118 years of Trust


Saturday, November 28, 1998

This above all
regional vignettes



Shimla’s walking encyclopaedia

By Jyoti Mahajan

MIAN Govardhan Singh, the ‘walking encyclopaedia’ of Shimla, can be seen strolling on The Mall during the mornings. Usually found in the company of some young researcher eager to seek his guidance, he has devoted himself to the promotion of the rich cultural heritage of Himachal Pradesh.

Author of more than 14 books on Himachal’s history, art, architecture and cultural heritage, Mian Govardhan is not the typical academic. In fact, he is not an academic but a retired government servant. For some 30 years, Mianji held the charge of the library of the Himachal Pradesh Secretariat.

"My doors are always open", says the writer-scholar. Drop in at his house on any day and one is likely to find him in conversation with someone carrying out the research into the folklore, art, architecture of history of the hill state. The walls of his home are lined with hundreds of books in Punjabi, Hindi, Tankri, Urdu and English, many of which are rare and extremely valuable. One also finds masks in metal and wood adorning the walls. The collection of these old pieces of folk art is another of Mianji’s hobbies.

From being an avid reader, it was but a short hope to become a prolific writer as well. One of his earlier books, Art and Architecture of Himachal Pradesh won him Dr Yashwant Singh Award of Rs 10,000 for the promotion of art and culture of Himachal Pradesh in 1986. His latest book in Hindi — Himachal Ka Itihaas — traces the history of the region from the earliest times to the formation of the state of Himachal Pradesh. This book was written after 23 years of research work. This book will be the first of its kind as no other work on Himachal Pradesh has delved into so many centuries.

Mianji’s formal education was brief as life never accorded him the opportunity of amassing degrees..., but then degrees and the love of learning are two different things. Mianji is blessed with the latter. Sixty years ago, few would have predicted that this orphan from Jubbal would rise to enjoy so much respect and honour.

Mian Govardhan was brought up by his uncle after he lost his mother when he was two years old. He came to Shimla as a young student and has remained in the city since then. "The year 1947 has special significance for me", Mianji reminisces. "Of course, there was the thrill of gaining Independence but there was also the excitement of getting the opportunity to buy splendid books from the departing Britishers. They sold them at throwaway prices and I gained treasure after treasure."

Mianji still haunts the bookshops and kabari shops of the town for additions to his library. His friends tease him, saying that he has grown into a vast book himself. They call him ‘the walking encyclopaedia’.

Mianji recalls that it was a collection of biographies that put him on the road to becoming a writer. "I read about the lives of Napolean and Mahatma Gandhi but the life that inspired me most was that of Abraham Lincoln. I was so taken up with Lincoln that I wrote his biography in Hindi. That was in 1949 and it was my first book.

Mianji counts himself "especially blessed as I have been of service to so many scholars." And no doubt the scholars count themselves blessed to have met Mianji. He shows me a letter from the late Lady Penelope Chetwood (daughter of Field Marshal Sir Philip Chetwood and wife of Sir John Benjamin, Britain’s poet laureate) in which she describes him as "among the most competent and inspiring librarians not only in India but the world."

Mianji is also highly regarded for his work in building up the library of the secretariat. "Just after the reorganisation of Punjab in 1956, a terrible fire consumed the government’s old library. I had joined government service in 1954 and had already been assigned duty in the library. Though the fire was a tragic incident, it gave me an opportunity of beginning afresh." Mianji built the library into a vast repository of books. Scholars who carry out research into the Himalayan region head straight for his vast and comprehensive collection.

A golden leaf from Bhoja Prabandha
By Sansar Chandra

OUR ancient Indian history glitters with the most exciting accounts of some kings, who have been ardent lovers of art and literature. Some of them even wrote poetry and had carved out a place of distinction in this field. These celebrities include the most illustrious king, Bhoja or Bhojaraj, who is believed to have flourished during the 10th century A.D. Although history does not throw much light on the life and achievements of this scholastic king, a book entitled Bhoja Prabandha, most probably as old as King Bhoja, is an impressive narration of some of his qualities of head and heart. He was so deeply dedicated to the cause of literature that writing of poetry had become a mass movement during his tenure as a king.

Poetry was not only a cup of tea of the elite, civilised or cultured gentry among his subjects, even people in the street could claim equal mastery over this divine art. Bhoja Prabandha contains volumes about the wit, wisdom and acumen of the common man of his times. A story of a woodcutter is a living example of the fact that even the labourers or people living below the poverty line, besides being learned, had a great command over poetry.

Once Bhoja, while taking a stroll in the suburbs of his kingdom, saw a woodcutter coming from the opposite direction. The bundle of the wood on his head was so heavy that he was puffing and sweating profusely. The king, a tender-hearted soul, took pity on him and said:

"Don’t you feel pestered by the weight you are burdened with?" Since the spoken language of the people during those days was Sanskrit, and what the king had said was not all correct, the woodcutter retorted: "The weight does not torment me so fiercely as the wrong use of the expression communicated by you."

Equally interesting is the episode of a thief, who managed to sneak into the bedroom of the king at the dead of night to make his fortune by stealing gold which lay hid somewhere around his bed. The thief felt miserable to find that the king was still awake and was busy composing a couplet. The king had completed three stanzas and was racking his brain to frame the last one.

The theme of this poetical exercise was that he was lucky enough to have the most charming queens, loving friends, palatial buildings, fantastic orchards, elephants, horses, enormous wealth and what not. During the process, when the king was repeating his already composed three stanzas again and again, the thief, who was also a poet, forgot about his mission and starting composing the remaining part of the verse. Luckily, an idea struck him and he was able to connect the missing link. It was a matter of great excitement for him and he forgot that he had come to commit a theft and could be caught red-handed. He said: "When you depart from the world, all that you boast of now will, oh king, vanish like the morning dew."

The strange incident was a blessing in disguise for both the king and the thief. The former was saved from being robbed, and the latter escaped imprisonment because of his performance as a poet. The thief also took a vow not to indulge in any sinful act like this and live as a good citizen for the rest of his life.

Equally thought-provoking is the episode of another contemporary peot — Vilochana Pandit — who visited the court of the king and presented an interesting verse in his honour.

On seeing King Bhoja giving in charity a herd of elephants, Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort, had to provide foolproof security to her elephant-faced son, Ganesha.

The king was deeply impressed by the poetic excellence of the visiting intellectual and became eager to have a greater interaction with him. He invited him to participate in a quiz test and put forth a problem:

The learned visitor accepted the challenge and he came out with the following three verses as sequels to the enigma propounded by the king:

Ditcher is the birthplace, deers are the retinue, bark of trees the only dress, forest as the sole abode, the food that suffices up to kandmool-wild food only, Sage Agastya was able to store the mighty ocean in the cavity of his lotus-like palm. This testifies to prove that the success of great men is the offshoot of their potential and is not due to the subsidiaries they hold on.

Riding a single-wheeled chariot, all the seven horses of which stand grappled with snakes, the path being groundless and the charioteer the lame one, the sun crosses the vast expanse of the sky every day. It, therefore, bears out that the success of great men is subject to their potential and not to their material they carry along.

To be subjugated is Lanka, to be crossed is the ocean, and that too by foot only, adversary, the mighty Ravana, allies the poor monkeys, He (Rama) a mere pedestrian and a moral (not a demon) succeeded to finish the entire pedigree of demons which substantiates that the triumph of great men is the gift of their potential and is not the fruit of the means made use by them.

It was a pleasant surprise for the king to have met such a sharp-witted erudite scholar. So spontaneous was his reaction that he was quick to grant him the title of poet-laureate, and honour him with many precious and heart-warming presents.

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