Reimagined by Amish Tripathi, Shiva is an immigrant. He is used to long journeys. He is also used to the idea that travel can change lives. There is no irreverence in Amish’s adaptation. When National Geographic Traveller India visited him in his office, it soon became clear that the writer was first a believer. His faith, though, still allowed him to think atheists too can be pilgrims. Amish can cry in Banaras. Chasing Shiva, he also desperately wants to see Mount Kailash. The author of the Shiva trilogy told us, “As a traveller, Shiva can live in a bubble, but he can also be completely immersed.” Amish, for his part, remains more engaged than reclusive. He likes listening to the tales locals tell, and culture, he argues, is but a collection of stories we all believe in. Without travel, Amish wouldn’t have his backdrop.
You’ve said you visit a Shiva temple every Monday morning, so what does ‘pilgrimage’ mean to you?
The English language has some limitations, so I’d like to use the Sanskrit word for pilgrimage—tirtha. The meanings of Sanskrit words all evolve from a root of sorts. The word tirtha, for instance, means ‘the point of crossing over’. It’s a place which has been deemed holy by the devotion of the pilgrims who go there, and so it becomes a place where you can cross over to meet the divine, where you can touch and feel it. Hinduism is not a congregational religion. Hindus are not duty-bound to gather and pray. That’s not how pilgrimage is defined in Indian mythology. Ours is an individual journey. New places, as a result, can emerge as tirthasthans. In the end, what makes a place holy? Our devotion makes it holy. God exists within us. Much of this, I admit, has been forgotten, and a lot of this perhaps needs to be revived.
Even though there are so many tirthasthans, devotees do have favourites. Which one is yours?
Banaras and more specifically, two places within Banaras, namely the Kashi Vishwanath and Sankat Mochan Temples. The first is dedicated to Shiva and the latter to Hanuman. The first time I had been to Banaras, my parents had taken me to see the morning aarti at Sankat Mochan Temple. I got very emotional, and I don’t know why, but I remember I had started to cry. The decision isn’t intellectual. You instinctively decide that this is the place for you. One place I really want to go to is Kailash Mansarovar. I’m hoping to go next year, and I think that might be the highlight of my life. Physically, it’s a fascinating place. Kailash Mansarovar has a lake next to it—Lake Mansarovar. It is full of life, and very close by there is Lake Rakshastal, where there is absolutely nothing, and they are both right next to each other. It is from the radius of Mount Kailash that most of Asia’s rivers emerge. The rivers are together the source of life for over two billion people, so Mount Kailash is a special place.
Tell us about Shiva, the traveller. What were his quirks?
The thing that most of us Shaivites like about Shiva is his contradiction. These contradictions even manifest in the way he travels and sees the world. He becomes one amongst the people. Of the Holy Trinity—Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva—Shiva is the only one who is said to live on earth, on Mount Kailash. Across the Indian subcontinent, you’ll find stories that talk about Shiva’s arrival. In Kerala, you’ll hear stories about how he appeared as a fisherman. At some points, though, he is detached, more intent on his meditation. As a traveller, he can live in a bubble, but he can also be completely immersed.
India’s geography itself is sacred. If you go to Baanganga, they’ll tell you that Lord Rama had shot an arrow here to make the Ganga appear. How do these stories impact travel?
For me, these stories are very important. Whenever I travel with my family or by myself, what I always try and do is travel like the locals. I try and eat local food. I meet the locals, listen to their music and hear their stories. What really is culture? Culture is a collection of stories we all believe in. So, it’s only when you listen to the local stories of a place, do you truly come to understand its culture.
Do you think one needs to be a believer to be a pilgrim?
No, and I say this because in the Indian way there is nothing wrong with being an atheist. Faith is not at the heart of what I have called the Indian way. At its heart is the belief in cause and effect, the belief in karma, dharma and reincarnation. The word ‘dharma’ is often wrongly translated as religion. The root of ‘dharma’ is dhru, that which binds, that which brings balance. Karma is of course our action in relation to others. Some schools of our philosophy were made up of believers, some of atheists or non-believers.
When you moved from being a banker to an author, did travel change for you?
I have always liked visiting places of historical interest. The only difference now is that I perhaps travel a little more comfortably, but the approach is still the same. I don’t want to travel in a bubble where I remain alien to the local culture of a place I visit.
Your books take us to ancient worlds, worlds that are perhaps too old to exist. Where do you travel for inspiration? Meluha, you’ve once said, has the same grid as Hampi.
When I’m reading or travelling, I have no idea how or in what shape will that text or place show up in my writing. It’s quite simply a hunger for knowledge. My task is to gather as much as I can. I work with a rough rule of thumb. For every page I write, I should read at least a hundred pages, and I should travel with enough knowledge equivalent to those many pages. You never know where knowledge can be of use. Some seven years ago before The Secret of the Nagas, I had visited the Corinthian islands in Greece. While describing the gates of Branga in my book, what I had seen in Greece became my inspiration. Hampi, for instance, I’d travelled to in 2002-2003. It’s such a stunning place, and it remained in my mind.
You’re also well positioned to giving us a dummies guide to surviving leopards, I believe.
Theoretically, I like nature. I’m a big fan of clean rivers, but I’m not the kind of guy who likes to go into the jungle where anything can happen. My son, however, loves animals, and it’s because of him that we started going on safaris. We went on this safari in Kenya, and had hired a vehicle to take us around during the eight days of our trip. On our last day in Masai Mara, we were driving around in the morning, and there was this family of leopards. The mother climbed up on our jeep, and the driver explained that she just wanted a vantage point to hunt. Neel, our real wildlife aficionado, was hiding behind his mother. It’s only when the cubs decided to climb on, did our driver say it is time to leave. That was a bit crazy.
I know you subscribe to the Dalai Lama’s view that you should travel to at least one new place a year to make life more exciting. What was that one place you travelled to in 2017?
I went to Cambodia and I loved it.
Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.