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Delhi Diary: Indian Spice too hot for Hindu puritans

BRITISH readers are probably fed up with the Spice Girls, but in India, where live sightings have so far been confined to one satellite television award presentation in Delhi, people can't get enough of them. That's the only explanation for the flurry of hysterical articles about the girl band that has filled the papers here over the past couple of weeks.

The gist of the articles was, a) the Spice Girls have been signed up to do a concert in front of the famous erotic temples in Khajuraho, central India, in November, and, b) This is a very Bad Thing and should be stopped. Now it appears it was all a sort of mass hallucination: no one has been able to dig up a smidgin of evidence to back the story.

The rumour seems to have been started by a classical Indian dancer called Geeta Chandran who read about the event, or imagined that she did, in a tabloid newspaper, and was so overcome with rage that she wrote to the local authority denouncing the project. "By making those temples an erotic prop for their performance," she fumed, "the Spice Girls would be hurting the sentiments of centuries and centuries of sacred creativity in India."

The temples, with their voluptuous sculptures, could surely withstand a temporary appropriation by a bubblegum pop group. More threatening are Hindu neo-puritans like Ms Chandra and the local MP, a Hindu nun called Uma Bharti, who declared: "If the Spice Girls come here wearing short skirts I will not even let them land at the airport."

This week the Hindu puritans came a major step closer to power when the BJP and their allies got within 20 seats of winning a majority in parliament. When their political opponents describe the BJP as "fascist" it may sound like a cheap jibe, but it is historically sound. There were close links between the Hindu nationalist movement and European fascists in the Thirties, and a guru of the movement wrote in 1939: "To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by purging the country of ... the Jews ... a good lesson for us ... to learn and profit by." The anti- Muslim street violence of nationalists in Ayodhya and Bombay shows they have not lost touch with their roots, and one hopes that in government the BJP will be too hamstrung by their coalition partners to behave like good fascists.

A couple of hundred kilometres up the road from Khajuraho is the former princely state of Gwalior, dominated by a massive sandstone escarpment 300ft high, "the pearl among the fortresses of Hind" as Babur, the first Mogul emperor, described it.

The fort looks unassailable, but on one occasion a small force did succeed in scaling its walls. I learned this from the Maharaja of Gwalior himself, Madhravao Scindia, the sitting MP, a Congress leader and possible future prime minister. Last week when he was out campaigning for re-election I talked my way into his Ambassador and presented my card. He did a double take. "The only person in history who ever stormed Gwalior Fort was a Major Popham," he told me. "Are you by any chance related?"

This, I surmised, must have been my old Uncle William who with Warren Hastings cut a bloody swathe through central India in the 1770s. In 1780, with a force of 30 men, Popham somehow scaled the sheer walls and sent the inhabitants packing. These included Mr Scindia's ancestor, Mahadji Scindia.

After an introduction like this I felt obliged to give Mr Scindia a very hard time about the disgusting state of his constituency, and I was lucky not to be thrown out of the car.