Last evening I had done a round of the city, during when I visited Mahendru Ghat. In the past, ferry services used to bring passengers from Sonepur to Mahendru Ghat for onward train journeys. The premise also houses the residence of the General Manager of the East Central Railway.
Today was earmarked for going around the local sites in Patna and to meet up with my batch mates working in East Central Railway. Patna Sahib was first up as my driver said that the place would be inaccessible later in the day due to congestion. My search for a guide unearthed Rattan Singh, who has been serving the temple for over 25 years. The birth place of the 10th and last Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, is the second holiest shrine of the Sikhs. The present temple was built in 1957 out of donations made by the father of the former CM of Punjab, Capt Amrinder Singh. The temple houses a well (which was used by the mother of the Guru), holy books written by the Fifth (Arjun Singh) and the 10th (Gobind Singh) Gurus, a muslin cloth of Guru Gobind Singh, sword and arrows used by the Guru, etc. I was told that the Sikh sangattan had decided that the height of the flag pole of a gurudwara should be as high as the temple. The flag pole at the Patna Sahib is very high. Rattan Singh took me to the kitchen which prepares langar food for more than 2000 people daily. The kitchen is neat and clean – roti, sbaji and dal was being made for the langar that begins at 11.30 am. Anyone is welcome to the langar in the afternoon and evening. If a need is felt for extra food, it is made immediately. The gurudwara has 300 rooms to be provided free of cost for devotees. Another 48 rooms are available for visitors at Rs. 100 per day, with three cots and linen, quilt, etc provided free of cost. The ‘Prasad’ is halwa and laddu, with the latter more suitable to be carried for friends and relatives.
The Patna Museum has rich collections of stone artifacts, terracottas, bronzes and copper displays unearthed in excavations in Bihar and Orissa. The collection that ranges from 3rd century BC to the 12th century AD is best taken through by the services of a guide. He explained that while Charles Darwin had articulated his theory of ‘The Origin of the Species’ in the 19th century, the theory of evolution was already known in ancient India through the belief in the ten avatars of Vishnu – from fish to Kalki. The Yakshi is the centerpiece of the Museum. The terracotta pieces are excellent guides to the lifestyle details of the times, such as the hair styles of women, dance forms and human features. The Museum also has the fossil of a log believed to be 250 million years old, Humayun’s dagger and a special gallery that houses the ashes of Buddha. The gallery of stuffed animals also has a freak goat kid with 8 legs and 3 ears.
The Golghar is a huge domed structure built in 1786 to serve as a granary to ensure that famines such as the one experience in 1770 are not repeated. The granary was never used. It has two sets of steps for workers to go up on one and come down by the other. I did not have the legs to climb the 250 steps to the top of the Golghar and capture the sights of Patna and the Ganges.
The Khuda Baksh Oriental Library has fascinating collection of manuscripts, paintings and porcelain. The dagger of Bairam Khan, poison detection plate and glass of the Mughal period, Nadir Shah’s sword, a walking stick given by the Prince of Wales to the Superintendent of Police in 1921 and a small Qouran – just 25 cms wide – strike the eye. The library also has reference books on Khuda Baksh and his family, which makes interesting reading.
I was invited for lunch to the East Central Railway HQ by my batch mates, Deepak Chhabra (Chief Safety Officer) and SK Nayak (Chief Commercial Manager/PS), along with Mr. N Jayaram, AGM. The reception to the office was overwhelming, with many garlands of marigold. The lunch itself was a rich fare of chicken, rotis, rice and vegetable dishes. Deepak insisted that I visit Vaishali in the company of the Chief Public Relations Officer, Dileep Kumar, who had worked in Spouhtern Railway for a while. The drive to Vaishali was not unlike a drive through some places in Kerala – it was green on both sides with cultivation of bananas, mangoes, guavas and litchees. The Malbhog banana grown here reportedly melts on hot bread. The Raja Vishal Ka Garh at Vaishali is representative of the prominence of this provincial capital city, which flourished for almost 15 centuries. The proxy caretaker of the heritage site, Manjay Singh, an 8th class student, is a proud recipient of a cycle. The government of Niteesh Kumar had introduced a scheme a few years back to provide cycles to school going girls. This captures the essence of the change that has come over Bihar – an empowered child, with access to education and health care. The scheme has been extended this year to provide cycles to boys reading in the 8th class. The Japanese Peace pagoda was all I could manage due to the constraint of time. There are temples and rest houses built by Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar, etc in Vaishali. I was late for the Kolhua complex – repeated entreaties to permit a late entry fell on deaf ears.
The Sonepur Cattle Fair is a month long annual fair starting on Kartik Purnima. The preparation for the fair lasts almost a month, where stalls are put up by all government departments and the Indian Railways. The Fair is primarily for buying and selling of animals – not just cattle, but even ‘donations’ of elephants take place - appreciating the incentives offered by the government and modern farming methods and entertainment. An ‘item number’ is a essential part of Bollywood films these days. These are virtual straight ‘lifts’ from the ‘Nautanki Theatre’ of Bihar, which has gaudily dressed women dancing to loud music. The lyrics of the song are filled with double entendres. The Sonepur Fair has 7 ‘Theatres’ advertising over 100 artists each. I visited one of them for a ‘taste’ of village theatre. The theatres have Special (Rs. 50) and Super Special classes (Rs. 100).Between 7 and 10 in the evening all the artists perform in a group for the people watching from a collapsible gate to decide on which theatre to visit when the show starts. These dances have been accused of being indecent and vulgar; the question is: are the Bollywood ones any less? People who come for the Fair have a full 24 hours engagement at the Fair. The entire daylight hours are taken up in assessing, bargaining and buying animals, the evening is for entertainment and the next day early morning they bathe at the ‘Sangam’ of the Ganges and the Gandak and leave for their homes.
Dileep insisted on a cup of tea at his house before I join my batch mates for dinner. The company of Dileep was invaluable in getting a fair insight into Bihar society and the changes that have happened in the past years. He introduced me to ‘Litte and Chowki’, the standard snack in Bihar, which is healthy and nutritious. Apart from the excellent cup of tea I was presented with a music album rendered by Mrs. Kumar. The dinner at the Chanakya Hotel was a fantastic get together of four of us – including GP Srivatsava, the DRM of Danapur – who had not spent so much time together after probation. The comfort that one finds while in the company of batch mates and railway colleagues cannot be described in mere words. It has to be experienced and felt.