My research tells me that this village is on the Agra-Jaipur road, about 95 kms from Jaipur. I am at the bus station at Bharatpur buying a ticket to Abhaneri. But there is a problem. None of the staff here have heard of this place. It is well-known within tourist circles. I fish out my printed notes and show them the place and its rough location on the map. Still no revelation. I buy a ticket to Dausa. I’ll have to enquire at Dausa.
I make some enquiries inside the bus as we rush past the dry open countryside. I ask a guy dressed in shirt and trousers. He is one of many who have switched from traditional Rajasthani dresses to modern ones. Strangely he has mehandi on both his arms and palms.
He deliberates for a moment. He converses loudly with others in the bus but to no one in particular. He clarifies something with the conductor. Finally he tells me, ‘You will have to get off at Sikandra. From there it is only 10 kms to Abhaneri.’
Thanks to him, I don’t have to go up to Duasa and retrace my path. I get off at Sikandra, not the same one that’s near Agra. After some waiting I get a crowded jeep to a place named Kuler. Here I wait for some form of transport to take me to Abhaneri. I am told it is about 5 kms inside.
‘Is there a bus to Abhaneri?’ I ask a fruit seller.
‘You can get a bugga,’ he replies. Bugga? It takes me sometime time to grasp this word. A bugga, it seems, is a field tractor to which a trolley is attached for the transport of farm produce and goods. In some cases, people are transported in buggas where other forms of public transport do not exist. After about 15 minutes, one such bugga arrives. I hop into the back where I sit on a wooden plank. The engine starts with a noisy sputtering sound. The rubber belt turns. Thick puffs of black smoke rise from a vertical metal exhaust and disperse against a blue sky. The driver is in the front, his head covered with a thin cotton towel. The heat is intense but nothing like what it would be in the summer. Two more guys join me at the back and we are off on the lone curving road disappearing between open fields.
It is a beautiful ride. I stand up to admire the fields on both sides. Much of the cultivation is sarso. The bugga chugs noisily on this empty road. It is a perfect way to complete the rural feel of this place. We pass a shepherd leading his flock along the road. It takes a while to get the flock to clear the road for us. In a few minutes I reach Abhaneri. Entry to this little village is marked by the ruins of the Harshat Mata Temple. This temple is not famous but there is a certain romanticism in visiting a temple of rural India not frequented by tourists. Perhaps I may discover a small piece of ancient art that I will treasure or form a memorable experience that will stand to define how I view an ancient temple set in modern day Indian village.
The temple hails from the 8th-9th century AD, built by King Chandra of Nikumbha Rajputs of Chahamana dynasty. It is built on terraced levels. The garbhagriha stands on the third level above ground where the road leads to the temple entrance. All around the temple are fragments of stone sculptures that once proudly decorated the temple. There are fragments of pillars and pilasters with their kirtimukhas, kumbhas and lotus medallions. They catch the morning sun in the open. The relief of a soldier with sword and shield stands reclined against a stone wall. Broken amalakas kiss the brown grass when once they would have graced the shikara. Miniature shikaras and the decorative canopies of lost aedicules stand amidst a group of lesser stonework. Fragments of ceilings look up to the sky as if thanking nature for their purposeless freedom. But there is purpose in these ruins. It is to tell us about the temple art of ancient India in all its glory.
The temple itself is devoid of a shikara. Only the dome of the mandapa stands prominently. The dome is perhaps a modern reconstruction. It is a brick structure. I enter the mandapa just as a woman gets busy sweeping the floor of the mandapa. She enquiries where I come from. I half expect her to ask me for a donation but she doesn’t. Most sculptures on the inside are defaced. While I stand admiring the pillars and the cornices, a group of Britons enter the mandapa accompanied by a guide. They are all cyclists. I see that the group is quite big. I estimate at least 30 of them here. Their cycles are parked a little way from the temple. Air-conditioned caravans are accompanying their journeys.
‘Are you cycling across Rajasthan?’ I ask one British woman.
‘Yes. We start from Agra and end in Jaipur, passing many Rajasthani villages along the way,’ she explains.
‘That must a long ride.’
‘It’s about 370 kms. It’s all arranged by our tour operator.’
There are some British Indians in the group, probably curious to experience the land of their forefathers. The cyclists pay little attention to the details in the temple. They leave in a few minutes and the temple is all mine. On the outer walls on the second level are panels of amorous couples sculpted to fine detail. They are the highlights of the temple and I study them in detail. The sun is coming down at an angle from the southeast and brings out the beauty of these reliefs beautifully.
One panel shows a couple of royal bearing with a little jewellery. She is seated on his left thigh. His right hand caresses her breast while female attendants look on, not as voyeurs but as women who understand love and share in the happiness of their lord and lady. In another panel, he tilts her head upwards as if to admire her beauty up close. In a less amorous scene, she is playing a stringed instruments to his enjoyment while in the background the branches are heavy with ripe mangoes. In many panels, accompanying dancers and musicians form interesting details.
I take leave of this temple, walk across the road and find myself in a stepped tank. Called Chand Baoli, the name suggests it was built it is from the same period as the temple. The entrance is from the northern end where closed or open pavilions are to be found is four levels. Sculpted pilasters, half-pillars, pillars and jali screens are some of the highlights here. The other three sides of the tank have V-shaped steps and landings that lead to the water level many feet below ground level. These are in 12 levels, each level having 6 steps. The perspectives are impressive particulary under a bright sun that casts shadows that define the steps and landings sharply.
From the traditional notion of stepwells that I have come to understand based on my travels in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, I consider this more of a stepped tank than a stepwell. In fact, I do not find a well shaft here. Corridor surround the tank at the top. These contain excellent sculptures which are probably salvaged from the temple.
The tanks is under restoration. About 50 workers are employed at this site. They are hired by contract and paid Rs. 100 a day. Some are busy washing, cleaning the stones or applying on them preservative chemical coating. Others are sitting around directionless, not knowing what to do. Once in a while the foreman yells and they get into action.
A group of school kids join me at the baoli. They are having their break from classes. The school is next door.
‘Which is your village?’ one of them asks. They cannot conceive of anything bigger than a village. Towns and cities are something they may discover only later in life.
‘Bangalore. It is in Karnataka. Do you know where is Karnataka?’ I ask. I get various responses. No, its not in Delhi or Japan. I pull out my trusted map and show them India, Rajasthan and then Karnataka. We chat for a few more minutes. I return to the road. Soon enough a bugga loaded with the residue of sarso fields is on its way to Kuler. This time I sit on a narrow plank in the front, next to the driver. I make my return through the same beautiful fields and rural scenes.