By February end, I had gathered a lot of information about the three leads in our heritage project. I had taught Lakshmi how to search for information on internet. She would travel to Sohagpur every day, access the net and bring back printouts of all the information available.
There was a prominent figure called Vyasatirtha in Vijayanagar kingdom, but no information linking anyone present to Vyasatirtha of those days was available on internet, or otherwise. Still, we intended to complete the last task of visiting at the given address. If nothing else, Lakshmi will be able to see the remains of Hampi, I thought.
On the Kashi front, I was now sure of finding the ancient address. But once I had to go there and search. The continuity of the ancient cities along Ganges was such that even streets had retained their old names. Whether Chaturvedis still existed was a question mark.
Regarding Rama town also, we had concrete information. With the help of Pakistani friends of my Indian friends based in US, we had traced the place. One US based Pakistani engineer arranged to send his brother based in Lahore, Pakistan to go to Gilgit. I offered a decent fee but the Pakistani guy refused it. He didn’t know us but thought it below his dignity to charge anything.
Once in Gilgit, openly asking for someone named Ramnath Dogra was fraught with dangers, even for a Pakistani guy. The area was monitored by both militants and the military. Now no Hindus or Buddhists remained there, as fundamentalist Islamists from outside had overcome the local culture. He just stayed there as a tourist, and casually mentioned that his father once was a close friend someone of that name who lived in Rama town. Then he left his address and returned to his home in Lahore.
Astore was the last town to camp in before Nanga Parbat south facing summit. Rama was a village that was a couple of hour’s trek from Astore. Now, one could drive also and stay in tourist lodges in Rama. By Email, he sent pictures of Astore valley, and Rama Lake and town. The places had breathtaking beauty. The good news was that a lot of foreign guys and Nepalese porters passed through that region in the mountaineering season, to ascend Nanga Parbat. These expeditions brought scarce foreign currency so the government there did not scuttle them. So if need arose, we could plan an entry. But first, we hoped that the Lahori friend got some message back from Rama.
In March, I went to Kashi. The address printed in the books read ‘Pandit Chaturvedi, Assi Ghat gali, Tulsidas Ghat, Kashi.’ Without much effort, I reached the Assi road. Then I took small lanes towards the Tulsidas ghat. They were like labyrinths and hardly received sunlight. In one gali close to the Ghat, I found a Dharmashala, and logged in for a long haul. The fee was just ten rupees a day. It was quite a comfort for that price.
A couple of days passed in enquiring about ‘Chaturvedis who published books’. Two days staying in Kashi seemed like an adventure sport. There was constant query coming from all directions, starting with ‘Where are you going?’ If one did not answer, they started guessing. Depending on who was asking, the guesses ranged from Kashi Vishwanath temple, Cremation ghat, some other ghat, boat ride, or some famous astrologer to red light area. The pestering only surpassed what I had experienced while visiting Taj Mahal in Agra, many years ago.
The greatness of these ancient cities was certainly surpassed by the filth of the human behavior. But I was a rugged character. I lasted two days in that by lane and by now, I had picked some decent men to hold conversations.
One old man who was addressed as Pandit ji, became familiar. He was the typical old men found only in Kashi and Gaya. I asked him about Chaturvedis. He replied, “I have been here for seventy years. I haven’t seen or heard about them. There are many printing presses near the station but not here.”
I said, “I am talking of at least two hundred years back.” In any other place, such mention of two hundred years would have evoked anger or laugh. But here in Kashi, it was fine.
But I could see that the old man was rapidly going to imagine some treasure hunt. It was quite a common fancy in this belt, especially about the hidden gold.
I smiled, and said, “There is no great purpose. They have been mentioned as close friends in our family history. They used to give books to us.”
I showed him a copy of the original book. That calmed him down temporarily. But within minutes, he started suggesting what I should do.
Pandit ji must have had a sleepless night. Next morning at seven, he was at the Dharmashala. He said, “I will take you to a person who will answer your queries.”
‘There was no harm in trying out’, I said to myself as I set out with Pandit ji.
He took me to one of the ghats; I think it was called Pandey ghats. There he took me to an office like building. It was a place where records were kept of each family for generations.. I had heard about them, but had the knowledge that this record keeping was only done in Haridwar and Gaya. This practice had lasted almost a thousand years.
The Kashi recordkeeping was just a local phenomenon, restricted to old areas. It had information that the family tree of a person who lived in Kashi. Just like in Haridwar and Gaya, it was updated whenever a family member visited the office. Since it was local in nature, it had much more details.
There, another septuagenarian man wearing spectacles, one Pandey ji, was the lone person managing the office. It was a trust which ran on small donations and one volunteer.
He wrote down the surname and address, and went inside his record room. His paper files were arranged by surnames. After half an hour, he came out with a card. The surname and address matched. It had a handwritten table, with entries made at different times. The years and dates were in Samvat. He said, “The last entry seems three hundred years ago. No one came after that.”
We read the last entry; it was submitted by one Om Prakash Sharma. I asked Pandey ji,” Shouldn't this Om Prakash be a family member to submit this record?”
He agreed but was puzzled. He said, “Yes, but it seems to be an error by then record keeper. Those who are not directly related should not be allowed to change records. And Sharma cannot be a direct child of a Chaturvedi.”
I asked, “Can you check this Sharma's records?”
Again he went inside the dark room behind a small wooden door. Outsiders were strictly not allowed and I didn’t feel like offending the old man, not yet if he worked effectively.
He was quite effective in his search. He came back in half an hour with another card. This time he had a look of discovery on his face, and had picked up some speed in excitement. He said, “I told you we have all the information you need about old Kashi.”
I didn’t recall him having said so but nodded in agreement. He continued, “At first I searched in usual manner - there was no card for any Sharma with this address. Reading all Sharma cards to find this address would have taken days.”
“Then I searched only for the entries made in the same year as the last entry in Chaturvedi’s card. My guess was that Om Prakash Sharma would have also updated his records when he would have come here. Then this card showed up, and the name matched to Om Prakash Sharma. It had a different address to begin with but after some entries it has changed back to a new address: 529/1/1, Tulsidas ghat gali, Varanasi. I think this new address and Chaturvedi’s address has the same location. The new land records have changed the building numbers but the location is the same.”
It was indeed a find. Pandit ji loudly proclaimed, “There is only one Sharma in that gali. That is Pintoo Sharma's address. I know him. He owns a vegetable cart in mandi.”
I ordered tea from a nearby vendor, while I hand copied the information in the two cards. Pandey ji would not allow it to bet taken out and there was no photocopy machine there. It anyways wouldn’t have made much difference as power cuts lasted for about twenty hours in a day. So no one invested in photocopiers. On the whole, from search to copying, it was no wonder why so many American Technologists had found inspirations in such places.
I thanked Pandey ji and gave a hundred rupees donation to his trust. It was quite large for a visitor. I took his Trust's name and promised to send a cheque to it. It was lunch time. Now assured that I would pay, Pandit ji took me to his favorite Bhojnalaya. The Bhojnalaya served unlimited meals, for just fifty rupees. Pandit ji was a lanky man, but this time, he ate four persons worth meal alone. Then he blessed me, “Today all Gods will be happy with you.”
After lunch, we went straight to Pintoo Sharma's home. It was just a hundred meters from the Dharamshala, and approximately half a kilometer from the Ganga ghat. His children and wife were at home. They had never got any visitor apart from those from the neighborhood. It was a matter of interest for all neighbors. I could see the curiosity the moment we knocked the door.
His wife answered, “Sharma ji is not at home. He will come after seven. Where have you come from?”
My dialect was not local; such folks were only found in cantonment or station nearby. I replied, “I have come from the station; needed to discuss vegetable order supply for a function. I will come after seven in the evening.” That doused the curiosity of all neighbors; else all of them would have eagerly awaited my return at seven.
I parted with Pandit ji, and went to see the Ghats and evening aarti. Unfortunately, with my evolution, I had stopped enjoying aartis like a devout person; otherwise it was a moving and magnificent show. I was more distracted by the packets being thrown in the holy river. It was unstoppable foolishness. 'Some day their next generation will repent each packet', I said to myself.
From aarti, I returned to Pintoo Sharma's home. He was at home and waited for me. His real name was Pandit Raghunandan Sharma alias Chaturvedi. He was about forty years, lanky and his head was completely tonsured with a small pony tail, symbolic of a pundit. It was an old house that looked small from the outside. But once one entered the door and crossed the first room, it opened into a large hall. The hall once would have been a verandah, open to sky but was now covered. The hall had rooms all around it. The furniture also seemed quite old. We sat in the hall.
As I looked around to admire the home, I asked, “This seems to be a very ancient place.”
He proudly proclaimed, “I have a recorded family history of 27 generations having lived here. We were adopted by the Kashi Naresh and published books. But now I sell vegetables to make a living.”
I agreed, “This is the supremacy of time. It converts living to dead and brings life to dead matter. Our statuses and wealth are only a trivial matter.”
He said, “You seem to be a person with depth. I am pleased that God has sent you in the guise of vegetable order.”
Then I told him the truth, “I have come here on another purpose. The station and vegetable order was to douse the neighborhood curiosity.” I brought out the copy of the Ramayana.
I said, “This book came to our place about three hundred years ago, from Pandit Chaturvedi, who lived in this home. All I came here for was to pay a courtesy visit to confirm the source.”
He asked, “Sir, how did you know that Chaturvedis lived here?”
I told him about Pandey ji's records. By now, his three children and wife also had become keen. He asked his wife for tea for us. Then he said, “Sir, we now write our surname as Sharma but we were originally Chaturvedi. During Aurangzeb's time, in order to avoid persecution, our names were changed and we left this place for some time. My family has maintained the versions of many religious texts, from ancient times. Writing and reading was the preserve of a few folks then. They made copies and sent it to distant regions. Then it stopped once the persecution started. Now it’s done by large printing presses.”
We had an hour long conversation. It was a wonder for him and his family also that someone knew them in this context. Then he showed me two rooms which were full of books. They were stored in tin boxes In his lifetime, he did not have to worry about persecution, but it seems the shadow of fear of those days still remained, just like the town itself lived in a different era.
I took many pictures of the place with him and family. I asked him how much of these books he knew. It was revealed that he was a very knowledgeable man in that context. It was quite natural for someone having grown with this heritage to have gone over it. He fluently described many different interpretations to Vedic shlokas and Ramayana and Gita. That evening I decided to spend a few more days with him. I asked him to teach me something.
He was a bit confused, and asked, “What can I teach you? It is all in the books.”
I said, “Don’t plan anything. Whatever extempore comes out will be enough.”
Next morning onwards, for next seven days, I went with him to his vegetable stall in the mandi. He had a running arrangement with the transporters. They would leave gunny bags full of different vegetables at his counter. There were many counters like that. Since he sold wholesale, most of his work was done by noon. Various cart vendors who would retail were also regular clients. His father had taken the wholesale license, and that was the only criteria for being in this business. It was sufficient to run a household on modest means.
Once his stock was sold, he remained there till the evening, studying astrology books. While I was around, we went to see Kashi through his eyes. I would not have got a better guide. He did not describe the temples but was a living encyclopedia on each of those, and the Puranas linked to them. He took me to many Akharas and gave their detailed background. I got to know a lot in those seven days, but most I valued was how he described the concept of time. It was a pure philosophical view and deeply influenced by Hindu religious texts, and it delved beautifully into how human constructs gave an impression of vagaries of time.
On the third day, I had a thought, ‘There must be a dairy or book of contacts in Pintoo’s library. The Chaturvedis had been distributing handwritten books to a distinguished set of persons.’
That day, we came back home early and opened all his storage cans, sifting through first few pages to check which were recordkeeping diaries. There were four such books. I needed his help since he was trained in the scripts. We needed to search for any reference for Satpura or Nagbaba.
The search was over next evening. Just like Pandit ji’s cards, one diary had pages assigned to various contacts. It was updated each time Chaturvedis sent someone and he returned, or when someone came from Sohagpur.
Sohagpur, the city of Gold, had been a very important place in the diary. During Dwaparyuga period, it was the capital of a kingdom ruled by Banasura, a devotee of Shiva. Subsequently, it passed into oblivion but remained the capital place for one of the Gond kingdoms. Sohagpur was located on the banks of river Palakmati, like the present day, and had been surrounded by dense jungles. It had mountains in the south and Narmada to the north. Such was the description of Sohagpur in the diary.
There were various contacts listed under Sohagpur, and chronologically updated. Gond kings, Nagbabas, artisans and traders were listed as the known folks. The list started almost a thousand years back, in 1057 Vikram Samvat and ended about two hundred years back. In the end, it noted, “The tribal king and their successors have been treacherously killed by the British with the help of Nawab Jafar Alvi. The only trustworthy contact now remaining is the thirtieth Nagbaba and his family.”
I took Pintoo’s permission to take photocopies of these pages, which he happily allowed.
After seven days, I was ready to leave. Pandit Raghunandan alias Pintoo came to see me off at the railway station, with his full family. He could not control his emotions. He said, “Had you not come, I would have spent this life without realizing the importance of what I had. My children also feel very important now. I can see now that they will preserve our heritage, and not get lost in mundane jobs.”
I gave him a hug, and told him, “You please come to our village at the earliest. Everyone would be happy to receive such a visitor. Let me know if you want to do something about resurrecting your library. We will help.”
I waved bye as the train moved, eager to get back to village.
The narration of my visit to Kashi brought a lot of celebrations at Nagbaba's hut. To think rationally, it didn’t have much bearing on our present or future, but the feeling that 'What we knew was right' made everyone proud. It is a foolish thing to let past pride dictate the path of future but we were far away from that state of mind.
Lakshmi and children of her age wanted to hear again and again what happened there, and see pictures and videos I had taken.
We took out our diaries and tried to match the history with Chaturvedis’ account. It broadly matched. Further, we constructed the information to guess how many Nagbabas had been there since the thirtieth one. The current one was the thirty fifth Nagbaba.
One old villager named Vikram, narrated the story of how the last King was killed. As per the folklore, the King had a boon that he could not be killed if he remained to the south of Narmada. In the name of friendship, and with some assurance given by his unknown friend, the British invited him to the north bank of Narmada, where he was treacherously killed. It was a tale most tribals believed in – it had passed down from one generation to another. The note in Kashi only validated what they knew.
A happy gift awaited us. Piya was expecting a baby. The whole village was overjoyed. We visited the nearest gynecologist in Hoshangabad, almost fifty kilometers from our forest hut. But the distance to a hospital did not worry us; many girls had now been trained in Nursing in the nearby villages.
In April first half, excited by the last trip, we planned to explore Hampi. This time, Lakshmi and twenty other children were also to come, accompanied by some adults. Tulsi and the three kids were also listed as travelers but she dropped out, still not ready for a journey outside.
A weeklong trip was planned and bookings made. There was not much hope of any discovery there. We met historians who knew about Vyasatirtha, but they thought that the line was now broken.
The magnificent Hampi, once the capital of Vijayanagar Empire, lay in ruins, the entire city destroyed by such hatred that evoked strong emotions. Piya said, “Such destruction cannot happen in present India.” Lakshmi said, with information fed by the local guide, “It was done by staunch Muslim kings once they defeated the kingdom.”
I did not agree with either of them and strongly answered, “Such destructions happens in present India daily. I have my own events to show that. Those who tried to harm Piya or those politicians or officials who sponsor Sardars or Dau are no less destructive. Just the form of destruction and means are different now days but these are far more dangerous.”
Then I countered Lakshmi, “Humans are adept in reasoning in a manner to somehow come on the right side. Do not lose facts when overwhelmed by emotions No Muslim ruler came and destroyed your forests, or rivers. It is being done by our own folks. You decide what bigger destruction than that is.”
There was a silence. Piya broke that, “Okay, we are only small children. We live in the moment. Now we are hungry.”
The entire troupe had dosa sambar for lunch. It was the first experience of a south Indian dish for the children. It quickly became a favorite, and Piya promised to make it in the village also.
After five days of study tour, we all returned back to the village, in the comfort of forests. It was a first exploration tour for the children, a part of learning that had to be regularized.
When we returned, there was a message from my friend in USA. His relative in Lahore had been contacted on phone by one Shamsher Khan from Astore. Shamsher was coming to Lahore in last week of April on business work. I guessed he first wanted to check the genuineness of the person in Lahore.
Shamsher stayed in Lahore for a few days. Being a Gilgit resident, he was prone to suspicion of spying if he caught attention. We quickly scanned the letter we had from Ramnath Dogra, and sent it by email to the Lahori relative. Shamsher saw it and identified his father’s letter. Cleverly, his father had used some uncommon words in the letter, for his son to identify.
Once convinced, Shamsher shared his story with the person in Lahore. Gilgit region was a melting pot of various cultures and religions, so it underwent many religious and cultural changes along with changing power structures.
Shamsher's both parents were Hindu Dogras. Much before that in history, their ancestors were Buddhists. His parents died as Hindus in late eighties but they had converted all the children to Muslims, for their safety and prosperity. In the lap of Himalayan Mountains, religion seemed as secondary matter to them. Nature’s fury and beauty had remained the primary love and fear for the inhabitants there.
They lived in Rama valley till Shamsher was small and then shifted to Astore. Those days, it was a day’s walk from Astore. Astore had now become the place from where the mountaineering expeditions started for Nanga Parbat, and it offered good business. Like all old families there, he also owned a gems and handicrafts shop.
Rama Valley, which has retained its name and fame till today, as the most beautiful place on Earth, was said to be created by God himself. It has a beautiful Rama Lake, now living its last years as deforestation has spoiled the ecosystem.
Before dying, his father had left a box, safely kept away from the knowledge of fascists and officials. That had the remains of their heritage. The father had written to a few addresses he knew who could come and take it. Then he had sent the letters with someone permanently migrating to India while it was still easy.
Nagbaba and tribals kings in Satpura also were high up in the list of contacts. I discovered later that a lot of Buddhist texts listed Nagas as the original inhabitants of those Gilgit areas. Though those early Nagas didn’t have much relation with our Nagbaba or tribal kings, we still had a continuous thread of civilization contacts running from north to south. The respect was only strengthened by the stories of superiority of tribal over Huns and Sakas in battles.
Believing that the box could be handed over to us, Shamsher asked us to send someone to Astore. Any other way seemed too risky for him. We agreed upon a couple of code sentences to be spoken by the person who would travel to Astore. The first one was, ‘What time the sun rises in Rama Valley?’ and second was, ‘Why is Nanga Parbat in Gilgit?’
Before leaving Lahore, Shamsher sent this message, ‘Please send someone soon enough. While I am alive, these things will be treated with respect. But my children and their wives do not have much sense of any heritage; they may spoil it also. I will be grateful to you for fulfilling my father’s last wish.’
Helping further in this task was not thought prudent by the Lahori relative. We thanked him with gratefulness, offered our services for anything he needed and left it there. Now the task was up to us.
I did not read newspapers or watch television news channels. So, all the frenzy about India- Pakistan affairs escaped my attention. It was a beautiful experience to just interact with these people, free from all biases, and driven by some common cause.
Sending someone to Pakistan’ Gilgit with legal permission to travel looked impossible. Even Indian mountaineers were not able to go there, though many foreign expeditions were allowed. Even if the permission was granted, it would mean heavy spying and surveillance. And sponsoring an expedition through foreign proxies seemed far out of our budget.
It was quite a challenge. But remembering Amma’s words, I kept on researching. Many different ideas came up. Then I hired a retired military Colonel to help brainstorm and plan. He saw merit in using a porter. Numerous Nepalese porters traveled to Astore each season to help the Mountaineering teams.
As if to help our cause, Nanga Parbat had the reputation as the ‘world’s most notoriously difficult climb’. I also had the nickname ‘killer mountain’. It had never been climbed in winter. The south face of Nanga Parbat boasts was the highest mountain face in the world, rising almost 4,600 meters above its base to a height of 8,126 meters above sea level. I could only imagine how the Rama Lake and Rama Valley looked in its backdrop.
The challenge of Nanga parbat attracting a lot of European expeditions which needed Nepalese porters. We had very little time left for the coming season. By June end, we had made and executed a meticulous plan. The list of porters who were leaving for Nanga Parbat south face expedition was obtained through Colonel’s contacts in Nepal. The easy part about Nepal was that money could do anything.
A poor porter used to get about two thousand dollars for risking their lives for a month in that terrain. There would be deductions if he could not travel beyond base camp due to fitness issues. The regular porters were men were familiar with Astore and Rama valley. Once their expedition was over, the Pakistani authorities were quick to make them leave. Though it was for security reasons, it did favor to the nature also.
Out of the list of porters going in the coming season, we short listed the five neediest ones. They were contacted and scanned by the Colonel. Out of the five, two were finally chosen.
The only available time they had to do our work was before the expeditions begin. Then they would be preparing in Astore. Our condition was that they would injure themselves in acclimatization process and stay in base camp. Taking our box to the Nanga Parbat meant taking a fair chance of losing it permanently.
But feigning an injury was a matter of lost pride and future income. It would be a couple of years lost before they get a foreign expedition contract again.
So we offered two of them four thousand dollars each for our work. They happily agreed. An advance of one thousand dollars was paid to them via a local trusted man. Then they left in July last week as per their expedition schedule.
They were not able to contact their families till they came back, as cell phone reach was limited in Gilgit and remote Nepal. We had no news till November end, which we believed was symbolic of good news.
The porters came back in December, and brought the items in the box for us. The colonel went to Nepal and brought them to the village. Shamsher had given a bill listing the items and their description. They were eighteen in number and belonged to various eras – two books, ten idols with exquisite carving work, four sculptures which were damaged, and two large gems. The sculptures included two Buddha faces.
They were laid out in front of Nagbaba’s office along with the letter from Shamsher’s father. We didn’t have an expert amongst us, but I told Nagbaba, “If sold in international markets, they would be worth millions of dollars.” We didn’t know the legal status of such possessions, whether it belonged to us or to the government, so it was best assigned to the Trust as donations.
The event evoked somber feelings everywhere. The feeling that someone so far had sent us such invaluable gifts, in good faith, could not be explained. Another fact was that another thing in the Diary had been proven.
I and Lakshmi were most elated. We celebrated the arrival of 2011 with a small brinjal baati party.
Though she was just thirteen now, this was known as her project. It is hard to imagine and describe what she was feeling. When she was eleven, it was a dreamy child’s wish to take up her Baba’s burden, not even knowing what it was. I just gave a direction to that burning fire with a selfish motive to make her study and learn, but it concluded with so much knowledge beyond my wildest guess.
My experience with the Lahori friend, and then Shamsher was also an eye opener. There was so much contradiction between the people and the world they live. The individuals could quickly identify a higher purpose and associate with it even if meant leaving their other identities. The same applied to everyone, whether it was me or Nagbaba or Tilak or Piya or Amma or Shamsher or Lahori friend.
But the system we ourselves had created and were part of had no such sensitivities. Sometimes, it even behaved in ways harmful to its constituents. I sensed that the difference between the Good and the Bad behavior of the overall system was made by the network of intermediaries. One such network was ‘The Sardars’, and whatever vested interests that the term stood for.