Thursday, April 2, 2020

Walking through Haryana

At the end of my travel through Haryana, I counted having walked more than 150 kms in a span of 9 days. I began my Foot Journey on 20 February from Adi Badri, the site of an ancient Buddhist monastery then crossed River Yamuna on 29 February at a distance of about 35 kms from Panipat. Throughout the walk, I was never more than 20 kms away from the west bank of River Yamuna. After Topra Kalan, my next important destination was Sankissa, the site where the Buddha descended from Heaven. So finishing at Topra, I should have crossed River Yamuna and travelled diagonally to Sankissa. That would have saved me time and kilometres, but as I wanted to see and experience more of Haryana, so I deviated towards Panipat.

Dogs were my usual companions on lonely roads. Sometimes they would scare me by barking at me, but mostly I was able to befriend them.

Walking through Haryana is a visual delight. Agricultural fields extend on either side of the highway till as far as the eye can see. Farmlands of wheat, sugarcane and mustard compose a scenery comparable to postcards. With trees lined on both sides, walking on the highway sometimes felt like walking through a boulevard. I was told that very soon the wheat crops would ripen and so the lush green fields would turn into golden carpets spread across the earth. The one thing that I noticed everywhere was land use. Agricultural fields, villages, hamlets, industries or irrigation canals, something or the other occupies every piece of available land so much as that one can rarely find a patch which is empty or barren. And this is hardly surprising because water is abundant in Haryana. Nature has blessed these people with many small and large, seasonal and perennial rivers. I was told that the water table is also high. Compared to some of the other parts of India including our national capital, which face a chronic shortage of water, the water situation in Haryana seemed unrealistic. I even noticed a lack of care conserving water. Many times, there were no taps on pipes such that water flowed freely all the time. This was a little painful to witness, I must confess. 

Lush green fields as far as one can see. Wheat fields waiting to be harvested.

Praises of the people of this region can be found in ancient sources. Although most of the population were non-Buddhists i.e. Deva Worshippers (Hindus), mention  is made about them in Buddhist literature. Pali texts and Xuanzang’s travelogue, both state that people of the Kingdom of Kuru i.e. present-day Haryana, were honest and valued practical knowledge and religious wisdom. I can say that this holds true to a great extent even today. My foot journey through Haryana gave me the chance of meeting families in the countryside of Haryana, and my general impression is that people are laborious in work, simple at home and modest in manners. I received kind treatment on every occasion. They came forward to converse with me, answered my queries with enthusiasm, offered me homemade buttermilk and snacks, and put me up in their homes at night without fear or suspicion. Every action reflected their good-natured and open-heartedness. 

Communal Hookah (water-pipe smoking)  smoking is a common sight in rural Haryana. Men can be seen gathering for a chat and smoking hookah throughout the day.

I noticed a 'Gaurav Pat'  (Pride Plaque) in the villages of Haryana giving information about the village. I found it quite useful for getting a basic idea about village.

My mornings in Haryana were usually like this - empty roads, bullock carts and plenty of fresh air.

Antique doors removed and kept aside to be replaced with modern iron doors (somewhere in a village of Haryana).
The tradition of making dung cakes is still very much prevalent in rural Haryana. They are made by the women in the household and used mostly as fuel for cooking.
Water bodies were very dirty in almost all the villages. All the solid communal waste was thrown or accumulated in ponds.
One afternoon, while walking from Topra Kalan to Karnal, I lost my way and wandered into a lonely track along a dry irrigation canal. By the time I realized my mistake, I was more than 5 kms inside already. There was not a single person or vehicle in sight. Fortunately appeared from behind, a boy on a motorbike. He stopped when I waved to him in a manner of seeking help. The boy introduced himself as a local named Dinesh Saini. When I told him about my getting off track, he offered me a ride on his bike and took me to his home which was about 2 kms away from there on Yamuna Nagar-Karnal highway. His house was a double-storied building. Two cows sat on the front porch next to some freshly harvested crops and heavy agriculture implements. It was apparent that they were farmers. Dinesh made me meet his father, Shri Suresh Saini, a man in his early fifties. I enjoyed a hot lunch with them and in the discussion which followed, he shared with me about his eldest son studying in Australia. Shri Saini ji had taken a loan for 40 Lakhs (4 million) to finance his son’s education. This loan had already been liquidated, and now it was time for the younger brother, Dinesh, to go to Australia in the footsteps of his elder brother. This meant that Shri Saini faced the challenge of securing another 40 Lakhs. Wondering how Saini ji managed to raise these significantly large sums of money, I ended up asking, in my naivety, whether he liquidated some of his land to pay off the loans. To this Saini ji replied, with a touch of vanity in his deep voice, that all that money had been earned from farming his 20 acres (7 kila) of agriculture land. He said that Sainis were an extremely hardworking community and they managed to get double the yield of what farmers from other communities did. If this is true then indeed it is remarkable. Saini ji has not visited Australia yet, so once Dinesh goes to Australia to study, his wife and him would take a vacation there with their sons. Quite a story of intergenerational bonding and instinctive struggle for a better future!

Myself with Suresh and Dinesh Saini (L-R). The Saini community claims descent from Emperor Ashoka - a lineage there are extremely proud of.

I asked Saini ji if he was aware that the Saini community in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh claimed to be descendants of Emperor Ashoka and were heard of embracing Buddhism in large numbers. Saini ji acknowledged some distant relatives engaging in awareness generation about Buddhism, but thought that the phenomenon of adopting Buddhist practices would take a while to reach Haryana. For now, the Saini community of Haryana are devout Hindus. 

Haryana was a strategic location on the Indian subcontinent in ancient times. It was the point of entry for most foreign invaders trying to gain a foothold in the Indo-Gangetic plain. The city of Panipat which sits quietly today was the scene of three major battles which shaped the history of India. The first of these battles, fought in 1526, is particularly significant because in this battle the army of Ibrahim Lodi, ruler of the Delhi Sultanate engaged with that of Mongol prince, Babur invading India from the north-western frontier. Thus, Haryana was the gateway to the Indo-Gangetic plains, and control (or lack of it) over this region had repercussions throughout the rest of India. Haryana was strategic also because through it passed the renowned ancient trading route which connected Kabul in the west to Chittagong in the east. Known as Uttarpatha in pre-Buddhist times, sections of this route today constitute the national highway known as Grand Trunk (GT). On the Grand Trunk highway,  I saw pillars from the medieval era near Panipat. Known as Kos Minar, these pillars were set to mark 1 Kos (3 kilometers approximately) to help traders and travellers gauge the distance on this long route. The last standing pillars, about a hundred of them, have been declared as protected monuments by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). 

Kos Minar (Medieval minaret marking 3 kms approximately built during the era Delhi Sultanate) on Panipat Highway (ancient Grand Truck road).

Walking in Haryana, I felt very little worry about my physical safety. The presence of lots of Gurudwara - places of worship of the Sikh community - was reassuring. Gurudwaras are known for distributing free meals three times a day prepared in community kitchens (Langar) and not refusing anyone seeking shelter at their doorstep. Out of the 8 nights that I spent in Haryana, on most nights I slept in Gurudwaras. 

My accommodation for night stays at temples and gurudwaras.

My last night in Haryana was the most memorable. After walking about 25 kms from Panipat, I reached a village called Hathawala. As I looked for a place to spend the night, I was told by a local man of a Gurudwara situated in a village called Raksera, 5 kms away. So I walked another 5 kms to reach this village where a bunch of excited children guided me to the gate of the Gurudwara. I waited for the caretaker or priest of the temple to appear, but in place of him showed up a group of Sikh men and women who started  questioning me about my identity documents and intention behind turning up at the Gurudwara. Upon hearing my answers, they consulted among themselves, and one of them spoke to me urging me to leave the Gurudwara and if possible, catch the last bus, and leave the village itself. Having walked nearly 30 kms that day and with the sun almost about to set, I told them I was in no condition to move on. They explained to me their reason for asking me to leave. Two days ago, an unidentified man had desecrated the village mosque making the environment of this multi-religious village tense. Residents had been instructed by the police to report any outsider. The group, therefore, did not want me to stay as my presence could intensify the situation and affect their livelihood ultimately. In some time, more people from Sikh and Muslim community came in and interrogated me for the same answers. Much to my relief, the village head finally took me to the police seated inside the mosque. After proving my identity for the third time in the evening, permission was given for me to stay the night in the Gurudwara. On stepping inside the Gurudwara, I was at once impressed. The look of the place told that despite their marginal economic situation, the Sikh community in the village made generous contributions for the maintenance of their Gurudwara, which means they gave importance to themselves as a community.

Santok Singh and his wife, Raksera.
Gurudwara in Raksera village.
Raksera - a small village in Haryana.

Raksera is a small village 30 kms away from the district headquarter, Panipat. It has about 900 families: 300 belonging to Sikh Rai community, 300 to Muslim community and 400 to Hindu community. A member of the panchayat (collective of elected village people), Santok Singh, visited me later in the evening and apologised for my earlier not so pleasant experience. He said that the recent incident of damage to the mosque by miscreants was an aberration in the long history of communal harmony in the village. Even during the partition of India when almost every village in northern India experienced violence, not a single violent incident was heard of in Raksera. To illustrate the exemplary co-existence in the village, he told me of a group of Muslim people had migrated during the partition of India in 1947 to neighbouring Uttar Pradesh owing to feelings of insecurity. However, they returned within 3 years as they found Raksera to be far more safe than villages in neighboring Uttar Pradesh.

The next morning, I walked for 5 kms from Raksera to reach Bega ghat (bank) where I had to cross River Yamuna to enter Uttar Pradesh. At the bank, I found an old person sitting on a cot under the shade of a tree. I approached him and sought his permission to sit with him for a conversation. He introduced himself as Samsad Ali (72). A little later, his younger brother Iqbal Ali (58) also joined us. They belonged to the village called Bega after which the river bank is named. They had a one year government license for plying the ferry on their side of the river. They had paid 15 Lakhs for the one year license. They informed me that plying the ferry was not profit making but since their family owned about 300 acres of land around the river bank, it was in their interest to have the license to ply the ferry around the land.

Samsad ji tells that the quantity of water in the River Yamuna may not have changed much since but the quality has certainly deteriorated. The industrial waste and sewage from three major industrial towns of Haryana - Yamuna Nagar, Karnal and Panipat - is discharged into the river routinely. Every time this is done, the water turns toxic and dead fishes, small and big, appear on the banks in huge quantities. 

According to ancient Hindu texts, Yamuna, also known as Yami, is a Hindu Goddess (Devi) of the river. In Hindu mythology, the Goddess Yamuna is the daughter of the Sun God Surya and the sister of the God of Death, Yama. The Goddess Yamuna is a symbol of infinite love and compassion. It is believed among Hindus that if a brother and sister pair worship River Yamuna and bathe in her sacred water then they will be granted freedom - even from death, the realm of her elder brother Yama. Iqbal Ali, younger brother of Samshad ji, added that nowadays if one bathes in Yamuna, he or she is likely to not wash away sins but fall sick from infections. Samshad ji recalled that in his childhood, the colour of the river water was clear blue. In the last two years especially, the situation of the river has improved because the water that was being diverted to Delhi was stopped. Diverting water to Delhi had made the Yamuna a Nalah (drainage). However, the river is regaining its shape, Samshad ji added.

Samshad ji’s grandfather were four brothers, three of whom left for Pakistan during the partition of India in 1947. This left him a lot of parental property which would have got divided between four brothers otherwise. I asked Samshad ji if he kept in touch with his cousin brothers living in Pakistan. He said with some sadness that people from India were not treated well in Pakistan. People of the Sindh province of Pakistan, where his brothers lived, were particularly known for being hostile and short-tempered. Samshad ji’s uncle who also lives in Pakistan has been asking Samshad ji to visit him a last time before he passes away, but Samshad ji has been postponing the trip as he does not feel good about taking a trip to Pakistan which he thinks is not a safe place. Samshad ji felt that a similar situation is overtaking India where individuals are fighting each other in the name of religion. He argued that we are all one and the same - there were no muslims in India about 600 years ago, all the Muslims of today converted from Hinduism. This made sense to me. 

At Bega Ghat on the banks of River Yamuna with ferrymen/farmer brothers, Iqbal Ali (L) and Shamshad Ali (R).

In these 10 days or so, out of the limited interactions I had with local people, only few were not aware about the Buddha but at the same time, very few had heard about Xuanzang. Those who knew about the Buddha were surprised when I told them that the Buddha had visited Haryana during his sublime wanderings. I hope someday in the near future, Haryana becomes an integral part of the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit. 

Crossing Yamuna to enter Uttar Pradesh on a wooden boat with fellow passengers and their motor bikes. 
Motor bikes being unloaded on the other side of the river.

I walked through Haryana for 9 days covering a distance of 172 kms.
My travel route through Haryana plotted on a map.

Story chronicled by Aparajita Goswami 


Pathfinder said...

Interesting - thank you for sharing this window on Haryana.

pratapsinhrajput said...

Yes, it is a very special place and reflects love for knowledge.