August 05, 2011

A Raised Hood And Many Folded Hands


The over-bridge connecting the railway platforms one, two, three, four, five, and six at Borivali Railway Station is usually crowded, conveying travelers between platforms in the same rushed manner as conducting them toward the exit to the east where they’ll descend the stairs to platform six before exiting the station.

Anxious to board the trains announced on the speaker or hurrying to exit the station to beat the rush heading for scarce rickshaws or buses outside, travelers will rarely break stride or cast a glance elsewhere before making their way about, unless an exception waylays them.

Cobra Statue Nag Panchami Festival

And today it appeared in the form of a firm voice emerging from the corner of the over-bridge, calling out even as the crowd moved and broke ranks in an age old Mumbai tradition –

“Today is Nag Panchami, today is Nag Panchami”.

It’s just as well she called out because the coiled Cobra (Nag) in her basket was barely visible in the flowers and garlands covering it, the raised hood barely noticeable along the curve of the projection.

Worshipping Cobra On Nag Panchami

She sat with the cane basket holding the Cobra, most likely made from copper, at her feet, her hand at the ready by a tin of milk she served up on the metal Cobra’s hood from a metal stirrer wound with cloth to soak up milk, in the same motion a passing traveler made in bringing up a coin as an offering to the serpent on the auspicious day of Nag Panchami, among the first festivals gracing the month of Sravan.

On Nag Panchami day, devotees offer milk, not necessarily in the belief the Cobra will drink it but more from the symbolic value associated with milk as a revered offering to deities on auspicious occasions.

Feeding Milk Cobra Nag Panchmi

“Today is Nag Panchami, today is Nag Panchami,” she called out each time a rush of passengers made their way up or down the stairs. Some folded hands in prayer in front of the Cobra, revered in Hinduism as much for protection from its lethality as for its role as a protector, depending upon the contexts it’s seen in or assigned.

Nag Panchami Photo

Short of time as they go about their daily lives, it suited many travelers to pay up and have milk offered on their behalf to compensate for their inability to make time to visit a Shiva temple and offer milk to the Nag (Cobra) themselves. Meeting half-way is cultural. The middle path is comforting.

She called out again.

“Today is Nag Panchami, today is Nag Panchami.”

Her voice had begun to crack from calling out all day.

As I took the stairs down, it became apparent yet again how a city bursting at its seams will seek to delegate faith for want of time. And in doing so it reveals how, even when pressed hard consistently, it will seek to hang on to tradition in a desperate attempt to retain what remains of an identity derived from the culture of a people, of a past, for an uncertain future.

Note: Shortly, I’ll post on Nag Panchami celebrated at Borivali’s Omkareshwar temple, and Jogeshwari’s Jagdamba & Kalabhairav temple.


Nona said...

I like the way you describe the ordinary sightings.

Tom said...

What a fantastic post. This is a world I've never experienced but you've managed to make me feel as though I'm actually there.

Lynn said...

I feel the same as Tom - I love reading these posts, that show me another part of the world I would have never known about.

Nisha said...

Aah ! That's why you said today there was not much rush about it these days.

marja-leena said...

Fascinating glimpse into a different-to-me culture - I love: "Meeting half-way is cultural. The middle path is comforting." and " to delegate faith for want of time."

As always I'm struck by the vivid colours.

Connie said...

Very interesting post! Great pictures. Made me feel like I was standing next to her.

sm said...

like your narration

Red said...

Borivali is my hometown...grew up there for 23 yrs of my life :D its a warm fuzzy feeling to hear Borivali being mentioned and to see pix of the rly stn.

Thanks you just made my day

Balachandran V said...

Life is all about exploitation, isn't it? Every which way you can...

Anil P said...

Nona: Thank you. Nice to know you like them.

Tom: Thank you. The everyday goings-on in India will sometimes engage the attention of passers-by, and it's difficult to resist looking at and beyond every once in a while.

Lynn: Thank you. It's a nice feeling to be told so. Am glad you like reading them.

Nisha: Yes. Most people are too busy to make time.

Marja-leena: Thank you. Most festivals back here are very colourful to look at.

Daisy: Thank you.

Sm: Thanks.

An Iengar Chick: Thanks :-) That's a long enough time to get to know a place well, and like it enough to be nostalgic about it :-)

Balachandran V: Thankfully, it wasn't an actual / real cobra. On that count I'm glad the Govt. has forbidden the use of live cobras during Nag Panchami.

Like you said, exploitation is one way to look at it given how most things in public space are now commercialised. In any case, anything brought out on the street will be a case of benefitting from it.

The other way to look at it would be as a means of survival without harming anything.

Yet another way to look at it would be it helps keep a culture, a tradition alive, and draws attention to Hinduism's deep connection to nature in its many forms.

And, yet another way to look at it, from the point of view of one documenting the Indian street as in writing about it or photographing it, would be to see it as lending a vibrancy to the street, making Indian streets lively places to be in.

marly youmans said...

Wholly ignorant question: does all this relate to the churning of the sea of milk with the serpent king in order to obtain amrita? I saw a lot of images of this in Cambodia...

Marly Youmans said...

(And I think that another way of looking at it is that even in an increasingly material and over-busy culture, people still thirst and hunger after what is more-than-human. I think that is why there is such a craze for stories of wizards and vampires and so on in the West. When ignored and suppressed, the desire goes underground and then manifests itself in strange ways.)

Riot Kitty said...

You must really get people to trust you, because you capture them so well. Nicely done.

Meena Venkataraman said...

Beautiful post! :)
Am glad it was a bronze replica and not one alive, cause I've heard horrible tales of the live ones being cruelly defanged.
Your writing breaths life into the ordinary.. Loved it!

Kathy G said...

I think everyone, where ever they live, needs to feel connected with a power greater than themselves. If they don't want to make time to make the connection, they feel that passing the duty off to someone else is an acceptable substitute.

A Sunny Yellow Window said...

Interesting! A post for the occasion :) Snake charmers, and people who make money with snakes... India has delights in plenty!

Jai P said...

Delegation of faith...simply brilliant Anil :)

Unknown said...

Nice post. Made me remember when i was caught doing photography at Borivali station. Police told me it is banned on platforms and railways stations.
Lucky guy. Be aware next time.

Red said...

So did you just happen to be there?

karen said...

Really interesting post, and comments.. I am also really glad it's not a live cobra!

Loved the kite post earlier, too..

Indian Bazaars said...

This is so true and liked so much the way you write it..."how a city bursting at its seams will seek to delegate faith for want of time...even when pressed hard consistently, it will seek to hang on to tradition" Enjoyed reading this!

ND said...

Hi Anil,

Came across your blog on SeattleIndian and immediately knew I was onto something good! I saw the India Files video on You Tube and it tugged at my heartstrings. Loved to hear village elder sing especially when he seemed to hum through all the lyrics and kept singing the 'chimney chimna' line :) There is something about the Marathi and singing style that is haunting. Wish I could hear his flute more! Also loved your blog on Prem Utsav - I studied at Sathaye College and this brings back memories! Will be following your blog now and sent out an email to my friends/family as well. Keep up the good work!

Anil P said...

Marly Youmans: The incident you mention, the churning of the sea with the serpent is the Samudra Manthan. Samudra is Sanskrit for 'ocean', and Manthan for 'churning'.

Kshirsagar would be 'ocean of milk', with Kshir being Sanskrit for 'milk'.

That was a different episode so to speak, when the Gods, battling the curse of the Rishi Durvasa turn to Vishnu for help in countering the curse that's left them bereft of strength among other things to battle the demons.

The ocean is churned for nectar that would confer upon the Gods the immortality they sought to survive the Demons. The Serpent Vasuki is wrapped around the mountain Mandara and used as a rope to churn the ocean. Upon the mountain beginning to sink once placed in the ocean, Vishu turns into a turtle, Kurma Avataar, his second incarnation, to hold the mountain up as it's churned.

Nag Panchami on the other hand has a different genesis, though the serpent Vasuki from above was one of the Nagas, as was the serpent Kaliya. Lord Krishna put an end to the menace of the Serpent Kalia on a day that is now celebrated as Nag Panchami.

Also, equally importantly, the Nagas, probably owing to their association with the rains, were deemed to have the power to bring them, consequently conferring upon them worship for the same, in essence ensuring they're respected for their power.

Then there's invoking them in respect to ward of evil spirits, worshipped as the protector in this instance.

As to your second comment: I believe, at a certain level, humnas are spiritual to an extent, seeking the intangible, aspects that neight Science, nor materialism can offer them.

Riot Kitty: Thank you. Sometimes, they do, most times that is. Sometimes, they do not, few times that is.

Meena Venkataraman: Thank you. It's a good thing defanged snakes have been banned from being displayed during Nag Panchami. The practice, I believe, caught on a larger scale following commercial considerations during the festival.

Kathy G: Thank you. And there's every chance there's a power that's beyond the ordinary. And in seeking to connect to it, the human mind will explore the seemingly intangible in ways that can defy the supposedly rational.

The world does move in mysterious ways, humanity certainly does.

Ambika: Thank you.

Jai P: Thanks. No wonder the concept time is money holds true in Bombay more than anywhere else.

Rachit Aggrawal: Thank you. Glad you liked it.

Photographing in Railway Stations is usually not a problem at all. I've seen folks do it in front of the policemen. It depends upon the individual policeman I suppose, if he's rather finicky or bureaucratic. Also it might have to do with their edginess after repeated attacks by Islamist terrorists on the Mumbai railway network.

For one, there's no board anywhere on any platform indicating one cannot photograph on railway platforms in India. There's nothing of inherrent value there to protect unless it's about the layout which in any case is without any complexity unlike say a hotel and the like as was with the Taj.

Iengar Chick: Yes, in way. Was passing through after work.

Anil P said...

Karen: Thank you. I'm glad it wasn't a live one as well. Even if it were, it's likely it would be defanged, a bad thing in itself. Best to live them alone.

Indian Bazaars: Thank you. The dilemma of city life, possibly more so in Mumbai - to hold on to culture even as one holds on to the coat tails of time, willing to give up neither and striking a balance to manage the two.

Unknown: Thank you. A pleasure to have you here, and encouraging to know you enjoyed reading the posts here.

I agree. The way the village elder sings in the video is haunting. His simplicity, the earnest way, and the setting enhances the feel, providing a context that is decidedly memorable.

He said the songs he sang are those from the Gauli community. I need to explore that angle more.

Nice to know you studied in Sathaye College. I liked the feel of the Sathaye college campus. And it is commendable that they made their campus available to staging Premchand's plays for a good ten days at a stretch. If I remember correctly, Sathaye College was the venue for Munshi Premchand's plays last year as well.

Thanks for passing the word around.

Marly Youmans said...

Took me a while to return--well worth it! Thanks for those explanations...

Anil P said...

Marly Youmans: Thank you, been a pleasure sharing the information.