SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012
Shimla is the quintessential town of the British Raj. In 1822 a Scottish Civil servant by the name of Charles Kennedy built a summer house here. Just forty years later the town had become the official summer residence of the Indian Empire, with its own Scottish baronial Viceregal Lodge, and it remained so until 1939.
As an aside, I would point out that both independence and partition were worked out here. The first – good, the second - one of the worst human tragedies in history. Below is the table where the first draft of the line of demarcation was shown to the Viceroy.
The town is built with two malls for strolling: the upper one, the Ridge, and the lower, the Mall. It still looks like British India today with: mock Tudor public building;
A theatre with a museum highlighting the old plays and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas that were performed there;
tweed merchants (where I purchased some delightful cheviot tweed from the Scottish Borders for a suit at only a fraction of the cost I would have had to pay in the mother country); numerous British style elitist schools; and an Anglican Church (now the Church of North India) dominating the main square (please note the youth in British school uniforms milling about).
Yet there was one thing already in existence when Charles Kennedy came here in the early 19th century. A relic of something much older, and much more primal than tea and tweed and the Book of Common Prayer lurks in the mists on the mountain top above the town. Look carefully into the distance behind the church tower in the photograph above and the one below.
On Shimla 's highest peak of Mount Jaku, 8000 feet above sea level, is the ancient Hindu Sanctuary and Temple of Jaku (also spelled Jakoo and Jakku). No one seems to know how long it has been there but the faithful claim it has been there since the time of the Ramayana (the 3rd century BC).
To reach the sanctuary one takes a steep path that leads from the right hand side of Christ Church at the east end of the Ridge and winds its way almost two miles up the mountain. About halfway up you enter through the gate of the sanctuary itself and into a calm cool forest of oak and deodar (a sacred cedar tree of the north Indian sub-continent).
Often mists creep along the ground and the wind in the treetops is seldom silent. It is a hypnotically beautiful, peaceful place and you can easy feel that you have entered onto sacred ground.
Yet what really makes the place feel magical, at least to a Westerner, is the perpetual presence of the denizens of the sanctuary who watch you from ever tree, rock, and from around every corner.
Although they are clam and sedate they watch every move you make, sometimes following along behind you at a dignified distance. It is quite obvious that you have entered their territory and that you are there only on suffrage.
Interestingly enough, only one kind of monkey, Rhesus macaque, seems to live on this mountain whist a totally different type, Hanuman langurs, share the rest of the town with the macaque. These langurs, for example, live at the Viceregal Lodge.
Eventually you come to a second, more ornate, gate which leads to the temple precincts on the very top of the mountain (note the monkey sitting on the head of the right hand guard).
Another long flight of steps leads you past the simian residents and into the temple courtyard
to the very feet of the 108 foot statue of the God that the mountain is sacred to and whose people reside there – Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God.
To me the mountain of Jaku seems like Narnia come to life. A mysterious other worldly place inhabited by a non human ‘people’ (the Vanara are the monkey people of the Ramayana) presided over by a magical monkey God whose inner sanctum lies through a misty gate at the top of a mountain. It could easily be, without any changes, a setting in one of the Chronicles of Narnia.
Lord Hanuman, as you probably are aware, is one of the most beloved of all Hindu deities. He is said to be an avatara of Shiva, was a student of the all knowing and all wise Surya the sun god. He is gifted with all boons and is one of the few Hindu Immortals who is said to be present whenever the Ramayana is read.
He plays a main role in the grand religious epic of the Ramayana and the legend associated with the mountain in Shimla comes from this epic. When Lord Rama’s brother Lord Lakshmana lay dying from a poisoned arrow on a battle field, Lord Hanuman used his powers of flight and strength to fly to the Himalayas to bring back the sacred herb, sanjivani, needed to heal him. Lord Hanuman, unable to indentify the plant and knowing he was running out of time, took the entire mountain with him back to the south so the Brahmin Sage could identify the sanjivani and save Rama’s brother.
Jaku temple is located on the spot where Lord Hanuman rested on his way back from the battle to return the mountain to its rightful place. The top of the mountain is said to be flattened by the weight of the god and the mountain. Another version says that he stopped here on the way to find the herb to ask a wise sage directions and in his haste to depart left his people behind. It is believed it is the descendants of these Vanara who still roam the mountain. A special shrine marks the holy place of the his footprints.
Lord Hanuman is one of the most powerful of the Hindu deities empowered with almost every power conceivable. This makes him the ultimate sonic screwdriver (a bone for those of you who are Doctor Who fans) as he can be used to solve almost all problems. As a child, he was endlessly teasing the local sadhus by hiding their prayer books, and stealing or rearranging their rosaries and sacred priestly tools. His curiosity was also dangerous as he once confused the sun for a ripe mango fruit and caused great problems for the world when he tried to tug it from its orbit, requiring Lord Indra to strike him in the head with a thunderbolt which explains the cleft in Hanuman’s jaw. Thus the sadhus cursed Hanuman so that although he had more p0wers than almost any other god, he was not able to remember that he possessed these powers or attributes unless reminded of the fact first. Thus one of the great Hindu ‘plot holes’ was filled.
The temple of Jaku as it is presently constructed in located inside the sacred temple courtyard above the towering statue of the Monkey God.
I think I surprised and pleased the priest inside by knowing the correct ritual needed to pay my respects and I received the customary mark, prasad and a blessing.
I rang the bell and wandered out to visit one of the smaller shrines, and then things took a strange turn.
One of Lord Hanuman’s servants mugged me. To be more precise this shifty looking brute on the ground
waited until my I turned around, pounced on my back, and ripped my spectacles from my face (luckily the scratches, five little scratches like the fingers of a miniature Freddy Kruger, were not deep and did not become infected). So there I was, barefoot (as you remove your shoes before entering Hindu Temple complexes), blind, and bent double to peer at a large group of monkeys trying to figure out which of them had my specs. Rhesus macaque do not like being peered at.
Nope, not one bit. So they all yelled their arses off which attracted the attention of every other monkey on the mountain.
It was all a little creepy, just like this monkey’s unsettling stare.
It also attracted the attention of the local Hindu devotees. Needless to say, It seems I made their day. They laughed, and laughed, and laughed. As a matter of fact, two days later when I visited the Viceregal Palace at the opposite end of town and asked for special permission to see the old chapel (which is shamefully falling into ruins),
the official took one look at me, smiled and then enquired if my spectacles had been damaged! Eventually the two poor and ragged prasad sellers began to peruse the guilty culprit (who had my specs clamped IN his mouth chewing on them) showering him with food. It took twenty minutes before he grew tired with his new possession and spit them out to eat. Normally the exchange of your stolen possession for food is rather straightforward. Not this time. I spent the next hour cleaning monkey salvia off my specs as I wondered back down the mountain.
On the way down there is a playground which I think is for the monkeys and not children. If I were a kid I certainly would not want to fight a gang of possessive monkeys to get to play on it, especially after seeing how the monkeys use it.
On arriving back in town I bumped into a young German who had also been up at the temple a bit earlier and we began chatting as one does when their are very few foreigners about and you start to grow a bit lonesome. This led to a several hour intensive chat fest before he caught his evening bus. He charmed me by his self effacing humour about Germans and his honest curious nature. It caught me totally off guard, and so I forgot to be prejudiced.
Anyone who knows me well is aware that I, shamefully, harbour some very negative views about the role that the German nation has played in he formation of the modern world and this often spills over into a prejudice against German people. Simply put - the fact that a civilisation at the height of learning in: medicine, science, mathematics, architecture, art, music, poetry, literature, philosophy and theology was able to commit the crimes against human decency and compassion that the Third Reich did, killed the concept and hope of human progress. Or at least as the world born of the enlightenment had understood and strove for it. I claim that, symbolically speaking, the modern world ended when the Russian footage of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27th 1945 was first shown at the Nuremburg trials. That first skeletal, almost unidentifiably human, figure to walk out of the early morning mist and smoke destroyed the West’s claim to superiority, decency, or the right to lead or teach. We lost our right to speak or at least the expectation that we should be listened to.
Most horrifically for me as a Christian priest, it also, as The Rev’d Dr. Diarmaid McCullough the Professor of the history of the Church at Oxford says, “fatally implicated the Church”. The faith of the Christian West did not stop the horrors of European Imperialism, or the two World Wars. It did not stop the Holocaust, which was perpetrated by baptised Christians. One of the most unimaginable and abominable acts of humanity happened on the Church’s watch. This marked the beginning of the end for the confidence and moral certitude of Western Christianity. How could we ever expect to have the postmodern world take us seriously again, listen to us, or trust us. Post modernity and the world we live in is not a philosophical or theological evolution from modernity but rather the charred remains of the collapsed old world. We are in a crater creeping through the rubble trying to find the rim and thus a way out.
Mind you, I am usually honest enough to admit that the real difficulty with the Germans is that they are the same people as the English (I will not claim exception by my Celtic blood). Or even more to the point - the problem with the Germans is that they were, they are, the West. Perhaps the fact that they were the ones holding the dynamite when it went off does not make them different in kind, or even in degree, but just timing in the imperial game of musical chairs. No matter how much the British and the Allies tell themselves that they would never have been implicated in the atrocities perpetrated by the Axis powers, history and a wise understanding of human nature suggests that it is more probably a case of ‘there but for the grace of God…..’
This chap, whose name is Grischa, is not only German but from Berlin! I had hoped he may at least have been Bavarian (the Bavarians have an ‘out’ in my weird prejudice book because the head of their Royal House, Wittlesbach, is also the Head of the Royal House of Stuart not to mention the fact that the Bavarian Royal family was imprisoned by the Third Reich for their opposition to Herr Hitler). The point of all this whittering is that, although I remembered that I had a prejudice against Germans, when I reached for it it was simple gone. I am not trying to say I wanted to be prejudiced, as a mater of fact it is something I always felt ashamed of (although perhaps not enough), but simply that I was surprised to find that it was no longer there. A couple of days later we bumped into one another again in Mcleodganj at the gates of the residence of the Dali Lama. We resumed where we had left off and spent three days hiking and exploring the Eastern Himalayas. Who would have thought?
It was only upon reflection that I realised I had stumbled into one of the primal religious experientially interpretive frames of mind. Let me try and explain. I believe many, if not most, religious people do not experience the world through an interpretive abstract filter which creates meaning like we are more used to in the educated areas of the West (especially Anglicanism!). Rather, like in dreams, experiences are linked together narratively to form meaning when they are seen and interpreted as part of the ‘sacred’.
Let’s use my experience as an example.
I enter the Realm of the great Monkey God who is all wise and teaches us how to break free from all the shackles that hold us down, and grants protection and peace. I am anointed by one of his priests and immediately after ringing the sacred bell (a sort of an Amen) my eyesight is ripped away by one of this god’s servants. Blinded and unable to navigate by my own strength I am reduced to having to rely on the two humblest people on the mountain. Having been rebuked and reminded that I can think, see, and discern only through the grace of God and by my reliance on other people my sight is restored. Yet it is a changed sight, a clearer sight. I discover this immediately after descending from the holy mountain as the first thing I encounter is a German, my traditional ‘other’, who has been transformed by grace into a ‘friend’.
This is the way, I believe, many experience their faith. Sometimes I wish I could enter into it more freely than I am able to do so. Still I find the subjective meaning system rather frightening and very dangerous. Yet I must admit it is also rather exciting. Perhaps I should not admit that it is somehow easier to believe in obviously symbolic mythological gods such as an elephant god that removes all obstacles or a monkey god who gives new sight than it is to believe in a St Anthony, a real historical saint, who helps me find my car keys.
Even the Saints such as St George, a Middle Eastern fertility god, or St Brigit (St Bride in Scotland) a Celtic pagan goddess, who were transformed into Christian Saints still are too ‘normal’ or maybe too ‘human’ to evoke the whole childlike Narnia reaction in me.
Oh well, we can’t have everything we want but it would be cool if Christians had at least one ‘holy’ animal like the Hindu’s have cobras, elephants, monkeys, and cows. I would suggest something sedate and cuddly like a wombat or a marmot. They could live in our churchyards and wander freely in and out of our churches. The children could play with them when they grow restless (or adults when they grow bored with sermons). I am sure church would be much more fun. I can hear it now: “Dad, can we go to Mass so I can play with the wombats/marmots?”. If only the reversal of the decline of the western church were so simple.
Seriously though, animals are always fun to have around especially in holy places. Imagine how fun vestry would be with this wombat wandering around the hall acting as an ice breaker? Could you really look at him and still complain bitterly and loudly about what date the Anglican Church Women had chosen for the spring bake sale?
If we do not want to import wombats from Australia we can use our own home grown Canadian yellow bellied marmots.
I was suckered into visiting the Himalayan Bird Sanctuary in Shimla. It is a rip off. Himalayan birds, seemingly,consist of only geese and chickens. Regardless of the fact that there is a man who ‘guards’ these geese and chickens all day it is still, really really not worth the long trek to get there.
The following photo captures the highlight of the visit.