Thursday, June 08, 2006

a walk amongst pune’s ‘outsiders’

One evening while riding in a rickshaw with my friend Kranti, I spotted first what looked to me like a Hindu shrine temple with Muslims entering it, and then a large structure that looked like a Catholic church but which she told me was a synagogue. I was intrigued, and she promised to take me to see them both one day. When that day comes, along the way within minutes, we pass a magnificent Jain temple, several Buddhist ‘vihāras’ or tiny temples that also look on the outside very much like the Hindu temples that dot the urban landscape here, a massive church of Saint Francis, a Parsi place of worship closed off to view from the street, as well as a Moslem shrine to a female saint, before reaching finally the city’s oldest Jewish house of worship (see separate blog entry on this). This extravaganza of religious pluralism, ironically enough, turns out to be a by-product of the exclusivist impulses of Pune’s brahmin community.

I chose to come to Pune in part because it is a major center of Sanskrit learning. I am told that many generations back, a king eager to attract brahmins to his kingdom offered land grants to any who would come and settle in ‘the village of Pune,’ as those with long memories still call this now bustling city of Pune. Many took up the offer, made their homes alongside the purifying waters of the town’s broad rivers, and established Pune as a stronghold of brahminical culture and learning. It is still today a great place to come to study that culture’s lifeblood, the Sanskrit language. Brahmins’ status as brahmins depended on maintaining ritual purity. The necessary distance from potentially polluting factors was upheld physically as well as socially. As such, those who are not members of one of the upper castes were discouraged from making their homes within the boundaries of the heavily brahmin Pune village. Even today, it is within the ‘village’ of Pune that brahmins and members of the upper three Hindu castes tend to make their homes. And for generations now, everyone else - Jews, Jains, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, as well as members of those Hindu groups once called ‘outcaste’ or ‘untouchable’ - has made their homes outside that central area of Pune, and away from the pure waters of the city’s two rivers.

It in this outsider’s zone that all the diverse places of worship are clustered, and where those whom they serve live shoulder-to-shoulder. Indeed, it was in this outsider’s area that the British encamped, earning it the name of ‘Camp,’ or, more formally, Pune Cantonment. These boundaries are important, and even today, there are signs in English and Marathi announcing when one is entering or exiting ‘Pune Cantonment.’

My walk among Pune’s outsiders begins with a meal at my friend Kranti’s home. Kranti calls her neighborhood a ghetto, and as in many ghettos, much of life takes place on the street. People are washing dishes at open taps, scolding children, chatting with neighbors. For the first time in Pune, I pass elderly women, children, and young men, who brighten at the sight and place their palms together in respect for a passing Buddhist monk. Kranti’s parents followed the great Dalit leader Dr. Ambedkar in converting to Buddhism and the neighborhood is full of people who recognize my robes. The neighborhood is full of Muslims, recognizable from their manner of dressing, and Buddhists, not visibly marked as such. Kranti’s father tells me there several ‘viharas.’ Vihara is a term meaning Buddhist monastery, and I am somewhat crestfallen to see that here, a vihara is a neighborhood shrine, neatly kept swept but otherwise empty except for a simple image of Buddha and a few plastic flowers. Monasticism, as I will soon learn, has not found much favor among Ambedkari Buddhists.

We continue on. Squeezed between two storefronts is a gleaming white tower of marble, a Jain temple covered in statues and decorative ornamentation from the ground straight up to the top of its three or four stories. It is as narrow as the surrounding buildings, but magnificent, and the opus is apparently not yet complete. A group of men cluster on scaffolding, painting on one of the few unsculpted patches of wall. I wonder why I thought a camera would not be necessary to me this year in India, Kranti comments that they have a lot of money, and we move on.

Next we arrive at the Muslim shrine I mistook for a Hindu temple. The loud music and crowds outside announce to us that we have turned up on a festival day. No one seems to mind our entering, though my robes and shaven head and Kranti’s short hair and jeans might seem to mark us as well outside the fold. We remove our shoes and follow a group of women inside.

The centerpiece of the shrine is a grave, draped in gold silky fabric, covered with flowers and enclosed by a marble railing. Large photos on the wall identify the deceased as a saint named Babajan, a woman with matted hair seated at the base of a tree. Apparently she came from Afghansitan, where she was born, and spent the later years of her life at the base of that tree. Behind the grave is that very tree, also draped in gold fabric, covered with flowers and enclosed. The tree lies on the more spacious men’s side of this shrine, so we cannot pay our respects to it.

Greatly revered for her sanctity (and honored today with her own entry in Wikipedia), Babajan passed away earlier this century, and today is her birthday. Devotees buy flowers and packets of puffed rice at the entrance, hand it to a temple official standing inside the railing enclosing the tomb, who places the flowers on the grave, touches the rice to the grave and hands it back. One woman in her forties takes her rice packet and hands bits of the blessed rice to each of the other women in our part of the temple, including Kranti and me. Women lift their children over the railing so they can place their heads against the grave, sharing in its sanctity, demonstrating their reverence and receiving blessings. After one boy’s feet touch the grave, the temple official begins to do the lifting, holding them horizontally in the air, feet far from the grave. A young Muslim girl is visibly distraught to be swung into the air in this way by an unknown man, and casts her gaze about wildly, seeking her mother. A middle-aged man is praying fervently at the tomb. Tears stream down his face. His prayers complete, he wipes the tears away, glances about and departs. I whisper a question to Kranti, and we begin to attract some attention. She tells me the women are saying we should not be there. We leave.

Next we pass a massive church of Saint Francis. It is a cathedral, really, with row after row of pews spreading in three directions from the central altar. People trickle in, pray for a few minutes, and leave. Saint Francis himself is said to have died in India, and the coastal area once controlled by the Portuguese on the east coast of India, called Goa, is still both heavily Catholic in faith and Portuguese in flavor. Sheets pinned to a column outside the church itself announce classes for children in Goan handicrafts. Signs in English on the church’s wall identify the images of the stations of the cross.

As we move on in the direction of the synagogue, we pass a closed compound that Kranti tells me is a Parsi place of worship. In the street Kranti points out an older woman dressed in Western style skirts, mid-calf and respectable for even the most conservative Sicilian town, yet glaringly out of place here. In these (and most) parts of India women beyond a certain age wear saris, which are always floor-length or, if they wish to signal their modernity, a salwar kameez (or Punjabi) with pants that fall to the ankle.

Soon we are at the syunagogue, about which more in another blog entry, and with this my afternoon in Camp is concluded. As I leave by rickshaw, I note that Camp also has its swank side. The close and vibrant streets in the part of Camp where Muslims, Jains, Catholics, Parsees and Buddhists make their home in Pune gives way to broader streets where high stone walls offer only occasional glimpses at the vast and landscaped colonial ‘bungalows’ where the more affluent outsiders of Pune village make their homes. Huge billboards advertise housing complexes complete with swimming pools, fitness centers and around-the-clock security. This world seems as foreign to the heart of Camp Kranti showed me as is the Deccan Gymkhana area where I am living. The streets again become densely packed as the rickshaw crosses out of Camp and into the heart of the old city.

Soon I will be ‘home’ at Bhandarkar Institute, one of Pune’s most venerated symbols of high brahmin culture in its fullness.

1 comment:

ehirunner said...

Hi there-
This looks like a marvelous resource, and a painful reminder of just how much more I should be studying. The many, many times I heard monks told to be grateful they had only one mouth to fill now come back to me.

Sounds like you're getting lots done, and I'm very happy that you're working with Shastri-ji prayatnena.

Don't bother reading my blog, its never been worked on for more than about 7.3 seconds. Really.

chos dang bkra shis dpel bar shog|