Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Art of Achieving God

It’s the fifth day of the ten day long festival of Hindus – Dashami. Fifteen young men clad in plain vests and towels wrapped around their waists are standing in a line, with closed eyes, bowed heads and hands clasped together to form ‘Namaste’ – greeting God and the spirits wandering in the air. Water droplets trickle down from their wet hair to their eyelids then to their lips. However, their concentration and devotion holds them from moving.

Five old men (gurus) are seated in front of these men performing ‘Puja’ – worship. A clay water pot filled with water is held on a mound of sand with freshly grown barley sprouts on it. The barley saplings will be picked on the tenth day to perform the concluding worship. The clay pot has a mango branch with freshly sprouted leaves. On top of the mango leaves is a husked coconut splashed with red vermillion. At the side of the clay pot is a piece of burning dung cake with pieces of pine wood on it and an array of oil lamps burning at their brightest. The room is filled with aroma, smoke, incense and chant of mantras.

Starting at a Young Age
The disciples are aged between 18 to 22 years of age. The learning starts at an early age, when the mind is fearless, innocent and empty for intake of vast ocean of knowledge. They are provided a set of mantras by the gurus. Then they keep on chanting the same set of mantras throughout the morning till spirits enter the young men’s bodies. They are the inviting mantras – to call different gods and goddesses to possess the person. Till the spirits enter the young men’s bodies, they keep on standing chanting the mantras.

Power of Possession
After much persuasion and chanting, the spirits enter their bodies. They start mumbling and jumping here and there with all their efforts as soon as the spirits enter their bodies. Then gurus on the front row ask them to take the tulsi (a medicinal plant) leaves and tell their names. After much cajoling and a show of might and prowess, the spirits reveal their names. In the meantime a huge mass of people gather to watch the sight and worship the gods and goddesses.

Ram Kumar has been possessed by Goddess Kali, an incarnation of Goddess Durga – the Goddess of power. He takes out his tongue in between his show of might and glory. Similarly, one of the disciples has been possessed by Hanuman – the monkey god who is loyal guard of Lord Ram. He jumps here and there and acts like a monkey, hangs here and there and shows the power of the monkey god. Kamal has been possessed by Aghouri – one who eats everything. He spits and then eats. He takes the tulsi leaves from the gurus, chews it and spits it in front of the gurus. He slurps the chewed leaves spit by him. And all the people gathered there are surprised when he spits back the whole tulsi leaf! Such is the power of possession.

I had a chance to interview some of them when they were resting after their morning worship which lasted till the noon. “I don’t feel any pain at all when I am possessed by the spirits,” says Ram Kumar. “Only after the spirit leaves my body I feel the pain caused by the might of the magical show that I put after the possession.”

“I don’t even eat meat and egg when I am not possessed by the spirit, but I eat everything as soon as the Aghouri gets inside me,” says Kamal. “I am myself surprised when people say that I can spit back the whole tulsi leaf that had been chewed to pieces by me.”

Search of a Kingfisher
Every morning and evening the same sight of chants of mantras and possession by spirits take place till the tenth day. During the ten days’ span, the disciples learn different mantras to cure different illnesses and techniques to deal with the evil spirits.

On the tenth day, the whole coterie starts early in the morning with the beating of mridanga – a drum and cymbals. They start from the place of worship and get to a nearby pond. The disciples possessed by spirits start splashing in the cool waters and the gurus perform the concluding puja.

Then the group sets of in search of a kingfisher which is regarded as the incarnation of Lord Shiva, the god who drank all the poison that erupted from the milking of ocean by gods and demons. Due to the poison his neck turned blue, so he got the name, Nilkantha – one with a blue neck. So has been the kingfisher named after its dark blue neck. Sighting a kingfisher on the tenth day of the festival is taken as an auspicious sign for the whole year. The young men and gurus enjoy and revel to their hearts after a glimpse of a kingfisher.

Making of godmen
After the ten days’ learning, the young men will be in constant vigil of the gurus and they will be taken as assistants in the early errands to drive the evil spirits and curing illnesses. In the process they will learn the traditional medicinal knowledge. The gurus will reveal the secrets of herbs from the forests nearby. They will learn the drug administration as well. In the coming days they will learn more mantras to cure more illnesses. And they will devote more time in dedicating their lives for the betterment of the society. They will be respected everywhere they will go. They will have to sacrifice their personal lives and be ready to visit any ill person in the community even at the middle of the night. The process of being a godman is not so easy...

Bioscope, Bakal and Scattered Saffron

As the evening draws towards night, the sight in the western skies always haunts me. The big red ball of sun sinking slowly down the skyline turning the sky, clouds and ambience red brings back the vivid memories of my childhood. When I was a little kid, every item in the neigbourhood was a mystery for me and I searched reasons behind its existence.

Every morning, the bamboo twigs were my tooth brush and I used to gulp down the juices from chewing the twig. The height of bamboos always was a wonder to me and I used to think how the bamboos became so tall.

The daytime was bliss to me. With the hawkers coming in the village to sell the hard boiled red sweets and ice cream sticks. As I heard the tinkling of the small bells that they had, I used to run with a handful of rice from the barn and savor the taste of success – eating the sweets stealthily. I always imagined of installing a machine to manufacture those goodies at my backyard!

Another big crowdpuller was the bioscope man. At the time when there were no cinema halls and theatres, they were the entertainers in the villages. A two minutes trip with the bioscope man would take you around Delhi, Mumbai, Kathmandu, and London. To watch the magnificence of the cities through the binocular vision with the background singing of the bioscope man was the much coveted yearning I had in those days. I would wait weeks for the bioscope man with crumpled two rupee note hidden between the pages of my shabby notebook. I wondered how the bioscope man was able to get such big cities inside a little tinderbox!

As I returned from the village school and had my lunch, I used to wait for the man I adored – a man from Bakal – a village in the far north eastern reaches of the district. I thought Bakal was in another part of the world and this poor man took so many days to walk down to our village. His feet were torn to shreds with the walking. He usually brought the needles, sewing strings, ayurvedic medicines, rock salts and saffron. At the end of his deal with my grandmother, he always used to give me a lump of rock salt. That piece of rock used to be my special possession for the weeks to come – exchanging a pinch of it with other goodies from my friends used to be a real exchange for me.

As a little kid, sitting on my grandmother’s lap, I used to listen to the fairy tales and the stories of kings, gods and witches. The world of kings, gods and witches seemed real to me and the characters in the stories came live every night in my dreams.

When the man from Bakal didn’t turn up for few months I asked everyone about him. And to my despair, my grandmother turned to the evening sky and asked me why the colour of the sky was red. I was speechless when she said that the man had died on his journey and the saffron in his jute bag had scattered throughout the western skies.

To this day the red sky in the west brings back the memories of the bioscope, the man from Bakal and his scattered saffron in the western skies!

On the banks of Khando

It was the seventh day of Dashami (the greatest Hindu festival), the day preceding the sacrifice of animals to Durga, the Goddess of Power. The incessant rains had stopped and the sky was partly clear with patches of black clouds hovering, signalling the rains still to come. Among the clouds peeked the moon, gaining its full form day by day for the coming full moon day. The entire village slept in serenity. Bamboo leaves swayed to the light breeze and bats moved stealthily in search of prey. An owl hooted in the distance. The banks of river Khando were dry and the sands glistened silver in the partial moonlight. Recent floods had brought more alluvial soil, and the banks had widened, the sands scrubbed clean. A crab crawled towards the receding water.

Two lights flickered at a distance, approaching the bank from the village one and half kilometres away. The glow became more visible and as they approached the bank, the silhouettes of two women could be seen. They carried small earthen oil lamps on their heads. They were clad in white saris, their faces veiled. Suddenly silence swept over the scene. The crickets’ chirping stopped, and it seemed as if the wind itself had stilled. The women put down the lamps on the bank and started dancing. The wind gusted again and the flames in the lamps flared. They danced and danced, till they were tired to the bones. Faces etched with worry and anxiety, they sank to the sands. They seemed to be waiting for something, somebody. The younger woman’s face glistened with fear, the older woman trembled. In the darkness of the night, they had only each other. The older woman’s tattoos, around her forearms, legs and chest, looked as if she was wearing long gloves, socks and blouse. Indigenous people believe that since a woman takes nothing with her after dying, the tattoos are her only companion from this world to the next. The younger woman wore heavy kadas (bracelet like ornament worn around the foot near ankle) of silver.

Time crept towards morning The two women could wait no longer. They whispered among themselves and the younger woman went nearer to the river water. She trampled on the fresh deposits of alluvial soil, searching for something. The older woman pointed to a spot nearer to the bank. The younger woman reached the point and took out a khurpa (a small digging tool) from the folds of her clothes. It seemed she had recognized the place. Then she started digging furiously. As deeper she went, her pace slowed. And when the thing she was digging for appeared, mixed feelings of anguish and victory appeared on her face. She was perspiring heavily. She took out the bundle and hugged it tightly in her arms. She started crying, and would not stop. The older woman came near her and consoled her. Then they took something from the bundle - a baby boy! The child was of around seven months. The corpse had not decayed, but the flesh had lost its lustre. It was white and numb. Ants had started their work and had eaten a large chunk of flesh on the back and the ears. The women brought the baby near the lamp and started massaging him with the oil from the lamp.

Then all of sudden, five boys appeared from nowhere. One of them took away the baby. Four boys seized the women and dragged them towards the village. The older woman was stronger than the boys - she escaped from their hold and ran away towards the river. crossing the stream and darting into the darkness.

It was around three in the morning. A huge crowd had gathered in the village chautari (the village meeting place). They had hung a lantern on the branch of the peepal tree, and in its light the young woman wept by the side of the dead baby. The people gathered were furious - some even tried to manhandle the woman. The village elders were calmer and tried to sort out the problem. The woman was made to speak out the truth. Her name was Palti, aged just 20. This baby was her own child, her first child. It had died of pneumonia seven days ago. Her husband had been to Malaysia to earn money to take them out of penury. The older woman was her mother-in-law, whom the villagers accused of being a witch. And now they were accusing Palti of learning witchcraft by sacrificing her first born baby. However, her side of story was totally different. She named five people of the village as witch-doctors, who had promised her and her mother-in-law that they could bring back her child from the grasp of death. The women had just followed what they had been told to do. But they were caught in the act by the young boys, who had been deputed by those same witch-doctors.

The villagers searched high and low for the five men, but they were nowhere to be found. Word had spread, and lots of people from neighbouring villages poured in. It was like a mela (village fete). Some were demanding that she be punished, some were asking that the witch-doctors be found and punished. Some even insisted she be hung. Finally, a document was prepared, stating that Palti would not be involved in witchcraft from now-on-wards, and also listing the names of five absconding witch-doctors. A little black ink was applied to her right and left thumbs and she put her thumb-prints on the paper as she was an illiterate.

A night of excitement and hope, a night of anxiety and a night of despair. She cried relentlessly, her eyes red, but there was nobody to console her, nobody to empathize. At home again, she fed the newly born calf and the two little kids born to her favourite goat. She closed the doors of her room and put on the heavy latch. She had so much to say - to her husband, to her mother-in-law who had run away, to her baby who was reburied in the sands of Khando and to all her loved ones in her maiti (maternal home). She would have written a whole book had she been able to. Quietly, she moved around the room and prayed to the gods looking down from the picture frames on the walls. Then she took out a small bottle from the cupboard, looked at it carefully and downed its contents in one gulp. Within minutes, she was dead.