If you’re studying a nation’s literature, it’s best to know that nation’s language. English literature finds definition in its mother tongue, despite the linguistic leap from Shakespeare to Zadie Smith. American literature, whose myriad dialects are called upon by Walt Whitman, John Ashbery, and Nikki Giovanni, rests comfortably in its native discourse. Langston Hughes states complex emotions–“America never was America to me”–while writing poems understood across the United States.
The Indian literary language is no one’s language–because it doesn’t exist, because there is no one Indian language. How, then, can anyone write Indian literature?
Studying the history of Indian literature shows us how the study of English literature developed into a discipline, as the very study of literature was created in India via British imperialism. But, in typical Orientalist fashion, it tells us little about Indian literature itself. This development does show, however, that the creation of “Indian literature,” was, at its root, deeply political.
India once recognized Hindi as the national language and vestiges of this policy persist. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently expressed a request for government documents and social media to use Hindi, although a large number of Indian citizens don’t speak the language. One of the main languages of south India is Tamil; Kolkata primarily hosts Bengali speakers. Modi’s political premise simplifies reality; literature develops a space not to represent reality “as it is,” but to examine the many realities one can experience.
Some Indian literature, of course, is written in Hindi. But to say that Hindi could ever be the main language of Indian literature rings false. Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most famous poet, wrote in Bengali and, with the assistance of W.B. Yeats, translated his own work into English almost a year before receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. Many contemporary Indian writers have work translated into English or compose in English.
This literary linguistic wrestling is not unfamiliar to other countries–Joyce, for example, faced the problem of contributing to Irish literature while writing in English. Prominent Indian writers working in the mid-twentieth century, including Kamala Das and Eunice de Souza, also wrote in English. There are two possible explanations for writers choosing English. The first involves an Indian writer claiming the historical oppressor’s language as his or her own language to subvert power roles. The second explanation for choosing English reflects the writer’s desire to reach a wider, international audience. Tagore might have never received the Nobel Prize if he didn’t undergo the work of translating his Gitanjali. This past year, the Indian-born Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. 3 Sections features English-language poems.
But to claim that English might be the language of Indian literature is also untrue. While Oxford University Press publishes Indian literary anthologies and Indian novelists like Chetan Bhagat pen popular English paperbacks, the diversity of literature written using Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, and other Indian languages cannot be understated. One of my favorite recent books of Indian poetry comes from N.D. Rajkumar, a fiery Dalit poet whose work was translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy. His Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh blows most Indian writing in English out of the water.
Another radical work comes from Meena Kandasamy, whose Ms. Militancy challenges caste and Hindu mythology using a feminist lens while resisting academic theory. The poems are composed in English. Comparing N.D. Rajkumar and Kandasamy shows one advantage of English writing: although both live in the state of Tamil Nadu, Kandasamy was a guest lecturer at the University of Iowa International Writing Program and Rajkumar works as a “daily wage labourer in the Railway Mail Service in Nagercoil.”
The linguistic complexity of India, in a sense, helps an American reader resist Orientalist views of India and ideally read against tokenism. Anyone who simplifies a nation’s discourse misreads that nation. When you’re reading the texts of a recently created nation like India, which was only founded in 1947, you must know the political, historical, and linguistic backdrop, or you will miswrite what you read.
This post was originally published on The Ploughshares Blog
John Rufo is a creative writing major with a poetry emphasis. He co-runs Red Weather, the literary arts magazine of Hamilton College, with Zoë Bodzas. Outside of Hamilton, he writes a regular blog for Ploughshares and interns for Maggy, an online poetry journal. His other published work can be found at Entropy and Queen Mob’s Tea House.
The Taj’s Southern-facing wall is glowing, reflecting the orange October sunrays blasting in from the Eastern horizon and breaking through the morning haze. She is unrestrained from above, scraping the clouds with the tip of her onion dome; from below, her base is framed by a line of one hundred bobbing heads silhouetted against her marble exterior. Now, at 6:11am, the gates are open and the tourists flood in.
Professional-grade cameras hang securely around their amateur photographer necks; stylish stiletto heels poke holes through the mandatory and universal white shoe-nets; age-old Hindi words are butchered by every accent and inflection… no one can pronounce her name.
These tourists are the try-hards . They wake up at 5am to make the Taj line by 6, they munch on their breakfast cereal in Ziploc bags while waiting for security check, and they page through their expensive guide books as they step through the iconic South Gate. They’re the Taj Mahal door-busters; there is no effort lacking from this crowd. A Chinese woman spins slowly as her five family members incorrectly wrap her brand new purple sari; two Spaniards stand before the ancient calligraphy and flip franticly through their translation dictionary; an American mother lays on the ground to capture the perfect angle of her daughter “holding” the Taj with her 7-year-old fingers.
They press grimy toddler palms onto the pure white marble walls, ignoring the inlayed stonework design underneath. For them, the Taj is a purely visual experience. Their perpetually snapping cameras do not capture the tomb’s history or purpose. Most of these folks are unlikely to produce the names Mumtaz Mahal or Shah Jahan when referencing the ancient Mughal emperor and his late wife on account of whom the Taj now stands. They will not recite the circumstances of construction, or Shah Jahan’s monumental dedication to the deceased mother of his 14th child. With their heads turned 90 degrees upward, few will identify the interior ceiling as a false dome typical of Timurid revival architecture or the black bands of calligraphy on the walls and floor as poetic Quranic excerpts. With their eyes glued to the northern wall, they fail to notice the mysterious adjoining Moonlight Garden nestled quietly behind them on the Yamuna’s opposite bank.
“It is the Taj’s image that India uses to market itself to the world,” asserts Dr. Basu of St. Lawrence University, and these people are the ideal consumers. They are among the 7 and 8 million tourists who will visit the Taj Mahal this year, as estimated by the Uttar Pradesh Department of Tourism. They constitute the majority who will visit in the colder month of October. If they are a typical group, just over ten percent of them will be joining the Taj from overseas today. They are predictable, standard, and altogether individually insignificant. However, they contribute something important to India in the form of economic benefits; worldwide, India ranks 14th for tourism’s contribution to GDP, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. The Taj Mahal is the nation’s largest tourism attraction. In return, these travelers will leave here today with approximately 200 new photos on their cameras and a story to tell their friends back home. They can check “India” off of their bucket lists.
They’re bumbling, confused, and frantic; but beyond all of this, they’re still here. They came to India today and they are giving the Taj Mahal some precious moments of their lives. Although each of their respective afros and ponytails now add to the mass of bobbing heads blocking a pure view of the Taj, this place would not be the same without them. Without the guidebooks and pamphlets, or the hotel shuttle-buses and camera-film kiosks, the Taj would not be the spectacle it is today. They add something here as they take their photos and memories away with them. Without these people to love it, the “Seventh Wonder of the World” might not seem quite so wonderful.
Emma Cummings-Krueger studies English-Writing and Environmental Science at St. Lawrence University, with a concentration in Java Barn concerts. She is a Minnesotan with a well-hidden accent, an avid soup and momo (dumplings) eater, and a secret stray dog petter. While in India, Emma is exploring the impacts of climate change on public water access and use.
Following the western winds breezing through the state of Rajasthan and deep into the arid mountains surrounding the town of Pushkar there is a lake that is scattered with floating pink flower petals and filled to the brim with prayers. Unlike other lakes, the lake identifies with the Hindu creator-god Brahma and the lake’s waters are said to cleanse away sickness of the mind, body, or soul. It is Pushkar Lake. Smooth marbled Ghats, shaded under canopies of worship, enclose the boundaries of the lake’s rippling waters. Pushkar Lake is included in the top pilgrimage sites in all of India. The soft tones of liquid blue and hum of the wind off circulating waves, make the religiously significant site a pleasant contrast to the background of the town of Pushkar which are filled with constant bustling movement, ringing of bells, and shouts from people. Escaping the crowded streets and working my way down the soft stairs to the river’s edge it was there, along the sacred waters of Pushkar Lake, that I found my ability “to see”.
In the Indian context “seeing” is another form of touching, knowing, and seeing “the truth”: it is called darśan. Diana L. Eck, author of Darśan: Seeing The Divine Image In India Eck illustrates the deeper meaning behind the action of “seeing”: “Darśan is sometimes translated as the ‘auspicious sight’ of the divine, and its importance in the Hindu ritual complex reminds us that for Hindu’s ‘worship’ is not only a matter of prayers and offerings and the devotional disposition of the heart” (Eck 3). I often wondered if I would ever be able to fully understand the power of darśan
There are many darśanas or “points of view” of what we know to be the truth. I have never considered myself a religious person. I ground myself in methodical thinking and reasoning. That day, however, sitting on the Ghats of the lake, I found my truth through the translation of worship and participating in my first puja. This is my truth, my darśan.
A holy man in all white sat down next to me. Handing me a tin plate he introduced himself as one of the river’s Brahmans and asked me to repeat after him, speaking the mantra to the god Brahma. While repeating the mantra my thoughts escaped the small compartment, where I had stored them long ago and penetrated my every sense. I heard my breathing change tempo, slowing to a steady beat. I felt the hair on my arms lengthen. I tasted the salt in the wind, a mixture of wet heat and particles of sand. I smelled the sweetness of the flowers. I was captivated in a spiritual cleanse. Releasing the collection of offerings into the river along with my prayers for myself and my family I saw the flower petals, granulated sugar, white rice, red and yellow turmeric flow into the water and sink away with the rest of worshippers’ voices and prayers.
After I finished my prayer, the once peaceful red-cheeked Brahman priest turned to me with piercing eyes. “You must go now and donate,” he said, gesturing up to the top of the Ghats where a golden donation booth stood. “But I have no money,” I replied. I looked up the marbled Ghats to where a cluster of devotees had gathered, emptying their pockets for donations. Turning my head back to the river filled with rose petals flowing away in the river’s waters, a shadow felt across the lake from an overhanging cloud. In that moment of grey I imagined Brahma himself looking down at me, me and my empty hands. I then realized that beyond the pressure to donate, that puja was an honor and act of worship in-itself. Just because I didn’t have the means to give a donation didn’t mean that my actions were then unqualified. Most importantly, I remembered the meaning of darśan. What I had found during my moment of worship was something that only I was able to interpret and “see” for myself. One of Eck’s messages in her writing, she explains the idea of hermeneutic, the task of understanding ideas and texts through self interpretation, “…the task of developing a hermeneutic of the visible, addressing the problem of how we understand and interpret what we see, not only in the classical images and art forms created by the various religious traditions, but in the ordinary images of people’s traditions, rites, and daily activities which are presented to us through the film-image” (Eck 14). This is what I’ve learned to be my truth, by participating in a spiritual Hindu tradition and going through the motions of sharing my prayers with the god Brahma I had given apart of myself to him along with my offerings. The chance I took at participating in a religious experience overpowered the guilty feeling afterwards I had by not donating. I found the ability to see my offering as being something much larger than myself and realizing that that truth outshined any other action I could have participated in that day. I saw I could find something of substance and something higher to believe in. That ability to overcome my previous notion that I would never find something religiously moving was shattered and I couldn’t have realized that if I hadn’t gone through the motions of my puja on Pushkar Lake.
Rosalind Gray-Bauer is from Cape Elizabeth, Maine and a junior at Hobart and William Smith Colleges pursuing major in Psychology and minors in English and Environmental Policy.
I can’t take my eyes off of her. A grey braid curls down the left side of Usha Ramanathan’s face and down her back, which is covered in an orange, vertically striped sari. She wears no jewelry, nothing to distract from the importance of her words. Her dark eyes are framed by just enough makeup to make them severe, yet still subtle enough to remain soft. In between her eyes at the confusion crease of her eyebrows there is a large red Bindi. Her mouth is slanted to the right, and the edges turn upward as she tells us a story from her childhood. She speaks of standing with her father and looking up in amazement at a newly constructed dam, or as she puts it, one of the “temples of India,” a reference to Jawaharlal Nehru’s championing phrase of development after Independence. The wrinkles at the corners of her eyes remind us of the laughter that sporadically erupted from her lovely open-mouthed smile as she explains, “then I grew up” and realized the true implications of projects such as these. After childhood, Usha has dedicated her life as a law expert to fighting for the disenfranchised poor, who are harmed by the environmental or cultural destruction of projects such as this dam. “Someone has to make sacrifices,” she explains, “but you think the government will take care of you in some way,” and that is what she analyses, how well the government is protecting its citizens through the law, writing and debating about the issues. The motion that accompanies her laugh is the fastest she allows herself. Normally, she sits straight and motionless in her chair, making subdued hand gestures to emphasize her words, her arms still rested on the table. Eyes locked on yours as she listens, bobbling her head and writing down notes, ending with a final nod that validates what has been said; her stare makes you sit more erect in your chair.
From the YWCA conference room where we sit squished around the long pieced-together table you can sometimes hear protests taking place in front of the police barracks on Parliament Street. Just the day before while walking back to the hotel, we stumbled upon a protest against the martial law imposed on the people of Manipur, a minority group in Northern India. It seems to be the perfect setting for her to tell us about her time working as a consultant advocating for tribal rights with the Center for Study of Developing Societies. The three-person team was investigating the violations of the Supreme Court Ruling on the Forest Rights Act by the Orissa Mining Company. The problem was that the Orissa state government, located in eastern India, had granted the Orissa Mining Company a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), a reprieve from regulation, without properly consulting the Dongria Kond people that lived on the mountainside. Unfortunately, she says matter of factly, “if you don’t have the money, you can’t be legal.” I can only imagine her power when she is actually trying to be assertive, because I already find myself willing to bend over backwards to do what she tells me. During her research every person she spoke with said that they had either not been consulted or were denied a claim under the Forest Rights Act for small technicalities. For the Dongria Kond peoples, Niyamaraja, a God, lives on top of the mountain, where the mine was. Also, though the mine itself was not literally displacing them, they were being displaced indirectly by the environmental affects. Ramanathan wrote a scathing report about the failures of the government towards the Dongria Kond people.
One of her most well known conflicts has been the work she has and continues to do for Bhopal gas leak victims. The Bhopal gas tragedy took place in 1984 in Bohpal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, India. Malfunctions at Union Carbide India Limited pesticide company allowed methyl isocyanate gas to pass into the city through the shanty town, immediately killing up to 8,000 people in the first twenty four hours, and over 20,000 since: the environmental contamination is still present today. “The workers will live in the shanty town around it and the managers will commute,” she says with a devious smile as she explains why the legal outcome of this leak was what it was. Ramanathan has a way of telling us about seemingly despairing situations while grinning because they are so messed up there is nothing to do but laugh. I realize that I do the same thing. Union Carbide denied that there was any problem with the valves, even though safety deficiencies had been documented by past inspection and the February inspection slip was signed in January. Usha states the facts with brutal honesty, that often “the human body [the poor body] becomes the commons of the global economy.” After Union Carbide paid a settlement in 1989 of 470 million U.S. dollars to the Indian Supreme Court they sold the company to Dow Chemicals, a company in the United States. But, the judge in the United States, John F. Keenan, dismissed 145 cases and transferred litigation back to Indian Courts, where convictions for the responsible parties were not made until twenty five years later: they were released on bale almost immediately afterwards. Ramanathan has pointed out the breakdown of the law at all points of the tragedy.
But, Ramanathan ends with the truth that she is not often in a position of systemic power, and neither will we if we fight for similar issues. She laughs while telling us a story of speaking with a man against whom she would never win, “When the other person has the power, you have to have something else.” She spoke about how she just stood up straight and pretended she was powerful: now I understand her comportment. But, by the end of her lecture her body softens, humbles, as she chuckles, “I don’t know if I’ve helped the poor” but “I work on those issues and I care enough.” She ends with a word of encouragement, which feels like a gift from a woman who so thoroughly intimidated me earlier. She says, “if we have not reached doom yet it’s because we were the friction.”
Anna Juniper Kowanko is a junior at St. Lawrence University and a combined environmental studies and sociology major. She enjoy long walks along the Ganga and eating pakoras. When she is not researching farmers’ rights and policy, she is bargaining with rickshaw drivers and finding new and exciting ways to wear a dupatta. But, at the end of the day, she is still serious about learning (and not getting Giardia).
Nestled in the Aravalli hills of the Indian desert state, Rajasthan, about ten kilometers outside the city boundaries of Jaipur lay the ancient Hindu pilgrimage site known as Galta ji, or to the surrounding locals, “The Monkey Temple,” which was built by Diwan Rao Kriparam, an attendant to Sawai Jai Singh II, in the eighteenth century.
My encounter with this holy site had been quite accidental. My roommate Mallory and I were enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon wandering around Bapu Nagar, near the heart of the city of Jaipur. We had planned on a day of window shopping and discovering our new home that day. Having only arrived the week before, we hadn’t realized that most of the shops were closed on Sundays. Dejected, we wandered into an old park and called up our friend Vinay, who we met a few days ago at a BMW launch party with our host family.
Vinay picked us up in his white Santa Fe SUV near a shining lacquered jewelry store on Tonk road. I climbed in the back seat and felt the rush of manufactured cold air blast against the trickling sweat rolling down my back under my kurta. Vinay insisted that we go to this wonderful “natural” place right outside the city.
Rolling along the streets of Jaipur, I notice the scenery beginning to change. Dusty cows eating trash by the road, bullock carts selling fresh fruits, honking cars and traffic jams make way for winding gravel mountain passes lined with lime green flora and short glimpses of towering mountains. A woman in a neon pink sari and sun leathered skin balances a sheet-wrapped basket upon her head. Vinay beeps casually in her direction. Even the foot traffic becomes sparse as we near closer to our destination. As the tangled branches fly by the car window, I catch a glimpse of a male peacock spreading his feathers wide; his glimmering blue body stands bright against the monotone green.
We arrive in front of the temple complex, and a cluster of brown, black and white cows mingle in front of the car aimlessly, as Vinay beeps louder than ever in their direction. We park, hop out of the car and stroll down the road laden with puzzle piece cobblestones. I crane my neck upward to take in the splendor of my surroundings. Jagged mountains dip and slope down toward rows of magnificent dusty ochre temples leading all the way up a mountain just before me. The painted walls, Islamic arches and rounded onion domes look minuscule against the imposing natural elements hovering above. The afternoon sun casts an orange glow upon the mountains below a baby blue cloudless sky. Monkeys swing and straddle columned stone banisters and stare at the passerby, which are mostly Indian pilgrims and a few western tourists.
We hike up the sloping road until we reach a set of stairs crawling with swarms of rhesus monkey families and tourists ogling at them and snapping photos. Potbellied Hindu ascetics with streaks of orange vermillion between their brows solicit tourists into their shrine to Ram, Shiva, Hanuman or Ganesh. Ascetics of this kind have been retreating to this site since the early 1500s, before the complex was even built.
Bare-chested boys splash in the turquoise water as others marvel. An endless stream trickles from a “gaumuk” or cow’s head through the mountain and into the pool. The temple complex was built in this specific crevice for the natural spring that flows here. We climb the steps to the first of the seven water tanks known as kunds and make our way up to the holiest of the seven pools, the Galta Kund. It is magnificently still and strangely free of pilgrims, although it is considered auspicious to bathe in the only water tank in the site that has never gone dry.
Galta Kund’s auspicious nature comes from the legend of Saint Galav, the temple’s namesake. He came to this site and performed tapasya, which is a form of deep meditation to achieve self-realization, for one hundred years until the gods took notice of his deeds and granted him a limitless natural spring of eternal flowing water. The water is also known to have curative powers. Monkeys linger on the fence idly and stare at us. The water is flat as glass and reflects an intricate mirror image of the carved temple molded into the ancient mountain. For once this busy site is serene and still.
Alexandra Kamakas is from Portsmouth, New Hampshire and studies English Literature and Art at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. She will be graduating from St. Lawrence in December of 2014. On her semester abroad in India, she is conducting a semester long creative writing project on the different concepts of yoga in India compared to her experience with yoga in the United States.
Walking down a dirt blown road in the desert village of Chaksu, a small farming town about 35 km south of Jaipur, I easily miss the path to the top of a lonely hill where the goddess Sheetla, also known as Shitala, sits. It is the tattooed camels, humped over beside the gated entry that grab my attention and make me realize the temple’s entrance. The black and white marble stairs snake up the middle of the hill and I begin to climb them. The steps are long and wide, allowing my large 10 shoe sized feet to fit comfortably on each step. A brass banister divides the inclining walkway in half, my hand slides along it while I walk up.
Within minutes the tree line vanishes and when there are no more steps to climb I realize I am at the top. I turn my head and spread out below me like a homemade herbal quilt is the India one dreams about before going to sleep. A neatly sewn patchwork of flattened farm land, pruned out fields, and sinking low reservoirs. A river cuts through the central Rajasthani desert, along with single-laned roads that lead to tiny clusters of makeshift houses. The tiger’s eye sun, inching closer to the horizon as dusk quickly approaches, makes the green fields golden and the river to the West shine like wet paint.
At the top of the hill, in the near center of it, stands a small temple. It has a steep, octagonal roof, with four golden suns nailed under its beams facing each of the four directions. The temple is made up of marble arches, but no true walls. Pink and elaborate jali screens hold in the Devi Sheetla as she sits upon her throne, behind broken desert boulders and dried up flower petals. Under the mosaic like ceiling, intricate paintings of the colorful Hindu gods and goddesses catch my eye as I lay my head upon the pink railing to pray. There is a pink offering box to my left side and a man, maybe a priest, who stands within the temple points to it. I shake my head slowly, my black eyelashes flashing downward in guilt; I left my money on the seat of the bus. A prayer is all I can offer, so I close my eyes and pray.
Sheetla is the Hindu goddess who is widely worshipped throughout Northern India and up into Nepal and Pakistan, as the goddess of sores, ghouls, and diseases. She is the “pox-goddess,” if one is sick they turn to Sheetla. In Sanskirt, Sheetla literally means “one who cools” and she is most known for her remedial powers in curing smallpox, measles, and chicken pox. Worshippers often refer to her as ma, or mother, “mata”. Laura Desmond mentions in her lecture titled “Hindu Goddesses” that Sheetla is one of the goddesses who is most popularly worshipped in the small farming or tribal villages of India. Being worshipped by villagers, she has the power to be the “inflictor of disaster and the protector from it.” I understand now how one tiny temple, sitting alone on top of a hill in a desert town, can mean and do so much for the villagers below it. Sick villagers from below will climb the steep steps and ring the brass bell dangling over their bowing heads, calling Sheetla’s attention onto their arrival. They will then ask for her healing powers and abilities, not forgetting a few rupees or a single string of orange marigolds that they will make as an offering back to her. Sheetla must hear and grant plenty of prayers as there is a yearly fair and pilgrimage dedicated to her, known as the Sheetla Mata. In the Hindu month of Chaitra, from mid-March to April, as many as two to three thousand people crowd on top of this tiny hill to pray for their body’s own rejuvenation and good health from the goddess. A cattle fair and temporary market is set up in the concrete buildings that shoulder the temple below, that when not in use the poor are grateful for as they set up their tattered tents and shanty like homes around the beams.
Written across the white pillared beams of the temple is a repeated phrase that I try to make out with the little Hindi I know. I try to sound out the curvy loops, tracing my hand across each letter, puttering out each syllable of the script. A young Indian man comes up behind me, “slogan, goddess,” he says and points to the phrase. “What does it mean?” I ask. “Mata, Mata,” He says back. If there is one word I know in Hindi it is mother, pronounced in English like you forgot the h, the r, and the harshness of its vowels. Mata. One word every human should know despite their language or religion or landscape. Mata. I like the way it sounds. The way it slips off my tongue like any disease may slip out of the body by uttering a prayer to Sheetla. You just have to say it once and then automatically you want to say it again. Mata Mata. The west wind blows my dupatta off to the side and then grabs my muttering words, the goddess’s mantra, and spreads them into the air like a virus. Mata Mata.
Wind blows the strongest at higher elevations. Prayers need to be blown into the wind, up into the sky, to be heard by the gods. I am not sure if Sheetla heard my prayer that evening. The next day I woke up with a head dripping cold. Then again I should have known better than to pray for rain.
Mallory Garretson is a senior at St. Lawrence University, majoring in English (Creative Writing) and Environmental Studies. In India she is studying Hindu Pilgrimages and the effects of pollution on them, along with river pollution issues. Her focus of study has been Benaras/ Varanasi. She loves to run, hike in the Adirondack, write, listen to records, and take pictures on her disposable camera. Some day She would ideally like to write for National Geographic
I had been enlisted as the man guide for a day of adventuring with Marie and Michelle. We planned to brave danger, chart new territories, and go where no tourist has ever gone before. So I call up my rickshaw walla friend, Jonti. He and I go way back. I met him about three weeks ago, and this long history has earned me the title of “brother” in his eyes. He picks me up at quarter past eleven, embraces me in a hug, and we take off to Raja park, where we park and wait for the ladies. Two cups of tea, a cigarette, and half an hour later, they show up and we are off and rolling again. The day is still young, the sun is hot, and we are ready to see the unseen. We are young, fearless, and looking to fill in the blanks left behind by the authors of Lonely Planet. So naturally, we head for the monkey temple.
We cruise ten kilometers down dusty highways, past camels and elephants, busses full of pilgrims (they probably weren’t, but it sounds cool), motorbikes transporting as many as four souls, and many stray dogs. Traffic thins; we roll of the road onto unpaved ground. The rickshaw put, put, putters as we struggle up an incline. Ah! This is what I was looking for! We’re off the beaten path now! An orange (not pink!) sandstone gate rises above the earth in the distance. Still the machine struggles for altitude. Jonti, works his way through the gears, easing on and off of the clutch. The man is a genius, if anyone can make that old metal girl move he can. And he does, for soon enough I see the monumentous rock of human creation standing over me like a giant doorway through which we cross into the Planet of the Apes. As we do so, I stare up at the mountainous pile of land which we must ascend to reach the noble temple. It stares back down at me, as I bake in the mid noon sun, a dust covered man surrounded by the nothingness of the desert, with sweat in his eyes and the fear of god in his heart.
But I must be strong, for I am the protector of the women on this journey into the wild. So I step out of the rickshaw, and greet the challenge. I give Jonti some cash and ask him to wait for us. It is agreed. Men call to me from the steps of the concrete shacks which line the dirt road, right up to the base of the mountain. They try to sell me water, trinkets, and monkey food. They are trying to capitalize on my impending doom. This is the dog eat dog world we live in, and though principles beg for me to discourage this behavior, the harshness of our voyage does not allow for principles. So I exchange thirty rupees for a bottle of water and a package of peanuts. If we get lost, we can eat the nuts. If lower primates try to eat our faces off, we will distract them with food. It is fail proof.
So we begin the ascent. As we do, a young Indian man, about my age tags along. “The monkeys are dangerous” he tells me as if I needed to be informed. “I will show you how to feed them”. Not a bad idea. So I allow his company. We are walking up a poorly cobbled road which ascends into the wildness. As we are about to round the first switchback, a herd of monkeys surrounds us. Our companion tells us to remain calm, as he takes a peanuts in his fingers and reaches out to the nearest red faced, furry, humanoid beast. The monkey hurriedly grabs the protein pack and cracks the shell in his hands. Our friend tells us not to put the nuns in the palm of our hands, since the monkeys will scratch us in an attempt to snatch the stash. I obey his command, since rabies is not on my “must experience in India” list. After snapping a few photos, and feeding the vermin, we are ready to move on to the next daring feat.
Our guide points to the temple on the hill, which we understand to be the famed “monkey temple”. He asks us, do we want to take the easy route or the difficult route. I tell him that we come from the land of the free where the motto of the young is “YOLO”, so naturally we want to push the limits of mankind’s ability and cheat death in the most daring of directions imaginable. So, we leave the cobbled path, and begin down a barely blazed trail through the bush. The way is steep, the vegetation is thick and prickly, tugging at our loose clothing and the long hair of the ladies. Our friend casually tells us to watch for snakes, and I flash back to a fun fact that there are over 100 species of poisonous reptiles in India. Michelle is not pleased by this trivia. “Never fear” I tell her, “the value is found in the survival of hardship”. Onward and upward we climb, until after a grueling seven minutes, we reach the humble summit.
We step back onto the cobblestone path which leads up to the iron gate. The temple is surrounded by a sandstone wall, on which hangs a blue and white sign, decorated with bird droppings. The sign lets usknow that this is a protected monument Built by an envoy to the Mhugal court and any attempt to alter, destroy, deface, remove, or otherwise screw with said monument is a punishable offense. Why I wonder, was a temple to an embodied deity built by the Mhugals, who were known for their destruction of such Hindu temples? Regardless, my devious intentions are checked at the gate where I leave my trusty Tevas, and as we enter, I wonder if it will be the wrath of man or god that would reprimand such blasphemy. The temple is not too remarkable; it is smaller than others that I have seen. But the location gives it character and authority. It has the classic shape of a Hindu temple, with a single marble tower of four steep rising sides rising about ten meters into the sky. The base is ornately carved, with two tiger shaped creatures guarding the entrance. It is less than average in size, compared with all other temples more formidable than a roadside shrine. But the contrast of the rising spire against a backdrop of the buzzing, beeping city in the not so distant valley gives a sense of importance to this place.
Two girls come out of the doorway of the temple to greet us. One looks to be about seven years old, and she is slim and smiling. The other looks to be about thirteen or so. She is plump and wears thick rimmed “hipster” glasses. Both are barefoot, but the latter appears to be wearing cleaner clothes than the former. They greet us with a “Namaste” and a bow of the head, which we return, and they beckon us into the temple. We follow their lead. There are metal doors on the far wall, and the inner left wall of the temple. Both sets of doors are rusty and dented. The girls hurriedly split up to each unlock one set of squeaky doors which they theatrically throw open before jumping out of the way to reveal the contents. Where I expect to see the orange figure of Hanuman, god of monkeys and strength, I instead see the above image facing me. The older girl sees a pensive look on my face, and explains “the doors keep the monkeys out”, though I was less confused about that aspect. `
I ask the younger girl who the god is that was looking back at me on the far side of the temple. She smiles, and turns her head away from me. The older girl explains that her sister does not speak English, and then begins introducing me to the deities in residence. The one on the far wall and the two occupying the nook to the left are the Sung god yet again, and his wife by his side. She then tells us to sit down on the mat in front of the nook to the left, and so we obey. She takes a brass bowl of sandalwood paste and gives each of us a small bindi between the eyebrows. Then she whips out a ball of red and yellow string, and begins cutting off short pieces. This is good luck she explains as she wraps one around Marie’s left wrist and ties it off, and then Michelle’s, and then she comes to me. She wraps the string not once, but twice around my right wrist. The girls are upset. “Why does he get two wraps rather than one? Why does he get more luck than us?” Because I’m a dude I think to myself… No, it’s not patriarchy, its just that girls like boys… Duh, health class 101. But I am smart enough not to allow these mental utterances to become anything more than that.
I ask our guide, who sits next to us, if he prays to the Sun God. He says that he does, every day. I ask why, and he says that the sun allows him to see, it keeps him warm and allows plants to grow so that he can eat. I agree on this point, but I have never prayed to a sun god, and so I ask him if he believes that the sun would fail to rise if he did not pray. He looks confused. “I pray every day, and the sun rises”. I am still not sure if this reflects a causal belief, or if it simply reflects reverence for a natural and independent phenomenon. But when I pus further, he says that “the sun gives us gifts, so we pray”. There seems to be a switch in meaning if one over analyzes this statement when compared to the former. But It seems that I am not going to get any further with this conversation, so I drop it.
As we are about to stand up, older girl asks for a donation. Marie and Michelle think that is unnecessary and exit the temple. I pull out a fifty (the smallest bill I have) and give a donation on behalf of the group. The girl scrunches up her nose in disapproval. I apologies, say “this is what I have for you”. She decides to take it rather than leave it. As we exit, I ring the bell which hangs in the doorway sending my prayer to the sun god.
Later that day, when I am sweating buckets and the sun is hotter than H, E, double toothpicks, I am wishing that I had given a larger donation.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013
…”Continued” from Peepal Gods Journal
The traffic of people, circling around the tree eventually slowed and was replaced by about twenty men, all holding drums, from which hung two balls attached to strings. Two men, around the age of thirty, dressed in formal attire, with “Brahmin rat tails” hanging from the back of their heads, were moving quickly back and forth, putting the drummers in position. They met in the corner of the temple to prepare a couple of lamps and offerings. The temple was humming with conversation. One of the Brahmin’s hollered to a young boy, who had the same dress and hairstyle as they did. Upon command, the boy began rapidly ringing a bell that hung from the ceiling. The three of them then yelled in unison “Hanuman AYYY!” to which the entire community within the temple replied the same. The drummers immediately began twisting their drums back and forth so that the balls swung and hit the skins on either side. The temple was filled with the erratic banging of drums and the ringing of the bell. For the next twenty minutes, the drummers kept drumming, their muscles bulging and faces sweating, my ears ringing, while the Brahmans performed puja; lighting incense sticks stuck into bananas, offering coconuts, fruits, nuts, and flowers to the large image of the Hanuman; the main deity of the temple, and waving camphor and incense before the countless other photos and sculpture of various deities that were scattered about the entire temple.
When they were finished with the camphor lamps, the drumming increased in pace and the drummers arched their backs, faces twisted, the veins bulging from their necks, and the Brahmins yell “HANUMAN AYYYY!” To which they replied with a deafening scream which drained the air and energy from their bodies and the temple slowly fell silent. People rushed to wipe camphor smoke over their bodies, as the drummers ringed their hands, some taking cloths from their pockets to clean the blood from newly formed blisters.
As people slowly left the temple to join the live concert of Bhakti music that had began outside, I turned to my new friend, still standing next to me and asked him to tell me something about Hanumn. “Hanuman is the god of strength and power” he began. “In the Ramayana, he is a devotee and aid to Rama. He helps Ram to defeat Ravana. He is a great warrior. There is one story in which Rama writes his name on giant boulders and Hanuman lifts and throws each of them into the Ganga. Ram’s name on the rocks allows them to float, and it creates a bridge that the army crosses on their way to Lanka.” I asked him why there were some many drummers at this puja, and he responded that “this type of drumming is very exhausting and requires a lot of strength to do for a long time, and it is believed that Hanuman must aid the drummers, and so this brings his presence here”
~ ~ ~
On another occasion, Abbie and I wandered by the akara. I stared into the window for a couple of moments, not sure how to approach the situation, watching five young men swing big rocks on sticks around their shoulders, or lifting weights on the two pieces of real gym equipment that occupied the dirt floor room. One of them saw me, and he walked up to the window and said hello. I asked him if this was a gym, and he said “yes. Indian gym”. I asked him if I could come in. He smiled and pointed me toward the door. When I got inside he instructed me to remove my shoes, and began to show me how they swing the bats and rocks around their heads. The rock that he was swinging was between the size of a basketball and a beach volleyball (like the two foot round, pool play things.. the big one). After he showed me this, he removed a smaller one (maybe the size of a small cantaloupe) from the row of bats that lined the wall. He handed it to me and smiled. So I took my position, in front of the mirror like the others were doing, and I swung the bat down over my back, and up over my right shoulder, back over my back, and up over the left shoulder, as I had been instructed, though with much more difficulty and far less grace. All five of the guys in the room smiled and talked to each other in Hindi in a way that suggested that they were holding back laughter. I get uncomfortable in American gyms where I recognize all the equipment, simply because my insecurity is on display for all those who choose to show up for the pissing contest that is body building. So, I decided to put down the bat.
On the wall there were photos of hanuman, holding his club, much like the ones that we were swinging around our heads. I asked my lifting partner “Do you lift for the ladies, or for Hanuman?” He laughed and said, “No! This is not for ladies, this is for Hanuman Ji.” Then he put his arm on my shoulder and walked me to the far wall of the akara and showed me a small, orange painted sculpture of Hanuman, covered in flowers. He bowed to the image at his waist, and then stood and said, “He is our Baba. Very strong. So, he makes us strong, and we become strong for him.” “I see”.
I decided to see if I could lift the bat again. It was just as silly as the first time, so I put it back. Abbie, who had been standing in the doorway, asked if she could try, and three of the men quickly said that this was not an activity that was appropriate for women. To which she tried to explain that she had spent the summer carrying over one hundred pounds up and down a mountain. They neither seemed to care or act impressed. We shared a couple more words, as they tried to figure out what this scrawny white kid was doing here, and then I thanked them and went to leave. As I did, my lifting partner said “you can come back tomorrow if you like. Maybe every day I am here at 5 O’clock. It makes you very strong. I thanked him, and said that maybe I would come back. But I never gathered the nerve to do so.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013
This is the image of Krishna that sat on my host family’s home shrine. One day, I was sitting on the floor of this room, having tea with my host mother who was laying on a futon mattress, recovering from a long day of work. When I had finished my tea I asked her if I should leave to let her get some rest and she said that it was ok, and she didn’t mind talking. So, after a lull in conversation, which would tend to happen when I lacked the questions to facilitate cultural exchange, I pointed at the picture and asked her to tell me a story about Krishna.
She told me that once upon a time there was a cruel king who received a prophecy that the seventh son of his wife would birth a child that would one day kill him. So, the king imprisoned his wife. But one day there was a terrible rain that washed out all of the prision roads, and somehow allowed the woman to escape. She was impregnated by god and gave birth to Krishna. But she knew that her husband would find the child and kill him, so she sent Krishna across the river, where he was raised by cowherds.
My host mother described Krishna as a “very naughty child” who was always playing pranks on the cowherdesses, stealing their butter and milk and such. As he grew up, he acquired many girlfriends, but his most loving relationship was with Rada. This has made Krishna a symbol of love. According to My host mother, Krishna’s tendency to sleep around makes him resemble the “modern boys” who she thinks try to emulate him.
At this point, she skipped a section in the narrative of Krishna’s maturation and told me that he is a prominent character in the Mahabarata, where he serves as the advisor, friend, and aid to the Pundavas. The Gita is Krishna’s “greatest philosophy”. It depicts a scene where Krishna gives council to Arjuna, who is afraid to go into battle, but is ultimately convinced to do so by Krishna’s wisdom regarding Dharma. The Gita is the only part of the Mahabarata that is allowed to be brought into a household. This is because the epic is mostly about a violent war, but the Gita contains good advice on how to live one’s life. Still, I wonder how the boy who stole curd grew to be the greatest philosopher of Dharma.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013
I first encountered this image when we were in Amritsar, riding on the bus, on the way to the Pakistan border. A sticker showing the red outline of a man in robes, with long hair, and a saber drawn, was stuck to the back window of the bus. I started noticing them all around; on cars, on restaurant signs, on cash registers. But the opportunity to ask someone what the little man meant to them never crossed my way while we were in the Punjab. Soon the weekend was over, we headed off to Jaipur, and I no longer saw the little man….
That is until today. We are back in Delhi, and I was just going to buy a pani bottle and eck cup chai from the vendor across from the hotel, when I looked at the tail end of a parked ambassador and saw my little old friend, stoicly stuck, with sward still blazing, on the bumper of the car. I asked a good old gentleman who was eating at some masala munchies, “Namaste uncle. Can you tell me who this is a picture of?”
“Oh this?.. This is Shivar Ji” he responded
“Shiva? You mean this is lord Shiv?” I was confused. The destroyer weilds a trident, not a saber.
“No, no! Not Shiva; SHIVAR ji. His name is ShivAR.”
“Ah. I see. And what can you tell me about this man?”
“Shivar Ji? He is a great warrier; you know, a fighter… In battle”
“Yes, Sap Hay. Who does he fight for? And Who is he fighting”
“He is a Punjabi, and you know the Punjabi people like this character. So he fight for them, and he fought a big battle against the Muslims. It was a big war.”
“Now, when you say Punjabi, do you mean he is a Sikh?”
“Yes, Yes, Yes. Of course, this man is a Sikh. He is Punjabi, but he is fighting, the Sikh peoples against the Muslims. I think they was fighting in about like 18… ah like 1890 or something like that.”
“Is this why the Sikh people carry swards? Because of this man?”
“Yes, because he get them to fight, and to defend them against the Muslims, and so now they carry the sward, like you see at Gurdwara” (motioning in the direction of the Gurdwara a few blocks away)
“And why were they fighting?”, I pressed further.
“Because the Muslims wanted to you know, they did not like that the Punjabi.. I mean they did not like the Sikh peoples, so they fight them to defend their religion?”
“I see. So do people pray to Shivar Ji. Is he treated like a god?”
“No. He is not a god. Only a fighter… The Punjabi.. I mean Sikh people put this emblem on their cars so that people know that they are Sikhs. Just like Hindus put pictures of Gnesha or you know, Krishna or whatever on their cars. So, if you want a taxi, and you are a Sikh person maybe you come to this man.”
So it seems that the little man is no god at all. He is a mere mortal, a killer, a defender of a people (wether they be Punjabis, or Sikhs, or only Sikh Punjabis is uncertain). His noble image serves for an underground symbol for communication between members of a religious group; much like the Jesus fish was for early Christians under the oppression of the Romans. So he lives on, in our hearts and on our bumpers.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013