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Sunday, December 9, 2001
Travel

Beyond time on the banks of the Betwa
Arun Gaur

"IS anybody there?" No response. "Is anybody there?" The shutter kept on looking at me in steely silence. "Tell them, I kept my word, and nobody answered," I cried out, my throat becoming hoarser and hoarser ó Walter de la Mare was sticking somewhere inside the fog.

Walls of the Shantinath Temple are studded with innumerable Jain figures 9th century.
Walls of the Shantinath Temple are studded with innumerable Jain figures 9th century.

Three hours back, I had alighted from the tightly-packed train at Lalitpur ó an hourís drive from here. The bus had slashing iron protuberances here and there, jutting out of the wet seats, and the people were smelly, but the dark women on the road wore gorgeous colours, a little more delicate than what one could see in Rajasthan. A little pinkish and bluish, not deep red and oranges.

As the bus jerked, a white-clad womanís veil lifted up ó she was not that dark. The face of the priest-like man besides her was sombre. They never uttered a word. At a halt, they went down. The sombre-faced man silently led the march, while that woman walked on the impressions left by his foot-steps. Her face was still half-veiled, her hair open, and her body swayed to a measured grace behind her man.

"Is anyone there?" I had become arrogant by now: "Tell them, tell Fahien came here, but no one was here. Maybe because of the lapse of two thousand years". But then out of the bushes from behind the rest-house came my man of Betwa. He called himself Yadav. From the high-rise of the Betwa came Yadav. His strong bulls heaved, his carriage creaked, filled with twigs, leaves, and bushes, and little logs gathered from the high-rise cliffs on the banks of the Betwa.

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A divine Jain couple (9th century.)
A divine Jain couple (9th century.)

"Chanakya, Chanakya, I came from the wilderness of Betwa for you. I will be your care-taker.I would register your name, tidy up your room, take the fee, and my sister would bring a host of blown chappatis and pickled potatoes for you". His young sister in her early teens was driving the lumbering carriage. The big brother walked along carrying his wild axe on his shoulders. "Just clearing bushes, where wild boars of Betwa hide to uproot my garden, and just clearing the bushes where snakes hide chasing their favourite mice". He growled: "Take some tea. Iíll fetch it righr away. Iím your travelling companion and would take you tomorrow to the banks of Betwa".

The bulbs stop glimmering in the night. Who bothers at this place for the electric failure? But I should bother. Lying in the darkness of the bed, I can clearly see the murky outlines of jungle sloping upwards through my windows. Within my room, the flickering candles throw weird dancing shapes on walls and ceiling. O how can I stand them! I blow off the candles to sink into the total darkness of Betwa. I cannot sleep well. Something pierces my little finger. I get up groping for my little finger. O mere dream, a mere damn it damn it. It pricks again. O damnation and curse, curse and damnation!

A Yakshini at the entrance of the Shantinath Temple (9th-10th century.)
A Yakshini at the entrance of the Shantinath Temple (9th-10th century.)

At daybreak, I squeeze my finger.Half a drop of blood oozes out, and I yell out: "Yadav, Yadav, are there rats around?" O yes! Poor little ones of Betwa. Cute ones. Those pygmies. Not big fat ugly rats. Did they whet their teeth against you sir? What can they do else sir? Poor ones sir! What can they do else ó except having their little nibblings here and there, and everywhere".

Yadav pushes me out at six. It is important to finish photographing the Vaishnav panel images before the scowl-faced chowkidar gets up. "He is a whimsical irritable fellow. Donít know whether he brooks your presence". In the drizzle, I run to the sixth century red sand-stone ruins, made gentle by the rain. And in that drizzle, Yadav comes running after me, carrying a glass of hot tea. I sip and click, while the crocodile drags the elephant into water, while the yakshinis and gandharvas float over the meditation Vishnu and his alterego ó Arjun. I sip and click while the great god snorts luxuriously over the waters of time, and over the snakes of time. At the door of the temple, war-like Kartikeya has already displaced Ganesh ó his docile ever-obliging brother.

While five temples bubble with 10 incarnations, the male-dwarfs stationed at the base of the walls and the pillars do their best to keep the overhead weight from sinking. Their right knees are a little bent, their right feet tremble a little, and their big ears flap. Their bulging pot-bellies do not limp ó remaining taut. Enormous burden makes them grow wider than taller.But they choose not to grumble about their flattening and their widening.

The islands around the Betwa are picturesque
The islands around the Betwa are picturesque

When their women share their burden, they cut private jokes. Two crooked fingers on their lips, two stubby fingers well-made to curb giggles, to conceal a smile, lest they offend the taskmaster. Dwarfs frolic. Knees touch shoulders. Frolic, frolic, through your bondage! Is not enough enough? Will ever and ever the kings of North trample the dwarfs of the netherlands?

"Yadav, Yadav, let us climb up the fort of Betwa. Let us scour and scourge it. Let us wake up the earth wet with rains and its ancient lores". We go through the broken walls, spattered with the shades of green leaves, delicate, dark and rich. A thousand years back, maybe somewhere around 9th - 10th century, probably around the time when the Chandelas were in their ascendancy, these temples were erected, with their enigmatic Jain yakshinis, Arkarbhi sits on her swan, Chakreshwari has her chakra, while Padmavati is still fumbling for her attributes. Row on row of them, crowding round the great Shantinath. Myriads of miniature gods, replicas after replicas.From the 5th century Gupta dwarfs, to these possible 9th century Jain goddesses and tirathankaras and numerous inscriptions. It is a leap indeed!

A young bird of prey perches on a cliff-top overhanging the Betwa.
A young bird of prey perches on a cliff-top overhanging the Betwa.

Water of the Betwa has turned muddy. It is rising. We move along the high-rise bank. Cliffs and crags, cacti and all that green stuff. The islands are dense and the river water laps them ó all muddy. "It is blue but becomes muddy when the rain comes in July." The boats cross to the other bank and cattle follow them. There are descending stony-passages to the caves on the base of the cliffs. Sometimes water gets into them, when the Betwa rises. There are saptamatrika with Ganesh dug into face of the rock; also the usual goddess (but with unusual bulbous head-dress resembling those of the Jain yakshinis) piercing the bull.

From rock to rock, a young bird of prey, with white splashes on feathers, hops but does not flee, when I approach it. High on the rock it sits mauling its reddish prey within its claws. Right atop the Betwa of Kalidas. Somewhere, the branches of the trees on the bank dip deep into the muddy and swirling Betwa. This baby-bird looks into the depth of the Betwa, where the branches disappear and then twirls its neck to have a quick peep at me. "All this, all this, then Yadav laughs and laughs, "next time I would show you the green snake of the Betwa sleeping in the curl of leaves, swishing on cacti thorn. Not this time. Today he is absconding, I noticed on the way."

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