Where Clouds End – Dharamshala

Madhuleena, Madhusree and my mutual friend was visiting us after 20 years. She was with us in JNU but way laid by matrimony and child rearing she had neither the motive nor the opportunity to meet up with her friends. After two decades of housewifery she decided that she was fatigued by domesticity and deserved a break from her long and unbroken service to her family. On the occasion of her visit to our home at Dayalbagh we decided to travel to the hills. We hired an Indica from the familiar Himachal Taxi Service and planned that with a brief stopover at Chandigarh we would travel to Dharamshala. The break journey at Chandigarh would also give us the opportunity to connect with old JNUites, Pampa and Sarabjit. Himachal Taxi was sufficiently threatened into providing us with a new car with a strong air conditioning and a polite and obedient driver. Everything seemed to be in place except that Georgie was so sad to be left behind with her attendants Nitin and Vinod, who she does not quite trust to take care of her. We had to leave her behind with a heavy heart and a prayer that she stays happy and sound for the 96 hours that we were leaving her.

Chandigarh was hot and dry but Pampa made excellent arrangements for us at the University Guest House of the Panjab University where she is a faculty in the Department of Political Science teaching development and policy. She drove us around to pubs serving Bloody Mary, showed us around the campus, planned our route to Dharamshala, entertained us with the latest gossips and saw us off the following morning as we steeled ourselves for a steep climb to the hills. Madhusree insisted that she sits in the front seat braving the beating sun through the front glass because that way she can keep her vertigo at bay.

As we started the climb on to the hills, I realized that the Dhauladhar range could be a very different proposition from the Shivaliks or the Himalayas. The last mentioned mountains start suddenly from the plains and one gets a feeling of being in a plane that has taken off the ground into flight. But the Dhauladhar is slow to rise, undulating and interrupted but when it does rise it is steep and straight. It is not for everyone to manage these slopes but fortunately for us the driver was from the Kangra Valley and he seemed to be somewhat in command of these mountains. Madhuleena was intrigued by the smooth stones strewn along the mountain walls. She seems to have picked up some geology from her husband who teaches at Kalyani University. She felt that the mountain must have been the path of glaciers. I was more likely to believe that the Beas had shifted its course on its way down from the snows or that landslides and earthquakes must have changed the course of rivers, but Madhuleena was confident that the stones were remnants of glacier shifts. It turned out that she was right and the civilization in the Kangra Valley existed even before the Indus Valley Civilization. Kangra, then is the place where the Indian civilization originated !!

I was wondering about Kangra being the original Indian civilization when I realized how closely it resembled the culture of Tibet. It is a small wonder that Dalai Lama found it as his apt home away from home. From food to crafts, from custom to law, from folklore to legends, and indeed in case of deities, Kangra civilization seems to have mingled indeterminately into the Tibetan one. Tibet, despite its Buddhist practices is a Goddess worshipping place. Here the Goddess has forty hands, ten storeys of heads, with four head on each story. Shiva carries Kali’s garland of severed human heads in his trident and wears the peacock feather on his helmet. On his arms he has snakes and holds lotuses in his hands. He is macho and moustached and looks very much like the Kushana kings who made Kangra their centre point as they held together the largest Empire in India after Asoka. I also learnt that Kunal, a common name among Bengali men is actually a female name for a stone worshipped as Goddess Durga and is called Kunal Pathri. !!!!

I read in Michael Wood’s book Story of India that the Kushana period, often obscured in history was actually the forerunner of the Mughals when India was woven as a plural, multi religious empire integrated with the Silk Route. Kanishka struck coins in gold to be at par with the Roman Empire and thus increased India’s presence in the global map. Kangra was central to that imperial unity. I was excited to see the Kangra art museum because the Kangra school seemed to have led the style of wood carvings of Kashmir and Saharanpur, the metal working from Ladakh to Arunanchal, and originated paper mache, lac, water colour paintings, jewellery styles and appliqué work that stretch from Central Asia to south India !!!. If India is today a land of unity in diversity then Kangra surely is the melting pot of that grand assimilation. Kangra paintings and records show that this hill region was the hub of industrial activity with skilled workers in metal. From Todar Mal’s account of Kangra during Akbar’s time, the place was famous for medicine and surgery, eye treatment, processed food, basmati rice and metal working especially the ashtadhaatu. It appears to us that Kangra was the hub of manufacturing activity and its influence seemed to have stretched as far as Mathura, one of the most important towns of the Kushana period. Kangra civilization command area thus included the present day Kashmir, Ladakh, Punjab, Western UP, the whole of Himachal, Uttaranchal, North east and even parts of Central India.
Michael Wood says that the historical Kanishka was the mythical Kansa, a tyrant who was assassinated by Krishna, the dark skinned hero of the Yadavas. The decapitation of Kanishka’s statues seems to bear testimony to the fact that the Buddhist Emperor of non violence and peace faced local rebellions and Hinduism had asserted local autonomy in the face of Buddhist Imperial integration. Kangra may have been fiercely autonomous too. Mythologies and legends have that Kangra people fought Rama on the side of Ravana and in the Mahabharata, they fought on the side of the Kauravas. No wonder Kangra’s pride of place being the Baijnath Temple, where Ravana visited as a common man to sing the Shiva stuti. Baijnath, or Baidyanath, the Lord of Medicine, is also an incarnation of Lord Shiva.

I was intrigued because it seemed to tie up with my own family history from my mother’s side in which her ancestors came down as medicine monks from Kamrup monastery being Buddhists at the same time Goddess worshipping, having knowledge of medicine and curating idols of ashtadhaatu. Kamakhya, is a peethasthan, in which the uterus of the dead Sati was supposed to have fallen – indeed, the entire Kangra Valley is strewn with such peethasthan, like the Jwala Mukhi and Naina Devi, the latter being now in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab. Buddhism, after the defeat of Kanishka may well have made peace with the local religions and hence with the local people and accepted into its practice several Goddess cults; or the location of Buddhism among the more primitive people of India could well have been a reason for the closeness of this religion with various animistic cults of such people.

We stayed in Dharamshala, in a village called Lambagraon in the home of the Katoch, the unbroken line of kings of Kangra. This house is now the hotel Clouds End Villa, a rugged place surrounded by undisturbed forests with sighing trees and wild lilacs. The Katoch clan claims their descent from Eastern Rajasthan, as the third dynasty who emanated from the earth in sharp contrast to the other two dynasties who emerged from the Sun and the Moon respectively. The Katoch insist that they are from the Earth which is also a way of saying that they are the sons of the soil. The soil has been a hero in Kangra, once when defending themselves against Rama, then fighting the Pandavas and then decapitating Kanishka. Historians feel that the dark colour of Rama and Krishna are because of their non-Aryan descent but when in Kangra one feels that in comparison to the hill people’s yellowish hue, the plainsmen appear dark. These heroes could well have been people of the plains who the bhumi putras led by the Katochs have fought valiantly.

Tikam Singh, the attendant told us about a short cut which led us directly to McLeod Ganj, the home of the Tibetan refugees. As we were waiting for Madhusree to fetch the camera, I suddenly saw a white little animal rushing towards me. I instinctly extended my arms towards it because it appeared so much like Georgie to me that for a second I forgot that she was not with me in this hill station. When the animal drew forward I realized that it was a baby ram, a boy with little horns and it came right into my arms and snuggled against me. I hugged it and then let it go and it sped over the boundary wall and started nibbling at the tender shoots. The “Mother” of the ram was close by who looked on indulgently saying that he loved playing with everyone. Then suddenly a thought crossed me and I have actually been meaning to ask this to animal rearers for a long time. I asked her how do people feel when they rear animals and then they are slaughtered? She told me that it was sad and very sad and no wonder killing of animals was labeled as sacrifice. To slaughter an animal after raising it like a child was no less painful that killing one’s own child but it had to be done. The little white ram called Bakru was being raised for sacrifice!! I collapsed as I heard it, my blood pressure started falling and when Madhusree returned with the camera, and she found me sweating profusely. I turned away from her and started trudging along the path Tikam Singh showed us to the abode of Dalai Lama concealing my tears by taking photo of the mountains incessantly. I could not tear my mind away from Bakru.

My mind was full of the wonderful closeness of Bakru to his mother, how they are company to each other in the loneliness of the hills, how they must have assured each other when thunder struck and rains lashed their path, both trembling with fear, I imagined how Bakru would grow wary when mother was late in coming home and how he would be overjoyed at seeing her return to him. Bakru was everyone’s favourite in the village, pampered and mollycoddled. But when the “D Day” would come for Bakru’s sacrifice, I wondered how he would be surprised to see his people weeping and petting him goodbye, and he being dragged onto an unfamiliar place, unfamiliar things happening to him and because he has always been loved he would try to snuggle against his killer too, loving him in the last moment and perhaps too surprised to even respond to the pain in the last moment of his life. Then that wonderful white fur of his, long and straight, combed and cared for would lie wet in blood and the lifeless head severed with eyes still looking around for his loved ones. Tears welled up again and to hide them from everyone I started thinking about animal sacrifice. Yes, indeed it was sacrifice, it was the sacrifice of those who humans grow to love most purely, their pets.

I wondered what made some resort to animal sacrifice. In my infancy we were told that this was a way to provide meat as a diet for the common man. I don’t think this picture fits. Animal sacrifice is genuinely a sacrifice and it is definitely the giving up of your favourites for the sake of the community and indeed in many places animal sacrifice co-existed with human sacrifice. The motif reminds me of a story that I heard long ago in which there dwelled in a forest a ferocious lion that ravaged the animals. The animals got together and decided to appeal to the lion that they would voluntarily offer one of their ilks as a kill for the lion so that he does not destroy them indiscriminately. I felt that animal sacrifice was something like that in which one voluntarily offered a kill to the Goddess so that she does not kill randomly and help the human community live on. This can happen in a community which is surrounded by death, disease, hunger, natural calamities, wars, fights, murder and mayhem. Death is feared and so is worshipped and imagined as the Mother Goddess so that in Death one can be nurtured and reborn. The worship of the female deity is related to societies constantly threatened by Death, because the only way to make death bearable is to imagine it as the Eternal Mother who kills only to absorb in her lap and promises rebirth and rejuvenation. Mother Goddess is therefore the killer force, no wonder everywhere she demands blood and kill.

The act of killing as a part of worship is to overcome the fear of death by witnessing the death act and becoming the killer. Any cult that upholds death whether in the form of terrorists or nations demanding capital punishment is a set of people scared by uncertainty of life and paranoid because of the certainty of death. Animal sacrifice belongs to a community turned irrational because of their failure to bring about any form of certainty in life. If the people of the Kangra Valley still believe in the fact that the Goddess demands blood of its children then the objective conditions of life for these people does not seem to have changed since time immemorial. I wonder why these people feel the uncertainty of life as acutely even today as they felt it so many years ago. Is it because that medical care is still inaccessible for them? Is it still so far to the hospital today so that to be almost absent? Has education that makes Himachal Pradesh the most literate state in India after Kerala and Manipur not created sensibilities against this practice? Sometimes I feel that development is powerless to change the lives of people at large and the practice of animal sacrifice shows just that.

As my mind revolts against animal sacrifice with a strong feeling that it should be banned, it suddenly strikes me that most religious reforms and conflicts have taken place around the issue of animal sacrifice. Jainism and Buddhism contested the killing of animals, Vaishanvism fought Shaivism on the issue of vegetarianism; Shaiviites opposed Mother Goddess cults also around animal slaughter; Hindus oppose Muslims because of their animal sacrifice and so on. Indians are far kinder to animals than to human beings and hence while untouchability has largely remained uncontested, animal sacrifice has been at the core of social conflicts. The Goddess wallahs have hit back and the series of the peetha sthans like the temple of Jwala Mukhi and Naina Devi, or the various versions of Durga like the stone shrine of Kunal Pathri or of Shikari Devi, who distinctly looked like Kali shows that there was a community of rural folk who time and again asserted themselves politically against their kings who followed a milder version of the similar Goddess cult and of course the Buddhist Empire of Kanishka or the Vaishnavite merchants from the plains.

I was very sad throughout the steep climb to Mc Leod Ganj and hence I reached the place with much huffing and puffing and irritation. Dalai Lama was away in the United States. The place seemed far less like a mini Tibet but more like an exotic resort attracting tourists. There were yoga, tai chi and massage of every kind everywhere with momos, thukpas and Tibetan food joints strewn all along. I was happy to observe that in many places there was Tibetan vegetarian food because now I see a pampered and petted animal in every piece of non vegetarian food that I bite into. There were stickers, posters and T shirts demanding that Tibet be free. There were also posters and T shirts with Che Guevara’s face demanding autonomy and freedom. Interestingly there was no Gandhi, nor Nehru, nor any Indian leader, strange because Indian Freedom Struggle is the largest mass movement in the modern world. Tibetans were in majority, speaking only in their language, writing in their own script. They have refused to learn any Hindi and usually converse with the tourists and the local people with the help of translators. Tibetans avoid eye contact with the locals, and stay strictly among their community, pretending to see nothing, hear nothing and having neither the need nor the desire to speak anything. Yet the posters that announce HIV awareness classes seem to tell us of a different kind of interaction. Tibetans live a life of isolation, as strangers in a strange land, as if being on a platform of a train that has been pulled into a siding waiting for the relief engine to come and carry passengers to their destination. They are all waiting to go back home, beyond the snow streaked Dhauladhar Mountains where the locals easily go and come each year on religious festivals of the Goddesses but it was unsurpassable for the Tibetans because of the political boundaries.

McLeod Ganj is the only place where Indians appeared to be better people. The Tibetans overcharge for artifacts, cheat in food, talk rudely and show a peculiar sense of superiority that makes them appear more as colonizers than refugees. They seem to be doing us a favour by being our refugees and not the other way around. Dalai Lama claims religious and moral superiority but unfortunately no political autonomy because such a people as the Tibetans who live by petty businesses and American aid show scant self respect as they cheat customers, monopolize retail space and make things difficult for Indians and the locals to survive, cannot evolve into an autonomous political force. Tibetans are thus glorified alms receivers and not a people who seek self autonomy before they seek it from the others. Free Tibet seemed to me to be a pipe dream, as fragile as the clumsy water pipes of the total sanitation project of Himachal Pradesh.

We visited the Kangra Fort that was built in the time of Harshavardhana albeit rebulit and renovated several times after that, to possibly ward off attacks by the Sakas and the Huns. The Fort is unique in the sense of it being partly in the Roman style and in part rather Nordic !!! One can understand the Roman influence but it is difficult to make sense of the Nordic stylistic incursion, until and unless one allows for the possibility of Nordic architects and workmen who came into the lands of Bharat as the Huns marauded the Kangra Valley in utter defiance of the Romans and their trading routes in which Kangra was an important centre.

Dharamshala and Mc Leod Ganj were hot. Fans were seen in the markets and in some cases even air conditioners. People seemed to be wary of the climate change but did not quite know how to handle it. The present Katoch king whose home is the hotel we were staying in came to see us and gave us copies of a painstaking compiled time line of the ancient Kangra Valley civilization that started before the Indus Valley and the Egyptian Pyramids and experienced several bends in its course as the world moved on from the Roman to the Ottoman Empire and India went through the eras of the Mauryas, Kushanas, Guptas, Harsha, Turks and the Mughals. The Kangra Valley was decimated by the British colonies and continues to be dominated by the mainstream Indians who visit the place more to see the beautiful sceneries, eat Tibetan food and shop goodies in the curiosity cubby holes ignorant of the fact that Kangra is the womb of the unbroken Indian civilization as we see in the present primitive and primordial.
We returned to Chandigarh to find that a lot many more turbaned Sikhs were visible in its roads and alleys than what one could see in the 1980’s and the 1990’s and even the first decade of 2000’s. Haryana seemed to have lost to Punjab as far as Chandigarh was concerned. Madhuleena braved the heat to enter the maze in the rock garden. Nekchand is always amazing for his perseverance and among the millions of tiles, rocks, broken sanitary ware and discarded bangles lay intricate motifs of humans and animals that stood in perfect line and company and made an eerie picture. The numerosity of the figures and their being in formations creates shudder in the spine and while one wonders at the artistic techniques, one cannot but overlook the discomforting aesthetics.

The rest of the evening was spent in part with Sarabjit when she and I talked our hearts out discussing some interesting healing techniques that she learnt from a Holy Order.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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