History In A Phone


The guard with the phone at the Sun Temple, Konark

By Rahul Sharma

For 14 years Hemant Singh has blown his old whistle every so often to warn tourists to not climb monuments, write on the walls and even urinate in the Konark temple complex in Odisha.

During his day shift he sits on a platform where stands one of the ornate sculpted horses that once adorned the Sun Temple that collapsed long ago. Singh’s eyes dart from one end of the complex to another as hundreds of tourists battle the heat and humidity and jostle with each other to take selfies with the famous wheels of Sun god Surya’s chariot in the background.

“They (the tourists) can do anything. They have no respect for the place,” he says just before blowing into his whistle and waving his hand at a proud father trying to perch his young son on top of a sculpted figure just across the green patch of grass. An umbrella, necessary to beat the dry afternoon heat, lying next to him flutters in the moist evening breeze.

Arre bhai, mat karo,” he shouts, as an embarrassed father pull his son down in hurry and scampers away. Singh lets out a long, disappointed sigh, shakes his head, and looks at his watch; the cruel summer shift will end soon and he will go home to his family

From Gaya in Bihar, Singh is one of dozens of security guards employed to keep watch on the world heritage site littered with centuries-old stone sculptures. They hang around the baking stones in the summer, minding the tourists. The night shifts are spent in the guardhouse just outside the complex. Snakes, lots of snakes, come out in the dark, Singh says. It is safer not to walk around in the complex.

His eight-hour shifts earn him enough to have moved his family to Konark from his village. “My children are in an English-medium school,” he proudly tells me, adding that he has another 15-odd years in the job before he moves on with memories of a beautiful place, which he has helped keep clean, and in shape.

According to Singh, most tourists have little or no knowledge of the history of the magnificent 13th century structure built by King Narasimhadeva I around 1250 AD. It is widely believed that it took 1200 workmen and artisans 12 years to build the Sun Temple.

And as I look at the ornate horse sculpted out of stone on the raised platform where he sits, Singh asks: “You haven’t got yourself a guide?”

“I have read about the temple and its history. I didn’t need a guide,” I tell him.

“You have read about it but you haven’t heard it, have you?” he asks, fishing out his old, not very smart mobile phone from his pocket when he hears me say no.

He then presses the play button on the phone recorder and hands it to me. “You can hear it here. It’s in my voice,” he tells me proudly.

That’s Singh’s way of appreciating the place and its history, which he has memorized in the 14 years he has been at the temple complex.

“I don’t usually share this with everybody,” he says, as his strong voice plays into my ear through his little phone. By the end of the 15-minute recording I know everything I didn’t already know. Technology has helped Singh bridge the divide between the ancient and the modern.

As I return the phone to him and get up to make my way, he asks me if I liked the little personal experience with history. “Isn’t it better than how the guides will tell you?” he asks.

I look at the setting sun and the long stretching shadows of a temple where no prayers are held and nod my head in agreement. On that hot, balmy, sweat-drenched evening on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, Singh’s was the best voice I had heard.

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