Bundi (14.03.-16.03. 2008)
“Mind is an obstacle on the way to one’s goal and never does it reveal Reality, keeping it in secret.
Mind is the greatest killer of truth, and the true scholar has to kill the killer.”
Maharaj Gharan Singh
The Star Fort Taragarh
We were again sitting on the blue benches in the train, looking through the window bars. The two Czechs – Jan and Lenka, Elena and I were traveling to Southern Rajasthan. We liked a park not far from the town of Kota. The town was not interest , it couldn’t offer us much apart from the tradition of workmanship of fine cotton saris interwoven with gold, and the extraction of the so called “Kota” blue stone – a cheaper alternative to the marble, widely used in the construction of different buildings across India. Kota was worth seeing mostly in the month of ashvin, according to the Hindu calendar, i.e. the beginning of October according to the Gregorian. At that time, during the celebrations of Dussehra Mela, the town explodes in colours and fireworks. Thousands rush to celebrate the victory of light over darkness, of god Rama over the demon Ravana. They act out reproductions of the Ramayana epic, and in the culmination of the celebrations, the attending rush to assist the good god in his battle with the evil. Rapt in mass euphoria, the Hindus burn out the 22-metre dummies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhakarna and his son Meghnath, and then raise the flags of victory.
We arrived in Kota on Friday evening, checked in a hotel near the station and began asking around if anybody knew anything about the park in question. No one had even heard of it. Finally, in the restaurant we came across a group of waiters who had evidently better general knowledge, but according to them we had to take a taxi to the place and make it wait for us the whole day for there was no other transport. After some serious pondering, we decided not to stay in Kota and took the bus to Bundi to inquire in the local tourist office.
On the following morning we were already in Bundi – the place which had inspired the famous writer Rudyard Kipling to begin working on the novel “Kim”. The town was more than charming. Its old parts were encircled by a massive fortress wall with four gates, and in its northern end, almost at the level of stars, was the magnificent Fort Taragarh, nestled in lush vegetation. After checking in a hotel and without any hesitation, we set off to the fortress.
Narrow, calm streets, houses in the colour of the sky and traditional buildings haveli, with sumptuous ornaments and rich past. At the entrance of the palace through which we had to pass to reach the fortress, a smiling boy welcomed us. He rented sticks. Why? Because of the monkeys. Their ill-fame of thieves and insolent aggressors was widely spread. The boy wanted five rupees for each staff. I gave them to him not because I thought I would need it, I simply wanted to encourage his enthusiasm in this hard “business”. We agreed to return the staffs after the tour. We began climbing the steep stones but soon our tongues stuck out by exhaustion. The swelter was crushing. I felt as if my brain would begin melting any moment and would run like a diluted jelly. Entering the palace had a refreshing effect with a scent of basil. Two stone elephants with entwined trunks guarded the gate. Astonishing turquoise and golden mural paintings were flashing before our eyes, most of them depicting god Krishna. An uncle unlocked the gates to the cool royal chambers and showed us the splendid frescoes in the flickering light of continuously fading matches. The themes painted on the walls were typical for the Mughal style – a wedding procession, battle and hunting scenes from the maharajas’ lives, pictures of the royal daughters’ daily life, as well as all kinds of animals and birds. All paintings were the same colour tones and hues – turquoise green as background; white for the human and animal figures; red, blue, black and yellow for the royal garments.
Outside under the burning sun, we continued our way to the fortress and from time to time we had to squeeze through narrow slits of enormous wooden gates with metal prongs sticking out of their surface. The ascent seemed endless – the closer we got to the fortress, the stronger the sun rays were burning. Finally, before our eyes appeared something different from stone walls, dried up vegetation and gravel. Three water depots, built more than six centuries ago, which did not run dry even in the harshest draughts, now performed an entirely different function. They had become the most favourite swimming facility for the hundreds of Rhesus monkeys in the area. As soon as we appeared, numerous monkey glances dropped down on us – as if we had rushed in a monkey bar with an entrance sign “No entry for humans.” At first it seemed that we were the only representatives of the Homo Sapiens and at they could easily make trophies of our heads but then we saw that about thirty monkeys had surrounded some other man, evidently a foreigner, who was trying to propitiate them with pieces of biscuits. His behaviour didn’t seem very reasonable considering he was standing at a pace-distance from the water, as the monkeys attracted by the free breakfast gushed out in tides and tightened the ring around him. We expected to witness something like gladiator battle games, but our hairy bros showed their hospitability and allowed us to take a rest on their territory without any intrusion, of course.
After a while it was time to move on. We were really close to the highest part of the fort, the tower Bhim Burj, which once sheltered enormous cannon with the fearful name “Thunder from the Womb”. The soil was dry, the vegetation scarce and swift-footed lizards darted here and there.
The view from the bastion was astounding. From one side spread a blue lake which wafted pleasant freshness, and on the other side – the square houses of Bundi. As if the glowing embers of the sun had softened the serene solidity and the blue sky tints had splashed on the rooftops of the town. In the distance we could see the beautiful creations of desert life – the unique for Western India wells baoli. In these almost deprived from water regions baoli is the greatest treasure. In order to preserve it, local people built deep square wells. They accessed water using stairs, and the cattle – by ramps. As always due to their innate talent to transform daily things into fine art, Indian people, and later the foreigners on these lands, the Mughals, began decorating the unpretentious facilities with unimaginably sophisticated and fine ornaments. According to the sacred texts the construction of public wells was considered as a great benefaction. In a certain period of history the construction of wells went beyond the religious framework and became a sign of social status – the more opulent and elegant they were, the more power and prestige they brought to their owners. Most often baoli were built near temples where the worshipers could take ritual baths. They also served as places for recreation, meetings with relatives and shelters from the unbearable swelter. In Bundi there were fifty of those wells which entirely satisfied the needs of the local people. Nowadays though, only few are maintained. Most of them are buried in oblivion and uselessness (because the town disposes of a modern pipeline) and what’s worse – in tons of waste.
We got down and dropped in at the first restaurant encountered to quench our thirst. The boy with the “anti-monkey business” was already gone, so there was no way to return the staff. We learned that the tourist office would close very soon. We got out and briskly strode to arrange our next-day trip in some wild reserve.
After some wandering we found the tourist office. We asked the employee for more information about the reserves in the area. It turned out that our idea was difficult to accomplish within a day. The protected areas weren’t as close as we thought. A man with a baseball hat, who until then stood apart and was sincerely amused with our Hindi talks, broke into our conversation. All of a sudden he began talking about inconceivably fascinating places, lush vegetation, a phenomenal waterfall, astonishing river and unique pre-historical drawings. And all that – here in the desert of Rajasthan!
It turned out that he himself was their discoverer. He took out an old issue of the local newspaper and spread it before us. A small article told how since 1997 Om Prakash Sharma, called Kuki, had discovered about fifty spots in the area, marked by the presence of ancient people. Then the man with the baseball hat asked us what we exactly wanted – to see animals or visit fantastic places? He was in his mid fifties, smiling, energetic, with true love for the nature and his homeland. We could not resist his charm – there was something very catching in his enthusiasm and pathos with which he was talking about these supernatural recesses. We felt really lucky to have encountered him because he didn’t really work for the tourist office and simply had dropped in to visit his friend. The meeting was purely accidental but useful for us – the yearning for beauty and adventures, as well as for him who was eager to show himself as a kind host and organizer of memorable excursions. He promised cheap transportation and asked no money for himself. Kuki would have been happy if we simply shared his pride and appreciated his discoveries. We agreed to go with his jeep and before that visited his home. Over a cup of tea with his sweet family and a detailed look at his carefully arranged album of articles dedicated to his work, we philosophized about people’s qualities nowadays and in the past, on nature and the value of our ancestors’ heritage.
This man, who had hardly graduated his secondary education, burning with passion to explore nature and search for the unknown in her recesses, had contributed more to the Indian archaeology than all of the eminent scientists who made “discoveries”, piled up in heaps of books and diplomas on the walls. His home resembled a mini-museum of any kind of finds – tools, arms and ritual objects.
Kuki was a remarkable man, even an extraordinary one – as unusual was his coming to the world. When his parents were young they regarded children as a divine blessing – the more, the better. But after the fourth child, their children began dying soon after birth. The old people advised them to deceive the sinister magic in order to protect the life of their next offspring. When their child was born they had to symbolically change its gender. From Om Prakash’s first breath taken he was called with the dear name Kuki – the name little girls were given. He was dressed in girls’ clothes until his fourth year, and for greater authenticity and certainty his parents made a hole for an earring in his nose, as the women’s tradition required. The whole village was convinced that Om Prakash was a girl. Together with the village Death was also misled. So Kuki lived long enough to tell this story, not without pride, of how he had deceived Death, but with a stronger feeling of duty to life itself which gave him the chance to walk his earthly path.
In Indian lands the belief in predetermined magic, would it be good or bad, is universal and dauntless. Magic is entwined in every element of the daily life, so deeply that even in a hundred years’ time it would again emerge on the surface where it was a thousand years ago, and would be visible by the red threads and blue beads attached to people’s clothes. No matter if they are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Jains, the belief in evil eyes is the link that connects all village people from the north to the south, from the east to the west. All of them have their ways to protect families, houses and cattle from the magic power of the evil eye.
It seems at least curious that some of them are a lot alike the Bulgarian traditions and beliefs. In both places there is the superstition that certain people, even animals who by birth possess the ability to “stab” other people with their evil eye and cause them physical and psychological ill-health. As a reason they usually bring up the envy and malevolence, but most frequently the evil eye does not depend on the owner’s will and acts by the force of inborn supernatural abilities.
Some scientists have a serious attitude towards the problem and are now trying to measure the radiation transmitted from one look to the other, as well as to study the effect it has on the retina of the affected person. Indians have different theories on how a child acquires this “gift”. For Jains the reason for that can be a drop of blood got into the child’s eye; according to the peasants in the foot of the Himalayas all children born under the adverse sign of Saturn, i.e. on a Saturday, tend to have the ability to cast the evil eye; Hindus most frequently find the reason for the appearance of the “evil eye” in the unsatisfied desires and needs of pregnant women which culminate after that in the children born by them. When a child with an evil eye sees someone eating something which it yearns for, the person eating immediately gets nausea and begins throwing up.
The very first time we saw thick black make-up around the eyes of small children, we realized that this wasn’t a way to emphasize their beauty, but some kind of a safety measure. We were soon convinced that every kid until the age of 4-5 was looking at the world through outlined with soot eyes. For the same reason there was always a piece of coal in the baskets of the workers or among the baker’s dishes. When I looked deeper into the daily life of ordinary people, I was stupefied by the factors “fear” and “protection” which played such a significant part in their lives. The fear of black magic was painted on their clothes and houses, it was deeply rooted in their habits. Fear defined their actions, accompanied them from one place to the other, lead them through the life cycles and the individual transitions of age. The utensils were made of copper, brass or bronze because the other metals and alloys did not protect against harmful effects. Women wore shells and clams, because it is believed that they would break in two if an evil eye is cast on them. The combination of the nine precious stones, navaratna, which adorned the hands of many, also repelled the “pests”. The rosaries of neem and lotus seeds build a shield around the person wearing them. With the same purpose branches and flowers from fig, mango or basil were hanging on their houses’ doors or were put aside the road the cattle was passing along. In front of the houses and huts there wasn’t a signboard reading “Attention! Evil dog!” but painted magic circles and geometrical drawings – rangoli. There was not a single celebration for which the horns of the cows, buffalos or oxen were not painted in bright red or blue to avoid evil magic.
As far as protection from evil eyes is concerned, the similarities between Indian and Bulgarian traditions are really striking. It is a shared belief in both countries that “the evil eye” affects primarily children and pregnant women, but mature people equally suffer from it, especially the ones that are beautiful or happy. It is the same with animals. In India there are definite animals to which “the evil eye” is attributed – these are the tiger, the fox and the snake, and the animals who mostly suffer the effect of black magic are the horses and the domestic cattle. In order to protect them, the Indian peasant does like the Bulgarian one – decorates their necks with beaded necklaces. One of the oldest “protection” means against “the evil eye”, used by both Bulgarians and Indians, is the saliva. The tradition to spit over a pretty child or a young animal is widely spread in our country. Even though now kids are driven in modern cars and fed with paps, unheard of by their grandmas, the contemporary moms and dads continue saying “Touch wood!” In India in the same fashion, the saliva drives away sickness, cures inflammations, protects from evil magic. Salt is also widely used. With salt and mustard seeds the foreign forces in the body of the affected by “evil eye” person are absorbed and then thrown into the fire, and during weddings the priests spill salt in front of the bride to disperse the harshness, if there is such, of the groom’s character. Salt is also very respected in our traditions.According to the Bulgarian tradition the first thing put on the table is the salt-cellar which prevents the evil spirits from playing over the food. People say that salt is famous for its ability to remove anything that is bad, that is why the lasses carry salt in their breast. In some parts of both India and Bulgaria, people cleanse their children from accumulated harmful effects by applying blood from a sacrificed goat on their foreheads. In both countries, iron forged in the shape of a wristband, a nail or coin is used as an amulet or a symbol of health during rituals, and the personal names are object of magic and are hidden or replaced. In India even Mughal emperors had three different names and hid their birth date to protect themselves from misfortune. And in our country in order to “deceive” Death, children were given “ugly” names.
Of course, for some people these could be most ordinary superstitions, deprived from reason and sense, but disbelief is justified for the people who have never been affected by something like this.
But there are the millions of people in both India and Bulgaria, who have experienced this even once in their lives and haven’t been cured by doctors but by village sorcerers and granny’s tips.
Paradise in the recesses of the desert
At six o’clock on the following morning we were already standing in front of the hotel’s entrance, waiting for Kuki to take us with his jeep. It looked like we would have a great day.
Kuki first showed us the real face of Rajasthan – the one that we hadn’t seen before. The earth was dry and cracked with a reddish colour like flesh burnt from the sun. A lonely bush or tree, almost dead, was sticking out here and there. Kuki remembered better times when there were reservoirs and forests. But from year to year the draught became more merciless, and people more aggressive to the gifts of the desert which only worsened the effect.
At the same moment the train appeared. A lonely metal snake winding about on the background of the white-heated desert prairie – almost like in a western of John Wayne. At any moment I expected to see a black cloud of a numerous cattle herd of trotting bisons, chased by Native Americans on Apaloosa horses.
After we saw the real face of Rajasthan, Kuki took us to those places which would make us breathless and as he himself said – “places which go beyond our concept of beauty”, spots in the desert who few suspected to exist… I expected to see an oasis, combining an Amazon type of jungles and Niagara-like waterfalls – so lively and inspired were his descriptions.
Even though his words were exaggerated, the places were really astonishing. As we were walking through the same monotonous landscape of stones, sand, dry trees and undergrowth, we suddenly got to a canyon from which greenery was flowing. As if the earth had ripped up its breast and showed her heart – pulsating with life and spreading beauty. The trees were climbing on the cliffs, sticking out from rocky niches like hands, waving to greet us from invisible windows. At the bottom, lying in the earth’s bedroom a lake was sleeping, wrapped in a green-blue blanket, and above it a small waterfall was combing its hair. The sight was most unusual to the eye accustomed to see what it expected, and the mind was already confused by the idea how a desert should look like. Here, at that place, we forgot for a moment about the typical Rajasthan and we entered in a wet, fresh, green “desert” we hadn’t seen until then.
We first descended to a place where Kuki showed us some of the first discovered rock drawings. Of course, the local people from the village around most probably knew about them, but Kuki was the first who documented and announced them publicly. There, under the former shelter of a leopard, under the painted in red and ochre world of our ancestors, under the scenes of dancing and hunting people and killed animals, Kuki told us something very interesting…
Usually he sought the rock drawings under every big stone or rock, which formed something resembling a shed where those drawings could be preserved. Very often the rocks themselves “were calling” him, simply drawing his attention with their unusual shape or strange bulged relief. Twice it happened that even dreams disclosed the exact spot of the discoveries. Once, after a similar dream, he rushed together with a friend to search for the place “seen”. They were convinced they had found it. They searched for the drawings but there was no trace. They were ready to give up when Kuki collapsed in some kind of pit. Fortunately, he wasn’t harmed. He lighted the lantern and was stupefied – the bright ray lighted up dozens of rock drawings!…
Kuki loved telling stories, enjoyed being listened to and wanted to look like “an old hand” as a guide and discoverer, but in the meantime he was extremely genuine, affectionate and quite simple-hearted. I sometimes sensed a note of insecurity, may be at that point he was exaggerating but that was probably because in his heart these memories and sensations had an enormous and tremendous significance – much greater than we could imagine. Words possess that vile ability to narrow, shrink and belittle the image or the sensation within their literal framework. While in our head and heart they have gigantic dimensions and no space can hold them, once voiced – they become scattered mites.
Before getting down to the lake, we went to the other side of the canyon. For a while Kuki was looking around – at the earth and the cliffs – trying to find some kind of natural sign to lead us to the next discovery. And there he found it! He called us and we soon saw how Kuki’s head disappeared in the abyss. Were we really going to descend those sloped cliffs? It turned out that just under the edge of the canyon there was something like a cave – an indented in the canyon niche which was turned into the perfect bachelor rooms. A stone wall was sheltering the open face side, a net of branches and bushes was keeping lee sidelong. In the room there were a built bed and stove, and flat stone plates served as shelves. It was a perfect spot for meditation and seclusion. And indeed, its real function was exactly this because for many years it had been inhabited by some sadhu, who now came here only from time to time. But now even the peace was not the same. Lately a lot of people had been pasturing their cattle around the canyon and Kuki also had his share in exposing this place, uncovering its veil of mysteriousness.
We continued walking to the lake, yearning to immerse ourselves in its cool embrace and put out the fire raving in and out of our bodies!
We passed by the temple. It was faced with white tiles – each of them bearing the symbol “Om” and the name of God Rama. In front of the temple there was a stone sink in the shape of a cow from which water was gushing. We washed our faces and read the following: “Meat, smoking and opium are inherent of the asura. Purity was flowing out of those words – just like the clean water we had just washed our faces with. But why wasn’t I surprised that while descending to the lake I didn’t see any visible proof of these words? Yes, Hindus say that the material is deceptive, delusive. May be for that reason the temples maintain spiritual cleanliness, surrounded by material dirt. This world is simply not important – it does not exist, these plastic bags are just an illusion. The only existing thing is the all-embracing Brahma. These glass bottles are ephemeral in comparison to a day of a Brahma’s life, equal to a million of years. There, even this plastic which floats undisturbed through the air to join the rest of the industrial waste, is not real. It is a round universal nothing which will be degrading for only half a century.
“Forgive my irony, Kuki! I do respect and love India, the people and teachings, but this just doesn’t get into my mind. I understand it neither at home, nor here, nor anywhere.” – I said with certain regret.
In order to inspire me and kind of console me with some hope, he replied almost with the innocence of a child:
“You know, I never leave waste! I always gather the rubbish and carry it in my rucksack.”
The lake broke its sleep for a while, awaken by our splashing around. The small feeble waterfall formed beautiful rings on the water surface, like an acrobat who was spinning simultaneously a couple of hoops around her waist. Kuki said that during the monsoons the fragile waterfall which was now hardly leaking became a monster. It seemed as if any second hundreds of elephants were throwing themselves from above and smashed down with thunder and crash.
After the bath, lunch was waiting for us.
“First, we have to honour the God living in us, and then – the one living out of us.” – Kuki said while patting his belly.
Kuki’s wife had prepared puri, as well as yogurt for all of us. Mmmm! She had no idea how we were praising and blessing her! Gazing at the forest which was splitting like a wedge the canyon before us, Kuki again got inspired and began recounting.
“You know, I believe in the forest spirits…”
He paused for a second and then went on:
“For the locals who live in the forests it is easy to believe in the existence of invisible souls, but for the rest who are not in touch with nature, this assertion seems more than absurd. Sometimes, while walking alone I begin understanding the beliefs of the local tribes. Once I clearly heard a child’s cry. I stopped, looked around and went on walking. I heard it again but when I stopped – it faded away. The strangest thing was when one day a woman unexpectedly appeared in the wood. I was quite surprised by the encounter. What was this woman doing alone in the forest? We stopped and began talking and she disappeared in the blink of an eye. Just like that! Merely evaporated! I was fully conscious and cannot admit that it was a work of my imagination!
I believed him for I knew very well what it meant to remain alone in the forest. In fact, the forest has always attracted me not only with its perfect tidiness, peace and beauty, but mostly with the presence of life in it – not only physical but invisible. I cannot understand our certainty that the world we see is real and its solidity and density are not illusionary. When we say that we “see” a certain object – this is a great simplification of a complicated physical process as the human eye “sees” only the light reflected by the object. Physicists say that matter is rough energy but with the same composition as the fine energy which may change significantly our concept of reality. If we subject to energy radiation the atoms of our bodies and transfer them in the ultraviolet and x-ray scope of the electromagnetic spectrum, then our body will become invisible to the eye but visible to certain animals as well as to people with more developed senses. What is real then? According to most religions in India, and particularly in Hinduism, the world we inhabit is maya, i.e. illusion. Maya is a limited physical and mental reality, in which the human consciousness is entangled. The liberation is connected to Brahman – the superior universal power which makes things manifest. When one interprets this manifestation as clear and objective reality, the world becomes illusionary and deceptive. In this sense maya is the ignorance, the lack of knowledge of the indivisible character of the universe. This is the veil covering the superior reality. The world as we know it is like a mist and the only way for a person to break free from the vicious circle and the illusionary concept of the world, is knowledge. Not the professional or scientific learning, but the simple knowledge of the primary essence of things which can only be the fruit of a clean and emancipated human mind.
Simply put, in order to see the forest spirits, our senses have to be cleaned from the noises and blemishes stuck to them. And forest possesses precisely this ability – to purify us from the accumulated dirtiness of the world. That is why I did believe Kuki’s words.
The jeep was waiting for us somewhere up. We dropped in at a couple of places with finds of rock drawings. One of them was known as the “Sphinx”. It consisted of three natural stone blocks which formed a reduced copy of the Egyptian Sphinx. The drawings though were quite damaged by the hands of people who considered their own names more important than the millenary works of art. We continued our way to the Khajuraho of Rajasthan. The temple complex with an erotic twang, in architectural aspect looked exactly like its famous twin brother in Madhya Pradesh, but could stand comparison in terms of dimensions and diversity. The others went in to look around and I relaxed on a bed made from the roots of a tree in the courtyard. In a moment two people got close. One of them was the guard, accompanied by a boy. They told me that I had to take off my shoes as I was sitting on a sacred place. And indeed in front of me I saw sticking out the trident of Shiva. I realized my stupidity and took off my sandals right away. A moment later I had a reason to laugh at my unnecessary embarrassment. The boy began tossing a long staff whose every bang in the ground resulted in a deafening metal echo. The same sacred soil around the temples and altars was now shaken by this boy’s game. As if this wasn’t enough – it occurred to him that he could toss stones in the air and hit them with the staff. The stones were flying around randomly – towards and over the domes, but this evidently did not break the holy rules of the temple according to which the environment had to be preserved peaceful and unblemished. Simply the list of rules said shoes should be taken off as a sign of respect, but evidently they had forgotten to prohibit the disciplines – staff tossing and stone hitting. If all possible rule-breaking factors could be enlisted – then this list would have been a couple of kilometers long. I really hoped that the guard would soon appear and tell off the boy, but it didn’t happen.
I had the pleasure to witness the whole uproar of his games and on top of it I received an unusual confession. After the boy stopped behaving like a hooligan, he gave me a long gaze and said:
“You are very handsome!”
That was it! I shook my head to throw out these intrusive words, I put on my shoes and quickly went away.
The longest, the driest day of my life
We had a lot of time, so we asked Kuki to have a walk through the forests together. He agreed and even got enthusiastic to search for new finds. His idea was great. Kuki said something to the driver who turned down some invisible paths through the sandy reddish wilderness. We passed by some local sheds, may be tribal, judging by the fact that the women’s hair was let flowing down loose and carefree – something you would not see in a typical Hindu environment. The jeep stopped in the middle of nowhere and left us there. In the distance we saw something like a river bed around which trees were drawn up in lines. The rest was an even plateau, stones and dead silence. Our aim was to walk alongside the river. When Lenka, the Czech girl, saw what was expecting us, decided to stay in the car. The driver would wait for us in front of a temple to which we would get on foot. From the moment we set out I realized my stupidity – I hadn’t taken a drop of water with me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one – no one had done it. Nevertheless, we continued confidently through the plateau…
And as if we had landed in hell – the swelter was indescribable – our feet became heavier with every step and our heads – dizzy. The Sun’s power was pouring onto our skin as a molten gold. There was no life-saving shade. I was praying that some cloudy hand would reach out from somewhere, grab the sun and put it in its breast, but my prayers did not receive an answer. Even the smallest shady spot brought the comfort of an oasis. The gravel was making crunching sounds under our feet, our saliva stuck to our throats and the thickened blood in our veins couldn’t flow smoothly. By God, wouldn’t we at last hear the cool babble of a river and hide under some generous tree heads?
Salvation came when we entered the forest. The trees were scarce and yet the slight freshness had the effect of a gulp of cold strawberry lassi. I was refreshed for a moment and Kuki didn’t even seem to be tired or thirsty. He was striding energetically whistling some tune to himself. He stopped now and then and pointed out to some transverse rock which had drawn his attention. Then he went there and thrust himself under it hoping that would be his fifty-first discovery which he promised to dedicate to us. Alas, it wasn’t meant for our names to be written in the Indian history that day. Kuki was really special – his birth and life, the stories he told and the places he loved were special. He wanted to make special our days and gave his best. But this self-oblivion was so sincere and from the heart that it was sooner lovable than selfish. What happened? During the whole excursion Kuki behaved like the most flawless, bravest and experienced guide we had dreamt about. He was telling us stories about places, showing us different edible plants, rocky shelters of vultures, he was introducing some slight sensation of drama while as if by the way he mentioned the tigers and bears infesting these lands. But slowly his authority of an experienced adventurer and discoverer began cracking. I doubted his qualities for the first time when he deliberately stopped to look at the animal trails in the sand. A trail, of which even a child would be sure it was from a cloven-footed animal, he defined as a bear’s. Then, after we heard a grunt very close to us, evidently belonging to a wild hog, the leader gave way to the child in himself and he began insisting to go back, because, you see, the wild boars in India were horrible beasts. After pulling himself together he tried to do his level best a bit. He began looking for a “weapon” , found a thick branch and started hitting it on a stone to shorten it a bit. By accident it broke in such a way that resembled a spear. This inspired our Kuki with confidence and he began proudly tossing it around. Suddenly, something snorted and Kuki was close to falling flat on the grass. We saw how some massive barrel passed through the bushes close to us. It was a buffalo. When Kuki realized that some wandering cattle had blown him over he broke out into abuse. As if he blamed the buffalo for scaring him uselessly, not considering the fact that something even more fierce could have been hiding in the bushes.
We stood for a while by the river. In fact, it was far from the concept of river, for what had remained of it were swampy puddles. Judging by the interlacing of animal trails, this was evidently the only water resource in the area. We were looking at the still water in silence. Probably, at this moment we were all thinking about the same: “If we only could drink a sip of your waters!”
Besides, the thought about thirst created some kind of tension in the air. May be it was coming from Kuki who was looking at the landscape, being on the alert even for the slightest noise. No, I rather had the feeling that we were being watched not by one or two, but by dozens of animals. The sun was slowly dropping the curtain of the day and the four-legged became more active and the first thing to do for animals who until now were lolling about was to drink water. To their surprise, though, some two-legged had occupied their places. A fox couldn’t contain herself and ventured to drink water at the other end. I was sure that if we had stayed a bit more, other animals would also jump out from the “backstage” area.
We began walking alongside the river and in a short time we reached the temple – our meeting point. Outside a sink was trickling blissfully sounding like a heavenly melody – my most favourite song. But we couldn’t drink, as we were at a low altitude and the water had doubtful origin. The healthy stomachs of Indians could cope with any kind of water but for Europeans even a sip of the “unknown” would probably cause ameba or dysentery. Watching how the temple-keepers were drinking water was the most painful scene I had ever swallowed.
We entered the temple cloister and sat on the rags in the yard. The holy clerks were relatively young, in their forties, and were worshippers of Kali. This was confirmed by the figure of a tiger standing proudly on a separate altar against the image of the goddess. The tiger is considered her favourite means of transportation and worshipped on an equal level with her. It turned out that tigers frequently visited the distant sanctuary, coming almost to the gates. Priests offered them gifts.
They treated us hot tea which we accepted with unspeakable gratitude. In the swelter, the best thing to do is drink something warm to equalize the temperatures of the body and the atmosphere. I thought the tea would quench my thirst a bit but it was awfully sweet. The thirst became even greater and grew into a devastating element. This made us hurry and we got on the jeep and headed back to the town.
A long day it turned out to be! But such days bring a feeling of completeness and enjoyment and not of boredom and sadness. Thinking about the time spent in India so far – it was mostly from the first category.
And furthermore, I will remember this day as the day I felt the greatest thirst in my life!
 Asura – demonic creatures from the Indian mythology. They were born by one father together with the gods, virgin, but they are their enemies. – author’s note
 Lassi – yogurt with water and sugar
from “Pen, chocolate and two rupees” ©