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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Durga Puja in Guwahati: Viewing through my Lenses

Durga Puja as a grand festival is mostly associated with West Bengal among the people of the rest of India. But it is also a very important festival in Assam as well with the festive fever reaching a crescendo in the city of Guwahati. People from both the Assamese and Bengali communities come together in the city to put up grand pandals and innovative Puja themes. Over the years, the scale of Durga Puja has increased manifolds in Guwahati and today many believe that after Kolkata, Guwahati holds some of the best Puja pandals in the entire country. 

An idol of the Goddess Durga at a pandal

A closeup of a Durga idol

An illuminated gate entrance at a puja pandal

 The city's Santipur Sluicegate pandal with the theme of the Ganges flowing out of Lord Shiva's matted locks

A grand puja pandal set up in the city's Maligaon locality

Earthen lamps being lit at a Puja pandal

A group of women performing traditional kirtan at a puja pandal

Durga Puja is a favourite time for people to gorge on street food. Here is a gol gappa stand near a pandal

The puja theme at the city's Bishnupur pandal depicting the goddess as mother nature killing the Asur who is shown here as a poacher

 A Durga idol made entirely of dried coconut leaves at a pandal from the city's Rehabari locality

The Kalimandir pandal of the city's Chatribari locality came up with this unique idol made entirely of aluminium and stainless steel utensils

The Durga idol from a pandal in Fancy Bazar locality was made to wear real jewellery. The chain around the idol's neck was reportedly worth Rs 25 lakhs

Several puja pandals in the city put up donation boxes to provide relief for the victims of the recent floods in Assam

A young reveller waits before the beginning of the Bisarjan (immersion) procession on the last day 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Annals of a Proud Meat Eater

Only yesterday I was having a great dish of beef Biryani at a Muslim restaurant and decided to post a pic of the dish on Instagram. Instantly, one of my Muslim friends poked fun at me saying that he would expose me in front of the RSS. Immediately I looked around the place and observed that in the restaurant, out of about nine tables, in the chamber where I was seated, four were occupied by people who were visibly non-Muslims. I could see almost all of them had ordered red meat items, and I’m hoping that all of them would be beef and not mutton. But what seemed funny to me is that in a nation where the Hindu right wingers are trying to get a ban on cow slaughter, there are many Hindus like me who are beef lovers. And mind it; I’m neither a Communist nor an atheist. You can term me more like a liberal right winger.
I’m an Assamese caste Hindu who has a penchant for non-vegetarian items. But then most of my kind are, and I secretly pity any one from my breed who turns out to be a vegetarian. We Assamese are voracious meat eaters. Though like all Hindus, most of us abstain from eating beef, there are a few of us who love to do so. While Assamese Hindus may traditionally abstain from beef, we indulge in a variety of other meats which make our culinary options quite colourful. Like most Assamese families, ours is also a unit that indulges in varieties when it comes to non-veg. Our family belongs to the Vaishnav sect of Assam, and unlike the Vaishnavites from other parts of India, we are traditionally voracious meat eaters, except for beef and pork. This is quite like the Kashmiri Pandits who love to gorge on mutton, unlike their brethren from other parts of the country. Leaving the Vaishnavs and the Brahmins, and of course the Muslims, traditionally pork has been a most favourite item among the other communities. Almost every indigenous community of the state like the Ahoms, Kacharis, Bodos, Mishings, etc love pork. If you love pork, then you will find yourself in paradise while exploring the dishes made here locally.
In my family, traditions had been maintained quite strictly and both pork and beef remained out of the house for long. In a large clan of happy non-vegetarian Vaishnavs, I feel proud to admit that there are three black sheep, viz me, my brother and our Deuta (father). How did I become a beef eater? Well the credit goes to my Deuta. He was a rebel among all his siblings and ventured out in his younger days and indulged in both pork and beef. The best part was that he did not feel it necessary to hide his indulgence out of shame and hence earned contempt from his relatives. Deuta says even today, “If you don’t feel the guilt for something, then you should never be ashamed of having indulged in it.” And religion acts as no bar here. In fact ask my younger about it and he would say that religion is a complete bitch when it comes to fooding habits.
A question that I have often been asked is how many different types of meat forms have I eaten? This question came up during my stay in Delhi, a place where most people never rise above chicken or mutton. Fish is seen more like a ‘Bangaliyo ka zayka’, and Muslims mostly indulge in sale of buffalo meat, and never really real beef, to avoid controversy. Since I don’t have the typical yours truly ‘chinki’ look from my home region, I was mostly passed off as a Commie Bong who loves to indulge in food adventures. But the truth is most Bongs would shy away at the kind of meat forms that I indulge in.
Let me start with the basics, of course I began with chicken and mutton which forms a staple part of our culinary routine at home. Fish is more common in an Assamese household and like the Bongs, we have an extremely soft corner for the tasty Hilsa fish. In my house, we have rice, dal, atleast two to three varieties of vegetables, and fish on every alternate day. Chicken or mutton makes their appearances on weekends. Apart from chicken, other birds that we are fond of eating are pigeon and ducks. They are occasional appearances at our dining table and need special events for that matter. While most people in north India would cringe at the very thought of eating a cutie pie bird such as the pigeon, here in Assam, it is a delicacy among our people across various communities. Traditionally, it is expected that a newly wed bride in an Assamese household must cook a splendid dish of pigeon meat curry after her entry into the in-law’s house so as to win their hearts. Duck meat is a very warm variety and is preferred mostly during the winters. People do not shy away from hunting migratory ducks who come in from far off places such as Russia as they make splendid dishes for the wintery nights. We have ourselves indulged with this variety on quite a few occasions. Traditionally, we also have a soft side for crabs and prawns. If cooked in the proper manner, they are absolute delights for your taste buds. Tortoise meat is rarely cooked anywhere nowadays as the restrictions are so sharp. I remember having eaten tortoise only once as a kid and still reminisce the juicy flavor of the meat. But ever since then I haven’t come across this variety anywhere. Venison is also a prefered item among our people and it is hunted in an albeit hush hush manner in the rural sides so as to avoid detection by the authorities. I personally feel it is the Baap of all form of red meats.
I began eating pork much earlier than I decided to go for beef. My mother has always been against eating both beef and pork and today after so many years, she has reconciled to the fact that her husband and both her sons are beyond redemption in this regard. Pork is readily available in almost every corner of Guwahati. So it was no issue having pork momos or other such dishes as kids. Ma however wouldn’t let us come in with pork inside the house and on several occasions made us eat the pork momos while seated in the courtyard of our house. Today however, she has warmed up as we bring in packed pork items inside the house. But she still refuses to eat them. She has promised to eat pork the day I cook it for her. That day is coming soon I say! For us, pork is still an acceptable eating item compared to beef and I have continued to eat beef inspite of so many heating arguments over the issue with various people.
Eating beef was a process where I overcame my own demons. I ate beef when I was about 14 and was encouraged by the sole fact that my father was a beef eater. At that young age, the thoughts of religion and the divine consequence often bears down on you. While both my father and brother are agnostics who are not at all religious, I am mildly religious as I still frequent temples and other religious shrines now and then as I have been since I was a kid. I must say eating beef has been a liberating process for me from the dogmas of religion and peek more into the culture and rituals of people whom we perceive different from ourselves.
While beef eating is regarded as a heinous crime among Hindus, there is a lot of conflict over the issue if we come to the sacred texts. Since Hinduism has a variety of sacred literature, many of them differ from each other on the issue, while others remain silent mostly. While right wingers can literally bleed their hearts out on this issue, and even though I am with them on some fronts, there is no denying the fact that ancient Hindus were beef eaters. Beef was served as a mark of respect to the guest at a house during the Vedic era. Several chapters of the texts such as Manusmriti state in Chapter 5/Verse 30 that “It is not sinful to eat meat of eatable animals, for Brahma has created both the eaters and the eatables.” The Shatpath Brahmin also states that Sage Yagyvalkya reportedly said that he is a lover of beef. The father of Hindu revivalism, Swami Vivekanand also reportedly said, “You will be surprised to know that according to ancient Hindu rites and rituals, a man cannot be a good Hindu who does not eat beef”. In the Brihadaranyak Upanishad, the Adi Shankaracharya talks of a certain delicious rice dish that is made with beef.
While these are only the few arguments propagating consumption of beef by ancient Hindus, most of today’s right wingers who espouse the cause of Sanatan Dharma completely condemn the consumption of beef. Most of the views such as those mentioned above are often dubbed as propaganda by Muslims and Communists. The right wing lobby mostly espouses the cause of vegetarianism and states that no Hindu scripture espouses the killing of animals in any way. While it is true that the cow has been revered and given a high status in several scriptures that make it holy and nearly untouchable in terms of eating, I feel it is still highly doubtful if there is a blanket ban on meat eating in Hinduism altogether. Some ancient texts do speak out against consumption of beef. The Mahabharata’s Shantiparv states that “The very name of cow is Aghnya (not to be killed).” This means that a cow should never be slaughtered. So, one who kills a cow or a bull commits a heinous crime.
These were the kind of things I was digging into during my initial days of beef eating. I remained an occasional beef eater for the early years, before I finally decided that its all just crap and decided to follow the footsteps of my father. The Hindu texts and scriptures create a sense of confusion on the subject as they differ so greatly from each other. The Manusmriti, which advocates beef eating in one part, is self contradictory as it denounces meat eating in general in other sections. Some of the oldest texts like the Vedas remain largely silent on the issue. The good thing with Muslims is that they have just one holy book, the Holy Quran, which quite explicitly forbids the consumption of pork and non-halal items. Period. This is not so with our religion. I ultimately decided to go ahead as an absolute beef lover by the time I was seventeen, and realized that I loved it because it is indeed very tasty. Though to be honest, pork still remains my favourite meat. My younger brother did not have to go through any dilemma as me. Since he is absolutely irreligious, he just went ahead and tasted and approved it with a complete thumbs up in one go. All these years, I have been eating all sorts of meat forms and have moved on pretty well in life. There have no divine anger upon me, nor has ever any lightning struck down on me for my ‘sins.’ I continue to visit temples and other religious shrines. It is as if I have this little pact with God that I would continue to be a faithful Hindu in most ways, provided I’m left to pursue my choice of culinary delights. I know its complicated, but I believe He understands. I completely agree that a cow or a bull alive is worth more useful than one dead. But instead of advocating for a ban on cow slaughter, I suggest it should be done in very limited numbers with a stock that is bred separately just for that purpose.
Consumption of buffalo meat is not an issue to me at all. Forget the religious texts, people may revere the buffalo in their own way and consider it holy. But the truth is that in Assam and West Bengal, buffaloes are sacrificed during Durga Puja and Kali Puja, and the meat is distributed among devotees. Surely then it cant be an issue to be equated with cow slaughter. Buffalo meat is also a popular delicacy among many sections of Hindus such as the Nepalis. Now lets not get into the arguments of vegetarians and the Sanatan Dharmis of mainland India. Deuta describes them as a lot useless to argue with and describes them as a ‘ghaas poos’ variety who are happy consuming milk products.
But it is not so that we are averse to vegetarian cuisines. A good vegetarian item always spruces things for our appetite and I would anyday choose a Marwari function over others just to taste the delicious sorcery they conjure up with all those vegetarian food.
However, as a non-veg lover, my pack of sins is not completely done yet. I have also tasted dog meat at a Naga friend’s place. Found it completely disgusting, and swore never to taste it again. Plus I’m also a dog lover, so it made kind of guilty from the inside. That sort of feeling was never present there for the cow. I’ve also tasted snake meat in Meghalaya, and trust me, you’d happily eat them up thinking them to be boneless chicken if nobody tells you what they really are. My brother scored a point over me when he tasted bat meat which was prepared by some of his Garo and Mishing friends. He said it was quite bony but tasty. I don’t think I can bring myself to that level. Now what remains in my list are a few more exotic items which Deuta has tasted. They include octopus and squid. I may have to wait up for those two.
There are a few more items in my list which I really dont want to discuss here. I would love to try them out if I ever get the chance. But rest assured, I’m never turning to cannibalism. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Celebrating Holi: The Barpeta Way

Holi is a festival which is loved by almost everyone. Some of the most vivid and colourful images of Holi come to our minds from the ones that come in from places like Mathura and Vrindavan. In Assam, celebrating Holi has been a major activity for the people of the Vaishnav faith. The Satras (Vaishnav monasteries) have their own individual traditions of celebrating Holi, but none of them can come to the massive celebrations that take place in Barpeta Satra.

A group of women enjoy the colours of Holi.

The Satra at Barpeta town is regarded as the prime Satra in Assam within the Vaishnav cult, and has a rich tradition of celebrating Holi which is called here as the Doul Utsav or the Xuaeri Utsav. Holi here becomes a festival of three to four days and becomes an occasion for people to wear their new clothes of the year. The city wears a festive look and devotees come in from all corners of Assam to witness the celebrations that reflect the Assamese community’s rich cultural heritage.

Fire crackers being burst on the occasion of the Holika burning ceremony on the first day’s evening.

This year, the Doul Utsav was for three days. The first day sees the celebrations kick off with various groups and teams compete in the Holi Geet contest. The various performers take part in a parade through the main market of the town where they show off their prowess in the traditional Assamese Holi songs. The evening sees people gather in large numbers at the Satra premises to witness the Holika burning ceremony and then the traditional busting of fire crackers, which is one of the prime traditional attractions of the festivals. During this period, the idol of Lord Krishna and his wife, referred to by the locals as Ghunusa are kept out of the main Satra building and in the courtyard where they are worshipped. Day two sees the idols shifted to the Doul building in the premises where people make offerings in the form of Holi colours and incense sticks. The second day also sees the crowd building up within the Satra premises as people gear themselves up for playing Holi the next day.

People gather in the premises of the Satra to witness the Holika burning ceremony.

The idols of Lord Krishna and his wife Ghunusa on display.

The main entrance gate of the Satra decorated for the evenings of the Doul Utsav.

People gather at the Doul temple within the Satra premises to offer pujas to Lord Krishna and Ghunusa on the second day of the Doul Utsav.

A group of young boys indulge in traditional Assamese Holi songs.

The third day sees all the people in the town go wild as they gather up to play Holi. Every nook and corner of the town is painted colourful as people sing traditional Holi Geets and splash colours on each other. Some of the best Holi festivities are seen at the market around the Satra and within the Satra premises itself. 

Holi festivities in full swing at the main market in front of the Satra.

Revelers enjoy the spirit of Holi with colours and songs.

A group of boys enjoy the spirit of Holi.

Fried boiled eggs are the favourite delicacies of Barpeta during the Doul Utsav.

The second half of the day sees large crowds of people gather up at the Satra premises as Krishna and Ghunusa are taken out on two palanquins by a large procession of devotees to the neighbouring village of Ganak Kuchi as part of the celebration finale. Devotees playfully block the path of the Lord throughout the way as the ones carrying the palanquins break their way through it. It is a real treat for the eyes to watch it. Once back from Ganak Kuchi, the palanquins are ritually made to circumnavigate the main Satra building seven times before they are finally put to rest in their traditional spot in the Satra.

Devotees carry the palanquins of Lord Krishna and Ghunusa towards the main gate of the Satra for their trip to Ganak Kuchi.

Lord Krishna’s palanquin being carried by devotees during the circumnavigation process as part of the final day’s ceremony of the festival.

This year saw a massive attendance of people at the Doul Utsav as colours were thrown in the air and traditional Holi Geets were sung by the merry making people of Barpeta. It is a real treat to watch for anybody who wants to see Holi celebrated in a customized Assamese tradition. Next year, The Doul Utsav will held for a period of five days with the final day reportedly culminating on March 8. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to miss that one. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Goddess in the Backyard

The famous Nilachal Hill of Guwahati is full of surprises. While the whole world knows that it is the site of the most revered Kamakhya temple, the hill is itself the holder of many secrets and fascinations. While some people regard the hills around Kamakhya and the rest of the Maligaon area as pretty good for trekking purposes, the locals believe that the Nilachal Hill holds a lot of mysteries which have not yet manifested properly for normal humans. Until most recently, I discovered that most of these mysteries are small shrines or temples that have laid hidden and forgotten for centuries within jungles and caves in various corners of the hill.

The view of the majestic Brahmaputra from the side of the Nilachal Hill.

I’m myself not a religious person, but when my overtly religious friend Pravanjan Bhattacharjee told me about this hitherto unknown shrine of Vaishno Devi in the Nilachal Hill, it captured my imagination like anything. Everyone knows that Vaishno Devi’s shrine is at Katra in Jammu. To my knowledge, there is no other shrine of the Goddess anywhere else but Katra. A Vaishno Devi shrine at the Nilachal Hill was an opportunity I could not just give away and so I begged my friend to take me to this place.

The spot of the shrine with the mystical tree and the makeshift hut.

To go to this shrine, you need to make an exit through the western gate of Kamakhya, which is known as the path of Hanuman as it takes you all the way to the Balak Hanuman temple at the foothill of Nilachal which is quite close to the banks of the Brahmaputra. Since we were walking to a shrine, we left our shoes at a shop near the temple and walked down the rough path to the shrine halfway down the hill. First you exit the western gate of the temple and then make your way through the little colony of houses where the families of the priests and pandas stay. A ten minute long walk walk suddenly brings to a rough stony path that goes through the jungle. Now here is the good part for adventure lovers and people who love to go for an occasional trek in the embrace of nature, the way to the shrine is full of spots that enchant you. First of all is the majestic sight of the Brahmaputra flowing below the hill. On one end you can see the Saraighat Bridge and on the other end you can see the Umananda island. It is really a sight to behold and gets breathtakingly lovely during the time of sunset. You also pass by an old Shivakund, a small lake by the hilly fringes of the jungle that also houses a Shivalinga with it. Nilachal Hill is dotted by many such Shivakunds that are spread over various spots.

Cyclewallah Baba seated in the makeshift hut.

For people who don’t have the habit of walking much or have gained weight recently may find the walk a little bit tedious as I did. You have to do a bit of climbing along the way as the path meanders up and down the hillway. For those who are worried over directions, it is fairly a straightforward path that rarely deviates from the way. Plus, it is advisable to ask the locals before you set out as they know the proper directions. After a walk that lasted around 40 minutes and was spread over the some beautiful sights of nature, we reached the spot of the shrine.

The exterior of the main cave entrance of the shrine of Vaishno Devi.

The way leading through the main cave entrance into the shrine of Vaishno Devi.

The spot is dotted by a makeshift hut where two priests live and two caves are situated within close ranges of each other, one dedicated to Vaishno Devi and the other for Shiva. There is also a mystical tree that captivated our attention for most part of our stay there. I followed my friend into the hut and saw two priests seated and reciting sholkas from the Devi Puran. We sat down in front of them and listened to the recitation of the hymns for sometime. That really sat the mood for some devotion and then after sometime the priests took a break to talk to us. The two priests, who are otherwise not very comfortable talking to strangers, told us about the place.

The chakras on one portion of the tree.

 It was an ancient site of a Vaishno Devi temple within the cave that had got forgotten for a long time. It was one the priests, who introduced himself as the Cyclewallah Baba, who discovered the place after getting a revelation from the Goddess in a dream. Baba recounted that it was the time of the yearly Ambubachi Mela during 2007, when the dream came to him one night. Soon he made his way to the spot and discovered the temple hidden inside the cave behind a huge thicket of jungle. The Goddess instructed him to keep the location of the temple a secret for three years and ordered him to clear the spot of the jungle and make it decent for offering pujas. Baba continued with his efforts in preserving the vicinity of the temple for a period of three years. Both the caves were cleaned up and pujas began to be offered there. Baba soon made the revelation to other people and then his friend, the other priest joined him in the daily pujas there.

The seat of the Goddess which was also the spot where Gorakhnath is said to have performed penance.

Me and my friend offered pujas at the Vaishno Devi shrine in front of the stone idol smeared in sindoor and prayed there for a long time. I must admit there is a strong feel of other worldliness in the area and I became religious for that period of time. Taking photos inside the cave of the Devi is not aloud and the place has a strong cooling affect that worked great after the day’s walking that had left us exhausted in the heat. Between the two caves is a huge stone which is labelled as the throne of Vaishno Devi. It is also regarded as the site where the legendary seer Baba Gorakhnath had performed penance ages ago. Near to it is the mystical tree I had mentioned sometime back. Now what is interesting about this tree is that it has got naturally formed circles or chakras in various parts of its body and the trunks. The priests swear that if you look closely at the chakras then it reveals the form of the Goddess. Also, the chakras keep appearing and disappearing in different parts of the tree thus revealing different forms of the Goddess from time to time. From there we walked over to the cave of Lord Shiva, who is referred here as the Brahmand Baba. The climb inside this cave is however difficult as it is narrow and you have to be careful of the rocks. But soon, we made our way to the main cave chamber and were greeted by the Shivalinga inside it. I stood inside the main chamber which has an opening over the top among the roof and marveled at this natural formation that has given way to a great sight of devotion. Fortunately, we were told that Brahmand Baba is not shy at all and so I happily took some photos here.

The rocky underway leading to the cave of Brahmand Baba.

Cyclewallah Baba also informed us that the manifestation of the Vaishno Devi here at Nilachal is the same that is seen at Katra in Jammu. So that means if you visit this shrine at the Nilachal Hill, then you really don’t need to go all the way to Katra for a darshan of the Goddess. The two priests run the place now at their makeshift hut and also hold a bhandara (community kitchen) every Sunday with the help of the local people. I could see that the two men run the place with a lot of effort and there is no electricity here at all. A water pipe was recently installed at a point near the temple spot, but before that the two priests had to go all the way up to the temple premises to gather water for the day. The path is also quite rough and stony and frankly speaking not very safe at certain points. The spot is known to the two priests and the local people who live on the Nilachal Hill. A few other regular devotees like my friend know about it, but it is mostly an unknown fact to outsiders and occasional visitors to the Kamakhya Temple.

The main chamber of the cave of Brahmand Baba.

Cyclewallah Baba feels that the place has a great scope to improve provided the temple gets a bit of publicity and sees a rise in the number of devotees. He said that facilities near the shrine spot can improve greatly and the road can be repaired and made safe for all to tread on only if people start visiting the place which would eventually make the authorities take notice. Here, I knew what he meant because if this small spot has the same potential as the Vaishno Devi shrine of Katra, then we are staring at the next big shrine in the vicinity after the Kamakhya Temple itself.

They say you cannot visit the shrine of Vaishno Devi until she decides its time for you to do so. During my decade long stay in Delhi, I had thought several times of visiting the Vaishno Devi shrine at Katra. But somehow things never worked out. But ironically, the Goddess gave me a darshan at my own hometown after all these years. Maybe it is a sign for all of us to love and respect our homeland's soil more than ever. I will keep visiting the Devi from time to time now. I hope you do it too if you are in Guwahati or anywhere nearer to it than Katra. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Fallen Hero

Heroes rise and heroes fall. This piece is for one such hero who has fallen from grace in such a manner that he is now a criminal to scores of people whom he set out to emancipate. I am one of those scores of people. And our criminal is Paresh Baruah.

The recent news of a Bangladeshi court sentencing ULFA’S commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah to death over his involvement in a major smuggling case in 2004, got me thinking as to how a man who was once revered by thousands, is today remembered as perhaps one of the biggest black sheep that Assam has produced post India’s independence. Baruah was awarded the capital punishment along with 13 other people who included Bangladesh’s former ministers. And all this while he is snugged up somewhere away in Myanmar and perhaps dreaming of ruling over an independent Assam through the aegis of a regime a la the Khmer Rouge.

The man was once more respected than feared among the Assamese people, who saw in him their liberator. He gave the disgruntled youth of the land a reason to fight and assert themselves. He and his comrades once started a revolution that fired up the imaginations of the youth of the Assamese nation. But where has it all landed today? Today the newer generation of Assamese wants to forget all that happened about two decades back as a bad dream and move on. A case here being our last Republic Day. Throughout my childhood, Republic Day and Independence Day were seen as days to stay indoors, partly because there was always calls for shutdown by the ULFA and other such groups, and secondly nobody wanted to be blown up by some bomb. But this year, people came out in large numbers all over Assam, enjoyed themselves and dismissed off Paresh Baruah and the ULFA as nothing but trouble mongers. Yes, they still fear ULFA for the bomb blasts that it can carry out from time to time. But yes, they also regard them as traitors.

While some of his comrades were forced to move over to the Indian government’s side some time back, Paresh and his troop of comrades continued to carry the battle from their camps in Myanmar while being aided by Pakistan and China. The ULFA boys had a golden run in Bangladesh for more than a decade. They had camps there, support by the Islamists and parties like the BNP, and had started businesses running into millions which facilitated their campaigns against India. Baruah, under the garb of Zaman Bhai, ran a profitable hotel business there and owned a transport business which is perhaps one of the largest in the country. All that changed with the coming of the Awami League to power when all their work began to be busted one by one. And now this death sentence has come as a final blow to Baruah from Bangladesh.

For year as Baruah and the other ULFA honchos enjoyed the comforts in Bangladesh, embittered young boys and girls, without proper education or employment, were being recruited in Assam to run the organisation’s operations. The decade of 90s was particularly gloomy in this regard. Bomb blasts and violence were a common norm, in which mostly innocent civilians died. The ULFA began its revolution mainly on the issue of driving away foreigners (illegal Bangladeshis) from the land. What they ended up doing was killing poor Biharis and extorting from wealthy Marwaris. And while the Assamese people continued to suffer, the ULFA leaders under Baruah continued to live a wealthy lifestyle in Bangladesh and illegal Bangladeshis continued to prosper in Assam.

Baruah’s family still reportedly lives in Bangladesh. Having reportedly converted to Islam, the family now lives in secrecy under the protection of the Islamists. The Indian government has not been successful in luring them over to the Indian side of the border. Apart from Baruah’s family, the jailed ULFA leader Anup Chetia’s family is also based in Bangladesh currently.

Now what does the future hold for all? Well while the surrendered ULFA faction under Arabinda Rajkhowa is slowly transforming themselves into power breakers in Assam’s politics, ULFA-I (Independent) under Baruah is still carrying on the fight from Myanmar while trying to lure the youth of the state and sneaking in explosives into Guwahati and other parts. While currently, the Bodo militants seem to have stolen ULFA’s thunder in the state, Baruah still remains the biggest factor to instability and chaos in Assam. This new court order is not a good sign for Baruah. With Bhutan closing its doors towards Indian militants in 2003, Bangladesh has also decided to shut the doors on the ULFA. Now Myanmar is their last hope and the Indian government better act fast in this regard. Till definitive steps are taken, men like Baruah will continue their efforts to brainwash the youth and create anarchy in the state.

The ULFA was a revolution that has gone horribly wrong. It was a dream that went sore after top leaders like Baruah transformed themselves from freedom fighters to mercenaries for states like Pakistan and China. I rarely come across a person nowadays who doesn’t curses Baruah and the ULFA for the troubles they put Assam into. They are traitors to the Assamese people. They are traitors to me.

One last advice to Baruah in these tough times. Always keep a gun close to yourself. Shoot yourself before one of us does and rips you apart.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The City of Ghosts

A lot has been written and said about Bhangarh, the legendary ghost town of India. It is supposedly one of the most haunted places in the world. Located in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, it is one of the few destinations in India that adventure lovers and ghost hunters like to visit. I had heard and read a lot about this place and had always wanted to check it out for myself. So finally when I quit my last soul sucking job, I decided to travel and included Bhangarh in my list.

Going to Bhangarh from Delhi is no tough affair. You can take a road trip by either a car or bus; or take a train as I did. While most people make it a two day trip to Bhangarh, it turned out to be just a day long affair for me. Take the Ajmer Shatabdi early morning at 5:45 am from New Delhi and you will reach Alwar town in a couple of hours. From there you can take a local taxi upto Bhangarh. Now a taxi is the best option from Alwar as there is no bus service till Bhangarh. Buses run to Bhangarh’s neighbouring village of Ajabgarh, but from there onwards you have to be on your own. It’s an over two hours ride from Alwar to Bhangarh via taxi as the roads are quite rough in certain places. But the journey is also a major highlight of the entire trip as you pass by some really interesting spots.

First obviously while traveling through Alwar you notice the famous city fort which would rather take an entire day to cover up. So I had to skip that one. Then, while going out of Alwar in the outskirts, is the beautiful Silliped Lake, which is really a peaceful spot given the majestic rugged Aravallis on its backdrop. Then we arrive at Natani Ka Bada. This is a picturesque spot on the way which is literally a small valley between two hills and a small stream flowing in between. Legend has it that a female acrobat (Natani) had died while trying to cross the lake on a tightrope and so a temple is built on the side of the stream in her honour. Another noteworthy point is that the stream is filled with tortoises, some of which are pretty large. It is quite a sight, trust me.

Deers and wild boars at the Sariska Park periphery area on the way to Bhangarh.

One of the major highlights of the journey is that you pass by the peripheral area of the Sariska Tiger Reserve. You don’t get to see tigers, but you get to quite a lot of monkeys, peacocks and also deers and wild boars on the way. They all make interesting sights as you pass by. The two hour ride may get tedious at some points but then again the entire landscape is dotted by the Aravallis and so you get some of the most magnificent sights that the mountain range can offer. The landscape is dotted by numerous small villages at intervals and also small abandoned forts which belonged to erstwhile landlords.

Though it is no desert country here, the landscape is all rugged terrain and beautiful rocky mountains as you pass by small villages on your way. The area is dominated mostly by people from the Gujjar, Meena and Meo Muslim communities. My taxi driver, Fakhruddin, himself a Meo, was a jolly fellow who happily explained to me all the important spots as we passed by. For him, the most important fact is that the SRK-Salman starrer Karan Arjun was shot extensively at several places in the area and we passed by many spots which served as locations for the film.

The weather was quite hot inspite of the fact that I had made the trip in December and soon I fell asleep in the car. My driver woke me up as we reached Ajabgarh, which is the nearest village to Bhangarh. As we passed by the village, I noticed that were ramparts of an old fort surrounding the village and there was an old gateway on the main village road. Ajabgarh was formerly a small kingdom during the Mughal era and had a role in the history of Bhangarh. We shall come to that later.

We had started from Alwar at around 9:30 am in the morning and we finally reached Bhangarh at around 12:00 in the noon. As our car neared the main gate of the fort, I realised that the last human settlement was atleast a kilometer away from the place. Such was the terror of the place among the locals that nobody wanted to be near it in any manner. The area outside the fort walls in dotted with small chatris or such monuments, reminding you of the fact that you are standing right outside an old piece of history. Entry is free and so as I passed the main gate into the city of Bhangarh quite eagerly.

Visitors make their way through the main market area of Bhangarh.

Before reaching the main palace complex of the city, you pass through the main market area of the city. Stone structures which earlier comprised the main market dot a large area upto the main palace complex gates. Many of them are standing structures while the rest are plain debris. One interesting point is that none of the structures in the main market have roofs. Legend has it that a curse forbids the structures here from having roofs and so there are none. A main road in between the market leads to the main palace complex as you walk past the structures admiring the lonely beauty that is scattered around the place. I also realized that there is no lighting arrangement at the entire place, which means that after evening, the place would be pitch dark and really creepy.

As you enter the main palace complex, you are greeted by a beautiful garden which is really well maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The first building that greets you is a Gopinath Temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. There is also another temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and a small tank near it that gets its water supply from a stream which flows from the nearby hill. Visitors were already there roaming in the garden and exploring the structures that were scattered around. Most of them were couples and lovebirds, whom I found peacefully hidden behind rocks and pillars as I explored the place. The temples are built in classic Rajput architecture style and have the same ornamental beauty that are found in the structures of the Chittorgarh fort. The city is surrounded on one side by hills from the Aravalli range and is wide open with fields lying on the other way. Hordes of Langurs and monkeys roam around in the area with care abandon. You really have no reason to fear them at all.

Bhangarh was built by Raja Bhagwan Das of Amer in the 16th century. Later, Raja Madho Singh, brother of the famous Raja Man Singh from Emperor Akbar’s court, made it the capital of his small vassal state that was under Amer.

The main gates leading to the palace building.

After passing the garden, I made way to the main palace building for which I crossed the main palace entrance gate and then climbed the steps to the palace as it is built on the slopes of a hill. A beautiful structure lying desolate for so many centuries, one look at it and you can’t help but admire its beauty. But then suddenly you also remember that this is supposedly one of the most spookiest places of the world. I climbed up the stairs to the main palace and passed by a few women who were brooming the path. As I entered the main corridor I realized that I was the only person inside the palace at that very moment, as the rest of the visitors were out in the garden. I passed by a few dark corridors and realized that most of the passages and ways to the interiors of the palace have been blocked. What was most amazing was that at a certain spot I found swastika symbols made from vermillion on the wall and the floor beneath was burnt. Somebody had lit a religious sacrificial fire recently. Why? Perhaps to appease the spirits inhabiting the palace. The palace had once been a six-storeyed building but now only four storeys remain as the upper two storeys cease to exist.

The view from the top of the palace building.

I climbed up to the roof of the palace and lo! What a view it gave me of the entire area! I stood there among the debris of the erstwhile top two floors for a long time admiring the beauty of the entire place and imagining what a lovely place it must have used to be. Suddenly a gust of wind struck me from behind which almost threw me off balance. It wasn’t a regular gust of wind. For by then, I had come to realize that the wind blowing within the palace building made a low pitch whistle as they pass by. It sounds really creepy and would scare the hell out of a person who goes there after dark. By then, the remaining visitors had started appearing within the palace building and so I was assured that there should be no ghost making appearances in the broad daylight.

Right to the palace is a large hillock on top of which stands a chatri like structure. The structure is supposedly the living embodiment of the evil that haunts Bhangarh. Now we come to the point as to how Bhangarh came to be a ghost city. Legend has it that Bhangarh was ruled by the beautiful princess Ratnavati. She was very popular among the masses and tales of her beauty were famous in all the kingdoms of Rajputana back then. Her beauty had also caught the fancy of a wicked Tantrik, living at his small Ashram on top of the very hillock, who was well versed in the practice of the occult. Driven by lust, the Tantrik devised a plan to make her fell for him. He sent a bottle of perfume to be mixed in her bath, the scent of which would make her fell in love with him. Now what our villain didn’t know here was that the princess herself well versed in black magic. She got the scent of the plot and threw away the perfume bottle. The bottle then assumed the form of a giant boulder and started rolling towards the Tantrik. Knowing that his end was approaching, the Tantrik quickly cursed the entire city and its inhabitants that nobody would be able to be reborn after dying there and their souls would be trapped there forever. The boulder ultimately killed him. Soon afterwards, Bhangarh got into a quarrel with the neighbouring kingdom of Ajabgarh and was badly defeated in the ensuing battle. The city was ransacked and the local population was massacred. And ever since then, Bhangarh has remained a desolate place.

The corridors in the palace building.

Though the ASI started reviving the place during the 1950s, its fame as a haunted spot was well known in the entire region. Nobody is allowed to remain after dark and the gates of the city are locked up after 6 pm. The main ASI office for the place is located about a kilometer away and a few guards remain back inside a Hanuman Temple built near the outermost gate and they never venture out till the break of dawn. While the rest of the city is available to visitors during the day time, the hillock where the Tantrik’s chatri is built is always off limits. It is rumoured to be the site of unspeakable evil and there is no proper road or way that can lead a person up to the chatri on the hillock. Reportedly, the orders for the place to be cordoned off after dark was issued years ago after people were found dead inside the palace complex area after they spent a night there.

There have been some shows on TV where they have showed televised footage of the area after dark. I sincerely doubt they are true after my visit to the place. There is also a Karni Mata temple near Bhangarh but we decided not to go there as it is on the other side of the hills and the way around was too messed up. I was done exploring the place by afternoon and so by 4 in the evening, me and my cab driver Fakhruddin began our journey back to Alwar. While going back, right outside Alwar, we stopped at the Bhartri Baba temple which is a highly revered site by the local people there. It is dedicated to a local saint who had his Ashram there and I felt after visiting a haunted place, it was good to bow down before something religious.

I reached Alwar by 6:30 pm in the evening, explored the city a little, tasted its famous Kalakand sweet and finally boarded the next Ajmer Shatabdi to Delhi at 7:30 pm. It was a day well spent.

Now what did I take back from this trip? Do I think that the place is haunted? Well, first of all I made the trip in broad daylight and so didn’t really hope for any ghost spotting. And I don’t think the ASI would allow anyone to stay there after dark. The place is hauntingly beautiful and quite well maintained by the ASI. There were certain parts of the palace that were dark and creepy, and yes, every time the wind passed by, it whispered mysteries into my ears. The place would be definitely scary after dark. But I guess I would not be finding out the truth of the place too soon. Only one thing, this won’t be my only trip to Bhangarh. This place is great for a day long getaway from the humdrum of city life and for people who seek a little adventure now and then.

Atleast I am happy that I made a trip to a place that is on the global ghost map.