There’s a certain charm in passing the night at a temple town. Outside, the great silence of the Himalayas. The night has still not passed. Suddenly, a sound of drums. The priest is opening the doors of the temple. At dawn, the deity is woken up with a morning arati. From deep inside the blanket I hear the sweet sound of the temple bells. Its not quite like an earthquake, but it seems like the mountain booms with the deep sound of those bells, and my heart is filled with a sudden joy. I listen intently. A sense of contentment comes over me.
The puja ends. Silence returns.
Lying there, I suddenly remember Ben Jonson’s words- “Bells are profane, a tune may be religious.” But is that really true? I wonder. In those bells I hear the voice of divinity.
Again, bells ring outside, this time from the street. A flock of sheep and goats make their way down the road, carrying loads on their back. Little bells tied to their necks ring out as they move. In the still night, this is another beautiful Himalayan tune- the merry melody of the open road, like sudden birdsong in a still forest. Just as a single stringed instrument will play different tunes, or as different ragas compete for the mind with diverse emotions, the suggestive sounds of bells evoke different feelings.
I lay there and reminisce.
Childhood. Calcutta. The three-storied building of the Bhawanipur police station just opposite my house. On its terrace a large wooden shamiyana. A massive bell hangs there. Through the day, a red-turbaned policeman would be posted there, to ring it on the hour. I remember waking up suddenly in the middle of the night. My room is vaguely lit by the streetlamps outside. Everyone in the house is fast asleep. Suddenly the bell rings twice. Its 2 a.m.! The two gongs light up in the darkness like the twin eyes of a tiger. I turn to one side and try to sleep. In the day, the sound of the bell is subsumed by the roar of the city. In the morning, I hear the bells of a passing horse-drawn carriage. I can always pinpoint those distinct chimes despite the surfeit of sounds surrounding me. It’s the sound of my father returning from a round of the maidan at dawn. The carriage turns off the main road. The sound of bells cease. Now I hear my father’s footsteps. In a little while he will enter his massive book-lined study and work through the day. I sit in my little study with a small book. The blinding light of his intellect lights up the tiny toy lamp of my mind.
Pic: Old Calcutta
The ringing bell at school. The bell that signals the beginning of a class sounds so different from the one signalling its end. If it’s a class that I’ve enjoyed, I feel a sense of loss. The bell at the end of a class that doesn’t interest me brings relief. As I lie in my blanket, the sound of the school bell slowly fades from memory. I remember a class of my college professor. Animatedly reading Shakespeare. I listen to him with rapt attention. My imagination flies to the Bard’s world. The characters and events bloom vividly in my mind. The bell rings, but nobody seems to hear it. Another professor waits outside for the next class. Our reverie breaks. The chime of the bell fades away.
I remember various different bells at the Railway station or at the port. The bells ring and travellers hurry busily. People run to and fro, worried about missing their train. The chaos of the station bell enters language as a metaphor.
The sweetest bells are heard along the track-filled expanse of the Himalayas. A silent path. A still forest. Suddenly I hear bells, like a swelling invisible music. Far away I see a flock of approaching sheep. I stand to one side. Hundreds of furry bodies pass- some tripping on my feet- a massive flock crowding a narrow mountain path, trailing the sound of hundreds of tinkling bells.
I remember another set of bells on my way to Kailash-Mansarovar. A postman goes on his way, a sack of mails on his back. He holds a long stick, crowned with a bunch of tiny bells. He walks with long strides, and the bells keep up a steady rhythm. I stare at his burden of letters. He runs on from one village to the next. His sack reminds me of home, and I miss it so very much.
The chimes of the morning arati at Ukhimath remind me of bells at the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar or Benaras.
Pic: Evening arati at Benaras (courtesy Shonedeep)
Evening shadows lie on the great river. All around me, near and far swells the sound of a million bells. Thousands of temples all ring their bells together. The river is suddenly filled with hundreds of floating flowers. Little earthen lamps glitter amidst the blooms as they float gently on the river. It seems to me as if the night comes to honour the river bearing thousands of lamps to a symphony of bells.
to be continued…