Aug 15, 2018

Of Gateways to Heaven and Freedom

I remember watching the news one sultry June evening when I was all of thirteen.The channel kept showing images of a man standing infront of a long row of tanks on a wide road. He was directly in the line of fire and was trying to stop the tanks from advancing. The tanks moved left. So did the man. The tanks moved right, so did the man. This went on for many minutes till he climbed the first tank in the row and started talking to the soldiers inside. 
That unknown man became famous as the “Tank Man. The road he was standing on was at Tiananmen Square, the city Beijing. This visual became an epic image of what would later be known to the world as the Tiananmen Square Rebellion.
To someone like me who has grown up in a liberal democratic environment, Tiananmen Square rebellion epitomized the struggle for democracy and human rights - short lived and ruthlessly squashed but very courageously fought. 
So,when I was in Beijing in the beginning of this year, I grabbed the opportunity to visit Tiananmen Square. 

The entrance to the square is through a gate where you need to queue up for security checks. The day I visited it, a legislative meeting was being held at the Great Hall of people across the road. The security was very tight and the checks stringent even by Chinese standards. Later I found out that it was one of the meetings to discuss removal of presidential term limits effectively clearing way for president Xi to rule for life. 

The queue of Chinese people and tourists like me snaked for kilometres. It took me 2 hours just to get in the Square.I came out through a narrow doorway and was immediately staggered by the sheer size of the square. At 110 acres, Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest paved square. Straight down the square are the Monument to the People's Heroes and then Mao’s mausoleum. Across the wide road is the Great Hall of people (Where the parliament meets) and other government buildings. To the North of Tiananmen square lies the Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming Dynasty. 

Mao built the Tiananmen Square as a magnificent showcase of the strength and grand scale of the communist party. 

I spent my first fifteen minutes in the square looking for some sign, some symbol of the rebellion. But there was nothing. Not even a signboard or a memorial. It’s as if the Movement for Democracy never happened. 

I tried talking about it with my Chinese colleague who had accompanied me but he seemed very very hesitant to talk about it there. 
At a glance Tiananmen (Ironically, it means gateway to heaven) seems like any other square. You could almost imagine flowers blooming there in spring. Children were running around, people strolling hand in hand and tourists clicking pictures of the life size picture of Chairman Mao infront of his mausoleum. But beneath this atmosphere of gaiety there was an uneasy feeling of constantly being watched that kept me on my toes. Policemen were everywhere, surly and silent, with their eyes on everything. ` 

Inspite of the size of the square, there didn’t seem to be any place to sit. You had to keep walking. Numerous fire extinguishers were scattered all over but not just for fire safety, they were there should someone set themselves on fire in protest. On the side of the road were huge lamp posts that I was told have hidden camera on them. 

Back in my hotel room, I tried searching for Tiananmen square on some Chinese search engines and all I could come up with was a few mentions about how it is a big square in china and surrounded by important landmarks. Apparently, all sites talking about the movement have been censored and blocked. The government frowns upon and suppresses all discussions about it online or otherwise. Journalists and activists who write about it do so under great peril. The government has managed to erase all traces of the movement from books, journals, websites and even public memory. 
A whole lot of youth born after the revolution have a distorted and government fed view about it. If at all it’s mentioned in text books, it is portrayed as a counter revolutionary attempt to harm the country. 

It is amazing how history is distorted and minds shackled into believing just what they are taught. 

In many ways China continues to stride ahead like a great giant. Beijing is very modern and sparkling with fantastic infrastructure and a great transport system. It is a safe, beautiful place to live in and it’s commendable how China has managed to control its seemingly unresolvable problems of both population and pollution. But behind this shining façade, there is something sinister and dark and foreboding that seems to suffocate you. 

Then you come back to the chaos and disorderliness that is India. A country with a thousand wrongs but still a Democracy where the people have the right to raise their voice, the freedom to protest against what they feel is unfair. 

For this freedom I am eternally grateful. And it is this freedom that we must always endeavour to protect and fight for, especially in these changing times, because if we lose the freedom of thought and speech, we are nothing but slaves of the people who rule us.

Aug 8, 2018

Of Sawan, Lord Shiva and Pretty Ladies

Sawan in Delhi means monsoon, the devout praying and fasting for lord Shiva and for people like me, long hours of commute as the kanwariyas
take over the roads.

Sawan up in the mountains means something else. It means long lazy days of rain, lush green forests, mist floating among the deodars and a very festive atmosphere in the ancient Shiva temples dotting the mountains.

One such Temple is Jageshwar, nestled in the mountains near Almora. What is interesting about Jageshwar is that it is actually a cluster of 124 large and small temples inside a walled complex. Some of the temples are so small that you have to bend double to go in and there is no place for even the priest to sit. Some are really huge with their own carved doorways, and sculptures of gods and goddesses in the area leading to the sanctum.

The most famous temples in the cluster are Shiva temples such as the Mritunjaya temple, Jageshwar temple, Lakulish temple, Dandeshwar temple but there are Ganesha, Devi, Kuber and Surya temple amongst others.

No one is certain when the temples were built but the archaeological Survey of India estimates that they were constructed somewhere between the 9th and 12th century AD. The temple architecture is predominantly of the Nagara style, with shikhara or a wooden roof covering most of the temples Almost all temples have stone sculptures as well as carved panels depicting mythological stories about the god that temple represents.

Walking around the temple complex is like browsing through a pictorial book of stone about archeology and mythology. 

The walk to Jageshwar is through thick deodar and pine forests. It’s like walking through a great green cool cathedral that consists of the best things of nature, birdsong, tall, magnificent trees and a cool cool breeze.

Jageshwar is usually a quiet place, but it really comes into its own during July - August when the annual Sawan mela takes place and people from the surrounding areas descent to the temple to pray.

It was on the second day of Sawan, two weeks back that we found ourselves at Jageshwar.
We had looked forward to wandering around the complex clicking pictures and spendng some quiet time in the picturesque area. So we polished our camera lenses, replenished the batteries, got out our raincoats and began our walk to Jageshwar through a fine mist of rain.

What we had not anticipated was how much the locals love Jageshwar during Sawan.
The crowds started a few kilometers from the temple and by the time we reached there we were in the midst of an animated throng of devotees.
Another shock awaited us as we entered the temple complex.Ugly blue and green tarpaulin covered the entire area to protect the devotees from rain. The beautiful arches and carvings that we wanted to photograph were used to string plastic from one temple to another to protect those walking under them. There was no way we were going to get our tranquility or even one clear shot of the temple. 

Part of the Temple complex 

Some of the carvings and panels 

 But the ugly tarpaulin were offset by something really lovely and exquisite that we would have missed had we not come during Sawan. 

In the hills, as it is with every small and big town in India religion is always interlinked with gaiety and celebration. People see religious festivals as a chance to dress up in their best clothes and make a big social occasion out of it.

That was what was happening in Jageswar. Every seemed to be dressed to the hilt, but the women outshone everyone.
They were dressed in their finest sarees, wearing the traditional mang tikka and the famous Uttarakhandi nath studded with stones. Draped over their sarees was a beautiful shawl called the Pichoda. The Pichoda is a cotton drape in saffron colour with patterns and designs in brick red. Sometimes the Pichoda is decorated with gota and glass stones to make it more dressy. Every Kumaoni bride gets one when she gets married and on every social or religious occasion, the Pichoda comes out to be worn over their sarees. 

At Jageshwar, we saw every married woman right from the old grannies to young brides flaunt their Pichodas.

They looked like exotic colorful birds and added bright splashes of colour to the drab brown and black of the temples. They didn’t mind talking to us, showing off their jewellery and even allowing us to click pictures.

Jageshwar temple is also known for it’s Parthiv Shiv Pooja where the devotees make Shivalings out of mud or cow dung or butter depending on what they are praying for. Entire families were there, making those small Shivlings and then doing elaborate Poojas with the help of the priests. 

Parthiv Shivlings made of butter and Mud. And the lady of the house performing Pooja ! 
Thanks to the sawan mela we couldn't get the pictures we wanted or find the serenity we had hoped for, but we experienced the bonhomie and exuberance that comes with a festival in India and saw the otherwise silent temple turn into a vibrant, lively place.

I think even Lord Shiva would have enjoyed that bit of fun and celebration!


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