Vol 7: Chapter 18: Mysterious Antiques

| October 6 – 10, 2006 |


As autumn descended on Europe, I started thinking of my yearly pilgrimage to India. Going to India is more of a necessity than a luxury for one in the renounced order of life. To do his service well, a sannyasi must remain always pure in heart, and there is no better means of purifying the heart and building one’s spiritual strength than spending the auspicious month of Kartika in the holy land of Vrindavan.

I had been busy preaching throughout the summer, so I had forgotten to make a reservation to India. When I finally called my travel agent, he said the only seat left was on October 6, a few days before Kartika began. I immediately reserved it.

Later in the day, I telephoned my disciple Dhruva das to ask about the possibility of visiting another holy place in India before our scheduled Vrindavan parikramas in Kartika. We talked about Haridwar, Tirupati, and Udupi. Then suddenly I had an inspiration.

“Let’s go to Bangladesh,” I said, “and visit the great saint Narottam das Thakur’s birthplace in Keturi. I can’t forget the wonderful spiritual experience I had when I visited there two years ago with Radhanath Swami.”

Dhruva agreed. Several days later I took my flight to Delhi and met Dhruva there. The next day, we went to the Bangladesh Embassy to get our visas. We arrived early to avoid long lines, but we could have arrived hours later, as there wasn’t a single other person applying for a visa. In fact, when we walked into the visa sector of the embassy, the man behind the counter was fast asleep.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “We’d like to apply for visas.” He woke up with a start. “What?” he said. “Visas?” “Yes, sir,” I said. “This is the place to get them, isn’t it?”

He stood up slowly, stretched his arms, and yawned. “Yes, yes,” he said. “This is the place.”

He rummaged through a few drawers and found some application forms. He handed them to us.

“How long do you plan to stay?” he asked. “Just three days,” I said.” “It’s a quick trip.”

We filled in the forms and took our seats to wait for the visas. I noticed a poster on the wall: “Visit Bangladesh before the tourists come.”

I mentioned it to the clerk, and he laughed. “That poster is over 30 years old,” he said. “It came out after the war, in 1971. Few tourists visited Bangladesh before that time, and even fewer now.”

The next day we caught a flight to Kolkata and waited for a connecting flight to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. At one point I glanced up at the board announcing flights and saw that ours was delayed. I jumped up and went to the Biman Bangladesh flight counter.

“How long is the delay?” I asked the man behind the counter.

“At least four hours,” he said without looking up from his work.

“What?” I said. “Four hours!”

I looked around to see if any other passengers were upset, but I didn’t see anyone.

“Where are all the other passengers?” I said.

“There aren’t many these days,” he said.

Five hours later, our flight finally took off, with only 20 passengers.

We arrived in Dhaka late at night and quickly cleared customs and immigration because there were so few passengers. We had missed our connecting flight to Rajshahi and would have to re-book it the next day. As we hailed a taxi, Dhruva asked me where we were going to stay.

“We’ll stay at the local ISKCON temple,” I said. “I’ve got the address in my bag.”

We jumped into the taxi, and I gave the address to the driver.

“Sir,” he said, “I can’t drive to that part of town tonight. It’s too dangerous.”

I leaned forward. “Dangerous? It’s not in a bad part of town. I’ve been there before.”

“Sir,” he said. “There were violent demonstrations today. Some groups are still roaming around. It’s too risky to go there now.”

I sat back. “I see,” I said. “Then take us to the nearest hotel. Something reasonably priced.”

As we drove out of the airport and into town I noticed the streets were empty and littered with rocks, bricks, and broken bottles.

“What’s all that?” I asked the driver.

“From the demonstrations, sir” he said. “During the afternoon no one could go to or from the airport.”

“That explains why the flight was delayed,” I said to Dhruva.

We checked in at the hotel and fell fast asleep. Several hours later I woke up from a nightmare about being chased by rioters.

The next morning, I saw a newspaper under our door, courtesy of the hotel. I picked it up. “Rioting at Key Points throughout City” screamed the headlines.

“Several dead, many injured,” said the subhead. “More demonstrations planned today.”

Many groups had engaged in the demonstrations. The articles spoke of factory workers dissatisfied with their wages and other groups dissatisfied with the government’s rationing of electricity. I already knew from searching the internet that strikes and violent demonstrations are very much part of the social fabric of Bangladesh. The history of Bangladesh has been one of constant social upheaval and violent politics.

“Best if we leave Dhaka quickly,” I said to Dhruva. “Call the airlines and tell them we missed our connection to Rajshahi, and ask them to rebook us for this morning.”

Dhruva came back 10 minutes later. “All flights to Rajshahi are full for the next 10 days,” he said.

I thought for a moment. “Then, book us to Jessore,” I said. “It’s an hour and a half bus ride from Benapol, where Haridas Thakur did his bhajan. There’s a nice guest house there where we can stay.”

Dhruva came back a few minutes later. “The flights to Jessore are booked up for seven days,” he said.

“Try Sylhet,” I said. “That’s where Advaita Acarya appeared.” Dhruva was gone a little longer. Then he came back. “No seats for a week,” he said. “It seems you have to reserve well in advance here.”

He paused. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “what are we going to do in this place for three days? We can’t get to the temple. We can’t even go outside the hotel.”

“For now let’s just chant our rounds,” I said.

We read and chanted throughout the day.

That night I again dreamed that I was being chased by a group of demonstrators. The next morning when I woke up, I immediately grabbed the morning newspaper from under the door.

“Four Dead in Clashes with Police,” said the headlines. “Local Activists Vow Revenge.”

“Call the airlines,” I told Dhruva, “and see if we can fly back to India today, instead of tomorrow.”

Again, the reply was negative. “The flight back to Kolkata is also booked,” he said.

Again we read and chanted all day.

The next morning I looked through the newspaper again. “It’s a big city,” I said to Dhruva. “The demonstrations and rioting seem to be in selected places. Let’s get out of this hotel. I can’t sit here any longer.”

In the afternoon we reconfirmed our flight for that evening and stepped outside the hotel for the first time since we arrived.

There was a lot of traffic and we waited a long time for a taxi. “Let’s go to the temple,” I said to Dhruva as we finally stepped into a taxi. But the driver refused.

“Is it dangerous to drive there?” I said.

“Not today,” he replied. “But it’s too far and I’m stopping work soon.”

But neither Dhruva nor I wanted to wait on the street any longer. “Then take us to a beautiful part of the city,” I said.

The driver laughed. “There’s not much beautiful about this city,” he said.

“Well then,” I said, “take us where the tourists go.” “What tourists?” he said.

“Can you suggest somewhere for us to go then?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I’ll take you to the old town,” he said. “It’s peaceful there.”

We drove an hour through heavy traffic and finally arrived at a market.

“I’ll leave you here,” the driver said. “I’m going home.” “Where are we?” I asked.

“In an old bazaar,” he replied.

As we stepped out of the taxi, I saw artisans making bangles, drums, and brass articles. It was obviously a Hindu neighborhood.

“Feels a little like India,” I said to Dhruva.

As we walked through the market, people stared at us. Obviously, whatever tourists came to Bangladesh didn’t frequent the area. We wandered around for some time and were about to go back to the hotel when I noticed a little side alley.

“Let’s walk down there,” I said to Dhruva.

The alley was hemmed in by buildings on both sides, so it was almost dark. We walked for 50 meters and were about to turn around when I saw a small shop with a torn awning that read, “Antiques.”

We had to bow our heads to enter through the door. As my eyes got used to the dim light, I noticed piles of old brass pots and utensils. On the walls were dusty paintings of kings and queens from bygone ages. A few old swords lay here and there, as well as some ancient puja articles like achman spoons and cups. Old watches, unpolished jewelry, and an odd assortment of things were piled up in three dirty glass showcases. Antique lamps hung here and there, making it difficult to walk around.

We had been browsing through the shop for 15 minutes when suddenly we heard a man’s voice. “Haven’t had customers in here for a long time,” the voice said.

I turned around and saw an old man sitting behind a counter. I wondered why I hadn’t seen him when we walked in and concluded it must be because he hadn’t moved.

I had to squint to see him in the dim light. “Good afternoon, sir” I said. “We were wandering around this part of town and came upon your store.”

“Something in particular you’re looking for?” he said, still not moving.

“Anything interesting,” Dhruva said.

The man studied us carefully for a few moments.

“I can show you some unusual items,” he said, “but I have to go home to get them. I don’t keep them here.”

“Like what kind of interesting things?” Dhruva asked.

“I have a centuries-old coin,” he said. “If you put grains on it, they’ll immediately disappear.”

“Is that true?” Dhruva said.

“I also have a peacock feather that casts no shadow.” “Wow!” said Dhruva.

“I have a deity of Ganesh that doesn’t appear in any photo you take of him.”

“Really?” said Dhruva.

“And I have a pot that neutralizes poison.” “Neutralizes poison?” said Dhruva.

“It was used by royalty,” the man said. “In ancient times kings were sometimes poisoned, so their food was put in this pot before their meals. But I’ll only show you these things if I’m convinced you’re serious about buying them.”

“What?” said Dhruva.

“That’s the condition,” the man said.

“How much does the pot cost?” Dhruva asked.

“Two thousand dollars,” he replied.

“OK, Dhruva,” I said with a chuckle. “Let’s move on. That’s way beyond our price range.”

I turned to the old man. “Thank you, sir,” I said. “It was interesting meeting you.”

As we turned to go I noticed a peculiar item on his desk.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s not for sale,” he replied.

“I just want to know what it is,” I said.

“It’s an old tiger’s tooth,” he said.

“In a silver casing with a chain,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “It belonged to a king hundreds of years ago.”

“Is it special?” I said.

“Very special,” he replied.

“How so?” I asked.

“The person who wears it will never be troubled by bad dreams,” he said. “He’ll be blessed, and his dreams will be good.”

“Wow!” said Dhruva. “That’s incredible!”

“Dhruva,” I said, “you don’t have to believe everything he says.”

I thought about my bad dreams the previous two nights. I couldn’t resist looking closer at the mysterious tooth.

“Can I hold it?” I asked.

The man picked up the tooth and put it in my hand.

It was large and dark yellow, and the silver casing had ornate carving all over it. It spoke of antiquity.

“Thanks,” I said and handed it back. We turned and started to walk to the door.

“Are you interested in buying the tooth?” the man said.

“No thanks,” I said as we started to open the door. “I’m sure it’s too expensive.”

“Just wait,” the man said. “I’m willing to let this piece go for cheaper.”

Dhruva and I stopped and turned around.

“I think he needs the money,” Dhruva whispered. “Looks like no one ever comes here.”

“How much?” I said.

“Two hundred dollars,” the man said.

“That’s pretty cheap,” Dhruva said.

“Not in Bangladesh,” I said. “It’s one of the poorest countries in the world.”

“I’ll buy it for you,” Dhruva said, and he walked back in the store. After paying for the tooth, he came back and handed it to me.

“One more thing before you go,” the man said. “I have something else you may be interested in.”

“What’s that?” Dhruva said.

“Several pairs of old Radha Krsna Deities,” the man said. “Oh?” I said. “Old Radha Krishna Deities?”

“Yes,” the man said. “Two to three hundred years old. And very beautiful, but they’re in my home.”

“Let’s go,” I said.

The man locked up the store, and we walked through a maze of streets to his home. Once inside, we sat in the living room while his son brought several boxes out from under a large sofa. Then he put three sets of old, tarnished, brass Radha Krsna Deities on a table.

Dhruva and I couldn’t believe our eyes.

“They just don’t make Deities like this anymore,” Dhruva said.

“They’re so beautiful!” I said.

“Before partition,” the old man said, “the worship of Radha and Krsna was very popular here. They were worshiped in Hindu temples and homes. When the war broke out in 1971, many Hindus fled to India, taking only the possessions they could carry.”

“It’s amazing these Deities didn’t end up in a museum,” I said. “Their features are so extraordinary.”

“This is primarily a Muslim country,” he said. “People here are not interested in such things.”

“How much are they?” I asked.

“One hundred dollars a set,” he said.

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Oh, really,” I said calmly, not wanting to appear excited. Suddenly Dhruva looked at his watch. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “it’s 4 PM. It’s getting late. Our flight is at 7 PM. If we don’t leave now we’ll miss it.”

I continued looking at the Deities.

“For hundreds of years these Deities must have been worshiped with love and devotion,” I thought. “Now they’re just lying under a sofa.”

“Will you take a credit card?” Dhruva asked the man.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

“Let me see how much money I have,” I said.

Because we had come to Bangladesh for only three days, I hadn’t brought much cash. I reached into my pocket and pulled out what I had. It was just over 100 dollars. I put it on the table.

“I’ll take one set,” I said.

Again I studied the beautiful forms of the Deities, gazing at one set and then another. I just couldn’t decide which set to take.

“Guru Maharaj,” said Dhruva anxiously, “it’s getting really late now.”

Finally I decided on a pair of Deities about 15 inches high. The artistic detail on them was something that could not be duplicated.

When the man put the other sets back in the boxes and under the sofa, both Dhruva and I felt sad.

Then we rushed back to the hotel, threw our belongings into our bags, hailed a taxi, and rushed to the airport.

When we put our bags through the x-ray machine a customs officer saw the metal forms of the Deities inside one bag and asked us to open it.

“What are these statues?” he said.

“Just something we picked up in the market,” I said casually. Another officer came over and the two of them looked at the Deities together.

“Something Hindu,” said the second officer. Then he nodded his head, indicating we could leave.

On the plane, as I put my coat in the overhead rack, the tiger’s tooth and chain fell out of one of the pockets. In the excitement of getting the Radha Krishna Deities I had forgotten about the tooth. I quickly put it around my neck.

Exhausted, Dhruva and I fell fast asleep in our seats. We slept for over an hour and woke up at the same time.

“Dhruva!” I said excitedly. “I just had an amazing dream. I dreamt we were on Harinama in a Muslim village. As we chanted through the village all the people came out of their houses to sing with us. They were singing ‘Allah Akbar!’ and we were singing ‘Hare Krishna.’ We all joined hands and danced together in bliss. It was so vivid!”

Dhruva looked at the tiger’s tooth around my neck. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “that’s exactly what the man said would hap-pen if you wore that tiger’s tooth. Just imagine if we’d been able to get the peacock feather, the coin, the deity of Ganesh, and the special pot that neutralizes poison.”

I laughed. “It doesn’t matter Dhruva,” I said. “We’re bringing back something infinitely more precious: beautiful Deities of Radha and Krishna. We rescued them. Now we have to find a proper home for them.”

Srila Prabhupada writes:

“I have got some reports that the Deities in Bombay are being much neglected. This is a most abominable affair. Radha and Krishna should not ever be neglected or left unprotected, so I am wondering what you have done to rectify this situation. I have heard that Madhudvisa intervened to get the Deities a better place. He has done nicely.”

[letter to a disciple, May 2, 1972 ]