Starmongered

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India may be the world’s largest democracy but contrary to popular belief, India isn’t run by New Delhi, by the stock traders of Bombay nor by the new IT entrepreneurs. India is run by starmongers.

Starmongers (astrologers) are consulted to decide the optimum timing for any venture, occasion or celebration, for virtually every significant human hope. They are as important as opinion polls in deciding the timing for elections. It was astrologers who set the date for India’s independence.

They compile a horoscope identity card for every Indian at birth that details present, past and future existence and these are dusted off for every important occasion. Considering the vagaries of the weather, transport strikes, power blackouts, riots and the occasional scuffle with Pakistan, any visitor with business or travel plans in India should do what the Indians do – consult a starmonger.

All that’s needed is the precise date and time of birth and anything from a few rupees for a quickie to 4,000 rupees for a super deluxe glimpse of what to expect in a place where the unexpected is routine.

These fortune wallahs can be found anywhere dispensing portents from a footpath, beside a dozing cow, in the dusty frenzy of a village market or the marble lobby of a five-star hotel where I discovered Ranjit lurking near reception at the Taj View Hotel in Agra dispensing portents for a small fee.

Troubled that a pilgrimage to the world’s most extravagant memorial to love, the Taj Mahal, had left me thoroughly unmoved save for irritants like hawkers as persistent as blowflies and the smell of camel urine, I felt a counselling session with a shifty sage was probably overdue.

“Ah,” the old seer murmured. “You are fortunate, sir. You will undertake a great journey that will be very, very good for your health and well-being and you will have a significant encounter.”

“Any money in it?” I asked.  He looked insulted. “I see no money, sir.” I coughed up the 500 rupees.

As it happened I was bound for Khajuraho next day and its Kama Sutra temples that were covered with thousands of intricately carved figures engaged in a detailed orgy of masturbation, oral and group sex.  Ranjit might have been on to something.

It was a boisterous journey, 220km from Agra to Jhansi on a very popular train they call the Shatabdi Express but I suspect it was only popular because it was quick.

The air-conditioning was frigid. A woman sang incessantly in Hindi falsetto on the train’s scratchy PA punctuated occasionally by important announcements that began: “Hullo, hullo…” then continued in Hindi.

A German tourist screamed she had been robbed boarding the train, a frequent occurrence judging by the studied indifference of the armed guards. But the spicy onion omelette and the fleeting scenery of Uttar Pradesh through heavily tinted windows added a pleasant touch.

It was almost a relief to emerge from the frozen carriage into 37˚C and the midday chaos of Jhansi station. I was very, very fortunate. My guide, Anoop Jain (every adherent to the conservative Jain religion is apparently called Jain), appeared miraculously and steered me to a “limousine” masquerading as an Ambassador Nova, a recent minimal rehash of the 1950s Morris Oxford with a diesel motor added and suspension possibly grafted from a tractor.

The air-conditioner was what distinguished the little Nova from lesser Indian cars and I was shivering before the first intersection where a little girl so innocent and so small she had to brandish a cardboard party trumpet with a tassel on top to be noticed, tapped on the window for money.

It was a welcome opportunity for some warm air and I offered her a biro I’d stolen from the hotel room. “Bugger off, sod,” she yelled in a perfect East London accent.

The highway snaked 175 kilometres down to Khajuraho but floods had cut the road necessitating a 64km dusty detour. Springs under the backseats no longer sprang but it was worth the discomfort to plunge onto the back roads of Madhya Pradesh, India’s largest state.

Bouncing, twisting, slewing past potholes, bicycles, people, buses, sacrosanct cows and an incessant parade of even more people we, or rather I, drew stares whenever we slowed to miss one of them.

I saw children and buffaloes bathing together in the khaki waters of a roadside pond. Women in vivid silk saris of scarlet, purple and saffron balanced aluminium pots on their heads full of hot lunch for their men toiling in lime-green fields. Others sold fresh-cooked naan bread by the roadside.

Looking like a long rat, a mongoose, one of those slinky little critters that monster cobras and were turned into heroes by author Rudyard Kipling, dashed under the wheels and, in Kiplingesque style, emerged unscathed.

Hoardings advertised Lifebuoy soap and Bournvita, relics of the Raj and, off to the left behind a Coca-Cola billboard, a thin old cowherd, so tall he might have been a Masai, tended half a dozen fat, healthy looking cows in a scene probably common around there, sans billboard, for thousands of years. This, I decided, was the real stuff of India.

The driver, Remesh Kumar, whose mouth was coloured a curious crimson, steered deftly between two skinny goats standing still outside one of many stalls selling tea and spiced up snacks.

We stopped to get some of the sweet, milky cardamom tea. At the adjacent stall, a paan-wallah took a dark green palm leaf, spread it with lime paste, red betel nut and a dollop of tobacco and wrapped it.

Anoop offered me the paan then changed his mind, tucked the narcotic into his cheek and started chewing on it. His mouth and lips turned bright red, his eyes glazed a little and he resumed the journey a far happier man.

It was sundown when we lurched into Khajuraho, a town in the middle of nowhere. My stomach was carping as stomachs tend to do in India and the springs under the back seat had rearranged my bum forever. My health and well-being had fallen short of Ranjit’s prediction so it was all down to a significant event.

Khajuraho was unheard of outside Madhya Pradesh until T.S. Burt of the British Royal Bengal Engineers galloped through on a routine patrol in 1838.

Imagine the jolt the upright son of Victorian England got when he blundered into the jungled-covered ruins of ornate Hindu temples covered with thousands of sculpted figures engaged in an explicit variety of erotic pleasures.

It was an encounter that, in his report, had him chastising the Hindus for creating “..the most disgraceful representations to desecrate their ecclesiastical erections”. Well, we know what he meant.

But nobody knows why the walls of Khajuraho’s temples are covered with all this erotic art encompassing bestiality, group groping and full-on raunchy sex that in most other cultures would be classified as pornography.

They have been hailed as spiritual monuments to life, dismissed as disgusting and honoured with World Heritage listing. The mixed passions aroused by these intricately sculpted orgies have confounded scholars who study them, Hindu faithful who worship them and, more recently, the tourists who now come to ogle them.

Theories abound. Was it an extravagant response to an alarming drop in population?  Was it a carved Kama Sutra or a sex-education manual set in stone? Why build them in the middle of nowhere, why build them at all, and why all the flagrant sex? Nobody really knows what it all means.

An inscription Burt found on one of the temples helped historians link the site to the Chandela kingdom, a dynasty that ruled for 500 years until the Moghuls swept them into oblivion around 1315AD.  But there was no reference to these mysterious temples in any of their literature.

The conservative Muslim conquerors smashed as many suggestive sculptures as they could reach, leaving the rest to rot.  Then the trespassing jungle swallowed the complex concealing its sensuous secrets for 600 years.

Academics have pieced together the evidence spread around hectares of the cloying jungle and discovered that almost all of the temples, stunning examples of Indo-Aryan architecture, came into being during one century of frenzied creativity between 950AD and 1050AD and were begun during the reign of the Chandela king Yasovarman.

Although they have become popularly known as the ‘Kama Sutra Temples’, these seemingly endless friezes are not entirely X-rated. Many sculptures also show Indian life as it was a millennium ago, the mythology, the gods and goddesses, warriors, musicians and real and imagined animals.

They show court scenes, battle scenes with straining muscles and solitary figures in the finest detail like a woman wringing water out of her hair, another removing a thorn from her foot and even the delicate stone carving of transparent robes. But running through it all is the recurring, inescapable theme of women and sex.

On the temple walls, I saw Apsaras, or ‘celestial maidens’ pouting and posing like hundreds of chubby little Playboy bunnies in a pin-up shoot. Around them were men and women together and in groups engaged in a mind-boggling variety of gymnastic sexual positions and auto-erotic pursuits.

There was a continuous frieze depicting battles, hunting, various domestic scenes, processions, elephants, camels, soldiers and the usual collection of erotica. The opening scene showed an explicit image of a man actively demonstrating his affection for a horse surrounded by women covering their eyes in shock.

The isolation and centuries of jungle envelopment are probably what saved these 23 of the original 85 temples from the ravages of war, weather and wowsers.

Most have been painstakingly cleaned, restored, rebuilt and augmented with lush green and expansive gardens and with the construction of a local airport five kilometres to the south, the temples have become one of India’s major attractions along with Goan beaches, the Taj Mahal and thermonuclear curries.

I returned to Khajuraho at sunset, the drowsy town of 7,000 people encircling the temple complex, the silence broken occasionally by a screeching green parakeet or a planeload of tourists coming in from New Delhi.

Old men still wore loincloths and weather-lined peasants wrapped in raggedy clothes steered teams of donkeys through dusty streets laden with sacks of sand and clay bricks bemused by the touristy fuss going on around them.

Little shops sold everything from jewellery, silver, ceramics, brassware and carpets to very new erotic art painted on rather old paper and in one of them was art dealer Ali Khajun who sold fine art works, erotic Moghul paintings, jewellery and gemstones both across the counter and to Europe via the Internet.

A gaggle of shiftless youths milled around aimlessly outside the shop and surrounded me as I entered. “You an Aussie?” one asked as they gathered closer to look at the long zoom lens on my Nikon.

“Yep.”

“You know Shane Warne?”

“Sure.”

Behind the shop Ali’s beautiful wife, Reshma, squatted over hot coals and offered to share the dinner of saffron rice and dried fruit she was cooking.

I was captivated by a series of mildly erotic paintings on parchment which Ali assured me were genuine Moghul. Even if they weren’t, they were worth the 350 rupees he was asking. I reached for some money. The pocket was empty.

In a significant earlier encounter, a shiftless youth had lifted my cash with the deftest flick of a wrist that even gun cricketer Warnie would have envied.

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited).

5 thoughts on “Starmongered

  1. Great adventures you have going here, JJ. Thanks for stopping by my blog and doing me the honor of “following” me. I love “Aussie”. When I was in Arizona last winter, so many areas reminded me of your amazing country. Keep ‘er between the poles, mate.

    Blessings
    ‘Sheila’ Shanomi

  2. Thrilled you found my blog and tolerated my very old snapshots… I’m excited to share your blog with my world-traveling children… the places in your posts are on our family bucket list. Looking forward to down the road with you! – Renee

      1. No worries… there mother was a “sailor”–in another life! And they’re smart enough to understand artistry and literature, but the warning’s appreciated none-the-less!

  3. I enjoyed your posts on India. Its a magical place. Thanks for sharing all your journeys with us. You certainly do have a way with words, that entice the audience. =)

    I wanted to say thanks for following my yoga blog. I also have a travel blog you might like http://talistravels.wordpress.com/ I made my first trip to India and slowly I am uploading the back log of entries. digitizing them from pen and paper to the computer (as I did not have internet access while there).

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