I was walking down a road in a district in northern Bangladesh one late afternoon in early autumn this year. Very few people were about, just two persons immediately ahead of me, and we all strolled along at a leisurely pace. The road was approximately three meters wide, and the other side was also cheated of sporting a deserted appearance by a handful of pedestrians. At one point, a group of four hove into view from that side, and as they came almost parallel to me, I looked across at them. Three were having too much of an animated conversation among themselves to bother looking away from each other, but one, lagging just a foot behind them, was looking in my direction. The others, and indeed, those who were about, were in trousers or pajamas, but he was in a white dhoti and yellowish punjabi. That dhoti arrested my attention. Hardly anyone of the Hindu faith wears one in public these days, for whatever reason(s). Yet, even three or so decades back, it was quite a common sight in this country, and even more so before that.
While the thought about the dhoti held my initial attention, it was soon replaced by the gaze of that man who had the appearance of an emblematic Bengali schoolteacher. That look was intense, or so I imagined, from behind black-rimmed glasses. But something else was bothering me, and as the group passed me by, I realized what it was. "I've seen that face before," flashed across my mind. I did, just yesterday afternoon, only that it was not quite like that. I quickly turned around to look at the receding group. There were just three. I was not hallucinating. There were the three, still engaged in animated conversation, but the dhoti-clad schoolmaster-type was not with them. I looked back towards my direction, and only saw three or four people ambling along. No schoolteacher-type there. Yet, hardly fifteen to twenty seconds had elapsed between the time I saw him gazing in my direction and my turning around to look at the group going away from me. He seems to have vanished into the clichéd thin air! I stopped and thought for a few moments. Then I believed I had an answer, and it had its antecedent in my visit the previous afternoon to the ashram.
The ashram. I had heard about it, and requested a local friend to take me there. Only a short walking distance from my friend's place, we reached the place in early afternoon. The monastery was meant primarily for Hindu sadhus and devotees, but visitors professing other faiths were not barred from entering the compound. I had already heard a few grim stories in connection with the place, which made me want to visit it. As soon as I entered through the large outer gate, I was immediately struck by the silence hanging over and around the place, of an air of peace and tranquility surrounding it and, then, once I had taken in the surroundings, of its cleanliness, and of the garden a little bit away to my left, although half of it was hidden from view by the outer building. That structure enveloped the ashram proper, the oldest part of the complex, the place where the sadhus held their rituals. One of these, as I heard from my friend, was to have a sadhu buried up to his neck in a deep hole dug in the floor of the ashram and then cover the head for a short while with a large earthen bowl. The domed construction was always lifted before the sadhu suffocated to death. One can only imagine the tremendous willpower that the sadhu had to generate in order to come out of such a terrifying ordeal, and to consequently develop the faculty of having control of the mind over matter.
I saw the place, surrounded by iron bars, from the outside, and noted the fresh branches of multi-coloured leaves and flowers, undoubtedly gathered from the well-cared-for large garden full of indigenous plants and trees. But I took in all of that later, after having a singular experience at the large building that anyone entering the inner compound would first face. The structure was relatively new with a long wide built-up verandah jutting out from the two-story building surrounded by large trees. The verandah was covered by mosaic tiles, and was obviously meticulously maintained as the highly polished surface eloquently testified. The first person we encountered was a man cutting the grass of the adjoining spacious lawn. After a brief greeting we went up to the verandah, which appeared to be some 30 meters in length and 10 in width, and stood near, but away from, it. I saw the statue placed on the right side of the verandah as I stood facing it, but still at some distance away from me. I was staring at it until I was distracted by a dark brown robe-clad sadhu coming out from the left corner side (from my viewpoint) of the two-story building, and walking briskly a few paces until he came parallel to the statue. He then turned towards it, and prostrated himself before what turned out to be the statue's full profile, appeared to say some words (almost certainly, prayers), stood up, and walked towards us.
He was youngish, a bit plump, with a shaven head that was already sprouting a few days' growth of hair. He had patterns of sandalwood paste marking his face, his robe had saffron-coloured borders, and he greeted us before going on his way. I turned back to look at the statue. It looked so real --- in the sense of a living man sitting on a chair, with hands clasped together in a gesture of supplication. It was the figure of an elderly man, who was dressed up in the same coloured dress as the young sadhu who had just prostrated himself towards it. The hands were covered in what appeared to be white stockings. The figure was spare, and matched the angular thinness of the face. That face! It looked like that of a living man! It was bony, dark brown in colour, with a head of dark hair neatly parted on one side and carefully combed. Or, so it appeared from a distance. The hair appeared real, and the entire figure not the creation of some skilled sculptor.
The eyes were framed by a pair of black-rimmed glasses, and gave the figure a studious look, more of a schoolteacher than a sadhu. The most arresting feature of that whole body was the area around the eyes and cheeks. They were covered with wrinkles, those which appear and gain prominence with old age. They were so lifelike that I blurted out to my friend: "This is no statue. I think it's a man's mummified figure!"
"No, it is a wooden sculpture of the senior-most sadhu who was killed by the Pakistan army in 1971."
Maybe, but I was not at all convinced that it was a wooden sculpture. Not even Michelangelo could have carved out the details as fine and as well as those on the face, I thought. How I wished I could have gone right up to it, examined it minutely, and even touched it. None of these wishes could be fulfilled, I held back from looking for the young sadhu and telling him my own feelings, and left the premises.
The visit stayed on my mind, until it was temporarily banished by a call from another friend to have afternoon tea led me to hit the road where I was subjected to an intense scrutiny by a man who was supposed to be a wood carving in a tranquil ashram. That evening I related the entire incident to a group of elderly relatives of my friend, not forgetting to mention that I strongly believed that the figure in the ashram was actually the skeleton of the man fitted with his own skin and appropriately bolstered inside with rubber fillings. The black-rimmed glasses were added to portray the man as he was in life.
"it certainly is no wooden sculpture," I defiantly blurted out.
"It isn't," an elderly lady quietly asserted.
"It's a mummy," a man of advanced years enlightened.
I was elated. And got the story from that collective group.
The figure was the head sadhu of the ashram. He held a Master's degree and used to read a lot. He was reputed to be a profound scholar on various subjects. In conjunction with a serious demeanour and black-rimmed glasses, and a spare frame, that would explain his stereotypical appearance to be that of a pedant, I thought. The ashram thrived under his guidance, with numerous sadhus making full use of its facilities in their quest to find inner peace and harmony. Then 1971 visited the ashram, and the old order was given a rude awakening. The Pakistan army found its way inside the premises, and, in a cruel twist of irony, subjected the sadhus to the same rigorous test of being buried up to their necks and having large earthen bowls placed over their heads until the time came to remove them. Only this time, the army kept the bowls on, until all the sadhus died of suffocation. Including the scholarly schoolteacher-looking bespectacled head sadhu. Now I could understand the fresh leafy branches and flowers being placed on the hole from which protruded the sadhus' necks.
The dead bodies were all dumped in a nearby well, to be dug up after Bangladesh's liberation. Almost all had turned into skeletons, while a very small number were a few days away from getting there. And, then, there was one. Miraculously, the body of the head sadhu had survived intact, with not a hint of decomposition. Later on, his body was treated by other sadhus, and essentially turned into a mummy, which is usually kept inside the two-story building. It is brought out occasionally to the place where I saw him. I guess it was my lucky day! Body preservation is as old as recorded history. The Egyptian mummies are well known. We also know about the preserved bodies of Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin, achieved courtesy of modern science.
However, natural mummification is also known. Preserved bodies of dead sailors in the polar regions, the celebrated Ice Man of the Alps, preserved bodies found in pit bogs, bodies of fallen warriors in desert sands, and the body of St. Francis Xavier, who died in China over four hundred and fifty years back and is still in a state of fine preservation in Goa, India, are some examples of the phenomenon of natural preservation. Explanations abound regarding the reasons for their preservation, from the purely scientific to the purely spiritual. I am not going to go into any of that. I only know that the elderly sadhu has been preserved in death for some to worship, and others to see and marvel. What I have not been able to fathom is why his shade chose to manifest itself to me that afternoon. I stayed for a few more days at my friend's place, but did not see him again.
Shahid Alam is an actor and educationist