Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pune Street Scenes in December. Part I: Time for Mithra-giri

The month of December in Pune is usually an exceptionally beautiful month when the skies are clearly blue and cloudless. This year there is a haze which does not clear up till late in the day with a strong visual evidence for the “brown cloud” which we continue to ignore. I think we are preoccupied with what Antulay meant when he said the thing that is obvious regarding Hemant Karkare’s death during the terrorist attack of November. We must have been very sloppy to allow three top police officers to be killed (nobody said that they were killed by police bullets) in the first few known minutes of the terrorist attack. But do we care?

Having got that off my chest let’s move on.

There is a nip in the air which is enhanced by an anticipation of festive Christian times such as Christmas and New Year. It always causes me some crisis of identity because, as a resident Hindu, Christian festivities should be alien; this, it is not. Perche? You may ask in Italian if only because Rome introduced Christianity to the world and Roman Catholic missionaries to India.

What influence drives Indians to embrace Christian festivities but not, say, Judaism or Islam? I think it is the emphasis on friendliness and the spirit that goes with it that warms our heart. In some Indian language or other the proper word that describes this warm feeling of friendship is mitra (we have so many languages we cannot be sure of the actual root of any word except that it is most time safe to say it is vedic or Sanskrit in origin although I have this intuitive feeling that Bengali would be closer). With so many festivities this mitra-giri of friendliness (as expressed in a peculiar boisterousness) should be forever in India. It is some how enhanced in December. Perche? I have asked before.

As I found out (from the net of course) Mitra or Mithra is quite appropriate to the December times. I will discuss this aspect later in this blog. Mitra-giri is spontaneous and there will be no attempt to deliberately step from one logical stone to another. I intend to just amble and ramble along hoping not to get to any point in particular but just to get a whiff of the season, a whiff of Mithra.

I continue to maintain the position that to begin one must have half-baked knowledge before one realizes that the fully baked knowledge is as elusive as ever before.

Its nice to be out on the streets though in December in Pune simply because there is a gentle glow in the sunlight and the temperature is mild even in mid-day. You can walk safely provided you do not pay attention to the traffic --- the drivers get confused and run you over if you heed traffic rules and do not jaywalk. The fruits and vegetables look good. In Pashan, where I live in Pune, we are lucky to have a large vegetable market that spreads out on the street for about half a kilometer. If you are discerning enough, you can actually get ganvran (village) vegetables grown by small farmers. This is also the season for pink-hearted guavas which you eat as many as you can when the season lasts.

Just as good food there must be a pious regimen. A famous temple in the heart of Pune’s ABC corner (appa balwan chowk) is the Tambadi (red) Jogeshwari (goddess of life) temple (centre of Fig 2). The devi killed Tamra Asoor one of twelve asooras (disciples?) of (probably) evil Mahishasoor who were troubling the devas (gods). Tamra Jogeshwari became Tambadi Yogeshwari with time. The temple was formed around a swayambhu (self-born) by a Bendre family in 1545 AD. The deity here is Pune city’s gramadevata or protecting deity. An internet story goes Shivaji ploughed the land in front of the temple at that time with a golden plough that signified the new beginning for Pune. Two deepmals (tower of oil lamps) were erected to mark the spots where the ploughing started and ended. Jogeshwari is a not a common name of goddess that continues to be worshipped The dilapidated Jogeshwari caves in Bombay is perhaps the oldest non-Buddhist cave in India. In the midst of the intense commercial activity near this temple there is always time for a prayer to the deity (nset of Fig 2) even if you have to sneak it in through closed doors and barred gates. This temple is surrounded by colourful shops (right of Fig 2) selling various items of worship.

Opposite the temple stands a pillar (left of Fig 2) for holding lamps which could be Shivaji’s deepmals mentioned earlier. From the marks on the pillar one can see that it is rather old. The pillar now supports a make-shift book shop on one side and a shop for selling wicks for worship lamps on the other side (Fig 3 left). There was a young girl sitting in this shop trying her hand at sketching passers by when they chose to be stationary for some time. If you search for this temple in the internet one would find references to the several bookshops that line the streets around the temple.

This area has remnants of old houses such as that in Fig 3 (right) which look quite quaint and definitely temporary although it looks historically permanent in the soft December afternoon. If this door was in London one could have claimed a heritage from Roman arch times. By itself, this door (with more doors behind, seen once the picture is image-processed) says so many things --- is the cycle securing the door or the door securing the cycle? --- about Pune and its Puneri manoos.

There is in Pune some newly constructed overbridges built for the Commonwealth Youth Gmes that now flies over the erstwhile University circle and forking into three when taking the road from Old Pune city. One turns towards Aundh (where IT offices are), the other towards Baner (where the Commonwealth tadiums are) and the third dips down to Pashan Road where many early prestigious government and defence laboratories are. These overbridges to Pune’s power-houses took two to three years to build and eliminated the wait for two of the six traffic lights that existed prior to their construction. The bridges thus constructed did not help much in reducing the congestion for the evening traffic which has grown so much. These bridges have been decorated by a few very quickly commissioned and executed “works of art”. A prize-winning work of art, shown above, somehow reminds me of something (at least the face) I had seen earlier --- maybe on the Berlin wall.

One of the laboratories to which the link to Pashan from the over-bridge leads to is the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) built with much care and love by an English scientist with Italian marbles and Nehru’s blessings. A newly added visual splendour (for a short while) from the over-bridge going in the western direction towards NCL and facing the east is the huge hoarding in black with Raghunath A. Mashelkar’s face in orange symbolizing a glowing sun --- albeit a setting sun if one takes the direction into account --- of the soil of Pune. It is nice to see R. A. M.'s ever optimistic and cheerful face up there. The bill-board happily anoints R. A. M. with Padma Vibushan title. The error --- if he is a Padma Bhushan --- could be construed as minor and certainly the fault of DNA.

Coming down to earthier matters (and heading to the Mithra time reserved for plebians), the road to NCL is also a road often used by the Lambadi tribe (some say they should be called Marwari tribe as they do not have heavy bangles upto their upper arms) people who are found in the Pashan area. They are very colourfully dressed and very hard working. Twenty years ago, when I first came to Pune, they wore considerable amount of silverware and had shell bangles right upto their arms from their wrists. The silver has been replace by mirrors and they are mainly without the full complement of bangles. They work as construction labourers and they are always seen collecting dry wood from wherever they can. They do not like being photographed. They have a reputation for distilling alcohol which I have once tasted (Schnapp-like) and which one drinks quickly in gulps (Schnapp-like). Their main “distilleries” were in and around the Pashan lake. In the evenings the Lambadi ladies assemble with their alcohol in plastic packets, squat on a stone selling their liqueur, and carry on a roaring trade that starts just before twilight and continues till late in the night. This used to be at the Pashan circle but they have left for some other place now. Their contribution to the Pashan economy could be considerably more than that of NCL. They keep to themselves and give considerable colour to Pashan in Pune. They live in their own “ghettoes” in tin shacks although they should, in my estimate, be considerably well off.

The tin shacks of the gypsy Lambadis have replaced their earlier bamboo tent-like structures which should have been more dignified and definitely better looking than the burgeoning middle class apartment houses that pollute Pune’s sky line. Some buildings of the conventionally rich people in the camp or cantonment area in Pune still manage to look a bit upper class and distinctly priggish. My favourite modern building is the one at 2413 East Street which now houses the offices of Citibank and Kumar builders (figure on the left below). It did not have the steel framework on top announcing Kumar to the world. Next to it is an old graceful lady of a building which has deservingly a smooth-haired fox-terrier to go with it. It is of importance to remind ourselves that there is equal dignity in living a free life even if it is to take shelter under a tree next to a rock-turned-into-temple (figure on the right below).

The man next to the rock-temple must be representing the most common but ancient life styles. Stone worship of the kind seen is very common in Pune. It is usually done by the oldest (pre-Mahabharata they say) existing communities such as the Kuruba community also known as the Dhangar community (mutiny of 1857) in Maharashtra. They dominate the rural population. This community includes has contributed great minds such as those of Kalidasa and Kanakadasa and from which the Holkar dynasty of Indore or the Hoysala dynasty of Karnataka is said to come from. This community may not form a part of the Rama-worshipping VHP or BJP agenda now; it should be remembered, however, that they continue to dominate our man-of-the street life. Their history is the history of the real kind.

This should bring us to the worship festival in December --- Christmas. Mithra would enter through the most ancient form of worship. Stone worship is, of course, one of the most general and ancient forms of worship, including the worship of sacred stones (ansab) in ancient pre-islamic Arabic worship, and in places of worship in the Old Testament among the Canaanites, for example. The shapes and materials of the stones are not important and could range from rough blocks or pillars or conical stones some which are similar to the stone in the figure on the right.

Now here is the surprising (at least for me) connection between Christmas and stone worship through Mithra-giri.

As we all should know, and as we do not care to know. the festival of Christmas has nothing to do with the actual birth of Jesus. It seems that long before the time Jesus was born, there existed a “pagan” religion with a son-of-God named Mithra. Now Mithra is a familiar name in India and is recognized as Mitra in the vedic texts 3500 years ago. The name Mitra is associated with a dear friend and as a sun god, Mitra represented the "friendly" aspect of the sun, just as the Persians regarded Mithra as a "benevolent god". An interesting interpretation of the name “Mitra” is that it is a hyphenation of Maat or Maa (mother) and Ra, the sun god; so is Mitra mother-sun? Maybe… even if MCPs may not agree.

If you scour the internet you come up with surprising statements (remember, that if you repeat it three times it becomes true, like the hunter of the Snark said):-
i) The Vatican was built upon the grounds previously devoted to the worship of Mithra.
ii) The Indian Mitra, born of Aditi, the "mother of the gods," is the inviolable or virgin dawn.
iii) Mithra was put to death by crucifixion to rise again on 25th of March … when all at once the light burst forth from all parts, the priest cried, O sacred initiated, your God has risen.
iv) Mithra had his principal festival on the time he was resurrected and which later became Easter?
v) Petra, the sacred rock of Mithraism, became Peter, the foundation of the Christian Church.
vi) Mithras was called “Theos ek Petras” or “God from the Rock” which could be the reason for the Vatican Hill with its Mithraic remains being sacred to Peter.

Rock-worship is the common feature which persists from ancient times to this day as is visible on the streets of Pune. This is the continuing religion of the original inhabitants of this land, who are now beginning to have their day whether their costume changes or not. Like the Lambadi (Marwari?) girl on the left or the Lambadi (Marwari ?) boy on the right who is spreading Mithra-ism (or friendship) as easily as he spreads Santa.

Many scientists use the phrase --- which they should not --- “whatever the truth is, one thing is certain”. I will use this phrase now when summarizing what I have found on the net (simply because I am not certain). Mithra is seen as a mediator between God and man or Sky. The Roman civilization came into contact with this religious influence because of their widespread empire. Rome was well-known for absorbing the pagan religions and rituals of its widespread empire. The great festivals of Mithra are observed in the winter solstice and the vernal equinox which would correspond, respectively, to Christmas and Easter of the Christians It is then possible that Rome converted this pagan legacy to a celebration of the god of seed and sowing, Saturn, and the rebirth of the sun god during the winter solstice period. The winter holiday became known as Saturnalia, the most popular holiday of the Roman year and began the week prior to December 25th. A description of the Saturnalia festival in the internet is as follows

"During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters' clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that "During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.
This equality was temporary, of course; … "

This is the haven of freedom that Indian IT workers love to wake up to and treat Christmas as one of their own Hindu Festivals. We are not necessarily subscribing to alien beliefs when we join in on Christmas celebrations. We are just re-associating ourselves with what was our own --- Mithra-giri.