Early this morning, Steve wakes up with some kind of rash and a cough. Fortunately there's a nice physician with the group, and after some investigation it is determined that Steve probably has caught the flu that's been going around. He therefore stays in the hotel all day, red and coughing, but listening to my iPod and reading. As most of the group has come down with this flu so far, it's not surprising, but it's too bad that he has to miss this day.
This morning we drive several hours north to Sravanabelgola, one of the most sacred Jain sites. Legend has it that in the 10th century Chandragupta, a famed maharaja, came to see a large statue of Gomateshvara, the Jain guru. When he didn't find one, he shot an arrow from the top of a hill and caused the statue to be built where it landed. Carved out of granite from the top of the hill, this is the largest free-standing monolith in Asia, possibly in the world.
To reach the top of the hill, you climb 620 steps. The tough part is that you have to leave your shoes at the bottom, and going up and down in stocking feet is more daunting than one might think. Ah, the joy of good hiking boots. Along the climb, the initial section is entirely bare stone with no trees, no shrines, only some carving on the steps from time to time, in a fitting testament to the Jain asceticism. The last third is dotted with shrines to the Jain gurus, largely fairly plain. My favorite is a monument to the 22nd guru, a stone pillar wrapped in stone vines.
The monolith has been surrounded by a 16th century palisade, so that as you approach you have only the barest glimpse of the head. On entering the palisade, the entire statue looms above you, serene and unmoved. The day we visited, there were two pilgrims in white making an offering, or more precisely releasing their burdens, at the foot of the statue. Unfortunately, there were also many rowdy school groups clattering around, yelling and laughing, which took away from the serenity and sanctity of the ceremony.
On descent and boot recovery, the mercantile world returns. It's usual to be mobbed with young boys and men selling toys, postcards, and random souvenirs. "Small price!" "Just look!" "Where from?" are typical cries. A disinterested "no, thanks…" and a lack of direct eye contact eventually gets you away. One boy here has a unique strategy - "Later? Later?" he asks as he waves his postcards, in an intriguing marketing tactic. Earlier in the day, a boy of about 13 tried another creative tack, asking "Would you ask your friends if they have any US money they could give me? I collect foreign currencies…" At least it's not "pen pen".
Leaving the serenity of the Jain complex behind, we next drive to a small village called Melkote. This is a high-caste Ayangar settlement, formerly a center of Sanskrit study and weaving. Many of the current generation are employed in Bangalore or abroad, but return from time to time to serve the temple, particularly for the large annual festival. We are able to enjoy lunch in an old home, a vegetarian feast served on banana leaf and accompanied by traditional Carnactic music. After lunch, a visit to the temple. It is, for once, empty and we are able to wander without felling that we are intruding. This is the one site that won't allow socks, however, and I find it somewhat disconcerting to walk barefoot outside for so long. My mother's warnings of fire ants and ringworm haunt me for a moment, though neither are an issue on stone floors.
At the end of our long day, a New Year's dinner awaits. I had forgotten the date, to be honest, and was not at all prepared. As it happens, the government of India requested that any celebrations be cancelled due to the disaster on the coast. While it would be impossible to enforce such a request, it did seem that events were rather muted. Our hotel did have some fabulous local drummers/acrobats come in for a brief performance, loud but wonderful. I also noticed that while the dinner seemed only slightly more elegant than the night before, it seemed to be sponsored. There were banners on the 2nd floor advertising Pepsi, Kingfisher, and the local MacDonald's whisky ("The Scotch-like experience"). The banners disappeared by breakfast, so I suspect advertising? Weird.
I understand that the expected fireworks did occur, but being so used to them I slept right through it. They're just not special anymore. What I did notice was the enormous number of dead and dying bees littering the hall and stairs. While I appreciate the necessity of spraying a nest, and certainly prefer that to being stung, it is yet another sign of the service level that the little corpses collected all afternoon and evening and were only swept up in the morning. It's a crunchy descent to dinner, and a crunchier return as we avoid those still moving. Ick.