I was given a cheerful welcome by the old gentleman manning the reception desk at Hotel Abhishek. “Can I have your passport?”, he said, in a fine, cultivated English. “I don’t have a passport”, I replied, somewhat befuddled at the question. “Oh”, he chuckled, “mujhe laga ki aap foreigner hai. Idhar zyaadatar foreigners rehte hain.”(Oh, I thought you were a foreigner. The majority of our guests are foreigners.) He pointed at my bright green, hulking, Quechua backpack and the bulky Lonely Planet guidebook, whose shoddy little map I had been using to find this hotel, and said, “Aise bags aur aise books toh sirf foreigners lekar ghoomte hai.” (Only foreigners travel with the kind of bags and books you are carrying). I assured him that I was not a “foreigner”, that I had never been outside the country, that I was not here on “business”, that I had no wish to go on a temple tour AND no, I was not married with children. After this prolonged interrogation got over, I was shown the rooms, which were the nicest and the cheapest of the 4 rooms I had stayed in till then.
Nashik is a mere 3 hour journey from where I live in Mumbai. So it is probably reflective of the long winded way I tend to do my travels that it took me almost 2 weeks to get there. I was tired of the lonely, offbeat adventures of Ahmednagar and wanted to be in a familiar place without having to go back home. I had been here before with friends and family, always on trips to Shirdi. But having never spent any length of time in the city itself, I took this as a good opportunity to sink myself into everyday life in Nashik.
There wasn’t a lot to do in the city other than getting lost in the atmosphere of the dim-lit lanes of Panchavati, the old town with its multitude of ancient temples, tea-shops, the million odd barbers, fragrant flower stalls, grungy hardware stores, mannequined goddesses etc. and sitting on the banks of the Godavari at Ramkund watching people bathe, worship, chatter, gossip, set lamps afloat and meditate amidst all the chaos of the city.
One day, I made friends with two Australian travelers, R and W, at the lobby of Hotel Abhishek. They were backpacking through Asia for 2 years and paid for their travels by working periodically wherever they could on their journeys, bartending, cleaning hostels, teaching English. R had even “volunteered” as a sex worker in Manila, he said, with a boastful gleam in his eye. W was the more religious type. He was in Nashik because his guru in Rishikesh had sent him off to visit the 12 jyotirlingas in India.
R and W knew each other from Mongolia where they had met a year ago and had reunited in the Salvation Army hostel in Mumbai. It was W who planted the idea in my head that I should head off to the Himalayas as soon as I could. He had been to Kedarnath on his jyotirlinga expedition and “swore by his rudraksha mala” that he saw Lord Shiva’s trident at midnight gleaming in the sky in the form of bolts of lightning. R was sitting behind him giggling away to glory. He was an atheist who “wouldn’t touch spirituality with a ten-foot pole” but thought it might be fun to tag along with W for a while taking a “little joy-ride around Indian temples”.
The Pandav Leni caves, about 9 kms from Nashik, are a group of Buddhist caves, carved between the 3rd century BC and the 4th century AD. The historical consensus is that the caves had nothing to do with the Pandavas from Mahabharata, the name being a fairly modern application whose reasons might either be obscure (or controversial). Anyway, we were keen to “do” the caves but all of us being poor people, we had to rely on the dodgy public transport to the site. The sun was beating down on our heads but we were adamant not to pay the 200 Rs. rickshaw fare to the caves. After an hour of standing in front of a bus stop, we were told that we had to go to the highway to have a better chance of getting some transport to the site. We walked to the highway and were again, thwarted in our efforts to find affordable means of transport. The two of them looked at me angrily at me for being so ignorant about how things worked in my country. All my efforts at finding information were nipped in the bud because the only solution people had was to direct me to a rickshaw. None of us had a map or a smartphone or GPS but we kinda sorta knew it was somewhere on the way to Igatpuri. So we got on a truck, the three of us cramped in a space meant to accommodate one person and looked out of the window for a cave-like looking place. 15 minutes into the road, there it was, hulking majestically into the sky, the unmistakable sight of an ancient habitation, more austere and aesthetically appealing than anything around it.
We were very exhausted by the time we got there but the caves were a revelation. The arduousness of getting there probably made the site more magnificent than it actually was. There was a stupa at the ground level and W obediently went to meditate inside (W had been brainwashed by his guru to think that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu), while R and I worked our way up the steep steps to look at the caves. They were more sober and less ornate than some of the other Buddhist cave sites I’d been to. Some of the viharas, though, were undeniably beautiful and had delicately furnished carvings of apsara figures and gatekeepers. The chaitya gateways too were stunning in their spare, austere beauty. Even the generally smug and ironic R was impressed.
W was done with his meditation and it was time for us to go back. We were exhausted and famished and in no mood to pack ourselves in a truck. So we paid 200 Rs. for a rickshaw to take us back. On the way, W entertained us with his notions of what had gone wrong with humanity. According to him, if the West and the Middle East had adopted Hinduism rather than Islam and Christianity (Buddhism as a religion did not exist in his world because he saw it as a little twig in the giant tree that was Hinduism), the world wouldn’t have seen the Crusades or the World Wars or 9/11 or Bin Laden. If the Laws of Manu were followed to the tee, nobody would seek to meddle in anybody else’s business and there would be a perfect balance in the world, with people doing what they were meant to do. R listened to his lecture with infinite patience and after W finished talking, with the gravest of looks and the politest of tones, said, “Just shut the fuck up, mate.”