Saturday, December 03, 2005
The little hamlet of Ambala surrounded by green hills on all sides has just one source of livelihood, Lake Ambala. It is situated near Ramtek, fifty kilometers from Nagpur where I live (in India). Lord Rama is said to have stayed at Ramtek during his fourteen years of exile. A temple stands there in his honour.
Ramtek is also the place where Sanskrit poet Kalidasa wrote the epic Megha Doot. A beautiful structure has been built there, in memory of the great poet. Ramtek has other tourist attractions as well. It is an important Buddhist site. It is also a heaven for the archeologically inclined. Centuries old monasteries have been unearthed in the hills along with stone-circles that served as burial grounds in Stone Age. Nearby Nagardhan was the capital of Vakataka dynasty that ruled considerable part of India between third to sixth century AD.
However, people from surrounding districts visit Ambala not for tourism, pilgrimage or archaeological reasons. They go there to bid a final adieu to their dead. It is believed that the departed soul will attain Moksha (freedom from the cycle of rebirths); if one’s mortal remains are immersed in the holy lake. Every day, hundreds of shraaddhas (rites) are performed at the lake. It is an important part of Hindu religion.
For centuries, the lake has been accumulating ashes and bones of the dead and hair of the living. Relatives of the dead have to get their head shaved before they can perform the shraaddha! As a result, the lake started resembling a cesspool and it became a worthy cause for the conservationists. Finally, about eight years ago, the administration decided to get the lake cleaned.
They floated tenders for the job. Contractors dredged the centuries old cocktail of ashes, bones and hair from the lake and dumped it on the shore. A year passed before it was removed and the shore cleaned again, because the tender had no provision for transporting the filth.
But meanwhile, birds in the region had feasted on the poisonous thing and they all died. This posed a serious problem not just for the conservationists but also for those who sought Moksha for their dead. The shraaddha is not complete until a crow consumes the offerings. This species of birds is attributed with special powers. They can carry the offerings into the next world to the dead, it is believed.
We know how voracious crows are. Yet, when it comes to shraadha offerings, a crow can be very finicky. It is said that a crow cannot touch the offering unless the departed soul is fully satisfied. I have witnessed this on several occasions when crows gathered around the offering but did not touch it until a close relative of the dead prayed and promised to do whatever the dead person would have wanted done.
So, the relatives of the dead had to go searching for crows, after they performed the shraaddha at Amabala. Ramtek, the nearest town is about ten kilometers away. There, a few crows could be found near the butcher's shop. I too had to do this when my father died. The crow had not touched the food until I had prayed and promised my dad that I will take good care of my mom.
I had to visit Ambala in October this year once again, for the tenth day rites for my mother. Mother was a very devout lady. She had shown exceptional control over her own death. While I was performing the rites, I heard a commotion. People had gathered outside and they were talking excitedly, gesturing towards roof of the shed under which the shraddha was going on.
Once again to Ramtek in search of a crow, I thought as I finished the rites and came out of the shed, carrying the crow’s offering in my hands. Someone from the crowd now gestured at me and pointed at the roof. I looked up. A jet-black crow was perched atop the shed! He seemed quite unaffected by the commotion going on. His attention was riveted on me or rather on the plate of food in my hands.
Something gave way inside me. Could it be possible that…? I put the food down and stepped back. In one deft movement the crow descended on the food. Within seconds he had finished everything. I watched in awe as the feathered courier to the land of souls flew away with the last morsel in his beak.
When I regained composure, I heard everyone around me say just one thing. They had seen a crow at Ambala for the first time in seven years.