The Tombs of Hyderabad – Part 1

 

 

I went to Hyderabad to see a graveyard. 

It was no ordinary graveyard. 

There were 12 tombs built on a stretch of land at the outskirts of the city. They were old, the oldest constructed 5 centuries ago and the most recent, 2 centuries. They were built to house the remains of a succession of Moslem shahs (and their wives and children) who had ruled Hyderabad until the arrival of the British in the early eighteenth century.

Each tomb was a scaled down version of the Taj Mahal (which is another way of saying that the Taj was an adaptation of an architectural idea long in existence before it was built). There was a big dome supported by a solid, rectangular building with arches and columns. The size and grandeur of the dome reflected the wealth, power and pretensions of the Shah who reigned at the time. The smallest dome was 20 metres high, the largest, over 40. On the floor inside each building, directly under the lofty ceiling of the dome, there were stone coffins on the floor. In the bigger domes, there were galleries of recessed alcoves.

Most of the inner sanctum of the dome was space, emptiness, shadow and silence. These tombs were classic examples of the genius of Middle Eastern Islamic architecture transposed to India; there was a beautiful combination of elegance and disarming simplicity. They were impressive architectural works especially considering when they were built and the technology available.

I imagine that during their construction, they were cocooned with the same network of bamboo poles tied together with rope which you can see today on any modern construction site in India – and were plied by the same army of workers, emaciated village peons, moving back and forth across the precarious looking structure like ants. 

These dome tombs were the relics of Islamic rulers who spent a good part of their lives preparing – and building – for their deaths.

Westerners often romanticised the Taj Mahal and saw it as an expression of love; inside the sanctum were the graves of the Shah Jahan and his favourite wife. But in reality, the Taj was at least as much about death as it was love. It was the most magnificent example of an Islamic tombstone from the hundreds of them scattered around India.

And it cost so much to build that it bankrupted an empire.

 

 

To reach Hyderabad’s tombs, I had to get a scooter rickshaw and travel from one side of the city to the other.

It was not a pleasant trip.

Like in every big Indian city, the traffic was chaotic and noisy, and the air pollution was stifling. A day spent breathing the air in Hyderabad was equivalent to smoking a packet of cigarettes. In more than a few Indian cities today, the air pollution is worse. 

It took me an hour to reach the tombs.

On the way, I passed dilapidated buildings and apartment blocks, dusty shops and stalls: a chaos of squalid structures of every size and shape devoid of anything remarkable or elegant. I covered my face with a handkerchief in a vain attempt to filter out the pollution.

Sometimes the scooter rickshaw pulled up next to a bus or a truck and I got covered in a thick black cloud of diesel exhaust.

Finally I got there.  

There was an ancient stone wall and behind it, trees. The trees were a welcome sight after the urban desert of the city. I found myself in an oasis of green and, relative silence. Following a shady road, I came to a metal box which was the ticket office, where I paid an entrance fee. Rounding a bend, I saw my first dome. There was something mesmerizing in the size and symmetry of that massive half globe, garlanded with carved lotus petals around its base, a spire on top, rising high above the tree tops and illuminated by the bright sun. This was the first tomb – there were eleven others back among the trees. 
 
Centuries ago, the domes had been set in a garden Paradise. Between the tombs there had been tended gardens and hedges, pools and canals. It was a different scene today. There were no gardens. The pools and canals were dry. Scattered about was the detritus left by Indian tourists; paper plates, plastic bottles and wrappers, styrofoam cups etc. There were lower caste women whose job it was to sweep away the leaves that fell on the paths and in the immediate area around the tombs. But it wasn’t their job – it wasn’t anyone’s job – to clear away the trash. So it didn’t happen. 

It was hot, near 40 degrees Celsius; I took it easy and spent my time walking from one tomb to the other and taking long rests in between.

 

 

One tomb which interested me was the first one ever built; it was a good 30 metres high and housed the remains of a certain Sultan Ibrahim. He was a Turk, raised and educated in Persia, who turned up in the present-day Hyderabad (then known as Golconda) in 1520 with an army and defeated the local Hindu kings and started building the fort. He also played a leading part in bringing down the powerful neighbouring Hindu kingdom of Vijenegar, the remains of which are today one of the most famous tourist attractions in southern India. So this Ibrahim was where the Muslim domination of the Hyderabad area began. Dotted on the stone pavements outside his dome were flat black slabs of marble marking the graves on his favourite wives. I cannot imagine that this Ibrahim, despite his classical Persian education, was a particularly savoury sort of character. The Islamic invasions of the subcontinent were extremely brutal. The force he represented was one based on the certainty of his cause, his religion, and his absolute conviction that the infidel deserved to die or be enslaved. 

Those who came after him, foreign invaders, built exquisitely beautiful architecture – and administered a reign of terror upon the majority Hindu population including the systematic abduction of their young women to fill their harems. This continued for a good 400 years until the British appeared on the scene. Men like Ibrahim who swept in the from the west and occupied large sectors of India, brought with them an energy and fanaticism which was missing in an India paralysed by the caste system and depleted by endless dynastic rebellions and wars. 

In time however, the Moslems fell prey to the same disease – and were easily pushed aside by the British. 

 

Going from tomb to tomb, one problem which I kept running into was young Moslem couples who had chosen a tomb as a lover’s rendezvous. The young men were dressed in short sleeved shirts and trousers and had sports shoes and cool sunglasses. The young women were clad in long black cloaks with a black headscarf – or black burkas.

What was it like wearing a long black cloak and headscarf or a burka in the Indian heat?

In the centre of Hyderabad, I had seen many women wearing burkas. I’d stopped at a few shops selling burkas and related ‘modest’ clothing and noted that they were made from nylon or a mixture of nylon and cotton.

Black Nylon? In this climate?

In Hyderabad the temperatures hovered around the high 30´s – and higher – for most of the year.  

Wearing black nylon in that sort of heat must have been, at the very least, uncomfortable – if not outright torture.

Most of the women also wore black gloves.

This garb seemed to me akin to the old Chinese custom of binding women’s feet – or in Europe and America – when women had to wear whalebone corsets, fastened tight, to give them an ‘hour glass’ figure. It reeked in other words of something belonging to another era – the era of Ibrahim, for example.

I continued my trip around the tombs of Hyderabad and as I did so, my thoughts turned to a scene from the day before at the hotel I was staying at.

Suddenly I found myself in the modern world, rather than the ancient, turning over a whole plethora of questions confronting the Moslems of Hyderabad today – and not only them, but the world’s Moslems in general. 

 

 

The Tombs of Hyderabad Part 2

 

 

It was a problem.

Wandering between the tombs of Hyderabad: time and again, tracking through the hot sun, I’d arrive at a tomb, looking forward to the shade and cool it offered, like an oasis in a desert, and find myself disturbing a young Moslem couple who had chosen the tomb as a lover’s rendezvous.

Their reaction on seeing me, a tourist with a camera, was invariably the same: flight.

As far as I was concerned, they didn’t need to fear me and they certainly didn’t need to flee in panic.

I felt like an intruder. I didn’t want that feeling. On the other hand, I was here to see the tombs.

Sitting in the shade of a tomb, the image of a teenage man dressed in a short sleeved shirt and trousers and sports shoes and sunglasses and the woman in a black nylon burka, a scene from earlier in the day came to mind.  

 

The hotel where I was staying in Hyderabad wasn’t luxurious or expensive by western standards – but by Indian standards it was certainly middle class. On the ground floor, opposite the reception counter, was an air-conditioned restaurant with tinted glass windows and lots of heavy wooden tables and chairs. Fixed to one of the walls at the end of the dining room was a large flat screen TV set.

The food was very good and especially around lunch times a lot of people from outside frequented the restaurant. All of them, it spoke for itself, were middle class. There was a mix of Hindus and Moslems. Invariably, in the case of the Moslems, the women were clad in either burkas or niqabs, but the men and the children were dressed in western style clothing.

On the TV was the usual run of Indian soap operas, stock market updates, news and blitz advertising. Waiting for my order, I struck a conversation with a Moslem man on the table next to mine. He was on holiday from Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a doctor in a hospital. His young wife, a pair of eyes staring out from a burka, busied herself with the children.

He talked about the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia in a tone of hostility. There were so many of them; they formed a caste of privileged, wealthy, authoritarian rulers. The rest of the Saudis were lazy and pampered by a welfare system. Foreigners did all the work he said, from the most menial tasks to the advanced technical and professional jobs. At the hospital where he worked, a large one, all of the doctors were foreigners and so were the nurses (many of them Filipinos). We got talking about his job. It was a good job he said, it paid well. But he was counting off the days before he had saved enough money and could leave. There were lots of Indian Moslems working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States he told me, and especially from Hyderabad. No one wanted to live in the Middle East, just earn money and then come back to India.

Whilst we were talking, ads appeared on the TV featuring beautiful women dressed in western, often revealing, clothes promoting toothpaste, deodorants, washing powder – and apple and mango flavoured condoms. The sexualisation of the Indian media was proceeding at a rapid pace. Scantily clad Bollywood babes could be seen everywhere in every media format, from magazines to TV to billboards. 

I wondered about how the Moslems who frequented that restaurant regarded the all too explicit adds. Didn’t they clash with their ideas about women and modesty?

It seemed bizarre to be in a restaurant where women clad in burkas manoeuvred food into their mouths whilst up on the TV screen were images coming from a very different kind of world.

Of course the commodification of women by a commercially driven mass media had many negative sides to it. It was easy to understand that religious people – and not only Moslems – had serious objections to this blatant invasion of our lives by the profit motive. The over sexualisation of life thanks to the advertising industry brought with it some obviously very negative consequences. There was the danger of reducing women to commodities, things, this in a very different way to traditional, patriarchal societies. In the West, one could ask serious questions about the role played by the advertising and porn industries in defining our ideas of gender and women.

I had a feeling that the insistence on women secluding themselves behind a wall of black nylon was a way of avoiding a whole plethora of complex issues, this in the name of resisting modernisation.  For how long could women be denied the right to develop their talents and decide their own role in life? And what about gays and transgender?

The doctor from Hyderabad was critical of Saudi Arabia because he saw it as a parasite state inhabited by a lazy population. Yet he was not opposed to the puritanical, better said, reactionary form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.

I was tempted, but resisted the temptation, the raise this issue.

 

There was nothing in the Koran about women having to wear the burka or even, long black nylon dresses. There was nothing about women being subservient to their men.

This was purely a cultural interpretation and one vigorously promoted all over the world by Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis role in financing its feudal version of Islam called ´Wahhabism´ (or sometimes, ´Salaafism´) was well documented. It was a problem in Europe, as well as Asia and Africa. In one nation after the other, reactionary versions of Islam had emerged as a direct result of Saudi interference – a recent example being the world’s most populous Islamic nation, Indonesia. Once home to a tolerant version of Islam, in recent years it had fallen prey to fundamentalism. Attacks on minority groups such as the Christians, Hindus and Buddhists had escalated; gays were caned in public and women encouraged to practice ‘modesty’.

When people criticised Saudi Arabia for its disgraceful human rights record, it protested loudly about foreign interference in its affairs. Yet it saw no problem in interfering in the affairs of other nations by funding fundamentalist mosques, imams, schools, universities and media.

In the past, empires rose and fell on the basis of the armies they could field. Today, money and media were the means of power. In this respect, Saudi Arabia was exceedingly powerful. Home to the two most holy sites in Islam, Medina and Mecca, and sitting on the world’s major source of high grade oil, Saudi Arabia formed a major obstacle to any attempt by the world’s Moslems to modernise.

The only western nations which had ever dared criticise Saudi Arabia were Canada and Norway.

For the other western nations, oil spoke more loudly than human rights. In the problems of fundamentalism and terrorism they were complicit.

 

 

 Late in the afternoon, after walking around and studying each tomb – hot work to be sure – all I wanted to do was to find a quiet spot and sit down.

I walked behind one of the biggest tombs, where there was a corridor of land between the columns and archways at the base of the tomb on my right, and a belt of dense forest on my left.

Rounding a corner, I came upon yet another canoodling couple. Before I could retreat, they jumped up and fled. They had been sitting against the wall of the tomb, behind the columns and arches and right next to each other, their bodies touching. They had been holding hands.

In her free hand, the girl held a purple flower which the boy had plucked from a nearby bush.

There wasn’t much I could do. I couldn’t invite them back and offer to leave – it all happened so quickly.

Within seconds, they were gone. I felt sorry for them.

How nervous they must have been.

Why?

Because secrecy was a part of the magic of a lover’s tryst?

Or because I was a foreigner?

Questions appeared in my mind like the ants foraging around on the ancient floor of the tomb in search of food. 

Perhaps this young couple  – and the others I had seen around the tombs – were taking some rather large risks.  

I couldn’t imagine that their parents and family would be very happy about the idea that they were pursuing this kind of clandestine love affair. In India, marriages were arranged. Seen from our western perspective, there was something naive, almost puerile about a couple of teenagers furtively arranging a tryst at the tombs of Hyderabad. Put into their terms however it might be an act of rebellion, one fraught with danger. Perhaps these young people were the pioneers of a new kind of love. Perhaps there was a break with tradition here.

Which was why they were so scared of intruders.

Questions and more questions, hanging in the warm air, silent yet inescapable.

Ah! Time to put it all aside. To resign for the day.

I sat down at the spot where they’d been sitting. 

The tomb was on a low hill. In front of me was a view of an area of forest and a larger dome rising above it. The air was filled with bird song. On the right side, at the end of a gallery of columns and arches was a view of another dome in the distance.

As the sun hovered near the horizon, a big, orange red ball, I quit for the day and luxuriated in being a tourist, alone at the feet of an ancient tomb.

That young couple had chosen the spot where I was now sitting for a reason. It was secluded and directly in front there was a fine view of a large dome, rising from above a blanket of green.

 The scene before me was to be savoured. The sun began to set, lighting up the ancient dome in a flaring orange.

From a mosque somewhere in the outskirts of Hyderabad he call to prayer went up, a haunting musical lament which echoed in the distance.

 

 

 

The Space Rock Part 1


 

When I read about Lonar in an English-language Indian magazine, I knew I had to go there.

Lonar was a small, remote town in the state of Maharashtra (situated in the west of India and including Mumbai).

Just outside of Lonar was a meteor impact crater. 

At two kilometres in diameter and 180 meters deep, the Lonar meteor impact crater was the third largest in the world (the biggest one being in Arizona in the U.S.). Whilst there were 50 sizeable meteor impact craters in existence, few of them were visible to the human eye. Some of them were very old and had been eroded to the point where they were only identifiable from the air – e.g. Australia; others were filled to the brim with water and formed lakes – e.g., Africa; and still others were buried under ice – e.g., Canada and Russia. The Lonar meteor impact crater was one of the few which was immediately identifiable as such. This had a lot to do with its age: formed about 50,000 years ago, a short period of time by geological standards, it was a ‘new’ crater.

 My wish to visit a meteor impact crater and see it up close up had a bit of a history to it – starting from when I was a kid and read up everything I could about dinosaurs. In those days (the 1960’s), there were, in comparison with today, many gaps in the body of information known about the Earth’s past. There were no computers and no satellite surveillance technology. One of the greatest puzzles at the time concerned the disappearance of the dinosaurs: it was known that they had inhabited the earth for 200 million years and then suddenly vanished, but it was not known why.

The story of their sudden extinction was portrayed graphically in the geological strata: the layers of rocks with dinosaur fossils were replaced by other rocks with the successors of the dinosaurs, the mammals, but there was nothing in between – no layers of rocks recording the gradual disappearance of the dinosaurs and accordingly, an increasing number of mammals. The time of the dinosaurs’ disappearance could be accurately fixed – 65 million years ago – but the reasons for their disappearance could not. All sorts of explanations were offered including: a disease, an upsurge in volcanic activity and a change in climate. But everything was conjecture.

 

 When I first became interested in the dinosaurs, I believed in God.

 Whilst the reasons for the disappearance of the dinosaurs intrigued me, I put it down to the hand of God. My Sunday school teacher suggested that when He created the dinosaurs, He was experimenting with life forms. He was moving towards a higher life form, the ultimate of which was of course, the human race.

 This of course made no sense what so ever.

 If God was omnipotent – and I was assured that He most definitely was – then why should He mess around for 200 million years with dinosaurs when he could have put the perfect product on the earth in the first place?

 And then why remove the dinosaurs so quickly?

 Seemed like a raw deal to me.

Dinosaurs were cool, they were really interesting and as far as I could see, they didn’t deserve to be wiped out. Kind of like someone being sacked from their job because the boss was in a bad mood.

 Why didn’t God at least phase the dinosaurs out?

 

 It never occurred to me that my Sunday school teacher might have had a few doubts herself. I thought she knew everything and that feeble minded me  couldn’t grasp the essentials.

 By the time I did grasp the essentials, I had also rejected God and what’s more, lost all interest in the dinosaurs. 

 Girls were more interesting. And so was surfing and drinking and smoking dope and taking L.S.D and doing lines of speed.

 Then one day, 30 years later (I managed to survive my youth), when I was surfing the net rather than big waves, I stumbled upon the answer to the puzzle which as a kid I had so often wondered about:  

 The reign of the dinosaurs was brought to an abrupt end by a meteor. 

A meteor!?

 What?

 

 I knew a bit about meteors.

I found one once in the mountains of Macedonia and still have it.

The Earth was constantly being bombarded by meteors, but by and large, they burnt up when they entered the Earth’s atmosphere and all they left behind them was a brilliant flash in the sky – which we saw as ‘shooting stars’. Sometimes, however, a meteor was large enough that even after entering the earth’s atmosphere and melting and vaporizing, it was still big enough to land on the earth as a small molten blob. The blob cooled and solidified and was usually found as a button sized stone, sometimes dark and full of iron (like the one I found) and other times translucent, like murky glass.

From the billions of meteors which had entered the Earth’s atmosphere in the course of its history, very few of them had been big enough to leave an impact crater.

 In an article on BBC World News (under the ‘science and technology’ section) I read about the meteor which exterminated the dinosaurs with a mixture of amazement and excitement. I printed it off and read it several times.  In the 1970’s an American geologist involved in looking for oil on the ocean floor, discovered evidence of a huge crater off the coast of Yucatan in Mexico. With a diameter of 180 kilometres, it dwarfed any of the meteor impact craters elsewhere in the world. For many years, it was thought that this crater was the remains of an ancient volcano. Modern seismic equipment for mapping the ocean floor, however, had allowed scientists to reach a very different conclusion. The crater was, in fact, a geological scar left over by what was probably the biggest meteor ever to have hit the earth (65 million years ago, incidentally this area was on dry land and not under water).

 Amongst other things, I read the following:

 The meteor, described as a ‘space rock’, was somewhere between 10 and 15 kilometres long; it had hit the Earth at 20 times faster than a speeding bullet and created an explosion over a billion times more explosive than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One scientist was quoted as saying:

 ‘The explosion of hot rock and gas would have looked like a huge ball of fire on the horizon, grilling any living creature in the immediate vicinity that couldn’t find shelter. The initial impact would have triggered off large scale fires, huge earthquakes, and continental landslides which generated tsunamis. The final nail in the coffin for the dinosaurs happened when blasted material was ejected at high velocity into the atmosphere. This shrouded the planet in darkness and caused a global winter, killing off many species that couldn’t adapt to this hellish environment. Today you can actually trace debris to the rim of the crater from across the world. You can start in Europe, cross the Atlantic, and it just thickens as you approach the Yutacan impact crater.’

 In another BBC article, I read that scientists even knew where this giant meteor had originated in the universe and could determine when it began travelling inexorably towards earth. This was well before the dinosaurs had evolved. In other words: the dinosaurs’ future extinction had been already a fact long before they even appeared on earth. It took that meteor hundreds of millions of years to reach our planet, but reach it did – with devastating results.

It was the larger consequences of the Yutacan meteor which fascinated me and fascinated me endlessly. Small mammals were able to survive the ‘hellish environment’ created by the Yucatan meteor because they could burrow down deep into the ground. The dinosaurs could not. Because of something as simple as this, one species vanished and the other survived – and went on to rule the earth and eventually evolve into a myriad of life forms including the human race.  If there’d been no Yutacan meteor, there would have been no human race (humans being the most evolved form of a mammal, though I sometimes wonder).

 The Yucatan meteor then, played a pretty basic sort of role in the appearance of the human race.

 
After reading about the Yucatan meteor, I began compulsively looking up everything I could about meteors.  

And it didn’t take long before I discovered that besides the Yucatan meteor, there was mounting evidence that meteors might have had other profound effects on the history of life on our planet. One example: thirteen thousand years ago, much of the wildlife and the first human inhabitants of North America suddenly disappeared. This occurred at the end of an ice age – a time when they should have been flourishing, instead of vanishing. For many years it was another vexing puzzle for scientists until it was conclusively proved that once again, a giant meteor was involved. 

Yet another example: it was hypothesized that the very creation of life on earth could have come about because of meteors. Scientists had found meteors which contained organic compounds necessary for the creation of life and the construction of DNA molecules. It was known that life first appeared on earth about 3.5 billion years ago when the world was covered in water (some scientists believe that the oceans were the result of the earth colliding with a comet). At around the same time, the earth was being blitzed by meteors in what was known as a ‘meteor rain.’ It was hypothesized that the meteors ‘seeded’ life by bringing organic compounds with them, which then reacted with the water. One thing was certain: the building blocks for life could be found in outer space.

Meteors then, had not only destroyed life forms on Earth, they may well have created life in the first place. It was a strange idea: meteors created life, set the stage for the evolution of the dinosaurs, wiped them out and made way for the evolution of the mammals – and Homo Sapiens. If the hand of God was involved in the appearance of Homo Sapiens on our planet, then it seems as if the random invasion of the skies by meteors was His – or Her – method. One could draw many implications from this, but the main one for me was simply: I wanted to see a meteor impact crater close up, but I had never got the chance.

Then suddenly, out of the blue, whilst reading a magazine in India, of all places, my chance loomed up before me, as beautifully random as the arrival of a rock from outer space. 

All I had to do was get to Lonar.  

Well, this proved to be a bit of a adventure in itself.

 

 

In February, 2012, Siberia experienced a ‘meteor rain’ – nothing in comparison with meteor rains in the past, but enough to enable dramatic photographs to be taken. 

 

See also ‘The Space Rock  Part 2’: 

https://serioustravelblog.com/2018/06/14/the-space-rock-part-2/

 

The Space Rock Part 2

Continues from ‘The Space Rock, Part 1’: https://serioustravelblog.com/2018/06/01/1097/


 

To get to Lonar and see the meteor impact crater, I caught a local bus early one morning from the city of Aurangabad. Distance wise it was not far, 200 kilometres or so. Time wise, however, it took me almost 8 hours.

It was a memorable trip.

Aurangabad was a large city. Heading out through its outskirts before sunrise on a bone rattling bus, I got an intimate view of the socio-economic extremes in an Indian city. In one part of town, I could have almost been in a western country. There were modern shops and boutiques, showrooms and supermarkets, malls and takeaway outlets. 

Outside the city however, it was a different world. The bus drove passed arid land dotted in places with crops of corn and canola and wheat; rectangles of green seemingly pasted on to the wide plains of red-brown. By this time the sun had come up and, with a vengeance. Along the sides of the road there were colonies of low huts made from mud and stones. Little dark men with big bright coloured turbans herded water buffalo and cows and goats. Women awaited their turn at water pumps to fill their shiny brass pots, which they then transported back to their huts by balancing the pots on their heads.

The bus stopped at each little colony and when it did, there was a scene of confusion and yelling; in an already desperately overcrowded bus, people fought to manoeuvre themselves into the thronging mass of bodies squeezed into the aisle. It was an uncomfortable, at times exasperating trip. Sometimes the bus went no further than a couple of hundred meters before stopping again.

And every time it stopped, it got stiflingly hot inside the bus.

 

Lonar was a typical small rural town.

There wasn’t much there; a busy main road lined with small stalls and shops. Most of its inhabitants were poor. 

The meteor impact crater was a few kilometres outside of Lonar.

Near the crater was a hotel built by the state government of Maharashtra; I caught a scooter rickshaw out there from the bus station; I didn’t have a booking.

On the way, travelling over a pot-holed road, the rickshaw passed empty brown fields dotted with huts and a few ramshackle houses. The hotel was really in the middle of nowhere. It was rather run down, but ten years before, when it was built, it must have been an impressive sight in the midst of that arid and impoverished landscape. There were four single level bungalows next to a two- story concrete building with a huge balcony on the second floor. The building was deceptive. From the outside, it looked like it must have had lots of rooms, whereas in fact, there was only an office on the first floor and a dining room on the second. The bungalows were the only available accommodation.

Fortunately for me, there was a bungalow available and it wasn’t too expensive.

Outside my bungalow was a small veranda where a pigeon nested above the fuse box.

 

The only place where it was possible to eat was at the hotel – the village was far too small to have any kind of restaurant. The dining room was an experience in itself. Someone had got the idea into their head to build a dining room as big as a barn with a ceiling as high as a cathedral. Why this was, considering the small number of guests which the bungalows could accommodate – was a puzzle. The five fluorescent lights in the dining room, attached to the ceiling, were far too high to ever be changed. You would have needed a cherry picker to do that. Consequently, only one of the lights was still working and the dining room was permanently dark: fine during the heat of the day, not so useful at nights. It was sobering to think about how much cement had gone into constructing this building (and how many dwellings for the poor could have been built from that cement).

The first thing I did on arriving was to order a meal and a pot of tea. After that long, hot and tedious trip on the bus to Lonar, I was exhausted. The waiter and cook were two cheerful village boys dressed up in some kind of official uniform: blue trousers, white shirts and little waistcoats; these were rather grubby. Both boys got round barefoot. At nights when they were finished, they walked off through the dust and passed the low prickle bushes and spent the night at home in their village.

After my meal, I went and sat on the balcony. 

It was already late in the afternoon. It didn’t take me long to realize that the balcony was the best part of the hotel; it afforded a remarkable view.

The crater was a deep symmetrical hole in the midst of arid, yellow-brown, treeless plains. The sun was nearing the horizon and an incandescent light glanced across the plains, lighting up the steep sides of the crater on the far side.

At the bottom of the crater was a lake, a deep aqua-blue.

Half of it was shadowed and half of it was illuminated.

50,000 years ago when the meteor struck the earth, an enormous quantity of rock was blasted out of the ground and left piled high around the edges of the crater, forming a towering wall of rubble. The thousands of years of monsoon rains and hot summer winds had worn down the wall into a low, gently rounded lip upon which grew a few prickle bushes. Most of the rubble from the perimeter wall had been washed back down into the crater in the process, forming the lake. The original impact crater was much deeper than today – the meteor itself lay 600 meters beneath the lake. But the sides of the crater were still quite steep.

Between the crater and the hotel – a distance of perhaps 200 hundred meters – was a narrow road.

Late in the afternoon, it came alive with local life: old men or alternatively, young boys, with herds of cows, goats and water buffaloes; oxen-drawn carts piled high with fodder; lines of women carrying large bundles of firewood on their heads.

The contrast between this stream of local traffic and the enormous, gaping hole in the earth in the background was sublime.

Yes, here was the magic of India!

 

 

As night descended, the outline of the crater was illuminated under a desert sky patterned with stars. 

Swallows darted in and around the balcony, like magical dancers.

Bats appeared.

 

Early the next morning, I descended to the bottom of the crater following a well-trodden path.

The trip took longer than I thought.

Lower down, on the sides of the crater, were trees filled with birds and monkeys and peacocks.

The path wound its way through the trees until it reached the lake. It then followed the edge of the lake.

At various places, not far from the water, there were Hindu temples. Most of them were old and in ruins. One temple, however, was a recent construction and obviously in regular use. Inside a painted cement cupola there were lots of framed posters of multi-armed, luridly coloured gods and goddesses. There were so many of them that there wasn’t much of the ceiling or walls still visible. One of the posters which caught my attention featured lots of big green leaves; each leaf had a set of brooding eyes. At times, the temple must have seen many worshippers. There was a row of drinking taps set into a cement block connected to a synthetic pipe running out of the crater. To have constructed that temple and connected it to a water supply would have been quite a job. I sat in the shadow of the temple and watched mynah birds and rats feeding on a pile of rubbish left behind by the last lot of pilgrims.

It was on the cards of course: a meteor impact crater in the land of God turned into a sacred site.

It seemed to me that there was something distinctly un-sacred about a meteor crater. Or perhaps what I mean is, un-sacred in the sense of it being irreconcilable with the idea of a Divine Plan. Basic to all religions is the denial of coincidence, chance; is the belief in a Creator and a set of laws behind our lives and the world around us. Science, however, has a different message: there is no set of laws behind our lives excepting those involving the cold logic of physics and with respect to the appearance of life on our planet, the laws of evolution. The image of a lump of rock colliding with the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs suggested that our existence was no more worthy, no grander, no more meaningful, than microbes or dust, than black holes or glaciers, insects or diseases; that there was nothing divine or special about our existence other than its purely freakish occurrence.

Sitting there in the shadow of the temple looking out over the lake and the steep sides of the crater, I wondered how religious people could reconcile the role played by meteors in the creation of the human race with the idea of God. It was not easy. Most of them would not even make the attempt, but rather go into denial. Believers all over the world had a bad record when it came to dealing with science. It wasn’t that long ago that the Catholic Church had insisted that our world lay at the centre of the universe and that it was flat and created by God in seven days. Those who had questioned such self-evident truths were excommunicated and in more than a few cases, tortured and burnt at the stake. Contemporary examples of denial were just as easy to find. In many Islamic nations – including the once secular Turkey – it was a punishable offense to publicly lend support to the theory of evolution – the definition of ‘publicly’ including the social media. In Saudi Arabia, to deny the existence of God was apostasy – punishable by public beheading. Likewise, American born- again Christians – including leading members of the Republican Party – also refused to accept the theory of evolution and insisted instead that behind all life there was an ‘intelligent design’.

Was a ‘space rock’ a part of ‘intelligent design’?

It seemed difficult to suppose that the Yucatan meteor was a divine object representing the will of God.

A temple at the bottom of the Lonar crater seemed a highly inappropriate structure to me.

Far more appropriate would have been an information centre containing up to date information about the Lonar meteor and, meteors in general. And if there were to be any revered images placed nearby, then these would be of the philosophers and writers who through the ages – and also, to this very day – faced enormous persecution at the hands of the true believers for the crime of thinking aloud and daring to put rational inquiry above religion.

 


 

I ascended out of the crater with certain questions in mind.

Why did the concept of our existence beginning with a meteor crashing into Earth cause such consternation in the human soul?

Because it suggested that our lives were meaningless and that there was no afterlife?

That our existence was an infinite mystery?

I thought about the first humans who had inhabited the area around Lonar.

50,000 years ago, these would have been hunters and gatherers.

The desert plains would have been covered in immense jungles filled with all sorts of wild animals. It was perfectly possible that members of these early people saw the meteor which collided with the earth and left the deep impact crater in its wake: saw a blinding flash many times more powerful than a nuclear explosion and heard the terrifying noise accompanying it (which would have been heard hundreds of kilometres away).

How did those early human beings react when they saw the lunar crater – 600 meters deeper than it is today and ringed by towering cliffs of rubble?

What did they think as they scaled those cliffs and peered down into the infinitely deep crater – and saw in its midst a huge space rock?

Their incomprehension must have been overwhelming and even, dangerous – as dangerous indeed as a long toothed carnivore lurking in the jungle. The psychological threat to the sanity of a species able to think and remember must have been formidable. Only the imagination, the capacity to find meaning in dreams, to worship mythical beings, could have saved them – just as it helped them to survive in the midst of the jungles and wilderness.

In time, they found a way to explain the inexplicable.

This was in itself an immense achievement for primordial Man.

Despite our veneer of modernity, we were still like those first hunters and gatherers, who, staring into the abyss of a crater blasted out of the earth in one enormous explosion, were left with nothing to hang on to other than a dreamlike capacity to invent stories about mythical beings.

 

I stayed at the hotel for a week.

The days went quickly, even though I didn’t do much besides reading books – and bringing my diary up to date.

One night on the balcony, only the sound of crickets to be heard, I saw a shooting star. It took some time to burn itself out.

There was a long, bright streak in the darkness like a sky rocket.

I imagined, in the sight of that luminescent flash across the darkness, the end of everything – and perhaps, the start of something new.

 

Joining the Pilgrims – Part 1

 

Located in the state of Gujarat in the west of India, Junagadh was a pilgrim town with a difference.

A few kilometres outside of town, 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.

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. In this, my sentiments echoed those of the famous Indian poet and Nobel Prize winner, Rabrindinath Tagore.

During the 1930’s Tagore publicly condemned a British plan to build a railway up to the Himalayas to make it easier for Hindu pilgrims to reach sacred sites at the source of the most sacred river in India, the Ganges. The whole point of a pilgrimage he argued, was that it involved hardships, even dangers. From time immemorial, the traditional Hindu pilgrim was someone who left home and cut all ties with society and wandered the vast natural expanses of India; closeness to the Divine Creator, a sense of the sacred, came about through the act of moving rather than reaching a fixed destination.

It wasn’t surprising really, that Tagore took this stand – unpopular as it was. His poetry often revolved around the poet’s attempt to find the divine presence in the natural world; he was a kind of Hindu Wordsworth. Whilst his compatriots were proud of him having won the Nobel Prize for literature, they nevertheless embraced the British pilgrim railway with enthusiasm. These were strange days; the very people who flocked to make use of the British pilgrim line were at the same time rallying behind Mahatma Ghandi in his campaign to force the British to quit India. One of the tactics used by Ghandi’s followers was for tens of thousands of them to lie down on the railway tracks and make it impossible for the British to use their railway system – which was the lynch pin of their rule of India.

The pilgrim line however was exempted from the boycott of the British railways by the independence movement.  

 

My plan to go to Junagadh came after visits to two very famous pilgrim towns on the coast of Gujarat: Dwarka and Somnath.

During my stays there, I thought of Tagore and how much the original concept of a pilgrim had changed in recent times. 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 their number was increasing rapidly. 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. They were tourists, a part of a corporate pilgrimage industry. The hardships faced by pilgrims in the past was a distant memory. The pilgrim town was a place where commercialism thrived on the worship of the gods. 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. Behind this lucrative tourist industry was the belief that the means of reaching the sacred temple was irrelevant; it was by being there that one gained the blessings of the gods. This symbolised, as few other things could, how the spirit of consumerism had scored a complete triumph in India – supposedly a ‘spiritual’ land.  At the outskirts of Dwarka and Somnath, armies of peons worked like ants to build new luxury hotels and kitsch parks full of statues, avenues, ponds, swings and rides.

The Holy Site converted into a theme park.

In the past, long before the British invaded India, pilgrims who went to sacred towns like Dwarka and Somnath had to endure great hardships to get there. More than a few of them would have perished on the way. 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.

It was something a bit closer to Tagore’s journey in search of the Divine.

 

I didn’t get into Junagadh until late at night.

The bus station was in the centre of town.

I got down and found a hotel in a nearby side street. It consisted of two floors of rooms at the top of an old three-story building; the reception desk was at the street level, next to some small shops and offices. Zombie-like, I filled in the endless number of forms which were required whenever one checked into a hotel in India, went to my room, had a shower and went to bed. I was exhausted.  

On the following morning, sun streaming into my room together with the sound of the traffic and horns blaring, I decided to take it easy and tackle the pilgrim trail on the following day. I spent a day doing some sight- seeing. I got an auto rickshaw to an ancient fort; within its walls were the remains of a mosque and a palace.

There was really nothing out of the ordinary here. All over India, there were countless towns and cities which boasted ancient forts and palaces. Junagadh’s fort, like all the others, was a relic from a long past dominated by conflict. It boasted that it had seen 16 major battles during its 500-year long history. Before the British appeared on the scene, India hadn’t been one country, but rather, a fragmented patchwork of kingdoms locked into endless dynastic battles. Pax Britannica had put an end to that. It laid the groundwork for a unified country. Thousands of miles of railways stitched together a nation. A hundred different kingdoms which had waged war on each other since time immemorial suddenly became connected under a single seat of authority in Delhi. The British appeared, and Junagadh’s fort was consigned to history.  

Standing on top of the old fort wall, I got a fine view of the journey I was to undertake on the following day: there were temples perched on top of a series of dry, yellow-brown hills, one after the other, each one slightly higher than the one before it.

 The 10,000 steps, which not visible from where I was standing, connected those temples.

 

On the following morning, I got off to an early start.

It was still dark when I left the hotel and went out onto eerily quiet streets to find an auto rickshaw. Some of the lamp posts worked and threw down a weak light. All the stalls and shops were shuttered. Cows wandered around aimlessly, goggle eyed, like the ghosts of departed souls. In some places there were cows sleeping on their haunches and next to them, stray dogs lying curled up. At one place, under a street lamp, there was a man standing behind a little trolley selling biscuits and glasses of chi.  There were a few men standing around, blankets drawn over them like ponchos, holding their glasses of chi with both hands.

I stopped and ordered a glass. No one said anything; the only sound to be heard was the roaring of the kerosene stove. In a few hours’ time, that same street would be bursting with people and traffic and dust and fumes: utter mayhem. 

Whilst I was sipping my glass of tea, a loud yell came from somewhere behind me. It was so sudden that I gulped my tea and burned the roof of my mouth. The yell came again. I looked around and saw an old man wrapped in a blanket, with a loose piece of cloth tied around his head, wandering passed as aimlessly as a cow. He was obviously not of sound mind (I often wondered what happened to old people suffering from dementia in India).  He yelled out again and again. When the men standing around the tea trolley answered his yell, I realised that it was a religious incantation which he had latched on to and was yelling out like a trained parrot. Perhaps in the confusion of his mind, he was beseeching the gods to restore him to sanity. But the yelling was jarring and it got on my nerves- and not to mention my burned mouth. After answering his yelling a couple of times, the tea drinkers ignored him.

He disappeared into the night and mercifully, his yelling faded away.

 

I got an auto-rickshaw out to the place where the steps began. It was only a few kilometres away, yet the trip seemed longer.

I began climbing the steps at 6 am; it was dark and unseasonably cold. There was no lighting. The only illumination came from the moon.

Many other people were also climbing the steps, but I couldn’t see them; they were voices in the dark unless they passed me, or I passed them.

The steps zig zagged back and forth up a steep slope. There were flights of steps and in between them, long sections of paved stones. It was a process of climbing steps and walking. 

I had joined the pilgrims, but I couldn’t see them. They were like ghosts.

The real journey began after the sun rose.