Mujeeb Jaihoon’s journey to the East European Mecca of ancient saints and splendid monasteries with snow and love. Oct 2016
The lady immigration officer simply smiled in assurance as she returned my travel documents. Documents are all that matters today. Electronic and print materials are alone recognized, not human mind or flesh. The Adamic project is reduced to alphanumeric realities verifiable only by soulless machines. On one end, Man claims to be free from the need of any other fellow beings in his pursuit of pleasure-pastures. But on the other end, he is completely enslaved to lifeless gizmos which make all kinds of choices on his behalf
The Guide Appears
It was while pondering on this philosophical paradox that a bold and assertive voice called from behind. Adorned in an attire quite opposed to the time-space order of the present, she seemed to unfit on both the x and y axis of my mind.
‘Would you allow me to be your Guide?’ she asked without any introduction.
Not sure of her whereabouts, I refused.
‘Even ease-loving tourists opt for a Guide. You seem to be a man of mission rather’, she insisted as I turned my back. ‘Give me a chance so that I may join new beads to your rosary of thoughts’, she added.
Finally I gave in, though not completely sure about what was in store for me in the miles ahead.
It would be injustice to the weather for simply describing it as cold. Cold would have been more mild and its grandchild. The air was fierce and ferocious. My body begged to shield it as much as possible. But my fear and suspicion about my stranger Guide intrigued me even more.
Guides are common in tours and travels. But do we show the same willingness to find a Guide in larger life which is a greater and longer journey with more grave consequences?
The Dawn had just dawned. My Guide reminded of the duty to my Lord: to lean my limbs and kiss the ground with forehead. There is a great moment of joy during the romance between the human head and earthly ground. Divine Love rushes to that point of meet and greet.
The Creed of Profit
The Guide invited to ‘break my fast’ with a bite of Khachapuri, a native dish of cheese-filled bread and fruit tea, made from bubbly berries of the Caucasian mountain slopes. ‘More than three fourth of natives here prefer this cheese-bread over pizza’, revealed my co-traveler as she had her last bite.
Done with the snack break, we proceeded to a nearby store to pick up few survival items to sustain the day’s long ride. ‘Globalization has enabled the same shelves and products across nations and shops. The entire world is one grand shop in its eyes. Goods specific to each community is replaced by universal brands whose only creed is profit-making. Ethnic richness is replaced by lackluster uniformity.’ lamented the royal Guide.
The day was slowly breaking out from the clutches of night. Sweepers and janitors began their daily chore to maintain the already well clean city. The light drizzle did not deter them from carrying on their welfare mission.
Humanity. Sea of Infinity
We walked past a river which had encircled the city from almost all the sides I had so far seen. ‘Kura is its name’, I was told. ‘This originates from Turkey and flows to this land, followed by Azerbaijan before meeting its end or enlivening further in the Caspian Sea.’
‘Human life too is like a river before it merges in to the sea of infinity, isn’t?’ I wondered. The Guide nodded in affirmation.
Man and Nature: Sync in Harmony
Autumn had just blossomed. Leaves were in a complete color riot and each hue made their alluring cry. People rejoiced and celebrated this weather to their best capacity. While grown ups prepared BBQ in the open air, the children played in the amusement areas. ‘Nature and people should be in a harmonious sync with one another. That is the secret recipe to modern happiness’, philosophized the Guide.
The countryside and township smoothly shifted from one to another. The roads however went steep and curved at places. The Police force randomly roamed around monitoring every nook and corner of the street. ‘Public safety shall be the priority of the State. Art and Thought would nourish only in the cradle of Safety. Bullies and Bullets would not enrich the breeding ground for genius’.
The talk of public safety was interrupted by a lady beggar on the street carrying her infant. She approached near and murmured her adversities in a language which was far from my understanding.
Meanwhile shopping malls and bazaars passed by on either side.
Mtsketa. The Mecca of Georgian Orthodoxy
The narrow road led to a mountainous landscape and an ancient building atop began to appear from a distance. ‘Mtsketa, located in the Kartli province, is the Mecca of Georgian Orthodox believers. The Union of Nations have recognized the monuments here as among the most valuable in the world. Revered by native pagans and later believers, the architectural wonders of this Caucasian land have attracted travelers from around the globe’.
No melt. No Light
The Guide accompanied me to the interior of the monastery. Candles greeted us on all sides of the monument. Flames danced while the wax melted. The onlooker wonders only at the dance while unmindful of the melting. One can’t give light without the selfless burning and melting.
Marriage. Wrapping Love with Ribbon of Responsibility
There was a huge clamor of a native couple’s church wedding. Friends and relatives anxiously gathered to greet the stars of the occasion. The groom put on a traditional superhero attire, which included a sword.
‘Marriage is to wrap the gift of love with the ribbon of Responsibility. For, Sensuality alone triumphs when claim of Love is divorced from reality of Responsibility. Marriage is for the Lion-hearts. And the leftover Love, for the chickens.’
Faith. Operating Manual for Human Relations
Listening to the above poetic wisdom, I asked the Guide again. ‘Who are you to utter such sharp truths? Whereto do your mentors belong? In which school were you trained?’
I received no reply except more timeless truths. Perhaps, the answer was more important than the question itself.
‘Liberate faith from symbols and icons. Faiths should function as the operating manual for ensuring merciful human relations’.
The Guide asked me to follow ahead. ‘There is more to see. Many more rivers yet to meet the seas. Content not your heart with the immediate present alone. There are brighter and better stars unseen. More fragrant and magnificent incense to burn. Wiser and wider wisdom to learn. Become sea-like, not a swampy lake’.
Nationalism and Religion in Same Oven
We walked through a narrow pathway with native homes on either side. Dogs barked from one of them. The ground was well tiled. From the surroundings around, I knew something grand was expected to soon appear in the horizon. And the subsequent moments only beat my infantile expectations.
A gigantic structure stood in front of me covering half the sky view with equally imposing gate. Every brick of it, it seemed, were baked in the dual oven of religious and nationalistic pride. The country’s flag joyfully danced to the wild wind.
The Love-Loving Lot
Georgians are such love-loving lot. They celebrate love at every possible opportunity, be it in the State or Church. A wedding ritual was happening at this monument too.
Not Mary. Lady Mariam is her Name
A signboard was installed outside the entrance reminding (better understood as admonishing) visitors to be careful with their communication gadgets and revealing dressing as well. Women were seen putting on an extra cloak as a sign of higher moral standard.
‘For, isn’t Lady Mary head veiled?’ I asked my Georgian Guide. ‘It isn’t Mary. We call her Mariam. Lady Mariam is her name’, corrected she.
‘If so, 24/7 head-veiled Muslim women may be a step closer and truer to Jesus’ Mother than their Christian cousins who cherry-pick the gear during devotional exercises alone’, elaborated the Guide.
I marveled at the paintings reminiscent of the historical faces and phases. And the women in those brush strokes were veiled too. Modesty, after all, was not a conservative cultural diktat of the Arabian Peninsula, I boldly concluded.
Female visitors put on the modest cloak
The Royal Connection
Several graves were raised on the ground which belonged to the royals, I was told. ‘And who were the royals?’ I inquired.
‘King Mirian and his wife’ was the reply. ‘It was this king who declared the creed of Mariam’s son as the official religion of the land in year 337’
‘And what is that pillar, below from which the pilgrims are collecting dust’, my curiosity grew further. “Svetitskhoveli” is named so due to this pillar. This is the Pillar of the Living, referring to the story of one Sidonia who passed away while holding the robe of Mariam’s Son. She lies buried here and the pilgrims come to collect the blessings of the robe.’
‘And here is the Patriarch chair, where the living head of the Community addresses the believers’.
‘And there is a boy who is baptized into the faith which his father eagerly witnesses along with the priest’.
A boy being baptized inside Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Truth knows no Strangers
‘All these and more are the fruits of one Lion-souled Lady’s energetic and enigmatic efforts. She hoisted the flag of Virgin Mary and her Cradle-spoken Son’s creed in this land of pagans and demons. She came to this land as a lone soul. And thorn after thorn were thrown at her as she propagated the faithful fragrance of her rose-heart. Vision after vision helped her to hold her courage high. She cured every sick who visited her. And they pledged their heart’s reins in her hands. She blew into their hearts the air of Bethlehem and they remained forever loyal to her gift’.
‘But where is she put to eternal sleep? How can I respect the children without saluting their mother first?’ I revolted in protest.
‘Patience, O infant of the impatient breed. Everything has a time and place. The wheel of Destiny will roll at its own pace’, consoled the Guide.
‘Instead, dwell on the plague that has sickened believers across the world. Living Faith is imprisoned in museums and monuments. The disciples helped to migrate from pagans to monotheism. It’s a different story how Oneness was further diluted to Trinitarian confusion.’
The Guide did not stop there. ‘Inter religious visits are very crucial to better understand each other’s systems. No creed is untouchable to the other. In fact, there is no Other for a Creed, if it truly believes it is the Truth. For, Truth knows no strangers. Ignorance breeds Arrogance and Abhorrence. Both are enemies of humanity’, she added.
We returned from the Cathedral in peace at a slow pace. And I wondered about the legacy of the Lion-Souled Saint. Georgia was indeed indebted to the Scent of the She-Saint.
Outside the winery museum
The Grand WineShop
‘Look at those grapes above. This fruit plays a major role in the economy of this Caucasian peoples. The poor and rich are equally enslaved to its scent and nectar’.
No sooner than the Guide mentioned this, I recalled the line from an Urdu Ghazal,
Ek do chaar nahi hai, saara shehr hai peenewaala
The Guide went on further to say that the Georgian nation thrives culturally and perhaps economically on the cup and drink. The entire land is one grand wineshop in their eyes. Some among mankind prefer to empty their cup of whims and wishes in this mortal world leaving no drop for the next.
Gazing at the grape farm
It began to rain again. And our conversation led to stop by a winery far away from the Cathedral.
Many had come to see the winery. Most were eager to taste it. ‘But which wine would let you stop at just tasting it?’ reasoned the Guide.
Used to the Guide’s mystical musings by now, this time I began the maverick note. ‘There is another wine of yet another kind. The one which we can consume via the eye and enjoy with the heart. It has neither foul odor nor any sinful hue. Its grapevine is the tresses of the Beloved. Older her love, greater its intoxication. Its winery is her house. Rose borrowed its smell from that fragrance. It is higher than the mount of permitted and forbidden. This wine is simply vain and profane, that one is victory from human pain and chain. True, you may not win many friends and folks with that eye-wine. You may have to lead the solitary path of thought and act today but the world may be behind you in the morrow. With the bottled wine, you lose sight of the near and dear. With the wine of heart, you envision the distant future today. Love-pressed wine shows you beauty of His Creations all around’.
The Guide smiled at my wine talk and walked ahead. Just then a bus full of child tourists arrived at the scene. ‘A generation fed on the cup of science and technology, but estranged from the wine of ethics and philosophy’, remarked my Guide before leaving to destination next.
Miracle of Colors
Our journey continued to lands unknown. Mountains and valleys kept my mind and heart awake. The colourful leaves testified to the orgasmic joy of trees rejoicing in the coolness of autumn before the advent of the ruthless winter. The sky too had zealously painted its canvas blue and white so as not to lose its charm against its counterpart below.
‘Colors are a miracle in themselves. Each color is a sign of God. A being on its own’, illustrated my Guide pointing at the sky.
Democracy Charms and Harms. With the Same chant
We reached a town called Telavi. Posters of politicians and their propaganda were pasted throughout the street walls. Nature’s colours were replaced by posters of power.
‘Georgia has been juggled at the hands of several kings and kingly commoners. Wars and conflicts have torn her apart. Those who promised Rosy Revolutions with the fragrance of freedom, but ultimately turned to autocratic despots. And then counter revolutions by a Professor to discharge those corrupt hands. The hands of Democracy beautifies but blemishes too. It charms and harms with the very same chant’, illuminated the Guide.
‘But there lived a lady king’, said the Guide, ‘who flourished her nation to new heights’.
‘Daughter of the nation’s favorite king George III, she was crowned in year 1184. She parted from her treacherous husband who had plotted against his spouse and finally had him expelled from the land. Though she faced opposition from the aristocrats and church in the initial years, one by one she nailed each in their fateful coffin.
She was the first Lady King to rule this nation. The Church finally honored her as the Holy Righteous King. Under her rein, Georgia grew in breadth and length due to her wise foreign relations. She had intimate trade relations with the Arabs. She was entitled as King of Kings and celebrated as the friend of poor and savior of the widowed. Arts and learning she encouraged. Tbilisi, her capital, yearned a new name and fame in the world. Folk songs and poems eulogized her as she breathed her last in 1200s.’
‘But where are her remains’, I asked after I had exhausted my patience. ‘She lives forever, not in the earth, but in the heart of her people’, came the reply.
Beauty. In the Cloak of Silence
Our journey took a new turn from the mounts and grasslands to that of lakes and vast rivers. Beauty appeared in the cloak of silence. Only the rhapsodic rumble of the Aragvi River reverberated randomly.
And then we arrived at a castle-like church beside the river. Was this the amalgamation of State and Church, I wondered. My co-traveler explained that this castle was a politically charged hotspot of those days. Ananuri was a locality ruled by dukes…’
‘Ananuri? Or is it Ana Nuri – I am of light?’ I at once cut the Guide’s talk.
Kings Come and Go. The Poor remain
From the ruthless historical incidents I learned about this fort, I could smell the blood of the peasants and plight of women and children. ‘Kings come and go, Khans and Shahs rise and fall, Dukes and Lords shine and fade- they may be lured by greed for acres of land or hoards of gold, but it is the poor lot who script the real story of a nation. The smile of children, tears of mothers and sweat of fathers are which Destiny will hold in real esteem’.
The white clouds continue to engulf this earthly paradise. Where was it green? Where was it blue? It was hard to say looking at the river.
Would these places shatter too in the Last Days? Would these mounts become like cotton and this magical fairytale book be trashed like a folded paper? Would these rivers burn? Surely it is the right of the Maker to deal with His creation the way He likes.
The Church, like all others found in the journey, had candles and prayer corners. Tombstones of the VVIP were found in the backyard. A dry well was also seen which was used for imprisoning the wrong. The wall outside had scribbling and inscriptions. A giant granny tree whose roots were as grand as the tree occupied the ground.
The raindrops reminded that the journey had to continue further. So we moved on.
The White Army
The mountains slowly started getting pale from green to white. Leaves, whatever left on the trees, struggled to keep their chlorophyll warm. The White Army was gradually taking over the green nation as the road went higher and higher. From a green garden, the landscape was transforming to a white paradise. Dogs, cows and goats were picking up in fur. The size and shape of homes changed. Road was getting more steep and narrow. But it was nothing short of beauty. Roads and rooftops too were snow-washed. The localities of Seturebi and Qumlistsikhe passed behind us. Finally we reached Gudauri, where all we could see was a maidan of whiteness interspersed by green-white deciduous plants. They endeared and embraced the dead leaves to keep warm.
‘Even after death, plants continue to serve their fellow brethren left behind’, informed the well-learned Guide. ‘And we humans don’t care enough even as we are alive’, I critiqued.
Ice had covered the road by more than half. There was a havoc of cars and people, as the road was blocked by guards who stopped any further drive. Some fixed chains on their wheels to challenge the snow attack. Army trucks from the opposite side further worsened the chaos.
The mess continued without any sign of end in sight. For the sake of practical wisdom, it was wise to retreat to more life-preserving environment. I obeyed without too much questions.
The biting cold reminded again and again for a finger-licking bite. We changed course immediately keeping in mind the ticking minutes and seconds.
Where are we heading to, I asked. What is a garden worth if you haven’t seen the rose? You come to wineshop and return without the drink? If you come to this lovely land, how could you miss its City of Love?
An Ill-prepared Battle is Half Defeat. Even Before It’s Begun
‘But it’s a long walk from here. An ill-prepared battle is half defeat even before it’s begun. Therefore, have a morsel to keep the strength’, advised the Guide.
Though a long ride, I managed to reach the doorstep of one Tavaduri restaurant, near the Ethno Park.
From Shashlik to khashlama to Chakapuli to Chashushuli to Shkmeruli to Tabaka to Ojaxuri, this eatery had made a royal treat from veal, chicken, beef and ham. I chose Khachapuri, the Georgian pizza and Lobiani, a veg speciality.
With hunger in the rear mirror, we could now proceed with better mind and body. The cold had subsided. Or so we felt. Our appreciation and apprehension to weather is based on our internal state. Torrents of seasons keep playing hide and seek. But it is our inner weather which actually withers or bothers us.
’Keep the mind cool. And heart warm. And then, no tsunami can leave a mark on your heart-matter’, said She.
‘But you still haven’t revealed yourself. Neither removed your mask. From which shore do you collect the pearls of wisdom?’ I repeated my questions.
‘You will know soon. For now, hold onto your amulet of patience’, was the reply.
Every Brick in Sighnaghi is Love-Baked
And then the walk began. The picturesque sight was full of structures with their rooftops in shades ranging from pink, rose, flamingo to coral, peach and even strawberry.
Vendors and hawkers kept calling us. Antiques, churchkela, toys and apparels filled their humble shelves.
But the light shower made Sighnaghi, the city of Love, blush with love even more. A newlywed couple was seen in a photo session in front of the House of Love. Love touched every object in Sighnaghi. Every brick here was cozy in the arms of love.
We walked along the well paved road. Lovers rejoiced in each others’ arms with no sign of pain or panic. And the fountains danced to the slight wind. Couples laughed as they enjoyed the cart ride.
Sights at Sighnaghi
The Lantern who Introduced Mariam’s Son to the Children of Georgia
‘Come, let us tread that road to the right’, the Guide signaled. And then, we entered a monastery so calm and beautiful, Georgia has showed me nothing quite amazing.
‘It’s time; I showed you the gem of Georgia. Here rests the lantern that showcased the Son of Mariam to the children of Georgia’.
Awe upon awe filled the ambience. The cold was monstrous. But sipping coffee bought from the nearby cafe named after the ‘Father of Israelites, I felt warm at heart.
The Green mountains, around which silence meditated, made me doubt if Day was refusing to give in to the Night.
The women in modest head scarves would confuse anyone to think if this was a maqbara of Muslim lady saint like that of Sayyida Nafisa Misriya of Egypt.
Yes, the entire landscape was brutally beautiful. An aura of spirituality and devotion.
And in the end, the Day-Night battle was decided in favor of the latter. So the Guide decided to depart from the monastery of Bodbe where Saint Nino now rests revered by the countless devotees who visit her for all reasons noble.
Bodbe Monastery, burial place of Saint Nino
The Bridge. To Reconcile and Reconnect Minds and Nations
We finally reached at the ‘squared Meidan’ of Tbilisi. A giant python-like steel structure flew across the river Kura River. With its phenomenal size and philosophical hypothesis, the Bridge of Peace was an architectural wonder. The colors on the Brdige are seamlessly blended with that of the water below.
The bridge has traditionally been the metaphor of reconciliation and reconnection, I remarked. ‘Indeed. And we need lots of them, between minds and nations’, replied the Guide.
Bridge of Peace
We walked ahead to the Meidan Bazaar which had alleys connecting and disconnecting one from another. The autumn rain had drenched all the shops and rendered most of them unshoppable. The Hookah shops had colorful cushions with well adorned walls. We continued our street walk across narrow pathways.
The Underground Gallery showcased several souvenirs for the conventional tourists. From hand-made infant shoes to ancient wines. Paintings, gifts, perfumes, chocolates, pastries, rings, necklaces and what not.
The Saintly Spell. Despite Women. Despite Wine
The Night became pronounced further. And so did the rainy cold. Tbilisi has wineshops left, right and center. And Shardeni street had them plenty too.
We passed by an art gallery event. An aged lady artist was explaining her exceedingly erotic paintings to the media persons. She claimed to be from the genre of modern Georgian art.
Despite widespread wine and women-art, Georgian society was overwhelmingly religious, at least on a signboard I noticed. It read Jerusalem square and Bethlehem church. ‘The spell of Lady Saint Nino’ still holds good on Georgian hearts’, reasoned my Guide.
The Guide Unmasks
‘You have been shown and told whatever possible in a day’s time. We may now depart to each other’s vault’, the Guide abruptly uttered the note of farewell.
But I wouldn’t let go.
‘How rude and crude for a Host to say so. I have swallowed the bitter pain of patience till now. However, I am yet to taste its sweet. You have unveiled every majestic marvel of this beautiful land. Past and Present you have poured in a single cup. I have learned much in the journey but the whereabouts of my Guide. Who are you? How are you connected to the soil of Georgia? Whose blood runs in your veins?
‘I am the spirit of Lady King you have been seeking. Tamara is my name. In every heart on this land will you find marks of my fame. I reappear then and now to show my land to the chosen few. May I hope your journey will set fire to an inspiring heart and intoxicating art. The time has now come for me to return to the home of spirits. Until another yearning traveler set foot here, I bid you peace and joy. Convey if you can, the Tales of my Tbilisi to the travel-loving lot’.
Too much money not good. Little money good
‘Taxi. Taxi’, cried a local driver. Lost in the bewilderment of what I had just seen and heard, I became deaf and blind to my surroundings. ‘Taxi, Taxi’, the driver honked.
I agreed without much talk.
I continued to be engrossed in the thoughts of Lady King Tamara, the kickass queen of Tbilisi. Could it be real? Could it not be? To which level of consciousness do such experiences belong? Was dream overtaking reality? Was it my obsession with the Past or preoccupation with the Present, both of which had become radically extreme throughout this journey.
‘Putin not good. US, China not good’, said the taxi driver in a broken accent. ‘No money, no house’, he went on about his plight. He seemed to be a good old socialist at heart. He was complaining about the blood-sucking capitalists. ‘BMW not good. iPhone 6 not good’, he went on.
He struck the final note thus: ‘Too much money not good. Little money good’.
The destination reached shortly. I offered him a little more than what we had agreed while the ride began. He hesitantly accepted it with a thankful smile. But he had no intention to leave me just like that. What he did next baffled me as much as the spirit who had just disappeared.
‘Take this with you to your folks home’, he said while gifting me with a keychain that had a Georgian flag on it. ‘Take it’, he insisted.
Who’d won here? Was it the extra ‘lari’ note which was of no use to me ever? Or the beautiful keychain he gifted this traveler?
I returned from Georgia, excited, electrified and energized. But inspired by the achievements of two original souls. The She Saint Nino and Lady King Tamara. One a spiritual savior. The other a kickass queen. Both made Georgia greatly Gorgeous.