Bhopal is roughly in the centre of Madhya Pradesh, and I am literally driving through the heart of India. I am about two thirds through the projected length of my road trip and today I am venturing to the state’s far southwest, to the sacred island and town of Omkareshwar. To get there I will travel via the burgeoning city of Indore and the relative whistlestop settlement of Barwah. My travel advisory notes forewarn me that I am in for a six to seven hour drive. It will be an exercise in tolerating discomfort. I anticipate that my chiropractor will do rather well out of me on my return. I depart from the hotel at 9.30 am. Another guide turns up unannounced and unasked for. There is no room in the car and he is turned away. I suspect he is factored into the overall cost of my travel, so is not likely to be out of pocket.
Indore is the most populous city in Madhya Pradesh. It was originally ruled by feudal landlords, zamindars, under the suzerainty of the Mughal Empire. The city was first established by Rao Chaudhary, a chief local zamindar, who built a fort there; the Shree Sansthan Bada Rawala. The fort was intended to protect his people from raids by marauding Maratha troops and forces of the Nizam of Hyderabad; who at the time was the governor of the Deccan region under the Mughal emperor. Indore later grew to be an important commercial centre on the Delhi-Deccan trade route.
Modern Indore proves to be an expanding industrial, commercial and technological metropolis, the city set on low land with only occasional hills of modest height to provide topographic relief. Though these are covered in vegetation, this appears to be deciduous, the absence of greenery exposing the soil below such that the hills portray an image that is dry and barren. Looking out of my window onto the increasingly industrialised and already heavily ‘agriculturalised’ landscape flowing by, a landscape now so devoid of its Gondwanan biodiversity and of its ancient forests and woodlands, it is difficult for me to accommodate the grand epics and romances of Indian literature. Nor can I place within this manipulated scenery any sense of the spiritual. I cannot see any foundation for the philosophies of Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism here. It has all been subsumed by the incessant march of contemporary culture and First World aspirations. The classical world of their sagas and the world of ‘my nature’ find no common thematic bridge. The curse of the biologist is that we are haunted by ghosts of ecosystems and species that no longer are, or that linger only by the virtue of isolated remnants of vegetation, often just single trees; a haunting not only the preserve of India. The wheat-belts of New South Wales and South Australia, and the cattle lands of central Queensland tell the same story. For me the respective spiritual realities of the India of the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ are at implacable odds. Asoka’s grand campaign of conquest and his subsequent spiritual progress to that of a life concept of non-harm do not fit into the world within which we drive. Rather, I would expect to see Asoka’s war wagons stuck in grid-lock traffic, Gautama Buddha lodged below a telecommunication tower, his sacred tree struck down for the sake of yet another shopping mart, or Vishnu attempting to shepherd his bare-breasted consort Lakshmi at their peril across a multi-laned super highway. Others may articulate the conundrum more succinctly, deny it even, but in the context of modern India all that preceded the emergence of this contemporary world power seems increasingly irrelevant, irreconcilable, at best ornament, the stuff of museums and the supposition of closeted academics.
I was also in a landscape that, through the endless kilometres of it, too easily induced daydreaming, and recourse to ideas of nonsense, the necessity of which was born from need of relief. The trouble for passengers during a road trip is that they are readily made captive to the whimsical idiosyncrasies and trite tyranny of their fellows. Quaintness soon turns to mind numbing banality. Novelty wears dangerously thin. Such imprisoned fellows can find themselves plagued by recurrent if not constant prattle on matters of personal trivia, are made to suffer bouts of poor humour the literary merits of which are lost to all but the narrator, they must survive lengthy and detailed discourses on matters of restricted popular interest, are subject to verses of inane songs resurrected from out the depths of distant memory, each verse delivered off-key, and each bad joke and each uninvited rendition of past events being told and retold, ‘ad nauseam’. I brought a certain heightened level of predictability to the exercise. Though I attempted to practice the obscure art of ‘economy of words’ my mouth lived in constant fear of sealing shut, so too readily and too frequently it opened, giving birth to all kinds of verbal refuse. My fellows suffered accordingly. But I was merciful and had sense and sensibility enough to visit neither works of jazz nor Wagnerian opera upon their ears.
Take the following two examples of the tyranny of small matters overly served, both great dispellers of road trip monotony if you’re interested. ‘Example One’ relates to the state of Madhya Pradesh; speed reading reinforces my point. Did you know Madhya Pradesh means the ‘Central Province’? Turns out most folk not from India have lived in ignorance of this. Following on, the region was ruled by all the major dynasties of India, including the Mauryans, Mughals and Marathas. By the turn of the 18th Century the region was ruled by several small kingdoms. Until 2000 Madhya Pradesh was the largest state in India, a title it lost when the new state of Chhattisgarh was formed by splitting off from Madhya Pradesh’s eastern zone. Madhya Pradesh is home to a large tribal population and is one of the least developed states in India; these two facts not related. It is the lowest rated state in the India Hunger Index, a tool used to calculate hunger and malnutrition in India, and constructed in the same fashion as the Global Hunger Index. Tourism is a major growth area. The Maurya Empire included all of modern day Madhya Pradesh, and partly came under the control of the Gupta Empire in the 4th and 5th Centuries of the Current Era, or Anno Domini, ‘In the year of our Lord’, if you still deploy historical events in the old ‘Christian’ format. Other parts came under the control of the Vakataka Empire, this originating in the Deccan region in the mid-3rd Century CE. The mediaeval period saw Madhya Pradesh fall under the influence of the Rajput Paramaras of Malwa and the Chandelas of Bundelkhand. Northern Madhya Pradesh was conquered by the Muslim Delhi Sultanate in the 13th Century, with independent kingdoms emerging after its fall in the 14th Century. It came under Mughal rule in the late 16th Century, but this weakened following the death of the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707. Between 1720 to1760 most of Madhya Pradesh was controlled by the Marathas, the Maratha Empire being founded in the 17th Century. After the Third Anglo-Maratha War of 1817-1818, this beginning with the invasion of 110,000 troops, the largest East India Company force ever assembled, the British, meaning the East India Company, took control of the entire region. As of 2011 the recorded area of forest in Madhya Pradesh is 94,689 km2 or just over 30 percent of the state, or 12 percent of the forest cover in all of India. Forest cover is less dense in the north and west of the state. Bamboo-bearing areas are widely distributed, the Narmada is the state’s longest river, and it is in the Narmada that the goddess Ganges bathes when needing purification. Personally I find such matters of fact interesting, others may not, and of course it helped that I had several wordy tourist information brochures and Romila Thapar’s soft-covered first edition of ‘Early India’ at hand to quote from.
‘Example Number Two’ is a tale of sporting legend padded out by unrelated diversions. Thus: one cannot drive past Indore without at least a brief mention of Cottari ‘CK’ Kanakaiya Nayudu, the first captain of the Indian cricket team in Test matches. After all, I am in the Land of Cricket, so with due respect ‘CK’ rates a call. In the Indian world of sport he is, or was, up there with Homer’s heroes of the Trojan War; a veritable Ajax or Aeneas. ‘CK’ was born 31 October 1895 and in 1923 was invited to Indore and made captain of land and air forces in the army there, this particular army being that of the local Holkar ruler. He died 14 November 1967, for me an auspicious year known in the West as the ‘Summer of Love’; the year of ‘love-ins’, ‘happenings’, hippies, flowers in your hair, Janis Joplin, Country Joe and the Fish, Jimi Hendrix, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, psychedelic light shows at the Paddington Town Hall in inner city Sydney, and me leaving High School. These being matters having nothing at all to do with ‘CK’ or his world of cricket. Not that I know of anyway. Cottari Kanakaiya Nayudu played first-class cricket regularly until 1958. In the 1926-1927 season British team tour of India, at the Mumbai Gymkhana, ‘CK’ hit 153 runs in 116 minutes, including 11 ‘sixes’, one of which landed on the roof of the Gymkhana. In recognition of his overall performance in that match he was presented with a silver bat. Again I personally find such matters of fact interesting, indeed particularly useful to know in India, but again concede that others may not. But if you are of the species of human addicted to ‘trivia’ nights, an avid fan of the game of ‘Trivial Pursuit’, as devoted as any fan of cricket, knowledge of such things can make you an unassailable hero, a force of intellect to be reckoned with. In Hometown such status commands respect beyond the realm of ordinary folk.
Past Indore we descend from what must have been a plateau, the road in good repair but winding, so that there was constant risk of hitting on-coming vehicles. We arrive at Omkareshwar, 70 or so kilometres from Indore, ahead of schedule at about 3 pm. It is a town of about seven thousand residents. I sign in at my hotel, an establishment run by the state tourist authority, and have lunch in the hotel’s restaurant. The restaurant looks out upon the Narmada River, riverside ghats, flotillas of small craft at anchor, temples and shrines, and a prominent dam. One small temple is painted bright lemon-yellow and pinkish-orange, like sherbet fizz; its walls hinting at being sweet to the taste, edible perhaps though possibly inclined to go soggy during days that are overly humid, or dissolve in the rain.
My lunch consists of spinach paneer and a sweet lassi. It all came to less than Rs200. The spinach paneer finds particular comfort in my stomach, my single criticism of it being that inevitably it came to an end. Later I managed to secure its recipe, though there are variations on the theme. Actually it’s a recipe I stole from an Indian English language magazine ‘borrowed’ from the hotel foyer the morning of my departure from Bhopal. It is worth sharing, though in my paraphrasing I hope I have not unwittingly introduced a fatal flaw. Fingers crossed. So:
“Take baby spinach, onion, cinnamon, ground cardamom, ground ginger, chopped garlic, chopped tomato, plain yoghurt, coriander powder, garam masala, paprika, salt, heavy cream, and paneer cheese; this made by curdling cow’s or buffalo milk with lemon or lime juice, or whey from a previous batch.
Dice paneer cheese into cubes and place aside. Cut the spinach into shreds and cook in 3 tablespoons of water until tender then remove from heat and also place aside. Sauté the onion, cardamom and ginger in 1-2 tablespoons of ghee or oil until the onion is translucent. Add garlic and chopped tomatoes, and reduce heat. Cook this briefly and slowly blend in the yoghurt a little at a time to prevent curdling. Add coriander, garam masala, paprika and salt; mixing well. Add in spinach with liquid, cover and simmer on low heat for approximately 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat, then take half of the spinach mixture and puree in food processor, return this to original mixture and stir. Slowly blend in heavy cream and heat through on low heat. Add in paneer cubes and serve.”
Easy. The only drawbacks possibly being that in a village scenario you or your neighbours might not own an electric food processor of any description or brand name, and if you are blessed with an independent supply of electricity your roof-top solar array might not have the capacity to run anything stronger than a light bulb and your internet service. Oh well, some times good ideas don’t conveniently marry to the available level of technology.
Besides the township of the same name, the sacred island Omkareshwar, also known as Mandhata and Shivapuri, is shaped like the holiest of all Hindu symbols ‘Om’. It rests within the confluence of the Narmada and Kaveri rivers. Omkareshwar is comprised of two hills, these divided by a valley in such a way that the island appears in the shape of the sacred ‘Om’ symbol. To be honest, it seemed too much an instance of being in ‘the eye of the beholder’, but then again my oblique and land-bound view of it did not do justice to a fair appraisal. To confuse matters there is a third Omkareshwar, this being a Shiva temple with a conspicuous pale blue spire on the river bank opposite my hotel. Its name translates as ‘Lord of Omkaara’ or the ‘Lord of the Om sound’. Maybe I have managed to confuse myself as to what is island, town or temple. However, I can state with a greater degree of certainty that on my side of the Narmada River is a second temple of grand note, this being the Amareshwar, meaning the ‘Immortal Lord’ or ‘Lord of Immortals, or Devas’.
The Omkareshwar temple contains one of the twelve great lingas of Shiva, and consequently is one of the revered ancient ‘Jyotirlinga’ pilgrimage shrines of that god; the word jyotirlinga meaning ‘pillar of light’ because Lord Shiva is said to have revealed himself to his devotees in the form of ‘Jyoti’ – pure light. Ordinary Shiva-lingas derive their power from the ritual chants of a presiding priest, however, jyotirlingas derive currents of power from within themselves. Other Jyotirlinga pilgrimage shrines include those at Varanasi, the temple of Lord Kedernath on the banks of the River Mandakini in the Himalayas, Somnath in Western Gujurat, Rameshwar in southern India, and Mallikarjuna in the state of Andra Pradesh.
I walk from my hotel room out through its courtyard and car park past armed security guards. Someone of importance has arrived at the hotel. At the entrance to the hotel grounds are macaque monkeys. They are to be avoided for they are aggressive, may carry rabies, and are not beyond terrorising other members of their troop. They seem constantly in a state of internecine war. I have been forewarned of their nature and have locked my room against the possibility of their raids. I walk through a narrow back street that gives a shorter circuit to the canter-levered bridge that crosses the Narmada to its southern bank. A little girl emerges from out the door of a small house, and breaks into a rendition of a popular Christmas tune, the jingle bells one to be exact, the allusion being to the unexpected manifestation of Santa Claus in her village. The date is late, Christmas having come and gone, nevertheless I take her point and laugh, she laughs, and then disappears back within. A goat of stately countenance sits atop a cement wall nearby, the pronounced convexity of its face lending a sense of proud nobility. It ignores me, as I would expect a patrician to do. I could spend a lot of time searching for the essence of meaning in the congruence of these events but I am no longer within the car and the scenery through which I am walking is anything but mundane and uneventful.
I cross the bridge passing along the way cattle adorned with blue-painted horns. The bridge gives a view of the dam at the town’s edge, of people washing at the ghats below, and of small flat bottomed boats that ply the river. The dam was the subject of protests due to the displacement of villagers that it would cause. At least the impact its construction would cause to the lives of ordinary people did not go unsung.
On the opposite side stallholders cook fresh poori cakes, and offer for sale the usual diversity of bright votive items and metal knick-knackery. A silver teapot of a particular ugly though enthralling design beckons to coins in my purse. I feel and hear their movements in response. Tempted as I am to part with coinage the practical reality of tramping about for the remainder of my journey, burdened by its weight and ungainly size, gets the better of me. Commonsense prevailed, and I have regretted not buying that teapot ever since!
I slowly take route towards the Omkareshwar temple. Holy sadhus, itinerant beggars and old women sit by the wayside in hope of a gift of money. A langur and its baby sit close by them, not wanting anything, the adult’s bearing suggesting its thoughts are consumed solely with the care of its child. Both are in a moment that seems to have nothing to do with this place or time. And all this time my driver, stroke guide stroke guardian, from a not too great a distance, keeps a watchful eye as to my well-being.
I linger for a while near the entrance to the Omkareshwar temple. I go no further. As I return I pass the only unfriendly dog that I was to encounter in India. It neither barked nor bit, rather the dog emanated all the vibes that it had a comfort zone, and that I was passing dangerously close to that zone’s boundary. I moved on, on so far in fact that I re-crossed the bridge, and found myself in the town’s main street of petty entrepreneurs. Amongst their wares I found two solid copper bangles for which I paid Rs50 and Rs100 respectively, and a man who sold things of a second-hand nature, several verging on the category of valid antiques. Sitting amongst his collection of old coins was a solitary Australian 10 cent piece of a contemporary date. Fearing what he might charge for its purchase I thought the better of enquiring as to its price.
Evening approached and in the failing light I relocated the side street that gave a shortcut to the hotel. Taking the chance I would be neither assailed by thuggees, nor lampooned by small children, I cautiously trod my way back. Eyes stared but they were merely curious, not threatening. My driver waited anxiously at the hotel entrance. I did not fully understand his words of greeting, but their tone was constrained.