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The International Writers Magazine
: Indian Temples

The Templed Air of Solitude
Rich Meyers

I drifted off, under the host of Indian sky, dreaming of ancient elegance and elephants and beautiful bathing women.

Exquisite regions there are, exotic places, enchanted realms of the spirit, lofty and palpable. At the edge of desolate places where the landscape appears at first to offer only its flatness, there suddenly appear Hindu temples, the anvil the sacred of India is pounded on, that you can climb until you can climb no further, up and up into sculpted deities in stone, where painted mythic figures, the story animators of the dream, arms folded or swaying in dance to the infusion of symbolic decoration, where mystics proud and sadhus hungry wrestle in their minds, the mental being just another of many metaphors, with devastatingly ultimate mysteries. Here is the ancient wonder of India, enigmatic, imperishable, defiant. Here is no compromise or concession to the mundane, all elaboration and abandonment. Whether painted yearly by villagers in the South or adorned by chariots of gods and erotic imagery in the North, these temples reach into an air so rarefied that the mere physical images of life no longer exist.

After a few years of living in India I thought I had seen the most impressive temples, Kajuraho and Madurai and the shore temples of Mahabalipurum. One day in Goa I happened upon a handwritten notice attached to a palm tree that said: "Go to Hampi, go to Vijayanagar for a full moon gathering." Others had spotted notices as well but no one had ever heard of Hampi although Vyanagar was a major railway station on the Madras Train.

A short walk from the station was the Hampi Bazaar, a plentiful market that was set between double rows of broken columns. The merchandise in all its vanity formed the walls between the columns. A long line of an arcade stretched in front of me as I walked into Hampi and ascended a hill where I arrived at some ruins. The morning sun was searing hot so I paused under a tamarind tree looking off in the reported direction of the major ruins seeing only desolation, dust and bushes.

Walking on after a while a cloud passed in front of the sun. Adding to the gift of momentary shade came a lovely sensation. Instead of dust, I was walking a smooth domed surface like the swirling flow of lava, black and glistening and bald. In my sandals, I could gently slide skimming the cool surface. At the top I caught a glimpse of the river, strewn with huge smooth boulders of glazed deep black rock. The view was stunning in contrast to a flat landscape, as the river had no vegetation along its banks. The ancient Hindus chose their temple sites carefully and I wondered why the Teller princes, Hurrah and Buck, founded their capitol here __ the site that was to become the most immense Hindu Empire in the subcontinent's history. The next days among the most solitary and blissful of my life the answer to that question became exquisitely revealed.

The immense black dome was so smooth and cool that I lied down upon it and just rolled along its surface and I heard little bone in my back crack easefully as if aligning my spine, settling its vertebrae in place. I stood up, took a deep breath, and walked until I came upon the Kings Balance where a plaque told me that it had originally been a scale that balanced the king on one side and piles of gold placed on the other side by loyal subjects. My imagination supplied the weighing pans. The road ahead led to the Vittala Temple that glimmered like a jeweled heat wave, a mirage in the haze and dust of this unreal almost moon like landscape of Central India.

Just near the temple I came upon several huts where a few men crouched around a smoldering ash pile smoke still rising from the logs that had been burned. Without much ceremony the men rose and invited me in to join them The men were unmistakably sadhus, matted hair, ash smeared faces and thin bodies, wild friendly jackals of men, spiritual mendicants who gestured to me to sit down to join them in their noon meal. I squatted with them around the embers among the ash pile, smiled and felt blessed when they smiled in return. Soon I was the guest among these gaunt and intense men. The one carrying a trident, put the metal pole down and bent over me and smeared fingers of ashes upon my forehead and began reciting a mantra. I recognized it at least in essence. It was given to travelers about to embark on a journey. Where I sat with my initiators was considered the threshold of the main entrance to Hampi and the mantra paid homage to Ganesh and Vishnu invoking the lotus-eyed Vishnu, rider of the Garuda to give me blessings, wealth and auspiciousness. The first line of the verse called upon Ganesh, always the first of the deities to be worshipped at pujas. Opening my eyes upon the completion of the mantra I saw the meal that had been prepared. The fire that was just embers now had cooked rice, chapatis, dhal and curried vegetables. I ate voraciously, smiling all the time so that the muscles of my mouth ached. Suddenly there came a soft rain, brief and refreshing. When it ended the sadhus shook their heads bidding me farewell. There was such sparseness and dignity in their manner.

The temple was an immense, wall-less structure, surrounded by columns of intricate stonework carved with deities and demons and figures from the animal kingdom. The ceiling was a soft gold color, flickering like gossamer in the sun. I ran my hands along the stone, stroking its texture and then slightly padding it. I heard a (loud) noise and so slapped the stone and (?) by the column emitted a sound like singing. The columns it appeared were tuned like pipe organs slapping lightly upward produced deep tone and stroking downward another sound rang in the columned court. I wandered round testing their pitches dazzled by the harmonics that could be evoked.

Nearby stood a huge stone chariot. It had amazing wheels carved of golden stone, each spoke delicately inlaid with filigree(?) It was said to be at least four hundred years old and had, no doubt, carried sacred images in many festival processions. I went down to a small temple that had sunken partly into the river. The river that winded its way through Vijayanagar appeared totally black at this point.

A dusty road that curved through a banana orchard went past scattered ruins and further past a field of sugar cane and through a crumbling gate and then turned into the barrenness of desert. The road had no one but me on it, no tourist. I was alone beneath the ruined walls of Vijayanagar and its fortifications, a civilization that had contained around a half a million inhabitants. I walked its wonder in solitude.

The small map crumbled in my hand pointed to more ruins ahead: walking through the heat and dust I felt like an ancient mystic on his vision quest. I had no concern about food. The rushing river whatever parasites it might cost me could quench my thirst. I felt invulnerable and blessed that nobody else had chosen my route. These ruins were unique, somewhat mysterious. Why had I never found a single book on Vijayanagar? Why had no other travelers showed up, not anyone from Goa where the notices had announced a full moon gathering. The empire of Vijayanagar was so swiftly annihilated in a period of five months, a brutal massacre with blood sacrifice surpassed in its hasty destruction only by the Spanish slaughter of the Aztecs.

The lava-like black rocks that only existed along the river intrigued me. I left the road to cut across the sand to walk again upon those smooth block rocks by the river. When I arrived, taking off my sandals, I sat down wondering why these huge black rocks were only along the river when I fell into a deep refreshing sleep.

Somewhere I could hear the wind playing softly about the columns creating a gentle music. I saw bands of merchants walking a marketplace full of silks and gems and spices, fruits and vegetables, glinting in the sun. I was a merchant from the West who had come from as far as Venice or Lisbon to breathe the opulent air of India. I wandered into chambers filled with gold and among inhabitants, who all wore jewels and gilt ornaments, whether rich or poor and into bazaars of the world's treasures profuse with flowers and diamonds and rubies and pearls. The city was wealthy yet peaceful. No weapons existed, or fortresses. This place of plenitude was a kingdom without violence. No pillage or plunder, greed or threat. Above what the eye could see were towers that climbed into the clouds. It was the sense of what I could not see that gave the dream its fullness and completion. The towers reached into a region of opposites. My eyes empowered by dream could see or my senses feel an unkindness that existed far off, an ugliness that might be the other side of this beautiful city, the decay of growth, the void and paltriness of riches. In the circle of the city heaven and hell were not so distant but embraced each other like dancers. It was a mystery to be celebrated. It was only when the optimism of images merged with the shadow of another side, ultimately a complementary side, that an image of a village appeared to me.

When I awoke, I could in fact see a village in that distance. I got up and slid across the rocks and took a path towards that village, which turned out to be a magnificent structure, the King's Palace, the Lotus Mahal, the Hall of Victory. The fading figures adorning the buildings still had an elegance to them and the walls and you could walk up a three-story- high stairway and wander in and out of doorways in the buildings and out through the walls. I imagined myself an emperor of this lost kingdom. I spoke the beauty of the names of these ruins __ the Lotus Mahal, the Dasara Platform, the Khanavami, Dibba, the Zenana Enclosure along a row of curved stone walls, tall posts set side by side were the elephant stables. The domes covered spacious round rooms where each room it was imagined, an elephant had a place of his own. The trough? of elephants thrilled me, especially elephants enjoying their solitude. Like with the musical columns I ran my hands along the walls, whispered so I could hear the domes echo my words. Behind the Palace along friezes were rows of beautifully carved elephants, trunk to tail, in long procession. In a while I came upon mounds of recently dug earth, and a huge rectangular, deep very deep hole, built of carefully cut stone. My map identified this place as the Queen's Bath. I sat along the rim of this exposed emptiness, imagining it overflowing with the sparkling coins of water that a sun filled sky made. My kingdom had beautiful women who bathed, splashed, and played in the water. For a moment I was a benevolent king who had several hundred wives. I drifted off, under the host of Indian sky, dreaming of ancient elegance and elephants and beautiful bathing women.

From a distance, it came __ an unwelcome human voice. It took me a moment to exit my trance long enough to hear someone shouting, calling out to me, calling my name. Blood rushed to my head, my nerves paced frantically. Someone, probably someone I knew from Goa was calling my name. "Richard" It was distant but getting closer. "Richard". I was spotted, no longer alone and I panicked. I looked towards the direction where the voice came and I could see a dim figure coming along the road, unrecognizable in the dust and haze. No matter it recognized me.

The urgency to flee seized me. I backed away from the Queen's Bath and began walking hurriedly towards the path that would take me across the crumbling bridge that sunk into the cane fields. From there I couldn't be seen and could follow the river to the black rocks where I'd find a cave. It would be very easily done. I looked back only one more time. My thoughts sunk into dullness. Why couldn't I see who it was? Perhaps I needed glasses. I'd go to Bombay and see an eye doctor. Who was it that came to break my trance and end my solitude? I began to worry that my eyes were adjusting too much to only what I really wanted to see. Would I return to America only to find the light muted and everything more mundane, several shades less interesting than what my eyes beheld in India.

Soon I was far out of sight of any intruder and as I began walking along the river and those cool black rocks and exploring the boulders for caves, I relaxed slowly, then completely. In fact I felt slightly ridiculous in my absolute attachment to solitude. But this place is so perfect to be alone in, my mind argued. It was after all a lost kingdom, an abandoned glorious realm, a jewel hidden, almost a secret place, not yet fully discovered.
As my peace returned and I lied down under a darkening sky preparing for its full moon that night, I vowed to stay as long as necessary even without food to absorb the grace and beauty of this remote paradise. I fell asleep even before the full moon could stare at me. I awoke at dawn and enjoyed the texture of the morning sky. My heart was full. I sat up upon the black rocks that had been my bed with the river running through them, first black then whitening into a sweet steady flow. I looked down upon the ruins of Vijayanagar, the columns and palaces and the layered temples and my brilliant kingdom dusted deep red by the rising sun sprawled across the horizon as if embracing the whole enchanted world.
© Richard Meyers Sept 2004

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