Tuesday, February 21, 2012

KASHI


Kashi/Varanasi, 8:30 AM on February 20

I just took three dips in the Ganges chanting Gayatri Mantra (water is colder than I thought).  

Today is Shiva Ratri.  In simpler words: it is Mahadev's (Shiva) marriage anniversary. It can’t be his birthday as is believed to have never born and will never die. He is just there as a constant from eternity till eternity.  

Now, I sit on the boat in padmasana, warm sun looking down kindly on me. The boatman is rubbing Khaini tobacco on his palm with thumb of his other hand. His full introduction:  My name is Bacchi and my elder brother is Kallu of Sandhiya Ghat. 

Yesterday, we were at the burning ghats of Manikarnika. There the Ganges takes a slight curve towards the right. It appears like an empty stomach that is willingly consuming past to help shape future. Her womb is like a black hole. Things go in but never come out. Smoke laden air and sully dark brown temples smell of burning flesh. Human flesh. While dead lie relaxed on the pyre, no hurry, no worry, their half burnt body reveal like wooden bust, corrosive fire pulling them to another world.

Grief is such a personal thing like religion but people are obliged to indulge in elaborate public rituals, but it still remains so personal.  These rituals, highly symbolic, make people forget the loss momentarily that they will learn to live with, soon. 

The more I try to ignore the more flames quiver in my conscious realm. So I try to stop trying.  I now feel the flames are dousing.

I feel clarity. Fresh breeze hits my face. I see no use in the useful. I see mundane has profanity.  The boat is flooded with sunlight that is getting warmer. I feel the heat warming bones of my bent knee.  I hear loud chanting emanating from nowhere.  I hear sadhus argue for their share of alms, pittance, while laughing gulls stir up a cacophony as they attack a boat that offer crumbs of food. So much happening, yet nothing. 

I am reminded of my father. And make it a point to remember all elders who I knew and are now have left for some other world. Death, I thought, is not the end but a new beginning. There is nothing called dead end, not in the affairs of men.  

I am reminded of what a teenaged guide seated on a bench told to a young blond girl passing by. "Madam take a seat," pointing to a small vacant space next to him on the bench, " and have relax!" 

I am at ease occupied by my surrounding and thoughts. That is when Bacchi tells breaks into my solitude to tell: it is time to go. I look at him. And smile to tell him: “not so soon. I have miles to go before I sleep.” 

"Sleep in your room. Not here. I have to go," he replies in Hindi. 

More soon.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Vrindavan


We had a night halt at Vrindavan--the ancient town of Krishna’s teenage romance. 

Vrindavan is also where my (late) father started his career as an administrator way back in 1960. For this reason, I experienced a surreal attachment to this place. I called my mother to inform her that I am experiencing what she often told us about this place. Her descriptions are inscribed in my mind like folklore. This random visit turned out to be an emotional one. 

Places of some religious sanctity, like this, mystic and mythical, busy, self-seeking by surrendering to the unknown, evoke strange feelings in me. I don’t try to do things. I don’t question much. Just surrender to the overpowering ambiance of devotion and of expectation. Just be there as a witness. Passive, yet receptive.

I informed Jan that we should visit two places: Krishna-Balram Iskcon temple and Banke Bihari Temple--the ancient seat of Krishna where commoner congregate in large numbers for divine intervention in their knotty lives. 

The evening prayers at Iskcon temple, where devotional songs are sung loud accompanied by beating of mridangam, was like a ‘party’ to Jan, who was shaking to the music after initial stupor. Local Iskcon pupils danced vigorously, while some white men, unmistakeably on spiritual tourism (Jan called them running way from reality), matched steps with the locals, hand swayed in the air with chest open, as if receiving aerial signals, profound joy oozing for their ecstatic face. It was a celebration time. It was definitely a party time of sorts. 

We did enter Banke Bihari Temple. Before that I had a fight with elderly (un)gentleman at the shoe counter, we exchanged nasty words. That was distressing. We did not wait for a glimpse of Banke Bihari as the expectant crowd grew around us. I blame it on Banke Bihari, he did not want us to see him. 
We walked around in the congested lanes, was reminded of Banaras that we will visit soon. The lassi was fantastic, chaat was nice too, walk was entertaining. Next morning before we set out for Agra Bear Rescue Facility situated in the pristine wilderness of the Sur Sarovar Sanctuary, we had puri-sabji. It was blissful and dirt cheap. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Weekend Trip To Wilderness

 This was a great weekend outing. We (my flat mate Jan Peters and me) went to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and Sur Sarovar Bird Sanctuary (around an artificial reservoir called Keetham near Sikandra town some 17 kilometers from Agra towards Delhi on National Highway 2). 


Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary:

I visited this Sanctuary after six year. It was in a bad shape then. The water bodies had dried up. Tourists were not amused to see arid birds in a sanctuary known for aquatic migratory birds like cranes, goose, ducks, teal, pintails to name a few. 

This time the bird diversity here was dazzling. All the migratory birds were here and in good numbers (the only notable exception is Siberian Crane that has not visited this sanctuary now for a decade. A slight clarification here, we saw two Saras Crane but not in the sanctuary but just off a busy highway not very far from Mathura city).

It is a lovely morning here, must have been seven thirty-eight, the mist was slowly giving in to the rising sun, the chirrups of the birds cheered us.

There is plenty of water now making it a big wetland. The wetland is broken by muddy tracks, forming a grid, was built to facilitate hunting by local royalty some hundred years ago. Now bird lovers move on it, mostly on rickshaw. The rickshaw pullers are guide as well, they are mostly middle aged Sardarji, can identify birds in many languages.

We did not take a rickshaw. Instead, we hired two cycles from the forest department for fifty rupees. We used them for the next four hours to crisscross the sanctuary.
There were some serious issues with those cycles. Mine was ladies. This, though, had little operational consequences. But what did make ride tough was the fact that one of the paddles would come off every hundred meters. The moment my buttocks would hit the seat it would bend backwards, and thus the tip of the seat would rise up and hurt where it hurts the most. I was riding a bicycle after a decade, so after an hour or so base of my hindquarters started to torment at the contact of the seat. But I did not give up. By the end of our long cycle ride, I was paddling standing, despite, the broken paddle.

Jan’s cycle was no better, but he did not complain of any collateral damage on his body, for every morning he races to his office on his Atlas cycle through smog-laden Delhi’s congested roads.

Though, all said and done, the cycles served us very well.
 
Green to rust-maroon coloured algae spread like a blanket over the big pool of static water where birds of many descriptions stood, constantly feeding was a surreal sight. There were so many varieties of big and small birds. Many were comfortable in water, land and air. All were fending for food in the same pool. The big birds didn’t bully the small ones. There was a great harmony. They were all doing what they were supposed to do. The coexistence in diversity was with a natural ease. They were assured that there was enough food for all. They hold a lesson for us, the warring Homo sapiens who are in conflict amongst themselves, within them, and with the rest. I was reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi said: 'There is enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed'

We took one big round of the wetland. Then digressed, walked a muddy track for a couple kilometers into a desolate shrub forest, finally emerging into a road with some familiar rickshaws that guided us back to where we started.  

Jan was in charge. He would stop and ask me to look at birds, inform their peculiar traits, habit, habitat and whether they are found in Germany or not. He was fairly excited to see a pair of spotted eagle seated on top of a bare tree in the middle of water pool some fifty meters away from where we were standing. 

There were few sighting that captured the imagination of a non-birder like me: a big colony of painted stork, hundreds of them dominates the skyline of a certain part of the sanctuary. Then a large dove, had yellow thick fur, cute is the word to describe. Kingfishers always impress me. There were many white-breasted kingfishers; pied kingfisher was conspicuous in absence.

Finally we lodged ourselves on a wooden platform protruding into a static water body where hundreds of moorhen swam, basking in the sun. Jan dozed off while I narrated my career profile as a journalist.

I spent time loading a floating leaf with dry twigs wondering how much weight it can take.  I overloaded it with a big pile of small twigs and kept adding more. The leaf did not drown under the weight, but floated away from me, as if protesting, enough!

More on Sur Sarovar Bird Sanctuary soon.