Saturday, April 25, 2009

An Amarnath diary: Testing faith

They say a nose for news invariably leads you into the thick of things. But I found myself heading north to Amarnath last year, not as a scribe eager to pencil details of the current turmoil. I was, in fact, well on my way when the latest controversy over land began. I went to Amarnath as many Indians do - it has become the Holy Grail for those who want to test their faith by taking on the elements. 

Youthful bravado and a need to push my endurance? Or new-found faith in God? Whichever, I was on my way. Spiritual quest apart, I was excited at the opportunity to visit Kashmir, which had earned the sobriquet 'Heaven on Earth'. To my generation, growing up to the reality of a terror-torn state, a visit to Kashmir is not quite as simple as a visit to any other Indian state. When you visit "heaven" you really plan for it. 

However, heaven greeted me with an eerie silence. People looked jaded, sad and devoid of any happiness. Srinagar, the enchanting and energetic destination of tourist brochures, Hindi movies of the late sixties was as dead as cold snow.

The city clearly bore the imprints of a long history of violence. The markets were flooded with armed forces personnel and even in the time of peace, shopping at the place felt like being in a terror camp. 

What should have been a boom time for business was actually a doom time. It was obvious that the powers that be had little time to waste on such mundane matters, when an issue as pressing as the coming elections was looming. 

My 48-hour stay in Srinagar was well spent as I visited all the important tourist destinations like the Dal Lake, Hazrat Bal shrine, Shalimar Garden and Tulip Garden. 

Later, I left for Baltal-one of the starting points of the Amarnath yatra. Pilgrims gather here in groups, stay in tents and are led on by their collective faith to soldier on in inhospitable terrain to reach the abode of their deity.

I ascended steadily and realised that the place was really beautiful. Splendid trees, enchanting views, breathtaking heights and mesmerising Valleys appropriately adorned it.

Then, after a few kilometres, the trek became tough. As I was moving very fast, I started breathing heavily. Fatigue took me over and I sat down. While resting, I overheard two other young pilgrims discussing the Kashmir Valley and its various problems. Like me, they too were visiting the Valley for the first time and were clearly not happy at what they had seen. Lack of infrastructure was making things worse. 

We talked about how all the news reports that emanated out of here did not talk about a sense of kinship between members of different communities. About the burning land donation issue and how much more political these things were than social. On the way, Kashmiris offered a glimpse into their lives. Tough lives. About the ground realities in and the agonies of Kashmir. It was heartrending. 

Against my will, inside me an urgency battled the stillness that spirituality seeks. A rebellion was beginning to boil. Because there is a difference between hearing and reading about the travails of the people of Kashmir and actually witnessing it. Because those in power were just not listening. The violence of everyday struggle is grosser than the violence of the periodic terror strikes that the people have come to expect.

I met a soldier guarding the route. He talked about how politics was ruining a matter of faith. People, regardless of community, were terror -struck and the government was fast losing control. 

I moved ahead, slowed by thinner air and the burden of my thoughts. I was dejected, deflated, nowhere near the high that I should have been at. The 14-km trek took me through filth and purity, animosity and spirituality, highs and lows. So when I finally reached the holy cave, I thanked God for making it possible. 

As a first -time trekker, the mountainous terrain was difficult for me. The conversations enroute made the Amarnath yatra became a memorable experience. I was moving toward the cave thinking about all that I had heard and seen. Instead of God, I was visualising terror. Unfair, and I blamed the people who should have made it better rather than fritter it all away. 

Climbing the stairs to my destination, it became clear to me that the road to God is not an easy one.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A road less travelled

Away from the chaotic streets of Delhi, lies Yamuna Pushta road which once held the proud distinction of being the only connecting link between Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway station and Mayur Vihar. It was the road which used to help a large number of commuters, especially cyclists and scooter riders, to reach Ring Road by the shortest route free of any charge.

A world within a world existed in Yamuna Pushta. It was also host to migrants from small towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh who are settled there who worked closely with the community, bringing about immense positive change in the lives of the residents. But it all changed a few years back.

When the government of Delhi, in collaboration with the Japanese government, constructed the Indo-Japan Friendship Bridge – better known as the Nizamuddin Bridge – this road lost its relevance. Now there was no need for any temporary arrangement. So, the pontoon bridge was discarded and the Nizamuddin Bridge became the primary link to the Railway station.

But this did not affect the spirit of the people living near the Yamuna pusta road. For these 2,000-odd people, it’s life as usual. Many of these come here from places like Badaun (Uttar Pradesh) for about a year. But these people have created a whole new world for themselves. From temple to school; nurseries to farming, they have everything they need to lead their lives.

These villagers live like a close-knit family, helping out each other. When I reached there, it was a warm welcome for me. Sipping tea offered to me by one of the villager, I came to know that they are primarily engaged in farming and nursing the plants. The vegetables these villagers grow here are sold in the nearby markets.

As I wandered inside, I found a Ram temple. Built several years ago, it has attracted a lot of devotees over the years. I entered the premises and spoke about the area to the priest present there.

"This temple is 25 years old and I have been the caretaker from the beginning. I want to tell you that over the years, it has seen a steady growth in the number of devotees. Though the road is closed those who believe in this temple, are still visiting regularly," the priest said.

I was enjoying my stay there as the area was so close to the metropolis, yet so quiet and so pure. The area lies just across the Mayur Vihar main road, but as one crosses the road it’s a whole new experience. From the sky high buildings and highly polluted environment, where Metro Rail is adding to it, coming at this place was a refreshing change.

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