I had heard about the 25-foot Shivling, even before I had reached Ziro. With the Amarnath story still fresh in my mind this appeared too tempting to be passed without an investigation. While little kids at the Don Bosco Church just outside my hotel practiced Sunday choir, I bought emergency food of a few chocolates, and set off for in search of the Shivling.
It was hardly a search; everybody appeared to know exactly where it was and how to get to it. Through the paddy fields, through the ‘basti’ beyond the town water supply source…
I had set out alone, in search of an adventure, but soon I found myself in a veritable procession – an odd assortment of lottery dealers from Mumbai visiting on business, migrant workers from Bihar, Marwari families, even a band of local tribal girls who confessed that they did not know how to do ‘puja’. ‘We pray to ‘Donyi Polo’’ they said, fortunately I had done some reading before hand and I knew that they meant the Sun and Moon god.
We keep walking along a small stream that also supplies water to part of the Hapoli town, skirt the ‘Tage Nami’ reserved forest and then use a log bridge to cross to the other side of the stream. The climb is not easy as the ground is wet and slippery in parts. But guess what? As the climb becomes really tricky, we encounter a freshly laid concrete stairway! It has been less than two years since this Shivling was discovered, and already serious development has started taking place. I am impressed, but can’t help wondering how would our world change if we showed equal enthusiasm and initiative to create school and health infrastructure.
Soon we reach an enterprisingly located shop selling water, cold drinks (no way of keeping them cold though) and ‘pooja samagri’, of course. All devotees dutifully buy the necessary coconuts, flowers, and sweets to be offered to Lord Shiva.
Some more climbing, a little descent and suddenly you can hear the bells ringing. We are almost there. In a crevice between two hills, what would normally be a channel for rain water to run away stands this monster of a rock. Alone and impervious of the watching crowds – the Shivling.
On one side is a very long bench made of bamboo, on which the devotees sit and await there turn to approach the very young looking ‘poojari’ seated very close to the Shivling and facilitating the ‘pooja’. Just behind the bamboo bench is a mud staircase leading to what can only be described as a covered viewing gallery, from where one can get a “balcony view”. While all the ‘pooja’ goes on, a couple of people are busy cleaning the Shivling – a very large bamboo ladder is being used by two men to dislodge the moss that is growing on the rock.
The photographer in me has to explore all possible visual angles so I do my own ‘parikrama’. Trying to access the behind of the Shivling, I slip and slide a couple of feet in the wet mud, all the while trying to protect my cameras. Ghome Tamang who has been watching me all the while points a somewhat safer access to the back of the Shivling. He should know as he was one of the few workers who first discovered the Shivling.
He is not a local. He and most of the workers who were cutting some trees that fateful day, come from Nepal, and can tell a Shivling from any other rock, unlike, perhaps the locals. In the two years since, the whole world seems to have changed: all kinds of dignitaries have visited the site, lots of money has been collected in the ‘danpatra’, which apparently the owner of the land has put to effective use. A full time ‘poojari’ has been employed, seating arrangements have been made, viewing balcony has been erected, concrete has been laid… But Ghome continues to cut wood into pieces and semi-burn them to convert it into wood-charcoal to be sold to factories lower down. Don’t get me wrong, he is not complaining. He is a believer, he tells me that you always get whatever you want. What did ‘you’ ask for? I ask. I wanted a son, and got one, he says, matter of factly.
On my way back, between pictures of beautiful women in beautiful paddy fields, I am wondering how ‘god’ has a way of bootstrapping an economic chain-reaction. The pandit, the shopkeeper, the masons, the labour. And if all goes as per plan, soon hotels, dhabas, taxis, touts…
While I am figuring a way to capture a tribal man carrying an enormous load of cut wood on his back and running with incredibly short steps, a kid walks by. He must have found my bulky camera interesting because he came back and stood around for a while watching me. We get talking and I find out that he studies in class IX in a local school. I am intrigued when I find out that he chose to hike alone with no specific purpose in mind. I don’t know why, but you rarely see people walk alone in these parts.
I did not ask, but he volunteered to show me around. After a quick lunch he took me for another hike to a large valley full of fresh paddy submerged in water. He showed me how the embankments between paddy fields were used to grow millet and in the water the farmers had kept fish. He also took me to the Regional High Altitude Fish Seed Farm, which on a Sunday was being used mostly by families on picnic and by young people in early courtship ritual.
On my request he talked an old ‘Apatani’ women into posing for me – Apatani tribals can be identified by the unique tattoo-like markings running right across the face from their forehead to their chin. I was very happy with the picture and wanted to share it with my ‘model’. When I, without warning, flipped the camera over for her to see the picture in the LCD screen, she suddenly got irritated jumped up (as if she was half her age) and menacingly waived her ‘Dao’ – a traditional 10 inch multipurpose knife – at me as if ready to strike. I retreated hastily. My young friend told me that the old women thought I was making fun or her. I have been thinking about that incident and believe that something must have got lost in translation; perhaps she was making a much deeper point…
Dispatches from the border - II