The story regarding banning of puja inside the Sohra cave remained in the public domain for a very brief period and slipped out of public memory without any hue and cry. But the pertinent question is, can we conclude that all is well that ends in silence and is there nothing more in an issue just because people make no fuss about it? Can we assume that silence is an indication of consent and that silence in itself is not a protest per se? From media report it was mentioned that the ban was necessary because those who come to offer puja create nuisance in the tourist spot by leaving offerings unattended. Now if the issue at hand is ‘managing’ the waste from the puja offerings inside the cave, then is banning they puja itself the only remaining option? Or is a ban legitimate in this case?
The problem needs to be examined in its right perspective since it also involves a section of the citizen’s right to worship. Can any authority be it the dorbar shnong, the traditional institutions or even the District Councils prohibit anybody from worshiping? Isn’t the right to freedom of religion a constitutional right in the East Khasi Hills anymore? Or are the traditional institutions and the District Council becoming extra constitutional body that they can do away even with the fundamental rights of the citizen as guaranteed by the Constitution? One must appreciate the magnanimity of the leaders of the Shillong Puja Committee or the Hindu community of the state in general for not contesting this decision in the right forum. Even a layman like me understands that there is merit to the case if the people affected by the decision take recourse to the law of the land.
If the issue (as it appear in the press) is simply a problem of proper waste disposal, the dorbar shnong, the department of Tourism or the District Council can surely find a way out of this mess if they all put their heads together. The people of Sohra know very well that if they want tourists to visit the area then garbage will follow suit hence what Sohra and other tourist spots in the State need most is a proper and functional garbage management system. Litter and tourism are bed-fellows; one cannot exist without the other; hence the issue is not to ban worship as such but to manage the garbage that tourists generate. This is the correct and the right way of looking at the problem.
Surely there is something more than what meets the eye on this issue, but even if we take the problem at its face value and agree that waste is the point of contention, finding the solution to dispose the waste will be a far more gainful and viable alternative for the people and the state than imposing a total ban on the puja. For one, if we want to attract tourists to Sohra in general and the cave in particular, we need to be more open and recognize the fact that not all visitors visit the cave just for the fun of it. Certain sections of tourists also visit the cave to worship the natural formation inside the cave. Tourist operators will correct me if I am wrong in concluding that a large numbers of tourists that the state attracts are domestic tourists and most of those visiting Sohra are religious tourists.
Religious tourism is the oldest form of tourism. Buddha and his followers were religious tourists, so was Jesus and others; they visited places to preach their new religion. Then the next type of religious tourists are the pilgrims visiting the holy land of their faith; Buddhists to the birth place of Lord Buddha, the Hindus to many places in India, the Christians and the Jews to Jerusalem and Muslims to Mecca. How many Christian from Meghalaya have visited Israel and Jerusalem? Will Jerusalem be a popular destination for the Christians if the place finds no mention in the Bible?
In Meghalaya, perhaps the first tourists to the hills are the sadhus or the hermit who came to worship the formation in the various caves since time immemorial. In Syndai village of Jaintia Hills, adjacent to the cave, there is a ruined temple and very close to the cave there is also a sculpture of Ganesha on a loose rock which as legends have it was carved by one of the sadhus who worshiped in the cave a long time ago. Around the cave there are many portraits of elephants sculpted in various forms, shapes and sizes and the Rupasor bathing pool itself was carved on a huge rock with many images of elephants sculpted on the rock.
My worst fear is the fact that the issue gained importance not because of any other reason but because the people affected by the ban are the Hindus, the “dkhars,” whom we still consider as non-natives and hence assume that they have limited rights in the state. Here again it is obvious that we have not been able to inculcate the tourism culture among ourselves. Tourism culture requires that we treat a tourist with respect because he is our guest. We also forget the truth that there are Pnar Hindus too in Nartiang and they too worship Durga and Shiva and as a matter of fact there are two temples in Nartiang, the Durga temple which is the oldest temple in the state and the most popular destination for the worshipers and the other is Shiva’s temple adjacent to the Durga temple. In fact I was hoping that the tourism department would take due consideration of the heritage temple and promote religious tourism in Nartiang, but with the kind of attitude that we have towards other religions, I doubt if the idea will find any takers.
The issue is our attitude towards the Hindus, the ‘Dkhar’ rather than protecting and preserving the caves which are our heritage. In short the puja-ban-episode is a clear indication of our intolerance towards other religions. This is also a result of our holier than thou attitude towards religions other than our own. I can’t help but imagine what would happen if a bird is found to mysteriously land on the stalagmite in the cave like it happened five years ago, or a cross mysteriously formed in certain caves and pilgrims throng the cave to the extent that it can adversely affect the fragile environment inside it. Will there be any protest or call to stop the foot fall?
This is the problem with the indigenous people of the state; they are up in arms against those who worship in the cave, worshipers who would only wish to preserve and protect the formation in the cave for posterity to enable them to worship it for eternity. The same group of protestors have done nothing to protect the caves from the greedy mine owners. The cement companies came in hordes to destroy every cave we have in the state with all the formation inside them but the same pressure group/groups have done nothing against those who are all out to destroy the caves. The puja-ban inside the cave is not only illegal but it is also going to hurt the flow of tourists to the state because numbers of pilgrims visiting the state will start falling. Hence there is an immediate need to take a fresh look at the issue and find a noble solution to the problem.
(The writer is a researcher and social thinker)