Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Putrid Pilgrim Trail

Garbage on the River Ganga (Ganges)

A doctor who has just started some charitable work in the island of Rameshwaram among Sri Lankan refugees has an experience to share. Hailing from Chennai, she was used to the thought of abandoning the comforts of city life and get used to the exigencies of rural life. But the one thing that greeted her as she crossed over into Rmaeshwaram and that one thing which she was not prepared for was the over whelming stench of human excreta hovering all over the island.

Apart from the infrastructural issues of there not being any adequate sewage disposal on the island, she wondered aloud as to why a pilgrim centre of religious significance should be so dirty and why whether or not the official machinery did any thing or not, the basic piety of the people should have served as some kind of an incentive to keep the place clean. Going by the press reports, the problem in Rameshwaram has been noticed and action asked for at least a year ago when A. Sellamuthu, Secretary for Housing and Monitoring Officer for the district, had directed the Rameswaram Municipal authorities to take urgent steps clean the island town. He had also noted that that “Rameswaram was an important pilgrim centre, which was attracting thousands of pilgrims and tourists daily. Hence, it had to be kept neat and clean always”

The question is worth asking as to why filth and squalor are so routinely associated with places of pilgrimages –except for the cash rich ones like the temples at Tirupati and Vaishno Devi and a few others and may be the Dargah at Ajmer. As for the rest, be it the shrine of a pir or a typical teerth sthan, the gathering of crowds for journeys of piety and pilgrimages are almost synonymous with dirt, disorder and chaos instead of harmony, serenity and order.

Remember the kanwarias who crowd up the roads every couple of months. Emerging from every little town and village that India has it would seem, they run through the land like locusts ravaging a field. Small time charities spring up to feed and shelter these hockey stick wielding pilgrims. During the time the season is on, these resting places are filled with leaf plates with flies buzzing, plastic and other waste lying around every where and ear splitting music of the crassest kind copied from the latest Bollywood hits but supposedly charmed to induce piety.

Or remember the Kumbh Melas, the largest gathering of humans on earth for any purpose, but not necessarily the most tranquil or peaceful. There are these akharas filled with opium soaked sadhus and their equally fanatic followers jostling for space and dominance. And oh yes, till modern times, the end of Kumbh Mela often sprouted cholera. The rather provocatively titled blog The Shit of the Saints is Still Reeking” talks pointedly of the 2007 mela in Allahabad and quotes the Chief Medical Officer of Allahabad alluding to the threat of diarrheal diseases, typhoid, and hepatitis as a direct result of the trash and human waste.

The Incredible India Campaign has run several direct ads on the need to keep and preserve our heritage –from vandalism as well as other acts that might desecrate them in any way. But they have largely concentrated and talked about historical monuments. But considering that so much of our heritage is tied up with religion and religious places and yatras and pilgrimages, it might do well to also talk of keeping religious places and events clean and sanitized so that the memory of having visited them might remain pleasant memories and not stories of nightmares.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Thanks for the citation to my piece, The Shit of the Saintly. For another, even more provocatively titled essay on the same subject, check out Varanasi: Shit-Hole of the Gods.

The problem of the filth of India's holiest places is twofold. First, these places have insufficient infrastructure to accommodate the number of visitors. This is the joint responsibility of both local and state governments, and the center.

The principal problem, though, lies with the outrageous selfishness with which Indians address all matters of public hygiene. My trash will become someone else's problem -- so I just throw it wherever I happen to be standing, even if that is a holy place. Over time the whole of the country has been defiled. Far from becoming outraged, the normally jingoistic, I-Love-My-India Indian has become inured to wading through filth in the streets and open spaces.

The habit of abominable public hygiene -- quite ironic in a country for which obsessive rituals of personal hygiene are the norm -- is a learned behavior in India. Like one of those twins-separated-at-birth studies favored by behavioral psychologists to discover whether certain traits are the product of nurture or nature, I think the simple comparison between magnificent, spotless Lahore and squalid, filthy Amritsar (both also a holy cities, incidentally), facing each other a scant 60 km apart on either side of the imporous Wagah/Attari Border, gives ample evidence of this. If behavior is learned, that means it can be unlearned. That's the good news.