It was midday in Hampi. I rode my motorbike onward down the long, thin stretch of road. The air was still and thick from a blazing midday sun but the wind in my face, as I rode, offered softness to the heat. I had a sarong wrapped around my head as a turban and I was swathed in cloth as a sign of respect for the culture I was being audience to. I felt free, and wild and fearless and….cinematic. Appropriate, since I was headed to visit the temple of the Goddess Durga.
The ride out to the temple was fairly straight with a few slight bends in the paved, potholed road, framed by rice paddies, stacked boulders and some coconut trees. Sometimes the horizon expanded out in front and beyond me and felt endless, other times the boulders butted against the road and gave the horizon height, rather than depth.
The road to the temple is a sharp turn right if you’re coming from the main area of Hampi, with only a small sign written in Sanskrit indicating that you are, in fact, heading up to the temple. I asked a passer-by whether I was at least in the right direction. “Durga?” I smiled, and pointed up toward the top of the road. “Yes, Yes” they replied enthusiastically, mimicking my pointing.
Once you take the turn, the road to the temple is paved, but steep, and winds around to the right so until you get to the top, it’s unclear how far you have to go. I saw an old man ahead of me who had started his journey upward, dressed in traditional white robes and white turban. He had no shoes on and walked slowly and decidedly upward along the paved, hot road. With no shade cover, the sun felt like cling wrap on my skin. I stared at him, as I slowly approached on the bike. He was walking on my left as I was about to pass him, the skin on his face was leathered and gathered from a long life of story and cling wrap sun.
I wondered if he did this every day.
The Goddess Durga is the supreme mother. She represents creation, preservation and destruction and, she has the powers of Lakshmi (abundance, creation), Kali (fierce love) and Saraswati (intelligence, wisdom, art), among other goddesses. It is believed that Durga will protect you from the evils of the world and ease your miseries.
Just as I passed him I wondered about this man and what miseries had been etched so deeply in his face. And then, with a decision that even surprised me, I stopped the bike. I looked back and gestured for him to get on the back; slightly nervous I would topple us both off trying to avoid a pothole, but that seemed far less risky than letting him walk. He acknowledged my gesture by nodding his head, jumped on and rode side saddle. I prayed I wouldn’t botch this good deed.
As we approached the top, only a few yards away, the incline became too much for the bike and we putt putted our way up until we just couldn’t go anymore. So, the old man got off and walked the few yards while I parked the bike.
He barely batted an eyelid or tipped his turban, nor did he crack a smile, as a sign of gratitude but his deep gaze said a lot (“learn to ride a motorbike” quite possibly!), despite neither of us knowing a lick of each other’s language. I caught up to him a little further up the stairs, close to the top, where he had stopped walking and his breathing was labored. I offered him my water, which he took immediately, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of pills which he gulped down with the water. “His miseries” I thought.
With a downward gaze and his right hand, he gestured me onward and then, despite the temple and surrounding area being small and only a handful of people were there, I never saw him again.
The temple was cool and shaded by a large tree off which hang hundreds of colored cloth bags; offerings to the Goddess. It’s a colorful temple but small and short with beautiful paintings of Durga in all her many incarnations on each wall. I gave my offering, walked the three times around the temple and was happy to linger in the shade a while before making my descent, until I was approached by a Sadhu who wanted to show me more of the temple. Through a heavy accent and broken English I managed to understand “Good view, back of Durga temple, Hanuman temple, Lakshmi temple, Shiva temple, Hampi, lake, no problem”.
It is not uncommon for a Sadhu to want to take you around the temple and teach you things you would never know on your own. This is usually followed by a 100rupee donation. I didn’t have anywhere pressing to be so I said yes.
Before we set off he looked at my feet and said “Chappals, no problem. No chappals, big problem” indicating that I needed to get my shoes (it is customary to take them off and wash your feet before entering the temple area). I looked at his bare feet, the souls of which had become like leather shoes themselves, and he looked at me then down at his own feet and said “me no chappals, no problem” and we set off.
I wondered why I was following this man, why I had said yes. I’m not so keen on ‘tours’ and being led by someone else’s version of time and experience. But, I settled into it, half understanding his commentary and the other half guessing it. He didn’t smile much, nor laugh, but he felt happy.
Our first stop was the cave where time passes. “Time” he said, pointing on the ground to the patch of light at end of a long shaft of light coming from above. “Time” he said again, pointing upward to the gap where the rocks, balanced against each other in midair, let the sun to shine in. He pointed again to the point of light on the ground “Time passing”. And then I understood; the cave where time passes. Where, from the first break of sunlight until the last, you can watch time pass as the shaft of light moves from one side to the other across the ground.
“Photo” he said then, pointing at my camera, encouraging me to have my photo taken by him. I wasn’t so keen on a photo but he was pretty demanding for a sweet, holy man so I handed him my camera. However he had a severe Parkinson’s like shake to his grip which didn’t seem apparent until he was holding something, like my really expensive camera. “Non-attachment” was my mantra. He proceeded to take a shaky picture of me and, just as I reached to take back the camera, he pointed it elsewhere and took another picture, then one of the rocks up above, and then another rock and then I suddenly realized that he was having a wow of a time with my camera. He was getting snap happy!! Until I insisted I take a picture of him, which he obliged, though didn’t smile.
And this is how it went. He mumbling barely comprehensible things, sometimes putting action to word to explain himself – a spiritual version of charades (like when he showed me the yoga cave where people came to heal, he sat in perfect meditation pose with mala beads, for an almost uncomfortable 5min to tell me this is where they did yoga and healed the sick), insisted he take a shaky picture of me then took shaky pictures of the a whole bunch of things and then I insisted I take a picture of him where he never smiled.
The relationship was formed and the best fun we had with his game of charades was the impromptu yoga poses he busted out for the camera. The first time he did this, he told me to stand on the spot while he walked out closer to the cliff’s edge all while yelling “no problem, no problem” until he got to the spot, I thought, he wanted to show me and then he turned around to face me and broke into Warrior 3, and urged me to take a picture of him. Next up was tree pose in front of the banyan tree where I took another clear picture of him and he took a shaky picture of me.
When, during our walk we had to navigate some precariously steep rock faces, he took my hand and kept reassuring me by saying ‘no problem no problem.” Then he would point to something that I should look out for, like a sharp rock or an overhang and say ‘problem problem’ and squeeze my hand and say “no problem, no problem”
As the walking and climbing continued, he passed me a little candy and talked while he unwrapped his. He was passionate about his land, gesticulating wildly over the beautiful scenery, alerting me to the nuances and educating me on the majestic landscape. It seemed that he was blessing his land just by his enthusiasm for the sacred soil.
Then he tossed his wrapper over his shoulder and kept walking, the candy in his mouth silencing his prayers.
We continued on like this for about an hour, getting deeper and deeper into the rock formation. He gave me darshan at the miniscule temple hidden in a cave meant for Shiva. We sat in the cool silence for about 10 minutes, neither of us saying a word to each other. Two strangers sitting together in a holy cave, and only thoughts filled the space which were probably only from me – I imagine his were light as a feather by now.
Before we left, I asked to take a picture together, but he wasn’t quite sure of my request. So, I held my camera in my right hand and pointed the lens downward to my face and gestured for him to join. He leaned in and pierced the lens with his gaze. A 3 second moment. His eyes tell a thousand stories.
On our way back, the walk was more silent. Besides a few “no problem, big problem’ warnings we were quiet. Until that is, I heard a familiar humming coming from the Sadhu. “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, hare hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama rama, hare hare”. It could have been his version of the walking song “left, left, left right left. I left my wife in new Orleans……. “So I gently chimed in.
When he became cognizant that I, too, was singing, he got louder. And then I got louder and then the most touching moment for me came when it was just the Sadhu and I singing out devotional song to the gods, walking the majestic boulders of Hampi, our hymn echoing off the vast landscape. We didn’t know each other, but we knew everything we needed to know about one another. It was Kali and Lakshmi and Saraswati all at once.
Some Shaky pictures of our fun: