Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Traffic on the Road to Happiness

Mount Abu is named after Arbud, a mighty mythological snake that helped to create the landscape upon request from the great saint Vashishth. All the 330 million gods of the Hindu pantheon are said to have frequented this mountain, and Mahavir Swami once gave it his blessing. The only hill station in Rajasthan, it was once a summer resort for Rajput kings, then a sanatorium for British troops before independence, and is now a popular spot for tourists. My grandparents took their honeymoon here, spending their nights in the garage of the local hospital (thanks to family connections with one of the doctors there…my grandfather, at that time, had only 15 rupees to his name). And now, half a century later, I have arrived. (dramatic pause) And there was much feasting.

Mt. Abu is an especially popular spot during Diwali, when holiday-happy Gujaratis pour across the border into Rajasthan to escape Gujarat’s Prohibition laws. Gujarat is a dry state; and it’s a good thing, because I can’t imagine what the drivers in Ahmedabad would be like if they were drunk too. (Actually, taking a step into reality for a moment, no one pays attention to Prohibition. The liquor smuggling trade in Gujarat is huge, and supported by politicians who need the booze to throw large campaign parties where people conveniently forget what they promise. Plus, wavering on a platform is normal if you’ve had something to drink, right? Imported liquor is actually cheaper here than in other states, since it’s not subject to government taxes. Still, for the average tourist, bars are a big attraction of the holy mountain.)

But I digress. On our first day in Abu, we visited Sunset Point (later we figured out we got a better sunset view from our hotel room) and Nakki lake (said to have been carved by the fingernails, or nakk, of a god). The magnificence of the scenery was murdered by the masses of people stepping all over it. My grandparents, who have visited the mountain often, say they’ve never seen such a rush of people in Abu. Add the fact that Indians don’t have much of a Western concept of “personal space,” and you get the hot, crowded idea.

Next day, we headed out in the morning for the Delwara Temples, Abu’s main Jain attraction. These beautifully carved temples are studded with awe-inspiring marble pillars and tiles, chiseled with religious fervor into stories of Jain lore. They were built in the 11th to 13th centuries, and other than being partially destroyed by a Muslim army in 1311, have withstood the test of time. (Renovations were made after the Muslim army left. They had broken the noses off many of the sculptures, so now what you see are repaired carvings in two different colors of stone – aging gods and elephants sporting marble nose-jobs.)

I stood before an idol of Neminath bhagwan and prayed. In my head, I remembered the words of my grandfather earlier in the day – Love everyone. We should try to love everyone in life, even those who do wrong. As I prayed, a crowd tried to get past me deeper into the temple. Someone bumped my shoulder. Another knocked my folded hands apart. Love everyone. No one said “excuse me” or acknowledged that they had interrupted my prayer. Love EVERYONE, I thought forcefully. A frustrating reality on display: it’s easier to love all humanity when you aren’t faced with large crowds of it. Maybe that’s why monks have to seclude themselves to reach enlightenment. Maybe that’s why mountains used to be a good place to find enlightenment, before people went blasting roads into them and bringing the family.

Outside again, we visited Achalgar, where a short hike takes you to another temple overlooking the lush green hills and scummy green lakes of the landscape. We negotiated with a cow for our parking space, and after some nudging he grudgingly trudged over a few feet to allow us room. When we returned from the hike, he was still there, staring unpleasantly; it seems I had misunderstood our agreement. To appease him, I offered him the rest of my smoked cob of corn, which he popped like a pill, closing the deal. He then moved over and allowed us to drive away.

The rest of the trip was filled with relaxation, pedal-boats on Nakki lake, hikes up to Toad Rock (see pic), and time spent reading books under trees filled with white-haired monkeys. I’ll end with a memory I’d like to keep. On our last evening, we rested in the hotel, playing 24-card rummy and watching the sun drown in fire behind the mountain. As the sun breathed its last, my grandfather said, “Isn’t it amazing? The earth rotates around the sun…we’re always turning about an axis…and yet, not a drop of water from the oceans falls. How can it be? Not even a single drop falls into space. How can such a simple thing as gravity do this?”

At first, his remark sounded a little ridiculous. Physics principles plodded through my head. Well, gravity is a powerful force, equal to the… Luckily, I shut up before I began, and after the last drop of sun had fallen from the world, I gazed at the look of wonderment on Pappa’s face. He, a man who has studied science all his life, was truly astonished by the sight outside our window. He looked like a little kid who had just opened a birthday present. So I threw my physics principles where they belonged. I suddenly felt a step closer to happiness. And I hope one day, decades from now, I will look out my window and at least for a moment forget all that I’ve learned from books…and in that moment, I’ll ask no one in particular – “Isn’t it amazing? That the oceans haven’t fallen into the sky?”

On the drive away from Mt. Abu, groups of monkeys lined the exiting road to bid farewell to the holiday traffic and to accept biscuits tossed from car windows. I can’t help but imagine that the Hindu gods who frequent the mountain were on their way up as we were on our way down. On their way back to reclaim their quiet haven. After all, who needs congestion on the road to happiness?

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