“I am not sure if my health insurance covers hernia,” I said as I launched a fresh bout of kicks in an attempt to start our rented moped.
Harsha yawned noisily. It was five in the morning and we were on our way to a temple atop Anjaneya hill, believed to be the birthplace of Lord Hanuman.
“It is the best place to watch the sun rise,” Jarvis, a German tourist had told us over dinner the evening before on Hampi island—a hip moniker for Gangavathi taluk of Koppal district lying opposite Hampi bazaar on the other side of Tungabhadra river—a little after he tried to convince us that we ought to try some ganja, and then continued to play the didgeridoo—an Australian Aboriginal wind instrument—with nonchalance, first of many oddities that we would come across that day.
“This is bloody splendid!” I laughed as we chugged over broken roads, pristine green pockets of paddy fields and coconut plantations giving us company on either side of the road, “Harsha, wo Dhoom ka gaana play kar na! Badass wali feeling aa rahi hai!” I don’t know why, but riding that munchkin of a bike with its sputtering 50 cc engine gave me a high like no other.
“Phat! Phat! Phat!” Our ride coughed and choked on its fumes as we moved on deserted narrow roads, the exquisite green plumage of the earth reminding me of my hometown back in Odisha.
Half an hour into the ride, with no sign-posts to tell us where we were headed, and no one to give us directions, our strategy as neanderthal as our bike—keep going where the roads take you—had taken us nowhere. But the roads, as we have often found, and we did that day, have a way of taking you where you want to be.
A serpentine white trail cut through a hill, the Hanuman temple decked in white perched cozily on top of it. We were keeping our date with divinity after all.
“This place Kishkindha state of Vali(sic). Over 33 crore Gods and Goddesses have existed in the Kishkindha region in the mortal form of monkeys,” Harsha read the writing on the wall while standing next to the beginning of the steps—578 of them—that would take us to the temple. A troop of monkeys, hidden somewhere in the trees on the hill chattered noisily, as if to confirm what Harsha had just read.
We were in Anegundi, which is believed to be the monkey kingdom of Kishkindha—ruled by Vali—in the epic Ramayana. Vali was killed by Lord Rama after Sugriva, his brother, sought Lord Rama’s help to do the same in return for helping him find his wife Sita who was kidnapped by Ravana.
Bright orange steps, the walls on either side of them stenciled with the words ‘Sri Rama’ beckoned us. I read the words in my head in Dara Singh’s voice and smirked as childhood memories of watching Ramayana on television came rushing towards me.
For the most part, Harsha and I walked in silence, taking in the serenity of the place—devoid as it was of any crowd at that time of the day—occasionally turning around and admiring the view: hills strewn with boulders laced the hem of the skies at the horizon, their resolute broken by the Tungabhadra where she decided to make her way. Paddy fields lay like pieces of a solved puzzle marinating in water and catching coconut trees in their glassy surface.
By the time we stepped onto the courtyard in front of the temple, all hopes of watching the sunrise that day were lost to the moody skies. Heck, in accordance with Hindu customs, we could not even step inside the Hanuman temple. And yet, it was an experience wrapped in delight and awe as we listened to boys barely in their teens and training to be pandits, chanting shlokas in their puberty-induced cracking voices to the backdrop of the once capital of Vijaynagara empire and sounds of conch shells.
We could have easily sat there for hours chatting with the youngest pandit in training, a 7-year-old boy from Nepal, had it not been for a siege by another troop of belligerent monkeys, one of whom took a great liking for Harsha’s shoe and ran away with it to settle down on the ledge of the temple boundary.
Fortunately for Harsha, the monkey had a change of mind, and as Harsha would put it later, “Holy shit hote hote reh gaya!”
In a room no bigger than a closet, Harsha, two Italian men: Lucca and Matteo, and I stood in silence, intently watching a piece of stone painted red, the pair of feet sculpted on it raided by a battalion of ants, perhaps drawn by the scent of yellow flowers that punctuated its grainy surface.
“What is this supposed to be?” asked Lucca finally.
“These are Lord Rama’s feet,” said Harsha, “well, not exactly…”
“He is a Hindu God,” I added to resolve the confused looks on their faces.
“In the Hindu epic Ramayana, this is where Lord Rama met his devotee Shabri,” Harsha continued.
“This exact place?” asked Matteo, joining his hands instantly in reverence, much to our amusement.
“Not exactly…the pond outside, called the Pampa Sarovar, finds a mention in Ramayana as the place where Shabri waited for the arrival of Lord Rama. This stone here, commemorates that point in time when Lord Rama was once here,” I said.
“So…it isn’t a pool then?” asked Matteo, peering outside the doorway at the green-coloured water body. “We were told that we could take a swim…”
The two men, with their t-shirts bundled over their heads as turbans, had their priorities straight. It was nearly one in the afternoon, the sun was brutal and we were already cooked to a medium-well.
“Never mind…we can still go to that temple of snakes…” Lucca said to Matteo, then looked at us, “Do you know where that is?”
“No, we don’t.”
“Let’s find out…” said Lucca while opening his handy travel guide to a bookmarked page, “Durga temple…there is a cave there that’s full of snakes.”
That land-of-snakes cliché again. I rolled my eyes.
“Why don’t you two come along?”
“Sure,” said Harsha to my horror, and proceeded to kick some life into the moped.
Twenty minutes into the ride and I was losing my bearings. “Abbey Chaudhary, saanp kya, saanp ka kankaal bhi nahi dikhne wala itni dhoop mein!” I cribbed, riding pillion in an awkward half-squat stance, the seat too hot for my liking.
After another fifteen minutes of riding over lonely roads with the sun evaporating on their backs, we saw the tail of a huge crowd disappearing between a pair of massive boulders. There were no sign-boards, none of us had a clue where we were and I don’t remember why, but we all agreed that following the crowd would lead us somewhere. Maybe the roads were leading us. Maybe our brains were fried. But follow, we did. And that led us right into a fortress that opened into a courtyard hosting the most harlequin display of faith I have ever seen.
Sitting next to the Hanuman statue and taking in pockets of colours that hung over our heads, Harsha and I listened to one of the priests as he told the story of the Vali caves located behind the Durga temple:
“Vali ruled over Kishkinda with Pampa as his capital city. At that time, he and his brother Sugriva lived in harmony. One day, Mayavi, an Asura, challenged Vali to a fight. At one point during their fight, Mayavi fled to a cave where the battle continued for several days while Sugriva kept watch outside. One day, blood started flowing out of the cave. Thinking that his brother had lost the battle to Mayavi and died, Sugriva blocked the entrance of the cave with a huge stone and ran away, when in fact Vali had killed Mayavi.
“When Vali tried to get out of the cave and found the sealed entrance, he thought that his brother had intentionally left him to die inside the cave so that he could take over the kingdom. When he finally managed to escape and found that his brother had become the king, his suspicion was confirmed. The enmity between the brothers grew to a point where Sugriva had to flee the kingdom leaving behind his wife. Sugriva then took Lord Rama’s help…”
We were soon joined by Lucca and Matteo, their foreheads freshly smeared with vermillion, to hear the priest. “I don’t know if all this happened for real or not,” said Lucca, “but this is very, very interesting.” And so we sat there, two Roman Catholics, a devout Hindu and an atheist, listening to stories from the Ramayana, perhaps the most fascinating of all oddities that day.