Two gifted fans of India team up to bring us a glimpse of Bharat Mata’s specialness. Photographer Saahil Rahman’s aerial photos can be seen at photogrist.com/india-saahil-rahman and Anuradha Goyal’s amazing collection of India stories can be found at www.inditales.com
The Poem Called India
INDIA IS A CLASSIC POEM THAT REFUSES TO age—an eternal poem. It is a living, breathing poetry, a poetry that thrives amidst its chaotic diversity, amidst the layers and layers of cultures it wears, living within geographical boundaries defined ages ago. Political boundaries have changed a million times and would keep changing, but the boundaries of India and its consciousness are defined in its scriptures, with Himalayas in the North and the Indian Ocean in the South. It neither expands beyond nor shrinks within these limits. It is a space holding the meditative energies of thousands of years of seekers who chose to live in its mountains, forests and on its riverbanks.
Be a bird or a cloud à la “Meghdoot,” the classic poem of poet Kalidasa, and see India from that perspective. In “Meghdoot” a lovelorn Yaksha sends a message to his beloved wife in the city of Alkapuri, somewhere deep in the Himalayas, from the hills of Ramtek in central India through a traveling cloud, just before the beginning of the monsoons. Lovelorn, he tells the cloud what to see as it travels to his beloved. He talks about the landscapes the cloud will see, the hills, rivers, flowers, the flora and fauna. He tells the cloud about the cities like Ujjain where opulence is the norm and the forest people living on the path to Ujjain. It is as if the Yaksha himself is traveling back through that path, even if just in his imagination.
A first glance from the sky would show India wrapped in a soft cover of sand and snow, with hills creating the folds that hold the forests where the likes of lions, tigers, elephants and rhinoceros roam free with herds of deer jumping around playing hide and seek with them. A narrow strip of sand surrounds the peninsula along its long coastline. The Thar desert in the Northwest entices with its mystical vistas full of sand dunes. Somewhere right in the central part, a fossil park holds memories of the time this land was a part of Gondwanaland, and the forests here hold sand beneath their greenery.
The Himalayas sit like a snow-capped crown on the head of India. Its glaciers give birth to the many rivers running through the plains, including the most revered ones—Ganga, Yamuna and Sindhu. So do the other hills, be it Vindhyas of central India, Kodugu Hills in the South or Sahayadris in the West. The place where the rivers originate becomes a pilgrimage; the place where they meet and become one becomes a pilgrimage; and finally, when they merge with the ocean on either side, that too becomes a pilgrimage. Rivers are like the veins in the body of India; they circulate waters that have nurtured civilizations on their banks since ages, just like the blood nurtures our bodies. The only other thing that competes with the rivers running across the country are the railway tracks, the world’s fourth most extensive, passing through tunnels cutting across hills, connecting shores with bridges and literally mapping the whole of India with train station codes.
Along the Gandaki River that borders Nepal and India, single horned rhinos that get their local name, “gainda,” from the river roam around freely, as they do in the tall grass of Kaziranga in Assam, surrounded by the vast expanses of tea gardens that help Indians wake up every day. In the waters of Ganga and Chambal rivers live the river dolphins, ghariyals—the national aquatic animals of India. Along the banks of Narmada, pilgrims can be seen walking with the river to their right, circumambulating on foot all 1,740 miles of it.
Rivers & Forests
IN THE FORESTS OF CENTRAL INDIA, rivers like the Denwa and Panna are favorite places to spot tigers coming to quench their thirst. In the jungles of Pench, the stories of Mowgli and Shera come alive. Ganga near Rishikesh is home to herds of elephants, just as Teesta nurtures them on its banks in the foothills of eastern Himalayas.
At the given celestial positions, Kumbh Mela that repeat every 12 years, the biggest-ever gathering of human race takes place at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna at Prayagraj. It also happens at Haridwar where Ganga enters the plains, on the banks of Kshipra in Ujjain that is the zero meridian of India, and on the banks of Godavari in Nasik. The rest of the year the ghats of rivers at divine places like Ganga at Haridwar and Varanasi, Yamuna at Mathura, Narmada at Omkareshwar and Maheshwar and Godavari at Nasik are buzzing with activity as pilgrims come and pray. On days like Kartik Purnima, which comes a fortnight after Diwali, pilgrims take holy dip in all the sacred water bodies across the country. The world’s largest camel fair takes place close to the holy Pushkar lake in the city of Brahma.
If one were to zoom in a bit, the small Kathkuni temples, with alternate panels of stone and wood and slanted roofs in slate stone, dot the foothills of Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. They are abodes of Deities sitting on hilltops, overlooking the regions they protect. A million streams here join to form rivers like Sutlej and Beas. The high lakes like Chandratal in Lahaul or Nako in Spiti seem like they have descended from the heavens. They tell you a million stories of mystics who lived on their banks and shepherds who come every summer with their sheep.
In the Thar desert of Rajasthan, home to the favorite stone of modern-day builders—white marble and yellow Jaisalmer stone—the hill forts seem to rise out of the sand, matching its golden color, with camels roaming around joining the color scheme. The world’s second and third largest walls surround and secure the forts of Kumbhalgarh and Amer. Inside the forts, the colorful wall murals create a mélange that makes you feel royal the instant you step inside. Staying in some of the palaces-turned-hotels is living the true-blue royal lives of Rajasthan royalty.
Ornate bowls smiling from the surface of Rajasthan and Gujarat, resplendent in their symmetric and geometric steps, with stories of scriptures adorning the walls all around are the famous stepwells. These stepwells made life possible in areas with no natural source of water and limited rainfall. Some of them, like Rani ki Vav in Patan that extends seven storeys below the ground, give you the impression they are leading you to the world below, or maybe inside the womb of the earth.
Winding Our Way South
IMAGINE THE TRAVELERS SEATED ON the roadside to rest for a while, or women in their colorful Odhnis sitting after a day’s work to chat and rest before collecting water. The Ajanta caves hold 2000-year-old paintings telling stories of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Ellora caves hold the biggest engineering wonder of India, a monolithic temple carved from top to bottom, scooping out mountain granite that was not needed. Look at it and wonder when, where and how did we lose our ancestors’ knowledge?
While most of the temples in North India were lost to various invasions, the temples of Khajuraho survived to give us a glimpse of royal temples as they existed over 1,000 years ago. They try to recreate the Kailash Parvat or Mount Kailash with the cascading North Indian Nagara style shikharas, a style that is seen across North India and peaks in the temples of Odisha. The city of stones with hundreds of Hindu and Jain temples has many stories to tell. Best known for the erotic sculptures on the outer walls, they are poetry in stone with a rhythm of music in its folds. A little to the east, the thick forests of Dandakaranya find a mention in Ramayana, and even today you can see the tribal communities here worshiping trees with reverence deep inside dense forests.
The current state of Bihar, the land of Sita in Ramayana and Buddha in our age, holds the stories of enlightenment of Buddha under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. Nearby are the brick-red ruins of Nalanda University, from the glorious days when it attracted students from across the world, including XuanZang, whose memorial can be seen there. The quaint villages of Madhubani can be recognized from a distance with their painted walls of each house, an art form that has traveled from the dusty lanes of this rural outpost to galleries around the world.
One can follow a monsoon cloud as it starts from the southern tip of India in Kerala at the peak of summer season in June and slowly moves north, soaking the parched lands desperately waiting for them to rain.
In Kerala, you see the thousand shades of green almost challenging your eyes to count the colors, if you can—from the light green of a fresh banana plant to the dark green of a pepper vine wrapped around coconut trees. This is the land of spices, be it the black pepper for which traders landed on India’s shores since ages, or the cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves. The lush green forests are full of elephants, and domisticated elephants come together to celebrate the big temple festivals. The water channels of the backwaters of the Arabian sea crisscross this land, like the no man’s land between the sea and the Indian peninsula. In the middle of the monsoons, men and women take out their long, narrow snake boats to race in the backwaters as part of the Jalotsava or the Water Festivals of the temples here, cutting through the waters celebrating the monsoons. Wooden temples tell these tales on the dark wood panels that looked soaked in coconut oil.
A little eastwards, in the Tamil country, live the biggest and probably the oldest poetry in stone. You are spoilt for choice, where to look and zoom in between Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram, Thanjavur, Srirangam and Chidambaram. A shore temple stands almost at the eastern edge, overlooking the waters of the Bay of Bengal—looking at its sister temples beneath the waters, surrounded by the five Ratha shrines named after the five Pandavas, a phenomenon that repeats across the landscape of India. It is an effort to take the eyes off the sculpted wall called Arjuna’s Penance or the Krishna’s butter ball, but then you must look at the tall colorful gopurams of Shiva and Shakti temples trying to pierce the sky. Srirangam, the largest living Hindu temple complex in the world, has 21 soaring gopurams surrounding its seven walls, almost a living city.
Each temple contains wall after wall full of stories. Every little detail about the sculptures has a meaning for the one who understands. The bodies, human or divine, are sculpted with perfection that is hard to believe—as you stand before them, you wonder if they will start speaking. They do speak: they tell you tales of their times—the exquisite jewelry, the fine clothing, the elaborate hairdos and fashionable footwear all take you back to their times. Deities sit on their vehicles holding their icons, ready to interact with you, bless you or just let you know they are there with you, within you. Tales from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata adorn the temple walls, no matter which part of India you are in. Ram Setu, an umbilical cord that still joins the island of Sri Lanka to India, is seen at the narrowest distance between the two.
From the coffee country in Coorg flows the river Cauvery, nourishing the southern peninsula on its way to the Bay of Bengal. The fabled kingdom of Mysore, still famous for its Dussehra festival, once flourished on its banks. In the Chalukyan land of North Karnataka, you can see the laboratories where temple carving was taught in Aihole, close to the almond-colored caves of Badami and the unique architecture of the temples of Pattadakal.
Not too far from there are the ruins of the majestic and royal city of Hampi of the Vijayanagara empire, probably the most beautiful ruins that you can see of one of the richest cities the world has seen. Nearby, the Godavari meanders through the rice fields of Andhra. The river Krishna nurtures the red hot chilies of Guntur, witness to ancient Amaravati that has resurfaced as the latest new city on the landscape. And in Odisha, Vishnu lives as Jagannath, surrounded by another set of exquisitely carved temples, caves amidst the artist who paint lovely stories. The Konark Sun temple still maintains its chariot shape, with well-carved wheels on all sides, even in its ruined state.
Move up to Bengal, where in the absence of any stone, artisans baked the stories in terracotta tablets for the temple walls, desperate to ensure that the stories are not lost to the next generations. The same stories are picked up by the weavers to weave on the famous Baluchari and Swarnachari sarees. The rustic, hauntingly divine Baul music can be heard in the lanes of small towns and villages here, including Shanti Niketan, the university founded by Rabindranath Tagore.
Sun temples at Modhera in the West, Konark in the East, and some in the northern hills whisper of the glorious days of sun worship, the one who provides rhythm to our lives with its cycle of day and night. In the heart of India is Naimishararnya, the forest mentioned in every Indian scripture as the abode of sages, where the scriptures were discussed, debated, shared and written. Here you can still find the trees that probably listened to them, a pilgrimage for anyone on the path of Dharma.
Finally, India as consciousness still lives in the villages that are scattered across the country, villages with lotus ponds, cattle sheds, platforms beneath ancient trees and where life is simple and elements of nature remain sacred.
Like Martin Luther King said—“To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.” Yes, here is a country where every hill, every stone, every river, every lake is divine, and every traveler a pilgrim.