Hon-Ming Lam: The Scenic River Landscape
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
Journey to India
English Translation of Professor Hon-Ming Lam’s Article on 5 March 2014. The original Traditional Chinese version is posted on Facebook.
Long rivers and wide courses have nurtured life and civilization; history and culture are often built on the riverbank.
The three of us (Editor’s note: including then-postdoc Nacira Muñoz, who would later serve as a Professor at Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and informal tour guide of Professor Lam’s third visit to Argentina, along with Professor Lam’s friend Juan) set off from Indore for a three-hour car trip to the ancient city of Maheshwar on the Narmada riverbank. This was the capital of the Indian Queen Ahilya Bai Holkar, so talented and adored by her people. She became queen after her husband perished in battle and her father passed away, and led the army to ward off attacks from intruders. The queen reversed policies that had been exploiting her people and allowed widows to receive their inheritances and adopt children. Apart from that, she loved architecture and built many famous temples. The Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar is built on the edge of a cliff; the 18th-century castle, named after the queen was also where she once lived. As times have changed, so has the castle become a tourist attraction and hotel.
The home of the queen is near the entrance to the castle; its simplicity and elegance, stripped of the extravagance of a palace, makes it impossible to relate that the all-powerful queen once lived there. The dwelling is now where locals place their offerings to this deity, and it is open for visitors to pay tribute to the past.
Inside the Ahilya Fort, the ancient structures seem to be slightly weathered and aged by time: the domes are covered by the sediment of soot and fresh weeds poked their heads out of the cracks between bricks and stones. These towers, connected by corridors and staircases, crisscross serene gardens. A closer inspection reveals delicate carvings and etchings on both the facades and interiors, providing a glimpse into the past, the era of glory and exquisite craftsmanship. Hidden balconies act like giant windows for visitors to look over the beautiful Narmada, the third-longest river in India.
Walking down the steps from the Ahilya Fort, we approach the Narmada, basking in its full glory. The straight course extends towards the left and right, disappearing in the hazy horizon. Across the wide river, green plains and forests abound, while our side of the riverbank is built with stone blocks, with staircases every few dozen meters leading to the water.
The river is the center of the lives of the locals; apart from some tourist-oriented sightseeing boats and refreshment stands, nothing much is built for visitors. Men and children bath and swim in it, while women wash their clothes by the river. On the riverbank, people are cooking and getting haircuts at their own leisure. There are also some seniors chatting in groups, enjoying their friendship and time together. Occasionally a wrinkled old person would gaze at the water with forlorn eyes, seemingly searching for what has been lost. Unlike other commercialized attractions, the locals’ lives go on simply and frugally as usual, definitely not a show for tourists
Basking in the warm glow of the sun we wander around the riverbank, greeting locals with simple English. They are nice people, not having a problem with me taking pictures around, also eager to take photos with us. Suddenly we notice a beautiful young lady by the riverfront, about the same age as my daughter. She raises a silver jar filled with water and then slowly drains it into the stream, as if praying to the deities, singing songs of praise for the exuberant youth. Juan and I immediately picked up our cameras to capture this moving scene; the girl turned and smiled at us as soon as she realized we were taking pictures of her, her youthfulness flowing in the wind.
However, there was one regrettable exchange. A lady begged us twice to buy the dollar plant in her hands (Editor’s note: One Hong Kong Dollar converts to approximately 0.13 US Dollars); twice we refused. At that time we had the advice of our friends in our minds: never casually give money to the poor in India, or you’ll get in endless trouble. Besides, we couldn’t take the plant away with us. After the lady left, I regretted how I set those interpersonal barriers: I could buy the plant and give it to the old people on the riverfront. Wouldn’t that kill two birds with one stone? By the time I had gone back to look for the lady, she was nowhere to be found. I guess she might be a local deity testing the kindness and generosity of three foreigners.
In fact, money does not have the most significance to the people here. I sincerely pray for them in my heart, that they could continue to embrace this beautiful river and the tranquility it carries.