Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Not so Bumpi ride to Hampi: Part 1

Have just spent an amazing few days with my Aunt Teresa and other members of the wedding party from England, visiting Hampi and Chitradurga, which are extraordinary historical sites of former Hindu Emperors, dating from the 7th to 16th century. It started with an aircon, sedate and leisurely drive in a Toyota Qualis from Bangalore to Hampi, with their Keralan driver, Selim, who appeared to have had driving lessons in a less frenetic country than India. It was a very smooth and comfortable ride, partly due also to the road being a properly surfaced two-lane highway. This did not stop the occasional rickshaw from driving on the wrong side of the road in the fast lane, virtually hidden from view until you could see the whites of the passengers eyes.

We stayed in Hotel Malligi, which is by far the plushest place I have stayed in so far, and required the services of a credit card. Despite that, it was still cheaper than the Barrow-in-Furness Travel Lodge per night. As we entered, the flash lobby looked like a smaller version of a Hilton atrium, but going through towards the rooms there was a courtyard, (onto which all rooms opened) which was having work done. There was no sense that, perhaps, pretending the centre of the hotel was not an ugly building site, would be a good idea for aesthetic purposes. On the site, women in saris and flip flops, wearing specially adapted hard hats with little platforms moulded on the top, ran around carrying loads of bricks, cement, piles of rubble etc on their heads, whilst men perched on scattered beams, in threes, smoking cigarettes.

On arrival with Teresa and Richard, we met two sisters of my late Uncle and two Americans who were also wedding guests. I had met the sisters before, when I was a child, and I'd always been slightly terrified of them. They are incredibly intellectual and literary, being children of Evelyn Waugh, and also belong to a diminishing number of 'blue-stocking' bohemian type of Englishwoman. It was like travelling with Mapp and Lucia and they argued constantly, in the way only sisters can, with deep bite and vitriol lasting a nanosecond, but leaving no trace. I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few days with them, rather than the just the usual fleeting, decennial seasonal greetings of my childhood and look forward to seeing them at the next round of family occasions. Being a 'scientist', although, most scientists who know me, consider me to be more of an artistic type, it was slightly strange to be around people who had little interest in practical functionings of matter and form, because I am hopeless at history and can only remember the ridiculous, which doesn't make for a very complete view of past events and therefore felt unable to contribute much (didn't stop me, of course), but they all made me feel very welcome, especially when they discovered I knew my way around a menu and was therefore voted MC For Ordering every night.

The first morning, after a kerfuffle involving trying to contact other relatives staying nearby, lost glasses, waiting hours for breakfast and various other trivial but time-consuming events, we set off in convoy to Hampi, which is a ruined city, covering many kilometres alongside the Tungabhadra River and spanning many centuries. It is an amazing place, once the capital of the largest post Moghul empire, the Hindu Vijayanagaras who ruled from the 14th to 16th centuries and flourished particularly under Krishna Deva, who ruled for 20 years from 1509-1529. We started on Hemakuta Hill, which is awe-inspiring. Huge boulders perch on the barren landscape, like marbles stopped mid-roll, with four-pillared mandaps or stone canopies strewn between them. One could almost hear the chatter of ancient Hindus as they sat beneath them, discussing their daily activities. The boulders are believed to be the consequence of a competition of strength and power between the monkey gods, of whom Hanuman is the most well known. Apparently, in a fury of simian testosterone, they hurled rocks around, trying to outdo each other. Standing amongst them, one could almost believe it really happened.

The first temple we visited had a huge pot-bellied Ganesha statue, who was depicted sitting on his (rather squashed) mother, Parvathi's, lap with his enormous belly inadequately contained by a serpent and riding his trademark vehicle – a mouse called Mooshikam. His gigantic girth, we were reliably informed by our appropriately named guide, Shiva, was entirely due to a predilection for sweets. It's important not to laugh at the thought of a tubby elephant riding a mouse, because when the moon did, Parvathi cursed it. Ganesh was racing his mouse chariot when Mooshikam stumbled on a snake crossing the path. Ganesh, fell off, his belly split open and all the sweets fell out. He grabbed the snake, stuffed the sweets back in and tied it as a belt. The moon started laughing at this and Ganesh hurled his broken tusk at it and Parvathi, who was nearby (probably recovering from being sat on) cursed the moon so that anyone who looked at it during Ganesh's festival would be accused of wrongdoing.

The story of how Ganesh got the head of an elephant further epitomises the crazy brilliance of Hinduism. Apparently, Parvathi fancied a dip in the river, once her husband, Shiva, had left for hunting one day. Whilst splashing around in the water, she started fashioning a doll from mud. She was so pleased with her handiwork that she breathed life into it. Once home again, she charged her newly acquired son with guarding the bedroom door whilst she washed off the remains of the mud in a bath. Meanwhile, Shiva, having finished his godly activities comes home and tries, not unreasonably, to enter his wife’s bedroom, but is prevented by a muddy child, who wasn’t there when he left for work that morning. In a fury he chops his head off. Parvathi, despite the brevity of their relationship is distraught. Shiva, in a typically male fashion, tries to make amends and sends some henchmen off to find an alternative head. The first creature they came across was a sleeping elephant so they chopped off the head and brought it back. What the mother of that elephant said to her husband is lost in the annals of history, but in a display of sheer DIY brilliance, Shiva affixes the elephant’s head onto Ganesh’s body so peace and tranquillity is restored in the household and a genius God is created.

The main part of the morning was spent wandering around the hill, making our way to Shri Virupaksha Temple, which is at the heart of Hampi. Being quite touristy, there were a few hawkers and there was one of particular skill. He fell into step beside me and started his low persuasive patter about the necessity of postcards in my life, and then, as always said “Your good name, Madame?”
Being generally quite polite, I replied, “Arabella. And Yours?”
In thick Karnatakan accent and with a smile of such whiteness that the cloudy day brightened considerably, he said. “Edward.”
“Edward?” I repeated in astonishment, “Really? That’s an unusual name for a Kannadan”
“Yes,” he said, still beaming, “it’s my business name. My real name is Muni”.
Well, I had to buy his postcards after that.

After parting with 2 rupees and our shoes we entered the huge temple complex which is still in use and our guide, Shiva, who was brilliant and charming, showed us fantastic carvings of animals, gods, anatomically impossibly pert women, beautiful columns, steel supportive girders, put in by the British made in Middlesborough (now, ironically bought out by Tata) and the Temple elephant, who for a further 2 rupees blessed us with her trunk. He took us into all the nooks and crannies of the complex, except for one. When we asked him why we couldn’t go in, he said it was because it was dirty, full of bats and worst of all “stink smell is coming”. That is now a phrase which is fully integrated into my Englian vocabulary and gets regular outings, as there are many places in India where stink smell is coming.

After a fascinating but exhausting morning we walked through a banana grove to The Mango Tree Restaurant which had great food, a great view, a great swing and most importantly, a great loo.

Run little elephant, run:

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My Aunt Teresa and My Cousin's Aunt Hattie:

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The "Slightly-older-than-I-usually-hang-out-with" Gang:

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Or maybe not....

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