People from central Nepal have always passed through Gorakhpur for the town has long been a rural hub and railway junction. Today, as the internal conflict sends more and more Nepalis fleeing to India, this traffic has grown. But few linger in this city of eastern Uttar Pradesh especially after the Indian security forces have started looking out for Nepalis with possible Maoist connections.
Trains leave Gorakhpur now for just about anywhere in India, and Lucknow and Banaras are no longer necessary transfer stops for many travellers. This newfound connectivity has accelerated a boom in industry and business, and nursing homes, too, have sprung up in great numbers to balance the void of medical facilities in the surrounding rural areas of eastern UP.
Nepalis who find themselves in Gorakhpur flock to worship the newly installed white marble image of Gorakhnath in his temple (see box). Many are pilgrims of a different kind, arriving here from Arghakhanchi, Palpa, Gulmi and other districts of central Nepal in search of medical care. Many stay at Bhaktalal Hirachan's Nepali Lodge in the central thoroughfare of Golghar. Long a refuge for Nepalis in Gorakhpur, Hirachan's simple lodge has dormitory-style rooms, common bathrooms and serves Thakali-style, some of the best Nepali food south of the border.
Many Maoists, too, used to come to Gorakhpur for treatment but with the Indian government's crackdown, they now stay away from the city proper. The security alert has made Gorakhpur an unfriendly place for Nepalis and young Nepali men in particular are now vulnerable to searches and interrogation. In the past few years, many innocent people who arrived here fleeing Maoist recruitment in their home villages have been hassled or arrested.
Most street side restaurants in Gorakhpur have Nepali staffs who have been working here for a number of years but many new arrivals no longer feel safe in the city. The search for security and work now takes them deeper into the vast north Indian heartland and further away from home.
At Gorakhpur's railway station, hundreds of Nepalis can be seen at any given time, waiting on the platforms for trains headed in every which direction. Outside, there are those who are returning on holiday or furlough, piling their bags on to buses and jeeps headed for Sunauli and Bhairawa. If not wearing Dhaka topis, men from Nepal's hills at least can be recognised by their recently adopted custom of carrying backpacks. One such backpacker who was waiting for the train on Platform One on a recent morning was Kumar Bahadur Khadga, headed back after a vacation in Gulmi to Bhubaneswar in Orissa, where he was employed in the Orissa Armed Police. His unit has 1,500 Gorkhalis, with Nepali authority right up to the level of assistant commander, he said. His father had been in the same line before him and it was easy for him to follow in his father's footsteps as the Nepali division recruits for itself through networks of family and friends.
Many other Nepalis are not as forthcoming and hesitate to talk to strangers. No more do they sit down and swap names of hometowns, as many have fled under conditions of extreme hardship and threats. When they do talk, their voices carry a patent longing for peace and home.
Many Nepali pilgrims still come to Gorakhpur to visit the Gorakhnath Temple. The shrine is the city's biggest owner of business and real estate, and has emerged of late as an important and active political force. The man in charge of the temple's affairs, the 32-year old Yogi Adityanath, is also a Bharatiya Janta Party Member of Parliament who has adopted an ultra-conservative Hindutwa agenda. Despite decades of effort on the part of the Rashtriya Shiva Sena and others, Hindu nationalism had not seemed to have caught on in Gorakhpur. Many attribute this to a legacy that goes back to the Independence Movement and its secular traditions. But now, with Adityanath's increasing clout and the ubiquitous presence of 'Hindu Yuva Bahini's promoting religious nationalism, this town not far from our border could develop into a communal hotspot.
There has always been much travel and transportation of goods between central Nepal and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Economic interaction, however, has not developed beyond that traffic. As Gorakhpur evolves from a rural backwater town to a more vibrant economic hub, it can be expected that economic relationships will evolve to benefit people both sides of the border. For the present, however, the city remains a transit point and a place for Nepal's pilgrims and ailing.
Gorakhpur's Kathmandu connection
Gorakhpur and Kathmandu Valley are linked on the borderlines of history and myth. The ascetic Gorakhnath, apparently a real person, is supposed to have been a pupil of none other than our own Machindranath about 1,000 years ago.
Master and pupil may have arrived in Kathmandu on one of the waves of immigration that followed the destruction of Indian Buddhist establishments by invaders. Gorakhnath is fabled to have wreaked havoc in Kathmandu Valley when, having charmed all nine of the chief naags into a well, he refused to budge as he sat atop it in meditation. Immobilised, the naags were not able to bring rains to the valley and a massive drought and famine ensued. After 12 years, when Machindranath was called in from Assam, Gorakhnath was finally obliged to rise out of respect for his guru. The naags then crept away and it immediately began to pour. Gorakhnath's arrival in Kathmandu is still celebrated every spring as part of the much older chariot festival of Bungdyo.
It is this same Gorakhnath who arrived in the town of Ramgram in the plains a year after Timur's invasion of the Gangetic basin. On the spot where Gorakhpur's Gorakhnath temple now stands, he is said to have performed other impressive yogic austerities.
Drought and all, worship of Gorakhnath reached a height in Kathmandu in the 14th and 15th centuries. It then went into decline, but revived again with the arrival of the Gorkhalis, who revered the yogi as the patron saint of Gorkha. The temple remains an important pilgrimage spot for Nepali Hindus from central Nepal and beyond.