This is a continuation of my earlier blog ‘The medical mecca of Parel’.
I had mentioned that I had read about an ancient Shiva stele or bas relief in Parel and had set out on my cycle to check it out, (I had started this project of exploring Mumbai by cycle every Sunday morning and check out various interesting spots) but had gotten a bit side-tracked in admiring the many great hospitals in Parel which make it such a medical mecca, and the amazing generosity of the various people behind them.
‘Focus, dude - focus!’ I said to myself. ‘Shiva Shiva!’ I had come in search of Shiva and I had shall find that out. Google is an amazing tool for the city explorer - you use Google to search for various interesting things to see, and then use Google Maps to find your way there. I love Google.
G Maps delivered as promised, and brought me to... a really non-descript looking temple in the middle of a most nondescript road!
‘Eh?’ I looked around in puzzlement. Where was I? What was this? Had Google finally stuffed up and brought me to the wrong place? But no - ‘You have arrived’ - the tinny voice said in my ears. So I parked my cycle and went off to see where I had arrived.
I was in search of this -
This was the amazing 11 foot high 7-form Shiva relief - or 8-form, if you count the linga-shape which is the outline of the entire carving. This is estimated to be dating to the late Gupta period - which means that it was made in the 5th or 6th century! Which means that it was 1500 years old!
1500 frikkin’ years old!
It is supposed to be in the same style - and the same age as - the rock-cut cave temples of Gharapuri island, or Elephanta caves as they are better known.
And it was discovered here in the most serendipitous or lucky manner possible! They were building a road from Sewri to Parel, and were digging up the ground in 1931 to lay the base of the road - and they found this relief buried out there! How amazing is that!
Just imagine the shock of the worker who must have swung his pickaxe into the ground and had his spine jarred by the shock of the pick-axe slamming into the solid granite of the relief! It is a mercy that they didn't think that it was just a slab of rock and break it into pieces. The entire huge bas-relief was then carefully dug out of the ground - and that discovery must have seemed like a miracle to all the simple villagers around.
It is even more amazing if you stop and think about it for a bit.
While it is all very well to say that the image is in the ‘Gupta style’ - the area of Bombay was never under Gupta rule - the Gupta empire boundaries were in far-away Gujarat.
But obviously, someone here was sponsoring an awful lot of artwork and carvings - there are an astonishing number of rock-cut caves in Bombay - Elephanta, Kanheri, Jogeshwari, Borivali, Mahakali.
And these are really large structures - you would need a number of people to dig out the caves, and artisans to carve the statues ( and presumably painters who painted the walls and carpenters who carved doors and furnishings and cloth makers and tailors and goldsmiths and farmers to feed everyone etc. I know that no paintings or furnishings or anything else survives - but it is unlikely that the moneybags people who paid so much for such huge caves and idols to be carved would let them remain bare and unadorned. Looters must have stripped the temples when the civilisation which nurtured them collapsed and time would have rotted the rest. But the granite stone carvings would be indestructible)
So who were these people - why did they spend so much effort - and where did they go?
And secondly - the Elephanta caves are really far away from Parel, and on very different islands!
How on earth did this giant relief end up here? There is no cave or ancient temple in Parel at all. How did they manage to get this heavy thing here - did they put it on boats and stuff?
Also - why is there only 1 relief? Temples are adorned with many such reliefs - they cover all the walls after all. So - where are the rest of them?
And why was it buried here? Were they running from attacks of Muslim or Christian or Buddhist - or even Vaishnavite - iconoclasts? Or had they started to build a new temple here in Parel? Or was there a carving factory here which supplied this stuff to temples around? Or was it a school of carving - as the relief is unfinished?
But why? It’s not like Parel was an important place. The big cities in ancient times were Thane, Kalyan and Nala Sopara. The Portuguese settled on the other islands - Bombay, Mahim, Bandra, Vasai etc. There wasn’t even a fort on Parel - the forts of Mumbai were in Mahim, Bandra, Worli, Sewri, Mazgaon, Sion, Dharavi and Colaba. Then there were forts in Vasai, Arnala, Madh, Thane and Ghodbunder, Chaul, Palghar etc.
Parel seemed to have been a quiet and rustic place, far away from the flurries of history.
This relief seems to be quite a mystery! How fascinating!
After this thing was discovered, the locals must have looked at it as a miracle and refused to let it go to a museum. So, rather than anger the locals - the British arranged for an exact copy to be made, and that copy was kept in the Prince of Wales Museum - which is now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum. I had seen this copy myself - I had no idea that it was a copy! - and had admired it there.
The locals carted the original relief to the nearby Baradevi temple and installed it there. (Not sure why it is called ‘Baradevi; - does it literally mean ‘Twelve goddesses’ or is there some other derivation?)
After all this build-up, I was expecting some grand edifice here - suitable for such a magical and serendipitous find. But all I could see was a rather shabby and nondescript temple!
I went inside the temple - and was foxed to see that this famous stele was not there at all! There was only a small statue of a goddess
And the temple was totally deserted - not a soul in sight. I poked around and saw a few interesting things - an old ‘veergal’ or ‘Hero stone’ which told some action-packed story in three panels, some ancient mossy lions guarding an old statue - all of which had been cemented and butchered! There was a room which was supposed to be a ‘dharamshala’ or free resting room for pilgrims - but which now looked as inviting as a prison cell in some ghastly gulag...but no Shiva.
Puzzled, I went out again - and saw it!
They had put Serendipitous Shiva in a cage!
They had made an ugly concrete cabin with even more ugly collapsible shutters and had installed that stele within it. It was not even part of the temple - it was outside, in a separate structure. There was an information board outside which told me that this was ‘Monolithic bas relief depicting Shiva, Parel’ and gave some interesting information about the carving. I saw that this sign was dated 2012, so this ugly structure presumably dates from then. The ASI had put up their usual warning sign telling everyone that this was a protected structure and so on.
I felt quite sad as I looked at it.
He deserves better.
But hey - I suppose it must be better than being buried face-down in mud for a thousand years. Now at least people can see him and admire and worship him.
And hopefully, someday they will do a better job of displaying him and try to solve that most fascinating mystery of how he came to be buried here.
I saluted Serendipitous Shiva and mounted my cycle and went off.
This had been another amazing Sunday morning ride.
Check out my book - 'One Man Goes Cycling'
It was yet another Sunday coming up, and that meant another Sunday morning ride and another exploration of Mumbai by cycle.
I had been intrigued by a blog I had read about an ancient Shiva carving in a temple in Parel - a 5th century Gupta period carving, very like those found in the Elephanta caves. I was very intrigued indeed! Parel always indicated suburban Marathi blandness to me, and I had never associated that middle-of-the-road suburb with anything historical. I had to check this out!
I set out early morning and had a nice peaceful ride on the main road - I only dare to take this road and flyovers on early Sunday mornings… else there is a very real risk of being knocked down by fast-moving traffic. But if the roads are empty, then it is a real pleasure to take the main road and climb up the flyovers to get the muscly rush, and zoom down them to get the speed rush! WOOHOO! What fun! Double endorphins!
When I entered Parel, it suddenly struck me how much of a medical mecca this place is! There are four large hospitals here - and many many small ones, diagnostics centres, medical shop, accommodation of patients and relatives, charitable organisations offering food, accommodation and other support to poor people, people living on the streets…
I had never really paid attention to these places before, but this time since I was alone on my cycle, I could stop and take a few photos and notice the place.
I was quite struck by the magnificence of the Bai Jerbai Wadia hospital - the Indo-Saracenic architecture of the building was quite impressive. And it should be - as it was designed by George Wittet, the same dude who designed the Gateway of India and a lot of Ballard estate! There was a relief or stele of the eponymous Bai Jerbai on the arch - and this is a lady who really deserves to be better known!
Jerbai was born in 1872 and had a nice conservative traditional upbringing, and married into a very rich Parsi family. But she was a wonderful combination of earnest good nature and wanting to make a positive contribution to society + the determination and guts and orneriness to make things happen! This is a most unusual combination and is god’s gift to humans.
Jerbai was married into one of India’s most remarkable families - the Wadias. The Wadia family has three main branches: textiles, shipping, and jewellery. Descendants from each of these branches have made significant contributions to their fields, to their communities, to India, and to the global economy; they have been industrialists, government leaders, medical doctors, and scholars.
The Wadias were shipwrights from Surat, and Lovji Wadia came to Bombay in 1736 at the invitation of the British, and built the city’s first dry docks and became a most prominent family here. They built over a hundred warships for Britain, and had trading networks around the world - and as a matter of interest, the American national anthem ‘The star-spangled banner’ was written by Francis Scott Key aboard a Wadia-built ship - the HMS Minden. (He was probably a prisoner in that ship - but hey...a Wadia built ship)
Jerbai’s husband - Naoroji Wadia - died in 1907 - leaving her a very rich widow… he left her Rs 9 lakhs in his will - a staggering amount in 1907. This must have been quite an unusual thing in the conservative atmosphere of the time to leave so much wealth in the hands of a woman - which also shows how much regard her husband had for her. She decided to dedicate her life to good works and use her money and dynamism for the same. Housing was a big problem at the time, so she created a set of low cost tenement blocks for the use of poor Parsi families. This was such a success that she went on creating more and more of them - the first colony was called Naoroj baug in memory of her husband. Her younger son Rustom died in 1923 and left her a staggering 3 crore rupees in her will - and she used that to build another block of houses, which was called Rustom baug in her son’s memory. She started building another huge block of housing - but she died in 1926 before it could be completed, and it was named Jer Baug in her honour. Her sons also continued her charitable legacy and developed more housing estates which were called Cusrow baug and Ness baug.
Thus you can see how much one single lady’s zeal has contributed to the well-being of the entire Parsi community of Mumbai.
Random unrelated but interesting aside - the Wadia family is related to the founder of Pakistan - through Neville Wadia, who was married to Dina Jinnah from 1938 to 1943, and had two children together, Diana and Nusli Wadia. Dina was the daughter of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Rattanbai Petit. Jinnah was obviously the founder of Pakistan and the father of the ‘Partition’ which cost god knows how many lives and lives on as a festering wound in the soul of the subcontinent.
Such differing people in the same family :)
Apart from this, the Wadia family endowed the famous ‘Wadia college’ in Pune - which is one of the leading liberal arts colleges of India.
She also - obviously - endowed this grand hospital i was looking at, and this was only one among many other charitable endowments she did - which includes a hostel for nurses at JJ hospital, a number of nursing and convalescent homes at Khandala, Mahabaleshwar, Deolali etc, extension of hospital wings and wards etc.
It is estimated that her total charitable contributions to Mumbai was over 8 crores! 8 crores in 1926! A staggering amount of generosity indeed!
And this is not the only amazing example of Parsi charity here - you only have to look across the street to the Tata memorial hospital.
Before there was the hospital - there was the world’s largest diamond! Well… the world’s 6th largest diamond actually - the 245 carat whopper found in the Jagersfonten mine in South Africa. It was supposed to be presented to Queen Victoria on her jubilee, and hence was called the ‘Jubilee diamond’ - but they never got around to gifting it to her for some reason. The super-rich moneybags Dorabjee Tata bought the diamond in 1900 as a gift for his wife Meherbai. The turn of the century was boom time for the Tatas, as they were expanding like mad - they started the Taj Mahal hotel in 1903, TISCO in 1907 and Tata power in 1910 - and a number of other ventures. Dorab and Meher Tata lived like royalty in a big mansion in Esplanade and amassed a huge art collection and whatnot.
But the 1920s brought a lot of pressures with cheap Japanese steel flooding the market and TISCO was on the verge of collapse and needed a huge cash injection of Rs 2 crore - a most stupendous sum at the time! It was the Jubilee diamond which came to their rescue - Sir Dorabji pledged the diamond to the Imperial bank of India (which was renamed later to SBI) and got a loan to tide over the problems.
Lady Meherbai was also a most remarkable lady - she was a member of the ‘Bombay presidency womens council’ and the ‘National council for women’ and was a key member in the act to ban child marriage. She was created a CBE (Commander of the British Empire - a great honour) by King George. And she was also the aunt of two very famous nephews! Homi Bhabha, the father of Indian atomic energy, and Jamshet Bhabha, the founder of the NCPA (National Centre of Performing Arts)
She loved the Jubilee diamond and wore it a lot - and when she died of Leukamia in 1931, Dorabji Tata left his entire wealth - including the fabulous Jubilee diamond - to the Dorabji Tata Charitable trust - which sold the diamond to fund the building of the Tata Memorial Hospital.
Imagine the large-heartedness of the man who gave away all his wealth for the betterment of the poor cancer patients.
Truly - 'Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta’ - ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.’
Apart from Parsi benevolence, we also have Hindu benevolence in the form of the Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas medical college, lovingly known as the GS medical college. It was built as a mark of protest by Indian doctors not allowed to serve at Bombay’s then only medical school, Grant Medical College. Funded by the heirs of Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas, a wealthy Bombay merchant, the hospital employed only Indian doctors and professors. But then they named the hospital after the king of the oppressors, and called it the King Edward Memorial hospital! Talk about keeping one foot on each plank!
So now the institution is called the ‘King Edward (VII) Memorial Hospital and Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College’, and is a leading medical institution of the country with several firsts to its name - take any medical procedure at random and there is a high chance that it was pioneered here!
We have Christian benevolence in the form of Dr Ernest Borges - Dr. Borges, a Goanese doctor working with Tata hospital, had helped the poor outpatients staying on the pavements for many years till constant exposure to radiation while treating his patients eventually claimed his own life. The road outside is named the ‘Dr Borges road’ in his honour.
And we have state benevolence - in the shape of the Haffkine institute! A hundred odd years ago the building was the Governor’s Palace, Sans Pareil, and its extensive grounds. The edifice started off as a Jesuit chapel (1673), then became the Bombay Governor’s residence (1771 – 1885), then offices of the Bombay Presidency Recorders, and finally the Plague Research Laboratory in 1899, later renamed Haffkine Institute in 1925.
So who exactly was Haffkine and what was his story in Bombay? Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine was a Russian Orthodox Jewish scientist invited to India to develop a vaccine against the bubonic plague then thwarting the city. Haffkine worked persistently, despite all odds, from a makeshift laboratory in a corridor of Grant Medical College for three months, and on 10 January, 1897 tested his vaccine on himself. Bombay owes its escape and recovery from the plague to this gentleman.
I did this cycle ride back in 2016 - and it really resonated with me then, because my mom was suffering from cancer at the time, and the disease took her life the next year. That hospital, those patients, those poor guys on the sidewalks, the medical feel of the place .. I could identify with all of them.
And I am writing this blog in 2020, and it is resonating with me again as COVID stalks our lives as Plague did their lives at the turn of the century.
We are waiting for another Dr Haffkine to turn up and do his thing.
(and sometimes when social media seems to tell us nothing but stories of bigotry and hate and inter-religious bile and howling madness… one might find it soothing to come here and see the good work done by good people from many different religions and backgrounds. We should talk more about nice things on social media.
Remember - 'Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta’ - ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.’)
This blog has become pretty long - so I will talk about what I came to Parel to see - the ancient Shiva stele- in the next blog :)
I heard about Khotachi wadi for the first time in a discussion with an old acquaintance - Sujata Pilinja Rao, proprietress of the charming 71-year-old ‘New Vasantashram boarding and lodging home.’
I told her about my new hobby of exploring Mumbai by cycle and discovering all kinds of amazing places - and she recommended that I should check out the old village of Khotachi wadi. ‘It has an amazing old world charm’ she told me. ‘Go and see it while it still lasts.’
I was always on the lookout for new destinations for my Sunday morning cycling - so I duly set out to discover the place. ‘Khotachi wadi’ - literally means a garden or village belonging to a ‘Khot’ - in case a certain ‘Dadoba Waman Khot’. This was a little rustic village at the time - and the land was bought by a bunch of ‘East Indian’ families from this Khot dude.
The nomenclature of ‘East Indian’ - rather foxes us Indians...because most of the ‘East Indians’ are living on the West coast of India, and should be called ...er… West Indians? It took me several years to realise that they were ‘Eastern’ on a global scale! Columbus had set out from Portugal to discover a sea-route to India - and had discovered America instead! To be precise, he discovered a bunch of islands in the Caribbean sea - not even the mainland of America. He - naturally - did not know of the existence of a continent called America, and he thought that he had discovered India!
WOOHOO! I have discovered India… I will call these islands the ‘Indies’!
Columbus was a lost old fool - but he had discovered a new world, after all, so no one had the heart to correct the naming he did - and those islands continued to be called the ‘Indies’ even after it was conclusively proven that it was not, in fact, India… and native Americans continued to be called ‘Red Indians’ … later corrupted to ‘Injuns’ … in spite of the fact that they were not - in fact - Indians.
Even Later, when Vasco Da Gama landed in Calicut and ‘discovered’ India - they still wouldn’t change the name of the Caribbean islands - they stubbornly continued to call them the ‘Indies’ - only now they added a descriptor and called them the ‘West Indies’. The locals there were called ‘West Indians’ - and the actual Indians in India were called the ‘East Indians’.
And of course, the Portuguese only counted the Christian population - that too the Catholics only! No protestants, Anglicans, Jesuits, Presbyterians, Adventists etc - were considered worth counting!
Therefore the Roman Catholic population descending from the Portuguese conversion of Indian people are called the ‘East Indians’.
And the calypso dudes living in the Caribbean islands - on the exact opposite side of the world - are called the ‘West Indians’.
Thus one can call the whole world an ‘India sandwich’.
Anyway - so a whole bunch of East Indian families bought land from this Khot and settled there, and the name of the place continued to be called Khotachi wadi.
The villagers might have moved from Goa - or might have been locals! After all, the Portuguese were in Bombay hundreds of years before the British and built forts all over the place - Bombay island, Bandra, Sewri, Madh etc - and a whole string of forts all along the western coast - from Goa to Diu. The Portuguese city of Bassein (Vasai) was huge and prosperous - and rivalled Goa in glory before it was conquered and destroyed by the Maratha forces under Chimajiappa.
You had a whole bunch of Portuguese/ Goan style villages all over the place - many of which are still existing - Bandra, Khar, Santa Cruz, Orlem, Vasai, Virar etc. The Portuguese brought with a sense of style and sophistication and good living - which reflected in the lovely design of the cottages, the clean and systematic layout of the villages, the amazing food, the taste for good and happy living - Singing, Dancing, playing the guitar, drinking good hooch, cooking amazing stuff like chorizos, vindaloo, Bebinca etc and having a susegad siesta! These guys really enjoyed life!
After the British takeover and the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of Bombay there was a rapid homogenisation of people - dresses, food, houses, language - all started to lose their individuality and become an amorphous mass.
It became much worse after independence when bribery and corruption, poor municipal management, tanking economy, rampant criminalisation and money-mindedness turned the city into one large mess - and now only a few vestiges of the grand history of the city are left untouched.
Khotachiwadi has managed to keep the soul of the old East Indian village alive - as can be seen in the beautiful old houses, the tasteful decor and the guitar-plunking locals. I loved the graffiti on the walls and the beautiful little nooks and crannies which the locals have kept alive.
Alas - this flame is flickering… the biggest hazard to the history of the city are the rich Gujarati seths and the money-mad builders. The Gujjus buy their way into the neighbourhood and use their money power and closed-mindedness to bully everyone else out. There used to be an iconic old hotel called ‘Anantashram’ which served the most amazing food - but it was forced to shut down because the militantly-vegetarian gujju jains objected to the non-vegetarian cuisine. Arre bhai - the hotel was there first - you came in later. It should be you who should adjust - why come here at all if you have such strong vegetarian values? The whole of South Bombay suffers from this nouveau-riche gujju menace.
The other danger is the rapacious builders, who are always lusting after these valuable properties in the heart of Girgaum. There used to be 65 old bungalows here - now only 26 remain! The old guys had to sell out - whether by temptation or force. The most ironic part is that the builder will destroy the old houses and then charge a premium for their new building for being in the heart of Khotachiwadi
And of course, we have the bribable municipality- The village was declared a protected historical precinct in 1995, but the order was reversed in 2006 – a decision with much opposition from the residents and activists - but you can just hear the builder lobby giggling away.
But at least one can enjoy what is there today - A series of old, Portuguese-style houses strewn across narrow lanes and a chapel welcome you to one of the oldest establishments in Mumbai. You’ll feel like you stepped into a time machine and have been transported back in time or have been transported to Goa. There is little doubt that right from the start you will be in awe of the beautiful colourful houses of Khotachiwadi. Many of these houses have verandas, intricate column designs and arched doorways.
There is a chapel at the beginning of one of the lanes, which, at one point, had a small crib depicting the scenes when Jesus was born. A mural of the Virgin Mary with infant Jesus and two stone benches accompany the chapel. The chapel was constructed in 1899, as an offering of thanks, by the villagers who survived the Great Indian Plague epidemic of 1870!
If you come at a more civilised hour you can meet the denizens of the place - a musician called Willy Black, a designer called James Ferreira, the original ‘Ideal wafers’ shop - or just join a conducted tour and spend an hour or two strolling about the place.
I obviously was not there at a civilised hour - and no colourful denizen was on the road...or if they were, they made sure to keep their distance from a sweaty fat cyclist in tight pants!
But I was really happy at being able to experience this place in the early morning freshness and empty roads. What a pleasure to meet you Khotachiwadi...may you live long and prosper.
I mounted my cycle and rode back home. That was another most satisfying Mumbai exploration on cycle.
Today is the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, lovingly addressed in India as 'Mahatma' (the great soul), or 'Bapu' (Daddy). His birthday is celebrated as 'Gandhi Jayanti' and is a national holiday in India - all schools, government offices and even banks are closed today.
But who was Gandhi - and why is his birthday anything to celebrate? The only thing most people know about this day is that it is a 'Dry day' - so if you want a tipple, you have to stock up!
Now more than ever we should be remembering Gandhi and his message of non-violence and peace and tolerance. In an age where institutional violence is being propagated against minorities and women and students and political opponents and anyone who is perceived to be against you.
The Amigos visited Porbunder, the birthplace of MKG during their ride of Gujarat - and I had written this about our visit there. I was fascinated that two very different people were born just hundred kilometers apart and they influenced India is such different ways - Mahatma Gandhi and Dhirubhai Ambani!
Check out this excerpt from 'Three Men Ride West - The Amigos ride to Gujarat and Diu'
After Madhavpura, we came to the birthplace of the ‘Father of the nation’ - Porbunder.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was one of the greatest personalities of the modern era, and is strangely forgotten today. It seems strange to say that he is forgotten - after all, his name is ubiquitous - every city in India has a road named after him, every banknote carries his smiling face, every garden has a statue of him, every one knows his name - but today no one seems to remember what he was and what he exactly did.
One tends to think of him as a ‘naked fakir’ - a poor skinny man dressed in just a simple dhoti and shawl and hanging out with poor people, and thus might be forgiven for thinking that he was a poor man, a man from the lower classes.
Nothing could be further than the truth. He was the hereditary ‘Diwan’ - Prime Minister -of a princely state called Porbunder, and as such, his family was among the wealthiest families in Porbunder. His father - Karamchand Gandhi - was the Prime minister of Porbunder, and then later became Prime minister of the neighbouring Rajkot state, which was bigger and richer. Mohandas studied to be a lawyer so that he could follow in his father’s footsteps and himself become the Diwan of Porbunder. He went all the way to London to study law and he himself became a wannabe ‘Brown sahib’ and became as westernised as possible, dressed in a sharp suit and started a law practice in South Africa.
But Gandhi discovered to his shock that his nice suit, his education, his careful diction, his knowledge of english were all irrelevant as far as the coloniser was concerned, and he discovered this most painfully when he tried to travel in a first-class compartment in South Africa. No niggers were tolerated in the first-class bogey and he was physically thrown out of the train at a station called Pietermaritzburg. He stood there in his nice suit - now all dirty and torn from the fall - , humiliated beyond belief…and no one else seemed to think that what had happened was in any way unusual or unexpected. He had asked for it by being a nigger and trying to travel in first class.
He had discovered the innate viciousness and inequality which is the hallmark of colonialism. The great evil of race-based colonialism is that there is no way that equality can ever exist in its construct - the ‘nigger’, the ‘wog’, the ‘chinky’, the ‘native’, the ‘half-breed’ - are permanently and unequivocally inferior to the white man, just because! And to maintain his superiority, the guy on top will inflict as much barbarism and cruelty as he can.
He pondered a lot on this, and finally decided to resist.
To resist. To protest. To fight. But without getting bad karma.
That was the main genius of Gandhi. India had been beaten into submission with hundreds of years of foreign rule - first the Mughals, then the British - but he ignited a simple spark among them. What is happening is wrong, and should no longer continue. We must resist. Courageously.
But while other revolting revolutionaries started chucking bombs about and popping guns here and there, Gandhi decided that he will not lift his hand to harm anybody. ‘An eye for an eye’ as he famously said ‘will make the whole world blind.’ He decided on a course of ‘A-himsa’ - ‘Non-violence’. Vigorous protest, but without violence.
His nice suit was no use to him, so he cast off all his wannabe cracker clothes and dressed like the poorest and simplest villager in India. Even when he was invited to meet the King of England - the freakin’ King of England, the richest and most powerful man in the world - he declined to wear anything other than his dhoti and shawl. Just think about it - you would wear your best suit just to meet your local Congressman or your CEO. This guy wore a simple homespun dhoti to meet the King of the world!
‘Mr Gandhi, do you think you are properly dressed to meet the king?’ the press asked him.
‘The king has enough clothes on for both of us.’ Gandhi replied.
The Indian-hating Churchill was spitting mad at this! ‘It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace… to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.’
The sheer strength of mind which Gandhi brought to the arena was enough to energise an entire country. He would not demand anything from his followers that he would not do himself. He walked the padayatras, he stood in the frontline to take blows from the police, he fasted for days to get people to change.He was the one who walked alone in the ghastly riot-torn, and fasted in burning and bleeding areas to stop Hindus and Muslims from killing each other. He would not let up an inch on his demand, but would not offer violence.
In a world which was full of violence - Russia, China, Spain, two world wars and uncountable amounts of Anarchists, Marxists, Leninists, Bolsheviks, Communists, Maoists, Fascists and thugs and murderers and killers of all sorts - this non-violent protest was something new. No one knew how to deal with it.
The police would viciously beat up the protestors, and they would quietly accept the beating - but not back down. The police would launch a lathi charge and club down hundreds of unarmed peaceful people - and hundreds more would take their place. The Army would shoot down hundreds of peaceful protestors - and countless more would take their place.
The world watched in horror - this was not putting down a despicable protest…this was sheer murder! The British were gobsmacked - back home in London they talked about being the ‘Land of the free’ and ‘Bastion of democracy’ and here they were being exposed as being the opposite of every positive epithet they gave themselves - they were oppressors and slave-drivers and dictators.
Gandhi shamed the British into seeing their true self.
He showed a new path to revolutionary movements all over the world. To embrace non-violence rather than violence. Nelson Mandela adopted Gandhian thinking in his struggle, and that enabled South Africa to escape the fate of other African countries which got freedom by the power of the gun, but later spiralled into dictatorships and civil war. The Dalai Lama adopted Gandhian principles in his protest against the Chinese conquest and military dictatorship of Tibet. Martin Luther King Jr adopted Gandhian learnings in his civil rights campaign for blacks in the US. Aung San Suu Kyi adopted Gandhian protests in Myanmar.
MKG was a pretty unique fellow. As Einstein - a Jewish guy who had seen vicious evil oppression under the Nazis - said about him - ‘Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.’
Gandhi being modern India’s wonder-boy, I was sure that his birthplace would be treated with veneration. It should be up there with Mecca, Jerusalem and Lumbini in India’s consciousness! After all - if the whole bloody state of Gujarat was declared a ‘Dry’ state just due to the fact that MKG was born there, so the actual place where he was born must be a huge deal. Or so I thought.
When we entered Porbunder, I was surprised to see no huge signs saying ‘Welcome to the birthplace of the Mahatma’, or ‘This way to the birthplace of Gandhi’. The place looked like any other small town, and no one seems particularly impressed by the fact that this was the fountainhead of Gandhism. (Gandhi-ism? Gandhian-ism?). We had to depend on Google Maps to guide us. But I got more and more antsy as Maps took us into narrow gullies in the old city, and finally came to a chaotic square and said ‘You have arrived!’ (I always shouted ‘I AM CUMMING! I AM CUMMING! When Google said in her sexy voice ‘you have arrived!’
I looked around in confusion. There was no sign of any Gandhigiri anywhere. No statue, no banner, no flashing lights, no direction signs… how strange! I had thought that this would be some major pilgrimage point or something. This complete lack of interest baffled me.
I looked around again…it was an ancient market square in an old part of the town, with crumbly old buildings and ancient shops tarted up with modern new vinyl signs, and chaotic power cables hanging threateningly from electric poles. There was the obligatory statue of Gandhi there, but it looked like any of the anonymous statues found all over India, and not anything special.
I parked the bike and went to the traffic cop, who was chilling at the corner and chewing some paan. He paled a bit at the sight of three fat terminator type men coming towards him and looked ready to make a run for it - and he was very relieved when we asked him where the Gandhi birthplace was.
He pointed towards a most unprepossessing road - which was not even paved! We would have to pass under a most dilapidated arch, which looked like it was just waiting to fall on our heads! Seriously - the wooden railing on top of the arch looked murderous! The road after the arch looked pretty sad too…full of broken stones and stuff. It looked more like a road to the garbage dump than to a national monument.
I looked at it doubtfully and turned back to the cop. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked
‘Yes yes…just 100 meters down…or maybe even less…’
We entered the gully and there it was! A sign that said ‘Kirti Mandir - Pujya Mahatma Gandhi birthplace.’
We had arrived!
The entry gates were simple and understated - red ochre walls and a nicely carved cream door, with a sign of the ‘charkha’ on them. (A charkha is a little home machine for making yarn out of cotton - it was Gandhi’s symbol of opposition to the gigantic cloth mills of the UK). We entered the gates into a medium-sized bungalow. The courtyard was tiled and the walls were plainly painted. There was a small painting and photo gallery at one side, a library and reading room on one side and an entrance to the actual house of MKG’s ancestors. A plaque at the entrance told us that it had been bought by his great-grandfather in 1777 and in due course of time expanded to three floors and had 22 rooms and so forth.
The house was old and ancient (Duh!) and once you entered the first floor there was a big swastika near a wall, and a sign saying that the dude was born right here! Here! On this very spot! Putlibai delivered here! (TMI, if you ask me.)
And that was about it.
There was nothing else in that whole structure. Not a stick of furniture, no photos, no historical information, no audio, no video - nothing. It was just a starkly empty old house.
I mean - sure, the place is a monument to an ascetic…but this was going too far.
We came down and out of curiosity, I went to the library. Much as I expected, every shelf was locked. The books were a decoration, rather than something to be read. The paintings and photos seemed to have been put up 30 years ago and never touched since then.
The whole place rang, stank and vibrated of neglect.
It was very clear that neither the State government nor the Central government gave a fuck about the place. In fact, no one did. The citizens of Porbunder definitely didn’t think much of it - as could be seen by the lacklustre surroundings and lack of signage of any sort. The Gujarat government recently built the worlds largest statue - ‘the Statue of Unity’ - but it was of another Congress politician - Vallabhbhai Patel - and not of Gandhi. Patel himself was a great devotee of Gandhi and I am sure he would not have been happy that his memorial dwarfs Gandhi’s.
I was very sad as I looked around - our great independence struggle has been forgotten by the country, and is only taught by uninterested teachers to uninterested students - who forget it immediately. Great freedom fighters like Gandhi and Nehru are being vilified in social media by modern politicos and dirty trolls wanting cheap publicity for their right-wing or left-wing parties - or worse…completely forgotten! Gandhi is relegated to being the face of bank-notes (a really ironic place for an ascetic to end up in) and as a neglected statue in parks around the country, for pigeons to shit on. Actually, Gandhi’s image is so ubiquitous in India, that it has become invisible.
I found it amazing that even though we have an Ex-Chief minister of Gujarat state who has become the Prime Minister of India, this historic place is still so neglected.
Hey - Even if you don’t give a shit about his philosophy, the place might become a major tourism draw and make money if you jazz up the place.
‘This is it?’ Bawa said, looking around. ‘They made the whole state a dry state for this?’
We took a photo of the three of us posing like Gandhi’s three wise monkeys - See no Evil, Say no Evil, Hear no Evil - and got out of there.
Check out my blog on my visit to Mani Bhavan - Gandhiji's base when he stayed in Mumbai, which has now been converted to a museum.
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!