Sharp at four in the morning Leena Chetan comes to the hotel lobby. She is going to travel with us to her husband’s coffee plantations in Sakaleshpur near Hassan District in Karnataka. Leena and Chetan make an interesting couple who came to the art scene as entrepreneurs in mid 1990s. Leena started an art gallery named ‘Tangerine Art Space’ in Bangalore in 2005 and as it was the trend of the time started focusing on the young and upcoming artists. She held a few exhibitions in Bangalore apart from working with senior and mid career artists. This time, when she came to know that Shibu was going to be in Bangalore, she had invited Shibu to her plantation at Sakaleshpur which was around 200 kilometers north to Bangalore. Leena has been a personal friend of mine since her gallery days though she has been maintaining a low profile since the economic meltdown. As she is active today I understand that somewhere the art market is looking up for good days; if not the entrepreneurs must be making use of the time when the artists are ready to make some distress sales. “It is a buyers’ market,” they say. It is a buyers’ market because the artists are ready to sell for the prices that the buyers quote than what they themselves fix for their works of art. On another occasion another gallerist in Delhi had told me that ever since the market meltdown many artists decided to break their contracts (selling through the parent gallery only) with galleries and went on their own ways. Bad blood has already developed between many artists and their galleries in due course of time. It is a ‘there is no alternative situation’. Artists have to maintain their studios and look after their families. To make matters worse most of the artists had developed an upper class life style during the boom years. Now they are hard pressed to make negotiations with the buyers in order to ‘run’ their studios. Same is the case with the galleries; they too are not able to sustain the artists by providing them with regular sales or subsistence to lead a decent life. Many artists have taken up jobs elsewhere. Some have shifted bases. Many marriages have been broken. Many have taken to bottles. In all these while most of the gallerists put up a zen like face as if they are not responsible for any of these at all! The story of correction that everyone was talking about in those days of economic meltdown seems to have lost its edge. And in my opinion no correction has been done in the market. Everyone is waiting for another chance; the same greed and avarice would come into full play once again. Just wait and watch.
We have this policy of starting early; not because the adage that the early birds catch the worms but because it is the only time the city roads look like roads worthy of driving. Bangalore, once upon a time was a city of easiness because of good climate, cosmopolitan outlook, greenery and smooth flow of traffic. Today the scene has changed completely. At times we may take one full hour to cover half a kilometer. We may even think of getting out of the cars and walking towards our destinations. But that too is not possible in the case of this bumper to bumper traffic in Bangalore. We cannot get out of the car because the other car is so close to us. Once caught in such a traffic jam in Bangalore, I felt this huge urge to ease myself. It was so difficult to hold the urine for over an hour. I thought of all those people, young and old, men and women who felt the same while caught in the traffic jams. People know that they are doing wrong to the cities by bringing out cars and other private vehicles in hoards. They all complaint, in any city in India, that the government has not made enough provisions for public conveyance. They say that our public transport system is so bad. In some part of Tamil Nadu, I found that there are no public conveyance systems at all. People always have to walk or use two wheelers. The desperate ones have to hitchhike. But I believe that it is a wrong notion that the governments have no plans to put public conveyance in place. The governments and the authorities are just lazy. They know that people would find their private conveyance systems. If fifty per cent of the city dwellers decide to travel by public transport there would be a pressure on the government to increase the conveyance systems. But people are so selfish that they want to use their private vehicles to overcome the lack of public conveyance. So the roads are chocked always. When caught up in the terrible traffic jams they complain and curse one and all who are in the other vehicles. In fact it is not they who cause the traffic jam but us. We are the traffic and we are the traffic jam makers. Bangalore is no exception. Even there is a rumor that has been doing the rounds for the last one year; there is a doomsday prediction that in another ten to twenty years Bangalore will be a city without a drop of natural water. The city has to be abandoned at some point. People are thinking several times these days before investing in Bangalore. But the diehard Bangaloreans say that the depletion of the water table is a fact but the complete desertion of the city due to it is just another myth.
We get out of the city early in the morning only because that we could cover a longer distance towards our next destination without getting into any traffic jams. People in the cities do not see much of sunrises and sunsets. Those who are tired after a long night must be getting up late. Some people get up only according to their office times. Those people who have small kids to be sent to schools have a different routine. There are people who get up early in the morning and hit joggers parks or gyms. Those who go to gym do not see the natural light and listen to natural sounds. Those who walk in the park are talking to each other about the latest calamities happening to the domestic economy or the problems in the political front. Some are tired of their health conditions and are always complaining. Those people who are doing yoga in the public parks are so immersed in their spiritual cum physical exercise act that they too miss the sights and sounds of nature. Very few people in the world just get up and look at the nature; listen to the sounds of it. Very few people just go out for a walk without any purpose; even the purpose of maintaining health. Very few people tend their garden and water their plants. Instead all of them just get into their cars and drive impatiently to their destinations. I wonder why they are doing this at all. If gaining peace and happiness, health and a feeling of wealth is the outcome of all this, they all forget the fact that in the race to make money to create all these they lose each and every one of it without their knowing. There is no tomorrow to enjoy happiness and health. It is today. It is here and now. The illness that you are undergoing today also has to be taken with a positive spirit so that you understand and feel the illness and once it is over it is over for ever. Same is the case with happiness. It is here and now. You are not earning it for tomorrow for there is no tomorrow. We do not see many cars on the road. The window panes are rolled down already. The morning breeze wafts into the car. The drive is smooth and pleasant. As we have taken bath early in the morning itself each pore in our body and mind are open and awake. Anything could be talked and discussed with clarity in those moments. Anything could be seen, felt, imbibed and made a part of your life in those moments.
Bangalore has gone behind and we hit the Bangalore-Mangalore highway. We have not made any plans to visit any places on the way or anything. We have to reach the Coffee Plantations at the earliest and if possible Shibu has to do some sketching and myself some writing. As the drive is smooth and we are energetic, Leena asks certain questions regarding art and alternatively myself and Shibu answer her questions. It continues till the first tea stop which is in a nowhere space and could be anywhere in India where the long stretch of new highways have come up. Mostly run by a husband and wife pair such tea shops are small enterprises with limited items and very limited flavors of teas. We have a cup of tea from there and again get back into the car. And there our plan for the day spontaneously comes up. Shravanabelagoa, one of the greatest Jain Shrines in India is there. And on the way to Sakaleshpur two other important historical places are also there namely Halebedu and Belur, two Hoysala temples. The huge and tall monolithic sculpture of Vardhamana Mahavira is in my mind and we want to go there. We ask for directions and find the left turn towards Shravanabelagola. Shibu stops the car and he wants a flower garland for the car. We buy one and tie it on the front grill. The car looks happy. Then we proceed and slowly from a distance we feel the ambience of a temple city. Shravanabelagola is here. I look for the tall Mahavir statue which I have seen only in picture books and postcards. Shibu parks the car near a pond, which at that point of time do not understand is so important to the place for the place has got its name from that pond. Belagola means white pond. It is right in the middle of the two hill ranges; Vindhyagiri and Chandragiri. We get out of the car and go into a small tiffin shop from where we have the usual fair of idli and sambar.
Vindhyagiri Hills is the abode of Vardhamana Mahavira. The hills have been famous even before the Birth of Christ and many kings who had taken to Jainism had come here to do penance. Even today several Jain Sadhus come here to do ‘Sallekhanam’ or ‘Prayopavesham’ (fasting unto death as a part of their deliverance). We have to climb around steps made on the slanting rock. There are two such stairways one is made for ascending and the other is for descending. Each stairway is partitioned with a steel railing which looks like a recent addition. There is a narrow path between the two railings and some of the old nuns climb through that narrow strip, in between sitting there holding the railing as if it catch the breath. Before we start the climbing we go to keep our footwear in the cloakroom. There is a urinal adjacent to it. Myself and Shibu go there and as we come out a young girl who is ‘manning’ both the urinals ask for four rupees (two rupees each). I give her ten rupees and she says she does not have change. Then I ask her to keep the ten rupees. She refuses to take the money. She says we could go without paying. Is it the saffron clothes that I am wearing, I wonder. Anyway that gesture of that girl seems to be praiseworthy. Apparently it is a lowly job but she looks pleasant and without any complaint or bitterness. Bare feet touch the granite floor that is getting heated up in the morning sun. We start our ascendance. At some point we see two naked Jain sadhus climbing down the hill with a few devotees in attendance. They look absolutely normal with sky as their clothing. I have eye contact with both of them. They do not betray any other emotions. I notice that their male organs are insignificantly small and shriveled up. We stop for catching breath and again we climb. Under the huge granite boulders we could see some young couples seeking some shelter for their private moments. Interestingly they look indifferent to each other. They must be sulking after a fight, I think.
The climb seems to be never ending. Finally we reach the top and still we have not seen the 58ft tall monolithic statue of Mahavira. I look around and up for it, but in vain. Then suddenly from one angle I see him! His face. He stands and looks across the town to the Chandragiri Hills and beyond. The statue itself is the idol of the temple that we enter. There is a scaffold around it and some chemical treatment undertaken by the archeological survey of India is going on. In a month’s time there is a ‘Mahaabhishekam’ and the preparations are on. The statue is dated sometime in 10th century CE and it is one of the important pilgrim centers for the Jains and a touristic attraction for the other people. The rock cut statue seems to be so fresh as if it has been just made and erected there. I stand there and look at the statue. There is a discussion in hushed up tones going on just behind me as Leena is quite animated about the seeming disproportion of the lower body of the sculpture. It is true that the portion below the hip is comparatively shorter and from the knee the legs seem to have suddenly stopped growing. Shibu also says that there is a proportion problem but there must be a reason for that. I say that it could be because of its position on the top of the hill and the people always get a ant’s point of view (a lower angle view) which would make the shortened portion of the leg elongated. I also cite how the old hoarding and billboard painters did such deliberate distortions to make the image look perfect from a low angle. Leena seems to have convinced. We take a few photographs. Some people are already there sitting a few feet away from the feet of Mahavira and read something from the scriptures. The statue of Mahavira seems to be beyond all kinds of worship and reverence. It is there to generate awe and wonder in the minds of the people. It should generate bhakti via its sheer size, poise, stillness and tranquility. We come out of the shrine and take a few photographs from around the temple where we could see the head of the statue popping out of the temple façade as if Mahavira was a truant young man looking for some fun.
We climb down. Ascending is easier compared to descending. In life ascending is difficult while descending takes no time. When you descend the thousand steps your whole body weight is on the thighs and knees. Each step pulls the thigh muscles pull up and hold the weight of the body. It is a good exercise if one does it every day; one could have very taught muscles. But one has to be careful too. I hold the railings and climb down. I remember the thigh pain I experienced once in Hyderabad after ascending and descending the stairs of the illustrious Charminar building. It took many days for me to get rid of the pain. At some point Leena decides to run down the stairs and she does it. Though it looks easier and avoid longer pressure on legs, I find it a dangerous proposition. If you slip you are going to break a few bones. I hold the railing tightly and descend slowly and steadily. After running down for a few steps Leena also seems to realize the danger involved in it. She slows down and starts descending step by step. We come down and collect our footwear. We go to the urinal again and this time I give the girl guarding there ten rupees and she returns two rupees. With a smile she tells us that the total is eight rupees including the pending four rupees earlier. She has the same smile on her face; absolutely trouble free and no bitterness. It is not yet ten o clock in the morning. The book shop there remains closed. So we decide to go to the Chandragiri Hills across the pond. In the meanwhile we see the spectacle of an old white man being carried inside a palanquin propped on the shoulders of four men, not so heavy looking yet trained in climbing with this load on their shoulders, up the hill towards the monolithic sculpture of Mahavira.
Chandragiri Hills have around fifteen Basadis (Homes) of the kings and Jain monks. Some of them are made out of the donations contributed by the merchants and some are created by the kings who believed in Jainism. These hill abodes are more spiritual and less touristy than the Vidhyagiri hills. There is a sense of loneliness and death looming largely in these temples. Most of the temples have Thirthankaras as their idols and these homes/temples are quiet and peaceful. The smell of ancientness lingers on in them. Behind each shrine one could see squirrels and rats playing and fighting for some food crumbs. These Basadis are misused by the local lovers therefore the watchmen are a bit vigilant and chances of they themselves misbehaving with the female visitors are not rare either. I walk into each Basadi and I feel this immense urge to sit there for a long time. But we have to reach the plantation today itself so I curb the urge. Once again I believe that people should travel alone. Having a company is always a hindrance. If the other person/s have different ideas about spending time, you may be in trouble for you must be having a completely different idea about spending your time. These are the places where the Jain monks who wanted to gain deliverance from the entanglements of the physical body sat in penance and did Sallekhanam (fasting unto death). Inside the temples and on the rocky surface outside we see small curves resembling the seat of the people who had spent a prolonged time there. But one cannot have the impressions of the bums transferred on granite even if he sits there for ten years without moving. Those depressions in the surfaces must be created by something else, which none could come up with a satisfactory explanation. The sun is already up and it is eleven in the morning. Our bare feet feel the heat of the sun and the eyes just cannot stand the glare of the sunlight reflecting from the smooth rock surface. We start our descending and it is time to say good bye to the ancient shrines. It is a journey and there could be more temples whether their locations are chartered or not. We would visit them as time comes and as the karmic piety pulls me towards them.