Guest Post: India Adventures Day 5 (part 2) – Sage

INDIA ADVENTURES, DAY 5 (part two): In our previous episode, Sage learned about bathrooms and Chandra made us all want to be better people. And now, today!

I look up from the gate and see a PUPPERS! With doodle toes and fuzzers on his round body! I’m not allowed to touch him, so I trail tragically behind him as he ambles around the building. I see a little girl peering out the window at me. I smile and wave and she dives away from the window, giggling. Back in the car we pass another village. A young woman stands next to an outdoor faucet, washing a metal bowl with flared edges. It sparkles in the light.

We arrive at the Lakshmana Temple. Since 1953 in this area archeologists have found:

27 temples
13 monastaries
1 6th/7th century market and bath house

JUST, YOU KNOW, LIKE YOU DO. The entrance fee is 25 Rs. (46 cents) for Indian visitors and 300 Rs. ($5.54) for foreign visitors. To me it makes perfect sense. In Canada we’d easily pay 813 Rs. ($15) for the same experience.

The Lakshamana Temple dates from the sixth century. For perspective, here’s what else was happening at the same time:

* in India chess was invented
* in Arabia the Quran was documented
* in China the first paper money was issued

Our guide, who is in his seventies, tells us that his father was a guide here, and he has been a guide here his entire life, and soon his son will be a guide too. He shows us the temple, which is made of brick. The mortar is made of vegetable pulp. Still standing, after 1400 years. In a nearby building we look at statues that were found in the surrounding area. I see a woman holding a baby with an elephant’s head and ask Chandra for the story (any errors here are the fault of my bad handwriting and fast note taking).

Chandra says, “This is Ambika. She is a goddess, a symbol of women’s strength. Her husband and her son, Ganesha, had a fight. It was such a bad fight that Ganesha was beheaded. Ambika was devastated and full of rage. She said, ‘I WILL DESTROY THE WORLD!’ When Lord Krishna heard about this, he decided to impress Ambika by bringing Ganesha back to life. But Ganesha didn’t have a head. So Lord Krishna put an elephant’s head on him instead. Now, Ganesha is the god of wisdom.”

(Can you imagine how terrifying being a goddess’ spouse would be? One (admittedly major) screw up and SHE WILL DESTROY THE WORLD and she means it.)

A young woman in a pink sari walks up and shyly holds up her phone with a questioning look. I smile and nod. She beckons her sister and her husband to come be in the photo with us. Her husband hands their toddler to Chandra. The toddler is nonchalant. Ravindra takes the photo and the woman in the pink sari and I smile again at each other. Her husband takes the toddler and I touch the baby’s hand. “Bye,” I say.

“Bye!” he repeats and everyone laughs in surprise.

The guide beckons me over to a series of posters of other historical sites and, though he speaks no English, he tells me the names of each site’s location. “Delhi,” he says, pointing. “Mumbai. Jaipur.” I am struck that in the face of such difference – this place is already off the beaten Western tourist track and I’m strange looking in TORONTO, much less here – in the face of such difference this elderly man’s urge is to connect. Not run away.

We are driving the short distance to the next site when we pass a village wedding. There are no drones this time and the music is being played live. We can hear firecrackers in the distance. Our driver suddenly stops the car, grabs something off the hood, and throws it. Startled, I ask Todd what happened. “Someone accidentally threw a lit firecracker on the hood of the car!” says Todd. We all thank the driver for his fast action.

Our next stop is a Buddhist monostary. A Buddha statue sits, as it has for over a thousand years, just behind what was a small pond. Mitali explains that the students studying to be monks would stay four to a room. She gestures to the rooms, some of which still retain their walls. I stand in the middle and can almost touch all four walls with my hands. (I picture the year 3097, robots standing at the ruins of an eight bedroom 10,200 square foot McMansion. “Wait, just TWO people lived here? You’ve got to be kidding.”)

A teenage boy perches on one of the moss covered stones. He looks off into the distance, pensive. A friend takes his photo. The pensive kid reaches for the picture, frowns, says something that in my imagination translates to, “How will the girls know I’m a poet if I don’t look wistful enough? Do it again,” then goes back into his pose. His friend takes another photo.

Next, we see the Surang Tila temple. It’s made of white stone with black mortar and was only excavated ten years ago. It’s about two stories high, and about half the stairs have sunk in the middle, probably as the result of an earthquake. I take one look at the steep slope and sit on a nearby rock.

“Come on!” say Ravindra and Mitali.

“No, no, you go.”

“But you’ll miss it,” says Mitali.

“What would it take to get you to go up?” says Todd.

“I hear there are baby monkeys you can hold at the top!” says Chandra and we all laugh and laugh. (Though for real, if there were actual baby monkeys to hold I’d walk over hot lava to get to them.)

I watch a mom, dad, and their two children make their way down the stairs. The dad and kids are sure-footed, but the mom is hugely pregnant and her belly keeps threatening to overbalance her. She and her husband are giggling as they hold hands and carefully make their way down together. She catches me watching and we smile at each other. I hope my smile says, “Your family is lovely.”

A goat trots by and eats a few leaves from a tree.

Right next to the Surang Tila temple is a much lower building, divided into many small rooms. The roof is long gone. “This is where people did black magic,” says Mitali. “It was more in the open, then.” (I try to imagine the Surang Tila worshippers waving to the black magic practitioners as they all head home after a long day’s work and fail.)

Back on the highway, we pass what look like yellow wires hung high in the trees. Mitali tells us that these are to keep elephants from going on the highway! Elephants! ELEPHANTS.

On our way back to Raipur, we pass men smoking and chatting by the side of the road, their motorcycles and scooters waiting to zoom them home. As dusk begins to fall we stop at the Nukkad Tea Cafe. This cafe employs marginalized people – hearing and speech impaired, LGBT+, people with Down syndrome, etc. Everyone’s face lights up when they see Ravindra (that’s him, in the photo) and he spends time downstairs with everyone, asking how they are, being absolutely present in the moment. Making them feel like they are the only person in the world.

The cozy and colourful downstairs is hopping with young people talking excitedly. There’s a quiet book room for readers. Comfy pillows everywhere. The middle of the cafe is open, so the ceiling stretches two stories up. On the wall are portraits of people who do work they rarely get credit for – autorickshaw drivers, cobblers, mechanics. Upstairs is a small meeting room for storytelling nights and poetry readings, and on the roof more tables and a view of the nearby lake.

The menu informs us that if you leave your phone at the desk in order to facilitate human contact and conversation you’ll get 10% off your bill.

NOW I NEVER WANT TO LEAVE.

We sit around the table and eat cheesy chili toast and Maggi noodles and drink masala coffee. I ask Chandra if he is happy with his decision to leave his life and fancy job in Delhi and come to Raipur to work with Ravindra.

“Yes,” he says. “Because life is very fragile. You never know what will happen. So at least make a difference while you can.”

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