Adivasi and the fulfilment of life


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"Women in tribal village, Umaria district, India" by Yann (talk) - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

“Women in tribal village, Umaria district, India” by Yann (talk) – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

We all long for fulfilment, we all seek some promise in our life. To enjoy a spiritual transcend our selves.

So religions offer their own answers and paths, but liberation and accomplishment have both sacred and profane dimensions. Adivasi meaning is linked inextricably to the land. Whether racially proto-Austaloid (Munda, Uraon, Ho, Gond, Khond etc, Himalayan Mongoliod, Negroid of Karela or the Andamanese Islands, the Adivasi people long for the land that is both critical for their existence and their spiritual encounter with the supernatural. Without land the Adivasi do not exist. They are linked to the land, and for many tribes state of Jharkhand offered some hope and challenge to make sat-patt- raji a concrete manifestation for their people and the afterlife or parum disum or merkha (heaven). Jharkhand mean “forest tract” and was carved from Bihar, after 50 years of agitation across areas that included districts of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. The Adivasi value simplicity, truthfulness, contentment, hard work, hospitality, generosity, hard work, independence, egalitarianism love of peace and a care free attitude. The agricultural Adivasi see fulfilment in having plenty to eat, drink cattle, crops land and children. Sins is a violation of these priorities. When their connection to the land is threatened they can fight back!

Dongria Tribswoman

Dongria Tribswoman

For Adivasi existential longing is both personal and communal determined by a collective faith experience. Its two dimensions are this word and the other world: relationship with being on this earth and secondly a synthesis of human and divine relationship both personally and for the ethos of the group. Key to liberation is happiness. For happiness in this world is a criteria for the next world. Happiness is collective, and uts achievement gives direction to the individual. For the Oraon tribals, this is measured by Cattle, Crops and Children in the prosperity of the family. Heaven reflects his world. The afterlife has fields to plough, cattle in abundance, and a bumper crop. The more agricultural tribes, the Mundhu, Kharia, Ho and Santhal, long for land and a rich harvest and children to perpetuate the family. The Kharia have a great respect for cattle.


D.P.D.,A14bCOMMUNITY PROJECT CENTRE, RANCHI (BIHAR)Jitia dance by Oraon Adivasi young boys and girls.

“Without land they simply do not exist. In absence of land, there is no space for their social, cultural, economic and ecological life. Sanjay Bosu Mullick opines that “identity and indigenous peoples rests on two vital elements, space and speech”. Spatial habitat or the geographical territory of their ancestors is their birthright. That part of “Mother earth” has been passed on to them by their fore-parents. Therefore, the rationale for their struggle for a separate land can be justified in terms of three Js, namely, JAMIN (the land), JAL (the water) and JUNGLE (the forest) which belong to them from time immemorial[1].”

The call for Jhakhand was therefore an emotional call for life. “Land is their altar of sacrifice to god and to the spirits” adds Kujur, which is why they protect land and produce.

“A part of the virgin forest is preserved since the settlement of the village as the sacred grove, the abode of the Mother earth, to be propitiated regularly. The spirits of all the natural objects are also propitiated as benevolent ones. The spirits of the ancestors are believed to be residing in the household itself who protect the family from all kinds of evils.” –          Basu Mulllick[2]

In twined with the tribal system and religious life is the preservation of sizable sacred groves that include isolated forest specimens of peepal (ficus religiosa) often without reference to a god. Symbiotic is life’ relationship to nature and performing arts. Earth and water belong to Mother earth. We have their use, but they are not bought, sold or privatised. Adivasi stewardship of the land offered by each tribes respective gods is an open secret challenged by modernity. Since 1970 every major dam and wildlife sanctuary and 90% of National Park, are carved from Adivasi land. 50% of India’s mineral wealth of coal, bauxite and mica is mined from Adivasi land, yet 85% live below the poverty line, and while only 8% of the population they represent 50% of people evicted from their homeland for National Development Projects[3]. No government ever created land so how can they own what god has made? And is an intimate companion, a source of great knowledge to live with harmoniously. In both East and West, as W J T Mitchell reminds us, landscapes are part of a ‘process by which … identities are formed”[4] But Western thought defines landscape in terms of the Enlightenment: landscape controlled and commanded.

“The English word landscape comes from landscaef , an Anglo-German word that meant “a clearing in the forest with animals, huts, fields, fences. It was essentially a peasant landscape carved out of the original forest or weald, out of the wilderness[1]. The English ‘land‘ means earth from the older Gothic for ‘a ploughed field’. Scape implies the shape of similar objects or shaeth , a buncle or sheath of similar plants.”

Landscapes change slowly to our minds, but they erode and shape. To those in the forest daily, their movement is like the breath of lungs. Do we command ecology through the science and technologies of architecture? Landscape is certainly sublimated or modified by mans interference. But now, the ideological imperative to remake the land is losing ground to environmental fears.

Adivaso girl by Scalerman

Adivaso girl by Scalerman

Personhood is rooted in the land. This experience is not only true of the Adivasi, but also the Australian Aboriginee, and other native people. The alienation of the Adivasi so often reminds me of the loss felt by my Aboriginal brothers and sisters. The late Australian naturalist writer Eva Palmwood notes “ in earlier puritan times, nature was pushed away and seen as an evil animal realm in which civilised rules and practices were abandoned in favour of wholesale licence” Nature was wild, feminine and threatening; to be domesticated by “this suspicious, civilizing and crusading culture” into a house garden. So we stay away from the uncomfortable, lock ourselves away from even a mosquito.

“The dualistic Christian/Western framework of alienation and material denial has erased our connecting narratives” she writes. We desperately lack stories that transparently link us to nature. Gaia stories: “the real meaning of ecological literacy, to have stories that speak of the culture/nature boundary and of where the two cultures meet.”

Palmwood touches on what I see in both Advasi India and Aboriginal Australia.

“Our conviction that ‘we’ live in culture and ‘they’ live in nature is so strong that all that is left is a passionate story about consciousness, history and freedom—about us—and another story about fiercely uninvolved causation and clockwork—a story about them.”

To be separate from nature – to be distinct from the pain of animals other humans better In some ways India has grate sensitivity to animals – stray dogs are often de-sexed and not euthanized. However, I suggest Australia fares better in treating other humans. In each action there are exceptions. Australia had a social security system but hides from facing its obligations to refugees and forgets Aboriginals in the outback. A similar argument is made by environmental ethicist and seed saving campaigner Vandana Shiva. Shiva laments the scientific urge since Roger Bacon to conquer rather than coexist with nature. The nature divide is also expressed in our attitude to women. For nature is feminine. A point made by Marilyn Frye “argues that it is necessary to move beyond a concept of woman as ‘deficient male’ to the idea of woman as ‘positively-other-than’.” We see this in Colonial Britain’s criticism of Indians as feminized, over sexed, in reference to early marriage, and weak minded. Then Vivekananda masculinised the Nationalist agenda, and it seems that Hindi nationalist movements have since moved from feminine sensitivity to nature to a post colonial, almost colonization, raping of the land.

Tribal land is to the Adivasi what Mecca is to Muslims and Jerusalem is to Jews. It is sacred. Their cosm-centric worldview is nature-linked. There is no “I”/ “other” dichotomy; nature-human-spirit are an integrated whole.

Land gives dignity, pride and identity. Without land the Adivasi is “helpless, subservient and subjugated like a bonded laborer without any dignity[5].” Which is why peace loving Adivasi can dangerously resist some development projects. It is not my purpose to rehash history, suffice to remember many anti British struggles, mixed with the fire of the Bhakti movement, were agrarian and tribal. Threatened by being overwhelmed by outsiders, others or diku, there was the Santhal struggle of 1860’s and 1870’s, the 1895 Bhagat movement among the Oraons, Madhta Pradesh Gond movement in the 1930’s.

‘Mining happiness’ Vedanta is stripping all that the Dongria Kondh tribals hold sacred. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)

‘Mining happiness’ Vedanta is stripping all that the Dongria Kondh tribals hold sacred. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)

Without land Adivasi truthfulness and simplicity has been lost to indebtedness, alienation, drinking, displacement and migration. The loss of identity finds many apologetic for their race, dropping their clan names. Unlike their caste divided and status conscious contemporaries, economics is secondary in egalitarian villages. Within the Parha, the village confederations that resolved inter village disputes, all have equal standing. Accountability is to the tribe and family offer fulfilment, but Colonial structures still remaining have crushed their land and encourage the biggest obstacles to human fulfilment: greed, pride and disobedience. These vices according the Genesis myths of Oraon, Khartia and Munda cause Rain of Fire and Deluge. Ecological imbalance caused by smelter pollution by the Asur polluted the cosmos stopped by the merciful intervention of the Supreme being sending messages: a crow, crane and then the Supreme himself disguised as a boy.

Damage to the cosmic harmony is hoped to make human defaulters to become aware of life communitarian nature. The tribal dream is always harmony with the other.

In the Oraon Genesis tradition Dharmes made man “in a mold like tiles” and gave food to all creatures. Happiness is the realisation of Gods care for all “sinners, enemies in all” God walks with human beings, he is not aloof in heaven. Fulfilment is this God experience. But the continuation of the cosmos requires rectifying the corruption and injustice. Evil, such as an evil eye is neutralised by the bhakh khandna ceremony. For life is focused on communal prosperity” crops, cattle marriage and children.

Sorice: Bengal Adivasi Blog

Sorice: Bengal Adivasi Blog

Unless there is a radical social change, will they have to accept Singbonga’s will and find liberation with their ancestors in Purom Disum, the afterlife, imagined by the Uraons as ploughing fields?

“This parom disam is looked upon as a world separated from our world by some mighty barrier such as is formed by an impossible chain of mountains or an unfordable river or a boundless ocean “ writes Martin Topno. It is indescribable in terms of height, distance, or depth “for the parom disumreko (those of the world across) are not thought of as living in far away places, since they dwell in the huts of their nearest relatives, in streams, rivulets, field and mountains of their village and Singhonga, the Lord of all, is explicitly declared to be everywhere and to see everything. These two worlds are rather conceived as co-penetrating each other, and yet as not possessed of any means of direct communication.”

The afterlife, and the rituals of death, will be discussed elsewhere, along with the influence of Christian conversion. However, benevolent spirits are guardians of those on earth, but they are not worshipped, unlike Singbonga. In the Mundu region the Christian concept of ‘salvation’ is understood as communion with Singbonga in the afterlife. Singbonga is the centre of life now and in the future and Janau suku, eternal happiness is possible only through Sigbonga and the ancestors, Communion is achieved through sacrificial ritual of Umbul Ader, lirerally entering into spirit, achieved in the abode of Singbonga in Sirma Disum, or heaven. nagesiya-household-kerang-village-in-lohardagga-district-jharkhand-photo-anumeha-yadav1 Meanwhile tribal hopes and frustrations inspired in Jharkhand include liberation from jagirdars, jaminders, money lenders and other exploiters. The reality of poetical life is less promising. While India’s Constitution protects the Adivasi, they continue to be harassed. Adivasi are still looked down on as inferior, pre-literate and vanvasi, or forest dwellers. Perhaps India could learn from them. I agree with Sauros-Prabhu[6] that tribal solidarity with nature and egalitarianism should be an example to modern competitiveness and individualism. [1] Joseph Marianus Kujur, Human longing and fulfilment: An Adivasi perspective, Disputatio Philisophica, and referencing Mullick 1993:13 [2] Mullick S. E. Ed 1993:14 Indigenous Identity: Crisis and its Re-awakening, Nanin Prakashan Kendra. [3] Jaydas, E., 1993, 34 The Adivasis and the Land, in Indigenous Identity: Crisis and its Re-awakening, Nanin Prakashan Kendra. [4] Mitchell WJT, (1994) ‘Landscape and Power’, Chicago University Press, Chicago. [5] Joseph Marianus Kujur: 19 [6] Sauros-Prabhu, G., 1994 85ff Tribal values in India, in Ijeevadhara, 24 (March)85-88

Rann of Kutch: right out of a fairytale


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The beauty of the white desert shimmers in the moonlight.  By day, a “desolate area of unrelieved, sun-baked saline clay desert, shimmering with the images of a perpetual mirage.”[1] Equally, there is also a darker side, of salt cured labourers lugging sacks of salt for merchants and vibrant embroidered colour.

During monsoon, the region is covered in water, and over winter, the water evaporates leaving a salty crust that must be seen to be believed.
The salt crunched beneath our feet as we walked on it, and some of the earth gave way beneath us where the water had still not entirely dissipated after monsoon.  Before us we could see nothing but pure white land that melted into the horizon.  There were no people or buildings in sight, it was like we had reached the end of the earth.
In what is one of the most inhospitable places on earth, you can even stay in a tent overnight and wake up to this beautiful sight.

Rakhee Ghelani


One of the world’s largest seasonal marsh lands, once shallows of the Arabian Sea, turn into desert during the dry season. Crossing Gujuruat and Sindh Pakistan, 30,000 square km of encrusted salt between the Gulf of Kutch and the Indus River, it is the only large flooded grasslands zone in the Indo-Malayan region.


Perhaps the bleakest, dustiest, and hottest region in India, sitting along the Tropic of Cancer at the end of the at the end of the Luni River, draining the the Aravalli Hills, the Great Rann of Kutch is refuge for the last population of the endangered Asiatic wild ass (Equus hermionus) and supports the one of the world’s largest breeding colonies of the greater and lesser flamingos.

A lake since the Mesozoic, when geological uplift created a vast lake still navigable when Alexander the Great invaded it has since silted into a a vast, saline mudflat.

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Yet, during the full moon in winter, the festival of Rann utsav draws tourists to dazzling white salt encrusted desert plains.  At Dhorodo in the Banni grasslands, a tent village rises from the sand for the festival. Fringing the Great Rann of Kutch, camel carts take tourists to the salt flats. Food is served in the desert wilderness accompanied by Sindhi Bhajans and Sufi songs.

Many seek the deserts of Rajasthan, but comparatively few cross  the Thar desert to witness the magical sunset over salt white sands. Gujrurat’s promotion of Rannustav seeks to change that. Close to the Pakistan order, you will pass several security checks on your visit.


Stay for sunset – it’s magical.

The silence of salt white sand is almost a spiritual experience. You almost need to pick up a handful of sand o remind yourself its salt. The blinding white desert looks like snow but the weather is hot.

As the sun starts to set, the mountain slowly changes from red to grey to black and you will witness the salt reflecting these changing colours of the sun.  In some parts, the monsoon water can still be seen, creating a little island in the middle of the salt desert. The sun reflected on the edge of the water, in a ring of bright blue.

I have never seen a landscape like this before. Where the Bolivian salt desert looks like a lunar landscape, Kutch looked like it came straight out of a fairytale, the salt flats glistened steely blue, they felt like you could ice skate on them ever so gracefully. As eagles soared above, the view was both spectacular and peaceful. As the sun came down in a brilliant blaze of orange, I reflected on just how large the world was, and perhaps how I had finally seen a part of the world that felt like it was right on the edge, where past the horizon you could almost fall right off.

– Rakhee Ghelani



Near Dhorodo the Dattatray Temple sits in the Kala Dungar, or Black Hills, only 462 metres it is one of the Kutch districts  highest points, but easily climbed. Desolate and bouldered, below is the panorama of salt, you can trek scrub among bulbuls and larks or watch the dramatic feeding of golden jackals at the temple.  As the priests call out “Lo-Aang, Lo-Aang”, packs of jackal come to feast from the temple offerings of rice and jaggary.

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The pastoral villages of the Banni grasslands also produce some of India’s finest hand embroidery.

“Suf embroidery is counted on the warp and weft of the cloth in a surface satin stitch worked from the back. Motifs are never drawn. Each artisan imagines her design, then counts it out in reverse, thus requiring much detailing. The craftswomen fill symmetrical patterns with tiny triangles, and accent stitches. Khaarek is a geometric style also counted and precise. Paako is a tight square chain and double buttonhole stitch embroidery, often with black slanted satin stitch outlining. The motifs of paako, sketched in mud with needles, are primarily floral and generally arranged in Riding these decorated camels on the white sands of the Kutch is an unequalled experience With a steady hand, a plain piece of wood quickly turns into a vibrant art before your eyes .

The mesmerising  rainbow of colour adorns women exquisitely dressed in embroidery made in their  homes of picturesque mud-plastered round houses called bhungas lovingly decorated with hand-paintings and mirror inlays.

Each village has its own style of embroidery, the colours of culture glisten heavily embroidered attire. Kutch is one of the most colourful regions of India and offers a glimpse of Gujarat at her exotic best.  A rich repertoire of woodcarving, leather crafts and pottery also thrive in the Banni villages.


From the walled city of Bhuj, Medieval forts to the the modern city of Gandhidham, majestic palaces, historic ports, temples, monasteries and pretty beach of Mandvi are close by.

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Or visit the sacred lake of Narayan Sarovar, the shore temple of Koteshwar, the Ashapura Mata-no-Madh temple, a number of Jain Derasars, the Gurdvara at Lakhpat and Sufi shrines.

Lakhpat once a port on the Arabian sea at the junction of Kori creek and Rann of Kutch. It was abandoned after the 1819 AD strong earthquake which changed the flow of  Sindhu (Indus) River

Lakhpat once a port on the Arabian sea at the junction of Kori creek and Rann of Kutch. It was abandoned after the 1819 AD strong earthquake which changed the flow of Sindhu (Indus) River

[1] Cubitt and Mountfort 1991

Salty hard labour


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The Hidden Faces of India  = Palani Mohan

The Hidden Faces of India = Palani Mohan

The glare of sun on salt quickly saps their vision. First there world turns black and white. Then, as cataracts turn their eyes to milky orbs; grim reality is day by day painted in softer focus. They say their thirst is unquenchable. As the monsoon abates and the sun turns merciless, conspiring with the growing accretions of crystals to steal every last drop of water, each breath rasps the throat like sandpaper.

Each day is like the last: the pans are raked, and the crystals tendered. In the heat shimmer is a vista of impressions: bent, burnished backs raking and baking; anklets and nose-rings glinting in the glare; flowering saris, a curve of hip, pots perched insouciantly atop heads.

Children’s giggles emanate from within the scant shelter of thatched huts, the only shade for miles, nd in between the clank and shudder of the pumps can be heard the resentful murmurs of the workers cursing mendacious traders.

Jason Gagliardi

The Hidden Faces of India  = Palani Mohan

The Hidden Faces of India = Palani Mohan

The Hidden Faces of India  - Palani Mohan

The Hidden Faces of India – Palani Mohan

Rusting too, are the worker who move whithered and whispering across the endless salt pans of the Little Rann of Kutch in Western Gujurat. They produce millions of tonnesbof salt each year – translucent cubes that appear as if by magic, like some invisible Picasso wielding his brush. The workers cracked and scaly legs come to resemble the very earth they tread. Its hard to tell where flesh ends and salt pan begins. By the time a salt-worker dies, his skin is so cured it wont even burn on his funeral pyre.

– Palani Mohan

The Hidden Faces of India - Palani Mohan

The Hidden Faces of India – Palani Mohan


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However, let us remember the wise words of travel photographer Rosemary Sheel: Happiness is where you find it.

Boy with Wheel,

Boy with Wheel, Rosemary Sheel. com

A small boy plays with his toy, an old bicycle tire, on the salt flats of the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat India. His body language expresses his joy in keeping the tire upright and rolling across the dried mud of the marsh. We can find happiness if we just look for it is the message I get from this. I think he looks as if he is having more fun than a child sitting at a computer, but maybe I’m wrong. My children grew up playing the old-fashioned way.

Thank you Rosemary for reminding us of lifes true perspective. For there is also fairytale beauty in this land.

The Mahabharata and Me


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“Alas, having vanquished the foe, we have ourselves been vanquished in the end! The course of events is difficult to be ascertained even by persons endued with spiritual sight. The foes, who were vanquished have become victorious! Ourselves, again, while victorious, are vanquished!” Mahabharata Sauptika Parva Section 10

In the grand itihas (all that is, a history of ideas) that this epic embodies, no individual – however noble their deeds might be, and no idea, despite its seeming idealism, is perfect and pure. This grand text of Indian civilization, even as it appears to be out measuring space and outlasting time, invites every generation living within the confines of its culture and facing the forces of history, to the semantic field of uncertainties and ambiguities.

That Kurukushetra is being fought now in the mind of every man, woman and child in psychological war is, as Rohin Mehta[1] reminds us, the lesson of the Gita’s first discourse. Bllind Dhritarshtra could see the battle in his mind as told objectively by Sanjaya. But the designs of Duryodhana meant he could not detach from them so war ensued.

The Gita helps us find an inner Sanjaya to avoid own inner psychological war.

If the Gita is a gospel of life then the Mahabharata is a panoramic epic of it. Like the great texts of the Bible and Quran, it addresses life’s joys and uncertainties with a vast breadth greater than its more concise brethren.

The Mahabharata is an honest mirror but its reflection will not please everyone. We readers live in different times and each of us will read the accounts differently.  For this reason, some people do not like the Mahabharata.  They prefer their scriptures to be sanitised, devoid of human frailties, as if past saints and devotees were  faultless.

The Mahabharata covers every aspect of human life.  It is brutally honest and yet not fuzzy in its idealism. There are the ideals of forgiveness and fraternity, as well as their absence in the real world.

“That which occurs here occurs elsewhere, that which does not occur here, occurs nowhere else.” (Swargarohanika Parva , Section V )

India is complicated.

Britain had a narrow view of nationhood, and dismissed the idea of India as united country. Their  ideas of nationality were shaped by the French Revolution, and a feudal Europe that merged under competing overlords. In India, before Bollywood and the internet, people a few hundred kilometers down the road diverged more in custom and dress, than say an Englishman did from a Spaniard or a Russian.

To the British mind it made sense to say, as did Gandhi that “India was many Indias.“ They seemed to miss that India was more a civilization  with an overarching broad cohesiveness that that held together differences by social negotiation.

India is complicated.

No wonder Gandhiji said the Ramayana and Mahabharata are a “must study” for all Hindu to understand the human psyche..

After all, a true patriot will examines the quality of his country, promoting the common good and seeking to change by orderly means what does not support it. Flag waving that ignores problems helps nobody.

True love of country prepares for a very positive spiritual benefit.

Now, I know some of you may dislike my being “Western” (whatever that means). So to support my thesis I call upon two points. When I left India I was more precisely  able to see the faults of my Australian roots, just as India’s Diaspora can see Bharat with a fresh perspective. Secondly, I will call on the principles of the great Sanskrit grammarian Bhartrihari.


Mahabharata as mirror

Reading the Mahabharata is a dynamic interaction between the individual and cultural  heritage. So we expect tension between how we read the Mahabarata’s meta language and its past cultural history.

The barriers we put up between past and present are similar to the barriers we pace between east and west.

“It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly” wrote the linguist Bakhtin.  Travel to another country and what seems self evident at home may be seen a fallacy elsewhere. The cultural matrices of our life are complex. What we call everyday commonsense is many layered. Cultural materials shape  identities and cultural histories shape character.

Mahabharata 949 Bhismadevasml (1)

I ask you, like Arjuna, to place the chariot between the two opposing world views, as conch shells call your mind to battle.

As the Gita begins, battle seems suddenly detached – as a morose soldier talks to his mentor, god and charioteer. The great complexity of the occasion was greater than his mind, like life’s complexity exceeding our own facilities.

It is as if the blowing of conch shell before the battle disturbs Arjuna’s mind. He places the chariot between two armies like a mind caught between two opposites. Fear based decisions are not good. When we cannot decide on freedom we fall into dejection and depression. Arjuna seeks to escape decision,  asking Krishna to tell him outright.  But we cannot truly remain action less says the Gita.  After all life is a series of relationships with all their karma.

Abstain from activity and act when necessary in detachment without rude displays of virtue.

“The return to ones true nature is designated as devotion” Sankaracharya wrote in Viveka-Chudamani.

The Mahabharata and the Gita, of which it is part, are for spiritual transformation and not just moral reform . Therefore transcend the call for independence but include it. The path way is finding our identity on the pathway between personal and cosmic will. If we trod this path we can be free from tensions.

For the battle is between the armies are Sri Krishna’s cosmic will versus and Arjunas individual will.  Arjuna is the mind in its active alert condition, not aware of its limitations. Arjuna is like Jesus asking “may this cup pass from me”, says Dr Radhakrishnana in his commentary, but then uttering “Thy will be done.”

So many of us prefer ritual than reflection. We see solutions but are not prepared to any the price. We are like a monk robed in renunciation, but concealing deep fears and self destructiveness.

Hindus would rather “worship” rather than study the great epics. The Ramayana and Mahabharata on sit on a  pedestal, but are rarely read, analysed or critiqued. They are long texts. It is easier to listen to a guru’s summary, watch a television series than read them. It is easier to bow, garland, offer incense and wave arti in front of these great epics, than  to read them and learn their lessons.

Perhaps that is why we get defensive of Western science attempt to place the epics in time. We like it when a discovery gives us ancient credibility, but dismiss any critique as colonialism, or claim they don’t understand our cultural history (meaning ‘you guys invaded us’) . It is easier to look at the invader than our self.

That is the point. The Mahabharata is a mirror to force us to look! Illustrations_from_the_Barddhaman_edition_of_Mahabharata_in_Bangla,_which_were_printed_in_wood_engraving_technique_(7)

How  a Grammarian shaped my views of the Mahabharata

Bhartrihari, who probably lived in the fifth century, developed theories of space-time and language-cognition we would call poststructural and Einsteinian. Bhartrihari2  examines how language, thought and reality relate that  reflect contemporary questions of  language use, and communication asked by Chomsky, Wittgenstein, Grice, and Austin.

Bhartrihari asserts that cognition and language at an ultimate level are ontologically identical concepts that refer to one supreme reality, Brahman.

In his first verse Bhartrihari wrote:

The Brahman is without beginning and end, whose essence is the Word, who is the cause of the manifested phonemes, who appears as the objects, from whom the creation of the world proceeds.

The cyclical creation and dissolution  described in the Vedas, leaves a seed or trace (samskâra) from which the next cycle arises. This seed is  called a “Divine Word” (Daivi Vâk). If language is of divine origin, says Bhartrihari , then it Brahman expressing and embodying itself in the plurality of creation. The shabda tattva, “word principle,” is part of unity of all existence with Brahman.

Although Brahmin is “without beginning and end” (anâdi nidhânam), and not subject to the attributes of temporal sequence, we recognize the manifestations of Brahmin through the power of Kala (time) and dik (space). The universe is not sequential, but the action of kala makes it appear so. The past is a form of darkness and the past can only be experienced from the present. Being and world are inseparable but are interpreted by their own histories.

Bhartrihari  concludes that knowledge is constructed by language and meaning is made by the words that interpret it.  This differs from Buddhist belief that pre-conceptual cognition or pure perception (nirvikalpa-pratyaksha) is distorted by language created constructed perception (savikalpa-pratyakasha). It also differs with the Nyaiyayikas who agreed word and thing correspond, but distinguished between language and its object-referents. Perception is a two-step process, argue the  Nyâyas,  involving  initial apprehension of an object and then awareness that results in mental and syntactic/linguistic representations of the first moment of awareness.

Bhartrihari argues that the word makes the thing an individual. As one moves further and further along the refined categories of what is conventionally known as denotation, the word makes the thing what it is. .. [it] make meanings of all kinds, mundane ones and religious ones, contingent on the circumstances and speaker…. if perception is innately verbal, no perilous bridge need be suspended over some supposed abyss between vision and truth, both in our mundane lives and for the rishis who pronounced the Vedas. The word then makes the thing, and Brahman makes the world, and so it is entirely proper to speak of words as the creator of all things (shabdaBrahman).” – Lakshmi Bandamudi[2]

Similarly, Heidegger wrote that the relationship of self to the other is  shapes what we cell knowledge by phenomenological intuition. He rejects Kant’s idea of utopia of transcendent logic.

In the same way, as we read the Mahabarata we meet our “multiple histories, those of the individual, the recent cultural and the ancient. During the interpretive encounter, the boundaries between here and now and what lies beyond in time and space, shift. As Bandamudi 2 suggests, some “read the Mahabharata to discover dimensions about self, text and history, while others evade the flow to make sense of the text in a detached manner.”

These are cultural parameters of meaning: The Mahabharata  is not about purity, since it captures the pathos of human existence in its most sordid form and seems to assert that it is one of the most insoluble disharmonies of existence.  The Mahabharata  is not about hopelessness and despair, but it directs our attention to the unfinalizability of ideas and ideals.

Indeed the text itself continued t evolve and is called a chakra and each generation a cognitive spoke in the wheel, we see synergistic evolution of self and the text.

“All roles are reversed at some point – the valorous warrior Arjun becomes despondent and turns into a pacifist, and the godhead Krishna resorts to human tactics and counsels on warfare. Even the most profound treatise on salvation is not Utopian in nature and does not necessarily rescue the individual from the abysmal world …; instead, they are instruments for shaping and reshaping individual and social consciousness … by repeatedly directing our attention to the complexity and multiplicity of truth.”

If we look into the Mahabharata as a mirror, like the characters of the epic, we must also face our shadow eventually or we will face karma later on.


Why it matters

Everyday behaviour can become codes of identity when society grapples with its identity. As India  grapples with identity in the rush of progress, dress codes are given meaning that otherwise would have passed unnoticed. An Indian of the diaspora, more often a woman than a man,  may be more “Indian” abroad than at home.

I think religion offers a language, a vocabulary, for self exploration. All too often its symbols become blocks in the politics of ego.

Some see the Mahabharata  as Scripture, but it calls itself an itihas – history – and not a scripture.  The Gita implies that it is a message is a “scripture”. It has its own agenda – to deliver a spiritual message, explain the philosophy of a particular “darshan” and affirm the reader’s faith in a particular deity.  An “itihas”, on the other hand, has to lay out the facts of historical events for all to see – without judgement or prejudice. Some Hindu scholars, such as Swami Dayananda,  argue the epic is corrupted. Making Krishna God, or  physical avatar is inconsistent with the formless Brahman of the Vedas.

How people remember the epic, retold is the village or recast for the screen, distorts, and repeats distortions. Untruth becomes facts with no foundation. Truths become legends – guide posts to a past – not quite accurate either.  They are fractals of the past, but not a hologram.  Our personal life, a microcosm of the macrocosm, repeats the same distortions. The same karma.

But the eternal truth – the culminating   focused in the Gita itself remains transcendental and untouched.

The Gita (18:66) asks us to “abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.”We must accept communion with the unborn and  unmanifest the whisper of the soul can be heard.

As Dr Radakrishnan says ”the spiritual is not an extension of the ethical, but is a new dimension all together, dealing with things eternal.”

In a democracy like India this point is even more important.

A democratic consciousness operates in the synecdochic mode” writes Bandamudiand therefore conflicts in the epic are framed not between the powerful and the weak, but between justice and injustice. In the ironic mode, the interpreter recognizes the fine line between justice and injustice. As the boundaries between right and wrong dissolve, the interpreters recognize multiple dimensions to truth and justice and therefore, are capable of saying things about themselves and the text in alternate ways and reflecting on why they choose these alternatives.”

I find myself  by finding the i for myself, finding the I or others other and then, being willing to let the other find me.

The Mahabharata is a carnival ride of raunchy and ribald characters  “where distinctions of high and low culture, self and other, sacred and profane are erased” : of split, fragmented multiple subjects and identities and collectivities.

If we seek to understand a people, we have to try to put ourselves, as far as we can, in that particular historical and cultural background…It is not easy for a person of one country to enter into the background of another country. So there is great irritation, because one fact that seems obvious to us is not immediately accepted by the other party or does not seem obvious to him at all…But that extreme irritation will go when we think … that he is just differently conditioned and simply can’t get out of that condition. One has to recognize that whatever the future may hold, countries and people differ…in their approach to life and their ways of living and thinking. In order to understand them, we have to understand their way of life and approach. If we wish to convince them, we have to use their language as far as we can, not language in the narrow sense of the word, but the language of the mind. That is one necessity. Something that goes even much further than that is not the appeal to logic and reason, but some kind of emotional awareness of other people
– Jawaharlal Nehru, Visit to America)

Consider an Indian who moves to the USA. In India he may see the Mahabharata as the text of India, but by moving the text is also a way of engaging with his past.

Just as a child grows up and sees things differently, a change takes place in individual and cultural history.

So when re look into the mirror of the Mahabharata, we see through the lens of our own experience. It remains for us to see our self in part of our society, karma and history, so we can reassess our society, and inevitably lead to a change in mans consciousness and behavior.

However, the Mahabharata also reveals that for every social force there is simultaneously its opposite. The  serious purva-paksha analysis of the past died with the birth of neo-Hinduism. Hindu philosophy declined from serious and systematic critiquing of differing systems to then merely serving as a pseudo-intellectual tool and a political agenda. It is easier to blame (at times rightly) former colonial masters than look at our self.

Others debate important issues but are so stuck in the minutiae that they forget the large more important picture.

Notice how you feel when you read a book. Now read the same text from behind a computer screen or kindle. Do you feel differently?

Similarly, the domination of one group (Hindu, Muslim, White, Black, Brown, Straight or gay) shapes how we react to what we hear or see.


Living in the past will not do. Bhakti saints have even argued that the traditions of the past, are of no use in the age of Kali.

For example, Bhakti saints like Lord Chatanya[3] argued that in the age of Kali there is no longer a justification for caste. “In the age of Kali the varnasrama-dharma is so degraded that any attempt to restore it to its original position will be hopeless. He also rejected varnasrama-dharma because it has no value in relation to pure devotional service.

The second, more important consideration is that even if the varnasrama system is observed strictly, it still cannot help one to rise to the highest plane of transcendental service to Godhead. The virat-purusa is a material conception of the Personality of Godhead and is just the beginning of spiritual realization.” Any tradition, is not an end in itself.

True, India also has a tradition of freedom and equality that supposed Greeks for its equality. Unfortunately, it was forgotten and distorted.

The heroism of the past must be reignited, by reconciling the  “monumental culture” of legend, with democratic principles of the modern world. If I may borrow from Emerson, “there is properly no history, only biography.” The epics of history are what we make of them when they inspire a passionate self reliance to service, dispassionate of the outcome, between cosmic love and human apathy.

Facing modernity, we should remember we do not enculturate mechanically. How we respond to another culture reveals the depth of our own cultural history, mannerisms, and myths which we then internalize.

To read the epic is to inherit, transform and transmit a tradition. A lesson the Mahabharata lays bare for us to see.

If Indians lived by the “Laws of Karma”, we would remember that even the victors at Kurukushetra paid bad karma for their violence.. If we had internalised its message they would realise the consequences of hate anger and unforgiveness. If we understood the enormity of our karmic actions, there would be no bribery or corruption.  We have not learned from our itihas.

People don’t like the Mahabharata because it tells it like it is.   Most of us don’t like to see ourselves as we really are.

The “Mahabharata is a must read because it is a mirror for us to evaluate ourselves and see where we are being reflected in its myriad characters.  If we don’t like what we see in the mirror, there is no point in blaming the mirror or throwing it away, that is not a credible solution.  Ideally, we should change ourselves to make and reflect those values and characteristics we do like in the Mahabharata. “

Issues between science and scripture, or East and West would be irrelevant. We would understand the complexity of relationships, why and how people play subtle mind games, understand the bigger picture so you can rise above such pettiness, understand human society, ourselves and our purpose in life.

In that sense, spirituality is like art, Its outer form comes from within.

“Art and life are not one, but they must become united in myself – in the unity of my unanswerability”– wrote Mikhail Bhaktin. Art he argues must not just inspire, but also reach the prosaic in life. Or as scholar Lakshmi Bandamudi suggests that Bhaktin’s observations of shared answerabiity and mutual blame in art applies to the vast relationships of karma that are mirrored back to us in the Mahabharata.

Meanwhile, in my own  life I try and remember Kalidasa’s words “they whose minds are not disturbed when the sources of disturbance are present, are the truly brave.”

”We must accept communion with the unborn and unmanifest the whisper of the soul can be heard.”


[1] Rohin Mehta Mind to Supermind- A commentary on the Bhagavad gita, T C Manaktalaand Sons, Bombay,,1966.

[2] Lakshmi Bandamudi, Logistics of Self: The Mahabharata and Culture.

[3] Sri Ramananda Samvada, In Search of the Ultimate Goal of Life, By His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

More vital than a carnival


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“The average Indian bazaar is more crowded and colorful than most museums the world over. A modern Indian city street is filled with more vitality, color, sound, and smells than any theater or carnival on earth. India pulsates, vibrates, scintillates with such a plethora of human, animal, botanical, insect, and divine life that no camera or recording device, no canvas, pen, or cassette can fully capture the rich design of daily, ordinary existence. Each of her hundreds of thousands of urban and millions of village dramas is enacted free of charge before audiences that never pause to note the beauty or poignant tragedy unfolding itself every day on countless stages under India’s tear-filled sky.”

– Stanley Wolpert



Where are your principles!


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Pottery workshop at  'Merkaba the Ascension' my Bhopal home.

Pottery workshop at ‘Merkaba the Ascension’ my Bhopal home.

Returning to Bhopal I find my sump has been ‘hacked’ by water deprived neighbours. In my absence back in Australia,  they decided it was cheaper to pipe from my supply than repair the pump to their bore.

In fact my arrival caused somewhat of a shock to their servants. While I did not over act to this innocent piracy, I was not impressed when they refused to let me turn off my own sump tap as water refilled from the mains.

It seems my partner had another cause of consternation. The neighbours cleaner had offered to sweep out the house before she began her work there at 10 am. For some reason the neighbour accused us of poaching her staff – “Where are your principles?” she demanded even though she had evicted them from her home and Advity had allowed them temporarily  to stay in space behind my rental.

It seems the only ethics offended is her pride. Guilty conscience at being caught out for ripping offer her workers and the risk of being publicly shamed.  Shame seems compelling in the network of down to earth grittiness in the lived details of architectural planning and haphazard lives.

What does it reveal about me?

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Bhopal is less compact than some Indian cities, its variegated population exudes a surprising hope in the dense  safety of  knowing everyone possible. With a roving population can that be really true? All cities In a society, or ashram yes perhaps. I suppose the locals have their myths. It seems cities are now only for business or cars. How dare you put in a RTB lanes and expect the middle class to take the bus!

Later , that day, as I cycled to Shahjehanabad, through Bitten market, I smiled at the fancy  plastic angles of modern forms will soon look like 70’s forgotten architectural  leftovers.  I was reminded of an architectural conference that spoke of fancy designers who forgot the toilets.

Then at MP Nagar for Poha, the grass close to the rail ray line, reminds me cities are like ecosystems. (Will that ever be true in India, I wonder, when in Delhi, stone pavers blocked the water run off and is reducing the water table?).

Finally, in the Old City. I love the small blocks and allies that chance new discoveries. Past the lower lakes Shri Mataji Temple, used more , it seems for washing clothes than worship, then across to Bara Bagh.

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I reflect on the dignity of the old Muslim cemetery.  I would prefer the serenity of a stupa than a therapist, I decided. In that moment I remember own social mistakes. The uncouth loudness of an outback Aussie  at times outspokenly offending neighbours who had politely left unsaid what they thought I would understand.

near shahehanabad gate (2) res

India confronts me. It forces me to face my shadows.

Cities are like people. They offer hope and freedom, and oppress others. Behind houses , each side tells a truth of the experience. Every culture has a dark underbelly a shadow it wants to hide.

In Australia, a people yearned to be free, yet they ignored the oppression of aboriginals or blackbirds, the islander ‘labourers’ who worked the cane fields.

“They must work for it”,  I hear them scream. “No more hand outs.”

Something of an older tribal walking by reminds me of an aboriginal body ritual, tattoo scarred like the stripped earth mined for a profit and scars our soul.

No country is better or worse. In every land we find the focus on national identity and values shaped by a nation’s myth. We also find the exact opposite, simultaneously.  Perhaps less, focused, a shadow diffused through the masses, at times through its underclass.

In India perhaps it is Kashmir that is denied. Or we praise Akbar’s tolerance yet ignore the women of Gwalior who burned themselves alive rather than be his soldiers concubines.

Or should we criticise Aurangzeb oppression yet ignore the Hindu temples he sponsored no doubt out of political need? Admire Gandhi for non violence and ignore that in the process – as well meaning as it was – he alienated his son?

The West praises it heritage freedom and ignores Ashoka offered equal right s for all sexes, religions and castes.  Greek democracy applied only to the 20 percent male population and not women. It took the US 150 years to legally ensure black people “were created equal” and enjoy  “the pursuit of happiness” enshrined in their constitution. Australia took 68 years to recognise Aboriginals as citizens.

So much for its principles.

Meanwhile, India’s Constitution gave equality to all 2 years and 4 months after Independence. All three lands have racial shadows haunting them.

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Next morning as I dig soil at dawn, the Sindor swastika from yesterdays Pooja attracts the  dancing feet  of minor birds pecking rice from the remains of offered rice. A small satin blue bird dances in the tree above the hardened shallow soil.

Then, I find a yellow envelope waiting addressed from Delhi. It must have arrived while I was away. The customs declaration is ticked gift, and described as “ORNAMENTAL BEADS FOR DECORATION ONLY”. Of course , in it seeds in plastic envelopes were inserted in a standard sized envelope also yellow.

It’s probably cheaper than admitting seeds are being posted, i thought.

 “WITHANIA somnifera , ashawaganda Indian Ginseng”
“stevia revaudiana sweetleaf , sweet leaf, sugarleaf seeds”
“seeds tribulus terrestris puncture vine SPEED POST”

So much for principles.

Does the Mahabharata ask us to defy society?


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Mahabharata 949 Bhismadevasml (1)

The Gita inspired the Independence Movement:  the Gita inspired both Tilak’s call for violent over throw and Gandhi’s clarion for non violence.  Aurobindu spoke of Tantric passion in his call for independence, and puritan Victorians responded (unfairly)that Indians were over sexualised, and early marriage weakened their mental disposition.

Media wars are nothing new, I believe this was behind William Sleeman’s linking the Thuggee phenomenon to Kali. Later British linked the Independence movement too it.

“The Hindu student, depraved . . . by too early eroticism, turns to the suggestiveness of the murder-monger and worships the nitro-glycerine bomb as the apotheosis of his goddess.”

A century back, Valentine Chirol the independence movement “in its extreme forms Shakti worship finds expression in licentious aberrations which . . . represent the most extravagant forms of delirious mysticism” (Indian Unrest , 1910).

These attacks have led some to reject Western science when it attempts to place the ancient past on a timeline. I would love the past golden to be discovered scientifically:  Article 51 of India’s constitution includes as the duties of a citizen developing a scientific temper.

But if it cannot be, does it matter?

A retired Indian Army Colonel once advised me not too worry. “We cannot even prove that Krisna even existed. But that is not the point. The message of the Gita us timeless. It is outside of space and time.”

What I might call an archetype, a coded message in our psyche. What Jean Houston would describe “something that never happened but is always happening.” A legend – that is the key on the side of our mental page that allows us to read our psychic terrain to go beyond the image (or the computer screen) to access the real life.

Perhaps we can learn  lessons from the repeating pattern of past ages . Fractal patterns of history repeat  with their own its own unique echo in modern history.

But looking at these lessons from the position of objective witness we  can embrace life without falling into self loathing guilt trip of failing to be good Hindu’s, Muslims Christian etc.

Guilt is a cry for help. So I can sympathise with the bhakti call for a religion of no religion similar to what Krishna describes in the Bhagavad Gita (18:66).  “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.”

However, let’s think a little more pragmatically.How could we personally apply the Gita’s advice ?


Karna confronts Krishna

The question haunts me. The themes of karma and Krishna’s grace contradict each other and the Gita leaves enough room for both sides: a little bit more than how the later bhakti movement is now interpreted .

Krishna proclaims “Those who are envious and mischievous, who are the lowest among men, I perpetually cast into transmigration, into various demoniac species of life” (16,19). Also: “Those who worship me and surrender all their activities unto me, being devoted to me without hesitation, engaged in devotional service and meditating unto me, I deliver them quickly from the ocean of birth and death” (12,6-7).

Yet his ‘Avatar’ is subject to karma, killed when shot on his own ‘Achilles heel’ in the Mahabharata. Karma seems to move on with detached clockwork precision. This leads to the Gita leaving unexplained the contradictions between Vaishnavism’s claim that Krishna is only an incarnation of Vishnu wheras the Gita’s  super-personal Krishna is the Supreme Lord of the Universe (5,29), eternal (4,6) and the source of all existence: “I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from me” (10,8). , spiritual and material (9,16-19; 8,4; 10,20-42) even contrary to Vedanta, the source of Brahman (14,27) and contrary to Vaishnavism he is the instrument of attaining fusion with Brahman (14,26). Although the intention of components.

Then there is the personal decision we face like Ajuna.

Do we obey duty or dharma verses the karma we must face if we do our duty against our conscience.  Krishna tells Ajuna “When you become confused in your false ego you say to yourself, ‘I will not fight’ you are misled. By your nature you must fight” (18,59). Action is better than inaction we are told, the three gunas of Krishna’s past karma, and his warrior caste, determine his nature or prakriti. Our past karma is the hand we must play in the game of life which limits our choices.

Ajuna  must break the Vedic code by killing his relatives. “Those who think that they can kill or those that think they can be killed are confused in the manifestations of ignorance. The infinite, immortal soul can neither kill nor be killed” (2,19). Therefore Arjuna is free to kill his relatives, considering them only temporary abiding forms for the eternal self, mere mortal frames.

Or as S. Dasgupta states in his commentary:

The theory of the Gita that, if actions are performed with an unattached mind, then their defects cannot touch the performer, distinctly implies that the goodness or badness of an action does not depend upon external effects of the action, but upon the inner motive of action. If there is no motive of pleasure or self-gain, then the action performed cannot bind the performer; for it is only the bond of desires and self-love that really makes an action one’s own and makes one reap its good or bad fruits. Morality from this point of view becomes wholly subjective, and the special feature of the Gita is that it tends to make all actions non-moral by cutting away the bonds that connect an action with its performer.
-S. Dasgupta, Indian Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, 1991, vol.2, p. 507.

But if “actions are performed with an unattached mind, then their defects cannot touch the performer” then why does Yudishthira, Arjuna’s brother, try to expiate the sin of killing his relatives at Kurukushetra through repentance, gifts, asceticism and pilgrimages (Mahabharata 12,7).  Yudishthira bad conscience could not be cleansed by a right mind, he needed compensatory acts.

Does not a morality that any act is good as long as it is dedicated to God risk becoming the justification of terrorism? If God controls all could I not decide, as Ajuna is asked to do, to reject well-established moral codes?

The demon Kamsa, whose corruption of karma Krishna came to destroy,  used the same argument to kill the children of Krishna’s parents in the Bhagavata Purana;

In the bodily conception of life one remains in darkness without self-realization, thinking “I am being killed” or “I have killed my enemies”. As long as a foolish person thus considers the self to be the killer or the killed, he continues to be responsible for material obligations, and consequently he suffers the reactions of happiness and distress.

Perhaps Krisna, whose avatar comes to destroy Kamsa intends to fight fire with fire.

If the same “detached” perspective on moral values can be used both by the demon Kamsa, who caused the corruption of the dharma, and by Krishna as the divine avatar who came to restore it (Gita 4,6-7) and kill the demon, it is hard to accept that such an approach could represent a true basis for morality.

This I suppose where we as a society and individually must balance the competing forces of life, lest the eros of fanaticism and nationalism takes over.

True detachment is does not stop with nihilistically accepting reincarnation to justify defiance, violence or terrorism.

We must be fully prepared to take the full consequences of our Karma. To go inside and listen.. We must accept communion with the unborn and  unmanifest the whisper of the soul can be heard.

As the victors at Kurukshetra  reflected

“Alas, having vanquished the foe, we have ourselves been vanquished in the end! The course of events is difficult to be ascertained even by persons endued with spiritual sight. The foes, who were vanquished have become victorious! Ourselves, again, while victorious, are vanquished!” Mahabharata Sauptika Parva Section 10

Whatsoever you experience creates its echo within you


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I find India a giant chaotic Samsara from which a few escape by looking within and find nirvana.

Family and special relationships are equally a source of ecstacy and torment, heaven and hell. India is a giant family and offers us both.

Perhaps we find tranquility in a temple, or by an artwork, where great artists have found shape for a feeling.

Osho claims, perhaps apocryphally, that  a great French artist said  “I draw pictures only to find what form a certain emotion, a certain feeling of my heart, can take on a canvas. In my efforts to express that feeling, a picture emerges.”

I cannot find the source of these words, but  find its theme true among my artist friends..

Perhaps meditating on art may reveal the feelings of the artist. In great art we see something of ourselves . For while you may see the form etched on the canvas, but concentrate and the nature of mind resonates from beneath the cross hatched lines. Consider a flower you may be drawn to the symmetry of the petals, or a beautiful face, because it corresponds to an inner image of beauty within. Or perhaps you feel the discomfort of an ugly face that challenges your ideals of beauty.

Osho instructively uses Gurdjieff  distinction of Eastern art “objective art” and Western art “subjective art.”

“Objective art, art which has some intrinsic quality which can be imparted for thousands of years. The work of art is a code word. After experiencing meditation for thousands of years, mediators’ have come to recognize that a certain posture, a certain way of sitting, a certain way of the eyes, can create in anybody a synchronicity, a sympathy; some sympathetic note can be stirred by the statue.”

In the East a statue is not made for its own sake. It is made as a code language for centuries to follow. Scriptures may disappear, languages may change, words may be interpreted. There may be disputes about theories…

But anybody who is capable of sitting silently by the side of this statue will have a certain thing stirred in the heart. This is objective art.”

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So in the Buddha statue we see an archetype, perhaps shaped and reflected by our own inner world. At times we may find this archetype in the still simplicity of the sunset, when we pause and see with no thought.

In great art the archetype remains even if scriptures are lost and doctrines misinterpreted. Sit beside as Buddha or on of the Mahavira, statues which at times look much the same:

“There is no question of dispute, there is no need of any commentary. Anybody who is capable of sitting silently by the side of this statue will have a certain thing stirred in his heart. This is objective art.”

Osho was trying to illustrate the essence behind the story and extract an inner state from his listeners. This is why some people dispute the details he gives in many of his stories.

Whatsoever you see creates its echo within you, and in some deep sense you become like that which you see.
– Osho, Hidden Mysteries, Chapter 4

If we can see the resonance of form, to find the core of our inner world, in equanimity  everything we do can be divine.

The tantra, mantra and yantra of art

The picture is itself a state that is deeper than the image. Look at photos of your last journey and you elicit memories. A photo of you meditating deeply mat licit the state anchored in your being.

“Just watching Mahavira’s statue you may fall into a meditative state. That was their original function. They were not made to be worshipped, they were made to make you aware of a certain state. The statue is of a certain state, not of a certain man; that man is irrelevant.”

Very few truly good artists, musicians or writers can create such artifacts that can give you a resonance inside you.

In a Jain temple and you will see twenty-four statues of twenty-four teerthankaras, the founders of Jainism, and you will be unable to make out any difference between them; they are all alike. Whose statue is this? Mahavir’s? Parswanatha’s? Adinatha’s?

These statues have nothing to do with the people. These statues have something to do with what was happening inside those twenty-four people, and that was exactly the same.

The point is not the form, but the archetype within. This experience is a form of tantra, or techniques for expanding your consciousness, “finding your inner sound, your inner rhythm, your inner vibration” or inner mantra.

“Once you have found your mantra, it is of tremendous help: just one utterance of the mantra and you are in a totally different world. That becomes the key, the passage, because once uttering that mantra, you fall into your natural vibe.”

The inner mantra of a mountain scene may elicit serenity within you, just as a pop song may arouse you sexually.

Similarly, the statues of a divinity, or a Buddha, or Mahavira become Yantra’s , or figures, to elicit a state from within you.

“Watching a Buddha statue is watching a yantra. The figure of the statue, the geometry of the statue, creates a figure inside you. And that inside figure creates a certain vibe. It was not just imagination that happened to you, those Buddha statues created a certain vibe in you.

Watch the state of Buddha sitting so silently, in a certain yoga posture. If you go on watching the statue, you will find something like that is happening within you too.

The outer is not the outer, and the inner is not just the inner; they are joined together. So beware of what you see, beware of what you listen to, beware of what you read, beware of where you go – because all that creates you.”

For this reason all great art eastern art is born out of meditation

They have nothing to do with religion. A certain secret science has been used for centuries so the coming generations could come in contact with the experiences of the older generations – not through books, not through words, but through something which goes deeper – through silence, through meditation, through peace.

As your silence grows; your friendliness, your love grows; your life becomes a moment-to-moment dance, a joy, a celebration.

Osho, Beyond Enlightenment, chapter 28

The Greatest Experiment in Democratic History


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I once read a report of a man who struggled miles to vote in India’s first General Election.

He arrived late. The polls were closed he was told.

Undeterred the man begged and pleaded for his chance, and the official relented directing the man so he could make his mark in history.

“Oh no, you decide!” he insisted. “I am uneducated for such matters.”

The honour of voting mattered. For so many for once people felt important.

It speaks of a time when hope still inspired but the wounds of Partition were still fresh. Angry refugees from East and West Pakistan were not yet settled in their new homes. The Andhras in the south and the Sikhs in the north were getting restive. The Kashmir question was, in the eyes of the world, still unresolved.

As the campaign commenced, Jawaharlal Nehru, had just survived a challenge to his leadership of Congress, but after Vallabhbhai Patel’s death he was both dominant figure and the target of all opposition.  Independence had not as yet made any dent in the problems of poverty and inequality, and Congress may be held responsible.

First Parliament Election Campaign (1952)

Consider the headlines during the campaign

 ‘MINISTERS FACE STIFF OPPOSITION’ read a headline from Uttar Pradesh. ‘CASTE RIVALRIES WEAKEN BIHAR CONGRESS’, read another. From the north-eastern region came this telling line: ‘AUTONOMY DEMAND IN MANIPUR’. From Gauhati came this one: ‘CONGRESS PROSPECTS IN ASSAM: IMPORTANCEOF MUSLIM AND TRIBAL VOTE’. Gwalior offered ‘DISCONTENT AMONG CONGRESSMEN: LIST OF NOMINEES CREATES WIDER SPLIT’. A Calcutta headline ran: ‘W. BENGAL CONGRESS CHIEF BOOED AT MEETING’ (the hecklers being refugees from East Pakistan). ‘NO HOPES OF FREE AND FAIR ELECTION’, started a story datelined Lucknow: this being the verdict of J. B. Kripalani, who claimed that state officials would rig the polls in favour of the ruling party. And the city of Bombay offered, at three different moments in the campaign, these more-or-less timeless headlines: ‘CONGRESS BANKS ON MUSLIM SUPPORT’; ‘CONGRESS APATHY TOWARDS SCHEDULED CASTES: CHARGES REITERATED BY DR AMBEDKAR’; and ‘FOURTEEN HURT IN CITY ELECTION CLASH’.

But there was also the occasional headline that was of its time butemphatically not of ours -notably the one in the Searchlight of Patna which claimed: ‘PEACEFUL VOTING HOPED [FOR] IN BIHAR’.

  • Ramachandran Guha

Nehru’s theme

nehruNehru’s theme of his second campaign speech, with Gandhi-like breadth delivered on the Mahatmas birthday spoke of the government’s determination to abolish both untouchability and landlordism. Communalists were the chief enemies, who ‘will be shown no quarter’, and ‘overpowered with all our strength’.  ‘If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of the Government and from outside.’

Elsewhere he deplored the ‘monster of casteism’. Congress was also a vote for its foreign policy of principled neutralism.

He was patient toward his left-wing critics, whose ends he shared but not their revolutionary means: ‘we can build the edifice of Socialism brick by brick only’, he said. He was sorry to be in opposition to the Socialist Party, which,  ‘contains some of my old intimate friends whom I admire and respect.’

He asked the women to cast off their purdahs and ‘come forward to build the country’.

He admired some of his opponents, former colleagues, like Ambedkar, Kripalani, and Jayaprakash Narayan. ‘We want a number of [such] men with ability and integrity’, he said. ‘They are welcome. But all of them are pulling in different directions and doing nothing in the end’.


The Congress symbol of a “‘Pair of bullocks carrying a yoke”

 Nehru spoke to about 20 million people directly

In the course of his campaign Nehru addressed 300 mass meetings and myriad way side ones. He spoke to about 20 million people directly, while an equal number merely had his darshan, eagerly flanking the roads to see him as his car whizzed past. Those who heard and saw Nehru included miners, peasants, pastoralists, factory workers and agricultural labourers. Women of all classes turned out in numbers for his meetings.

Sometimes there was a sprinkling of hostiles among the crowd. In parts of northern India Jana Sangh supporters shouted out at Nehru’s rallies that he was not to be trusted because he ate beef. Coming across a group of communists waving the hammer and sickle, Nehru asked them to ‘go and live in the country whose flag you are carrying’. ‘Why don t you go to New York and live with the Wall Street imperialists?’ they shot back.

But for the most part the people who came to hear Nehru were sympathetic, and often adulatory.


A Congress booklet exaggerates, but not by very much:

[At] almost every place, city, town, village or wayside halt, people had waited overnight to welcome the nation’s leader. Schools and shops closed: milkmaids and cowherds had taken a holiday; the kisan and his helpmate took a temporary respite from their dawn-to-dusk programme of hard work in field and home. In Nehru’s name, stocks of soda and lemonade sold out; even water became scarce . . . Special trains were run from out-of-the-way places to carry people to Nehru’s meetings, enthusiasts travelling not only on foot-boards but also on top of carriages. Scores of people fainted in milling crowds.

Press reported on the popular mood. When Nehru spoke in Bombay, a procession, mainly of Muslims, marched to Chowpatty to the accompaniment of pipes and cymbals. It was headed by a pair of bullocks and a plough (the Congress symbol). Everywhere, crowds started collecting from early morning for talks scheduled for the afternoon; almost everywhere, barricades were broken in ‘the enthusiasm to catch a glimpse of Mr Nehru’. After he finished his speech in Delhi, Nehru was met as he came off the dais by a famous wrestler, Massu Pahalwan, who offered him a gold chain and remarked, ‘This is only a token. I am prepared to give my life for you and the country.

The media was much taken with a Telugu-speaking woman who went to listen to Nehru speak in the railway town of Kharagpur. As the prime minister lectured on she was consumed by labour pains. Immediately, a group of fellow Andhras made a ring around her: the baby was safely delivered, no doubt while the mid wives had an ear cocked to hear what their hero was saying.

1951:The first Indians to vote

indias first ever voter

Negi, then 34, was India’s first ever volter. At 97 he voted in the 2014 elections. “Mujhe aaj bhi who din yaad hai. Woh khushi, woh garv (I still remember that day. The joy, the pride)” he said.

The first Indians to vote in a general election voted on 25 October 1951. They were a group of were a group of Buddhists in the tahsil of Chini in Himachal Pradesh, voting just days before the winter snows shut their valleys from the world.

“The villagers of Chini owed allegiance to the Panchen Lama in Tibet, and were ruled by rituals administered by local priests. These included gorasang, a religious service to celebrate the completion of a new house; kangur zalmo, a ceremonial visit to the Buddhist library at Kanam; menthako, ‘where men, women, and children climb hills, dance and sing’; andjokhiya chug simig, the interchange of visits between relatives. Now, although they didn’t as yet know it, was added a new ritual, to be performed at five-year intervals: voting in a general election.”

It was the same day that Winston Churchill returned to Office, ousting Labour in the UK General election. But the rest of India did not go to the polls until January and February 1952.

The excitement of being allowed to vote

1952 elections

A blind voter assisted at the Jama Masjid.

The highest turnout, 80.5 per cent, was recorded in the parliamentary constituency of Kottayam, in present-day Kerala; the lowest, 18.0, was in Shahdol in what is now Madhya Pradesh. Nationwide, about 60 per cent of registered voters exercised their franchise, this despite the high level of illiteracy.

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A scholar from the London School of Economics described how a young woman in Himachal walked several miles with her frail mother to vote: ‘for a day, at least, she knew she was important’. A Bombay-based weekly marvelled at the high turnout in the forest districts of Orissa, where tribals came to the booths with bows and arrows. One booth in the jungle reported more than 70 per cent voting; but evidently the electoral commissioner  Sukumar Sen had got at least some things wrong, for the neighbouring booth was visited only by an elephant and two panthers. The press highlighted the especially aged: a 110-year-old man in Madurai who came propped up on either side by a great-grandson, a 95-year-old woman in Ambala, deaf and hunchbacked, who still turned up to vote. There was also the 90-year-old Muslim in rural Assam who had to return disappointed after being told by the presiding officer that ‘he could not vote for Nehru’. A nonagenarian in rural Maharashtra cast his vote for the Assembly election, but fell down and died before he could do the same for Parliament. And there was a vindication of Indian democracy in the electoral roll of Hyderabad, where among the first who voted was the Nizam himself.

One place in which there was especially brisk polling was Bombay. Delhi was where the rulers lived, but this island metropolis was India’s financial capital. It was also a very politically aware city. Altogether, 900,000 residents of Bombay, or 70 per cent of the city’s electorate, exercised their democratic right on election day. The workers came in far greater numbers as compared to the fashionable middle class. Thus, reported the Times of India, ‘in the industrial areas voters formed long queues long before the polling stations opened, despite the particularly cold and dewy morning. In contrast to this, at the WIAA Club [in Malabar Hill], which housed two polling stations, it appeared as if people straggled in for a game of tennis or bridge and only incidentally to vote’.


A villager checking the party symbol of his prefered candidate.

The day after Bombay went to the polls it was the turn of the Mizo hills. With regard to both culture and geography there could not have been a greater contrast. Bombay had a great density of polling stations: 1,349 in all, packed into just 92 square miles; the Mizo, a tribal area bordering East Pakistan and Burma, required a mere 113 booths spread over more than 8,000 square miles of territory. The people who lived in these hills, said one scribe, ‘have not known any queues hit her to except those in battle arrays’. But they had nonetheless ‘taken a strong fancy’ to the exercise, reaching their booths after walking for days on ‘perilous tracks through wild jungles, camping at night on the way amid song and community dances around the fire’. And so 92,000 Mizos, who ‘have through the centuries decided an issue with their arrows and spears, came forward to give their decision for the first time through the medium of the ballot’.


An American woman photographer on assignment in Himachal Pradesh was deeply impressed by the commitment shown by the election officials. One official had walked for six days to attend the preparatory workshop organized by the district magistrate; another had ridden four days on a mule. They went back to their distant stations with sewn gunny sacks full of ballot boxes, ballots, party symbols and electoral lists. On election day the photographer chose to watch proceedings at an obscure hill village named Bhuti. Here the polling station was a school-house which had only one door. Since the rules prescribed a different entry and exit, a window had been converted into a door, with improvised steps on either side to allow the elderly and ailing to hop out after voting.

At least in this first election, politicians and the public were both (to quote the chief election commissioner) ‘essentially law-abiding and peaceful’. There were only 1,250 election offences reported. These included 817 cases of the ‘impersonation of voters’, 106 attempts to take ballot papers out of a polling station and 100 instances of ‘canvassing within one hundred yards of a polling station’, some of these last offences doubtless committed unknowingly by painted cows.

the biggest experiment in democracy in human historySukamar Sen Chief of election commission

Chief election commissioner Sukumar Sen

The chief election commissioner Sukumar Sen suggested the vote would be ‘the biggest experiment in democracy in human history.’

Indeed, many doubted Universal suffrage could work in a land of such high illiteracy.  A respected Madras editor complained ‘A very large majority [will] exercise votes for the first time: not many know what the vote is, why they should vote, and whom they should vote for; no wonder the whole adventure is rated as the biggest gamble in history’.

A recently dispossessed maharaja argued that any constitution that sanctioned universal suffrage in a land of illiterates was ‘crazy’. ‘Imagine the demagoguery, the misinformation, the dishonesty possible’, said the maharaja, adding, ‘The world is far too shaky to permit such an experiment.’

Even Nehru, who – unusual for politicians, could see both sides of the question – realized the problem but remained committed to universal suffrage.

His doubts disappeared with victory.

 ‘My respect for the so-called illiterate voter has gone up. Whatever doubts I might have had about adult suffrage in India have been removed completely.’


The new American ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, was also impressed. Arriving in Delhi in autumn of 1951, he confessed that he was ‘appalled at the prospect of a poll of 200 million eligible voters, most of whom were illiterate villagers’. He ‘feared a fiasco’, even (as the Madras Mail put it), ‘the biggest farce ever staged in the name of democracy anywhere in the world’. But a trip through the country during polling changed his mind. Once, he had thought that poor countries needed a period of rule by a benevolent dictator as preparation for democracy. But the sight of many parties contesting freely, and of Untouchables and Brahmins standing in the same line, persuaded him otherwise. He no longer thought literacy was a test of intelligence, no longer believed that Asia needed a ‘series of Ataturks’ before they would be ready for democracy. Summing up his report on the election, Bowles wrote: ‘In Asia, as in America, I know no grander vision than this, government by the consent of the governed.’


India has – for all her problems – remained a largely successful democracy. So many other newly formed nations have allowed military to have some say in government resulting in coups. When we consider the allegations of electoral corruption that haunt post colonial societies world over, the success of India’s first General Election stuns the imagination.

A visiting Turkish journalist admired Nehru’s decision not to ‘the line of least resistance’ and follow other Asian countries into ‘a dictatorship with centralisation of power and intolerance of dissent and criticism’.  Nehru had ‘wisely kept away from such temptations’. Yet the ‘main credit’, according to the Turkish writer, ‘goes to the nation itself; 176,000,000 Indians were left all alone with their conscience in face of the polling box. It was direct and secret voting. They had their choice between theocracy, chauvinism, communal separatism and isolationism on the one side; secularism, national unity, stability, moderation and friendly intercourse with the rest of the world on the other. They showed their maturity in choosing moderation and progress and disapproving of reaction and unrest.’

The reporters figures are a little awry: only 107 million of 176 million electors actually took the trouble to vote.  However, he was so impressed “he took a delegation of his countrymen to meet Sukumar Sen. The chief election commissioner showed them samples of ballot boxes, ballot papers and symbols, as well as the plan of a polling station, so that they could work to resume the interrupted progress of democracy in their own country.”1952_counting

Another group of heroes were praised by Lucknow sociologist D. P. Mukerji:‘great credit is due to those who are in charge of this stupendous first experiment in Indian history. Bureaucracy has certainly proved its worth by honestly discharging the duties imposed on it by a honest prime minister.’

The irony is that Nehru, when imprisoned by the Bureaucracy in 1935  complained  of the “progressive deterioration, moral and intellectual, of the higher services, more especially the Indian Civil Services.” Fifteen years later, Nehru was obliged to place the polls in the hands of men he would once have dismissed as imperialist stooges.

As Ramachandran Guhu[1] wrote “In this respect, the 1952 election was a script jointly authored by historical forces for so long opposed to one another: British colonialism and Indian nationalism. Between them these forces had given this new nation what could be fairly described as a jump-start to democracy.”

[1] This article is a precis of Ramachandan Guhu’s India after Gandhi: The history of the world’s largest democracy 2007, MacMillan, London.

Imagining Old Delhi back to life


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For millennia the iron pillar by the Qutab Minar has defied rust. It predates the tower and is full of legends. It is claimed that if a person can circle their arms around it they are legitimate, if not, they are the illegitimate offspring of their parents.

“I was sitting near the pillar writing my notes” wrote Syed Ahmad in the first  edition of his Asar-al-Sanadid[1]. of 1847, ” when suddenly several young and beautiful women arrived, and tried to encircle the pillar [with their arms in that manner]. By chance, they all succeeded except the prettiest among them. Her companions started teasing her, so much so that she was about to burst into tears. Meanwhile I was quietly sketching and writing notes. God alone knows what the women thought of me, that I was a mullah perhaps, or a spell-caster, or perhaps an attendant at the [nearby] shrine.

In any case, they turned to me and asked, ‘Miyanji, isn’t it true that anyone whose arms fail to encircle the pillar must be of illegitimate birth?’

I laughed in my heart, and told myself, ‘Now here is a task fit for a Munsif.’ Then I said to the women, ‘What you say is true for those who are above the age of twenty. Tell me if you’re that old, for only then can I say anything further.’

Since none was that old, they all burst into laughter and went away, and I returned to my own work.’ [As the poet says,] ‘When everyone sets out at dawn to do the mundane chores, those who are burdened with love trek to the beloved’s door.’

Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi

Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi

Delhi is really (atleast) eight Delhi’s. The first four Dehli’s were close to where the  Qutab Minar  now stands.The 5th was Firozabad, the 6th Pirana Qila (in present day New Delhi) and the 7th Shahjahanabad. Or what is commonly called Old Delhi.

New Delhi was built from 1911.

The first time I first rode Delhi’s underground futuristic rail, it felt distant from the class ridden chaos above ground.

I had travelled up from Pune, the home of Commonwealth Games organizer Kalmadi. People were still smarting over the corruption of the Delhi games. Kalmadi’s mistake was not corruption – everyone does that. Kalmadi broke the most important rule. Be as corrupt as you like but don’t embarrass your country or family.

The chai wallah’s and street trades that are the soul of an Indian city were moved out to make Delhi appear a modern Megacity. “What will the foreigners think” mattered more than the people.

Instead, Kalmadi’s failings left a sour taste in India’s mouth.

Playing dodgem cars with city traffic I am reminding that Delhi is a city of contrasts.

Tomb of Mirza Jahangir of Delhi

Tomb of Mirza Jahangir of Delhi

You can visit Humayan’s tomb or hear qawwali, devotional songs, at Hazrat Nizam-ud-dim Dargah. Women of different classes may pass the same desolate tree lined alley.

The pure virtuous heroine may pass the mirage of a Westernised ‘vamp’ in rubber chappals. But the haveli’s have all but disappeared down the sharply receding perspective of time.

Perhaps, for the wrong reason then, the Qutub Minar, in Mehrauli, Delhi will stand out in my memory.  Stomach griping with Agra Belly (I had drunk bad water in Agra so I can’t call it Delhi Belly) and water was out at the local shauchalay, unable to flush or wash. I am please do say I have for years never had a repeat performance, as I delight in spicy food.

However, I have since returned many times to enjoy the 1500 year old rust free miracle of Delhi’s rust free iron pillar.

Old Fort Delhi

Old Fort Delhi

First I wanted to know Old Delhi’s Spirit

So I read the history books, beginning with Asar al Sanadid. Perhaps, Syed Ahmed wrote his book in hope of gaining full membership in the Archaeological Society of Delhi which in September 1850 had only three Indian members, which included Nawab Ziauddin Khan of Loharu.  Was this why the book was dedicated it to the Metcalfe, expecting some special appreciation from the Governor General, who had recently put together a sumptuous album of Delhi’s monumental structures for his daughters in England?  Ahmed was made a member in June 1852.

Delhi painters, some well known to the author,  seem to have appreciated his work.

The first volume, of over 700 folio-size pages, was abridged in 1852 of anecdotal stories  to more scientific style with redrawn smaller images.  The first edition, published in 1833-34 when Ahmed was 54,  narrated Ahmed’s extensive travels from the age of 17. The topgraphical account also includes learned discussion and autobiography.

The Mosque of Delhi and the Iron Pillar - Mid 19th Century Watercolor of paper

The Mosque of Delhi and the Iron Pillar – Mid 19th Century Watercolor of paper

Another writer was Zainul Abidin Shirwani, who arrived in India around 1800, who claims to have spent eight years here. His book mentions over forty Indian cities, indicating those that he personally visited and the noteworthy stories he heard of others.

Shirwani spent ten months in Delhi:

Concerning Dihli. . .it’s also called Dilli. As told in the books of the Hindus, its walls in the First Age (daura-i-awwal) weremade of red ruby, in the Second of emerald, in the Third of red gold, and in the Fourth of steel. Then, as the ways and habits of the people changed the walls also changed; now they are made of bricks and stones. In the Fourth Age, a mighty king named Dihli built a city and named it after himself. Making it his capital, he resided there for long. After that it continuously remained the abode of powerful Rajas (rajaha) and Rays (rayan). After the emergence of the Exalted People, Muslim kings also made it their capital. They built so many buildings and such grand palaces that one can neither enumerate nor describe them today, even though the buildings were ravaged several times in the past. When Shahjahan, son of Jahangir, built the city anew, he named it after himself.

It is now called Shahjahanabad. Under the Gurgani kings its population so increased that the city came to be 12 farsakhs long and six wide. But ever since Nadir Shah Afshar and Ahmad Shah Afghan came here, the city has fallen into bad shape. At present it contains nearly 100,000 houses, most of them beautifully built of bricks and having two or three stories. Of these, some 10,000 are such that the least of them must have cost two thousand tumans. Then there are a thousand houses of nobles and princes that must have cost three million (si-sad hazar) tumans each. There are elegant mosques, fine Sufi hospices, attractive markets with overflowing shops, delightful gardens and orchards, and countless tombs of saints and kings. The city lies in the third clime (iqlim); its air is warm and gentle; it gets its water from wells and a river; and its soil is equally desirable. A major river flows nearby. Coming from the north, from the mountains of Kashmir, the river passes the city on its north and enters the region of Purab; there it joins with the river Ganges, and after crossing Bengal falls into the sea. Delhi stands on a plain, and huge open expanses surround it in every direction.

kasmir gate delhi 1830

The imperial fort lies to the east of the city and beside the river itself. As God is my witness, such a fort has rarely been seen or heard of in the world. Its ramparts are made of carved stones of the colour of sumac berries, and each stone is approximately a yard and a half long. There are many fine buildings within the walls, made of marble and decorated with designs contrived from many-hued stones. When [its builders] wished to make a design they first carved [the design] in the marble, and then set in place colourful stones such as cornelian, turquoise, and many others. Their work is so fine that what is merely a design appears like the real thing. There is a garden within the fort; it is small in size but grand in sight. This humble person understands that [the Emperor] spent one hundred crore rupees on the fort and the buildings in it, [including] the audience chamber, the small garden, and the garden behind the fort. And one crore equals one hundred lakhs, and each lakh equals one hundred thousand rupees, while each rupee consists of two and one-half mithqal of silver—and God knows best.

The region was for long the capital of sultans. Among them were the slaves of Ghur, the sultans of Khilj, the Qutlugh shahs, the Khizkhanis, the Lodis, the Syuris, and the Timurids. I have written about them in detail in my book, Riyaz-al-Siyahat.Because these grand kings showed favours on men of superior talent, raised armies, trained nobles, and made the needy happy with their generosity, people came to the area from most regions of the inhabited world.

They arrived, found favor,married, and settled down, particularly those from Iran, Turan, Khwarizm, Badakhshan, Turkistan, Turkey (Rum), Syria, Arabia and Europe (firang). They left their homes to find well-pleasing lives under these kings’ benevolence. Verily, the beauty of the people of that region takesmany shapes. Mostly they are of a ‘salty’ complexion and proportionally bodied. [Verse:] ‘No youth is without a tang in all of Hind; it’s as if God had washed them all with brine.’ The writer stayed in that city for ten months, interacting with the nobles and Sufis and people of every sect and group, and established friendly ties with its notable men. About some of the latter I have written in my book Hada’iq-al-Siyahat[2].

Edwin Lord Weeks – The Old Blue-Tiled Mosque Outside of Delhi, India

Edwin Lord Weeks – The Old Blue-Tiled Mosque Outside of Delhi c1883

Shirwani then writes about meeting Emperor Shah Alam II, and the famous physician Hakim Sharif Khan. He describes them more to talk about himself and his own views and also lists important people giving us a flavour of Delhi’s past glory.

The writer Abdul Qadir agrees. Delhi was not just a site of antiquities and past glory but also a place made significant by its residents. We see this when he describes how the Iron pillar in Delhi was built.

Why was Dehi’s Iron Pillar built?

Abdul Qadir writes:

The story about Raja Pithaura, who was told by his Brahmins to plant the pillar so deeply that it would penetrate the head of the mythical snake on which rested the earth.

Then he adds:

A strange story it is. The earth, according to the Hindus, rests on a snake’s head. In which case, the pillar must be bigger than either the diameter of the earth [if the earth is round] or its diagonal length [if the earth is rectangular], and the two differ only slightly. It follows then that the width of the pillar must be from China to the lands in the West. Secondly, how could the Brahmins dare to do such a thing when in the twelfth skanda of the Bhagwata—a heavenly book for them—it is declared that kingship over Delhi would shift from the Hindus to some other people? Further, according to the story of Raja Janmajaya, who used to kill all snakes, magic shall not be effective in the kaljug. It declares that [in that age] Mahadeva will so fiercely cast to the wind all magical spells that no one would be able to put together their words again.

Then there are those who say the pillar is one of the weapons used in the battle between Duryodhana and Yudhishtra; much later someone brought and set it up here. Ignoring the incredible powers ascribed to those warriors—similarly unbelievable things are found in the histories of all people—there is still another matter to bear in mind. Why would a Muslim sultan set up here a useless weapon of the Hindus? And if it were the Hindus who did it, why didn’t the pillar become an object of worship for them? For if the Hindus [supposedly] gave up the worship [in the past] fearing the Muslims, they should have commenced it again after the latter’s power declined[3].

The Rai Pithaura story is given four full pages in the first edition of Syed Ahmad ‘s work.   He personally measuring its height twice, he assures us, at ‘22 feet and 6 inches’ once with a yardstick, then again with an astrolabe[4]. In the two different volumes we find two explanations of the towers construction, revealing a change in his own thinking and differing from Abdul Qadir .

Syed Ahmad first rejects the suggestion the pillar was intended as a sundial by Sultan Mu’izuddin. He argues that indecipherable ancient text suggests an earlier date although it may have been intended a sundial and preserved with the same purpose in the mosque and to display Islam’s glory (shaukat-i-islam).

Next Syed Ahmad narrates the Rai  Pithaura story, adding:

I find only this story closer to truth. My readers may consider it only a fantastic tale (fasana), but those who study history and know astrology will surely recall that in ancient times wise men and astrologers often constructed things of that nature. When something happened to the thing they made, it foretold a greater event that soon followed, for example the replacement of one imperial rule by another. We find such matters described in reliable books of history.

Consequently, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Brahmins [of Pithaura] built something of that nature[5].

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What do modern researchers think?

One theory suggests the 7.2 meter tall  pillar (of which 1.12 meters is underground) was probably from a temple dedicated to Vishnu (the Hindu God of life & nourishment), and intended as a standard to support a figurine of hawk-faced, winged Garuda, Vishnu’s carrier, fitted in a deep socket embedded on top of the pillar.

The pillar is pinned to the ground by lead and iron projections from its buried portion.

Another theory is that the pillar itself portrayed Vishnu’s mace (“gada”) surrounded by his serrated disc (“chakra”).

Further evidence comes from the six-line three-stanza Sanskrit inscription in Brahmi script inscribed on the pillar. The inscription refers to its erection by Emperor Chandra, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, as a standard, or “Dhwaja Stambha”, in a temple called Vishnupada.

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“He, on whose arm fame was inscribed by the sword, when, in battle in the Vanga countries (Bengal), he kneaded (and turned) back with (his) breast the enemies who, uniting together, came against (him); He, by whom, having crossed in warfare the seven mouths of the (river) Sindhu, the Vahlikas were conquered; He, by the breezes of whose prowess the southern ocean is even still perfumed;

He, the remnant of whose energy – a burning splendor which utterly destroyed his enemies – leaves not the earth even now, just like (the residual heat of) a burned-out conflagration in a great forest; He, as if wearied, has abandoned this world, and resorted in bodily form to the other world – a place won by the merit of his deeds; (but although) he has departed, he remains on earth through (the memory of his) fame;

By the king, who attained sole sovereignty in the world, acquired by his very own arm and (possessed) for a long time; He who, having the name of Chandra, carried a beauty of countenance like the full moon, having in faith fixed his mind upon Vishnu, this lofty standard of the divine Vishnu was set up on the hill Vishnupada”

Uyudagiri Caves, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh

Uyudagiri Caves, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh

Palaeographically the pillar belongs to the Gupta period, but who  is ‘Chandra’: Chandragupta I, Chandragupta II, who is also called Vikramaditya, or, as some believe, Samudragupta? Vishnupada  is accepted as the temple caves of modern-day Udaygiri, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh near the famous Buddhist stupas at Sanchi.

Meera Das and R Balasubhramaniam believe the pillars position in the Udaygiri caves near Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, right on the tropic of Cancer, is where its shadow would fall at the base of a panel dedicated to Lord Vishnu at the summer solstice. 


Why no rust?

Perhaps it is Delhi’s low humidity, but the reasons remain lost in time.

How metal workers could make iron that is 99.72% pure is unexplained[6] requiring temperatures higher than generated from coal. There is some rust in the underground portion of the pillar but why it remains rust free has inspired Von Daniken to claim it has extra terrestrial origins,  for believers to affirm it was protected by regular annointings of ghee, or that it was made of meteorite material.

The primary scientific explanation combines several factors: the irons high purity with a high proportion of phosphorus and negligible sulphur and manganese, the dry, less humid climate of Delhi and less exposure to industrial pollution because it is isolated at Mehrauli, and also the enormous bulk of metal absorbs surrounding heat and releases it slowly when the temperature drops (at night) thereby ensuring it remais dry with little dew forming on the surface.


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The Beautiful City

One thing is certain. Old Delhi was a vibrant city. You see this reading another of old Delhi writers was Mirza Sangin Beg author of SairalManazil (‘A tour of the mansions).

As author C M  Naim writes[7]:

More than anything, Sair-al-Manazil is about a city throbbing with life, written by a person with a remarkably expansive view of Shahjahanabad as a habitat. It details at length the city’s various markets, and informs us where different goods are sold, and various trades practiced. It is as much a general directory of the city as a treatise on its historical buildings. As Beg guides us to some monument, he carefully points out police outposts and homes of the city’s notables—Hindu, Muslim, and British—not neglecting the homes of a few famous courtesans. His historical comments, on the other hand, are uneven in length and detail; very often the text of some inscription provides all the information.

To put the matter differently, while a historian would find Syed Ahmad’s book very useful, any novelist seeking to bring to life the Delhi of the 1820s would find in Sangin Beg a more valuable ‘helpmate’.

Sadly by tidying up his second volume, Syed Ahmad certainly becomes more historic. He omits the charming anecdote of the little girl at the Iron pillar at the Qutab commenting instead: ‘Young men try to encircle the pillar with their arms; in doing so they play a game in which the one who succeeds is considered a legitimate child of his parents, and he who fails is deemed illegitimate’.

A shame really, for I want to feel the joys and sadness’s of the lost city and relive them in my mind.

But for many years  visitors tried to encircle the pillar for luck. As the myth spread the hands that wanted to encircle it also increased. This was found to be detrimental to the pillar and since has been fenced.

In 1961, the pillar was removed for conservation work. It was later reinstalled in the same place on a new pedestal.

However, Delhi’s grandeur inspired Syed Ahmed moved to ignore the the traditional praising of Allah  with a more personal devotion:

Praise be to God, who blessed Man with such gifts as eyes and ears and intelligence and speech, so that Man could act after hearing all and seeing all, and after full consideration of the matter. And thus, enabled by God, Man discovers things that are totally amazing.

[1] Asar-al-Sanadid, p. 159. The quotes  of this article, unless hyperlinked, are from C M Naim, Syed Ahmed and his two books called Sar-al-Sanadid, Modern Asian Studies: page 1 of 40 C Cambridge University Press 2010

[2] Zainul Abidin Shirwani, Bustan-al-Siyahat, Tehran: Kitabkhanah-i-Sana’i, 1897(?)pp. 317–318.

[3] Abdul Qadir, ‘Ilm, p. 242.

[4] Asar-al-Sanadid -1, pp. 155–159.

[5] Asar-al-Sanadid, p. 158.

[6] According to Sir Robert Hadfield in 1912.

[7] C M Naim, Syed Ahmed and his two books called Sar-al-Sanadid, Modern Asian Studies: page 1 of 40 C Cambridge University Press 2010