Archive | August 2016

A Tryst with Tradition

This write up by me appeared in Arbit , Rashtradoot on 26th July 2016

A day before the Chief Election Commissioner announced the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, I received an order that I had been transferred as Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Beawar from my then posting as SDM Alwar. Since I was not expecting the transfer it came as a bit of a bolt from the blue but as is customary in the service I packed my bags and headed off with a wee bit of trepidation to undertake the new assignment. Beawar, I was told by many solicitous senior officers was going to be unlike my first posting in Alwar, more so because it was an independent sub-division far from the district headquarters and because it presented a number of challenges that no other sub-division in the state did.

Beawar, the name itself presented a legend wrapped in the history of the sub-division, one that made me a feel a sense of dread at the prospect of what lay ahead. Upon reaching the new office, the staff and residents of the city took it upon themselves to educate me on the historical significance of the city of Beawar and where it got its unusual name from.  The region where present day Beawar is located was called Magra-Meawara and was ruled by the fierce Kathat tribes and Rawat Rajputs. Despite the efforts of the British to subdue them, these groups continued to present resistance to the British through their guerrilla warfare techniques. Beawar was of extreme strategic importance to the British located as it was at the tri-junction of the states of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. Hence a fortified cantonment was built here by Colonel Charles George Dixon (1795-1857) in 1836. As for the rather distinctive name, the legend goes that the British put warning signs of “Be Aware” around the cantonment as an alert to their officers and men leaving or crossing the cantonment. Slowly from these boards the name Beawar was born.

An impending election looming large ahead of me and the legend of Beawar behind me I had a sense of imminent dread yet attempted to be undaunted and felt quite like Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings as he made his way to Modor. If I believed that the  conducting the Lok Sabha election was the biggest challenge before me as I arrived at Beawar and took over, I was wrong, a bigger challenge awaited, one that the staff and other officers of the Sub-Division were fretting about.  Nine days after I joined the new assignment was the day of the Badshah Holi, an age old tradition in Beawar and for the first time one of the main protagonists of the festivities was going to be a lady officer –me.

The Badshah Mela of Beawar dates back around 150 years and finds its roots in a story of Akbar and one of his nine gems Todarmal.  According to the legend, whilst on a hunting expedition Akbar was captured by some bandits who threatened to kill him. He managed to escape with the assistance of Todarmal and in gratitude granted Todarmal the “Badshahi” (power to be king) for “dhai din” (two and a half days). As the period of his Badshahi came to a close, Todarmal led a procession through the city and threw gems and precious stones from the state treasury into the cheering crowds. Finally the procession ended at the palace where the Emperor Akbar welcomed him. To commemorate this event, the Agarwal community of Beawar joins hands with the sub-divisional administration and celebrates the day after Dhulandi, by re-creating a ceremonial procession complete with a person from the community who is dressed like Todarmal and another from the Brahmin community who is Birbal. In Beawar, the procession culminates at the SDM office. Crowds from the town of Beawar, the surrounding villages and even neighbouring districts like Bhilwara, Pali and Rajsamand stand along the roads , on roof tops as the procession makes its way along the traditional route from Bheruji ka Chowk, through Ajmeri gate and onwards to the SDM office. Todarmal rides on an open truck along with other members of the organizing committee. Birbal in traditional wear dances to the gair a dance performed in Rajasthan around Holi. Both Todarmal and Birbal are selected carefully, physical fortitude and a strong arm to throw colour for hours being a primary pre-requisite. Pink gulal or colour is hurled up in little packets of paper by the team atop the truck and in return the people along the roads and the women and children  on balconies throw pink colour on the procession. In a few minutes after the procession starts the whole environment is a sea of pink. Men and women collect the packets, a sign of good luck and keep them in their lockers as a lucky charm that will bring prosperity all the year through.

As the evening advances, the procession and crowds make their way to the SDM office where the SDM and other officers await their arrival on a specially made stage outside the building. A raging battle of colour ensues between the public, the team on the truck and the administrative officers led by the SDM, each hurling colour at the other. Thereafter, Todarmal and Birbal are led onto the stage where Todarmal presents a “farman” or a directive to the SDM ordering him to take certain steps for the welfare of the city. In return the SDM presents a nazarana to Birbal in the form of a coconut .

When I heard the story, I felt vaguely anxious, facing a crowd of around one lakh people hurling packets of colour on me sounded like a litany of torture. The staff at the office too was in a conundrum, a lady officer had never been at the receiving end of the Badshah tradition. “Would madam want the Tehsildar to stand in for her?” was the query whispered to me by a sympathetic official. However, being eager to banish any misogynistic theories perpetuating patriarchy I was quick to snap back, “of course not!” There was to be no debate or discussion, I was taking up the gauntlet and would stand and receive the procession as was customary.

As D-Day dawned and the rest of the country slept after the Holi frivolities, officials and staff from the municipal board arrived to set up the stage and large halogen lights outside the office. I inspected their work in frenzied anticipation only to be informed by a cheerful official that two years ago the stage had collapsed under the then SDM and his staff as the crowds approached. The thought was unsettling to say the least and I looked on at the pillars and poles under the stage with consternation. A trip into the market was in order as preparations by the Agarwal community began early in the morning. Gallons of thandai were being made in the inner lanes, to be served to the milling crowds. The organizers unaware of my dread seemed infused with transcendent joy as they went about with their preparations for the day. In my office, a small room had been converted into a war room- staff and my orderly sat on the floor squatting between packets of colours, making small packets, their fingers and nails a bright shade of pink. Animated chatter prevailed; everyone seemed to be galvanized with a new vigour and energy in preparation for the evening completely oblivious to my disquietude.

At around four in the evening the procession began slowly weaving its way through the streets. The police bandobast was in place and intermittent messages on the wireless system reported its location.  I sat in my chamber trying to keep my legs which were quivering like a jellyfish by then steady. My orderly Ram Singh made his way into the chamber, with a pair of transparent plastic glasses, much like divers use for deep sea diving, a cap and a pair of plastic gloves. During the course of our training at the Mussoorie Academy, I recalled how during the lecture on law and order management we had been strictly told not to step into any law and order incident without being armed with the necessary paraphernalia – read helmet and jacket. Possibly these glasses and gloves were the requisite battle armaments for this battle. I gratefully took them from the orderly, blessing his sagacity. A little later a head bobbed into the office, wrapped in a yellow cloth, eyes hidden behind a pair of black glasses; it was my Tehsildar, also prepared for battle.

Nightfall approached and the bags with packets of pink colour were carried onto the stage. For the umpteenth time I asked the Junior Engineer to check whether the stage was strongly erected. After what seemed like a geological epoch we began to hear drum beats in the distance as the procession approached. My orderly stepped in quietly and whispered to me, it was time. I stepped out into the open as a crowd of people were marching and dancing into the office compound. In the bright yellow halogen light a mist of pink was visible. My newly acquired battle gear in place on my nose and head, I climbed up the stage along with the team of officials. As I looked on into the crowd, the truck with Todarmal made its way slowly towards the stage, its occupants barely recognizable in the layers of pink. An exhausted looking Birbal continued to dance in front of the truck. The first packet of colour hit me on my leg and dissolved into a heap of pink at my feet signaling the start of the battle. My orderly held out a packet to me and I hurled it out with all the strength my shoulder could accord. Very soon packets of colour were flying in both directions; the stage held out and was soon covered in a layer of pink. It was an experience like no other. The drum beats reached a crescendo and the crowds cheered as packet after packet were hurled between the administration and the public.

At the end an exhausted Todarmal and Birbal were led up the stage with the farmaan. Both the SDM and the stage had survived the exhilarating adventure. As I wiped the colour off myself that night I realized that administration was not just about files and orders. Instead it meant connecting with the people, their traditions, understanding them and being a part of the history of the place. A year later I was still in Beawar, to face yet another unique Badshah Mela.  For the people of Beawar, Badshah is a time honoured tradition, celebrated by the entire town with much energy and joy, all communities and the administration coming together for an unforgettable evening of enthusiasm, harmony and joie de vivre.  For me, it was an insight into the heritage of a unique town where I learnt some valuable lessons on administration.



The Miracle of Faith

I watched the patch of moisture on the glass window of the SUV reach outward as I exhaled onto it, my nose pressed against the window, eyes firmly set on the icy, razor back peak beyond. We were at Khardung La, 18,370 feet above sea level, the highest motorable
(if it can be called that!) road in the world. Bone chilling winds penetrated into the jacket I huddled into as we stepped out into the rarefied air taking in the view around. Clear blue skies above, barren brown snow capped  ranges glistening in the morning sun and the road lined with loose rock and melted snow. After an arduous drive from Leh at 11,000 feet the cup of steaming hot lemon tea and bowl of watery maggi was welcome. A bright yellow board swathed in colourful prayer flags welcomed us to the highest point in the world along with a warning, not to stay beyond thirty minutes. Rows and rows of faded colourful prayer flags fluttered against miles of stark white snow. Nature in all her fury and beauty both apparent here and the faith of the Ladhakis in a higher omnipresent power apparent in the infinite number of prayer flags strung between peaks and all around this little pass which is also an army outpost.

Between sips of reinvigorating lemon tea I stared at the prayer flags, arranged from left to right blue, white, red, green, and yellow representing the five elements. Horizontal prayer flags (Lung Ta) connected along their top edges to a long string hung from high to low between rocks were visible all across. Tibetans believe that prayer flags spread goodness, prayer, mantras and blessings to all as the wind that passes over them spreads it into the universe. To me as I struggled to keep out the cold winds from entering my bones and the nausea that was inevitable at that height, the prayer flags symbolized an uncanny faith of the people in a higher power even in this perilous terrain.

Memories of the trip across Khardung La’s treacherous slopes and the fluttering prayer flags resurfaced while driving along miles of common grassland in Bikaner. This grassland- gochar or grazing lands belongs to the famous Karni Mata Temple Deshnok. Dotted with scrub vegetation, ber and khejri trees the grasslands extend for miles into the horizon, blurring the distance between heaven and earth. During the months of October and November, devotees who throng the renowned temple perform a parikrama here where in they offer their prayers and tie red cloth onto the ber and khejri trees. Red chunaris, scarves even bangles dot the barren landscape tied onto a tree ,a prayer on the lips of the devotees mostly women who walk for miles from their villages across Rajasthan to get here, their resilient faith enabling them to undertake this strenuous walk.

Legends and myths abound across the sands of the Thar and those surrounding the Karni Temple have remained popular in local folklore as well. What sets this temple apart from others in the country is the fact that thousands of rats live and are worshipped here. That alone makes it a fascinating place for tourists both Indian and International to visit. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Karni, who is regarded as a reincarnation of  Durga, the Goddess of power and victory. Legend has it that the descendants of Karni Mata are reincarnated as rats more popularly known as kabbas. Karni Mata is believed to have lived here and performed several miracles during her time in the 14th century.

The temple was created after her mysterious disappearance from Deshnok and completed in the Mughal style in the 20th century by Maharaja Ganga Singh ji of Bikaner. White marble walls with fine engravings make up the temple fascade. Two massive exquisitely carved silver doors were donated by a devotee and at the entrance a carved marble lion sculpture sits and looks on at the temple as it bustles with activity all the year through. But it is not for its architecture that this temple has attained so much fame but for the abundance of rats. At first sight it can be overwhelming for someone who comes here for the first time to see the thousands of rats scampering about the temple premises. Most of the rats are black, and the few white ones are considered Holy. Spotting a white one is deemed good luck and if you were to visit the temple and see a group of people crowding in a corner chattering excitedly rest assured a white kabba has been located.

Rituals begin at 4 AM every morning and are performed by a selected group of priests from the Charan community who make up the majority of the population of this small town of Deshnok.  Murky incense spreads through the air as prayers are offered in the main shrine. Kabas wander about undisturbed by the presence of devotees and priests and are venerated and fed by the devotees. As dusk arrives and the evening prayers begin you can spot men and women sitting cross legged on the floor, chanting their prayers, oblivious to the scurrying rats, enlivened with the hope that their prayer to the Goddess will be heard.

On my first visit to the temple, like most people I too could not keep my eyes off the rats as they oscillated between definitive states of action and lifeless inertia in the temple complex. The initial unease at this unique sight is of an ephemeral nature. Over the years the people of Bikaner and across India have developed an unfettered faith in the temple and the Goddess who presides over it. From the historic Maharajas of Bikaner and Jodhpur who worshipped the Goddess to the present day population, this temple presents a unique tapestry of infinite magnificence and incomprehensible trust that the people have for the deity.

Bikaner in all respects is a small town at heart , it’s people are good-natured with infectious warmth draped in absolute conservativeness. For the city, its surrounding villages and the areas around the temple, Karni Mandir is not just a temple that stands out because of the distinctive presence of rats. For them, this temple has been celebrated in timelessness and has been a protector and guardian over generations.

One of the first stories that was narrated to me when I reached Bikaner was one from the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Being cheek and jowl with the Pakistan border, Bikaner was at risk from the constant cross border shelling and air attacks. But the city and district remained safe during the war, a miracle that the people attribute to the beneficence and miraculous power of Karni Mata.

Since this story sounded much like the one surrounding the Tanot Mata temple in Jaisalmer, I was inclined not to pay too much heed to it when I first got posted as District Collector Bikaner.  One night only a few weeks after I had joined the district, a firecracker godown in the heart of the city caught fire.  As I paced up and down the Circuit House corridors that night, uneasy and concerned, alternating between phone calls and instructions hoping against hope that the inevitable casualties could be avoided, a concerned staff member of the Circuit House tried to placate me by narrating an event from 2002.

Army trucks loaded with ammunition for Operation Parakram had caught fire one January afternoon in the cantonment only about half a kilometer from the city. Around 1,000 tonnes of ammunition was reduced to ashes and the sound of explosions had shaken the city with several people still recounting having seen missiles that had fallen around the city. He recalled the panic that had ensued on that day but gently added, “Karni Mata protected the city,like she always does- the damage could have been huge, there were only two casualties. Don’t worry madam- this fire will be put out as well”

That night his narrative for me was like an attempt to offer chamomile tea to a raging bull – I was too perturbed to take heed of what he was saying. But as the fire tenders and officials labored interminably at the site of the firecracker godown, and the fire was put out with no casualties, I found myself marveling at the miraculous escape we had just had. Could his story have been true? Did Karni Mata really protect the city?

That night as I slept my mind was in a kerfuffle -grappling with the overwhelming need to stick to my rational notions and avoid getting into the ocean of inexplicable eccentricities that I thought this small town held. One thing was for sure, faith did over-ride rationality sometimes and possibly this was one more incident.

In May 2014 around 300 labourers in an industrial area in Bikaner, fell ill after consuming contaiminated water. Doctors suspected a cholera outbreak. Around 80 persons were admitted in hospital and more kept pouring in. We set up a temporary clinic in the industrial area and camped there along with other officials and doctors for a few days. We found several dehydrated labourers and the count was going up steadily. Teams worked round the clock ,frenzied activity all around, administering medication, intravenous fluids and checking factories and water samples. The situation was overwhelming to say the least. As dawn broke on the fifth day, a peon in the office, offered solicitous advice, “they will all recover, Karni Mata will take care.” For the second time round I was disinclined to believe what he said, the people lying all around me debilitated by severe dehydration hardly looked like they were on their way to recovery. As far as I was concerned, mostly the peon seemed to have tableaux of anecdotes to narrate, this was more serious stuff. Much to my disbelief and relief, the 300 persons who had taken severely ill began to recover; the unabated efforts of the untiring doctors and medical staff seemed to have paid off. Could it possibly have been a premonition coming true?

Mark Twain defined faith, “as believing what you know ain’t so”. Normally faith and rationality appear to be in conflict divided by some unbridgeable chasm. In Bikaner, however, the Karni Mandir of Deshnok evokes a faith where reason and faith work together seamlessly. Thinkers and philosophers the world over have written reams on the domains governed by faith and reason. For a cynic faith could seem like an occasion to suspend one’s critical faculties, but for the unseen Ladhakis who strung prayer flags across the treacherous Khardung La Pass probably faith gave them the capacity to deal with the exigencies of a hostile environment. For the thousands who throng the Karni Mata temple, faith in its miraculous powers is an orchestration of collective human optimism. For me the implicit faith of the people in the temple is humbling and probably a bedrock for a faith in humanity itself.