The palmy lowlands of northern Kerala grasp towards the peaks of the Western Ghats mountain range where they meet the dense tiger & elephant-filled jungles bordering Karnataka to the north and Tamil Nadu to the east. Each region has its own distinct Dravidian language, predating the northern Aryan civilization (and sanskrit alphabet we often associate with Indian culture). In effect, each state in India is its own cultural country, as different as France from Germany, or the Netherlands from Greece.
I climbed the hills of the Ghats of Karnataka in an epileptic bus—lurching past other automobiles and shimmying itself through hairpin turns. The conductor slid out the side door to strategize, argue, and negotiate passage with other honking, shimmying vehicles.
Halfway up the mountain, I reached Dharmasthala: a pilgrim’s wonderland. Throngs of devotees arrive, many with scalps shorn, to give darshan, a ceremonial veneration of their chosen deity. In a rare instance of cross pollination of religions, the temple administration is run by Jains, and the ceremonies are conducted by Hindu priests. There is also an antique car museum, for those who choose to worship twentieth-century idols.
A large, monolithic Jain statue of Bahubali (the Jain Buddha, if you’ll permit me a gross, ignorant oversimplification) presides nude on a hill overlooking the village (a fashion observed in kind by male Jain priests, as evidenced by the faded ceremonial photos in the pavilion). To achieve his enlightenment, Bahubali stood so still for so long that creeping vines wound up his body.
At the center of town, the temple housing the idol of Lord Manjunatheshwara (an incarnation of Shiva). I couldn’t understand what exactly people were standing in line for hours upon hours (think Disneyland) to see. One lady told me that the power of the idol was so strong that whatever I ask for will surely come true. Finally, an eight-year-old boy led me over to a holy tchotchke store and pointed to a framed photo of a coal-black something surrounded by heaps and heaps of gold and flowers. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that Lord Shiva historically resided in simple black stone linghams- god materialized for humans to worship. As hindu gods tend to be territorial and jealous, they are regularly paraded outside the temple shrine to observe their dominion and subjects—a difficult feat for a massive rock. As such, the trend shifted towards the more anthropomorphic cast metal sculptures that have recognizable forms. Alas, no cameras were allowed inside the shrine.
The temple provides free lodging for anyone who would like to visit. I must say: it has been my favorite lodging in India thus far. The cement and plaster rooms were furnished accordingly: two concrete plinths with gym mat mattreses, one light bulb, a ceiling fan, a small alcove for devotional or personal effects, and a small mirror. Shared bathrooms with one shower for fifty-or-so people. No electrical outlets. Heaven. I bought some marigold garlands and candles and gussied the place up a bit. The orange dhoti I picked up at a hindu ashram made a fantastic curtain. It was my monastic dream come true, so I took some pictures.
My one regret during my stay was that I was unable to document the cafeteria (Annapoorna), with its own substantial, barefoot line. I have never seen such a model of efficient food delivery and consumption. The meal, of course, was vegetarian, and free. Imagine: A cafeteria the size of a supermarket, sheathed completely in white marble that gave the appearance of a celestial bowling alley. Pilgrims led in and filed into their respective lanes, sitting upon slightly raised marble plinths where the bowling gutters would have been. A man rambles along with a rolling bucket of water and giant squeegee rake and cleans the marble floor. Another rolling wagon distributes plates made of leaves hand sewn together with twine. The ensuing parade of wagons spoon out rice, curries & vegetables and a sweet. Thousands scoop the meal up off their leaves in unison and quickly file out. My lane of two-hundred-or-so were fed and out of the building in less than ten minutes, the floor squeegeed for the next round before the last stragglers finished their sweets. Fantastic.