Monumental journey into Indian history

Linda Yeung

CHILDREN in a village of 6,000 in central India speak European languages such as German and French, but they didn't learn them at school, they picked them up from visiting tourists.

This came as a pleasant surprise to art historian Dr Shobita Punja, who was in Khajuraho researching her latest book - an ambitious and successful attempt to explain to potential tourists the ancient culture pervading India and its neighbouring states.

Great Monuments of India offers a detailed account of the characteristics and background of 50 cultural sites dotting India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the small Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan.

Khajuraho, lying in the state of Madhya Pradesh, is said to be a place of magnificent temples (mostly Hindu) dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries. Most of the sites covered by the book are between 600 and 1,000 years old.

''They represent different historical periods in India,'' Dr Punja said. ''There are temples, mosques and churches, all contributing to the country's diverse culture.'' Khajuraho not only stands as a popular tourist site, but one that greatly fascinates Dr Punja.

The temples in the pretty village, says her book, ''represent the culmination and exalted reaches of the central Indian style of temple architecture and adorned with candidly sensuous and erotic sculptures''.

''It's one area where I did a lot of research,'' she said. ''It even has its own airport; Japanese tourists go there too.'' Dr Punja was in Hong Kong briefly for the launch of her book, a sequel to Museums of India published in 1989.

A keen promoter of her country's cultural wealth for the past 15 years, she has travelled to many historical sites and has carried out exhaustive research.

Much of this is reflected in the book, which also includes travel information, 200 colour pictures and 50 illustrated maps to help visitors plan their trips.

But Dr Punja said the rich heritage was not enough to bring about a tourism boom in India, and that further development of the basic infrastructure was needed.

''It is bad that tourists have to wait in long queues for immigration at the airport after they arrive,'' her husband, publisher Bikram Grewal said. ''If you want to promote tourism, you have to make things easier for tourists.

''I think India is only next to China in terms of the attractions it has to offer in Asia.'' Still Dr Punja said it was a good sign that her government had opened the domestic air service to private operators, rather than leaving it solely to the much criticised Indian Airlines.

Amid efforts to raise its share of the world's tourism from 0.4 per cent to one per cent within five years, the Indian Government is negotiating with Cathay Pacific on extra flights to link Hong Kong and Bombay.

Dr Punja noted that services for tourists had already improved through, for example, the renovation of palaces to serve as hotels and more air-conditioned coaches.

Both she and her husband spend much of their time, and money, travelling each year. ''I am more interested in buildings, while he has a passion for birds,'' Dr Punja said, looking in the direction of her husband, also an author of a book on Indian wildlife.

She said she enjoyed Pakistan - once part of India but now embroiled in a bitter conflict with it over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

''I love Pakistan,'' she said. ''For me, going there was an eye-opening experience. It's like meeting a once-lost sister. In school, we were not taught much about it, probably because it did not really have a history of its own. It only became a separate country in 1947.

''The city of Lahore in Pakistan offers absolutely wonderful food.'' But she spends the bulk of her time in India, where she studied ancient Indian history before moving on to Stanford University for art education studies.

''Perhaps because I grew up in a system that was subjected to heavy British influence, I very much wanted to understand more about my own culture,'' she said.

''The British started the policy of preserving historic sites and monuments. That same policy is being adopted by the present government. Many sites, regardless of their religious background, are beautifully kept.

''They are also kept with a purpose of preserving India's cultural diversity.'' The keen traveller would have loved to have seen more of Hong Kong. She was impressed with its ''contemporary looks'', while her husband was in awe of the shopping facilities.

''He likes shopping; my prime passion is writing and reading,'' Dr Punja said.

Great Monuments of India, by Shobita Punja (Odyssey, about HK$250)