Archive for January, 2008

I never thought I would see a real sundial in use. It seemed to me somehow that this simple technique of measuring time had gone out fashion with the obelisks. But India, forever the land of surprises, threw up one for me in the watery region of the Indian Ocean – on the southernmost island of the Lakshwadeep, Minicoy.

Sundial in Minicoy

Sundial in Minicoy

This beautiful 4.8 sq km island, geographically part of the Maldives archipelago of islands, is inhabited by people who speak the Mahal language and write in Thana script (religious sonnets). The British named the island Minicoy, apparently because they found it inhabited by short and shy people. Mini+coy, however, would like to be called Maliku, the Good Harbour.

The whole island, apart from the administrative offices of the Indian government, is divided into 10 fishing villages. While most of the Maliku men spend long periods away from home working as sailors on various mercantile ships, the rest make their living by fishing in the Indian Ocean. And for them knowing the seasons and time is crucial for survival.

Indian Standard Time (IST) set on the relationship between Greenwich and the local time in the city of Mirzapur near Allahabad, in north Uttar Pradesh, is ridiculously irrelevant here. Here humanity wakes and sleeps to a different time. Time, that’s tuned to nature, to the power of the sun and moon. The sundial time.

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In my recent visit to Rajasthan, I came across this commemorative altar on the National Highway 8. The altar depicts two men astride a motorbike. Before it is placed a clay lamp with a green chili to ward off evil spirits. The men, said the villagers, had died in a road accident two years ago.

In many parts of North India one can come across “chattris” or commemorative altars to the departed. These are usually erected by the families in the memory of their ancestors and are often located on the field or land owned by the family. Standing sentinels, guardian spirits. In some regions, such as Shekhawati, they can also be found painted on the walls of the houses.

There is so much that connects us to these men. Indian statistics show that currently 270 people die everyday on Indian roads. Much of it is caused by faulty traffic plan and fast modes of transport. Most National Highways cut through towns and villages without requisite by-pass or provision for slow moving traffic and pedestrians. And most lack first aid facilities for traffic victims.

The traditionally dressed men on the motorbike – an Enfield or Bullet – died one such death. The family of the deceased has placed the altar on the road. Like a milestone. Marking, it seemed to me, the pain of loss.

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This beautiful pass is home to one of India’s largest glaciers, the Bara Shigri Glacier. Standing here, at 4,830 meters, all one can see are hill ranges and valleys covered in a blanket of ice and snow. Himalayas here are larger and mightier. The rugged mountain terrain awesome in its nakedness. And most charmingly, utterly oblivious of man.

I am not the first to cross it, nor the last. The path leading through the mountainous terrain has been used since the ancient times, connecting India with the inner Himalayan kingdoms, and beyond – China, Mongolia and the far away region of the Hindukush. This is the road through which people travelled, met, exchanged goods and ideas. It’s a road where almost nothing has changed since the earth convulsed and created the Himalayas.

Nothing…except climate change that has shrunk the glacier by a few inches, increased the volume of water in the already swelling Chenab and turned its lower valleys into apple growing orchards.

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