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Where many learn & pray

Journeying to varanasi has such a varied set of compulsions for people who flock to this unconquered city by the river that pathfinder and pilgrim, sinner and saint, tourist and tramp alike get caught up in multi-hued yatras. Some without end, others keeping their inevitable trysts with immortality, salvation and revelation.

Templetown, university-city, tourist-mecca — Kashi, the Luminous, can be as terrifyingly chaotic as it can be the ultimate resting place for seekers of peace and illumination. Most people seem to take much more from this holy city, though, than they give back to it.

Which is why, when, about a fortnight or so ago, an institution in Varanasi — Jnana Pravaha, a Centre for Cultural Studies, launched a project to train young Sanskrit scholars to perform the numerous rituals and ceremonies that are an integral part of the Indian ethos from birth to death, I rushed to see what it was all about. And to get an endorsement of the fact that something concrete was being given back to the city. And to the country.

To get to the Samskara and Anusthana Kendra in Meer Ghat at Varanasi, I trekked up through the charmingly claustrophobic alleyways that are a hallmark of the old city to find a historic family haveli, (near the famous temple of Viswanath), that houses the centre spawned by Jnana Pravaha.

As I went up the steep flight of stairs, aided by a rope grouted into the wall, a unified chant of youthful voices in recitation gave me the moral push to climb the last few steps and enter a hall filled with a remarkable sight. Ten boys, average age 15, in saffron attire, earnestly memorising and practising the recitation of the Vedas. Just the beginning of an intensive three-year course that can be a re-engineering of the way in which a group of priests can bring back the sanctity of our multifarious rituals. Everything from Sanskrit grammar and the knowledge of astrology and the basics of Indian culture to the performance of vedic rites and karmkanda, the consecration of images and deities, fixing of auspicious moments and preparing horoscopes and training in rituals and sacraments according to prescribed scriptures — the course is intense and comprehensive. And each year, 10 students will be added.

Where do they all come from' Who will pay for them' A totally residential course, funded entirely by Jnana Pravaha, the Bari Kothi will be home to these young brahmacharis. They will live, eat, chant, learn and come out at the end of three years, polished and pummelled into a practical priestdom to serve a society in need of rituals that make sense, with ceremonial observances in correct Vedic form.

Where did it all begin' When a young widow, based in Calcutta, learned the scriptures, imbibed the love for art and music and grew and grew, until the city could no longer be her dham. She felt she had to give back something of her knowledge and her interest in the preservation and promotion of Indian heritage to the country. And that led her to succumb to the lure of the holy of holies — Varanasi.

Many of us in Calcutta gravitate to a private, beautifully crafted evening of music and dance at Gulab Bari, every spring, at Queen’s Park. Today more than 1,500 lovers of music flock to this landmark event at the invitation of the vector of this musical meld — Bimla Poddar, an elegant lady dressed in white with her trademark white coiffeured hair, quietly dominating proceedings.

But it is in Varanasi that Bimla Poddar really took complete charge of value-adding to its cultural milieu, when she discovered an ideal spot on the riverside, in full view of the magnificent Ramnagar fort opposite. So, when Jnana Pravaha was established in 1996 on the banks of the Uttarvahini Ganga, it created a remarkable turn of events. It facilitated the opening up of a cultural hub for the enhancement of academic and spiritual pursuits rooted in Indian tradition.

But in the seven years since she made her voyage of discovery and settled down there, two most amazing structures — Praci and Pratici which make up the whole concept of Jnana Pravaha — have transformed the Varanasi landscape. Praci, where she lives and which houses a yagnasala and a hostel for guest scholars, is a multi-tiered structure with magnificently manicured lawns, arjun and neem trees in plenty and hedged by tulsi bushes.

The building called Pratici was designed by Balkrishna Doshi, now well known to us in Calcutta for his pathbreaking urban concepts at Udayan. Doshi created an early cave architectural pattern in the building which represents the ardhanarisvara concept and it affords a panoramic view of the Ganga from every hall. Housed in it are some remarkable treasures of Indian art and Kasi culture where the rare collections have been personally donated by brother-in-law Suresh Neotia, who was also Poddar’s mentor in her early years when she visited archaeological sites and museums in India and abroad. From Girija Devi came the inputs for Indian classical music, and from Dr Pradyot Bandopadhyay, the learning of Sanskrit followed by reading the epics in their original.

When you see the magnificent conference and lecture hall with projection and classrooms facilities; the richly stocked reference library on Indian arts, culture, history, philosophy, archaeology and other subjects, the computerised databank on art and an amphitheatre for performances and other programmes, you understand the depths of learning the founder underwent. And the lengths she is going to meet all costs of running this institution from her own resources.

With this fertile infrastructure, the objectives of an institution like Jnana Pravaha are able to flower in furthering the promotion, presentation and publication of a vast span of subjects. Academically, it has organised innumerable lectures, discourses, seminars, workshops, demonstrations in art and literature, music and dance, religion and spirituality. The seminars discuss everything from pilgrimage tourism and Buddhism and Gandharva art to reflections of the Vedas in Sanskrit literature, Jaina contribution to Kasi, and go into the depths of manuscriptology. The documentation, research and commitment is what makes the whole institution of Jnana Pravaha a jewel not only in the Varanasi crown, but also a force to reckon with at a national and international level. The Samskara Kendra caps the credibility further.

The academic roster stretches into July 2004. Want a 24-week Indian culture orientation' Or an international seminar on India’s perception through Chinese travellers' It’s all there waiting to be assimilated on the banks of the Ganga, prescribed with eminence and elegance.

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