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Published: March 13th 2008
Have you ever wondered what Hindus believe? About why there are so many Hindu gods?
Have you ever thought of Hinduism as so far removed from the beliefs of Christians or wonder if there are any beliefs that overlap or seem
to overlap? We were about to come face to face with one of India's holiest and colorful places and have some of our
Four hours earlier we were half-running, half-hobbling from platform 14 to platform 10 in Mumbai's VT to catch the train. It was dark when we pulled into Nasik only to find that we were yet 10 km from town. But there was a good explanation. You see, Nasik had always been a place of great religious significance to Hindus. The River Godavari, India's second most sacred after the Ganges, flows thru the center of the city. Also, Nasik had numerous associations with the Ramayana, a religious text believed to be the works of the poet Valmiki. The very name 'Nasik' was given because it was here, as told in the Ramayana, that Lakhsmana cut off the nose (nasika
) of Ravana's sister. The rickshaw driver, whose name soundly a lot like 'Pope Paul', tried to
ferret us away to a hotel of his choice but we caught on and insisted to be taken elsewhere.
It became immediately apparent that something big and exciting was happening in this otherwise small, regular city. The streets were filled with people, vendors of flowers and other religious accoutrements and colorful, noisy processions. Our hotel, Abhishek, was tucked away in an inconspicuous side street almost in the town's center and our room overlooked the dark, narrow street and a tiny square. Minutes after checking in, the mother of all noisy, animated, religious processions, complete with loudspeakers, drums, chanting and fireworks, squeezed its way right thru our tiny street. And as it turned out, we'd be 'treated'
to the sights and sounds of, at a minimum, two of these processions for both nights we stayed in Nasik.
The next morning we handed over a pile of dirty clothes to be laundered to hotel reception, feasted on curries and naan for breakfast and then proceeded to wander down the slight incline of the main road. On the face of it, Nasik looked like an ordinary town. People went about their activities like everywhere else in the world. But when we
moved from between the narrow street, at the foot of the incline, and banked right thru a flower market, we found the pulse of the place.
The canal before us, which flowed between concrete sidings, was littered with flowers, market waste and a host of other unidentifiables. But this was no 'canal'. This was the River Godavari. To the right and left of the concrete bridge we stood upon, dhobi-wallahs were hard at work, thumping the dirt out of some unfortunate articles of clothing. We glanced at the water into which the clothes were soaked and rinsed and cringed. Were our
clothes here too? We picked our way between the piles trying to find ours. We didn't. But somehow we knew that this was the most likely 'laundry' site.
Further upriver, where the water was deeper and cleaner, was Ramkund, the holiest spot in all of Nasik. It is believed that Ram took his baths in these waters and that the water is holy and purifying. It is also a place for final rites because it is thought that the waters had powers to liberate the soul (an act called 'moksha'). Hundreds of pilgrims flocked to the river's
edge. Attired in the brightest whites, oranges, reds, the deepest blues and multiple shades of yellows, some scooped up handfuls and dowsed themselves and those around them. Others openly swam in the pool. Thick garlands of flowers drifted by and sometimes a tray with candles, ashes and assorted prayer items. Youngsters, between plunges, lapped water on top of two humps, representations of Shiva. Swamis, ascetics and gurus sat cross-legged in various sections of square surrounding the pool. A huge fly-over bridge formed the backdrop under which tumbled a cascade of water from some holding tank above. On the concrete, midway between the bridge and Ramkund, was a chunk of rock painted a bright orange. We watched, in astonishment, as people bowed, lit incense sticks and prayed to the rock. Maybe it was because our faces showed the million questions in our minds or maybe because we stood out like sore thumbs that Arvind approached us. A young student of Jangalidas Maharaj, a well-known guru, Arvind possessed a great deal of religious fervour and knowledge and he, much to our delight, offered to be our guide. He said that the colored stone was a representation of Hanuman, the monkey god, and
at second glance the rock did bear some resemblance. For hours we walked and talked, asked our million questions and got them all answered.
Hinduism is centered around the infinite, formless and eternal Brahman. Brahman is neither male nor female, big nor small, white nor black nor brown. Brahman is nirguna
(without attributes). Hindus essentially believe that Brahman simply 'is
and the other thousand-or-so gods and goddess are just manifestations of Brahman. Brahman has three main representations called the 'Trimurti'
: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma
's role was during the creation of the universe. He rides a swan and his companion is Saraswati, the goddess of learning. The god of good is Vishnu
whose main roles are to protect and proliferate good in the universe. Vishnu's vehicle of choice is the part-beast, part-bird Garuda and his consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Rama, Krishna, Buddha and 19 others are incarnations of Vishnu. Rama (Ram), the hero of the Ramayana, is really Vishnu who became human to fight and defeat the demon Ravana. It is believed that the River Ganges flows from Vishnu's feet. Shiva
, the destroyer, holds a trident - symbolizing the Trimurti - and rides Nandi, the bull.
Shiva has 1008 other names and is sometimes depicted with 5 cobras around his head and his consort is Parvati.
Other prominent deities are Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, Devi aka Kali aka Durga, whose believers see her as mother and creator and Hanuman
who epitomizes devotion. He refused to leave Rama throughout all the ordeals outlined in the Ramayana. Ganesh
, with the head of an elephant, is the god of new starts and good fortune. Before writing exams, opening a store, getting married or attempting any new venture, Hindus seek his blessing.
The sacred writings of Hinduism are classed as either shruti (heard) or smriti (remembered) works. The Vedas are shruti and the definitive basis for Hinduism. They explain the origins of the universe and the mysteries of life and death. The Mahabharata (of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part), the Ramayana and a host of other literature are the smriti texts. These texts tells of the universal struggle of good over evil.
Almost satiated with information we climbed a slight incline between aging wooden buildings and soon we were at Kala Ram (Black Ram) Temple. Built on the spot where Lakshmana hacked off the
nose of Ravana's sister, the intricately carved rock temple contained black-stone representations of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. Doors opened to the four main cardinal points and Arvind told us that the first rays of the morning sun enters thru the east door landing at Rama's feet. Not far away was Gumpha Panchivati where Sita hid from Ravana.
Apart from these major sites there were more than a few other sites of interest to absorb. The attractions and energy of the town was overwhelming. Arvind talked non-stop, so full and eager was he to share his knowledge. He also told us that this period of human history is considered as 'Kalyug'
- a period of darkness - where it seems evil is winning. He hastened to add that at the appropriate time Vishnu, the preserver of good, will step in, maybe thru another incarnation, and eradicate all evil and darkness and usher in a whole new world. By the time Arvind was ready to leave us, we were so full of information that we thought we'd burst. And by the time we were ready to leave Nasik, we had gained a decent understanding and appreciation of basic Hindu beliefs.
Hotel Abhishek produced our clothes, as unwashed as when we first handed them over the day before, but neatly folded and packaged. Because one of Shanna's trousers went AWOL, we refused to pay the balance of the bill which ironically included a charge for laundry services. It was a USD 55 pair of pants and a 350-Rupee bill. Besides, someone in his/her infinite wisdom chose to, with permanent marker, scrawl our room number of the seams (sometimes inside, sometimes outside) of every piece of clothing: 302A
From Nasik we bussed to Surat, arriving around 8 pm. Surrounded by a throng of noisy street children (who pinched Shanna all the way) we took refuge in an internet café close to the train station and there we stayed up until just before the 11 pm train departed.
Disembarking in Ahmedabad at 4:30 am
, we found that the room we had booked was, without reason, suddenly "filled". (That's what we got for making our first advance booking). We found a room in another budget hotel called Shamiana. Most of that day was spent sleeping off the hours of travel and the late afternoon spent perusing downtown Ahmedabad. Shamiana had 24-hour checkout
so it was no problem when we left that same night to catch the 11 pm train to Udaipur.
😊 Arvind, for your patience, time and knowledge
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