“There is no thanks between brothers.”

It’s an indoor sort of day today in Omdurman. The sky, or what I can see of it now, is yellow. The view from our rooftop – normally encompassing a wide swath of the Nile from Ingaz Bridge to Shambat Bridge, plus Tutti Island and downtown Khartoum – reveals only faint outlines of buildings that are within easy walking distance.

It’s a dust storm, the first we’ve experienced since arriving in Khartoum a month ago. Not a dramatic Hollywood whip-dust-into-your-face-till-you-bleed sandstorm, but a dust storm nonetheless. We first noticed the wind was up when we left the house just after 8:00 this morning, setting out to find the bus station we’ll need to depart from when we visit Karima. We weren’t sure where to find the correct bus station, so we walked to Shouhada, a transport center just 25 to 30 minutes from our house. We hoped we’d find someone there to tell us whether the right place is called Souk Shabi, or whether we needed to go somewhere else, and to direct us there.

The wind felt refreshing as we walked toward Shouhada, a touch of coolness after a hot night. After a while, though, I had to keep pulling at the front of my kurta, trying to keep it from binding up in front of my legs, while with the other hand I held my headscarf taut along the sides of my face as a dust shield.

By the time we arrived at Souk Shabi, women’s tobes and men’s white jellabiyas were billowing around them, as full as sails on the Nile. Plastic bags whirled, caught in dust devils. Smoke from trash fires blew into our clothing, scenting it with a renegade variety of incense.

Souk Shabi

Alan stood at a metal ticket booth, surrounded by curious bystanders, and gathered travel information: Which buses go to Karima? What time should we arrive? How long is the trip? What does it cost? Here in Sudan, where bus stations don’t post timetables and buses leave only when they’re full, we’ve found it’s easiest to get the details before the day you hope to travel.

As we moved away from the buses, a tall thin man wearing a dark purple shirt caught up with us. His name was Mohammed, but he asked us to call him Abu Nazir,  or “father of Nazir.” It’s a way of naming people we first discovered in the Middle East, and it’s commonly used here, too. Abu Nazir was curious about us – where we come from, what we were doing in Sudan – and fortunately for me, he spoke English quite well. A few words missing, as is often the case, but the flow of ideas and emotions was completely clear.

“Welcome to your country,” Abu Nazir said. “Your country, not my country. This is your own country.” This also is a common way of expressing welcome: “Please, welcome to your office,” my boss’s boss said to me yesterday as I arrived at his office for our first meeting.

We walked with Abu Nair towards the main road, chatting together, and he asked if we’d like to drink tea. We didn’t feel we needed any, but he was a pleasant man, and, in the most graceful way, insistent: “Please don’t say no. We are brothers; you do not say no to your brother.”

At the opposite side of the road, Abu Nazir scrutinized one tea lady’s array before leading us to another whose setup clearly looked superior to him. He pulled out two plastic chairs, discarding a third that was broken, made sure whether we preferred tea or coffee, and then surprised us by paying the tea lady 10 Sudanese pounds – enough for just two teas. “I must work now,” he said, showing us the pointed iron rod in his hand, and gesturing to where a man stood waiting no more than 15 feet beyond the tea lady’s stall. “I will get one hundred pound for this work. Come and tell me goodbye before you go.”

We sat in two plastic chairs, rooted by our surprise, unaware at first of the dust blowing straight into our faces. Alan noticed a sheep being pulled out of a rickshaw between the tea lady’s stall and where Abu Nazir stood, pounding a hole into the ground. A man dragged the sheep by one leg, and in vain it hopped to keep up. I realized what was about to happen in the next 90 seconds, so we got up and turned our chairs toward the road, to keep our faces out of the wind and our eyes from the sight of blood.

Ninety seconds after I took this photo, the sheep was dead on the ground to the right of the Toyota and in front of the tea stall you see at the right edge of the photo.
Ninety seconds after I took this photo, the sheep was dead on the ground to the right of the Toyota and in front of the tea stall you see at the right edge of the photo.

We sipped at the tea when it finally came, not wanting it but equally not wanting to refuse the hospitality we’d been offered. We walked around a parked white van, putting it between us and the blood and entrails on the ground, and went to thank Abu Nazir.

“No thanks, no thanks,” he said. “There is no thanks between brothers.” He urged us to take his phone number, and to make sure we called him when we want to go to Karima. “These people will charge you big price,” he said, gesturing to the row of dusty travel shops where we stood. “I will make small price. You are my friends, you come to my family home, you eat with us.”

Alan offered his hand, but Abu Nazir wouldn’t let him take it, showing the dust-coated palm. Instead, he offered the back of his wrist, and Alan touched the back of his wrist to Abu Nazir’s, so I did the same. “Remember, you come to me. Everyone knows me here, Abu Nazir. You ask for me.”

We walked a few paces and then caught a bus for “Stad” – very lucky, we thought. Stad is a downtown Khartoum stadium, so the bus should pass very close to our house in Morada. We settled onto seats that were even more dingy and threadbare than usual, and the bus bounced its way south through a long street of concrete sellers and steel sellers – stacks and stacks of bags of concrete, like bunkers built from sandbags, shored up by heaps of rebar. “All the cement that’s being used to build the city, it all comes from here,” Alan said, reminding me of the many buildings we see under construction in Omdurman and downtown Khartoum.  We proceeded from building materials to a street of perfume stores; the acrid odor of burning plastic was replaced by wafts from a boudoir world. Open-fronted mirror-backed shelves turned rows of shapely glass bottles into ranks of courtesans clad in transparent Egyptian dress.

Presently the bus arrived at a small stadium we didn’t recognize, and all the passengers descended. We’d made a mistake; it was the wrong Stad. We caught another bus to Khalifa Square, got out and walked home on familiar Morada Road. There was little trash to be seen in the yellow dust-storm light, nor any trash fires at this moment. The road was nearly empty of traffic; it was still early, just 10:00 AM on a Friday morning.

A man bought us tea for 10 Sudanese pounds, then excused himself politely to go earn one hundred. A sheep had its throat slit and its body carted away to be cut up into food. A bus took us the wrong way, and we found the right one after all. Now we sit in our Morada house, with our fellow volunteers all doing their Friday things: showering, preparing lessons, playing guitar. The sky is deep yellow. The birds are calling, as they do every afternoon around this time.

 

Daily devotions and a moment of grace

Everywhere we stay, we take daily walks through the neighborhood, wanting to get to know the layout of the streets around us. Our neighborhood in Omdurman, called Morada, is compact, the streets tracing an irregular grid with occasional curves and diagonals thrown in. Mosque towers dot the neighborhood; no one has to walk more than five or six minutes to get to a mosque for prayers.

At prayer time, wherever we happen to be – Morada, Souk Omdurman, or downtown Khartoum – I often see men washing at long troughs ranged around a mosque yard. These troughs are usually tiled, with elevated seats at intervals, giving each person plenty of room to swing a leg to the left or right as needed. Women normally wash in a separate area of the mosque, indoors and out of sight of the public.

A row of plastic washing jugs, one man filling them and two men having a wash before prayers.
These plastic washing jugs are everywhere. People keep them filled so others can wash themselves before prayers.

Because prayer takes place at least five times per day, and people are at work, at school, doing their errands, many people end up praying not at the mosque, but wherever they are. People pray on the street, or in a special prayer room at their workplace, in a corner of the shop where they work – I’ve even seen women kneeling on their shawls in a corner of the ladies’ restroom at the Al Waha Mall downtown. You often see men roll out a long green mat or two on the sidewalk, or on the raised porch that runs along a row of shopfronts, or even on a parking lot, so they can pray together in rows, in fellowship.

Prayer.jpg

People always wash before prayers, wherever they happen to be when prayer time comes. There are special plastic jugs for washing, with long thin arched spouts – the shape is graceful, and the long spout makes it easy to pour water carefully, without waste. I’ve seen people seated on a low stool, box or even just a roadside curb, going through the thorough process of the pre-prayer wash.

Washing Feet.jpg

I love watching people do this. There is a slow, deliberate, careful quality to their preparations, as if they’re making a transition into a different space. They rub between their toes, wash the bottoms of their feet, around the backs of their heels and all the way up to the ankles. They wash their hands to above the wrists, paying close attention to each nail. They wash their faces carefully, without spilling on their clothes, and pass some water over the tops of their heads, then pat dry with a handkerchief. This attentive washing feels reverential, a turning inward in preparation for prayer. I am moved when I see a line of men bending down, prostrating to the East, their attention focused, the clean pink bottoms of their feet turned up to the sky.

Prayer isn’t the only thing we see as we walk our neighborhood. People stand in front of their gates, chatting to neighbors. Laundrymen bring bundles of clean clothes to their clients. Children chase each other down the street. Women tear bread and cut vegetables into big steel bowls at the corner shop, then wait their turn for hot meat broth to be ladled in. Tea ladies sit on low stools, their charcoal braziers and boxes of tea, coffee, sugar and spices at the ready, and fast-food sellers package meals to go. Men emerge from their house gates with pots of water for the trees and shrubs they’ve planted outside.

Food stand
Local fast-food place. They make delicious foul (fava beans).
Local tea lady
This lady makes tea and coffee in front of our local souk (market), Souk Morada.

Our local mosque has a beautiful little garden running along one side of its enclosing wall. The garden creates a kind of buffer zone between the mosque and the rubbish that piles up in the street, keeping the precincts of the mosque separate and clean – a refuge.

Mosque & garden.jpg

A Qur’an lesson

We were admiring the mosque garden yesterday morning when a middle-aged woman stopped to talk with us. She was wearing a black burqa and a niqab, or face covering, leaving only her eyes visible. This is not typical in our neighborhood, nor is it unusual. All women keep their heads covered, some loosely, some with their hijab wrapped tight, but the face covering is an extra item we don’t routinely see.

“Where from?” she asked in English. Alan answered her in Arabic, and her eyes lit up. They chatted for a few moments, then she asked if we were Muslim – a very normal question from people we’ve met since we arrived two weeks ago. We always answer that we are Christian, as that’s easy for people to understand, and people here generally regard Christians as “people of the book” – people who honor God and God’s word. So it’s an understandable alternative to Islam.

The lady told us she lives close by – she’s a neighbor! – and that her name is Sara. I told her that’s our daughter’s name, and she was pleased by the coincidence. She asked if I was interested in Islam, and I said, “Yes, I find it interesting.” Sara said she was on her way to her Qur’an study class, and urged us to come with her. “You will like it,” she said. Alan asked if it would be okay to leave after five or 10 minutes, and Sara said, “Of course!” She hustled us along up the street, very happy to have us as guests.

We entered a building and followed Sara downstairs into a large basement room, with a classroom set up at one end of it, with a blackboard, a desk in front of it, and rows of seats. No one was there. “Oh, we are late,” Sara said, meaning, of course, that we were early, or everyone else was late. “Sit down, I will read you from the Qur’an.”

And she did. Her voice was just beautiful. I recorded her, so you can listen too.

 

After Sara recited, we chatted a little more. Her husband, she said, is working in one of the Arabian Gulf states. I got the impression that this means Sara can get her housework out of the way a lot more quickly, so she can come to her Qur’an class as often as she likes. The more complex things she had to say, she said in Arabic (and Alan translated for me). Learning from the Qur’an, Sara said, teaches her and the other students about the place above, a garden full of beauty. She looked upward, and gestured with her hands. “We can think about all these beautiful things as we do our daily duties,” she said.

We thanked Sara for the lesson, and told her it was time to be on our way. As Alan walked towards the door, Sara held my hand and said a few kind things. I said in return a phrase I’ve been learning: “Allah yadeek al’affiyah,” or “God give you health.”

It had a completely unexpected effect. Sara seized me in her arms and hugged me close; her heart pressed to mine. She pulled away, her eyes warm, and reached behind her head. Suddenly, the black face mask was gone., and her face was fully exposed to me: her round rosy cheeks, her curving red mouth.

“I show you my face, so you can know me,” Sara said. “When you see me, you will know me. Not for your husband, only for you. Not for men, not in the street, but for you.”

The smile of her whole face was as sweet as the smile of her eyes above the niqab. The transformation, so sudden, startled me: the sudden opening of a black theater curtain, an act of trust. I didn’t know what to say; I could only thank her, and again stammer out a wish that God should bless her, as she pressed my hands between hers.

As we walked into the bright sun and down the dusty street, I felt light, full of energy and the surge of this love that had entered me so suddenly from another heart. We humans love to connect; we connect across widely divergent cultures, with little language in common. It takes only a loving heart and a press of the hand.

Local Qur'an school
The Qur’an school in our neighborhood.

A trip to Tutti Island

Viewed from the bank of the Nile in Morada (the district of Omdurman where we live), or from the bridge we cross into downtown Khartoum, Tutti Island is a beautiful spot of green agricultural fields right in the convergence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. It looks peaceful and serene, an irresistible draw if you’re growing weary of the dusty, busy city.

Tutti Island viewed from Omdurman
Looking over to Tutti Island from the banks of the Nile in Omdurman, where we live. The foreground is actually Omdurman, but it’s very much how Tutti itself looks when you’re standing on the bridge just south of Tutti Island.

Yesterday we walked from Nile Street in downtown Khartoum to the bridge, over the Blue Nile, and onto Tutti Island for a bit of exploration. Just under the bridge, we found a curious little scene: an outdoor pool hall. I’d love to include a few photos here, but according to the rules of my photography permit, I’m not allowed to take photos of bridges (or government buildings, etc.). I figure pictures of pool tables under bridges might be too close to the edge of what’s acceptable, so you’ll just have to imagine it: Huge concrete pylons supporting a bridge high above the ground, with cars and trucks passing overhead. Below the bridge, a tangle of small trees, bushes and shrubs, and hardpacked earth with the usual layer of fine sandy dust. There was a rectangular area enclosed by a wire fence, much like the fences that enclose school playgrounds in the United States, and inside, two pool tables, end to end. Early as it was, several teenaged boys were playing pool.

From the two pool tables in the enclosure, a narrow asphalt road branched to the left, with a couple of snack stands (closed at this point) and stacks of red and white plastic chairs, ready to be set out at the right time.  Branching to the right was a dirt path leading to a row of smaller shops and more pool tables. These weren’t substantial shops – just a row of lightweight frames made of pipework, supporting roofs made of plastic tarps. Below these roofs were boxes, tables and two-burner gas stoves for cooking food. And beyond all this, the glitter of the Nile, a huge blue sky arching overhead, and the riverbank opposite fringed with big old trees and boats waiting for customers.

We walked to where the bridge road dropped down to ground level, and followed the curve of the road around onto a two-lane main street, fairly empty on this bright Friday morning. (In case you haven’t lived in a Muslim country, or don’t know much about Islam, Friday is the weekly day of rest.) A few shops were open for the early morning, allowing people to buy a few necessities for the holiday.

We stopped at a small storefront for some fresh bread – so fresh it was still warm and fragrant – and bought a bunch of bananas at another storefront. Then we started looking for an open tea shop. We saw a couple of men chatting over tea, so we asked if we could buy some. “You want tea?” asked a middle-aged gentleman. “Yes please,” we replied. He gave an order to a young girl, and she headed down the street. The tea drinkers explained that the shop was closed, but said, “Welcome, welcome,” bringing out chairs and a small tea table for us. In a moment, the young girl appeared again with two glasses of tea, and one of coffee. We thanked her, thanked the men, and chatted with them as we enjoyed our tea and makeshift banana sandwiches.

The middle-aged gentleman, it turned out, is from Ethiopia, and he introduced his wife, who had a bit more English. The two of them have been here on Tutti Island for twelve years, they told us, and the shop next door to the tea place is theirs. They welcomed us to the island, hoping we’d enjoy it. “It’s a peaceful place, Tutti,” the lady said, and the two of them said goodbye and vanished.

After we finished the tea, we tried to pay the two men sitting beside us. They smiled and shook their heads, gesturing to the shop next door. The Ethiopian couple had simply had tea brought to us, possibly from their house, because we wanted it. This is just one small example of the hospitality and generosity we’ve experienced since arriving here less than two weeks ago, and it’s typical.

We resumed our walk down the road, hoping to get to the green crop fields that we admire from the riverbank just a few steps from where we live. We turned off the road at a promising place, heading for what we thought was the riverbank. There we met a tall athletic-looking man who was working in a half-ruined building in a field with a few other men. He came over to ask us if we needed any help. His English was very good, and once he understood that we were looking for the riverbank, he walked us along to a good spot, and explained which banks we were looking at from this point, drawing a map in the sandy soil. He showed us where we could walk to see the part of the island we were looking for.

Looking across the Nile River to Bahri, a district of greater Khartoum, from Tutti Island.
Looking across the Nile River to Bahri, a district of greater Khartoum, from Tutti Island. Photo by Alan.

He also pointed out how much the river has eroded the island at this place; there was an orchard to our left that was literally being washed into the river. It’s a terrifying prospect for people who’ve been living on the island for years, planting fruit trees and other crops and making a living from them. There are areas where buildings have been started and abandoned, because these areas have flooded and may well flood again. The man who was talking with us was taking over one of these abandoned buildings, and planning to use it for animals – chickens or goats, I think he said. I imagine these animals will be easier to evacuate than people and all their possessions, the next time the river rises.

As we continued to walk along the river bank, the more rural scenes we were seeking began to unfold. We found a farm area that also had a mud-brick factory. It was interesting to see the bricks laid out in the sun to dry, and to spot the kiln where they get fired. I also enjoyed looking at the deep holes dug out for water, to mix with the clay soil and form into bricks.

We ran into a few more people as we walked along, mostly men standing about in their bright clean white robes, fresh for the Friday holiday. We had a few conversations along the normal lines – where are you from? What do you think of Sudan? What do you think of Tutti Island? We always say very positive things about Sudan – all true, as we’re enjoying being here, and grateful for this amazing opportunity to live in such an interesting place, so different from our prior experiences.

One gentleman cautioned us, “Yes, people in Sudan are good. Not all of them are good – you should be careful, just like with people in any country of the world. But most of them are good and honest.” It seemed like a fair comment; most of the people we’ve met here have been warm and open, but as experienced travelers, we’re always careful. Still, it’s nice to be in a place where people are interested in foreigners and enjoy talking with us. It’s also great how often people want to help us with things like finding places we’re looking for, or the correct bus to get there – usually before we even ask. It must be the lost looks on our faces. 😉

Here are a few more photos from Tutti.

Tutti has plenty of agriculture, but it’s also a small town. We wandered up and down the residential streets, which are really just narrow defiles between rows of houses, nearly all surrounded by high walls. I particularly like the gates to these domestic compounds.

We spent a couple of hours walking around Tutti Island, and really, we could have spent a lot more time. But the sun was getting to its maximum brightness, and the heat, too, and we’d been wandering around long enough. (We’re aware that it’s still winter, by the way, and not really hot yet!) We’ll come back to Tutti another time, that’s for sure.

Next chapter: Sudan

Map of Sudan from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASudan_regions_map.png
From Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASudan_regions_map.png

Tomorrow we fly from London to Khartoum, Sudan. This is the piece of our three-year sojourn we planned the most intensively. We will be part of the Sudan Volunteer Programme, a 21-year-old nonprofit that places native (or fully fluent) English speakers around Sudan to teach English conversation to Sudanese university students.

A lot of people have asked us, “Why Sudan?” Now is a good time to answer that question, before we jump in and get so involved that the answer changes, and becomes something else.

We had two very different (but compatible) motivations for this choice. Alan has been studying Arabic for about 10 years, finally obtaining a degree in Arabic from Portland State University. We’ve made a few short trips to Arabic-speaking countries – Syria, Jordan and Egypt – and Alan spent three months studying at Damascus University in 2009, before the war began. He’s always wanted to spend an extended period in an Arabic-speaking country to become more fluent, so he did some research on programs that would allow us to do some useful work and live for a few months in a country where Arabic is the primary language.

The Sudan Volunteer Programme was the one we chose, in no small part because it’s a country neither of us has visited. Going somewhere that’s totally outside of my prior experience was important to both of us. The feeling I got when considering Sudan reminded me of when I decided to go to India, back when I was still an undergraduate student at UCLA. I was scared of things I was reading: the heat, the diseases, the poverty, and the sheer size of India all intimidated me. And at the same time, I was drawn to Indian religion and culture: the art, the craft, the literature. For both reasons – the fear and the attraction – I was compelled to go.

This time around, I’m not fearful. Okay, that’s not strictly true…extreme heat is something I’m still not certain I’ll handle well. I’m fine at 34°C, but how will I feel when it gets to 50°? Also, I recently discovered I can be allergic to the bites of mosquitos in a new region. That was not fun, so I’ve obsessively acquired every possible form of mosquito repellent I could find.

I’m actually pretty excited about teaching, about learning Arabic, about being in a culture that’s completely new to me, and making new friends. But at the same time, I know how little I know, especially after spending three months in India, which is very much my comfort zone, and then another month in England, swathed in the coziness of a family visit. So I’m nervous about going outside of what’s comfortable and known – and I’m eager to go there.

So off we go, vaccinated, equipped with all the anti-mosquito equipment you can imagine, with freshly stamped visas in our passports. I’m ready to have my mind (and sweat pores) opened.

 

Urban hiking, London edition

After a lovely Christmas in Malmesbury with the family of our daughter’s partner, we have been back in London for two weeks. That’s given us lots of time to walk in many parts of the city, and from one neighborhood to another.

One of my favourite statues in London: the boy and the dolphin in Hyde Park. This piece makes an appearance in Mary Poppins (the first book).
One of my favourite statues in London: the boy and the dolphin in Hyde Park. This piece makes an appearance in Mary Poppins (the first book).

Among its other advantages – fascinating history, varied historical and modern architecture, human-scale streets – London has wonderful parks that beckon to the urban hiker. On this visit, we’ve walked through Hyde Park and adjoining Kensington Gardens; Southwark Park; West Ham Park; and a multitude of smaller parks and squares throughout the city.

All these parks are filled with huge old trees, beds of varied plants (and some that are flowering now: hellebores, daphne, snowdrops and cyclamens, to name just a few), and wildlife. Yes, wildlife! This morning, we saw a fox in Southwark Park. It was climbing across the top of a vine-filled arbor, trying to get away from the humans staring at it. I wish I had thought to get a photo, but I was too excited to think about grabbing my phone.

Aside from the fox, we’ve seen swans, a variety of different ducks and other water birds, and one day in Kensington Gardens, we saw a flock of bright-green parakeets. There’s an amusing article in Wikipedia about the feral parakeets of southeast England, especially the section about the origin of these urban parakeets.

For your enjoyment, here are a few photos from our walks.

Feral parakeets
Feral rose-ringed parakeets in Kensington Gardens.
Lots of birds
Varied water fowl in Hyde Park.
Swans
Swarming swans on Long Water in Hyde Park.

Another big advantage of urban hiking in London: If it gets too cold or wet, you can pop down into the Underground or get on a bus. Personally, I like the buses better, especially riding on the top level. You can see the progression from one neighborhood to another, especially when you travel along one long road. You proceed from a high street with its own characteristic shops, clinics, town hall and more, on to a section of housing (usually flats, since you’re on a main road). Then you enter a new high street, with its own set of shops, restaurants and historic buildings. Speaking of historic buildings, the perspective you get from the top level of a bus is wonderful: You see the ornamentation up close, in a way you never can from street level.

Another big advantage of London walking: endless cafes where you can get a hot drink and a snack. Central London and the wealthier neighborhoods have all been taken over by chains like Pret A Manger, Costa, Leon, Caffè Nero, Patisserie Valerie and more. And there are lots of small coffee shops and bakeries. My favorites, however, are the smaller, humbler, independently owned cafes – the ones that lack trendy décor and ingredients, and just serve really strong coffee and tea, plus a couple of simple sandwiches and cakes. I particularly enjoyed Coffee Hut in Green Street, near where we lived in 1982. It has truly great coffee, probably the best I’ve had in London, and its toasted sandwiches are good, too. I also like the Southwark Park Café, where we’ve stopped for nice strong tea and a simple cake. It’s not fancy, but it’s pleasant and relaxing to sit and chat with the locals on a wintry morning.

22 generations of terracotta artistry

Terracotta horses, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Terracotta_horses,_Sanskriti_Museum.JPGYesterday our friends Satheesh and Bade sent us to visit V.K. Munusamy, an artist who makes traditional terracotta statues and sculpture, including traditional Tamil village horses and guardians. These statues are a familiar sight to those who have visited rural Tamil villages, and the making of them is a very old tradition. In Munusamy’s family, it’s a tradition that goes back 22 generations.

Munusamy lives in Villianur, about 7 kilometers from Pondicherry. It’s a pleasant village that is also home to a large and interesting Shiva temple, where we stopped for a quick visit along the way.

Munusamy learned the art and craft of terracotta sculpture from his parents from his childhood. Today, he has several workshops and employs a number of local women to execute traditional designs, such as small statues of Ganesha playing musical instruments or dispensing blessings, village horses, Buddha heads, and more. It was fun to watch these craftswomen at work.

Munusamy himself showed us how he crafts small Ganeshas from simple shapes. I was fascinated to see how quickly his skilled hands transformed a few cones of clay into a sweet-faced or mischievous-seeming Ganapati. The video below is pretty brief, because I suddenly ran out of storage on my phone, but it gives you some idea.

Munusamy’s work is well known far beyond Villianur. His workshops export to countries all over the world, and he’s also known for creating the tallest versions of a village horse and temple guardian. He’s also crafted tiny versions of traditional sculptures, just half an inch high. Munusamy explained to us it’s because of the specific minerals in the local clay that he can create sculptures of any size.

Apart from the traditional sculptures, Munusamy has also received commissions for highly realistic sculptures. He showed us the statue his workshop is making now, a likeness of Paul Harris, the founder of Rotary International. I was impressed with the statue’s face; it was highly realistic, so much so that I felt I could see the character of the person, even though Munusamy was working from photos, not from life. You can see the sculpture below. Paul Harris stands between Alan and me on one side, and Munusamy and an MFA student from Bangalore on the other side.

Alan, Aliza, Paul Harris (in clay), MFA student and Munusamy. Photo by V.K. Munusamy.
Alan, Aliza, Paul Harris (in clay), MFA student and Munusamy. Photo by V.K. Munusamy.

Unlike his artisan ancestors, Munusamy is working to spread his knowledge far beyond his family or professional assistants. He’s trained thousands of people, from Tamil villagers to visiting students. The MFA student from Bangalore picture above told us he was studying with Munusamy because his work is so well known. “I am a contemporary sculptor,” he told us. “I try to learn what he does, but I cannot do it like he does. All of us contemporary artists, we know his work and we give him respect.”

The workshop itself was a nice place to visit. The ladies were working in peaceful concentration as we watched Munusamy make Ganapati statues, and talked with him. Several of the ladies had their children with them for the day, and the kids sat near their mothers, studying or snacking. Despite the quiet hum of productive activity, it felt more like the home of a large extended family than a workplace.

As Munusamy finished demonstrating his technique to us, we told him how impressed we were with how he quickly turned a lump of clay into a lovable Ganapati. “I am slow,” he said. “They are the quick ones,” and he gestured to the ladies sitting in a circle around the workshop. “They are the real designers.”

More about the beaches of Gokarna

Pilgrims from Maharashtra dancing on Gokarna Beach
Pilgrims from Maharashtra dancing on Gokarna Beach

Gokarna is famous for having five beaches that spread southward from the largest of them, Gokarna Beach.  Each is very different in character; we have visited four of them, not quite making it to the fifth. (You might want to read this overview post about Gokarna, which also has a bit about the temples.)

Gokarna Beach is easily five kilometers long from headland to headland. We’ve walked most of it, stopping at Namaste Garden a couple of times for breakfast or tea. This is one of many guest houses along the beach, and seems to be one of the nicest ones. It’s owned by Krishna Gouda, who started the place back in 1996 with his brothers. Today, he runs the place with his family, including his son, a young man who looks just like his father in the 20-year-old photos Krishna showed me of himself and his brothers, when Namaste Garden was just a small thatch-sided and thatch-roofed shed. Today Krishna has a large commercial kitchen, a dining area facing onto the sea, and a common area for family and guests. There are 11 rooms for guests, each with its own bathroom. I looked at the rooms; they are compact, neat and clean, with a long veranda for reading, chatting or just resting. The garden is beautiful, and the entire place is run on solar power, Krishna told me.

Tibetans on Beach.jpg

Gokarna is where you’ll see lots of pilgrims bathing in the ocean before heading up to the temples to make offerings and pray. It’s also where you’ll see lots of tourists of all nationalities, including a large group of Tibetan monks and laypeople we saw one day. Like most other visitors, these were busy taking selfies and group pictures.

 

The next beach south is Kudle (pronounced “KOOD-lee”), and it’s the largest after Gokarna Beach. Walking over the headland from Gokarna Beach to Kudle BeachYou can get there either by rickshaw or by walking up to the yellow-domed temple on the headland at the south end of Gokarna Beach, and from there, continuing over the broad, grass-covered headland to a steep path that descends to the beach. This is a beautiful way to go. If you take it slowly, it’s 45 minutes from Gokarna town to the northern end of Kudle. And you want to take it slow, at least the first time. If you walk to the little peaks and bare rocks at the edge of the headland, you can look up and down the Karnataka coastline, its beaches protected by rocky outcroppings. It all reminded me of the Oregon coast, but on a smaller scale and with tropical plants instead of evergreens.

Where Gokarna Beach is full of Indians on pilgrimage and on holiday, plus a wide assortment of other visitors, Kudle seems to be favored by younger tourists, including young families with small children, both Indian and foreign. We also see a lot of yoga tourists there, practicing their asanas and stretches on the sand.

Local Indians selling necklaces, anklets, scarves and lungis wander up and down the beach, hoping to sell something. Cafes and lodges line the beach much more densely than at Gokarna Beach.

Downward Dog Kudle
Sprawling dog and downward dog.
Kudle Beach Frisbee
Frisbee on the beach.

On our first visit here, we found the surf at Kudle much more gentle than at Gokarna Beach. But the next day, the surf was wilder, due to a cyclone moving its way north from the Kerala coast. Still, swimming in a warm sea was a real pleasure, something that’s been rare for me. I grew up in southern California, but always found the Pacific a little cold for swimming. The Karnataka coast is much more like Hawaii, with warm, welcoming water, even right now in December. Drifting in the waves, or swimming beyond the breakers to an easy patch of rising and falling ocean, looking at the rocky palm-fringed headlands, is incredibly relaxing.

Culturally, Kudle is very much a tourist beach. The guest houses and restaurants are much more tightly packed here than on Gokarna Beach, and there’s little sense of a town life that’s independent of the beach scene.

The next beach south of Kudle is Om Beach, so called because it’s shaped like the Sanskrit symbol for Om, the universal sound. You can see that shape really well only if you walk to the southern edge of Om Beach and climb up to the headland there. View of Om Beach from south headlandJust a 20-minute walk from the southern edge of Kudle, Om Beach feels quite different from the other two. It is less well suited to swimming, as the beach is much narrower, with a sharper drop to the sea, leaving less room for the badminton, volleyball and Frisbee games people play at Kudle or Gokarna. But Om Beach’s dramatic rocks are fun to scramble across and explore, though very sharp in places – you have to be careful not to graze an ankle or foot.

We made it as far as Half Moon Beach, and nearly to Paradise Beach. From the center of Gokarna, it took us three hours to get to the top of the headland for Paradise Beach, which is where we decided to turn back, mainly because it had grown hot and sunny by the time we got there, and the path down to the beach looked too steep and slippery to deal with at that point. I’m sure Paradise Beach is beautiful, but from what we could see from the headland, it didn’t seem too different from Half Moon Beach.

From Om Beach, the path to Half Moon Beach is pretty wild and tangled. You can see the pathways (there are a few), but they were pretty overgrown. We kept saying, “Someone needs to come through here with a machete.” That makes the walking a bit slower, but what really slowed us down was the steepness of some of the downward paths. We had to hang on to branches to make sure we didn’t slide.

Rocks at Half Moon BeachWe did the last part of the hike onto Half Moon Beach right at the edge of the sea, scrambling over lava rocks. It was slow, but a lot of fun. I loved the almost greasy look of the black stone, and the way the surf broke over the ragged rock edges.

The Rough Guide we have says there are no facilities on Half Moon Beach, but that’s no longer true. There are a couple of restaurants that also offer rooms for rent. I noticed that one of the businesses has solar panels located in the small patchwork of agricultural fields behind the restaurant, so clearly there are plenty of deliveries coming in by boat. I didn’t see how far the road is from Half Moon Beach, but I think carrying supplies in would be a real challenge if people aren’t making good use of their machetes.

Practical info

If you’re coming here in the winter, which is the high season, you should try to reserve a room in advance if you want to stay in a place that offers a western-hotel standard of comfort. One is the Hotel International near the KSRTC bus stand. It’s next to the Hotel Om, and it’s very new. We had to stay there the first night, when it turned out our reservation hadn’t gone through. The room was clean and beautiful, and the breakfast (included) was excellent.

We like the older hotels and guest houses, and there are plenty of these both in town and on the beaches. As you go north from Car Street along the road that runs parallel to the sea, you’ll find a succession of guest houses. You can also see them from the beach itself, as most of them have a cafe facing onto the beach. Few of these guesthouses have any kind of web presence, so it’s best to just carry your backpack or take a rickshaw, and just go from guest house to guest house until you find one that has room for you, and whose rooms you like.

Each guest house has its own character, and I think all of them are family-run. One we really liked was Namaste Garden. We had a couple of nice breakfasts there, and liked both the family that runs it and the other guests. We think we’ll stay there next time we come to Gokarna.

Kudle Beach offers a lot of guest houses at prices more suited to short-term vacationers than to long-term travellers, but that are nonetheless reasonable by European or American standards. You can find these on Trip Advisor and other travel sites.

The restaurant we ate at most often in Gokarna was Prema, on Car Street right by the beach. Their traditional South Indian menu items are always fresh and deliciously prepared. They also offer things Westerners like, such as fruit drinks, toast with various spreads, sweet pancakes, sandwiches and so on. I love their huge bowl of fresh green salad – a most unusual find in India. The family who runs this place is friendly and warm. They keep the place clean, open and welcoming, so as you can imagine, it’s usually full. But business turns pretty fast, and you might even get to sit with someone you don’t know, and make friends.

Other restaurants we enjoyed were the Pai Restaurant (there are several), which offers good thalis (full meals) and banana buns (a morning or afternoon treat) and the Sri Shakti in the eastern part of Car Street.

By the way, Car Street is a common name for streets in temple towns, indicating where the temple car (or cars) are stored. Below you can see a photo of the temple car at Gokarna. It was undergoing repairs while we were in town, so rather than being housed in its garage next to the temple, it was out on the street. During the days we were in town, the car received new axles and wheels. We didn’t get to see these being put on, which would have been interesting, as these cars weigh literally tons. (Continue to read reading below the photo to learn a little about temple cars.)

Temple car on Car Street, Gokarna
Temple car on Car Street, Gokarna

The temple car is used during big festivals. An image of the god is placed in the car, and devotees drag the car around town as part of the festival. It’s considered a great privilege to help drag the car, and so lots of people want to do it. This is fortunate, as the cars are so heavy.

Even when it’s not festival time, gods are often taken out for a procession around the temple, or around town. Usually they’re placed in a litter, which several people carry on their shoulders. We saw this happen every morning and evening in Bhadrachalam, and the procession was accompanied by loud music of wind instruments, drum and bells.

Gokarna: Beaches and temples

Gokarna Beach, viewed from the south headland
Gokarna Beach, viewed from the south headland.

The cyclone that hit Kerala days ago, roiling the surf here at Gokarna, has finally arrived. We sit in the Prema restaurant, enjoying a cup of tea while we wait for our lunch to arrive. Wind drives rain against the small shops and tall coconut palms, and in sheets across the street. Deep puddles grow deeper, and even the vagrant cows huddle together under shop awnings, reluctant to emerge in such conditions. We drink tea, we eat slowly, we order more tea, as we wait for a moment when the rain pauses. Back in our hotel room, the rain resumes, heavier than ever. The tops of the palms outside our window resound with raindrops, so loud I am surprised Alan can nap through it.

Gokarna is a different experience for me. Unlike Alan, I never spent time in Goa or at Anjuna Beach. So I have been surprised to find how pleasurable it can be to have a beach holiday. (If you’re interested in beaches, here’s a separate post about the five beaches of Gokarna and the walks between them.)

Shiva, facing Gokarna Beach. These flowers and markings are renewed by a priest every morning.
Shiva, facing Gokarna Beach. These flowers and markings are renewed by a priest every morning.

What makes this so interesting is that Gokarna is not only a beach town, but a holy town. The Sri Mahabaleshwar temple was built almost 1700 years ago. About 500 years ago, several Brahmin families migrated from the Goa area, fearful they’d be forced by the Portuguese to convert to Christianity. Today, the central part of town surrounding the Mahabaleshwar temple, Maha Ganapati temple and other temples is still dominated by these Brahmin families, which have enlarged over successive generations.

At least 30 temples are scattered across the town, from the beach itself inland and up and down the coastline. They range in size from tiny mid-street shrines to full buildings. Even the largest of them is not large at all by Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh standards; they are all of modest height, perhaps because of prudent attention to cyclones, and none spread more than 100 metres in any dimension.

We enjoy rambling the narrow streets of Gokarna, where motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, dogs, groups of schoolchildren, vegetable sellers, swamis and tourists all vie for space on busy weekend days.  But it’s just temporary. On a weekday, and especially during the three- to four-hour lull from lunch to late afternoon, the streets empty out. Shop shutters roll down, dogs curl up in a bit of shade, cows sink to the pavement to chew their cuds, and humans retreat onto verandahs or indoor beds. We know this because, unlike in the west, the front doors of private homes remain open all day. As we walk down the street, I peer unashamedly into houses, seeing families chatting, eating, reading or watching television in the wide halls that are the first indoor space, after the verandah. Beyond the hall, I can see a darker hallway leading to a bright square of light that is the family’s inner courtyard. There, I see women sweeping, or squatting and scrubbing cooking pots, or sorting rice or dal. Between courtyard and front hall, figures move back and forth between various hidden rooms.

The glimpses I gain remind me of just how communal and familial life is in India, especially in villages. And make no mistake, the center of Gokarna – what I think of as the Brahmin district – is a village. Everyone knows everyone else; everyone is related somehow to everyone else.

I think of our street in Portland, where we lived for 29 years, watching families come and go. Some neighbors we knew well, especially when our children were little and played with the other children who lived within two or three blocks of our house. Others we barely knew, either because they rarely emerged from their houses, or because they socialized only within their church, or because we never took the trouble to know them. And of course, people move a lot in America – across town, across the state, across the country. Here in India, and especially in small-town India, one family owns a house for many generations. There is very little upheaval of entire families unless something forces the issue: a disastrous tsunami, or famine, or communal violence, or war. Or for the past two or three generations, children being educated at universities far away, and settling in the cities of India, America and Europe, visiting the family home just once a year, or for weddings or funerals.

The temples of Gokarna

Mahaganapati temple, GokarnaAs I said, there are a lot of temples here. Many are forbidden to foreigners; painted notices beside entries baldly state this is so. But not all are off limits, and so one morning I enter the Maha Ganapati temple to make an offering to one of my favorite gods, the ever-cheerful son of Shiva with an elephant’s head. I like him best in his dancing posture, but wherever I find him, he makes my heart lighter. This morning I bring him flowers, which I have just purchased from one of the bare-shouldered flower ladies outside the temple. I ring the brass bell overhead, put my flowers in the offering basket, and circumambulate Ganapati’s shrine. I ask him, the remover of obstacles, to help me remove the blockages from my heart and my mind. I am thinking specifically of the blockage I’ve been suffering from lately – a stall in my blogging activity that began because I was working on paid writing, but that has continued long enough to make me really uncomfortable. There are other blockages, too, that I know need to dissolve, and I ask my cheerful fat-bellied god for his help.

I emerge from the darkness of ancient stones close around me into the daylight, where Alan patiently waits. We continue on and into the largest temple here, the Sri Mahabaleshwara temple, which houses a lingam said to be the atmalingam, or Shiva’s original lingam. This temple is forbidden to foreigners, but we are allowed into the outer precinct that surrounds the temple itself. This outer ring houses the donation office, the temple cows, a small temple undergoing repair, and, as we learn on our second or third day, a lovely Parvathi temple. Small and peaceful, this temple lies behind an entry wall flanked by four golden goddesses. Inside, we bow to the goddess and settle down with the other worshippers to rest for a quiet moment in Parvathi’s presence. Then we circumambulate her home, and I encounter a series of goddess portraits.

Deep tank with spring water on old hillside temple, GokarnaOther temples we’ve visited are high on the hills above Gokarna Beach. One has a deep tank in front of the temple with two natural springs piped into the walls. The tank is not blocked to fill up, but drains continually, so people use the piped spring water to bathe in before prayer – or to refresh themselves after a swim over at Kudle Beach.

 

Another hill temple is dedicated to Shiva, and has detailed images of Shiva and Shakti with cobra tails. I couldn’t get a position to take a good image of Shiva with his cobra tail, but here’s Shakti, plus a joint portrait.

One of our favorite temples was the cobra temple, buried deep in the Brahmin quarter, a short walk from the sacred Koti Teertha (“teertha” means tank, or a deep man-made pond meant for bathing before prayer, and for bathing images of the gods). A couple of long outside walls hold rows of niches, each with a stone bas-relief of a cobra (or more than one) or a god. Each is dated. I asked our landlord about them,  and he told us these are placed by families praying for a baby boy. So many tablets were placed in 1990, I figured there are a lot of 26- and 27-year-old men in the community.

Bhadrachalam: A tale of a man, a mountain and supreme devotion

Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, BhadrachalamWe love visiting Indian temples, whether living or historical (and sometimes, as at Pattadakal in Karnataka, it’s a bit of both). So we were looking forward to spending some time at the Sri Sita Ramachandran Swamy temple in Bhadrachalam – but we had no idea just how much time we’d end up spending there.

Shortly after our arrival, we decided the town itself was so pleasant and relaxing (and our hotel was so good), we would stay on for a total of 11 days. Because the hotel is just literally steps from the temple, we woke up around 4:30 every morning to the sound of drums, cymbals and bhajans, as the temple priests started their daily puja schedule. Some mornings we actually made our way over to the temple shortly after 4:30. We’d walk to one of the tea shops surrounding the temple, imbibe a tiny (3-ounce) glass of tea each, and then enter the temple by either the front or back stairs.

Each time we arrived at the temple, we’d offer an initial pranam (a bow or prostration) to the deities at the front entrance, then walk around the inside of the temple’s perimeter walls, offering more prayers at the different shrines. As we walked, we quickly discovered a series of large color illustrations ranged high around the perimeter walls. Underneath each picture was text in both English and Telegu, telling the story of the temple. We walked around and around, reading these episodes day after day, until we felt we had some idea of the temple’s story, which is really a series of several stories.

Maha Vaggeyakara Sri Bhadrachala Ramadas by Dr. Nookala Chinna SatyanarayanaWe finally discovered an English-language book about Gopanna (a.k.a. Ramadas), the builder of the temple, at the temple shop, and that gave us more information. We’ve been very careful about buying things on our trip (we already have too much stuff!), but this book was one of only 1,000 printed, and the only one available in English, so we knew we’d never find it anywhere else. And it’s a good read.

We were lucky to receive another book as a gift from one of the priests at the temple. This priest is the brother-in-law of the man who owns the Srinidhi Residency, the hotel where we stayed while in Bhadrachalam. The priest had obviously taken note of our daily presence at the temple, and our deep interest in its history and rituals.

Telegu book

The book contains the same illustrations we were perusing every day, plus more that aren’t displayed on the perimeter walls. The book’s text is Telegu with no English translations, so we can’t actually read it. But because we spent so much time learning the story from the English captions around the perimeter walls, and we had our English-language book about Gopanna/Ramadas, the illustrations are a real help. I’ve photographed some of the illustrations in the book for this blog post.

I am fascinated by the intertwining stories of the temple at Bhadrachalam. There’s the story of Rama and Sita, and their relationship to this place. There’s the story of Dammakka, a woman whose devotion to Rama and Sita inspired the building of the temple. There’s the story of Gopanna, also known as Ramadas (servant of Rama), who got the temple built (and suffered for his efforts). And finally, underpinning all the other stories, is the story of Bhadra – a man who was once a mountain, and who desired to become a mountain again to express his devotion in the most fundamental way possible: by bearing the weight of the god he adored.

Rama, Sita and the Bhadra

Sita_Rama_exileIf you’ve read the Ramayana, or seen its stories acted out in theater or film, you know that Rama, a prince of Ayodhya, is married to Sita, and has a younger brother called Lakshman, who is the epitome of brotherly devotion. Rama’s father’s second wife demands that Rama’s father banish him so that her own son can gain political ascendancy. So Rama, Sita and Lakshman leave their palace home, and go into hiding in the forests of southern India to stay safe from harm.

It’s helpful to know that in Hindu tradition, Rama is an avatar, or emanation, of the god Vishnu. Vishnu is one of three main gods, and is the preserver. (The other two are Siva the destroyer and Brahma the creator.) So he is both a mythological figure and a god, in the way that so many Indian gods are. The stories about the gods in human form make them much easier to relate to.

Divine_vaikuntha_feelingAnyway, to get on with the Bhadrachalam story: During their forest exile, Rama and Sita find a rock that offers them rest and comfort. As they relax on the surface of the rock, they get not just a rest, but also “that divine vaikuntha feeling,” as the English text in the temple reads.

“Vaikuntha” is a place of bliss, purity and goodness, a kind of heaven whose residents feel such love for Vishnu, and such total satisfaction in serving him, that there is no need for anything else. So in resting on the rock in the forest, Rama and Sita are filled with a divine feeling of bliss.

Sita_Rama_BhadraThat’s because they are resting on no ordinary rock, as it turns out, but on Bhadra – a devotee of Vishnu in his emanation as Rama. Bhadra’s love for Rama is so great that he desires nothing more than to provide a place for Rama to rest himself, or to step with his divine feet.

Here’s where the story gets really interesting, and a bit circular. Bhadra is both a person and a rock (in fact, “Bhadra” means stone or rock in Telegu, the language of Bhadrachalam and its state, Andhra Pradesh). He is a rock whose devotion to Rama is so intense, he is promised a human rebirth; and he is a person whose devotion to Rama is so intense, he is granted existence as a rock, so he may forever be a locus for Rama-worship.

Beseeching_for_a_sonNow we come to the story of how Bhadra is born as a human. Meru and his wife, Menaka – a divine couple – pray to Vishnu to give them a son. Actually, Meru is a holy mountain, but in this story, he is in his human form, and so is Menaka.

Vishnu grants Meru and Menaka their wish, and their son is born. Bhadra is an unusual child; while other children play normally, little Bhadra sits in meditation.

Little_Bhadra_meditating

Narada, a celestial sage, sees Bhadra and comes to tell his parents that their son has a great mission to fulfill. Now Bhadra begins to get instruction from Narada on the qualities of Rama.

Bhadra’s desire to be united with Rama intensifies, and he begs his parents to let him go into the forest to do tapas, or spiritual practice, in the forest. He persists even as apsaras (fairies) try to distract him, and as others try to dissuade him. (I’ve forgotten the name of the being with the sword in the right-hand picture.)

Eventually, Bhadra’s penances become so intense, the gods beg Vishnu to intervene.

Beseeching_Brahma.jpg

Vishnu, taking the form of Rama with Sita and Lakshman accompanying him, hurries to Bhadra to grant his desire to see Rama in physical form.

Bhadra Rama Sita Lakshman

Bhadra finally gets his wish: to see Rama in physical form. He then begs Rama to put his sri pada – his holy footprint – on Bhadra’s head, so that he may be forever united with Rama. Rama grants Bhadra his desire, and Bhadra at last becomes what he was, and what he desired to be once again: a holy mountain where Rama, Sita and Lakshman will reside forever. The idols that manifest from the mountain top – Bhadra’s head – are said to be the same ones that are worshipped in the inner sanctum at Bhadrachalam.

Bhadra Sri PadaBhadra reborn as mountain

Dammakka: her vision and devotion

About 350 years ago, Bhadrachalam wasn’t a town. It was just a hill by the Godavari, surrounded by forest and small villages. The area was ruled by the kingdom of Golkonda (present-day Hyderabad).

Dammakka dreamingDammakka was a devotee of Rama living in a village called Bhadrareddypalem. Her devotion was intense, and one night she dreamed of Rama, who told her there was a representation of himself, Sita and Lakshman on the top of the hill near her. Dammakka was determined to find this idol, so she searched for it until she spotted it, hidden inside an anthill. She fetched water and washed the idol until it emerged from the anthill, and she began to worship it daily.

Eventually, Gopanna, a tehsildar (land tax official) serving the Golkonda ruler Abul Hassan Tani Shah, came to visit Bhadrachalam in his official capacity, and Dammakka pleaded with him to build a temple for the idol she worshipped. Gopanna was, at that time, enforcing a tax on Hindus that was apparently intended to get them to convert to Islam. Funds_for_templeThe Hindu subjects of the kingdom were, of course, angry about this tax, so Gopanna decided to use part of the taxes he was collecting to build a temple around the self-manifested idol of Rama, Sita and Lakshman that Dammakka had discovered. He also used some of these funds to make beautiful jewels for adorning the deities. Essentially, Gopanna became an embezzler in order to build a temple for Rama.

Gopanna becomes Ramadas

Gopanna_tortureEventually, of course, Abul Hassan Tani Shah discovered that Gopanna had used the wealth he collected as taxes to build the temple on the hill at Bhadrachalam. He imprisoned Gopanna, and told him he had 12 years to return the money, or he would be killed. Gopanna couldn’t return it, of course, so he remained in prison (at Golconda, near Hyderabad), and endured whippings while in prison.

Gopanna was a serious Rama devotee, and composed many hymns while in prison. He is remembered today not only for building the Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, but also for his devotional compositions.

Riding_to_Gopannas_rescueRama_Lakshman_pay_12_lakhsRama and Lakshman saw that Gopanna was suffering in prison, and that he was indeed in danger of being killed. So they took on the form of soldiers or warriors, and appeared to Abul Hassan Tani Shah with the wealth that was owed to his government. I’ve read different amounts, but it seems it was about nine lakhs of rupees, or 900,000 rupees – an incredible fortune. Rama and Lakshman produced the wealth in the form of real gold coins, which stunned Abul Hassan Tani Shah into not only immediately releasing Gopanna from prison, but also re-appointing him to his official position.

Once Gopanna was freed, it seems that all was sweetness and light. Abul Hassan Tani Shah accepted Gopanna/Ramadas’ elevated status as a devotee of Rama; the temple and its religious rituals flourished; families of Brahmins were appointed to be priests to the temple; and even the Muslims acknowledged the holiness of the place and the devotion of Ramadas.

Our experience of the Sri Sita Ramachandran Swamy temple

The Sri Sita Ramachandran Swamy temple is situated high on the hill, with steps leading up to both the front and back entrances. The main part of the temple is contained by high walls. The insides of these walls hold a variety of small shrines, a small museum, some storage areas, and at one end, a raised stage-like area where the deity is worshipped daily. There is a long covered porch forming an L with the stage, with stepped seating so you can watch the puja. Alternatively, you can sit with the priests on the ground, directly in front of the stage. Inside the perimeter walls, and off-center, is a small temple housing the principal deity of Bhadrachalam – the self-manifested trio of Rama, Sita and Lakshman.

Early mornings in the temple have their own flavor. There aren’t nearly as many worshippers as there are later on, say around 8:00 or 9:00 AM, after people have had time to eat, bathe in the river and make their offerings. When you go early, you see a few priests and temple helpers cleaning the various shrines around the temple of yesterday’s flowers and offerings, anointing the idols with fresh scented water, decorating them with flowers, and ornamenting them with vermilion and turmeric. I wish I could share photos with you of all this activity, but neither cameras nor mobile phones are allowed inside the temple.

Our early morning visits were fairly brief – perhaps 30 minutes. We’d often see the deity taken out of the central temple, processed around the temple, and then put back for a day of darshan (visits from devotees). In the evenings, we’d return to the temple for longer visits. As in the morning, we’d enter and make a pranam, visit the bhadra stone, and then circumambulate the inside of the perimeter wall, reading the illustration captions (again) and talking through the stories between us, while visiting the shrines around the perimeter. Then we’d settle on the steps by the “stage” area and see what there was to be seen. Some evenings, there were long bhajan sessions, with the priests taking it in turns to sing beautiful solos to the accompaniment of drums, harmonium and wind instruments.

One evening, there were two groups of dancers, all women, and all visiting from the same locality, I think. One group was dressed in gleaming green-patterned saris, while the other wore purple-and-gold saris. The women danced in two separate circles, using sticks to beat out a rhythm and leaning in and out of the circle in rhythm with their beat, slowly circling. There was one priest who danced inside the circle of purple-and-gold dancers, jumping and singing with a look of great joy on his face. This particular priest also sang bhajans during some of the evenings we were there; he had a beautiful voice.

The evenings when there was a lot of activity were long; we’d often stay over an hour, just sitting and listening and watching. Other evenings, there was just the normal nightly worship of the deity, and then the return of the deity to the inner temple where it lives. This transfer of the deity is accomplished by transporting it on a litter borne by priests, to the accompaniment of loud music played by more priests.

I mentioned the bhadra stone earlier. It’s a piece of the rocky hill on which the temple is built, and two of the minor shrines were built either side of it. Pilgrims entering the temple make an offering at the first shrine, then lay their hands and heads on the bhadra stone. I did the same every day. I hesitate a little to say this – I don’t want to sound credulous, nor to seem as if I’m appropriating Hinduism. But when I pressed my hands to the stone, and leant my head against it, I could feel a kind of vibration. Whether the stone seems so alive because of the Bhadra himself, or because of all the devotion of so many people, it affected me every time I visited. On the two separate days we were gone all day for visits to Parnashala and the Papikondulu Hills, I needed to visit the temple at night before we went to bed, to touch the bhadra stone and press my head against it. This made each day complete.

Curious to read more? Here are some resources

Maha Vaggeyakara Sri Bhadrachala Ramadas by Dr. Nookala Chinna SatyanarayanaI’m most indebted to the book Maha Vaggeyakara: Sri Bhadrachala Ramadas, by Dr. Nookala Chinna Satyanarayana. Maha Vaggeyakara means “great composer” or “great lyricist.” Gopanna, or Ramadas, is remembered not only for building the temple at Bhadrachalam, but also for the many hymns he composed. These hymns are the primary subject of Dr. Satyanarayana’s book, but it also retells the story of how the temple at Bhadrachalam came to be, with a lot of interesting historical context around the rulers of Golkonda, whom Gopanna served in his official capacity as tax collector.

As I said earlier, just 1,000 copies of this book were printed, so the chances of finding it aren’t great,  unless you visit Bhadrachalam and go into the bookstore at the south end of the temple’s grounds. So here some other resources I consulted to understand the Bhadrachalam stories better.

http://www.bhadrachalarama.org/templehistory.html

http://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/2015-03-28/The-glory-of-Bhadradri-Rama-temple-140724

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sita_Ramachandraswamy_temple,_Bhadrachalam

http://www.tirthayatra.org/bhadrachalam/

https://www.outlookindia.com/outlooktraveller/ot-getaway-guides/bhadrachalam_godavari_temple_town/

I learned something interesting along the way: Bhadra had a brother, Ratnakara, who also manifested intense devotion to Vishnu, this time in the form of Sri Veera Venkata Satyanarayana (rather than in the form of Rama, the manifestation Bhadra worshipped so intensely). Ratnakara also desired to become a mountain and perpetually worship god, so there’s a temple in Andhra Pradesh on top of Ratnagiri, the mountain that Ratnakara became. The Sri Satyanarayana Swamy temple has a similar story behind it of a devotee dreaming that there was a hidden idol on the hill at the village of Annavaram. The temple standing there now was constructed in 1933 and 1934, and restored in 2011 and 2012. If you want to learn more, go to http://annavaramdevasthanam.nic.in. As for me, I now have a new destination for our next visit to Andhra Pradesh.

Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, blessed by all the deities
Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, blessed by all the deities. Illustration from the back cover of the book given to us by one of the priests at Bhadrachalam.

A visit to Bhadrachalam: Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple and more

It took just one day in Bhadrachalam to make us decide we needed to stay longer than the three nights we originally booked. It’s a lovely small town, located upriver from Rajahmundry on the same side of the Godavari, offering plenty of temples, a couple of nice short walks along the river, and the chance to take a one- or two-day river trip among the scenic Papikondulu Hills. So we asked Mr. Ramachandran, the owner of the hotel where we stayed, if we could stay another eight nights.

While the town is famous for its 350-year-old temple featuring a unique representation of Rama, it isn’t featured in any of the India guides aimed at foreign travelers – at least, not that we’ve seen. That’s probably why we haven’t seen any other non-Indians while we’ve been here. It’s also probably why people are constantly asking to take selfies with us – we’re a very unusual sight. We don’t mind, as these selfie sessions sometimes end up as interesting conversations, though often limited by the lack of a common language. People here speak Telegu, not Tamil (I have a little Tamil), and our Hindi is also pretty limited. But still, humans do manage to communicate well across language barriers, and it’s a lot of fun to push the envelope.

 

In addition to friendly people, there’s a lot to enjoy about Bhadrachalam. First and foremost, of course, is the Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple. Built about 350 years ago, the temple has an interesting set of stories about the people associated with getting it built, and about the devotion of Bhadra Maharshi, the Rama devotee whose steadfast, passionate desire to see Rama manifest physically is why the temple was built on this rocky hill above the Godavari River.

 

We visited the temple twice a day, morning and evening, and every visit felt different and distinct. You can certainly feel the devotion of the people who come to visit from all over India, mostly the south. Devotees arrive in family groups, or with groups of friends, and offer fruit, flowers, incense, and other sacred substances. People sit around the temple on stone steps or in corners, reading sacred texts alone, or sometimes to each other. There are pujas throughout the day, and in the evening, after aarti (an offering of fire), priests sing beautiful bhajans. One evening there was dancing. Two groups of women, one clad in green checked saris, the other in purple saris embellished with gold, danced in circles, beating sticks in rhythm, as musicians played and sang. A tall, thin priest at the temple, whom we heard singing bhajans most evenings, danced in the center of the purple-sari circle; he was lithe, graceful and very light on his feet, with a joyous expression on his face as he danced and sang. I wish I could share video or even photos of all this, but cameras aren’t allowed in the temple.

Visiting the temple became the anchor for our days in Bhadrachalam, other than the two days we took trips: one by bus to Parnashala, where two small temples mark important parts of Rama and Sita’s story, and the other by boat to Parentallipali and the Papikondulu Hills. We enjoyed walking the long riverside promenade, which winds along the curve of the Godavari from the Ayyappa temple at one end to the far end of town at the other.

 

We got to know the small neighborhoods of Bhadrachalam, just walking around mornings and evenings. I liked the smaller temples around town, each with its own distinctive art and small shrines.

 

We spent most of our early evenings by the Godavari, watching people worship and then spread out their clothing to dry after their ritual dips in the river. Small motorboats offer rides out the exposed sandbars, where you can make your offerings right in the middle of the river. There’s a distinctive chant that goes out over the loudspeakers at intervals: “Sita Rama motorboat shikar.” It’s basically a marketing chant, but it became stuck in our heads like a mantra. (Turn up the sound!)

 

It was fun shopping for vegetables and fruit in the small market street, wandering the residential areas of town and climbing the small hill above the temple. Alan got his hair cut near the Hanuman temple in Car Street.

Alan at the barber, Bhadrachalam

The big event of the week was the visit of a famous Telegu movie actor to the Sri Sita Ramachandra temple. We never saw him, but the streets around the temple were packed with people eagerly awaiting a glimpse. Yes, it’s all very small-town – and that’s a big part of Bhadrachalam’s charm.

Practical info

Accommodation

There are lots of hotels, sadans and dharamsalas (pilgrim accommodation) available in Bhadrachalam. I’m sure these fill up quickly during major festivals and holidays, but when we were there, you really had your pick of places to stay. You can walk up the hill from Temple Street to look at the sadans and dharamsalas perched above the temple, and there are quite a few more on the street that runs from the south side of the temple towards the town, away from the river. These sadans and dharamsalas range in price from Rs. 300 or less per day to about Rs. 800 per day, so they’re in the budget range for Bhadrachalam.

Hotels cost a lot more – anywhere from Rs. 1000 to a couple of thousand per night. We stayed in a particularly nice hotel called the Srinidhi Residency. It’s literally a one-minute walk from the hotel to the Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, which is why we chose it – plus the reviews on TripAdvisor.com were very good, and deservedly so. The Srinidhi is clean, well-kept and offers spacious rooms, plenty of hot water, mostly-working wifi and a very nice staff. The owner was kind and friendly, and we felt welcome and comfortable during our 11-day stay.

Food

Evening at the Anjenaya
Expectant diner at the Anjenaya

Bhadrachalam is a small town, and the food options for visitors are pretty limited. There’s a pure-veg sit-down restaurant called the Sri Anjenaya at the bottom of the hill close to the temple (look for the Sri Sudharsana Residency; the restaurant is just opposite). The staff are nice, and their midday “meals” (set meal of rice, curried vegetables, dal, sambar, curd, rasam and pickle) are both unlimited – all you can eat – and economical at Rs. 70 per person. Like most South India restaurants, the Anjenaya offers specific options at specific times. In the morning you can get bonda, idly, dosa and pessaratu; evenings, you can get chapatti, dosa, bonda. That’s it.

The other options in easy reach of the hotel are all dhabas, or food stands, often operated by local families on the front porches of their homes. We became very fond of one dhaba at the back of the temple. We call it the Locker Room, because there’s a business by that name right next door, renting lockers to pilgrims who want to secure their bags for the day. The dhaba serves the most delicious food we ate in Bhadrachalam. Its pesseratu is a real standout: large, crispy, filled with uppma that’s deliciously flavored with sweet spices, and served with sambar, plus excellent coconut chutney and a second chutney that changes from day to day. The tomato chutney is good, but I prefer Locker Room’s mint chutney – it’s spicy, fresh, tangy and delicious. Locker Room’s chili bhajis and crunchy vada, served in the afternoons and evenings, are equally good, too. Their tea is nothing to sneeze at, either.

Here’s a clip of the Locker Room cooks making pesseratu (on the left side of the tawa) and dosa (on the right).

Then there’s Pesseratu Bhadram, a small sit-down restaurant on Temple Road that’s one step up from a dhaba. Located in a humble small building, and family-run, Pesseratu Bhadram is famous – so famous that there are large photos of the owner with a well-known Telegu actor on the walls inside.

 

The food is good here, and the tea is outstanding, just the way I like it: strong, not too much milk, and with moderate sugar (it’s hard to avoid very sweet tea in South India). Pesseratu Bhadram’s version of pesseratu is smaller and softer than the ones made at the Locker Room, and they’re tasty.

To get to Pesseratu Bhadram, walk up Temple Road away from the temple and river, towards town. When you get to the Hanuman temple in the middle of the road, take the right-hand fork and after 7 to 10 houses, look for Pessaratu Bhadram on your right. It’s below street level, so you walk a few steps down to the front door. It’s open from 6:30 to 10 AM, and serves only breakfast food (idly, dosa and vada in addition to pesseratu).

If you want a bit more variety, you can walk or take a rickshaw to the main road where the TSRTC (Telangana State Road Transportation Corporation) bus stand is located. There are a number of restaurants here, mostly across from the bus stand, and we tried three of them. The standout, in our experience, is the Shree Kalki Hotel. This humble-looking place serves excellent sambar, crispy fresh dosas, fluffy idly, unusually good coconut chutney, and satisfying midday meals. Their version of meals includes nicely cooked vegetables, thick curd and good dal. Their tea also makes my list, because it’s strong and they were happy to make it for me with little or even no sugar. We also really enjoyed the waiter who served us there: He was friendly, helpful and fun to joke around with, even with the language limitations.

As usual, we dealt with the lack of variety in the food by eating one meal a day in our room. We normally buy a half-kilo of tomatoes, a lemon, a chili, a bunch of cilantro, one or two red onions (they are small), and whatever else we can find (sometimes we got lucky and found a cucumber or a green bell pepper). We chop up all the vegetables, add the juice of the lemon and some salt, and enjoy this improvised salad. We also buy fruit to supplement our diet, and occasionally some groundnuts (peanuts). Tender green coconuts are also a nice snack that adds to the variety, and sometimes we buy a couple of 100-gram packets of curd, which we pour into our steel tumblers.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, having a basic set of dishes makes traveling in India a lot easier. We brought two forks and spoons from home, plus a very sharp pocket knife for slicing vegetables and fruit. In Tiruvannamalai, we bought two steel plates and two tumblers. Equipped with these, plus a green scrubber for vegetables and one for dishes, we’ve been able to supplement our diet quite successfully, and stay healthy and happy.

Dancing Ganapati, Bhadrachalam.jpg