Tea with the sadhu

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Brahma Temple

Temple in the Eastern Group

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

The statue of Hanuman stood in a small enclosure by the side of the road, just across from the Brahma Temple with its fluted spire and courses of sculpted figures. The statue was taller than a man, painted in the International Orange that is used to designate active objects of veneration. A sadhu wrapped in a gray blanket sat nearby, while a boy with a twisted foot swept the steps that led up to the enclosure.

As I studied the statue, the sadhu rose to his feet and hurried over. He gestured to my camera and struck a pose in front of the statue. I had hesitated to take a picture of the statue, aware that this was a functioning temple rather than a tourist attraction, but the sadhu was insistent. He stood patiently, one hand raised in a gesture of benediction, while I fiddled with the camera. His face was whitened with ash, and his rusty brown hair was gathered up into a kind of topknot. Aside from the gray-and-striped blanket draped around him, he wore only a kind of skirt made of sacking and a few bangles.

When I had finished taking photographs, he produced a little dish of red powder and proceeded to give both M. and I a red tikka, applying his thumb firmly between our brows. We made suitable gestures of gratitude and reverence, and prepared to withdraw, but a second man, dressed more conventionally, appeared and asked if we would like to take tea with the sadhu. It seemed impolite to refuse, so we found ourselves being led over to the small alcove that housed the sadhu and his few possessions.

The sadhu fished out a brass pot from his bag and set it on a wire trivet in the center of his firepit, added water and began to briskly kindle a small fire. The beginning of tea preparations seemed to signal a general break in the temple routine: the boy stopped sweeping and came over, while a man dressed in white with vermillion-painted earlobes finished his puja before the statue, set down his bells, and came to join us.

The second man seemed to have exhausted his store of English, and our small talk was not so much small as infinitesimal. We nodded and smiled politely while the sadhu busied himself with ingredients, dropping a rock of sugar into the boiling water, shaking in tea from a packet that seemed incongruously bright in his dusty hand, following it with milk from a little jug.

The most successful communicator turned out to be the boy, despite being apparently profoundly deaf. He was a handsome youth of about sixteen or seventeen, with a shock of black hair that was stiff with dirt. He pointed to my head and then to his own luxuriant hair, mimed sleeping and made little shivering motions, apparently asking whether I didn't get cold at night without any hair to protect me. I conceded that he had a point, but said that I'd learned to manage. The sadhu and the other men laughed. I gathered that there was some speculation going on as to whether I might be some kind of foreign holy man who had shaved his own head as an act of devotion. I chose not to disillusion them.

As we left the sanctuary, having finished our tea, declined an offer of cigarettes and received a second tikka, this time from the ash of the firepit, the other man touched my elbow and asked if I'd care to offer a little something for the sadhu. I thought it would be churlish to point out that I had already slipped the sadhu a small bill after taking his photograph (which he had accepted gravely and slipped quickly inside his kilt). Besides, the tea had been fine and the entertainment value considerable, to say nothing of the photo opportunities. I handed him another tattered banknote, and we steepled our fingers, bowed and withdrew.