It is Guru Poornima today, the full moon and last day of the Ashad month in the Hindu calendar. Widely celebrated to honour Guru Vyas, it is also the time to pay respect to the guru.
Who is your guru? Or who are your gurus? It’s open to interpretation, what a guru means to each of us. A teacher, a guide, a mentor, someone you look up to for guidance, someone whose benevolence is in itself a teaching, someone who is free to tell you the blunt truth, in front of whom your ego does not exist. Above all, someone who helps you change for the better, define your goals, achieve them, then redefine them yet again. A guru keeps you on the path to self attainment, saves you from yourself when you lose focus and give up.
We all need a guru or more to face up to the challenges life throws us. Yet, we are taught to be self sufficient to the extent that seeking help or speaking of our fears are seen as a sign of weakness. My first lessons in humility and self introspection came from my parents, who are regarded as the ultimate gurus in the Hindu tradition. I remember clearly my mother asking me if I was vain when she caught me preening constantly before the mirror when I was maybe nine or ten! In her criticism of my lack of focus or her rebukes for my lack of organisation, I see now her attempts to guide me. By setting high standards herself, she ignited in me a passion for life, a hunger for information and analysis. Daddy taught me balance, that quality he had in plenty and that he patiently inculcated in those around him as well. The ability to listen to others, to empathise, to always be ready to learn. I saw him practice these and imbibed as much as I could.
So many role models! My grandmothers Ajji and Amamma, both strong intelligent wilful women ahead of their times in many ways. Today I feel like they still have so much to teach that we, caught in our lives, are failing to learn. My grandfather, Vava, a man of learning and passion, who took me under his wing when I was very little. Aunts, uncles, cousins, relations.
As I grew older, friends became gurus too. One taught me the art of keeping secrets, another inspired by his selfless sharing of knowledge. A friends reckless spirit drive me to discard inhibitions. Another taught me to love unreservedly. Every day, Rahul inspires me to not judge my loved ones. I can go on and on.
In the arts, the status of the guru is more defined, especially for those of us who learn any of the classical Indian art forms where ‘guru shishya parampara’ is still a live tradition. My music gurus, Aaba Thali, Milon Debnathji who will always be Masterji to me and now Shanta Mishraji, I am eternally indebted to you for the gift of Sur, Taal and Sadhna. My kathak guru Jayashree Acharyaji deserves a special mention, for the immense positive energy that she brings to my life.
I fill my life with gurus because they help me stay centred and fulfilled, but also because they do not let me get complacent. However modern life gets, certain simple gestures and traditions always affect me profoundly. Touching the guru’s feet, for instance, might seem old fashioned to many. But in that instant, when I bend and submit myself, I let go. And when I rise and my guru beams back a smile, I am filled with light and pride. I know all is well with the world!
Seeing as we had missed going there last time we visited Mumbai thanks to the rains and because Udai had heard of my childhood visits to these caves, he was raring to go. He had put down his demand to visit Elephanta on Day 1 of his solo Mumbai trip to stay with Rachna, who my kids fondly call Bossy (Bausi actually, which is half bua and half mausi, for those of you interested in the etymology of this strange term). It also sort of fits with her, we joke, but in reality she is a softy and a sweetheart.
Anyway, on a super hot summer day, the kids and us- Rachna, Nupur (mausi to the kids) and me- boarded the ferry boat to Elephanta which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was an experience pulling out into the sea, seeing the majestic Gateway of India and the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel getting smaller and smaller as we headed out. Yes, I’ve been here as a child with my cousins and the ferry ride was the most thrilling part of it. This time, I noticed how many locals there were on board carrying vegetables, corn, coconuts and other goods to the island. These sea-people, for whom now tourism was a lifeline, intrigued me and I wanted to know more…
Anyway, many ship-sightings, lifebuoy-countings and sunburns later, we approached the densely forested island, locally known as Gharapuri but named Elephanta after the stone carved elephant that was discovered here and now stands in the Bombay Zoo, or the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the zoo premises to be precise.
It’s a hot walk and climb to the caves (you can also take a cute chugging train till the steps), but all worth the effort. Sweat streaming, we enter the dark caves to be utterly fascinated by the sculpture, the architecture, the sheer monumentality of these caves, built between 450 and 750 AD. The trimurti- Brahma,Vishnu, Mahesh is exquisite and so are the several sculptures of dwarpals, shiva, shiva-parvatu, ardhnarishwar, etc that adorn the first large cave.
For Udai and Aadyaa (and perhaps for all who visit), the fact that someone (in this case Portuguese traders) had shot at and maimed the sculptures was the main concern. they had read the Amar Chitra Katha comic about the caves and knew some of the history. So are those who did it bad? No? Then why did they do it? A long discussion on intolerance and how it is routinely practised, to the detriment of the human race, followed. An excellent opportunity for me to drill in my own philosophy of liberalism and tolerance, and appreciation of all cultures. I was to get the opportunity again, with much more impact, up in Mcleodganj in the context of Tibet, but more about that later.
The caves offer many photo opportunities and we took them all! On the way back, we decided to wait for the mini train to go back to the ferry. Sitting there, eating corn, I got the opportunity to converse in Marathi with the locals who run all the touristy knick-knack and food shops on the island. They were farmers and fisherfolk before, but now the monkeys have devastated all the crops and they rely on supplies from the mainland. They still fish and bit, do boat repair work etc, but are largely dependent on tourism fir income. The young do not stay here, leaving the island to study and work. I got the sense of despondency, rather than excitement. Would like to know more. When we declare something of heritage value, how does that change the loves of the people who have lived there for generations? Do they have links with the dynasty that carved the caves or are they later settlers? Is there any other way they can be involved to contribute to and benefit from the tourism that the island attracts? Is there any other way the trip the island can be enhanced? Through cultural interpretation centres, art displays, some non-invasive development around the island’s natural lakes and lagoons?
These were the thoughts going around my head on the ferry ride back. As the magnificent city of Mumbai came back into view, these thoughts faded and the excitement of walking around South Mumbai became more palpable!