Bundelkhand: The hand that built Khajuraho temples
5 Jun 2016
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A thousand years ago, the Chandela Rajputs ruled this central part of India. It was Bundelkhand’s most glorious era, when they built the temples at Khajuraho, forts and palaces – and massive talabs (tanks, some of which are as big as lakes). But over the past 1,000 years, Bundelkhand has been in steady decline and now is one of India’s most ‘backward’ regions, if backwardness is to be measured by the yardsticks of industrialization.

It is also one of India’s most dramatic regions. Enormous expanses of forests, interspersed with fields and talabs that spread for hundreds of hectares. The soil is fertile, yielding up to two crops a year. The forests, logged to death during the British colonial rule, are slowly growing back. The talabs are in different stages of (dis)repair.

Bundelkhand lies between the Indo-Gangetic plain to the north, the Vindhya range of hills to the south, and the rivers Yamuna to the east and the Betwa to the west. The land slopes gently from south to north, and most of the rivers flow in this direction to join the Yamuna at various points. The rivers of Bundelkhand, notably the Betwa and the Ken, restore some semblance of life to the Yamuna, that emerges from Agra in the north as a filthy drain.

Bundelkhand gets its name from the Bundelkhand Rajputs who rule this region for two centuries from about 1600 AD. It was probably one kingdom during the rule of Maharaja Chhatrasal, from 1691 to 1731 AD, who challenged the Mughals. Before and after, it was fragmented, and the object of constant attack. It now comprises 13 districts spread over the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Bundelkhand is also the badlands of India – the famous dacoits, Phoolan Devi and Malkhan Singh lent it their notoriety and now, kidnappings, rapes and murders are routine.

Attara is a non-descript dusty town on the eastern fringe of Bundelkhand, about 150 KM west of Allahabad. Go another stop on the train from Delhi and you reach Chitrakut, where Rama is supposed to have spent his exile years, after killing the demons. It’s not ‘Ram-rajya’ anymore, but more Rakshas-rajya’. The Attara station has a single, long platform of which only the central area has a roof. The rest is shaded by massive peepul trees and the ground below is white with bird-shit.

I emerge from the station and Suresh Raikwad, my friend and guide for the Bundelkhand sojourn, greets me. He’s a short, moon-faced man in his late 20s, always smiling and dressed in a simple shirt and trousers. Suresh is from a nearby village called Tendura, where he has an office, but spends most of his time in Attara and another nearby town called Baandha. The exit of the station is fairly decrepit and crowded. There is a large courtyard outside with ankle-deep dust, in which an assortment of vehicles await passengers – jeeps, autorickshaws and cycle rickshaws – to suit all pockets and distances.

“Namaste, Nityaji. How was your journey?” he smiles as me. “Fine. I got up early and was anxious to get off at the right station,” I say. I didn’t want to go onto Chitrakut and battle the demons there. “Let’s go to the guest house and freshen up,” says Suresh.

The Lakshmi guest house is just that – a rambling building with a dorm on the ground floor and rooms on the first and second floors. There is no method in the madness – climb the stairs to one room, another few to another, and so on. I get a room with a bathroom. The walls of the bathroom look ready to cave in on me so I use it very sparingly. The mattresses are hard and covered with printed sheets, so it’s impossible to make out if they are clean. There is a TV in one corner, resting on an ancient cooler. This room has windows so I can look out on the guest house’s dusty yard. The paint is new, though, as is the bed. On the ground floor, just below my room, is another that the local police use for drinking, gambling and whoring.

“Sharmaji, please give us breakfast,” Suresh calls to the hotel’s owner. “We’ll have parathas and daal.”

And to me, he says, “This place is famous for its daal.”

Suresh has borrowed a bike for running around the place. We leave for Tendura after breakfast. Atarra town is a dust-bowl. All the lanes are lined with shops – eating places, clothes outlets, hardware stores, vegetable vendors and most of all, vehicle repair garages. Atarra used to be a major mandi (grain centre) once but has since lost its pre-eminence as others have come up. It’s a small town of traders.

The roads don’t exist for the most part. They have long since eroded down to their stone foundation and vehicles pitch and yaw over these in first or second gear. There is the inevitable round-about in the centre of town with a hideously painted statue of Dr B R Ambedkar, arm outstretched, in the middle of it. We bounce over railway tracks and leave town. In fact, the town lies to one side of the railway tracks – on the other is an expanse of marshy land from where Atarra’s large, vicious mosquitoes come.

The road to Tendura is no better. Small pieces of tarmac interspersed with gaping potholes. The bike is an ideal machine for this and Suresh zig-zags from one stretch of tarmac to the next. I manage to get a look around. The Rabi crop has been planted and the fields are green. It’s mostly mustard and gram (channa). Some of the larger farmers grow wheat. The Kharif crop is paddy, jowar, coarse cereals and pulses; paddy is a sown as a monoculture while the others are sown together in the same plots because of widely different water needs.

There are two kinds of soil – one is very clayey, locally called kabar, and retains water. The other is called mar and is easier to work. Small channels with water run along the road, infested with water hyacinth, another unwanted British import.

The road disappears and Tendura appears, rambling off to the left of the road; its fields stretch to the left. Each plot is marked by hedges that also act as wind-breaks and strengthen the low walls around the fields called bunds.

The village is a rambling collection of houses built anyhow with spaces around them that merge to form roads. None of the roads were ever anything other than dirt tracks that, in the rains, become an impassable expanse of slush. Nearly all the houses are brick-and-cement though the older ones have stone walls, plastered with lime and covered with the usual cowdung-straw-soil mixture. It’s a large village of around 5,000 people, sub-divided into three localities. Farming is the main occupation though a few of the youth, educated and ‘above’ farming work in Atarra or Bandha. Some drive jeeps. It seems education alienates people from their lands because, once educated, people no longer want to farm.

The Raikwad’s are a fishing community. They used to make their living catching and selling fish from the region’s tanks and rivers. Only a few still do so, concentrated in villages around the larger talabs in Bundelkhand. Suresh’s family took to farming several generations ago and are well-established in the village.

“Here is my house,” he says, stopping under a spreading acacia tree in an open space between two buildings. It’s a low-ceilinged, two-storeyed building with a platform outside the front door where people congregate in the evenings. A buffalo sits on a bed of straw, chewing nonchalantly.

There is a well a little down the road, its four masonry towers pointing forlornly skywards. It used to be the only source for drinking water in the village, fed by seepage from the three village tanks.

“Since handpumps were installed in the village some decades ago, its become the local garbage dump,” says Tribhuvan Singh, a red-haired 20-something who works with Suresh. The inside walls have all but collapsed and garbage floats on the water. In a few years, it will be history.

I duck under the low front door of Suresh’s house and walk through the passage beyond with head lowered to avoid hitting the thick wooden beams holding up the first floor. It’s a simple construction – thick walls with beams set in them. Stone slabs placed on the beams to form the floor of the first floor. The ground floor is for animals, even though it’s broomed and clean. The first floor is for human beings. I emerge from the animals’ room into the inner courtyard that is paved with flagstones. It’s completely enclosed, with double-storeyed rooms on three sides and a wall on the fourth. Suresh’s office is to the left and stairs without a railing lead up to it.

His courtyard houses the bathing area and toilet. There is a place for firewood – no cooking gas here – and cowdung cakes. Clotheslines criss-cross the courtyard borne down with the morning’s washing. Suresh’s father, a white-haired mustachioed man emerges from one of the rooms on the ground floor.

“Don’t waste your time going up to his office. Come with me,” he says.

Before I can protest, he ducks under the doorway and is out. I follow. He takes me to a talab on the outskirts of the village, about 200 M from the house. Naya talab, as it’s called, is the largest in Tendura. It’s not new, as its name implies. It’s got a 400 year-old legend behind it. A few months previously I had visited Tendura – Naya talab was covered with water hyacinth and its water stank. Now, its clean and the water, clean enough to bathe and wash food in before cooking. An ancient peepul tree spreads its roots on the bund at a corner; its roots seem to claw the earth like the fingers of an old emaciated hand. They are great to sit on and contemplate the stillness of the pond in the mid-day heat – till I jump and shout in pain. A few fire ants have found their way up my led and bitten my ass. Embarrassing moments follow as I struggle to get the fucking creatures off my ass. The sting is painful and takes a long time go subside. Not even the idyll of the place is enough to take my mind off the pain in my ass.

Suresh had led the villagers in a week-long campaign to clean the talab – about 50 people extracted the hyacinth, dried and burnt it. They deepened the pond and used the excavated mud to repair and raise the embankments. They pretty much set it back a few decades, when people used to look after their talabs and the talabs in turn ensured that villages seldom faced a shortage of water.

In the fields across the tank, I see two sarus cranes. Tall and graceful, they are looking for small fish and frogs in the fields. Their red heads bob just above the hedges bordering the fields. I stalk them, hoping for a decent photo but they are evasive and eventually fly away. It is good luck here to see the cranes.

A village elder waddles up to me. He is Chedi Lal Prajapati, a former sarpanch and now advisor to everybody on all causes. He was one of Suresh’s brigade in the charge against water hyacinth. Chedi Lal gestures to me to sit on the embankment in the shade of a barrh tree, spreading its branches across the pond. The breeze coming off the pond is cool. A woman washes a cane basket full of yellow daal in a corner of the talab. She sees me and pulls her sari over her face.

Chedi Lal says, “The water is every good for cooking daal because its rain water. The groundwater here is brackish in places.”

He narrates the legend of Naya talab. “Many years ago, some say 400 years, a man passed this way with several bags full of money. He left a few with the villagers who lived here then and disappeared. When he didn’t return for many months, the villagers decided to use the money to build this talab.”

I walk around the village with Chedi Lal. He circles the talab and on the far side, I find that people have built houses on the banks of the talab. The talab does not have the mandatory temple but a small shrine under the barrh tree, where we sat.

“This would never have happened in the old days,” says Chedi Lal. “In the last few years, things have changed in our village. Because of these changes, these people feel bold enough to make houses on the banks of the talab. Earlier, they would be ostracized if they did this.”

We’re joined by Ram Snehi Verma, another man of Chedi Lal’s vintage. Walking round Naya talab, we reach a small bridge – two wooden planks across a gully – and then another smaller pond called Vijayi talab. This is choked with hyacinth and a few houses protrude onto it. The hyacinth from here occasionally washed over into Naya talab and has to be cleared. A child washes his ass in the water after shitting a little distance away; the rains will carry his production into the water.

Ram Snehi follows my glance. “We used to have very strict rules about shitting and pissing around talabs. You can see they aren’t followed any more. It was forbidden to use the embankments as toilets. People would fill their pots and go to the fields to shit. If they were caught shitting on the embankments, they were fined or even thrown out of the village.”

Chedi Lal takes up the story. “Every year, before the rains come in June, there is a village mela (fair) around the talab. All the families who used the talab’s water assemble to cook and have a good time. This reinforces our bond with the talab. During the mela, one member from each family helps to excavate the pond and strengthen the embankments.

“After the rains, in September, we have another festival. The village deity is put on a float and towed around the pond, which is full of water after the rains. There is fun and feasting for a week. We thank the gods for their bounty.”

Village life, then, is intimately wound up with the life of its talabs.

Going further around the village, we come upon the Baba talab, named after a sadhu. The story goes that Sadhu Baba used to live here, and had a small pond to himself. A cholera epidemic struck the village and its people went to Sadhu Baba for advice. He told them to deepen and widen the pond and the epidemic would go away. One person from every household chipped in and sure enough, once the work was complete, the epidemic vanished.

“It’s very deep – nobody knows how deep. There are large fish here too, but we do not eat them. It is said that people who eat them, die like fish out of water,” says Chedi Lal.

There are as many legends as there are talabs. There are as many talabs as there are villages in Bundelkhand. There are an average of 14 wells to each village, some in the villages and others in the fields. There is a plethora of rivers, drains and gullies that water and drain Bundelkhand. It gets an average of 1,000 MM of rain a year. Bundelkhand should be rich – in water, agriculture and natural resources.

Just how rich it is comes home to me in the next few days. There are no industries in Bundelkhand – some says it’s too remote; others blame the high crime rate. Precisely because of this, the water is clean in almost all parts and safe to drink from wells, handpumps and even some rivers without treatment. Farmers use very little pesticide or fertilizer so toxic run-off from fields is low. Most talabs, even those whose beds are cultivated, are reasonably uncontaminated. I become a guinea pig of sorts, trying out water from tanks whose bottoms I can see – no, I am straight. And you are reading this book, right?

Farming is largely traditional and land-holdings are small across Bundelkhand. Professor Bhartendu Prakash, who runs the Vigyan Shiksha Kendra in a village near Atarra called Tindwari, has studied the farming patterns in the region and its water resources. He is a short, white haired man with a white bandana on his head. His eyes smile all the time. He lives in the family mansion, a sprawling single storeyed house on the outskirts of Tindwari. A chemical engineer by training from IIT Kanpur, he has been experimenting with organic farming since 1965 and training farmers in the region to do so as well.

He’s published a book, ‘Problems and Potential of Bundelkhand with Special Reference to Water Resource Base’. In this, he says, “Because of the uncertainty of water availability, people depend mostly on dryland farming.”

In practice, this means that people maximize the use of rainwater in the absence of assured irrigation. They build bunds on their fields, the height varying from a few feet to a few metres, depending on the size of the field. They repair these every year, just before the monsoons. They use the kabar soil for the bunds because it holds water better than mar and makes stronger bunds. It rains heavily in July and August and the fields fill up water. This serves two purposes. One is to kill off weeds that cannot survive prolonged inundation. The other is to saturate the soil with water and recharge the groundwater tables.

Come October, farmers let out water from the fields in a very controlled way, field by field, so as not wash away the top soil or damage the fields. The bunds are broken in places so that the water drains away slowly. They plough and plant towards the end of the rains as the soil, otherwise hard and difficult to work, has softened. If they delay, the soil hardens and becomes impossible to work. As the fields empty of water, they plant their crops – paddy, coarse cereals and pulses. Paddy needs stagnant water, so this is grown while water is still standing in the fields. The others need less water, so are planted after the fields are drained.

“Traditionally, there was no Kharif crop, only a Rabi crop of wheat, gram or mustard, which used only the moisture in the soil. Later, people started growing rice and irrigating their fields with tanks or wells. In the last century, the British built a network of canals to encourage agriculture and generate more revenue. They were fine for a while but after independence, have slowly decayed. Now, they are every unreliable,” says Professor Prakash.

Farmers are changing their cropping pattern. They are growing cash crops like soya. In the process, the bunding system is going the way of the region’s economy. This will affect the water table, water quality and ultimately, the farmers because theirs is a subsistence economy where people grow enough for their own needs and a little more. Very few have large marketable surpluses.

The road from Atarra to Panna, a town 75 KM east-south-east famous for its diamond mines, barely exists. You could call it a road for the first 30 KM while in Uttar Pradesh; once we cross into Madhya Pradesh, the road becomes a dirt track. Our jeep pitches and yaws as it growls past picturesque villages dotted with talaabs. We briefly hit the civilized national highway that connects Baandha to Satna further south, but all-too-soon turn off onto a ‘state highway’.

The natural richness of Bundelkhand comes alive, in contrast to the poor condition of the road. The villages are smaller, usually a few huts scattered around a larger house. Nearly all houses here are wood or bamboo structures, topped with thatch. Most are small, single room dwellings though the larger families have managed to add rooms so the huts look large. A corner of the front room serves as the kitchen and the far corner, as the bedroom. A two-room dwelling would have the bedroom in the rear. The villages are as unstructured as Tendura. Nearly all have a source of water – well, tank or stream – that let’s them grow at least a crop a year. People are out tending their fields, bent double in the mid-day sun. It’s not hot, being December, but the sun is bright and manual labour is tough in any weather.

Landholdings are small, with two-thirds of the people owning less than 2 hectares of land. This is just about enough for a family of five to survive on, provided the rain gods smile. The people here are poor by any standards, rural or urban, clinging on to their land. Their poverty contrasts with the wealth with which nature has endowed the region. The more fortunate or educated leave for the nearest town or larger village in the hope of finding something better.

From the plains of Atarra, the countryside gets rockier and hillier. We reach the ancient Bundelkhand capital of Kalinjar, now just a dusty town on the broken road, on the border between the two states. The Chandelas probably built the fortress atop the 1,000-foot high hill that dominates the town. After the Chandelas, no ruler held the fortress very long. The Afghan king Sher Shah Suri died here. Finally, the British managed to annex and hold Kalinjar.

My driver Ram Babu Sharma doubles as a guide. Pointing up the hill, he says, “There is an ambience about the place that lends itself to prayer. You must see the Neelkanth temple – it is beautiful.”

The fortress is quite derelict, that I can see from the road. We press on, keen to get to our destination, the Gangau weir, before nightfall. I don’t fancy being out there at night with dacoits and wild animals.

A little later, we pass Ajaigarh, another dusty fortress town. After that, the road starts a gentle climb. We rock from side to side as Ram Babu tries to find patches of tarmac. Eventually, he gives up and contents himself with driving on one side of the road. Two wheels are in a deep muddy rut that is smoother than the road and the other two wheels find the occasional patches of tarmac. Thus, sitting in a jeep inclined at 30 degrees to the vertical, we plod up the western end of the Vindyachal hills. In places, the Baandha canal runs along the road, carrying water to that town 100 KM to the north from the Gangau weir on the Ken river. Luckily for us, it hasn’t rained or these ‘roads’ would be impassable. The dust swirls up behind us and settles on everything inside the jeep. Suresh in the back seat looks at home in these surroundings so I try to blend in too.

We enter the forests of Panna. These were the hunting grounds of the local raja of Panna, but he converted it into a reserve. It is now part of the Panna Tiger Reserve. The forests are all newgrowth. Till the mid-18th century there were dense forests, according to district gazetteers. Then the British, who needed wood for their navy, railway network and industrial revolution, arrived and stripped the land of what they could find. The forests are dry deciduous, comprising of teak, saal, mahua, kahri, karaunda and bamboo, among other plants. Palash, or flame of the forest, is not in bloom so I don’t get to see its startling reddish orange against the green of the trees.

One thing becomes clear very quickly. Where there are settlements, there are no forests. Where there are forests, there are no people. These are people who ‘have lived for centuries in communion with nature’ and ‘depend on forests for their very livelihood’. I see little evidence that they look after the forests – there is more evidence that they decimate forests to meet their needs. True, the forest department and government policies are the reason these people feel they don’t own forests anymore, and therefore need to plunder them. However, that does not justify their continued decimation of already scarce resources. It is like cutting the branch you’re sitting on.

We climb a range of low hills, leaving the little villages and farms behind. The forests are denser here but again, new growth. These are the outskirts of the Panna National Park. The road is slightly better and we pick up a little speed. In the 60 KM so far, we have passed only a handful of vehicles. In the hills, we pass a couple of cyclists. From a few hundred feet up, the valley with the wooden huts, green farms and forests climbing up the hills looks picture-perfect. It’s cool, despite the late afternoon sun’s best attempts.

A clearing appears to the right and presents another pretty sight. There is an archway just off the road with the builder’s name on top – an obscure seth from a bygone age. To the left is a small temple with a massive shivling inside; a banyan tree spreads its branches over it. Directly behind the archway is a square kund, lined with stones but not cemented, about 50 feet to a side. To the left of the kund is a well for drinking water; to the right is a tank that catches the overflow of the kund for animals. The underground water flows from the hill behind to the well, then to the kund and then into the animal-drinking area. There is a small building behind the kund.

Three armed policemen sit around the kund, making their evening meal. They are on duty in the middle of the forest in an operation to catch a dacoit who had kidnapped two men a couple of days before. It’s reassuring to have the policemen around, disturbing to know we are in the lair of the bad guys. It wasn’t for the bandits, the place would be serenity itself. This was obviously a sarai, or place for travelers to rest, as the crumbling walls around the kund and the well show. There were other buildings around where people could spend the night. All that’s gone now, and just three policemen remain to guard an ancient monument.

Opposite the kund is a waterfall with a stone fence. It’s blackened by years of water flowing over it. From there, the water runs into a ditch and thence into the river at the bottom of the valley. All this is seasonal – it’s bone dry now. Even so, the high water level in the kund indicates an abundance of groundwater, even though there is little on the surface. We see no animals during the three hours we spend in the Panna National Park, even though it is supposed to have a healthy population of tigers, deer and larger mammals. I am disappointed and vow to return for a visit someday. The access from Khajuraho is better than this.

Panna is the headquarters of the district. We come upon it suddenly, over a hill. It’s a crowded small town, the distinction being that it was the centre of a princely state. We drive through town to the main talaab – Dharam talaab. This is pretty and large, covering around 40 hectares. Hills make up two sides, and the catchment, of the talaab. A wall, up which we climb to reach the talaab, makes up the third and fourth sides. Essentially, the wall impounds rainwater flowing down the hills and has created the talaab. It was built by the local raja who now lives in a splendidly decadent bungalow in town. The talaab’s benefits go almost exclusively to the new royalty, the district collector, who inherited the British-built house on the hill overlooking the talab.

The collector’s house is to the east, in a small grove of trees. To its south is an old and decrepit palace similar to the funeral houses of the Bundelas that I have seen at Orchha. On the west bank, along the wall the created the talaab, is a small ugly modern temple. East of this is a tumbledown palace that might have the Panna king’s pleasure palace – he could chill on the banks of the talaab with his favourite consort. In the middle of the talab is a building where, I am sure, the queen and her attendants would go to bathe. There is the inevitable tale of an underground tunnel from there to the palace in town.

A few swan-shaped paddle boats float on the talab. On the wall, where we stand, lie the remains of a mundan – a hair-shaving ceremony that is done on special occasions or when you lose a close relative. The graying hair probably belonged to somebody who has lost a dear one late in life. There are two stones facing each other, one where the barber sat and the other where the shaved one sat. The somber scene contrasts with the revelers on the boats, who paddle close on seeing me taking pictures, and shout ‘photo, photo’.

I drive up to speak to her highness about the local water systems, but she is indisposed. Her house has an awesome collection of plants and ancient trees; the forests here must have been like this before the white man came.

“How can one be indisposed in such a beautiful place?” I ask the guard. Suresh pulls me away.

“Let’s find the raja,” he suggests.

Sharma has meanwhile found out where true royalty abides and we are soon honking rickshaws and cows out of the way in Panna. The main palace is a school that even at 4 PM has children. We walk through the royal cowsheds, full of healthy buffaloes and cows contentedly chewing the cud. The raja’s descendant’s bungalow appears beyond this.

It’s nice, and bespeaks of glorious times long gone. An old Mercedes shares a four-car garage with a Maruti Esteem. Hollowed tree trunks double as pots with large hedges in them. We go through the gate mindless of the ‘Beware of Dog’ sign on it. An old woman is watering the garden – she is the housekeeper and must have been a sight when younger. Age and care have worn her down.

“We want to meet raja sahib,” I tell her, introducing ourselves.

“He isn’t here. You can speak to him on the phone,” she says, looking at me steadily, inscrutably.

She takes us inside the bungalow. The verandah is separated from the garden by a series of low archways and its wall is decorated by another series of deer heads, again crumbling with age. The phone is an old dial-type – she slowly dials the man’s number.

“What’s raja sahib’s name?” I ask.

“Lokendra Singh,” she replies. “He was the MP from here till the last elections.”

Seems his majesty is a lot of former things but a current nature-lover. A faded newspaper clipping on a pin board shows him being felicitated for making talabs. He made five of them between 1977 and 1979 – the Virshingpur, Bhapatpur, Paddha, Mutwa and Katra talabs in town. The Dharam talab predates Lokendra Singh’s dynasty and is now looked after the public works department. Just shows what ‘royal’ patronage can achieve.

The road – it’s actually a road now with more tarmac than potholes because it connects Khajuraho to Panna – leads us past the village of Rajgarh, with it accompanying talabs, to our day’s destination. This is the Gangau weir, built in 1906 by the British to divert the Ken river waters into a canal system. They did this to encourage farmers to grow cotton for their mills in Lancashire. They also did this to control this basic resource – once the weir was built, the quantity of water in the river fell and only certain crops were possible, at the behest of our imperial rulers. Farmers had to pay for water, where once they got it free. There wasn’t enough in the river to satisfy their needs so they needed canal water to irrigate their fields. This situation remains persists till today.

The farmers I met en route, with fields along the canal, had one complaint.

“We never get water when we need it, only when the irrigation department feels like releasing it,” said Manush Ram, a farmer in a village near Ajaigarh. “We grow one crop a year, usually paddy or sugarcane. If the rains have been good, we manage a second crop.”

The cropping pattern in irrigated and non-irrigated areas seems to be the same. What is the point of irrigation then? It appears to be a backup for rain failure, but then, there will be less water in the river and consequently, less available for irrigation.

A board on the highway nearly opposite the turnoff to Khajuraho proclaims the Gangau weir. More ominously, it says, ‘Site for proposed Dodhan dam’. Then there is another weir mentioned, the Rangawa bund. Gangau and Rangawa are about a century old. Dodhan is yet to be built – its part of the Indian government’s hair-brained scheme to link the country’s rivers in order to solve the annual flood-drought problem. Through this fanciful and enormously expensive scheme, it hopes to transfer surplus water from one river to another via a network of canals. The first link is to come up in Bundelkhand between the Ken and the Betwa rivers, transferring water from the former to the latter. Only, the Ken is a smaller river and almost runs dry during the summer while the Betwa has plenty of water year round.

The road is narrow and hedges cover half of it, their thorns grazing the sides of the jeep and setting my teeth on edge. There is a barrier just before the Gangau weir and Sharma veers off to the right into the Panna forest – we were supposed to go straight to reach the dam. We return to the barrier and the man let’s us
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