“If the temple bells are made of carved stone, then can you hear the sound of their ringing?” asked the schoolmaster of his wards sitting under the canopy of a 100-year-old banyan tree. The 35-year-old fair-complexioned Panditji had paan-stained teeth in contrast to an excellent physique and sported a Bollywood variety of green-lensed rimless dark glasses, Shah Rukh Khan-style, on the bridge of his nose.
He swished the cane in his hand to frighten the boys and girls before dragging his chair closer to the front row of his students. The children looked vacantly at one another before some crows flew past and distracted them. A huge shiny-white Volvo bus had stopped outside the school boundary wall. The squelching of its pressurized shock absorbers had made the crows take flight.
The children and Panditji waited for the bus doors to open so as to disgorge the foreign tourists on their visit to Khajuraho. The foreigners, for the villagers, were a perpetual source of entertainment. The temporary visitors found the carvings, temples, local shopping sprees and cultural performances an amusing diversion.
Colourfully dressed men and women emerged from their air-conditioned comfort into the heat and dust of the village. A team of ushers appeared carrying white-topped beach umbrellas to escort the tourists to the nearby hotel. As always, Panditji straightened his dark glasses to stare at the shapely pink female flesh on display. When a wealth of erotic statues was easily available in his village, it still fascinated him to daydream about the firm bodies of the women tourists under their skimpy clothes.
As the last of the tourists marched into the gates of the hotel, Panditji came back to his senses. He realized that this touristy interruption of the class had upset the schedule. He headed for the gong hanging from an iron chain and clanged it to announce the closure of the school for the day. The students jostled with one another as they jumped up joyfully and noisily collected their bags to set off for their homes earlier than usual.
Only Ramesh, one of the students, kept sitting. Panditji could ring the school bell but the temple bells did not produce any music. One was made of iron and the other of stone. But Ramesh knew that stone could also sing.
He used to hear his mother, Roopvati, lustily singing Bollywood filmi numbers when she scrubbed soap on her body while bathing in the courtyard in the back verandah of their house. His imagination started building up.
Her partially-covered body, Ramesh had slyly seen, was as curvaceous as the statues of the surasundaris (divine nymphs) on the outer walls of the Kandariya Mahadev temple. Ramesh had never seen such a beautiful woman as his mother in the entire village. Sometimes, when his imagination would get the better of him, he used to imagine that the father-grandfather duo had stolen a statue from the museum.
His father, Mithila Prasad, was a sarkari tourist guide. His late grandfather, Som Prasad, was a sarkari chowkidar at the old museum which had now been rebuilt. So one night many years ago, Mithila Prasad helped by Som Prasad, took a small piece of their work home and, to take the boredom of his sarkari duties, his father in cohorts with the ojha brought the sarkari statue to life. Or so, Ramesh dreamt.
The museum did not miss the stolen statue as they had eight times the number of artefacts and statues than they could display. So what was one voluptuous erotica less? His father was accustomed to taking tourists around the temples, repeating his narratives daily to them and seeing their eyes bulge in excitement at the carvings of love-making. But they were outsiders. Not the kind who were accustomed to seeing erotic carvings day in and day out.
All this was what Ramesh dreamt about especially after his father told him to sleep under the neem tree at night, saying “Kasam se, neem to teri sehat ke liye bahut achcha hota hai. Tu kal subah taaza ho jayega.” (“I swear the neem tree is very good for your health. You will feel like a new man tomorrow morning.”). Ramesh never felt the difference but he would note the glow on his mother’s face when she came to wake him up the morning after.
Back to the Present.
Panditji, friend of Som Prasad, pulling up his greying dhoti had started shuffling out of the schoolyard when he spotted Ramesh day-dreaming. “Ghar jaa be. Maa teri intezar k-k-k-kar rahi hogi,” (“Go home. Your mother must be waiting”) he yelled in exasperation. As Ramesh was out of sight, Panditji’s thoughts were about the statuesque Roopvati. Rubbing his hands, he moaned in pleasurable anticipation.
“All the children have reached home and you are still dawdling away,” Roopvati lovingly upbraided her only son when he reached home, a 30-minute walk from school. He dumped his school bag and went to the tap outside and washed his hands and face. “Another busload of tourists has arrived,” he announced to his mother. The news conveyed was good for his parents’ prosperity, he was aware of that.
Roopvati served him his favourite bafla (wheat cake) and desi ghee with daal. He loved to be with his mother every afternoon. Her kajal-lined eyes, dark-red round tikka in the centre of her forehead, her oiled braids tightly knotted and sari pallav crisply tucked into her waistline reminded him of the dancers who performed every year in March at the Khajuraho Dance Festival.
The women dancers wore colourful silk saris, coated their lips in different shades of red and wove a magic with their intricate dances every night for a week. He tried to imagine his mother pirouetting on the stage with the temple in the background. Under the dark sky for the duration of the Dance Festival, his mother, father and Panditji, would clap along with the appreciative audience at the end of every performance conducted in the open-air on a temple chabutra (pedestal).
His father would be very busy during the winter season. “It is the tourist season. The only time for me to make lots of money,” he would explain to Ramesh who, on a school holiday, had happened to accompany him on one of his guide assignments. His father had given the usual glib information, Ramesh boringly thought, to that batch of tourists that he gave to all the others.
“The entire temple complex is beautifully built and decorated. Khajuraho is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Of the 85 temples originally built by the Chandela dynasty between 900 A.D. and 1130 A.D., only 25 remain. Please do not miss the erotic carvings that depict men, women, and animals engaging in. . .” That would be the moment when the Indian women giggled, covered their heads and stepped away from their menfolk. The men would converge towards his father and, with a smirk on their faces, pile questions to his father.
“The temples are an everyday sight for me,” Ramesh wanted to tell the gawking shehri-babus (city-dwellers). “What I see daily on my way to school and back is boring, very boring,” he wanted to add. But he held his tongue for the sake of the dawat (treat) his father always gave him at the end of a day’s rewarding work.
In the evening as the tired tourists left for their hotels, his father would take him to Panditji’s house next to the school to chat with his jigri dost (friend) about the day-to-day struggles, rising prices, shrinking incomes and life in general. After smoking a few biris (rolled tobacco cigarettes), the friends took leave.
The treat came on their way home. On the opposite side of the Western Group of Temples stood the landmark Raja Café. Som Prasad had seen the café when it was an ordinary structure with two firangi (foreigners), the founders, trying to run the café. The two women, friends of the Maharaja of Chhatarpur, had bought it from him in the late 1970s. In the early years, Khajuraho had not been on the must-visit list of tourists as it was today. Business was booming thanks to tourism promotion by the Madhya Pradesh Government.
The treat comprised of a glass of cold coffee, one each for the father and son, from the establishment as it was part of the biradari (community) of hospitality-keepers. When the two finished their cold drinks, noisily slurping up the last dregs at the bottom of their glasses with plastic straws, a waiter approached them and shyly placed a plastic bucket of the day’s leftover vegetarian dish with an indication that this was a “present” from the manager.
The father and son salaamed (thanked) the manager, gifting him and his family “a long life,” and, with the spoils of the day, exultantly headed for home. As they walked, they kept talking about the ways that they would give Roopvati a surprise with the present.
During the 30-minute long walk home, Som Prasad entertained his son by telling him the names of the hotels whose lights twinkled all night long in that sleepy village. The Lalit Temple View, Radisson Jas Hotel, Ramada, Clarks, Syna Heritage Hotel and Hammeer Garhi Heritage Resort were places from where the tourists gave him handsome tips.
In the tourist offseason, when the visitors were from various Indian States, he would have to seek his customers from the unbranded cheap hotels. Their behaviours disgusted him, he told Ramesh. They stained the temple premises with paan and tobacco-laden spit, threw emptied food pouches anywhere and ogled at the women tourists.
What he did not reveal to Ramesh was that these same men paid him handsomely for the “underhand” dealings like obtaining hashish for their evening pleasure and rounding up the local “darlings” for their nightly fantasy. But then, he reasoned, the statues at the temples celebrated womanhood.
They were heavily ornamented broad-hipped, well-proportionate apsaras (women) on the walls, the surasundaris frozen in stone as they put on makeup, washed their hair, played games and pouted as they looked into the mirror. Little did the father know that Ramesh had moved into a different world. Starry-eyed, he was imagining that one of those divine nymphs had, through a miracle, been restored in the form of his mother.
Ramesh’s grandfather, once part of the museum security, had been a terrific raconteur. “Cunningham sa’ab ka kamal thaa jo Khajuraho unki godi mein aan pada” (“Khajuraho landed in Cunningham sahib’s laps due to his achievements”).
Ramesh was given many a lesson in history when Dadaji would tell him that as a young boy he used to climb the khajur (date palm) trees after which the village was named. Today, hardly any trees were standing which had added to the old man’s distress.
“Mandir to sahi hain, murtiyan bhi khadi hain, magar khajur ka satyanas ho gaya” (“The temples are fine, the statues are still standing but the dates have gone to hell”), was Dadaji’s lament till his dying day. His Dadaji also talked about Shakti, Energy, the Primordial Power and Tantricism but these subjects went over Ramesh’s head.
What Ramesh did learn from Dadaji was that Khajuraho’s sculptures were made in five categories. The first category comprised of cult images conforming to canonical formulae. The second category was of family divinities and minor deities less formal than the cult images. These two categories included images of significant symbolism.
More interestingly, the third category consisted of the surasundaris, the finest and most numerous sculptures at Khajuraho. Decorated in jewellery and fine garments, they represented youthful, charming women portraying common human moods, emotions and activities.
The fourth category was of miscellaneous sculptures which included erotic themes. These were some of the finest sculptural compositions as they almost brought stone to life with their sensuousness. The fifth category consisted of sculptures of animals including the Sardula, a heraldic beast represented as a horned lion.
Back to the Present.
Panditji came one winter Sunday morning when Som Prasad was leaving for an appointment with a group of tourists. “Arre bhai, kya time chuna tumne. Mein to jaa raha hoon lekin tum chai-vai pee ke hee jana” (“What a time to come. But do stop and have some tea”), Som told his friend.
Panditji, carrying a large steel tiffin box in his hand, replied “Chai to piyunga hee, khana bhi khaonga. Kal raat dher sara murgha pakaya tha” (“I’ll have tea and a meal as well. I cooked a chicken last night”) showing off the tiffin box.
Panditji lived alone as his wife and children stayed in Jhansi with his parents. On weekends, he would occasionally spend some time at Som Prasad’s house. “Mein to sham ko hee lautunga. Kuchh mere liye bhi bacha lena” (“I’ll return by the evening. Save some for me as well”), Som Prasad said as he hurried away.
Roopvati stepped out of the shadows of the house. Wearing a bright red sari and white blouse, she provocatively snatched away the tiffin box. “Ab aur kiska murgha banaoge” (“And who else’s chicken will you cook”), she said, arching her eyebrows at Panditji and slowly biting her lower lip. Opening the tiffin box, she let out a “Kya kamal kar diya Pandit tune” (“What wonders have you done Pandit”).
The visitor smiled at the compliment as Ramesh reached his mother’s side to take a look at the chicken pieces floating in red oily masala. Looking outside to see her husband’s disappearing back, Roopvati chided Panditji. “Magar hara dhaniye ke bina pura mazaa nahin aayegaa” (“But the full flavours will come only with fresh green coriander leaves”).
She took out a one-rupee note from her blouse and handed it to Ramesh with instructions to go to the vegetable market and get dhaniya patta. As he was going to the market, a shopping list was quickly prepared by Roopvati and Panditji. The three entered the house and Ramesh got 20 more rupees along with the list. Panditji handed over a fiver and said, “Fruit chaat bhi kha ke aana” (“Have some fruit chaat as well”).
Just as he stepped out of the main door, he heard his mother, fidgeting with her blouse, tell Panditji “Aaoo, tumko meethe khajur khilati hun” (And I’ll give you some sweet dates”). From where, he kept wondering all the way to the market, did his mother get the khajur. He recalled his Dadaji telling him “… magar khajur ka satyanas ho gaya.” Dadaji was wrong, he surmised.