In the cold and dark I joined the pilgrims as they began their ascent over the 10, 000 steps, but for a while, I couldn’t see them and I was actually struggling to see the steps in front of me.
Then dawn broke and there was light and the show began.
The forms and faces of the other pilgrims became visible and what a truly eclectic mix it was: young couples, elderly couples, family groups and larger groups belonging to a sect – one lot clad in saffron and chanting, another dressed in pure white cotton and carrying small brass pots of water.
Everyone was on the move towards some unseen goal, some destination ahead which no one knew…….
Located in the state of Gujarat in the west of India, Junagadh was a pilgrim town with a difference.
A few kilometres away, on top of a high ridge, were famous temples. But to reach the temples, the pilgrim had to climb stone steps: 10, 000 of them.
That was a lot of steps.
Mind you, I didn’t have a problem with the idea of ascending all those steps.
A pilgrimage, as far as I was concerned, wasn’t meant to be easy.
My conviction on this point emerged after previous visits to the famous pilgrim towns on the coast of Gujarat: Dwarka and Somnath.
In Dwarka and Somnath there were temples which were famous all over India and which every year were visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims – and it was in these sacred towns that I got to see the contemporary Hindu pilgrimage industry first hand. The pilgrims came in luxury coaches or cars, stayed in luxury hotels, dined out and bought souvenirs – and in between visited the temples which were in effect, a part of a corporate pilgrimage industry.
Vendors did a brisk trade selling trinkets and souvenirs and in the temples, the priests had thoughtfully installed ATM’s to facilitate the donation cash flow.
The spirit of consumerism loomed larger than any kind of spiritualism.
In the past, pilgrims who went to sacred towns like Dwarka and Somnath had to endure great hardships to get there. They walked there and more than a few of them would have perished on the way. The pilgrimmage wasn’t meant to be easy let alone a form of self indulgence.
Of course, climbing ten thousand steps wasn’t the same as experiencing the ancient pilgrim’s uncertain, primordial world, but it did at least put more emphasis on the notion of the pilgrimage involving physical effort; of the means of getting to the end destination being at least as important as the end destination itself.
And I can say also that Junagadh was a far more memorable journey than either Dwarka or Somnath…………
There came a time in my life when I began to detest Christmas.
When I was a kid though, Christmas was kind of magic.
Santa was busy back in those days, bringing presents to kids all over the world, even distant South Australia. His heavy red clothes, long white beard, sled, and reindeer, didn’t prevent him from mysteriously appearing in Australia in the middle of summer – when 35 degrees centigrade was nothing out of the ordinary.
So there it was in our lounge: a synthetic Christmas tree covered in fake snow and bright coloured lights. Christmas dinner: roast turkey and vegetables followed by plum pudding and custard.
The air conditioner working overtime.
Even then I detected a kind disconnect about Christmas.
At the church I attended I heard about the supposed reason for Christmas: the birth of Jesus Christ. On the one hand this divine miracle and on the other, Father Christmas and his reindeer and a plastic pine tree covered in lights and the next morning, presents under the tree.
A time came when I was too old to believe in Father Christmas.I became rather cynical. Strip away the hype and Christmas was really just an orgy of spending, over eating and drinking; a consumer event accompanied by an advertising blitz. This whilst all over the world, there were so many people living in dire need.
From that point on, Christmas was to an event to be endured. The idea of having a memorable Christmas seemed impossible. I did my best to be somewhere in the world where they didn’t celebrate Christmas. Which was how I ended in a place which I thought was as far away from Christmas as you could possibly get: a small town in southern India famous for its Hindu temples.
The Taj Mahal, one of the world’s most beautiful and best known architectural wonders was also a favourite haunt for the Indian vulture.
It was a seeming contradiction, even, profanity, the sight of those vultures circling high above that tomb and its high towers, there in that human representation of Paradise with its gardens and waters and its architectural wonders …..a bird of carrion, a scavenger….yet it was richly symbolic of the splendid contrasts and contradictions of India.
Eight centuries ago, the armies of Mohammed had invaded the subcontinent but failed to convert the majority of the population who remained Hindus and surely the most graphic example of this failure was the Hindus worship of the vulture.
For over two thousand years, the vulture was a sacred bird for the Hindus.
And then a time came when they ceased regarding it as an object of worship and it was a portent of trouble ahead, of dark and pungent clouds gathering over the Taj Mahal….and also the human race….and you and me.….
How did this happen? How did this metaphor of our collective crisis unfold?
He joined us on the flight to Adelaide in Singapore. I found myself sitting next to him – he had the window seat, Anya the aisle, and I was in the middle – and we began making small talk.
He was an Indian Australian who had been visiting family and friends and was now on his way home and it soon became obvious that Australia was for him very much home – and not only because he had a good job and was married to a Caucasian Australian.
There was also namely the issue of air pollution.
‘The air pollution’ he exclaimed, ‘it’s bloody awful!’
To emphasize the point, he told me about a visit he had made shortly before leaving India to see the famous Taj Mahal.
‘It is one of the most famous landmarks in India and I had never seen it. Well I went there but I still didn’t see it! The air pollution was so bad! It was as thick as a fog. I was in a group and if it wasn’t for the tour guide I don’t think any of us would have found it. When we got there, all I could see was this wall in front of me. I put my hands on the wall and held them there for a while…that’s as close as I got to the Taj!’
Anya and I had spent years travelling in India (something I hadn’t got the chance to mention) and we had experienced dramatic changes in that country’s history, some of them far from positive, including the air pollution. On our last visit, our flight had been diverted because of the thick cloud of smog over Delhi.
So I could well believe what he told me about the air pollution and hence his recital of his experience at the Taj Mahal, meant to get a reaction from me, fell flat and our discussion moved elsewhere.
Later, as the lights were dimmed and everyone hunkered down for the night, I put my sleeping mask on and lay back and tried to drift off into a slumber …..and instead, found myself reliving the memory of our visit to the Taj Mahal… so many years ago….