I am anxious. This is my first travel post. Travel pieces can embarrass the chronicler with their voluptuous possibilities. One could end up showing too much flesh when the demand is for soul. One could also just as easily end up exposing too little, presuming that the mind’s eyes will be interested in the musk hidden behind the curves when it is in fact lusting for naked meat. What better deity to invoke to get rid of this dilemma then but the Buddha, he who may be imagined as an ugly beast, a daakini or in the embrace of a consort and needs must be loved equally in all forms…?
PS: I present below vignettes from a recent trip to Coorg, but they do not include tour recommendations or itinerary plans. Drop me a line if you want practical information like that, but do read on if you are interested in finding out the lama equivalent of popcorn.
Why my family lets me stay in terror-prone metros
The main reason my paranoid family now has a softer attitude towards my decision to live in bigger, more terror-threatened cities is my willing role as inhouse tour planner-cum-mule o’ the roads. I have done this countless times during my two-year stay in Bangalore. More often than not, I have failed to convey logic to the touring parties, with this result: I now know the gates and alleys of the Mysore Palace with such genius that sometimes I feel like walking up to the security guard at the main Durbar hallway and putting up the whole “Ramu Kakaaaa! I am Chhote Sarkar. I have come back to reclaim my home from this evil government. Don’t you recognise me?!” act. During my 313th visit there, I even had a feeling that the guard smiled at me, like he did remember me from another lifetime and was making fun of my present water bottle-lugging incarnation.
My sister’s family was a soft target for me though, partly because I am serving my notice period and refused to accompany them on their Mysore trip, and partly because it is about 50° now in the rest of South India, ruling out that other abomination of my life – Tirupati. “It’s going to be Coorg,” I told them over the phone a week before they landed here. Obviously unhappy, they thought “Coorg” was a funny name for a place, not matching more sophisticated names like Pondicherry or Ooty, and immediately expressed their displeasure by mauling it to “Poord”, “Grook” and “Khoork” out of an apparent lack of clarity in the telephone connection. I reminded myself that they are a Bengali family from Orissa, and all was forgiven.
Tandoori Coorg and the man who kissed me
My motive to revisit Coorg was unabashedly carnal – to wake up on a couple of May mornings without feeling like a duck slow-grilled in grime. But you also have to remember that the term “hill station” has a most magical effect on the ears of Orissa residents, for whom the Puri beach is about as high above the sea level as it can get.
Last time I visited the place, Coorg (Madikeri, Mercara) was a revelation with its almost-affectionate rainfall and its caffeinated good manners (strictly metaphorical this, because I was obviously not drinking coffee there). I had stayed at a cheap little home stay (it’s in the commercial centre of the town and not exciting enough to be profiled here) at the peak of the off-season and was attended to by a perpetually drunk old monster called Buttre (Butt-Rrray).
Apparently, not too many people make second bookings at this particular joint, maybe because of the owner with his aerobics classes at six in the morning, which the fragile fancy tiles are patently ill-equipped to weather. So when Buttre, eyes the muddled white of toddi, saw me in the house again, he could not resist kissing my hand, full on.
This one grateful gesture did a lot to make up for the astonishing heat outside, though my sister looked at me like I have just been kissed by Eve against God’s decree.
God may well have been pissed with me for making my reluctant guests miss the Tirupati darshanam, and he decided to turn on the heat. Oh, the heat! The morning was promising, but as the day chugged along like it can only in a place where 60ml whiskey-soda costs you 30 bucks, Coorg felt very much like Poord or Goork. Not even the elephant ride at Dubare and four bottles of chilled Sprite could buy me the forgiveness my 7-year-old nephew, who, I am afraid, will grow up to permanently hate the very idea of visiting a “hill station” in summer. The final nail on my conscience was driven by our driver Lokesh when he turned on the AC on our way to the Tibetan colony at Kushalnagar, leaving no room for pretences. It was a very poignant ‘Death of a Snowman’ moment, and no one spoke for a while.
The taming of the tourist
The said Tibetan colony – I have just been told by my much-traveled Tam-Mal friend – is often missed by lazy travelers. I had not heard of it during my last trip, but maybe that does not count because most of that outing was spent in sampling whiskey-soda and taking photographs of my room. This time, I trusted the homestay owner to plan our itinerary, and he put the Tibetan Golden Temple right up there after the elephant dung-smelling workshop at Dubare. (My word of advice to the interested junta – DO NOT think of Dubare unless you can reach by 9:00-9:30am. That’s when the elephants eat and bathe, and you can feed and bathe them. They spend the rest of the day shitting pile after pile of sticky grass and shrubs. You can take a round on elephant back though, but you should know that the queue for this regal pastime lasts about 2 hours and the round itself about 12 seconds. Also, the saddle filled with dung cakes and copra may be novel but not something your arse deserves on a Sunday.)
I wonder how anyone scanning Coorg can miss the Golden Temple, unless you are snobbish about authenticity and/or a Chinese hardliner. From a distance, it looked like a temporary circus tent with its gaudy golden bulbous structures. As we went closer though, it transmogrified into the most glamorous shrine I have ever seen, throbbing with gold.
What an anomaly of a place! At first sight, it made me stiff with unease – the sudden surfeit of Tibetanness coexisting with jackfruit-selling Kannadigas and haggling-to-death souvenir collectors – and whatever it lacked in “authenticity” was certainly compensated for by its shock value. Imagine Delhi’s Jama Masjid in Tokyo, self-effacing Japanese peddlers trying to sell tofu to you in the dinghy streets even as maulvis with kohl-lined eyes stock up their daily ration of screaming-hot roadside beef kebabs, and you will get an approximate sense of what the place felt like. This was my first sighting of lamas up-close, and my mental compass went totally berserk for a while with all that I recalled from Tintin in Tibet and the innumerable Nat Geo films I have watched. Lamas are not supposed to live in such heat; they eat snow and sell wool for a living, don’t they?!
Exaggerations aside, the uncouth, sweltering racket around it must not have been flattering at all for the Namdroling temple’s ‘Tibetan identity’, which is anyway struggling to exist as a coherent idea in a country not its own. Surrounded by greasy palms and vulgar motives, the Buddha’s peaceful proteges appeared all too vulnerable, but Tibetans (and Parsis) have a way of turning adversity and alien conditions into something life-affirming. (Those from North Delhi will recall the joie-de-vivre of the iconic tingmo-and-thukpa community of Tibetan refugees at Majnu Ka Tilla.) As we left the melee of hawkers and cab drivers outside, Tibet’s doughty soul emerged before us in the form of an open courtyard with five hundred monks chanting away, peacefully oblivious of the clangorous eyes lapping up this most exotic sight. Maybe it is something their religion teaches them, this strength to be unmoved by ephemeral irritants, but Tibet’s story of resilience was as boldly writ in their demeanour as any philosophical doctrine. We may have given them the land to sit and pray, but we were no more than a negligible distraction when the prayer wheels started turning.
Flashbacks of a fool
I can only compare the scene with what I had witnessed many years back while driving through Jarawa-land in the Andamans. The Jarawas are among the most primitive and scantily-clad indigenous tribes left in the country, ergo must-have material for family albums. When one of them finally strayed into the path of our police-protected convoy – half-naked, taut-muscled, spear in hand – mass orgasm ensued. The Namdroling priests were far less seductive in that sense, but a camera does what it has to do. Flashes tore into the pale skin and tonsured scalps and threatened to disrupt their climb to Dhamma, but the monks kept chanting, not acknowledging us, but not bothering to ignore us either. The whole thing was turning out to be a bit eerie by then. What kind of tourist spot was this anyway? No guides to explain the mysterious Tibetan inscriptions everywhere, no tickets, no frisking, hell no beggars even! We were neither welcome nor unwelcome, a gesture that the much-pursued middle-class Indian tourist finds very discomfitting. This was the beginning of what would soon prove to be a curious inversion of tourism protocol, rendering ‘us’ frustratingly dependent on recognition from ‘them’. (My poor brother-in-law! He made every effort to coax a group of kiddo lamas to pose for a photograph with my nephew, only to find out that they are completely seeing through him. Such effrontery!) It was as if Buddha’s wizardry had rendered us altogether transparent and mute. We clicked away like gawking phantoms, and the trumpet and horn orchestra in the monastery continued completely unmindful of us. We roamed about unhindered, and no one cajoled us to buy fertility potions or consecrated amulets. We tried every gimmick to get their attention, but all was lost in the blinding sun-red-and-gold frame within which the monks played out their high-pitched performance. Thoroughly confounded, my sister started longing for the kimonos and honey bottles stacked in the curiosity shops outside. The entry to the temple was free, hence this indifferent treatment. Why have they opened it up for tourists if they don’t like people?! Valid thoughts, all. Then there was also the offensive matter of there being no women among the monks, a basic gaffe for even the most amateurish performers with only a rudimentary understanding of modern audiences.
Anyway, if the courtyard monks were merely nonchalant, a far more evolved species awaited us inside the main prayer building. It was here, confronted by a Colosseum of indifference from twice as many monks, that it all started to make sense. By now, the chanting had acquired a racy dimension, accompanied by heavy, cyclical, rhythmic music climaxing in short bursts. Buddha the impresario presided over the booming gongs and rattling prayer wheels in his many forms, as my eyes chanced upon a board near the entrance reminding us that this was a place of ‘worship’ and not of ‘entertainment’.
That was it then! The whole time, we assumed it was ‘worship’ for them and ‘entertainment’ for us. The whole time, we assumed we were invited to a performance being staged specially for us, and when we did not get the reception that patrons are wont to, we felt neglected and out of place. It was a performance all right – that dazzling decor and charismatic chorus would have been such a waste if it were not one – but it was not meant for our worthy amusement. The show was on for its own sake, the showmen were entertaining themselves and not us. We were not esteemed jurors in the show but face-contorting extras existing only for comic relief. Our bumbling appeals to be noticed, the grumpy faces of a bunch of rebuffed idiots, were the fillers in the afternoon’s entertainment. Check out the guys distributing packets of Lehar Namkeen just as the music and chant reaches its crescendo, and I will be damned if it does not remind you of your friendly neighbourhood multiplex burger vendor!
We were at the butt of a big joke, lured in hordes to provide a live demonstration of the colossal stupidity of humankind. I am sure the Buddha loved us for our services – he sent us a convincing signal in the form of a lama who gave away his packet of namkeen to my gaping nephew while exiting the hall. Tamasha over, point proven, there was no need for the untouchable treatment any more.
Worship?! Which mode of worship in the world allows people to chew on munchies while praying?!