Tag Archives: Rabindranath Tagore

Meghalaya: Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY chase the monsoon across the Khasi hills to Shillong, Mawlynnong and Cherrapunjee while relishing local cuisine

DSC00697_Anurag Mallick

A gnarled bridge made entirely of roots spanned a swift flowing stream in our path. The surreal setting was Tolkienesque to say the least, as we wondered what adventures lay beyond. It was as if some sorcerer had cast a spell, leaving us speechless and transfixed. While we took in the dreamlike scene, two kids chirpily ran across the heavy bridge. Roughly paved with mud and stone, it swayed ever so gently, and the reverie was broken.

This was no ordinary bridge. It was a ‘Living Root Bridge’ of Meghalaya, locally called Jing Kieng Jri, shaped over centuries by entwining the fast growing aerial roots of the Ficus elastica tree. In these remote hill tracts, long before the availability of cement and steel, these were age old modes of crossing streams. It was an unwritten rule that anyone passing by would diligently twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones to strengthen the latticed structure. It was CSR taken to another level.

DSC00940_Anurag Mallick

We were at the root bridge at Riwai, a 2km walk from Mawlynnong, a remote village in the East Khasi hills on the Indo-Bangladesh border. Our guide Henry explained that his village was named after the rocks hollowed by rainwater – maw was ‘stone’ in Khasi and lynnong meant ‘cavity’. After all, this was Meghalaya, the Abode of Clouds, home to the rainiest place on earth, a title that had passed from Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram. With Cherra as our next stop, we were hoping to find out…

For now, we just wanted to float forever in the tranquil sun dappled pools but Henry promised to take us to a better spot. The jump from a little stream to a 300m cascade was definitely an upgrade. The Wah Rymben river tumbled over a wide rock face as Niriang waterfall, ending in a deep pool fringed by reeds. Having a waterfall all to yourself is a rare luxury in a populous country like India. With butterflies for company, we lazed around for what seemed like hours.

DSC00641_Anurag Mallick

On the way back, we stopped at Maw Ryngkew Sharatia or Balancing Rock, an ancient Khasi shrine that existed long before the arrival of Christianity. A trio of monolithic stones or Maw-byn-nah stood outside every home or in the fields to honour ancestors. In the old animist traditions of Meghalaya, stones, rivers, forests, all life forms were sanctified and nearly two centuries of proselytization had not eroded these beliefs. Sacred groves like Mawphlang were still zealously protected as sanctuaries.

The road was lined with broom grass, what we commonly call ‘phool jhadu’ (Thysanolaena maxima). A cash crop for locals, they harvested the inflorescence, which was made into brooms. Not surprisingly, Mawlynnong was pegged as ‘the cleanest village in Asia.’ The locals were indeed sticklers for cleanliness and we noticed cane trash baskets outside every home. Flower-lined pathways led us past Balang Presbyterian Church before we returned to our bamboo perch at Mawlynnong Guest House and Machan.

DSC00633_Anurag Mallick

All of a sudden, a crack of thunder boomed with the severity of a giant transformer bursting in the sky. We stepped out to witness nature’s sound and light show in all its fury. Flashes of lightning in the dark foreboding clouds above looked like explosions of some inter galactic battle, lighting up the plains of Sylhet below. There was a terrifying beauty to the whole experience.

When we reached Cherrapunjee the next day, it had already received a fresh coat of rain. But then, it almost always rains in Cherrapunjee. And when high rainfall, humidity and elevations of 1000 m rich in limestone come together, you get caves! With 1350 caves stretching over 400 km, Meghalaya has the deepest, longest and largest labyrinth of caves in the Indian subcontinent. Driving through the mist, negotiating dizzying bends, we reached Mawsmai Caves.

DSC01338_Anurag Mallick

It was a good introduction to the subterranean world of stalactites and stalagmites, formed over thousands of years. There were all sorts of shapes – candles, cave curtains, grotesque shapes and cave pearls. It was apparent why Meghalaya was becoming a spelunking or caving destination with adventure enthusiasts heading to the Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills that holds Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India.

The bounty of nature was apparent everywhere. Waterfalls like Nohkalikai and Nohsngithiang Falls plummeted from high perches into aquamarine pools. It was the scenic beauty and cool climes that prompted the British to set up their first base in the North East at Sohra or Cherrapunjee. David Scott, Revenue commissioner of Assam and agent to the Governor General came from the plains of Sylhet and died here in 1831.

DSC01725_Anurag Mallick

A stone memorial noted his contribution to society. The first missionary to arrive at Cherra was Rev Thomas Jones in 1841 and the Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church was built by 1846. A tablet marked the centenary of the Welsh Mission in the hills. Ramakrishna Mission’s lovely old building dated back to 1931.

After our local sightseeing, following quirky yellow signs, we finally reached Cherrapunjee Resort at Laitkynsew. Our host Dennis Rayen had painstakingly collated meteorological data over the years, with rainfall patterns and weather charts lining the walls of his reception as decor. It was a great base for birdwatching and long trudges into the valley to see more root bridges. But nothing could prepare us for the double-decker bridge at Nongriat.

DSC01617_Anurag Mallick

Rising water levels in the stream had forced locals to build a second bridge a little higher than the old one, hence the name. Knowing that we would soon be back in the urban sprawl of Shillong, we lingered at the pools, allowing tiny fish to nibble away at the dead skin of our tired feet.

It wasn’t the best way to return the favour, but soon we were nibbling on fish at our lakeside retreat of Ri Kynjai 15km from Shillong. The stunning resort, located on the banks of Meghalaya’s largest lake Ummiam or Barapani (Large Water), used Khasi architecture and décor in cottages built on stilts. We relished the Khasi feast of dohshaiin (chicken meatball appetizer) served with tungtab (spicy fermented fish and garlic chutney), kha rang (pan fried dry fish), doh sniang khleh (pork salad), jadoh (rice flavoured with local turmeric) and Cherrapunjee Chicken, a peppery chicken curry.

DSC00415_Anurag Mallick

Ri Kynjai was a great base for trekking to Lum Sohpetbneng or The Navel of Heaven, the most sacred mountain for the Khasis. As per local spiritual beliefs, while the Khyndaitrep or Nine Huts people remained in their celestial abode, the Hynniewtrep or the Seven Huts people of East Meghalaya descended to earth – interestingly, using a golden vine bridge atop the sacred peak. A repository of ancient wisdom and values, the peak was an umbilical cord to the Divine. An annual pilgrimage is held on the first Sunday of February.

Shillong, despite being Meghalaya’s bustling capital, had its own charm and all the trappings of a ‘hill station’ – bracing climate, a water body with a jogger’s park in the form of Ward’s Lake, viewpoints like Shyllong Peak, landscaped gardens at Elephant Falls and a clutch of museums for the visitor. Don Bosco Museum, part of the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures, shed light on local culture.

DSC00298_Anurag Mallick

The Butterfly Museum at Riatsamthiah, a private collection of the Wankhar family, showcased a dazzling array of butterflies, beetles and moths. The Rhino Heritage Museum was a piece of history by itself. Built in 1928, it was used as a small arms store by the British, in 1944 it housed Japanese POWs during Second World War and was called Dungeon Lines, the 1/8 Gurkha Rifles used it as a magazine and after independence it lay abandoned until it was converted into a museum in 1998-99.

There was a lot to Shillong. Historic churches, stunning architectural gems like the Brahmo Samaj building dating back to 1894 and small tidbits of history. Arundhati Roy was born here. Arthur Llewellyn Basham, author of the tome ‘The Wonder That Was India’ lies buried here. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore lived here. His summer residence Mitali was being used temporarily as a State Legislative Assembly.

DSC01145_Anurag Mallick

Tagore’s writing desk and chair adorns the Maharaja suite of Tripura Castle. The erstwhile summer retreat of Tripura’s Manikya dynasty, the castle was built in the 1920s and renovated into the first heritage hotel in the North East in 2003! Shillong had lovely stay options like Rosaville, a delightful colonial era bungalow with old furniture and photos.

In the evenings menfolk met at the Polo Ground for betting over the age old sport of teer (archery). The younger generation sported funky hairdos and blasted rock music from their Made-in-China phones. With visits to this little nook in the north east by iconic bands like Mr. Big to MLTR and Scorpions to Sepultura, tiny Shillong was giving major metros a major complex. We polished off a Khasi meal of pork and rice at Trattoria ‘Restauranto Khasino’, a local joint before hiring a cab back to Guwahati. As we walked out, the mist rolled in. Like the Cherrapunjee Resort sign said ‘Heads in clouds, feet firmly on ground’…

DSC01234_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there
Shillong is 100km/3hrs south of Guwahati. From Shillong, Cherrapunjee is 56km while Mawlynnong is 81km via Pynursla off the road to Dawki.

Where to Stay
Tripura Castle, Shillong http://www.tripuracastle.com
Rosaville, Shillong http://www.rosaville.in

Ri Kynjai, Umiam Lake http://www.rikynjai.com

Cherrapunjee Resort, Laitkynsew http://www.cherrapunjee.com

Mawlynnong Guesthouse http://www.mawlynnong.com

DSC00347_Anurag Mallick 

Contact
Tourist Information Centre
Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation
Police Bazaar, Shillong 793001
Ph 0364-2226220

Nakliar Tours
Ph 0364-2502420, 9863115302
Email nakliartours@gmail.com

For more info, http://www.megtourism.gov.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of India Now magazine.

Baul Bearing: Joydeb Mela, Kenduli

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the annual Joydeb Mela at Kenduli and find it to be Bengal’s answer to Woodstock 

Image

Every winter, in the heart of Lal Mati’r Desh (Red Soil Country) in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, the vibrant community of Bauls (wandering minstrels) converge to warm the air with soulful music. Set on the banks of the Ajoy River, 42 km from Shantiniketan, Kenduli’s Joydeb Mela is a 3-day annual festival held during Makar Sankranti between Jan 14-16. If songs of love and freedom, poor sanitation and three days of camping defined Woodstock; Joydeb Mela is Bengal’s answer to it.

Night-long jams, musicians of every style and tenor and unimaginable crowds on hallowed ground – Kenduli is the birthplace of poet Jayadev who composed the Sanskrit classic Gita Govinda and where he supposedly received a divine vision of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Over time, the free-spirited concert has drawn kabiyals, kirtaniyas and folk performers. In 2005, the Baul tradition was included in UNESCO’s list of ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. We were going to find out why…

Image

The road wove past the twin terracotta temples of Joda Mandir at Bholpur before depositing us in the artistic air of Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s renowned university campus. An unplanned excursion took us to Prantik, a Santhal village nearby where a tribal sculptor moulded clay figurines. Soon, we were squatting in a traditional home, our faces buried deep inside large black-metal bowls of hadiya (local rice beer), swaying to low beats of tribal drums. Snug in the warm hospitality of Kalomoni and Karthik’s family, the impromptu jam was the perfect aperitif for the night. We crossed Illambazaar, halting briefly at the Raghunath and Lakshmi Janardhan temples at Ghurisha to join the dots of our terracotta temple trail to Kenduli.

The village road was a crawling millipede on wheels. Every vehicle – cycle, bullock cart, van, bus, truck or taxi bulged with people inching towards the fair grounds. Beyond a chaotic parking lot, a river of heads flowed into the horizon where clusters of lights drew ghostly outlines of poles, colourful tents, stalls and ferris wheels. The place was abuzz with hawkers, megaphone announcements and a cacophony of music and theatrical discourses.

Image

Excited squeals signalled merry-go-rounds, tumble boxes and daredevilry in Maut ka Kuan (Well of Death). Roadside stalls stocked a bizarre collection of commodities – utensils, clothes, dolls, idols, stoneware, knives, ploughs, jewellery, flutes, gas cylinders and electronic goods! Food stalls served snacks and some akhras (religious shelter) offered khichri-alu dum and garam-bhat as prasad. Past the assault course of commerce was the portal of spiritual bliss.

The music and poetry of the legendary Lalon Fakir, founding father of Baul philosophy and gurus like Haure Goshai, Podo, Jadubindu and Panju Shah resonated from tents and akhras. Inside, the audience went into raptures as the voices soared. Like rustic hippies who sing of only love and peace, groups of long-haired Bauls, sages, mendicants and travellers huddled around a campfire in the shared communion of a peace-pipe. In another tent, a tantric was in the throes of Kali worship with a skull, staff and trident. 

Image

For Bauls, bhakti (devotion) is the only religion. Their open philosophy, unconventional life and music fuses tenets of Vaishnava, Shakti, Sufi, Tantra, Siddha and Buddhist beliefs allowing them to be neither bound nor defined by religion. Draped in saffron or multi-coloured robes, they strum the ektara, thrum the bama or duggi (clay drum) and swirl like dreadlocked dervishes with anklets wrapped around their feet. Shunning all trappings of worldly life, Bauls sing about man’s relationship with God, spiritual liberation and the pursuit of the divine. The Sanskrit root vatul (batul in Bengali) means mad.

We joined a rabble that sat drenched under the beautiful strains of a blind Baul singer playing a harmonium as admirers tucked currency notes into his turban. The toughest decision was choosing where to go, so we wandered all night in Baulesque fashion from tent to tent. Sadhan Bairagya’s ashram Moner Manush was a big draw. Heaps of cramped weary bodies curled up in dark corners. Elsewhere, kirtaniyas lured us with their eyes, story-tellers got dramatic and dancers in mythological ballets spun vigourously.

Image

Streams of visitors wended their way into the magnificent shrine of Radhabinod replete with intricate terracotta panels. Across the levee, the Ajoy river flowed placidly as devotees bathed in it and boats ferried pilgrims. At Kadambokhandi Crematorium, bodies were being consigned to flames. Travellers hunted desperately for scarily basic toilets.

Kenduli offered a strange cocktail of life, death, shopping and entertainment against the backdrop of song. As night embraced dawn, we settled down for more Baul music that has tinged Bengal’s cultural ethos with its own shade of spiritual blues for over five centuries. 

Image

FACT FILE

Getting There
By Road: Bolpur is 160 km from Kolkata via Bardhaman (52km away) and Guskara. Regular bus service and cabs from Jamboni bus-stand connect Bolpur to Kenduli (35km). Or, continue on Kolkata-Durgapur express past Bardhaman till Darjeeling More and take Rampurhat Highway to reach Illambazar. From Illambazar, drive for 2 km towards Suri and then turn left at Joydev Mor (or after 6 km take left turn from Ghurisha) and drive 12km to go to Joydev- Kenduli.

By Train: Bolpur station, 2km from Shantiniketan is the nearest rail head and connected by regular trains from Kolkata (3 hours).

Image

Guided Trips: West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC) organizes package tours to Kenduli from Shantiniketan. There is also a weekly haat (rural market) in Joydev.

Stay: Accommodation and sanitation at the fairgrounds is extremely basic and people often camp around, though it is not recommended. One can rough it out in ashrams or rooms rented out by villagers. Barring the tedious to and fro travel, Bolpur is an ideal base. WBTDC has a tourist lodge in Shantiniketan besides Mitali Homestays at Phuldanga and Chutti Resort at Bolpur.

Mitali, Phuldanga, Shantiniketan 731235
Ph 03463-262763, 9433075853, 9433898067
Email krishno.dey@gmail.com
http://www.mitalishantiniketan.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller.   

Chandernagore: Town of the Crescent Moon

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY explore an erstwhile French enclave and trading town older than Calcutta, renowned for its revolutionaries, littérateurs, philanthropists and sweets

Image

The Grand Trunk Road strode up to the Liberty gate of Chandernagore with the impetuousness of a conqueror, bludgeoning its way through the smattering of shops. In the clamour of cycles and rickshaws and pedestrians holding bright umbrellas, it was hard to imagine that a few centuries ago British soldiers had to request permission from the French to enter the town. With no love lost between the two adversaries, it wasn’t surprising that the Brits eventually razed the Fort d’Orleans and much of the French outpost in 1757 as Chandernagore’s trading dreams were eclipsed by the emergence of British Calcutta.

The République Française motto Liberté Egalité Fraternité adorning the 1937 gate beckoned us with the promise of all things French, yet Chandernagore was no Pondicherry. There were bold imprints of Bengali culture that had edged the French influence to the background. Amid the cluster of modern tenements, colonial mansions stood out like fairside attractions.

Image

Kanhai Seth’er Bari, home to the Nandys, was a lovely edifice with ornamental urns marking the gatepost. Further down the road Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir was a fusion of native and colonial styles where Corinthian columns co-existed alongside ornate Hindu motifs. Built in 1860 by Sri Harihar Sett it was donated to the people of Chandernagore as a theatre hall and library.

A brief chat with locals at a chai shop led us on our heritage trail past Hospital more (turn) to Nundy-bari, home of a rich Zamindar that now served the Ruplal Nundy Memorial Cancer Research Centre. His great grandson Shashank Shekhar Nandy was kind enough to share more about the historic building. Locally known as Gala-Kuthi from the time it was a Portuguese warehouse of gala (shellac), it went on to host dignitaries like Maharaja Krishnachandra of Krishnanagar and Bengali poet Bharatchandra Ray.

Image

Long before Calcutta was carved out of the villages of Sutanati, Kalikata and Gobindapur and the establishment of Fort William in 1698, Chandernagore 37km upstream on the Hooghly was a key trade centre. Boats docked here for rice, wax, saltpeter, indigo, jute, even slaves, as the town became home to seths, zamindars, Muslim traders, Armenians and enterprising men – Louis Bonnaud, the first European to commercially cultivate indigo in India, Batakrishna Ghosh, first Bengali founder of a cloth mill, Dinanath Chandra who ran the first European tincture factory in the area and Indrakumar Chattopadhyay, first publisher of a wall map on Bengal.

Prominent among the local businessmen was Indranarayan Chowdhury, appointed by the French Compagnie as Diwan in 1730. He received a gold medal from Louis XV, the King of France and constructed a rest house and the temple of Sri Nandadulal in 1740. We gazed at the squat shrine, its walls shorn of the rich carvings so typical of terracotta temples in Bengal. The exterior bore marks of cannon fire as Colonel Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson of the British army pounded Chandernagore in March 1757.

Image

We were led by Kalyan Chakravarty, a passionate gentleman so proud of his town’s heritage he had abandoned his shop Kumar & Co mid-transaction to guide us around the key sights. “Called Granary of the East, the Lakshmiganj Market was once India’s largest rice mart. Urdi bajar was named after the vardi or khaki uniform of soldiers who stayed here during colonial times.

In those days this area was known as Farasdanga (land of the French)” he explained. Like Clive and Watson we strode into St Joseph’s Convent, built in 1861, to the little chapel and stood at the 1720 door through which the British generals had marched into Chandernagore. A brief stop at the Sacred Heart Church and we reached the town’s pièce de résistance – The Strand.

Image

Reminiscent of Pondy’s Promenade, the 1km long 7m wide paved avenue was lined by historic buildings with the horseshoe shaped town divided into the French Villé Blanche (White Quarter) and a native Villé Noire (Black Quarter) that lay inland. Midstream between Murshidabad and Calcutta, Chandernagore overlooked the river and not the sea, but was easily the most decorated ghat on the 2500km stretch of the Ganga. At its peak, on the northern end of the avenue stood the 1878 built Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court) and Thai Shola hotel built in 1887 (presently Chandannagar college).

On the south end was Patal Bari (Underground House), its lowest level jutting into the river. Originally a rest house of the French navy, it later hosted social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, who even integrated Patal Bari into his stories. Also lining the Strand were Rabindra Bhavan, the Gendarmerie (police station), an 1845 Clocktower dedicated to Joseph Daumain S’Pourcain and Dupleix Palace.

Image

A former naval godown and residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, it was converted into Institut de Chandernagor, an Indo-French Cultural Centre housing one of the oldest museums in the region. Its stunning collection included French exhibits like cannons used in the Anglo-French war, 18th century furniture, rare paintings, Shola craft of Bengal and memorabilia related to Dupleix and Tagore.

We walked to Joraghat or Chandni, a decorated pavilion at the ferry point with a plaque dedicated to Dourgachorone Roquitte. Courtier of the French Government, Durgacharan Rakshit was the first Indian to be conferred with the Chevalier de legion d’Honour in 1896. From here, the scenic curve of the river was clearly visible, curved like a crescent moon (chandra) after which the town was named. Some contend Chandannagar derives from the trade in chandan (sandalwood) or Chandi’r nagar after its presiding deity Boraichandi. Yet Kalyan da exhorted “The town is not famous for the Ganga or the French, but for revolutionaries!”

Image

The French enclave was a natural sanctuary for freedom fighters escaping the British Empire. Rashbehari Bose, founder of Azad Hind Fauj, revolutionary leader Kanailal Dutta and social reformer Sri Harihar Seth were based here. In 1910 Sri Aurobindo followed an adesa or divine command and sailed from Calcutta to Chandernagore where he stayed in the house of Motilal Roy before heading to Pondicherry after a 39-day stopover. Roy went on to establish the Prabartak Sangha and launched an incendiary Bengali literary magazine in 1915.

We turned to head back, but Kalyan da paused and whispered ‘You are yet to meet Chandernagore’s most famous ambassador’, his gaze fixed on the confectionery shop Surjya Kumar Modak. Legend has it that nearly a century ago the local zamindar asked Shri Modak to craft a unique sweet for the new bridegroom and he came up with the jolbhora – a sandesh with a delicious rosewater filling that doesn’t dry up for days!

Image

His creation (besides the Motichur sandesh) became a rage as even the most austere gentlemen from Tagore to Jansangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee found it irresistible. Today, it was also available in chocolate flavour with a gooey filling. We wound our way back to Calcutta along GT Road with the taste of Jolbhora still on our tongue… And Chandernagore seemed like a whiff of French perfume escaping from old love letters in an unlocked casket.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 July 2013 in the last edition of Times Crest.

Tales of literary Inspiration

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on a ‘literature’ trail across India in search of legends behind India’s greatest literary works

Image

From the icy realm of the Himalayas to the banks of great rivers or pilgrimages through the subcontinent to journeys across the seven seas, nature has inspired our sages, scribes and poets from time immemorial. Often exulting in the beauty of their surroundings or moved by their own personal situations of endurance and despair, they have found solace in words and other forms of creative expression. And in the process, geniuses were born and the literary firmament has sparkled with their brilliant works.

Today, as we traverse India in search of stories, our own adventures have unearthed unusual tales. So what is it about a mountain, a river, a bird, a fallen leaf or a passing cloud that can conceive an idea? Are there Muses dancing in the air that trigger off spontaneous prose? Perhaps. We circle some places on the map of literary inspiration that have let poets, writers and travelers inhabit it with their stories and characters; imagined and real.

The Himalayas and the mighty Ganga river have dominated the mindscape of a vast multitude of people for centuries. People come to lose and find themselves in the immense and reverential beauty of the region. In penance and piety, sages and lesser mortals have tapped into founts of inner knowledge and come back forever changed. At Gangotri, we met Swami Sundaranand ji fondly called Clicking Swami for his passion for photography. Stunned by his painstaking efforts and adventurous spirit to capture the glory and document the Himalayas over several decades, we glanced at unimaginable photos of the region across seasons and terrain. His wizened face and light eyes spoke volumes of what he had seen when he first arrived. He dismissed our visit saying, “You have seen nothing… jab main yahan aaya, Gangotri alankrit tha! (When I came here in ’48, Gangotri was a bedecked and bejeweled land. Its beauty dazzled!”

Image

Yet, waking up at the ashram of Mauni Baba (who has taken a vow of silence) to the sight of snow, the Amar Ganga flowing at our feet, mountain goats licking salt off our hands and the Shivling peak towering above, made our arduous trek from Gangotri to Gaumukh and Tapovan feel like a brush with divinity. We couldn’t help but compare the silence of one mystic to the aggrieved curses that leapt off the tongue of another.

One day while going for his morning bath in the Tamasa river, a tributary of the Ganga, Sage Valmiki witnessed a pair of krauncha (Sarus cranes) courting each other. To his horror, the male bird falls to the arrow of a hunter leaving the distraught female flapping her wings and squawking in agony. Moved by her grief, the kind sage utters a spontaneous curse to the hunter in eight-syllabic metre. On regaining composure, the sage meditates on Lord Brahma who explains that the purpose of the incident was to inspire him to write the epic Ramayana for the welfare of mankind in the same anushtup metre. Thus, from shoka (sorrow) was born shloka (verse). Drawing a parallel from the kraunch vadh episode with the separation of Ram and Sita, Valmiki began writing the Ramayana, an epic tale of love and separation. More than anything else, it portrays a deep understanding of birds in ancient India, for today we know that most crane species pair for life.

Image

The story of India’s other great epic, the Mahabharata, is linked to the Vyas Temple in the precincts of Ramnagar Fort. Elaborating on the legend, Pandit Ravi Shankar Pandey told us that Sage Vyas came to Kashi after the Mahabharat war with 18,000 sages in tow. For three days, when they didn’t receive any alms in Benares, an enraged Vyas cursed Kashi as daridra (penniless). Lord Vishwanath objected that no blasphemer had a right to stay in the holy city of Ma Annapoorna, the Goddess of Nourishment. So Vyas gave up Anandvan (as Kashi was called), crossed the Ganga and came to Tapovan on the eastern side. Vyas set up another Kashi, 4km from the fort, called Vyas Kashi. It was here on the sacred banks of the Ganga that he commenced his epic Mahabharat, completing it in Vyas guha at Mana village near Badrinath. Not only did Vyas compile the 18 puranas, he also divided the vedas into four, hence his popular name Veda Vyas (the Dissector of Vedas).

On a bike ride from Goa to Gokarna, we couldn’t stop ourselves from halting every now and then to take in the breathtaking beauty of Karwar coast . The oblique harmony of the casuarina groves, the waves gently lashing on the rocks, a sky painted red by sunset, dolphins leaping in the sea and the almost still waters around our island getaway at Devbagh or stumbling upon private coves in Gokarna were scenes that seemed to capture moments of perfection. Years ago, another young man fell under Karwar’s spell.

Image

Fringed by a forest of casuarinas, broken at one end by the Kali river, the coast was blanketed in a velvet veil. Moonbeams danced on its shimmering waters, the night brooded over motionless forests and the stillness shattered by the sound of oars paddling in the silent stream. A young man rowed the boat, his stupefied eyes taking in the ethereal beauty as he slid to the mouth of the river. It was far into the night, the sea was without a ripple; even the restless murmur of the casuarinas was at rest. As he walked back over the sands, words, phrases, sentences bobbed in his head. On reaching home, he sat at his table and started writing like it was for the very first time…

That 22-year-old man was Rabindranath Tagore, and it was the picturesque town of Karwar that inspired him to write his dramatic poem, Prakritir Pratishodha (Nature’s Revenge), which later became his first play Sanyasi. Tagore visited Karwar in 1882 and stayed with his second brother and district judge Satyendranath Tagore in the bungalow where the Deputy Commissioner’s office now stands. From the literary journey that began in Karwar, Tagore went on to pen several classics and became Asia’s first Nobel laureate.

Tagore dedicated two chapters of his memoirs “My Reminiscences” to this town. Chapter 36 describes his Karwar experience while chapter 37 details how the place enchanted him. This life-changing episode taught him the philosophy of being awed by natural beauty, which formed the central tenet of his literary works. Tagore makes a special mention of Kalinadi River, Sadashivgadh Fort and Karwar beach, duly named after him as Tagore beach. A bust of Tagore at Lighthouse Hill Park (or Tagore Park) bears his literary tribute to Karwar.

The eastern coast is no less inspiring. For Sarojini Naidu, it was the Coromandel Coast that inspired her poem Coromandel Fishers. But there were many other literary gems written here earlier. At its legendary cape, Kanyakumari, we rediscovered stories of patience and longing in the songs of fishermen and the tragic tale of Kumari, the virgin goddess who waited in vain for Lord Shiva to marry her. It was on the same coast at the ancient Chola port of Poompuhar or Kaveripoompattinam where the Cauvery meets the Bay of Bengal, that Jain poet monk Ilango Adigal penned the Tamil epic Silapathikaram or Story of the Anklet.

Image

It traces the journey to the Pandya court of Madurai where the unjust beheading of Kovalan for a theft he did not commit causes his chaste wife Kannagi to wreak havoc upon the kingdom. Madurai was the venue of the great Tamil Sangams or literary conclaves and the Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple occupied a central position. To test the literary weight of their work, authors offered their manuscripts on the Sangapalakai (wooden plank) in the Pottramarai kulam or Golden Lotus tank. Those scholastic works that stayed afloat were considered to be of superior quality, while those that sank were not!

In a famous legend when poet saint Thiruvalluvar offered his masterpiece Thirukkural, the plank remained afloat. So, other jealous writers placed the manuscript on the plank with inferior works. Lo and behold, the plank magically shortened, submerging the other manuscripts till only Thirukkural remained. Valluvar Kottam, a 39m tall stone chariot in Chennai’s Nungambakkam area marks a memorial to Thiruvalluvar with a life-size statue of the saint. A bas relief depicts the 133 chapters while the corridor of the adjoining 4,000-seater auditorium has all 1,330 verses etched on its granite pillars.

Image

After travelling past the dust-ridden roads to discover musical rocks (Tintiniya pathar) and the mystical iconic sculpture Rudra Shiva at Tala, we stopped at Ramgarh in a remote corner of northern Chhattisgarh to visit a cave that was supposedly linked to the epic Ramayana. It is said that cave Sita Bengra was once the refuge of Sita and the clefts in the rock were allegedly the Lakshman rekha, the lines of fire drawn by Lakshman. As we clambered over the rock, we learnt another equally enthralling story. The cave which is also touted as the oldest natyashala (amphitheatre) to be excavated in India, holds the key to a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of India’s greatest Sanskrit poet and playwright, Kalidasa.

Legend has it that Vidyottama, the erudite daughter of a king, had spurned many suitors in her quest for an intelligent match for herself. To avenge the humiliation, people got her married to a goodlooking dimwit, a buffalo herder who was seen cutting the very branch on which he sat. Realizing the trickery, Vidyottamā banishes him and asks him to return only after he acquires true knowledge and the answer to her question Asti Kashchid Vāgārthah (Is there anything special in expression?). Ashamed, the shepherd cuts off his tongue to appease goddess Kali, and is subsequently blessed with wisdom. He adopts the name Kalidasa or the Servant of Kali and returns with a good repartee to his wife’s query. His answer Asti (There is), Kashchit (something) and Vāk (speech) triggers the beginning of his journey with words and the creation of his works Kumārsambhava, Raghuvaṃsa and Meghaduta which open with the same words.

Image

Though Kalidasa is famous as one of the navratnas (nine jewels) in the court of Ujjain, he was banished by the king as both men were in love with the same woman. His wanderings brought him from present-day Madhya Pradesh to the caves of Ramgarh where the lovelorn poet allegedly composed the Meghaduta. The lyrical poem has an autobiographical tone where a Yaksha is expelled from the Himalayan kingdom of Alkapuri by Kubera to the remote hillock of ‘Ramagiri’. After eight months in exile, the Yaksha observes a cloud floating northward and implores it to carry his message to his beloved. Through the Yaksha’s entreaty, Kalidasa describes the scenery and the wonderful cities (Ujjain in particular) the cloud will cross on its aerial route to the Himalayas. The amphitheatre was the venue where the lyric poem was staged for the first time.

From the theatre spaces in Chhattisgarh, we headed south to Kerala, where the sandy banks of the Bharatapuzha or Nila river spawned arts like Kalaripayattu and Bharatnatyam, a dance form codified by Lord Shiva and brought to mankind by Sage Bharata. The 16th century bard Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan, regarded as the father of the Malayalam language, lived and taught his disciples in Tirur. Today, his house has been renovated into a serene oasis of learning and open-air school called Thunchan Memorial.

Image

Following a trip to Kaas plateau, Maharashtra’s valley of flowers, we made an impromptu stop at Satara, where we stumbled upon Sajjangad, the final resting place of 17th century saint and social reformer Swami Samarth Ramdas. This hill tract was once called Ashwalayangarh after the tapobhumi (place of penance) of Ashwalayan muni. When the great Maratha Chhatrapati Shivaji secured the 2000 year-old hill fort Parli kila, he organized a conclave for holy men and requested Swami Samarth Ramdas to set up an ashram there. The sage renamed it Sajjangad or “Fort of Good Men” and composed the Dasbodh, an instructional guide to right action. As children rushed down the steps in wild abandon, old men paused to read the couplets en route to the hill shrine.

Image

More recently, our curiosity to visit Shani Shingnapur near Shirdi, led us to an entire village without front doors that outlined Tagore’s almost utopian concept ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high… Into that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake…’ The people’s unflinching faith in Lord Shani’s protection has enabled them to live without fear of being burgled, robbed or killed! From here, it seemed logical to hop over to Ahmednagar for a quick peek into its famous fort, where the ripples of our Freedom struggle whipped up a storm.

Though the massive fort complex is largely out of bounds to the public, the historic Leaders Block is open to visitors. This was where the British imprisoned Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Govind Vallabh Pant and other prominent national leaders during India’s struggle for independence. It was here in prison that Nehru wrote The Discovery of India, a fitting celebration of this wondrous country and dedicated it to the prisoners of Ahmednagar jail.

India is speckled with such inspiring places and it’s fascinating to learn how they have fired peoples’ imagination to embark on literary and spiritual journeys that further catalyze others in more ways than one. 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of JetWings magazine.