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Dr. Ravi P Bhatia

Ujjain is revered in the Hindu pantheon as the place where Lord Krishna was born and spent his youth. Photo:vipaksha.org

Most of us have a desire to know who our grandparents or great grandparents were — how and where they lived and what they did. This feeling is accentuated if one has been forced to leave one’s ancestral home or village. Many young people are forced to do this due to educational or economic reasons. Lack of adequate educational facilities in smaller towns necessitates such persons to move out.

Similarly, economic factors lead young persons to go to a bigger town where employment is expected to be available. Even if a regular employment is not possible, at least one can do odd jobs such as driving a cycle rickshaw or working on odd jobs for sustaining oneself. Such people who have moved out due to above reasons generally are able to visit their homes and families periodically.

However, in today’s complex world where wars and bombings are a regular feature of several regions of the world people are forced to leave their homes to escape being killed or brutalized. These people migrate as refugees to any region or country that is willing to accept them. Germany has become a popular destination for many refugees from the mid-eastern countries like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Turkey and from Afghanistan or Baluchistan. Earlier, England, Australia, USA, France were popular destinations.

People move out but their hearts remain in the original places from where they were forced to migrate. This may be due to cultural, linguistic or religious reasons or it may be due to the memories that one has of the life as a child or even as an older person. Another situation that wrenches one’s life and memory is when a country is divided and a person or a community is forced to move out to a distant land.

This has happened in the case of breakup of the former Yugoslavia into Bosnia, Croatia and smaller nations. Similarly, India was divided into two countries – India and Pakistan in August 1947. Millions of people were forced to move from one part of the undivided country to another mainly because of religious reasons. Hindus, Sikhs and Jains living in those regions that are now part of Pakistan had to move to regions that were to remain in India. Similarly, many thousands of Muslims were forced or decided to move to the newly formed Pakistan, which at that time consisted of two parts West Pakistan and East Pakistan. The latter became independent of Pakistan in 1971 and is now called Bangladesh.

My own family was forced to leave Lahore and moved to the border towns of Moga and Ferozepur and after a few years moved to Delhi the capital of India. But the memories of our old home in Lahore remained fresh in the minds of my parents. We children were too young to understand the meaning of division of the country and displacement from one place to another. Stories of our home and the people we knew and the jobs my parents did not only fascinate us as children but also left a lasting desire in me to visit my birthplace and visit the famed Anarkali Bazaar that was a well-known part of the town. I did get an opportunity to go to Lahore for a Seminar but the Pakistan visa was denied.

Those people who have been lucky to visit their ancestral places in Lahore and other parts of Pakistan have related interesting stories of their visit and meeting interesting persons in the town that they were lucky to visit and partake of the smells, sounds and the food of the Bazaar. They were shown unexpected friendship and hospitality by complete strangers because their parents lived in that locality.

Historians also have their own reasons that take them not only to those places where their grand or great grandparents lived but also where civilizations used to flourish thousands of years ago. These historians look for artifacts, sculptures, statues, icons and how people lived in such places in times past. Monuments, many of which may be in a dilapidated state today are also of abiding interest.

One such place where a distinguished Indian historian Nayanjot Lahiri visited is BISHRAKH village in Ballabhgarh district on the border of UP and Haryana. Villagers of this place have a belief that the well-known (or notorious) character Ravana of Ramayana, who is generally considered a demon king of Lanka, was born and lived here. Ramayana is the story of Lord Ram one of the many gods of Hinduism and the story is that Ravana somehow was able to capture Ram’s wife and kidnapped her to Lanka. He wanted to marry her but did not use force for this objective.

Lahiri in her article that was published in the Indian Express newspaper on August 15 2016 (India’s Independence Day) also writes about a huge mound around which several villagers have built their homes. She cites archaeological evidence that some layers of this mound extend back to 1000 BCE. Some Shiva lings have also been recovered from around the mound. Ravana who is known to have been a scholar was also a devotee of Lord Shiva and these stone Shiva lings add sustenance to the belief that Ravana was born here and lived here.

An advantage of people’s belief is that they keep the mound and its surroundings clean. Thus the relics and artifacts and sculptures have been maintained properly. Lahiri writes that worship of these places and artifacts form an excellent practice of conservation of these relics and monuments.

I wish to write about a town Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. This place is sacred along with Allahabad, Nasik, and Hardwar where the well-known kumbh mela is held periodically. Recently in April 2016, kumbh mela attracting millions of Hindu devotees was held in Ujjain. It is estimated that about 10 million devotees took part in the Shahi snan (ritual bathing) starting from 22 April, the full moon day in the Shipra River.

I had gone to Ujjain as a tourist about ten years back. This place is revered in the Hindu pantheon and there are several temples and sites that have strong association with the local inhabitants. There are also beautiful ponds and some very ancient trees that can be seen around these ponds and in remote areas of the town. There is a strong belief among the local people that Lord Krishna was born here and spent his youth here. Some local people point out the place where he and his brother Balram played and received their training from a rishi. Normally Krishna’s birthplace is believed to be in Mathura. Again the local beliefs and traditions help to maintain these places related to Krishna clean and attract countless number of tourists both at the time of Kumbh and otherwise.

Lahiri explains the belief of the inhabitants of this place in the following words:

“People look at the past the way they like to, in ways that make sense to them. In the process it is common to see elements of the past being creatively redefined – in this case around Ravana and his janambhoomi (birthplace).”

The outstanding French sociologist Emile Durkheim writing in a different context had stated that an individual and the society are intimately related. In other words if a community has a strong belief in some practices or beliefs, an individual however strong his views may be otherwise, will accept them. On the contrary, if a community is scattered and inhomogeneous or is Anomie (in Durkheim’s terms), the beliefs of some individuals will carry more weight and will dominate those of the society. In fact, this is how major changes take place in societies.

Antiquities are of interest not only to historians but also to ordinary men and women and they relate to them in their own interesting and innovative ways.

Dr Ravi P Bhatia, a retired professor from Delhi University, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher.

This story originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)