The Gita Upasana Sthal is crowded. The marble under my feet is smouldering, the sun overhead is ablaze. I am parched and look for a little shade in the temple that marks the birth place of the Bhagavad Gita. Karma’s quite the last thing on my mind right now; I need to catch my breath.

Peace reigns: (top to bottom) A temple by the Brahma Sarovar; the Kalpana Chawla Planetarium; and the Gita Updesh Sthal, considered the birthplace of the Bhagavad Gita. Photo: Preeti Verma Lal

I look at the banyan tree that has stood here since Krishna taught Arjun about karma. Or, so everyone believes. Where the old man stands, his hands trembling, there once stood Krishna coaxing Arjun to fight for truth, to vanquish injustice and to do his duty, the conversation that comprises 700 shlokas (verses) of the Bhagavad Gita.

I stand in a corner and imagine the battlefield, teeming with the armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, their caparisoned horses in war mode, swords glistening in the sun, armours bloodied by arrows raining. There is peace now; all I hear are innocent giggles and the whisper of a million prayers. A bunch of children from a neighbouring school are on their day out, they know Krishna from television serials. For the pilgrims, Krishna is truth; they would never question the almighty.

For all the worship in the air, the preamble is strikingly ordinary. The road between Delhi and Kurukshetra is crowded, bustling with shops selling basmati rice, panchranga (mixed) pickle and handloom. It’d be easy to overlook the epic battlefield as yet another wayside town were it not for the ubiquitous name of the lord: from the medical store to the school to the juice bar, everything is named after Krishna.

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Kurukshetra is crowded every day, but it is the annual Gita Jayanti, which is on 9 December this year, that has the town bursting at the seams: one million pilgrims are added to the resident population of around the same number. No other place on earth spares a day for the Bhagavad Gita and the Jayanti sees the largest congregation of Gita and Sanskrit scholars from around the world. That day, there’s not a vacant inch on the veranda near the Brahma Sarovar, a huge tank said to have been built by Brahma much before the epic battle, and not a soul is untouched by piety. When the rays shimmer in the placid waters of the Sarovar and everyday din is drowned in the chanting of the shlokas, even the sinner begins to believe in virtue.

I walk to the Brahma Sarovar. My feet are sore and I sit down with a sigh of relief. Purohit (priest) Krishna Nand takes pity on me; he pulls out his rickety charpoy (cot) and offers water in a gleaming brass glass. I wonder aloud why Nand is here, but the pandit has no answers; he thinks Kurukshetra is his destiny. Nand launches into an analysis of the rights and wrongs of the modern world. I think of the 1.5 million devotees who take a dip in the Sarovar on a solar eclipse: As if on cue, Nand says that a dip in the Sarovar is equivalent to a thousand ashwamedha yajnas (horse sacrifices). Perhaps he sees the scepticism in my eyes; he recites a shloka and gifts me a dog-eared book, Prem Dhan (The Wealth of Love), a collection of pedantic verses on the virtues of love and piety.

As I walk away, I bump into sadhu Mungfali Giri, who has made the cemented bank of Sannihit Sarovar—believed to be the permanent abode of Vishnu—his temporary home. The sadhu looks boyish, his eyes stoned, his hair matted. He is stoic: Though he sees bodies burning to ash every day at the holy site, he refuses to talk about death. He’d rather hold forth on the temple of Narkatari. “This," he says, “is where Bhishma Pitamah lay on a bed of arrows while the battle waged all around him. Now this is where I pray every day."

Look anywhere, and everything harks back to the Mahabharat, as if that is the town’s raison d’etre. But a few miles away, the dome of the tomb of Sufi saint Abdul Karim emerges out of the sky. Popularly known as Sheikh Chaheli, he was the spiritual teacher of Mughal prince Dara Shikoh. Built of buff sandstone, the mausoleum’s cenotaphs and the arches create a niche of peace. Faith acquires yet another colour in Gurudwara Raj Ghat, commemorating Guru Gobind Singh’s visit to the solar eclipse fair some 300 years ago.

That day, I straddle eons, from the battle fought 5,000 years ago to the present, when a dusty town is becoming breathless trying to catch up with the times. I am not sure about salvation or sin, but it’s easy to keep the faith in Kurukshetra.

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