Sunday, August 31, 2008

A glimpse of something new on the Delhi-Agra highway

As you near Mathura on the Delhi-Agra highway, you'll see this impressive looking building on your right. We were there on a rainy day, and the white marble looked beautiful against a somewhat stormy sky.

"I wonder what it is", I said to my friend Pooja, when we spotted this building from afar. "Maybe it's a mosque or a tomb?"
When we drew closer, there was a little surprise in store for us. Although the structure looked Islamic, it had a non-Islamic Jai Gurudeo inscribed on the arch at the gate.

"Maybe it's some kind of sect", said Pooja. "Let's ask someone."

She asked some men standing at a tea-shop nearby, and they told us it was an ashram, a place of prayer and meditation, and that many of the residents there were old people who did not have family to look after them.

We clicked a couple of photos, and then I noticed a rather prominent signboard. "No fee for entrance", it said. "No donations. Photography allowed." I thought it was very interesting that someone would choose to put up a board like that!

So when I came back home, I decided to look up the Jai Gurudeo sect on the internet. Here's their website. They preach a simple spirituality, and while their beliefs have a lot in common with Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism, they do not follow any specific religious tradition.

Their spiritual leader, Baba Jai Gurudeo, believes the human body is on a journey towards bliss, and by living a simple life (no meat, no alcohol, sorry!) and focusing the mind on prayer, we can achieve our true potential. Anyone can join the sect and attend the meetings and discourses - there is no discrimination based on gender, caste or religion. Nor do you have to forsake your current religion to listen to the teachings of Gurudeo. I can see why he's so popular in that area!

I'm constantly amazed at how new spiritual leaders emerge from the grassroots in almost all parts of India. Each of them has his or her own message and philosophy. Many of them draw ideas from the major religions of India, but interpret them in new ways to create new philosophies and ways of living. When I come across something new like this, it gives me hope that India's great tradition of philosophical enquiry is still very much alive.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hymn to the Sun God

On the first storey of a house in the Walled City of Jaipur, I saw this man offering salutations to Surya, the Sun God. The man had a wet towel draped around his waist, proof that he had just completed his morning bath. There was no sacred thread around his body such as those Brahmins wear; perhaps he was a trader or merchant. His house, like others on the street, was painted in Jaipur's trademark pink.

Sun worship is an old tradition, that goes back to about 2000 BC. Descriptions of the Sun God in the ancient Vedic texts are awe-inspiring - they speak of the golden efflugent beauty of the Sun, riding a chariot drawn by seven white horses.

Here is a translation of a hymn from the Rig Veda, dedicated to Surya: this hymn is also a prayer against the dreaded yellow-fever /jaundice.

Swift and all beautiful art thou, O Sūrya, maker of the light,
Illuming all the radiant realm.

Thou goest to the hosts of Gods, thou comest hither to mankind,
Hither all light to be beheld.

Seven Bay Steeds harnessed to thy car bear thee, O thou farseeing One,
God, Sūrya, with the radiant hair.

Rising this day, O rich in friends, ascending to the loftier heaven,
Sūrya remove my heart's disease, take from me this my yellow hue.

To parrots and to starlings let us give away my yellowness,
Or this my yellowness let us transfer to Haritāla trees.

With all his conquering vigour this Āditya* hath gone up on high,
Give my foe into mine hand: let me not be my foeman's prey.

*Surya goes by many names - Aditya or First Born, is one of them.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Of Towers and Skulls

Sightseeing in Delhi and Agra can be a dizzying blur of domes, as you trudge past mosque after mosque, and tomb after elaborate tomb. If you find yourself longing for something different, maybe you should go see the Chor Minar in South Delhi.

It is a nondescript little tower, built in the 30-year reign of the Afghan Khilji dynasty at the end of the thirteenth century. It is in the middle of a quiet residential area in Hauz Khas. I went to Hauz Khas to meet a friend, and saw Chor Minar basking quietly in the morning sun.

So what's interesting about Chor Minar, you ask? See the little holes all over the top of the tower? The holes originally held human skulls! Whose skulls? Thieves, enemies, and anyone else the Sultan didn't fancy, I suppose. Macabre, but more interesting than a boring old tomb, I think.

Closer view of the holes. My friend told me parrots nest there now.

Skull towers are not new to Asia. When Timur sacked Delhi in 1398, he slaughtered a hundred thousand people, and built a tower with their skulls. Later Mongol kings in India (Mughal kings) built skull towers too. In 1556, the Mughal emperor Akbar defeated Hemu at Panipat, slaughtered his army, and built a victory tower with the heads. Here's a Mughal miniature from 1590, showing a tower being built during Akbar's reign.

I don't quite understand what's going on in this pic. They're breaking the wall? And using the bricks to build the tower? And there's a war going on behind the wall, where the tree shows a prosperous city. Maybe what they're trying to tell us is where the bricks and skulls for the tower came from - the bricks from the very walls of the city being invaded, and skulls from the people of that unfortunate city! Maybe even the labour came from the losers in battle - the faces of the people building the wall are similar to the faces on the dismembered heads. I'm not surprised that they glossed over all this gory stuff in Jodhaa Akbar!
In 1628, Peter Mundy, an English traveller and diarist, found skull towers still being built in India. He described the towers as being made of the heads of "rebbells and theeves, with heads mortered and plaistered in, leaveinge out nothing but their verie face". Here's Peter Mundy's drawing of the tower, illustrated in 1632.

I'm not sure when the practice ended, but I presume it was the decline of the Mughal empire after Aurangazeb's death in 1707 that put an end to the towers.

Next time you're in Delhi, go take a peep at Chor Minar in Hauz Khas. It is a beautiful green part of Delhi, and a pleasure to visit. Apart from seeing Chor Minar, you can spend some time at the Hauz Khaz village, shopping in the little upscale boutiques and art galleries, or just enjoying birdlife at the beautiful Hauz tank.