Published in Devlok, sunday Midday, November 14, 2010

Mumbaikars are generally considered to be more down to earth as compared to their Delhi counterparts. However, Mumbai’s snobbery explodes when there is talk of location and addresses in the city. South Mumbai is considered superior to North Mumbai, the Western suburbs are considered more ‘happening’ than the Eastern suburbs. It is a case where geography provides the lever to feel superior in a crowd. One can have acres of land for one’s mansion in the northern or eastern part of Mumbai, but no, we want tiny flats in the narrowest corner of the south or west. Arguments offered are always logical (electric supply, malls, cleanliness, traffic) but the reasons are actually emotional. When I live at the right address, I feel good about myself, I feel elevated as I belong to a more special group or place, never mind if it means being trapped in traffic for hours on the way to the office, or the roads outside my window are so noisy. And it is this desire to feel significant through our apartments that pushes the realty prices even higher.

Humans have always given meaning to directions and locations. In fact, this is what gives rise to the occult art of geomancy or Vastu-shastra, where directions are associated with power.

It all begins with the Pole Star, the one star around which the whole sky moves. It is the only thing stationery in our gaze. It marks the northern direction which then comes to symbolize steadfast and still spiritual reality. This is why Shiva, the ascetic form of God, sits  in the North, facing the south which is why he is called Dakshina-murti. He is attended by Kubera, the king of Yakshas, who serves as the local Diggapala or guardian of the direction.

South then becomes the direction of change and death and is associated with Yama, god of death. In cities, crematoriums were traditionally kept to the south. South is also the realm of the Goddess. From the south she comes which is why she is called Dakshina-Kali. Her father, Daksha, sits in the south, facing north, performing yagna, enjoying the impermanence of worldly life.

In the Ramayana, Ram’s journey from North to South can also be seen metaphorically, though many prefer to see it as literal. Metaphorically it is the movement of God from the land of the Pole Star down towards the realm of the Goddess, where flows the Milky Way. As he moves south, animals discover divinity, a monkey becomes Hanuman. In the end, he returns north and she returns south. It is the movement from stillness to movement, from movement back to stillness, from soul to flesh and then back to soul. Thus geography provides vocabulary to express ancient Indian metaphysical ideas.

East has Indra as the Diggapala; it is the land of the rising sun. Indra is associated with rain and fresh water. West is the land of the setting sun and is governed by Varuna, the god of the sea, hence salt water. Lakshmi is born in the West in the sea and moves towards the East where there is fresh water to irrigate fields.

North associated with Kubera and Shiva and the Pole Star thus represents stillness and East associated with Indra and the rising sun and fresh water represents growth. This makes North East the direction associated with permanence (North) and growth (East). North East then becomes the most sacred direction in the mythic landscape of India – the Ishanya-Kona. Will Mumbaikars take this thought metaphorically or literally, I wonder?