Day 91: Hampi
8 a.m.~ meet elephant @ north ghat. This is metaphorically inked into our trope of a schedule today. Still, my alarm jars me awake at 6 a.m. so that I may smatter my keyboard with tired fingers on the porch table as the sky sloughs its heavy black bloat for a bruise-blue dinner jacket, until foregoing the fancy attire altogether and slipping into its birthday suit, blushing like a cowgirls ass after the county rodeo. Marnie jostles around inside the bungalow. Even after waking before dawn could rub the sleep from its eyes, I’m still late for our morning pachyderm date, and Marnie huffs ahead of me when we finally walk out the door. Down the path, we run into one of the workers from our guesthouse, who smokes a bidi with his friends on the retaining wall.
“You going to see the elephant?”
“Yeah. We’re a little late though.”
“No problem, ma’am. She slept in this morning. She will be late, too.”
Down at the grassy river bank, early risers loll around, awaiting the little motor boat that will transfer us to the other side. Upon arrival, people pile in, along with a motorbike or two. Sitting heavy in the water, the boat tut-tuts across the river, past boulders and cairns and animal statues balanced above the surface. To our right, a stone pavilion rests on steps rising from the water, blanketed in skimpily clad men lathering their nekkid bits and scrubbing their armpits. Some squat with piles of laundry, which they lave and soak, then slap the soap silly from the wash on the river rocks until they are sinlessly white.
The boat bubbles up to the ghat and we clamber onto the steps where bands of Indian families chat and sip their morning chai, all to the beat of blaring Carnatic music emanating from some undercover source.
A call is called. The herd hears. Heads turn. Far above, at the top of the ghat, like a steely, aging cobra riddled with melanoma, a roaming trunk appears, followed by a big grey head flanked by flapping, wing-like ears that resemble small auditoriums, and doe eyes like bloated black olives stuck in wet cement. It’s Lakshmi, the elephant. In the slow, graceful amble of a patient pachyderm, one foot feels its way to a lower step, then another. Down the ghat she bobs, lead by her master, who steers her left towards where Marnie and I stand, staring.
They pass and continue to the stone structure where the bathing men scramble together their wet laundry from the path of plodding elephant feet. Lakshmi steps into the river, crossing a large, sheer rock surface just below the water.
Then, in a practiced manner, the giant slowly kneels and flops onto her side, slapping a wall of water around her body like a fleeting barricade, momentous privacy from the intrusive attention of curious tourists and a mercenary master. Marnie and I wade through the ankle deep water to the pachyderm and the pundit, who hands us each a rough scrub brush in exchange for some rupees. We begin cleaning, brushing her shoulder and back and head, the skin so thick and rugged it could give a clear-cut Amazon a run for its logging budget. As we scour the abrasive terrain of her epidermis, her snout flops in the water.
We scuttle over until we’re next to Lakshmi’s face. Her nostrils flair and contract, waffle and weave as though trying to spell something out in some sort of pachydermic sign language. What is it, Miss Elephant? What would you say now if human lips painted your face, if a homo sapien-esque voice box rattled your throat? Her snout edges closer, then falls sluggishly into our arms, resting for a brief moment. Her boss reaches over the upper trunk area, scraping at it with a small rock. The elephants tail slaps the water. She curls her nose up into her mouth, then unfurls it and snorts water over our legs. From the foundation of the pavilion, a group of people begin sludging through the water towards Lakshmi. We take this cue to walk back to the ghat.
We hunt down a big, bright restaurant with Hampi’s characteristic floor seating, which serves up a stellar Israeli breakfast. Down the road, we find our transportation for the day: bicycles. The rental guy gives us a map of Hampi. This is, after all, a World Heritage Site; the landscape bedazzled with temples and ruins portraying the civilizations of another time, backdrops to the stories of kingdoms passed, bearing names such as ‘Queen’s Bath’ and ‘Knight’s Quarters’.
Virupaksha Temple is nearby, located right next to the Hampi Bazaar. Intricately carved stone rises sixteen storeys in tapered tiers of mythological creatures and ancient gods. We pay our two cents (no, really), enter the temple courtyard and then, to our left, spot Lakshmi. She stands between the pillars of a pavilion in the inner court of the temple, tied to a post, her head nearly scraping the stone ceiling. Master sits beside her.
His eyes are black, like the elephants, but without the warmth. Lakshmi’s eyes are liquid nighttime with a fleck of twilight, the combined ink of a story pooling below the moon, a deep pond at midnight. Her masters; sootier than a coal miners work gloves, black like the curtains closing on the final act, dark as the shadows in an abandoned basement. He carries a bundle of banana leaves from there to here. Reaching for the foliage, Lakshmi’s trunk stretches out, then recoils as master smacks her freckled snout with a stick. Sickle in hand, the elephant overlord lobs the leaves into smaller pieces, then offers some to Lakshmi. Tourists gather at the rope. A child holds out a rupee note and the pachyderm extends her trunk, pinches it between her nostrils and hands the money back to the bossman. Like a good girl, now, she rests her trunk gently on the childs head-dhanyavaad–and removes it. ‘Blessed child’. Marnie and I walk away.
And that is a day in the life of Lakshmi. Every morning, she bathes in the river where tourists like us pay her master money to say we washed an elephant and put up pictures of ourselves with a wild Indian animal. Then Lakshmi is brought back to the temple where she is chained and trained to grab money from foreigners. Elephants are highly social animals, making this form of captivity worse than a zoo–there, at least, they are surrounded by their own kind. Here, the looky-loos can touchy, too. This is like being on house arrest in a flea-infested bachelor pad, no? It’d yank my chain too, if TripAdvisor ranked me #27 of 54 “things to do” in Hampi. Fuck you, TripAdvisor.
We wander around the temple and exit to the right, climb a hill of slanted rock until it plateaus with enough breathing room to found another ancient temple, which houses a massive, gorgeous statue of Ganesh, the elephant god.
The Elephant God, mind you. This temple, protecting the Queen of Giant Land Mammals, the Pachyderm Sovereign, the Patriarch of the Fresh Start (the god of new beginnings), is the first call in the ‘Telephone Game’, it seems. Did the wire get twisted on its way down the hill to the Virupaksha Temple, convoluting the message into some perverse manifestation that is Lakshmi? housed in her temple, bound to the life of a circus performer for the necessary evil of a poor mans income? The elephant is a holy animal on paper, and yet, Lakshmi is tied to a sheltered life in the name of money. Those in want and the devoutly religious occupy the house of hypocrisy. It’s uncomfortable. Like having an elephant in the room.
Then I think of those who worship man figures (Jesus, Buddha, etc.), and realize the ‘holy’ human race started haphazardly tossing religious boomerangs at its own kind with more zeal and accuracy than it ever did at any elephant. It’s just a shame we had to catch so many innocent bystanders in the crossfire.
Back down the hill, on the bikes, along the gravel roads. It’s hotter than Hades out here and the dust sticks to our sunscreen-slathered skin. Next stop: the Monolithic Bull. A million steps up in the staggering heat and every stair is costing us a Gatorade bottle worth of electrolytes. Rocky archways guide us upwards where it’s all coral-like cacti and cheddar cheese rock blocks and colourful, messy shrines that look like the remnants of a six-year-old’s birthday party. Below, like some earthly mirage on a deserted alien planet, a banana plantation illuminates the valley with neon phosphorescence.
To the right, a mountain towers above us, providing sweet shade from the harsh sun, and we wave to the people wandering the temple grounds at its peak.
Back down at the bikes, Marnie and I rest in the shadow of a shantyhouse, chugging water and pulling long sleeve button-ups over our tank tops. It’s not noon yet, and even with SPF 50, the thirty-five degree heat will pink up my skin faster than a pig on a spit. The next part of the path leads to a lot where we lock up the bicycles and continue on foot until reaching a wall of boulders that contort into a sort of tunnel.
On the other side of the stony passage is a long set of pillars with an old stone roof. To the left, the river bulges like a fat blue lizard, bent in the middle like it just lurched for a juicy fly hiding behind the boulder heap at its side. The river bank is unbroken rock slab where a bunch of coracles–bowl-shaped boats woven with reeds and hide–cover its shore.
We’re desperate. We want the river lizard to look at us like a couple of tasty morsels and slurp us into its aquatic body. We buzz towards the water, hoping to appear as fly-like as possible. Loitering locals warn us of the deadly whirlpools here and there, so we follow the shore until it becomes a grassy mayhem. A rock emerges between the blades, and there, three Indian women in saris wash their dishes in the river. We join them on the rock and dunk our shirts in the water, wringing them out on our heads. One girl laughs at me. She’s holding a pail of water.
“On me!” I say. “Pour the bucket on me!”
She eyes me suspiciously, as though I’m pulling a fast one on her.
Any hesitation is replaced with a look like I convinced her she could eat cookies for breakfast from now on, and, with the energy of a sugar-swamped bloodstream, she swings her arms back with the pail, then pitches it forward. The water pelts me in the face and splashes down my front. The saris of the bystanders wiggle with giggles and Marnie bursts into waves of laughter. She gets in the line of fire next. The young girl is as chuffed as a flea in a poodle coat as she tosses a myriad of water buckets over our bodies. We thank them and leave, blazing an aqueous trail that even a blind sardine could follow.
Happily sopping, we cross a football fields worth of smooth granite that gradually sweeps upward into another boulder heap of a mountain, lined with a slew of ancient temples, contrasting in character not by tone or colour but by deliberate artistic design. The detailed carvings and stone pillars are the effects of skilled hands, not the breath of Mother Nature or her disciples: Sun, Storm, & Wind.
The bikes, though . . .
They are back at the parking lot. Any hint of water has evaporated from our bodies, and the sunscreen that opaqued our skin now swirls around in some deathtrap river whirlpool. We take the extra pairs of shorts from our bag and plop them on our heads–makeshift hats–and pretend we are lost in the desert without food or water and going delirious from the heat. It takes ages, it seems, to reach the bicycles. We ride back to the first place we started our temple tour. Our bungalow across the river is practically visible from here, just a boat ride away . . .
No. We must do this. Our necks crane back, looking in the direction of the next temple. It’s all uphill from here. Without gears, the old bikes rely on our sun-baked brains to move our lazy legs with enough rotational gusto to pedal up it. At the top, of course, there is a down, and the descent sweeps past emerald rice paddies, soars through magical palm groves, flies past a creepy man yelling at us. Every minute we pass an old ruin. As beautiful as this effortless downward ride is, I can’t help but think how we must ride back up it again.
The map is infested with temples which are quickly losing their novelty. We stop at the Queen’s Bath. Did the Queen of Vijayanagara really bathe here?
It’s not a bath but a pool, enclosed in a beautiful structure similar in nature to its architectural neighbours. We wish that it really was full of water now.
A dirt road turns out to be a short cut, and the return trip to town flashes by without the torture our minds had imagined; as we sail down the last hill to the Bazaar, the wind hits our sweaty bodies like a vat of Vicks Vapo Rub. We return the bikes, cross the river, buy some brews and sip them in the shade of our bungalow. We mosey to the river and jump in, rinsing the collective sunscreen and sweat and dust and Vapo Rub from our skin, letting the cool water simmer our blood to a low boil. Marnie crawls onto a big rock and flops down. I follow. A puppy sleeps next to us.
On the way back, we stop at the store to buy little juice boxes of rum to accompany us to the campfire we plan on having tonight. We watch the sun set from a lovely restaurant, order thali. By the time I’ve swallowed the last lump of dal, I’ve hardly the gusto to walk back to our hut, let alone climb a mountain and start a fire.
“I don’t think I can make it tonight, Marn.” I’m disappointed in my energy levels.
“That’s okay! We can just do it tomorrow night.”
Back at the bungalow, Marnie manages to extricate enough energy from me that I may run to the bathroom every five minutes in order that I don’t wet the bed as a result of her impressions of a British girl we met in Agra. ‘Amritsar’ in cockney is damn funny.
Alas, it is in a dry bed that we fall asleep.