Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Varanasi- the "Timeless City"

While some reckon Varanasi is the filthiest Indian city, for devout Hindus it is a 'Timeless City', the holiest of holy place to secure moksha (release from the repeated cycle of birth and death – A Hindu belief). My own interest in the city was aroused by the view I once got of the ghat (river bank) on the western bank of the Ganges while flying to Bhubaneshwar  from Delhi. As the plane, banking to the left flew along the bend of the river after a touchdown at Varanasi, I saw them bathed in the brilliant morning sunshine, with the dark, placid waters of the holy river quietly flowing by. It was a spectacular sight and since then I had nursed a desire to visit Varanasi.

When my wife and I did make the trip some years ago it was by no means a pilgrimage but an un-structured visit, with no 'temple-crawling' on the agenda. Soon after arrival, we were on our way to the ghats atop a cycle-rickshaw. As we alighted at the end of Luxa Road, we got sucked into a veritable mela (fair). Everyone seemed to be on a high, moving either towards or away from the ghats. The mystery was solved when we came upon a lane that led to the famed Kashi Vishwanath temple – the sacred temple which every practicing Hindu aspires to visit at least once in his/her lifetime.

It was a 2-ms-wide claustrophobic alley, full of shops selling everything, from wooden artefacts to bangles, jewellery, saris and eatables. It was packed with people; some buying or browsing, others rushing about holding floral offerings avoiding the bulls in attendance, still others just hanging around, or seeking alms. As we moved nearer the temple, we were jostled by some men asking us to follow them. We followed one who assured us he would keep our footwear for free. Later, after visiting the temple, he put pressure on us to buy prasad (edibles offered to the deity and later consumed by the devotee as the former’s blessings) of dubious quality at a steep price. I suspected perhaps it had never been inside the temple.

 The temple itself is no architectural wonder, having been rebuilt several times and last in the 18th century by Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore. Nonetheless, it inspires amazing devotion. It shares a complex with the holy Gyan Vapi well, literally the well of knowledge, as well as with Aurangzeb's Alamgir Mosque. Later, for proceeding to the ghats, we were headed off into another alley that seemed to be right out of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. Like Apu’s father in the film we came across bare-chested dhoti-clad men hauling the holy Ganga water in heavy brass vessels up the lane muttering mantras.

Shops in the alley leading to the temple
Eventually, wending our way through the labyrinthine narrow alleys dodging the ubiquitous bulls we landed up on the ghats. Not being devout Hindus, the pancha kroshi - the five-day trudge through all the ghats - was out of the question for us. We preferred to wander around by ourselves and it was indeed enchanting, brought to life by a kaleidoscope of Hindu rituals. The collective reading of scriptures, tonsuring, the holy dips, people meditating; we saw all that and much more. We sat around on the steps imbibing the atmosphere, occasional clanging of temple bells providing the aural treat. As the dusk fell, it became more fascinating with lighted diyas (traditional earthen oil lamps) set afloat by devout on the water. We sat at the Dasashwamedh ghat, the most important of Varanasi's ghats, where Brahma is said to have sacrificed 10 horses, soaking in the remarkable ambience with many others, including some tea-sipping Westerners and a few listlessly lounging bovines.

Wife, Bandana, during the boat ride
After engaging a boatman for a ride along the ghats next morning for Rs 120, we tore ourselves away from the compelling setting. We set off early next morning for the boat ride. Near the ghats, we were buttonholed by another boatman, who, after quoting a ridiculous Rs 450 for the same ride, settled for only Rs 100. My wife was happy to have struck a bargain. Later, however, we understood we had been overcharged by a neat 100 per cent.  The ride doesn’t cost more than Rs. 50/-. Swindling is no big deal here, as the consequential sin can be washed away in next to no time with a dip in the holy river.
Yet the boat ride was well worth it. We saw some fine architecture, albeit in disrepair, like the ghats built by Raja Man Singh, the Scindias and the Holkars, and also the Alamgir mosque. While cremations were in progress at the Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats, we saw crowds engaged in ritualised bathing. It was still early, yet the ochre-robed god-men, unfurling their straw umbrellas, had commenced their business of blessing people for monetary considerations.

What upset us during the boat ride was the way the rituals and daily chores of bathing and washing clothes with the generous use of detergent were polluting the Ganges. Leave alone offerings to the river in plastic bags, even ashes from crematoria are immersed in the same water that is used for rituals and ablutions. The Hindu reverence for the river is choking it to death. Clearly, the Ganga Action Plan can do precious little to bring the River to its pristine glory in the face of such massive and inconsiderate pursuit of moksha.

We were rudely jolted out of our thoughts when the boatman suddenly moored the boat, indicating he had given us enough of a ride. Shaking off the avoidable indignation we soon perked up after a typical Kashi breakfast of handsome-looking browned puffed hot kachoris and sabzi with a few syrupy jalebis thrown in, accompanied by tea and all for just Rs 10 in an eat-pay-and-disappear shop next to the Dasashwamedh ghat.

Sarnath Stupa
Our perambulations in the city revealed two significant facts. One was the interdependence of Hindus and Muslims in the activities of the city that is dominated by Hindu religious services. Even the Banarasi saris, widely used in Hindu weddings, are mostly woven by Muslims. The other was the fact that Varanasi was one of the filthiest cities we had ever come across.

Leave alone the ghats, the roads are horribly filthy, severely encroached upon, causing chaos and disorder and they, just as the choked and stinking drains, seem to have never been cleaned. The devout can transcend the muck and mayhem; for tourists, however, the city is scandalously filthy. The contrast was palpable in Sarnath, only 10 km away, with the well-maintained temple complex of New Mulagandhakuty and the nearby little township.

I can't agree more with Jagmohan, the former Union Minister for Tourism, when he once said that Varanasi alone would attract a million foreign tourists if it were cleaned up. Inaction on this score is, sadly, allowing an opportunity for showcasing Hinduism in all its magnificence to remain unexploited. Hopefully, the recent fresh move to clean up Varanasi will materialise soon making the Holy City more acceptable to both, the discerning residents and tourists.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Rape, like corruption, is a world phenomenon

Despite all that happened in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape last December rapes seem to be continuing in relentless manner. Every morning one comes across at least half a dozen reports of rapes in the newspapers. These are apart from cases of molestations and other instances of gender violence. What would appear alarming is that while the gang rape of Delhi evoked heartfelt responses from all over the world and induced defining developments involving consideration of measures for protection of women gang rapes continue to occur with disquieting regularity.  

Blaming the influence of Western culture the self-proclaimed protagonists of Hindutva (Hindu way of life) had asserted after the tumult of the Delhi gang rape that rapes happen only in “India” and not in “Bharat”. The thrust of the argument was that rapes were an urban phenomenon because of pervasive influence of supposedly prurient Western culture and adoption of loose Western moral values in the metropolitan towns and cities. Those who lived in “Bharat”, i.e. in rural India, were yet untouched by them, were more traditional and thus were above such aberrant conduct. Unfortunately for the radical Hindutva brigade, their contention exploded in their face as a spate of reports appeared in the media about rapes in rural India. Rapes are probably as prevalent, if not more, in the country’s villages and hamlets as they are in urban settlements. In fact, whether in the deep South or up in the North dalit (former untouchables) women are routinely violated, singly or collectively or even murdered after having been raped, by the members of the higher castes. The suggestion was, therefore, wholly flawed, presupposing that there were no rapes in the country before the advent of Western mores – a typical instance, if there could be one, of cultural oneupmanship.

Of late, there seems to have been a rise in the number cases of rapes of minors of the ages ranging from three years to seventeen years. A man must be less than human to consciously commit rape on a mere infant. Looks like people have become so sex-starved that they are unable to pause and think of the heinous nature of their crime or even of the rigours of stiff penalties that the commission of it entails. Along with rampant corruption it seems to be another despicable facet of India where violence on the weaker sex is so rampant. Perhaps both are two sides of the same coin. Obviously, the uproar over the Delhi gang rape that was witnessed in most parts of the country did not touch a large section of perverted men. 

Regardless of various steps being taken to prevent sexual assaults on women, including stiff jail terms, rapes seem to be uncontrollable. However, by no means India alone suffers from this evil; it is prevalent even in much better policed and economically advanced countries. Like corruption, as Indira Gandhi once described it, rapes, too, are a world phenomenon. They happen everywhere, in every country; in some countries the incidence is low, in some others it is high. None should, therefore, get away with the impression that the perversity is endemic only in this country.

For instance in war-torn Africa rapes are common. In the ongoing strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo women have had the worst. Yes, there have been violence, killings and deaths but there have also been rapes of hapless women in large numbers. The country has seen armed militias playing havoc with it for many years. While violence and killings have been rampant the militias have been raping the women they came across. The usual practice seems to be to take the women into the bush and keep them in captivity for months during which they are raped by one and all in the militia. The Congo, too, is called the rape capital of the world. Revolutions and civil wars do strange things to people.

In the wars that involved Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda, Chad, Namibia and Burundi, millions died but several hundreds of thousands of women were raped. Rape is stated to be defining the ongoing civil war in Syria which is inching toward replacing the Congo as the world’s rape capital. Women and girls are routinely kidnapped, raped and tortured by the military. At military checkpoints, they have become soldiers’ targets. 

Regardless of all this South Africa walks away with the cake. The country has the highest reported incidence of rape in the world. South African police estimates that a woman is raped every 36 seconds. It also has some of the highest incidences of child and baby rape in the world. Numerous reasons that are basically cultural have led to this behavioural aberration. Some 56,272 rapes were recorded in 2010-11, an average of 154 a day and more than double of India's rate. A survey in Gauteng province found more than one in three men admitted to have committed rape. Many cases are known to go unreported and it is estimated that only around one in 200 rapists will be convicted. More than 25% of a sample of 1,738 South African men from the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape Provinces admitted to raping someone, nearly half had raped more than one person. 

In China convictions for rape are higher in number but, arguably, only one in ten cases are reported which would amount to a quarter of a million rapes in a year. This figure is also associated with rapes in the US, though researches feel there is pretty much under-reporting as elsewhere. Campus rapes are what seem to be more problematic with about 25000 women having confessed in a survey of either having been raped or suffered an attempted rape in an academic session, drug-use and alcohol being frequently associated with rapes Other researchers have revealed that about 80000 children are sexually abused every year. It has been estimated that one in six women in America has been either raped or will be up against an attempted rape during her lifetime. 

In Britain sociologists are worried about rise in teen-age gang rapes. The marauding school or college-going teenagers have been known to have abducted girls, kept them in illegal confinement and raped them under threat of violence. In 2007, while 85000 women were reportedly raped only 800 were convicted – a rather sad ratio. In Europe Sweden has the highest incidence of reported rapes. 

Socio-psychologists have, therefore, tried to study why people commit rape and why they collectively rape a single helpless woman. Findings, however, are not very conclusive. Researchers have only theorised that rapists generally can be put in two categories – criminal and psychiatric. The criminal rapists are mostly poorly educated and come from lower socio-economic strata, mostly with a criminal background whereas the psychiatric rapist was found to be well-educated and from a higher income bracket. A more widely accepted theory, nonetheless, is that that most rapists come from a subculture of violence whose values may be different from those of the dominant culture.

As for gang rapes, sociologists feel that that people think it would be easier to get away un- noticed if the crime is committed in a group. Others, however, think that gang rape is explained more by men’s “need” to perform gender for other men than it is by any kind of “irresistible” sexual desire. By American feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem’s “cult of masculinity”, gang rape is aided by numbers, underlying aggression, anger machismo and misogyny and by a culture that does too little to hold perpetrators accountable.

All this is not to say that since rapes are prevalent all over, at some places even more than as in India, nothing need be done. The prescription seems to be clear at least for the present. The State will need to be proactive by enacting stricter laws with heavy penalties and ensure effective policing for protection of women. Acknowledging the existence of “rape culture” that harbours machismo and misogyny, it will have to combat them with resolve inculcating, particularly in rural areas and in dehumanising shanty-towns of urban India, respect for women. The civil society, too, will have a role in helping its dregs to acquire the country’s well-known age-old and now-forgotten values.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Destinations: BANIHAL

The first train emerging from the tunnel at Banihal
Banihal was in the news recently. Northern Railway commissioned a tunnel connecting Qazigund in Kashmir Valley with Banihal in Jammu Region boring through the mighty Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas. Termed as Asia’s second longest tunnel it is a little more than 11 kilometres long at an average elevation of 5770 ft. Qazigund is already connected with Barammulla in North Kashmir via Srinagar. It is part of the ambitious and somewhat formidable railway project that will connect Kashmir to the rest of India over a series of mountain ranges by rail. This is the third tunnel that has pierced the Pir Panjals.

This is a very vital road as it is the only one that links Kashmir with the country. Before partition the approach to the Valley was via Muree, Muzaffarabad, now Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. This road was of lesser importance, being known as the Banihal Cart Road (BC Road). They say even tongas (horse-drawn carriages) from Jammu occasionally would audaciously use it and cross into the Valley through the Banihal Pass at around 11,000 ft. Now it is the lifeline for the Valley; the old Mogul Road via Poonch and Shopian is yet to be commissioned. The road via Rohtang Pass does connect the country with Kashmir but via Ladakh requiring a difficult detour.  

The train
The news reports called Banihal a town. May be it is so today. When I saw it first in 1957 it was no more than a mere village. My parents and we siblings were on our way to Kashmir that summer to visit a brother who was posted at Srinagar. The bus, having been delayed due to landslides on the way, had to stop at Banihal village for the night. Depending on the time of the day the buses would normally go across the Pir Panjal Range to stop at Qasigund which was the first town in Kashmir Valley. Perhaps our bus driver did not consider it safe to climb a few more thousand feet at night over winding rough and bumpy roads to cross over to the Valley through the Jawahar Tunnel that was at an elevation of around 9000 ft.

As it happens in villages, there was scarcity of accommodation for so many people. With great difficulty we could find two rooms that had their walls plastered with clay and cow dung. And they smelt of hay and hookah smoke. With no available alternative we had to put up in them. Right through the night we could hear a few enterprising truck drivers negotiating the treacherous road, pushing their vehicles hard up the mountain over the dangerous mountainous roads. 

We got the measure of the height we had to climb only in the morning when we looked up and saw as a tiny spec the mouth of the tunnel way up the mountain, almost touching the turquoise blue morning sky. As we recommenced our journey we came across another tunnel being bored through the Pir Panjal a few kilometres ahead of Banihal at a higher elevation. Those days the country was in its socialistic phase and, therefore, the East Germans (who had a communist regime) had been engaged for the work. They were working on two tunnels for up and down traffic in order to avoid jams that used to occur for years at the Jawahar Tunnel during the tourist season. A decade later I had the occasion to drive through this tunnel on my way down from Srinagar.

The Jawahar Tunnel took some time in arriving. The climb appeared to be steeper and the wretched road, at places was too narrow, made it more difficult. Looking out of the windows with the sight of drops of thousands of feet in case of a mishap was scary. Down below the villages looked far too miniaturised – one of them must have been Banihal. After an agonisingly slow climb we entered the little-more-than 2 km long tunnel that took us through the Pir Panjals – avoiding the other road that led to Banihal Pass, hardly used for motorised vehicles then, still higher, at around 11,000 ft. As we emerged from the tunnel we got a fabulous and an unforgettable view of the Valley, green and verdant sprawled a few thousand feet down below in front of us. The visibility was so good that one could see for miles with snow-covered mountains on both sides. As the sides of our bus grazed the mountainside we got the scraped off lumps of snow right inside. 

Another hour and we were in Qazigund, elated at having arrived in Kashmir but tired and hungry. Its wayside joints are known for their parathas and omelettes, the aroma of which seemingly permeated the place. We too had our fill of them fortifying ourselves before commencing our onward journey to Srinagar another couple of hours away.

The photographs are from the Internet

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...