Random-Musings #1: “The Self Cannot Be Gendered”

“Gender equality, equality between men and women, entails the concept that all human beings, both men and women, are free to develop their personal abilities and make choices without the limitations set by stereotypes, rigid gender roles and prejudices. Gender equality means that the different behaviour, aspirations and needs of women and men are considered, valued and favoured equally. It does not mean that women and men have to become the same, but that their rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female. Gender equity means fairness of treatment for women and men, according to their respective needs. This may include equal treatment or treatment that is different but which is considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations and opportunities.”

We are into the seventeenth year of the 21st Century and yet the contentious issue of gender inequality continues to undermine our self-touted euphoria of modern progress and development. Every now and then an issue crops up that leads to much political and social discourse over irrational prejudices, the continued objectification and oppression of women, inadequacy of policies employed and the need for more affirmative action. It’s a complex issue with different societies laying claim to different degrees of achievement. If only we could simplify it to the understanding of a basic fact…being a good human being is beyond the masculine or feminine sensibility. Sharing below some contemplations which i had penned down a couple of years back on my 365-days-blog-roll…

The Self Cannot Be Gendered

“ It’s a line i came across while reading a wonderful rendition of our ancient mythological epic Ramayana from the eyes of Urmila ~ Laxman’s wife, and perhaps the most overlooked character from that tale. Purists may debate the accuracy of some depictions but the book remains a feminists delight. However, to come to that sentence that lingered in my mind ~ “The self cannot be gendered.” In the book the King of Mithila,  Janak is said to have brought up the four girls in his house on this premise. He believed that it was more important to bring up one’s progeny as exemplary human beings rather than just beget a son. They say it was a lesson he had learned from Sulabha, a scholar and a fiery intellectual. Even the other magnum opus, The Mahabharata, mentions how she had once won a debate with the philosopher king.  Janak had used patriarchal arguments to try and criticise her unconventional behaviour. In retaliation, she had successfully established on the basis of the ancient Vedic principles that there is no essential difference between a man and a woman; for as her own example had proved, a woman may achieve spiritual salvation by the same means as a man. To quote from the book, Sulabha tells the king…

“You, King  Janak, are the king of Videha, which means ‘beyond the body’ and yet as a king of such a land you cannot look beyond my body and read my mind,” she reprimanded him gently, and went on to add, “the mind is the deity, the body just a temple to accommodate the mind. And it is the mind which is the great leveller, the great egalitarian truth, for it rests in both man and woman. There is no essential difference between them. Each sees the world differently not because of the gender but because of the mind. And each mind needs to search for knowledge and to expand. Enrich the mind and that is wisdom. That is Veda.”

Popular debates, or for that matter even scholarly works, in our country have not paid sufficient attention to learned women in our ancient texts. From our school history textbooks, i remember two names perfunctorily mentioned as great women sages of the Vedic period (dating to around 1500-1600 B.C.E.), Gargi and Maitreyi. Sociologists believe that somewhere down the ages, around the 1st Century B.C.E., the predominance of the masculine principle was established in our culture by that most studied ancient legal text ~ ’Manusmriti’.  It was one of the first Sanskrit texts translated during the British rule and used to formulate the Hindu law by our colonial rulers. Surprisingly, in almost all cultures of the world, the Medieval Ages saw the decline of the feminine. Women came to be objectified, their intellect neglected and forgotten.

Perhaps what we need are more fathers like ’King Janak’ to espouse this cause ~
“The self cannot be gendered.”

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The Man On The Train

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“The Face on the Wall’ by E.V. Lucas, thought Venkat absent-mindedly. It was his all time favourite short story, perhaps the classiest piece of fiction he had come across. Venkat had read the story in his first year at college as part of the text book prescribed for the English language course. The gripping suspense built up and the disbelief and shock at the denouement…that final twist that made you catch your breath! Over the years it had become his touchstone, a personal benchmark to measure good fiction with. That was till he heard that bizarre tale from the man on the train ~ for want of a better name to address him with!

Venkat had taken a three days leave of absence from work for his annual pilgrimage to Tirupati. Mid week was always a more convenient time to visit considering the long queues of pilgrims over the weekends and holidays, and his ‘darshan’ had been rather satisfying. He had reached Renigunta junction a little after midnight to catch his return train, the Mumbai Special. It stopped there for 20 minutes so he had had enough time to board and settle down for his 17-hour journey back home to Pune. To his pleasant surprise, the other three berths of his first class compartment were empty. Ah, peace, he thought! Tiredness suddenly hit him and he lay down ready to sleep. Just as the train began to move, another passenger boarded and settled down in the berth across. An exhausted Venkat had simply closed his eyes and slept off.

He was woken next morning by the tea vendor who peeped in offering flasks of hot tea and coffee. The other passenger was already up and had opted for coffee. Venkat took his flask of tea and went out for his morning ablutions. Back in the compartment he poured his tea and took a surreptitious glance at his co-passenger. The man was well dressed, quite a gentleman judging by his laced, neatly polished shoes. He had his face buried in a magazine and had not acknowledged Venkat’s presence when he had gone out or even when he had come back. Suddenly he glanced up and their eyes met. To cover his embarrassment at being caught staring, Venkat gave a polite smile and asked a perfunctory question,
“Your first visit to Tirupati?”
The man politely smiled back and answered, “Oh no! I have been coming here for over twenty years now. I try to make at least two trips a year, sometimes more.”
“That’s wonderful!” Venkat beamed in response. “I have also been coming here annually but only for the last five or six years!”
They both laughed. The ice had been broken and they settled down to the kind of freewheeling conversation one often has with fellow travelers who turn out to be kindred spirits — informal exchanges on a wide range of topics with little or no pretense and no fear of any judgments. Venkat couldn’t recall specifically what all they had talked about, just that it had all flowed with comfortable ease. Nagesh Kumar, the name he had shared with Venkat, was a businessman from Gulbarga. He had a wife and two teenage kids. Venkat, who was proud of his ability to judge other people, had mentally categorized him as a god-fearing, gentle, compassionate human being. That was till he had asked him that direct question over coffee after breakfast.
“So how did you get into this business?”

The man’s eyes narrowed for a fraction and then he looked at Venkat and asked in a dull voice
“Would you believe if i told you that i began as a smuggler?”

Venkat was taken aback. This was like a bolt out of the blue!
Without waiting for a response the man continued,
“Let me tell you my story, one that i have shared with just two other persons. When i was a small boy, perhaps five or six years old, my parents moved from our village in Eastern Uttar Pradesh to Bombay. My mother told me that there had been some land dispute and my father decided to move out and make his fortune in the big city. He set up a cycle repair shop in Bombay’s Crawford Market and being good at his job developed a reputation that attracted a large clientele. We were not very rich but led a comfortable existence. Then when i was around thirteen my father died of a heart attack and my mother couldn’t really survive the shock. She passed away too within a couple of months.”

“Oh!” interjected Venkat, “but then…”
Like someone in a big hurry to complete what he has to say, the man ignored the intervention and carried on, “Adjacent to my father’s shop was the shop of a scrap dealer. He became good friends with my father. I called him “Chacha”. It was Chacha and his wife who took care of my mother and me in the interim; and after my mother too passed away, he helped me to continue running my father’s shop. We had a good workshop and i enjoyed tinkering around with the cycles that came in for repair. One day Chacha brought in a client, a ‘dear friend’ who needed some special work with the handlebars. He asked me if i could modify them so that something like small coins could be carried inside the tubular part. He paid well and soon i was modifying over a dozen similar cycles. Good money was coming in and i was excited by the thought of being part of a ‘secret mission’. Then they even started getting the coins~gold coins~ that needed to be hidden. One thing led to another and i became something of an expert. I could break apart a cycle, hide the gold and then reassemble it. I even started making deliveries to assigned addresses.”

He paused and let out a long sigh. “I was young and the success was heady. From cycles to motorbikes to cars, things moved in quick succession. I rapidly rose in ranks and my reputation at being able to make foolproof deliveries soon drew the attention of the gang leader. There was no looking back after that. I became his go-to man for the difficult assignments, the ones where you had to pass police check-posts and drive over difficult terrains. I never failed.”

“Then came a new police commissioner who had vowed to curb this smuggling going on right under the nose of the authorities. Police checks and searches became more and more thorough. A couple of the boys even got caught. Our worried boss one day gave me the responsibility of a big delivery that had to be made to a very important client. I chose a route that i thought would avoid any police checks. What i was not aware of was that the police had smartened up and decided upon a sudden change in the location of their check posts. My car was stopped and submitted to a thorough search. It was almost as if they had some prior tip-off. They examined every inch of the car, even the petrol tank. At the end of a frustrating two-hour search that yielded nothing, they let me go.”

His tone was subdued as he reflected, “That incident was my wake up call. The realization dawned that this—this life of sins would lead to ruin sooner or later. I remembered the childhood story of Sisupal my mother used to narrate. My time was definitely up.”

“After completing that assignment, i went back home, collected a few belongings and my money, boarded a bus and drifted from one city to another till i found myself one day on the train to Tirupati. In the one month that i spent in an ashram there, an elderly gentleman befriended me. He was like a father figure and i unburdened my entire story to him. He took me with him to Gulbarga and helped me start a new life there.”

There was a sudden silence in the compartment when he stopped speaking. For a minute or so both sat lost in their thoughts, the rumble of the moving train providing a rhythm for their whirling minds.
“Have you heard the story of Sisupala?” Nagesh broke the silence with his question.
Venkat was feeling dizzy, incapable of any kind of response.
“In the Mahabharata, Sisupala was the son of Damaghosa, King of Chedi and his mother was the sister of Lord Krishna’s father Vasudev. Legend says that he was born with three eyes and four arms. His alarmed parents considered casting him out but they were warned by a heavenly voice not to do so as his time had not come. The voice predicted that these superfluous body organs would disappear on their own when a certain person took the child in his lap. It also gave an ominous warning that the same person would be responsible for Sisupal’s death. When Krishna came to visit his aunt’s house and began to play with the child on his knee, the extra eye and arms disappeared. His alarmed mother pleaded with Krishna to spare her son. Seeing his aunt’s distress Krishna reassured her that he would pardon Sisupal for a hundred offenses and as long as her son’s sins did not cross the hundred mark, she had nothing to fear.”

He took a pause and looked at Venkat to see if he had his undivided attention.
“The story goes,” he continued “that when the Pandava King Yudhishthira performed the Rajasuya Yajna, he sent Bhima to obtain the fealty of Sisupala who had been crowned king after his father’s death. Sisupala accepted Yudhisthira’s supremacy without any protest and was invited to the final ceremony at Indraprastha. At the event, the Pandavas chose to anoint Lord Krishna as their honoured guest. This enraged Sisupal, who as it is bore a grudge against his cousin for marrying Rukmini whom he Sisupal had wanted to marry. Sisupal started hurling insults at Krishna calling him a cowherd who did not deserve such an honour. Krishna cautioned him that he was dangerously close to violating his limit of a hundred sins but he refused to listen. The vain and conceited Sisupal continued his vituperative out burst. When he went beyond to his 101st insult, Krishna released his Sudarshan Chakra and killed him on the spot.”

“My mother had narrated the story of Sisupal so many times but that day i understood its true import. You could call it my Sisupal-moment. Govinda gives us a hundred opportunities to make the right choices, but we humans in our false egos continue to abuse this freedom. Never ever cross that hundred mark…this insight has guided my life from that point onwards…” he trailed off into silence again.

The train slowed down, almost as if it was approaching a station. The man looked at his watch and exclaimed, “Time flies! We’re about to reach Gulbarga! I get off here, so let me say goodbye and wish you a good journey forward from here and in life henceforth.”

He collected his bag, put in the magazine and his spectacles and took a final look around to see if he had left anything, even as the train slowed down to a halt at Gulbarga station. Venkat seemed to wake up from his stupor as he blurted out the thought that had suddenly surfaced,
“So if they couldn’t find it, where did you hide it…the gold i mean?”
The man was almost at the door, he turned around and said
“Oh, didn’t i mention it? The two number plates in the front and at the back had letters made of gold…”
Before he could say anything else, other passengers had come on board in the corridor waiting to get inside. He smiled at Venkat and left.

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God’s Own Dish

Along with commemorating our country’s Independence Day, this week also saw many celebrating the festival of “Janamashtmi”…the day observed to honour the birth of Lord Krishna, the playful multi-dimensional figure of our ancient scriptures. One can write reams upon reams on the spiritual significance behind this “Eternal Child of Brindavan” but this piece today is about a particular dish specially made in our house on this day as a sacred offering or what we refer to as “prasad” (also known as ‘prasada”, “prasadam” or even “maha-prasad”)

The Sanskrit word “prasad” doesn’t really have an English equivalent for translation and so many contemporary dictionaries have resolved the issue by incorporating it as a word by itself with a complete etymology of its origin etc! At one level it can simply be defined as a devotional offering of some food item made to a god and then distributed among devotees. At a more spiritual level it is an embodiment of the deity’s grace and is considered sacred and purifying. Ritual payers in most temples, gurudwaras or even homes in our country always involve an edible food item being offered to the Divinity who it is believed enjoys the subtle essence of the food offered and blesses it. After worship the same food is then eaten with great faith and devotion as “prasad” by the devotees. Among the many items cooked and thus offered, the numero uno position must go to that gooey delectable sweet we all know in local parlance as “halwa”.

Just to digress here, the origin of this preparation is quite a story by itself. There are those who believe it originated in Arabia (the very word ‘halwa’ is thought to be from the Arabic root word ‘hilwa’, meaning a sweet dish). From there it spread both East and West through trade routes and conquests and its various versions got rechristened as ‘halawa’ in Egypt, ‘Makedonikos Halvas’ in Greece, ‘halvah’ in Hebrew, ‘halawi’ in Arabic, ‘helva’ in Turkey and ‘halwa’ in Hindustani. The Wikipedia article on ‘Halwa’ actually lists thirty three odd countries where some version of this dessert is prevalent! Then there are food historians who would have you believe that the origins of ‘halwa’ can be traced to references that go as far back as 3000 B.C.E. Still others feel that it was brought to India by the Mughals and it spread from here to the rest of the world, acquiring different forms, shapes and ingredients. In fact, it is thought that the halwa originated in India, travelled to the Balkans, acquired followers in United Arab Emirates and Turkey, then made its way to the Greek shores and spread its sweet tentacles far and wide to a host of other Mediterranean countries.

There is probably no way to prove which of these stories is completely true. What is definitely true is that various avatars of this sugary ghee laden dish feature prominently among the food habits of our countrymen from the Southern tip to the Northern Regions, as also from West to East. The most popular variants that have graced our tables since our great grandma days are usually prepared using grains such as rava or semolina/ wheat flour or atta/ chickpea flour or besan, along with ghee, dry fruits, sugar and some flavourings like cardamom or saffron. A perennial favourite is ‘kadha-prasad’ you get at a Gurudwara. One of my early childhood memory is about how almost every Sunday we went to the Gurudwara at the regimental barracks (my father had Sikh troops under his command) and with our heads dutifully covered we recited the ‘ardaas’ all the while expectantly waiting to happily devour that delicious ‘prasada’ distributed at the end of the ceremony! The other favourite place must go to the ‘rava-kesari’ served in many South Indian restaurants. Then there are the more exotic “nut-halwas” where pride of place is occupied by the rich “badam-halwa” (here almonds substitute the grains!). There are also granular versions made from lentils like the ‘moong-dal-halwa’—a staple at most wedding feasts. During the winter months up North top billing goes to “gajjar ka halwa” or ‘gajrela’ (halwa made with carrots). Other vegetables that can be similarly converted include ‘lauki’ or bottle-gourd. Well, you get the picture—for variety in taste you may substitute the ingredients, but the basic process and even appearance to a large extent remain the same!

At home both my mother and mother-in-law could rustle up the most delicious halwas. They were both old style intuitive cooks who just knew how a traditional dish should look, feel and smell. (There never was any need to look up the recipe online!!). They even had their own unique spin on classic dishes adding a pinch of this or a little of that to create a mouthwatering aroma that filled the home. If we were coming down with a cold we got some besan-halwa at bed time. When my father had a bad throat mom would patch together a more liquidy, darker version of atta-halwa with loads of ghee to soothe the throat. Above all every celebratory event or special worship ritual at home involved preparing the halwa as prasad. Since my in-laws too belong to the same region, food habits in my new home were very similar except for this one special halwa which was only prepared every year on Janamashtmi—”khus-khus-halwa”.

Khus-khus or poppy seeds (derived from the very plant Papaver somniferum that is used to extract opium!) are among the many condiments used in the culinary traditions of our land. One had heard of khus-khus paste being incorporated in curries to lend them a rich, nutty and creamy gravy, but a ‘khus-khus halwa’ was a novelty. In our friend circle no one else had a similar exclusive dish for janamasthami prasad. For many years people would be surprised when i mentioned this…most had never even heard of this halwa! A couple of decades later, in a casual party conversation i did come across someone who knew of the dish only she shared that in their homes it was traditionally given to new mothers for building their strength after delivery. This annual ritual thus took on a special significance, and in my mind this particular preparation became branded forever as God’s Own Dish. So much so that i never cooked it even when i wanted to cobble together a special dessert for a party. Once my mother-in-law’s health started failing, the onus of making it fell on me and i faithfully followed the tradition year after year. My daughter who just loves it, would always lament on why it was made only once a year. Didn’t know how to explain to the child that in my mind it was a dish reserved for Lord Krishna alone! Once she grew up slightly and understood these nuances more, she cajoled me into making it for another celebratory festival Shivratri so that she could get to eat it twice a year at least!

And now for the last couple of years every six months (generally the two festivals are 5 to 6 months apart) the rich aroma of this delectable dish permeates our house. One would like to think the Gods above smile their appreciation and send down their blessings.

As an appendix to this ‘sweet story’ a recipe for God’s Own Dish!

Khus-khus Halwa

Ingredients
~ Khus-khus or poppy seeds 1 cup
~ Desi ghee 3/4 cup
~ Sugar 3/4 cup
~ Cardamom powder 1/2 tsp
~ Kishmish 1/4 cup
~ Almonds 20-25, sliced thinly
( A note: traditionally this recipe was made using a 1:1:1 ratio of khus-khus/ghee/sugar but you can adjust the ghee/sugar content as per taste. It can also be made using milk to grind instead of water but then the dish cannot be kept for more than a day or so. Cooking with water ensures it doesn’t get spoilt for over a week if refrigerated. Friends and family who visit in the ensuing week are generally offered this prasad. Whenever you want to reheat it add a couple of teaspoons of milk to keep it soft and prevent it from becoming dry and granular.)

(Just as an interesting aside in our mountain-dialect we call khus-khus “post” — the sound of the consonant ’t’ in the end being a soft one, the way many European people pronounce it. A reference to the sleep inducing properties of opium and for which reason a lazy person is also called a ‘posti-ram’!!)

Preparation
Soak the poppy seeds in water overnight. Next morning drain and wash taking care to get rid of the grit you often find at the bottom. Now grind it into a fine paste adding as little water as you can (around1/2 cup to 1 cup is generally enough depending upon the grinder you are using.)


Heat about half the ghee in a thick bottomed vessel. Traditionally halwa in India is always made in a kind of wok we call a ‘kadahi’
Add the ground khus-khus paste and cook on slow to medium heat stirring continuously. Once it starts drying up you can add the cardamom powder and the rest of the ghee to prevent it from sticking to the sides

Saute for about 20-25minutes till it turns a light brown. Reduce heat and add the sugar.
Mix well and continue stirring and cooking an low heat.

Once the sugar melts and gets absorbed the mixture starts leaving the sided of the vessel.
Cook for a couple of minutes more taking care not to make it too dry.


Remove from heat. Mix in the kishmish. Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle the sliced almonds.
Krishna’s prasad is now ready.


We offer this to the Lord at midnight (the time of Krishna’s birth) and then everyone in the family sits in front of the decorated-baby-swing made for the occasion, offers prayers and partakes of this delicious blessing!

(Do read # Day 99 and # Day 6 under “Matters of Faith” for some more thoughts and for those not yet familiar with desi-ghee, there’s my ramblings on # Day 327!)

Posted in Foodie Ramblings, Matters of Faith | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Of Forest-bathing

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness…
Keep close to Nature’s heart and break clear away, once in a while….climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
~ John Muir

Our mountain retreat

Most of us know intuitively about the rejuvenating and restorative benefits of being up close with nature in the wild. The Japanese have a name for it~’Shinrin-yoku’, that simply translates to ‘forest-bathing’. It’s an idea that the Japanese government first propagated in the 1980s and a concept the people readily took to. This nature therapy has subsequently been backed with research and scientific studies and now forms an important part of their preventive health care. From Japan the practice has found its way to many other countries where organised groups promote this eco-therapy as a de-stress technique that improves your overall feeling of wellbeing.

Our escape to the Himalayan mountains from Delhi’s searing heat took us to a property where there was literally nothing else to do but spend time walking around among the surrounding cedar and pine wood forests. And so we discovered the “tonic of wilderness!” Our walk on the very first day took us on a track—an abandoned road to another village—that meandered through a thick forest of stately deodars, pines, sal trees with their fresh green leaves and rhododendrons in full bloom peeping in here and there. The hotel staff had assured us there were no wild animals in the area; and except for a dog and a calf on one occasion, we actually came across none! A car rambled past on that track one day and on a Sunday a big group of environment-enthusiasts from the city descended on the trail for a nature walk. For the rest of the time there was only silence broken by bird calls, some high-pitched trilling and chirping of insects, the wind rustling through the pines and the rhythmic stomp of our footsteps. And so every day of our stay, morning and evening we walked through this beautiful canopy of a living forest…soaking in the atmosphere and letting our senses enjoy this wondrous ‘forest-bathing’.

Pristine forest trails…

 

Hoping now to tackle the city-madness with renewed vigour…

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Tales From An Ancient City ~ III

(This concluding piece on the Allahabad-story is an exploration of what makes Sangam special~)

Rituals of riverside bathing find mention in almost all our ancient texts and scriptures. From our parents, specially my father and mother-in-law who had spent much of their childhood in rural Himachal Pradesh, i have heard narrations of many an auspicious occasion when people from surrounding towns and villages would convene around the shores of the River Beas for a mass-bathing in the river waters. However, a dip in the holy Sangam at Prayag has been accorded a special status.…a dip here is said to wash away all sins, wipe out even the bad karma of previous births and free one from the karmic cycle of birth and death. Every year these river banks are host to the Magh-Mela, a fair considered one of the greatest annual religious rituals for devout Hindus. The festival derives its name from the lunar month of Magh during which it is held and which roughly corresponds to the period of mid-Jan to mid-Feb. Hindu mythology considers the origin of the Magh-Mela to date back to the beginning of the universe. Braving the winter chill, lakhs of pilgrims arrive here to participate in one of the six communal ‘holy-dips’. Every 12 years, the Magh-Mela becomes the Kumbh-Mela and Allahabad transforms into the most crowded place on earth!

It is the Kumbh-Mela—said to be “the world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims”— that has made the city and its confluence world famous. They say the numbers have to be seen to be believed. It is perhaps difficult to precisely ascertain the number of people who participate in these rituals but according to some guess-estimates nearly 120 million pilgrims visited Sangam during the 55 days period of the last Maha-Kumbh in 2013. Over 30 million alone are said to have congregated on these river banks to ritually bathe in the sacred waters on “mauni-amavasya”~one of the six auspicious days. That’s like the entire population of a city like Shanghai (or on a more dramatic note one and a half times the population of Australia!!) assembling on a river-shore in one single day! An acquaintance who had “bravely” participated in the holy dip told us that no vehicles can be seen in the vicinity of the river for miles. He and his friends were up at the crack of dawn at 3 am and had to walk for nearly 15 kms jostling along with the crowd of lakhs of pilgrims as they made their way (or were rather ‘propelled’ by the moving mass of humanity!) towards the sangam for their holy dip. A knowing nod from one who had seen a documentary of that day elicited a smiling response ~ “The assault on your senses as you live that experience is impossible to put in words or be captured as a visual!” was all that he said. The logistics of administrative arrangements required for such an exercise are mind-boggling. Successive governments from the days of British rule have consistently worked towards improving infrastructure and making elaborate arrangements for the Kumbh to improve sanitation and prevent stampedes. Civil administration, the army and the police force besides thousands of others, all participate in the Herculean task of making the entire affair incident free.

The event has its own share of detractions. During the British era, the Kumbh was a time for cholera outbreaks and other pandemics. Post Independence there have been cases of stampedes and people dying in the pandemonium. One such incident of the 50s has been recreated vividly by Vikram Seth in his novel A Suitable Boy. In fact there was even a time when the Kumbh-mela was an important part of Bollywood movie plots with siblings getting separated in the milling crowds being a hackneyed theme! One would think that such stories about the ordeals to be endured would act as a disincentive for people. On the contrary the multitude of pilgrims just keeps swelling from one Kumbh to the next! By any stretch of logic it is difficult to explain why innumerable devotees forego normal comforts of life and take a dip at this holy confluence (that appears more polluted than holy during those days!) to purify their soul. Let alone the devout and the curious, the event now even attracts foreigners fascinated by Hindu culture and its mythologies. Where else would they find such a colourful spectacle of faith—a faith neither dampened nor discouraged by the trying demands of the ritual. The spectacle-aspect of the last Kumbh has some great documentaries, in particular BBC’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “World’s Biggest Festival” by National Geographic…both easily available for viewing on YouTube. What i was looking for was an understanding of the belief that draws people to the confluence. What exactly is hard-wired on a subliminal level that makes a billion Hindus of the world (they constitute 1/6ths of the world population!) consider Prayag to be so significant. It is, you soon realise an elusive quest!

To begin with there is just a tradition passed down the centuries, there are no historical records to go by. The exact age of the festival is unknown. Perhaps the earliest surviving historical record is a ritual described by the Chinese traveller Xuanzang (Hieun Tsang), that dates to 644 CE where he mentions how hundreds of people took a bath at the holy-confluence (identified with Prayag) to wash away their sins. Scholars of course are divided over whether this was a Hindu or a Buddhist celebration. What everyone tells you is that the genesis of the festival derives from the myth of the Samudra-Manthan — the churning of the Ocean of Milk to obtain the nectar of immortality. A very popular myth in our scriptures, it has a host of parallel stories that circum-narrate this basic myth, replacing characters and shuffling episodes but the essence of the story remains more or less the same. The two most commonly narrated variants are first, the one where the Devas (god-like beings) enfeebled by the constant and unremitting onslaughts of the Asuras (demon-like beings) approach Brahma the Creator for help. He in turn asks them to seek Vishnu’s counsel. On Vishnu’s advice the gods make a pact with the demons to undertake the task of churning the Kshirsagar—Ocean of Milk— together and dividing the nectar of immortality equally between them. The churning was an elaborate process. A hill, Mandara was used as the churning stick, while the king of Serpents, Vasuki was used as the rope. Vishnu himself took the form of Kurma, the tortoise on whose back the stick rested. After ages of churning, fumes and gases and a deadly poison emerged. As no god or demon was ready to come forth and risk their lives by drinking this, Lord Shiva was prevailed upon to drink the poison and spare the world of its ill effects. Thereafter 14 precious gifts emerged, among them a flying horse, a legendary cow, a priceless jewel, the magic moon, a sky chariot, Rambha (the beautiful apsaras), Lakshmi (Vishnu’s divine consort), and Vishwakarma (the divine architect). At last Dhanvantri, the divine healer surfaced with a “kumbha” or a pot containing “amrita”~the nectar of immortality. Once they had the nectar, the gods (as they had secretly decided!) declined to share it with the demons. Quarrels broke out. Vishnu took the form of a beautiful woman Mohini to seduce the demons and divert their attention from the nectar thereby allowing Jayant, the son of Indra, to escape with the kumbha. During his journey that spanned twelve human years, (one day of the gods is said to equal one human year) Jayant rested at 12 places, of which 4 were on this earth (Prithvilok) and 8 in the heavens (Devalok). The earthly stops were at Prayag, Haridwar (where the Ganga enters the plains from the Himalayas), Nashik (on the banks of the Godavari river) and Ujjain (the banks of the Kshipra river). Some drops of the nectar fell on each of these spots sanctifying them. That is why the Kumbh is held by rotation once every 12 years at each of these tiraths.

The second story narrates how sage Durvasa (also known as the angry one!) once offered a garland to Indra, the king of the devas. Indra committed the unforgivable offence of crowning his elephant Airavat’s head with it. Airawat tossed his head, threw the garland to the ground and trampled upon it. The enraged Durvasa cursed the world with drought and colossal natural disasters. Hence the Samudra-Manthan became necessary. In this version the Asuras cheated and ran away with the pot of nectar They hid it in their serpent domain beneath the world and it fell upon Garuda to retrieve the pot and carry it back to the gods. He too spilt nectar at the same four places which became sites for Kumbh Melas.
Many research scholars maintain that though the samudra-manthan legend is included in several ancient texts, the part about the spilling of the amrita does not find any mention there in. They believe the legend has been simply applied to the Kumbh Mela in order to show some scriptural authority for it. Some say the myth was adopted as late as the 18th/19th Century by local Brahmins of Allahabad; others advocate that the festival as a ‘Kumbh-Mela’ was started by Adi Shankara in the 8th Century during the Hindu Renaissance. None of the claims are really conclusive so the debate continues, even though it is restricted to an esoteric few.

For the vast majority of ardent devotees what is important is the planetary conjunction that decides the timing of the Kumbh Mela once in every 12 calendar years. The transition of Jupiter, along with the positions of the Sun and Moon are the most important factors according to the Hindu Almanac in deciding the timing of the festival at the four tiraths. As explicated in ancient texts:
Magh Mesh Gatey Jive
Makare Chandra Bhaskaro
(when Jupiter is in Aries in the month of Magh, while the Sun and Moon are in Capricorn…the Kumbh occurs at Prayag)
Those who believe, wait for this auspicious mythological moment when a passage to the celestial space opens up at the confluence and the river waters turn into “amrita”. A dip in these energised waters, even in the freezing cold, would purify their body and cleanse their inner being of all bad karma not just of this birth but even those of the past seven ‘janams’. And in the Hindu faith only when your karmic slate is wiped clean can your soul attain the ultimate goal of ‘moksha’~ liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth to achieve the state of being one with the One Supreme Being or Brahman.

And so the faithful await the next Kumbh of 2025…

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Tales From An Ancient City ~ II

“India as a country,” wrote Shashi Tharoor many years ago “manages to live in several centuries at the same time”. Sangam~the river-confluence~ that lies on the outskirts of Allahabad is a living example. Mythological time, historical chronology and this hi-tech 21st century~all seem to overlap here. All year round you find pilgrims rowing out in boats to where the rivers meet for the ritual of a sacred dip whose origin goes back millennia, even as they capture the process on their smart phones and promptly upload it on social-media sites!!

And so we too got into our motor-boat (courtesy the Indian Army) from Saraswati Ghat and sped down the swiftly flowing greenish Yamuna to where it meets the more sedately flowing silty-white Ganga and the invisible, ethereal Saraswati (Is it just a mythical river or one that has dried up or an underground stream…that debate continues!). Once our boat crossed the Allahabad Fort wall, we could see preparations on full swing for the upcoming “Magh-Mela”(more on that below) on the far bank. Our local friend pointed out the mini tent-cities taking shape on the river banks. From those banks boats loaded with pilgrims were rowing in towards or away from the “sangam-point”. The most enchanting sight was undoubtedly the specks of white that suddenly dazzled on the sparkling waters of the rivers. A closer sight revealed them to be birds…dozens of them bobbing on the waves.

Winged visitors at Sangam

We were told they were flocks of migratory birds that come at the onset of winters, flying across thousands of kilometres all the way from Siberia! The confluence specially attracts what is commonly known as the Black Headed Gull. These winged visitors from a far away land happily mix with the tourists and pilgrims almost as if they too are here for their annual holy dip! You find a flock of them rushing and hovering around a particular boat as the humans scatter some food for them. Cashing in on the tourist craze to feed the birds are small boatmen who appear alongside your boat selling small packets of eatables to feed the birds with. We bought some and soon had our very own flock following our boat and captivating us with their flapping wings as they dived into the water for the tit-bits thrown. Once our stock of morsels got over they promptly flew away to another boat!

Swooping for the food!

Swooping for the food!

Meanwhile our boat reached the ‘sangam-point’, the confluence of the river waters clearly visible. The Yamuna which is almost 40 feet deep near the point of convergence appears greenish in colour, while the Ganga only 4 feet deep is muddy. For the faithful the invisible Saraswati too merges with them, her hidden presence felt only underwater. Those who study classical texts tell us that the corpus of ancient and medieval poetry has many a lyrical description of this confluence, the most famous being the much-quoted lines from Kalidas’ epic poem “Raghuvansham” where Ram gives Sita an aerial perspective as he points out the confluence from their Pushpak-Viman (flying chariot) on the way back from Lanka. In a prosaic translation of these metaphorical lines from the mahakavya the colours of the merging-rivers are compared to
“a necklace of pearls set with sapphires,
a chaplet of lotuses white and blue,
a row of snowy and dusky swans on the Mansarovar lake,
the moonlight dappled with the shade of leaves”.
Once you see the sight for yourself you know exactly what the poet is referring to.

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The merging waters–even through the winter haze the disparate colours of the two rivers are clearly visible

To identify the ‘sangam’ wooden platforms are erected from where pilgrims take a dip in the holy waters. For those interested in performing rituals here (specially in honour of their ancestors) there are vendors selling flowers, diyas, milk for pouring as an offering and a host of other items, as well as pundits spewing mantras—all ready to help with the ceremonies for a price (a price you can negotiate to get a good bargain!)

(next week…in conclusion)

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Tales From An Ancient City ~ I

Some words, some names, even some places draw quirky flash-cards from your memory. So it is with the city of Allahabad. Every time i hear or read that name, a memory of a childhood pencil and paper game pops up. It was a simple enough activity where in a given sentence, we had to look for and circle adjacent words/parts of a word that formed the name of a city. For some strange reason, of the dozen or so sentences that were probably to be solved, the only one i clearly remember is ~
“Allah! A bad man is after me!” (the first three words there being the solution ~ Allahabad!)
An irreverent memory for a name that evokes only reverence and devotion from millions in our country! Allahabad is an ancient city that for millennia has been a spiritual metropolis of the Hindu world. It finds mention in our revered scriptures (the Vedas and the Puranas as well as the two grand epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha), by its earlier name, Prayag. Puranic legend has it that Brahma (the God of creation) landed on earth here after creating this world. He chose this land where three rivers flow into a quiet confluence to perform the supreme Vedic ritual sacrifice known as “Ashwamedha Yajna”. Hence the name Prayag‘pra’ meaning superlative and ‘yag’ deriving from ‘yajnas’. Brahma is also said to have referred to it as ‘Tirathraj’ (i.e. king of all pilgrimage centres)—a name many in the city still use.

Allahabad on Google Maps As one description says ..

Allahabad on Google Maps As one description says ..”on a relief map of India it is like a mustard seed placed exactly where the hairline-blue capillaries of two rivers meet”

Geographically the city is situated on an inland peninsula surrounded by the waters of the river Ganga and Yamuna on three sides. The confluence in ancient times had a third river, the Saraswati, which has since dried up. This fact finds mention in the Rigveda and was the reason the place is also known as the holy “Triveni Sangam” (a confluence of three). The confluence remains the city’s defining feature, the waters having scripted the story of the various civilisations and settlements that have gone towards forming its present day avatar. For lovers of Indian history it is a must visit place as every area in the city is rich in historical evidences. From archaeological excavations of Pre-Harappan period to monuments that bear testimony to recorded history, the city has them all. A couple of visits may not be enough to understand its varied and vibrant history but we did try and imbibe two facets of the place—one ancient and the other more recent.

A view of Allahabad Fort from the Yamuna

A view of Allahabad Fort from the Yamuna

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Our sojourn around the city began with an exploration of the historic Allahabad Fort, the starting point of what has formed modern day Allahabad. During the medieval period the city had a chequered history being controlled by different dynasties and rulers; thus neglected it had shrunk to a just few human settlements. It fell upon the Mughal Emperor Akbar to build a new city here. His biographer (Abu’l Fazal) records that it was the emperor’s fervent wish to locate this city beside the confluence, a spot sacred to the sadhus and sanyasis. (On a more pragmatic level he probably realised the strategic importance of this land feature as a landmark waterway in North India!). Built in the 1580s, it remains the largest fort built by Akbar and in its prime was unrivalled for its design, construction and craftsmanship. Akbar gave it the name ‘Illahabas’ (which translates to ‘blessed by God’), and this name probably got anglicised to the present Allahabad.

An interesting spinoff of exploring a place with a local guide is the privilege of listening to their “local-history-narratives” (’sthal-kathas’ as they are called in the state of Uttar Pradesh)—territorial fables that are replete with every kind of poetic license and convenience. One can be a skeptic and dismiss them as ‘pseudo-histories’. Yet it is these very tales born out of a fertile folk imagination that add a certain charm to these places. At the fort too our guide had some interesting stories to narrate, all woven around the persona of this great and popular muslim emperor. Indeed local Akbar-lore here seems to go beyond known history to form its own separate popular mythology! Two Akbar-stories we found to be particularly interesting. The first is the legend of a famous ascetic Mukund Brahmachari who lived on the banks of the Yamuna near the ‘Akshay-Vat’ (more on that famous tree later). The story goes that one day he inadvertently swallowed a cow’s hair while drinking milk. For the sanyasi that was tantamount to eating beef and he agonised over his defilement and his irreversible descent into the ranks of the ‘mlechchas’ (a term used in early times for one who was non-Vedic, a barbarian or a person of foreign extraction, specially Persian). To atone he leapt from the ‘akshay-vat’ into the river and in his final moments expressed the desire to be reborn as a ‘Mussalman Badshah of Hindustan’. One of his most loyal disciples also followed suit to express his solidarity with his guru. Our local ’historian-guide’ told us in all earnestness that one was reborn as Akbar and the other as Birbal; and that is why obeying the promptings of their transcendental memories, their souls guided them to the place of their previous lives and they landed up in Allahabad! The second was a local tale about how Akbar first met Birbal here. Like every Indian kid one has grown up reading countless stories of Akbar and his famed witty minister Birbal, but i confess this was a new one! We were told that when Akbar visited the city in 1580, the local ‘rajas’ brought ‘nazranas’ or gifts in his honour. One particular ruler of a small place did not have anything of value to offer the emperor. At the behest of his young and wise minister (Birbal) he arranged a silver tray with some sand from the banks of the Ganga, tulsi leaves, some flowers and presented it along with a small silver sledge-hammer to Akbar. The perplexed emperor wanted to know what these strange gifts meant. The witty Birbal told him that his ruler was obliquely suggesting that he should use his lands for building a fort, the items being the traditional sacred-items used for a foundation laying ceremony! And that’s how we were told the idea of the fort came into being as did Birbal’s joining Akbar’s court! Ingenuous narratives that show you how the great Akbar still rules popular imagination!

To return to the Fort, this imposing structure stands on the northern banks of the Yamuna at what is known as the ’sangam-nose’. With the decline of the Mughals, the fort was annexed by the East India Company and a British Garrison was stationed there from 1801 onwards. After Independence the Indian Army continues to use the premises and so only a limited portion is open to civilian visitors. Thanks to my husband’s army antecedents we were able to go around most places inside. The fort has three galleries flanked by high towers. The outer wall is still intact and rises above the water’s edge.

Among the more engaging sights inside are the Ashoka Pillar that dates back to the 3rd Century BCE. It lies in front of the entrance to the fort at the centre of a roundabout. Made of polished stone it has edicts of Ashoka inscribed on it. Later inscriptions by Samudragupta and the Mughal emperor Jahangir are also attributed to the pillar.

Images of the Ashoka Pillar at Allahabad Fort

Images of the Ashoka Pillar at Allahabad Fort

Inside the fort the splendid ‘Zenana palace’ or ‘Rang-mahal’ (as some call it) still survives.

The 'Zenana Palace'

The ‘Zenana Palace’

Then there is the ’Saraswati Koop’~ a well where you can ‘see’ the third river. As per our guide the moving water that you see indicates an underground current and it has been proved that the river now runs underground and joins the Sangam some distance away.

There is also the “Patal-puri temple”, said to be one of the oldest temples in the area that even Lord Rama had visited. With Akbar building the fort over it, the temple now lies underground and is crowded with all sorts of idols.

The most magnificent of course is the much revered Akshay-vat, or the immortal tree. Mentioned repeatedly by foreign travellers from Xuanzang (7th Century ) to Al Biruni (11th/12th century) this ancient Banyan tree just outside the Patal-puri temple has many legends and myths associated with it.

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The famed ‘Akshay vat’

It is said to be the only thing that survived the last cosmic dissolution or “Pralay”. Another claim states that Lord Rama rested under this very tree and blessed it with immortality. A third legend is about how sage Markandeya once asked Lord Narayana (Vishnu) to prove his divine power. In response the Lord flooded the entire world for a moment and only this tree stood erect above the water level. During the middle ages another belief gained ground claiming that anyone who jumped from this tree into the river below attained immortality—the reason for this being quite unclear! The practice probably died out once the fort was built around it and access to the location of the tree was restricted due to strategic and policy reasons. There is also the controversy that this is not the original akshay-vat. Historical records actually show its location at the centre of the fort. The Britishers possibly closed the original temple and shifted it to the periphery of the fort for security reasons. As our guide realistically pointed out the Banyan tree (incidentally it is our National tree) is known for its aerial prop roots which become indistinguishable from the primary trunk with age. The akshay-vat of Puranic lore would have spread over a wide area through millennia so who can claim which trunk is the original? With a philosophical shrug he quoted a saying popular among the locals…
“Maano to mai Ganga-maa hoon, na maano to behtaa paani
(simply translated…”if you believe, i am the holy mother-Ganga; if you don’t, i am just flowing water!”

Faith is indeed paramount in this place, and as a testimony you have the site of humanity’s largest mass pilgrimage…the Kumbh Mela. And so we move on to the sacred confluence~

(next…more about the ‘confluence’)

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