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Monthly Archives: January 2023

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Gangasagar: Waves of faith and in search of moksha

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It’s a tale of unfathomable faith and fervor. Of unshakeable belief and conviction. Of unwavering determination and single-minded devotion. Of a journey in search of moksha.

Welcome to Gangasagar mela.

As I begin to pen down my experience about this year’s mela, the second biggest congregation of Hindu pilgrims after Kumbh Mela, I am absolutely clueless how to gauge the devotees’ intense passion and profound devotion that drives them on this arduous journey.

During the four-and-half hour car ride from Kolkata we traveled past the countryside of Diamond Harbour, Karonjali, Kultoli and Kulpi. We reached Harwood Point under Kakdwip subdivision of district 24 Parganas around 2.30pm. Well, I knew about the millions of pilgrims visiting Gangasagar mela every year, but for the first time I witnessed the mind-boggling spectacle from close quarters.

Countless devotees were waiting for the ferry to cross the river Muri Ganga, a distributary of the river Hooghly. They came from all over India and abroad. Their tired bodies belied their inexplicable faith and religious fervor. Their burnt-out faces still spoke of their unflagging resilience and undying spirit. They were ready to undergo any amount of pain and ordeal. They’ve just ‘one aim, one business and one desire’: a holy dip at the brahma moment at the Gangasagar followed by puja at Kapil Muni’s ashram.

Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s timeless song, ‘Pother klanti bhule snehobhora kole tobo Ma go bolo kobe shitol hobo/Koto dur aar koto dur bolo Ma’ crossed my mind.

It is believed that it is on the day of Makar Sankranti the river flowed into the sea at the ashram of Kapil Muni. Hence a dip in the Gangasagar on this day absolves one of all sins and prevents re-birth.

There were announcements on public address system directing the pilgrims for the jetty meant for them. With the midday sun hiding behind the clouds, the devotees had some sort of relief. We boarded the ferry which took about 20 minutes to reach Kochuberia, the other side of the river.

Government staff and civic volunteers left no stone unturned to extend help for the pilgrims. At Kochuberia, we had tea from a roadside shop near the jetty. Our car soon arrived to take us to the mela premises, 32km from Kochuberia. The journey along the newly-built spic-and-span road was a sheer delight. Hundreds of government and private buses were carrying devotees to the mela ground. I saw festoons and posters on the way carrying divine messages of the mela.

The earliest reference of this fair can be found in an instruction issued by Governor General Lord Wellesley in 1803 when he banned the ritual of drowning the first-born child in the sea. In 1837, a newspaper mentioned an extract that said the temple was around 1,400 years old while the deity was installed by Guru Ramanand in 1437 AD.

After about 45 minutes when we reached the mela ground, it was 4pm. We were taken to Sagar Coastal Police station for lunch. After the lunch was over, we were taken to a two-storey building about 2km away for the night stay.

(To be continued)

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A pilgrimage to Banaras: The end is never the end

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Continued from the story, ‘Banaras: In search of faith, fervor and spirituality’

It is said that a trip to the endlessly fascinating Banaras must begin with a visit to Kaal Bhairav (a fearsome manifestation of Shiva) temple. My first destination was, therefore, Kaal Bhairav Temple.

The hotel owner, Mayukh Jaiswal, helped me get an auto to reach the temple which was 2.7km away from where I was staying. On my way, I saw the streets crammed with pedestrians, hand-pulled rickshaws autos, totos, while harried cops were trying in vain to bring some semblance of order to the streets. Well, if you really want to feel the pulse of this temple town, you’ve to walk through its numerous lanes and alleys.

Kaal Bhairav, the ‘Black terror’ is widely known as the kotwal, the ‘police chief’ of Kashi and the place where this temple is located is known as Kotwalpuri. The temple opens at 5am and closes at 1.30pm and again remains open from 4.30pm to 9.30pm. ‘Kaal’ means both Death and Fate, in addition to meaning Black. He has also assumed the duties of the God of Death in Kashi.

It took about 20 minutes to reach the temple. The entrance is extremely narrow and painfully congested. I waited for about half an hour, braved the crowd and finally saw the silver face of Kaal Bhairava, garlanded with flowers, visible through the doorway of the inner sanctum. The rest of Bhairav’s image—said to be pot-bellied, seated upon a dog, holding a trident—is hidden behind a cloth drapery.

“Bhairava is the hero who overcame the worst of sins and who conquered the grotesque, ever-present skull of death. In his pilgrimage to Kashi, Bhairava achieves that for which all pilgrims hope: freedom from sins and from the fear of death,” says Diana E. Leck in her book, Banaras: City of Light. I came out of the temple and ambled my way to the place where the auto driver was waiting for me.

It is said that in Kashi, Vishwanatha is the King, Annapurna is the Queen and Kaal Bhairava is the Governor.

A priest performs puja at Dashaswamedh Ghat

Destination: Kashi Vishwanath Temple (1.4km from Kaal Bhairava temple)

After a 10-minute drive, I had to get down from the auto about 400m from the Vishwanath Temple’s Gate 4 as no vehicles are allowed beyond that point. I made my way through thousands of devotees walking towards the gate and had to stand in the queue. After almost two hours, I finally reached the gorbhogriho. Well, a visitor gets only a few seconds’ time to see the jyotirlinga, one of the 12 jyotirlingas in India. The temple has a central dome and two spires called shikharas. The other that rises over the Vishveshvara linga was plated with gold by King Ranjit Singh of Lahore in 1839.

The present structure, which is popularly known as the Golden Temple because of the gold used in the plating of its spires and domes, is believed to have been built in 1780 by Ahalya Bai of the Holkar dynasty. It had been demolished by several Muslim rulers; Mohammad of Ghor was the first one to destroy the temple in 1198.

As I finished my darshana of Lord Shiva, hailed as Vishwanath or the Lord of the Universe, and came out I realized pilgrimage to this tirtha has been an important unifying force, not only for sects and religions, but for the wider Hindu perception of what constitutes the land of India.

Destination: Ma Annapurna Mandir

Located adjacent to the Vishwanath Temple, the darshana of Vishwanatha always accompanies the darshana of Annapurna. The name ‘Annapurna’ means “She of Plenteous Food”. She is the one who fills her devotees with food. The image of Annapurna within the sanctum is a new one, established and consecrated in January 1977. Devotees are offered free meal at this temple from 10am to 5pm every day.

Ganga Mahal Ghat

Destination: Dashaswamedh Ghat

My idea about Dashaswamedh Ghat, just 550m from Annapurna Temple, was formed by Satyajit Ray’s film Aparajito (1956), in which Ray portrayed the ghat with minute details with pilgrims offering pujas, priests performing rituals of chanting and bell-ringing through a haze of incense. It’s at this ghat we see a frail and weak Harihar falling down while climbing up the steep stairs. The famous death-scene of Harihar crossed my mind: As Harihar’s soul departs his body, a huge flock of pigeons takes flight, accompanied by the falling notes of a flute playing a melody based on raga Jog.

Dashashwamedh Ghat was earlier known as Rudrasaras in Indian scriptures. Lord Brahma performed “ten ashvamedha” sacrifices, the requisites for which was supplied by King Divodasa, at Rudrasaras and installed two Shivlings. The place was later renamed Dashashwamedh Ghat. 

A view of Kashi-Vishwanath Temple corridor from the river Ganga

While Manikornika Ghat is said to be the oldest ghat in Banaras, visitors’ footfalls are maximum at the Dashashwamedh Ghat and it is the most popular ghat attracting huge crowd of bathers at dawn. It is also the bustling hub of the pilgrim business along the riverfront. Rows of pilgrim-priests sit on their low wooden chaukis under bamboo-umbrellas, eager to minister to the priestly needs of the pilgrims.

There are two adjacent ghats that today bear the name Dashaswamedha. The main road leading from Godowlia crossing to the river forks to either side of the Dshaswamedh market, one of the largest markets of this temple town. The two forks reach the river a short distance apart and turn into long stairways broadening out as the steps descend into the river.

Glittering evening Ganga aarti being performed at Dashawamedh Ghat

Ganga aarti: A visual treat

Ganga Aarti performed every evening at this ghat has unique vibes and energies. Huge crowds start assembling even from 4pm to get a closer view of the event. The aarti starts from 6pm and continues until 7pm.

The aarti is always performed facing the river Ganga. Sporting silk saffron and white robes, seven young men conduct the ceremony. The aarti is accompanied by different songs sung while praising the Ganga. The ritual includes many oil lamps like snake hood lamp which are waved in a synced motion. Conch shells are also blown during the ceremony. Yak tail fans and peacock feather fans are waved during the ceremony. 

As the crowds melted away following the aarti, Ganga Seva Nidhi workers get down to work to clear the staircases where chairs were placed for visitors. The Ganga aarti is a shining beacon of spirituality and devotion.

Even though I wrapped up my tour of Banaras, I felt like the pilgrim described in the Padma Purana: “Making a pilgrimage there in Banaras every day for a whole year, still she did not reach all the sacred places. For in Banaras there is a sacred place at every step.”


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Tea ceremony at ‘Kokoro’: ‘Cup of Humanity’ overfloweth

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In a country steeped in spirituality and religion, India could have introduced ‘tea ceremony’ the way China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan did and this could have been used as a unique protest against even colonialism during the Swadesi movement, feels Nilanjan Bandyopadhyay, poet, calligrapher and tea-artist.

An austere yet elegant room with wooden flooring and an exquisite calligraphy framed on the wall form a fitting tokonoma or alcove to the tea-making tools tastefully arranged as a centerpiece in Bandyopadhyay’s  ‘Kokoro House’ (‘kokoro’ meaning ‘heart’ in Japanese ) at Purva Palli, Santiniketan.

Nilanjan Bandyopadhyay’s ‘Kokoro House’ in Santiniketan

Nilanjan prepares tea for his guests

Bandyopadhyay, a Japanophile and an expert on Tagore and Japan, has introduced a unique ‘tea ceremony’ at his ‘Kokoro House’ combining the Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean ways primarily for his guests coming from different parts of the world to promote peace and harmony.

In 1999, Bandyopadhyay went to Japan for the first time and since then he wanted to build a ‘Kokoro House’ (a house inspired by Japan). The house, designed by young Japanese architect Kengo Sato together with Milon Dutta, was finally completed in December 2018.

Tea was imported to India from China via Europe in 1839. Indians follow the European tea-drinking tradition. However, no spiritual and aesthetic aspects are associated with tea-drinking in India. Tea, in Indian culture, is considered either a popular drink, an addiction or simply a need to slake one’s thirst.

“Serving tea for my guests with reverence and achieving spiritual fulfillment, savoring aesthetic pleasure and fostering friendship, are the destination of my tea ceremony,” says Bandyopadhyay.

He was in a dilemma as to how he would name this ‘celebration’. “In China and Japan, the same character is used to write the word ‘cha’. “Even though the word ‘tea’ has an association with China and Japan, I wanted to infuse an Indianness to this ‘celebration’,” he says. “After much thought, I’ve named it ‘Bodhi Cha’– ‘bodhi’ in Sanskrit and ‘cha’ in Chinese and Japanese alphabets.”

Tea-making tools

‘Tea ceremony’ requires not only some specific tools, but also a particular method. Recounting the rituals of the ceremony, Bandyopadhyay says, before the guests arrive, the host will arrange flowers in a vase, burn incense and keep all tools needed for tea-making in a clean and tidy room. The guests will wait at a distance. One part of the arranged flowers will point to the heaven, the middle portion of the arrangement will point to humanity and the other part will point to the ground in such a way that the entire arrangement will represent heaven, man and earth respectively.

A tray will be placed between the guests and the host in such a way so that hot water of the tea will seep through different small holes of the tray and collect in a container. For the host and the guests, a small tea pot and very small cups are needed. Guests will be urged to take seats by ringing of a bell. The host will take his seat in front of the guests only after they are seated.

There should not be more than six guests at a time.

Even though there are some regional differences in tea-drinking across India, there’s, as it were, a unity in them which may be termed as ‘need’. Unfortunately, the tradition of tea-drinking in India has never gone beyond the ‘need’ to become an ‘art’ which is found in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Influenced by the British, the habit of tea-drinking with milk and sugar in India is actually ‘soulless’ which has taste and flavor but no heart (of its own), he says.

In the ancient times, tea used to keep Buddhist monks awake during meditation in China and it spread to Japan through them. In China and Japan, tea-drinking is a ‘celebration’. The objective of the ‘celebration’ was to prepare tea and serve it with reverence, devotion and self-control, aesthetic pleasure and spiritual fulfillment to foster harmony, friendship, oneness with guests, Nature, environment and even with the tools for tea-making. In ‘tea ceremony’, one comes across Taoism, ideas of Confucius and Buddha: creating profound connection between man and Nature, acknowledging the mystery of the universe.

In his widely acclaimed book, The Book of Tea, the great Japanese scholar and art critic Okakura Kakuzo, said: “The culture of tea-drinking in Japan is, in fact, Taoism in disguise.”

In the sixteenth century, world-famous Japanese scholar Sen no Rikkyu added a whole new dimension to the tea-drinking tradition that was born out of his wabi-sabi philosophy that celebrates the beauty of simplicity, imperfection and incompleteness. Linking Japanese tea-ceremony to simplicity, austerity and rugged beauty, he introduced the establishment of a tiny, simple tea-house, bamboo flower vases, art, calligraphy, poetry, tea spoons, tea cups and other tools —- all created with a touch of magical melancholy and dignified austerity.

The small, beautiful and modest Japanese tea-houses are surrounded by a slightly disarrayed garden. Guests wash their hands with water in a stone basin, make their way through this garden with a calm mind, enter with bent heads through a narrow door and step into the all-pervading silence of the humble tea-room, shorn of opulence and tacky grandeur. Herein lie purity, reverence, harmony and the opportunity to discover oneself as a part of this infinite universe.

“Sen no Rikkyu taught the world to look for beauty in simplicity and did away with the gorgeous and gaudy tea-making tools used in China. Instead he used simple yet aesthetically unique tools,” says Bandyopadhyay.

His tea rooms became smaller and more austere as a mark of silent protest against the increasing megalomaniac tendencies of his contemporary ruler, he says.

Okakura believed that true beauty encompassed both body and mind and until this state is achieved one has no right to talk about beauty. That is why exponents of tea-making wanted to become more than artists — the art itself, Bandyopadhyay says.

Bandyopadhyay’s Bodi Cha ceremony that resembles the tea ceremony known as ‘Gongfu’ cha, is remarkably different from the ‘tea ceremony’ in Japan known as ‘sado’ or ‘cha no yu’. Green tea powder is used in Japanese ‘tea ceremony’ instead of tea leaves used by the Chinese. Tea pots used in Japan for everyday tea-drinking are also comparatively wide and deep. No tea pots are used in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a tea bowl and a whisk are used to prepare thick, powdered green tea.

Tea pet ‘Ananda’

‘Cup of Humanity’

Among the various utensils of tea-making, an interesting one is the tea-pet ‘Ananda’—a silent companion and well-wisher of the tea-maker and his guests.

Another tool worth mentioning, as introduced by Bandyopadhyay, is the ‘Cup of Humanity’—a tiny cup capable of holding a few drops of water, dedicated to the ancestors, guru and the tea producers.

Rabindranath Tagore, says Bandyopadhyaya, understood the spiritual power of this ‘tea ceremony’. In his first trip to Japan in 1916, Tagore went to the house of Ryuhei Murayama, the owner of the newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, to attend a ‘tea festival’. A mesmerized Tagore wrote in Japanjatri:  “Tea-making is all about practising abstinence, complete control over one’s body and mind, achieving perfect calmness of mind and embracing all that is beautiful in oneself….Immersing oneself in the profundity of beauty away from disorder and intemperance is the essence of the tea celebration.”

He realized the pure and unalloyed beauty of the celebration that protects one’s mind from selfishness and materialism. Tagore wanted to make the Chinese and Japanese ways of tea-drinking a part of Santiniketan’s aesthetics and that is why he, aided by Chinese poet Xu Zhimo, had set up ‘Xu Zhi mo cha chokro’ (the Xu Zhimo Tea Circle) which was later shifted to ‘Dinantika’, says Bandyopadhyay.

A calligraphy ‘Shyun ka shyu to’ (meaning ‘spring summer autumn winter’) by Kofude Ougai

Calligraphy by Nilanjan

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Banaras: In search of faith, fervor and spirituality

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Call it ‘City of Light’, ‘City of Temples,’ ‘City of Ghats’, ‘Galiyo ka Shohor’ or what you will. Banaras evokes a sense of chaos, confusion, sublime feelings or intense devotion for the millions of pilgrims and seekers who have been coming here for over 2500 years.

Intending to capture the soul of the city, I boarded Bibhuti Express from Howrah station which reached Varanasi right on time. As I stepped on the station platform in the morning, cold December winds sent shivers down my spine.

One of the oldest cities of the world, Banaras is as old as Jerusalem, Athens, Peking and Mecca. Talking about its antiquity, a mid-nineteenth-century missionary Rev. M.A. Sherring wrote: “Twenty-five centuries ago, at the least, it was famous. When Babylon was struggling with Nineveh for supremacy, when Tyre was planting her colonies, when Athens was growing in strength, before Rome had become known, or Greece had contended with Persia, or Cyrus had added luster to the Persian monarchy, or Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Judaea had been carried into captivity, she had already risen to greatness, if not to glory.”

Mark Twain says, “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

The city, also known as Kashi, is said to be the city of ‘Shiva’, founded at the dawn of civilization. “It has survived and flourished through the changing fortunes of the centuries because it is significant to the Hindus,” says Diana L. Eck in her book, Banaras: City of Light

My destination: Cozy Inn on Luxe Road, half a km from Dashashvamedh Ghat.

During my journey from the rail station to the hotel, I saw streets noisy with jangling of rickshaw bells, narrow lanes surging with life, buildings crumbling and sagging in the balconies and cows moving in a leisurely fashion. Well, this is Banaras on the surface. But, deep within there’s a reflection of elaborate and ancient ritual tradition of Hinduism. It is a tradition that has imagined God in a thousand ways. It is a religious tradition that understands life and death as an integrated whole. For non-Hindus, it is very difficult to see the same city as Hindus perceive it.

The hotel owner, Mayukh Jaiswal, warmly greeted and ushered us into the hotel. We’re amazed by the ethnic décor of the building’s interior: simple, elegant and austere. Served with a cup of tea immediately on arrival, I was ready to begin my journey through the holy city to discover its myriad facets.

(To be continued)









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