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THE GOLDEN CHARIOT 2

 

The biggest willy I ever saw, in fact probably the biggest willy in the world, is attached to a gigantic Jain statue in Shravanabelagola, about an hour out of Hassan. The giant appendage and its lucky owner, a Mr. Gommateshwara, stand perched on top of a very large hill and the only way to get there is up, up, up one million steps. Even the prospect of the biggest willy in the world was not enough to make that grind worthwhile.

Four thin Indians came to the rescue, carrying a sedan chair on poles. I cast my pride aside and stepped in. With a lurch we set off – by the time they hit the steps I was leant back at such an angle I thought I’d fall backwards off the chair – but once I got used to it, once I relaxed and decided to embrace my humiliation, I quite enjoyed it. It was apparent, by the grunts and groans of my bearers, they were not quite so enthusiastic.

Luckily, Dogster is a greyhound of a man – with a few changes in personnel and the distribution of a vast tip all parties got to the top quite content. I walked through the entrance and into the courtyard. There it was. Willy Wonka. What a sight.

The statue is fifty-eight feet tall, chiseled from a single piece of rock, a boggling act of faith that, every twenty years is drowned in lorry-loads of milk, watched by mega-thousands of devotees. Today just a few of them were content to pour cow-juice over his big toe presided over by a chanting Jain priest, sitting bare-chested between his two enormous feet. It was a delicious scene, somehow profound, very moving – once I could take my eyes off the equally gigantic appendage hanging high over his head.

The others wandered off on various guided tours inside the rest of the complex – I was so taken by the epic simplicity of the scene I held back, took many photographs and tried to take it all in. Beside the priest was a young shaven-headed woman in a white robe with a look of such doe-eyed devotion, such dedication, I was mesmerized. Soft chanting, hands clasped in prayer… it was a beautiful scene. Everybody was in white; the statue was grey stone, the sky was light blue – the electric orange of the chrysanthemum garlands the only splash of colour in sight.

The German tourists arrived back, fresh from their guided tour. His prayers finished, the priest stood up. To nobody’s surprise at all, except ours, he was stark bollock naked. Mrs. German let out a strangled squawk and fled. She had to be carried down the hill in my sedan chair and then fed schnapps.

I, on the other hand, rather liked it – not the priest’s willy, that was an image I didn’t really need to dwell on – but the Jain philosophy behind it all – the abandonment of clothes, possessions, home, family, wealth…

I had a lot to think about on the long bus ride home.

*

Hampi was hot, dusty and, to my stupid eyes, at first sight rather dull. Main street of Hampi Bazaar was lined with backpacker hovels, their dreadlocked inhabitants splayed in various attitudes of ‘coolness’ in the restaurants along the road, waiting, no doubt, for their daily dose of diarrhea to prove just how cool they were.

An elephant blessed tourists with its trunk inside Virupaksha temple, rather tall, multi-layered Shiva structure, more impressive outside than in, surrounded by stalls selling tourist tat that overflowed onto the dirt. Huge, barren boulders made up a surrounding landscape that, seen in the right light, with the right drugs, must have been impressive.

We were zoomed round the sites efficiently enough, lectured, corralled and bused to the next one. I like my sites to be living, not ruins, generally. As I never listen to the guide, nor read a guidebook in these situations, I had no idea what I was seeing. Just ruins. I was having an attack of ignorance at the time. On another day, in different company, perhaps I would have found it fascinating but for the first part of the day I was distinctly underwhelmed.

We trundled from place to place, in and out of buses, hot, bothered and tired. Eventually, late afternoon we headed for the piece de resistance – the legendary Golden Chariot, the very object our train was named after. You’ll see the pictures on the website. It’s famous – rightly so – as is Vittala temple surrounding it.

Nearby, on the river-bank, blankets had been spread out, refreshments provided while five dancers did their Indian thing, very gracefully, very beautifully, as the sun set behind the temple. It should have been sublime but I was in a grump, thinking that perhaps we might be allowed to see the most famous site in Hampi before the sun went down. So I demanded a car, left the group and went inside.

I was the only one there. The sun slid down behind the hills and my spirits slid up. Just me and the Golden Chariot and my special temple, covered with delicious carving, the details etched sharper each second as the shadows grew. An ancient frangipani tree covered in new white blossoms stood silhouetted against the sky, night slowly tumbled around me and, just for my private thirty minutes, I was lost in awe. One of the pictures I took that evening is my screen-saver. I look at it every day.

After sunset the group arrived. That was fine – I’d had my moment alone – that’s what I’d been craving all day – my soul was at peace. We were gathered for a special occasion, the illumination of the temple – a special event, just for us – if only someone could find the key to turn on the lights. We waited – and waited. Ten minutes turned into an hour and the bonhomie started to fade. New best friends got a bit bored, the photographers started to fret. There was nothing to see.

Then, just in time, just before the troops turned rancid, in a single instant of wonder the illuminations were switched on. If there was a high point to the train trip – this was it. The main temple and the surrounds were lit in a pure white light, every detail of the sculptures, the pillars, the friezes glowed gold – gold, gold, wonderful gold. For one stunning hour we wandered, each of us just lost in awe. We were allowed inside the forbidden area, the guides played the musical columns, each one a separate note, we stood and stared and felt very small, very poor, very humble.

Well, I did, anyway.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            *

By the last full day of temple touring the schedule was getting a little bit out of whack. Well, to be honest, it had collapsed. It was quite impossible to keep the group together. The journalists and photographers could no longer be controlled, neither, for that matter, could the Dog.

What is a Badami? I thought. I didn’t know, but I had driven three hours to find out. It better be good.

A time and motion study says it all: total bus travel, faffing around, cups of tea, lunch and wee breaks: 12 hours. Time spent at the three sites, Badami, Aihole and Pattakal: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Point made. All three sites were very fine but, by the time we got to them, I was ready to kill. The travel I could deal with – it was our turn for the Guide From Hell.

Each place we visited had its own separate guide, a local man who knew his topic thoroughly, who launched into his routine like a clockwork toy. Our guide for today had been wound up too tight. He joined us after three hours and forty minutes of solid driving on the bus. We still had another 45 minutes to go. We were tired, hungry and trapped like startled rabbits in a cage. He stood in front of the bus, grabbed the microphone and, in a high pitched monotone, shrieked at us for exactly 45 minutes while we travelled to the first site. He paused to draw breath for a total of exactly 45 seconds. I know. I counted. Excruciating.

I have no idea what he was talking about. History, culture, religion, I neither knew – nor cared. He was impossible to understand. This was not giving information – it was force-feeding. Not one of the foreign tourists listened to a word. Nor could we turn him off. He was a misery – and, you know, I suspect he was an expert. The Indians on board all understood what he was saying, had some background, some innate knowledge of the blizzard of facts and gods and history – the foreigners had no idea at all. Being screeched at, non-stop, all afternoon was appalling, like a drill boring [and I mean, boring] into your brain. That, coupled with his impenetrable accent, created what was, in 67 countries, the worst guide experience I’ve ever had. Knowledge [apparently] 10/10 – people skills – zero.

The only thing I remember was him pointing out the penis fields on our way. [They were, of course, ‘peanut’ fields – but that didn’t stop me hopefully looking out the window for a row of little pink sausages – anything to divert my attention from the relentless shriek piercing my ears.]

Memo for the guide: do NOT clap your hands and screech ‘hurry up!’ at the guests when at temples. We are not dogs.

At Pattadakal, a world-famous heritage site and last stop for the day, he corralled us outside the gates to the temples, standing between us and what we’d come to see. 

‘Fifteen minutes for explanation, five minutes for photographs!’ he shouted, then launched into the next speech. I just pushed my way past him and went in, leaving the rest of the group meekly listening while he droned on, and on – and on.

But this was where he was coming from: for him the history, the explanation was far more important than the site. He couldn’t see the beauty; the art, the carving, the ambience all faded into a dim insignificance beside the meaning – perhaps he had a point, but one entirely lost on me. I’d come to see, to experience – not for a lecture.

I had a choice between ignoring him – or killing him. Luckily I chose the former – but only just. There was a brief explosion of rage that may, or may not, have come from Dogster, just at the end of the day when he announced angrily, his temper also at breaking point after trying to control eighty-seven witless tourists,

‘You have two minutes for a toilet break – hurry up or we’ll leave without you – and you’ll miss your train.’

Late at night in Mysore, after a raucous dinner, after too much wine, I slipped out the door and wandered the station. Deserted platforms curved away, empty trains sat silent on the adjacent tracks, all the detritus of the railway station, the lights, the switches, the mysterious containers lay ready for tomorrow – just Dogster and the railway line.

Listen to him howl.                           

Goa

It was the last full day of the trip. Spirits were high – everybody looking forward to day in the sun. After the familiar kerfuffle and a longish drive, we tumbled out of the buses at Calangute. The road led straight down to the beach, a road lined with a thousand shops, all selling the same hideous tourist crap. Wandering down that road were over-weight European tourists in skimpy bathing costumes, their voluminous flesh imprinted with the sunburnt impressions of the clothes they’d worn the day before. I just wanted to take some of them aside and say, gently, ‘Go home. Look in a mirror. Don’t ever come out like this in public again. You’re scaring the children…’

Alas, there weren’t many children in sight – just mountains of white European flesh intent on a good time. I wandered further, down to the beach, a vast, crowded strip of what once was sand, covered in hundreds and hundreds of Indians lads ogling sun-baking European women, hoping for a glimpse of that forbidden foreign skin. Seemingly oblivious to all this attention, the French, German, Russian, British package tourists lay spread out on the sand, legs akimbo, sunglasses askew, staring contently at the sun. Obviously, coming from Europe, they only saw the sun for a week or so a year so had piled in their thousands on to cheap, discount airlines and arrived, en masse, in Goa.

*

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