ASHES AMONG THE GLITTER AND THE GOLD

Trip Start Jan 15, 2011
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Trip End Mar 19, 2011


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Flag of India  , Maharashtra,
Sunday, February 20, 2011

SUN. FEBRUARY 20. ASHES AMONG THE GLITTER AND THE GOLD

                "Bring ashes today," I was told.  So I did.

                MALABAR HILL...
 ...the geographical crown directly north of the art deco-lined shores of Marine Drive along Chowpatty Beach bedazzles with its high-rise precious jewels.   If this stretch is called the Queen's Necklace, Malabar Hill is its tiara.  Some of the most expensive real estate in the world is here.  This prime area houses the official residences of the governor and the Chief Minister of Maharashtra.  One tycoon-in-residence constructed his folk’s little kingdom in the modest embodiment of a one-family skyscraper.   Donald Trump owns property here, as do the owner of Kingfisher, members of the Tata family and a handful of Bollywood elite.  From what I gather though, if there’s a movie star tour bus, you’re more likely to gawk your way through the posh stomping grounds in the suburbs of Bandra and Juju. 


                The nearby Towers of Silence is a place of “excarnation” for the Parsi religion.  The Parsis hold to the belief that the human body, after death, should be disposed of by natural means, so bodies are left in the Towers of Silence, exposed to the elements, the better for carrion birds to feed on the remains.  But Old Bombay is now modern Mumbai and such concerns as hygiene and expensive land, not to mention a scarcity of birds of prey, inevitably have shrouded the Towers of Silence in a veil of unease. 

                The ornate white marble Temple of the Jains is officially known as Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji, but most people just call it the Jain Temple because who wants to say all that.  Dedicated to Adinath (the first Thirthankara in Jainism), the Jain Temple flows with color, peace and serenity throughout.  Highly decorated with frescoes showcasing the lives of the 24 Tirthankaras, other notables on display are the two stone elephants flanking the entrance.  Not too shabby also is the black marble shrine of Parsavanath with its celestial personifications of the planets on a ceiling mural.  And of course, the usual saints and deities abound, including the ever-popular elephant-headed god Ganesh whose legacy links Hinduism with Jainism.

                Jains are lovers of peace to such an extent they won’t kill an insect.  (“What if that insect was your great aunt?”)  They’re vegetarians and won’t even eat anything that grows inside the ground for fear of harming a worm.  The Jain communities are some of the most prosperous in Mumbai, are noted for their business-savvy ways and boast the highest literacy rates in the city.  This morning it was typically attended by scores of bare-footed business men and white-robed monks.  Picture taking was restrictive from snapping a person’s face and you could neither film nor take a picture of a holy man.  Parvene introduced me to several of her tourism colleagues who were present for worship.

                At the top of Malabar Hill sprouts the pristine Hanging Gardens. It’s not what I expected and it doesn’t hang.  If you’ve conjured an image of your idea of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, cast it aside.  Deriving its name from the tiered landscaping built to cover Bombay’s several major water tanks in the late 19th century, this patch of greenery and gardening is highlighted by topiaries (carved hedges) of exotic animals.  Across the street is Nehru Park, where a view from a footbridge atop a drop-off overlooks the Queen’s Necklace and the Nariman Point skyscrapers across the bay.  Although we were there early afternoon, it was easy to imagine the popular beacon of the sunset’s glow over the Arabian Sea.

BANGANGA...

...THE CASTING OF THE ASHES.  Nestled amidst the glitter and the gold of Malabar Hill lies the modest hominess of a small settlement set around a sacred tank fed by Banganga, a freshwater spring.  The Banganga tank is the focal point of the Walkeshwar Temple Complex comprising nine temples, noted as the oldest structure in the city.  Of these, the Jabreshwar Mahedeo is the most engaging, while some others are more understated.  Banganga belongs to the Goud Saraswat Temple Trust and several Goud Saraswat Brahmin families still call this home.  Also on this hallowed acreage lays a Hindu cemetery and a cremation ground near the sea, the latter home to the Samadhu shrines of several famous saints. 


                In Hindu mythology, this was a resting spot for Rama on his way to rescue his wife, Sita, who had  been abducted by Ravana.  (Oh those deities! They were a dramatic lot if they were anything.)  When thirst overcame Rama, he just shot an arrow into the ground and brought the Ganga over to him.  Hence, a spring gushed forth. 

                Pilgrims have declared this a holy site and visit regularly, bathing in the tank before entering the temple, for the waters' reputation for curative, medicinal and sanctifying properties is that of which legends are made.  Also, Banganga is major cultural center and is home to several important annual festivals.

                At first sight, I didn’t think I wanted to cast ashes into this “freshwater” tank.  It didn’t look particularly “freshwater” to me.  But it’s spring-fed, which means the water is actually sweet.  Parvene called it a “spring” so I’ll stick with that because it sounds better than “tank.”  And lest I forget, I’d cast ashes in the holy river at Kathmandu, which took some convincing, so why was I so apprehensive about a little holy tank?  

                We strolled around the settlement as children played in the street, women gossiped, chickens squawked, cows lounged, tourists snapped pictures and people went about their everyday business in this enclave encircling the sacred complex.  We removed our shoes and walked into one of the temples.  Several small, separate groups of worshippers were seated on the floor in scattered circles around one Brahmin per group. Not only could I feel the holiness of this place; it was bright and heartening in character and it was growing on me.  So was the idea of casting Jim’s ashes into the spring as sacred Hindi music (the bells and chants) filled the air.  The Banganga spring would be a scattering site that was peaceful, yet in the middle of an urban environment…with access to the sea if he got tired of it.  (I know he can go wherever he wants in spirit but it's the thought.)  I turned to Parvene and said, “I think I do want to spread some ashes after all.”

                She crossed over to one of the Brahmin and spoke with him.  He asked for the ashes and I produced the packet from my pocket.  With raised eyebrows, he pointed out that I had unknowingly committed a major faux pas.  Apparently, you’re not supposed to actually carry ashes into a temple.  They’re not to enter the temple!  Parvene didn’t know this, either, not being a Hindu.  Otherwise, I would have waited outside while she inquired.  I tried to remember if I’d walked into any other temple with ashes during my entire trip but couldn’t recall.  I don’t think I did.  But…I just plain and simple didn’t know.  The young Brahmin, understanding of my ignorance, led us to the far end of the sacred spring.  Standing on the ghat, he performed the ritual, the same ceremony practiced over and over on my trip by one priest after another.  We sprinkled holy water on the ashes and repeated mantras, and I cast the ashes into the sweet spring water. The ducks didn’t mind.

                Maybe I was becoming a jaded old pro at this (although I didn't think so).  Even though my vibes about Banganga had taken a positive turn, it didn’t impact me as much as some of the previous scattering sites.  Who knows why?  I didn’t feel this was place was wrong; the event was nevertheless slightly anticlimactic.  I had a job to do and I did it.  In the previous places I had placed such high expectations of receiving a message or some great cosmic experience or whatever you want to call it, even in the unplanned scatterings.  Here in Mumbai, that (presumptive?) hopefulness eluded me.  Maybe I'm learning it didn't need to be about celestial choirs and thunder and lightening, at least not every single time and spirits probably have better things to do besides follow me around every step of my trek.  Like Sondheim's song, sometimes it's a quiet thing.  And this was peaceful.

                Come to think of it, there was that music…the bells ringing from the temple.  Okay, that’s it.  The music was there!  If the harmonic synchronicity of the scatterings across this land climaxed with the children singing on the Taj Trail, Banganga was the dénouement of the India spreadings, which in itself guaranteed its own chapter in the saga of this journey. This was a major lesson that will serve me well in Europe: the earth doesn’t have to move every single time!
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