July 21, 2007

The Shiva Temple by the Bhima

It took me awhile to locate the black and white pictures. I found the album under a stack of books in my cupboard. As I opened the pages, the residual smell of the Goan monsoon leapt at me from the pages, discoloured over the years by an alternating mix of dry and wet weather. The paper had gone damp, and I resolved yet again to transfer the photographs to a new album before the monsoon came around next year. There is a very real danger of paper falling apart in the humidity unless the white ants get there first, in which case it will be gone even quicker.

I held the pictures to the light in the window that looked out on a teak tree shedding its leaves again, like it has done for five years now since the time it was a sapling in the year we made our home here. Since then Magpie Robins and Rufous Backed Shrikes routinely perch on its branches. I’ve been lucky to hear the Magpie Robin belt out sumptuous melodies perched on the teak’s bare branches. It is a timeless feeling to hear it sing so.

I draw the album closer to my face. A set of three black and white pictures show the family in the raised courtyard of the ancient Shiva temple at Havalgi, a small village in Afzalpur taluka, deep in the Deccan plains of India. In one of the pictures my uncle, the eldest in our family and dad’s first cousin, is holding a silver bust of Lord Shiva, photographed just before it was installed in the temple. Our family was donating the silver bust to propitiate the deity for a wish fulfilled as is largely the custom in the hinterland. Aunty is standing beside him, and so are my parents, Jai, and I. Behind us two trees rise up to the platform, and ascend to the sky, shielding us from the heat of the mid-day sun. I am bare-chested in the photograph, and so is my cousin, Jai. As I see the fading photographs now, a faint memory stirs within me and I narrow my eyes and scan the forms in the photographs.

We’d just come off from bathing in the river Bhima, now shimmering in breaks in the canopy behind us. Walking barefoot from the banks of the river where I had spent the morning floating in waist high waters, and up the incline that stretched over hundred metres to where steps cut in the fort-like walls led to the temple courtyard, it seemed like eternity. Soles burned as I half-ran the distance, shifting from one leg to another to minimize contact with scalding gravel. I was eight years old, and Jai, three and half years older. The entrance to the temple ran along the length of the raised platform that served as a courtyard, facing the Bhima to the north. Four pillars rose from the raised porch fronting the main entrance that led to the mandapa or pillared hall where later we, family members, gathered to watch puja being performed in the garbha griha (literal translation is 'womb house').

In Indian temples the mandapa opens into the garbha griha that houses the deity under the shikhara or the temple pinnacle, in this case the garbha griha housed the Shiva lingam. I always found the mandapa at this Shiva temple dark and gloomy but grew to like the atmosphere for, oil lamps glowed brightly and so did the arti performed during puja, the bell echoing in the confines while we folded hands and watched the priest intone Sanskrit shlokas as his right hand traced flaming arcs in a clockwise direction, the arti glowing bright as beads of sweat trickled down the bare back of the Brahmin priest while he rang the small brass bell by its handle gripped in his left hand. Tradition demands that only males be allowed entry into the garbha griha after a dip in the Bhima. It was young Pratik's turn in the picture while Vasanna looks on. In the foreground Achambhatt is intoning Sanskrit shlokas from a well worn book, yellowing as much from use as from age. To our right lay the silver bust of Lord Shiva that our family had installed years ago.

A Skylight lit up an adjacent room where large cooking utensils were stacked up against blackened walls. During community functions the utensils are lent out to visiting families for use in cooking, usually for a fee. Looking at the blackened walls I suspect some of the cooking takes place in that room. Out in the Deccan Plateau, particularly in the villages, it is not uncommon to find skylights in houses that are built adjacent to one another with no scope for windows except in the ceilings. I distinctly remember lying on the floor beneath a skylight and counting clouds passing that way until it was time to go out and play. Each room had its own skylight. It is possible to trace the 'path' of time by looking at Sunlight streaming down a skylight and tracing its path in the room as the earth revolves in the skies. My granny used to be very good at it. Standing there as if waiting for the walls to speak up I could hear voices floating in from the river behind me.

The Bhima, a tributary of the Krishna, ran low as it meandered past the ancient Shiva temple now displaying cracks along its outer walls in an earthquake years ago. At places in the walls cracks snake down along the length of beams. Originating in Maharashtra the Bhima had come a long way, passing through Karnataka on its way to Andhra Pradesh, covering 725 kilometres on its journey before joining the Krishna on its way to the Bay of Bengal. Behind me rocks rose from the riverbed, too hot to touch. Vegetation was set back from the banks of the river. Women ferried clothes in metal buckets to be washed in the river while young boys carried water ashore in brightly coloured plastic pots balanced on shoulders while women preferred to carry them on their waists, hands curled around the neck to keep the pot from slipping off.

In the years gone by pots used in hauling and storing drinking water used to be made of copper, heavy enough to survive impacts with uneven walls while being hauled up the deep wells using coir ropes that village folk usually made at home. Growing up I learnt to make ropes from raw coir, my hands and thighs turning red from the constant ‘rolling’ required in making ropes. Keshava, our farm-hand, taught me how. I also remember him using flint stone in lighting up his own brand of beedi, whose ingredients I was unaware of but which he diligently concocted, it took the form of a ritual in the afternoons. I used to tag along with him a great deal.

Buffaloes on the banks of the Bhima stood watching people, large brass bells hanging from their necks, their jaws moving rhythmically. Drops of water glistened on their hides as the Sun beat down. Their seemingly vacant gaze fixed on nothing in particular. Womenfolk from the village washed them down in the river, not far from where I lay floating a few minutes earlier, and after they were done bathing the buffaloes they handed over the reins to their children to walk them back to their homes, then the women returned to the rocks and reached for their basket of clothes and made for the flat rocks where they beat the clothes to within an inch of their durability, all the while their arms tracing quick arcs as they brought the unfortunate garment crashing down on the rock in a loud thwack. The current ran steady that afternoon and I had lain in the water watching soap bubbles from all the washing dodge rocks and make their way downstream lazily. In the monsoons the rocks disappear under surging water as the Bhima breaches its banks. Flash floods are not uncommon along its route, something my father used to caution me against.

On my travels to Gulbarga and back, as the red coloured KSRTC bus kicked up dust on rutted roads, bumping uncomfortably along Sunflower fields sandwiched between large swathes of Jowar crops, I always made it a point to peer through the window as the bus passed the bridge over the Bhima near Devangaon in Afzalpur taluka, not far from Havalgi. Unlike Afzalpur where I often stopped over at my Aunt’s on my way back from Gulbarga, I stayed away from Devangaon. To this day I remember Devangaon for the feud that led to 4-5 people being shot dead in the KSRTC bus while shocked passengers watched the carnage from the back of the bus. Later Jai told me that the fifteen-odd people involved in that carnage eventually died one after the other, done in by their colleagues in internecine fighting until none survived. At the time I was camped at my uncle’s place in a nearby village a few kilometers away while on a vacation from school.

That evening as the village came alive with kerosene lanterns or khandils as they were known, village folks talked in hushed tones of the killings in the narrow bylanes that snaked between stone houses by the narrow open gutter that ran the same length where sometimes pigs settled in to escape the summer heat. Bells sounding from buffaloes returning from grazing grounds punctuated their voices as firewood caught on in the open chullahs, blackening further the utensils as the tava warmed up for the bhakri (made from ground jowar) that village folk ate with spicy chutney made from hot chilly powder (khar pudi in Kannada) laced with ample garlic.

I remember this because I waited out on the steps in our large courtyard for our buffaloes to return home from their grazing grounds while folks sat outside on stone platforms fronting their homes. Behind them, in the open doorway khandils flickered in stone shelves (for want of a more appropriate description) carved out in stone walls and adorned with quick decorative patterns in red oxide painted with brushes fashioned from dried stalks of hay sourced from Jowar crops; over the years on my visits to the village during school vacations I helped my uncle decorate the shelves with simple patterns in red oxide paint, usually during Diwali when the house got a fresh coat of paint. On the outside of houses in villages in the Deccan it is not uncommon to find doors colourfully painted, usually in green or sky blue with floral patterns decorating the wall holding the door.

At the time of the Devangaon killings I was still in school and had little idea of death and destruction except maybe from Amitabh Bacchan movies, and it was not until a couple of years later when Jai and I came upon a man lying dead on a narrow mud path while we were on our way to the countryside in Gulbarga outside Brahampur (the locality got its name from being home to a large population of Brahmins or Brahmans who had made it their home over the years) to complete our morning ablutions since Guraj’s one room rental in Brahampur near the Raghuvendra Swami mutt came without a latrine, that I saw firsthand a murder for the first time. But that is another story.

On either side of the bridge over the Bhima the landscape along its route opens up the countryside and since most of my trips were during my school vacations that got over before the monsoons arrived in Karnataka I never really got to see the Bhima at full tilt, except maybe once. But that was a long time ago when the bus we had boarded in Gulbarga stopped ahead of the flooded bridge, waiting for the Bhima to recede while we, Mum and I, looked out the window watching the river in spate, flowing over the bridge in menacing silence. Several hours passed before we could see the bridge again. Behind us a long line of buses, Ambassador cars, tractors, bullock carts, and bicycles queued up. Folks had gotten off their modes of transport and formed circles where they stood chatting, some sipping chai from a roadside vendor. In North Karnataka, bus-stops at villages dotting the route are lined by little shops with tin roofs where wooden benches under sparsely leafed trees serve as seating space for villagers breaking for tea and snacks. It was no different that day by the bridge off Devangaon.

If not for the flooded bridge there was little to suggest in the mood prevailing among passengers who had gotten off their transport that this was no village centre and that folks gathered by their vehicles were strangers until then. Every once in a while they regarded the flooded bridge with easy patience before turning to continue their conversations. They accepted that every once in a while Mother Nature would have her way, and it made sense to let her. It was a part of life. India of the hinterland is different from the India of the cities and towns, and nowhere more so than in North Karnataka, or so I believe.

When I returned to Havalgi recently we missed our way past Afzalpur. A Shepherd pointed out the correct direction. His herd was a mix of sheep and goats. They kicked up a fine dust in trying to make way for us. As we motored past kilometers of black alluvial soil dotted with sparse, short trees and thorny shrubs known as jaali mullu (mullu is Kannada for thorns), I kept my eyes open for crops, particularly Sunflower where years ago as a kid I used to lie amid the blooms looking up at the sky and seeing shapes in the clouds as they floated past while bells tolled from Oxen tilling adjacent fields.

But ever since the Almatti canal found its way to the arid regions of the Deccan Plateau a few years ago, farmers have mostly taken to growing sugarcane, a source of much riches, and great despair if sugar factories face a glut in supply and turn away tractors heaped with sugarcane, leaving the farmer with little choice but to stir massive vessels with sugarcane extracts in making jaggery.

Reaching Havalgi temple that day was a breeze, but looking back now I cannot help remembering with fond memories the thirty kilometers we once did by bullock cart many years ago on our way from Almel to Ghatargi, not far from Havalgi, to watch seedi. There were 126 seedis scheduled for the day and we reached Ghatargi with only four left. To this day I can recollect vividly the throng of devotees at the Ghatargi temple crowding one seedi as they passed an iron hook through his back before hoisting him up by a wooden pole and rolling the cart through the village while hushed whispers sounded around me from necks craning up to watch the seedi suspended in the air from the hook through his back. The religious significance has only strengthened over the years. It had taken us a good part of the day to make the journey that day years ago, descending the rutted road into fields each time the Oxen turned flightly and skittish on seeing Karnataka State Transport buses bearing down on them in a fearsome cloud of dust. That night I slept soundly under the bullock cart like scores of villagers around me. Likewise most of them had traveled from far and wide by their bullock carts, some by buses, on their way to the Ghatargi temple.

Standing in the courtyard now and gazing at the Bhima through the trees it seems like another age now. Later in the day we were scheduled to leave Havalgi for Ghatargi to visit the temple there before hitting the road to Afzalpur, and beyond.

I wandered through the temple complex while four children and a stray dog peered intently down the raised courtyard in the direction of the Bhima, the very spot where several years ago our family posed for the camera with the silver bust of Lord Shiva. The trees were the same. Time and tide wait for none, but most trees do.

I walked down to the river and then back up again and turned in the direction of the pavilion along the perimeter of the temple complex where the blue door lay. A series of stone arches enclosed the raised seating area along the entire length of the outer perimeter wall to the West of the temple with doors built into it that looked out on vegetation on the hill where the temple was built. Sunlight streamed in through the open doorway cutting bright rectangles on the stone floor.

I was returning from talking with the temple priest. Mallappa belongs to the Lingayat community and is of short stature and wears Gandhi topi, and talks non-stop. He has known our family for a long time, and if that gave him the right to query me for details that I would not readily part with someone I’ve hardly met then it only meant I’ve been away from the hinterland for a long time. His brother was administering duties as the temple priest at the time. They shared the responsibility by turns.

While I sat talking with Mallappa on the raised temple porch, Nanasaheb (fondly known as Nanappa) beckoned me to where he sat with the priest, Laxmikant (known as Achambhatt in our family), on the raised platform under the stone arch of the pavilion that enclosed the courtyard to the West, a short way off the temple. I was only too glad to take leave of the garrulous Mallappa. As I neared them both, and like on each occasion when we've met before, Nanappa asked me again.

“So when’re you visiting Hungund? You should come over and stay with us,” he said, smiling. I couldn’t help feeling then that he might possibly have among the warmest smiles going around. It jelled well with his gentle demeanour. He was clad in a white dhoti, as was Achambhatt. Both sat bare chested like brahmins usually do during religious functions.

“Surely I will visit, hopefully sooner than later,” I replied sheepishly. Until recently he ran a bookshop in the Hungund bus stand for thirty long years before losing the contract to another applicant.

“I’m retired now,” he said with a smile and without a twinge of regret. I believe it must come from working at the same job for thirty years. It didn’t look like he would apply for the contract the following year.

“Aihole, Pattadkal, and Badami are only a short distance from Hungund,” he said. “You can visit them from Hungund.”

I nodded, having visited those songs in stone many years ago when I stayed with relatives in Hospet not far from there. Now I can only summon faint memories of that visit.

“I’ll make it before long,” I reply, reflecting on the reasons that willy nilly conspired in keeping me away from the architectural marvels in stone that I so delight in. I draw on my tenuous memories from that trip of long ago and imagine the stillness that passing time sculpted for posterity in my mind, and wonder if it will be the same the next time around. It probably will but I will have moved on in the landscape of my mind.

A warm breeze floats in from across the Bhima to where we sit talking. In time the clock stirs the noon stillness and Nanappa’s eyes grow heavy. He spreads a straw mat on the stone floor of the pavilion and nods off while a local villager sits leaning against a pillar, looking at nothing in particular.

In the distance familiar voices float in to where I sit by a large copper vessel astride two stone horses by the blue door. In those voices, uneven in the breeze, I reel back the years and find that though time has moved on, the timelessness of it has stayed behind, for good.

In it I find little difficulty in relating to a home that never was but that always beckoned me like only a home can.