Sitting in my hotel room in Mumbai, recovering from a very uncomfortable overnight train journey in Sleeper Class (ha! what an inappropriately optimistic name - sleeper class; nobody ever gets any sleep in this, the cheapest and least comfortable class of berth on Indian Railways), I'm looking back over the last couple of weeks in Karnataka and marvelling anew at the contrasts of modern India.I think it would be fair to say that Karnataka has left us awed by its magnificent sights, but also exhausted from the constant and very draining attention we've increasingly received over the last week or so. Coming up from the south the first place on our route is Mysore - a manageably small but fairly cosmopolitan city with a special weekly attraction that we uncharacteristically manage to be organized enough to be in town for. I say that purely because we achieved the opposite in quite spectacular fashion in Kashgar (famed the world over for its huge and awesome Sunday cattle market) where we cleverly arrived on a Monday and left on a Saturday... Anyway in Mysore the Palace is lit up by thousands of light bulbs each Sunday evening creating a 'Disney in India' type spectacle (see image above left) and it's worth planning your itinerary around it. Crowds of locals turn out for this free event which is greeted by a chorus of 'oohs' and 'aahs' even though they must have seen it countless times! Being on the Deccan Plateau, and hence a few hundred meters above sea level, the weather here is perfect - fresh air and daytime temperatures in the mid twenties; one of the reasons I love India in winter. Our next stop is the unpronounceable Sravanabelagola, a Jain site and probably my favourite stop in Karnataka - partly I admit because of a couple of very successful photo sessions here. Jains are a small religious minority in India but quite well represented in Karnataka, Gujerat and Rajasthan. I've visited a number of their temples and pilgrimage sites over the years including Shatrunjaya (a hilltop covered with 863 temples) and the incomparable Ranakpur Temple, a stunning creation in white marble. Jains have passing similarities to Buddhists - to the casual observer their statues are quite alike and both religions date from around the same time (although Jainism is slightly older) and were born for similar reasons (a rejection of the increasing occurrence of animal sacrifice and the injustices of the caste system in Hinduism). But where Buddhists shave their heads, Jains pluck each individual hair out, and where Buddhists beg for food Jains have to have their food given to them without asking. The taking of any human life is strictly prohibited to the point where a monk or nun will wear a face mask to prevent them from inadvertently inhaling small insects and sweep the floor in front of them as they walk so they won't tread on anything. At Sravanabelagola a constant trail of pilgrims climb a large granite boulder (see image above right) to pay homage to a 17m high and strikingly naked statue of Bahubali, a Jain hero. It's interesting that many of the pilgrims here are Hindus and Sikhs as well as Jains - this is a common occurrence in India where many of the religions share common features and origins and enjoy much mutual respect.
We've chosen to spend Christmas in one of India's most westernized cities, Bangalore, mostly to stuff our faces with yummy nosh, but although we see a few Xmas lunches advertised in the local rag the inclusion of 'giblet gravy' kills it for me. I'm not quite sure what it is but it doesn't sound good and being a northerner I am very particular about my gravy. The other treat in Bangalore is going to see 'The Hobbit' - finally - I had to wait 10 whole days from the time of its release for heaven's sake!!!
Heading north to Hampi we start to encounter the 'Goa Effect' - scores of backpackers that have been conspicuous in their absence in many other places of genuine interest but less tourist infrastructure. There is a certain type of traveller who, although claiming to have 'found themselves' in India, I think really struggles to deal with the rigours of travel here (as we all do to a greater or lesser degree) and actually sees little and spends weeks on end in the backpacker ghettos of Hampi, Bagsu, Vashisht, Mahabalipuram and similar places. Many of these ladies and gentlemen are shamefully dressed, despite notices around Hampi requesting foreigners to wear appropriate clothing. You don't want to get me started so I won't go on... Anyway, possibly because of this deluge of travellers (and also the time of year doesn't help - it's New Year) Hampi is ridiculously bad value for accommodation and we move on far more quickly than we had anticipated. I'm disappointed as I was hoping to get a lot more pictures here than I've managed to take (see image below right) and my memories of my last visit here (14 years ago admittedly) are very fond.
The further north we go the poorer Karnataka gets and Badami might almost be on another planet from Bangalore. The first thing we see upon arriving at the train station doesn't bode well - it's a decapitated langur monkey, covered in ritual markings, with a garland of marigolds around its bloody neck and its head sitting in its lap. What's THAT about? When I quiz a local later he tells me that it must have died naturally but it looks about as natural as a MacDonald's Quarter Pounder to me. I know that animal sacrifice (mostly of goats I believe) still occurs in Hinduism although I've never seen anything quite like this. Badami is a fascinating place, though - wonderful cave temples and old village - but the locals are off their nuts, frankly. One other thing that becomes much more prevalent as we go north are pigs. Little black, wiry-haired, snuffly pigs. I imagine they are a kind of garbage disposal system coz they're certainly not pets. They seem to have become a bit of a menace in fact, as we later read in the 'Times of India' which implausibly reports that in the Karnatakan town of Belgaum, in one school too poor to have a wall around its complex, local pigs have become so brave that they have taken to stealing kids' lunches from out of their hands and the school now appoints two 'pig monitors' each lunchtime to fight the pigs off with sticks! I've said it before and I'll say it again "only in India"!It's in Badami that we start to attract excessive and unwanted attention from locals. At the caves here we find ourselves backed up against a wall by a swarm of gawking kids, all wanting to shake our hands and take our photos. I know - it sounds charming - but after replying to the question 'what is your country?' to the billionth Indian it wears pretty thin to the point where the 30 foot drop over the wall behind us is looking like a viable escape option... It's so hard, I know people are just curious, but you just can't talk to everyone and I start to feel as though once I step outside my hotel room I am public property. Now I know what it feels like to be famous...