Master of the moon: Chapter 17


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June 15th 2013
Published: June 15th 2013
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Once the mid-morning sun had lifted the damp morning mist off the face of the valley, and the shawls and blankets from the heads and shoulders of the populace, the weather in the early months of the year was perfect for cycling: sunny and dry, but not too hot. One of Frank's favourite haunts was Pashupatnath, the great Hindu temple complex dedicated to Lord Shiva. The annual festival of Shivaratri, held in the fearsome god's honour, had come around and pilgrims from all over India were pouring down the road to the temple, with their possessions wrapped up in large bundles balanced on their heads. Frank passed various ascetics, coloured yellow or blue-grey, the colours of Shiva, lying on mats by the side of the road. Some earned respect as living skeletons, their limbs so emaciated that movement from their prone position would be impossible without the support of their devotees. Still others were disabled in some way and gained a living by displaying their skills at overcoming their physical disabilities. This was a real freak-show. There was no illusion or sleight of hand. Passers-by cast grains of rice or money into their begging bowls.

Through the entrance to a courtyard Frank spied a large gathering of holy men having lunch. They were sitting cross-legged in rows, with bowls of food in front of them. Every now and then a moan would rise and fall. One naked sadhu, whose matted hair came down in ropes to below his rump, orchestrated the rise and fall of the sound with his arms.

“To follow Shiva you must become like a madman,” a Nepali youth, who was standing beside him, suddenly announced for his benefit. He was anxious that Frank should understand the religious significance of the event, and not carry away with him the idea that he was witnessing a meaningless freak show. He accompanied him to the river Bagmati, and they sat on a step for a while observing the scene. Some devotees were purchasing flower offerings from pavement vendors. Corpses were being burnt on pyres on the banks of the river. Frank's guide, whom by now he knew as a university student called Tiwari, explained that the ashes would be cast into the waters and carried away to the holy river Ganges and then out into the open ocean. In the same river, people were soaping themselves and bathing. Some, Frank noticed, wore a thread over their left shoulders and across the chest ending under their right arms. Tiwari explained that this was a sacred thread indicating that the wearer is a dvija, or twice-born, belonging to one of the top three castes. The first birth is their physical birth. The second occurs when the wearer begins to fulfil the religious duties of his caste, first as a student, then, in middle-age, as a householder, then an elderly retiree, before finally wandering off into the forest as an ascetic to face death. That was the theory anyway, if it rarely worked out like that in practice.

“Are you a twice-born?” Frank asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“You must be at the first stage,” Frank observed. He smiled and nodded. He led him to the entrance to the shrine which is guarded by a massive golden bull. The only part of the beast Frank could see from outside the entrance was its enormous rump and great dangling golden testicles.

“Pashupati means Lord of the Animals,”explained his guide. “That’s the bull Nandi. It is the animal he rides.Nandi is also Lord Pashupati’s gate-keeper.”

“Shiva seems to be Lord of a lot of things,” Frank observed.

“Yes. He is also named Lord of the Dance. He dances universe into existence, and then after long time he destroys everything when he dances like madman down the mountain-side.” Frank pictured in his mind’s eye the mad God with his long matted-tresses flying wildly around him as he careers down a mountain-side in a frenzy of destruction.

“How can he be both creator and destroyer?”

My companion shrugged. “It's what we believe. Lord Shiva is male and female, kind and cruel, and so on and so forth.”

“Two sides of one coin?” Frank observed.

“Yes. Exactly. But not just one coin. Many coins with two sides!” he said with a smile, enjoying the simile. The devotees were pouring into the inner sanctum of the temple and coming out with large tikkamarks on their foreheads. “Please excuse me, I would like to enter,” said his guide.As a white-faced cow-eater, Frank was not allowed in, so he thanked Tiwari for his friendly guidance and they parted company.

He crossed the bridge over the river, and walked up the many steps to the beautiful woods beyond, passing little cupolas on pillars.Sheltered beneath each cupola stood a lingam, a smooth phallic-shaped stone set in the centre of a circular stone vessel, a symbolic vulva called a yoni. It’s the dynamic force of Shiva's female nature, represented by the yoni, that empowers His creative male potential. Out of this union of His male and female natures the universe is created.

Frank stopped for a while at one of these shrines to watch a small group of devotees pouring libations of holy liquid: water, milk and oils, over the lingamand into the basin of the yoni. Now sanctified, the liquid was recaptured by the devotees as it flowed out of a spout set in the yoni's rim.

Continuing his climb up the steps and through a wood, Frank emerged into some open ground and sat by a large lingamset rather crookedly in its yoni, and gazed at the view across the red tiled roofs of the houses and temples of Kathmandu to the pageant of distant mountains beyond, stretching from one end of the horizon to the other; the stuff that dreams are made on, so it seemed. An immaterial realm of shimmering peaks.

“Where are you from?” said a voice. Frank looked around, and was startled to see, sitting a few yards away under a tree, a Hindu ascetic, a sadhu. He was draped in travel-worn yellow robes, and with numerous necklaces of beads. His sun-blackened face was framed by a white, unkempt beard, and his forehead was an ashen canvas on which were painted three black concave arcs, one above the other, and, from the bridge of his nose to his tangled hair-line, three red tikkamarks. Scattered around him were his worldly possessions: a thick woollen blanket, a staff carved with snake coils, and some cheap metal dishes.

“England,” Frank said, nervously wondering where a conversation with such a fearsome -looking sadhu might lead.

“Oh, England!” he said with interest. “I was in the 5th Indian Division during the world war. Our motto was 'Ball of Fire',” he said in good English. Frank did a double-take.

“Really? Where, where did you serve?”

“North Africa, and Burma. Do you know General Slim? Is he still alive?” Frank had to confess that he didn't know him personally, and was unaware of his fate.

“How did you become a sadhu?” Frank asked.

“I have reached the time in life when I want to dedicate myself to Lord Pashupati.”

“Have you got a family?”

“My parents are dead. My children are grown up and have their own children,” he said. “I have done my duty as householder. Now I must leave everything behind and wander the world. It's my fate.”

“And your wife?”

“She is still there in Bombay,” he said,“but I haven't seen her for several years.” Frank decided not to pursue this line of questioning.

“What must you do, to be a follower of Shiva?” he asked.

“To surrender my self to Lord Shiva.I wander all over India attending festivals like this one, and going on pilgrimages.”

“Where are you going next?” Frank asked.

“In the mountains there is a holy lake called Chandrapal Pokhari. It is very high and very cold there, and difficult to reach. But if Lord Shiva permits me to reach the lake I will be happy to die there.”

“How will you get there?” he asked.

“Walking!” he said, surprised at the question.

“Like this? With those chappels?” Frank asked, pointing to his rubber flip flops.

“Of course!” he said.

“How will you feed yourself?”

“Believers will help me,” he said. “They gain merit when they give me food.”

Frank glanced down at the metal plate in front of him into which a few grains of rice had been thrown. “Why do you want to do something so difficult?” he asked.

“Lord Shiva will reward me by helping me overcome the bonds of this world and become one with Him. We call this moksha.”

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