Robbed by our own granite

Is not it true that we also stand robbed by our own granites, marbles and so on, of all that was inherited, inherent and was essentially beautiful in us?


Rajshekhar Pant | December 1, 2014

Bhimeshwar Temple Bhimtal
Bhimeshwar Temple Bhimtal

I am not aware of the reason that prompted her to paint in oil a desolate looking temple at an almost unheard-of settlement of Bhimtal in the far off Central Himalayan region. Splashed by the waters of a virgin lake, the largest water-body in this region full of mountain tarns- Bhimtal was centuries behind then, in terms of human habitation, and development from Nainital- its nearest counterpart discovered just three decades back.

Daughter of Frederick North, a Norfolk Deputy Lieutenant and Liberal MP for Hastings, Marianne North probably had a brief stay in the flattened wilderness, then constituting the hinterland of the lake. Bhimtal then being the only gateway to Kumaon hills the official retinue of the colonial masters on way to the deeper hills would invariably bivouac by the shoreline of the lake. And who knows whether Marianne North was enamoured by the clusters of orchids and wild daffodils, spoken about so enthusiastically in Almoriana- a collection of stray reminiscences of a soldier of the regimental life as it had been in close by Almora in the concluding decades of 19th century. Marianne after all had a passion for flowers and the royal botanical society (UK) still has quite a few lively reproductions by her of plants in bloom. 
Her painting of the Bhimeshwar Mahadev Temple often wafts me back to the early decades of 19th century when much of the hilly terrains of the state called Uttarakhand now, had just been subjugated by the British. They may be having a conqueror’s arrogance in their dealing with the simple hill-folks but as far their love and concern for this mountain country is concerned there is hardly any doubt that that they were quite deep into it. Commissioner Trill, who occupied the apex seat of power in Kumaon hills following the victory of the John Company in the battle of Almora in the year 1815 did not avail a single day’s leave during his entire length of service in hills. In guarding the interests of hills and hill-folks, his colleagues write, he was as jealous as a typical Joshi brahmin from the region. And so was Henry Ramsay, the legendry Ram ji Sab of the folk tradition. He was the administrative head of the province during the uprising of 1857. Fluent in Kumaoni dialect and conversant with the local traditions he reportedly took up cudgels with Lord Curzon by not allowing a pompous passage to the queen's army, lest it should disturb the tranquility of the sylvan hills.

Recalling the names of acknowledged indomaniacs like Marshall, Grierson, Cunnigham, Col Todd, VA Smith, Sherring, Jim Corbett and the likes, who told us of our legacy, the sweetness of our language and even about the remarkable diversity and the richness of our floral and faunal wealth is rather a cliché. Even the routine developmental works they carried out in the freshly conquered country were in consonance with ‘the character of mountains’.  I often look at the Dak Bungalows constructed at a mutual distance of every eighth mile all along the forest trails, criss-crossing even the innermost reaches of wilderness all over hills. Incidentally, most of these bungalows are deserted now. Forest officers in our times do neither have the interest nor the moral scruple to be in touch with the heart of the jungles.

The location of these bungalows, their architect, whatever is left of their interior and the use of locally available construction material and skill with dexterity and aesthetics leave even a present onlooker dazed with a somewhat spontaneous utterance, “oh, I never knew that this mud mortar plaster on stone masonry can survive the vagaries of weather and vandalism of men for over a century.” At times I was surprised to see the parapets along the Bareilly-Almora highway built over a century ago. What a rapid transition was there in their appearance as the road gradually enters the deeper hills. With a slanted upper lip terminating hardly a feet above the ground, they had enough of earth filled surface at the top allowing the natural green turf to have a lush growth. No paints, no plastering, no mis-spelt slogans in jarring colours by the Public  Works Department; -they stood in perfect unison with the ambiance and were sturdy enough to take 2 to 3 days time each in  demolition when replaced by their RCC counterparts a couple of years ago. Quite a few of these replacements now hang in crazy angles from the road. Often lined with Maples or age old Chestnuts the remains of quite a few ancient bridal paths traversed quite occasionally now by villagers still emanate from or cross these roads.

At occasional intervals these leftovers of mountain trails –once buzzing with the hoards of trnshumant highlanders and their flocks of sheep –are marked with spouts consisting of a tiger’s head in cast-iron and also quite an elaborate water trough- a masonry structure in locally available black stone. Quite invariably there would also be a small, somewhat morose looking obelisk mounted on a masonry parapet with a timeworn iron plate displaying in embossed letters the distance of the nearest dak-bungalow. Blending quite congenially in the ambiance characterized with a rugged and uneven landscape gradually rising vertically upward, the remains of these structures often re- strengthen this conviction that only a heart and soul capable of identifying itself with the character of mountains can think and plan in these terms. 

I do remember a couple decades back a small municipal market was under construction at Bhimtal- my quiet hometown- just above a bridal path lying in disuse since 1947- the year the macadamized roads and motorcars made their first appearance in this part of the globe. A politically well connected elderly person with a criminal history and holding some petty elected office in district civic body was executing the work as contractor. (Incidentally right from the level of civic bodies to the upper echelons of the power-corridor such a combination is quite in hand these days in hills.) A milestone of early 19th century was there at the work site. In an utmost polite manner I suggested it to that leader cum contractor that for its heritage value this stone must not be sacrificed to the site development.

Gloweringly when he asked that what I had to do with it, I was suddenly reminded that how during my recent visit to Europe my host Adriane while showing me the old pathways and trails at Petersfield in UK had informed me about the combined effort of the govt and the masses to perpetuate the pristine status of these ancient links. A brown board placed at the head of these pathways speaks of their distinct identity. While taking me out for a tour to Winkle Street in the nearby Isle of Wight my sister Uma had also spoken of the consciously preserved antiquity of the environs and architect of this 14th century settlement. And yes, Johnny Calley was also not different in his commentary when we were in Weald and Downland  -a whole lot of museum country in Sussex, where they have recreated the mediaeval England by way of shifting brick by brick from all over southern England a variety of over fifty structures- like houses, barns, toll barriers, water mills and so on. Most probably in countries like England at least those who do not have an understanding and feel for the character and the very soul of mountains don’t get the contract to make, break or maintain the towns and other settlements.

The socio-economic and political changes following the independence have indeed gone a long way in determining our mental makeup and approach. The hope and idealism getting reflected in the initial films of Raj Kapoor, alas! was not destined to have a long lease of life. Standing till seventies on their knees traits like nepotism and corruption and the so called politicking for votes were comfortably on their legs in nineties when globalization was in offing. One may however, now notice them doing stilt drill on towering bamboo poles. This transition perceptible otherwise across the length and breadth of the country is pronounced enough -like an obscene graffiti by some pervert on a freshly painted wall- in nascent states like Uttarakhand. And over the years we unfortunately have developed a habit of ignoring it as we do with such graffiti. Our concern for this derogation is often confined to recalling the good old days sitting in our drawing rooms or in seminars and getting nostalgic.
Marginalizing this concerned minority quite rapidly a powerful coterie, with an inherent indifference towards things like aestheticism, culture and heritage has now occupied the judgment seat here. Issues from developing basic infrastructure in villages to the commissioning of hydropower plants are important to them because they all involve a lot of money. Destruction caused by torrential rains, swollen rivers or landslides makes them happy for they see it as a prologue to the inflow of lucrative grants. Insiders even speak of contractors and construction companies keeping kitties to get the projects and proposals through from the secretariat and the concerned ministries in the state capital. So rampant has become the corruption that with the release of an advertisement for vacancies in any govt. department a bit of sniffing leads you directly to the touts who can assure you of an appointment letter provided you have the price to pay as per the prevailing market rate. Since the implementation of the sixth pay commission these rates are reported to have been to the tune of five figures. And yes, for a transfer at the place of your choice, the facility is said to be easily available right at the doors of the secretariat. Obviously, when the bigger sharks are there eluding the masses by way of playing blame games shielding their ‘men’, who bothers for small piranhas? 

At times you feel like disbelieving all this that has of late been in the air as a ghastly nightmare, yet the pricks you feel in your day today life do not let it happen. Of course a vicious circle has been forming in the society throughout these years… And when a group of romantic youngsters with dreams in their eyes bursts out in streets against all this singing chal pade hain le mashalen log mere gaon ke…(with torches in their hands my compatriots are out now…) the system does not have a moral scruple in hauling them behind the bars. Let the torches get replaced by guns in the days to come; the grueling hand of the system gets the liberty to treat them as Maoists or Naxalites.

Being a part of this speedily transforming, rather degenerating landscape is a frustrating experience indeed; especially when you know that once those who lived here were sentimentally attached to this land, to this ambiance. We claim to have been developing, as all say, with an astounding growth rate to our credit. The unquestionable personal growth rate of quite a few of our politicians and their cronies is just astronomical. But what kind of a development is it that has been instrumental but in numbing all our sensitivities and finer feelings? 

Despite my not being religious in the expected sense of the term, whenever in my home town, I often drift to the Bhimeshwar Mahadev Temple. It was constructed sometime in the 17th century by Deep Chand, an obscure scion of the regional royalty who spent his last days in a prison-cell like Shahjahan. Till my nonage romantic tales associated with the commissioning of this temple and its subsequent renovations happened to be an integral part of our bedtime stories. Its historicity is now completely lost in the granites, marbles, tiles and all sorts of reds and blues- courtesy the lucrative MPLAD Funds.

Is not it true that we also stand robbed by our own granites, marbles and so on, of all that was inherited, inherent and was essentially beautiful in us?       





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