Town Where Time Stands Still
was a hot and sunny day (much like every other day in India,
except in the monsoon season) and we were on our way to Melkote.
It would appear I was wrong, for there is indeed a worse road
in Karnataka than the one that led to Somnathpur, and this
one went to the town of Melkote, and was unfortunately twice
as long. However, no matter how bad the road is, there is always
something interesting to see anywhere one goes in India. We
were stopped at a train track, and on the other
side was an ox cart waiting amidst the automobiles
to cross. It was an interesting juxtaposition
of era's. A modern train going by, and
an ageless painted oxcart. If it weren't
for the trousers the cart driver was wearing,
he and his oxen could have been from a time
a thousand years ago. That is one of the striking
aspects of India, wherever you go,
there is this mix of the old, the new, the
unchanged, and the downright odd. Such as
a boy, squatting by the side of the road,
brushing his teeth in water so muddy it seemed
to negate the point of the exercise. Or a
lady wearing a sari so electrically yellow,
I swear one needed sunglasses to look at her.
Or how people like to park their bicycles
either on, or right in the middle of the smaller
roads. Either they wish an untimely destruction
of their bike, or they just simply see it
as good parking spot I'm not certain.
There is certainly a different etiquette over
here regarding pedestrians. All the time,
one sees a group of 4 or more girls or boys
walking in line with one another taking up
part of the road. And when a car comes, they
don't budge, or fall back in a line,
they continue on walking. There is an order
to the chaos that is first observed here,
as far as driving goes. And there isn't
as many accidents as one may reasonably suppose.
Today, our trip was on to Melkote, a famous
pilgrimage spot in Karnataka. A friend from
America was visiting, his first time ever
to India, so he and a couple of my young Indian
friends were along for the ride. As we drove
farther and farther away from Mysore, the
landscape changed, from lush green rice and
millet fields and coconut groves, to drier
open plains and strange rocky formations,
that looked like giants had a game throwing
around huge boulders and left them where they
fell. The mountains, as I think they could
be called, were just that, giant piles of
boulders and a little scrub. There was a strange
beauty in the barren landscape, of dust and
dry grass and rocks. A few kilometers from
our destination I saw a big hill, and upon
it was the temple of Yoga Narasimha, a place
that is mentioned even in the Puranas of Vedic
Literature, (these date back to a time of
a couple thousand years ago). Like many temples
in India, the temple of Yoga Narasimha was
built on a hill. This was and is a common
practice, hills are considered sacred spots,
and symbolically to put a temple upon a hill
is to put it above you, it is something to
revere being closer to the heavens. Melkote
has two distinct temples. The Tirunarayana
temple at the foothills and the hill temple
to Yoga Narasimha The Tirunarayana temple
worships a deity of Lord Visnu, and the temple
of Yoga Narasimha houses a deity to Narasimha,
who is the half-man half-lion incarnation
of Lord Visnu.
driving up a few narrow winding streets we reached the parking
place at the foot of the hill. Leading up to the temple were stone
steps, some carved right into the hillside, and others put there,
but all worn by the feet of innumerable pilgrims making their
way up to the temple. The air was perfumed with the scent of plumeria,
there were dozens of trees growing all along the walkways. It
was an intoxicating smell.
the steps on either side were many beggars
and sadhu's alike, some of them quite colorful
characters with turbans, big bead necklaces
and matted hair, but all with the markings
of tilak upon their foreheads. In different
forms, all relegions in India have a marking
the devotees put upon their forehead that
signifies the faith they follow. The sri vaisnava
tilak is large and striking, covering most
of the forehead. As we made our way up, I
was curious why we were not being badgered
by the beggars there. They were not being
their usual vociferous selves, in fact they
were utterly silent as we passed by. I discovered
later they all start up while on your way
down. But they weren't rude as many of the
beggars I have encountered are, some of which
will follow you for several blocks and stand
outside the shop your in until you come out
again. The people here just pleasantly talked
to you in a language I didn't understand,
and some called out 'madam, madam', however
it is hard because if you give one person
a coin you won;t have any peace after that.
temple itself was very beautiful —you
entered the complex through two huge bronze
doors, made of squares set in different designs.
South Indian style temples always have gopurams,
vertical ascending roofs that narrow to the
top, and covered every inch of the way in
carvings of demigods, animals, and various
stories from the Vedic literatures. Going
through another set of huge doors brought
us into the temple. It was dark and cool in
there. I immediately sensed the sacredness
of the place. Winding through corridors
and other rooms, supported by large stone
pillars, hewn out of single chunks of stone,
it was a wonder of construction. Everything
was made of stone, that had to be hauled up
this hill, carved, and somehow moved into
place. Melkote didn't have the magnificence
of design, or the amount of sculpture that
the temple at Somnathpur had, but it had a
powerful architecture. The stone walls were
cool to the touch, and as I brushed my hand
along them, a strange feeling came over me,
as it they were alive and watching me. We
weren't the only ones there, in fact, we were
only a few out of many. Melkote is a very
popular place of pilgrimage. I noticed many
people walking around with shaved heads, anywhere
from 2-80 yrs old. I discovered that it is
a custom to shave ones head when they come
here, and to take a bath in the large stone
tank, or ghat that is below in the town.
of the deity is carried out every day, as
it has been for the last 900 years here. The
exact establishment of the hill temple at
Melkote is not known, the present temple being
built upon the ruins of an old one, in the
12th century by Ramanujacarya, a saint who
is still revered and followed today.
temple is surrounded by a walkway, which is walled in because
the hill drops right down. There was a magnificent view from the
wall all across the scrubby plains and far off into other districts.
Many other people were out enjoying the view, including a very
charming little baby who had just undergone the ritual head shaving.
walking around the temple for some time, we all started down again
and headed into the town to visit the temple of Tiru Narayana.
lower town temple was a rather large complex,
surrounded by an open veranda that was covered
by many pilgrims sleeping, eating their lunches,
or simply stopping for a moment. There were
lions heads that faced the four cardinal directions.
Inside, in the cloister area there were many
ornately carved pillars, beautifully done.
I walked around them, marveling at the artists
who created these elaborate and lovely pieces
of art. Mostly they detailed scenes from the
epics of Vedic literature, the Mahabharata,
The Ramayana, and other historic pastimes.
I was standing and observing the goings on
an old Tamil woman (Tamil Nadu is the state
to the west of Karnataka) came up to me and
spoke some words and touched my cheek. She
smiled benevolently and looked so happy and
peaceful, I smiled back at her, not knowing
what to say, but I folded my hands in a sign
of appreciation. I asked one of the Indian
boys with me what she had said. Not being
so familiar with the language of Tamil, they
could only catch some of it, but said she
gave me a blessing to live a long healthy
life, and to visit other holy places. I was
very struck by that, she had such an amazing
aura of being completely at peace with the
deity here is taken out during March-April and carried around
in a festival procession. The carts are painted brightly and decorated
with many flowers. A special aspect of these forays is the crowns
(one of them is made of diamonds!) and jewels the deity is decorated
with, these used to belong to the former Maharaja's of Mysore.
Through the ages Melkote has received the patronage of many of
the Maharajas of Mysore as well as the Tipu Sultan. When the procession
is coming everyone gathers around. The kind of excitement that
would go into seeing a celebrity here goes towards trying to get
a glimpse of the gods!
visiting the town temple and getting the traditional
'kumkum' or colored powder upon our foreheads
(this is offered to the deity and then visitors
place some upon their forehead) we then all
tramped off to the ghat, or water tank were
many people were busy talking a holy bath.
The whole of the ghat was build down into
the ground and all around it steps led down.
Like the temple in the town an open veranda
surrounded the whole area. Many people were
taking naps here, or just sitting in groups.
Like at the other temples, there were beautiful,
carved pillars that held up the roof of the
verandas. I didn't take a bath (having neglected
to bring a change of clothes), but I sat and
watched the many others doing so. Bathing
in public in India is rather unlike bathing
anywhere in the west. Ladies do not wear bathing
suits, but instead go in their sari or dress.
And you don't see people wildly jumping in
the water or splashing around. It's a rather
calm and ritualized process. But then again,
they are not swimming for leisure, but for
a ritual purification.
is a very colorful country but Melkote seemed
especially vivid to me. The shops were packed
with electrically hued goods, there were piles
of flowers and flower garlands for sale, all
in shades of yellow, pink, purple, and white.
The people seemed to be dressed more brightly
and a mood of happiness and peace pervaded
the air. I heard about an interesting custom
here, a pilgrim can stay upon anyone's porch
for one night, with no charge, and even be
given breakfast as well.
the way back home, just outside the townthere
is a hill made of rock with a temple carved
into its face. We stopped there and made the
short hike through the fields up to it. The
hill is literally made of solid rock. And
the temple, albeit small, was hewn right into
it. We stopped here for some minutes, and
then one of the boys in a sudden fit of adventure
started to climb up the rock face. And one
by one we all followed. It was not very steep,
and there being many handholds it was not
too difficult to ascend. It was a lot of fun!
There was a lovely view from the top of this
giant rock, we could see in all directions.
But, it was like standing on top of a skillet.
The sun was directly overhead, and the rocks
were searing hot, so we did not stay long.
However getting down was slightly more difficult
than it had been to get up, and there were
one or two hairy moments. But everyone got
down fine, and we continued on our way.
temple town is also known for its Academy
of Sanskrit Research. This was established
in 1853 and has since then been a famous center
of learning, considered unique in that its
retained so much of its traditional character
over the centuries. Historical studies have
shown that there has been very little change
in the town planning, the type and character
of the houses and the cultural practice. However,
one doesn't need to read a report to realize
this, a visitor can see how it is truly is
a town where India's rich cultural tradition
is very much alive, and unchanged.