To save on travel time, I take an overnight bus from Jagdalpur to Abhanpur. Bus tickets are a little bit more at night than during the day. I bargain the fare from Rs. 220 to Rs. 180. It is not much of a bargain since the fare of Rs. 220 is all the way to Raipur.
At quarter to six I am at Abhanpur. It is cold. The streets are dark and eerily quiet for an Indian town. In this hour, every Indian town wears a different look. All the shops are shut except for a lone tea stall. A small group of travellers like me huddle near it. I order a cup of tea. For only three rupees, it is a great relief for my sore throat.
There is supposed to be a bus to Rajim at six. I must be in luck to get such an excellent connection. As they say, don’t count your chicks before they hatch. Whether the bus didn’t keep its schedule or whether my informant was wrong about bus timings, I cannot say. Either way, I wait and wait until day breaks out. Shops open. Early rises go about their business. Milkman passes by. Newspapers are unloaded and unpacked for distribution. The scene gets busy.
I finally get a bus half seven. I reach Rajim, a place of pilgrimage by the river Mahanadi. The river probably has a much broader flow in the monsoons. Today I saw it meandering across wide sandy banks full of activity. Rajim is the home to a famous ten day festival that culminates with Maha Shivaratri. So while I am going to look at the temples, I am also going to get a taste of this mela.
The earliest temples of importance here are from the 8th century AD. A walk through the village brings me to the important temple of Rajiv Lochan. The temple walls and shikaras are mostly whitewashed on the outside. The main temple is surrounded by smaller ones. There is a gateway into the inner courtyard of the main temple. The shikara is a nice mix of North and South Indian styles. I have seen a similar shikara elsewhere but I can’t recall exactly where.
The best of the temple are the decorative friezes and kumbhas on the pillars; sculpures in high relief on the pilasters of the mandapa; a superb door jamb of Nagas that continue to span the lintel above the entrance to the sanctum; a similar superb carving at the door of the gateway.
Other notable sculptures include a superb one of Trivikrama and Buddha in sitting posture. There is a brass sculpture of Garuda that’s beautiful.
Further wonderful sculptures are to be found in the nearby Ramchandra Temple from the 14th century. The salabhanjikas in this temple are beautifully sculpted in their graceful curves, gestures, jewellery and other details.
Walking through the streets of this old town, I find other temples but they are not all that interesting. However I do find a couple of old wooden buildings with the first floor balcony projected on beams. This is similar but not the same as jettied building architecture of Elizabethan England. These buildings are in near state of dilapidation but shockingly families continue to live in them, at least on the ground floor quarters.
Having done a round of the temples, I head to the river bank. Mela fever is not in full swing. Shops are just opening up. Crowds are strolling in. Devotees are dipping in the river. Their wet clothes hang from poles and fences. I can imagine the scene at night and closer to the final day.
I enter a temporary village made of thatched roofs, walls and partitions. Groups can rent these huts. Hare Krishna folks have occupied one of them. Popular sadhus have reserved other huts to welcome devotees. Common sadhus are milling about the place, debating, wandering, listening, lounging. A speaker is talking to a group of them about yoga, ayurveda and accupressure.
I take a snap of a sadhu, his greyish beard and matted hair, vermilion and ash, trident and flowers, saffron robe and shawl, beads and amulets. He has a smile of satisfaction; or at least that’s how I interpret it.
‘Can you send me this picture?’ he asks.
‘Yes. Where shall I send it?’ I ask.
‘I stay in that tent,’ he points to a tent nearby.
‘Oh. I’ll be sending this much later when I return home. Give me your home address.’
He gives it to me, an address without details. I even doubt if he has a house to live in. Samai Lal, I don’t think you are going to get it.
I continue my walk across lanes of shops, make shift theatres and playgrounds. Everything here is colourful – bangles, food, trinkets, toys, idols. Everywhere I look the theme is all religious. A sadhu is standing on one leg with both arms raised in the air – Ekpadasana. Before him, a woman is buried in sand – only her two palms are standing bodyless above the surface. I can see her chest raise and fall with the sand covering it. Those easily beguiled by such cheap miracles will pray to the sadhu and make their offerings.
As I leave Rajim, I know that I could have had a more fulfilling experience had I been here on the night of Maha Sivaratri.