My association with Kumbh began in 2013, the year of the Maha Kumbh at Allahabad (now Prayagraj). That was also about the time when I had first begun actively exploring India for her history, culture, and people. To say the least, it was a moving experience that changed how I viewed the world.
I was planning to visit 3 days after the Mouni Amavasya shahi snaan which had broken the world record for the largest congregation of humankind ever, anywhere on Earth, with a whopping 30 million people! The bridge at the Allahabad railway station had collapsed, causing a stampede. I had been home then for my brother's wedding, and was trying to hide the newspaper on the following day 🙂 Thankfully, amidst the wedding glee, nobody noticed the news, and 2 General dubba train journeys, a walk through a village, and a tempo ride later I arrived at the Kumbh Mela!
Living on the banks of Ganga, I observed and participated in the snaans (ritual baths) at the Sangam, met a whole range of different people whom one doesn’t find in the cities, attended theatre performances on social issues, had conversations with several Sadhus to get acquainted with their diverse views. Kumbh was like a fruit of travel, packing within it the juices of several different parts of India! Those 3 days, more than anything else had reinforced the idea of Roobaroo Walks.
I later went back to Allahabad for the Magh Mela in 2016. There, I met an articulate Pandit Ji and soon found myself engrossed conversing with him about the Mela and his experiences with the place and the people. Half an hour into the conversation, I asked him about Sangam, the name of the place we were at, which is supposed to be a confluence of three rivers. "We can see the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, but where's the third river, Saraswati? How do you see it or its relevance?" I asked him. To which the man replied: "Look Aayush, half an hour ago, we didn’t even know of each other’s existence, but now we’re talking about all things sundry. We’ve developed an acquaintance, a sort of friendship. What is this conversation between us, if not the Saraswati?" His answer was like the most incredible light bulb moment. It made perfect sense. After all, Saraswati is more than a mythical river; she is the goddess of wisdom! The amazing thing is, Kumbh provides numerous opportunities for such enlightening moments 🙂
And now the Kumbh is back again! I'd been long awaiting it, mostly from another fulfilling personal journey point of view. However, around November, we started receiving offers from the government to organize heritage walks there. A friend who worked with The Department of Culture, UP, also got in touch encouraging us to do something there since the govt too was looking to promote the place. Incidentally, a friend I had made at the UP Travel Mart earlier in August 2018 happened to be setting a large tent city there and told me how even his guests had started enquiring about the walks. Further, while we were doing our ad campaigns for our event in Lucknow, we were contacted by a woman from Allahabad who organized heritage walks there, proposing that we work together for Kumbh.
There were too many signs to be ignored. It seemed like providence, and as someone who likes to go with the flow, I decided to explore this path and the wonders it holds! My recent 4-day visit to Kumbh has reinforced the idea that we can string together a worthwhile experience there.
The Sangam at the Kumbh is not only that of rivers but also that of people, ideas, and perspectives. And we would love to help people experience this gala gathering in all its glory, all its richness, and the whole breadth of its potential. So stay tuned for 3 2-day events at Kumbh coming up soon 🙂
13 November 2018. 3 PM. It is a beautiful afternoon with enough clouds to soften the sun. Delhi’s pollution doesn’t seem very harsh either. Walking towards the India Gate on Rajpath, you see a line of barricades, which is not usually there. Spread out on the left-hand side pavement are fans, kind of like the big hand-held fans from the medieval era swayed by two courtiers on either side of the king. On them is written “Phool Waalon Ki Sair 2018”, with two photos below: the first one, an image of the Hindu goddess Durga, next to a photograph of the Green Dome at Medina, which houses the grave of Prophet Mohammed.
Before you even turn to the front, you hear drums, along with the murmurings of the crowd. You turn, and there is a bright splash of yellow moving amidst the crowd. Drawing closer, you see a band of old men playing the drums in sync and dancing with dandiya, dressed in bright yellow.
You are not quite done appreciating this tableau when another sound elsewhere beckons. Follow the strains of shehnai and you reach another band up ahead! These men add another visual and auditory element with their red turbans, cream coloured sherwanis and shehnais. The music from these two bands comes together, even as another set of people picks up those fans mentioned above and themselves fan out in a semi-circular formation. Then the procession begins, with white-clad nagada drummers leading, followed by the drummers and dandiya players in yellow, then the shehnai players, and then finally the fan-bearers. The procession gradually moves around the India Gate, all the while stopping at intervals to play newer tunes and engage the crowd with different theatrics. There is an occasional shower of rose petals. Everything looks very colourful and visually appealing. This is proven by the curious onlookers who cannot help but be drawn to the festivities.
The scene described above is from a day in the week-long festival of “Phool Waalon Ki Sair”. This event traces its history to the late Mughal Period when emperor Akbar Shah II(1808 to 1837) picked his son Mirza Jahangir as his heir, rather than his elder son Sirajuddin 'Zafar'. India was under the British colonial rule at that time. The British resident in the Mughal Court, Sir Archibald Seton, was not happy with Akbar Shah’s decision because Mirza Jahangir was an insolent young man who had insulted Seton in the royal court. A few days later, Mirza Jahangir was frolicking on a rooftop when he saw Seton passing from below. The former fired a shot at the latter. Seton barely managed to escape and one of his orderlies got killed. Incensed by this, Seton exiled Mirza Jahangir to Allahabad.
Distraught by her son’s absence, Mirza’s mom, Mumtaz Mahal Begum vowed that if her son were to be allowed to come back to Delhi, she would offer a chaddar at Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah at Mehrauli. Her son did return after two years. Mumtaz Mahal Begum went to offer the chaddar at the dargah and the whole court moved to Mehrauli with her for a week. People celebrated with games like wrestling, cockfighting, kite flying and others. Considering that it brought together people from different faiths and communities, the secular-minded king ordered for a flower pankha (fan) and chhatra (canopy) to be offered at the ancient Jogmaya Temple, also in Mehrauli.
After this, the event came to be celebrated every year, becoming a symbol of communal harmony. Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal king to celebrate it in 1857. However, the tradition was continued by the British Deputy Commissioner until the Quit India Movement in 1942 when the British stopped it under their Divide and Rule Policy.
After independence, in about 1962, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru revived Phool Waalon Ki Sair. After its revival, the festival has been organised every year by "Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan", a society registered under the Societies Registration Act, enjoying the patronage of Delhi’s former Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung.
Today, Phool Waalon Ki Sair remains an iconic festival of Delhi. The annual week-long festivities range from processions, offerings at the temple and the dargah to qawwalis, wrestling, dancing and kite flying. Members of both the Hindu and Muslim communities also visit the Delhi’s Lt. Governor and Mayor, as well as India’s President and Vice President to seek their blessings and to invite them to the festival. This event is a beautiful example of Delhi’s living history.
4 PM. On the way back, another colourful sight treated the eyes. It was also the day of the Chhat Puja festival. People populated the banks of the water tanks surrounding the India Gate and began their prayers and customs.
It's that time of the year again! Diwali, among the most brilliant festivals of Indian culture, is here 🙂
Celebrated on the darkest night of the year - the Kartik Amavasya, this festival of lights is celebrated as the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and as a harbinger of the NEW! The common story surrounding the festival is that it marks the homecoming of Lord Ram to Ayodhya after defeating Ravan, but there's so much more to this interesting festival!
Celebrated between the monsoon harvest and the sowing of the winter crop, Diwali is quite likely a fusion of ancient India's harvest festivals. One of its earliest mentions is in the Skanda Purana (1st century AD). By the 7th century, it had become a popular theme for plays (Nagananda composed during King Harsha's reign). The famous Persian traveller, Al Baruni, who visited India in the 11th century even mentions Diwali in his travelogue!
Did you know it's actually a 5-day festival!?
Generally speaking, Diwali is celebrated on the no-moon night of the Kartik month, but the festivities usually start 2 days before and continue for 2 days after (talk about festival hangovers!). Here are the different events celebrated over the 5 days -
1. Dhanteras (the day of fortune) - Dedicated to the worship and celebration of the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity - Lakshmi. This is considered to be a particularly auspicious day for buying new stuff! (metal and shiny is better :))
2. Naraka Chaturdasi/Chhoti Diwali - Tied with the story of Lord Krishna slaying the demon Narakasura using his smarts, this is also celebrated as the day of knowledge!
3. Diwali - The main day! Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha are worshipped big time. The idea is to thank for the monsoon harvest and pray for another bountiful produce for the winter crop and the new year!
4. Govardhan Pooja/Annakut - To reinforce the gratitude towards the Gods - by remembering them of their heroic feat (lifting a mountain to protect the devout!)
5. Bhai Dooj - The last day of the festivities is the Rakhsabandhanisque festival - of the sibling love. On this day, brothers visit their sisters and perform a 'tilak' ceremony.
The living part of the festival
Besides the Godly association, there are several practical applications of Diwali. For instance -
1. The annual clean-up festival! Most days of the year, we are very busy with our regular routines and tend to overlook the cleaning chores. Diwali gives us an excuse to clean up the entire house, repaint things, and also do away with things not needed anymore. You can also donate things and bring a smile on the faces of the less privileged 🙂
2. Community bonding - It is customary for people to visit each other’s homes during this period. A thorough home cleaning ensures your home is always ready to receive your Atithis 🙂
3. Art exhibition - What with so many visitors, it's a great time to showcase our arts - be it the Rangoli, Diyas decoration, Culinary (yummy daal ka halwa, gujiya, and more!), or even new clothes!
Being the city of 7 vaar, 9 tyohaar (9 festivals for the 7 days of the week), Varanasi has its unique way of celebrating even Diwali. 5 days are too less for this city crazy on festivities. As such, Banaras celebrates Diwali for the entire month of Kartik - with Akashdeeps (Skylanters) lighting up the Ghats for the whole month. And it culminates on the last day of the month - the full moon of Kartik Poornima with Dev Diwali - Diwali for the Gods when the entire 7 km stretch of the ghats is lit up with diyas even as Gods descend on the Earth to watch the lovely spectacle 🙂
Beyond all of this fun and frolic, Diwali is also a time to reflect on life and make changes for the upcoming year. So gone - make your resolution. And let us know about it in the comments section below!
Wish you a very happy Diwali 🙂
It's that time of the year again - when the biggest broadway play in India, is played out at Public spaces with audiences spanning several thousands! The Ramlila at Ramnagar kicked off 5 days back, across the Ganga from Varanasi.
About 400 years ago, while living in Varanasi, Tulsidas composed Ramcharitamanas - translating Ramayana from Sanskrit to Avadhi, the language of the masses. His prime objective was to increase the accessibility of God to people once again by circumventing the priestly route. Infact, he did not stop just at the translation itself. In order to reach out to people who could understand the local dialect but not necessarily read the script, he also started the tradition of enacting the story of Ram in a play format - something that could be enjoyed together by the communities! And thus began the tradition of Ramlila 🙂
Since then, several Ramlilas have been enacted in different parts of India including several ones in Varanasi itself. One of them especially - the Ramlila of Ramnagar, is by far the biggest, where over 31 days, the story is played out at several shifting venues. The scene of Vishnu lying on his coiled Serpent, Sheshnag, is depicted in a pond while the Ayodhya palace scenes in the Ramnagar fort. The best part is perhaps when Ram and Sita get married in a colony which is decorated like Janakpuri, and half of the city joins in the Baarat (wedding procession) that is taken to another part in the city called Ayodhya, where the other half patiently waits for welcoming the Baarat 🙂
Started in 1830 under the patronage of the Kashi Naresh, this Ramlila continues in the traditional ways even today. There are no mikes used here as thousands of people watch in pin-drop silence. For most characters, actors from the same families have been playing the roles for generations now! The only exception being the roles of Ram, Seeta and Lakshaman that are played by the young kids still to hit adolescence. And for the 1 month that the play lasts, these actors are perceived by the city's people as being the characters they play. Really old people can be seen seeking blessings from the kids as they believe them to be the very incarnation of Gods themselves!
Come, witness the magic of this grand celebration of life! Plan a trip to Varanasi soon. 25 days to go 🙂
Here are some of the highlights from last year's Ramlila 🙂
A friend of ours in Varanasi, Gaurav Tiwari, is a big-time reading enthusiast. Reading, Learning and Exchange of Ideas are things close to our hearts as well. So when Gaurav proposed the idea of a Book Club in Varanasi, we were totally in!
Pustak Samvaad started with a small base of 5-6 people, meeting once every 2 weeks at Roobaroo House, and discussing the books they'd been reading. Even today our gatherings are a humble 10-12 members large. However, the quality of discussions has definitely more than doubled! We have come to put some structure to the meetings and in every session, one person comes prepared (sometimes even with PPTs!) for presenting a book from a certain theme that's decided in the previous meeting. Post the presentation, the floor opens to discussions on the topic in general, and then of course takes tangents!
It's now become one of our better habits. Not only does the book club keep feeding you with a list of interesting books to read, you also tend to make better mental notes while reading a book if you know you might have to present it at some point 🙂
Lately, we have been meeting at the South Point Cafe in Lanka, although sometimes the venue changes basis availability of the cafe. Please check the facebook page of Pustaak Samvaad for the next meeting time and place. Do join us if you're around!
In India, knowledge, values and wisdom have been transferred orally from one generation to the other using folk songs, tales, legends and myths. Even the Vedas, the most ancient of Indian literary texts, existed for many centuries in the oral form before being written down!
In modern times, some of these traditions have become rare and are slowly fading away. Espirito Kashi is a team of ethnographers and sociologists who create experimental films aimed at giving a new life to India’s folklore. We were introduced to them by a common friend, and with a shared love for Indian culture, we hit it off right from the first interaction itself.
We screened 2 of their films at our Cultural Centre, Roobaroo House. And post the screening, the floor was opened for questions with the Espirito Kashi team. What ensued was a healthy discussion on diverse topics - from the relevance of folk lore in today's society to reasons for its decreasing popularity, ways for its revival to the process of film making, ethnographic studies and even ideas for plausible new films 🙂
Here are the 2 films that were screened -
The best learning, it's said, happens outside the classrooms. Listening to a teacher talk about the fundamental concepts in a closed room setting, while useful, is no match for the fascination that seeing subjects come to life can draw.
It was therefore heartening to see a teacher of Architecture taking the effort of visiting distant cities to chalk out a field trip for her students. We met Ms. Mona Chandra, from Delhi's Bhagwan Mahaveer School of Architecture, when she arrived in Varanasi to get a sense of what learning could be drawn by the students from this Cultural Capital of India, well known for her architectural gems.
She got in touch with us for a walk around the old city to see if we could help organise the trip. We explored a mix of Ghats, Gallis, Temples and old monuments discussing the possibilities of places that could be covered and hit it off fairly well on the lines of how the city's unique culture had inspired an amazing architecture. Eventually, she asked us to not only help in planning for places to visit and the logistics, but also in providing the students an overview of the city's History, Geography and Culture to feed into their understanding of its typical architecture.
It was going to be a challenging task for us, for our groups before this had never exceeded 12 people. And this was going to be about 50 students! But the process of learning has always been very close to our heart, and we were not going to let go of an opportunity to play the part of teachers, in whatever little capacity!
On the morning of their arriving in Varanasi, we met the students at Stops hostel, where more than half of them were put up (the rest were put up at another hostel - Zostel, for no one hostel in the city could accommodate all of them!). Despite Varanasi being the last leg of their trip, the enthusiasm in their faces showed. We caught up with a few of them over breakfast and learnt that the trip had been a great experience thus far. With some of the ice now broken, we felt much more at ease 🙂
We were to start with a boat ride covering the Architecture of Ghats and the buildings thereupon. Along the way, we passed through the twisting and turning gallis, teeming with life. We discussed how their narrow and labyrinthine structure had been introduced by design as a means of fortification against the invasions. Ms. Mona also threw light on how the maze helps in reflected people's energy back on to them, thereby adding to the spiritual experience.
On the boat, we discussed the role of ghats as community spaces and how that'd inspired their architecture. Students were shown live examples of concepts such as Open and Closed spaces, Focal points and Fractal spires derived from nature. Getting down at one of the ghats, we enjoyed sitting under the shade of a Peepal tree that had been strategically planted to provide shade even in the hottest of days. And how small boundaries had been raised around balconies overlooking the Ganga to filter out noise & give a perception of infinite space extending in the front. Next up, we went over to the other side of the river to get a panoramic view of the city and also grab some chai! And then headed to cover the remaining ghats. Towards the end of the boat ride, sailing peacefully in the middle of Ganga, we discussed a historic overview of the city.
After getting down from the boat, we headed for an early lunch break, post which we were to explore the North - the oldest markets, temples and a palatial building. The second half was just as interesting as the first, as we zig-zagged through gallis, weaving in and out of interesting structures and discussing their architectural nuances.
The day ended at about 6pm as the students disbursed - some for watching the evening Ganga Aarti, some for shopping and others for just chilling by the Ganga. It was an absolute pleasure to share the story of this magical city with them. A lot of architectural nuances were new to us too, making it a great learning experience as well. The joy of having helped the students soak-in lessons from teachers across the ages gave a great sense of satisfaction 🙂
Living in one of the most photogenic cities in the world makes you want to pick up the Camera and start experimenting yourself. Such was the case with us, and a lot of our friends living here in Varanasi 🙂
Last year, sometime around Aug 2015, while trying to research online on some tips and tricks, we came across the name of Harry Fisch, a National Geographic Fame Photographer who has been deeply interested in Varanasi and often visits the city to capture her diffferent charms. Out of wishful thinking, more than anything else, we decided to write to him about the possibility of conducting a workshop for us enthusiastic newbies, the next time he planned on visiting here. And to our delight, not only did we received a reply, he also shared told us about his next visit which was scheduled for December later that year. Needless to say, we jumped on the opportunity and requested him to block 3 hours of his time 🙂
Social media helped rack up a decent number of sign-ups. Cometh the date, we were all ready to learn from the much acclaimed photographer. And Harry did not disappoint! Quickly skimming through the basics of Shutter Speed and Exposure, he spent most of the time giving us guidelines for picture composition - Diagonal lines, Empty and Full spaces, Points of Focus and much more! His friendly disposition meant we got to ask all the questions we had in our mind. He also provided several anecdotal references from his expeditions to the jungles of Africa and Indian cities.
Above all he said, play around with the rules - create your own ordered disorder, and think of every picture as conveying a story, and not just capturing a memory!
Thank you Harry, for the highly informative and super-fun workshop. We will look forward to your next trip to Varanasi 🙂
Pottery is among the oldest crafts known to humankind. Utensils made from clay have been instrumental in the settlement of civilisations, and the toys have brought smiles to billions of kids since time immemorial.
In Varanasi, clay artefacts are among the oldest excavated from the ruins, helping science put a date to this oldest continuously living city in the world. Tea, and other milk products continue to be served in Clay pots, popularly called Kulhads or Purvas, and increase their taste and feel by multifold 🙂
We organised a Pottery workshop in Roobaroo House to help people see up-close the working of the age-old Pottery wheel and the audience was spellbound as Ramesh, a final year student at the Fine Arts faculty in BHU (Banaras Hindu University) moulded magic from clay! The participants themselves tried their hands at the wheel too, albeit with varying degrees of success, but the joy of creating something with their own hands was far more than the accuracy in shapes 😉
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According to Hindu scripture, it is believed that if one dies and is cremated in Varanasi, the soul will be relinquished from reincarnation and will achieve Moksha. Death is viewed as ultimately a positive thing in Hinduism. Losing one’s identity to join the consciousness stream of the universe is the ultimate goal of Hinduism. It is the epitome of enlightenment. It is Moksha. This view clashes with the Judeo-Christian west, where death as a topic is avoided and the desire for an afterlife is the pillar of Christian philosophy and dogma.
An inspired team of film-makers from USA and Canada came to Varanasi to explore the Hindu perspective on death and answer the question 'Is there a way for humans to come to terms with mortality?'
We found the idea both interesting and close to our hearts, and got onboard in its execution. To cover multiple perspectives, we helped identify and interview people from diverse backgrounds - ranging from Sanskrit PhDs, Holy men (Sadhu's), workers at the cremation ghats, family members who have traveled far to bring their loved ones to die in Varanasi, and Varanasi locals. The film also helped us delve deeper into these questions and gave us an excuse to ask pertinent questions to the above people and learn from their experience and perspectives.
Images, clockwise from the top -
- Anchal and Robyn interviewing at Mumukshu Bhavan (Hospice)
- Interview with a cremation worker at Manikarnika ghat
- Aayush, Rob and Matt interviewing at Dalmia Mukti Bhavan
- Aayush, Chris and Rob preparing for an interview at Manikarnika ghat
The film is currently in post-production stage and shall be out soon. Stay tuned!
Picture credits - Christopher Rubey