Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pipli: Birthplace of an Epic

(Published in The Pioneer dated April 11, 2010)

Rajesh Singh

The summer heat has begun to tell. I get down at Pipli in Kurukshetra after a three-and-half hour bus journey from Delhi. Stepping out of the air-conditioned coach at 12.30 pm, I am confronted by a burst of hot wind and an imposing arch at the doorway of the town. On the roof is a chariot with Lord Krishna intent on persuading a non-committal Arjuna to fight a war against his tyrannical brothers and elders he has revered all his life. I am in the land of Mahabharata, where the epic war between the good and the evil was fought, where the timeless and universal sermons were rendered by Lord Krishna – to later be known as the Bhagvad Gita.

I take in the otherwise non-descript town. Is this indeed the place where the Great War happened? Small, shabbily done up shops line the two narrow roads that led into the town from the national highway. Autos race up and down with passengers clinging precariously to the iron railings and whatever else they can find as they sit – half in and half out of the vehicle. I look around for some tourist help; there is none though I am told later that there was a tourist information centre round the corner that I missed. I pass under the doorway – the Gita Dwar. I am now officially in the holy town.

I had thought that Adi Badri, where the now dried up mighty river Saraswati entered the plains after a rollicking journey through the mountains beginning in Garhwal, was close by. I wanted to visit the place. Enquiries with auto drivers and tea stall owners prove futile. None had heard of Adi Badri. Using the Google technique, I try out the key search word: Saraswati Sarovar. O yes, there is a sacred pond, but it is the Brahma Sarovar, only seven kilometres away. There is also the spot where Lord Krishna gave the Gita Sandesh, they add helpfully. They suggest that I hop into the auto for a visit. By now, having realized that I had blundered, I am determined to make the most of the serendipity of being in proximity to the great mythological event.

After ten minutes of drive in a speeding vehicle that disgorges and takes in passengers at half a dozen places, back rubbing sweat-drenched back, I reach Brahma Sarovar. A local guide, whom I encounter as I walk down the narrow lane towards the sacred pond past the Gita Birla temple and dark (power supply has been cut off) souvenir selling shops, tells me I am lucky to be here. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma created the universe from the land of Kurukshetra. And the Sarovar itself became the cradle of civilisation. People come from far and wide to take a dip in the holy pond. On solar eclipses, the place teems with lakhs of devotees wanting to bathe in the waters.

My guide, whose name is Raju – though not half as debonair as the Raju of the film `Guide’ – is a competent man. He informs me that the Sarovar finds mention in the 11 century AD memoirs of Al Beruni, called ‘Kitab-ul-Hind’, and in the writings of Akbar’s court historian, Abul Fazl in his famous Akbarnama.

The Brahma Sarovar is a massive pond, with bathing steps and small bridges connecting its various ends. The guide tells me it is 1800 feet long and 1400 feet wide. The enormous size, says my guide, prompted Fazl to remark that the Sarovar was a ‘mini sea.’ He must have been indeed impressed by the devotion of millions as they gathered for the ritual bath on a solar eclipse day.

Apart from the sacredness, the heat is also a good reason to dive into the waters. I resist the temptation though; I cannot swim. I glare at Raju when he tells me encouragingly that those who perish here go straight to heaven. After all, a bath in the holy waters is equal to the rewards of an Ashvamedh Yagna.

What strikes one straightaway is the disdain that we as a people have for our heritage. Despite written appeals displayed all along the pond asking people not to use soap and bathe and not pollute the pond with dirt, there are people dipping into the waters fully soaped up. Plastic waste in large quantities bobs up and down the water. Devotees clear their throat and spit out huge lumps of dirt into the pond as they bathe – who knows they may even be urinating in the sacred Sarovar. I wonder, in doing all this can they reap the rewards of the Yagna?

One entire bank of the pond, close to the entrance, is reserved for resident swamis and devotees who have made the Sarovar their home. They eat, wash and sleep here. I see old women with matted hair wash clothes, draining all the detergent into the sacred water, clean utensils and round it all up by blowing their nose into the pond.

Easily the most imposing figure on the banks of the Sarovar is the bronze statue of a chariot pulled by horses. It is commonly referred to as the Rath. Lord Krishna as the charioteer is seen persuading Arjuna to fight a war that the mighty Pandava prince is not inclined to. A plaque informs that that the statue is 50 feet in length and 25 feet high.
As I stand in front of the chariot, I imagine the battle that took place a short distance away from the Sarovar. A confused Arjuna – with the confusion confounded by Lord Krishna’s roundabout replies – makes a vain bid to avoid the fight and asks Lord Krishna for clear-cut guidance. His appeal rings out:

“O Janardana, O Kesava, why do You urge me to engage in this ghastly warfare, if You think that intelligence is better than fruitive work? My intelligence is bewildered by Your equivocal instructions. Therefore, please tell me decisively what is most beneficial for me.”

Raju, who has meanwhile taken a dip in the holy pond, joins me with his wet clothes clinging to his lean figure. It will dry up as he stands for fifteen minutes under the sun, he cheerily says.

Bang in the midst of Vishnu territory at the Sarovar complex – Krishna after all, is said to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu – is the Sarveshwar Mahadev Temple of Lord Shiva. It is only the amazing plurality of Hinduism that makes such a thing possible, considering that Shiva and Vishnu represent two very different and often contrasting sects in Hinduism: Shaivite and Vaishnavite. In parts of the country these two are often at loggerheads, with their own muths and swamis. At the Sarovar they co-exist, and keep company with another `outsider’ – a character from Ramayana, of all things! He is Lord Hanuman, who has a temple of his own, with a perpetually large number of devotees flocking there.

We know that the Gopis were enamoured of the flirtatious Lord Krishna and desperately sought his attention. They were the seekers of truth while he was Truth himself. They tried several things to succeed, including appeasing the deity Katyayani Devi. Legend has it that she was born to sage Katyayan. The three-eyed and four-armed deity is the Sixth Aspect of Shakti. An ancient temple in her name stands on the banks of the Sarovar, attracting devotees by the thousands.

As I wind up the tour, Raju suggests that I should visit the place in November end –beginning December. That is when the Gita Jayanti celebrations are held. I promise to return. Like for the gopis, the quest for Truth, for an understanding of this world and beyond, is a journey that will never end. One seeks, and seeks again, and again…

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