I next visit the Jain temple complex, the Parshwanath Temple, at Baridas Temple Street. The complex was built in 1867 and is divided into four temples. The ornamentation that confronts the visitor is like Sydney’s Luna Park ‘fun park’ gone crazy. It’s a wild mix of fairground figures, pseudo-Rococo and Pre-Raphaelite statues and mosaics, all madly gaudy and coloured as if put through the pastel paint blender of a candy store. If you got all your old toys and sent them away to the lolly factory that makes old-fashioned ‘love hearts’ this is what they’d look like when they came back, this would be their play ground. The only architectural parallel I know to the Parshwanath Temple is that of Gaudi’s masterpieces of architecture and functional splendour in Spanish Barcelona, but his style of design and ornament is totally different, it’s only the mishmash of exuberant madness that the two styles convey that makes me lump them together. It’s all a maze of magic; yellow lions, swan ship castles, candelabra-lollipop fountains, candy colours of pinks and blues and others besides, Greek muses, men atop an elephant, column capitals that make the Greek Corinthian style look dull, ornate glazed tiles, mirrored wall mosaics, exuberant floral motifs, enamelled images of peacocks and Babylonian kings.
Set amongst this are House crows and a very happy man, dazzlingly sharp in a crisp white shirt and an immaculate white dhoti. He was a vendor of stuff, all of it tourist paraphernalia, and the stuff I promised to buy from him was a set of postcards featuring Kolkata. As I walked the temple grounds from afar he would catch my eye and smile. “When I’m finished”, I repeatedly called, he keen not to let me escape the sale. He had one of those personas that in a different place you might find him being kind to hungry children and stray cats, and feeding lots of pigeons in city parks, perhaps to the financial detriment of his own circumstances. Maybe he already did that, or maybe it was just that he was a good businessman. I purchased the postcards, and he waved goodbye.
The distinguishing features of Jain philosophy are its belief in the independent existence of the soul and matter, the absence of a supreme and omnipotent creator, preserver or destroyer, the potency of karma, and an eternal and uncreated universe. It has a strong emphasis on non-violence, of morality and ethics based on the liberation of the soul, of austerity and worldly renunciation. It keeps to a belief in the multiple facets of ‘Truth’, and holds the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently from different points of view. No single point of view is the complete truth. Jains illustrate this in the simple parable of ‘the blind men and an elephant’, in which each of several blind men touches a different part of the elephant and on the basis of his unshared, isolated experience attempts to explain the true nature of the animal.
Jains contend that human perception is finite, and as such man cannot fully grasp the infinite qualities and modes of existence of objects. The entities that can are omniscient beings called ‘Kevalis’, these able to understand matter in all its manifestations and aspects. No single human view can claim to represent absolute truth, as the parable of the blind men and an elephant so clearly demonstrates. Jainism insists that spiritual truth is relative, and so its philosophy has a willingness to accommodate the viewpoints of rival belief systems. It particularly upholds that individuals are responsible for their actions, there being no predestination. Self-action and the personal effort of the individual by itself are solely responsible for one’s liberation.
The fundamental philosophical concepts of Jainism, ‘ahimsa’, ‘karma’, ‘moksa’ and ‘samsara’, have been assimilated into the philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism. The central principles and doctrines of Jain philosophy were largely established by Mahavira, also known as Vardhamana, an Indian sage who lived in the 6th Century BCE. Although his teaching was confined to the Ganges Plain, in later years a larger following of Jainism developed in other areas of India, particularly the west and south-west. However, other Jain philosophers have contributed in developing and refining Jain philosophical concepts. These concepts include the soul experiencing birth and death but that the soul can never be destroyed, and that knowledge takes place ‘in’ the soul. In Jainism karma is differently defined. It does not mean ‘deed’ or ‘work’ as commonly understood in Hindu or Buddhist philosophy but is actually very fine matter, imperceptible to the body’s senses, which interacts with, and changes, the soul; thus karma is something material.
Jainism holds that a religious and virtuous life can be attained without a sustaining God to whom one can turn to for guidance. Models for ethical life in Jainism are provided by the biographies of the twenty four human ‘Jinas’, the Tirthankara or ‘ford-makers’. Ahimsa, variously translated as non-violence, non-injury and non-harm, is a fundamental principal of Jainism and is extended to all life forms. The Jain ideal of ahimsa strongly influenced Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi taught that, as with Jain belief, that ‘All’ life is sacred. Vegetarianism and a desire to avoid harm to any creature, no matter how large or microscopic, flows from this belief, and in Jain practice even the smallest, sickest and most deformed creatures are cherished and protected. The manifestations of Jain faith are at odds with the assumption of human dominion over other animals. In Jainism violence is equated with harming one’s own soul, and the consequences for the soul’s ability to achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and death; harming others harms one self.
Thus it was that I found special appeal in a poster within the confines of the Parshwanath Temple reminding us that even ants, being surrogates and ambassadors for all tiny life forms, were worthy of care and reward, so feed them, and watch where you step.
It is approaching the hour of midday lunch. Consequently my stomach calls, reminding me that I should forage for food. My guide knows just the place. I am sure my wallet will be less the weighty for his choice, for he has the look and swagger that suggests he does not ‘do cheap’.
Keeping a mind to the direction of our car, but enjoying the distraction of things all new, I walk through an eclectic choice of thoroughfares, some back alleys ample for a thin cow and a bicycle to pass one another, others of a width almost sufficient for a careering minibus to find passage without risking too many collateral fatalities. I pass a pink coloured, three storeyed building and a two storeyed one of light green that easily could have blended into the upmarket Sydney suburbs of Birchgrove or Potts Point. There’s a stall selling ‘Frooti’ brand mango drink and something called ‘Tofo’ snacks, another selling ‘Parle’s Classic Salted Wafers’, and a twin-tap public drinking fountain maintained by the Dada Bari Temple, its metal tap handles brightly polished. They used to have street ‘bubblers’ in Sydney’s central business district years ago, and as a child I remember being warned not to use them because “Chinamen drink out of them”. A sugarcane juice vendor waits forlornly for a client, half asleep by his little cart, his head supported by one hand. There are street signs featuring beautiful Indian women advertising things the nature of which I have not got a clue, and hand operated street water wells, mauve wooden window shutters, fig tree seedlings clinging to life in the cracks of brick walls, and yellow and orange marigolds and red hibiscus flowers bedecking a little pigment-daubed shrine to Lord Ganesha. I walk past the Chowringhee Hotel and Restaurant, and try to squeeze a view through the closed doors of the adjacent East India Arms Company, makers of guns.
It is then that I finally find an Indian Star tortoise. I had not located any in my searches about the rocks and scrub that adjoined the Barabar Caves, but here in the ‘megatropolis’ of downtown Kolkata I find one. A picture of one anyway, on a large yellow street sign proclaiming: “Even the slowest animal knows how important a helmet is” read the sign, courtesy of the Kolkata Traffic Police “faster, safer, friendlier”.
And at last I am at the eatery of my guide’s choice, an eatery claiming to be purveyors of authentic Bengali cuisine the sign outside proclaimed, though the proclamation was partly obscured by the rampant growth of vegetation. Actually it’s my guide’s second choice as choice number one was booked out. No problem, as I got to see more of the city as we drove from one location to the next. Not only that, for we got to park the car several blocks away from the restaurant in a street named after Hometown; ‘Hometown Street’. I didn’t realise my little village was so renowned. The restaurant is a converted family house, the largest of its dinning rooms being once the house’s garage. It had a peculiarity of serving meals, for every dish, including the individually presented sauces and condiments, was served in delicate red terracotta saucers, plates or cups. These were thrown away after a single use, this not only safeguarding against disease but supporting a whole cottage industry based on their production. The discarded terracotta crockery ends up as crushed material for constructing pavements, or so the story went.
The guide directs our driver to remain outside. However, the guide does rather well, for he is not intimidated by the price tags attached to the menu, nor is he a creature sated by the tasting of mere morsels. He knows how to tuck in, and is obviously a familiar patron at this particular establishment. As for me I stick to my tried and tested vegetarian thali, trusting it will have a distinctive Bengali tinge, and though I enjoyed the meal I was ignorant as to whether there was anything distinctively Bengali about it. It just tasted vegetarian. Undeterred I ordered extra poori, here called luchis, a kind of deep fried flat bread. I could acquire a serious addiction to these. Sensing there was a little space remaining unfilled in my stomach I topped off the whole sitting with a weight-watcher’s portion of mishti, this being a dessert prepared from milk and caramelized sugar. I could walk it all off later. But when the bill arrives my guide proves to be of a more delicate persuasion than that which I earlier had assigned him, he leaving in a timely fashion to check on the well-being of our car. Thoughtful of him, I thought.
It is afternoon and there remains time to visit the Queen Victoria Memorial. There were armed police everywhere, and a military looking armoured car decked out in the local camouflage pattern was parked out front by the main entrance gate. Undeterred by the hordes of Indian families and the endless parade of Ambassador taxis I, or more correctly my guide, purchased an admission ticket. It has the words ‘Foreign National’ in bold face type on the front, and on closer inspection I think they got the sex wrong. The ticket allowed me to queue jump the long line of Indian nationals waiting to enter but it also gave me the feeling of being a second class citizen. I could have just as easily carried the ‘Star of David’ in bright yellow sewn on my shirt. It was patently obvious to any casual observer that I was a foreigner. It wasn’t as if I was trying to pretend I was Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan or Pakistani, but the designation on the ticket served to stigmatise. I would have preferred to line up like the rest of my fellow human beings there patiently at the gate.
Inside I bustled past collections of weapons and interpretation displays of East India Company and British Imperial rule. There were portraits of Queen Victoria and her consort and life long love Prince Albert. I also met a man of very tall stature visiting from New Zealand. I remarked that he spoke ‘Australian’ with a very cultured tongue.
Set in 64 acres of manicured gardens, the Victoria Memorial was dedicated to Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India. It was designed by Sir William Emerson and is a fusion of Mughal and British architectural styles. In grandeur a comparison with the Taj Mahal can easily be made. The foundation stone was laid in 1906, at a time when the British and Germans were engaged in a competitive naval building spree and the word ‘empire’ loomed large in the minds of several European powers. Though the memorial was meant to serve as a tribute to the success of the British Empire in India the money for its construction was not provided from the coffers of the British government, but came from British Indian states and private individuals.
The idea for the memorial came from Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, he suggesting the building serve in part as a historical museum where visitors could see pictures and statues of the people who played a prominent part in the history of the country. Presumably he meant Europeans. There is a commemorative statue of Lord Curzon in the grounds of the Queen Victoria Memorial. I had a problem with this. You see Lord Curzon, being a ‘sporting’ sort of a fellow, had a penchant for killing Bengal tigers. In fact there are several photos of the man proudly posing with the corpses of a number of them. In my mind that ranks him somewhere up there with the likes of General George Armstrong ‘Squaw Killer’ Custer. So maybe a kindly Indian nationalist, out of respect for the slaughter of Indian wildlife, will append the words ‘Killer of Tigers’ to his statue.
It is funny how history spins about. Less than half a century after the completion of the memorial to empire post-war Britain was into downsizing. By 1945 Britain wanted to leave India under any condition, the only important issue being how she could leave without precipitating a civil war amongst opposing Hindus and Muslims. The All-India Muslim League, led by its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, demanded a separate sovereign state of Pakistan to include Muslim areas. The British Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced that power would be transferred to Indian hands no later than June 1948. But it was for Indians to decide among themselves how this was to be achieved. Britain put forward a proposal for partition to reconcile rival claims of Muslims and Hindus. This was unwelcome to Indian National Congress leaders who dreamed of a united India under the control of their party, but the proposal was accepted because no better alternative could be agreed to. On the 15th August 1947 the two dominions of Pakistan and India were formally instituted, that of Pakistan being comprised of two disparate parts unlinked other than by air or sea voyage. The price paid by Indians for Independence was partition. The riots and disturbances that had erupted in the lead up to independence now had to be tackled by Indians. Considerable outbreaks of horrific violence erupted, and people by the thousands were killed and mutilated. Gandhi was assassinated and Jinnah died in September 1948. War shortly occurred between the two new states over the territory of Kashmir. The rest is history.
That off my chest, I returned to my hotel too full from dinner, what now is better known as ‘lunch’, to do anything but make a cup of coffee, have a shower and collect my laundry.
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