Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Researchers, activists bat for Mhatoba shrine status quo

Ananya Dutta,TNN | Sep 21, 2015, 03.00 AM IST

PUNE: The shrine dedicated to Mhatoba on top of Vetal Tekdi is an important cultural and historical site and should be maintained as it is, instead of obscuring it with a modern structure, feel experts and environmentalists.

"The Mhatoba shrine is important from an archaeological point of view as well as in terms of the folk and cult geography of Pune. Building a modern-style temple on the site would erase the actual ritual association that pastoral communities had with the shrine," said Indologist and researcher Saili K Palande Datar.

As far back as 1962, historian and polymath D D Kosambi had commented on the importance of the site in mapping the cult of Mhatoba. In his book 'Myth and Reality — Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture', Kosambi terms this shrine on the hilltop as "the original locus" of the Mhatoba of Kothrud village. According to him, it came here along with "herdsmen" from Wakad, where there is a temple to Mhatoba and his consort — a structure older than 1678AD.

Kosambi also found prehistoric artefacts in the vicinity of the shrine, including what may be megaliths (large stones) from an ancient burial site.

"I have been visiting the site from the 1960s. It used to be as Kosambi has described it, 'a red-daubed boulder' minimally covered with a tin shed. It was revered by Dhangar and Wadar communities, who would offer a sacrifice to the deity when passing through Pune," said environmental activist Vijay Paranjpye.

Palande Datar said the communities that have historical associations with the shrine, such as the Dhangars, don't even pass through the area anymore. "Altering the structure would be an appropriation of their cultural symbols and amount to an erasure of history. Introducing something new will damage the cultural significance of the site," she said.

She said that several hills in and around Pune are associated with similar folk and tribal deities, many of them closely connected with the conservation of biodiversity. The Waghjai and Taljai goddesses on Taljai Tekdi for instance were associated with their own sacred groves on the hill.

"Both these deities are Mother Goddesses worshipped by forest-dwelling communities. Over the years, the land-use pattern of the hill has changed, but they were originally protectors of its environment," she said.

A key aspect of retaining the shrines in their original form is that many of them were not meant to be enclosed by any artificial structure. Kosambi had noted that the "primitive origin and nature" of the cults was shown by the injunction that the stone must be open to the sky. He saw it as a sign that the cults date back to a period "before houses were in fashion, and when the 'village' was on the move".

"The shrine on top of Vetal Tekdi, along with its natural precincts, is a very important cultural heritage site. The shrine as I have known it all these years was always open to the skies. It should be maintained as it is, without disturbing its natural precincts," Paranjpye said.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A dissenting voice silenced, again

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi died in 1966. He was both a formidable mathematician and an unparalleled historian. His remarkable scholarship, his reading of ancient Sanskrit texts aside, he also had a very caustic, irreverent style. His Myth and Reality should be required reading for every believing Hindu. I would say also for every atheist but I suspect that Indian atheists of the educated variety are already very well acquainted with D D Kosambi. He is a star in the galaxy of Maharashtra’s fine traditions of scholarship and writing. Through his work he cut through several myths and exposed our many realities.

Mourners follow the funeral procession for scholar MM Kalburgi as he is taken to be buried at Karnataka University in Dharwad on August 31. Pic/AFP
Mourners follow the funeral procession for scholar MM Kalburgi as he is taken to be buried at Karnataka University in Dharwad on August 31. Pic/AFP

I think about Kosambi in the aftermath of the murder of writer and scholar M M Kalburgi in the Karnataka town of Dharwad on August 30, shot down by gunmen who rang his doorbell. Kalburgi was what we like to call a “rationalist”. That is, he was not religious and had written against idol worship and superstition. For this, his life was under threat from members of organisations which hold allegiance to the Sangh Parivar and related Hindutva outfits. He had only recently asked the government to withdraw police protection. Perhaps neither fear nor giving in to threats was part of his character.

As the news of his death broke, a Bajrang Dal activist tweeted words to the effect that people like Kulbargi who mock Hinduism will die a “dog’s death” and suggested K S Bhagwan, another Kannada writer, was next. The tweet and account were soon deleted. The activist was arrested and then let out on bail even before he was produced before a magistrate. He has been involved in three earlier cases of assault.

It is tempting to blame the BJP government at the Centre for the rise of Hindutva right-wing bravado and audacity. But the problem runs deeper than one election result. Karnataka is a Congress-ruled state but is no less a simmering communal cauldron for all that. Moreover, atheist and anti-superstition activist Narendra Dhabolkar was shot in Pune, while on a morning walk in 2013, in what was then a Congress-NCP-ruled state. Veteran communist leader and rationalist Govind Pansare was shot in Kolhapur in February 2015, before the general elections and the state Assembly elections.

The suspects for all three murders are the same, however — Hindutva outfits. The undertone is chilling: if you are seen to oppose Hindu practices, death will be your reward. It is dangerous to dismiss this as the thinking of kooks, nutcases and fringe elements. We are talking about more insidious and fearless elements of our society, who obviously feel they can get away with murder. And we are also talking about tacit acceptance from larger sections of society. In spite of being around 80 per cent of the population, there are Hindus in India who are riven with insecurity about their numbers and an imminent threat from religious minorities. I have heard gentle arguments about how you should not criticise Hinduism or this is what will happen, with a small aside that murder is not correct.

Interestingly, the same people were very quick to come out in support of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the horrific attack on it by Islamists. They possibly do not see the irony in condemning violence by those who believe Islam has been “abused” while saluting those who murder when Hinduism is “insulted”.

Some people will argue that it is best not to challenge such murderous ideologies and thus remain safe from attack. But how far will that get us? Must we all look askance at the atrocities committed by IS and then pretend that Kalburgi, Pansare and Dhabolkar were not murdered for threatening the status quo? Is there space left in India for argument or is a “dog’s death” now an acceptable response?

Many years ago, Minoo Masani told me about a conversation he had many many years earlier with C Rajagopalachari. Rajaji asked him, “Do you believe in mumbo-jumbo?” Masani answered, “No.” Rajaji’s reply: “Then you will find life very difficult in India.”

So what would we make of Rajaji and Masani in today’s India? And if it comes to that, DD Kosambi? I am re-reading Kosambi’s Myth and Reality while you ponder on that.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist.  You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona