Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sage advice

A n inky blue wave had drowned out the last gleam of light from the winter sky. Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped. Maybe I should’ve gone ahead as planned towards Mukundgarh. As I looked outside, between the twin beams of the car’s headlights, I could see a wicker gate and dark walls. To the right, an ancient stepwell, some ruins, and dry, barren fields. There wasn’t a soul in sight for miles. Something about this place had an air of the forbidden. Without a guide, I was lost. I thought of heading back when a movement in the shadows caught my eye. What was that? A part of me didn’t really want to know while a part of me was drawn like a moth to a flame. There... there was that shadow again. I got out of my car and walked to the gate...

The moon was full, the night was still. In the soft light, a low stone wall emerged, windowless, and a small wooden door. Was there a sliver of light flickering at the hinges? No... no I must’ve imagined it... But what was that? There... that shadow again under that tree, beyond the walls... I inched closer towards the foot of the tree. There, right next to a small mound was the figure of a man, facing away from me, sitting on his haunches.

“Bhaisahab, aap yahan rehte hain?” No response. For a moment, I thought of turning back and driving off without looking back but for some stupid impulsive reason, I tapped the figure on the shoulder, half expecting it to keel over. Instead, he turned and looked right at me. Leathery skin, sunken cheeks, and then I saw his eyes – red, bloodshot and glassy.

“Chaunka diya babu!” Whoa! This thing talked. “You startled me,” he continued, “No one comes here at this hour, and I don’t hear very well.” He looked old, perhaps older than his years. He walked away and I followed. He walked up to the tiny door, flung it open and asked me to sit. Inside, there were flames bending and leaping like pagan revellers dancing to a primal beat. Silhouetted against the fire (dhuni, he called it), there was a trident standing tall. For a fleeting moment, I was reminded of Kapala Kundala, and the scene where Nabokumar is lured by the tantric. Sitting by the fire, while we talked, Kishen Lal, for that was his name, offered a glass of milk. Nabokumar forgotten, I drank it with gusto. “Yeh tapobhoomi hai beta. Great sages have meditated here. Under the tree where you found me, lies the great Giri Baba. When he took samadhi, he was buried alive. That was hundreds of years ago but you can still feel his overpowering presence, especially under that tree.”

I asked him what he did and how he got here. “I’m from a nearby village. Used to be a truck driver on the highway, that brought you here. Years ago, I was in a financial mess. My family would’ve been on the streets in weeks. I would’ve lost face and family. I needed money desperately. One night, while driving back, I got really late, was tired and sleepy. I stopped at the stepwell. The ashram was deserted. Too tired to care, I slept under that tree.

That night I dreamt of a tall bearded man who told me to clean the ashram. At dawn, I started sweeping the floors when in one of the rooms I found silver coins, just enough to meet my needs. I had felt the power of this place. I gave up driving and started taking care of this place, serving the wandering sadhus who often stop here to rest. One such sadhu told me that this was once an akhada where great saints used to meditate. And he spoke of Giri Baba, the powerful sadhu of the tree - the one who appeared in my dreams.” And what of his daily bread? “Whenever I need something, I just sweep the floors. I always find something,” he smiled a slow smile. “If you want something beta, don’t hesitate. Ask with a pure heart and you’ll get what you seek within three months. Giri Baba never sends anyone back empty handed.”

I made my wish, and though the old man didn’t ask, left him a 100 rupee note. He’d told a good tale afterall, and he looked too tired to sweep tomorrow. While leaving, he asked me not to take the short cut through the fields. “Giri Baba asked me not to,” he said. “There are unhappy spirits there.” I reached the intersection. The trail on my left led into the barren fields, a shortcut onto the highway to Delhi. On my right, the road cut through Mandawa before heading towards the highway, a good two hours longer. I turned on the stereo and to the strains of Don Williams’ I Believe in You, turned right and headed home.

A godman’s haven

A sadhu’s akhada, a secret world, has aroused the curiosity of Indians and foreigners alike. The akhada, conceptually famous as the abode of the Naga Sadhus- ascetics who move around without a single piece of clothing and with their bodies smeared with ash. These akhadas or mathas were essentially established as centres of learning and initiation for new comers to the world of renunciates. Some of the most powerful akhadas are the Juna akhada with 50,000 sadhus, followed by avahan akhada, and panch agni akhada. Many other akhadas dot some of the remotest corners of the country and offer shelter to travelling monks and are also a platform where devotees can seek blessings from these revered ascetics.

In the early days, sadhus guarded the faith and the faithful, and gradually many of these akhadas evolved into religious power centres. It is a bizarre world, with ascetics practising various forms of austerities to reach enlightenment; some claimto have returned from the mountains after 100 years in meditation! Such is the mystical world of akhadas.


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