Jain cuisine is one of India’s subtle culinary treasures, from traditional papad-methi ki sabzi to innovative Jain pizza. Equally cherished is Muslim cuisine, from biriyanis and kababs to mutton korma. Both have the cultural right to exist. The ongoing veg versus non-veg standoff between the two communities in the tiny town of Palitana in Gujarat is therefore distressing for all.
Palitana is a celebrated Jain pilgrim centre of historical and spiritual importance and all sensitive and considerate non-vegetarians, be they Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, will understand and make allowance for the fact that committed vegetarians, especially those living in a temple town or coming on yatra, could find the stark sight and strong smell of carcasses nauseating. It may well be that many meat-eaters themselves, while enjoying the final result on their plates, are unable to watch the start of the process, the gory sight and pitiful cries of animals being slaughtered in abattoirs. As the Hindi saying goes, banti mithai aur janti lugaai (the sight of sweets being made or women in labour) is best avoided, although the result is welcome. However, 25 per cent of Palitana’s population is reportedly Muslim. The diet of this community also deserves respect and accommodation.
While the food habits of Jains and Muslims represent two diametrically opposed ends of the dietary spectrum, this need not be a cultural hurdle to coexistence. Ours is an old civilisation with plenty of experience in finding solutions to complicated situations. Moreover, when good intentions back a pragmatic approach, there is nothing that cannot be achieved with tact, empathy and grace.
A charming example of affectionate and respectful mutuality comes to mind from the annals of Indian classical music—which, we may like to note, is a deep slice of national life that has consistently proved a realm of harmony between creeds. (How foundational this unity is may be gauged from one poignant fact: there are seven styles of reciting the Quran and the ragas in them are known to be the auspicious scales of Bhairav, Bhairavi and Kalaangra, also called the Arabic Bhairavi. And as all know, Raag Bhairavi is the holy of holies, revered in India since ancient times as the adi raga or the first and prime raga, attributed in myth to Lord Shiva himself.)
Impelled by this harmonious spirit, the spiritually evolved Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana is known to have arrived decades ago in Madras and instead of heading to the house of a fellow Muslim, unselfconsciously proceeded to the home of Carnatic singer M.L. Vasanthakumari (MLV) because he preferred to stay with a fellow musician. His hosts had two dharmas to reconcile: their own strict vegetarianism and atithi dharma, the sacred duty of properly caring for a guest. MLV’s husband found the solution: ustadji was comfortably accommodated upstairs and the non-vegetarian food that he relished daily was arranged for from a so-called ‘military mess’ nearby and sent up the backstairs. It was reportedly a delightful visit.
If we look again at the Palitana situation, it seems to have begun as a protest by the Jain monks against illegal abattoirs. It’s part of a campaign Jain organisations across the state have been running. This suggests that slaughterhouses—at least some of them illegal—may have proliferated over the years in Palitana to become increasingly in your face. However, if the Jains, who are renowned as a learned, gentle community, relax their present stand of wanting a total ban on eggs and meat within municipal limits and the Muslims, whose daily greeting is ‘Peace be upon you’, reciprocally remove the illegal slaughterhouses and on their own decide to keep authorised meat shops away from the approach to the Shatrunjaya hills, where the historic Jain temples are located, what a nagarik solution that could be!
Renuka Narayanan is the author of Book of Prayer, Viking; E-mail your columnist: vanamalika [AT] gmail [DOT] com