Bhagawati writes: At times India hauntingly calls to come again and stay for a while…
Visiting Delhi over time, I have become quite fond of India’s capital. Our favourite haunt is Paharganj with its Main Bazaar, located close to the New Delhi Railway Station; the area became a hub on the Hippie trail during the seventies and remained a frequently visited spot for modern freaks and nowadays also for Russians and young Israelis.
On our last visit we decided to drop our bags again at the Hotel Metropolis which used to be a rather run-down establishment which we both like in spite of many things one could complain about; but it’s nothing when envisioning the great food served on their rooftop restaurant (since 1938!) which makes up for that. Upon arrival we found out to our surprise that the premises had been extensively renovated while leaving the rather charming ambience of old unharmed. As another plus, an Italian coffee machine has been installed providing patrons with a mean espresso or cappuccino; however, chai now comes in form of a weak tea bag with milk on the side.
Stepping out in the morning I realized that I’d forgotten about the flies – even though the nights were chilly in mid-March, they were there in the early morning sun, on the ready, hovering over bits of food and other things I didn’t care to examine.
I’d forgotten about the mud too: shop owners sprinkle the dusty and crumbling pavements with water which turns the dust into a sticky clinging mucky substance. On top of that, haphazard road works are in progress, with piles of sand and assorted building materials in the middle of the street. Around all this a maelstrom of life moves in all directions and an old elephant with a sore patch of skin on his hind leg is wandering back and forth with his mahout who invites female tourists up onto the tortured animal, not without intentionally grabbing their rear.
After a while, slightly exhausted from dodging the road works, motorbikes, cars, pedestrians, groups of brightly clad blind sannyasins, touts, beggars, women in colourful saris and large shopping bags and meandering tourists, we hail one of the irreplaceable bicycle rickshaws for the last 500 meters back to the hotel, and receive a sunny grin from the rickshaw wallah when we pay him well for his efforts.
Driving around we enjoy a Delhi that has definitely been cleaned up in several areas; an abundance of flowers and shrubs in public parks and in the centre of traffic circles are part of the beautification program. The traffic is of course chaotic; incessant horn blowing numbs the senses, and most cars have telling scratches on their sides or back fender. We take pleasure in moving about under a lovely sunny sky and a breeze, a first for us in Delhi.
One of the new wonders in this city is the world’s 12th largest metro system in terms of both length and number of stations. 2,4 million people use the underground trains daily – trains and stations are air-conditioned and the entire set-up is very aesthetic and clean (no food allowed!). The underground services take the edge off Delhi’s mammoth traffic and pollution problems which allegedly are down by a third.
The municipality’s efforts for a cleaner Delhi doesn’t stop there; large billboards among the usual depictions of politicians promising better times and Bollywood stars advertising soft drinks, encourage people “Don’t spit on the streets!” and to “Say no to plastic bags!” At the same time cows still mill around, gazing silently and meditatively at the hectic pace around them. We see two fire engines roaring down a narrow road at neck break speed – and coming to a screeching halt before turning left because there’s a cow blocking the road then and there and some bystanders gently prod her to push off. And only then do the fire engines pick up speed again.
Of course no visit is complete without dropping in at Osho World and the Osho Rajyoga Center in Safdarjang to visit Atul, Dharm Jyoti, Naina, Sakshi, and the many other friends who live and work there. Nearby there’s also Kul Bhushan’s home where his large family (all sannyasins) resides. A little over an hour’s drive to the South we also visit Oshodham, the beautiful meditation campus set in a clean, green aesthetic environment with accommodation for about 150 people to participate in meditation camps and groups. Their ongoing activities are impressive; meditators from all over India converge here and many participants also come from abroad.
The next morning at the Metropolis we decide to have breakfast in bed and call room service. Anatto says cheerfully:
“Good morning! We would like 2 butter toast, and 2 masala tea for Room 111.”
“Yes Sir, certainly Sir.”
At last the infernal doorbell installed on the door to our room goes off with one of its many moody tunes, that include happy birthday, unstoppable for at least half a minute.
The waiter brings in the tray and exits.
Looking at the tray we notice there is no milk for the tea.
Anatto calls and complains.
“Yes Sir, sorry Sir, right away Sir.”
Shortly afterwards the unnerving tune of Frère Jacques makes us jump and we open the door again. The waiter enters with the milk and in that moment we notice there’s no knife to spread the butter and Anatto runs after the waiter, loudly shouting into the hallway “The knife, where is the knife!?”
The next day we take a bicycle rickshaw down Paharganj to the New Delhi Railway Station from where the train to Haridwar departs. I’d also conveniently forgotten just how chaotic that area is. Emerging from the bazaar, we see a flurry of people and vehicles moving along and across the road and we have a hard time getting over to the station. The throng is thick with travellers, scalpers, porters, vendors, rickshaw drivers. Even though we assure everybody who asks – and there are many who do – that we indeed have tickets, scalpers insist we need tickets, and several porters want to send us to the ticket counter, trying to be helpful. Finally we find out that it is Track 11 we want. Thousands of people – us among them – are hurrying over the long bridge one way, thousands of people having just arrived coming the other way towards the exit. Over blaring loudspeakers there’s advice about security – but obviously, in this bedlam nobody listens.
As we stand waiting for our train to make an appearance we watch the sweepers with their giant brooms, working their way around entire families camped out on the platform, people sleeping on rolled-out mats, sitting on luggage, small kerosene burners being fired up to cook some food. Vendors are advertising their wares, the latest hot selling item being paper soap, thin strips that look like blotting paper to be used for washing hands. The newspaper kiosks have many Osho World Magazines with Osho’s picture on display. We stock up on small packs of potato chips and spicy Bombay Navrattana Mix.
The train rolls in, and pasted on the carriage of the battered AC2 coach is a computer print-out that has our names and ages on it; we gladly board.
There’s a sulphurous smoggy sky over Delhi but it clears up once we reach the suburbs. We miss the tempting call of “chai, chai, coffee, chai,” on the train that we are so familiar with since the seventies; nowadays it is “cheeps, pizza, tomato soup, Manchurian rice, Manchurian noodles.” Why Chinese food has taken preference over chai we don’t know or understand.
Anatto gets off the train at many of the stations the train stops at to hunt for chai, jumping in again with breakneck speed when the train starts moving. No chai to be found. We are starting to get slightly obsessed by visions of a steaming cup filled with the restorative beverage. A few times when the train starts moving again and I don’t see Anatto anywhere near our compartment, I idly wonder what I am going to do if he is left behind on the platform.
An hour later than scheduled, the train trundles into Haridwar Station. We hire a bicycle rickshaw to the Hotel Tirth painted in pink, located at the Ganga Canal which is predominantly a pedestrian area. We are being pulled through dim narrow alleys until we see the Ganga in front of us, flowing strong, majestically. A sense of having come home arises, a frequent experience for us in many places we visit in India, as if our footsteps from long ago meet up with the present, and all is one, now.
The next morning is chilly – we sit on the balcony at sunrise under blankets and see our breath as we exhale; a number of hawks are circling in the sky. We can see the bridge where the Ganga is diverted into the canal and ponder the deeper meaning of the ever flowing current. In the night we heard the monkeys on the roof making a racket. Advice has been painted on the glass of the balcony door, a warning in Hindi and in English to beware the naughty monkeys.
We watch two monkeys walk along the balcony rail, long tails swinging, looking at us. It is quite electrifying (pun intended) when one of them starts chewing on the electric cable that runs to our room…
The sacred Har-Ki-Pauri area is in walking distance. Legend has it that this is the place where Lord Vishnu first came to earth and one of the temples has an image of a large footprint by Vishnu. It is also believed that it is precisely the spot where the Ganga leaves the mountains and enters the plains. Har literally means ‘Lord Shiva’, Ki means ‘of’, and Pauri means ‘steps’.
Across the banks of the Ganga stands one of the tallest Shiva statues in India, 30,5 metres (100 feet) high. A little bit behind Har-Ki-Pauri beckons the ‘Hotel Osho’, actually owned by a sannyasin who, at the time, was not in residence.
Every day thousands of visitors to this ghat take a dip in the Ganga. The place is legendary and considered so auspicious that it is unheard of that any pilgrim would leave Haridwar without paying a visit to this ghat. The pace along the Ganga canal is leisurely in spite of the many visitors coming, dipping and leaving all day long. We watch the scene for hours and particularly love the Gangajali carriers – sellers with plastic containers of all sizes tied to their bodies which make them look like alien creatures. Most visitors buy a container or two to bring Ganga water home with them. So did we. They leaked.
Suddenly the calm is shattered when fruit cart vendors, ice cream vendors, bangle and necklace sellers, and bottle sellers make a beeline downstream, real quick; dozens of vendors who had been sitting tranquil on the pavement with their wares spread out on a tarpaulin roll it up in seconds with the merchandize inside and dematerialize. We see three policemen with lathes coming down the sidewalk and threatening the few who didn’t get away fast enough.
Merely twenty minutes later the police have gone and all vendors are back in place.
Towards evening we stroll to the upper Ghat to experience the aarti, the spectacular fire ceremony. Money collectors armed with receipt books try to get money out of every visitor – and in particular foreigners – for various causes such as ghat maintenance, orphanages, and the poor. A few men are in charge for the seating order along the steps, shouting like drill sergeants at everybody to move closer. By 6.30 pm, just after sunset, everybody must be seated. Loud speakers broadcast devotional chants in praise of Ganga Maiya (born from the divine feet of Lord Vishnu), and Shiva. The voice of the inimitable singer Anuradha Paudwal and the famous song Ganga Aarti is unforgettable.
Swaying priests move about huge and heavy-looking candelabras in an olden pattern, seemingly oblivious to what must be enormous heat emanating from the high blazing flames. Temple gongs start ringing and the chants of thousands of pilgrims fill the night air. When the moment comes for the priest to sprinkle water at the general populace in a gesture of blessing, the crowd surges; a religious stampede seems underway and there is no visible gap offering a way out. Mesmerised we surge with the crowd and soon it disperses. Very touchingly, many people gently lower bowls made of leaves holding earthen diyas (small oil lamps) with burning wickers and flowers as a symbol of hope and wishes into the water which instantly shines golden, reflecting the dancing flames.
The next day we stroll along the sweltering busy sidewalk, give baksheesh to a Sadhu, buy a flower offering and tenderly lower it into the fast flowing river. The streets of Bara Bazaar are crowded; abruptly the electricity goes off and we see the cause – a large white monkey with a long furry tail, now hanging very dead among the wires of the pylon where he had been jumping about. We pass the many small shops offering glittering devotional ornaments, gadgets, coloured powder, chutneys, yoghurt, fruit. Anatto buys some ”ekdam sweet” oranges but shies away from the gooey deep-fried gulab jamun swimming in syrup.
From our aerie at the hotel we see all day long people taking dips along the banks, ostensibly more men than women, and the latter fully dressed; men and boys wear bathing trunks or underwear. The walkways along the river banks are paved with marble and cleaned daily with the aid of large hoses and squeegees, the water being brought up by pump from the Ganga.
Another day, and another walk through the bazaar. So many hands or plates are pushed towards us, begging for alms; so many crippled people, so many Sadhus walk the walk. Cows are sourcing food, cobras are being shoved at us in a rather aggressive manner that I take a leap backwards at times. Several men peddle thick black stick-on moustaches and beards and also offer them to me; of course Anatto is spared, he sports his own. Driving serenely on a brand new motorbike, an impossibly skinny Sadhu passes by, complete with shiva top knot and mala, his skin whitened by ash and draped with a classic piece of tiger skin. And, not surprisingly, he has a mobile phone in one hand.
Later, proceeding to the central rickshaw stand we strike a bargain with one of the drivers to get us to Sri Anandamayee Ashram; he confirms, “Eighty Rupees only, Sir, yes, both ways.” The road is typically in bad shape yet behind the simple shops and houses I glimpse beautiful mogul-style buildings; all incredibly run down they still show signs of former grandeur and beauty. Many of the walls are painted with now faded court scenes, and there’s an abundance of stone lattice work and carvings. I can see in my mind’s eye the former beauty of the inner courtyards that must have been part of the original architecture.
We arrive at the large marble mausoleum located at the outskirts of Haridwar. When we ask the driver to wait for us, he has second thoughts about the fee. “It will be 140 Rupees, Sir, for both ways.” We agree.
Visitors are welcome to step inside and encouraged to wash hands and feet. The samadhi is decorated with flowers, and there’s a carpet in front to sit for meditation; men and women sit separately. Painted murals on the walls show scenes from Ananda Mayee’s life from birth to enlightenment, her work, and death. We enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, the smooth cool marble under our feet. An orange sun goes down bathing the white marble in its light.
Upon return we pay the driver and he says, “There is an additional fee, Sir, for waiting at the ashram. This will be thirty Rupees more, Sir.” Anatto’s eyes widen and, silently chuckling, he hands over the money with a straight face.
To be continued…
Bhagawati is a regular contributor
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