In Indian villages time is not at a premium. Villagers will wait patiently for hours to get a bus to town. They will chat leisurely with ample use of profane language to curse the third person. They will constantly chew and spit. They will drag into bits of beedi and pass the slow hours.
Enquiries for buses from Lalitpur to Deogarh gave me a mixed picture. The next bus is anywhere between an hour or five hours from now. Having reached the bus station at 8 am and being directed here and there, I finally left Lalitpur at 11.30 am. From a traveller’s perspective, this small town is defined by three points – Railway Station, Bus Station, Bazaar. The bus circles these three points for nearly an hour until enough passengers are on board. Then I am told that the bus will go only as far as Jakloan since there aren’t many going to Deogarh.
Deogarh, which is normally written and pronounced in Hindi as Devgad, is 32 kms from Lalitpur. The bus covered the first 21 kms. I got a shared auto-rickshaw for the next seven. I walked the last 4 kms to Deogarh.
‘Is there a bus coming?’ I am asked by a group of Deogarh villagers walking the opposite way.
‘No bus. There are not enough passengers,’ I reply. Apparently they had waited for more than an hour and finally started walking. They are used to it.
Deogarh. Not many know of this little village that has an irregular and unreliable bus service. It is not on any popular tourist trail. But every respectable Indian art historian will know the importance of this village. In this modest village, surrounded by forested hills, green fields and calm reservoirs dotted with islands of tall trees, is the earliest surviving temple from the 5th century AD. Prior to this, religious art was confined to cave settlements including Kanheri, Ajanta, Ellora, Elephanta and Badami, to name a few. As far as we know, it was at Deogarh that the first free standing temple with a shikara was built during the Gupta Period.
The shikara no longer exists. A rock-cut well lies nearby.
‘Accidents have taken place here at this well. We are in the process of putting a railing around it,’ comments the guard of the place. The water is green with algae along with little scraps litter.
The guard then led me to the temple. The temple is enclosed with a coarse lawn not yet manicured in the style of other ASI gardens frequented by tourists. The temple stands on a high plinth with its garbha griha and nothing else. Besides the lintel and door jambs of the entrance, the other other three walls have three superb sculptures that prove to us the height of Gupta art.
The guard at the temple took me through each sculpture in detail. The first relates the story of Gajendra Moksha. The struggle of the elephant against the sea snakes is conveyed in the foaming eddies in the water and the pachyderm’s agonizing gaze. The speed of rescue is in the backward stance of Vishnu and the outspread wings of Garuda. The second sculpture of Narayan and Nara has less energy but only in the story and not in the art. The final sculpture of Anantasayana, Vishnu reclining on the coils of a serpent, is perhaps the most famous. The calm repose is in his eyes. The coils of the serpent bear the imprint of the Lord’s weight. Everything about his head, hands and legs are natural to the last detail. Below stand the five Pandava brothers with Draupati.
The guard recited to me a verse from Vishnu Sahasranama. ‘You are Hindu. Surely you must be knowing this,’ he said.
It was all Greek to me but I did not want to give the impression of being a bad Hindu and nodded in recognition of this unknown verse.
‘Here the artist has given physical form to the poet’s imagination.’
He then proceeded to explain the verse word by word and point the wonderful details of the sculpture.
‘Is there any mention of the Pandavas in the verse?’ I asked out of curiosity. Perhaps this was added by the artist as part of his personal creative license.
‘No. But there is an alternative explanation which is also credible. Tell me, what is missing here?’ he pointed to the sculpture in general.
‘The marking on the forehead,’ I said rather hastily. I felt like a schoolboy being tested by a guard who probably hasn’t studied beyond Secondary.
‘No. Look carefully.’
The pressure was back on me. After a pause, I said, ‘Perhaps the conch and the wheel of Vishnu?’
‘Yes. That’s it. So some say that these are not the Pandavas and Draupati although their faces reflect the beauty of their supposed ancestors. These two on the left are Jaya and Vijaya, the doorkeepers of Vishnu. The other four are personifications of the things Vishnu holds in his four hands.’
I thanked him for his brief tour and proceeded uphill to see a group of Jain temples. There are 41 temples in all but only one is used for active worship. There is one signigicant shikara. The others are either small shrines or pillared mantapas with stone sculptures lined along the walls.
I ignored a group of Osho followers, mostly foreigners, who were attending a workshop in one of the open courtyards. Strange hypnotic music fileld the afternoon air as these followers danced and jumped almost spastically.
There are lots of wonderful sculptures in this temple group. Among them is a beautiful seated image of a tirthankara in temple number 2. Another temple has a free standing pillar of lotus moulding at its base. This pillar is fully packed with tiny tirthankaras in sitting or standing postures. Another temple has a superb image of a woman reclined and surrounded by attendants. The entire temple complex has a calming effect. All these sculptures do not detract from the calmness but rather make it in a pristine setting of a forest cover and canopy.
‘You are an engineer, are you? You must getting forty to fifty thousand a month,’ said the security guard with interest.
After some minutes of idle chat with this guy, I started out on a long walk back to Jakloan. The guard decided to accompany me downhill to town.
‘There is some danger here. I will leave you at town,’ he said gravely though I could see no danger in these hills. Even the langurs are rather shy and avoid contact with humans.
‘It is a pleasure to meet an engineer. You will also remember me and this walk,’ he continued. I spoke little and I knew what he was trying to achieve.
‘ People here should not be trusted. These arse holes will cheat you,’ he offered by way of advice. I have heard this comment so many times now in Central India. In fact, the fellows who say this are not be trusted too.
‘Many rich people come here to see the temples. They give fifty or hundred saying “mauj masti karo”,’ he hinted.
‘I am not rich. I don’t even have a job. I am travelling on my savings,’ I replied to his disappointment.
I left him at the foot of the hill. To the sound of birds, the homeward return of cattle and the occasional rustle of langurs in the trees, I walked another five kilometers. I got an auto-rickshaw to Jakloan where I waited for an hour. The auto-driver went around calling for passengers. When we finally departed to Lalitpur, it was 6 pm. It was a bumpy ride in a beedi-smoke-filled auto-rickshaw.