We love this image. Of all the photographs of temples from our 1945 archive, it is our favorite. There is something about the tree growing out of the roof, the seemingly haphazard jagged line over the entrance, the three men standing in the doorway, the placement of the temple in space, the encroachment of the jungle. It is one of the forces that has motivated us over the years on this project. Where is this? If we could only find THAT one, we’d feel as thought we had succeeded.
This past Sunday, we were in an impossibly old taxi having just arrived in Khargpur to finally start our one week adventure in the hinterlands locating our temples and villages. The cab’s interior door panels were falling off, springs were coming up on the seats, the engine sounded as though it really wanted a rest. The driver wasn’t in much better shape than his car, but he was singing as he drove. And as we raced to our hotel (Indian drivers always race), we passed it. The Nandeswar Temple. I only caught a glimpse, over my left shoulder as we sped past, but it was definitely it. We don’t speak Bangla or Hindi and the driver didn’t speak English and it was late and we were tired and there seemed no way to stop. So a glimpse had to do for now (it’s a small town, we’re here for a week, we can clearly return.) But the thing is, it was totally different than the photo that has been in our heads for years. It was painted white, the tree no longer growing out of the roof, the lines now painted gold (gold?) its romanticism gone. And the jungle had been replaced by the dirty sprawl of Kharagpur. What happened to my image of the past?
We assign meaning to images, regardless of reality, and we do so in an instant. We see, we respond. For this photo, we created in our minds a mythic past, a quieter and simpler place, without the mess of actual life. The Shire…in India. One of the marvels of this country is its relationship to time. In some places, India lives in the future, with hi-tech companies, ultra-modern architecture, a world power.
In others, little has changed in hundreds of years. And once we’ve frozen an image in the past, it is disconcerting to have the present intrude. We both yelled “Oh no!” on seeing the temple; at that moment, our romantic needs outweighing the probable comfort, safety and spiritual needs of those actually using that structure. But as we continually discover, unexpected adventures lie around every corner, challenging us to never be disappointed if our expectations aren’t met. They are likely to be exceeded in unimagined ways.
The next morning, I was eager to confirm that the fleeting image of a restored Nandeswar temple was indeed our #1182 but geography dictated that first we try to find #898, the Kali temple (we had a sense of where it might be.) Our driver, sure of its location, drove up and down small alleys and streets, constantly asking people. He had no idea where it was (it is amazing how, in a small town, it is still possible to get lost.) Finally, in a narrow lane, I spotted what looked suspiciously like the Nandeswar temple, albeit somewhat different than the one we had seen earlier. I had the driver stop the car and I jumped out.
Three women were sitting in front of the temple. I was carrying the book of photos and showed the old images to them. A crowd gathered, everyone eagerly comparing this temple with the old photos; it was not “our” temple. But a small army of school boys, eager to help, said they knew the way to the nearby Kali temple and, like reverse Pied Pipers, Jerri and I followed them, leaving the car behind, marching through the narrow alleys, book in hand. And there it was, the Kali Temple, in all its earthen red glory.
One of the boys got the key from the house next door. People gathered, eagerly looking through our book. We went inside and saw an incredible folk-art-like Kali, quite different from others we had seen previously. And we confirmed that this was indeed the Kali temple photographed by our soldier/photographer in 1945. We placed a few coins in the Hundi (contribution) box and purchased a small booklet about the temple offered by one of the boys. Then, one of the kids said “There’s another temple nearby. Want to see it?”
We followed again, and this time, they lead us straight to the Nandeswar temple we had seen when we first arrived in Kharagpur. We had been driving in circles. It was restored and no longer abandoned, in fact quite active, and still striking, even without romantic decay. They had, however, built a fence surrounding the temple and added a canopy, making it hard to see that beautiful entry.
The priest was just completing a puja. He and his devotees and temple members gathered around, looking through the book. Then, we were invited inside where Pandit R. Someswar Sharma blessed us in a ceremony, complete with drums and chanting, bells and incense. They were honored that we had come to their temple. We were honored that they welcomed us so warmly and were so thankful for the work we were doing in bringing these images home. We gave them several prints (anticipating at least some level of success, we had all the temple images printed while still in the States.) We’ll email others. And we’ll return later in the week for tea at the priest’s home.
India has challenged us at every turn and I think it has made us grow. I’m far more accepting. I was always open to adventure, to the mysteries of life, but in the past my innate cynicism could affect my response. I think I’m more open now, more willing to simply let things happen. I’d still rather have had hot water come from the faucet in our hotel, rather than having to call downstairs and have someone bring it up in buckets. But complaining wasn’t going to magically add hot water plumbing to this old hotel. So we poured buckets over our heads, sighed and looked forward to a real shower back in Kolkata.
Please scroll to the bottom of the page OR hit the ‘Previous’ button OR do some other contortions to read earlier posts. And please click on the thumbnails to see larger (and nicer) images. We appreciate your comments—so make them!