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In the forbidden zone, face to face with an almost-forgotten goddess

Hinglaj (Baluchistan): Her face may not have launched a thousand ships but it nearly ended Creation. The beauty may have been compelling but it did not lead to any seizure of the realm.

Yet for over a thousand years, the legend of Sati has held sway.

It still does. Even in Talibanised Pakistan. I accompanied the 86 pilgrims and BJP leader Jaswant Singh to find out what it means to be an almost-forgotten Hindu god in a forgotten part of the world.

This is how it all began. Sati, Shiva’s consort, ended her life by jumping into a pool of fire to protest against the humiliation of her husband by her own father.

Heaven hath no fury like a god bereaved. So Shiva responded by going into the dance of destruction. But the guiles of Vishnu saved the day. The remains of Sati were cut in 51 pieces and scattered across India. The 51 places where the remains fell are known as pitha and constitute the Grand Slam of Indian pilgrimage.

As many as 49 of the 51 pithas are within India. A few lie outside its current geographical boundary. One of them, Hinglaj, is in Baluchistan.

The scalp of Sati, replete with vermilion, the mark of the married woman, fell in Hinglaj.

On this corporeal relic grew a place of worship 'somewhat in the fashion of Buddhist stupas. Thus bloomed the Hindu flower in the barren wilderness of Baluchistan.

In truth, the goddess at Hinglaj began her reign much earlier but as an unknown regional satrap. Once assumed in the 51-strong National Democratic Alliance of Sati, her munificence stood vastly enlarged. Hinglaj, born non-Aryan, became part of the Shakti diaspora. Her humble origins were soon forgotten.

Despite the lineage, Hinglaj never quite received the attention it deserved.

The journey was arduous and long. The 250-km trudge across an unfriendly desert was an ultimate test of faith. (Every pilgrim, says Jaswant, deserved a Victoria Cross). The entire route was and remains infested with dacoits. The visitors, mainly local Hindus from Sindh, were routinely robbed.

The only other pilgrims the goddess attracted were the steady trickle of Rajputs ' kings and kin ' from Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat. Even that ebbed with Partition. Outside of Rajasthan, only Bengal had a certain familiarity with Hinglaj. This was due to a Bengali tantrik who visited the shrine before Partition and wrote a harrowing account.

His best-selling journal is the only modern chronicle of the pilgrimage. It later spawned a hugely successful Bengali film with Uttam Kumar as the pilgrim. Despite a fascination for Aryanised native gods, few Bengalis were willing to hazard a perilous journey.

Hinglaj for them was a romantic interlude. But as a token Bengali among the yatris, I was recognised as the representative of the state’s undying Shakti cult.

It would be quite wrong to blame the declining interest only on bigotry. The fact is, getting into Pakistan is complicated enough unless one is a cricketer.

Even for those granted a visa, Baluchistan falls in the forbidden zone.

In the best of times, Baluchistan is an Allah-forsaken country. With 43 per cent of Pakistan’s land and only 5 per cent of its population, it defines nowhereness. Hinglaj, where the goddess resides, is 110 km from the nearest police station. The village panchayat in Hinglaj rules over an area that is 160 km in length.

There is no electricity or telephone or post office. Not even a chai shop. The only local population appears to be Russell vipers and Ibex goats.

And it is hardly the best of times. Baluchistan is divided into tribes. Their current preoccupation is fighting among themselves, which, to be fair, is what they have always done. They are also fighting with Islamabad which appears to be a contemporary undertaking.

Pakistan is convinced that India is behind these troubles, as much as India believes Pakistan is behind every act of arson on its soil. Baluchistan houses the country’s missile-testing zone, making the region security-sensitive. The long and largely unguarded coastline is a standing temptation for the drug traffic. The trade’s current capo, Pappu Arshad, runs his fief from the region with, it is said, the administration turning a blind eye.

Enter Jaswant Singh. The man from Jaisalmer pestered the Pakistan government into allowing him to lead a group of Indian pilgrims by road from India to Baluchistan. Even for Singh, whose persuasive skills have put him in the race for the UN secretary generalship, it was not easy. But Singh was not one to give up easily. He met the Indian Prime Minister who agreed to speak to Pervez Musharraf and only then did Islamabad relent.

Singh’s trip marked the informal opening of the Rajasthan gateway to Pakistan. And Singh did it with great style. Some 86 pilgrims, mostly Marwari Rajputs from the Jaisalmer region, crossed the Munaba border on foot and then boarded four-wheelers to cross the Thar on an ancient pilgrim track in disuse for years. Two of them were Rajasthan-registered vehicles fitted for the occasion with special sand tyres.

Once in a while even a pilgrim needs to make his point.

Opinion remains divided as to why Singh undertook this trip. Pakistan believes that for the BJP leader, it is a positioning game. The parivar factotums in the Hinglaj entourage saw no reason why opening up a Rajasthan corridor to Pakistan will impact national politics.

But they readily concede that Singh will be seen as being occupied with larger issues at a time when the next generation in the party are busy sniping at each other. Singh’s detractors in the party point to the fact that the gateway to Pakistan falls conveniently in his son Manavendra’s Lok Sabha constituency.

While the younger Singh has done well by his electorate, the significant Muslim population could become hazardous to his political health. The opening of the borders ' the railways will begin their service later this month ' will prove a boon to the many Muslim (and some Hindu) families divided by Partition, thereby earning the Singh khandaan political brownie points.

Judging by the initial reaction, Singh may be heading for a home run. All across the route, Pakistanis lined up to welcome the Indian guests. In Umraokot, where Emperor Akbar was born, flower petals were thrown on the Indian cars. This was a spontaneous act of goodwill, given the fact that the parivar is unlikely to have engineered support in Pakistan and the ISI would hardly be that ingenious.

If politics is what brought Singh to Hinglaj, it was politics that gave Hinglaj its eminence.

Hinglaj was one of the many small-time local gods that existed all over India. They were pre-Aryan and had little or nothing to do with Hinduism as we know and practise it. Very cleverly, the early Aryans imbibed them in their midst, thus giving birth to the politics of coalition.

In contrast, the latter invaders ' Islam and Christianity ' sought to expand through conversion. Hostile takeovers, as L.N. Mittal is learning to his chagrin, leave residual bitterness. Babri being just one consequence.

The first versions of Sati’s tale were far less dramatic. The Mahabharata and the philosophical canons known collectively as The Brahmanas recount Sati’s discomfiture and eventual suicide but make no mention of Shiva’s anger. Vishnu’s delightful antic, almost Bollywood in character, of slicing the body in many pieces was introduced many centuries later.

But this simple extension, innocuous on the surface, had much larger implications. It provided the intellectual argument and a simple but clever way for the Aryans to reach out and absorb gods and ideas native to India. Existing places of worship were identified and declared Hindu pithas. Native gods were not left in the lurch but admitted to the pantheon.

In the spirit of a common minimum programme, the idols or the objects of worship were left untouched while non-Aryan rituals, such as tantra, were allowed into the fold. Even the idea of corporeal relic, the leading Indian scholar on the subject, D.C. Sarkar, has argued, was merely an early attempt to regain lost territory from the Buddhists. Subsequently, Buddha was declared a full avatar of Vishnu.

The adaptation of Hinglaj in the Hindu family was thus good politics. In the absence of local history, it is difficult to say when all this happened. But a distinguished scholar, David Gordon White, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in his book on Siddha tradition claims that a fourth century Greek geographer, called Ctesias, has referred to Hinglaj in his work.

Little has changed in the intervening years. The early travellers used camels as means of travel. Today they use four-wheelers. But the Baluchi desert remains as ever, mildly vegetated and as uninviting. Just like Rajasthan, said Hukum Singh, the Jaswant family driver, who steered the Mahindra Scorpio all the way from Jaisalmer.

And just like Baluchistan, deserts in Rajasthan can sometimes be unfriendly. Either side of the fence, the camel drivers can be enterprising: visitors to the Jaisalmer dunes, for example, often find their burden lightened if they are not too careful.

The great desert bonhomie is, thus, one of life’s enduring fictions. Those who live with nature’s hostility learn how to avail of life’s opportunity. No one would know this better than the chief minister of the state, Mohammad Yousaf Aliani.

In yesteryears, he was the Jam, i.e. nawab, of the region. Today he is the elected chief minister. While his son, a Pramod Mahajan-like figure who sports a rather visible Giorgio Armani shirt under the Baluch tunic, is the district Nazim or head of the zilla parishad. Hinglaj is part of his charge.

The father-and-son team rule Quetta with an iron hand. Together with the federal government in Islamabad, they have assembled a 40-strong convoy to take the yatris to the shrine. The convoy included federal troops, provincial police and elite anti-terrorist commandos equipped to the teeth with German machine guns and American rocket-launchers.

The surrounding hills were “sanitised” with soldiers taking charge. The entire 250-km route from Karachi was manned by the men in black.

Even the Indian high commission was impressed. They are not leaving things to chance, said an accompanying member of the Indian mission.

Why' I asked.

“They do not wish any untoward event to take place.”

It was not only the show of strength which impressed the Indians. The Baluchistan government sent its ministers along with a Lexus 4x4 sports utility vehicle ' the sort Amar Singh uses ' at the Sindh-Baluchistan border to receive the Indians. The chief minister himself drove a few hundred kilometres from his capital just to host a lunch at Hinglaj and even left his son, the Nazim, to spend the night with the yatris. “They have spent crores,” said a member of the Indian mission, “to make you feel at home. The unused bottles of the branded water are enough to fill a swimming pool.”

Such expression of goodwill did not hinder the little one-day internationals the two foreign ministries play. Indian diplomats are rarely allowed a peep into this side of the world. The Jaswant Singh trip was, in a sense, a godsend.

There was no harm in pushing our luck, reasoned the Indians and requested a ‘recce’ trip. No deal, said Islamabad. Can we at least send an officer a day in advance to Hinglaj so that he can go through the arrangement and is in situ to welcome the Indian leader of the Opposition' the official tried again.

Shoaib Akhtar did not blink.

There is more than one reason why Pakistan is reticent about allowing Indians in Baluchistan and one good reason why it is being plain silly. There is strife and allegations of an Indian involvement and there is the missile-testing zone. But the Chinese have built them a spanking new port on the Arabian Sea with, it is said, tacit approval from the Americans. The Persian Gulf is a potential tinder-box and should the occasion demand it, Washington would have one more springboard for an operation.

But such arguments are silly because satellites have made nonsense of yesterday’s idea of security.

What is food for the mullah, though, is food for the kafir. A spanking new port requires a spanking new road. So the Chinese have built one to facilitate traffic between Karachi and the new port at Gwadar.

The road cutting through the spectacular Makran Coast Range passes through a village called Aghore which is merely 20-odd km from the shrine. (Aghore is the place through which Alexander’s army returned after the battle with Porus). The once inaccessible goddess has thus been brought to the doorsteps, ending over 1,500 years of traveller’s nightmare. So the pilgrim progresses. But the goddess'

At first sight, the She could disappoint. There is no imposing architecture or riveting sculpture. Hinglaj is not 10 Janpath but a minor coalition partner. It is tribal paganism Aryanised only at the fringe. But there is great theatre. The goddess resides in a cave sculpted by nature with wind and water in a narrow canyon.

The opening of the cave would be about 30 feet in height and around 60 to 70 feet in breadth. A river ambles its way in the bottom of the gorge. Its placid existence ' and in patches non-existence ' is misleading. With the right rain, its passion could be aroused and then it cuts completely the access to the goddess.

Inside the cave, there is no idol to speak of, though there is an object of worship. Part of the rock is dressed in a sari and painted with vermilion, invoking awe and creating an atmosphere of reverence. Here the offerings are made. There is a U-shaped tunnel just underneath the deity.

The ritual act of pradakhsheen (going round a place of worship) is done crawling in the labyrinth. The majesty of Hinglaj lies not in its details. One looks not at the snapshot of a planet but at the portrait of the Milky Way itself.

The 20-km ride from the highway prepares one for the spectacle. A lazy dirt track moving in and out of the embrace of the mountain, crawling across the river bed' the side of the mountains almost sculpted by wind from the sea' this is nature unspoilt to perfection.

Civilisation has spared Hinglaj. Barely 20,000 visit the shrine in a year and that too in the few comfortable months of the year. Then nature takes over. The angry sun of the desert and the sudden flashes of flood in the rain ensure the deity her seclusion.

All that may change with progress. The new coastal highway cutting down travelling time to a mere three hours and an improved India-Pakistan relationship could cost even the Mother of the Universe her privacy.

The gods, like men, can survive apathy. Can they, unlike men, survive the adulation'

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