Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Smoking Statue of Jodhpur - India Truly Incredible

A gentleman dressed in a suit has clambered up the platform next to this stately statue. The garlanded statue is resplendent in military regalia and a billowing robe. The gentleman lights up a cigarette and holds – yes, it is unbelievable but true – the lighted cigarette to the mouth of the statue. The statue seems to inhale and then lets out a puff of smoke. Few more puffs and the cigarette is gingerly placed in the fingers of the statue’s hanging right hand. I am witnessing another chapter being written in the book of incredibly astounding India.

I am in Jodhpur on the last leg of my solo Great Thar Desert Road Trip through the state of Rajasthan. The plan is to go see the Mandore Gardens and then to devote the second half to the ultimate fort of Mehrangarh.

Musahib-i-Ala of Jodhpur State, Lieutenant-General His Highness Maharajadhiraja Maharaja Shri Sir Pratap Singh Sahib Bahadur (1845-1922), Kacheri Bhawan, Jodhpur, Rajasthan

It is early morning and I stop at a gate with a great red edifice rising just beyond. Jodhpur has everything built of red sandstone, just like Jaisalmer is entirely built of yellow sandstone. There is a smattering of wooden kiosks christened with names of lawyers indicating that I have entered court premises.
Kacheri Bhawan, Jodhpur, Rajasthan
The elegant and magnificent edifice just beyond, with the tricolour fluttering on top, reels me in.  The building with a royal demeanour looks like a palace. The grand porch in the centre is crowned with imposing chattris (pavilions) and a dome.
The Smoking Statue - Incredible India
I arrive at the porch. Wait a minute – am I really seeing this? India often throws surprises but this is something so outlandish that my sleepy eyes pop out. I watch the scene bewildered, rooted to the spot even as few locals on their morning walk, pause, bow their heads in reverence and amble away; as if it is another normal morning ritual.

After the smoking session, the gentleman offers flowers at the feet of the garlanded statue, lights up a bundle of incense sticks and then murmurs a prayer worshipping the statue. A fire on the pedestal completes the picture of a deity you would normally see in a temple.
Maharaja Sir Pratap Singh, Idar, Gujarat

Shri Sumer Singhji Sahib Bahadur, Maharaja of Jodhpur (left) with Sir Pratap Singhji, Maharaja of Idar and Regent of Jodhpur

I find my voice finally. It seems I am committing blasphemy asking these questions. In between the rituals, the gentleman provides some answers. This is Mr. Sampat who has been offering cigarettes and worshipping the statue twice daily for the past twenty years. Why these rituals and this worship and there are no clear answers. It is apparent that the man carved in stone is a revered personality and his actions are worthy of worship.
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I have found out in the past few days that the royalty in Rajasthan is held in high esteem; revered and worshipped like Gods. At the Bada Bagh royal cenotaphs in Jaisalmer, I had seen Maharawal Girdhar Singh being worshipped by the resident woman priest with a constant stream of devotees paying obeisance. In a country where we worship millions of Gods, an assortment of plants and animals, and cricketers; we still keep looking to add to the list.

Today, I am standing in the porch of the Kacheri Bhawan, currently housing Rajasthan’s High Court, which was built in 1897 during the regency of Musahib-i-Ala of Jodhpur State, Lieutenant-General His Highness Maharajadhiraja Maharaja Shri Sir Pratap Singh Sahib Bahadur (1845-1922) whose statue is still holding the burning cigarette. 

Sir Pratap Bahadur

Sir Pratap Bahadur was a career British Indian army officer and the third son of Maharaja of Jodhpur. Sir Pratap was also the Maharaja of princely state of Idar, in present day Gujarat, which was once part of Rajputana before independence. The Maharajadhiraja, an embodiment of a Rajput Prince, served four rulers of Jodhpur as Chief Minister and Regent. He raised and trained an elite Cavalry Regiment popularly known as Jodhpur Lancers. Later he abdicated his Idar throne in favour of his adopted son and nephew. It is quite apparent that the handsome soldier-prince’s life is a story of magnanimous service and sacrifice.
Anecdotes illustrate the colourful life of Sir Pratap. Upon arriving in London once, he was told that rooms were booked for him and his entourage in a hotel. He promptly goes to Buckingham Palace to meet with the Queen. The Secretary of the Queen asks him what the matter is. Sir Pratap replies, “When Queen visits Jodhpur, where would she stay – in the palace or a hotel? Sir Pratap promptly got an invitation to stay in the Buckingham Palace.

Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur wearing the Jodhpur breeches

A favourite of Queen Victoria, he threatened to protest at the doorsteps of the Viceroy if he was not permitted to serve in the war, eventually getting decorated extensively in the battle fields of Afghanistan, China, France, Flanders and Palestine. Even at the ripe age of seventy years, true to his martial traditions of loyalty, he insisted on serving the Empire in the Great War by leading his cavalry unit armed with only swords and lances in the Middle East; in the process covering his regiment with glory. He led India’s first polo team to compete abroad and made Jodhpur breeches, the special riding trousers, popular across the world. At home he continued to provide unstinting support and guidance to the Jodhpur state as Chief Adviser and Regent.

The best known and most popular Indian of his day who had ballads dedicated to him, the battle-hardened swashbuckling warrior, now wants to reminisce about his colourful and fulfilling life in his golden years. The man who worships him daily understands that. There is no better way for the grand old man of Indian Polo than to deeply fill the lungs with the silken acrid smoke to puff it out and watch the swirling smoke create a collage of past wonder years.


Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Ephemeral Cheery Cherry Blossoms

Kohima Delight: Of Cherry Blossoms at Catholic Cathedral

“Are these Cherry Blossoms?” I blurt out to nobody in general. The pink jewel like flowers adorning the branches of this tall tree have left me stunned. Transfixed to the spot, I stand with my mouth agape.

A mother-son duo is passing by. The little kid is bouncing along; like kids do, instead of walking.

“Yes, they are Cherry Blossoms!” The toddler chirps with a twinkle in his eyes. The mother smiles proudly.

The Ephemeral Cherry Blossoms of Kohima
Now I am smiling too. For a minute, I take my eyes off the jewel studded tree and shake hands with the little guy. It is my first day in Northeast India and I am already in love with the beautiful and smiling people. The mother and her son walk away, waving at me as their smiles light up this beautiful crisp winter day.

This is the beauty of India. You can prepare as much as you want, but there are always pleasant surprises that no amount of research can ever prepare you for. All I remember is seeing some photos of the beautiful Cherry Blossoms or Sakura flowers of Japan. Kohima has a painful association with Japan when some of the fiercest battles were fought during World War II between British India and Japanese troops right here in the hills. Today, I just found the most beautiful association. The cherry flowers seem to be Nature’s way of applying a soothing balm on the now healing wounds. 
The Twinkling Stars - Cherry Blossoms
The Catholic Cathedral of Kohima, Nagaland
To this day, I am still bewildered, how my brain was able to dig out the name of these glorious flowers from the deep recesses within, when the only flowers I can possibly identify are the roses! Maybe that is the magic the blossoms cast on the onlookers. I am walking from the Minister Hill to the Aradura Hill that houses the grand Catholic Cathedral when I encounter my first cherry tree and the kid. Little distance away, the church premises have more cherry trees blossoming. 

Britain says that in the history of British Army, the greatest battles of WWII were fought right here in Kohima and Imphal during the spring of 1944. Walking on the Aradura Spur today, I can only imagine the scenes of bravery and horror that were played out and inflicted upon. Thankfully, the guns have fallen silent now. The pleasant looking imposing Cathedral is built in the traditional Naga style and is the main Church of Nagaland. At sixteen feet, the crucifix carved out of wood is India’s biggest crucifix. The church commemorates the fallen soldiers during the battles. An inscription here says that the church has been built with the contribution of Japanese survivors and bereaved families who lost their loved ones during the spring of 1944.
The Cathedral during the blue hours
Today the church premises resemble a wonderland. Set against the cobalt blue skies are the pink jewels shimmering in the sun’s rays. It is not easy looking up the cherry trees so I lie down on the embankment to better admire nature’s miracles. Now that I realise, I haven’t seen such blue skies in a long while. Delhi gets such skies maybe five times a year while for the rest of the year they remain grey and forbidding. But then Delhi has its own flowery marvels when you discovered the evanescent Silk Floss flowers last autumn.
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The smile continues to play on my face. The gentle sun’s rays dance through the swaying branches as I am treated to a celestial event. The flowers high up don several avatars; sometimes they look like jewels and pink snowflakes and then they twinkle like stars.

In Japan, the Sakura (Prunus serrulata) blooms in April for about two weeks. The entire country waits for the whole year looking forward to the annual spectacle.  And when the trees finally bloom, Japanese families gather around the Sakura trees to participate in an ancient ritual called Hanami, which basically means flower watching. Here in Kohima, the cherry tree is a deciduous tree (Prunus cerasoides) which is found in Himalayas and Southeast Asia and flowers in autumn and winters. To me the flowering time seems to be perfect as it coincides with the Hornbill Festival which starts the next day. I will soon discover that the Hornbill Festival, just like these cherry blossoms, is nothing like I have ever witnessed before.

Below the pink cherry blossoms, the red and vivacious poinsettias smile in their full glory. God has intended my first day in Northeast to be full of wonderment. After soaking in the cherry blossoms, I walk around the lawns of the church. The maintenance is immaculate and it seems there is an entire world of flowers here. Tomorrow, Kohima will treat me to more cherry blossoms at the WWII Cemetery and in Kisama.

Up here, on top of the Kohima city, away from the noise and dust, it is absolute bliss. Tiptoeing around the beds of flowers I am reminded of the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. Fresh looking pink and white cosmos flowers seem to be basking in the soft sun. First it was stars on the trees and now among the cosmos flowers, I seem to be walking in the cosmos itself. The contrast of the tender cosmoses with the vibrant poinsettias is breathtaking.
The City of Kohima spread on the hills
Walking around the Church I come to the edge of the hill. Another exhilarating scene comes into view - Kohima city is spread out below.  This is surreal. Descending rows of flowers seem to meet the city just beyond. The views, the blue skies and the cherry blossoms all combine to give me the delicious feeling that I have ascended into the heavens. This is the place to enjoy the evening and see the sun go down. 

Evening comes early in Northeast. The western skies are inundated with clouds that change their shapes even as the skies take on different hues every passing minute. Every sunset offers two views: one view is looking towards the red ball of Sun sinking into the ground and the other view is right behind as the landscape gets doused in the golden colour with Midas busy touching and turning everything into molten gold. Another wonderful day is coming to an end in this ephemeral life.

Cherry Blossoms, while exhilarating us with their sublime beauty, also teach us something profound. Cherry Blossoms are known to be ephemeral and transient. They teach us that things in our lives that we take for granted are essentially transient. We might think we are immortal but we are not. We get arrogant with the seemingly perpetual love, wealth or power we possess but just like the cherry blossoms, our lives and everything around us, is in fact, fleeting and deciduous.  Our lives are unpredictable – one moment we could be like the cherry trees, beautiful and abundant and next instance we could be forlorn and sparse. Let us live our lives to the fullest, sparkle like the stars and jewels and show people around us our inner beauty and humanness. When we are gone, like the cherry blossoms petals spread on the path, we will be remembered for our goodness and beauty and people will long to meet us and see us, in the next year and in the next life.
A version of the story appeared in the December 2016 issue of magazine Discover India's Northeast

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Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Sanapur Lake - A Visual Wonderland

The incredible pre-historic art of Onake Kindi is still playing in your mind as we make our way through paddy fields and banana orchards. The setting sun has doused the loose boulder hills with gold in Anegundi. Muniswamy, your guide and driver for the day, has planned another surprise for you. It was in Anegundi that the story of one of the greatest kingdoms, the Vijaynagar Empire, began and whose well-known evocative ruins in the village of Hampi across the Tungabhadra River brings in the tourists. But it is here in Anegundi that real surprises await the traveller.

The Atmospheric Sanapur Lake near Anegundi, Karnataka
And then you hear the water sloshing. We are driving along an embankment when a wave crashes over the wall and splashes the motor cycle rider in front! After walking through episodes of Ramayana, pre-historic men and ancient history now is the time for some R&R. Has Muniswamy brought you to sea-side in the middle of boulder strewn hills in Central Karnataka?

Climbing the embankment, you are greeted with the most incredulous sight. Gently lapping waves catch the hues of the setting sun. Similar looking boulder hills in the distance create a scintillating setting that you have grown to love around Anegundi. Tungabhadra River that meanders around the boulders, creating picture post-card scenes at every bend, was the only water body you had seen here. Tucked out of sight among the hills is the Sanapur Lake, created by the reservoir of Tungabhadra Left Canal. The scenes are to die for – on one side is the golden sunset over water and on the other side rolling paddy fields with the boulders forming a common brilliant backdrop.

Sanapur Lake, Anegundi
The road further up winds around big irregular shaped boulders lining both sides of the road. Warnings are painted on the rocks prohibiting visitors from swimming – there could be crocodiles in the waters! At this point the lake flows downstream through a barrage. The road going to Rangapur village continues ahead and soon disappears among the boulders.

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You are in a visual wonderland. Every way you look, the sun, the waters, the boulders merge to create a harmonious alliance. You are in the middle of a visual symphony that changes colour and form every minute. Wonderstruck you sit on a boulder as the visual strains fill the evening sky. The water has turned into molten gold. All around it is supremely peaceful and serene. There is just the sound of lapping water and a divine setting for company. This is not the world you come from.  This is the time when the mind goes silent on its own and nature takes over.

Few locals have arrived for fishing. Downstream, amid the upturned coracles, the indigenous contraptions used as boats, lines are cast with live worms as bait. You are reeled in by the unfolding scenes. Humans have entered the orchestra of nature. The symphony is in its third movement form.

The excitement levels are just going up a notch. In the eastern sky, the moon has tiptoed into the symphony. Things are rapidly turning even more wondrous. The lake in the west is golden while the stream in the east is turning silvery.  Elements are entering the symphony even as it reaches its last movement to a triumphant finale. You are witnessing a glorious evening in your favourite village of Anegundi.

The evening darkens. It is time to say good bye to Sanapur and Anegundi.  You feel a connection to Anegundi and its times from mythology to present times. Anegundi is a wish fulfilled that was never wished for. You look up to the sky to say thanks. Wait a minute – is that a shooting star? This is the magic of Anegundi – the wish gets fulfilled even before asked for.  

Getting There: Anegundi is across the Tungabhadra River from Hampi, the site of evocative ruins of the glorious Vijaynagar Empire. Sanapur is about nine kms from Anegundi on the way to Hospet in Karnataka.

The story appeared in the December 2016 issue of Rail Bandhu, the on-board magazine of Indian Railways

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