February 27, 2013
We left Allahabad early this morning; Gangaji rolling like quicksilver punctuated with yellow and gold marigolds, and the moon an orange button low in the sky. A pair of songbirds sat on the wire outside the gate and bid us goodbye. From the Shastri Bridge across the Ganga, smoke drifted over soggy heaps of straw where once stood the grand halls and huts of pilgrims. As quickly as the pop-up city appeared, it is now disappearing. As quickly as the estimated 30 million arrived this weekend, they have also disappeared, and while the bridges and even the Grand Trunk Road that crosses the whole of India and links us to Allahabad and the sangam, were closed to all but foot traffic and cycles yesterday, today, at 7:30 anyway, there is hardly a sign of unusual traffic. The Mela is officially over for the kalpavasis, though some may stay on for another week or two, and the akharas are decamping, headed home or to Varanasi to celebrate Shiva Ratri in Shiva’s city of light.
We cross first the Ganga and then the Yamuna, adorned with boats and aglow with pastel light, and head toward Khajuraho. By 9:00, humped dainty white cows with gentle dark eyes have replaced the water buffalo in the yards and streets of the villages. The farm houses are bigger with pitched roofs of baked tile, plastered walls adorned with blooming bougainvillea.
By 9:30 an escarpment of red sandstone looms and the buses labor to wind up and up out of the Gangatic Plain. We stop on the plateau and scramble over the sandstone slickrock littered with boulders, but a bus load of foreigners attracts attention, and out of nowhere we suddenly have a crowd of young men with hungry eyes, and it’s time to move on.
By late afternoon, we’ve left the ripening mustard and wheat fields behind, and cross dry chaparral, rocky and uninhabited, though occasionally we spot cattle on the trails through the brush. The chaparral gibes way to a scrub forest, and then we are climbing again through deeply dissected mesas. We share the nearly empty road with brightly decorated “Goods Carriers,” the ubiquitous trucks that haul freight all over India. At higher elevations the forest is denser, and soon we are driving through the Panna Tiger Reserve. The roads are narrow—no shoulders, no ditches, no guard rails—so the feeling of being in the forest is intimate and immediate. We see no tigers, but we are scrutinized by a number of monkeys sitting on the side of the road. The two large rivers we cross are clean, as are the roadsides. The burden of India’s vast population weighs less heavily here.
Leaving the Tiger Reserve, we pass through fields of wheat, studded with the incidental tree, including palm trees. Boulder strewn buttes and cactus fences tickle the impressions of the Southwest, and for a moment I forget where we are. But only for a moment, because the Himalayan Institute gate appears, and here we are. Welcome to HI-Khajuraho!