Shaufi is waiting for us in the cool dawn, and still a little sleepy, I wrap my pink shawl around my shoulders and climb into the tuk tuk with my pals. The road up to Chamundi winds back and forth, and we pass joggers, people on bicycles, and walkers on our way. It is best to get there early, locals tell us, before it gets too busy. The view opens as we come around a bend, and we can see the haze of morning fires rising from villages down below. It is a little overcast, but the sun lights the underside of the clouds in a peachy glow, and here and there we see a patch of pale blue sky.
We park at the top, and the three of us make our way towards the famous temple, past stalls full of flowers and coconuts for offerings. There are old men selling trinkets, and there is a chai stand where Brendan and I quickly partake. We check our sandals for 60 rupees and walk to the “visitors” line for tourists, which is shorter than the local line for worshippers. The temple is being repainted, and a scaffolding of sticks creates a latticework for the monkeys to swing on, and there are many of them entertaining the crowd.
Inside the two lines come together into one blob, and we get separated going up and over a skinny stairway which leads into the main sanctuary. A priest blesses holy water and offers a scoop in exchange for coins; we pass through the crowd and meet in an open air terrace in front of seven stone snakes, each rubbed with orange, red, and yellow powders and pastes. Around the bend are other shrines with various deities, each with an oil lamp burning and a place to leave an offering of money, flowers, or fruit. In the corner there is a stone where a man cracks open a coconut. I watch him split it apart and leave half of it on an altar with a strand of jasmine.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we learn in this temple is that when the priest offers one holy water you must drink it… but we have been told not to drink any local water… a conundrum. Let it run down my chin? Pretend I put it in my mouth, but kind of wash my face? As we pass the last shrine on the way out of the temple, I watch the priest put water in Annie’s right hand, then she cups her two hands together, does the kind of face washing thing, and then heads out; Brendan follows suit. The priest grimaces, but it is hard to tell what that means here in the land where a yes-no question gets you a bobbly head answer. Feeling that my friends have figured it out, I do the same and notice that everyone in line is watching us with a peculiar mix of horror and entertainment. We gather outside and Brendan breaks the news: people only take and drink the holy water out of their right hand, as the left is reserved for, well, toilet duty. It begins to click… in the restaurants, many people eat with their right hand–never with the left! We have taken holy water and soiled it by touching it with the left hand. No wonder people were laughing at us!
Outside the hazy sun is beginning to warm the day, and vendors are becoming more active. We walk away from the crowd towards the Shiva Temple. A beggar woman at the door looks up at me from her seat on the ground. I pull rupees out of my bag and put them in her dry palm. She smiles at me with such joy, revealing just a few teeth, but when I ask to take her picture, she buttons her lips together. Her expression becomes so serious, and I think about what a difference a smile can make to a person’s face. I can’t remember anything about the that temple except for her.
We roam further along, past a truck full of goats being unloaded to a few men and children who lead them away tethered to ropes.
Then Lakshmi temple. It is small and modest, and it is here that I have my first big ah-ha moment. Walking seven times around the center altar in a clockwise direction is peaceful but profound. I can’t explain it except to say my heart is blown wide open and I can’t stop the tears from screaming down my face. I have so much. Too much. It is overwhelming to imagine my piles of clothes, cupboards full of food, cars, endless paper and pens, my beautiful house which could fit five or more village huts under its great roof… But then my heart lifts and I feel myself float up like a bird overlooking all of Chamundi Hill. For a moment I imagine the lightness of being that comes from having nothing material to tie me down. I feel as if I have been here before, in this very spot, on this very step, only as an Indian woman in a simple sari and my bare brown feet. I can’t think to move. It is a wonderful magical moment. Another beggar woman nearby sees me standing and smiles when our eyes meet.
After a very long time our walk continues down into one of the side streets where the houses are built on the edges of the mountain and have a phenomenal view of the valley and city of Mysore below. We pass a cool rooster, many happy dogs, and a few kids, all smiles. Little courtyards are decorated with potted flowers, and piles of old coconuts fill up alleyways and rooftops. I wonder if dried they are used as firewood.
Our loop brings us right into the middle of a movie set, complete with cameras and actors getting their faces powdered. They immediately see Brendan who is six feet tall and very white, and a conversation begins. The movie is called “Chilli,” and it is all about Mysore and particularly about the sandalwood trade. Before we know it all three of us are written into a scene and talking with the actor, Sachin Shrindhar, who walks us through the scene. I would say the whole experience is like something out of a movie, but… it is!
Three takes later, our scene is shot, and we watch the playback in the movie camera and laugh with the crew. India is truly a magical place; you just have no idea what will happen next!
Climbing the steps away from Sandalwood Productions, our bellies are rumbling. There is only one place to eat: the chai stand is attached to a little restaurant with six tables. We order dosas and chai. It has already been an amazing morning, and there is so much left to come. Shaufi waves to us from outside the restaurant (we are just about the only foreigners on the hill, so asking for some white people yields an easy find). Before long we walk back into the ever warming sun and buy a few things on our walk back to the tuk tuk: embroidery thread bracelets, a pair of wooden Buddha heads sold as “sandalwood,” but which are really just rubbed with sandal oil to smell good, a wooden jewelry box, which Brendan buys for his lady friend back home, and a few soapstone carvings of Nandi, the bull, and an elephant. We are ready for a little rest and then our exciting night out at the Bengalaru Film Fest!!