People with metal pots full of holy water

Kawarias

Nearly two years in India, and there are still religious festivals I’ve never heard of. At the moment, thousands, if not millions of “Kawarias” or devotees of Lord Shiva fetch water from the Ganges River, which is believed to be sacred.

It is the month of Shravan, so they actually trek bare food (or in trucks with loud blaring music) from their towns and villages in Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to the river. Most of the devotees try to get to the Haridwar Neelkanth Mhadev Tempel to fetch the “ganga jal”, and then walk (or drive) back to their local Shiva temple, carrying the often decorated metal canisters on their shoulders. Back home the water is offered, that means poured over a phallus symbol, called the lingam.

Our photographer says never before has he seen so many people on the road for this pilgrimage. The routes are dotted with tents, where volunteers provide food, water, medicines and a resting place. National highways are closed so the devotees can trek along, these days everywhere saffron robes can be seen. “There are too many people who have nothing to do, really, so they go on a pilgrimage,” the photographer added.

For why exactly the devotees are undertaking the journey, what the purpose is – for that I didn’t get a satisfying answer. As always when I stumble upon religious rituals and ask: Why?

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Hazrat Nizamuddin

Hazrat Nizamuddin is a quarter in Delhi that is definitely different from the rest of the city. Completely moslem in it’s appearance, the main street is dominated by men grilling lamb and goat, baking bread in earthen ovens, and drinking tea.

In many of the labyrinthine alleys, street vendors sell fruits or handkerchiefs, caps, rosaries or religious posters, shops are full to the brim with Qurans or household items, beggars try to get the attention of the passerbys, and blind(ed) boys sing beautifully to get some coins.

In the middle of all the bustle lie the dargas (mausoleums) of Nizamuddin Auliya (1238 – 1325 CE) and Amir Khusrau (1253–1325 CE), as well as the graves of many other people who wanted to be buried close to the Sufi saints. Medieval archways lead to the open space which has a marble floor and beautiful old structures.

long-bearded men talking in front of the mausoleumIt’s close to impossible to pass all the flower-sellers who lovingly pester us to buy a tray of flowers, sweets, or a chadur (cloth) to offer at the dargahs. Once inside, many Sajjadah-nashins (keepers) of the mausoleum ask for money for their blessings and the maintenance of the dargahs. This also includes a daily langar (community meal) for the poor.

I had already been there a couple of times, but always missed the Qawwali, a form of devotional Sufi music, which is supposed to be played ever thursday night (but then, it often isn’t). But this time we were lucky. So we sat down and listened to the men and their instruments until late into the night.

Jaipur Literature Festival, on the elections

Many conversations at the Jaipur Literature Festival circeled around the upcoming general elections. The talks had titles like “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the rest” or “Why India votes” or “India at the crossroads” or “Conquering the chaos: empowering the future”.

India's elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

India’s elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

Mukulika Banerjee,  Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, for example asked: “Can a larger vision for basic needs like health and education come from within the current system, from the elected citizen elite?”

Yes, answered Dipankar Gupta, Director of Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University in Noida. But for that it is of utmost importance that leaders have a vision, an utopia. Governments like the one from Basque region first invested in health and education, and the once backward region became one of the shiniest parts in Europa in a matter of 20 years, Gupta said. “Unless you take that risk ask a leader, you cannot make democracy happen. You cannot play sick.”

Lily Wangchuk, president of a the political party Druk Chirwang Tshogpa in Bhutan, believes in the wisdom of society as a whole. “Good people are out there. They need to be given a chance.” Gupta adds, that sometimes only a handful of poeple can bring the change. “A small number of poeple put the others in action. Once they come togethter, the magic starts working, and goes out from there.”

Where are the people who can shape India's future?

Where are the people who can shape India’s future?

Gupta also believes that bribing the people into the elections doesn’t work anymore. “You give them rum and rupees, but that doesn’t mean the people are voting for you. They have a very clear vision of who they want.”

Banerjee, author of “Why India votes” pointed out that “the Lok Sabha election is the largest humanly organized event in the world“. It’s a festival, with noise and visual pollution, and a huge voter turnout. People go to the polls because of the peer pressure that the inked finger incites, she thinks. The index fingers of those who have voted in India are marked with indelible ink.

On another panel, she talked about her research village in West Bengal, and stated that issues which are discussed on the national or international level are often not known in the villages and not important for their decision for whom to vote. “For them it’s what has materially changed, like if there is water or electricity.” And: “India’s growth rates mean nearly nothing to the common man, if it doesn’t make a material change.”

Political scientist Louise Tillin sees a decline of the Congress-dominated politics, which was seen as a constant. “1985 was the last time there was a democratic single party government,” she said, then the regional parties surged. Now people are longing for a strong leader, instead of looking into good coalition building.

“The record of regional parties contributing positively to the central government is rare, if not non-existent,” backs her journalist and author John Elliott. All they want are positions so that they can get money through that.

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, believes “India is a functioning democracy“. If a tea seller can become a prime-ministerial candidate, the “majesty of the Indian democracy” shows itself, he said. He seemed absolutely confident that India would overcome the current problems and march ahead of the countries that now are heading.

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla pointed out that since the state was founded in 1947, there was always an orderly transition of power. “Elections were always held on time,” he said. “These are no mean achievements.”

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography of BJPs prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, says Modi has very consciously shaped the religious identities. “There is a very, very dark side on Narendra Modi, which I feel very uncomfortable with.”

Modi was the first to realise the power of social media, Mukhopadhyay believes. But: “In most of India the niceties of the modern societies, which we in the urban areas use on a minute to minute basis, are not there.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, on partition

Mohinder Singh Sarna was a witness of what his son Navtej Sarna described as “immense scale of bloodshed and killings on both sides of what later became the border”. The son never heard his father speak of the partition between India and Pakistan, about the “absolute terror, absolute hatred, when innocent people were being massacred for no reason whatsoever”.

But his father handed down his stories. In order to let more people know about what happened in 1947, Navtej Sarna translated the harrowing accounts from Punjabi, and had them published. The result is “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”.

“In some stories the marginalised or even the animals are better than humans,” he explained. But a lot of the tales are also about deep friendship. When Sarna read out the shortest of the narratives the audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the people fell dead silent and listened intensely of how a Moslem driver sacrificed himself to safe a Sikh family.

Urvashi Butalia and Navtej Sarna

Navtej Sarna in conversation with Urvashi Butalia on “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”

Gurudwaras (places of worship for Sikhs) were giving out little portions of poison, so when women were in fear of loosing their honour by rape, they could swallow it. Some groups of Punjabi Sikhs took a vow to kill all their wifes and daughters to keep them from abduction. These were two of the many terrible side stories that transpired from the conversation of Sarna with publisher Urvashi Butalia.

They also talked about the “reluctance to confront this bloody period of grief and despair” in the Indian history. “All life was destructed. The human instinct tells us to cling on, to rebuilt, to look forward. Only after a while we look back, we reflect, and pass it on to our children,” Sarna said. This is the time when books are written or translated.

He  experienced this in his own family. Nobody in the house would talk about partition – as his own sister was killed during the time. “Silence was a trick of survival.”

Butalia gave some further background information: 100 000 women were possibly raped, abducted and sold during partition, and many of them committed suicide, for example by throwing themselves into wells. The silence, she analysis, was also a way of cutting these women out of family history, because “the stigma of rape stays not only on the woman, but is also transferred to the family”.

So far, both the conversationalists concluded, not enough of retrospection, documenting and conviction is done. “That would help to heal,” Sarna said. But, for example, there are only two or three movies on partition. And: “In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, we all have been really silent. If we would have spoken out more, we would be more tolerant, more understanding.”

Urvashi Butalia

Publisher and author Urvashi Butalia

Another panel of four talked about “Reimaging Partition”. It was lined out that the partition between India and Pakistan included the largest forced mass migration in history: twelve million people had to move in a matter of a few month.

“We have to remember partition so we can deal with the consequences and ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Butalia said. And people should grow aware of the fact that there were no clearly good or bad guys, there were victims and aggressors in sikh, hindu and muslim communities,  the publisher said. People don’t recognise how deep it lies inside them and how it remains unresolved.

These days, Butalia thinks, we listened to many a story about Sikhs and Moslems. So it should be about time to go deeper and see the layers beyond: What happened to the Christianes, the Dalits and other minorities, the second generation, and so on.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of “This Side That Side”, a collection of stories about the partition

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, a graphic novelist and artist based in Delhi, believes that the second generation is the biggest in denial, because they hear many stories from their parents, but stick to the thought: “I wasn’t born then, it doesn’t affect me.” They are also too busy re-building and setting up their own life.  But Ghosh reminded the audience that in West Bengal the refugee camps of 1947 still exist, as some people there still live on rented government land.

“We need more writers who tell in graphic novels or short stories or movies or write online,” Ghosh in order to communicate to different people. And anyway, every retelling of a story is a transition, he thinks.

Ahmad Rafay Alam

Ahmad Rafay Alam

The Pakistani environment lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam recounts how he had to go to another country to find literature on 1971, when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. “There is still an element of denial in the Pakistan establishment,” he said. But: the people should come to a point of acceptance.

Today with social media we have much more documents which can be fast and easily be shown around, Alam continues. But so far there is no museum on the partition in Pakistan, even though historians collected 15 000 interviews and 80 000 documents.

There is an urgent need to remember this part of history, but at Purana Qila in Delhi, where the biggest refugee camp was situated, there isn’t even a plaque, Butalia laments. But the good thing is, she continues, that the third generation can now deal with it, and there is more literature on partition coming at the moment.

Butalia recounted the story she heard so often in the villages of Punjab of the “Madman Radcliffe“. Sir Cyril Radcliffe apparently came to the subcontinent and couldn’t handle the task of finding the line on which to divide India and Pakistan. So all night long he got drunk, and in the morning got out a pen, and because he couldn’t draw a straight line anymore on the map, the border nowadays is ragged and totally random: this stone is in Pakistan, and that one in Bangladesh (former East Pakistan).

Free tea and pakhoras in front of my house

tea for freeThe Sikhs in my colony were celebrating something (again).They drove from one place to the other, and distributed tea and pakhoras to everybody who passed by. Lucky me I just came from the parkour lesson.

And after the feeding, a special team with it’s own pick-up cleaned the whole area and collected every single paper cup people had thrown on the ground.

Witchcraft

My housemaid came to me, crying. The health of her sister deteriorated further. She was repeatedly waking up at night, sweating profusely, the body convulsing, her eyes staring like she was posessed, my maid explained, visibly horrified.

Pagan believes are widespread in India, and often the local, traditional believes are fused with Hinduism, Christianity, Islam or any other religion. My maid’s family – all Christians – decided the doctor’s in Delhi can’t cure the disease of her sister. She was in hospital for weeks weeks, but her condition didn’t stabilise.

Instead the girl was sent back home to Mapaokeilthelmanpi in Manipur. To be treated by a local whitchcraft doctor.

Happy LOL-Diwali

rangoli

A visit to the widows of Vrindavan

Thanksgiving Ardas

“Sukhara / Thanksgiving Ardas will be held during Morning Diwan”, a message from my landlord, who is a Sikh by faith, said. So as I had no clue what either a Sukhara or an Ardas or a Diwan was, I thought I should go to the Gurudwara (Sikh temple) on sunday morning and find out.

Ardas, I got explained, is a Sikh prayer that can be spoken before or after eating. Even though I came nearly an hour late (on purpose, I have to admit), the prayer was still going on. So I sat down on the carpets next to the landlord’s son. I remembered to cover my head inside the Gurudwara, plus I sat properly cross-legged – but on the men’s side. Oops.

langarThe prayer was going on and on, so the landlord’s son and I started to write text messages back and forth. Apparently during a lot of Sikh functions, talking is kind of tolerated, but not on this day. So we kept quiet until everybody got up to go to “Guru ka Langar”.

This obviously I knew. Sikh’s serve free, vegetarian food to everybody present, no matter which religious background, gender, caste, race or social status. Everybody is sitting equal on the floor and the distributors walk along the long lines with big buckets and heaps of bread. Like always in the Sikh communities, I felt welcomed and included. And I had to eat everything that was on my plate.

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