It did not take me long, once I was hooked to the road, to realize that while destinations offer a closure to a journey, it takes a journey to open up the destination.
It was at that moment of realization that individual moments of discovery on the road strung themselves together to create a landscape of sustained beauty, encompassing culture, tradition, places, and people.
In travelling out of the comfort zone the first time, one is tempted to let the anticipation of the destination take over, engaged as the mind is in running over beautiful picture postcard images of the destination that goaded one into embarking on the trip. Then there’re logistical issues to deal with – hotel reservations, local transportation, railway reservations, and scouring of eating places among other things, aspects of travel likely to overwhelm the traveller, dulling their receptivity to moments of beauty inherent in the mundane of everyday life different from their own, and the place different from where they come from.
Yet, it takes more than one journey and more than several goof-ups to begin to widen the perspective about life on the road and beyond it. And once that happens, as it happened to me, and as it must happen to many a wandering feet, the unexpected is no longer a constraint to be gotten through, but that to be admired for the inherent beauty of the experience, the promise of the moment, and its relevance to the traveller’s own association with the land of his ancestors.
And soon it’s no longer only the landscapes that awe with their beauty, or settings that astonish with their sophistication. It begins to include everyday moments with ‘everyday people’, and everyday places with ‘everyday experiences’, mundane to the resident but revealing to the visiting traveler, tapping the subconscious into embracing the newly conscious – a singular reason why the beauty of travel transcends expectations every single time.
And I’ve had my share of encounters with people and places that’ve taken kindly to my enquiring eye, encouraged even, even as they’ve been benevolent with their time in humouring my curiosity, possibly amused as I delighted in the acquaintance made, promising to mail in the pictures made with them and return someday before waving out as I left them behind on my way eleswhere, like when I left Appu Kuttan folding his straw mat on a platform outside the ancient Mookambika temple in Kollur on my backpacking trip along Karnataka’s coast.
He had turned out to be an Ex-British India Army soldier pre-Independence. At 83, he remembered the key details.
“I did not swing guns on the battlefield,” Appu Kuttan recalled. “I served in the 37 Field Ambulance Unit on the frontlines. We took our lunch in the trenches, sheltering from Japanese planes on bombing runs.” At this juncture he raises his hands, imitating the Japanese planes swooping down to drop their loads behind British lines. Allied troops were battling to keep China’s overland supply route through Burma open while Japan sought to cut it off. The Burma campaign began disastrously for the British in the December of 1941, with thousands of Indian soldiers in the British India army losing their lives to the Japanese and disease, malaria being rife in the swamps. By mid 1945 the tide had turned, and the Japanese were in full retreat.
“We took many Japanese prisoners in Rangoon,” Appu Kuttan said, a smile breaking on his lips at the memory as he exhaled after drawing deep on his beedi. “Japanese Officers were made to sweep. They would ask us for Goodbye cigarettes,” he said. “Eighteen of us in the Army company did not smoke, so we gave the prisoners our stock of Goodbye cigarettes.”
Appu Kuttan offered to share his beedi with me. It took much effort on my part to politely decline his act of kindness, an offering as valuable as any among his meagre possessions that sustained his life as a sadhu since his discharge from the army after independence from British rule. [For more on Appu Kuttan, click to read my account here].
Reflecting on the way back, basking in the humanity experienced with strangers, indebted to the warmth with which I was received, it was inevitable that I would, in time, expand Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder to include Beauty is in the mind of the beholden.
Upon this realization, the road was no longer the same again, turning journeys into destinations, and vice versa. It ceased to merely connect the beginning and end, instead becoming the connection, seamless, and continuous in the way that riding it becomes imperative if one is to make sense of the place one is headed to, and the people who inhabit it. The stops on the road or the street or an alley became equally compelling, and encounters as enlightening as they were memorable.
And nowhere more so as with the chance meeting with Ramkrishna Bhagwan Maukar on a platform built into the enclosure of a 18th century stone temple in Panchavati, the place made sacred by Lord Ram’s presence during his exile from Ayodhya.
To this day pilgrims stream in their thousands to offer prayers in the waters of the Godavari where Lord Ram bathed, and to sate their curiosity in the winding tunnels of Sita Gufa where Sita lived before she was whisked away by Ravana, stirring to life among the greatest epics of all time, aided ably by Lord Hanuman whose presence now permeates Panchavati.
Ramkrishna Bhagwan Maukar had come visiting Panchavati with fellow pilgrims bussed in from Yavatmal, soon finding himself in the temple that Naroshankar Raje Bahadur, a Jahgirdar in the reign of Peshwas, built in the Maya style.
Hanging over the entrance was a bronze bell, a token of victory over the Portuguese in Vasai presented to Naroshankar Raje Bahadur by the Peshwas in recognition of his bravery in the battle.
Soon, local tour guides sheltering on the platform from the Sun while awaiting pilgrims desirous of guides to take them around Panchavati convinced Ramkrishna Maukar in no time into lending tunes to the afternoon. Ramkrishna had carried his flute along. But before he played his flute, he sang in a sometimes shaky voice punctuated by a reluctant throat and racking coughs.
The next thirty minutes he transformed the temple courtyard into a rural landscape, replete with the fragrance of the earth stirred by his soulful rendition of lyrics that told of emotions, and sentiments about the everyday, moments that revealed the beauty of a simplicity that urban travelers will sometimes go seeking.
In between he apologized for his throat acting up as he raised his rendition a notch above. We told him he did fine nevertheless. As he strained, I told him it was okay with us if he chose to stop, considering he was old, and it was hot outside. But he would have none of it, brushing aside my suggestion and promptly singing another Marathi song, and we were only to happy to listen to him.
Eventually he expressed surprise at our interest, prompting one of the tour guides listening along into telling him that if it wasn’t for the fact we were interested we wouldn’t have sat through his singing. That seemed to please him and allay his apprehensions before bringing a smile to his weary face that must rank among the most beautiful smiles I’ve been graced with.
Then he took up the flute, and the afternoon soon rung to faraway images of an ancient land, elevating the everyday of an appreciative audience with the unexpected tenor of an unscheduled meeting with an old man from the hinterland.
Play the video below to share in the experience of listening to an impromptu session with Ramkrishna Maukar that summer day in the courtyard of an old stone temple, with idle tour guides and flower sellers in attendance.
The unexpected, if one is receptive to experiencing, is as much a beauty to behold and experience as say a river flowing through a valley in a mountain range, rivaling in equal measure with an elderly sadhu offering to share the only beedi in his possession, not to speak of being regaled with songs sung heartily from the heart.
Beauty exists in many forms, sustaining life, giving it meaning, while motivating living, even as it encourages reaching out, repeating the cycle all over again and making for a fulfilling life.
It exists as much in the faith of another as it does in the faith in another.