Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bhangarh: Beyond the curse

It has been a little more than five years since I visited Bhangarh. On most days, I still remember every detail of the experience. What I remember most is that I was heart-broken by the loss of a great city and all the stories it held in its fold, the ruins that remains have been painted many times over with vivid imagination and rumours of curses and hauntings. While we don't know for sure as to what happened at Bhangarh, the reality of the residents who still live around the fort, is painful.

I was already terrified when I arrived at the gate of the ruins. Much had already ben said in the five-hour long journey from New Delhi to Bhangarh. There were no markers to the ruins along the way and we had to stop, frequently, to ask for directions and we were almost always met with locales suggesting us not to go there. Some had even misdirected us, leading us away from the Fort. It had all gotten on my nerves by the time I arrived. There was no entrance fee but rumours told us there was no guarantee of getting out alive as well. We passed the ominous signboard by the Archeological Survey of India warning visitors not to stay back after sunset. The mood had been successfully created. First, we crossed a long cobbled lane with structures on both sides. The structues, as was evident, seemed to have been cut at the exact height from the ground, creating an evenly creepy image. We paused several times, to take pictures and to speak to the other visitors walking about. Most of the visitors ere locals who had come to pen the day on the Fort's rolling green.

At the far end of this meadow was the Fort. Below the fort, at one corner of the meadow stood the only living temple in the compound. A Shiva Temple. We found the priest and spoke to him at length about the possibility of spirits and the story of the haunting of Bhangarh. He rubbished the stories. He had been the head priest for several years now and his father had been head priest of the temple before him. There had been no instances that he could recollect of any "supernatural" kind. Encouraged, I now made my way to the Fort. As I entered the arched dome of the gate to the main fort building, I froze.

It is easy to see why the stories of Bhangarh's haunting are so believable. The Fort, perhaps is designed, to trigger the imagination. It seems obvious that someone will peek out of the balcony (which was impossible to get to at the time, although renovation was in progress). The cobbled road narrowed into a wide lane leading up, steeply, to the Fort.

The scene within the Fort was like any other ruins you can find, except the nauseating smell of bat droppings. The wind is surprising cool at the top of the Fort and provides a great view. Yet, there is something positively eerie and it is not uncommon to see visitors suddenly looking back as if to check something. In the garden/meadow below, families can be seen enjoying a picnic with the family. Everything seems normal and the image truly allays any fears one may have. Until, someone says, "This is where the guard was slapped by the ghost that evening."

I sent a fairly good amount of time at the Fort, hoping to see some "activity". Thankfully, nothing happened and I decided to walk back to the garden. The sun was beginning to set. I realised that the Fort was positioned at the conjunction of two hill slopes (for better protection against a possible invasion) and instead of the sun setting on a horizon, it would merely drop behind the hill ushering in darkness before the dusk actually fell. In the pockets that had already been hidden from the sun's direct light, I saw a strange sight.

The roughly cut stone structures seemed very different in the reflected light. The wind was now cooler, almost chilly. There was a sudden stillness in the Fort and every one of the visitors who had been clicking pictures and exploring the ramparts, now lined up after me to leave. Once in the garden, I struggled to stay back for a little longer. I took a seat on a bench in the still sunlit areas. The people who had been frollicking around me, now started to head for the gate. No one spoke about it being time to go or showing any signs of being told to leave. Neither did I. We all just knew that it was now time to leave. I watched as some monkeys that had been scavenging in the garden now sped up to take shelter in the trees, on the other side the birds started to disappear, seeking refuge in the ruins or in the many trees. The wind started to pick up speed even as I basked in the last rays of the sunlight. The urge to get up and leave was mounting within me and my imagination was adding a lot of colour to the scenario before me.

I was still seated when I spotted a shepherd with hsi cattle heading for the gate. He stopped on seeing me and walked towards me. "My child," he said in a coarse Rajasthani voice, "it is not the darkness of the fort that you should fear. It is the darkness within all of us that will do the damage. Come, let us go out and have some tea." I was not able to fathom what he had said but I decided to move. A gush of wind seemed to push me on as I made my way with the shepherd to the gate. "Dilliwale?" asked the shepherd once we had left the Fort. He didn't explain his comment or ask about much. He had the tea that I bought him and left.

In my mind, Bhangarh still remains cursed by the rumours that precede it. It has a reputation. You either return scared or you feel nothing at all. To me, Bhangarh is best viewed as a chance to explore the darkness within me. If I hav something to be afraid of, I will be scared by the unseen spirits of Bhangarh. If I do not, then I will not need to visit the place at all and I have not, not in the past five years.

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