[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In late 2018, along with our partners Out of Eden Walk, we floated a call for applications to Veditum’s first Moving Upstream fellowship programme focussed on River Betwa. The objective – to walk along stretches of the Betwa and document the river and life around it. Radhika Singh and Shail Joshi were two of the four fellows selected for the program.
They started from Hamirpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh, where the Betwa merges with the Yamuna. Then, they traveled onwards to Bandhouli, close to the confluence of the Betwa and Dhasan rivers. The entire journey, around 130 kilometers, was carried out on foot. Joshi and Singh depended on villages along the way for food and accommodation.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_single_image image=”3729″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]We forged onwards from Douhal early the next morning. Our destination was a village called Jalalpur, which would take us back to the banks of the river. We did not know what to expect. Until now, every village had been different from the last. The people’s attitudes, the architecture of houses, the quality of water, and even, to some extent, the language, would change from one day to the next. The amount of diversity that was packed in just a few dozen kilometres was astounding.
Just before exiting the village, we stopped at a small grocery store on the corner of an intersection to buy some supplies. Within minutes of us reaching there, we were surrounded by a dozen men enthusiastically showering us with volleys of questions. “Where are you from?” they asked. “What are you doing here? Why walk the Betwa? Do you guys know any locals? What is Bombay like? Have you met Amitabh Bachchan?”
After chatting with our new acquaintances for a few minutes, we continued on with our journey. Jalalpur was not too far, but our energy soon waned. The sun was scorching, and we were passing by the same barren landscapes we had grown so used to over the last couple of days. It was one of the most silent walks of our journey so far.
That changed when we arrived in Jalalpur, which was unlike any place we had previously encountered. The village looked like it belonged in a set of a poorly rated apocalyptic movie. Everything was grey, broken, and covered in dust. A massive truck lay on its side, fallen and forgotten, like a dying street dog. People were unloading sacks from another truck that was standing in front of a warehouse. The area smelled of fumes and metal, and echoed with the din of men at work. The sky, too, was a dull grey that seemed to hang oppressively low. People looked at us suspiciously as we walked towards the village. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3723″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Old stories”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]We met Sonu and Bupendra, two men whose contact information Ravi had provided us with. They took us down a path through the village. The houses we passed were empty and derelict. It was clear that Jalalpur had been of some importance once upon a time; the houses were large and sombre, and there was an air of self-importance that people carried with them. Indeed, someone later told us that the village used to be so rich that even the horses used to eat jalebis (Indian sweets). Centuries sat side by side, and the memories of the past lurked in corners, resisting being forgotten.
We arrived in front of a temple, which we looked at in awe. Sonu told us it was a thousand years old – a fact we could not confirm – but it certainly looked to be ancient. The peak of the temple stood at the proud height of about thirty feet. Out of all the structures we had seen in Jalalpur, this was the best maintained. The entrance of the temple opened into a lush garden with bougainvillea bushes and marijuana plants. Cutting through the garden was a path that led to a small courtyard, open to the sky, and the arched entrance of the garbhagriha (innermost sanctum of Hindu temples that houses the idol). This was to be where we spent the night. For the only time during our journey, we were not invited into a single person’s house. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3726″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Sonu and Bupendra asked us if we wanted to see the village’s other temple, which was by the banks of the river. The sun was setting, but we agreed to go for a quick visit. The path was a winding route that cut through wild areas by the outskirts of the village. It seemed to be a shortcut, and fairly unused. We arrived at the site, and had to stop at once to take it all in.
The temple was magnificent. It was a combination of three structures, the largest of which rose from the foot of the river to about fifty feet in the air. A series of elongated steps led down to the water. Generally, most monuments are planned along a symmetrical axis, but this particular ruin, where the biggest structure was not aligned with the other two, defied those historic norms.
Every monsoon the entire temple would be submerged, resting under the water, until the river once again receded to expose its glorious rock-cut exterior. Sonu told us about how he had dived in one day during the rainy season and hurt himself on one of the temple’s peaks. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3724″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Temple Talk”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]From the temple, we could see a bridge spanning the river connecting the two banks. There was a line of trucks crossing it, carrying mounds of sand. No matter where we were, there was always sand mining. That was the one thing that did not change from one village to the next. The faint sounds of motors and the rumbling of trucks along rocky roads reached us from across the river, disturbing the peace. We later learned that thousands of trucks leave with Jalalpur sand every day, though supposedly only four trucks are actually allowed to work there. Sometimes there were lines of trucks up to six kilometres long.
The sun was setting, casting the temple with an orange glow, and it was time to head back to the village. The last glimpses of the ancient ruin slowly disappeared in dark shadows, and the purple sky accentuated its silhouette. We were lost for words. We walked back with calm minds and our enthusiasm about the journey rejuvenated.
A group of men were sitting in a small courtyard of the temple adjacent to the garbhagriha when we arrived. They were old and skinny, their heads wrapped with gamchas and bodies swathed in white cloth. One was trying to stoke the bonfire in the middle of the circle with a stick. The others were passing around a chillum, taking large puffs of marijuana. We entered into the smoky circle, and they moved aside to make space for us.
After some idle chitchat, they sprang to their feet – it was time for the evening aarti (a Hindu ritual of worship, usually offering a small flame to the Gods). We were expected to join, and though we had not prayed in a long time, we bowed our heads before the images of gods that were partially hidden in the shadows of the entrance pillars. The men sang their prayers while ringing the temple’s ghantas (a temple bell) forcefully. To us, it seemed as if praying was as fundamental to their routine as eating or sleeping.
After twenty minutes or so, they settled back down around the bonfire. It was obviously their evening ritual, and they were glad for the break in routine we were providing. Like every other group of pot smokers in the world, they relaxed and laughed, chatting freely. The talk soon settled into a discussion of the problems of the region, which, by now, we were familiar with: the lack of rain, the failure of government and agriculture, the effect of sand mining on the river, and the paucity of jobs. There was some hope, though; they agreed that the younger generation was better educated and had more opportunities than before. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3725″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Bundelkhand had also become less dangerous, according to them. Fifteen years ago, it was such a dangerous area that people would have stolen our backpacks immediately. Murders were commonplace. There seemed to be lingering distrust between the villages, however, although they were just a few kilometres apart from one another. In almost every village we had gone to, people had warned us about how dangerous the next village was. The pradhan’s brother, one of the old men in the circle, told us that people would go to Mumbai or Delhi to work but would not take a job in the next village because it was too dangerous.
Talk soon returned to religion. When we asked where they would go if they had the time and money for a holiday, most mentioned places of pilgrimage. They praised the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, for improving religious infrastructure and starting subsidies at the gram panchayat level for people to go on pilgrimages.
When we asked about their relationship with the Muslim population in the village, they immediately shook their heads. “We do not keep any relationship with them,” they said. “There are too many Muslims in this country, and all are cheats, liars, and killers. But if they tried to do anything in this village, they would be wiped out in an hour”. It was the first instance we had heard blatant animosity towards Muslims during our trip. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3727″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]During the conversation we did not mention our own views about religion or the politics behind Hindu-Muslim divide. We did not want to come off as rude or argumentative. Contentious discussion topics did not have a place in this stoners’ circle. For the most part we nodded along.
The conservation twisted and turned, covering many more topics about their lives. We wondered for how long these men had been congregating in the temple to while away their evenings. A decade? Two? How long would they keep doing this? When the fire started to die down and the last puff of the chillum was puffed, they started to leave. We unrolled our sleeping bags in the outdoor courtyard, facing God and the night sky, and drifted off to sleep. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3728″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_separator][vc_column_text]This article is part of a series, describing the journey and observations from the walk undertaken by Radhika Singh & Shail Joshi. New parts of the series will be published on www.veditum.org every Sunday. Series editor: Rathnavel Pandian
This series is also available in a book format. Interested readers/book reviewers/publishers may write to email@example.com for access.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]