Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Fragrance of Jackfruit, Coffee and 12th Century Art: The Journey 10

Halebidu Temple
Jackfruit seems to be very precious in Karnataka. At the foot of the Chandragiri Hills we find a jackfruit seller and Leena Chetan wants to play a perfect hostess. She orders for two plates of jackfruit. It looks funny to me because back in Kerala, people find jackfruit as a liability though during the season (from December to April) people indulge in various culinary specialties made out of the raw and ripe jackfruit. In certain season the jackfruit trees go crazy and they yield so many fruits that none knows what would be done with it. Over the fences and boundary walls the neighbors exchange their cordiality via cut jackfruits and at some point everyone has more than enough of jackfruits in their plots that they do not know what to do with these fruits. James Moolakkattil had not written a book on jackfruit yet. He is one entrepreneur from Kerala who would comeback from the Silicon Valley to start his own enterprise using jackfruit as the main raw material for various products. Within a span of two years, jackfruit became an international craze especially amongst the organic fruit lovers who had been told by the doctors that it was a holistic fruit which could cure various health issues including diabetes. Facebook also had exploded with the medicinal properties of jackfruit. Come whatever may, Malayalis remain diehard lazy creatures and during the time of excessive yields Tamilians from the bordering areas come to the neighborhoods and take back truck loads of jackfruits only to sell it back to the lazy Malayalis who would like to have some jackfruit chips (fried like gold) on any occasion ranging from an evening drinking session to a marriage celebration party.

Kukke Subramanya Temple
The person who sells jackfruit here does it meticulously. He smears his palms with oil first in order to avoid the sticking substance that comes out of the fruit. Then he removes the fruit one by one and places it on a piece of paper. May be eight such pieces make one plate and it costs around ten rupees, I believe. We take two plates and relish it as if we were eating jackfruit for the first time. In several other places including in Tamil Nadu, I see the jackfruit sellers making special glass cases on the trolleys from which they sell the fruit in order to highlight the hygiene aspect of their fruit. What impresses me more it the meticulously extracted sheath of the fruit kept like decorative sculptures around the trolley just to invoke curiosity among people. There are different varieties of jackfruit; in our place one is called Varikka which is famous for its firm but ripe fruits, another is called ‘Koozha’ which as the name suggests once ripened gives out a gooey fruit spreading the juice all over the eater. The third one is called ‘Chemaparthu Chakka’; while all the others are golden yellow in color, this variety is red in color and is rare. Some other variety is called ‘Then Varikka’ in which each fruit pod is filled with some sort of honey which is heavenly to taste. Then there are other jackfruit species but not given complete jackfruit status; one of them is ‘Ayani Chakka’ which has small bulbs as fruits and even the fruit as a whole is small and yellow in color. Another variety is called ‘Kadacchakka’ whose fate is to be consumed when not ripe. Nobody tastes a ripe kadachakka. Everyone wants to make a curry out of the raw kadachakka which made with the right kind of condiments excels even a good non-vegetarian dish. One good thing about the jackfruits is that it would make you smell good. One could tell a house with a cut ripe jackfruit from a distance itself. But if the jackfruit is allowed to rot in the tree or on the ground it leaves out a strong stench which is difficult to stand. While fruits are such three dimensional shapes that make the drawing of it easier than any other 3D object, jackfruit may pose some challenge to the artist as its bulbous shape with so many thorns. Late Rajan Krishnan and Ratheesh TR are some artists who have painted jackfruits in their works. Once upon a time, the villagers used to carry a full ripe jackfruit to their urban relatives causing a major embarrassment for them. A person carrying a jackfruit is considered to be a rural person who does not know the ways of the world. Hence, jackfruit is a cultural marker too.

Luckily the fragrance of a jackfruit does not linger in the car. An enthusiastic Leena keeps asking us whether we would like to eat some raw mango with salt and chilly. The proposition itself brings water into our mouths as such kind of quick preparations used to be the staple of our summer holidays during the childhood. We could climb on the mango trees with some salt and chilly stored in our pockets and could pluck one or two mangoes and eat there itself. If you add a little bit of onion, red chilly flake and a spoon of fresh coconut oil into the chopped pieces of raw mango, you could eat anything with it and drink a lot of water. When you are eating such rural items, you cannot relish it alone. You need a few friends around you. With your mouth and eyes watering you look at each other after each bite and exchange some meaningful smiles and sounds, which is the most enjoyable part of eating such delicacies. Then you run to the well, draw a bucket of water and drink directly from it and heave a sigh with your chest panting and tongue still burning and the teeth feeling an odd and inexplicable sharp taste turning everything that you touch with it a very painful but enjoyable experience. The mere suggestion of eating raw mangoes itself is enough to bring back a load of memories. But we do not have enough time to test our taste buds. Hence the vehicles slowly emerges from the temple town and runs towards the next destination; Halebidu.

Halebidu is a 12th century CE twin temples complex established by the Hoysala King, Vishnu Vardhana. When we reach there it is already noon and braving sharp sunlight and heat people move in and out of the temple complex. There are two temples in the Halebidu complex; one is of the Hoysaleswara and the other is Kedareswara. Both are the incarnations/forms of Lord Shiva which is evident from the two huge Nandis sitting opposite to each temple complex. The temples are dark and cool; one could sit there for any number of hours because of the spiritual depth that the interiors invoke in you. Once in a while the peace inside the temple complex is broken by a group of visiting villagers or a group of foreign tourists led by a local guide who could make convincing stories for the tourists. I am approached by a few guides but I decline their service. The major problem of having a guide in such historical sites is that we would be forced to listen to the stories that they have conjured up. In Khajuraho, I had heard how the guides fool the tourists. They take the tourists to certain sites where the temple premises have some titillating erotic sculptures. The guides reduce the whole Khajuraho temple into a sculptural pornographic site. Perhaps that is what impresses the tourists most. In Fatehpur Sikri too once the guides had fooled us by telling us how one could make a sound in a corner of the architecture which would be echoed throughout the other chambers. They convinced me saying that it was specially done for military purpose. But it was not so. Any architecture with high arches to support it would reflect the voice in certain ways. It was also foolish to believe that the soldiers communicated with each other through whispering into the corners of the architecture.

Halebidu and later in Belur Chennakesave temple, which is comparatively smaller we find the heights of the Hoysalan architecture. If you are familiar with the Mysore sandalwood carving, then you could see how the same style has been derived from the 12th century artisans or vice versa. While the sculptures of the deities, yakshas, dwarapalakas and so on are slender yet voluminous one could see/feel some kind of lightness in all of them as if they were all done in some light materials like wood. These stones give out a feeling that they are wax forms. In fact these temples are made out of soap stones which are easy to carve. May be because the artisans were so good at doing intricate carving they chose soap stone as their building medium or the soap stone had given them a chance to focus on intricate decorativeness than focusing on heavy sculptures. Both in Halebidu and Belur one could see the outer layers of the temple tiered with various images. The first four to five layers depict war scenes and these scenes justify the view that King Vishnuvardhana commissioned these temples in order to register and celebrate a war victory. Ironically, a closer look of these tiered sculptural renditions reveals that the third layer where the horse regiments are depicted uniformly destroyed. Initially I think that it is accidental and the uniformity and regularity of the defaced the horses and soldiers make me look at the other tiers closely only to find out that wherever there is a war aggression (not mere procession) depicted, all of them are meticulously defaced and destroyed. Then I look up to the history of the sites and find that in 14th century one Malik Kafur attacked the Halebidu temple and had done major vandalism rendering the twin temples into ruins till the Archeological Survey of India took over and started putting the ruined portions together. What we see today as Halebidu is the reworked version of the original temple from its ruins.

The drive is long and by the time we reach the Planters’ Club at Sakaleshpur it is already dusk. Chetan comes out to greet us and he has ordered food specially for the starving team of three. We demand a quick retirement for the day and we sleep off the moment we hit the bed. The next morning Chetan and Leena come to pick us up. They are taking us to a famous Subramanyan Temple at Kukke. Chetan brings his new Scorpio and through the winding roads he drives the car with adequate skill and sharpness. For a long and winding stretch along the hills and gorges the road is not in a good condition. The road is a major one though in a very pathetic state. This is the business artery of Karnataka for most of the cargo vehicles from Mumbai and Pune take this route. I ask him why then the road is not repaired at all. Chetan reveals something very peculiar. A year back there was a major road repair project taken up by the authorities and for almost two months all the business establishments including the hotels and restaurants were closed down due to the lack of customers. When the road was closed for repair, the cargo movement took a detour a few kilometers away from here thereby deserting Sakaleshpur and the areas around it a lost and ghost town. Once the first phase of the road work was finished, the influential business people got together and impressed upon the government to drop the second phase of the road repair and development. They are ready to use a bad road but they do not want to lose business over road repair. Hence we have around fifteen kilometers of good road and another fifteen kilometers of extremely bad road.

Kukke Subramanya Temple is famous for it’s idol’s ability to fulfill the wishes of the devotees. Throughout the year people from different South Indian states visit the temple. The Chetan couple takes us inside and they have a puja to perform. We do not want to join the Puja as it is a family affair. We stand in a long queue along with hundreds of devotees. As we reach the main door of the temple, one young policeman posted there asks us to take off our shirts. We do it promptly. As every other person is there without a shirt we do not feel embarrassed. We go into the temple and say a few prayers and come out. As the Chetan couple does their puja we decide to go out for a walk in the town. It is a small temple town with a lot of small town business establishments related to temple. Chinese products are omnipresent. From Lord Muruga to Ganesh, laughing Buddha to Talismans everything is made in China. People buy them with a lot of reverence; the name of the factory and country are unimportant. What matters is the devotees’ trust in the object of worship. There is a huge Chariot parked outside the temple. Chariot pulling with the idol of Subramanyan inside it is an important ritual there. As I wait there, a young elephant comes out of a side lane. He does not have chains around his leg. He is free, hairy and happy. Later I see him wishing people by placing his trunk on the heads of the devotees. I had seen similar scenes in Guruvayoor and Thiruchendoor in my former visits. By noon Chetan couple finishes their puja and asks us to go inside the temple again. There they lead us to the special dining room where even special people wait in queue for free lunch provided by the temple. Finally we get entry into the dining that could accommodate around thirty people at a time. We have been waiting for ten minutes for the people inside to wipe off their leaf plates. Now it is our turn to do it quickly as people wait eagerly outside looking at the movements our hands and mouths. The food is simple and tasty. Chetan says that the taste of the food has been maintained for over fifty years without any change. Just outside the building from where we ate our food, I see, in front of another section thousands of people thronging and waiting impatiently in a winding queue. Chetan tells me that it is for the Aam Janta (for ordinary people). For a moment I feel not so good for being a VIP in a temple. The driving back is smooth and inside the car I linger between sleep and wakefulness.

Leena Chetan at the Coffee Plantations
Now it is time for us to see what we have been told all this while; Coffee plantation. Chetan takes us to his home. It is a palatial old home that looks moderate from outside but so spacious inside. Chetan takes us to the large court yard that could be of the size of three volleyball courts and two tennis courts where the workers are cleaning and sorting black pepper. Chetan introduces the coffee seasoning machine that extracts the seeds from the pods. He explains each part of the coffee seed making process. A work force of forty people is almost winding up for the day. They do not look like Malayalis. Chetan informs me that they are from Assam and Bengal. They are not skilled workers. They have been inducted into the workforce as the local boys and girls are no longer ready to work in the plantations. These Assamese and Bengali workers live in cottages given to them by Chetan within the plantation itself and they are happy about their living and earning. Only thing that is troubling the Chetan couple is the future of the children of these workers. “They are not able to send them to the school here for the problem of language. But we are trying our best to create some educational environment here,” says Leena. Later we have a very sumptuous snack session inside the home and a conducted tour within the home. From there we visit the plantation. There are three types of coffee growing. And with a new rain, the coffee plants have been bloomed. Leena is excited to show us the flowers. Inside the plantation Chetan has made three ponds; one for irrigation, one for growing fish and one for the daily use of the work force. One of the workers jump into the pond, collects the lotus seeds and gives us for eating. It tastes good. Chetan couple wants to convert some of the cottages into a bit more comfortable so that they could invite the artists and writers to spend some time inside the plantation, near the water bodies. Chetan shows us the tracks through which elephants and monkeys come. He also shows us a small plantation temple which is guarded by a faithful dog. They take us to a place called Bugudahalli and tell us that this place is good for night camping and day painting. All of us have ideas. We weave them and stand against the breeze soaking ourselves in the love of expanses below and above us. Back in the plantation we stand in front of an ancient tree which is also a temple. The workers come there to worship and once in a year they sacrifice a cock there. We see the huge termite mounts which have been hijacked by snakes. Ancient trees stand still around us. Suddenly a silence engulfs us. We could hear the trees whispering. We get into the car and drives out of the plantation. On either side, coffee plants in full bloom stood in a row to bid us good bye. As we come out of the main gate they turn their white heads to the silent trees, their ancient gurus, for a lesson or two.

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