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SOUTH INDIAN DETOURS The train from Chennai to Mysore had just stopped at Bengaluru (until recently Bangalore).

We had left Chennai early in the morning, having had a row with the staff at the YWCA hostel about why breakfast, which wed paid for the night before, could not be served before 8am, despite the fact that hordes of personnel appeared to be, if not at work, certainly asleep in the vicinity of the restaurant at seven when we appeared. At Bangalore a man dressed in white traditional clothes, unusual these days when most males are in heavy denim jeans, whatever the heat, boarded and made his way to a seat opposite mine. He placed his small suitcase in the luggage rack, unlocked and opened it and produced a chain and colossal padlock, closed the case, locked it, passed the chain around it and through the handle and around the rack a couple of times, then fastened it with the padlock. He then put the key around his neck, with the suitcase key, took a white cloth from somewhere within his lungi, and began dusting his seat, the arm rest and seat back vigorously. He lifted the white cloth headrest and flicked it out of the way. Indians, he hissed, at noone in particular, though he must have noticed the two foreigners opposite, tsk, tsk. He then sat down. The other people in the six seat section were numerous, a Moslem couple and lots of little children, five, I think. The parents kept ensuring that they did not trespass on anyones space. It was inevitable that we would start speaking. The trains are a disgrace, he announced after a while, looking at me. I had thought that this was a fine train, certainly far better than one would find in Australia, and superior to the Indian trains I had known in the past. He was going to Mysore and wanted to know where we were going. When I mentioned Belur and Halebid, the Hoysala temples outside Hassan, the man adopted an authoritative tone and began a lecture on these places. We had set out from Chennai to visit some out of the way Hindu sites, mainly in Karnataka, which we had never visited before, and Belur and Halebid were the first on our sketchy plan. It was summer 2009, and south India was feverishly hot. But the train was comfortable, and we had nothing better to do than engage with this man.

Murray Laurence

I should start by saying that he let us know early in our exchange that he was a Brahmin, of a particular sub-caste from the famous temple town of Madurai in the deep south. I had visited Madurai a couple of times in the past, so it wasnt on this itinerary. His background may have coloured his perceptions of everything, including the claptrap he spouted about Belur and Halebid and Australia. I was intrigued by these fabulous southern Hindu civilisations which had arisen, dominated and then collapsed, and other than guide books, and scholarly tomes, which I guessed without reading were somewhat tedious, there seemed to be no writing that could bring to life these places in the way that William Dalrymple has done with the Mughal civilisations of the north (as I have mentioned elsewhere). Well, now, he began, whatever your books or any others say, and they will say otherwise, these temples and others like them in Karnataka were created by the Pandayas from Madurai, who extended their civilisations from the southern tip at Cape Cormoran you have, by the way, been to this meeting of three seas, the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean, better known today as Kanyakumari?all the way to the likes of Puri and Ajanta. The Pandayas built the oldest and grandest civilisation in all India. Covering half the continent? I knew that this was nonsense, but I didnt care to resist, because, well, my own knowledge was pretty flimsy, and so what? He was proud of his city, his templeand the Meenashki temple in Madurai is phenomenal, as are the temples around, in Tiruchirapalli, Thanjavur and elsewhereand of his imagined ancestors, the Pandayans. This beginning led to a long digression on caste, as he needed to explain what it meant to be who he was. The man had been engaged for something like a year in finding a suitable husband for his daughter, using the services of a marriage broker, one who had successfully married off another daughter and a son (both were marred into families worth well over ten lakhs, it seemed). We had 300 applicants, you see. Such sorting you have not seen. He made it sound a bit like drafting cattle, Hold er! Block er! Stop er! Shell do for a milker!, though altogether more exacting. The successful applicant needed to be as follows: A Brahmin

Murray Laurence

A Tamil speaker From the same sub-caste From Madurai ( a Pandayan descendant) Pure vegetarian Light skinned Non-smoker Non-drinker Aged between 24 and 30 Holding US citizenship or residency.amongst other requirements. Now the light skinned feature, he admitted, was a little problematic because the daughter, you see (a bit of a squirm and lowering of the voice) is a little dark, and we must be sure that the grand children are not little dark ones, as such. Im sure youll understand. The non-drinker aspect, too, had to be explained: of course a whisky soda for business proposes is fine, but nothing habitual, mind you, and not in front of the ladies. The daughter, needless to say , was involved in none of this, and the man concluded with, Youll be delighted to know that we found the right fellow, living in Boston, and with each and every credential just so. Indians are always curious to know where you are from. At that time, if you replied Australia you received one of three responses. If the inquirer was not well educated, say a cheery or pestering boy in the street, the response would be Rickibonting or Sanewon (Shane Warne) or Bradlee (Brett Lee) or Gilli (Adam Gilchrist) and then an incomprehensible cricket anecdote before the conversation pretty much collapsed, as usually these kids did not have much English. A similar enquiry in a place coming down with artists such as Udaipur would result in a stream of consciousness that sounded something like this: Fromsydneemelbuncunberabrisboyeadelaidecapitalcityperthkangar oo? And then: Goingsydneymelburncunberrabrisboyadelaidecapitalcityperthkanga roo with my art show next month. Well, actually, Im from Longreach, I would reply, hoping to deflect any further engagement. Longbeach too. Do you want to see my paintings?

Murray Laurence

However with urbane, educated people everything was more difficult, and, oh, how they would go on. This was right in the middle of the horrid and inexplicable attacks on Indian students in Australia and the wild media response in India. So this man, this fastidious Brahmin, demanded, Why are you Australians so difficult to get along with and so racist? Here we go, I thought. I replied that we are not all that, and added that I was at a loss to explain these attacks. But there you are, you people, day after day, singling out our Indians for abuse and physical attack. It is unwarranted and racist. I wanted to point out that he would not have let his daughter consort with any of the Indians involved in the attacks, not to mention anyone Australian at all, but instead of being so direct and personal I deflected and said, Well, in Australia we dont have communal riots and massacres such as erupt here every now and again. Gujarat 2002 came to mind. It was a bit below the belt, as here we were in a train, a happy Moslem family beside us, foreigners and a finicky high caste Hindu, but I knew if something were to trigger trouble on the train, it was inevitable that one community or another would be the target. And, anyway, these communities scarcely communicate with or acknowledge one another at all. There is more interaction with foreigners such as myself. On stations there is the most prodigious mingling of peoplecasts, language groups, religions, classes, ethnic groupsyou watch fascinated as they move among and around each other, the better off, say, alighting from the Shatabdi express from Delhi, stepping carefully through encampments of desert tribals waiting for a passenger train to Bikaner as if they were walking through a tangle of crabs. But no communication. Because this man was not too hostile in his inquiries, I didnt become as cranky as I did with a couple of others. One man said thats irrelevant to every comment I made, so I countered, Last year in India there were 30,000 bride burnings. What about that? Irrelevant! (Which I suppose my comment was). Maureen would normally say shes Irish, and there the conversation usually lapsed; so at times I took this cover as well. At a certain moment everyone started eating, either from their own lunch boxes, or something from the pantry car. All the rubbish went

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out the windows, a distressing sight as these days the rubbish is mostly plastic, not leaves, paper or ceramic cups as in the past. Our Brahmin friend shoved two plastic water bottles and plates out through the bars saying, I know you people dont do this, but here someone will clean it up, a remark that captures much about India, and explains why public places are invariably piggin, as the Irish say. He also discoursed at great length on why to a pure-veg like himself cows milk was sacred while hens eggs (looking askance at the Moslem children nibbling hard boiled eggs) were absolutely off limits. Something about the cows giving the milk freely , whilst the idiot hens lost their eggs. The man then wandered off up the carriage, leaving his bag well chained, and found a fellow from his tiny splinter of society to sit with comfortably for a while. All right, Madurai was the capital of the Pandayan civilisation for over a thousand years, from several centuries BC until it succumbed to the rival Cholas in the tenth century AD. It was known as the Athens of the East, was an inspired seat of culture and learning, and was actually visited by voyagers from Greece and Rome. During the later Cholas rule, it was trashed by the inevitable Muslim invaders from the Delhi sultanate, which allowed the Pandyas to return, but eventually the city joined the magnificent Vijayanagara empire based in Hampi. But Madurai was not responsible for all or most of South Indias temple marvels, and this man, so firm in his certainties, had not even been to Belur and Halebid about which he was so possessive. From Mysore it was a clattering bus trip of half a day to reach Hassan. The Rough Guide describes Hassan accurately as unprepossessing. It is a typical medium sized town full of noise and disorder; but clopping around in a pony tonga was easy enough. Surprisingly we found a pleasant hotel in our budget price range, which you can seldom do in India. It was not at first promising; at the desk was a most unsightly man (a most unsightly man, he was born in Tuscaloosa, but he died right here in Birmingham sorry, Randy Newman diversion). He was massive, and his bare top and neck were covered in abundant hair giving him the appearance a great fern covered boulder. With almost no movement of his short arms he was shifting handfuls of grub into his mouth, located in a gruesome, spacious face. But when he spoke his voice was lovely, clear and gentle! And the room he showed us, once he levered himself up from his cushioned platform, was, as he deftly described it: spic and span, flush and fan.

Murray Laurence

That afternoon we took a country bus to Halebid. It was a 40 minute trip, standing grasping the rails at the door, all the way. Theres not much left of Halebid, but the Hoysaleshvara temple is wonderful, and it sits, a timeless vision in a green and peaceful park. It was built by the Hoysalas in about the eleventh centuryso, much later than anything the Pandayas would have put up. The Hoysalas ruled this southern end of Karnataka for a few hundred years only at this time. There are no commanding towers, suggesting that the temple was unfinished. In the great contest for wealth, land, prestige, elephants, slaves and concubines that characterises much Indian history, the entire area was sacked by invaders from Delhi in 1311, but the Hoysaleshvara and Kedareshvara temples escaped terrible damage. The most remarkable feature is the highly ornate carving, mostly of dramatic scenes from the life of Shivathe demon Ravana shaking Mount Kailash, Shivas home, for exampleall crafted such that they display a palpable energy and vibrancy. We found a mini-bus going to Belur, a journey of about an hour due to the frequent stops to cram more hapless, contorting bodies aboard. Belur was briefly the Hoysala capital and today it remains a busy little pilgrimage centre and market town. The Chennakeshava temple was built in 1117 to celebrate victory over the Cholas. It has the same modest structure as Hoysaleshvara and vibrant, elaborate carvings. It remains an active temple and most visitors are pilgrims. There is much more that could be written about the construction techniques, artistry and distinctive style of these temples; we certainly found the detour from Mysore worthwhile. It was also good to confirm what we already knew, that these were the works of the Hoysalas and bore no resemblance to anything created by the Pandayans. Our Brahmin on the train was full of old rope. Later, in Hampi, we met a French woman who had studied these temples for her masters degree. When I mentioned what the Brahmin know-all had told us she laughed and simply said, There you go. Insular, arrogant and ignorant.

Murray Laurence

Murray Laurence

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