On that day, we were struck with another bout of “Religious tourism”. But, we were divided in our opinions between two equally famous temples of Shekhawati. The first one was the temple of Khatu Shyam ji at Ringus and the second one was the temple of Balaji at Salasar. Finally, the balance tilted in favour of Salasar because it opened an opportunity for us to visit Taal-chhapar sanctuary as well. From RTDC, Fatehpur, we took the National Highway. Though the population was quite sparse on both sides of the road, there were sufficient petrol pumps and the road side eateries for the travellers. The traffic was also quite low in the morning. After driving to a distance of about 20 kilometers, we came to a crossing on the highway.
Coming from Fatehpur, we took right turn there and entered through the Laxman gate, which had been constructed by the development committee of Salasar temple. Then, we were on the National Highway 65 in the direction of Sujangarh. Later on, we came to know that the same committee had constructed such gates at the important locations on all the major roads coming towards Salasar. Anyway, from that crossing, the temple town of Salasar was situated at a distance of 31 kilometers.
Throughout the National Highway 65, people from all walks of life and from also all directions were thronging to the temple. Some were arriving in their respective vehicles and some were walking on foot. Some were alone and some had formed large groups. Those large groups were usually having a music-van along with them. The van would play, in the loudest volume, some religious songs in local languages. The group would stop at the side of the road and the members would break into an impromptu dance sequences. All those people were also carrying their flags for offering to the temple. At the other hand, people of many villages falling enroute had put up tents at either side of the road for the weary travellers to sit and to take a little rest before proceeding to his/her journey. A constant and regular supply of drinking water and canned juices were made by the villagers. In some of the tents, they had installed the motorized sugar-cane juicer-machines and were distributing freshly prepared sugar cane juice freely.
The music and dance, the pomp and show, the exotic display of colourful Rajasthani turbans and women’s Chunris and the religious fervor associated with the mass movements of people were giving the otherwise peaceful surrounding a live-wire feel. On that day, the journey of 31 kilometers could be a photographers’ delight, if he wanted to capture the romance of colours against the desolate landscape. Similarly, it would have been a sociologists’ delight too, if he wanted to observe the peoples’ behavior during such mass religious movement.
It had, however, also increased the volume of traffic on the road and slowed down the pace of journey. Still, enjoying the colourful procession of people, we arrived at the Laxmangarh-Salasar toll booth. There, the cost was 40INR for two-way ticket and 25INR for one-way ticket. When our turn came, we purchased the one-way ticket and proceeded ahead. The landscape kept changing at irregular distances. If we passed by the barren lands, we also passed through the villages having flourishing fields glowing with golden hues of the wheat plants. The beautiful surroundings often stopped us to enjoy the vastness of the open horizon and to feel the fresh air touching our faces.
Further, covering the total distance of about 50 kilometers in one and half hours, we reached Salasar. After parking our car in one of the parking lots managed by the local people, we decided to walk down the street in the direction of the temple. We saw that the entire city was engulfed by the religious fervor. Many businessmen and different social groups had arranged free distribution of eatables, drinking water and other canned drinks. Those, who wanted to stay at Salasar for some days, had the options of staying at various Dharmshalas, managed by respective business and religious houses. In the main market chowk, there were statues of a few noted religious leaders like Rama Krishna Paramhans.
Through an opening at the main-chowk, we entered into the temple premises along with the rush and hustle-bustle of many people. To the left of the entrance, there was the Samadhi of Pandit Mohan Das. 40-couplets in his glory and 1000 names in his praise were displayed on the two large-sized boards. Their entire family history was also displayed on the walls. It appeared that he was the founder priest of the Balaji at Salasar. Due to his spiritual attainments, people had conferred the exalted status of a demi-God onto him. However, our visit to the Samadhi of Pandit Mohan Das was brief, partly because it was driven more for the sake of curiosity than for the religious sentiments.
Adjacent to the Samadhi, the temple trust had established their stall/shop for selling the prasads (offerings to the God). The items, such as, bundi (a sugar-filled sweet beads made of gram flour), Churma (ground wheat/gram flour sweetened by adding sugar/jaggery), Chakki (a round-shaped salty fried disk made of gram flour paste) and Laddu (balls of sweetened ground gram flour) were being sold there. One could also purchase the coconuts and vermillion also from that shop. There, I came across the term “mahaprasad ( a great offering)”. A mahaprasad to the Lord Balaji at Salasar consisted of approximately 50 kilogram of Churma/Laddu. It was also called “Sawa Mani”. A “Man” is the unit of quantity used in India before the metric system was formally adopted. It is equal to 40 kilogram. A quarter more (+25%) to the “Man” is called “Sawaman”. Offering Sawamani and distributing it amongst the followers and believers was one of the activities considered as endearing to the Lord Balaji.
The second most important activity was to offer the flag to the deity. Hordes of people from far and flung areas came there along with their asymmetrical triangular flags. The smallest of the flags could be of less than a foot, whereas the largest ones could be touching 30 feet or more. But, their colour was identical. Each flag was red in colour. The majority of them were having only one conical tip jotting away from their pole. But, a few of them also had two or more such conical tips. In my imagination, I have a very plausible reason for such a social practice. Since Lord Hanuman alias Balaji was a great commander in the army of Lord Rama; people, who consider themselves as tiny soldiers of the Lord Rama’s army, pledge their allegiances to him in the form of their flags.
It was very interesting to see people, who were carrying larger flags, to pass through the steel barricades erected to regulate the human queue. The flags along with its pole/bamboo shafts needed to be carried through those security-laden barricades. The only way was to carry them over the heads of the sea of humanity crushing at the gates. Special efforts were required at each turns of the barricade within the premises of the temple. The barricades ensured that people moved in the orderly queue in one direction. The opposite movements in those barricaded queues were either not allowed or not possible. The temple management had also provided water sachets/packets to people moving or waiting in slow queue. Irrespective of the security and the cameras installed at appropriate places, there must have taken place some incidents of thefts. Thus, the temple management through the notice boards also tried to inform people to be careful of their belongings.
As it happens at the majority of the religious places worldwide, many people visited Salasar for making a wish before the God. They carried utmost faith in their invocation of the will of the supreme power. Each wish granted and each desire that got fulfilled further regenerated their faith with renewed vigour. The success brought more people in subsequent forays. The social communication was through word of mouth. At Salasar, the third important activity was to make a wish and tie a coconut wrapped in the red cloth to a tree situated within the premises.
Following the queue, we entered into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. Admittedly, it was much decorated. The walls were silver plated. On those plates, themes from Ramayana were embossed. The queue passed through the raised platform in front of the main idol. Everywhere local priests were stationed to help, guide and steer the visitors away towards the exit. A selected few could also go near the idol at the main temple for offering special puja, made possible by special arrangements through the priests. The general queue, however, proceeded with calm and reverence. Each of us got to see a glimpse of the idol for less than a minute, but that was satisfying. During that short time, we muttered our prayers within our lips and moved away. Alas, photography was strictly forbidden, so we could not capture the glory of the sanctum sanctorum to our satisfaction.
The gulley leading to the exit was also highly decorated with silver plated walls. There was no rush in the gulley. One could slow down a little bit. For me, it was the time for retrospection. Was it worth to travel such a distance just for a glimpse of less than a minute? At one hand, I pleaded guilty for not arranging some special puja by prior appointment so that we could have spent some more time there and at other hand, I felt as a part of the great human congregation that carry their devotion within their heart back to their respective villages with a hope to be able to make a return journey again.
Outside the temple, the way led us to the market. Local markets near the religious stations had always attracted me. Salasar market was no exception. The fastness of colours, the smell of the perfumes coming out of the flowers and joss sticks, glaze of toys, glitz of metal craft, rustlings of bangles, cries of children, persuasive shop-keepers, starry-eyed village belle, moaning cows and buffaloes, high decibels of religious songs in the gyrating tunes, artists with their arts, aroma of freshly prepared food, books for quick solutions to every problem, glitter of artificial ornaments and all other contraptions for the needy were there. We walked around the market at a frenzied pace and clicked many photos. For us, the best was the milk-tanker-cart pulled by a camel. It appeared to have been made by modifying the normal cart. A tank made of galvanized steel was fixed in the middle. It had a covered opening on the top for filling it up with the milk along with small ice-slabs. A rubber tube was fixed in the lower end of the tank for releasing milk at the time of distribution. We had never seen that before. We were pretty sure that once filled, such tanker could reach at least 30 kilometers into deeper desert to distribute milk there.
Along with the market, there were other temples. The important among them was the temple dedicated to Anjani, the divine mother of Lord Hanuman. Around a tree, in front of the temple, a motley crowd had gathered. They were watching the proceedings sincerely. A girl of young age had been brought there for ailments mystically attributed to a ghost or some super-natural. Normally, I remain quite inquisitive. But, on that day, I left the place without examining the truth behind the proceedings.
The National Highway 65, from Salasar to Sujangarh, stretches to 26 kilometers through arid topography and desolate landscapes devoid of human settlements. It is also full of fine dust flowing with moderate winds. Mid-day sun was at the top of the horizon extending warmth everywhere. Strangely, we were also traveling in complete silence as if under the influence of the silence outside. The monotony was broken at village temple on the road, which read as “Banna’s Temple”. It was a strange, un-covered temple, dedicated to a turbaned young Rajasthani. His photograph was placed on the raised pucca constructed platform adorned with flags at all corners. There was also a donation-box tied to a tree. There was, however, no one to satisfy my curiosity about that temple.
Sujangarh was the nearest major town, at a distance of 10 kilometers from the “Taal-chhaper black-buck sanctuary”. We had to leave the NH 65 at Sujangarh and take the Chhaper-Sujangarh Road, which at some place merges into NH 7 and leaves it as well. The sanctuary was in typical grassland, full of brown-coloured dry grass. Apparently, it had not rained in recent times. One could drive through the sanctuary, but not through its inner core. On either side of the pitch road, one could see the ordinary deer and the black bucks grazing in solitude. It was very hot afternoon. Still, coming out of the car to see those animals in their natural habitat was a great pleasure, which we did not want to let go.
The sanctuary gave another dimension to my visit of Shekhawati region. It made me wonder into the times when the hunting those animals might be the biggest pleasure of the ruling clans. Moreover, presence of a grassland amidst the arid desert also emphasized the role of nature in forming the separate cultural identity of Shekhawati. Anyway, after inhaling fresh warm air and taking some pictures of the black bucks, it was time to go.
Driving on NH 7 was a delight from the word go. The sound produced by the rhythm of the engine and friction of tyres seemed great. Listening to the sound of travelling was almost infectious. It forced us to stop the music entertainment system. Amritsar, situated at a distance of only 500 kilometers from there, seemed so close. The ultimate passion got battered, when we reached the Ridcor Toll Plaza at Podihara. The ticket was costing 40INR.
Half an hour later, we reached the Chinkara Motel Mid-way at Ratangarh. This RTDC motel was at a prime intersection of NH7 and NH 11. But, it was almost in ruins due to absence of tourists and resultant neglect. It had wrought iron furniture in the waiting-cum-dining hall. Pictures of various tourist locations of Rajasthan were mounted on the walls. But, there was no description available about the tourist spots of Ratangarh.
I had heard that Ratangarh had a fort. The motel staff, however, dissuaded me from going there. In fact, they were unanimous in saying that the fort did not exist. Then, I was under no mood to challenge that, neither my family wanted to see one more fort. So, we left Ratangarh for Fatehpur via NH 11. Of course, the motel staff had served us the most refreshing tea of the day.