A pink flush brightens the 7 am sky and the city is stirring to life. It is a Saturday, but because it is 26 January, there is quite a bit of traffic on the roads. Schoolchildren get ready for the flag-hoisting ceremony in anticipation of tiny packets of sweets or toffees; dusty grounds are taken over from idlers and cricket-players for the first obligatory display of patriotism that is the duty of schools every year, to be then conveniently put away till 15 August. The plainness of the monotonous concrete blocks that line the roads is relieved by the occasional interesting construction: for instance, a slender minaret that rises high into the sky, topped by a silver crescent that gleams in the sunshine. On a divider in a busy area is a makeshift temple- a large grey rock with an “Om” painted on it, and a man takes off his slippers to pay obeisance to it.
As we emerge from the city onto the national highway, a thick blanket of mist descends upon us. It arrives suddenly, quite like a ferocious monster in a typical fairytale, shrouding colour and movement. The sun is reduced to a pale imitation of itself, winking from behind the white swirls. But how long can the most determined mist fight the tropical sun? We stop for breakfast, and sure enough, by the time we have finished, the sun has won the battle. The scenery along this route isn’t particularly remarkable: but for some coconut-palm groves, there is little sign of agriculture of any sort. The hillocks are rocky outcrops, a number of boulders lying anyhow on large mounds. But even in the midst of these rocks, a small shrine or two comes into view.
We arrive at Mulbagal. A number of young men walk around in skullcaps, and festoons of green flags are slung overhead between the electric poles. A large rocky hillock looms over it, and on top of it is a temple; why such a secluded spot was chosen for it is anybody’s guess. We take directions and drive through an arch, down dusty village roads to the tiny settlement around the Ganesha temple of Kurudumale. With bright-coloured houses built around open courtyards, a group of boys playing cricket on a grassless maidan, and winding lanes perfect for sword-wielding villains, it would make the ideal setting for an action movie of the kind that involves jeepfuls of rival factions in white, swooping down with blood-curdling cries on the long-suffering hero.
The main attraction of Kurudumale is the Ganesha statue, 13-odd feet tall and carved out of black stone, in a temple right under a rocky hill. Decked out in large, colourful garlands, it is a lovely sight to behold. Legend has it that a demon harassed the people in the vicinity several thousands (?) of years ago. The Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva used to meet here often, and one day the villagers requested Shiva to save them from the demon. Shiva delegated the task to Ganesha; the demon was soon vanquished, and in gratitude, the villagers took to worshipping the elephant-headed god here. Ganesha is said to have been worshipped in this shrine for four yugas, and believed to fulfil any wish made here. The proper temple itself was constructed by the Vijayanagara kings. The pillars inside have sculptures of various gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon.
Down the road from the Ganesha temple is a shrine dedicated to Shiva in the form of Someshwara. In another shrine within the compound is installed his wife as Kshamamba, the goddess of forgiveness. This temple was built by the Cholas over a thousand years ago. The pillars here are exquisitely carved too; one of the panels bears the figure of Emperor Rajaraja Chola, with the architect of the temple beside him. This temple is believed to have been founded originally by Sage Koundinya. For us, this holds an additional interest as Koundinya is the rishi from whom my mother’s family is believed to have descended, as per the gotra system. A panel and a statue are dedicated to him. The walls of the temple bear inscriptions in Tamil, in regular Chola fashion. In what can only be described as one of the quirks life surprises you with, we find the names of my maternal grandfather and grandmother at two separate spots on one of the walls. This is a coincidence, of course, but coming out of the blue like that, rather interesting.
The priest is very friendly and walks us through the legends around the temple. He explains the various panels and idols, and shows us some of the more remarkable features. The temple was constructed out of a rock, and does not have a proper foundation of the kind we know today. Just outside the sanctum santorum, suspended from the roof is a hook placed there by the Chola builders. A swing used to be suspended from it, and you can almost visualise it, with the sunshine pouring in through high barred windows on the walls. The priest points to it and asks us to note the quality of the iron it is carved out of; he then swings the door of the shrine shut, and shows us how inferior it is to Chola metal. The priest himself belongs to the family that has served this temple for sixteen generations, which must mean that they have been here since Chola times. Derelict and running to ruin, there surely isn’t much money flowing into this lovely temple. What will it take for us to realise that there is more to our country than rich cosmopolitan centres and new money built on shaky foundations?
Outside the temple is a platform built under a few large trees. On them are roughly hewn stone figurines. Clearly, there is no dearth of faith at this ancient site of worship, and it doesn’t confine itself to the walls of a temple. It continues to evolve, to mould itself according to the demands of time.