Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, February 2006)


For the last few years, I have managed teams of Balinese workers in India . Every now and then, I force them to embark on a bit of a cultural jaunt: the truth is that they would much rather stay in their quarters reading old Bali Posts but I usually convince them that their minds need exercising too.
Over the years, we have done Old Goa, where they were shooed out of the ‘Bom Jesus’ basilica for ogling choir girls with long waists, and we have visited the famous Sarasawati temple in Kanchipuram, where they survived a stinking queue and an onslaught of elephant dung. Most recently we made a pilgrimage to the mighty Khrisna temple in Trivandrum , where they were denied access on suspicion of being Malaysian. (They couldn’t produce their passports so they prayed in front of the temple, outside a gift shop).
Last month, I took Dewa Mega and Dewa Semadi, both from Ketewel village, to the famous Vijayanagara Empire ruins (15th century) at Hampi (pronounced ‘Humpy’, as in ‘Dumpy’), 350 km north of Bangalore. Neither Dewa had ever been on a train, nor to an Indian railway station so it was a big treat.
On platform 8, they stood proudly, in tight jeans, breathing slowly, hoping to survive the mess of humanity. Once in our dacoit-proof carriage they scrambled up into their narrow bunks – like rats up a drain pipe – and disappeared into a cocoon of sensory deprivation and nasty blanket. They were praying, no doubt, that when they woke up it would all have gone away.
At Bellamy Junction station the next morning, I brought them coffee on a bent tray I had borrowed from the platform Cha shop and some Sharukh Khan brand glucose biscuits; yet still they weren’t impressed. An hour later, outside our destination, Hospet Station, we found ourselves stranded in an empty station car park, while tattooed taxi-touts bit at our ankles.
“You want Hampi,” they snapped.
“Keep it romantic,” was all I could think of saying, by way of a reply.
Eventually an Ambassador car was procured, with a driver and guide, both in dark blue temple dress, both definitely on the wrong side of a Bang Lassi (chemically enhanced yoghurt drink. Ed.).
“Our red-eye swami specials,” I called them.
The two Dewas were very apprehensive: embarking on an adventure with such Hindus-on-high-beam seemed reckless; I was thrilled, in comparison, to be in the lap of the gods and to have, so far, avoided a car and intrusive guides from any government tourism agencies. We stopped first at a small roadside stall to get our kit for the temple (“When in Rome , always do what the Romans do.…., especially, if it’s navy blue,” Diana Vreeland once told me).
The Balinese spied a table-load of offerings and their eyes suddenly lit up.
Our Hindu Holiday had begun:
Now read on:

Hampi, 13th and 14th December 2005
It’s incredible to think that the great empires of Constantinople (Turkey), Vijayanagara ( India ), and Majapahit ( East Java ) all fell to Islam at around the same time – the latter part of the 15th century.
Like the Majapahit Empire – which bequeathed Bali its priests, princes, and red brick architecture – Vijayanagara was famed for its art. The bas reliefs on Vijayanagara temples are often light and whimsical with folkloric themes; similar in style and subject to bas reliefs found on the Hindu candi temples of East Java (see photo below)

There are 26 square kilometres of ruined palaces, ancient temples, bathing pavilions, tanks and elephant stables in the Hampi valley; it is a scenic marvel, with a Martian-like landscape, only tropical. Palm groves and banana plantations are everywhere and a wide clean river runs along the western boundary of the township. Across the river is Anegundi, the ancient capital of the Vali Empire and legendary home of the Chintamani temple, mentioned in the Ramayana. The monkey god Hanuman has a large temple there; legend has it that his generals, Subali and Sugriwa, were born in Anegundi.
Vali? Subali? Bali ? There is definitely some connection here: scholars are invited to do some serious research.
After an exhilarating morning in the ruinscapes and a perfect Dosai and tea at the Hampi bus terminus – a truly memorable meal, served in a Stalinesque cafeteria setting, with other people’ swamis hovering, like Clark Gable in ‘Dosai in the Dust’ – we drive 30 km to Anegundi, to track down the River Grass guesthouse which has been recommended by a friend. The Balinese look more and more fearful with every passing kilometre, every kilometre further away from the railway station is a kilometre further away from Bali , their life source.
In Anegundi we find Sharma, the Linda Garland of Hampi Hollow, who is saving Anegundi, and her friend Farah, who runs their riverside guest house. As a result of their tireless work every village child now greets tourists with “Namaste! School pen? Five Rupees?” (Hands come out.) Like little mobile harvesting machines. Ha! (In fact Sharma’s conservation and craft projects are fabulously successful).
At the guesthouse, our swamis are instantly recognized by Farah’s swami manager, Nagaraj, as stone peanut-eating rogues and are driven from the veranda onto which they have ever so subtly insinuated. The Balinese think all the swamis are ridiculous because all Balinese are secular at heart (Ha!) and because pushy Indian swamis – as opposed to our saintly doe-like pemangku, – hang their wet loin cloths high, in their temple’s inner courtyards. In the evening, Nagaraj takes us to an Israeli hippy commune on Hampi Island . The Balinese are intrigued to find 1970s Kuta still alive and living in Kartanaka. As the moon comes up over the Hampi ruins we order Chinese food and watch ‘Lost in Translation’ on the café’s video. All except Nagaraj, who cannot hear lewd and licentious Hollywood music, according to his religious beliefs.
The Balinese, in comparison, are fully absorbed: watching two Israeli kibbutzah making out in the back stalls.

• • •

The next morning, we go to the river to bath at the legendary Chintamani temple, which boasts a ‘footstep of Rama’. School children are in the river shampooing their hair, occasionally prostrating themselves before ancient lingga on the river banks between conditioning cycles.
My Balinese are chatting to Nagaraj about Rama and Hanuman; they are “embarrassed” to take their shirts off because white tourists are here.
Two middle-aged tourists – backpackers from Essex – are standing by the river’s edge. The bathers are fascinated: Mr. Essex has got some bitumen on the back of his pants. “You oughta be careful where ya put ya bum,” Mrs. Essex screams at her husband of forty years.
“This, my children,” I bellow at the gathered crowd, “is your lesson for today!”
We spend one more day in heaven then get the Hampi Express back to Bangalore .

• • •

The highlight of the trip for the Balinese was a defining moment on the train with two leathery, blonde, and extremely kind French ladies. The ladies had, by their own admission, been eating Channa (chick pea) Masala all day. Shortly before the Dewas went to bed, the ladies climbed into their bunks, pulled the curtain and promptly broke wind with a force that almost shattered the train windows. The Dewas collapsed on the floor, rolling in paroxysms of glee.
Really, the Balinese make wonderful travelling companions!

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