Day on the road yesterday to Shrevanabelagola for the Jain mela, the Mahamastakabhisheka, and the anointment of the Bahubali Gommateshwara statue, something which happens once in every twelve years.
Left the house at 8 or just gone, after the usual pot of coffee with my wife on the veranda of our house in the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe in South India. Out and onto the Karnataka plains, me with Sonam Tashi behind the wheel. We were joined by an American, Adam Schmidt and a Tibetan, Nyima Dorjee. They were from a neighbouring house in the settlement over from the United States for a holiday in India and who were also coming along for the ride.
Guess that it must have been 5 or 6 years back, maybe more actually, now that I come to think about it, when me and Sonam Tashi last made the trip to Shrevanabelagola. It had been a run of the mill temple town day back then, no really huge crowds in other words, no mela to contend with. Back then we had parked in the centre of town and walked up the holy hill in order to see and offer prayers to the Bahubali statue which stands on the top of it. Job done, nice and simple. From Shrevanabelagola we had then driven on to Hassan and the Hindu holy towns of Belur and Halebid, both of which lay some distance to the north of Hassan and home to ancient Hindu temples of some repute – holy places rising up out of the red Karnataka earth and dust. That trip had been a long day but a good one and in the evening back in my room in Bylakuppe I had written poem about it.
mile upon mile
sun hangs over
trees and bushes
line to nowhere
a single track
an awesome whack
tea and cakes at
a roadside stop
the price so sweet
you’d die of shock
round the corner
thanks to gods for
This time it was a just a question of going straight to Shrevanabelagola which was approximately a three hour ride from the settlement. Half an hour after leaving Bylakuppe we stopped in the market town of Periyapatna for a breakfast of iddlys, sambhar, chutney and dhal pooris. All washed down with a glass of chai, which was hot, sweet and strong, just the way it should be.
There I was, sitting in the back of the Scorpio making conversation with Adam Schmidt, filling him in on a few facts and details on what it was like to take to the road in South India. Of what it was like to travel through the awesome sun splash of that part of the world, with all its manifold colour, home to all variations of habitation along the way – pathways of humanity cast upon infinity tracks too vast to mention by way of maintaining any sense of coherence.
The road from Periyapatna took us up the Mysore highway and through places such as –
until we hit the Mysore by-pass where we took that road which saved us from having to go through the middle of town and where things would have been busy. Took the by-pass road instead to Seringapatam, past the De Paul PU College looking resplendent and perfectly educative in the morning sun, past the turning to Brindavan Gardens which lay 5 km further down the track, past the turn for the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary a little bit further on. Then we hit the Bangalore – Mysore highway just east of Seringapatam which we jumped on for just a little while until a sign appeared for the road to Shrevanabelagola; straight road due north and another 65 km before we would hit the temple town standing there on the Karnataka plains.
Sitting there in the backseat of the Scorpio with Adam Schmidt by my side, the kind of thoughts I kept having were – Why are we going? Why am I taking these guys? What was I hoping to get from stepping out once more into the big wide open Karnataka style? The usual stuff in other words, the usual mind junk.
Green country, rice paddies, sugar cane fields, bananas, flowers, nurseries, intensive working of the land, agriculture in the countryside – that was the scene before us. Out of the green lands after 25 km or so, out of the green and into the red, the red soil plains of Karnataka, with the sight of solitary hills in the distance, big boulders rising up from out of the flat immensity. Siva country. South Karnataka, one of the best places in the world to be when all is well with the system, when one is flying high by way of premium visions of the sacred Om, life as lived everywhere risin’.
Approaching Shrevanabelagola brought back memories of Kalachakra 2006, the Tantric Buddhist initiation I attended by the banks of the Krishna River in the town of Amaravati in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. There the centre of town had been sealed off to those of the pilgrim masses who were not on foot, no vehicles were allowed in other words, unless they were official ones. Back then it had been Buddhist pilgrims, all in town for the mystical Kalachakra, this time around it was Jain pilgrims who were coming, seeking the Mahamastakabhisheka purification, seeking cleansing and good fortune for the future and as far as traffic management was concerned the deal was same, no cars allowed into the centre.
There was a police checkpoint on the road with the holy hill of Shrevanabelagola rising high on the horizon ahead of us. There the police pointed us to a car park in which we were to leave the car, our Mahindra Scorpio, despite the fact we were still 2-3 km from the centre of town. No problem with that, as there was a free bus provided to take everyone into the centre, into the heat and the excitement of the crowds. It dawned on me as we walked over to climb onto the bus that we would have to remember where the car was when it was time to go back, as things might be different then. So yeah, it was just like the Kalachakra all over again, where the size of the event and the sheer numbers of people soon radically changed the parameters of what was deemed to be normal in the bright light of day.
The free bus was packed with pilgrims by the time we got to roll, but there was no real surprise about that. Besides the four of us the other non-Indians on the bus were a French couple also taking the ride into the pilgrim town. I wondered again, as we went through numerous twists and turns of the road through the outskirts of town, whether we would be clear as to how we would get back to the car later in the day. It might be confusing later on. The free bus dropped us off at the bus station which was slap bang in the middle of town and from there we walked straight into a bright, colourful scene of noisy Indian intensity which of course was like nothing else on earth.
Soon became apparent, extremely apparent as a matter of fact, that the queue for the holy hill of the MahaBahubali was somewhat long in length, somewhat crowded and full of hustle and bustle as people stood shoulder to shoulder waiting in line. The potential wait looked like it was going to be a 2-3 hour job, no doubt about that, and that was just to get to the foot of the hill. The sight of it all immediately brought home to me the scale of the Mahamastakabhisheka, and made me wonder whether we were up for taking on the main show, whether we could hack the waiting before the climb up the hill.
There was an alternative to all this however, in the form of a smaller holy hill opposite to the main one where the Bahubali Gommateshwara statue stood, a smaller hill looking over the temple town with the main event lying in the distance beyond. The queue for this hill was not so long and it was actually moving, unlike the main one which was just a solid mass of static but happy and excited people. The decision was quickly made between the four of us to go up this smaller hill instead, Chandragupta hill was the name of it, opposite the higher Vindhyagiri hill, home of the Bahubali Gommateshwara. This smaller one was just 614 steps, nothing to worry about in other words, when walking up it in the late morning sun. It was also a hill with temples on top, all the work of the sculptor Aristenemi in CE 98.
Sonam Tashi opted not join us on the climb up the Chandragupta, electing instead to look after our shoes which had to be left at the bottom as no shoes were to be worn on the holy hill, it had to be walked barefoot. It was just as well that Sonam Tashi didn’t fancy it because if we had simply left our stuff on the piles of dust bitten shoes, trainers and slippers already accumulated, I am pretty certain my nice new pair of size 10 New Balance trainers would have been toast within a few minutes of being left unattended. This was despite the fact we were of course at a religious event. Sorry to be so cynical but it is just the way things are in the heat and dust, just simply the way things are.
So the three of us made the climb – Adam Schmidt, Nyima Dorjee and myself – made the huff puff in the bright light of the late morning sun. It was a slow walk due to the sheer numbers of people, one line going up, one line going down, with pinch points coming along every now and then when everything ground to a halt. Pinches thrown into the carnival mix then, the brightness of the walking up the Chandragupta, far into the light and the bright colours of the day. Suddenly it all felt so far away from my usual early morning Om meditations in the settlement. Maybe, maybe not, as Om resides in the place beyond day and night of course, and if it possible, all we have to do is hold awareness of that fact.
We took time out for some photo shots along the way, shots of the scene before us, shots of me, shots of Schmidt and shots of Dorjee, all with the Bahubali backdrop over on the hill beyond across the other side of town. Usual tourist day tripper deal stuff in other words. Guess it led me to thinking – when will it end, all disintegrate, this dream? We took the blessings of the deities in the temples on the top of the holy hill of the Chandragupta once we made it up there. Plain Jain deities, figures and names I am not familiar with, they kind of looked like Buddhas if truth be told. Religion? All in One & All is One. Keep it simple in other words. No need to worry which aspect to stand in front of with folded hands in prayer when man is taken out of the equation. Just ride the blessings through what is a form of plain living, take the positive and take to sunning yourself on the high meadows of faith.
Our companions were simple people, Indians with friendly faces from all over the South and beyond, all of them there for blessings, for a joyous leap into the spiritual within the lands of the what is to come. Life is uncomplicated when you throw your shoes on a dusty pile and know for sure they will still be there when you get back, wherever it is that you go. Me? Less so, after all, I was breaking my back over my pair of New Balance not so long ago, worrying what to do with them, until Sonam Tashi came along and said that he would stay and stand guard at the bottom of the hill.
Visions of the Karnataka countryside to the back of the temples was really rather good. It was the Hassan taluk / district / area whatever it is you chose to call it. On the top of the Chandra it was sunny and very bright, but with my skin cream, baseball cap and shades it was all under control, baking hot of course but under the circumstances quite comfortable. Not like in years in gone by, when I would burn things up, stepping out into the bright light of day and chasing the dream, whatever that dream was, trying to drink down in one big gulp whatever experience I hoped to come across. Learnt my lessons bit by bit over the years I guess, but still no doubt there will be more lessons to come, many more of them. Life is a teacher, firm hand of the law is what shapes us if we only bend down low enough to accept its whack.
Once down off the hill I felt the full force of the midday heat back on the streets again in the centre of town. Somehow I initially thought the queue for the big hill beyond looked a bit smaller, so me and Adam Schmidt joined the end of it, only for us to soon realise we were very much mistaken, that it wasn’t smaller at all, if anything it was bigger, that the wait time in the early afternoon sun was most assuredly going to be a long one, three hours easy. Therefore we took the sensible option and bailed out, we didn’t try to be like supermen intent on seeing Bahubali at any cost, witnessing the Mahamastakabhisheka.
After a little bit of middle of town wandering once we got out of the queue, we met up with Sonam Tashi and Nyima Dorjee at the central bus station hotel. So glad we didn’t stand there like fools in the sun, like blind men waiting to be burnt upon destiny’s wheel where there would have been the talk, the walk, but then the so what? It was not as if we were pilgrim holy, not as if we were Jains with hearts full of the faith which sustains us and which others can only yearn for. No, it was not as if we were them.
Hit lucky at the eat house in the station as fresh meals were just being served – hot, tasty South Indian vegetarian cooking at its best, nothing fancy but quality food which was cheap, delicious and plentiful. So I wolfed it down, ate it with my hands, with sweat upon my brow in the canteen heat, enjoyed it so much more after having taking that sensible path on the turnscrew highway; in other words going up the smaller hill and not the bigger one. Not only was the food good but I washed it all down with a cold can of Coke, which sometimes just about hits the spot like nothing else on earth.
The fun began on the free bus back from the centre of town to the car park, as it did not take us to where we thought we needed to go. I kind of thought to myself that this might be what would happen. On top of that the bus was pilgrim crowded in a kind of way which only things in India can ever be; packed, noisy and joyous in other words. But the bus went nowhere as far as we were concerned, not back to where we thought we had parked the car, swinging out to a place we had never seen before on the other edge of town. We had no option but to get another free bus from there back to the bus station in the centre so as to try again, this time hopefully in a different direction, the right direction.
Second time around, in our attempt to get out of town, back to where we were supposed to be, we hired a rickshaw, the four of us plus the French couple who had suddenly reappeared and who were also having the same problem as us in trying to figure the right way out and back to their car. Chatted to them in the back of the rickshaw as we made our way back out again through the crowded streets of Shrevanabelagola. They told me they had come down from the hills of Coorg in a hired car with a driver and that the next day they were heading up to Hampi in the north of Karnataka. All this before a two day road trek down to Pondicherry in order to go to a wedding. Pondicherry, yes I see, the French connection now kicking in. Quite a trip!
All ended well for us after our auto rickshaw rolled up to correct the car park this time around, the one where are cars were parked, both ours and the French couple. We all took shots of each other in the hot afternoon sun before we parted, as if in celebration, England and France united once again, as if Brexit never was. I told them a few of my Indian tales, or not so much tales, just geographic information about the land we were in and they seemed impressed with the blah, blah, blah I gave them. The what to do and the what not.
On that ride out of town, round and round Shrevanabelagola, I mentioned to Sonam Tashi that on the way back to the settlement we could always go into Mysore, go to the Casino Park for a tasty snack of the alfaham chicken which was served there. We could take Nyima Dorjee and Adam Schimdt with us, both of whom would definitely have never been there before. Sonam Tashi thought it was a pretty fine idea, we had both been there a couple of times the previous year, twice with Damdu la, an ex-Tibetan government office from the Hunsur settlement who just so happened to be addicted to that alfaham at Casino Park, cooked as it was on an open barbecue at the front of the building, sprinkled as it was with Persian spices as opposed to Indian, cooked as it was to perfection.
Beat myself up about this on the way back to Mysore. There I was, pretend yogi, who after just having visited a pure veg holy place in full festival mode, was yet again heading for the sin bin territory of a bit of meat eating and taking others along with him as well. Voices asked me if my desires for the pleasures of this world would ever stop? For which I could give no answer. Seems like it is endless, mildly relentless, an energy churn which activates and alights upon your path if you are unsure of the direction in which you’re going. Outer as opposed to inner, where it seems like I am the chief spinner, chopping up wishes for this and for that, all so seemingly at the drop of the hat.
Drove back down the straight dissection of road north to south and to the Mysore – Bangalore highway in the afternoon heat. Adam Schmidt sat beside me on the backseat, crashed out with his head back and mouth open, eyes closed to the world, mind away in the land of nod. Might have been that his body was in shock, no doubt, after the crowds of the holy time, the heat of the place and that climb up the hill. As for me I spent the ride gazing out of the window, worrying and scheming, trying but failing to feel that I found my right place on the destiny wheel. All due to the paranoia and bewilderment kicking in again over my decision to take everyone to Casino Park. Why do I do this? Why that? Eternal questions which keep me forever rocking along and not always in the right way, as I try to find the answers.
Maybe the way is to push inside, to that bliss happiness of those early morning hours meditating down in South India. That is the key, so the joy found there somehow doubles back, projects more forcefully onto the outside world as a consequence. So that it doesn’t make you end up thinking about doing things you never imagined, things you might not really want to do, especially if you really were a full trance yogi in Third Eye vision. Strange dichotomy, sunshine paradox, sleight of the hand I might never understand, just what to do with those opposing parts? On this occasion in mitigation I would have to point out my desire was also to give both Adam Schmidt and Nyima Dorjee the Casino Park experience, slam bam on the alfaham, as I was confident it would be something they would both truly enjoy, even if all the finger licking was not going to be good in the eyes of creation, or at least in the eyes through which I sometimes chose to see things.
Well anyway once we got to Mysore and rolled up at the Casino Park, pretty much as predicted they did enjoy it, the alfaham chicken that is. What I got from them was good choice, good choice resounding in my ears, which in my guise of Man about India was all I needed to hear, their faces of satisfaction, all I wanted to see. Three and a half alfaham chickens, bread and salad with plain lime sodas in the Mysore heat of the late afternoon, simply sensational. Out there in the world after the Bahubali of Shrevanabelagola. Grilled chicken takeaway for Nyima Dorjee to take back to family members in the settlement to top it all off. All good then, after that there was a round orange sun turning to red in the sky to the west, which followed us all the way as Sonam Tashi gunned the Scorpio back down the highway after another trip into the big wide Karnataka open.
The header image for this article is a photograph of the Shrevanabelagola as seen from Chandragupta hill and taken by the writer.