The followers of Surya Devta still rever him even after centuries of turmoil.
Continued from Part 1
Khorshed rubbed his eyes, blinked a few times, looked out at the lone pomegranate tree in his backyard, and got up from his comfortable corner with a start. He started pacing in his tiny bedroom back and forth, and back and forth. Could this be his ticket out of this…. religious hell? His friends were long gone, his extended family had all but died, many had fled to India over centuries, those who hadn’t were in prison, incarcerated for flimsy reasons. For being different. He knew in his heart that his time was up. He had survived so far unscathed untouched due to his ancestry. Who wouldn’t want to parade the descendent of the great Persian traveller and chronicler Borzuya as their own, plus he was an epigraphist in his own right. A Professor at that. No, they could not touch him. One ancestor, a famous scribe, another an assistant to Al-Beruni, a tall lineage that his family was so proud of, this is what allowed him to live in peace in Isfahan until now.
Yet, he could feel the walls closing in, he was being snuffed out with indifference. They would not acknowledge his contributions, his many published papers, his incisive writings, his vast research, his views, all because he was not ‘a believer’. The sole reason why he had not landed inside the infamous Evin, was also the cause for this apathy by the State. His neighbours were mostly Basiji. He felt alone and hounded, just as his ancestors must have suffered under the Safavids, the Qajars…under Khomeini, not to speak of the 7th century CE havoc that caused ruin to his homeland. All that which is claimed by the Muslim world as their achievement is in fact taken from his people. Art, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, everything ….we were glorious….why then did the Sassanids fall so easily, this persistent question perturbed him now more than ever. Perhaps it was his age, it was natural that he would reminisce and rue. It was also the lack of companionship that was bothering him. It was Isfahan’s eclectic history and character that had kept him glued to his land, its beauty and song which was incomparable. His friends, many Jews, Christians, Baha’is among them had all but disappeared, leaving him to sorry evenings of sipping chai alone, cursing silently the uncouth usurpers.
If your forefather had taken the trouble to go East, to India, in search of a magical healing herb that made the dead live, that was found atop a mountain but ended up translating the Panchatantra into Persian instead, by memorizing it completely in Sanskrit, if another had taken great risks to record in detail all that the Islamic invaders did to the gentle and cultured people of Hind, you are bound to have these ancestral experiences somehow shape you, and your life choices. Khorshed’s love for India was civilizational. It was in his genes. So he had turned to epigraphy as a way to purge his deep pain, it was his way of showcasing to the world the achievements of the Parsis. Years of slavery, harassment, forced conversion, jizya, and unfair taxation had been a lot for his community, Ateshgah after Ateshgah remodelled into mosques, the easy desecration of his faith in the land of its birth upset him the most. Yet as a Professor he was expected to be impartial and indifferent to such happenings, calling such happenings as aberrations. He cried at the injustice of it all, this annihilation of excellence by the hands of brainless belief.
Borzuya had encouraged many an offspring with his magnificent tales from Hind. Khorshed belonged to this illustrious family line, of numerous such adventurers who had the time and again travelled to India and brought back valuable texts to be translated into Persian. And here before him was a rare roadmap, laid out in exquisite detail by one amongst them. It told such a fantastic tale, it could hardly be true. Even if it was not, it gave him ample opportunity to consider taking up the offer from ICCR to present at the upcoming conference. It would be his last chance at freedom. His chance to breathe freely without being condemned as kaffir. If somehow he could land in India, he was sure he could find a way to stay put. He could simply disappear into the bylanes of Udwada or Navsari. He could fish out some far-flung powerful cousins if need be, to formally take up Indian citizenship, he could claim to be a refugee, of course he could. How he wished that the CAA which provided succour to the persecuted religious minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan – all Hindu lands until a century ago – had been extended to Zoroastrians of Iran too! The very same indigenous Hindus were hardly allowed to breathe in those Islamic countries now, their populations dwindling just as rapidly as the Parsis’ in their own homeland.
He was tempted to pick up the phone and call the Indian Cultural Attache in Tehran, who had visited Isfahan last year. Khorshed had been detailed to show him around town, as the resident expert on Islamic Architecture in Isfahan. They had gotten along very well, especially over their love for Bastani-e-nooni. The Indian bureaucrat who spoke impeccable Farsi was clueless about his own heritage, fawning over all things Persian until Khorshed could take this subservience no more and called it to a halt. This man for all his good-naturedness was seemingly ignorant of his own cultural moorings.
Khorshed talked to the Indian about the Achaemenians, Parthians and Sassanians, explaining to him how such a glorious line of empires was outwitted in a mere five years by the Islamic conquest, while his own India was still surviving, the oldest continuing civilization that had outlasted 800 years of Muslim rule, that was Hind! A Hindu is a winner my friend! He had pronounced thus at every given opportunity, irking the believers no end.
Coming out of his reverie, the tired Professor looked at the photocopied book in his hand, this would be his Nirvana. Khorshed rubbed his palms, cupped his eyes, peered at the manuscript once more with suspicion, was it an original account, of course it was, he himself had dated it, referenced it, cross-checked it with other contemporary texts, he had attested to its authenticity many times over the past month and a half. Although, how was it even possible that no one had chanced upon it up until now, given what was in it, strange!
On the night of the raid of Modhera by Mahmud, Khorshed’s ancestor was busy exchanging floor plans of the Sun Temple with the chief architect, who then confided to his foreign friend, that the locals had managed to whisk away the main deity to a hidden location, trusting this fellow fire-worshipper from the enemy camp to ensure secrecy. The ancestor, scribe that he is, then proceeds to lay out in great detail where the Great God is hidden, albeit in a code for posterity. A code that Khorshed feels he can crack, and if he can, he has found an answer to his, ‘how?’.
His mind was now made up, everything was in place, Khorshed made the call, yes, yes, he would have to travel to India for the seminar on “Influences of Persian and Hindu Architecture in the Indian subcontinent”.
He had made the call knowing fully well that his phone could be tapped. He had prepared for it, and spoke accordingly. “Good Evening Mr Baiju, thank you very much for the invitation to participate in the seminar…yes, yes I don’t have classes during that week, it is Navroz for us, yes, the University is closed…Congratulations! the program looks very well-curated, I am looking forward to presenting at the conference……..well…it all depends on my government, if they will permit me to present at this internationally prestigious conference on Islamic Architecture I will come……. if not I will send you the presentation by email, and the vi…..oh is that so…. very kind of you to take care of my visa …khoda hafiz…kheili mamnoon, shukriya.”
Khorshed decided to sit still and let the captors decide his fate, what karma! After all these years of evading capture, trying his best to avoid run-ins with the police in his own country where such disappearances were very common, here he was in a country where he had felt safe from the very moment when he had stepped onto the tarmac in Mumbai, to be gagged, bound, and blindfolded, trudging along in this rickety Jeep into the breezy spring night into the unknown, in the land of his dreams, it was surreal. Thank God he had taken all his tablets at dinner time before his capture, the next round was in the morning after breakfast. He wondered if he would be set free by then to do so.
Soon the vehicle came to a halt, no one spoke, an eerie silence enveloped him. He cocked his ears for aural clues but all he could hear was his own breathing. He found himself being gently pushed from behind, a cold hard hand held his, and led him out of the metal prison, without letting him slip or fall. Now he was walking, stumbling – “dhyaan se” commanded one of his kidnappers, picking himself up he concentrated on the strong fragrance of the flowers, it was a heavenly heady smell…the earth beneath his bare feet was soft almost like it was waiting to be caressed…a few owls called out to the human visitors, some twigs snapped under his feet…he could sense the radiation of phone torches that were brandished about to throw light on their path. The men accompanying him did not utter a word to one another…they must have walked for about half an hour when they stopped and bunched together to have a quick sip of water. “paani? Water…you want?” one of the men offered Khorshed, and thrust a wet warm bottle into his palm. This bottle seemed to have come from near the Jeep engine, Khorshed remembered his un-sandalled feet resting on this, he had been forced to remove his footwear before climbing into the Jeep, which had seemed strange.
He was glad that his deductive skills were functioning, at his age this gave him immense delight. It was all a game now, he was not really scared, no. He had seen and read of worse things that had happened in the past and were happening right now in his country…no..no..he was not worried about himself. He was merely concerned at what KK would think. It would seem like Khorshed had used KK’s good offices for an Indian Visa, only to disappear right on arrival. KK the famous archaeologist who had unearthed the Ram Temple remains from beneath the Babri Masjid had been extremely excited at the prospect of looking for the original Surya Devata moorti, and had immediately agreed to join hands in finding it, he had been Khorshed’s point of contact in India, helping him formulate a plan for the digs, getting the permits, connecting him to the higher-ups in ASI and so on. This was the only thing that was bothering him, that he would be letting KK down if he simply vanished without a trace. Other than that, now that Khorshed had had water, he was quite looking forward to this unexpected turn of events, at least this way he could prove to be Borzuya’s worthy descendant!
The sound of splashing water was the first thing that caught his attention, someone seemed to be washing or was it bathing. He heard some murmurings, “muh haath paaon dho kar jaao …” Before he could ask anything Khorshed was doused in cold water, from head to toe, and another bucket over his feet for good measure…they did not want to kill him for sure, but this was not even torture…what was this…cold water bath at night, he was being cleansed for something….wait…wait…no ..no..it could not be…how was it even possible! He must be dreaming…if this is indeed true and I come out of this alive, I am going to build a brand new fire temple promised Khorshed earnestly to himself and his God.
His clothes dripping wet, his blindfold now removed, he was gently lead underground. It was completely dark for him to spot any landmarks for later, right now his sole attention was on what lay below. His knees gave him a hard time, the slippery slope of the stairs, stones narrow and steep, tested his resolve. The flight of stairs gave way to a deeper underground passage, which gradually opened into a larger cavern.
He could smell strong Indian incense, light and smoke from the earthenware lamps kept in natural niches filled the passage, his pounding heart accompanied the cymbals that were being heard from within the cave in a platonic jugalbandi. The light shone brighter, as though the sun himself had been captured and brought to this hideout for safekeeping from prying eyes, and there! So it was! So it was! For the next hour or so Khorshed stood transfixed, mute, in shock and awe, until he could no longer stand, and then he fell upon his troubling knees crying, mumbling, smiling, and calling out in sheer joy, “you are alive, you are well, khoob ast, kheili khoob ast!” The sheer brilliance and dazzle of the almost 5 storied goldstructure, swimming in what seemed to him a pool of gold coins, literally blinded him.
Seated on a regal and grand throne of seven horses, this resplendent Surya Deva in riding breeches and boots, ready to circle the skies shimmering in pure gold, rose 60 feet above his head. The reins were in his hands, and he looked sideways as though bidding the night goodbye with the corner of his eye.
Ah! So they had managed to save him, just as his ancestor had said in his book. While the Ghaznavid army was busy in loot and rape of the land and its people, the Modh brahmanas, aware of the oncoming onslaught had managed to somehow bring this mammoth deity to this unknown location and had saved it from sure destruction. It was as though Hanuman Ji himself had carried his guru on his shoulders and let him rest peacefully in this spot, without disturbance. After all, this was the tirthsthan where his beloved Ram had done prayaschitta for killing Ravana.
What was destroyed in his stead was a replica, a gold plated moorti nevertheless, that the greedy Ghaznavi carried back with him after breaking it into pieces, very pleased with his plunder. And he kept coming back for more and more gold, not losing any chance to show the infidels their place, Somnath was next on his list. Not happy with merely the booty that was his, he gave vent to his religious duty by breaking as many sacred images as possible along the way. He let his crazed army loose among citizens who had achieved a high degree of excellence in the arts, crafts, architecture, poetry, philosophy…everything…all reduced to dust because it was said that ‘idol’ worship was haraam. Why? No one cared or dared to ask. No one brave enough to verify, or ponder. Khorshed’s ancestor being the fire worshipper that he was, was incensed at this horrific spectacle before him and did all he could given his means to keep the memory of the moorti alive.
“We request you to leave us alone after this darshan Khurshid bhai, you will forget your archaeology project with your friend KK Ji, this is what you were going to dig for, isn’t it?” hearing these ominous words uttered by the head purohit seated bare-chested in adhoti on the far right of the moorti, doing japa with his rudraksha, Khorshed regained his composure. He was neither surprised at the impeccable English of this ash-smeared, sacred thread wearing, mantra spouting handsome man, nor at the secrecy of his own project being so public. He was in a trance, a dream within a dream, he was the hero of this story traversing through fantasy lands..just like his ancestors.
There was no mystery to this fantabulous moorti itself being here, this is what he had read, and deciphered in that ancient coded text penned by his far-flung relative, that Khorshed had retrieved from Mashhad. Al Beruni’s forgotten assistant had made a detailed route map of where the original deity of Modhera was being taken to and hidden away by its custodians, months before the invaders had landed here in Modhera. Messengers had come flying in on their horses with the terrible news, and right away the citizenry had gotten into action, digging a safe haven for their beloved devata.
The handsome middle-aged purohit continued, “As you can see we never fail to conduct nitya pooja, once you make all this public, the government will take over, whatever is below the ground by law belongs to the government in today’s India…obviously my forefathers thought Surya would be safe here at least..!”, saying this he grunted sarcastically. “We hope your journey here was not too stressful, sorry, but we had to bring you here, talk to you before the conference, before you made your plans to dig…here this for you..” and so saying thrust a pooja thaali into Khorshed’s trembling hands. “For you to offer, we will leave you here for a while, do your worship in peace, the boys will be back to pick you up, please think about it…..and do pay attention to the boots and belt on the vigraha, that is your Persian contribution”, saying this in a grateful yet apologetic tone, he left.
Khorshed stared at the flowers, the incense sticks, the holy water, sacred ash and vermilion before him, along with rare sandalwood sticks, he lit the lamp with the matches that were on the silver plate and placed directly under the hooves of the flying horses. Taking the sandalwood sticks he offered them to the fires that were burning continuously in a corner. He sat down to contemplate and chant his hymns on the rocky uneven ground which was covered with a pristine white sheet, as though awaiting his arrival. All his spiritual needs were met, and more. When he opened his eyes after what seemed to him as a rebirth of sorts, in the mighty presence of this awe-inspiring sculpture, he found beside him a wrapped package addressed in his name. Adjusting his eyes to the light of the oil lamps, and the golden glitter of the Sun God himself, he opened it with great trepidation. None of what was happening to him made any sense. How did they know who he was, or why he was here, or what his plans were. It seemed just impossible. Inside the ornate box was a miniature figurine of the humongous image in front of him, with a visiting card that had a name and address in Udwada. The accompanying note said, “until next time!”. A box of mangoes completed the making of amends.
Back in the dak bungalow it was almost breakfast time, and the cook and bearer were frantically looking for Korsid saab to serve him, his room was open, but he was nowhere to be found, perhaps he had gone for an early morning walk, and thankfully before much ruckus could be created, in walks Khorshed with a heavy sling bag, and asks for everything on the menu despite his delicate stomach. What a highly eventful night! Despite devouring some Kesari mangoes on his way back he is still hungry. The ‘boys’ in the Jeep refused to speak to him, his English queries fell on as though deaf ears, they simply smiled and patted his shoulder and bowed deeply as they let him off away from the dak bungalow, waving even as they disappeared taking the reality of the resplendent night with them.
He is famished from the whole jaunt. His mind is confused and guilty. In his eagerness to fashion his own escape, and to find that elusive name and prominence, he was trying to put a whole community and its practices in danger, how different was he from the barbarian Mahmud. The wealth would be appropriated by the secular state no doubt, and the stupendous efforts of a whole clan to keep this a secret for generations, for centuries together, would come to nought.
Khorshed ate his breakfast in silence, ruminating all the while..munching every mouthful thoughtfully, grunting accha accha every now and then to the eager server. He then asks for an ink pen, and goes into his room and stays put until the day of the seminar.
After the paper presentations are done, all the delegates are taken for a site visit to Modhera early morning of the Vernal Equinox – March 21st – and as they see the sun rays fall on the now vacant pedestal where the original Surya Devata idol might have been, they exclaim in unison at the astronomical precision and the architectural wonder that has made this possible…what mind-boggling calculations must have lead to this sheer poetry in stone!
Khorshed clambers down away from the academic crowd, now asking futile questions, towards the Ramkund, he is brimming with contentment and quiet pleasure, of someone who has a definitely delicious secret to keep. He makes his way down despite his rickety knees, slowly and painfully, to the Seetala Devi shrine and asks her for healthy knees and a robust stomach. Sitting on the steps of this exquisite step-well, marvelling a long time at the whole temple complex, the spectacular columns, the filigreed ceilings in stone, the 12 Adityas, the 12 Devis, taking in this sheer beauty until it is too hot to be outdoors, he makes his way down to the teertha and cups his hands into the green, not very clean water, to pour it over his head, just as it has been described in ancient manuscript…he is now satiated…done at last! What a master plan, he thinks admiringly. He remembers his ancestors who have been here before him, and a sudden chill shakes him up.
After a few hours, after a delicious picnic lunch on the temple lawns, while he walks into the ASI museum that has displayed the destroyed artefacts from the Khilji attack on Modhera, he gets the dreaded call. KK calling flashes on his phone. What is he to say? That the whole plan is now off? That they cannot go digging anymore, looking for the hidden mysterious Surya Devata as described in the ancient text that Khorshed has found? After all these days of back and forth emailing and calling on WA, putting his life at stake, his freedom in jeopardy … was he going to give it all up now? The international fame that would follow, the book deals, the awards, most definitely an Indian Citizenship…he hesitates picking up the phone and answering it…
Finally, Khorshed gathers enough courage and answers, “Good Morning KK, could you please send your postal address, I will mail you the photocopy of the manual…seems like I got the dates all mixed up – sorry I am getting old and my eyesight is failing…yes…yes…seems like this text is not talking about the moorti from Modhera, but some other minor statue that was..….it would be a fruitless pointless dig…my apologies once again…discovered the discrepancy after coming here…I know I know you had to get so many permissions…so many hurdles…but we will work together…again in the future…please visit us in Iran..I really wanted to meet you this time…I understand ..yes, yes, yes, kheilimamnoon, shukriya”
That is when he sees an official behind a desk smiling at him mischievously, knowingly, he is dressed in pants and shirt, but …but..isn’t he the same purohita who had him kidnapped! He looks so different in daylight. Aah! So this is how they knew of my plan to rope in the ASI to dig and look for the original Surya Devata moorti. Khorshed had been interacting with these very people…who had known all along about the original deity and its location. He had shared the drawings he had found, the ancient manuscript that he had decoded and dated, he had sent them the details of the idol, down to the boots and girdle noting the Persian connection….what a fool he had been! Or was it all as per the larger cosmic plan? Who knew!
He had time to go to Udawada now as the dig was off, in his hand was the visiting card which no doubt would help open doors for him, yet Khorshed hesitated for the first time in many years. If these brahmanas could fight for their land and beliefs for centuries, he could definitely do it for a few years, he would not let the Ateshgah close down in Isfahan, he would make sure that Parsi sacred fires are kept alive in their ancestral lands, he would go back. His dar-e-mehr needed his tending. He waved to the dashing purohita in pants, walking away with renewed determination, his knees now miraculously recovered from lethargy and despair, “Come to Isfahan! We have great pomegranates!”