Murudeshwar, a speck on maps of India’s Malabar Coast, is dominated by a colossal statue of the god Shiva and a gopuram – the world’s tallest – that resembles a concrete apartment block. It is an old place, connected to events in the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic written four or five hundred years before the birth of Christ, but the gopuram and statue were built recently, by RN Shetty, Murudeshwar’s greatest success story and favourite son.
Rajeev, the chatty owner of a restaurant in nearby Gokarna, told me a version of RN Shetty’s life story when I said, while paying the bill, that Claire and I planned to visit Murudeshwar. “RN Shetty is the king of Murudeshwar,” Rajeev told me, waggling his head approvingly. “His parents were working on road construction, facilities building – this kind of work. They were often working in other parts, and when he was a boy, Shetty sometimes had no food. He ate the temple food – rice, bananas, these things.” Rajeev paused to hand me my change, but he was soon on the topic of Murudeshwar again. “The temple was on an island. When the water was low, you could cross, but when the water came high, you must sleep at the temple, and sometimes this Shetty, he slept there. At that time, he prayed to god. He said god, if you make me rich, I will build you a bridge, so that people can visit you at any time. Now Shetty is a self-made man and he and he has done many things for Murudeshwar.”
RN Shetty, obviously a god fearing man, did more than build a bridge. He filled in the entire depression between mainland and island. It was now a parking lot, occupied by pilgrims’ yatri buses and jeeps flying Hinduism’s orange flag. The sun had sunk past the horizon when Claire and I arrived there on a phuttering auto-rickshaw, making a short stop on our journey to Trivandrum to take photos, have dinner and rest, before braving another sleeper class train carriage at 2am. We entrusted our shoes to men beside the temple’s entrance and walked past life-sized stone elephants into the compound. Elevators went to the top of the gopuram for five rupees. Young rustics crowded into the cars excitedly, as if climbing onto a funfair ride. We went in to the temple proper, where a large sign warned that “POOJA WILL BE PERFORMED WITH VALID RECEIPTS ONLY”, and continued clockwise around the main shrine, noticing more signs listing prices. “By donating Rs. 1000/- in lumpsum,” advertised one, “Nanda Deepa Pooja will be performed life long on the given date.” A note at the bottom suggested contacting the temple manager for more information.
The scale and uniformity gave an impression of corporate bureaucracy. The temple, with its statues, rides and clearly marked prices, was like a Hindu Disneyland. Even the dustbins, held in place by white rabbits or monkeys in dungarees, seemed borrowed from the idea of a theme park.
At a shrine to Parvati, Shiva’s consort, a dapper man in his sixties or seventies asked – predictably – where we were from. We told him and, curiosity satisfied, he continued his circumambulation, but a little later he approached us again, to ask if we had been to two temple towns near Bangalore. We hadn’t. In the twinkling of a rheumy eye, we were sitting on a marble platform, watching as he drew a map.
Our aged cartographer was a retired engineer from Bangalore named Vighnesh. He encouraged us to sit with him for a while – once the map was complete – to “enjoy the blessings of Lord Shiva.” I asked him about the different poojas advertised in the temple, pointing at a nearby sign as I did. “What is the difference between Nanda Deepa Pooja,” the one thousand rupee ritual I had noticed earlier, “and the Annasantarpana Seva Pooja? Why is it Rs. 5001?”
“Oh the Annasantarpana Seva Pooja is a very big pooja. The Brahmins pull the god around the temple in a chariot.”
“Is that better? Do the gods notice how much money people spend?”
“Some people think so but I don’t believe in this. I think god will bless anybody who worships him.”
A large pooja began while we spoke. Brahmins wrapped in metres of white fabric with elaborate caste marks on their foreheads circumambulated the central shrine, accompanied by similarly dressed musicians, thumping a shuddering drum and blowing a horn. I asked Vighnesh what sort of offering he had made.
“The Rudrabhsheka,” he said, pointing at another sign, just above the cashier. It was a list of possible offerings to the temple’s god; every item on it included prasad, food that was blessed by the Brahmins and eaten. Vighnesh’s selection cost only Rs. 40; it was the cheapest on the list. He pulled a ball wrapped in wax paper out of his pocket and showed it to us. “This is the laddu,” he said, “the sweet. Please take it.”
I politely refused, but Vighnesh persisted. Once we had accepted the laddu, he quietly disappeared, leaving Claire and I to share the sweet, sticky ball, made pungent by cardamom.
It was pleasant sitting on the cool marble, listening to the horns and drums, glancing up at the statue of Shiva on the hilltop, silver skin glimmering in the floodlights – more pleasant than other temples I had visited in the south, where attitudes seemed more medieval. The atmosphere at Murudeshwar’s temple might be corporate, it’s concrete gopuram and oversized Shiva tacky, but near the inner sanctum, it retained a degree of serenity – serenity I had last experienced at the Mount Mary Basilica in Mumbai, where Claire and I sat silently in the nave, among Christians, Hindus and Muslims, visiting the church on their way home from work. I had thought then that the tranquillity of its holy places must be among the reasons India remained devout. The country was so routinely loud, so bewilderingly chaotic, and – worst of all – so dishearteningly brutal, that a moment’s pause, to contemplate whatever notion of purity was most familiar, must help the people living in these tight spaces to cope.
The laddu, picked at by both Claire and I, was soon finished, and with it our own moment of contemplation. We exited the temple, retrieved our shoes and found dinner in the garden of a hotel near the beach. The trunks of the palm trees that filled it were painted in candy cane red and white stripes; bow-tied waiters weaved between them, pouring cold mineral water, serving curries onto customer’s plates. Here was another India, one we entered guiltily, even nervously – as if we didn’t belong. After dinner, we asked for help calling a rickshaw. The waiters, so efficient at dinner, became surly. There was no chance of getting one now, we were told, and so we walked back to the temple’s parking lot and, near an empty rickshaw, found a father and son closing their shop, about to return home. They took us to the station, where we paid one hundred rupees to use the retiring room: a sparse concrete cube, its only furniture a wooden desk and two beds, burst coir mattresses on their tops.
A few hours later we were waiting on the platform, where the station’s night time attendant had said our carriage would stop. I had interrupted him writing in the station’s report book, to ask if the train was delayed. The book’s brown cover and the man’s handwriting – deliberate, and in the rounded Kannada script – brought to mind a schoolbook, and I imagined him submitting it to his superior in the morning like a schoolboy handing homework to a strict teacher. He told me the train was delayed by an hour, and later, when it was about to arrive, came onto the platform to see us off. We waved and boarded, submitting to twenty hours of rocking slowly through the heat, noise and dust.
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