BAULS - GYPSY SINGERS OF BENGAL - 4
The songs all drew on the world of the Bengali village, and contained parables that any villager could understand: the body, sang Paban, is like a pot of clay; the human soul the water of love. Inner knowledge fires the pot and bakes the clay, for an unfired pot cannot contain water. Other songs were sprinkled with readily comprehensible images of boats and nets, rice fields, fish ponds and the village shop:
Cut the rice stalks,
O rice-growing brother.
Cut them in a bunch
Before they begin to smell
Rotten like your body
Without a living heart.
Sell your good, my store-keeping brother,
While the market is brisk,
When the sun fades
And your customers depart,
Your store is a lonely place
Later, towards midnight, Paban, Bhaskar and the other Bauls went out to hear a rival Baul singer perform in the Kenduli marketplace, leaving Kanai on his own, sitting cross-legged on the rug, singing softly to himself. I sat beside him and we chatted late into the night about his childhood.
"Initially, I joined the Bauls because it seemed the only way I could make a livelihood," he said. "A blind man cannot be a farmer, but he can be a singer. My guru soon taught me that there are much more important things than getting by, or making money, or material pleasures. I am still very poor but, thanks to the lessons of my guru, my soul is rich. He taught me to seek God and inspire our people to seek God, too."
"Is it a good life?" I asked.
"It is the best life," he replied without hesitation. "The entire world is my home. We walk anywhere and are welcome anywhere. When you walk, you are freed from the worries of ordinary life, from the imprisonment of being rooted in the same place."
"But don't you miss your home? Don't you tire of the road?"
"When you first become a Baul, you have to leave your family, and for 12 years you must wander in strange countries where you have no relatives," said Kanai. "There is a saying, 'No Baul should live under the same tree for more than three days.' At first, you feel alone, isorientated. But people are always pleased to see the Bauls - when the villagers see our coloured robes, they shout, 'Look, the madmen are coming! Now we can take the day off and have some fun!' Wherever we go, the people stop what they are doing and come and listen to us. They bring fish from the fish ponds and cook some rice and dal for us, and while they do that we sing and teach them. We try to give back some of the love we receive, to reconcile people, and to offer them peace and solace. We try to help them with their difficulties and to show them the path to ecstasy."
"How do you do that?" I asked.
"By our songs," he said. "For us Bauls, our songs are a source of both love and knowledge. We tease the rich and the arrogant, and make digs at the hypocrisy of the Brahmins. We sing against caste and against injustice. We tell the people that God is not in the temple or in the Himalayas, nor in the skies, on the earth or in the air. Nowhere else can God be found but in the heart of the seeker of truth. If God resides in the heart, why go to the mosque or the temple? To me, a temple or a shrine has little value - it is just a way for the priests to make money and mislead people. The body is the true temple, the true mosque, the true church."
"In what way?"
"We believe that the way to God lies not in rituals but in living a simple life, walking the country on foot and doing what your guru says. The joy of walking on foot on unknown roads brings you closer to God. You learn to recognise that the divine is everywhere - in plants and animals and the rocks. You learn also that music and dance is a way of meeting God. God is the purest form of joy - complete joy."
Kanai shook his long grey locks. "There is no jealousy in this life," he added. "No Brahmin or Sudra, no Hindu or Muslim. Wherever I am, that is my home."
For five days, I followed Paban and Kanai around. All over the huge campsite, at all hours of the day and night, groups of musicians were breaking into song. Sometimes, this was part of a formal concert - the Bengali government had put up a small stage in honour of Kenduli's celebrated poet, Joydev, the 12th-century author of the great poem on the loves of Krishna, the Gita Govinda, and each night different Baul groups competed to sing their versions of the poem. But usually the music was spontaneous, as groups of Bauls began jamming around a campfire and were soon joined by old friends not seen since the last festival, or others who happened to turn up.
The Bauls were always happy to talk about their songs and their beliefs, but I soon discovered that there is a side to them about which they are much more cagey. For though they do not discuss it in public, there is an entire body of esoteric wisdom that the Bauls practise, and which they have preserved from the late medieval period, when Buddhist Tantra was the dominant faith in Bengal. At the heart of this lies a body of Tantric sexual wisdom that each guru teaches to his pupils when they are ready.
At the root of Tantra - as at the heart of the Bauls' faith - lies the idea of reaching God through opposing convention. Whereas caste Hindus believe that purity and good living are safeguarded by avoiding meat and alcoholic drink, by keeping away from unclean places such as cremation grounds and by avoiding polluting substances such as bodily fluids, Tantrics and Bauls believe that one path to salvation lies in inverting these strictures.
In this, they take their lead from Tara and the other great Tantric goddesses: dark-skinned, untamable divinities, attended by jackals, furies and ghosts; goddesses who cut off their own heads, who are offered blood sacrifices by their devotees, and who prefer to have sex with corpses, straddling them on a burning cremation pyre. Such goddesses - embodying all that would normally be considered outrageous or even repulsive - are antimodels, challenging comforting ideas about how the world should be ordered, and violating approved social values. "Going up the down-current," as one Baul put it to me.
The folk Tantric practices of the Bauls (called sadhana) are closely guarded secrets, but they embrace elaborate, ritualised sex - sometimes with menstruating women, and occasionally combined with the ingestion of a drink compounded of semen, blood and bodily fluids - so making as firm a statement as possible about flouting established norms and taboos.
Kanai talked briefly to me about the Bauls' sexual yoga, explaining it as a way of awakening latent energies from the base of your body and bringing them to the fore. According to Bhaskar, who has researched the customs of the Bauls as deeply as anyone, they use the sexual urge - the most powerful emotional force in the human body - as a way of reaching the divine: "They use it as a sort of booster rocket," he said. "Just as a rocket uses huge amounts of energy to blast out of the field of gravity, so the Bauls use their Tantric sexual yoga as a powerhouse to drive the mind out of the gravity of everyday life, to make sex not so much enjoyable as something approaching a divine experience. Yet the sex is useless if it is not performed with love, and even then sex is just the beginning of a long journey. It's how you learn to use it, how you learn to control it and channel it, that is the real art."
For the Bauls, such sexual exotica are part of a wider set of yogic practices that aim to make the body supple and coordinated with itself, using the mastery of breathing, meditation and exercises as a way of taming energies and drives. "For the Bauls, the body is the chariot that can take you up into the sky, towards the sun,"as Bhaskar put it.
All this, however, is no more important in the daily lives of Bauls than the ordinary business of living simply and passing on the wisdom of the Baul gurus through song and dance. This was brought home to me very clearly on the last day of the Kenduli festival, when I went for a walk through the Baul encampment as the festival-goers were beginning to strike their tents and head off back on the road. Everywhere, canvas awnings were folded up and loaded on to bullock carts. Only two old people seemed to be sitting still. Near the Kenduli cremation ground, I came across a Baul couple I had met previously with Paban and Kanai. Both were sitting cross-legged on the projecting ledge of a small roadside temple. Subhol Kapa and his wife Lalita were old, but they were still singing the Baul songs to anyone who stopped to listen to them.
"I am 83," said Subhol, "and Lalita is 70. Our age prevents us walking the roads like we used to do. But we can still dance and sing, and listen to the other Bauls. Lalita is a brilliant singer - much better than I. These days, I am so sick, but when I sing or listen to Lalita, it makes me forget my illness."
"It's true," said Lalita. "When I sing, I forget everything else. Often I don't sing for anyone, just for myself, for my soul. I could not live without this life. I need to dance and to sing. I feel ecstatic when I sing. It is enough for me. I need nothing else."
"Song helps you transcend the material life," said Subhol. "It takes you to a different spiritual level."
"When a Baul starts to sing, he gets so carried away he starts dancing," said Lalita. "The happiness and joy that comes with the music helps you find God inside yourself."
"The songs of the Bauls are my companions in my old age," said Subhol. "We sing together, or with other Bauls like Paban and Kanai if they come here. But when I am alone, I take up my dubki and sing to myself to keep myself company."
"Did you both used to wander the roads together?" I asked.
"We used to be ordinary householders," said Lalita. "Only after I had finished rearing my four sons did we become Bauls together - some 25 to 30 years back."
"Even before then, we used to sing," said Subhol, "but after we became Bauls, we were welcomed everywhere with love and warmth and respect. It has made our life complete."
"For 18 years we walked the roads of this country," said Lalita, "until we were too old to walk any more. This temple was my guru's ashram. Now we cannot wander, we live here following the Baul way, protecting our body and keeping our hearts alive."
"But I thought Bauls didn't believe in temples?"
"This temple is just to attract people," said Subhol. "For me, it is just a building - it has nothing to do with God. But people come here and tell us about their problems, and we can give them solutions."
"God resides in everything," said Lalita. "In plants, in animals. You have to learn to recognise God everywhere. Only then can you become a true searcher. We have a song about this. You would like to hear it?"
"Very much," I said.
They went into a room to one side of the shrine and returned a few minutes later, Lalita with a harmonium and Subhol an ektara. Lalita squatted in front of the harmonium and Subhol plucked a few notes on the ektara, then began to sing. Before long, he was rocking backwards and forwards, hopping from one leg to the other, totally carried away by the beauty of the music he was singing. When they had finished, they sat together, looking out in silence over the river. It was getting late, and the sun was setting over the Ajoy - the time Bengalis call go dhuli bhela, or cow dust time.
"When I hear this music," said Lalita, breaking the silence after a few minutes, "I don't care if I die tomorrow. It makes everything in life seem sweet."
"It's true," said Subhol. "Thanks to this music, we live out our old age in peace. It makes us so happy, we don't remember what sadness is."
· William Dalrymple's book, White Mughals: Love And Betrayal In Eighteenth-Century India, recently won the Wolfson History Prize (see williamdalrymple.com).