July 15, 2007

Blasphemy in Sravanabelagola - A Weekend Trip

"Karrrr". Pause for a second. Again.. "Karrrr".

6'O clock in the morning. I jumped off the bed. Slapping the alarm clock to sleep, taking a quick mouth wash, finishing morning duties faster than usual, dumping few necessary things and the camera into my back-pack, in fifteen minutes I was standing tall.. ready for a long adventurous day. Trip to Sravanabelagola.

Meghana once told me it's a very nice place to visit. But then she is a jain and this place is mecca for them. Moreover, she is a girl. You can never really trust the judgment of the human sub-class which makes Ekta Kapoor soap operas so famous. So, to have a hands-on, I started.

I always thought that a talkative guy with tremendous sense of humor makes a very avoidable combination. Vijay is an exception. He is a kind of person you don't want to be with if you don't want to enjoy. That makes him an uncompromisable company for a weekend trip and I was lucky.

Sharp 7:30 am I picked him up on my back seat from Vijay Nagar. Yes, by coincidence, Vijay stays in Vijay Nagar. My 180cc Pulser engine roared to north-Bangalore through the empty West of Chord Road, breaking the early Sunday morning silence and laziness.

Our destination was 120 Km towards west of Bangalore. It's around 93 Km from Mysore.

When we were crossing Yashwanthpur, the rising sun has already increased the traffic on the road. Maneuvering the buses, trucks and potholes, we reached Nilamangala little late. It was already 9am. We had our breakfast there. Some different kind of idllys were available. Large and flat. Vijay is from a village of western Karnataka. He explained me that these idllys are available in rural Karnataka and not readily available in Bangalore.

We started from Nelamangala towards the west, at about 9. Beautiful roads, occasional breaks under trees, pulsating speed of the bike averaging nearly 80 km/hr, remotely visible Nandi Hill in the backdrop - made the ride thrilling. We took some photos with Nandi Hill watching us from remote.

We took a fifteen minutes halt in Kunigal. We got ourself energized with some food and fruit juice and started again. Every village I crossed, a new face of Karnataka unfolded in front of me. Breathtakingly serene, amazingly inviting.

Rural Karnataka.. I could not remember if I have imagined many times, even in my conscious mind, Karnataka to be different than Bangalore. Its unfortunate that metropolitans, like me, often suffer from this delusion. People tend to think Tamilnadu is all about Chennai, Bengal is all about Kolkata and Karnataka is all about Bangalore.

After about 2 more hours of drive I saw the hill. Taking my eyes off the road, I could actually see two hills standing like two huge brothers on both sides of the road. I was not aware of the second one's existence. I tried to take a remote glimpse of the life size statue on top. But he was hiding behind the temple. So we made our way through the small town of Sravanabelagola to reach the bottom of the mighty hill.

As I said earlier, this is a noted place of pilgrimage for the jains. I parked the bike in a safe place (I could not find a bike stand there) and we moved towards the entrance to the temple hill. Most of the crowd surrounding us were marwari business families which included children, young people and very old ones. They all were speaking hindi. While the old men and women were very traditionally dressed, the young marwari part was wrapped up with very stylish apparels.

I delightfully noted that although this is a place of pilgrimage, most of the female visitors are very attractive. "Beautiful ladies". When I emphatically mentioned my discovery to Vijay, he gave me a look which said he had being noticing them since we entered the town.

The hill had to be climbed barefooted. The hill rock was finely chiseled to create a series of stairs which extended from bottom to the temple on top of the hill. "Must have been a great deal of work", I said to myself, hardly aware of how much bigger a wonder is waiting for me on top. There was very well managed arrangement of keeping shoes at the cost of mare 10 bucks. Delivering my shoes on the safe hands of a lady, who must be doing quite descent earning through her job, I felt the cold rocky surface bellow my barefoot.

On the foot of the hill, some visibly poor people were busy doing a rather interesting job. They were carrying old marwari men and women to the temple. Its a quite difficult job. The steps are small and slippery. Four people were carrying one person on a "Char Payiaa" and a small miss-coordination could have resulted in a fatal accident. But they were doing it proficiently. Taking advantage of the abundance of business class they were earning a handful. Rupees 100/- per trip. I am not a believer, not even close to it. But when I saw, on the name of god, on the name of pilgrimage, certain amount of worldly wealth shifting from the hands of the riches to the hands of the needy, I congratulated the lord and the temple authority.

Vijay took my camera as he wanted to practice photography. Knowing him, I had no doubt regarding what objects he is going to shoot. Zooming the camera on a marwari beauty who was sitting at some distance, he declared, "Bird watching". "Really it is", I thought, "And if her husband or brother finds you then it will become chicken run".

Before starting to climb, I looked up and said "This is what is called an uphill task". Vijay didn't respond as his camera was focusing on a young lady wearing skirt. The steps were tiny so we had to be careful. I was constantly watching Vijay, as he was constantly watching something else.

The stairs were quite steep and slippery. I overheard someone talking that there were 500 stairs to the temple. I started counting. I remember I could count till 100 before I got tired and stopped for taking rest under a shade. These shades on the way to the temple were like oasis in a desert. Apart from giving shadow to exhausted people, they were places of people interaction as well. Some exhausted old uncle took heavy breath and greeted another uncle, who was equally tired, "Namashkar, kahan se? Bangalore?". Other uncle answered, "Han bhaiya. Aur business kaysa chal raha hai? Poti ki sadhi ho gayee? .." And then, as if they knew each other from the time of Gomateswara, the discussion would continue till the temple, back home and probably even after.

When we reached the top, I was exhausted but Vijay was continuing with the camera. The size and shape of the temple became clear only after reaching the top. There were large number of ancient inscriptions on the rocks lying here and there. Couple of small size ancient temples were present before the entrance to the main temple. All the walls of those temples were covered with inscriptions. Each and every inscription was protected by a glass covering along with a pamphlet which gave historical details of them. Here I could not but praise the temple administration for their wonderful job.

Somehow Vijay found these inscriptions more interesting than his previous subjects. While he was taking photos of them, I took some rest in front of the main gate while having a chat with an old marwari man who came here for pilgrimage right from Rajasthan and used one of those char-payiias to climb the hill. I asked him how he felt the ride. He said it was too comfortable and actually he fell asleep.

When Vijay came back I had to show enough patience to go through all the photos he has taken of those inscriptions.

We entered the temple.

Even from the stairs of the main gate I had no clue of the sculpture inside. It's only when we entered in, the canvas was uncovered. Imagine yourself on one corner of the open terrace of a twenty storey building, eyes shut. Then suddenly you open your eyes and look down. The shock was similar. I knew it is huge. But expecting and observing are different things. I saw the 50 feet high statue, build by curving a single stone piece, standing majestically from the floor of the temple. I was standing in front of the world's tallest monolithic statue, built in AD 981. For several minutes my eyes were fixed on the statue and mouth was open. I looked at Vijay, only to find him in the same fixture.

The huge statue was stark naked. But it had a kind of inexplainable divine aura which overwhelmed even an atheist like me, well.. at least for some time. At that point I was not aware of the history of the god. Its only later that I came to know why he is worshiped in that manner. But let me not bring that story here.

The crowd devotees was very quiet. Everyone was silently moving in a line which started from one part of the get, passed through the passage right in front of the feet of the god and came back to other part of the main gate. I didn't have any intention of giving puja or any ritualistic offering, but I obediently followed the line just to get close to the statue and get a feel of its enormity. And when I reached the bottom of the statue and looked up, it was a feeling I will never forget. At that point an announcement was going on that some one's purse got stolen. Temple or graveyard - this is one thing that will never change - peoples nature.

After filling our hearts, eyes and the camera again and again with images of the man made wonder we came out of the temple. It was then when I noticed the beautiful view of the neighborhood visible from the gate of the temple. Down, I could see a beautiful pond surrounded by a gallery. Looked like an ancient bathing place of the kings. The word Sravanabelagola means "Monk of the white pond". I amused if this is the pond the name refers to. Right opposite to us, on the same height, we could see the peak of the other hill, chandragiri (The name of the hill on which we were present was Vindyagiri). Vijay again got busy with his camera and the surroundings.

The descent was faster than I thought. When we were coming down taking each stair step carefully, some local boys were doing the same thing just by sliding on the smooth rock. The prominent marks of their sliding, on the rock, confirmed that they did it day-in day-out.

Back to the surface, we were terribly hungry. At such hunger level, I almost start seeing chickens and muttons hanging on the tandoor. But when Vijay asked for a non-veg restaurant to a local shop keeper, his look was enough for us to give up hope. He said we will get good vegetarian "thali"s in the local Jain Bhojanalayas. Those bhojanalayas were actually private homes, they prepared and served food there. We got recharged in one such place with good homely food which was also light on pocket.

Fresh, and once confirmed that my bike is still present in the place I parked it, we started thinking of another hike. This time on Chandragiri. We went up the hill. This was little more rough and steep than the other one. We saw a fort, a cave of a monk, and the place where the great king Chandragupta died giving the name to the hill. About an hour later, we were on the roadside taking some snacks from a local shop. There I saw a very old man giving very heavy religious fundas to a foreigner who was absentmindedly tolerating him with a pair of samosas.

It was a time to say good bye to the place. A short but very memorable visit. As I drove us out of Sravanabelagola, eventually both the hills vanished in my looking glasses. Destination Bangalore. The return journey was strenuous as it was already dark and we had a bike puncture in between. Finally we reached Bangalore, safe and healthy, with the memories of the day covering our minds.