The mid-morning heat brought our senses sharply back to the coastal plains. We were in Trichy, one of the larger cities in Tamil Nadu. Like Trivandrum, Trichy is a shortened name; Tiruchirapalli is the somewhat difficult full name. The city is parked flat on the baking plains of south India. Once again, my forehead ached with the constant squinting against the white sun and the dehydration that creeps up on you so quickly. This time though, there was the added lethargy of the last two days of fasting and puking- an exhausting business in any weather.
Stubbornly resisting the offers of Rickshaw services that were all around us, we trudged the length of the city in the midday sun, through the shaded fruit markets and open rubbish piles. We crossed railway lines that ran in between the houses and shook the ground as the giant blue carriages trundled past. We passed ramshackle settlements underneath roadway overpasses and crossed sickly green stagnant canals caked with layers of sun-bleached rubbish. Finally in the main bazaar, we were confronted with the same jumbled chaos that we were becoming familiar. My patience running especially thin, I felt like everyone in the market was yelling at me, so I yelled back. I needed some shade and a cool drink.
Fortunately the Rock Temple that we were on our way to had a stand outside it that made a particularly awesome mango lhassi and I had regained some of my composure and dignity once we were inside the temple. I don’t like being rude to locals in any country, especially not when I yell it at them in a language they can understand. The atmosphere and temperature was more ambient inside and I was offered a colourful array of deities to pledge my repentance to. An intriguing gallery hall on the inside ground level offered a set of dazzling murals and fibreglass models of each of the various major players in the Hindu story. I was beginning to recognise Vishnu, the blue gentleman with the tall hair, Ganesha, the elephant man, Shiva, another blue god who was often pictured with a trident and a whole other host of friends who were dotted around the various Indian temples we had seen.
Hinduism takes a variety of sects and factions within its broader base, with various temples and branches of the religion devoted to different gods and incarnations of the different gods. There are allegedly almost 2 million different recognised gods within the broader Hindu religion. Grand religious councils preside over the job of deciding which gods are legitimate spiritual icons and which new ones are to be credited with recognition. The temple we had visited in Kanniyakumari celebrated the small effigy-like piece that had been adorned with the flower bracelet in the inner bowels of the complex- this represented Shiva in one such incarnation. The majority of temples, cities and even worshippers tend to revere the more popular and significant of the Hindu deities, of which the main three I was becoming acquainted with. Their roles in the creation cycle made them pivotal to the religion and they were subject of any number of parables and what were almost religious anecdotes, explaining their various forms of appearance and responsibility. Try to image a Bollywood-themed collision of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘How the Leopard got his spots’ with ‘The Yellow Submarine’ and you’re something close to the popular context these figures are given within the religion.
We pit-patted in our bare feet up the dark, wide stone staircase that led us upwards. The Rock Temple was no misnomer. Not unlike Sigiriya Rock, Trichy’s most notable temple is perched atop an enormous boulder that towers over the otherwise flat skyline. As Alec and I ascended through the carved-out innards of this rock itself, we once again heard the approaching din of a million clanging bells. These tumbled out of a pair of broad, wooden double-doors that admitted and ejected Indian families periodically, offering the briefest of peeps into the noisy racket within, before swinging heavily shut with authority: ‘Non-Hindus forbidden.’ I was beginning to wonder how one would prove or disprove Hindu subscription; I refused to believe it simply boiled down to a question of skin colour.
As we continued up the stairs and began to leave the tambourine symphony behind us the squeaking and fluttering above our heads became audible. Up in the darkness hung an unseen population of bats, darting and twisting through the darkness, occasionally flashing past the tiny windows above us for the briefest of silhouettes.
Out in the open again, we could really feel the extra hundred meters that we had moved closer to the sun. The smooth sandstone pathways that had been worn into the natural rock were as bare as our feet were and excruciatingly hot; we were forced to sprint- yowling- past ambling Indian families and across the top of the rock towards the nearest shade we could find. The final steep steps that led up to the Ganesha temple were a further test, causing us to sprint their entire length; to submit to the burn in our calves meant slowing down to a trudge on the long, steep line of burning hot steps that led up to the respite above.
Ganesha forgive us, we didn’t pay much attention to the shrine inside. The shrine was- perhaps unwisely- positioned facing the 360-degree panorama over the immense sprawl of Trichy away from us in all directions; thus he did not receive as much attention as was perhaps required. From not only the bazaar area and new town from which we had come but all around us huddled the same low, flat-roofed buildings, all jostling for space with one-another against the occasional strip-thin gap of an alleyway, street or tree poking through. Further away towards our north, over the wide riverbed and before the city abruptly terminated into a palm-tree forest, we saw a collection of towering gompurams that reached almost our height on top of the rock. Aside from these towering, silhouetted pyramids that marked the horizon, little else served to break the flat, box-housing that looked so ripe for free-running- a decent pair of legs could have taken me a mile in a straight line over the roofs splayed out below us. Here and there, women beat carpets hung on lines whilst lone eagles lazily wheeled beneath us and above the city, slowly circling endlessly.
Down in and amongst the lost bearings of the crowded alleyways, we struck a vague course north through the back-streets and residential areas that skirted the river. Behind the rock temple and away from the city, the buildings became more dilapidated and unkempt. Goats and bicycles replaced cows and rickshaws as the main traffic. The muffled yells of women and the occasional cricket game on the dusty road broke the mid-afternoon stillness of yellow pathways and darkened doorways. Topless toddlers chewed their fingers and stared on wobbly legs from inside front yards whilst dogs slept in the shade.
A long, broad road bridge spanned over the low houses and out across the wide river we had seen from the rock fort. However, the half-kilometre stretch between the settlement on each bank consisted of nothing more than waves of pale, dried mud stretching along the gulf between the buildings on either side. Edging and winding across this barren expanse and dotted between the occasional scraggly bush was a sickly looking snake of stagnant, dark green water. This was the height of India’s dry season, and this was all that was left of the river after so long without rainfall. It was fed from the occasional drainage outlet emerging from beneath the houses on either side; equally as unhealthy-looking, they were skirted with the collected grey snags of rubbish, old fabric and odd shoes that had been discarded, lost or stolen by the canal that had left them there, piling up like a limestone around an old tap.
Over the river we approached the spectacular gompurams from the south along the straight roads that passed right under arches beneath the immense, colourful pyramids. These towering visual assaults stood thirteen floors tall. Each of the layers of bright pink, blue, green and purple carvings was crowded with a chaotic jumble of figures and icons. Like some sort of bizarre club scene,figures and motifs danced and posed atop each other, frozen in vivid high-colour freeze-frame: The same tentacled squid-like demons stared down from the peak of each tower, their bulging eyes staring out in odd directions as streams of shapes and patterns spilled from their fanged mouths; meek-looking girls danced between pillars with their legs crossed and twisted in mid air and their arms stretched out as if wobbling on one foot; Ganesha sat nonchalant on his throne, surrounded by the amulets and icons of his power.
As passed beneath this first gompuram, the city continued, uninterrupted. Sat in a small alcove underneath the gompuram was an old man, one leg swinging down as the rickshaws squeezed past; beyond the gompuram was canteen, a chai stall; over our head power lines continued to twist, jump and sag from building to building, as if Spider Man had been working overtime rigging illegal connections. This district of Trichy was, in fact, one large temple complex, and one of the largest in India. The first and largest gompuram was the outer perimiter and we passed several more as we got approach the core.
Even the inner complex was still enormous enough to simply wander around. Leaving our shoes at the temple entrance, we scuttled over acres of baking masonry slabs from one island of shade to the other. Around us stood pillars and surfaces carved in the likeness of all manner of things. Smaller buildings devoted themselves to small stone shrines whose incarnations faced us from behind well-worn bars. Other larger structures were open to the elements that would wind cool breeze through the chess-piece pillars that faced off amongst the shade in their hundreds. Murals depicted fantastic scenes in cool, deep blues and bold, rich yellows- fat, snarling gods dangling amulets and brandishing weapons against their cowering enemies.
Inside one of the darker and quieter halls I walked alone up the centre of a long room between two rows of baying horses. At the head of the chamber was the many-armed Vishnu, legs akimbo, backed by a host of twisting, writhing serpents that altogether towered over the diminutive worshippers that came before it. Again, its many arms all pointed, gestured and thrust in different directions around it as it executed its role as regulator of all the destruction and creation in the universe. Beyond Vishnu and his horse-army, a mother slept beneath a pillar on the uneven slabs while her tiny son padded between the pillars, playing with a small piece of cloth. Next to him a lotus flower had been enigmatically daubed in thick lines of chalk on the floor.
Out on the street, we collected our shoes from the heap against the corner of the entrance. The noise, the heat and the bustle returned. Walking left down the road and alongside the temple walls, I noticed the unremarkable sight of a monkey sat in the shade of the wall. Only when it turned to notice me, I saw that it simply had an unidentifiable, fleshy, pink hole where its face should have been. As it turned its head toward me, I saw the wound was old and deep and had left an impressive cavity out of this animals’ head. Then, causally, it reached up with a handful of food and placed it somewhere in the depths of the cavity, withdrawing an empty hand. So that was the mouth, which meant that something had eaten this animals’ face. Just as I was getting to grips with the fact that I was staring at a monkey with no face, it climbed up the scaffold it had been sat on and disappeared over the nearest wall.