The Fusion of Faith

Ancient sculptures and symbolic references have always intrigued me and so I thoroughly enjoy my vacation amidst ruins or historical monuments. But what I saw in the strange little temple in Gujrat was something I was not prepared for. Usually temples are named after the deity and when I heard the name of EME temple, I was slightly taken aback. EME is indeed the name of a temple – a very unique place and probably the only structure of its kind; built by the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (EME) unit of the Indian army, hence the name.

This is an uncommonly modern temple with structures made of aluminum extracted from old fighter airplanes from World War II. The silvery white tower and the dome will make you think twice before you actually accept the fact that it is a temple. The stone slab at the entrance says that The EME temple, was conceived, designed and constructed in 1965 under the patronage of the founder commandant of EME School-Brigadier A.F. Eugene.

This unassuming religious site is a mixture of modern architecture and ancient artifacts, and has been constructed by depicting symbols of various religions. The four entrance doors in an elliptical shape represent Jain architecture. While the prayer hall, which is dome-shaped, depicts Islam, the top of the dome represents Buddhism. A 70-feet tower depicts Christianity and a Kalash-the Vedic motif on top symbolizes Hinduism. The temple premises has over a 100 sculptures ranging from the 6th to the 18th century neatly arranged in the most, serene and picturesque surroundings  amidst seven pairs of banyan trees named after the Saptarishis and their wives (seven  saints). These trees provide ample shade to these ancient artifacts and accentuate the splendor of the surroundings. I was told that the sculptures and antique artifacts were collected from all over India, over a period of many years by the army cadets during their training exercises; in and around some jungles and ancient abandoned cities or forts.

As you enter the dome you see a main deity of Lord Shiva in human form with his feet pressing down on a demon, denoting suppression of all forms of distractions to achieve one’s goals, but unlike the usual temple, there are no priests or any holy men fussing about.

Later in the evening, after admiring the sculptures and statues, when I went into the temple; I noticed people gathered inside the shrine meditating or reading scriptures in silence; after a while a soldier walked in with his army fatigues except his shoes and threw a salute at the deity. He then proceeded to light a few lamps and the people who were gathered around sang some hymns in unison and offered their prayers.  After almost an hour, some curtains were drawn to cover the idol to announce the closing time.

Never have I seen a more classic example of ‘Work is Worship’. There are no priests or incense or any signs of religious practices. The temple is maintained by the Indian Army where the soldiers and their families of all religions and faith volunteer to perform and maintain the cleanliness of the temple premises. A visit to this monumental structure will be an experience that will live in your memory forever. Perhaps for the first time, I felt a spiritual vibe at the amazing architectural achievement of the Indian Army where there are no spiritual barriers, no boundaries of religion and faith, or separation of classes.

The Lotus Lady

It was quite unusual for my so called ‘annoyingly meticulous’ nature that I would make an impulsive decision. I am a stickler for details and by the force of habit; I plan every activity meticulously to its last dot. I was backpacking and had finished most parts of Gujarat and wanted to further explore Rajasthan. As per my itinerary, even though the final destination was much ahead, I was surprised at my sudden impulsive reaction that during my train journey, I just got off the train at a random station without any planning.

As soon as the train left, I was cursing my foolishness when the first sight that welcomed me was a medieval fort perched atop a hill. The railway station itself is so small that a single room serves as a station masters room and the ticketing counter. But he was quite a helpful man and offered to keep my luggage in that same room since there was no cloak room at all.

Armed with a camera bag and my broken Hindi, I stepped outside the station to be greeted by two men, one being the auto rickshaw and the other being a horse drawn cart. Since I couldn’t bear the sight of an animal being whipped to transport people, I chose the auto rickshaw.

The auto driver gave me a short lecture on the place, the fort and local geography as we passed through the seven gates that were en-route to the top of the hill. He said the 300 feet high fort wall spanned 700 acres and the hill was shaped like a Whale. It was divided into three segments; the front portion consisted of villages, the middle portion consisted of many buildings that used to house the royals and the last one was a jungle that still had some deer and peacocks. Out of many structures the first one was a temple that belonged to Meera, the ardent devotee of Lord Krishna. He dropped me at the entrance of a temple and left.

As I wandered about the fort, I saw most of the tourist attractions such as the victory tower and the tower of fame, a broken structure that was called Naulaka Bhandar that roughly translates into the ‘nine lakh treasury’. Some locals said it used to be a complex where a sum of nine lakh currency was stored to be utilized for the kingdom during bitter times.

After a long walk of an hour or so, at an isolated corner of the fort, I came across the entrance of a white building; I was beckoned by an old woman. I mistook her for a vendor trying to sell some wares, but to my surprise she just wanted to apply Vermilion paste to my forehead. She refused to take any money either. The old woman explained that this was Rani Padmini’s palace and she looked after the queen roses.  She spoke of the queen who lived in 1303 AD with such reverence and devotion that I almost expected the queen to just walk in any moment.

Even though I don’t know anyone by that name, I always found the name Padmini that meant lotus, quite pleasing and effeminate. Rani Padmini’s palace is originally built in the middle of a lotus pond adjacent to a complex adorned by a little rose garden. The queen would walk through this garden and a little boat would row her to the palace.

The old woman said that according to legends, which she heard from her grandmother, Rani Padmini’s beauty was unparalleled. The folk lore said that her complexion was so flawless and her skin so delicate that when she chewed her favorite paan- a combination of betel leaves, areca nuts, rose marmalade etc., one could see its crimson juices trickling down her throat. Until a few years ago, I would have dismissed this idea as a blatant lie, but during recent times, I happened to get acquainted with a lady whose name also incidentally refers to a lotus blossom, while she too has an unblemished complexion that is light enough for the veins to show through after a few minutes of exposure to the sun; and to add to which, she also has an unusual taste for paan.

The old woman said the story with such reverence that was so touching and heart wrenching.  The fame of Rani Padmini’s beauty and grace spread far and wide and this led to the first siege of Chittaur garh in 1303.The mogul ruler, Ala-ud-din Khilji attacked Chittaur Garh repeatedly to take Rani Padmini by force but could not subdue the fort. At that time, the Royals and the Subjects lived inside the fort and the food was cultivated outside .So he laid a siege around the fort and cut off all food supplies to the fort. He demanded for a glimpse of the queen, eventually the food stocks ran out after six months and the King, out of helplessness had to heed to Alauddin Khilji’s demand.

Along with beauty and grace, Rani Padmini was also highly intelligent.  Ala-ud-din  was escorted by  Gora( Uncle) and Badal (Brother), into a room built across the pond from Rani Padmini’s Palace where he had a glimpse of Rani Padmini.  This room has a complex arrangement of a mirror and he could only see the reflection of Rani Padmini standing on the stairs of the lotus pond some 50 feet away. I saw the mirror in which the queen’s image was shown. And if you actually turn back and try to see the spot where the queen would have been standing, you cannot see it. It is visible only through the mirror.

Even the reflection was so beautiful that the Moghul King was awed by her sparkling beauty. The stunned lustful ruler decided that such a beauty deserved to adorn his harem. He tricked her husband, King Ratan Singh, to escort him to the gates of the fort.  As soon as they reached the gate, Alauddin Khilji and his body guards kidnapped Ratan Singh and took him prisoner. The Moghul ruler sent a message to Rani Padmini that if the life of the king has to be spared then she must accompany him to Delhi.

What follows later is history. She sends word that she accepts his conditions. On the following morning at the crack of dawn, one hundred and fifty palaquins (covered cases in which royal ladies and their maids were carried in medieval times) made their way towards Alauddin’s camps. And in a strategy that would impress any military commander, warriors pour out of the palanquins and take the Mogul army by surprise. During the encounter Gora fights bravely and lays down his life while Badal takes Ratan Singh safely to the fort.

The humiliated Mogul King summons his army from Delhi and storms the fort. In the ensuing battle around 30,000 men were killed and 17,000 women of Chittaur Garh were slaughtered.  Rani Padmini knew that a defeat was inevitable.  In an act of ultimate revenge, she had a thirty feet deep pit dug out. After a ceremonial bath in the Gaumukh (an underground stream of crystal clear water flows into a pond from a small natural cave through a cow’s head shaped outlet). She offers her prayers to the Gods, and jumps into the pit that had a huge fire burning inside. She was followed by many women who chose death over dishonor.

Thus began an ancient tradition with Rani Padmini. Jauhar refers to the voluntary and honorary death of the queen and other royal female members upon the defeat of the kings. When the kingdom was defeated by the Muslim rulers, the women preferred to commit suicide by self immolation, rather than being captured and raped by the Muslim invaders, who used the royal women in their harems.

Alauddin Khilji looted and plundered Chittaur Garh and killed everyone. Finally, he handed over Chittaurgarh to his minor son Khizr Khan who after a few months returned to Delhi since there was no point in being a ruler of a province without subjects.

I felt a pang of regret and with a heightened sense of respect for the queen; I walked out of the place with a heavy heart. But while the old lady recited the legend and described Rani Padmini,I could almost visualize a graceful feminine form sitting by the lotus pond brushing her tresses and humming a tune.

Funeral: fun-real

Generally, funerals are perceived as a gloomy affair.  For someone who attends a funeral for the first time, there is usually a mass of serious faces, hushed whispers, and a somber atmosphere. At the first glance, one can see people hunched together in groups whispering amongst themselves and nodding their heads. But if you paid more attention to the gathering, one could see the division of groups that sat in small circles, consisting people of the same age group. One group consists of the elders of the family discussing expenses and among them, there is always one Mr. Know-all who pretends to know every ritual and age old customs for all the ceremonies even though he would just cook it up instantly.

Then, there are members of the community discussing the present political schemes in comparison with the political agenda of the pre-independence period. They discuss budgets in crores even though many of them would have borrowed money for tobacco.

Inevitably, there is always a loud mouthed politician accompanied by his unavoidable henchmen, shaking hands with everyone and consoling the family members who don’t need any consolation. If you paid attentions to the topic of discussion, it would usually be one of the political scheme or a plan that none of them have any role to play. One was heard saying “it was a ridiculous to initiate a bus service across the border of our country into the neighboring country. After all, they are our enemies. Isn’t it like inviting them over? Had it been me, I would have built a wall across the border and stopped all infiltration”. A farmer who didn’t put up a fence around his farm to stop stray animals wandering into the field, talks about building a wall across the countries borders.

The teenagers are all found huddled in the far corner with a serious discussion in progress, and if one got close to the group, you would see an array of mobile phones and random words like memory card, mega pixels, night vision cameras, dual sim, multiple point touch screen etc. The purpose of a phone to communicate with one another is completely obsolete with these youngsters.

The women folk are another matter altogether. They are usually found hovering about the kitchen and the dining area, instructing the servants about serving refreshments and preparing food for everyone. But more serious discussions are about a certain woman in one of the TV soaps being harassed by her mother in law, or more importantly, will the woman recognize her long lost daughter who works as a maid in the same house?

Each time a new person or a family comes in to offer condolences there is a sudden flurry of activity. There is a sudden hush that settles on everyone, while the men nod to each other, the women burst out in new episode of tears and forced hysteria, and the children look around and giggle, while there is always a child in the vicinity who is constantly wailing.

The exchange of greetings and pleasantries of “how are you” now seems to have been altered to “How is your diabetes? What is your cholesterol count?  Once this formality is done, the new guest joins the respective group and in a few minutes things are back to normal till a new person arrives. Perhaps the only person who plays the role truthfully is the one for the person the funeral is held for.