Brandeis alum Jamie van Wagtendonk ’09 reports from India, where he is working in Bhuj, Gujarat through the American Jewish World Service. You can view the original posting here.
Imagine the rumblings of an earthquake, spreading from the sea to your west, from the desert to the east to your house, cracking the spine of your town, shredding houses. In rebuilding, you discover that the river you lived on, the river that brought ships to your town and brought livelihood to your family and to all of your neighbors was actually gone – shifted 50 miles west. Everyone who can picks up and moves out. Slowly, over years, you literally watch as the water near your home becomes stagnant and dries up. From a flowing river that connected directly to the ocean to a salt-water pond to desert, all in a few years.
This is what happened to Lakhpat in 1819. The incredibly wealthy town on the border between Sind and Kutch was named such because it was reputed to make a lakh (100,000) kori a day from trade. Yet, almost instantaneously, its fortune reversed and it strangled in the salty desert that suddenly enveloped it.
The strange history of Lakhpat has captured my imagination – and it is a good thing it is so fascinating to me because it will be a central focus at the job for the foreseeable future. My organization is stepping in to compile a history of the town and reinvigorate it by tapping the community Diaspora to invest in the area and historically preserve and reconstruct some buildings to provide for community-driven and sensitive tourism. I will be doing a lot of research on the history, writing a text on religious pluralism there and bringing together scholars in England, India and Pakistan in our research project.
Near where the Indus Valley Civilization was started (one of the oldest ever discovered), Lakhpat also has the political misfortune to be located quite close to the Pakistani border. Yet, because of its situation, it also means that the history is incredibly rich in religious and cultural pluralism.
The two ruling families there worked together and build huge trading empires partially out of the town – trading with Zanzibar, Karachi, Muscat and other key ports on the Indian Ocean, yet one is a prominent Muslim family while the other, Hindu.In 1 km2, there are 42 (!) religious sites representing various forms of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh worship. The Sikh founder, Guru Nanak, stayed here before departing for his visit to Mecca and Medina and many Muslims started their Hajj here centuries ago.
In many ways, the area has captured my imagination because of what today’s Lakhpat stands for in India. 150 or so people live in the town still. From the center of town rise two hideous cell towers, smack dab in the middle of beautiful ruins, and a towering behemoth salt factory, recently abandoned, ominously casts a shadow over the 19th century walls. Army bases pockmark the desert nearby (I had to carry extra ID just in case soldiers noticed the pale guy).
With this kind of development, for big business and for the army, it almost eliminates the possibility for true cultural and historical preservation. Who would go to Machu Picchu if it had satellite dishes on top of it? Yet so much could be done here to tell important stories – stories where Hindus and Muslims lived side by side, where the now rigid border with Pakistan has eliminated the cultural exchange that happened for centuries between Sind and Kutch.
It is an issue we face in the United States as well – through homogenization where the same stores open in Boston, in Chattanooga, in rural Oregon, in Santa Fe. In this process, the reason to visit new places diminishes and the lessons of history, the beauty of varied culture fades. Lakhpat may be too far gone – and too harsh of an area to truly bring back from the edge. But we will certainly work hard to ensure that this isn’t true.