Following the trail of religion, culture and history
Nilesh Iyer takes us on a journey through the unique beauty of India, a land so diverse in culture, tradition and religion that its sounds, smells and sights transform even the most jaded traveller into a lover of this eclectic hodgepodge of mystery and adventure.
We travelled by train (the Doon Express, which had memories of my school days) from Kolkata to Varanasi. This is the city that in ancient times was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi, with which it became synonymous. Varanasi has been a part of India’s culture for centuries and has played witness to the many religions that this country has made its own.
Scriptures tell the story of Shiva – the rejuvenator of the Hindu Trinity and Parvati/Sati – the incarnation of the Divine Feminine. It is said that here, in Kashi, where the holy river Ganga flows, Sati’s father Daksha humiliated Shiva during a holy ceremony. Sati, in penance for this, immolated herself. Shiva in anger and grief laid ruin to all and took Sati’s burning body to the Himalayas. On the way, her earrings (Manikarna in Sanskrit) are said to have fallen by the banks of the river. It is said that the spot where the earrings fell, marks the location of the Manikarnika Ghat. Shiva cursed the land to forever be the site of funeral pyres, but later relented and converted his curse to a boon, that they who are cremated on these pyres will attain salvation or moksha. Today, Manikarnika Ghat, is still the main cremation site in Varanasi and it is estimated that eighty to a hundred bodies are cremated here, everyday.
The ghats of Varanasi are the site of daily worship of the Holy River Ganga. Lifeline of India’s agrarian economy and even today, the lifeline of commerce in the north and north-east, the Ganga is subject of much debate and activism, directed at cleansing its waters and preventing its pollution due to chemical and organic waste. The ghats of Varanasi are sites for excellent photo opportunities and attending the evening aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat is a breath-taking experience.
Varanasi, is not only one of the Hindu religion’s main centres of pilgrimage, but it has also been a major site in the evolution of other major Indian religions, such as Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism.
In Sarnath, 13 kilometers from Varanasi, we visited the Deer Park, where Gautama Buddha delivered his famous sermon on the Progression of the Wheel of Justice, or the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra in Sanskrit). This first sermon defined the four noble truths, to all who would listen – the true reason for sorrow; desire and its role in the endless cycle of mortality; end of desire being the end of sorrow and finally, the noble eight-fold path of ideal existence.
We returned from our day-trip to Sarnath to the hustle and bustle of Varanasi. It was time to sample some of this city’s excellent street-food. Chaat and Kachoris were the order of the evening and did for the appetite, what the city’s shrines did for the soul. Little wonder, then, that there are about as many outlets selling chaat and lassi, as there are temples. As we sat at Blue Lassi bar, sampling some of their excellent product, it was a bit weird to see the progression of corpses to nearby Manikarnika Ghat. The residents however, didn’t bat an eyelid.
The next day, we left for Gaya, the next stop on our journey.
While Gaya is every bit the quintessential small town, with its power cuts, it has the feel of a town at peace with itself, bereft of the desire to become something bigger, comfortable in its own skin. We arrived in Gaya during election time. Police spot-checks were common, as Bihar has a history of electoral malpractice. We navigated through these to get to our destination, the temple of Bodh Gaya, the site where a prince became an enlightened ascetic and a religion was born, which would shake the ritualistic foundations of incumbent religion, with its simplicity. As we sat at the temple with the noise of the rain and our thoughts for company, we were soon joined by the friendly monks and the even more friendly dogs, all of us taking shelter, in a manner which was somehow fittingly egalitarian and reflective of the tenets of the religion that had blossomed in that location.
Gaya is the site of many Buddhist temples, which are sponsored by the many Buddhist nations of the world. The main temple here, is declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
We travelled by rail from Gaya to Patna and from there to New Jalpaiguri, the nearest railway station to the city of Gangtok. This sleepy little town, is the capital of the north-eastern state of Sikkim, which represents part of India’s border with Tibetan China, Bhutan and Nepal. As a consequence, not only is Gangtok a melting pot of cultures, but it is also a key strategic location from a defense stand-point. Here we got to see Tsongmo Lake, en route to Nathu La, which was the site of a major skirmish between the Indian and Chinese forces, in 1967, following the Sino-Indian War. Nathu La or the Pass of the Listening Ears, is 4300m above sea level, and is one of the two open border trading posts between India and China. Visitors to Nathu La require special permits, due to its strategic location.
Not far from Nathu La, is the Baba Mandir, dedicated to Major “Baba” Harbhajan Singh, a martyr of the Sino-Indian war, whose spirit is said to protect soldiers who guard our borders. Legend has it that Baba would warn the Indian soldiers of any impending attack at least three days in advance. Baba Harbhajan Singh is also believed to be present in the flag meetings of the Chinese and Indian forces and in reverence, a place is set aside for him by the Chinese during flag meetings at Nathu La.
The different cultures which make up Gangtok’s society, also represent themselves in the variety of cuisine which we were able to sample. From the ever-present momos, to the thukpa, kachoris and even dosas, the food was more than a match for our keen appetites, made all the more keen by the cold weather.
We returned to Kolkata for the final leg of our journey. It was time for Duga Puja, or as Calcuttans know it, Pujo. We were in time to visit the idol-makers of Kumortuli (Kumor is Bengali for potter). Legend has it, that the idols of the goddess were traditionally prepared from the clay gathered from the front of the brothels in nearby Sonagacchi, as it was believed that men left their purity in the soil before they entered the brothels.
Be that as it may, the idol makers of Kumortuli are the subjects of many a roving photographer. So much so, that one has to pay a fee to be able to photograph the workshops of the artisans during the idol-making time of the year.
From Kumortuli, one can follow Rabindra Sarani through the heart of old Calcutta. Past the home of the Bard of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore at Jorasanko, to the centre of modern Kolkata’s commerce at Barabazar.
After a productive day of photography, Kalakar Street – home of Kolkata’s famous Tewari Brothers and other chaat outlets, was a no-brainer. This became the start of the gastronomic delight that is Kolkata’s street food. We went on to Kusum’s on Park Street for rolls and finally wound up the evening and our trip, at Someplace Else, the rock music lover’s haunt.
As we returned to Bengaluru, home of modern India’s continued tryst with its infotech destiny, I thought of this country, its all-encompassing culture and the true nature of its soul.
In Varanasi, I heard the oarsman, as he rowed our boat on the Ganga, tell the tales of Gods and Goddesses, who lived on earth and roamed the lands, who blessed its rivers to forever purify souls and cursed the land to forever reduce man to ash.
In Gaya, I heard the tale of the man who became God. In Sarnath, I learnt again of his lesson of the ever-turning wheel of law. I felt too, the rising of a religion from the remains of another, to fill the thirst in the minds of the masses – the thirst to know, to realise and to understand. Not just to be told.
In Sikkim, I saw the place where the spirit of man guards our borders and then in Kolkata, I saw the god-makers, who made gods from clay, the clay from the banks of the blessed river, which has given life over the millennia to this land of myth, faith and belief.
These gods, who would return to the river from whence they came, once man was done celebrating the triumph of good over evil, in the unending cycle of belief, which seems to be the only tangibility for man to desperately cling to in his faith.
In a country which has seen religions come and has embraced them all, it’s difficult to say what true faith is, other than to say that it is the aggregate of them all.
And through all this, the immortal river still flows, witness to man’s deeds and vehicle of his soul’s salvation.
(Nilesh Iyer is a travel buff, an enthusiastic photographer and wannabe writer who presently earns his living working in Bengaluru)