Bright Lights, Big Statue

21st February

“Hey, hey! Entrance is that way.”

The man gestures around the metal fence I’m schlepping past in the already sweltering 11am sunshine. After a three hour pressure cooker of a bus from Mysore I’ve somehow managed to get off a stop early, setting myself a hot walk from half a mile or so outside Shravanabelagola along baked, uncaring roadside. I’m grateful to the friendly stranger for setting me on the right track again, even if it means an unwanted retracing of steps. I thank him.

“No problem. Do you want to buy some socks?”

“Pardon?”

He waves a bundle of woollen socks at me as he walks alongside. They look cheap, stiff, scratchy and hot.

“Socks! No shoes allowed on the steps. You want some socks? Only fifty rupees”.

I roll up my jeans and point out that I’m already wearing socks.

“Very dirty on the steps sir. Want to buy some socks?”

I tell him I’ll go barefoot.

“Oh no, sir, very hot on the steps. Want to buy socks? Fifty rupees.”

“No, thank you. I’m sure I’ll manage.”

“OK, no problem sir. Want to buy postcard?” A stack is procured from somewhere about his person; the socks mysteriously vanish.

“No thank you.”

“Nice postcard. Friends, family. You want to buy now?”

“Maybe later.”

“OK sir, later, no problem.” We continue a few more steps.

“Postcard?”

“No!”

“Socks?”

I shoot him my most vicious glare. It’s a look that comes naturally to me with my resting bitch face, but over the years I’ve embellished it, honing the art of emptying all the warmth and goodwill from my eyes and fixing them on an imaginary point roughly in the middle of my target’s brain, making me seem completely cold and calculating. Like a shark. He gets the picture and scampers off.

I continue on a few paces.

“Want to see my shop?”

I look up. A new man, older than the first, wrapped in a pale blue garment, has fallen into step on my other side.

“No thanks.”

“Nice shop. Tibetan shop.” I allow myself a chuckle here. Tibet is over 2,500km away. Right now much of it is covered in snow, and I’m suffering mid-morning heat stroke. It’s not unlike being invited to a Nordic shop in the Algarve. Also, minor point but we’re standing in the shadow of a Jain monument, and Jainism has approximately zero Tibetan adherents.

“No thanks.” I repeat.

“Later?”

I roll my eyes, wary and weary. “Maybe.”

“OK. Take my card. This is my shop.”

He hands me a flimsy business card and points to a stall by the side of the road stocked with the usual tourist tat: miniature Buddhas, Om T-shirts, cheap throws printed with tacky mandalas. I thank him and press on to a shaded area at the base of the steps. The first hawker reappears and points out, quite redundantly since it’s the only building there and very well-signposted, the stand where I need to deposit my shoes. I thank him and he offers to sell me some socks.

The plan had been to rest here for a few minutes, catch my breath and do some last-minute reading up on the monument before starting the 600 step ascent, but a third hawker is lurking with intent and an ominous sackful of tat he looks eager to talk me through, so after dropping my trainers, stuffing my socks into my bag and taking a few glugs of water I start the climb.
It’s hot and shadeless, but contrary to Hawker #1’s assertions the sun is yet to really heat up the hard granite steps and they aren’t too dirty. A short way in, a cheery though tired-looking man in his fifties passes, followed a dozen or so steps behind by his breathless wife. We have a brief chat; they are Mumbaikars.

“Your wife isn’t with you?”

“Girlfriend,” (they seem urbanite enough for the correction to be worthwhile) “and no, she’s back in Mysore doing yoga. She likes yoga much more than hot weather and old monuments.” I wipe a bead of sweat from my reddening widow’s peak and glance at the foreboding slope ahead. “She’s much smarter than me!”

This gets a guffaw, all three of us questioning our own decision-making that’s led us here, and we part ways cheerfully. The ascent is steep, hot and sweaty but after a few minutes I heave myself over the summit of Vindyagiri hill.

Nothing in India comes for free. There is always a fee to pay, a perilous or tiring road to traverse, an obstacle course of belligerent hawkers and beggars to negotiate to get to every landmark. The result is always just about worth it. Not, mind, in the sense in which you’d happily do it all again, but in the sense that you are, on balance, glad you made the effort. The Gommateshwara statue is no exception.

What we now know and think of as India never existed as a single nation prior to independence from British rule in 1947. The subcontinent was a patchwork of kingdoms fought over by various native and foreign rulers for nearly three thousand years, each of whom tried to annex as much of the vast landmass as possible. The closest ancient “India” came to unification was under the Maurya empire, which included all of modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Iran and Afghanistan, as well as the whole of modern-day India itself apart from the two southernmost states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. As such, it is still the largest political landmass the subcontinent has ever seen.

The Maurya dynasty’s founder, Chandragupta (c. 340-297 BCE), was an internationally renowned character, referenced in several Ancient Greek sources. Like his grandson Ashoka (immortalised in the Bollywood movie I watched on my flight from London), Chandragupta was a successful warrior as a young man before finding religion as he aged. Whereas Ashoka followed the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, now more commonly known as the Buddha, his ancestor turned to the teachings of Jainism. In accordance with the religion’s customs, Chandragupta renounced all his worldly possessions before embracing death peacefully through extreme fasting on Chandragiri hill, across the valley from Vindyagiri hill on which I now stand.

The area has been scared to Jains ever since, and around 983AD the Ganga dynasty minister Chavundaraya commissioned the construction of a 57-foot statue on Vindyagiri in honour of Bahubali, an important character in Jain mythology. Known also as the Colossus of India, the Gommateshwara statue is one of the largest free-standing sculptures in the world, and in 2007 was overwhelmingly voted one of the seven wonders of India.

Given all this, as well as the fact it’s one of Jainism’s most important pilgrimage destinations, it’s surprisingly quiet. A gaggle of late teenage boys take selfies near the top, a Frenchman wonders around with a fearsome camera, and a family sit and take on water at the main entrance. Besides that the only souls around are me, two workers monitoring admission to the statue area, a few circling buzzards and the ubiquitous stray dogs napping in the shade.

The statue is striking: strikingly tall, strikingly impressive, strikingly naked. Proudly tackle-out, Bahubali stands unmoved as he has for over a thousand years, leafy stone creepers winding round his arms and legs in reference to the legendary figure meditating long enough for plants to start growing up his limbs. The figure is so tall that the head is visible from miles away; this is part of the reason I got off the bus too early. Around the statue is a temple adorned with evocative carvings, ancient text and menacing demons.

After exploring round for half an hour or so I decide I’m too hot, too tired of walking and of hawkers and too unfussed to complete my planned day-long trip to the “nearby” sites of Halebidu and Belur, an 80km bus ride from Shravanabelagola, so I skip back down the 600 steps, giving a fist-pump of encouragement to some weary-looking teenagers on their way up, grab a dosa and hop on a bus back to Mysore.

Like skipping class back at Sharanagati, this feels like a good, responsible decision. There is, simply, too much to see in India and far too much ground to cover. The impulse, at first, is to try to see it all while shooting rapidly from place to place, but with the heat, noise, pollution and all the other ballaches the enormous country throws at you this invariably leads to seeing everything and enjoying nothing. You learn, after a while, to pick your battles, see what you really want to see, savour it and call it a day.

24th February

The crowd heaves as we approach the outer wall, clustered in anticipation against the gatehouse. There are plenty of guards around but, despite the dense crush of people, the security scanners that process every bag entering the palace compound in daytime sit idle, unused, switched off. The jostling is intense but good-natured. Everyone is in a happy mood.

We accidentally time our arrival to perfection; just as we join the crowd the gates open and the waiting torrent of people spills through the sluice to flood the gardens of Mysore palace. This, as on every Sunday evening, is lit up dazzlingly. Thousands of bright bulbs that look from a distance like fairy lights adorn every edge of the palace and its surrounding walls and gopuras, creating a beautiful, bright spectacle against the dark of the evening sky. Like an enormous Times Square, except tasteful.

Rebecca confesses that she finds it hard to believe India can pull this kind of grandeur off alongside all the usual chaos; the bewildering bureaucracy and easy-going Indian Standard Time. I mull on this as well as the contrast between the splendour of the palace and the squalid reality of daily life for millions of Indians, the inequality with which the country distributes its wealth. We get so used to thinking of India as a poor country, it’s easy to forget that it’s also a fabulously rich one. Not that the palace’s original owners, the Wadiyar dynasty, would appreciate it bring portrayed as a symbol of private wealth. The descendants of the ruling family of the Kingdom of Mysore lost ownership of their official residence to the state of Karnataka with the 1996 Mysore Palace Acquisition Act, and have since been embroiled in a legal battle appealing against the decision.

It’s our final night in Mysore. Our stay has been pleasant and easy-going. Desperate calling-in of favours has yielded fruit; Madhu, a former colleague of Rebecca’s brother George who worked for Tesco’s IT team in Bangalore, has secured us tickets for the T20 between India and Australia next week, so after taking a few scenic pictures at the palace we return to the hostel and watch the first match of the series in real-time.

During the ad breaks, a recurring clip commemorates the victims of the 14th February attack in Kashmir. Rhetoric between India and Pakistan has been ramping up in the ten days since. On the one hand, Kashmir and Pakistan are, and feel, a very long way away – almost as far as Tibet. On the other, we’re planning to visit the border at Amritsar as well as parts of Jammu and Kashmir later in the trip, so besides the usual humanitarian impulse against the outbreak of conflict anywhere there is a particularly selfish concern with which we monitor developments.

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