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Nostalgia for Eternity - Journeys in Religion, History, and Myth on the Indian Subcontinent

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Item Code: NAH726
Author: Leonid Plotkin
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Language: English
Edition: 2018
ISBN: 9789386906410
Pages: 380 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 10.0 inch X 9.5 inch
Weight 1.70 kg
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About the Book

The culmination of five years' travel with Indian pilgrims, Nostalgia for Eternity takes the reader into the depths of millennia-old spiritual and mystic traditions. It is a stunning visual poem about the timeless human search for transcendence and ultimate truth.

Translated literally from the Greek, 'nostalgia' means homesickness; spiritually, it is the universal longing for existential peace and completeness-for a final resolution of all life's conflicts and contradictions. "The truth is one; taught India's ancient gurus, 'the sages call it by many names: With breadth and insight unmatched by any other publication, Nostalgia for Eternity illustrates the worlds of pilgrims seeking that transcendent truth and illuminates the different paths that they travel. Through evocative, complex images we enter the secretive realm of Tantric worshippers of the Mother Goddess; and we walk with Sufi pilgrims across the deserts of Rajasthan, Meditative, richly layered photographs reveal the inner world of Bengali Bauls-mystics who worship the human being; and of Sidis-descendants of African saints whose religion merges African ancestor worship with Sufism. Richly annotated text reveals to the reader the deeper symbolic and mythological Significance of the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and syncretic practices explored in the book.

Nostalgia for Eternity is an extended visual meditation on the highest human aspirations: to know the nature of one's true self and to understand one's place in the cosmos.

About the Author

Born in 1972 in the USSR. Leonid Plotkin Grw up in America, Studied law in Boston and Oxford, and then practised law in New York City. He has worked as a freelance documentary photographer since 2007, and his work has appeared in various international publications including National Geographic, National Geographic Traveller, the Guardian, and the Economist. Leonid spends most of his time out in the world but calls New York City home.

Long before he had the opportunity to set out on the road, Leonid was interested in the world and travel-in history, mythology, and religion. At the age of twenty he began travelling the ancient roads of Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, photographing what has endured since before the beginning. Fascinated by the historical and cultural continuity of life on the Indian peninsula during his initial trip to the subcontinent in the mid 1990s, Leonid returned frequently and, over two decades, stayed for more than five years to study and photograph Indias religious traditions. His photographic work constitutes a meditative contemplation of the human yearning for transcendence, and his photographs evoke the timeless intensity of man's attempts to approach the eternal.


This is a unique book of great beauty, a collection of breathtaking images of the Indian subcontinent and the people who follow the great religions that thrive in it. The images were inspired by, and are designed to inspire in turn, ideas about the ways in which human beings have expressed their individual and collective fascinations with the world beyond our phenomenal world. The caption of each photograph only briefly identifies the place and the religion of the people in it before moving on immediately to cite concepts or texts that the photographer, Leonid Plotkin, thinks express the ideas in the minds of the people in the picture or, more broadly, in the teachings of their religion. There are quotations from Indian texts but there are also many citations from poets writing in European languages- which is to say, from Leonid Plotkin's mind. The influence of the historian of religions Mircea Eliade upon that mind is immediately evident from some of the chapter heads: 'The Eternal Return' and 'Coincidentia Oppositorum' and, reaching back a bit further into the history of the history of religions, 'Mysterium Tremendum' (et Fascinans) from Rudolf Otto, one of Eliades primary intellectual ancestors. (We can also recognise one of Eliades disciples, joseph Campbell, in the chapter head 'The Hero's Journey'). These authors, and the texts that they sent Plotkin to, ranging widely over the history of religions, inspired in him a highly individual and distinctive passion for the religious places and moments of India, and an extraordinarily keen eye for images that express, as no words could, the imaginaries that animates those places and moments.

The things that Plotkin chose to photograph allow us to see what inspired him, far more than any words that he read in books. The photographs are brilliantly chosen to tell their story, not to illustrate the text as much as to draw the viewer into the world that the many texts describe. Right at the start, the image on p. 10 (and the amazing close-ups on pp. 11 and 12) of Hindu pilgrims in South India, through the contrast between the glory of the garish coloured powders on their backs and the pure white dome of the Vavar mosque, conveys more than any text could do the gulf between the human and the divine, and the possibility for harmony between different religions-for the Muslim mosque is part of the worship world of the Hindu god Ayyappa.

The photographs are more like paintings, indeed often Impressionist paintings, than factual representations of India. They have the beauty of paintings, many of them crying out to be framed and displayed in museums, but they also have the highly subjective stamp of their author. Often the effect is achieved by the contrast between the extraordinary detail carefully captured-every star in the sky, every slight crevice in a mountainside, every blade of grass in a field (how does he do it? what sort of magic camera does he have?)-and the dearth of intrusive miscellaneous detail. Plotkin tried to frame the photos so as to avoid ugliness and to photograph in places that were aesthetically pleasing. The ground seems almost always to be swept perfectly clean, like a stage set, with relatively few bits of garbage or debris strewn about; no blowing leaves or cigarette butts, or anything to darken tl perfect coloured surfaces.

The images pull the viewer into Leonid Plotkin's India-to places that the rest of us will surely never visit and scenes that we will never see. It is, inevitably, an edited India, bereft of heat and dust and mosquitoes and beggars and violent religious clashes. Beyond the necessary absence of all sensual input but the visual, it is a sanitised India. There are some exceptions, places where we can see bits of trash here and there, but for the most part, this is a dream of India the way one always wanted to see and feel it but that was too often spoilt by the noise or the smell or the heat, or some human unpleasantness, or one's own fatigue or illness. It's like a Leni Riefenstahl film of India. This is la vie not en rose but en saffron (as the word for what is also called the 'ochre robe' is applied to the religions of renunciation in India).

And saffron is actually the dominant colour in this techni-colour spectacular of India, saffron red and orange and yellow predominantly the primary colours, though frequently offset by equally vivid purples and greens. Indeed, it is usually the same red, the same orange, the same blue (when it does occur)-a single powerful, repeated tone rather than the usual range within any single colour. In one image [240] we see an oracle being sprinkled with turmeric, and it almost seems as if something like that has been done to the people in all the photos. How does Plotkin get such strong colours, indeed the same strong colours, all over India? The cumulative effect is of a world of colours so pure that they are unreal, the colours of a Bollywood film.

147], a Sikh procession with a caparisoned horse [150], Sikh women [152], worshippers lined up on a staircase [153], a crowd of sadhus at the Kumbh Mela [162, 172], a line of naked ascetics walking by water [173] or with golden marigolds on their heads [176], a joyous crowd of naked sadhus [177, 178], a crowd around entranced oracles [234, 243, 245], around a fantastic idol of Aravan [296], men drumming, women watching [313], old Tibetans watching a dance [336]. There are also smaller groups, such as a crowd restraining a man possessed [317], or a pilgrim grimacing in pain as his tired feet are massaged [103].

And then there are a number of close-ups of individual faces, sometimes gentle faces of people who are doing violent things, sometimes worshippers in ecstasy or trance, often wearing magnificent clothes: an Aghori [21], a pilgrim in Tiruvannamalai [28], a Tantric sadhu [37, 38], a Tantric practitioner [55, 56, 58], Sufi fakirs and pilgrims [90, 95, 99, 101, 102, 103, 111, 112, 116-129]' Sikhs [133, 139, 149], a blind man [161]' women at the Kumbh Mela [162]' a pilgrim [165], sadhus, some rather fierce but all quite glorious [166, 186-199]' Bauls [208], monks [264], some very old [273], some very young [277-8], transsexual Hijras [284-294,297- 8,304-307]' Sidi girls [312], and a man possessed [316].

In contrast with the majority of the images, distinguished by their razor-sharp detail, a number of amazing photographs convey a sense of movement or ecstasy by deliberating blurring people and objects in motion: the pastel clothes of pilgrims dancing around a sacred mountain [29], boats at night in Varanasi [74], evening prayer at a Sufi shrine [91], pilgrims rejoicing as they reach a shrine [109] or bathing in the But these colours frame and illuminate people who become Ganges at Haridwar [160], lights in the Ganges at Haridwar vividly real to us, at both ends of the spectrum-enormous at night [163], a man reading a text [169], a bearded ascetic crowd scenes and intense close-ups. There is amazing detail [179], a Baul singing in front of the blur of the city [209], even in the crowds, each face telling a story [176]: hundreds men possessed by nature spirits [230], an oracle dancing in of ascetics at initiation [68], monks meditating [73], crowds euphoria in front of a crowd [244], monks drumming [280], in Shravasti [77], people at dawn on the Ganges [82], a man possessed [318], a crowd dancing [319], a Tibetan listening intently to a man preaching [100], watching a man Buddhist monk whirling [330], a storm over the Himalayas[347], a blur of colours inside a Tibetan temple, with a face or two emerging clearly [350].


The walking shadows of wayfarers pass quickly across the land, but the way itself is immortal. Through desert and scrubland runs an ancient road from Delhi to Rajasthan, and our footsteps flitted along it in the intense heat of May-India's most stifling season. Even the crows sat out the sun, panting on wilting tree branches, waiting for the cool of the evening; but the pilgrims already laboured on after their brief noontime rest. It was then that one of my walking companions, Dham Madar, a middle-aged man immaculately dressed in all white, except for a bulky black turban that confined a large tangle of waist -long dreadlocks to the top of his head, murmured to me, 'most of these people will not succeed in their pilgrimage.

It seemed an odd thing to say. Already eleven days and hundreds of kilometres had passed since our departure from Old Delhi, from beneath the white marble domes of the Jama Masjid, an immense and resplendent mosque built five hundred years ago by the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan. And in just a day or two we would arrive at our destination: the shrine of the revered Sufi saint Moin-ud-din Chishti in the holy city of Ajmer in Rajasthan.

The long-dead Sufi saint was said to have achieved mystic union with God, and people came to his tomb because they believed that his mortal remains channelled divine influence into the world. They came to be blessed or to be healed- and to be in the presence of God and eternity. We walked on. Surely, I thought, anyone who had made it this far would never quit now that we were almost in sight of our destination. But that was not at all what Dham Madar had in mind.

We marched among more than two thousand pilgrims, people from all over India and from various walks of life. There were farmers and factory workers, shopkeepers, school teachers, holy men, and even a few housewives-an Indian Canterbury Tales. And they were not only Muslims but also people of other religions-two portly Sikh brothers from the Punjab; a tall, lanky man whom people affectionately called 'the Pundit: for he was the son of a Brahmin priest. Dham Madar himself was one of the holy men-intense-eyed and dark-skinned, with a long beard of dreadlocks and a broad, ready smile. He was a Sufi fakir, a man who had dedicated his life to mysticism and the quest for knowledge of ultimate Reality; and he had performed this pilgrimage many times, beginning with when he was a boy-more than forty years ago.

Every day we woke before dawn, to have some hours of travelling in the relatively cool early morning. We walked, passing parched fields, lowing cattle, and turbaned farmers dozing under the shady canopies of gnarled, ancient trees-the eternal life of a land that has been settled and cultivated for the past three thousand years by the ancestors of the same people who inhabit it now. There would be breakfast in some tea shop by the side of the road. Then more walking. And when the sun grew unbearable we stopped to wait out the heat, resting in the shay, silent corridors of wayside Sufi shrines, their marble floors cool and smooth, polished by the feet of pilgrims who had passed through for dozens of generations.

'Why would anyone not finish the pilgrimage?' I asked Dham Madar. 'Certainly, everyone who's made it this far will reach Ajmer. He regarded me seriously, but with an indulgent, barely perceptible smile. 'The real pilgrimage is not about getting to a shrine in Rajasthan,' he began in his calm, sonorous voice. 'All sorts of people travel between Delhi and Ajmer every day. And how are they better off for it? The real journey is in the heart: He shook his head lightly and stopped in his tracks. Then, looking back at a line of pilgrims approaching us from behind, he collected his thoughts. 'The saints always found God in themselves, not in some shrine; he continued. 'If any of these pilgrims comes to realise that the eternity he's travelling towards is already inside him, then he's had a successful pilgrimage. Otherwise, it's just an excursion: We resumed walking. 'It's like learning to see your eyes-with your own eyes: he said, gesturing with his finger at his twinkling pupils. 'How many of these pilgrims will ever experience that they themselves are God looking for God?'

We walked some more hours and, after dark, stopped for the night in a fallow field by the side of the road. After a simple dinner cooked on a fire-a thin curry of peas and potatoes scooped up with pieces of flatbread-most pilgrims spread their blankets out on the ground and collapsed in a sleep of exhaustion. But others remained awake late into the night-full of excitement and energy, even after walking fifty kilometres under a burning sun. To the rhythm of drums, the drone of the one-stringed ektara, and the plucked chords of lutes known as dotaras, they reprised the verses of Sufi poet-saints, some of whom had walked and rested and sung in these very places hundreds of years before. They were wistful lyrics of longing and homesickness-of nostalgia for an eternity sometimes palpable but often just beyond reach.

We sat around a flickering candle circled by insects and moths, and its warm, dim aura illuminated the expectant eyes of the singers. Above hung the stars, and all around lay infinite darkness extending in every direction. There was the days when Genghis Khan was still alive, and later when Marco Polo was travelling to China-when Columbus was discovering America and William Shakespeare was writing his plays. The emperor Akbar, greatest of the Mughals, had camped nearby when he performed his pilgrimage to Ajmer more than four hundred years before, and in the mysterious shadow of night, we could just as well have been some of the stragglers bivouacking just out of sight of the emperor's tent. The year that I travelled with the Sufi pilgrims was the 801st time that the annual Sufi peregrination from Delhi to Ajmer had taken place. And though I did not walk this hallowed road as one of the faithful, for me the journey also became a pilgrimage-a voyage into the vanishing point of time. Initially, it was an interest in history that had brought me to India. Growing up in American suburbia almost the entire world that surrounded me then seemed to have been built in the prior two or three decades. The neighbourhood where I lived-rows of brand new homes fronted by saplings and a few trees still not much taller than the height of a man-had been a cornfield just a few years before.

Little in my environment indicated that there existed any past that preceded the previous generation or two. My school, a concrete and cinder-block building that dated to the 1960s, seemed an old structure. There were new roads and new cars. The opening of new shopping centres, restaurants, and movie theatres punctuated the years. Even the houses of worship didn't date back more than a few score years, at most. The circling hours came and went. Nothing of consequence, nothing above the range of the ordinary, seemed ever to happen. Mostly, people talked about the future, not about the past. The mythology that inspired them was not of a paradise lost but of an imminent utopia to be ushered in by technology.

Only in history books did I find an escape from the rootlessness of the a historical world I inhabited, and in my mind I journeyed amongst the marble columns of archaic pagan temples in the lands of Caesar and Christ, to the forbidden cities of Chinese emperors, the tombs of the pharaohs, and beneath the serrated snowy peaks of Himalayan Mountains peopled by Sages. The realm of the written page that drew me into a vicarious participation in momentous events with the great figures of history became a world full of vitality and meaning that seemed to me more real and more significant than my actual life, which felt unconnected to anything beyond its immediate circumstances.


Foreword by Wendy Doniger x
Introduction 1
The Pathless Path 9
Tantra 35
The Hero's Journey 61
Followers of the Real 87
Fakirs 115
Khalsa 131
Crossings 159
Sadhus 185
Men of Heart 201
Metamorphoses 227
The Eternal Return 255
Coincidentia oppositorum 283
Children of Saints 301
Mysterium Tremendum 325
Acknowledgements 352
Notes 354
Bibliography 358
Index 361

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