I had such a great time in Datia this morning. The palace had enamoured me completely. Nothing now can spoil the rest of the day. In this ebullient mood I set out to Sonagiri, a village near Datia famed for its hill of Jain temples. I did not find any proper restaurant at Datia for a clean lunch. I am going to try getting something at Sonagiri. A traffic policeman guides me to a shared auto-rickshaw and tells the driver where to drop me off. I would have to change to another vehicle to Sonagiri.
There is shared tempo waiting to leave for Sonagiri. It is already packed with people and goods. The good thing about getting into a packed transport is that the driver will wait no more. We leave Datia, the tempo chugging slowly on bumpy roads. There is a couple sitting opposite me. The lady has covered her face with her saree. There is a little boy returning from school. There are two farm workers sitting with their sacks. These five sacks of farm fertilizers cover the floor completely. My knees are tucked up to me chest as my feet tiptoe uncomfortably on these sacks. An old sardar looks at me with interest. His bright white beard is beautifully offset with a blue turban. His wizened eyes see something in my face I am unable to comprehend. There is only one thing better than travelling with the Indian crowds – become a part of it.
When I arrive at Sonagiri, I am the only one left in the tempo. It is half past one in the afternoon. Except for a sundry shop at one corner and a couple of tea stalls at the other, the place is dead. Is it always like this? Perhaps it is the lazy afternoon hour that people of the countryside deserve after a hard morning’s work.
‘Is there a place for a meal here?’ I ask the shop owner. He is a young man, lanky and tall. He wears a clean full-sleaved non-designer shirt which is untucked. Not tucking a shirt is not a sloppy sign. It is the style here as in many parts of India.
‘The dharmshala there gives out free food but it closes by noon. It’s too late to get a thali meal now. You can ask there for some samosas and kachauris.’ He points to the tea stalls down the road. The dharmshala across the road is silent. I don’t bother to enquire there.
I don’t really know what a kachauri is but it is time to try one. So I order a couple of kachauris. The guy lights up his stove. He brings out an aluminium vessel from an unseen corner and in the process disturbs the afternoon for a swarm of flies. The vessel is blackened and stained by years of use. Daal is poured into it. Meanwhile, the kachauris, which have been kept covered under a fine meshed net, are brought out. They are served with the daal. The flies attack. I defend my kachauris. The open drain running a few feet my from feet set the mood perfectly. I eat cautiously with doubts in my mind.
A kachauri is made of flour, filled with a paste made of daal and then deep fried in oil. It is the size of a idli and puffed. What I ate here wasn’t really tasty and any taste came from the daal served with it. After finishing this poor substitute for lunch, I head to the temple or rather the group of temples on the hill.
I am told that they will open only at 3 pm. On my way to Sonagiri I saw that the landscape around is wonderfully rural. I walk through the village, head right into a narrow lane that climbs up slowly. It ends in a group of houses and then opens up to a wide view of flat plains and small rocky hillocks. A woman is repairing a mud wall built around a tree.
‘Why are you here?’ asks a man in an unfriendly tone. I surprised him just a minute ago at a bush with his zipper down.
‘I came to look at the temples but they open only at 3 pm. I thought I’ll walk around a bit.’
He mutters something but I do not hang around to here it. I walk down the other side and proceed to another similar hill of rocks and boulders. Cowdung patties are neatly arranged to dry in the sun. A small herd is grazing nearby while the caretaker watches from a rocky outdrop on the hill. Lord Krishna was perhaps like this, living off the land, idling in the afternoon sun and waiting for sunset to return home. The early makers of legendary tales knew how to reach out to the masses at a basic level.
Then I see a well-paved path going around a lake. The holy hill of Sonagiri stands by the lake. This path is for pilgrims who wish to walk around the holy hill. The exact term for this ritual is parikrama. I take to this path for a while, then climb up the hill from behind. Soon I am looking at wonderful views all around. The skies are blue with clouds hanging still in white streaks. Green or brown fields fill the plains. A handful of trees stand in this landscape. Perhaps a thousand years ago this might have been the place of thick forests. Hills in the distance complete the view.
I walk down to the path and continue the parikrama. I chat up with a man grazing his cattle.
‘I get only three liters a day from each one. I used to get five liters some years ago. The grass is not good now,’ he complains.
Meanwhile I pause to look a line of trees. The locals call this the seesum tree. A village woman is watching me with some curiosity.
‘I am taking pictures of those trees,’ I tell her. The trees are about fifty meters away. It must have seemed to her that I was taking pictures at apparently nothing. I call them “Dancers in the Landscape.”
The trees bend in graceful curves. They spread out their branches in some unknown rhythm of this landscape. The ways in which one tree stands together with another, they seem to be conversing with their body language. With the stance of one, is the response of another. We can invent stories for each of these trees. There is that lone tree dancing in freedom and love. There is that pair standing close to each other but the distance between them is immense. It is like a scene of incest.
The temples stand with their shikaras peeping over the crest of the hill. Their whitewashed forms stand out from the brown hills. I continue my walk. Soon I pass women at a well drawing water. Someone asks me the time. It’s 4 pm. I head to the entrance to the temples on the hill.
Just before I start climbing, I am stopped by a man. ‘Are you not from the village of ______?’ he asks as he names some village. He then calls out to one of his friends. ‘Do you know who this is?’ he asks him while pointing to me.
‘Is this not ______?’ comes the reply.
‘I am from Bangalore,’ I tell them; but I know that if sometime in the future should I require a look alike, I should come down to Sonagiri.
There are lots of temples on the hill. They have been built over the centuries. Some say that every year one more temple is built on this hill. Some of them are elaborate but most are simple shrines. Most of them have no architectural or artistic merit. There is a circular hall filled with idols with a walkway around it. There are a few main temples at the summit. The main idol is a superb sculpture in black stone. Around the open courtyard of this temple are shrines with idols. The shrines are capped with small shikaras. Looking down along the slopes, the sight of shikaras, domes and turrets is quite something.
As I head down, it is already the time of sunset. A couple of jackals are next to a tank. They are attempting to catch peacocks for a meal. The birds are quick if somewhat clumsy in flight. The loud calls of the peacocks fill the hour. The village at the bottom is lit for the night. I head to the dharmshala and collect a free coupon for dinner. The dining hall is upstairs. An excellent meal of roti, sabji and rice is served. Dinner is eaten early here and by six I am done with it. I wait for a bus to the Gwalior.
‘You are going to Gwalior? Good you can help me with the luggage,’ tells me a woman with two young kids. This is an expectation, not a request. She lives in Bhopal but her mother’s place is Gwalior. Every time she comes home, she stops at Sonagiri for a night.
The bus is supposed to depart at half six for Sonagiri train station. A train leaves for Gwalior at seven. At seven, local boys are still trying to get a replacement for the dead battery. Everyone is convinced that the train will be late. They fail to get a replacement. Finally at quarter past seven we leave for the station. The mini-bus has no headlights. The boys use a torch to light the dusty countryroad.
The train to Gwalior is indeed late. What else can we expect from a Passenger train? The train is not as crowded as it could have been. I get on top of a luggage rack. The little girl sits with me, eating, laughing and giggling all the way to Gwalior.
‘You know, mummy calls naani mummy,’ she says in between her giggles. She is clearly excited at the prospect of meeting once again this mummy-naani.