knew nothing of the tongue.

She decided to seek the advice of the astrologer sitting in the corner: a wizened face with wrinkled hands thumbing through a flaking papyrus scroll enshrouding a wad of promise. Unfortunately again for her the man spoke no English either.

Even so, he beckoned and I trod near.  Finger pointing at my right hand.

I extended my arm.

Benignly the old man tied a red string on my wrist as his lips quivered to formulate, “You gib me dorra?

                           

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PART II          

           The story began when the sage Durvasa Muni offered a garland to Indra, the leader of the Devas and the Lord of the heavens.

But Indra, wielder of the lightning thunderbolt, rider of the clouds, paid the guru’s prasad no heed. He tossed the garland on his elephant’s tusk. Who in turn stomped over it.

An infuriated Durvasa then imprecated a curse upon Indra. He and his entire god-troupe would be stripped of their powers.

Time unspooled. Unfeeling, predestined.

And slowly the gods saw themselves losing battles to their long-sworn foes. The point had now come where the control of the universe fell completely to the demons. Under the kingship of Bali, also a Vishnu devotee, the Asuras’ reign was absolute.  

“Then only, the gods went to Vishnu asking him for his help”, my mother declaimed with a flourish, leaving no doubt she was on first-name basis with all the characters in the story.

A rapt Johnney and panting aunts silently listened.  

Having scaled yet more stairs we stood under the spell of a bas-relief frieze depicting the Churning of the Ocean—92 Asuras and 88 Devas stationed on opposite ends wrenched the snake, Vasuki under the celestial guidance of Vishnu–on a terrace connected to a further multilevel maze of chambers.

20141221_135649 The building’s architecture was the union of two diagrams: the temple mountain and the later constructed concentric galleries. The temple itself, a representation of Mount Meru, home to the Devas, was surrounded by a moat and an outer wall. Three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next, were adorned by episode after episode taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, a series of vivid tableaus set into stone:  the Battle of Lanka in which Ram defeated Ravana; the Battle of Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and the Kauravas; and the 37 heavens and 32 hells of Hindu mythology, the latter engraved with excruciating precision: fires toasting a man alive, another being boiled, nails driven into a third…

The heavens, wafting with apsaras, remained out of immediate sight. Too high up to appreciate.  

Yet, somewhere above me a firefly torched. Blazing then in high reverse it swam and reveried.

I was a boy entombed in an epic. Only that now I was held not so much by the story’s telling as by its physical avatar; for this version needed no imagining. It was a phenomenon the fingers could touch, eyes could see, legs stand on; contained as I was in these halls circumambulating this Vishnu temple, built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, and that was also the world’s largest religious monument: the Angkor Wat.

“Vishnu then suggested the gods churn the ocean to bring out the magical nectar”, my mother was saying, “because only after having it could they regain their powers, but as the gods were now powerless they had no choice but to seek help from the demons to accomplish this huge task!”   Luckily, acquiring such help would not to prove difficult, it came rushing back, for the weak-willed demons would be easily lured by a share in the spoils, the chief amongst which of course was the ever-nourishing Amrit.

Plodding on, in a little while we arrived at what seemed the temple’s nucleus.

A melee of locals and Koreans and Chinese burbling forward; and before long in the thick of the swarm was my mother.

Everybody ­stepping up one by one, offering their prayers, or miming those of their neighbour; making wishes or simply inserting an incense stick in the receptacle of sand that stood at the idol’s feet.

I was back in the real world, a place with its own attractions; potions.

Some of the devotees saw in him the qualities of Vishnu; others heaped praise on what was certainly the Buddha; yet others still didn’t seem to mind who he was for both the Buddha and Vishnu were essentially similar, avatars of the other, the swayers of worlds, of truth.   

Perhaps it did not matter then that the deity before me, though wonderfully draped, was altogether missing his head.   

***

                     “This is the most insipid food I have ever had”, my aunt said, forcing down a (pure vegetarian) dosa she made clear was devoid whatsoever of any Amrit-supplying attributes. “Coconut curry, coconut curry, coconut curry, how much can a person eat it? Should we speak to the chef?”

Four Indians and a Cambodian were dining at a restaurant that served supposedly Indian dishes in addition to the South East Asian regulars. I was happy I got my desired choice, the signature Amok Trei: fish in coconut cream and galangal wrapped up in banana leaves and steamed. Divine.  

“No point”, I said. “He probably wouldn’t understand.” 

“But if they’re serving it, they should know how to make it na.” My aunt looked crestfallen.

Johnney was somewhere else. Through a mouthful of fish and rice he said to me, “I hab intreestin idea to deecas bid you. But lader.”

Meanwhile my mother enquired about the next day’s schedule. “Johnney, which temple do we go to tomorrow?”

No tempar”. We would visit Mount Kulen, a site that was well-known for the one thousand Shiva-lingams and yonis (not least a Vishnu) carved into the sandstone riverbed. The rivulet washing over them was sacred to Buddhists and Hindus alike.  

(This sounds like Cambodia’s very own Ganga river! my mother considered. Food abroad never tasted better.)  

***

                         The following morning we left Siem Reap and drove northwards to Mt. Kulen some 50 kilometres away.

 Rice fields carpeted out and ponds shone. From time to time materialized clusters of rural Khmer houses: wooden, gable-roofed and raised on stilts up to 3 metres above the ground, high flooding the reason for such a design. A boy chased an errant tyre as his siblings lay stretched out on hammocks that were bed-sheets strung up to house pillars.

From under roadside-shacks moms and pops sold coconut juice and wooden toys. Most conspicuous, villagers stirring pots of bubbling golden palm juice over mud-dried and wood-fired stoves.

Johnney was saying, “…. Chaam pippal are Hindu. Lai you. In Central Vienam dey all Hindu befo, and Thai peepal come from China.”  Immersed in their talks, none of the ladies were paying any attention to the free history lesson being dispensed.

Vietnamee peepal are ok lai tourist, but ben be talk politick then be don lai…… They stole land from Khmer Empire…Saigon used to be ours, Khmer!

“Have you been to Vietnam, Johnney?”

Neber!

My mother broke in, “Wow. You can see so many cows grazing out in the fields. They look just like our cows. You’re lucky, you must get a lot of fresh milk here”.  

No, be don’t hab our own mil, be hab to impo mil from Tailand”, Johnney replied with natural ease.  

“Really? So what do you do with all these cows then?”

Ah, be use for agrilchaa”. A pause.  “and for meat”.

A caramel-like smell overtook the senses, the heady drift of palm-sugar.

My mother took in a deep breath. She said, “If you kill the cow then you utilize the animal totally in one stroke. But if you rear it properly then you can use it for milk and for butter and for cow dung.  For its full life it will keep giving you….. Like a mother.”

Our guide giggled encouragingly no matter what his thoughts were.

“I don’t think they have a concept of dairy here”, I added, hoping to change the line of conversation.

A different female voice.  “Yes, and my stomach just can’t take tofu!”

“Let me talk bhai!” my mother said, intent on making a point. “In your famous ocean churning story also, one goddess who emerged was the wish-fulfilling cow, Kamdhenu. Did you know that Johnney?” Then, “I have decided. I’m going to open a gowshala—cow shelter–in Cambodia”.

“Oh wonderful,” I let slip from my lips. “Johnney, what do you say about that?”

***

                                    Mahendraparvata, “Mountain of Indra, the leader of the Devas”–once the name of Mount Kulen–was where Jayavarman II had himself declared Chakravartin or the model and universal king; an event Johnney said was regarded the founding of the Khmer Empire.      

Snaking up through the jungle-clad massif we came face to face with saffron-robed monks on pilgrimage and children weaving palm leaves into baskets and more droopy hammocks. Breastfeeding mothers. A cheery sausage vendor.  

A clutch of hut-temples relayed to a foamy cascade pouring through lychee trees.

Then all of a sudden gnarled roots thick as trunks tore out of the earth like grasping demons, the woods trembling, dark and dense in the back; and overhead knotted a sense of creeping anxiety: a sapling from some ancient seed of logic? A foreshadowing of what lay farther along?

We trudged up a dirt track winding alongside the Kbal Spean River–my mother, aunts, Johnney and I–until we were able to make out a few feet away, glistening wistfully, in a sunlit clearing at the base of the shallow stream: the valley of a thousand lingas. 20141223_112440 The hum of the river, a gust stimulating the surface. The tremulous Shiva-lingas, rock-hard and tenacious underneath.

I was a time-traveller whirling back. Once more inside the Churning of the Ocean, I remembered the first thing the sea expelled was not something life-giving, but rather the very opposite: a deadly poison by the name of Halahal; it was a poison so potent that both the gods and the demons grew terrified all of creation was at risk of being destroyed. Overwhelmed, they implored Shiva, the Lord of Destruction, to protect them.  Shiva forthwith appeared in answer to their calls and drank in the oceanic-toxin to the final drop. But he did so without himself swallowing any of it. So that it would go neither down to his stomach nor up to his mind he stilled the poison in his throat; and Shiva’s neck went blue, and thence he became known as Neelkantha or the blue-necked one.

My mother was down on her haunches. Uninhibited and unchangeable like the stream flowing below, she surged into sonorous paeans in Sanskrit as onlookers watched in amazement.

Om Namhah Shivay, Om Namah Shivay, Om Namah Shivay…….

Cameras pointed motherward; a scampering child froze in her tracks, bewildered or petrified; the aunts were returning to the car, hands thrown up; and Johnney continued staring, wonderstruck.   

I was buffeted by a wave of embarrassment, annoyance.

Minutes later, the circuit of mantras orbiting their last revolutions, my uneasiness was evolving to new concerns. “I really hope you don’t plan to drink this water.” A film of scum floated on the surface atop which long-legged insects danced and skated.

A mischievous shuffle of the pupils that served only to exasperate. “What do you think?”

Everything that came out of the Ocean following the Halahal poison was as miraculous as it was serviceable: Kamdhenu, the cow; the goddess of wealth, Laxmi; and the wish-fulfilling tree, Kalpavriksha. As had been agreed, all the treasures were shared equally between the gods and demons. Until when, finally came Dhanvantari, the divine doctor, carrying the kumbh (or pot) of Amrit along with a book of medicine called Ayurveda, and a fight erupted over the Amrit’s possession; and before any truce could be reached the stronger Asuras seized the pot all for themselves.

But yet again, and as always, Vishnu was there to save the day. Assuming the form of a bewitching maiden, Mohini, he used a feminine charm to trick the Asuras into giving him the Amrit. Fleeing the demons then, he gave the pot for safekeeping to his winged charioteer, Garuda, or perhaps as some say, to the sun and the moon. Soon, the enraged demons came maniacally chasing, and for 12 days and 12 nights a battle of wills raged between the demons and the gods. It was during this time that a few drops of the nectar of immortality fell at the Indian sites of Allahabad, Ujjain, Nasik, and Haridwar; and it is here every year devotees flock in hopes of cleansing and enriching their Karmas. The Mahakumbh Mela of 2013, one such recent megacongregation, was by several estimates the largest ever peaceful gathering of people in the world. Present in those bristling millions were my mother and myself; with one of us wholly partaking in, and the other mostly absorbing, the Holy Ganga rituals in all of their unabridged glory.

Vishnu then distributed the Amrit amongst the Devas. The life-force that had once deserted the gods commenced again to race through their veins. However a demon, Rahu, saw through the ruse; and taking on a god’s guise he attempted to drink some of the Amrit.  The sun and moon, clear-seeing as they are, recognised the intruder and quickly alerted Vishnu. Without delay then The Preserver set his spinning disc loose on Rahu’s neck. But this was not before it was too late. The demon had already taken a sip; and cleaving in two he was respawned by a stroke of fate: Rahu remained the head and Ketu became the headless body. And to this day Rahu and Ketu take revenge every now and again on the sun and the moon by devouring them. And to this day millions forgo food and water tainted by the shadows of solar and lunar eclipses.

Again futilely I pushed for affirmation. “This water isn’t safe to drink, is it Johnney?”

Ob course, I dreen. Be all dreen.”  Bending down Johnney took a draughtful of the liquid into the cup of his palms and gladly gulped it down.  

Hopeless. “I hope you realise how illogical you are being here”, I then burst out at my mother, “these stones were carved by some king hundreds of years ago. I don’t understand what you are trying to prove.”

“You’re all weaklings, you young people. This is a natural stream with healing qualities. The water can only be good for you….. and anyway, it’s much cleaner than the chemically treated polluted river water we get at home.”

The stream continued moving the length of its course, oblivious to the morass deepening beside it, faithful to nobody but its inner-current. My mother and I meandered back to the car, both steadfast and tugging to our positions, the blessed and snaking stream the physical and metaphysical distance between us, a bottle of holy water in tow.                        

       Later that evening I asked Johnney what it was he previously wanted to discuss.

He thought for a moment and then said, “You know, you and me, be lai brothers: Hindu and Buddhist. We same-same.

I was thinkeen to do bezness deel. You send tourit from India and I show dem aroun Cambodia’s Hindu temples.”

***

Breaking Bad Roadtrip: Buddha’s Bodh Gaya; A Bihari Odyssey

Buddha’s Bodh Gaya by Dusk

We reached Bodh Gaya at about 6 in the evening that same day. The drive from Varanasi was about 3 to 4 hours and the roads were in a fairly good shape. As you move eastward from UP the surrounding greenery deepens and multiplies abundantly. 20140820_083217 20140820_083202 Bodh Gaya seemed like a small, largely underdeveloped town. Yet it is one where grand temples and monasteries built by the Burmese, Taiwanese, Japanese and the Thai among others are conspicuous and numerous. Tired and hungry, we fortified ourselves with a couple of coffees and sandwiches at the Barista Café nestled in the decrepit main market before heading towards the Mahabodhi Temple Complex. Dusk was giving way to night and farther ahead we could make out a soft light hallowing peepal trees. As we ambled near, the full picture came into view. DSC04659 DSC04661 DSC04670 The Mahabodhi temple complex, a UNESCO world heritage sight, is as religiously significant as it is ancient. As the UNESCO webpage states, it is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. The first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C., and the present temple dates from the 5th or 6th centuries. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing in India, from the late Gupta period.

The pyramidal structure of the main building, the detailed stone carvings on which were eclipsed at night-time, bore more than a passing resemblance to major Tamilian temples. The environs came visually alive at this hour with the uplit stupas that speckled the surrounding lawns. A riot of chirps interspersed the rustling of leaves. I walked down the pathway leading to the temple’s doorway.

As I entered I was instantly struck by the complete, almost meditative silence inside. It was a total contrast to my experience earlier in the day at the Kashi Shiv temple. On the floor of the outer chamber red-robed monks were sitting round chanting verses, fingers working through bead necklaces, faces both austere and beatific. A long queue of devotees–mostly Indian, but a few westerners too–inched forward to pay their respects to the golden, upright idol of the Buddha. The general atmosphere was similar to what I’d previously seen in Japanese and Thai temples. Calm, sober. Reverential. But as I was about to exit a curious sight caught my eye: a Hindu priest making banter with one of the praying Buddhist monks.

My interest piqued, I went up and asked,“Namaskar panditji, aap yahaan puja karte hain kya?” (Hello Panditji, do you pray here, too?)

“Yes, of course. Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu so we have to pray”, he replied.

“Sure, but I didn’t know priests actually performed Hindu rituals in this temple.”

The priest smiled. “You didn’t do a proper darshan then. Because if you’d go right back inside you’d notice that bang opposite the Buddha statue there is a Shiv Ling embedded in the ground”.

And so I did go back inside, and sure enough there it was- a Shiv Lingam set into the stone floor of the Mahabodhi temple. Under the direct gaze of the Buddha himself.

Intrigued, I then asked of him, “to aap yahaan abhishek karte hain shivling ka? Lekin sab pooja path ka saamagri kahaan se behta hai? Yeh shivling par bhi koi sajavat nahin dikh rahi hai.” (Do you do the shiv ling’s ritual bath and prayers then? From where does the water egress? I could see no room allowing for that. Nor did I see any religious decoration on the shivling.

“We do a pooja with milk, flowers, Ganges water and ghee everyday and after we’ve completed the ritual we wipe the shivling clean with a piece of cloth. This is Buddha’s temple after all. Shiv is here only in attendance.” He seemed pleased with his response.

I then walked round the back to the rear end of the structure. It is here that the ancient Bodhi peepal tree (under which Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment) is gloriously rooted, its branches splendidly spread out overhead. Monks and followers were sat in a posture of meditation. For some reason both Mr. White and I also felt compelled to sit there a few moments in uncharacteristic contemplation. Maybe the aura of the place is such? DSC04663 Later we had a dinner of cheese–really, paneer– momos at an eerily lit restaurant which also had Okonomiyaki scribbled on its menu.  We ate without complaining. Mostly.

A Bihari Odyssey

Coming from the India of smart phones, shopping malls and corporate offices as both Mr. White and I were, like many city-dwelling educated Indians we harboured our own misconceptions about Bihar, brief prior visits notwithstanding. It took traversing the breadth of the State by road, during which time, owing both to necessity and impulse we made occasional-though-not-short sojourns into dirt tracks cutting through off-beaten settlements, to disabuse us of our ideas, in the end rendering a much revised and positive picture of the place. Really, we agreed we could have been driving anywhere in UP or Haryana or MP and that our mental images had been informed more by mass brouhaha than the reality. The reality as perceived by its own residents that is, and not the urban, relatively privileged and judgmental kind. We continued eastward from Bodh Gaya, more or less alongside the course of Ganga as we had been doing previously through UP. Going by Begusarai and then turning duly north adhering the trajectory of NH31 on through Poornea we finally entered Bengal after which we went on to take the road leading upto Siliguri and Darjeeling. A couple of nights later we made our return by much the same way save that that time our port-for-rest was Patna, (a city which to tired Delhi guys at night-time resembles a Lajpat Nagar multiplied by Bhogal to the power of many Chandni Chowks and Sadar Bazaars). If I were to sum up my lasting impressions of Bihar in a word such would not be “squalid” or “decrepit” –although there were no doubt many areas like that- but “fertile” and “verdant” and “peopled” and “lived-in”. For the hinterland flanking the Ganga abounds in vegetation and crops, and so too in human settlements. In fact I do not recall having travelled through any other rural part of India which seemed so densely populated. Not even UP. 20140820_085730 20140820_105550 Random Impressions/Observations/Anecdotes

We passed by maize and rice fields that widened flatly and thickly under the syrupy stare of the August sun. One time we went through a particularly striking open-air bazaar of maize farmers squatting on the road tarmac, their florescent orange produce dispersed, green fields spreading behind them: a spectacle which was at once poignant and sublime. Far and near, villagers worked their land and shepherded their livestock: buffaloes, goats and sheep. Cows. Even on broad and empty stretches we had to be careful not to overspeed lest an errant animal, or herd, be grazing on the patchy-grassed strip running through the road’s middle. When, at times, the sky bloated grey our path quickly filled with excited kids waiting to release their stifled thumkas just as the first drops lashed the hot earth. When we rolled our windows down afterwards, the downpour having ceased, you could taste the scent of damp vegetation confecting on your tongue. During one segment around 150 kms east of Gaya, as far as you could see fields and villages were all but submerged in stagnant, 3 or 4 feet deep water so that the elevated highway we were driving on served as refuge to homeless residents; Tents had been put down and livestock freely roamed about. 20140820_113213 DSC04685 2014-04-01 11.01.18 Driving by the Gaya region I observed villagers doggedly chewing on datuns. For some, this cleansing ritual seemed to go on for hours on end. People could be seen working at it till well into the afternoon! Like in UP the more urban and semi-urbanised men had a liking for gumchas but what one saw most commonly in rustic locales was thick thread armlets strung on taut armed, bare-chested farmers. Whilst like their urban counterparts village men had no compunctions about peeing in public, they, unlike city-wallas, preferred easing themselves in the crouching position. A typical village had one or two motherly, sheltering trees adjoining the main road under which men gathered in gossip, to play cards, or just to drink chai. Women huddled together similarly, their kids and male relatives often squatting besides. One recurring and lovely scene was that of a line of three or more girls sitting behind each other on the front steps of a house meticulously braiding the hair of the one sat in front. As in UP, trooping school-uniformed boys and girls were a familiar sight. At one point I saw a couple of chatting girls, perhaps in their late teens, saunter down a gully; as they turned into the main road they casually yet carefully slipped their dupattas over their heads. 2014-04-01 11.00.12 20140823_125841 20140823_132453-1 At a rather protracted traffic jam a group of boys no more than 12 came round to our window selling a live pair of enormous, colourful ducks they’d caught in a pond nearby. A truck driver bought one for his dinner. Another time, on a crater-ridden track fit enough to be on the moon, we saw a middle aged man, whose legs below the knees were entirely missing, cavalierly crossing the road, his shoes stuck over his knee caps so as to make the truncated legs usable. He did not look like a beggar. A group of wizened farmers standing amid crops brandished a contraption hanging from a pole over the highway barricade. On approaching, we saw they were holding a chai-vending stand; piping hot chai-glasses had been lodged into net-sockets attached at the end of a pole. On our returning drive it fell dark long before we were able to reach our destination, Patna, leaving us little choice other than to carry on slowly in the dark. This was the only time in our journey I became slightly afraid; my concern arose not so much for our safety as due to the utter night. Except for our headlights the road was totally unlit, and to either side ran a dense, interminable segue of villages all of which housed thousands of loosely running children! It was sad if predictable to pass villages, along the main road no less, lacking in power supply. Our trail however was enlivened by droves of villagers tottering about flashlight-in-hand, as their other one jovially swung on the handle of a metal dabba (used to carry food, milk or water). Families spilled naturally onto charpoys and platforms in the open courtyards facing the road as members resumed their evening chores and chats, spirits not in the slightest dimmed by the faded light. In every such village the one place that unerringly projected some feature of illumination was the main temple. Later that night we got stuck in a 6 km long truck-jam between Begusarai and Patna. Seeing that the parallel road was empty, we cut out of the gridlock and began moving gingerly on the wrong side. In no time the cops pulled us over. Our put-on pleadings- “we are from Delhi, we didn’t know the rules, we thought that cars could go ahead….”– were sternly met and flatly rebuffed. “You educated people from Delhi should know better than to break traffic rules….all these village folk aren’t educated like you are”, (aapko to neeyam ka palan karna chahiye tha…) the cop admonished, before he let us pass, or rather break bad, all the way through……..

Breaking Bad Roadtrip: Delhi to Darjeeling

Breaking Bad, my friend, Mr. White, and I undertook a cross country roadtrip by SUV. Starting in Delhi on August 18th we drove along the Gangetic plains through Varanasi and Bodh Gaya, rolling eventually into Darjeeling after briefly stopping over for the night at Siliguri. Returning via Patna & Varanasi we arrived in Delhi late on the evening of August 24th.

Along our 3400 kms long road journey we traversed innumerable towns and villages, rice fields and flooded plains, misty mountains and gleaming grasslands, not to mention countless herds of goats, cows, bulls, errant strays dogs, and a host of other fauna, flaura and peoples…. all in a span of exactly a week.

We had supposed we’d have an exhilarating excursion, and it proved to be just so in every way we rode.

This is a macro-chronicle of our drive through the breadth of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and North Bengal. Stops were made at Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Patna, and Varanasi again.

Part 1: Delhi to Varanasi (800 Kms): Uttar Pradesh, the Bhaiyya Belt.

My phone alarm rang sharply at 5 am but it needn’t have. I was awake waiting to be further stirred out of bed. Mr. White came by my house at 5.30. As the two of us sipped on our cups of morning chai my dad gave us a vigorous lecture on routes and road conditions. Google Maps was declared thoroughly unreliable, in hindsight not an inaccurate judgment in so far as Indian roads are concerned. All the same our groggy senses savoured the drink’s sweetness just as well as they sieved out some very concerned fatherly advice. He’d driven the same stretch back in the 70s and was convinced we’d veer off into Naxalite territory.

Charged up and refreshed, we were set to hit the road! But right before we embarked Mr. White, touchingly, presented me with a “Mr. White and Jesse poster” from Breaking Bad, a replica of which he’d also bought himself. It bounced along with us, sat in the backseat, for the entire duration of our journey. And since we had made it a point for my to always call him “Mr. White”, as for him to address me as “Jesse”, the poster remains a veritable Breaking Bad roadtrip reminder.

Breaking-Bad-Walter-White-Jesse-Pinkman-HD-Wallpaper--Vvallpaper.Net

Delhi, like many Indian cities, is as calm at dawn as it is manic during dusk. Instead of honks and swear words you hear an assortment of chirps and barks. In Lutyen’s Delhi, you can if you are lucky still spot a peacock or two. Being a late riser I also learned, much to my embarrassment, that the city is now home to not just a handful, but legions of breaking-dawn joggers in addition to a phalanx of avid cyclists. Not to be confused with those who use bicycles as a mode of transport.

We careened on through the city’s empty roads, crossed into Greater Noida, UP, by 6ish, and before it clocked 7 we were comfortably averaging 100 kms/h on the 165 kms long Yamuna expressway. It is India’s longest six-lane controlled-access expressway connecting Delhi with Agra. On either side of the dual-carriageway green fields stretched into the horizon, dotted by quiet smatterings of thatched roof huts. (It’s quite telling how they’ve managed to pave an expressway cutting through precisely nought major settlements. Certainly this is as much the result of calibrated engineering as of policy considering that the highway had been primarily constructed for use by Taj visitors.)

At a distance I could spot the odd farmer working his land, but seeing as there were no animals and no people to be seen it was apparent that the free-for-allness typical of Indian roads had been excised by the charge of a prohibitive price. Nor did we see any passengers perched atop the roofs of buses and trucks, (an all too common sight throughout the bulk and remainder of our trip). Well, almost none. It was as neat and developed a stretch as we were going to get.

And so southward and onward we zipped, passing signs pointing to roads ramifying off toward Aligarh and Mathura, until we eventually made our exit around Agra onto the older highway. By 9 am we were 200 kms down, and now chugging along on National Highway 2, also called the Delhi-Calcutta road and which constitutes a major portion of the ancient Grand Trunk Road linking East Bengal to Kabul.

Soon enough what with potholes, wandering ruminants and swerving trucks we were jolted back on course to fit in with the rattling cacophony that is so characteristic of highway driving in this country.

In the subsequent 7 to 8 hours continuing on down this road, we went initially through Firozabad via Etawah, bypassed Kanpur, stopping nearby only for a quick lunch of daal and paneer, after which we pressed on uninterrupted and untrammeled so that we could reach Varanasi before sunset. The toll-road linking Allahabad and Varanasi was nearly as good as the Yamuna expressway and we made it happily to the city’s outskirts by 5:30 pm.

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Impressions

Driving through Uttar Pradesh was both a roll by bucolic and lush pastures as much as a bumble through endearingly scruffy towns. It was a bright day and the recurring vistas of red, purple and yellow sarees glistening, tilling, sowing, in the agricultural expanse had a mellowing effect over us.

At a surface-level I discerned a kind of sameness with UP towns and villages (as well as in Bihar to a perceptible degree, as I would later see). Inasmuch as nearly every village is made up of unpainted red-brick homes and mud huts, cow-dung patties caked and drying on trembling walls, cows tethered in house yards, men and women tending their livestock or working fields, cavorting children, teenagers sauntering in school-uniforms. Girls on bicycles. Every village had at least one large temple, and in many if not most there was a mosque visible too. Sadly but unsurprisingly a large proportion had a scummy pond or an open-air garbage dump abutting their limits in which plastics, sewage and pigs smilingly mingled and rotted.

Everybody seemed to own a mobile phone. Even some village school kids.

The towns were for the most part congested, the buildings dilapidated and tightly packed. In every town’s skyline, at most three or four storeys high, fluttered a fair few number of religiously coloured flags. Triangular saffrons punctuated by lots of greens. An imposing mosque rested regally between shacky and rubbly structures in places like Akbarpur and Firozepur.

Ram, Narayan and Muhammad, and all their avatars figured abidingly in names of hamlets, nearly all of which were suffixed by the words “nagar”, “-pur”, “-ganj”, not least “abad”: Narayanabads, Rahimpurs and the like were so commonplace in fact that their charmingly secular enunciations registered only later in retrospect.

As urban settlements drew near English lettered hoardings and western dress styles grew prominent. Sarees relented to salwaar kameezes and occasionally to pants and jeans. Words like “fashion”, “style”, “shoe”, “centre”, “jeans”, “college” among a plethora of others were consistently written in the Devnagri script across billboards and shop-fronts.

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Whilst current fashions appear to dictate that young men on bikes don gamuchas round their necks and shades on their faces, many female cyclists, motorized and otherwise, have taken to shrouding their visage so utterly by a dupatta as to leave a tiny gap sufficient only for peering at the road on top which sunglasses are moreover placed. Not curiously, many girls also wear gloves coming up at their elbows. Like the dupatta-headgear this a type of self-styled protection against the dust but, most importantly, the sun.

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The Ritual Highs of Varanasi

If at all there’s a place that can be described as “quintessentially Indian”, or more moving and exhilarating, essential and elemental, than any other, then, to my mind, that place would have to be Varanasi. It is the only city I can think of that can make the rest of India seem passé. I love it. And this was my 7th or 8th visit.

After weaving our way through hordes of pedestrians and two-wheelers the pair of us reached our hotel, one named Buddha, at about 6.30 pm.

By 7:30ish we reached Dashashwamedh Ghat, the river-bank where the famous evening Ganga aarti is conducted and so named from the belief that it was here that Lord Brahma performed a yagya sacrificing ten horses. (Dasha-meaning ten, Ashwa-medh, meaning horse-sacrifice). Unfortunately the high river levels from recent rains had put the usual boat tours under suspension and we had to content ourselves with a feeble, if meaningless view from right at the back of the throngs, both human and bovine.

(Mr. White for some bizarre reason had decided to walk around Banaras wearing a black hat, thus attracting the unwanted cajolements of touts who might have presumed him to be a foreigner. “Where you from?” they persisted. Mr. White’s crass retort in Hindi rather than have them shut up prompted a fresh spurt of offers: “want to smoke?” “want bhang?”)

At 8 am the following morning I went by myself for darshan (sight/attendance) to the Kashi Vishwanath Shiv Temple. As I’d been before several times I had a fair idea of the inner layout, and a better estimate as to the unrelenting nature of Kashi pandits. Not that this came of much help considering that I got fleeced still, even if this time I was able, somewhat, to contain my losses by leaving my wallet in Mr. White’s keep. Not least by only carrying Rs. 1000 on me.

Not being an especially auspicious day for Shiv the crowds along the surrounding gullies were considerably and mercifully sparser than I remembered from my previous visits. I left my phone and chappals for safekeeping in one of the many lockers set into the walls of a paan shop a few yards away from the shrine. I then set off in the direction of the main gate. No sooner had I trod on a few steps than I was intercepted by 4 pandits keen to escort me through my prayers. Saying “no” firmly was unlikely to work beyond a point I saw, at least then thought, the prevalent mentality determining it a pandit’s job to collect his income from visiting devotees. So I submitted myself in the charge of one young one making it clear that I was only interested in the most basic of poojas.

The Kashi temple is one of the most significant ones dedicated to Shiv. It had been razed and then reconstructed several times, and the last destruction was by the Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb who’d raised the Gyanvapi mosque in its place. The mosque and the modern Kashi temple, constructed by Ahilya Bai Holkar in 1780, share a common wall to this day. Given so extremely sensitive a setting there is robust police presence on the temple’s periphery. You’re frisked a minimum of two to three times before being permitted entry into the inner sanctum in which the Jyotirlingam resides.

At first my guide tried to lead the way but this quickly proved pointless for within a matter of seconds I found myself floating adrift, getting squished, pushed, and then completely swept up in the heaving, sweating, and by now above all the loudly chanting “Har Har Mahadev” multitudes, the bhakts (devotees) of Bhole Baba. Being an organic part of what seemed like a reverberating sea of over a thousand people I trickled thickly into the dim, minuscule inner chamber- or sanctum- that safeguards the Kashi Shivling. You could smell flowers and incense sticks and ghee, but what most overpowered the senses was the impregnable compress of humanity.

Of the lot of assorted saamagri (stuffs for ritual)- Gangajal (Ganges water), bel patra (leaves), flowers, milk sweets, etc.- I had clenched onto, a chunk was casually filched by the nearest segment of the clamouring crush. Not that I really minded seeing as everybody’s prayers and praise would heap up in but one place. All those present knew they had no longer than a minute inside. And so like the rest, in a bid to get right to the forefront to get a glimpse and feel of the divine rock, I squeezed myself through and past the masses of flesh and cloth. I struck a brief pose of genuflection before the Shivling, did a pranaam and chanted known shloks. Beside me were about 15 people prostrate in profound veneration as several more herded around and over them.

Behind the Shivling the two head priests were riding high crescendos in Sanskrit verse, their tones intermittently faltering with anger or disapproval. As my forehead made contact with the lingam, masses of Gangajal, yoghurt and ghee cascaded onto my face, neck and back. The haze was penetrated by a splashy THUMP. Had someone slipped and broken their leg? It was only when I looked up that I realised that the sound had sprung from a slap I received on my back by the priest ahead of me. “Move along”, he signalled. The chanting and smacking continued with percussionist synchrony, and before I could verbalize a protest a marigold garland was tossed over my neck- a perfect bingo!, Ganga jal splashed on my face, a red tikka drawn on my forehead just as the rest of body was altogether shoved out the exit to my right by the next batch of in-pouring bhakts. Now standing in the bright and open courtyard I inhaled the fresh air.

Despite the unrestrained madness I enjoyed my darshan thoroughly. Intense though the experience is time and again there is a magic to Kashi that is peerless. It is raw and powerful and utterly absorbing.

I was next taken on a rapidfire pranaam-session round the various satellite shrines within the complex, all the while shelling out cash to each pujari at every god’s abode. Mostly only 10s and 20s. My personal pandit was nice if self-serving enough to supply me the small change required for this purpose. One pujari rather ingeniously demanded I pay him more than I did others as he’d taken the trouble to do a special prayer for me to be wed soonest!

At the end of the tour the young pandit brought me to the Gyan Vapi well situated between the temple and the mosque; Into which it is believed the head priest during Aurungzeb’s reign jumped, lingam-hugging, in his efforts to protect it from the demolishers. Standing there, the point from where one can clearly make out the arches of the older temple underneath the base of the now imposing mosque, the pandit said to me in a voice of unfeigned contempt, “and that’s where they say the namaz loudly every Friday”.

Overly ritualised, I now headed to an ashram ensconced within the city’s narrow streets to visit a Swamiji with whom my family has maintained an association for decades. In order to get to his Spartan quarters however I had to go through a dank alleyway which had bats clinging to the ceiling immediately overhead.

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A half-hour later I joined an immersed Mr. White at Dashahwamedh ghat, not so much in the river as in the fervent attempt at phone camera photography. Though it was not his intention to visit a single temple (as he’s an avowed atheist) he’d ended up going to one all the same.

He’d apparently run into the tout from the previous night. Persuaded into making a purchase, he’d trailed him into a warren of gullies that terminated at another Shiv temple inside which yet another resourceful priest had pressed some chlorophylled prasad into his blessed palm.

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