Murudeshwar and the Millionaire

By Iain Manley Mar 18, 2011

Click here to be taken through to the Murudeshwar photo gallery 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.

murudeshwar-4 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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12 Responses to “Murudeshwar and the Millionaire”

  1. Heather says:

    So you ate the laddu – Motherji in Netala would be pleased!

    "The country was so … dishearteningly brutal". You really do sound saddened by India's dark side; as if you are seeing it much more clearly this time.

    Like the way you capture all the activity and contradiction.

  2. Iain Manley says:

    India's brutality is hard to ignore, but you're right, I think I am more affected by it now than I was four years ago. I'm not sure why. Perhaps Claire and I have travelled to tougher parts of the country this time, or perhaps I'm less satisfied by easy explanations or excuses now. Too many people separate the poverty and inequality here from standards they apply to the rest of the world; they say that India is and has always been this way, and move on.

    • Suresh says:

      I enjoy reading your blog. I admire your and Claire's physical and mental strength that is required to go through what you are going through. I wonder if you have done introspection to see how all the brutality and harshness that you are exposed to on daily basis for years has changed both of you. I would tend to think that you are not the same persons that started this journey.

  3. As a fellow traveler who now sees things in a different light as well, I think a lot of it is that the initial majesty of being abroad – which allows you to overlook quite shocking things – has more than dissipated after several years on the road. Related to that, my expectations have also moved just a touch up-market – I'm no longer quite as enthusiastic about taking the cheapest and worst transit, or ending up in the lowest-priced hotel possible.

    I do think that no matter how many 'brutal' things one sees, it never fully prepares you for the next one, and the more of such things you've seen gives you a better perspective to understand them, if also less capacity to ignore them. For example, I saw a myriad of sad realities while in India, from piles of dead dogs to a would-be robber being beaten with sticks outside our train car to hordes of hungry child beggars to …. but none of that had prepared me for walking over bones and teeth in the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek in Cambodia.

  4. Iain Manley says:

    Suresh, I try to stay aware of how the places I pass through change me – and I try to let them change me too – so you're 100% right, I'm not the same person I was years ago, when I started my life on the road. How much of that is a result of travelling and how much just a normal part of getting older is open to debate. I think travelling has definitely given me a thicker skin, but that can be a good thing. I'm more comfortable navigating the poor, dirty parts of the developing world than almost all of my acquaintances, which is as useful as it is life enriching.

    In my first post on on India I included the following quote:

    An individual-to-individual callousness… is still so strong in the country that it is the greatest danger for a foreigner living in India, for it is a frighteningly easy thing to find it creeping into one’s soul.

    A. M. Rosenthal, The Future in Retrospective

    I think I am more callous now, especially in familiar situations. The first time I saw a limbless beggar, I was shocked, and I dealt with that by telling myself a story. I was told that beggars were often mutilated by beggar masters, who took their money. And once I knew the story, I wasn't so shocked anymore. I still feel uncomfortable, but maybe it's the stories that have made my skin a little thicker.

    Anderson, when you went to the Killing Fields, you knew what you were going to see. You went there – at least partly – expecting to be shocked. How do you think that changed the experience? I think that tourists – including myself – almost rehearse their shock before visiting places like the Killing Fields or Auschwitz. The knowledge of what happened is what should really shock us, and unless you're the worst kind of camera toting idiot, you already possess that knowledge before you go.

    I am also battling a taste for things "just a touch upmarket", but I'm blaming that on age rather than experience.

    Thank you both for your thoughtful comments!

  5. Iain,

    I also have blamed my (slightly) up-market interests on being older, but I think wiser is a better explanation. I could spend $5 on a cheap hotel, or I could spend $7 and get better value, not have to worry as much about bed-bugs or street noise or whatever awfulness is about, and that, for only $2, is well-worth it!

    As for the shock and awe of genocide tourism:

    I did know what I was going to see vaguely, but the specifics of it were more horrific than I thought they would be. Our guide had lived through the horrors and atrocities of the Khmer Rouge – if anyone ever reads this and is going to Phnom Penh, his name is Peter, he drives a rickshaw and has ads posted up along the lakefront tourist drag, he's a bit over the top perhaps but a very nice man who made sure we had as enjoyable a day as possible and more importantly who added a much-needed personal touch to what we saw that day (Killing Fields & Toul Sleng) – and he talked about what all we were going to see before we actually went in as well. The piled up skulls and pits where people were thrown still alive were one thing… but seeing something small and white in the dirt and having it be a human tooth, or a bone sticking up, and everywhere people's clothes still remain only half-rotted… it was a long, sad day of tourism without doubt, and it's a testament to the strength of the Cambodian people that they not only persevered through such atrocities committed by their fellow Khmer in the name of societal improvement, but also that they have preserved it in such an authentic way so as to maintain the … energy? of the place – it was just really powerful, that's what I'm trying to say. I've been to the Anne Frank museum, that was sad but sterile, Choeung Ek is tangible and makes the horror man is capable of much more vivid. I don't necessarily have pleasant memories of it, but I'm very glad I went, and I think it shattered my expectations in both good and bad ways.

    • Iain Manley says:

      The piled up skulls and pits where people were thrown still alive were one thing

      Authentic indeed. We're visiting Cambodia quite soon, and will have pick your brain before we do.

      Pick your brain isn't the best metaphor in this context, is it?

  6. Ms. Stephanie Camara says:

    Hi,

    Can you please assist me with an office administration contact no and email address for Mr. R. N. Shetty. I would like to discuss a business proposal with regards to the hospitality business.

    Thanking you.

    Ms. Camara

  7. Chandra says:

    Interesting read. We just returned from a trip to Murudeshwar last weekend & I was curious to know why the place was monopolized by R.N.Shetty. I also meandered through the rest of your website & will come back here for more interesting reads. Just one question … how come you haven't visited any places in eastern or north-eastern India ?

    • Iain Manley says:

      Thanks Chandra. We have visited the east of the country, but we haven't spent as much time there. (You can take a look at our route through India if you like.) Our next trip to India will probably be different: we want to spend more time in one or two places and travel up the east coast for a while.

  8. Gretta says:

    I had a dream last night of visiting India. I have only heard reports of friends and family who have travelled around and I think it is finally time to make my way over myself. As a low income US citizen I have been hesitant to visit because of the dynamic you illustrate in your description of the restaurant. I am afraid of feeling like I don't belong in the "brutal" India or in the "Sahib" India. When my dad (a retired airline pilot) returned from India having been put up in a five star hotel he mentioned how difficult it was to be staring out the window of his room at "crippling poverty." What a strange juxtaposition. After reading this I feel like that is something I need to experience, not for the novelty of it, but for the humanity of it.

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