praying…asking…begging…

From the fork for Melukote and Mandya, when we turned right for Melukote, the air changed to magical. Maybe I’d anticipated it to be so. Maybe no.

The temple which makes it famous is held up to the skies by an outcrop jutting edgeways on top of a hill. The stairs are steep, of large old rock; they seat a beggar a step. The beggars blessed us when we approached but I passed without giving and froze my senses to avoid curses—they were silent. On top the watchman and others sized us up for paying potential. They must’ve read profit in us because they opened the gates they’d begun to close. Their speech had polish, but their manner of asking and taking was gross. I struggled not to get cross. Sujaya was in better spirits: “It isn’t much to pay them each a little.”

The temple was restored to divinity by Ramanujacharya during the rule of Vishnuvardhana, nine hundred years ago. More recently, the Wodeyars poured generosity upon it. Now, it is not even clean. Broken things are not repaired, decayed objects are not replaced. A curtain hangs before the deity with the name of its donor on its middle. A crude board over the dwara bears on its bulk the name of the deity and the name of who paid for the board. Clumsy wiring criss-crosses the walls. An inventory of ropes is dumped on the side of a passageway. It is a dim interior; the gloom was intense because of cloud outside and chill on the stone floor. The deity is intriguing, captivating: I stared and forgot to pray and I’m suffering pangs now while I write of it. The poojaris did not lack devotion while they did the rituals; I enjoyed the sight. After the prayers, a middle-aged poojari went down the stairs and came prancing back, singing “chik-chik-chik!” I’ve not seen a more cheerful priest, ever. The prasada was delicious. A large blackened vessel full of food came from inside the garbha, and a poojari took a thin white vastra off his moist naked back and laid it carefully over the peak of the food; he carried the blessed meal to the back where a family who’d offered special prayers waited patiently to eat.

For the way down Sujaya had bought prasada for a few steps of beggars. On the last step a child of about six began to play a small keyless harmonium. She sang “anisutide eko indoo” in her childish way, without melody, shy, playful; her face was beautiful. I pulled out my wallet and saw I’d no small-change. Sujaya gave her what she had. Yashas protested that it is wrong to give. I thought yes, then I thought no.

The temple looked lovely when we looked up at it driving back.

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