Monday started early. Raj wanted to take us to some temples that were very special places that he remembered visiting as a child. We checked out of our Mandya hotel early, left our luggage with his parents, and hopped a rickshaw back to the bus stand. Because of our slow start-up period we decided to take a bus that transferred at Srirangapatna up to Sravanabelogola, where we met a driver to take us into town. Just getting there took almost three hours from the time we checked out of the hotel.
Once in town we caught up with Babu, a cousin of Rajeev who lives nearby. We stopped at a cafe for a quick dosa and a few idli before proceeding on to the first temple. Rajeev had been so excited about visiting the Gomateshvara statue in the Jain temple at the top of Vindhyagiri hill. “It is carved out of a single piece of stone. We are dwarves in its presence. When we get there we will be looking just at its big toe.”
Raj was also careful to warn us the giant, stone-carved statue of Gomateshvara Tirthankara was completely naked. The legend holds that two brothers fought viciously for rights of inheritance to control the empire. After many years of bloodshed, one brother finally was on the verge of achieving his goal to rule the region. At that point he reflected on the devastation and lost life and realized that neither brother had won. He committed his life to nonviolence and rejection of all worldly possessions, walked out into the wilderness, shedding even his clothes, and stood looking out over the land until vines grew up around him. From the brother’s leadership an entire new sect of Jainism emerged, committed to complete nonviolence and rejection of all worldly possessions.
The statue is inside the grounds of a temple at the top of a granite staircase of 614 hand-cut steps. Because the steps are are part of the holy ground everyone must leave their shoes at the bottom before making the climb. Before reaching the top we reached a small temple where a man waited inside to greet guests and worshippers. We were all anointed with turmeric and the vermilion powder, sindoor. Outside the temple, a number of scripture carvings in old Kannada in the stone ground were covered with glass for protection.
We continued the climb to the main temple, where we were greeted by the Old Lady. The statue of Gomateshvara was carved during the Ganga dynasty in 981 CE. Since that time, each time the statue was anointed with milk or other substances, the blessing never reached the feet, no matter how much was poured at the head. An old woman of very low social status came to anoint Gomateshvara with just a tiny cup of milk. When she poured her offering over the head it cascaded all the way down to the toes of the great statue for the first time. The Old Woman’s image has been remembered in a stone carving of her own at the entrance to the temple.
Inside the temple, the Gomateshvara indeed stood at the center of a surprisingly small patio, with just enough room for a few visitors to pass in front. The statue was impressive, with vines curling up his Gomateshvara’s bare legs. His big toe, however, was maybe 18-inches tall. “I think I was very young when I visited this temple last,” Rajeev clarified. “I was as big as the big toe when I was little.” We were, most definitely, dwarfed by Gomateshvara who stands 60-feet tall.
A man invited us into a hallway that wrapped around the base of Gomateshvara. The hallway housed life-sized, stone-carved statues of the 24 tirthankara. Each statue was framed by a base and halo to protect it spiritually.
We descended the stairs at Vindhyagiri hill, retrieved our shoes, and moved forward in time to the Channekeshava Temple in Belur, built under the Hoysala dynasty in 1116. “Handsome Kesava,” or Channekeshava, is a form of Vishnu. A UNESCO world heritage site, the temple took over 100 years to construct, and is still used regularly by worshippers. The entire temple is elaborately carved of soapstone in intricate detail from bottom to top, especially in the upper rows where each of the many thousands of panels depicts a different image.
We then moved on to the Hoysaleswara Temple in Halebid, also built under Hoysala king Bittiga. One source we found said that construction of Hoysaleswara Temple began in about 1121, and after 80 years, much like a home remodel, it was never completed. Another source we found said Temple construction was completed in 1121. Given the intricacy and detail of the carvings, and that it was constructed under the same Hoysala king as Channekeshava, we’d guess the construction was never quite completed.
During the Muslim invasion in the early 14th century, many of the intricate carvings were destroyed. In walking around the base you can see the heads knocked off each of the miniature carvings from ground level to about arm’s reach. Many of the larger carvings sitting up on the walls are missing their arms. It looks like the onslaught was stopped before the attacking army could work their way around all sides. An enormous Nandi Bull, at least 10-feet tall, rests peacefully outside the temple devoted to Shiva. The temple is surrounded by lush, immaculately kept gardens.
After a traditional South Indian luncheon in Hassan, we went to visit Babu at the mango farm. We only visited with him a short time that morning, and like any small town, once word gets out you are nearby you have to stop to visit with relatives. Auntie was so pleased to receive us, and so happy to see Rajeev. There was another family wedding the day Rajeev got married and they were unable to attend. Auntie brought us each platefuls of fresh fruit and hot, milky, sweet coffee. The mangos tasted like pure honey. They were positively decadent. Even Greg, who does not eat much fruit, ate several plates of mango slices. We’ve learned with Indian hospitality, the mark of a good hostess is the amount of food a guest consumes, and if you eat more than half the food on your plate more will arrive. So the mangos slices kept coming, and kept coming and kept coming. Raj reminded Al, “You need to eat dinner later. You cannot eat so much now you won’t have dinner.” Too late. Al was about ready to burst with the divine, sweet fruit, served so soon after lunch. By tradition, though, mango is served after lunch, so we were not entirely out of line.
We all piled into the car and our driver wound us around the tiny farm village roads to see Uncle at the farm itself. We visited for a few minutes, and sampled fresh tamarind, and dried coconut, which is the jelly from the inside we ate the other day, and more familiar to most of us from the U.S. It was getting quite late, and Rajeev’s mother was expecting us at home for dinner in Mandya. Plus, we needed to get moving off the hillside before dark where there are no streetlights on some dangerous roads. Back near the house Greg and Rajeev got out to take a toilet break before the long car ride back to Mandya.
As they stepped away Babu asked Al, “Do you want a job?” Sure, why not. Babu lead Al past the house to a shed with a tractor parked in it. He uncovered the tractor and helped her up. “That’s the clutch, that’s the brake, here are the gears,” Babu pointed to the appropriate location for everything. “One loop?” Sure, why not. How long could that take? Babu started the tractor and backed it out of the shed, then they switched places so Al could drive. Raj and Greg walked out of the house just in time to see Al driving away. “Your cousin just took off with my wife!” Greg exclaimed.
Babu directed Al through the narrow, dirt, farm village roads. People stood outside their homes looking up at the spectacle. Where no one was looking Babu leaned over and beeped the loud horn, and people came out to look. Babu directed Al to turn in front of a house where an entire family was waiting on the porch. They stopped the tractor and went in as Babu introduced his sister and several other family members. Auntie offered coffee. Even though they were in a hurry to get back into town, Al accepted anyway. It would have been rude not to accept, and it was nice to have an opportunity to spend time with more family, even if only for a few minutes. Coffee is served scorching hot in tiny demitasse cups, extra strong and thick with creamy milk and sugar. It takes only a few minutes to drink once it is cool enough.
Back on the tractor Babu directed Al back through the village where they met up with Rajeev, Greg and their driver. Rajeev had been getting quite anxious about the delay. Babu convinced Greg to jump up on the tractor with them as Al drove out toward the main road in a mini-parade, with some children on a bicycle to lead, and Raj in the car behind. Families looked out of their homes, and Babu sounded the horn. Babu directed Al in front of another home, and we all went inside to meet his cousin who was married the same day as Rajeev. Again, the family was delighted to see us and invited us in for coffee. Rajeev was especially anxious about the late hour, so with his lead we accepted the jack fruit that was offered, but declined the offer of coffee. Babu asked Al, “If I give you a plot of land will you work it?” Sure, why not. Okay, maybe a few lessons in Kannada would be helpful first!