I will start with a confession. Living an unstructured footloose life is not always easy. I’m playing a game against inertia, hoping to beat it as often as possible. Every morning I have to get myself out of bed without knowing what I am going to do; Just searching for an inspiration can often mean a wasted day. This particular morning was mercifully different. The night before, like a thunderbolt, the idea of visiting Nigambodh Ghat had struck me. Nigambodh Ghat is the oldest place in Delhi. Well, at least it’s the location of the oldest surviving legend in the city. In antiquity, it is said, the Hindu god of creation, Brahma suffered from amnesia and forgot all the holy texts. After long penance on the banks of the Jamuna, all the holy texts were thrown out of the river bed by the river goddess. Today, Nigambodh Ghat is a Hindu cremation ground equipped with an electric crematorium which handles about 60 cremations a day. I was disappointed to learn that there is nothing antique about it. And when I walked in with an SLR slung to my neck, I could see I was intruding on nothing special. Taking the cue very early, I left the place. Feeling betrayed by the previous nights thunderbolt, I walked towards Nili Chhatri temple. This is where Yudhishtira is said to have installed a Shivling during the Mahabharata.
When I walked into the nondescript blue concrete temple, there was nothing striking about it. It was very small with two sponsor boards hanging from the roof. It could have been any temple on any street of any town in India. But just as I climbed down the stairs into the compound, an old man was coming out:
|Present day Nili Chhatri|
‘Are you not from Delhi?' he asked.
'Yes and No. I live in Delhi now but am not from Delhi.' I replied.
'So, what are you doing here? How did you hear about this place?'
'I read about it in a book.' Another man, who was perhaps overhearing our conversation joined in, 'Which book?' 'City of Djinns', I said.
And then came a flood of questions. The pride that their favored temple was finding its way into books and inspiring visits from camera holding-outsiders was plainly visible on their faces. The older man, postponing his departure from the temple, sat down on the steps with only one sock on and started telling me his story. 15 years ago, when he first came to this temple, he did not even have enough money to buy himself a cup of tea. But he started visiting it regularly, and things changed. The old man said Shiva took him under patronage and gifted him a Midas touch. Today, he says, he has everything but he still comes and visits it everyday. 'There is a lot of power in this Shivling, son', he said, 'you make a wish and it will be fulfilled. You have rare luck to have heard of it in a book and come here. Not everyone gets to visit here. Make the most of it.' At moments like these, a non-believer like me starts to understand faith. I may not need it, but if it can turn lives around and give people the heart to bless a stranger they met two minutes ago, may it live long!
|The ancient Shivling|
The younger man gave me a quick tour of the temple. According to him, 'The shivling is 10000 years old and was installed by Yudhishtir Bhagwan. Ever since, people have come here asking for their wishes to be fulfilled, their agonies to be taken away and the god has never disappointed.' I noticed that the Shivling was draped in leaves and fruit, and milk was being poured on it through a curious looking nozzle. Followers were kneeling down in front of the god to pay their respects.
'Can I click photos?' I asked the man.
'Yes, of course, you are our and the god's guest.'
I was touched. When I left to roam Delhi, I had shelved all expectations of humanity in the mountains. The last thing I expected was to be treated like a prince, taken for a guided tour, imparted with the story of an old man's struggles, and having a god play host to me. Humanity exists everywhere, most of all in a city of 20 million. It’s just covered under the dust of daily existence. The moment you are willing to gently dust the surface, it oozes out lovingly.
|The boat going out on the Yamuna|
I walked out of the temple with a gleaming smile, reflecting on the satisfaction of meeting good people on the road. I was going to head for Nigambodh Gate, one of the gates of Shahjahanabad. But just across the road was the Jamuna, flowing black and lazy on a winter morning in the haze. I decided to hop over to the dirty banks. So I stood there on plastic and lots of assorted trash, looking over the oily ooze of Jamuna. Far away, in distance, on an island was a huge mass of birds, so many that they painted the island white. Just a few feet away from me, a group of men, sitting on their haunches were getting ready for a game of cards. An old man with missing teeth, grey and disheveled hair, and a vermilion mark on his forehead, walked down to the river bank. One of the card players, a boy, got up and pulled a yellow boat into the water. The old man climbed in and off they went. The young man was singing an old Hindi song, 'Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain jo mukaam, woh phir nahin aate.' (Milestones once passed in the journey of life never come back.) It was so apt a song for the crematorium nearby, where people come at the last milestone of their life and then have their ashes sprinkled on the holy river. The setting was so calm, the young man’s deep baritone so soothing, the river so serene; for the first time, I felt very comfortable seeing death at such close quarters. After a couple of oar strokes, the boy turned back to the shore and got out of the boat. They had forgotten to take matchsticks. I was anyway wondering about their trip, so I walked over and asked,
'Are you crossing the Jamuna?'
'No, we are just going to feed the birds.', the boy replied.
'Can I join in?'
'Yes, of course.'
Without hesitation I jumped in and we were off. Before the feeding started, incense were lit and set to float on the holy river as an offering. Then the food, salted vermicelli, came out and the birds flocked over. One moment, the boat was a lonely farer on the river. A minute later, hundreds of birds were circling the boat. And we three began to chat.
|The hand that feeds the birds|
They were a strange pair. An old man, will into the second half of his life, coming to feed birds, supported by a young rebellious teenager who claimed he was, '…a free bird, I am only tied to Jamuna Maiya.’ The old man, he told me, has been coming to feed the migratory birds every single day of the winter for the last 3 years and each of these days, this young boy takes him out to the river. What chemistry binds them, I have no clue. It was not money for sure, something much deeper than that, maybe something which is better left not understood.
The feeding ended too early. Sitting there on the boat over a black, silent, river I could have spent the entire day watching the birds come and feed and watching these two strangers interact with the ease of childhood buddies. Behind it all was the falling ashes of many people who had come to the last milestone of their lives, while I was still living mine. The boat was moored to the bank and I walked out to the road, taking a moment to look back at the scene. There was no Hall of Thousand Columns, no big monuments, no geographic discovery. Yet, I’d had the best day of my Delhi walking life. All I did was meet a few wonderful people and listen to their stories. That is why, they say, it is people who make the world what it is and not the other way around. I have belatedly realized that the living Dilli is part of this circle too.