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2005-11-15 India Pictures

On Chamundi Hill

In the morning, we went to the hill overlooking Mysore – Chamundi Hill. It was a short drive compared the all the previous driving we had done. The hill overlooks the city, and you can see a lot of Karnataka. There are a lot of small lakes and water reservoirs, a lot of rice paddies, a lot of green.

On the mountain top, there were cows lying on the grass, remunching their breakfast, people selling souvenirs and donations for the temple, beggars, tourists, monkeys in the ruins of a building, and more people. We also saw some ordinary houses in the back. Harsha said that there not many people here, compared to some religious festivities. Phew!

The temple itself was dark and heavy. There was light, colorful room at the end, but in the beginning, we followed a passage circling the central statue, dark stone walls, little light from above, huge slabs of stone, like an artifical cavern, dark, opressing. As always, the golden statues were hidden in niches a few meters deep with a railing separating the sacred grounds that only the priests were allowed to walk from the passage that we trod on. The people in our group were mostly believers. They pressed their palms together and mumbled prayers, approached the priest and were given a tiny splash of water between their palms which they then drank.

Harsha warned us several times: Do not drink the water! It will make you sick! And we were obviously unbelievers.

Back outside, we saw monkeys, cows, pilgrims, beggars, school kids, people selling food and clothing and many other things. It was busy, the sun was out, the air was clean – we were on a hill top! It sure felt nice to look down on Karnataka again.

Driving back was scary, though. Our driver drove like a madman, like a native from the canton of Wallis in his own valley, if you know what I mean. While the valley walls are steeper in Wallis, they drivers here do a lot more honking and overtaking. The streets are busy!

We had lunch in the AC hall of a restaurant. This was the first time I saw the typical divide between the cheap take away downstairs, where working people ate without sitting down, a constant movement of customers coming in, ordering, eating, wiping their mouth, looking at the foreigners, talking to their neighbours, and leaving. Up stairs, a different thing: Tables, chairs, people eating calmly, waiters. And in the back, behind glass windows, the AC hall. Here it was colder, and darker. If I had been in charge, I would have eaten in the hall outside, but Claudia and I followed Harsha and his aunt. We wanted to experience as much as possible! (The food was delicious, as always.)

Today was the first day I withdrew some cash from an ATM machine using my Maestro card. It worked. I was amazed. I gave Harsha our share for the cab, and talked to him, and we walked back to the car, when we suddenly saw a little procession. We sat in the car and looked back. The procession was coming our way. A marriage? A funeral? Harsha was confused. He thought they were carrying a statue of a god. It took a while for his aunt’s answer to sink in: It was not a statue, it was a dead man sitting in that palanquin, his head tied back to the backrest, eyes closed, adorned with flowers.

Harsha’s aunt explained the significance of the red dot on people’s brow. The widow would be receiving this mark for the last time today, now that her husband had died. We watched the procession with mixed feelings.

The roads are bad Village life Unexpected roadblocks Somanathapur Somanathapur

In the aftenoon we drove to Somnathpur. It was another long drive. Poor roads. South Indian villages, donkeys, buffalos, carts, lorries with hay on their back piled several meters high so that they look as if they are going to topple over at any moment, rice paddies, sugar cane fields, poor farmers on bicycles carring rice bundles, lorries carrying sugar cane.

When we finally arrived at our destination, we seemed to be in a little Indian village. We had just passed some men sitting idly in the shade under some straw mats, talking. The cab stopped, and we got out. Through a little gate, and into a park. There was a huge tree, and to the right, another wall. Small steps leading up to a gate, some shoes, and white foreigners trickling back out.

They were speaking in French. Harsha didn’t know what language they were speaking. It’s strange for us to find somebody who doesn’t recognize French when he hears it. Another indication of how big India is.

When we entered the temple, we were alone. The last foreigners had left. A small courtyard, an outer wall with a kind of gallery a meter above ground with many cells, and in the middle, on a raised platform, the temple.

Inside, it was again rather dark. When we looked up, the ceiling consisted of various cupolas, lined with little buddhas and other figures. Up in the center strange rocket exhausts where pointed at us. Later Harsha’s aunt told us these were Banana flowers.

Inside in the shadows, the turned stone columns were perfectly round, polished, each one of them unique in their cut patterns. Again, Harsha’s aunt told us later that knocking them with your knuckles would produce a different tone from each column.

Harsha's uncle and aunt

Tired? Ready for bed? Not so! The day was not over, the sun was still out – Harsha’s aunt took us to an Ashram. There was also a Bonsai garden there, and I see now on the ticket to that Bonsai garden that the full name of the Ashram is Sri Ganapati Sachchidananda Ashrama. Harsha explained that the Guru here was very famous for his (electronic) music. In the big auditorium, there were paintings of famous Indian and European composers and musicians. There would be some famous Indian musicians I did not know next to Mozart and Beethoven, more Indian composers, and Brahms, and Antonín Dvořák… It was confusing at first. But when we got to the part of the Ashram where statues of Hindu gods as well as status showing Jesus and Mary, it was even more confusing. It seemed that the Guru effortlessly integrated all faiths and spread an universal message of love and peace.

I’m sure the Catholic church would not agree. ;) With me being basically atheist, the religious aspect did not impress me at all. I did not care. What impressed me on the other hand, was the incredible levity of it all, with sheer innocence, Christians and Hindus and all other religions are reduced to a few basic (trivial, common sense) messages, ignoring all the bloodshed, all the history of violence, all the missionary efforts, all the fanatic energy that are an inseparable part of religion. Here in Europe, the common perception is that the differences between protestant churches and the Catholic church are important, delicate, a subject to avoid, and real religious discourse is rare. Thus, the amazing bravado of lumping it all together did impress me quite a bit.

As I said above, we also saw the bonsai garden, which had a large collection of little trees. Not the kind of bonsais I’ve seen here in Switzerland, the trees maybe twenty or thirty centimeters high – this was an open air garden, with small trees about a meter high.

We also saw two white swans. They seemed to be pretty exotic here. The thought that there must be a gazillion swans on the Zürich lake alone makes me smile.

The sun was about to set, and it was time to go; Harsha had a train to catch. He was going back to Bangalore.

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