Tuesday, 16 October 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...

Monday, 1 October 2007

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!