Nostalgia for Eternity

 

 

Blood is life; not only the blood which runs in one’s veins, but also the blood of menstruation and the blood shed by women in childbirth.’


 

 

A fascinating documentation of many individual journeys by a true storyteller and traveller, Nostalgia for Eternity by Leonid Plotkin presents you with a richly annotated text and breathtaking images of the Indian subcontinent, and draws you to places unexplored and scenes unseen.

Let us take a look at some of the stunning accounts that explore the theme of nostalgia.

A hijra dressed for her ritual wedding to the Hindu god Aravan

Social attitudes toward hijras have always been ambivalent, deeming them incarnations of the Divine, while at the same time,regarding them as outcasts and pariahs, people outside of caste and kinship, the traditional networks of social control, and thus a potential threat to the social order.

 

The ghosts of armies past. A naked sadhu brandishes a sword after his ritual bath in the Ganges.

The sadhus’ military activities continued into colonial times. A major confrontation, known as the Sannyasi Rebellion, took place in 1770. Naked Hindu sadhus, allied with Muslim ascetics known as fakirs, engaged in violent conflict with soldiers of the British East India Company. In the course of the nineteenth century, the British successfully suppressed militant sadhus, and these days thesadhus’ armed activities are limited to occasional swordplay on festive occasions. Still, they retain and venerate the weapons that remain symbols of their martial past.

 

The ecstasy of blood

In pre-modern times, the festival of Bharani included extensive blood sacrifice. A late-nineteenth-century observer of the rites wrote that ‘the whole of the temple courtyard is converted into one horrible expanse of blood, rendering it too slippery to be safely walked over.’ The metaphor of blood in the Bharani ritual is multifaceted and complex. It is a symbol of conquest and submission and of life and death and fertility. Blood is life; not only the blood which runs in one’s veins, but also the blood of menstruation and the blood shed by women in childbirth. As the Mother Goddess is the source of all life, all blood flows from her and at some point must be returned for fertility to continue. The sacrificed blood also constitutes a sign of submission to a wrathful and unpredictable Goddess. It is an anticipatory pledge for catastrophe averted: blood for blood.

 

Wearing an archaic, upper-class style of female dress, and effecting effeminate gestures, an entranced oracle dances, while other devotees sing obscene songs full of expletives and sexual innuendo.

In the orgiastic rituals of the Phrygian and later Roman cult of Cybele and Attis, devotees sung erotic songs to Cybele. These songs identified the ploughing and seeding of the earth with the union of the goddess Cybele and her lover/son Attis. In that myth, Cybele’s wrath caused by Attis’s infidelity drives him to madness, self-mutilation, and death. Devastated, Cybele withholds fertility from the earth, but then Attis is resurrected, newly virile, and the earth becomes fecund again. Attis’s sacrifice and resurrection was equated with the death and resurrection of the spirit of vegetation—Attis’s dead body giving life force and fertility to the earth. This metaphor is mirrored in a myth that is central to the Bharani. The myth tells of the goddess Kannaki, whose husband Kovalan is murdered. In revenge, Kannaki rains fire (heat) and curses upon the earth, but she is eventually appeased and fertility returns. Both myths, while not exactly the same, discern a connection between sexuality, violent death, and new life.

 

A man in a state of spirit possession during a Goma

On the Swahili Coast of East Africa, and especially in Zanzibar, an important slave trading centre where many of the Sidis’ ancestors originated, the rituals of spirit possession cults are called ngoma, literally ‘dance’ in Swahili. The ngoma have as their object the pacification of malevolent spirits. Similarly, among the Sidis of India, Goma is the name of the ritual meant to mediate the relationship between humans and spirits. But in India, unlike in Africa, the Goma takes place not only to rid people of malevolent spirits but also to make it possible for people to ritually embody the saintly spirits of their departed ancestors—Bava Gor for the men and Mai Mishra for women. All Sidis consider themselves the children of saints, and during the Goma, these dead ancestors incarnate in the bodies of their living descendants.

 

Preceded by torch-bearing priests, the god of fire appears in the sacred grove and dances before his devotees

The Theyyam ritual constitutes a symbolic transformation of profane time into sacred time. For the duration of the ceremony,everyone involved escapes history and returns to the time of the gods. The gods’ presence among them means that spectators and participants become witnesses to the time of the origins—not to a historical past, but to the durationless, eternal instant, where thegods dwell and have their being. People become contemporaries with divine trans-historic occurrences in an eternal mythical present, and a fragment of the original time is repeated.

For more, explore the book by Leonid Plotkin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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