abstract: To understand India you have to see its villages! This dictum is often repeated to signify the hold of tradition on Indian society. Surprisingly, I found signs of entrepreneurship in the few villages of central India I visited which seemed to promise the future. These were all the more impressive as the past was still stubbornly strong in the mix of religion and history that was the mainstay of the folklore of these villages. This was the scene of the struggle between individual vitality and the inertia of group comfort. [photo essay]
Convent for cows
In the small settlement of Nawai, Rajasthan, we went to a “convent for cows,” as our tour guide called it. It was a goshala, a protective shelter for treating neglected cows according to Hindu teaching. This one had cow-sheds built to house hundreds of cows “rescued from being sent to various slaughterhouses across the country” by the non-Hindus. On the day of our visit there were 700 cows in the goshala.
While the milk from these cows was sold, there were more noteworthy products. Cow urine was boiled and distilled and a nectar was made and bottled here. This was marketed as medicine good for a number of diseases, including cancer. Our guide believed that it cured her mother-in-law when she suffered from typhoid. Cow dung was not just marketed as fertilizer; it was rolled into incense sticks. This industry of cow products employed several women who were paid $3 a day, a better rate for jobs that were also less strenuous than otherwise available to the women.
The women who worked in the goshala may have believed in the medicinal value of the cow urine, but they also wore silver rings at their ankle which, tradition said, would protect them against diseases. There was also a prayer building on the premise marked with a swastika and the Om sign. The swastika was the sign for wishing good luck. The Om (Aum) represented the trinity of God (“a” for the creator Brahmin, “u” for the preserver Vishnu, and “m” for the destroyer Shiva), we were told. A man and a woman were walking around a tree planted in front of this building. “They will circle the tree 108 times, the traditional number of required mantra,” our guide said. They were followers of Sant Sri Asaramji Maharaj.
I asked the manager of the goshala about the Sant. He took me to his office which was a one-room structure and showed me several publications about his guru. Asaramji “is a great yogi, a divine personality, a self-realized Sant,” said a book on his life, Incarnation of a Saint. “Millions around the world venerate and adore him.” The book maintained that the Sant was “the God incarnate for the whole world.” If one reads his “tale (Asaramyan)” with devotion, he will achieve “the four goals of human life –righteousness, just desires, wealth and salvation.”
Asaramji taught that “God is to be experienced in oneself.... God is Truth, Consciousness and Bliss; and is Omnipresent.” He had a universal message: “Remember that all sects, religions, castes, creeds, etc., have stemmed from the one Supreme Consciousness.” Asaramji also proclaimed to be “a staunch advocate of national unity, integrity and peace.” For him this meant that “traitors, who are staining the pious land of India with the blood of innocent people and fanning the fires of sedition in the country ... should be taught ... a lesson.” The color of his political agenda became more vivid in the testimonials about him listed in Incarnation of a Saint. There were many, almost all from Indian government officials, including two former Prime Ministers. One was by the President of BJP, the political party in which the increasingly hard-line Hindu nationalists began to rise in the 1980s and define its politics. The sole Muslim contributor on the list was the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir who wrote: “our neighbor (Pakistan) cannot take care of its own house and is not letting us live in peace.... We are Indian Muslims. Please bless us so that peace and harmony will prevail in our India.” Asaramji was himself a refugee who had left Pakistan as a result of the Partition of India in 1947.
A few miles from the goshala we ran into several women who were returning from working on the roads. The village women in India are “lean,” our guide said because of “much hard work.” That evening at our hotel I saw evidence of this fact. Two women were carrying heavy loads of cement blocks on their heads for repair work in the yard. It was common to see village women with water containers on their heads which they would fill with the water from the wells that used hand pumps.
In the arid land of Rajasthan which has no monsoon, deep wells are the source of most water. Access to that water required ingenuity. The “Persian wheel” (a converse version of the Persian qanat technology which brought water down from the hills) was introduced to India by its medieval Muslim rulers. The Persian wheel was especially used to supply water to the forts on top of hills in a system of elevating locks. We now saw its application for irrigation on the plain. A turning wheel brought the water up in buckets from a thirty-feet-deep well into a container “reservoir” from which it was then diverted into narrow canals. “With multiple reservoirs which in effect functioned as wells themselves, multiple wheels would step-by-step take the water up to the forts,” our tour guide described what was still called the Persian wheel here. It also had another name, our guide said: “rahat.” The latter name might be a corrupt version of ara-ghatta (rope-pot), but it is as likely the Persian word which means “easy.”
The big Persian wheels used for the forts were driven by elephants. The wheel we saw was driven by oxen, but a woman worked this system. Her work was not easy in the heat of the day. She stopped before us and by bare hand picked up the dung dropped by the oxen on the ground. She set the dung away, put some water on her hand and pulled back her hair that had covered a sweaty forehead. A shack that served as her home was next to the wheel.
Step-well of Abhaneri
Before the Persian wheel there was the step-well (baori). We went to see one of India’s deepest and largest in the village of Abhaneri, Rajasthan, which was built in the 9th century by Raja Chand (or Chandra), a Rajput of Chahmana dynasty. He was from the “clan of fire,” our tour guide said. “There were two other ruling clans in central India, the moon clan that ruled in Khajuraho and the sun clan that ruled in today’s Jaipur.”
Abhaneri (Abha Nagari) means the City of Light. At eight in the morning when we reached it the sun was rising red. Several villagers were sitting at a local café having breakfast. A woman was smoking a clay pipe. A boy looked at us inquisitively. In the village co-operative they were measuring the milk by “lecto-meter” to make sure it was not diluted. Two men were making a fire next to marigold flowers for offering at the nearby Temple Harshat Mata.
The baori’s monumentally impressive thirteen-story architecture highlighted the value of the Persian wheel. Here, to reach the water in the depth of 100 feet, a person had to go down 3,500 steep steps. The task of bringing water up for use was indeed not rahat! The baori which still had water had been rebuilt and turned into a summer pleasure palace, a cool retreat, by the Rajas of Jaipur in the 17th century. They added a pavilion to its upper level.
In the baori’s two niches on the lower story were enshrined the images of Mahishasurmardini and Ganesh. There were many damaged sandstone sculptures collected in the street level galleries. Most were from the 9th century. Some were defaced. “This was done by the army of Mahmoud Ghaznavi in the 13th century,” our tour guide said. “Notice that the Muslims only just defaced the sculpture of Ganesh. That is all they had to do because the Hindus only worshiped perfect statues.” The galleries also had old sculptures of ordinary men and women which had been left untouched; the defacing was done only to idols.
The Ranthambhore Fort
We accompanied a Hindu guide on his pilgrimage to the Ganesh Temple in the Fort on the hills of Ranthambhore. Religious beliefs and selective bits of history combined to produce a folkloric epic in this area of Rajasthan now better known as a tiger preserve. Our guide played out the drama on an appropriate stage. As soon as we went through the gate of Ranthambhore National Park and into the forest, we met a man on the pilgrimage to the temple. He had walked a long way but had a big smile and carried a ceremonial flag. Presently, we were joined by a group of young boys and girls with flowers, as though they were the chorus for our guide’s epic. Long-tailed langur monkeys perched on the steps leading to the Fort. A man was offering water to the pilgrims. He was “doing good karma,” said the guide. A lone woman coming back from the temple strolled down the steps that we were about to take.
Our guide told us each to pick up a stone before we began our climb. Then he began his tale. The preface was that at a historic moment in the beginning of the 14th century Indian women living here committed suicide when their king was defeated by the Muslim invaders because they feared that the conquerors would rape them. Thus the guide adopted as a frame for his folklore, the ancient Indian practice of sati, named after the goddess Sati who self-immolated after her father humiliated her husband.
The guide was a good story teller. He stopped at suspenseful points several times just as we reached landings on the long ascent up the stairs. At the end we came to a crude sculpture of the head of a man. The guide told us to throw our stones at this “traitor”. The traitor was a general who betrayed the Hindu King of this ancient Fort. The guide’s story was about the fight between an invading Muslim Sultan and the Hindu King over the refuge he gave to the Sultan’s army commander. The commander had to escape because he had fallen in love with the Sultan’s queen. The Hindu King would not surrender the commander as he was a guest. The Sultan set siege to the King’s Fort, but could not overcome the valiant Hindu King’s resistance until a traitor general enabled the Sultan’s entry into the otherwise impenetrable Fort.
Like most folk-tales, this one was rooted in a corruption of history. There was indeed a fight here, in 1299-1301, between Sultan Ala-ud-din Khalji of Delhi and King Hammer who ruled in the Fort on Thambhor hill, the oldest in Rajasthan. The war began when a Khalji Muslim commander, Muhammad Shah, helped the ruler of Jalore (in Rajasthan) defeat an invading army of Sultan Ala-ud-din. Muhammad Shah’s motive could have been related to the conflict between Ala-ud-din and the widow of his uncle, the previous Sultan, whom Ala-ud-din had killed to attain power. The widow queen had rebelled and succeeded in putting her son on the throne temporarily, before losing out to Ala-ud-din. Commander Muhammad Shah took refuge with King Hammer. Ala-ud-din attacked the King’s Fort but could not take it. The two sides decided to enter into negotiations. Hammer sent two of his generals to Ala-ud-din’s camp. They betrayed him and the Ranthambhore Fort fell as a result. Of these two generals, Ranmal had a reason for revenge since his father had been hung by Hammer. As to the women, history also has registered instances of those in the courts of various Rajasthan rulers who committed “honorary self-killing” when defeated by the Muslims.
The Ganesh Temple
On the top of the Ranthambhore Fort was the Dulha Mahal. This was where the “Hindu King had his pleasures,” our guide said. There was a panoramic view of the valley below from here. This included a lake on the bank of which the Maharajas of Jaipur would later build their hunting lodge. Not far from the Dulha Mahal was a seemingly incongruous shrine to a Sufi Muslim. He was “still revered by both Hindus and Muslims here,” we were told. On the vast green field before the shrine peacocks and peahen strolled, and the ruins of many more structures of a fort-palace appeared, including its step- wells. “We are not far from the Ganesh Temple,” our guide said as we noticed objects such as bracelets and ribbons which had been hung on bushes as offerings by the worshipers. Some pilgrims were feeding the monkeys which, our guide said, was doing good karma.
As many as two million pilgrims come here in September which is “Ganesh’s birthday.” According to our guide “a statute of Ganesh came here on its own and a temple was built in its honor.” There exists a more detailed legend. King Hammer who was an ardent devotee of God Ganesh saw him in his dream one night during the 1299 war with Alauddin Khalji. The Lord told the King that by next day all his problems would be over. In the morning an idol of Lord Ganesh with three eyes (Trinetra), appeared embossed on a wall of the Fort. As a further miracle the war was over. King Hammer built this temple in honor of Lord Ganesh in 1300. Ganesh’s transportation vehicle, mushak (mouse) was also placed in the temple.
We went inside the small pink-colored temple. Big rats were running around. Our guide said they are “the rides of Ganesh,” holy because they are such vehicles. He rang a bell that was hanging from a pole and approached the altar where a priest stood in the middle with an assistant on his left. The priest put a few drops of water on our guide’s head as he made a wish and tied a hand band around his wrist. “You tie this protection red band and keep it until it is destroyed by itself, or you put it in the Ganges, or under a Ficus Religious tree,” our guide told us. There was one of those Ficus trees outside.
“Ganesh is the son of Shiva,” as our guide related his story. “His narrow eyes are for sharp vision, and his big nose for a good sense of smell. Shiva’s wife, Parvati (second incarnation of Shiva’s first wife Sati) begat him without Shiva’s knowledge. She told Ganesh to guard her room and not to let anyone in. Shiva had to kill Ganesh to get in. Distressed, Parvati told Shiva she won’t see him again unless he brought her son back to life. Shiva went to the God of Creation. He told Shiva to go north and kill the first animal he saw and put his head on the dead Ganesh’s body. Shiva traveled north and first saw an elephant. He killed the elephant and put his head on Ganesh’s body.”
Our guide did not tell us what wish he made in the Ganesh Temple until it was granted in the incarnation of “T-17" the following day. Early that morning we set out on our “hunt” for tigers. In the woods where the Maharajas once hunted them, our goal was the benign one of only sighting the tigers. They are now protected in a preserve by the government of India. The ruins of the Maharajas’ hunting lodge evoked only distant nostalgia.
Like his father before him, our “naturalist” guide Davendar was a warden of this Ranthambhore National Park. He knew the area and the animals inhabiting it intimately as he described them in the course of a day I drove with him in a “canter.” That was a small truck, open on the sides, which seated 20 passengers. We were not alone. There were some ten other jeeps and canters in the park.
Tigers are nocturnal animals and in the early hours of the day we looked for the footprints they might have made on the dusty road, as they went for prey the night before. These could help us find them in the vast 100 acre preserve. Four dirt roads traversed the preserve and we divided them among the vehicles now in the park. Our canter took route Number 3. Only the VIP vehicles had walkie-talkies. One carried a filming crew from the American National Geographic that was making a documentary for the “Animal Channel.” Two others transported visiting government dignitaries. Our paths often crossed, however, and we exchanged information with them and other vehicles on the progress of our mutual hunt.
Within an hour Davendar found some tiger footprints. “This is a female tiger,” he said. “See how the toes are pointed out. She is also young”. We followed the footprints until they disappeared in the woods. They failed to lead us to the tiger. “Tigers are good in camouflaging so as to be able to defend themselves, in compensation for being slow in movement,” Davendar said. We continued our drive through a landscape of limestone and sandstone low hills occasionally covered with termite mounds. Davendar pointed out banyan trees, flame of forest trees, uphor cactus, Ficus, and dhok trees. “Seventy percent of this land is covered with dhoks,” he said. This is a sturdy plant that needs little water. It stays green even in the driest season. It is the favorite food of sambar, the slow and big deer which is, in turn, the favorite food of tigers. “One sambar is enough food for a tiger for a week. Tiger eats for an hour and a half after killing the sambar and then relaxes nearby, only to come back later to feed on it more. This goes on for four or five days. Tigers mark their staked territory with urine and lines on the trees.”
Sambars make a barking call to alarm each other when they hear tigers or smell them. These are sambars’ strong senses. “See their big ears,” Davendar pointed out. They have poor eyesight. “But the monkeys who co-exist here help them.” The black-face Langur monkeys also make warning calls when they see tigers. “They have much better eyesight and their long tail enables them to balance on high tree branches where they can see farther. Their distinctive alarm calls are understood by the deer.”
We now heard such warning calls from some monkeys nearby. Ranthambhore guides listen for these calls to help them trace the whereabouts of the tigers. “Repeated calls means that there is a tiger or a leopard nearby,” Davendar said. Following them we drove fast to the edge of a pit. Soon this pit was encircled by other jeeps and canters, as they had also made the same decision upon hearing the monkeys’ calls. We waited quietly but no tiger showed up. We dispersed.
Davendar made a sound which he called “tiger noise,” imitating tigers as we approached a lake where some sambars were eating the algae . He did not fool the sambars. A female sambar and her newborn stayed rested on the shore. “The sambars’ other predator here is the crocodile,” Davendar said. The crocodiles had come out of the water and were laying in the sun that baked the banks of the lake. Three kinds of kingfisher bird and a pink-leg stork were keeping them company. Further inland from the lake we saw wild boars, peacocks, peahen, spotted deer, gazelle, and several of the 400 species of birds which are in this park. We failed to spot any of the sixty leopards who roam on the hills. “They are both very shy and afraid of tigers who are twice their size,” Davendar said.
Around 9:40 in the morning all of a sudden there were commotions around us. We learned that one vehicle had sighted a tiger. We rushed to the reported site. There were now eight jeeps and canters surrounding a sunken space the size of half an acre. It was exposed as there were few trees here. Everybody kept quite. Five minutes passed and then a tiger slowly came out from the rocks which were ten feet below us. It walked regally right next to us and passed two other vehicles. She stretched her muscles. We thought she was going to launch for a hunt, but she relaxed her muscles. After a short pause, she resumed walking. We drove fast to see her on a path on the other side of the road, almost hidden in the trees. A big sambar jumped and ran in the direction that the tiger was going, some fifty yards in front of her. The tiger walked calmly toward the lake nearby. She entered the lake and submerged herself in the water. She stayed there a few minutes before going ashore on the lip of the lake.
It was now 10:05. Davendar said that the tiger had come to the lake for a drink and a dip to cool off. It was 44 degree centigrade. We shed some clothes. Davendar told me that the tiger was a female “as indicated by her narrow face and long neck.” He recognized her. This tiger was T-17 as her identifying collar would show. “She is three-and-a-half years old and not yet a mother.” Face marking and body lining of each tiger is different. We saw observation cameras installed on the trees in the park to keep track of the tigers and other animals.
Our naturalist guide said that we were lucky to be able to see a tiger for so long and in so many different postures and motions. Our tour guide now said that he was a very happy man: “God Ganesh granted my wish.” Davendar said “these tigers have become accustomed to visitors since they have been coming here in the last forty years. Now the tigers come out during the day too.” In fact, our sighting was near the entrance to the Park and close to the Fort which gets many visitors.
Tigers and Villagers
The Ranthambhore tigers have been threatened by poaching, sometimes by the Park guards themselves, as in the 1990s. All parts of the tiger are considered to be aphrodisiac --cooked in soup-- and fetch substantial prices. The number of tigers had decreased alarmingly due to this “medicine trade” until the government took effective measures to stop the poaching. There are now 40 tigers in the Ranthambhore National Park.
Ranthambhore is one of several protected reserves for tigers under India’s Project Tiger. India has declared the Royal Indian Tiger to be its national animal. Of the 60,000 tigers in the world, 2000 to 3000 are in India. Tigers die earlier in the wild than in the zoo, at about age 15 compared to 22. This is simply a result of hunger. When they get old, tigers can not hunt. They lose their canine teeth at about age 12 and thereafter can not get enough food on their own. Older tigers also are greater threats to humans. “Only the old ones may eat humans, the younger ones go after swift animals,” Davendar said. “The tigers can come out of the Ranthambhore Park and harm the villagers; they have done this in the past.”
The government of India banned tiger hunting in 1972. It took a local “prince,” Fateh Singh Rathore, to persuade the population of twelve entire villages to move and make room for the Ranthambhore National Park. He appealed to their religious sentiments. He preached that it was the tiger that accompanied the goddess and demon-slayer Durga (who embodies the power of good over evil). Therefore, it deserved protection. Its survival, however, would be compromised in a habitat shared by men. The villagers who were thus deprived of their grazing land eventually became dissatisfied at their material loss. A rebellious mob then emerged, angrily attacking the prince and fracturing his skull.
The walls of the ticket kiosk at the entrance to the Ranthambhore National Park displayed fresco paintings by some local villagers. In white on a salmon background, they depicted what this land meant to them: birds, deer, tiger, crocodile, and plants. Our tour guide called these “tribal paintings”. He said “tribes have their own laws and culture. They practice polygamy and polyandry, which are illegal in mainstream India.”
Our guide did not show us any person belonging to the “tribes.” On the outskirt of a village some distance from here he pointed to an area hidden behind the trees and said “Gypsies live there. They are not allowed in the villages. They are good in Iron-smelting but also are into petty crimes which is the reason the villagers keep them out.” The gypsies also had “their own laws and kings.”
The guide’s knowledge of the Gypsies was limited and outdated. He thought they had come from Egypt, as the Europeans had believed for a long time. In fact, however, Rajasthan was the ancient home of the Gypsy tribes. This is what the guide found when he did a search on his smart phone. As he now read to us from a source: “The Persian Book of Kings relates an incident corroborated by independent chronicles that took place in the fifth century, when the Indian King Shankal made a gift of 12,000 musicians to the Shah of Persia. It is assumed that those musicians were the ancestors of the Roma (the name for Gypsies in countries such as Romania) since after a year the Shah sent them away from Persia.”
There are several groups of gypsies in Rajasthan. Among them, the Kalbeliyas are known as entertainers. The women are skilled dancers and are accompanied by men who play percussion and wind instruments. The Kalbeliyas once were the favorite performers at the courts of maharajas and kings. They might have been the source of the gypsies (koli in Persian) who came to Persia.
We saw a less elaborate collection of fresco drawings on the walls of a house in a nearby village. The lines here were in white against a light brown background. They depicted two peacocks, plants, and flowers in a pot. There were no other animals. Instead there were writings in the Hindi script. A separate plain wall in aquamarine supplied a bright color. In front of it, a woman in a multicolor dress of saffron, purple, and green greeted us with her toothy smile.
The village was just waking up. Dogs were rummaging through trash on the unpaved street. A woman was filling up her pots with water from a hose that jutted out at the curbside. A man in shorts was washing himself outside his house. The women of the house covered their heads from us. At the adjacent home a woman was making a fire to prepare breakfast. A man was sitting on the porch and shaving. A boy in a uniform of pants and shirt was walking to school. His purposefulness contrasted with the looks on three girls who seemed in no hurry. They were wrapped in a traditional garb against the morning cold. “These girls go to the government school that starts later in the day,” our guide said.
We followed the boy to a model private school established here by a native son who was from the “untouchable caste.” He was the headmaster. When we arrived the students had already come and gathered on a narrow roof of the school building, waiting for us as they had been told about our visit. They sat in five rows and as the headmaster supervised, they sang “patriotic songs,” led by four older students who were seated in front facing them. Their teachers stood behind the students. The headmaster then held up a picture of the “Goddess of Wisdom.” The students all stood up while the headmaster walked through their rows. Following some more songs, the headmaster blew his whistle. At this clue, the students sang the Indian National Anthem.
After this ceremony the students were sent to their classes. They sat on the floor of small rooms and recited from texts for their teachers. They had taken their shoes off upon entering the school. They all looked well-scrubbed and well-attired. The headmaster explained to me that “personal hygiene and grooming were taught in special sessions after regular classes, followed up through communications with parents.”
Throughout our time at this model school, the government school girls, whom we had seen before, were observing us. They stood outside the school door, and climbed the roofs of neighboring houses for a better view. They could have used instructions in grooming. The day before, not far from this village, we had stopped to look at a government school on the other side of the road. There were several buildings in a big yard. Our guide pointed out the teacher who wore a sweater over his shirt. We could see his motorcycle. On the basis of these, our guide said “he looks prosperous”. The guide was critical of “government school teachers who have job security and, therefore, become lethargic and are often absent.”
The green fields of crops in the village had indicated that there was wealth in this village. One of its richest residents invited us to his house for tea. He sent his children to the model school. He rode on a motorcycle to greet us. But there was also a car in the backyard of his house, where he had parked his tractor. We could see his water buffaloes nearby. His extended family was present, although they did not participate in the conversation with us. Some covered their faces. Others were washing themselves in a fountain fed by a well which was exclusive to this house. The jumble of bed coverings in our host’s small bedroom, and the furnishing in his only other room spoke of a simple rural lifestyle. However, like the headmaster of the model school, our host represented the spirit of Indian entrepreneurship. He had added to his other sources of income the salary from a steady job at the visitors’ facilities of the nearby Ranthambhore National Park. His older son was in college “studying computers.”
A few miles from this village we visited a “women’s cooperative.” Seven women were sitting on a rug sewing colorful quilts. This was set up by a company called Dastkar (Handicraft). I spoke to its resident director. She employed one-hundred women here. They were paid “120 dollars a month, compared with the government minimum wage of 3 dollars per day.” Their various products were sold in a store on the premises. The director said Dastkar had several branches elsewhere in India.
The villagers of Abha Nagari exercised their entrepreneurship by leasing some of their land to a group of five young men who established a camp there for visitors like us. Furthermore, the villagers put on quite a show for us. We were welcomed to the camp by a reception line of several men, women, and children. A man beat the drum, and another served us a lemon drink. A woman put a garland of flowers around our neck, and a man wrapped the local headdress of turban around our head. Then they invited us to visit their homes in the center of the village. Some of us chose to ride there on camels and others on carts driven by camels. Village kids on bicycles returning from school followed us. More of them were waiting to see us on the sidewalks of the village. We visited a house, thatched and built with hard mud. At a more substantial house with plastered walls, the women were waiting for us outside], while their children lined up inside. Cooking was still done the old fashioned way: in the open yard, on the ground, and with firewood. Vehicles which were creatively jerry-rigged from parts of old cars (juvars) served as a means of transportation.
The men of the village entertained us that night. There were ten of them. Some played the local musical instruments, goat skin drum (noubat), big drum (negara), and brass bells (namira). Some sang and danced. We sat in a circle around a fire in the middle. One man began chanting a song and then all others joined as a chorus, the musicians with their musical instruments. Soon two men started a dance. Then they asked us to join them in the dance and in playing the big drum. When we sat down, I found out that the gentle folk songs they sang and danced to were about Vishnu and Shiva. The director of the camp explained it this was: “It is the story of those two Gods playing hide and seek. Vishnu disguises himself as a baby and is picked by a woman goddess who had just gotten married. People say this wife is corrupt if she had a child so soon. Then Vishnu comes out of disguise and says I am that baby.”
In another central Indian village, Alipur, we had heard another devotional song about the absence of an avatar of Vishnu, Krishna. In the courtyard of a medieval palace which was now guarded only by a red-turbaned ceremonial sentry, two blind musicians played the noubat and ektar (a one-string instrument) and sang from the 16th century Indian blind poet Sant Sudras’ “Ocean of Melody” (Sur Sagar) the complaint to Krishna about his “constant absence.”
That night in the camp we retired around ten. From my tent, I could still hear the sounds of singing and music coming from the village. That was live music from the puja (the ceremonial worshiping of the divine) performed at homes. At dawn the next morning, I was awakened by the same kind of music, this time coming from loud speakers of a radio. This was the sound of the traditional puja being performed in a public temple. I went to have the villagers’ breakfast of unleavened flatbread (roti) made from millet flour, being prepared on a hot iron plate which was on a wood fire set on the floor. This was one ancient tradition in India not going to be abandoned anytime soon.
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