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Culture and Colour in Karnataka

16th January 2011, Badami, Karnataka.
Since leaving the beach I've had a busy but enjoyable fortnight retracing my steps around Karnataka - which I think still manages to retain it's place as my favourite Indian state - at least in the south of the country. I've seen Sikh and Hindu temples, Jain statues and Muslem mausoleums - I guess I'd better visit some churches when I get to Goa to redress the balance. Just arrived in Badami, but if you want to find out exactly where I've been since Varkala, read on . . .

As my latest adventure draws to a close I wanted to revisit some of my favourite places in the fabulous state of Karnataka. First on my list were the delightful temples of Belur and Halebid. I chose to base myself in Hassan, which is central to both towns. But first I had to get there. I bade farewell to Varkala as the sun prepared to set, and got a rickshaw to the train station. I normally travel Sleeper Class, but as that was fully booked I'd bought a ticket in the 3-tier AC carriage for my overnight train to Mangalore, on Karnataka's coast. The sealed windows in AC make for a quieter journey (albeit much duller in daylight hours), but even so I awoke seven times during the night, as we stopped at various stations.

From Mangalore I had a five hour bus ride to Hassan, and the rickshaw dropped me off at a bus stand that catered only for AC deluxe buses - possibly the first time I've ever caught an AC bus in India. I have to admit it was comfortable, especially as I had two seats to myself. I dozed a little, still tired from the train journey - until we hit an incredibly bumpy section of road that lasted around two hours. I was grateful for the well-padded seat as I bounced around. After 22 hours of travel, I arrived at Hassan, and headed for a nice looking hotel that overlooked the bus stand. I got a pleasant, clean single room for Rs300, and settled in - I'd already booked my onwards train, so knew I'd be staying for four nights.

Hassan is also handy for Sravanabelagola, another place I'd visited on my first trip to India, and I travelled by bus to the town the following day. Five years previously the town was gearing up for a big mela, or festival, that occurs every 12 years. Sravanabelagola is one of India's major pilgrimage site for followers of the Jain religion, and I'd seen a number of nudie sky-clad Jains on that visit. The spiritual feeling that had prevailed last time around was missing on this occasion, replaced by hundreds of raucous children on school trips, yelling at the top of their voices and shattering the serenity completely. As it was a warm day, and the statue and temples sit at the top of a hill and are reached by climbing hundreds of steps hewn into the rock, it wasn't just my sense of hearing that was offended by the hoards! The 17 metre monolithic statue of Gomateshwara was just as impressive as last time round, and I even allowed myself to be dotted (that is to say I received a blessing from the Jain Muni, or priest), which is something I rarely do.

The following day I took an early morning bus to Belur. I remembered the temples here and at Halebid very fondly, and was excited to be returning. It is, to my mind, an absolute travesty of justice that these temples do not have the World Heritage status that they deserve, although I believe UNESCO is currently considering the matter. There is an advantage though for the tourist, which is that the temples are currently free to visit - there’ll be a hefty charge (up to £4) if and when they get on the list. The craftsmanship here is astounding, and the carvings which cover the exterior of the Chennakesava Temple are exquisite. It's the attention to detail that I love - for example the lower panels depict elephants marching their way around the temple . . . yet each is subtly different, either the pattern on the halter, or the way their ears flap, or the curl of their trunk. Here and there one has his head turned to gossip with the elephant behind. It's like the wonderful Indian miniature paintings: the little quirks bring the whole thing to life, and make it a delight to behold.

After three hours walking barefooted on the stones, my feet were aching and I was feeling tired, so I returned to Hassan by bus to rest up and work on my photos. After I've visited somewhere, I upload my pictures to my laptop and rotate any photos that were taken in portrait orientation (that is with the camera held on end). The next step is to assign keywords, so the stock pictures can be searched for online, so I do a bit of research to find out alternative spellings of place names, and other words that are associated with whatever it is I've been photographing. Once this is done I begin the selection process, first choosing which photos may be good enough to use for stock, then sifting again into a definite folder. From there I single out some of those to put on my pbase gallery, saving the others to work on another time (I've enough to keep me going for a year or two when I get home). Finally I'm ready to start working on the photographs in PhotoShop; I don't normally do much, just clear up and dust spots on the pictures, tweak the brightness and contrast if necessary, and sometimes crop the pictures or straighten a wonky horizon. It's a lot of work, but hopefully it'll pay off one of these days.

I took a bus to Halebid the next morning to visit the Hoysaleswara Temple - probably my favourite temple in the whole of India . . . and this is a country of many fine temples. Built in the 12th century, the soapstone walls are crammed with carvings of gods, animals, floral scrolls and scenes from the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. I spent several hours gazing in awe at the sumptuous carvings, and could have spent much longer; I think it's a place I could return to again and again. In between photographing the friezes, I happily obliged when called upon to take pictures of visiting groups of pilgrims. A couple of men were cleaning up the temple, washing off bird droppings, and one of them explained some of the panels to me. He suggested I visit the Kedareshwara Temple a short walk away. There were fewer visitors at the smaller temple, although the decorations were just as impressive, and the site held an air of tranquillity. I walked back through the quiet village lanes, past grazing buffalo, and a man arranging crops to dry in the middle of the street.

Next on my list was Bidar, a city in the north of the state. The gallery of pictures that I'd taken after my visit in 2005 had proved very popular. I think it must have been linked to from a website about Bidar, as I got numerous comments from present and past residents of the town - many asking for updated pictures to be added. I felt a certain obligation to return . . . although as I'd enjoyed my first visit this was no hardship. It took two trains and 24 hours to get there, and the second train journey in particular was most enjoyable. I was back in Sleeper Class - none of your AC nonsense. I got a good night's sleep and spent the next morning gazing out of the window, watching the world go by. It's harvest time here, and the countryside is painted with a palette of the rich browns of the earth; the golden shimmer of ripe crops; blue expanses of water, left by the recently ended monsoon; with vibrant splashes of colour added by the brightly-dressed workers in the fields. White oxen pull ploughs, steered by men with heads wrapped in turbans to protect them from the fierce sun.

The only slight blot in the enjoyable journey happened at a tiny station, not far from my destination. Since I'd got up that morning, I'd had a regular stream of visitors excited to see a gora on the train. Small children would pass me, their eyes opening wide at the sight of a white girl. They'd wander back a few minutes later with family members in tow, pointing out the novelty, and I'd smile and head-wobble back. We'd pulled in at a station and a scrawny man in his fifties or sixties who'd just alighted the train did a double take at me as he passed by my window. I head-wobbled at him in a friendly manner, and he returned the greeting and continued walking . . . then did a one-eighty and plonked himself down on a bench facing my window. With his legs splayed, he began playing with his penis through his trousers, gazing at me with a dopey expression on his face. I guess the opportunity of wanking over a real-live white girl was too tempting to pass up! I quickly ducked out of sight until the train continued on its way.

I stayed at the Hotel Mayura International, in a comfortable and large room for a reasonable price. I complimented the helpful manager on his excellent English, which he told me he'd learnt from talking to tourists that had stayed at the hotel, and by listening to English and Australian cricket commentators. He laughed when I told him I was revisiting Bidar, "the tourists sights are still the same!" I managed to see a couple of places I'd missed out on before though, Like the Papnas Hindu Temple, and the Gurdwara Nanak Jhira Sahib Sikh Temple. I roamed around the largely ruined fort, and took an auto rickshaw to the impressive Bahmani Tombs at Ashtur and walked back to the city. A young boy on a bicycle spotted me not far from the fort and escorted me, from a distance, for a kilometre of two, making sure I went the right way. He even offered me a lift on his crossbar. Once I reached the busier and less photogenic part of town I jumped in a rickshaw for the remaining kilometre, waving my thanks to the lad. I remembered the Bahid Shahi Park as being a quiet, near deserted place - but now they have added a children's playground, and amazingly lifelike concrete oxen. Fortunately the tombs on the other side of the busy main road remain undeveloped, and are still enveloped with the peaceful aura that I remember of Bidar from my last visit.

After Bidar I headed south to Bijapur, a town I had been less enamoured with on my first visit. My memories of the huge tomb of Gol Gumbaz were largely obscured by the cacophony of hundreds of screeching school children. I vowed to get there before the school groups did this time around, so set my alarm for six, when the massive mausoleum opens. When I awoke I discovered it was still dark, and as much as I wanted to experience the tranquil calm of the Gol Gumbaz, it goes without saying that I also wanted to take some photos. I went back to sleep for a while, and set off at eight when the light was good. I paid my Rs100 to enter, and walked towards the huge domed building; the dome here measures 38 metres across on the inside, and is one of the largest in the world. Inside, I climbed the steep stone steps of one of the corner tower, ascending seven stories to the top of the tomb. I could hear the noise before I entered the whispering gallery, which sits just under the gigantic domed ceiling.

There were only three groups of men inside, but my god they were making a racket! The Whispering Gallery is so called, as even the quietest noise made at one side of the building can be heard clearly at the other, the sound echoing 10 to 12 times over 26 seconds. Indians have no concept of whispering, so the groups of men were all shouting loudly, the pulsing echo of their yells amplified. In some ways it would have been better if they were more people shouting, as the intermittent noises coming though in waves was like something out of a nightmare. Add to this the frighteningly low wall overlooking the stone floor a dizzying 30 metres below, and I felt my palm sweating as anxiety claimed by senses; it was most unpleasant. One of the groups of men started hounding me for my photo, but it was all too much - it was an irrational reaction, but I started shouting "no, no photo," my own panicked voice echoing across the chamber.

I escaped outside through one of the archways, annoyed at myself for losing it. I've been trying really hard of late to see the staring and sometimes unwelcome attention for what it really is, 99% of the time: simple curiosity. Yes, it can be annoying - and occasionally feel threatening - when surrounded by a large group of staring Indians, but mostly it's just the novelty of seeing a gora, especially in out-of-the-way places (added to the fact that staring is not seen as impolite in Indian culture). Months back, when I was in Orchha, I'd been eating at a little pavement restaurant, when a group of young boys had gathered, staring constantly, sniggering and eyeing my bag and camera. I'd become quite paranoid that they were planning on steeling my things, wrapping the strap of my camera around my arm, and glaring at them. After they'd finally got bored, I spoke to the friendly proprietor about them, asking if they were local. No, he said. They're from a village. They'd never seen a white person before, and were curious. Their first encounter with a foreigner, and all I did was shoot them daggers. I felt ashamed.

A similar feeling overtook me now; I knew I'd acted unreasonably. A man in his fifties followed me out, and I began to redeem myself, smiling and head-wobbling at him. We stumbled through a conversation, held back by the fact that he had no English and I spoke no Kannada (the state language of Karnataka). It was a friendly encounter all the same, and helped me to calm down and make me act like a sane person again. We walked around the outside of the dome together, him pointing out several of the sites in Bijapur (I'm assuming that's what he was doing!) then he rejoined his group and we said our goodbyes. I re-entered the Whispering Gallery and took some more photos, letting the yelling wash over me. Far down below I saw groups of school children arriving, and left the area soon after, not wishing to push my luck. Out in the open the first school group had emerged from the spiral staircase, which prompted a mini photo shoot, and a round of "how are you? What is your name? Which country?" I'd got my happy thoughts back again. It may sound a tad pompous, but as a visitor to India you are an ambassador not only for your country, but also for the whole non-Indian world. You are also public property, whether you like it or not. You have to accept this fact and go with the flow to get the most out of India. Being an antisocial sort, it's something that I struggle with sometimes.

I followed the sign pointing across the main road for the Jama Masjid, the Friday Mosque, which is the name given to each city's largest mosque. Along the way were a multitude of children, all dying to have their photos taken, and chancing their luck for a pen/chocolate/coin-from-your-country. Horse-drawn tongas clip-clopped up the street, and hairy pigs routed around in the piles of rubbish, scampering away when I got too close with my camera. Oxen with painted horns rested in the shade of their upturned carts, and colourfully dressed women sat on their steps washing metal plates and cups after breakfast. I kept a smile on my face; answered everyone who called questions to me; smiled and head-wobbled at the adults; and took the children's photographs when asked - and as I walked, I felt my spirits soar. In contrast to the deafening chaos of the Gol Gumbaz, the mosque was an island of tranquil calm. I snapped my shots of the perfectly symmetrical arches, and the highly decorated prayer niche, surrounded by a peaceful feeling.

The good people of Bijapur certainly enjoy having their pictures taken. I spent much of the next two days wandering around the rustic back streets, chatting to energetic children and their parents, and photographing a sizeable proportion of Bijapur's population. I realise that I haven't been doing this enough: walking with my camera around my neck. Last time I had a much smaller, cheaper camera, and felt less obtrusive when wandering around with it. This visit I've been very aware of the fact that I have around £1,000 worth of camera equipment hanging off of me, and that's made me a little less comfortable in flaunting it. But I'm going to buy a new model when I get home - and my lens has started playing up again, so I'm going to have to get that fixed too - so I've just decided to go with the flow, and enjoy it. The last stop on my cultural tour of Karnataka (unless I decide to pop back to Hampi for a third time) is Badami, where I arrived today. I'll tell you all about it next time around.


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