religion or…

It is difficult to describe the Sun Temple in Konark.  I am sure there are historians, academics, and other blogging tourists who can evoke it much more vividly than I can now.  My other excuse is it’s mid-30s centigrade in a stuffy internet cafe in Gokarn.   Still…

Sun Temple at Konark
Sun Temple at Konark

Imagine an immense (over 200 ft high) chariot built from sandstone – stone horses pulling the stone wheeled vehicle of a god.  Each stone containing intricately carved expressions of the cultural life of 13th century Orissan life – almost every permutation of sexual, social, agricultural relations you can imagine.  And it is often ambigious whether the scenes are descriptive or somehow prescriptive or warnings.  The entire architecture of the Temple is also designed as an elaboration and expression of astronomical and medical knowledge and historical record – the sun rising through the central entrance pillars, elephants on the side crushing “Muslim” enemies, scenes of birth and sickness and ageing.  In that sense, the Temple reminds me that Hinduism is as much social system as religious, or that the religious perhaps stems inextricably from the social.  Powerful, primal human forces and institutions are given personality, made into gods.

We were, in spite of the usual withering heat, lucky on our trip.  Not only were we greeted as we left our bus by an actual official and very professional and informative guide (I can’t remember his name, but he’s number 20 on the list out the front!), but we happened to pick the day of a significant pilgrimage.  The entrance fee was waived, but also there were a lot of people there – shaven heads of people from nearby villages mingled with the sunglasses-clad whiteys like us, and the Indian tourists.  The Sun Temple deserves that most overused word “awe-some” – standing in the presence of such embodied, accumulated energy, sensing the cultural investment and power of it, is an astounding experience.  Again, difficult to access as a non-Hindu, but with the distance of history and monument, almost convincing.

I’ll try to post some photos up soon.  Next up, though, Hyderabad…

gods and money

Bhubaneswar is the capital of Orissa, and is known as the city of temples – there were once thousands; now only a fraction remain, but that’s still a lot.  After a 7 hour train trip from Kolkata, arriving in Bhubaneswar was pretty much what I expected – hectic knots of traffic, noise, fumes, that melange of industry and poverty I’ve become almost used to.  So, after one night, Rachael and I decided to just spend one good day there, then move on.

So, of course, we had to see a few temples.  From our hotel to the closest group of temples was about 2 kms, but a long long way, swerving and ducking and ignoring touts and dust.  Every second man has a cycle rickshaw and wants to take you around.  We rejected quite a few, until we stopped for a breather, looking lost, and a gentle, scrawny, bespectacled, middle-aged man pulled over.  He kept insisting he’d show us where to go, no charge, no money, he knew Bhubaneswar.  So, we turned to each other with the same thought in mind – he seems like a genuine soul, let’s give him a few rupees, let his wiry undernourished body carry our able bodies around.  Yes, that strange combination of feeling guilty and supportive at the same time.

Orissan temple architecture is astoundingly complex, dense, detailed work.  The two buildings we saw are sandstone structures from the 7th and 11th century (correct me…); quite small, pyramid-like in shape, each square inch adorned with figures, scenes, animals, gods, and so on.  Astonishing.  We were shown around the first by a young man, who seemed quite devout, knew quite a bit about it’s history and significance.  He was also quite a fan of Ricky Ponting, and really wanted Australian coins (seems to be a phenomenon here…).

The second temple was our encounter with the other religion here.  Our self-appointed guide, I could probably sum up, was a sweaty man.  He spent most of his time pointing out the kama sutra scenes, asking if we knew what a lingum was, directing all his energy and talk towards Rachael, ignoring me.  He just kept talking and talking, sweating and leering.  Eek.  After quite a while, our rickshaw guy waiting patiently, we decided to go, and our guide kept wanting money, more money, no that’s each not for both of us, oh but I’m giving you a discoutn, etc.  We were tired, just wanted to go back to our hotel and take a shower, so gave him the 1,000 rupees he asked for, regretting it almost instantly.  The religion of ancient India, and the religion of money…

Don't take a tour with this man
Don't take a tour with this man

Our rickshaw man (wish I knew his name) asked what we paid, so we told him, and he said “he doesn’t work, I work!”, kept proudly cycling us along with the sweat of his brow.  We asked if he’d been doing it a long time, and from what I could make out, he’d only started recently – he used to work in the public service for the government, but got laid off.  We watched his sweaty back, his cracked and dusty sandalled feet, his straining limbs.  Heartbreaking.  We offered him water, he wouldn’t take it.  At one stage, as the road was getting harder, the sun hotter, he stopped, got off the bike, and pulled us along.  We wanted to get out, but kept feeling it was better to just pay him well.  In the end, we got out a block before our hotel, while he protested he could take us all the way.

We paid him the same as our guide.  Placing two large notes in his thin hands, we looked into his eyes, and he seemed really grateful, not just for the money, I think, but that there’d been some genuine human encounter.  I could almost weep now, remembering him.  Rachael and I just hope he used the money to take a day off, yet somehow I doubt it.

You encounter so much poverty and subsistence in India, you can almost get used to it.  You become hard.  I become hard, that is.  You have to.  But when it’s a real person, with a story, a life, struggling, who gazes into your eyes and is generous and proud, it puts a little crack in your armour.