Welcome to the first of my 3 part series chronicling the journey of a young team from Mumbai determined to bring about a change in the lives of people living within the deep recesses of Rajor Valley, Rajasthan.
Stay with us as we take you on a voyage through a land of stark yet stunning beauty, of tales of centuries old feuds, of colourful legends and folklore, of hardship and deprivation- but ultimately a triumph of the human spirit that manifests itself in the proud and happy faces, filled with determination and hope for a better future.
The story behind the story
Rajasthan- a name that conjures images of beauty, colour and culture. Visions of dancing maidens and regal men; a place of royalty and grandeur, much like the rest of India.
There is however, another side to this story.
Beyond the glimmering lights of palace gardens and awe inspiring architecture, night falls and village after village is plunged in darkness. Women plodding through their daily chores; little ones struggling with their home work; men coming back home gingerly making their way through scorpion and snake infested fields by the poor light of a kerosene lamp, or a wood fire. Entire villages still mired in the use of wood, cow dung and kerosene, energy sources that have resulted in around 4 lakh premature annual deaths due to respiratory diseases. Additionally there are thousands of deaths caused by accidents with kerosene lamps that are a horrifying fire hazard. “Dirty Energy” is a serious problem in large parts of rural India.
Over 44 % of rural India still languishes without clean power. 412 million Indians nationwide have never have had access to electricity: shocking but true.
This is where we need to ask ourselves. If the basic need for power isn’t met can we ever hope for true growth and an improved quality of life?
Enter Project Chirag
This was the worrisome thought that plagued a group of young people from HR College, Mumbai. A thought grew into an idea, which blossomed into action, and someday I envision will build into a revolution.
Project Chirag began when a band of youngsters took it upon themselves to crowd fund a mission to Ujjaini to bring solar lamps to places oppressed by the smoke of ignorance, dispel the darkness of a land forgotten by its country and relegated to a life without basic electrical power.
The rest is history…in the making.
My Journey with Project Chirag…
It was back in 2013 when Project Chirag set their sights on the Barmer district of Rajasthan that my journey with them began. Over a mere 3 days the Project Chirag team accomplished the mission of solar lighting over 500 houses.
I had the privilege of being part of this journey and photo chronicling every moment; an experience that left me with hundreds of images of pure unadulterated happiness, hope, and most importantly, a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
Day 1: The voyage begins
A year later I was with the Project Chirag team once again, on a journey that combined gently undulating rail and butt numbing road that took us to the darkest recesses of Rajor Valley – a mere 160 kilometres away from the capital city of Jaipur but light years away in terms of its most powerful connect with civilization – access to LIGHT.
Ahead of us lay the jungles of the Sariska Tiger Reserve and around us loomed the hazy silhouette of winter haze encrusted mountains. But all we saw was 700 houses; No! 700 families that thanks to Project Chirag were on the threshold of a visit from us and a tractor load of solar lamps.
Our first stop was in Jaipur, to plan out the next few days and for me to double and triple check my equipment. With a week’s worth of cold winter nights ahead of us, we needed to double up on some warm clothes. We spent the rest of the evening browsing the wares and taking in the sights and sounds at the Tibet market and Jauhari bazaar.
I can’t think of a proper segue into what I want to mention next, but the tale of our first day in Jaipur is not complete without mentioning- ‘The Hotel’. On the face of it a decent enough place, neat, a courteous receptionist, attentive bellboys, et al…but as we lugged in our gear we could not help noticing the sign that stood loud and proud, right at the reception desk. A sign that declared in bold black font over pristine white –
“Special Price room- Rs. 99 per hour”. Pause for dramatic effect. Cue cheesy B-grade film music…WTF!
But wait! There’s more! (Said in my best Tele Shopping Network voice) The highlight of our room when we finally made it inside, was a great big mirror on the ceiling above each bed.
A few moments of awkward silence and mutterings of never changing our clothes in this room later, we freshened up and stepped out for dinner.
Green tea and Memories
After a scrumptious dinner of “laalmaas” – a preparation unique to Rajasthan that is a must have for non-vegetarian food aficionados, we met up with our local contact Ratan Katyayani, the founding member of Muktidhara (more about this fascinating gentleman in the posts to come) and Justice Bhargava–a former High Court judge and Chairman of the Human Rights Commission for Assam and Sikkim, and erstwhile Chairman and Patron of Muktidhara. Over a very pleasant evening of green tea Justice Bhargava narrated war stories of his days in the human rights commission and of his father, a freedom fighter who was instrumental in drafting the Indian Constitution.
Soon it was time to bid adieu, and he sent us off with cookies to go and plenty of words of encouragement for the task ahead.
Other than a chilly room and itchy blankets, we had a restful night.
Day 2: Into the woods
The following morning started with a slight delay as we made a few desperate calls to get our driver changed (our previous driver was channelling either the spirit of Evel Knievel or Charlie Manson, because he seemed hell bent on crashing and killing us all). Having sorted out this little problem, we were off.
About 40 kms from the valley, we caught up with Ratan Katyayani’s car and followed him the rest of the way
After a rather long and rather monotonous drive, we finally reached the outskirts of the Sariska National Tiger Reserve. The final stretch to our campsite was a bone rattling affair over a fractured mountainside, the road just a hint buried under rocks and boulders.
At long last however, this orthopaedic nightmare finally came to an end. As we unfolded our aching bodies out of the car, we were greeted by the crystalline expanse of a shimmering lake. Quaint wooden chairs stood invitingly under the shade of pipal trees.
As the cold set in so did the realization that I was in a whole new world. Unpacking in the passing warmth of my tent I looked forward to the coming days…the expectation of which brought back a childlike wonder which I had believed long lost.
Tales of a tyrant& statues that talk through the night
A quick masala chai later, we offloaded our gear and took off to explore our surroundings and the remains of monuments in the vicinity of our camp site.The ruins of dozens of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist places of worship in such close proximity are a testimony to the cultural melting pot that is our country.
Ratanji took us on a tour of one such archaeological find.The Neelkanth Mahadev Mandir was built in the 5th century. I remarked that the carvings and sculptures were reminiscent of the work at Ajanta and Ellora, and learnt from him that, as a matter of fact, each piece was sculpted by the same master craftsmen and transported all the way here. Centuries after Aurangzeb destroyed all temples in the area, this is one of the few that have been painstakingly excavated and put together piece by piece.
A short 5 minute walk down from the temple, an imposing statue loomed in the darkness. The 10 feet high statue of Parsvanath Swami, the 23rd Tirthankara towered above us. On closer inspection we could see large chunks of the statue missing from this otherwise extremely well preserved sculpture.
With a little digging over a shared beedi, one of the locals sat us down and told us about the local tale surrounding this destruction of the idol.
Across the valley on the hill of a neighbouring village stood a statue of the Buddha. Legend has it that the statues of Parsvanathji and the Buddha would have conversations all night, trading stories of their respective villages. These statues also stood guard over the comings and goings of their villages.
Thus, the statue of Parsvanathji stood guard over Mandalvas ( the village we were in) and would warn the villagers of any intruders. Thwarted by this miraculous talking idol, plunderers vandalized it in the hope of silencing it.
The truth, however, like most truths is far less romantic. It is believed that a long time ago entire valley was a prison chosen by Aurangzeb to hold his brother DaraShikoh. He chose this area for the strategic benefits it held – being surrounded by jungle and wild animals.
Tolerance for other religions wasn’t among Aurangzeb’s virtues. Patrols of his soldiers did their rounds of the valley carrying huge iron maces. Maces that were used to maul and destroy any place of worship they came across. Today the valley is strewn with the remains of beautiful sculptures and religious architecture, marred by the hate of a tyrant.
Birth of a Crusader
In the jungle, darkness sets in early, especially in the winters so finally we made our way back to camp. Dusting off the smell of exhaustion, we settled down by a crackling fire, the sounds of the jungle enveloping us like a warm blanket. Over a hot meal, we heard the enthralling story of how our host Ratanji found his true calling.
A little blurb here about Ratanji. On the face of it, a simple nondescript man in black bomber jacket, scruffy salt and pepper beard, scarf wrapped around his neck, and kind eyes.
Dig below the surface though, and this is what you find.
Lauded as Newsweek’s ‘Man of the year 2000’ and considered one of the 16 prophets of India , Ratanji left a burgeoning career in law , to take up the cause of Social Advocacy for semi nomadic and nomadic tribes in Rajasthan. Ratanji has single handedly settled over 20,000 nomadic families.
In his own words -“growing up in an affluent influential family I was spoilt for career choices: I considered being a politician, an IAS officer or even a teacher or a sadhu. But I felt that these options would either leave my hands tied, or I wouldn’t be taken, or wouldn’t have the right strings to pull to make a difference. So I became a lawyer”
A true believer in Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, his deepest regret is that he never had a chance to meet the Mahatma in person.
Over a decade ago a chance meeting with a Romany gypsy in court opened his eyes to the plight of nomadic tribes in India. Persecuted for not having a fixed address and vilified by society, Romany gypsies are considered little more than pariahs. That day, Ratanji fought for David against the Goliath that is the Indian legal system. He not only secured the man’s release, but also managed to help him and his family get a job and a permanent address.
This was the catalyst that led to the birth of Muktidhara in 1990 with the vision of a fearless, forceful, efficient, prosperous, equality based society. His mission is to help the nomadic community by bringing about a wave of long overdue change and justice in the way they are treated…but in a manner rooted in non violence.
What stories he had to tell us – of nights spent camping outside courts in protest; of being arrested and shunted around town by law enforcers desperate to keep him away from the tribes he worked with ; loyal and grateful people who wouldn’t hesitate to burn down the police station to free him; of being beaten by hooligans charged with scaring him off his mission of relocating and settling nomadic tribes. Oh the stories that were spun- of hope, betrayal and determination, of greed and virtue!
Much later that night as I curled up under every blanket I could find, my thoughts swirled and thumped with the beat of the forest’s heart. I couldn’t help but feel that there was more meaningfulness nestled among the empty darkness of that jungle night than in all the hustle and bustle of civilization.
Tomorrow; we get to work.
For more information on the wonderful work project Chirag does do check www.projectchirag.com or write to them on firstname.lastname@example.org
For more pictures CLICK HERE.
A brief introduction for those who would like to know a little more about me…CLICK HERE