a divine smile called Hassan

NH48: The road to Hassan

The ride into town

Turn right to the north on NH-48 and then at the square which comes up turn left to the west. The road (Bangalore-Mangalore Road) goes straight and curves fine to the right after a while, and then it is straight again for the few furlongs into the town center. On either side of the street are restaurants and small hotels and movie halls, all in the unimpressive style of small-town buildings in India. There is no attempt at architecture, but at a short distance north of the road a large pergola of a new building is visible which leads one to suspect that change is coming. Hassan is a small town of only 300,000 people, a town dilated in the fashion of a leaf on two sides of this road which runs like the midrib of the leaf.

I've been to a show in one of those movie halls. There were enough mosquitoes in the full hall for each one to have their own private swarm to torment them, but when the movie commenced and the Telugu burst forth at peak volume over the proudly advertised audio system, no one cared about the mosquitoes: the star was Shriya Saran, and with Rajanikanth's voice at that heightened effect that all desired, everyone put up with every suffering with no effort at all, ignored even the smell of sweat and the moist heat and cool that blew at us from hefty noisy fans on the side walls.

Among the hotels and cinema theaters are the small shops which sell liquor legally in bottles, and illegally in glasses for drinking on the spot, there at the counter. Men throng the counters from noon, buying those spirits that cost the least and kick the senses the most, drinking liquor and dreaming mutton-chops. Mutton they get only on special days, such as when a goat is cut down during festivals. Other days they’ve to make do with yellow little balls of fried lentil-flour laced with red chilly powder and mixed with oily roasted peanuts, a mixture which assures the eye that it will finish the job on the system that the cheap liquor has begun.

The Hotel Ashhok comes up a while after the last bar is passed; it is the hotel where I always stay. If we pass the hotel and go straight on we are in seconds in the town square, at which point, last year, they sliced down the shop-fronts deeply so as to widen the road and, for some time now, they have a wide space and not yet a real road. The road runs further a wee bit and splits into three narrow streets: the turn left leads to Sakleshpur and continues to Mangalore. We may take the straight road ahead and lose ourselves in muddy market streets lined with stores that sell farm equipment and fertilizers and pesticides and tools and implements and also the harvest of the farms. They are tiny shops, but they are at the core of this agrarian district.

Hassanamba, the Smiling Goddess

From there it is a circuitous path to the Hassanamba Temple. The easiest description for me is to say that it is in the middle of that maze, in the sharp north-west corner of a wide yard that appears suddenly, unanticipated among those tight streets. The goddess Hassanamba—the smiling goddess—gives Hassan its name, and so that is what Hassan means: the divine smile! The temple has existed from around 1100 AD, and now inside its walls in the courtyard today’s plebeian painter—with the approval of his modern master, the civil servant—has struck cheap loud paint on old stone columns sanctioned by the royalty of antiquity, and he has worked on walls which are a millennium old, and on the carvings on columns, on Hanuman and other divinities, and turned powerful gods into comic characters.


The columns are round the twin to the Hassanamba Temple which is right before it, called the Siddeswara Temple. The smiling goddess is here a hutta, an anthill. Some readers may not know, but some of our anthills are often taken by snakes, sometimes by cobras, and the cobras are very important divinities to us and, because we cannot see which anthill has a cobra in it, we revere each hutta that we encounter. We have a festival for the huttas, on which day we pour milk into the hutta for the cobra to drink. The hutta which denotes Hassanamba in this temple is actually goddess Parvathi bearing another name. Parvathi is the wife of Shiva, the god of destruction, a fierce god, terrible in his wrath, but most adorable in stone. Siddeswara is one other name for Shiva, another form of him.

The Hassanamba Temple is open for but two weeks yearly at the time of Deepavali and is shut the day following Balipadyami. When they close the temple, they keep before the goddess a lit lamp, about two seers of uncooked rice, and water, and flowers. When the temple is opened the following year, the rice is cooked and good to eat, the lamp is still burning, and the flowers of last year are fresh with morning dew on them. I told you of the mess in the courtyard, but ten centuries of worship by millions of devotees have suffused even hard stone with divine tanmatras and the feeling at the time of leaving the temple is light, and the heart is full once more with hope and optimism and the resolve to do good.

All that meat and …

In Hassan they produce as much potatoes as meat. Maybe more, and maybe Louis Armstrong would’ve liked that. They are serious here about agriculture, which you can tell by the vast cultivated greens that cover the district, and also by the radio broadcast in the morning that comes through the speakers at the District Stadium, on the best methods to grow ragi or sunflower or rice. The stadium is reached walking straight north for fifteen minutes from the gate of the Hassan Ashhok, and this week when I joined the walkers and joggers the topic was about growing uddinabele. The young ones in the stadium were engrossed in themselves, and I couldn’t tell if the older ones were listening, but a good several of the men I passed (or who passed me) were speaking of gains from this crop and losses on the other, of buying a tiller or bolstering a bund, of loaning some pipes and losing two valves.

I’m thinking of a man who sat behind me at the lobby lounge in the hotel, who looked like a foreigner, whose voice was curdled and extra masculine in the Louis Armstrong fashion, and confident and deliberate. He had three men before him and he told them he has been in the coffee business for forty-five years. After a while he told them he is an Anglo Indian, that his relatives have all migrated to Australia and England, and his wife cannot take plantation life any more and has settled in Mangalore. He spends his evenings alone in the plantation bungalow and watches sports on television. His drink is brandy and his sport was rugby.

The following morning I asked the reception for his name. They gave me also his number. I’m going to meet him when I next go to Hassan. If his story is as exciting as I suspect, I’ll tell it to you.

See also: Why did you come here?