Posted in A traveller's guide

A guide for travellers—1938

(first published 2003)

“ To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantist sensations in the world.” (Freya Stark).

Leaving your home and going to a new place, facing discomforts and meeting strangers, and yet enjoying it all, is the mark of a true traveller. Today there are several books to help travellers, such as the Lonely Planet and Eyewitness Travel Guide series, but one of the earliest guides was first published in 1854. Called Hints to Travellers, it was little more than a pamphlet, written by Mr Coles, and brought out by the Royal Geographic Society. Over the years it was expanded and revised until by 1938 it had grown into two volumes. This fascinating guide was meant for geographers, surveyors, botanists, and anthropologists, who travelled to remote parts of the world, exploring and collecting information. It has sections on preparing for the journey, food, clothes, care of your camel, crossing the desert in a motor-car and treating the diseases one may acquire along the way. It is filled with quotes and advice from travellers of those days. The current Eyewitness Travel Guides provide tips on local customs and etiquette, and the sort of gifts to give. Hints to Travellers has similar passages. For instance, it says, “ For south-eastern Tibet a large stock of presents must be taken to give to the high officials…… whatever is given must be of the best quality. Field glasses, gramophones, and European shoes (size 7 is usual) are always much appreciated, while for less important gifts, raincoats, Trilby hats, and umbrellas are very useful.”As in today’s guides, there are special tips for women. Here the book quotes the intrepid woman traveller Freya Stark, who learned Arabic and other languages and travelled alone to the most inaccessable and inhospitable territories. In Persia and Arabia, she found it was best for a woman to travel without escorts. “To be entirely dependent on the hospitality of your hosts, is far the safest way of getting through difficult country.” As for clothes, she says, “ I wear ordinary women’s dress and find that modesty as to long sleeves, high neck or skirt are all commented on and appreciated.”
The section on food encourages the traveller to eat what is locally available. Even unusual items can taste good and be nutritious. The explorer Sanderson reported from the Cameroons, that they ate various creatures, including, “ white ants fried on buttered toast, and monitor lizards in curries. This diet, combined with fresh native vegetables gathered in the bush, probably accounted for our good health.” Travelling in the Eastern Himalayas, P. Kingdon Ward writes, “The leaves of several forest herbs furnish a sort of spinach. More palatable are some of the edible forest fungi.”
Hints to Travellers gives us an idea of the customs and way of life in different parts of the world in the early twentieth century, the small details that one rarely finds in history books. Those interested in the past, as well as those who travel to understand, explore and learn, would still be inspired by it.
(by Roshen Dalal)

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Posted in Bhutan, Buddhism

Praying for the cranes

While most of the world is busy destroying itself, its wonderful to know of a monastery where Buddhist monks spend their time praying for black-necked cranes! A few days ago I saw a great programme on NatGeo on Bhutan, and was intrigued by the story of these cranes.

The Gangtey gompa  in central Bhutan is a monastery specially for them.They  return here every winter and have been doing so for centuries. Near the gompa are marshlands, the natural habitat of the cranes.
There are  15 crane species, including the black-necked cranes.Black-necked cranes are thought to live up to  80 years and mate for life. As they reach the monastery, they are said to circle it three times, before they touch ground, as Buddhists circle sacred sites .
After they arrive, pairs of cranes dance, and throw objects towards each other, a strange gift- giving ceremony.
Near the monastery  in Bhutan, the cranes are protected. Killing a crane leads to imprisonment.When the cranes arrive safely, it indicates a good year for Bhutan.

The black-necked crane festival is celebrated every year in November.

Posted in India, Languages

Languages of India

Twenty-two languages are officially recognised in India in addition to English. Apart from this there are numerous dialects and the 1961 census (which had extra details) listed 1,652 languages used as mother tongues in India. Of these, thirty-three are spoken by over one lakh [100,000] people.
At the time of independence, Hindi in Devanagari script was recognised as the official language of India, with English also being  authorised as the legislative and judicial language. Regional languages were  official languages in various the states. The Eighth Schedule was added to the constitution which listed recognised languages. These were: (1) Assamese; (2) Bengali; (3) Gujarati; (4) Hindi; (5) Kannada; (6) Kashmiri; (7) Malayalam; (8) Marathi; (9) Oriya; (10) Punjabi; (11) Sanskrit; (12) Tamil; (13) Telugu (14) Urdu. In 1967 the Twenty-first amendment to the constitution added the Sindhi language to the list.
In 1992, Konkani, Manipuri and Nepali were added to these, by the seventy-seventh amendment to the constitution; bringing the total up to eighteen. In 2003 the 92nd constitutional amendment added four more languages: Bodo, Maithili, Dogri, and Santali.
Other languages spoken by over one million people are:  Gondi, Bhili/Bhilodi, Kurukh/Oraon, Tulu and Ho.
The languages and dialects of India, can be classified into four main language groups. These are Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic or Austric and Sino-Tibetan/Tibeto Burman. There are also some languages of other languages families, spoken by small groups. Of the languages mentioned above, the following are Indo-Aryan: Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Urdu, Konkani, Nepali and Dogri. This is the largest language group in India and accounts for 74 per cent of the population.
Dravidian languages include Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Tulu, Kurukh/Oraon and Gondi. Manipuri is a Sino-Tibetan language, whereas Santali and Ho belong to the Austro-Asiatic group.

Posted in Books, India, Literature, Sahitya Akademi

Sahitya Akademi

Medieval Indian Literature
Medieval Indian Literature
Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature
Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature

The Sahitya Akademi is in the news these days, with one writer after the other returning their awards to protest against intolerance in the country, while other writers are against this form of protest. I don’t belong to that elite category of writers whose opinions matter, but it got me thinking about why I appreciate the Akademi so much. It is nothing to do with its awards but about the unsung people who form its staff, about the editors and translators, and the wonderful books they produce.

It is only through the publications of the Akademi that I have been able to read and know about Indian literature, past and present. I can read English, Hindi, and minimal Sanskrit and Gujarati [not enough to understand a book], have tried to learn Bengali and Telugu without much success, but what about the other languages, Tamil, Malayalam, Manipuri etc etc?

On my shelves is the wonderful Encyclopaedia of  Indian Literature in six volumes, that I went through page by page, a wonderful resource that I used to identify writers on religion for my book on Hinduism. Once I had chosen a few out of the hundreds, I used the Akademi translations to read their work. It is because of these my Hinduism book is so different from others on the same topic, as I have been able to include the best of regional literature.

And I hope the Akademi continues to produce these books, which I feel are its most important work.

[spell-check is trying to correct the spelling, but this is how the Akademi spells its name]

Posted in India, karma, Philosophy

Ideas on Karma—-Sri Aurobindo

Concepts such as the One Reality, Maya and Karma have permeated Indian consciousness. Indians, no matter what their class, caste, or religion are familiar with these terms, which date back to the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra and Shankara. Since then, there have been numerous refinements and analyses of these concepts, and notable among those who provided a fresh view of these ideas, is Sri Aurobindo.
Born in Kolkata on 15 August 1872, Aurobindo Ghose was a philosopher, poet and mystic. He was educated mainly in England and after his return to India in 1892 and took up various administrative and teaching posts and then began to seriously study Yoga. Between 1905 and 1908, he was one of the main nationalist leaders of the extremist school. Imprisoned in 1908, he experienced a ‘divine revelation’, and two years later when there was again a threat of imprisonment, escaped from British India to the French territory of Pondicherry (now Puducherry) where he started an ashram. He was joined in his ashram in 1920 by ‘The Mother’, a Frenchwoman named Mirra Richard, who took over the running of the ashram, while Aurobindo devoted himself to reading, studying ancient texts, and writing philosophical works including The Life Divine, Integral Yoga, the epic Savitri , a poem of 24,000 lines, as well as commentaries on The Bhagavad Gita, the major Upanishads, and other texts.
In these works, Aurobindo, a profound thinker, presented his philosophy and ideas. His basic assumption was that life is still evolving, and a human being is not the highest stage of evolution – a higher being will one day emerge. The light and power of the spirit, called by him, the ‘Supermind’, presiding over human evolution, would transform human consciousness and remould life on earth.
To Aurobindo, there is One Reality, but there are also individual souls. The world is not Maya or an illusion, but real, and needs to be perfected through the spiritual and material evolution of every living being. On karma, Sri Aurobindo challenges the popular concept of a divine accounting system which extends through the successive lives of a person. Instead, he dwells on the nature of cosmic energy, which incorporating all the complexities of one’s inner and outer life, takes one in a particular direction, depending on one’s inclinations and stage of life. Karma is thus linked with the process of evolution. Growth requires experiences of different kinds, both pleasurable and painful, and Aurobindo says, “the soul may of itself accept or choose poverty, misfortune and suffering as helpful to its growth, stimulants of a rapid development, and reject riches and prosperity and success as dangerous and conducive to a relaxation of spiritual effort… Cosmic existence is not a vast administrative system of universal justice with a cosmic law of recompense and retribution.” Instead it is a movement of the energy of nature, which provides, within the cycle of rebirth, whatever is needed for the next step in its evolution.
Sri Aurobindo died in 1950. His works need to be better known, as he provides a vision of a different world, a perfect creation, which will arise when each individual evolves. For him, there is no nirvana or moksha, providing an escape from sorrow and impermanence, but rather the material world made immortal, through the descent of the divine spirit.
Posted in India, Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi–wish you were alive today

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869, and was shot dead on 30 January 1948.

Every year his birthday is a national holiday, yet his principles seem to have fled this land. The news this year was on a man killed by a mob as he was suspected of eating beef, and of a 15-year old who committed suicide because he did not have the  Rs 5000 required for his school fees. I really wanted to write about baking [see earlier post] instead of all this, but am sharing something I had written on him earlier, in a book for young people.

Extracts from The Spirit will Survive, Chapter 11 of my book, The Puffin History of India, vol 2, 1947 to the Present)
“A glory has departed and the sun that warmed and brightened our lives has set and we shiver in the cold and dark”, said Jawaharlal Nehru on 2 February 1948, a few days after the death of Gandhi. “Let us be worthy of him”, he added. And truly Delhi was worthy of him, for his death stirred something in people’s hearts, all remaining violence ceased and peace was restored to the city.

A strange magic
What was the magic of this man, that he could bring peace in Calcutta and in Delhi both during his life and after his death? On his 78th birthday Sarojini Naidu in a radio broadcast tried to explain. She said , “Who is this Gandhi and why is it that today he represents the supreme moral force in the world?…(he is) a tiny man, a fragile man, a man of no worldly importance, of no earthly possessions, and yet a man greater than emperors….. This man, with his crooked bones, his toothless mouth, his square yard of clothing,… he overthrows emperors, he conquers death, but what is it in him that has given him this power, this magic, this authority, this prestige, this almost godlike quality of swaying the hearts of men?” She went on to say that it was the same quality as that of the great religious teachers of the world such as Christ, Buddha, Muhammad and others, and a great vision he had “that love and humanity would endure, grow and reach the stars”. In other words, perhaps it was his total honesty, his constant, unwavering search for truth and the pure love in his heart, that aroused love in others and brought out the goodness in people.

Born on 2 October 1869 at Porbandar in Gujarat, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi went to school in Rajkot and at the age of thirteen was married to Kasturba, a young girl. By the age of eighteen he had a son, and later three more. He went to England to study law, and after returning to India, he left for South Africa in 1893.
He stayed in South Africa till 1914 and during these years formulated his policy of satyagraha or non-violent resistance. He also developed his ideas on Truth, took a vow of brahmacharya or self-restraint and gave up all material possessions. His fame spread to India and by the time he returned in 1914 he was revered by the people and given the name ‘Mahatma’ or “great soul’.
In India, after some initial experiments in satyagraha, he took up the leadership of the Freedom Movement in 1920. That long story cannot be told here, but he brought the common person into the struggle for freedom and let India peacefully to independence. Simultaneously he did a number of other things, training his followers to work for the development of the villages and trying to get rid of untouchability.

Gandhi’s basic ideas focused around two things, Truth and ahimsa or non-violence. He said he was “ a passionate seeker after Truth, which is but another name for God. In the course of that search the discovery of non-violence came to me.” Gandhi used these ideals both in the struggle for freedom and in his personal and inner life.

Gandhi was religious, but to him religion was something personal, as each person had a different concept of God. He was a Hindu, but he believed in the goodness of all religions. His favourite texts were the Bhagavad Gita and the Sermon on the Mount from the New Testament. About the relationship with other religions he said, “If I am a Hindu… I may not make any distinction between my co-religionists and those who might belong to a different faith. I would seek opportunities to serve them.”

He believed that material prosperity or wealth and possessions, did not help people to live happily or peacefully. People should be content if their real needs were fulfilled and should acquire and use only what they really required. Thus all would have whatever was required, no one would have excessive wealth. There would be peace and safety, for thieves and robbers were created by inequalities, by some people having too much.

On his 78th birthday Gandhi received streams of visitors and birthday messages and congratulations from all parts of the world. But he felt condolences would be more appropriate because there was only agony in his heart. Once he had wished to live 125 years, but now in this atmosphere of hatred and killing, he had lost this desire. He said that if it was God’s will, he would live a little longer, but in his heart his cry was to “take me away from this ‘vale of tears’ rather than make me a helpless witness of the butchery by man become savage”. Gandhi felt that people no longer listened to him or followed him. Yet in his last fast and death the magic and mystery of his ability to touch people’s hearts, was seen once again.

Value today
Gandhi knew his life would end some day, and in his last days he even wished to depart from the world. At the same time he felt that his ideals were eternal. He said, “The spirit will survive the dissolution of the body and somehow speak through the millions”. Perhaps, some day, his vision will be fulfilled. With the spread of education and the internet, his concept of the ideal village could become a reality. There would then be few crowded cities and less pollution. The environment could be better protected. If people had fewer needs and less greed as well as honesty, there would be enough for all. And if everyone followed Truth and non-violence, had love in their hearts, and helped and served those of other religions, India would become an ideal land, a model for the whole world, as Gandhi had once dreamed.

Posted in Cooking

A Baking Class!

Crazy things are happening in the world and in India. Instead of focusing on that I have signed up for an online baking class! Not sure whether I will get around to actually baking anything, but I liked the idea of trying something different. Supposed to be good for the brain, to try out something new.

I don’t spend much time cooking, and on the whole am a poor cook. Its difficult even for me to understand why I like watching cooking programmes on TV.

And a baking class? Incomprehensible!

Lets see what happens–I’ll provide some updates here.

Posted in Bookshop

A bookshop I can never forget

This used to be my favourite bookshop, though today there are many  focusing exclusively on spirituality. This description was written some years ago, but I have made minor revisions and updated it.

In a corner of Shankar Market, in the centre of Delhi, all the secrets can be discovered at Piccadilly book store. Here, one can find an account of the 18 unrecorded years of Jesus’ life. According to the ‘Akashic records’ of the Gospel of the Aquarian Age, Jesus wandered through Egypt, Greece, Persia, Tibet, and India. He spoke on the banks of the Ganga and visited the Jagannath temple.

On the next shelf is the Materia Medica of Tibetan Medicine and Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, written by Gurdjieff. There are many more books by Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Osho, J. Krishnamurti, U. G. Krishnamurti, Chinmayananda, Gibran and a host of others writing on religion, philosophy, and the mystic world. There are packs of Tarot cards and I-Ching cards, do-it-yourself books on gem therapy and astrology and of course several versions of the ancient texts, the Upanishads, Puranas, and others.

There is a select display outside, but inside the small shop, books are piled high in stacks and there is scarcely any place to move. But this is a place where one is free to spend as much time as one likes, to browse through books in a leisurely way, or just to sit outside drinking tea and conversing with like-minded people.

When I first visited it, it was run by S.P. Chowdhuri, who was polite, helpful and knowledgeable. He could locate books on any topic in this sphere, even if one had no idea of either title or author. I once asked about books which dealt with the relationship of the inner “chakras” and the notes of music. In a few minutes there was a heap of books before me, each of which had a few pages on the esoteric theme.

People visit this bookshop from all over the world. In fact there are invariably more foreigners than Indian visitors. The shop has been in Fodor’s Guide, the Lonely Planet’s travelers series and even in Geeta Mehta’s Karma Cola. Many visitor’s record their impression in a book kept for this purpose. The shop has a collection of several such visitor books and one can spend interesting hours going through the profound or often amusing comments in them. The comments are in different languages including Hindi, English, French, German, and Japanese.

Indira Gandhi often visited the shop and on the 5th of January, 1980, she wrote, “The world of books is the most fascinating and enriching to be in. What an attractive shop it is!” Other eminent visitors have been Nirmala Devi, Girilal Jain, Arun Shourie, Lama Govinda, and several well known gurus and swamis. A visitor from Holland wrote, “To find the books on Buddhist art and philosophy, I come all the way from Holland and find them here”.

Some like to write  nuggets of their own philosophy, for instance, “If you are hungry, this is the best place to fill yourself. Dine, be filled, then you may become empty”, or “To be known to oneself is to read the books and throw them away”. Another happily recorded, “Each man I marry, I’ll spend his fortune here”. But Chidananda – of the Shivananda Ashram simply wrote, “God bless this bookshop”.

This unique book store was gifted to S.P.Chowdhuri by his elder brother in 1957, and is the oldest book store in Shankar Market. Now Chowdhuri’s son runs it. “I look for quality not quantity”  Chowdhuri had said. He was not referring to the books, where he has both quality and quantity, but to the visitors to his shop.

He did not cater to the readers of pulp fiction, fast-paced best sellers, or popular magazines. All his visitors were drawn there by a search for something, for truth or whatever one may call it. With his regular customers, Chowdhuri developed a personal relationship and many spent  time with him discussing life and philosophy. When I visited his shop after an absence of nine years, I was immediately recognized and offered a cup of tea.

“Even if you come fifty years later”, he said, “and I am here, I’ll know you”. At that moment one had a vision of time standing still. While new technologies multiply in this world and people rush to keep pace with change, there is, in the middle of all this, a peaceful unhurried corner, where people still search, as some have always done, for ageless wisdom.

The bookshop still exists,  but some of its original magic is missing.