Tag Archives: idols

Gandhis and the Ganges: Academic Idols in Allahabad

I dust off university memories and swot up ragging, study two prime ministers, follow Gandhi to the Ganges, and watch clay idols diving.

It’s only 150 km from Faizabad south to Allahabad, but the bus took over three hours.  A Leprosy Mission worker queued from before dawn to reserve me the best of the cracked blue vinyl seats, just behind the driver.  Passengers spat out the windows as we passed trees striped white-red-white.  Helpful exhortations were painted on truck rears: “Horn please”, “Keep safe distance”, “Sound horn okay”, “Use dipper at night”, “Don’t fast.”  You know you’re acclimatising to India when the pulse rate “doesn’t fast” too much when you see an oncoming lorry on your side of the road and neither driver slows down.

Straight through a roundabout with Varanasi to the left (the psychedelic sacred city – for a future trip), and Lucknow to the right (my previous stop – see here).  Across the Ganges, India’s holiest river, and into Allahabad, literally “construction of God”.

And into the worst traffic snarl I’ve seen, despite the smallish population of one to two million.  Half the main roads were dug up for drainage upgrades; people were sleeping in the metre-wide concrete pipes.  Allahabad may be the easiest city so far to cross the road, but in places dust billows with each footstep like for astronauts on the moon.  Acrid smoke from burning leaves adds to the haze.  Motorcyclists wore face scarves like bandits, and car headlights at night glowed as if though thick fog.

allahbad-templeOne dark night I was about to step on a pile of sand, and realised just in time it was a recumbent cow.  Bovines seem more common than dogs here, which makes me very happy, and I sometimes pass a line of bullocks.  Like the roading, the electrical infrastructure is also in flux.  Charges for the internet café I used in Allahabad: 15 rupees per hour “by electricity”, but 25 “by generator”.

I stayed for six nights at the leafy nine acre campus of Allahabad Bible Seminary (ABS, founded in 1942).  I began to explore the possibility of teaching theology at ABS over two years ago, before Dad had cancer, so I was excited to see the place at last.  The seminary has lectures in both English and Hindi, in subjects I’ve studied and in Indian topics I haven’t.  The half-hour morning chapel is bi-lingual and there are Hindi courses in town.  All this seemed to give great potential for me to both teach and learn.

But wires had been crossed.  They thought I’d come to teach English and fix their computer networks.  Lecturers were busy with admin and the students (around 160) were sitting exams, so there were no lectures I could sample.  (The state of Uttar Pradesh has the world’s biggest public school exams – at a city temple, Hindu students with their textbooks made offerings to ensure success.)  Despite this confusion the ABS people were a welcoming bunch, from the kid who’d cycle up to say hello, to the smiling guard at the gate who’d pull up a chair when I returned to hear about my day.

university-allahabadFrom the roof of the guesthouse where I stayed I could see the stone tower of the University of Allahabad.  It was founded in 1887 as India’s fourth university, and didn’t look to have been maintained since then.  On a deserted Sunday afternoon, with its overgrown lawns, peeling plaster and cracked domes missing most of their tiles, the science campus felt like a Muslim mausoleum.  I visited the main campus during the week and saw a few more students, some running late for their exams, others staring at the out-of-place white face.  It was very monocultural compared to Auckland.  Stacks of wooden desks looked like relics from my parents’ school days.  India can seem like a Victorian time warp.

Before this trip to India, I’d only heard of “ragging” in old British novels.  I’d seen a simple sign forbidding it at the University of Delhi, but here was a whole list of ragging prohibitions and punishments on a large campus signboard.  “Do not cause to…  Address seniors as ‘Sir’, copy class notes for the seniors, don menial jobs for the seniors” didn’t sound so bad, but it got worse:

look at pornographic picture to ‘shock the fresher’s out of the innocence’,
force to drink alcohol, scalding tea etc,
force to do act with sexual overtones, including homosexual acts,
force to do act which can lead to physical injury/mental torture or death…
(The list is only indicative, and is not exhaustive)

A quick google for “ragging in india” finds some pretty nasty stuff, and it causes several suicides every year (see Wikipedia).  The government even has an anonymous email for victims, helpline@antiragging.in.  Once again I realise how sheltered and blessed we are in New Zealand.

university-allahabad-libraryI flourished my Staff ID card from the University of Auckland, where as a first year I experienced nothing worse than nerves, and was admitted to the library.  After admiring the colonial architecture, wandering the wide empty corridors, and finding only a few out-of-date looking shelves, I began to ask, “Where are the books?”  I’d asked the same question at the University of Madras in 2007 (see here) and surmised that current texts are only delivered on request.

One gloomy chamber was wonderful.  Ancient volumes with cracked leather bindings scrawled on bending shelves above dusty tomes stacked on tables.  It was like the library of a fairy-tale castle under a spell of sleep.  A custodian was hovering so I couldn’t peruse the titles, though I spotted a bound collection of 1930s Punch.  Second-hand books are spread along the pavement of University Street outside, a larger outdoor version of the second-hand book stall that used to run in the first weeks of semester at Auckland University.  I bought used physics, chemistry and biology textbooks there in my undergraduate years.

allahabad-book-marketThe University of Allahabad trained many of India’s top leaders and five prime ministers were born here.  The first was Jawaharlal Nehru, who lived not far away.  His house, the Anand Bhavan, is now a museum with the furnishings left much as they were.  Nehru was progressive – he had the first motorcar in town, educated – bookcases of literature from East and West, and eloquent.  On the walls hung photos of independence movement leaders like Gandhi planning their next move against the British, right here in the house.  His daughter Indira Gandhi also became Prime Minister.  After viewing her house where she was assassinated in Delhi, it was poignant to see her birthplace and pictures of her childhood here.  Again I pondered the passing of time, and sadly remembered my Dad.

The city museum had ancient sculptures, Moghul miniatures, modern paintings, and another Gandhi exhibit.  I saw the urn that contained his cremated ashes and the “Gandhi Memorial Vehicle”, the festooned truck that transported said ashes to be scattered at Sangam, the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers.  A cycle rickshaw carried me there to complete my personal Gandhi pilgrimage.allahabad-sangam-pilgrim-shave

The Sangam is one of the holiest sites in India, where the two geographical rivers meet an invisible spiritual one.  It’s approached through wide open fields that are filled with pilgrims in January-March.  Every six years there’s a special Mela festival.  Over 70 million people came in 2007, making it the world’s biggest ever gathering.  Upon arriving, before I could object, Shiva’s trident was stamped in red on both my wrists and oily paste smeared on my forehead.  I rubbed it off, not wanting sweat to wash gunk into my eyes.  I walked past tour coaches and assorted temples to the riverbank, where men had their heads shaved, leaving one tuft at the back, before taking a holy dip.  No matter how polluted it may look, Ganges water will wash your soul clean.  Long narrow boats lined the shore, with cylindrical awnings for shade, waiting to ferry worshippers out to where the rivers intermingle.

allahabad-sangam-idol-durgaI followed a narrow dirt path between the water and the battlements of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century fortress.  It’s still used by the army so you can’t enter.  Some men struggled to free a large dinghy stuck in the mud.  Back on the riverside road, a stream of women disembarked from a bus with head shaven bald – pilgrims from Hyderabad in the south.  Then I heard amplified Hindi music and saw a procession of young guys straggling along with around six idols.  These were richly clothed and painted in front, but of rough clay behind.  The employees with their boss cheerfully invited me to descend the steep steps to the river with them.  Once or twice a statue was nearly dropped and I could imagine the Hebrew prophets, saying, “Like scarecrows in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk” (Jeremiah 10:5).

allahabad-sangam-idol-kaliAfter holding up each idol for me to photograph, one at a time was manhandled onto the bow of a boat, rowed a few metres out, and dumped into the water.  Only floating garlands marked the spot.  They encouraged me to join them in cheering “Hail, Ma Durga”, but were understanding when I demurred and said I was Christian.  One guy kept repeating “God bless you” until I left.  An example of the common Indian tolerance that’s sadly not universal – witness Ayodya (see my previous post here) and other sporadic attacks on minority groups.


Astronomical Playgrounds, Aladdin’s Fort and Sculpting God

I fight off vendors and mark off the heavens, gear up for war and assault a fort, find Aladdin’s silken cave and survey the birthplace of gods.

Delhi, Agra and Jaipur form the tourist “Golden Triangle” so it’s not surprising that in Jaipur I saw many ambulant copies of Lonely Planet, and was more harassed by touts than anywhere else I’ve been.   Walking down the Old City’s main bazaar on my first night brought a constant barrage of “hello… sir!” from guys enticing me into their stalls. Pointy leather shoes and psychedelic sandals, sparkling bangles and gems, orange patterned cushions and rainbow curtains embroidered with flowers, peacocks, elephants.  I could smell the perfume samples dabbed on my wrist whenever I wiped my brow all day.  One hawker chased me down the block jangling his Rajasthani puppets in my face, and I practised saying “I don’t like shopping” in Hindi to several rickshaw drivers detouring to a mate’s emporium.

In the midst of the hubbub, there are impressive sights here.  One palace housed the world’s biggest silver jars, made from 14000 melted coins, 1.6 m tall, weighing 345 kg.  Not trusting English water, the Raja used them to transport 5091 litres from the holy Ganges River when he attended King Edward’s Coronation in 1902.  A metal lattice ball was filled with fire for the Emperor Akbar to play polo at night.  I had a vision of bejewelled courtiers pursuing a flaming orb like a scene from Harry Potter.  In the armoury were punching daggers designed to pierce armour, sometimes with two pistols attached, or scissoring double blades to slice up your intestines for bonus damage inside.

As well as a warrior – as such weaponry attests – Jaipur’s founder was an astronomer.  At first glance, the Jantar Mantar or “instrument of calculation” resembled a park of abstract sculptures or a giant quirky playground, with staircases leading to nowhere and sweeping curves like deformed slides.  It is now a World Heritage site.  There are hemisphere domes and pits that you get right inside to read star angles and elevations on finely graded scales.  A 90 foot high right-angled wedge forms a huge sundial.  The shadow moves several metres per hour, making it accurate to a few seconds.  Smaller versions are oriented to the 12 zodiac constellations.  In India, astrology still determines dates for weddings, business ventures or political meetings, and planetariums seem very popular.

jaipur-jantar-mantarThe city is surrounded by scrubby hills dotted with old defences and my Jaipur highlight was a daytrip out to Amber Fort.  Elephants with painted trunks carried tourists up the chunky cobbled road to a lemon-coloured palace which was interesting but over-crowded.  I hiked half an hour up the hill above to Jaigarh fortress.  They say it was never captured.  At one end was the world’s largest wheeled canon.  It has a 20 foot barrel, takes 100 kg of gun powder for a single shot, and can drive a cannonball up to 35 km.

I wound my way through dull stone passageways and dusty courtyards, stumbled on a sort of Punch and Judy puppet show, then turned another corner into bright sun and beheld a summit paradise.  I was at a verdant walled garden with symmetrical canals and manicured shrubs.  You could see for miles from its shady corner turrets.  Battlements snaked across the hills like the Great Wall of China, with goats herded between them.  All the courtyards of the palace were laid out below, next to a square island garden in the lake.  Just in front of me two squirrels chased each other, leaping along the wall’s crenellations.  No horns or fumes, no beggars or Americans.  Alone on top of the world, I felt lord of all I surveyed and my spirit soared.

jaipur-fabric-luxuryEven in the city centre, it’s surprisingly easy to escape the tourists and touts.  Just step off the main drag into the network of alleys, and see what you can find!  A lane of pharmaceuticals, crates full of medicines; then electrical and whiteware goods on the pavements.  I could look around as long as I liked, and no one tried to sell me a fridge!  One metre wide woks of hot milk.  Metres of fabric were being drawn out from steaming cauldrons of dye like from a magician’s hat.  Rickshaw repair stalls strewed pumps and parts and wrenches across the path.  In narrow sari shops, their walls stacked with folded fabrics, male assistants pulled down sample after sample, throwing them like silken ribbons through the air to settle slowly before veiled customers until the floor was thick with cloth of every colour.  Their gold and silver threads littered in the hot lights like an Aladdin’s Cave.  Another vender dozed on a thick bed of jumbled fabric, a Maharaja of luxuriant colour.  Further on I heard drumming, followed it around a corner or two, and found women sitting outside a small temple where two of them danced out the divine romance of Lord Krishna and cowgirl Radha.  And then I found the street of idols.

Electric grinders were spewing white dust and artisans in headscarves were chiselling by hand, with unpolished sculptures ranked behind them, metal files jumbled at their feet, and raw blocks of marble on the step outside.  A room of cheerful young chaps, perhaps apprentices, were sanding and smoothing, water splashing from their buckets as their statues began to shine.  One craftsman was colouring a goddess with a fine brush, painting on a golden bangle.  Most of the statues were Hindu deities like the elephant god Ganesh, the sacred bull of Shiva, monkey god Hanuman with an unfinished featureless snout, or multi-armed warrior goddess Durga astride her lion.  I also saw a Buddha, a small bust of Gandhi, a solemn turbaned ruler.  When he learnt I was Christian, one sculptor proudly told me he’d made a crucifix, standing with arms outstretched to show me.

jaipur-idol-makersWhat a contrast between these rows of dusty statues handled by grubby artisans and their gleaming future in temples.  There these gods will be offered plates of coconuts, fruits, sweets and rice; they’ll be washed in milk and clothed every day by the priests.  The nose jewel of a goddess may even be removed before the temple is closed at night, so it doesn’t rub her divine consort when they make love!

I wondered what their work meant to these men.  Just a job to put chapattis on the table, or a noble calling of craftsmanship, or a lifestyle of loving worship?  In Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009), William Dalrymple speaks to a maker of bronze idols in south India, learning that the statue becomes alive and divine when its eyes are carved with a gold chisel, and finding one answer to my question:

“Our workshop should be like a temple,” Srikanda said.  “Every second is holy.  Some people think that what we do is an art, but we think of it mainly as an act of devotion.  For us art and religion are one: only when there is prayer can the artist make a perfect sculpture…. as we work we think only of God, saying the appropriate mantras as we carve and model.”