Squeamish Amid Much Splendor and Much Squalor

All about the place are red hills and at their feet the soil is sometimes red and sometimes a rich black. In the cusp of the hills, spread out from the banks of the once-supple Malaprabha stand hundreds of sandstone temples from over fifteen-hundred years ago. Among these relics of the Chalukya Dynasty, three towns that date back to the same time live on, but in an abjectly reduced state in our modern republic. Badami, Pattadkal, and Aihole were together the seat of empire once, but today they're sulking frontier towns in Karnataka State in modern India. They're tourist attractions the state touts to the world but will not provide decent roads to reach them. Nor will it incentivize hoteliers to set up shop in this place that is hours away from larger towns and their better lodgings.

The temples are the only man-made tactile things that remain. Palaces of kings, homes of noblemen and merchants, community halls, none remain, none of them seem to have been built with materials that can stand up to time. The inscriptions on the temple walls and their precincts are about victories in war and of charities and of the progression of Chalukyan kings. They do not reveal how the hoi polloi lived, and if they were mired in squalor of the kind in which modern-day India wallows. Small-town India and rural India and all the cities of India are together an anarchic cesspool. I've experienced them all, but somehow in this visit the varied stench and the revolting sights rose up and punched me harder than ever before, in gut and face.

Going there from Bangalore, once we turned off the highway into the country road at Kushtagi, the sights of the villages we passed pressed up against us. The smells of the sights reached through the closed windows of our vehicle. Heaps of dung lined our path to the Chalukyan capital. And pools of shit of dog and cow and pig and chicken. Men and women were leaving the village and coming back, performing long and short walks for their daily ablutions, carrying in hand bottles or mugs or other small improvisations for some water to clean themselves after the act.

I'd gone on this trip with a group of nice people, all very learned, so I was quiet when they discussed the stories and the histories of the place and the meanings of the iconography and the contexts in our epics and the shastras from which the material for carvings in the myriad temples there has been derived. On my part, I contributed to trivia during mealtime talk. I generally had a very good time, though sometimes during the visit I felt like I was overfeeding on the temples--there's such an abundance of them there.

A ten-minute walk from the town centre in Badami brings you out to virgin country. In the cool of the morning on the second day of our two-day trip we walked through the lanes of the town and went up a rise outside it and hiked to a pilgrim centre some six kilometers away, at Mahakoota. It was a walk on an expanse of red rock with deep chocolatey-brown streaks, serrated and made rough by geological time. The effect is dramatic, made more so by contrasting lush green cacti of different kinds. The air was clean and in the early morning it was cool. A long line of hills ran in the distance parallel to our path, and a wash of bright green grass before them with pools of shade from clumps of low trees gave the impression of the European glade, like it had been airdropped before us. There was not another soul we met the entire stretch and, although the path to Mahakoota is paved in stone, there weren't the litter of broken glass, or the plastic of soft drinks, or the remains of snack foods. Just rock and plant and air and, on one spot, two large quite-clear ponds separated by a hundred yards and rimmed by trees with a good number of nests of the Baya Weaver hanging from their branches.

The tops of Mahakoota appeared first when we reached it. Only the tips of the gopuras behind high walls could be seen when we approached, and they were ancient beyond doubt, and untouched by hands attempting restoration. The promise was reinforced at the portal to the complex. It was flanked by betalas. We passed them and arrived into the essence of modern India in an ancient setting. Mahakoota is a major pilgrim centre but its temples are in disrepair. The temple pond was a bilious green, and in it pilgrims beat around raucously, sloughing off sin and having fun both at the same time. The women bathed fully dressed, the men had a better time in their underwear. A few boys were doing real diving and swimming. There weren't signs asking folks to shower before jumping in the water. There were no showers either. The water is held to be very sacred, being from a subterranean source, which could well be in faraway Kashi, the pious believe.

I was in a place which had once been a centre of architectural experimentation, which had taken traditions from the North and the South and melded them into a bold style of its own, and the stirring aesthetic that had been achieved was all round me. I should have been inspired. Instead, my dominant emotion was shame, which I'm writing out, so that I may first hawk it and spit it out, and then perhaps engage in some real writing afterward.