Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Told off!

The shrines of Chamba and Bharmour are rather different in style from other Indian temples I've seen. In Chamba, six temples and a number of other tanks, shrines, and buildings share a single great courtyard; in Bharmour, there are 84 separate shrines, so I was told, through three or four larger temples dominate the space.

But I'll remember Bharmour for other reasons. First, the terrible bus journey from Chamba.

I must admit I regard most Indian bus stations with some trepidations. Buses come and go like lunatic seagulls on Cromer pier, and you never quite know you're on the right one; the 1645 goes at six in the evening, but the five o'clock will set off at quarter past four, for whatever reason... But Chamba is a bit different. The bus station is as chaotic as anywhere else, but once I'd asked for my destination (and it was the same when I went to Khajjiar, and when I finally left for Delhi), all the bus conductors wanted to look after me.

The bus conductor on the way to Bharmour was exceptional. Out I get at the breakfast stop - and I'm told exactly where to eat my breakfast, and fetched when it's time to get back on the bus. And when I get to Bharmour, I'm told how long I've got till the bus goes back (and he actually gave me accurate information, something that doesn't happen a lot in India), and that he'll be on that bus, and he won't go without me (and he didn't). A lovely chap.

But the drive was terrible. Terrifying. Narrow roads with precipices on one side. That's the way Himachal Pradesh is, but the precipices seemed steeper and the road narrower and more twisted and contorted than anywhere else I'd been.

Bharmour was worth it. Below the temples, there were ancient houses of wood - hardly visited by tourists, and many being replaced by new concrete - with intricate balconies, and shady verandahs, and an old lady who called me over to take her photograph and wanted me to sit down and stay there all day. A pharmacist who wanted to practise his English, and translated everything I said to his next-door neighbour the tailor (who was stitching a pair of trousers, and couldn't believe that in England, trousers could cost 3,000 rupees: "You can buy these for 450," he said, and I understood he'd be doing pretty well at that price).

And the temples... from tiny shrines like slightly overgrown mailboxes to the soaring spire of the main temple with its deeply incised decoration and shining gilded finial, temples spread out across a broad paved area, where boys were playing cricket (naturally) and five girls were chasing each other into and out of the compound of the second largest temple. Where travellers wandered through, and one pilgrim dressed in saffron lit incense in front of a deity sat under a tall deodar tree, and every so often someone would slip off their shoes and go into a temple for a few minutes, and come out again and wander off. One wooden gabled temple with age-worn carvings of gods on the facade, so worn they seemed to grow out of the wood like twisted roots, and the smell of cedar everywhere.

"Hello may I ask your name and where you come from and why you visiting Brahmour?" said a confident high voice with an accent that came straight from the Home Counties (a good education for sure).

That was the leader of the girls, the tallest of them, perhaps twelve or thirteen, I couldn't be sure; utterly self-possessed, and at home here - though Bharmour wasn't her home, she was up for the holidays, from somewhere else - Mumbai? Delhi? I've forgotten now.

"There are eighty-four temples," she said. "And a tank."

She then went on to deliver her opinion on the "naughty boys. They are very naughty and very noisy", and showed me how to wish on Nandiji - using one of the other girls as a model.

"You have to crawl under him," she said, as the other girl crawled underneath the gilded bronze bull, from his right side to his left side, and then walked round to do it again.

"You see, crawl under one time, then the second time" - she waited till the other girl was standing up again - "then the third time  you crawl in under his tail, and crawl all the way up to his head. And then you stand up and take his ear" - which for the smaller girl was quite a stretch - "and you make a wish."

"And do you have to keep the wish a secret?"

"I don't know," she said crossly. (After this, I noticed, every time I asked a question to which she didn't know the answer, she'd do the same.)

"Do you want to wish?"

I said I thought I was possibly too big to crawl under Nandiji easily, and she looked at me, biting her bottom lip and considering.

"Do you want to see the tank?"

Oh yes, yes I did. Nandi forgotten, off we went to see the tank, or well, or spring. And then some more temples.

"Oh, that's Ganesh," I said, looking in one.

"No, not Ganesh."

"There's another elephant god?"

"No. You said GA-nesh. It's GUH-nesh-a. You have to say it properly."

She shook her dark hair dismissively. I was not up to scratch, and I knew it. I bet she grows up to become a teacher; possibly not the kind I ever liked very much.

Yet a couple of minutes later she was chatting agreeably about favourite places, and what was London like, and where I should go next, and where was the best sweet shop in Chamba, and how long did the plane take to get me back home to Paris?

Then it was time to head back to the bus, and grab a quick, and inexpensive, rice and daal before it left; and there was my bus conductor, smiling, and asking how I liked the temples. I liked them a lot, I said. And for once, that wasn't just politeness; it was really true.

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