Friday, May 6, 2011

Hospitality Government Style

Few years back on this blog , I wrote a post about the Dak Bungalows. The post till date remains one of my most popular posts and received tremendous response. Many wrote to me through emails and many commented on it online. Best of all, Dr. Alan Shaw, from whose war memoir “Marching on to Laffan's Plain” I had quoted in the post , contacted me and we became friends ever since. About a month back, my dear Friend Dr. Shaw (94) died peacefully in Norfolk UK, after a long life lived to the full. In last four years through his gracious e-mails and letters , Dr. Shaw enlightened me about many things about India, the wars, and of the world 50 years before. Today when I sit to write another post of the same subject, I think of Dr. Shaw and his times and most humbly dedicate this post to my friend who reached out to me across the seas and overwhelmed me by his generosity.

Once again I got a taste of hospitality in the Government style . In my recent trip to Gujarat , I stayed in some of the well maintained circuit houses and felt terribly nostalgic about my childhood memories of Dak Bunglows. However since then, many things have changed. Government servants can now afford to stay at hotels and are also permitted to do so as per rules. Most find it very convenient and prefer them over Government maintained guest houses . Many departments have “outsourced” the guest houses by arrangements with private guest houses/hotels. The new guest houses in general lack the stately air of the old Dak bunglows. They are many times much more modern and facilities equipped and are preferred over the old austere guest houses and circuit houses. Unfortunately in many states now these old guest houses are not being maintained well. In Gujarat however, things have not changed much .

On the whole things have not changed much- as I already said in my previous post, time stops at these Dak Bunglows. But here and there, one does notice a change in courtesies of attendants, the taste (or the lack of it) in the furnishing of the rooms and the ignorance of the keepers about the historical importance of these places. Across the country, these circuit houses are located in some of the best locations and usually have an incomparable view from the rooms. But the “new” Villa circuit house of Porbandar surprised me with the lovely location is has. The rooms almost open on the beach. You come out of the rooms and you have Arabian Sea in its full glory ready to meet you on the steps. Watching a sunset from there was a treat for my senses. No wonder, these used to be the erstwhile ruler’s Guest rooms and are at a stone’s throw distance from the maharana’s palace ( now lying grossly neglected) . In fact in Saurashtra like many other parts of the country, these government Guest houses (specially circuit houses) are former properties of ex-royals. In some cases even their palaces. In Junagarh e..g. the circuit house still has its silver cutlery for special occasions and the wood carved furniture of old nawab .

View from the porbandar circuit house

This sprawling dak bunglow is a very typical compound and the sitting and dining area reminds you of the days gone by. In Dwarka by contrast, it was a plain and simple fare at circuit house. No grandeur of oil paintings or stuffed tigers in the common room. The garden was also bare . The one characteristic which marks all such places was however intact- the well informed attendant, who knew everything about the places to see, the best shop for buying things and best eatery to try. Aha, there is something in that age-old wisdom !

While staying in these places, I once again thought of other interesting guest houses I have stayed. There was a very well managed international guest house at Pantnagar University where the chef Daniel served most exotic desserts. Then there was one in Uttarakhand where I actually thought I saw a ghost. Another very bright and happy guest house at Kothi (HP) where we stayed several times on our ways to various treks . However, the weirdest place I remember staying was one in Darjeeling. I went there for some work and was forced to leave the taxi mid way. My staying arrangements were done in a guest house of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. But before I could locate the place it started raining. By the time I reached the place it was already dark and I was totally drenched. Whatever I could make out of the place at that time,it seems small but comfortable and welcoming. In the night however, I noticed some strange sounds –growls, screeches and grunts. Anyhow, I discounted these as my imagination and managed to sleep . It was only in the morning that I realized that the guest house was inside the Zoo. To top it all the animals in Darjeeling zoo are not caged but just restricted by slightly high walls. My heart skipped few beats. I could not understand why my people chose that place for me, till the morning I was about to leave and I opened the window of my room. After few days of overcast the sky was clear for the first time and I had the most majestic look of Kachanjungha in front of me . I just wowed the sight and gaped at snow-clad mountains with awe.
Junagarh Circuit house -the sitting (Baithak)

Another very peculiar memory of these circuit houses is the names of the rooms . In many places of course rooms are known only by numbers, in some older ones you may find rooms named after rivers , famous personalities of the region or even the trees in the campus. I remember staying in a guest houses where rooms were named after eminent leaders who stayed in them once upon a time.
Modern hotels may be much more comfortable but they cannot replace the charm of these old places. I do realize that they have become just a thing of past but then, we do go for heritage hotels too. These places are living testimony of the good old days of government on tour and may be still have some rational to be maintained with care and concern. I wonder how many in the government circles would agree ?

Days of King Krishna – and Remains of those days !

Unlike the West, in Indian thought time moves in cycles. Nothing goes forever- it goes, it re-emerges, re-constructs itself and then gets re-destroyed. While for the western world- we are born, we live, we die; in India we die only to be reborn. It’s not only humans but even cities, temples, trades, beliefs are reborn after they grow old to be used safely in a particular time . At some level it’s a very comforting thought and though like every other Indian I believed in it subconsciously, it was only last week that I saw one such re-birth of a city , at Krishna’s Dwarka .India conceives of four great epochs or ‘world ages’ of varying but enormous lengths: The Krita Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dvarpara Yuga and the Kali Yuga. At the end of each yuga a cataclysm, known as pralaya, engulfs the globe in fire or flood. Then from the ruins of the former age, like the Phoenix emerging from the ashes, the new age begins. According to Vishnu Purana - Dwaraka was submerged by the sea right after the death of Lord Krishna.

“On the same day that Krishna departed from the earth the powerful dark-bodied Kali Age descended. The oceans rose and submerged the whole of Dwaraka."

Like many other metaphors of our scriptures, I believed this one too at only metaphoric level . But as I entered Dwarka city in Saurashtra, my beliefs got shaken. I am no longer sure that this was only a myth and not a poetic description of a historical event. Honestly, I never thought of Krishna as a historical figure. In fact even in our scriptures(e.g. Mahabharata) he is human and God at the same time – a description that makes one doubt his being real. In any case, Sri Krishna is a towering personality in Indian thought and it is difficult to separate the human aspect of his life from the divine in Krishna concept. He is a grand mystery and everyone has tried to understand him in his own way, according to his spiritual light or vision, devotion or human-ness of his life .Whether one thinks of him as an object of love or hate, one attains him. Yudhishthira attained him through friendship and Narada by devotion. Krishna is the embodiment of intellectual and spiritual glory. No other single idea has so much influenced the course of India's religion, philosophy, art and literature as the life and personality of Krishna. I have seen many people around me getting fascinated by Krishna in many different ( and contrasting) ways. But once in Dwarka I actually realized the truth in the words of Annie Besant that "He (Krishna) is so fundamentally the God, who is human in everything, who bends in human sympathy over the cradle of the babe, who sympathizes with the play of the youth, who is the friend of the lover, the blesser of the bridegroom and the bride, who smiles on the young mother when her first born lies in her arms, everywhere the God of love and human happiness; what wonder that his winsome grace has fascinated the hearts of men."

Similarly multifaceted is the city he supposedly found for his capital. One look at Dwarka- and all your doubts about its ancientness vanish in thin air. The only other city that gives me that kind of confidence is Varanasi. Called by whatever name, built by whoever, there is no doubt that this place was an ancient place of worship. It is said that after the Mahabharata, Krishna along with his yadava clan came here in search of a new Kingdom for himself. He decided to built a new city here and named the new city Dvaravati. A rather appropriate name- as the city is almost the first door of entry to the subcontinent from the Arabian Sea. The city finds mention in many classical texts. The one that comes to my mind is Sisupalavadha, by poet Magha where in sarga2; he describes the city of Dwaraka as-

"The yellow glitter of the golden fort of the city in the sea throwing yellow light all round looked as if the flames of vadavagni came out tearing asunder the sea."

In 1960s, the first archaeological excavations at Dwaraka were done by the Deccan College, Pune which revealed artefacts many centuries old. The second round of excavations in 1979 under S.R. Rao's direction found a distinct pottery which could be more than 3,000 years old. Based on the results of these excavations, the search for the sunken city in the Arabian Sea began in 1981. Scientists and archaeologists have continually worked on the site for 20 years. But the city is a manifestation of faith over science. Most people flocking the city are not in search of the archeological remain but the signs of King Krishna – which a devotees eyes cannot miss.

Dwarkadheesh temple is a landmark structure in the middle of the city. Parts of this temple belong of 12th century Ad and rest of it was built in 16th Century. Much like the dual-faceted personality of Krishna, the two main entrances of the temple are appropriately called "Moksha Dwara" (Door to Salvation) and "Swarga Dwara" (Gate to Heaven).Now the maintemple is surrounded by several other temples and shrines built subsequently by devotees .

But more than the main temple, I loved the temple of queen Rukmani which stands on the way to Bet- Dwaka. Intricately carved and grossly neglected, this old monument is has a strong presence and Character much like the queen to which it is dedicated. She claims the limelight in this region much before you enter Dwarka. In fact it is very curious that in this region, Radha , the childhood companion of SriKrishna is not present at all .Rukmani, the Patrani , takes her place instead .
On the way to dwarka in a little obscure village called Madhopur lies the place where Krishna supposedly married Rukmani. The temple standing there was pretty ordinary, till I laid my eyes on the old original temple, which was submerged in sea and re-surfaced in 1850s . The virgin beach of madhopur with a huge shiv-ling lies just below the temple. I was still mulling over the co-existence of Shiv and Krishna as reigning deities of this region when the evening prayers started in the temple. To my utter surprise , I found the recorded voice of classical maestro Pt.Jasraj doing the aarti in that small unknown village. India, as they say , contine to surprise you at every step!

Bet Dwarka- supposedly the place where King Krishna resided with his family, is a beautiful island. But the temple there is marred too much by commercialization, lines of small shops that even the lovely boatride to and fro could not make me like the place.

Even around Dwraka, there are numerous places establishing the humanness of Krishna. One such location was the Bhalka Teerth – the place where Krishna was killed by a Bheel . The place is few yards away from Somnath . On the banks of river Hiranya and marked by lines of coconut trees the place is picturesque and gives you the feel of divinity. It’s the only temple I know where Krishna is depicted in a lying position . The best part about myths and legends is the minuteness of the stories. Since Krishna left his earthly incarnation here , it was only fair to expect Sheshnaag who accompanied him on earth as Balram( his elder brother) to join him . So they also have a temple from where Balram went to pataal lok .

I did not like the Somnath temple- the big Government built, highly secured temple of India. But the location was exquisite. The remains of old temple lying behind the new one adds a sense of time to the whole complex. But the best was the pillar informing that from that point to the South Pole, the lightway is unbarred by any landmass. The pillar, which is said to exist since time immemorial left me stunned. Is this why they selected this location for the temple? Is this why despite numerous attacks, the temple was re-built again and again? Just outside the temple is another smaller temple built by Queen Ahilyabai Holkar. It is said that the ancient Shivling of somnath is in this temple.

I am not a religious person, so the temples and their myths, however fascinating did not affect me so much to ignore the fact that we are not keeping our heritage the way we should. We seem to be too engrossed in the immediate issues and gains that we ignore the historical and cultural aspects of this legacy. The encroachments and small shops fill the temple sites. The ASI, as usual has no control to preserve the ancient sites . The traces of scientific search of the old city are not to be seen anywhere and the business of the day goes on as usual.

I look back at the gushing waves of Arabian sea and console myself that well, it is just another side of the eternal cycle. After all, nothing goes forever.