Visit with Giri Bala
By Richard Wright
Inner Culture, October 1936
At 4:30 a.m., Soshi Babu shook my shoulder and announced: “Swamiji wants you to get ready to go to Bankura Balsura, about 125 miles from Ranchi. So, after the usual oblations and delays we (Swamiji, three other disciples, and myself) started at 6:30 a.m. A beautiful hilly road wound in and about the hillsides, with a cool breeze slipping in through the windows, urging me on to greater speed. How delightfully cool it was; such a sharp contrast to the memorable journey from Calcutta to Ranchi a few days back.
The scenery was very picturesque, with wooded hillocks, terrace rice fields, shaded serpentine roads, occasionally crossing and recrossing the midget railway running between Ranchi and Purulia, energetic natives bearing burdens of logs, straw, and what-not, and straggling bullock carts, rolling and heaving like a ship at sea—a picturesque sight are these skeleton, two-wheeled carts drawn by small, equally-skeletal, hump-shouldered bullocks, yoked by a long pole resting on a ridge in the necks. And such carts are forlornly tossing to and fro on the ruts of the road and hesitatingly moving aside as we fiercely honk our way. At 10:30 a.m. we arrived at Purulia, met the brother of Giri Bala, finished curry and luchis in a street shop, and were again on our way to Bankura.
Our way led out into plains, with baked rice fields suggesting the poverty of the people, and still these under-nourished natives are obliged to work endlessly from dawn to dusk, yet perhaps a bit leisurely or lazily. Along the way we passed many groups of natives repairing the road, breaking stones, bearing baskets of rocks and broken stones, with many village girls burdened with a baby in a hammock-like swing slung from the shoulders and strapped at the side, who were bearing loads of stones. Others were sitting in the shade of a tree, smashing stones.
On and on we paced over this dry, suntortured area (luckily we were blessed with a breeze cooled by yesterday’s clouds.) Finally we arrived at Bankura. After a lavish meal at Soshi’s family house in this old small town, we set out for Biur, in the depths of the Bankura District, to fulfill a pilgrimage to visit Giri Bala, who is said to have fasted for many years. The trip was our first real experience of penetrating into the heart of the interior, where the rest of the world may go by, unknown, with no regrets.
Our way twisted and turned through groves of palms, through unspoiled, unpolluted, untouched villages, nestling beneath a forest of trees. Very fascinating are these villages of thatched mud huts, decorated with the name of a God on each door, with many small naked children, boys and girls, innocently playing around, pausing only to stare at or run wildly toward this big black bullockbus cart tearing madly around and through their village. The women folk merely peeped from the shadows of their homes at the moving auto, while the men leisurely lolled beneath the trees on the roadside, staring nonchalantly. We passed very quaint villages, with the villagers all bathing in the community tank and the women carrying to their homes large brass and earthen jars, filled with water.
(As I am writing these notes, Swamiji is chanting and playing the harmonium with a small gathering of eager souls sitting on the floor in rapturous silence.)
The road led us a merry chase over rut and ridge, finally growing worse and worse as we neared the minute village of Biur. We bounced and tossed over the jutting causeways, dipped into small streams, detoured around a new, unfinished caveway, slithered across dry, sandy river beds, and toward 5:30 p.m., after going some 48 miles from Bankura, we arrived at Biur, a very quaint village, isolated in the interior of Bankura District and hidden in the protection of palms and dense growths, and isolated from strangers during the rainy season, when the rivers are raging torrents and the roads as serpent-like as the mad rivers.
Asking for a guide from among a party of worshippers on their way from a temple, we were besieged with hordes of small, bare bodies and scantily clad lads climbing on the sides of the car, eager to show us Giri Bala’s hut.
And now our first experience penetrating into an interior by motor car. The road led toward a grove of palms sheltering a mass of mud huts, but not until it tipped the car at a sharp angle, tossed it up and dropped it down; this narrow path led to the trees, around the trees, around tanks, over ridges, down banks, and on into the bowels of the mud hut village.
First, the car became anchored on a clump of earth, requiring a lift of earth clods, then it was stopped by clumps of trees in the middle of the cart track, necessitating a detour down into a dry tank, which also required some scraping, edging, and leveling; again and again the road appeared to be impossible, but the pilgrimage must go on, so a native lad cleared the debris away while hundreds of natives stared at us.
Soon we were again threading our way along the twisting, shifting, rutted road, following the two ruts of antiquity. The car leaned to one side, all of us got out, pushed the car along, all got in, and we were off again through the trees with women staring at us from their homes and men trailing along beside and behind us, with children scampering and racing to swell the procession-around clumps of earth, clumps of brush, and over ruts and tiny hillocks, always pausing to clear the way by scraping, edging, etc. Several times it seemed as if we could go no farther, but with a little edging and leveling we were able to go over this sharp ridge, over this clump, over this rut, and so forth. Perhaps ours was the first car to traverse these roads, penetrating so far. Bullock carts are far more common.
What a sensation we created—a white man pioneering in a big black car right into the isolated fastness of their village, destroying the privacy and sanctity of their cluster of thatched mud huts.
Halting within a few hundred feet of her home, (Giri Bala’s) we felt that our pilgrimage was reaching fulfillment, after a long struggle, a 15,000-mile journey, and a rough jaunt at the end. We approached a large, two-storied building, quite a dominating building among these mud huts, with its brick and plastered construction. It appeared to be rather misplaced amidst the humble, ancient mud huts, and it was under the process of repairs, for the typically Indian scaffolding of bamboo was skeletoned around it.
With feverish anticipation and suppressed rejoicing, we finally stood before her open doors, awaiting her appearance—the climax to a long, eventful journey, and how curious the simple village folk were, young and old, women aloof somewhat, but just as anxious, and men and boys right at our heels staring with intense curiosity at this spectacle.
Suddenly, from the darkness within, there appeared at the simple open doors a short figure hidden behind a cloth of dull goldish silk of indigenous manufacture, typical of Indian women. She drew forward hesitatingly and modestly, peering slightly from beneath the headfold of her “swadeshi” cloth. Her eyes glistened like glowing coals in the shadows of her headpiece and we were enamored by a most benevolent and kindly face—a face of realization and understanding. Meekly she approached and graciously assented to our snapping a few pictures in the “still” and “movie.” Patiently and shyly she endured our photo techniques and adjustments, etc. Most motherly was her expression as she stood before us, clad in the simple looseflowing cloth of plain yellowish silk, with only her downcast face and her tiny feet showing, a face of rare peace and innocent poise; a childish, quivering lip, a feminine nose, narrow, sparkling eyes, and a wistful smile.
Humbly she took her seat on the verandah, crosslegged, hands in pronam gesture, and with silent patience she answered our questions and comments. Very briefly, in one or two words, often just “yes” or “no,” and very quietly, she answered only those questions which did not refer to the teachings; on those questions which delved into her secret reservoir, she remained mute and distant. Several questions caused her to lapse into deep silence and she paused as if in deep reflection before answering our questions. Her voice was low and reserved, her spirit deep and serene.
But scientific reasons led us to ask:
1. “Is it true that you have fasted for 52 years? We want to hear this from your own lips.” After a minute of reflection she said: “Yes, since I was 12 years, 4 months old, and I am now 68.” (Her answers, of course, were given in Bengali and interpreted for me by Swamiji.)
2. Q. “How is it explained?” A. “I had a contact with a Sadhu, who gave me a Kriya.”
3. Q. “Do you not even drink water?” A. “I have no necessity of drinking water. If drinking water were a necessity, it could not be resisted.
4. Q. “What is this Kriya method?” A. “I am forbidden by the Sadhus to teach this Kriya to others.”
5. Q. “Have you made up your mind never to teach it to others?” Her only answer was a blank silence.
6. In answer to the many other questions asked by Swamiji she gave the following: “The Sadhu is my Sanyasini Guru. I also have a domestic Guru. My fasting is not due to medicines, but to the power of the mind. My practice consists of chanting a mantra and practicing a certain breath control (very difficult for ordinary persons). I had this power from my previous birth. I haven’t taught anybody—have no willingness to do so. I have no disease, nor experience of any.”
7. Q. “Do you know how long you will live?” No answer.
Thrice the Maharaja of Burdwan took her to his palace for visits of two months, 20 days, and 15 days in order to test her. She has no hunger or thirst. Feels only slight pain when injured. Can control her heart and breathing. Has no excretions. The sunlight and air are somewhat necessary. Was married; no children. Meditates at night. Attends to domestic duties daily. Slightly feels the change in climate from season to season. Often sees her Guru in visions, as well as other great souls. Met her Guru at the age of 12 years, 4 months, when at a bathing ghat on the Ganges at Nawab, near Itshapure, as he materialized before her and gave her the teachings. On that day her domestic Guru initiated her. She sleeps very little, for sleeping and waking are the same to her.
By this time dusk had closed down around us like an immense veil. Many shadows, cast by a small kerosene lantern, danced in the trees above us, reflections of some thirty natives, all’ eagerly and curiously watching the proceeding.
As we paid our homage to the enlightened one, others crowded about and pronamed at Swamiji’s feet; Giri Bala also followed suit, showing her humbleness, the sign of a realized one. So touching was the scene that it is even now emblazoned on the memory. When great ones meet, the humbleness is a joy to behold.
Regretfully we parted, but joyous for the experience.