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Category Archives: Treasures discovered

Tales from beyond the Indus

I noticed that I am lagging miserably in my Goodreads challenge of reading 36 books this year (I guess I was too complacent about my reading speed). And it has been too long since I wrote about books, so this post is about two books that I completed in the last two weeks.

The first one is Raiders from the North, the first book of Empire of the Moghul series by Alex Rutherford (penname of Michael and Diana Preston). The book is based on the life of Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. A convincing piece of historical fiction, it is adapted from Baburnama with precise details of dates and events. However, it is not just about history. Reminiscent of Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s treatment of history, the authors take the liberty to introduce a few imaginary characters to capture the zeitgeist of medieval times.

More than Babur’s victories and defeats and power struggles with the external enemies, it is also about his internal conflict as he feels burdened by destiny. From childhood, he hears the tales of his glorious ancestors Timur and Genghis and sees his father wallowing in self-pity of having failed Timur. With the death of his father Umar Shaikh Mirza, Babur ascends the throne of Ferghana at twelve.  Babur’s ambitions are fuelled by the astute Esan Dawlat, his maternal grandmother. She narrates the history of Genghis Khan and guides Babur in taking the right decisions even in the face of adversities. It is inspiring to see a lady of Esan Dawlat’s character in the medieval times, a shrewd judge of both politics of the times and human nature. Later on, Babur’s sister Khanzada takes up the role of Esan Dawlat as she guides Kamran in ruling Kabul while Babur and Humayun battle it out in the plains of Hindustan. It is interesting to see ladies of these times, who despite being severely limited in terms of freedom, are so resilient and strong in the face of adversities and so knowledgeable about the affairs of the state.

The setting of the story revolves around the quaint Ferghana and the glorious Samarkand in the beginning of the story and later shifts to the rugged, stony Hindukush mountains with dangerous crevices and ravines and arduous passes and the beautiful pomegranate gardens of Kabul and finally to the hot, dusty plains of Hindustan and Delhi with its magnificent structures of red sandstone. Babur has a strange yearning for Ferghana despite winning Samarkand, and later a longing for Samarkand. A sense of failure works within him throughout his life as he thinks wistfully of Samarkand, a city he failed to keep despite conquering. Despite conquering Hindustan, he never feels a sense of belonging to the place and wishes to be buried in the gardens of Kabul which he had laid. He tries to satiate his desires for Samarkand by beautifying Kabul. Babur’s descriptions of Hindustan are interesting, as India is shown from the eyes of a foreigner marvelling at its wonders. Things that we have taken for granted are suddenly shown in a different light. He misses pomegranates and melons of Kabul and yet is awed by the beauty of bright red tropical flowers blooming around. The heat of Hindustan distresses him, yet he stares with awe at the customs of the people here and tries to understand them.  It shows both the cruel and humane side of Babur, kind and patient with men of courage while boiling with fury towards men who show the slightest signs of betrayal.

This book also enlightens about the workings of the mind of a ruler. Babur uses all kinds of strategies to motivate his soldiers and resorts to using religion when he needs to. He is a shrewd commander who knows how to rouse his men to war. The book reminded me how since ancient times, men of such calibre have driven fellow men to war by manipulating their emotions. Be it the famous conquerors of yesteryears or the wily politicians of today, all use prevailing sentiments to provoke people into action, who often follow up without thinking.

The second book is called The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad, a Pakistani civil servant who worked in the remote areas of Baluchistan, Waziristan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He captures the essence of nomadic life of these remote heartlands through a series of nine short stories all linked by the character of Tor Baz, the falcon who wanders about, without a nest. The stories do not directly relate to the protagonist, but he is always there in the fringes of each story. It reminded me of Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed which too follows a similar pattern.

The stories are more about the people of these areas, showing both the pros and cons of life of the tribes, torn between two nations and how the imposition of state machinery impoverishes them and interferes with their life. Despite being a telling depiction of troubles created by the post-colonial overdeveloped state. Alongside, it shows the obsolete practices of the tribes, the plight of the women who search for any agency available to escape, the prevalence of honour killings and other ugly truths. The new fate is accepted with resilience despite the strains of nostalgia. The fortitude of the people living in a barren land, their struggle for survival and their simple wisdom is admirable, which I find lacking in most ‘educated’ people of today.

When a child asks an old man, how he grew so old, the man replied it was raw onions. “What he told you that day was the secret of life itself. One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions.”

Or for example, the eccentric character of Mullah Barrerai who acknowledges that he does not believe in the fables of Paradise, but narrates them only to soothe the plights of people who have nothing. “These are not lies. These stories are like ointment, meant for healing, or like a piece of ice in the summer, with which water in a glass is cooled.” Then there are men like Sardar Karim Khan who has doubts about the efficacy of conscience. “…do not talk to me of conscience. What kind of a guide is it when it comforts the evil man in his labours no less willingly than another who struggles against wrong. Never have I seen a man truly troubled by his conscience. Conscience is like a poor relation living in a rich man’s house. It has to remain cheerful at all times for fear of being thrown out. Our cause is right, because we think it is right—but never depend on conscience, yours or another man’s.” This one reminded me of the lines of The Second Coming about how ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’.

There are instances of wry humour. When a poor man names his daughter Shah Zarina, the author remarks, “In these mountain areas, the poorer the family, the more high-sounding names it gave its children.”

The tales move from the arid sands of Baluchistan to the jagged peaks of Chitral interspersed with clear mountain brooks flowing across pebbly beds and melting glaciers. The locale is drawn adroitly to show both the beauty and ferocity of the terrain, qualities which seem to have seeped into the character of the people inhabiting these lands.

Tor Baz is not just the protagonist but a symbol of the pastoral life here. Orphaned as a child, he travels from village to village, associates with different kinds of people and finally decides to settle down, symbolising that way of wanderings must come to an end and the tribes too must settle down and adapt to the structures of the state.

 

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Posted by on September 11, 2014 in Treasures discovered

 

Remembering Kanha

I find a certain pleasure remaining out of touch. Away from the internet and with my phone switched off, much to the wonder of many who think Facebook and the cellphone is some sort of a lifeline. It was a pleasure being away from the appendages of the 21st century and that too, when I am at home. I can proudly claim that I hadn’t been as lazy as I had thought I would be, I have read quite a lot, both for my preparations and leisure, helped Ma with housework, cooked a few dishes, resumed my driving lessons after three years and I can comfortably drive towards the front (the back gear is baffling me), kept the daily accounts, making everyone at home aware of the looming environmental crisis and watched a little bit of tennis on the TV. I was watching the IPL too in the beginning, but the increasing hooliganism and the antics of Danny Morrison kept me off.

The heat kept me away from blogging, especially because of the gusts of hot air that emerges from the side of my laptop as long as it is switched on. Baba and I are regretting about not going on a trip to the hills in this scorching heat. So I would better reminisce that cool afternoon amidst the foliages of Kanha.

“Kahna kis taraf hai?” asked our driver to a passerby. We had set out early from Amarkantak. The cool morning breeze was blowing as the car raced past little hillocks and villages on the way.

“Kah-na nahi, Kanha. Kan-ha. Bolo Kan-ha,” said Baba, adding that despite being from this region, he didn’t pronounce the name correctly.

“Kan-ha, Kan-ha,” he reiterated with a smile.

We arrived quite early and soon found a hotel called Barasinga, relatively newer than the others. Safari was arranged in the afternoon. Although morning safaris include rides on elephants, we had to give it a miss because the next day, our destination was Chhindwara, my boromasi’s house and Ma didn’t, at any cost, agree to delay the one-day visit to Chhindwara.

After lunch, we set out for the safari. I had high hopes about Kanha, although it was foolish of me. I had grown up hearing stories of a tigress and two cubs of her, named Henchku and Kenchku, created by Baba. Henchku was the elder one who could hunt a wild fowl or two while Kenchku was the little darling of mother. Often they used to fall in trouble, either losing their way in the forest or being captured by circus owners or getting a bone stuck in their throat, and the tigress had to rescue them. These were my favourite stories. Now, Baba has always maintained that they lived in Kanha. I almost half-expected to see them, exactly as I had heard about them, but such cherished stories rarely come true.

At the point of entry to the Kanha National Park, there was a huge crowd of safari jeeps and tourists, akin to the michhils of Kolkata. I was sure no animal is going to come near such noisy tourists. We entered through Kisli, the other entrance was at Mukki. As soon as we entered the jungle, a huge bison greeted us as it crossed the road. Next, we saw two owls peeping out of a hollow of a tree. It was a gem of a sight, and I feel when nature doesn’t give us the chance to spot the majestic tigers, it is, perhaps, to make us cherish these little gems all the more.

Bison

Peeping Toms

After starting off on a high, the rest was ending with a whimper. All that we saw were monkeys and herds of different varieties of deer. There were a few sambhars and chitals and a baby barasingha (whose horns hadn’t developed yet) apart from the spotted ones. But the forest was denser than that of Bandhavgarh. We hardly came across a sunny spot in the forest. It was shady, cool and green. Now in the heat of 47 degrees, all that I wish for is a gust of the cold forest wind! Of all the magical abilities that I have read about in the Harry Potter books, I wish only two could come true — the ability to apparate and disapparate and the Invisibility Cloak.

Spotted deer amid kashphool

More deer

Once the safari was over, we loitered around the place. The place was filled with resorts, eateries and shops selling overpriced souvenirs. We had tea at one of the eateries as the forest beyond grew darker and colder. In fact, the wind was so cold that we had to sit near the chulha.

Once back at the hotel, it was routine packing of bags and getting ready for the next day, although that was only after the over enthusiastic hotel manager tried his best to fit a TV in the room. After two hours of hammering, all that they managed was a blank screen despite connecting different plugs and sockets and finally, we were irritated and told them that we weren’t interested in watching a TV at all. Meanwhile, Moonie and I took a walk in the garden.

We were excited at the prospect of visiting Chhindwara the next day and also relieved that we wouldn’t have to put up at a hotel. Even our driver was excited, eager to go home for Diwali.

Here’s something I painted yesterday, remembering Kanha… 🙂

The forests

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2012 in Treasures discovered, Uncategorized

 

A bittersweet treasure hunt!

I am departing from the travelogues because something very exciting (to me) happened.

From the adventures of Famous Five searching for hidden booty and Tintin and Captain Haddock going on a quest to find the Red Rackham’s treasure to Shankar’s adventures in Richtersveld mountain looking for the diamond mine, treasure hunts are a popular subject of fiction. From solving puzzles, codes, strange maps and even stranger rhymes, the key to the treasure lies in the most unexpected stuff. Remember Feluda’s ‘Muro hoi buro gachh’ to Tagore’s ‘Paye dhore sadha/ ra nahi dai radha‘! Inspired by these stories, I even started digging in the garden with a friend when I was eleven, only to find a shard of broken glass and a few pebbles.

But do we find treasures in reality? By treasures, I don’t mean intangible emotions here although they are definitely treasures as well. I mean any object that is coveted, something dear to you. Does one really get an opportunity to find that thing in the most unexpected of places? And when one does, how does one feel? How exactly did the archaeologists feel when they chanced to discover the remains of ancient civilisations? Was it the way I felt when I landed up on this cobwebbed apartment yesterday?

Yesterday, I had woke up at 4.30 am, managed to reach Esplanade by 5.40 and get a ticket for a rickety, Durgapur-bound, state bus which departed at 6 am. The person next to me occupied most of the space and I was sitting uncomfortably with my laptop, groggy-eyed. As soon as the conductor checked my ticket, I fell asleep, waking up at the occasional jerk once in a while. I have trained myself to wake up as soon as Darjeeling More comes and this time, too, was no exception. After reaching home, I had tea and breakfast and was lazing on the sofa, chatting with my mother enthusiastically about the week gone by. And that was when my phone rang. It was Suchandra, one of my best friends, asking me to come to take a share of the loot.

“Hello, bol

“Hello, ei tui bari firechis? Tui ekkhuni ai ekbar!” (Have you reached home? Come once, just now!)

Ekkhuni?…Ami ei elam. Abar jete hobe? Kothai?” (Now? …I have just come. Where do I have to go?) My voice made no efforts to hide my reluctance.

Arre..tui ai na. Onek boi ekhane…flat ta khali korte hobe, boi gulo library te daan kore dewa hobe…sort out korte hobe, tui kichu boi niye ja..onno lokke dewar theke, toke diye jawa bhalo.
(There are loads of books here, which are going to be donated to the library…we need to sort out, you take some of these books…it will be better to give some of them to you rather than giving it to other people)

The syllable ‘boi’ made me sit up. “Thik ache. Kothai jabo bol?” (Okay, where do I have to go?)

Ei Hudco theke kachhe. Gari niye asis kintu.” ( Near Hudco. Bring the car as well)

Accha. Ami Hudco pouchhe toke phone korchi.” (Okay, I will call you when I reach Hudco)

Soon, I was standing in a flat with Suchandra. An old, dusty flat. Little did I know that it was Alibaba’s Cave. Everything here seemed to be covered by thick layers of dust. And there were piles of books inside. After introducing me with her aunt who said, “It’s not a good place to meet but you may find some very good books”, Suchandra took me to a room inside. There was a mountain of books on the floor and another smaller mountain on the top of a cot. The ones at the top had been sorted out by Suchandra to be kept. The rest was the discarded lot. I started rummaging through the mountain, collecting gems at random. I was amazed to see the huge collection, which could make a library in itself. There were books on philosophy, history, political science, classics, bestsellers, essays, dictionaries, physics, chemistry, geography, encyclopaedias, literary criticism, biographies, science fiction, thrillers, sports, mythology and many more. Suchandra had given me a bag to fill it up, and soon it was overflowing. There were books that I had searched for in the entire College Street and couldn’t get, books whose imported editions I had planned to buy from Flipkart. And Suchandra kept on adding to the mountain from different shelves around, and I helped her sort them out. Here lied scattered Cleanth Brooks’s literary criticism, an Asimov, volumes of Remarque, Thomas Hardy and Bernard Shaw and Daphne du Marrier and Frederick Forsyth and Henry James and Somerset Maugham and DH Lawrence and James Joyce and Tennessee Williams … the list is endless. Piles of Bertrand Russell lied neglected, so did Marx’s Das Capital, there was Darwin’s Origin of Species too. Loads of Penguin biographies went to the discarded lot though I tried to take all that I could. I felt it was a shame to give away all these, but I couldn’t take all of them and tried to salvage as many as I could. I carried the bag down the stairs, caked with dust but jumping with joy in my heart and that’s when Suchandra told me the story. The enormous collection was her maternal grandfather’s. The family had shifted to Noida and were selling the flat in Durgapur. Hence, the books had to be given away.

After three hours of brutal sorting, we were covered with dust and cobwebs, (I could always risk a bout of dust allergy for such riches) but I had filled the car with three bags full of books. Or rather treasures from Alibaba’s Cave which was going to close soon. I wish I had more time to hoard more of those priceless stuff. I don’t know why Kakima thanked me for helping, rather I am grateful for all those books that I got. I have promised Suchandra a treat wherever she wishes to have. 🙂

I wondered how well-read and knowledgeable must Suchandra’s Dadu be, I don’t think that I would have been able to read all these books in a lifetime.

However, despite all my excitement and delight, I felt sorry for all those books on the floor — the precious, eliminated lot. Dadu must have collected them with such great passion, and today they are on their way to a dusty death. I pray that they go some proper library and to someone who understands their worth. Like life, treasure hunts too, aren’t without sorrows and regrets.

But, at the end of the day, treasure hunts do happen. I am one of those very lucky few who got the chance to get a share of the booty.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2012 in Treasures discovered

 

Odyssey-4: A day in the forest: Bandhavgarh

No, I didn’t see any tiger. Nor did I expect to see one when we were just hurrying about, trying to see all of Madhya Pradesh in a trip of 20 days and spending only a day each in Bandhavgarh and Kanha. But the fresh, unpolluted forest air, the dappled shade with sunlight peeping through the foliage, and deer of different varieties strolling around made my day. Nevertheless, Baba and I have pledged to make an only ‘Trailing Tiger’ trip, which would cover Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench and we would book the safaris in advance (on-the-spot safaris show you only a tiny speck of the jungle) and never would we again go with people who visit places to eat (that too, machher jhol and alu posto)-sleep-bathe-in-hot-water and shop.

We (I, Ma, Baba, my sejomama, sejomamima, my cousin Moonie and Baba’s friend’s family of three, and Manu bhaiyya, who drove the car we hired) came to Bandhavgarh from Jabalpur at 10am. There are two routes to go to Bandhavgarh from Jabalpur—one via Katni and the other via Umaria. The road via Katni is full of potholes and dust, so it’s better to take the one via Umaria. One thing I noticed about Madhya Pradesh was that the state highways are in much better shape than the national highways.

We had booked White Tiger Forest Lodge in advance, so no time was wasted in searching hotels, which had taken quite a lot of time in Jabalpur. But we couldn’t get into our rooms as soon as we reached; 12 noon was the checkout time. After taking a stroll around the resort, we waited by the swimming pool. The swimming pool tempted me, and I had bathed in the Narmada the day before at Jabalpur and had enjoyed it, so I was eager to plunge into the pool that day, though I don’t know how to swim. Baba was eager to test his swimming skills and so, he agreed to come with me after we shifted the luggage into our room. The pool was only 5 feet deep, and that was enough to cover up to my nose, when I got into it, I had drunk a lot of water in my first efforts to swim.  While Baba swam across the pool, I could only cling on to the rod at the side, moving my feet and trying to keep myself afloat. Though Baba assured me that there was no chance of drowning in this small pool, I was too scared to let go my hold on the rod.

The safari was supposed to begin at 2.30pm and we were all ready by that time after a sumptuous lunch. Since there were nine of us and only six could get into one jeep, we had to hire two jeeps. Ma joined the other jeep and she asked Manu bhaiyya to go with them because there was enough space for two more persons in the jeep. I asked the driver whether we would be going to the ancient Bandhavgarh Fort or the Sesh Shaya, an ancient statue of Vishnu in the middle of the forest, and he said that we wouldn’t be going to any of those places, but just roam around the jungle for some time. You need to book in advance for those, he said. It took a long time in the queue to get the permits done. The guide we got was not at all friendly, unlike the one in Ma’s jeep. He never spoke to us unless we asked something, and was always busy chit-chatting with the driver in a hushed tone. Just as we set out, Moonie spotted a deer, which raised our hopes and after taking a few snaps of it, we were going on the same way that we had taken when we entered Bandhavgarh for about 40 minutes. I was getting too impatient whether they would really enter the forest or not, and finally Baba too, was exasperated and asked, “Bhaisaab, hum kya Umaria jaa rahe hain?” (Are we going to Umaria?). And that was when the jeep turned left to enter the forest.

In the entry point, there was another confusion and we had to wait almost 15 minutes for that. Our permits were made for Makdi zone, where tigers had been spotted in the morning. But meanwhile, the tigers had moved to Khetauli zone. So the guide in Ma’s jeep wanted to change our permit to Khetauli zone. After a few calls to the forest department, which denied us entry to Khetauli, we had to settle for the tiger-less Makdi zone. Still, we hoped we would catch a glimpse, especially when our driver told us that a tigress lives in this part of the forest with three little cubs.

The forest wasn’t very dense with grasslands in between. Our guide pointed at two pigs grazing and said that they were wild pigs. None of us believed him though, as the pigs had nothing wild in them, and were small enough to look like the cattle of the villagers living nearby. Moreover, I had understood by then that they would show us only the edge of the forest, and it would be difficult to see anything really ‘wild’. Yet, I wished to see the tigress with her three little cubs. I tried to imagine that the queen was sitting majestically underneath a big tree, basking in the sun, and two of her cubs were frolicking around, while the third little one was smugly sleeping in the mother’s lap. Sigh! I wasn’t lucky enough.

After some time, we saw a peacock. A spotted dove (ghughu pakhi) was standing near it. While everyone was busy taking photographs of the peacock, Moonie made sure that she took a picture of the ghughu too, else it would “feel sad”. I wasn’t excited to see peacocks, I had seen quite a few when I was in Delhi, inside the JNU campus. After that we spotted more deer, sambharchital. A doe munching on the leaves was friendly enough to pose for us, while a huge chital turned its back to me just as I got my camera ready to click it. In fact, the doe seemed to me like some of our celebrities who are always ready for the camera!

What I enjoyed more than spotting these animals was the forest and its environment. I inhaled the fresh air that smelled of sal and acacia trees, and my eyes feasted on the greenery. We saw the hill on which the fort was located at a distance. The sun peeped through the foliage and we travelled in sun and shade on a bumpy, dusty track. The jeep in front us was showering us with dust. The bushes on both sides of the track were full of cobwebs and spiders scuttled on them. Besides the buzzing of crickets and chirping of birds, all that we heard was the drone of the engine. Once in a while, we came across a little bridge with a small channel of water running below. During monsoon, the level rises and the bridge is submerged under water. The crunching leaves made me feel at times that something or someone was following us. I imagined what I would do if I was left alone in the forest for the night. I imagined about Hansel and Gretel, how they had felt, when left alone in the woods. No wonder they were so scared. Even if there were no wild animals, the atmosphere itself can send shivers down the spine. The forest wind brushed against us, and it was getting cold. The sun was slowly making its way towards the western horizon. Out came the shawls and sweaters. Despite being eerie, I felt the forest was very peaceful, there was no rush or hurry, everything moving at its own pace. I can’t think of a forest without thinking about Aranyak. I thought about those words that said that eventually, the forest enchants you, when you spend days and nights in one. The varied hues of green around us darkened gradually. I thought of the statue of Vishnu that we didn’t go to visit. The god must have been keeping guard of the forest since ancient times. On our journey back, we saw a herd of peacocks; there were about 15 of them and I couldn’t fit all of them in one frame. The guide told us that even he hadn’t seen so many peacocks together before. I considered myself lucky, at least, in my first visit, I saw something that someone who has spent years here hadn’t seen before. We also saw an eagle. I imagined how it is to be a guide, to live amidst the wilderness. It would certainly be much more fulfilling than being in an air-conditioned office in a concrete jungle.

Neither the guide nor the driver wanted us to stop and stare at the beautiful birds because it was getting late, and all vehicles are supposed to be out of the forest by 5pm. So the jeep raced on the bumpy track, and Moonie and I felt that we would be thrown off our seats (we were seating at the back) if we loosened our clasp on the rod in the front. Thus we went, leaving the jungle behind to the civilised(?) world. Within an hour, we were back at the resort. Besides being comfortable and providing with all that one needs, I liked the resort because it was set very near to the forest, in tune with the environment. I tried to spend the rest of the evening sitting on a chair in the verandah outside our room, but the mosquitoes compelled me to go inside. Also, I didn’t want to catch a cold. After dinner, Baba and I took out the huge map of Madhya Pradesh, that I had taken a print of in Durgapur. We tried to figure out the route to Amarkantak, our next destination. From Amarkantak, we went to Kanha, which was more beautiful than Bandhavgarh, but, unfortunately, more populated with tourists.

Today, as I write this sitting in the urban jungle of Kolkata with all the noise around me, I am longing for the peace and solitude of the forest, however wild it might be.

Reaching out to the leaves at the top: remember Lamarck?

The doe that posed for us

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2012 in Treasures discovered

 

Odyssey-3: By the Narmada (Jabalpur)

The next morning in Khajuraho, after an early bath, we sipped on adrak chai at a shack in front of our hotel, while the luggage was being hoisted on top of the car. The shack was being run by a woman who was minding a little boy playing around, and at the same time, she kept an eye on the boiling tea and spoke with the customers.

A quaint nook and a rough ride

We set out in a pleasant mood, through the Panna National Park, crossed that odd, insect-filled bridge on river Ken once again, and were on the way to Jabalpur via Katni. At about 9.30am, we arrived at a spot which had a hill on one side of the road, and the other side was a rocky platform, which abruptly ended in a ravine and water was flowing down it. Just across the rocky platform was a small mosque. It was a place where you can wait forever, relishing the solitude and silence except for the pleasant murmur of the water flowing down the ravine. Some wild, pink flowers grew in the bushes around. I picked some of them.

On the way to Jabalpur

After taking a few snaps, we were on the road again, which grew worse as we proceeded. Potholes were in plenty, and we had a wobbling ride. There wasn’t much traffic except for huge herds of cows at times. Sometime later, the main road turned so wretched that the driver drove the car along the lane by the side of the concrete road. And after some time, we couldn’t trace any concrete at all, and the car moved unevenly along the dusty stretch. Whenever a vehicle came from the other side, we were powdered with dust showers. The next phase was an exercise for me rolling the windows up and down whenever I saw a vehicle approaching. We couldn’t keep the windows closed for too long, since it was hot and stuffy inside. Even after taking these precautions, our faces were caked with dust and I could even taste it. There was no trace of green on the trees lining the road, dust showers had covered every leaf. The national highway was worse, despite the toll booths. Since I was sitting in the front, Baba had told me to keep a lookout for milestones. But all that the milestones read on the highway was Kanniyakumari  2178 KM. There was no mention of Jabalpur for quite a distance even though the maps showed that we were nearing the city.

When we were about 30 km away from Jabalpur, a huge traffic slowed us down, coupled with the condition of the road. On either side were settlements with people making cane baskets, the road was lined with their shops. Eventually, we reached Jabalpur — hungry, tired, aching, and dusty. We had lunch at the nearest eatery we saw, since no one was in the mood of searching for the best place to eat. The place was filthy, but I was too hungry to notice all that, and ate whatever I got. Next, we had trouble finding a proper hotel. One had dusty rooms with poor ventilation, another was so dirty that we didn’t even think of asking them the price and a few hotels that looked clean from outside were all booked. Finally, we stayed at rooftop rooms in a not-so-good hotel. Since the room was spacious and with ample air and light, and relatively clean, we didn’t mind. Ma always puts it like this, ” We will stay here for two days and we won’t make a home in this hotel room, so why bother?”

Futile day?

But some of us did bother. After a brief rest, I was ready in the evening to go out and explore, and so was most of us. Since the museum would be closed by then and it was too dark to go to Bhedaghat, the chief attraction, we visited Hanumantal, a large lake in the city. Jabalpur is a crowded city with loads of traffic, most of it being girls in scootys, and nobody follows the rules. Red lights are ignored most of the time and there is hardly any traffic police. Our driver Manu bhaiyya remarked repeatedly, “Yahan pe koi discipline nahi hai.” The road along Hanumantal, however, was not crowded. But it was disappointing to see that the road, which could have been beautified with lights and made into a bright promenade, was dark and the viewpoints which could have been teeming with tourists were darker and dirtier. Strewn with litter and all kinds of waste. If everything was cleaned up, decorated and activities such as boating had been introduced, I am sure it would have attracted many tourists. Nearby was Gopal ji ka Mandir, which we couldn’t enter because as we were told, “Gopal Ji has gone to sleep. You should come tomorrow at 9.30 am.” It was just 7 pm, and I felt Gopal Ji sleeps too early and too much if he goes on to sleep till 9 am. Next to it was another monument with white domes, and we couldn’t be sure whether it was a mosque or a gurudwara. After entering, we realised that it was a Jain temple and had very old statues of the tirthankaras. At the end of the day, we had seen something, so the day wasn’t a complete waste, I felt. After walking around for about an hour (it’s very difficult to cross roads here, with vehicles swarming in every moment), we had dinner and planned the next day’s itinerary.

The Narmada

The next day was the day of the sacred bath in the Narmada. Ma was up for it, since Narmada is so sacred that even Ganga comes to bathe here once a year. And since we had scheduled just a day in Amarkantak, we might not get the chance to bathe there. Only Ma and I were taking the bath. Ma to collect the virtue by bathing in the sacred Narmada, and I was to enjoy a bath in the river. We came to Tilwara Ghat in the morning. This is the ghat where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were immersed. I also learnt that Tripuri, famous for that Congress session after which Netaji resigned from Congress, was very near Jabalpur. I saw a statue of Netaji in a chowk at Jabalpur. An abandoned bridge was still standing over the river. Beside it was a new bridge. The river wasn’t very wide and a few men were swimming across it. On the ghat we saw people bathing, praying, feeding cows, selling flowers and coconuts. A shivalinga was present on the ghat. Occasionally, shouts of ‘Har har Narmade’ filled the air. Despite all this, the place was quite clean.

Before taking a bath, seven of us went for a boat ride. A boy of about 12 was rowing the boat. We were first apprehensive about how this boy could row the boat, but he was quite confident. He told us that his name was Sunny, he goes to school and he is in Class VII. His father owns and rows the boat. After the boat ride, we saw Sunny’s father coming and taking charge of the boat, while Sunny took a quick bath, dressed up in the school uniform and went to school.

I descended the steps of the ghat, and after the steps I felt an even platform being present and dipped myself in the gentle, rippling waters reflecting the sunbeams. I regretted not knowing how to swim. The current of the river was quite strong, but since I was near the ghat, I couldn’t feel it. The water was cool and it was a pleasure to feel the coolness of the water and the warmth of the morning sun together. Overhead, the sky was a bright blue with wisps of white clouds wandering about. It is such a atmosphere that makes it a sacred river, I felt. I feel in some way or the other, every river is holy. The form of a river that flows from time immemorial down from the mountains in a quest for the sea, always in motion, seems to be pulsating with a life of its own. And after reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, I feel more so. The landscape being rocky, the waters weren’t murky with mud. I thought that only if there was a river near our home, I would have gone for a bath every day. I made it a point that I would take a bath in the Damodar the next time I visit our ancestral home in the village. I also floated one of those lamps encased in a leaf bowl on the river, just as I had did about ten years ago in Haridwar. Some people were offering coconuts too, but I noticed that the floating coconuts were being collected by Sunny’s father on the boat, and perhaps, he would sell them later.

After the Narmada darshan, we visited a beautiful park which had swans quacking around and an aquarium full of different water creatures and the Rani Durgawati Museum. The museum was full of varied artifacts, from ancient statues which resembled the sculpture of Khajuraho to the relics of Rani Durgawati, a Gond queen, and various photos of freedom fighters. There was a rare photograph of Bhagat Singh, while he was in prison, with iron chains around his feet. There was another section portraying the life of the tribes of Madhya Pradesh.

River of Smoke

After lunch and a scoop of icecream, we departed for Bhedaghat and Dhuandhar falls, the real treat of Jabalpur. We had to give the Madan Mahal Fort and the Balancing Rock a miss because our driver couldn’t find the way to them and there wasn’t enough time to search. I didn’t regret Balancing Rock though, since you can find these as soon as you go out of the city of Jabalpur. We saw some as our car went past them. Huge blocks of rock standing without any sort of visible support. It seemed that in the next moment, they would roll down on the shacks below. But they didn’t budge. For over two kilometres in Bhedaghat, the Narmada flows in a gorge. I had expected to see a small version of the Grand Canyon that I had seen in Discovery, and though, it wasn’t even close to that, it impressed me with its beauty.

Despite crowds of tourists posing in front of it and vendors selling everything from marble statues to mehndi surrounding it, Dhuandhar is beautiful. Its roar could be heard from the parking lot itself. White streams of froth descending down a steep gradient formed a smoke cascade. A layer of mist shimmered in the sun. And when we went close to it, we could feel the sprinkling drops of water. I thought of the river, the gentle, rippling waters of Tilwara Ghat and the roaring spectacle here. While one inspires peace, the other awe. I dipped my feet and hands in the cool, gushing water of the river flowing in a bed of marble rocks. An irritating sight near the falls was that of the towers of the ropeway, adorned with hideous ads of Reliance. Some in our group didn’t seem to appreciate Dhuandhar much, but I conclude, as Bibhutibhushan Banerjee said, ‘To gaze in wonder at the good things is not a quality that everyone has.’

Dhuandhar Falls

Next we visited the Chausat Yogini temple, modelled on the lines of the Khajuraho temple. We had to climb about 112 steep stairs to reach it. Sixty-four small shrines with figures of the yoginis surrounded the bigger shrine of Shiva and Parvati. The names of the yoginis were strange, there was one ‘Lampata’! Built during the Kalachuri period, some of the idols were disfigured. I thought of the misfortune of the priest who had to climb this hillock every day twice, when he came to the temple for the evening arati. The view of the Narmada from the heights of the temple was beautiful.

Marble, marble everywhere

We went for the boat ride to see the Marble Rocks in Bhedaghat, downstream the Dhuandhar falls. There were a few boats leaving the ghat. You can hire a personal boat, but we didn’t want to waste any time as they were already booked. The boat tried to accommodate as many people as it could, and there must have been more than 30 people in one boat! A ticket counter was there, but it was deserted. The boatmen charged according to their whims. What was disappointing was that there were no life-jackets, nor any sort of provisions for safety. There were little boys asking for money, and in return, they were diving into the river from the top of the rocks, a considerable height.

The boatmen were interesting. Each of them seemed to have learnt by heart a script of what they called ‘live commentary’. As the boat sailed in the waters surrounded by the pink, blue, white, grey marble rocks, the boatman showed us shapes of car and persons on marble, a suicide point, the place where Kareena Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan danced in Asoka, a corner where a crocodile leaved with two little ones, and described in rhyming couplets each of these. His couplets pointed at human follies with humour. For instance, he showed us a hotel, and said for the first time, people come here first for a honeymoon, and for the second time, they come here with a bottle. We first thought that we were lucky enough to get such a witty boatman, but soon we came near another boat, and the boatman in that boat too was saying the same thing! It was beautiful to watch the sunset amid the marble rocks, but not as good as what I had imagined it to be. The last rays of the sun fell on the rocks, bringing out their colour. While some of the rocks were stark white or dull grey, some had a pinkish or bluish tinge on them, some were dark green and black. The river has carved a path meandering through the rocks, which at times rose as high as hundred feet on the sides of the river. They look most beautiful on a full moon night. During monsoon, boating is suspended because the level of water rises as high as the rocks, sometimes even drowning them. With craggy, rough hewn and smooth rocks in abundance, the landscape looked like the one in Ravenstone Mine, a game that I used to play in Facebook before I deactivated my account.

We had tea by the Narmada. It was followed by souvenir shopping. While Baba bought a marble Buddha, I bought a marble bracelet. Ma had many little packets and she was bargaining with one of the shopkeepers on the price of a small marble bull. I later came to know that it was a marble Nandi, and it was going to be placed in front of the small shivalinga in our thakurghar. The temples of Madhya Pradesh had influenced Ma a lot, for sure!

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2012 in Treasures discovered, Uncategorized

 

Odyssey-2: Stone splendour

Vishnu and Lakshmi: symbol of Khajuraho

I had prepared myself to become spellbound to see the splendour in stone. However, I had not prepared myself for this little statue placed in a small chowk where the roads diverted as we enter Khajuraho. It was a relief of a sculptor working on stone and below it read: “A homage to the unknown sculptor of Khajuraho.” I was impressed because we always wax eloquent of the kings for patronising the beautiful structures, not of the thousands of men who worked day and night to build them. The efforts of thousands that go in to achieve something so remarkable are hardly appreciated. Whenever we think of the Taj Mahal, we think of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife, but do we ever care to think about the 20,000 men who worked relentlessly to make the emperor’s dream come true? One of these men may have loved his wife as much as Shah Jahan did or even more perhaps, and may be his love found expression in the exquisite lattice work of the monument of love. Well, Agra never goes out of my mind. Now, I would go back to Khajuraho.

The sculptor at work

Another thought that came to my mind is that we always build statues of achievers, but not of the many thousands who contribute their mite in their respective fields to keep the wheels of world moving. Here too, the sculptors had accomplished a remarkable feat, but shouldn’t there be more recognition for people who might not do something remarkable, yet whose daily efforts make the world a better place to live in?

With these thoughts in mind, I came to the Chaturbhuj temple. In Khajuraho, the temples are grouped into three groups according to their locations— the Western group, Eastern group and Southern group. We had started with the lesser known Southern group and Eastern Group, and ended our journey at the Western Group, the grandest temple complex. Apart from the temples, it is a village with unmetalled roads. The place wasn’t that crowded too, considering the rush we see in the Taj or Fatehpur Sikri. Tourists were mainly Bengalis or foreigners. Chaturbhuj temple is one of the lesser known, solitary temple that stands it the middle of nowhere. Yet, its stone carvings are modelled on the other famous temples. What attracted me most were the figures of the gods whom I had only read and heard about but never seen their statues. Surya—the sun-god— on a chariot drawn by seven horses and his feet were covered by shoes unlike other gods. Agni, the bearded, pot-bellied fire god. Indra, with his famous vajra, the nine planets on a panel, the Ashtavasu who is the guardian angel of the temple at his specific corner, Kuber, the treasurer of the gods with a bagful of money on his shoulders (The gods could get and give anything from anywhere, why did they need a treasurer for?)  and Yama, the Hindu equivalent to Hades. There was even the figure of Kichak, who was carrying Vishnu on his back, so said the guide.

From there we went to the Beejamandal temple, which was mostly in ruins except for a shivalinga. Beside the ruins was another mound on which a cow was standing, with a rope on its neck. The other end of the rope was tied around a block of the same stone that was used in the temple walls. Wasn’t it an ironic fate for that piece of stone? Once it had adorned the wall of a famous temple constructed by the Chandela kings, and today it was being used by a common villager as a post to bind his cow. Perhaps, some day the priest of the temple had spurned the ancestor of this villager for entering the temple. If that stone could talk, it would perhaps have narrated the tales.

After that we saw a host of temples including Dulhadeo temple, which was again another magnificently sculpted temple. Ghantai temple is not that extraordinary, with a few pillars standing. The Javari temple is named from jawar, a grain offered to the deity here. The Jain temples of Adinath and Parsvanath too, were beautiful. Next was the Vaman temple, dedicated to the Vaman avatar of Vishnu. The deity looked more like a sumo wrestler than Vishnu. All of these temples were adorned with beautiful carvings that spoke of the glorious days of art and architecture a thousand years ago. But most of the deities inside had no heads, the guide explained all of them as a result of Muslim invasions.

But the best was in store at the Western Group. I would suggest one should see the light-and-sound show at the temple complex first before visiting the temples, you get to know the history in a more interesting way than the drab tone of the guide.

It was hard to imagine that hundreds of sculptors had carved them out from blocks of stone. It seemed that they have been placed there by the touch of some magic wand that was blessed with divine craftsmanship. I took some photos, but not many, because I was overwhelmed in seeing, I wanted to capture the picture in my mind rather than in the camera. I wanted to soak in the aura of the surrounding, to see the work of a number of unknown sculptors who chiselled the stones to perfection. I tried to fathom their imagination when I viewed the detailed scenes of men and women, animals, floral motifs, gods and demons on the walls of these temples. The details of small insignificant parts, such as a scorpion or a skull, shows that these sculptors were not only the masters of their art but were also deeply in love and dedicated to their work. The Lakshmana temple, Devi Jagdambi temple, the Varaha temple and the Chitragupta temple all are magnificent specimens of the day’s architecture. But the best of the lot was the Kandariya Mahadeva temple and the Lakshmana temple. Kandariya Mahadeva temple was built by the king Vidyadhar, after he repulsed the attacks of Mahmud of Ghazni, to show his gratitude to the god. Well, the attacks of Ghazni had a positive effect after all, I felt.

Except for the usual Vedic deities, the stones are carved with scenes of love, warfare, mundane activities bringing to life the society of that era. Though Khajuraho is famed for the erotic figures on temple walls, one who visits Khajuraho would soon realise that there is much more than that. The temples celebrates not just the gods, but life. And also women. You can find women in various moods and forms, be it waking up from sleep, applying make-up or taking out a thorn from her foot.

After climbing up and down the steep stairs of the temples since morning, I was relieved when we entered the last, Chitragupta temple. I lay down on the raised floor of the temple, where once upon a time, priests performed yajnas for Surya, who perhaps had his head in place in those days. It was cool and soothed me. Up on the exquisitely carved ceiling were hundreds of bats who had made the place smelly, perhaps the only unpleasant fact about the place.

Next, we went to a museum nearby to see more of stone statues of the Jain tirthankaras, Shiva-Parvati, Vishnu Lakhsmi, Agni-Swaha and many other gods, demigods, apsaras and gandharvas, men and women.

After lunch (of semi-boiled rice that we seemed to be chewing for ages) and a brief rest, we again went out for the Chausat Yogini temple. Located at a secluded place, it was a granite temple with 64 small shrines surrounding a bigger one with a statue of goddess Kali. The smaller shrines were empty. The place was eerie, and absolutely deserted. Except for us, there was only a local, who told us about the legends of the place. That the place was a seat of Tantric rites added to its mystery. A dog was barking at a distance, the shadows of the trees grew longer as dusk descended and it seemed we had arrived somewhere out-of-the-world, in a place haunted by phantasmal spirits. After a walk on the shadowy, tree-lined path for 15 minutes, we reached the parking lot.

Our next destination was the Matangeshwara temple, located next to the Western Group temple complex. This is the only temple that is still in use and it is dedicated to Shiva. It is very easy to identify which temples are dedicated to Shiva. Directly opposite the sanctum, you will find a huge Nandi sitting quietly. With a massive 8ft tall shivalinga, I was surprised to see the priest sitting practically on the base of the linga. Moreover, we had to climb on the base for the pradakshina. I also noticed that despite the temple being ancient, there has been a lot of modern constructions on the structure, destroying its original beauty in the process. This is something that I noticed in many other temples too. After paying obeisance to Matangeswara, we waited for the sound-and-light show in the main temple complex.

It was a treat to see and hear. The deep baritone of Amitabh Bachhan narrated the myths and histories of the Chandela dynasty and Khajuraho, and once in a while the temples were illuminated in the dark night, taking you back to the past. I had once read somewhere that there is a Japanese saying, ‘Nikko to mi ne ba, kekko to yuu-ne‘, which means you can’t say kekko which means fantastic or marvellous or splendid unless you see the city of Nikko, or in other words, unless you see something that is really so because we often tend to waste these adjectives on things that are not so great. And to see the Kandariya Mahadeva temple bathed in the golden light against the dark backdrop of the night was indeed a kekko-moment. It can enchant you to a trance and you can visualise the Khajuraho of the past. You can almost hear the gurgle of the waters of the Karnavati, the chants of the mantras in the temples, the kings returning from battles, the queens paying homage to the gods, the tinkling of the anklets of dancing devdasis … a temple city celebrating its zest for life.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2011 in Treasures discovered

 

The Rain

It is raining again.

Flooding my mind with a medley of thoughts.


May be in a rainy day like this

Poet Kalidas sent the cloud as the messenger,

A herald of the yaksha’s nostalgia.

May be in a day like this

Words cascaded from the ancient poet’s pen

Who made the lament of the poor yaksha

Reach out to readers millennia after

May be in a day like this

When the thunders roared

The witches had summoned Macbeth

Filled in him an ambition

Which was unknown before.

May be in a day like this

The song of Shelley’s skylark

Had surpassed the ‘sound of vernal showers’

May be in a day like this

The wild West Wind had cried out to the poet’s soul

Breathing in him a fire of rebellion

Lifting him to the ecstasy of creation.

May be in a night like this

Hardy had painted the canvas of the heath

Where Eustacia rose as the Queen

May be in a night like this

Bronte’s passion can be perceived

When Heathcliff’s intense frenzy

Hovers like a spirit

May be in a day like this

Eliot felt the squalor of modern life

Seeing the muddy streets

May be in a day like this

Pound had compared the masses

With petals on the wet, black bough.

May be in a day like this

Tagore thought of the rain

As a harbinger of new life

May be in a day like this

He discerned how mankind has no place

In their golden boat

And has to remain by the bare banks

While the boat sails away with everything.

May be in a day like this

Cherubs in Nischindipur

Had cried out for the rain to cease

May be in a day like this

Nature came clad in green

Blooming with vigour to Bibhutibhushan

May be in a day like this

Philosophy sprang from villagers of Purnia

May be in a day like this….

All these borrowed thoughts of great forerunners

Beckon me to write my own thought

O rain, O clouds, O winds

Coalesce in my mind to be my muse

So that my pen flows with a poem

That is all mine.

Where the rain

Etches my childhood on the paper

When thunder had been the omen

Of the giant of the sky

When a day like this

Meant Shiv thakur’s marriage

When a day like this

Meant a day of reading poems

When a day like this

Meant a turbulent norwester

Blowing away my playhouse

When a day like this

Meant my collecting flowers fallen under trees

When a day like this

Meant getting wet

To soak myself in the spirit of the rain

When a day like this

Meant floating paper boats on new-born rivulets

When a day like this

Meant wading through puddles of water

When a day like this

Meant inhaling the aroma of wet earth

When a day like this

Meant tasting the drop of rain on my lips

When a day like this

Meant my first efforts to write

The rain is my Muse

which makes thoughts deep-seated in my mind

Cascade out forming rivers of poems.

.So,

Let it pour. Let it rain.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2010 in Treasures discovered