Title: Pen, chocolate and two rupees
Authors: Nikolay Yankov and Elena Shtereva
Genres: Travelogue | Contemporary Bulgarian Literature
India is a country which ruthlessly puts everyone to trial. Trials that can bring out the innermost thoughts and feelings, to evoke the deeply hidden anger, to awaken the timid joy, to make you experience the infinite freedom. We often hear and say that India is a country of contrasts: of luxury and poverty, of beauty and misery, of deep religiousness and false godliness. The truth is that the black-and-white contrast scheme cannot reflect the paradox lying in the essence of Indian culture. India is a many-faced, multi-coloured, many-tongued, multi-cultured and multifarious land. She is entirely tinted in various forms and colours, which could be easily seen by merely throwing a cursory glance at an ordinary Indian street. Naturally, the impressions and reactions which this culture provokes in a traveller or anobserver, are not one-sided and unicoloured at all. India makes you wear colourful clothes, match the unmatchable, laugh and cry, rejoice or lose temper in the next minute, utter kind words or make a threat just right after that. India makes you be spontaneous, unrecognizable and unpredictable, even for yourself. She makes you realize that in a way you are the embodiment of the conception of ”variety in unity”, by which India is ruled and that the contradiction you discover in yourself, is not necessarily a drawback but rather a way to react skillfully to the constantly changing reality. It is no wonder then that in Sanskrit and Hindi the word for emotion राग (rāg) has the same root as the word for color रंग (rang). Emotions are colors indeed and in this respect India is an ever shining rainbow.
Tatyana Evtimova, Indologist
India is a dynamic and an absolutely unpredictable “reality show”, which is so well-captured and sealed in words by Elly nd Nicky, that one feels like dashing out of home and reaching in the blink of an eye any of the destinations forming this unique and vivid embroidery of thousand-old colourful threads.
Hristo Blajev, publisher and blogger
The narrative sometimes flows slowly, sometimes rapidly. The diaries of Nicky and Elena don’t distinguish too much in style, but make an unbreakable unity. India as seen through their eyes usurps the mind and even a fierce atheist like me gets lost in the prevailing spirituality. India cannot be explained or bound with categories. India is herself and is everything at the same time. I recommend this book without a shadow of doubt. I rarely read travelogues but this one is worth rereading.
Hristo Karastoyanov, writer
This is a genuine penetration into contemporary India. The authors have clearly said it: “From place to place just like with a magic wand Indian people succeeded in untying the knot which usually holds tight the hearts of European tourists.
Miroslav Moravski, musician
I saw India. Literally. I stared at the heavy waters of the Ganges, shook hands with Sikh people, was chased by rickshaw-wallas, talked in Hindi with Indian ticket “babus”, discovered features of our morherland in the beauty of Kashmir. And all of this happened in the short distance between the armchair and my bed. I just had the pleasure of reading, experiencing and feeling the pulse of India through the pages of a single book.
“Mind is an obstacle on the way to one’s goal and never does it reveal Reality, keeping it in secret.
Mind is the greatest killer of truth, and the true scholar has to kill the killer.”
Maharaj Gharan Singh
The Star Fort Taragarh
Nicky’s Diary: Feelings’ Notes and Notes of Feelings
We were again sitting on the blue benches in the train, looking through the window bars. The two Czechs – Jan and Lenka, Elena and I were traveling to Southern Rajasthan. We liked a park not far from the town of Kota. The town was not interest , it couldn’t offer us much apart from the tradition of workmanship of fine cotton saris interwoven with gold, and the extraction of the so called “Kota” blue stone – a cheaper alternative to the marble, widely used in the construction of different buildings across India. Kota was worth seeing mostly in the month of ashvin, according to the Hindu calendar, i.e. the beginning of October according to the Gregorian. At that time, during the celebrations of Dussehra Mela, the town explodes in colours and fireworks. Thousands rush to celebrate the victory of light over darkness, of god Rama over the demon Ravana. They act out reproductions of the Ramayana epic, and in the culmination of the celebrations, the attending rush to assist the good god in his battle with the evil. Rapt in mass euphoria, the Hindus burn out the 22-metre dummies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhakarna and his son Meghnath, and then raise the flags of victory.
We arrived in Kota on Friday evening, checked in a hotel near the station and began asking around if anybody knew anything about the park in question. No one had even heard of it. Finally, in the restaurant we came across a group of waiters who had evidently better general knowledge, but according to them we had to take a taxi to the place and make it wait for us the whole day for there was no other transport. After some serious pondering, we decided not to stay in Kota and took the bus to Bundi to inquire in the local tourist office.
On the following morning we were already in Bundi – the place which had inspired the famous writer Rudyard Kipling to begin working on the novel “Kim”. The town was more than charming. Its old parts were encircled by a massive fortress wall with four gates, and in its northern end, almost at the level of stars, was the magnificent Fort Taragarh, nestled in lush vegetation. After checking in a hotel and without any hesitation, we set off to the fortress.
Narrow, calm streets, houses in the colour of the sky and traditional buildings haveli, with sumptuous ornaments and rich past. At the entrance of the palace through which we had to pass to reach the fortress, a smiling boy welcomed us. He rented sticks. Why? Because of the monkeys. Their ill-fame of thieves and insolent aggressors was widely spread. The boy wanted five rupees for each staff. I gave them to him not because I thought I would need it, I simply wanted to encourage his enthusiasm in this hard “business”. We agreed to return the staffs after the tour. We began climbing the steep stones but soon our tongues stuck out by exhaustion. The swelter was crushing. I felt as if my brain would begin melting any moment and would run like a diluted jelly. Entering the palace had a refreshing effect with a scent of basil. Two stone elephants with entwined trunks guarded the gate. Astonishing turquoise and golden mural paintings were flashing before our eyes, most of them depicting god Krishna. An uncle unlocked the gates to the cool royal chambers and showed us the splendid frescoes in the flickering light of continuously fading matches. The themes painted on the walls were typical for the Mughal style – a wedding procession, battle and hunting scenes from the maharajas’ lives, pictures of the royal daughters’ daily life, as well as all kinds of animals and birds. All paintings were the same colour tones and hues – turquoise green as background; white for the human and animal figures; red, blue, black and yellow for the royal garments.
Outside under the burning sun, we continued our way to the fortress and from time to time we had to squeeze through narrow slits of enormous wooden gates with metal prongs sticking out of their surface. The ascent seemed endless – the closer we got to the fortress, the stronger the sun rays were burning. Finally, before our eyes appeared something different from stone walls, dried up vegetation and gravel. Three water depots, built more than six centuries ago, which did not run dry even in the harshest draughts, now performed an entirely different function. They had become the most favourite swimming facility for the hundreds of Rhesus monkeys in the area. As soon as we appeared, numerous monkey glances dropped down on us – as if we had rushed in a monkey bar with an entrance sign “No entry for humans.” At first it seemed that we were the only representatives of the Homo Sapiens and at they could easily make trophies of our heads but then we saw that about thirty monkeys had surrounded some other man, evidently a foreigner, who was trying to propitiate them with pieces of biscuits. His behaviour didn’t seem very reasonable considering he was standing at a pace-distance from the water, as the monkeys attracted by the free breakfast gushed out in tides and tightened the ring around him. We expected to witness something like gladiator battle games, but our hairy bros showed their hospitability and allowed us to take a rest on their territory without any intrusion, of course.
After a while it was time to move on. We were really close to the highest part of the fort, the tower Bhim Burj, which once sheltered enormous cannon with the fearful name “Thunder from the Womb”. The soil was dry, the vegetation scarce and swift-footed lizards darted here and there.
The view from the bastion was astounding. From one side spread a blue lake which wafted pleasant freshness, and on the other side - the square houses of Bundi. As if the glowing embers of the sun had softened the serene solidity and the blue sky tints had splashed on the rooftops of the town. In the distance we could see the beautiful creations of desert life – the unique for Western India wells baoli. In these almost deprived from water regions baoli is the greatest treasure. In order to preserve it, local people built deep square wells. They accessed water using stairs, and the cattle – by ramps. As always due to their innate talent to transform daily things into fine art, Indian people, and later the foreigners on these lands, the Mughals, began decorating the unpretentious facilities with unimaginably sophisticated and fine ornaments. According to the sacred texts the construction of public wells was considered as a great benefaction. In a certain period of history the construction of wells went beyond the religious framework and became a sign of social status – the more opulent and elegant they were, the more power and prestige they brought to their owners. Most often baoli were built near temples where the worshipers could take ritual baths. They also served as places for recreation, meetings with relatives and shelters from the unbearable swelter. In Bundi there were fifty of those wells which entirely satisfied the needs of the local people. Nowadays though, only few are maintained. Most of them are buried in oblivion and uselessness (because the town disposes of a modern pipeline) and what’s worse – in tons of waste.
We got down and dropped in at the first restaurant encountered to quench our thirst. The boy with the “anti-monkey business” was already gone, so there was no way to return the staff. We learned that the tourist office would close very soon. We got out and briskly strode to arrange our next-day trip in some wild reserve.
Elena’s Diary: Students of Bharata
After some wandering we found the tourist office. We asked the employee for more information about the reserves in the area. It turned out that our idea was difficult to accomplish within a day. The protected areas weren’t as close as we thought. A man with a baseball hat, who until then stood apart and was sincerely amused with our Hindi talks, broke into our conversation. All of a sudden he began talking about inconceivably fascinating places, lush vegetation, a phenomenal waterfall, astonishing river and unique pre-historical drawings. And all that – here in the desert of Rajasthan!
It turned out that he himself was their discoverer. He took out an old issue of the local newspaper and spread it before us. A small article told how since 1997 Om Prakash Sharma, called Kuki, had discovered about fifty spots in the area, marked by the presence of ancient people. Then the man with the baseball hat asked us what we exactly wanted – to see animals or visit fantastic places? He was in his mid fifties, smiling, energetic, with true love for the nature and his homeland. We could not resist his charm - there was something very catching in his enthusiasm and pathos with which he was talking about these supernatural recesses. We felt really lucky to have encountered him because he didn’t really work for the tourist office and simply had dropped in to visit his friend. The meeting was purely accidental but useful for us - the yearning for beauty and adventures, as well as for him who was eager to show himself as a kind host and organizer of memorable excursions. He promised cheap transportation and asked no money for himself. Kuki would have been happy if we simply shared his pride and appreciated his discoveries. We agreed to go with his jeep and before that visited his home. Over a cup of tea with his sweet family and a detailed look at his carefully arranged album of articles dedicated to his work, we philosophized about people’s qualities nowadays and in the past, on nature and the value of our ancestors’ heritage.
This man, who had hardly graduated his secondary education, burning with passion to explore nature and search for the unknown in her recesses, had contributed more to the Indian archaeology than all of the eminent scientists who made “discoveries”, piled up in heaps of books and diplomas on the walls. His home resembled a mini-museum of any kind of finds – tools, arms and ritual objects.
Kuki was a remarkable man, even an extraordinary one – as unusual was his coming to the world. When his parents were young they regarded children as a divine blessing – the more, the better. But after the fourth child, their children began dying soon after birth. The old people advised them to deceive the sinister magic in order to protect the life of their next offspring. When their child was born they had to symbolically change its gender. From Om Prakash’s first breath taken he was called with the dear name Kuki – the name little girls were given. He was dressed in girls’ clothes until his fourth year, and for greater authenticity and certainty his parents made a hole for an earring in his nose, as the women’s tradition required. The whole village was convinced that Om Prakash was a girl. Together with the village Death was also misled. So Kuki lived long enough to tell this story, not without pride, of how he had deceived Death, but with a stronger feeling of duty to life itself which gave him the chance to walk his earthly path.
In Indian lands the belief in predetermined magic, would it be good or bad, is universal and dauntless. Magic is entwined in every element of the daily life, so deeply that even in a hundred years’ time it would again emerge on the surface where it was a thousand years ago, and would be visible by the red threads and blue beads attached to people’s clothes. No matter if they are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Jains, the belief in evil eyes is the link that connects all village people from the north to the south, from the east to the west. All of them have their ways to protect families, houses and cattle from the magic power of the evil eye.
It seems at least curious that some of them are a lot alike the Bulgarian traditions and beliefs. In both places there is the superstition that certain people, even animals who by birth possess the ability to “stab” other people with their evil eye and cause them physical and psychological ill-health. As a reason they usually bring up the envy and malevolence, but most frequently the evil eye does not depend on the owner’s will and acts by the force of inborn supernatural abilities.
Some scientists have a serious attitude towards the problem and are now trying to measure the radiation transmitted from one look to the other, as well as to study the effect it has on the retina of the affected person. Indians have different theories on how a child acquires this “gift”. For Jains the reason for that can be a drop of blood got into the child’s eye; according to the peasants in the foot of the Himalayas all children born under the adverse sign of Saturn, i.e. on a Saturday, tend to have the ability to cast the evil eye; Hindus most frequently find the reason for the appearance of the “evil eye” in the unsatisfied desires and needs of pregnant women which culminate after that in the children born by them. When a child with an evil eye sees someone eating something which it yearns for, the person eating immediately gets nausea and begins throwing up.
The very first time we saw thick black make-up around the eyes of small children, we realized that this wasn’t a way to emphasize their beauty, but some kind of a safety measure. We were soon convinced that every kid until the age of 4-5 was looking at the world through outlined with soot eyes. For the same reason there was always a piece of coal in the baskets of the workers or among the baker’s dishes. When I looked deeper into the daily life of ordinary people, I was stupefied by the factors “fear” and “protection” which played such a significant part in their lives. The fear of black magic was painted on their clothes and houses, it was deeply rooted in their habits. Fear defined their actions, accompanied them from one place to the other, lead them through the life cycles and the individual transitions of age. The utensils were made of copper, brass or bronze because the other metals and alloys did not protect against harmful effects. Women wore shells and clams, because it is believed that they would break in two if an evil eye is cast on them. The combination of the nine precious stones, navaratna, which adorned the hands of many, also repelled the “pests”. The rosaries of neem and lotus seeds build a shield around the person wearing them. With the same purpose branches and flowers from fig, mango or basil were hanging on their houses’ doors or were put aside the road the cattle was passing along. In front of the houses and huts there wasn’t a signboard reading “Attention! Evil dog!” but painted magic circles and geometrical drawings - rangoli. There was not a single celebration for which the horns of the cows, buffalos or oxen were not painted in bright red or blue to avoid evil magic.
As far as protection from evil eyes is concerned, the similarities between Indian and Bulgarian traditions are really striking. It is a shared belief in both countries that “the evil eye” affects primarily children and pregnant women, but mature people equally suffer from it, especially the ones that are beautiful or happy. It is the same with animals. In India there are definite animals to which “the evil eye” is attributed – these are the tiger, the fox and the snake, and the animals who mostly suffer the effect of black magic are the horses and the domestic cattle. In order to protect them, the Indian peasant does like the Bulgarian one – decorates their necks with beaded necklaces. One of the oldest “protection” means against “the evil eye”, used by both Bulgarians and Indians, is the saliva. The tradition to spit over a pretty child or a young animal is widely spread in our country. Even though now kids are driven in modern cars and fed with paps, unheard of by their grandmas, the contemporary moms and dads continue saying “Touch wood!” In India in the same fashion, the saliva drives away sickness, cures inflammations, protects from evil magic. Salt is also widely used. With salt and mustard seeds the foreign forces in the body of the affected by “evil eye” person are absorbed and then thrown into the fire, and during weddings the priests spill salt in front of the bride to disperse the harshness, if there is such, of the groom’s character. Salt is also very respected in our traditions.According to the Bulgarian tradition the first thing put on the table is the salt-cellar which prevents the evil spirits from playing over the food. People say that salt is famous for its ability to remove anything that is bad, that is why the lasses carry salt in their breast. In some parts of both India and Bulgaria, people cleanse their children from accumulated harmful effects by applying blood from a sacrificed goat on their foreheads. In both countries, iron forged in the shape of a wristband, a nail or coin is used as an amulet or a symbol of health during rituals, and the personal names are object of magic and are hidden or replaced. In India even Mughal emperors had three different names and hid their birth date to protect themselves from misfortune. And in our country in order to “deceive” Death, children were given “ugly” names.
Of course, for some people these could be most ordinary superstitions, deprived from reason and sense, but disbelief is justified for the people who have never been affected by something like this.
But there are the millions of people in both India and Bulgaria, who have experienced this even once in their lives and haven’t been cured by doctors but by village sorcerers and granny’s tips.