Megan McCormick’s Veiled Journeys: Punyanagari

Megan McCormick’s Veiled Journeys

1) Punyanagari, India

by Mr. A_B

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The giant bronze statue of Shivaji by the setting sun

Day 1:

A city of 15 million and spread over 3000 sq km Punyanagari is one of the largest metropolises in the world and the largest city in the Maratha Empire.

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Mira my friend

It is a melting pot of cultures from across the length and breath of the empire. You see Gandharis, Persians, Bengalis, Punjabis, Tamils, even Europeans and Americans all coming to Punyanagari for work, or study. And in some cases to live here for the rest of their lives. The first thing any traveller would see coming to Punyanagari is the giant bronze statue of Chatrapati Shivaji, the founder of the First Maratha Empire. The statue is as breathtaking as the city itself, and is a great welcome to the grandeur of the Maratha capital.

Now as promised, I will be travelling the empire like any other citizen and indulging in the veiling traditions of the place. The women in Punyanagari veil in a fashion that can be commonly seen in most parts of the sub-continent except in Kashmir, Balochistan and Bengal. My friend Mira has agreed to show me the various styles and traditions of veiling and I’ll be travelling with her while I’m in Punyanagari. She hails from an upper middle class Marathi family of professionals and works at the Department of Telecom in India. Government jobs are generally preferred for their high pay and stability.

The typical Punyanagari veil comprises of two ‘dupattas’ or long scarves. In general girls wear only one layer leaving the eyes open but around a third of those who veil do wear an under-scarf which covers over the eyes. Usually it’s tied snugly over the nose and mouth and covers the hair.

The instructions are simple, take a side of the long scarf, drape it over the forehead, and then you can do either one of two things. You could either wrap one layer around the lower half of the face and another side over that and tie the two dangling ends behind the head in a tight knot. Or you could wrap the scarf around your forehead and twist it at the back of your head, then taking the pleat from around your neck and stretch it to cover over your nose and mouth and tie it snugly in a knot behind your head.

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My first try with veiling

Since I agreed to go for the full veiling experience, I would also be wearing a gag under the veil and would be tying a light veil over my eyes. I personally find the second style of wrapping more comfortable so I decided to tie my veil that way. Mira was a great help at this, it took me a while to understand it properly but once I got the hang of it, I could do it as a natural. There is something so effeminate about this look that I can’t explain. The elbow long gloves and my ornate and comfortable salwar suit completed the look. Now Mira tells me that most women, especially young married women wear gags regularly more so when they’re going out alone. The most popular type of gag is a special tape gag with bengal glue which is a very effective gag with super adhesive qualities and stretchy material. However, these days more and more women are choosing a variant of the ballgag with elastic band as their preferred means of silencing themselves. These are made in the North West Frontier region of the sub-continent.

To tell you frankly, I prefer the idea of the ball gag over the tape for the convenience of being able to take it out if I ever had to talk. Mira too shared my preference and thankfully had an extra pair for me to wear at the time, a red elastic ballgag. So there I was ready to go around town dressed like a typical Punyanagari girl. Veiled and silenced. At first the eye veils were difficult to get used to, but eventually I got around it thanks to the light translucence of the under scarf.

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Shaniwar Wada

Our first stop would be the central fort complex, known as the Shaniwar Wada, which was the old seat of power of the empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. This area reminded me to some extent of the forbidden city of Beijing because of it’s secrecy. Parts of the fort like it’s Chinese equivalent remain off limits to tourists. Next to the main fort was the birthplace of the founder of Maratha independence and the first empire, Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, popularly known as the Lal Mahal or Red palace in hindi. It has now been converted into a museum which depicts his life history.

The architecture and construction of the fort and palace were exquisite. Each monarch who came to power on the throne left his own mark upon the designing of the palace and fort complex. We see three main themes in the design of palace, a traditional Marathi theme, a mixed theme incorporating East Asian and South East Asian designs and finally a European theme influenced primarily by Gothic architecture. The last two floors of the 11 storied palace were designed entirely in Gothic style.

The Europeanization of the defenses including placing of howitzers, was the contribution of the Bajirao Scindhia III , who was a patron of British sciences and modern Western education. He is known as the modernizer of Indian society. However, his reign is known more for the rapid expansion of the Maratha Empire into the North West, the wars with Russia and for presiding over the Renaissance revolution which had reduced the position of the monarchy from absolute to titular constitutional monarchy modelled on Britain.

The legacy of this violent revolution and the civil war which followed still haunts South Asian society.

Any tourist to Punyanagari should try out at least three things this city has to offer. Apart from the history and architectural specimens, there is the food and shopping. The food in Punyanagari is a bit of a melting pot. You can find an Indian variant of Chinese cuisine which is simply delectable! You can savor the tastes of Mughal cuisine ( one of the only Islamic legacies left after the revolution and civil war ), or you could try the varied tastes of Sub-continental cuisines be it Gandhari, Bengali or Punjabi.

Mira suggested we try out one of the more famous Punjabi restaurants which specialized Frontier inspired cuisine. The chain of ‘Dhabas’ ( literally meaning a roadside easting place ) is spread across most of India and interestingly in East Africa as well. The Punyanagari outlet was opened around 25 years ago and has become one of the more famous eating landmarks of the city. No citizen of Punyanagari can imagine cuisine in this city without the Dhaba.

By now it was around an hour and a half of roaming around veiled and gagged like this. While it was initially a little annoying and difficult to adjust to, the gag eventually felt more comfortable the longer I wore it. Thankfully, I didn’t drool much into the scarf. The eye veil too which I had some initial reservations against turned out to be less of an inconvenience than previously thought. On the contrary it felt quite relieving when dealing with the heat and dust of Punyanagari traffic. The outer veil was quite a life saver, I can imagine why so many would wear it willingly outdoors especially in summer time.

I should tell you here, that it is advisable to visit Punyanagari around the period of Autumn in the months between August and early November to experience the best of Deccan climate. Spring and winters are mild while summers are hot. The month of May and early June is infamous for being intolerably hot. It is common to see the streets vacant of any pedestrians in that time as they’d either be indoors or taking public transportation.

We finally arrived at the Dhaba after taking the underground metro. That here is the most convenient way to travel after the monorail and busses. The test of convenience for the veiling was about to come as we prepared to eat. In general, there are no hard rules preventing inter-mixing of men and women, however, it is considered improper in many restaurants for men and women to sit together. The Dhaba outlet was one of those restaurants which had sex segregation. Me and Mira went to an ‘only female’ section of the restaurant.

Unwrapping my face and hands was a bit tedious at first, but Mira showed me a trick with the knot that opened it in a quick flick of the finger. By the looks of it, we weren’t the only ones to be wearing the eye-veils or even gags. The ball gag comfortably came out of my mouth and hung around my neck.. almost like a piece of jewellery.

The Punjabi food was delicious! My personal favorite was the butter chicken with butter naan. The other delicacies were the tandoori murg and Afghani chicken. Usually with Punjabi food, there is a heavy emphasis on creamy tastes mixed with hot spices and butter. A nice cooling glass of lassi ( basically a kind of milk shake ) after the lunch was a perfect compliment.

A good way to relax the afternoon is a walk in one of Punyanagari’s public parks. Near to the restaurant is a ‘cantonment’ area which was built by European officers when the city was temporarily occupied by supporting British troops during the Renaissance revolution and the civil war which followed. This area was designed using British perspectives of public spaces and areas for recreation. The gardens are quite popular among the locals as a resting spot and not too surprisingly, as a romancing spot for couples. I decided to be ungagged for a while and give my jaw a rest and talk with Mira while in the park.

As evening set in we decided to head back home, but not before stopping in one of Punyanagari’s premium shopping malls. Evening time in Punyanagari is fascinating. You see tall high-rises lit up wonderfully dominating the skyline with rolling hills as background. The saffron sky makes for one very exotic setting indeed. The streets are usually filled with traffic, but not something beyond control. Public transport is the mainstay of Punyanagari residents and in general they prefer to travel within the city in busses or metro rails or even the newly built monorail. Mira wanted to show me some clothing collections and some interesting Punyanagari jewellery.

Of late more fashionable approaches to veiling and even bondage have become a trend especially among youngsters here. ‘Bondage jewellery’ incorporates intricate traditional Indian designs with restraints for the arms and mouth and legs. I was very keen to check out these designs being a fan of Indian jewellery myself ( which is world famous ). The most famous jewellers in Punyanagari, Ranka Jewellers, have a large store in the ‘Inorbit’ mall located in the outskirts of the city. This is where Mira bought her gilded arm binders from. The store was full of eager customers buying new jewellery. Most of them were couples but I could spot a women alone as well. Equally crowded was the bondage jewellery section.

The designs on display were simply astounding for their creativity and craftsmanship. Mira’s excitement showed.. and so did mine. The most attractive piece that I found was the silver arm restraint. It was basically an ornate silver rod with intricate carvings and designs on it, with chains for binding the elbows and forearms and wrists. It’s to be worn with hands in the back. The whole piece weighed around 1.5 kilos. It was beautiful.. but alas at $3000 it was too much for me! That however, was not the end of it.

There were many smaller pieces made of gold. Like gilded handcuff bangles and gilded ball gags. I particularly liked one ball gag with a harness which had gold chains stuffed with small gems inside it. The oval shaped gag ball was just as beautifully designed with peacock designs brilliantly crafted onto it. I decided to try them on with my outer veil. The gag was to be tied over my veil. The more I saw myself with the bondage jewellery, the more I wanted it. If it wasn’t so expensive!

The most expensive gold bondage jewellery was a $10000 gilded wedding mask. Mira explained to me that some cultures use the bondage mask to hide the face of the bride till the point of the ‘suhaag raat’ or night of consummation between the groom and bride. It had a very restricting internal gag mechanism which is sure to silence it’s wearers. Not the least because of it’s hefty weight at 5 kilos!

As far as convenience is concerned I personally prefer the light small gag I’m wearing right now. But I still couldn’t take my eyes of the collections. Both the regular jewellery and the bondage jewellery. Eventually, both Mira and I ended up buying one of each. She bought a pair of earrings and a cuff bangle. I bought a small gold ball gag and a gold pendant. All in all, it was good shopping. We then moved to a clothing shop. Mira had to buy some new scarves but I decided to go along with her and see what kind of fashion is trending in Punyanagari these days. The sight I saw intrigued and fascinated me.

It would seem Punyanagari women had developed a great taste for ornamental bondage. Mira tells me this has been trending since at least the last 2 years or so with more interaction with South East Asians who are ‘crazy’ about the style. Japanese shibari is particularly popular these days and women fascinate with the idea of how ornamentally they can tie themselves. The models displaying some of the clothing at the gate had their hands tied with scarves of various pretty designs. I decided to pitch in and see how it felt and looked. Quite frankly, I didn’t mind the look of it together with the veil and the gag.

We decided to end the day with a nice bag of purchases and loads of fun. Tomorrow would be my last full day in Punyanagari, and Mira has agreed to show me some other important and interesting historical sights of the city as well as a nearby tourist stop known for it’s natural beauty.

Day 2:

Early mornings at Punyanagari are as scenic as evenings. The sky truly is blessed by an exotic beauty by the hills. The streets get busy quite early with office staff rushing to work by 8 am and food vendors coming out to offer breakfast around the same time. Me and Mira decided to take a ‘temple tour’ today visiting some of the most important shrines in and around the city.

Today we were going to see three temples. First the Dagduseth halwai temple devoted to Lord Ganesha, the elephant god, and second the shrine of Sant Tukaram built in 1800. These are the two most important temples in the city, but not to be left behind is the Chatursinghi temple devoted to Goddess Durga (the embodiment of feminine power) in the North of the city. After which we’ll take a drive to the Koyna dam and spend the afternoon by Koyna lake, a popular picnic spot for citizens of the city.

After my last experience in traditional Punyanagari dress I decided to try on something more ‘traditional’. In general temple visitors dress traditionally, with men wearing kurtas and women wearing saris. There are many different types of saris across the sub-continent and in this part of South Asia, the Marathis have their own unique style. The lower fold of the sari is tied between the legs to resemble a kind of ‘dhoti’ which men generally wear. The other end of the pallu can either be used to wrap the head similar to the Punyanagari style or simply drape it over the head. For today I decided to try and wrap it around. Mira helped me with that yet again. The look that came out was elegant. Dressed in saris we left for the temples early in the morning.

Though non-Hindus are forbidden from entering the inner sanctum of the temples, it is possible to enter into the garba griha or gathering halls facing the sanctums. I decided to follow Mira to the temples. Hindu temples used to be infamous for being dirty and polluted and overcrowded. That however, changed with the passage of the temple management act. All temples and places of worship with more than 100 daily visitors are managed directly by the state or appointed bodies. Even so, the huge number of devotees who throng to the temple complexes were overwhelming. This was particularly so with Dagduseth halwai. Located in the old city near the Shaniwar Wada, the temple is one of the most important Ganesha temples in western India.

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Ganesh idol at Dagduseth

The idol was created by local craftsmen using clay and wood as is typical for most idol making throughout India. An interesting feature of the idol was the gilded crown and the large diamond which is said to have been a gift from the heavens. Mira offered her prayers and gifts at the sanctum to the brahmin priest in wait. An important rule for any female visitor to a temple, is that one should be veiled at all times and as a compulsory rule be gagged for the duration of the visit to the temple.

The architecture of the temple is typically Maratha in style. The art and woodwork too. There is a central structure which encompasses both the gathering hall and the inner sanctum housed in a singular 5 storied tower. The idol should be at least 8 ft tall. The next temple that we will visit however, is quite different both in design and purpose.

Sant Tukaram was a 17th century saint and poet who was well known for his progressive ideas of equality and justice throughout the Deccan region. His philosophy inspired the first Chatrapati of the Marathas, Shivaji Maharaj. Later on his teachings were revived at the time of the 2nd empire and 3rd empire to establish a progressive thought and battle brahmin hegemony over learning. The present shrine was built by Bajirao Scindhia I who founded the 2nd empire. Unlike other temples there is no mandatory rule for being silent and there are no hierarchy of priests. In fact non-Hindus are welcome just as well as Hindus.

The mode of prayer is through meditation and song and this is perhaps the reason why the garba griha is merged with the inner sanctum. No gifts are given to the idols unlike other temples and there are no caste based divisions within the temple. Attached to the main temple is the institute for learning of Tukaram thought and the Tukaram ashram. The visit to the temple complex is worth while not only for the interesting architecture of the place which defies conventional Indian designs, but also for the serene surroundings replete with gardens, ponds and rivulets. All in all, it makes for a very sublime experience.

After an hour spent in the Tukaram shrine and it’s gardens, we decided to head towards the Chatursinghi temple. It would be difficult for someone not used to scaling heights to get to the main temple. A flight of at least a few hundred steps separates the temple from the road below. My troubles were worsened with having to keep my shoes at a shop at ground level and walking all the way up to the temple barefoot in the sun. Luckily, we had arrived here early enough to avoid the mid day heat. Oh and that’s another thing to remember while visiting temples, to always enter the premises barefoot. It’s usually advisable to keep the shoes at a safe place to avoid it getting stolen.

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Chatursinghi temple gates

The temple itself was rather modest. A typical Marathi style architecture with a tower or ‘shikhara’ built over the inner sanctum and a garba griha preceding it. What was fascinating however, was that the building was built over a hill top. Quite unusual for temples devoted to the goddess Durga. It is less crowded than most of the other temples I came across though. An interesting rule for this temple is that only women are allowed inside even though the priests are all male. The rule for veiling and being gagged is implemented here.

It is said that the inner sanctum of the temple which houses the idol of the Goddess exudes a special power. Unfortunately I had to content myself till the garba griha.

An hour or so was spent at the temple where Mira offered her prayers and gifts. We made our way down the steps of the temple till the road and prepared to drive to our next destination that would take us out of the city limits to the Koyna dam. The dam was built in 1950 by the federal government with Russian technical assistance. It is one of the very life sources of Punyanagari generating power and acting as a water reservoir for the city’s needs. The artificial lake created by it has since become a very popular picnic destination.

The hills around Punyanagari are truly scenic. The world class roads and highways constructed make for a very very pleasurable drive indeed. Other popular nearby destinations I am told are Panchgani hill resort and Mahabaleshwar. The latter is particularly famous for it’s strawberries. Along the way we decided to take a drive through Mahabaleshwar as well and savor the famous strawberries and scenery there. The detour was worth it! We eventually ate lunch at a quaint but cozy ‘parsi’ owned restaurant. A small but vibrant community of Zoroastrians are present in Western India which represent the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in the world. ‘parsi’ is the local word for Zoroastrian migrants from Persia.

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Hills of Panchgani

The hectic hustle and bustle of Punyanagari contrasts a lot with the areas surrounding it. Punyanagari is grey and black, but the hills around it are green and brown. The scenery is best around the late afternoons and twilight when the sun shines along the hills. We ended the drive back to Koyna lake and spending an hour or so there before we started the drive back to Punyanagari. The city presented itself in full glory as we drove along it’s brightly lit facade by the hills. While entering it we were greeted by bright street lighting and the overarching sight of the statues of great leaders throughout Maratha history. Mira was an excellent driver throughout this little escapade of our’s. However, driving for more than 8 hours through the day can be quite tiring.

With this drive back home my final day in Punyanagari ended. Tomorrow I will be catching the evening train to Jaipur which will take approximately 8 hours of travel time with two stops along the way in Baroda and Udaipur. Though air travel is relatively easy and cheap in the Maratha Empire, most still travel by trains as the more economical means of transportation. Most do not own cars or bikes in India so train travel as an alternative to flight is popular. Furthermore, I was advised to take the train for enjoying the famous scenery as part of the ‘Maratha Empire experience’ . Given what I’ve seen so far I’m sure I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Day 3:

The day started a little early, with Mira lovingly preparing breakfast for me. I must say I would quite miss this friendly hospitality when I leave. But since my train left quite late I decided it would be fit to make one last visit to a place of importance before I left Punyanagari. The museum of Punyanagari (also known as Kelkar museum after it’s founder Raja Dinkar Kelkar) is one of the largest museums in Asia and houses artifacts from all around the world and is one of the very few museums in the continent to contain an Egyptian mummy!

The morning was spent in a last minute packing and readying for my travel to Rajasthan, “the land of kings”. I spent the time left till the train’s arrival going through the museum and later enjoying lunch at a cozy Bengali restaurant.

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Museum of Punyanagari

The museum was fascinating and elegant. There was so much to learn about South Asian history right from pre-historic to ancient times. Buddhist relics, ancient Hindu relics and even some Islamic relics from the tumultuous Middle Ages were all to be seen. The international section too was enlightening containing artifacts, from the various provinces of the empire and beyond. The section of the modern history of the empire spanning from 1775 till 1920 was no less interesting. One can see through the rapid evolution of India from a region caught in chaos and war to a world power today. The people of India are particularly sensitive about this period which saw dramatic change in Indian society. Not the least the mass purges of Muslims from South Asia and the civil war. The souvenirs outside the museum along with informative booklets were good too.

The lunch at ‘O Calcutta’ was my first experience in Bengali cuisine. Though Mira is not a Bengali herself (she is Punjabi from her mother’s side and marathi from her father’s side) she loves Bengali cuisine. The taste was very different from the Punjabi food, and seemed to incorporate more twangy flavors. Of particular importance is mustard in Bengali cuisine and of course very central to Bengali food is fish. I’ll be travelling through the Bengal mandate later on my journey and I’m sure to enjoy many more delicacies along the way. Seeing the food here I’d be looking forward to trying out the ‘real deal’ when I go to Calcutta.

Me and Mira spent the last few hours in Punyanagari at the railway station in wait for my train. It is customary never to say farewells in India, we promised we will meet again in future. As I stepped into the train still veiled and gagged, I looked forward to more fascinating sights across the Maratha Empire. This time in the more exotic reaches of North and North Western India.

Follow me on as I travel to Rajasthan and the city of Delhi.

Back to Megan McCormick’s Veiled Journeys introduction…

Back to the Maratha Empire menu…

 

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