Thursday, December 11, 2008

Per Ardua ....

After yesterday’s Mexican wave of vomit, we’re up for a bit of grown-up culture, today. We head out of Mumbai, in search of ancient Buddhist caves, exercising what Monu calls “temple-interest,” with neither a child nor a crisp in sight.

We pull up, in a cloud of dust, in what appears to be a building-site. Monu says inscrutably, “No speak the people,” before cruelly abandoning us to the tourist touts. It’s the car, which attracts them. I’m sure if we wound our way up the hill, in a dusty tuk-tuk, or sitting on a pile of cotton waste, in the back of a ramshackle camel-cart, we’d slip through unnoticed. As it is, we seem to look like we need an alabaster Shiva, or a Taj Mahal keyring, everywhere we set foot. (Don’t panic, if you’re on our Christmas list, we’ve hardly bought any keyrings, and we like our Shivas in wood...)

Karla Cave is a rock-cut Buddhist temple, dating from around the second century B.C. The Lonely Planet promises it’ll be impressive, and so it is. What they fail to mention, is that you’ll have your alveoli hanging out, on the end of your tongue, by the time you scramble up nine thousand uneven cobbled steps to the entrance. Happily, there’s a panoramic view available every other cobble, so you can pause, and pretend to admire the vista, while your respiratory tract relocates itself where it belongs, every so often. Small stalls line the route, but who’s going to believe you’re interested in examining peeled cucumbers, or scummy pots of lassi, really? The cafe set in a cranny, halfway up, definitely takes the khari-biscuit for unpretentiousness, with its modest pair of sun-bleached garden chairs, for the comfort of passing patrons. There aren’t any, at the moment, so the waiter polishes his bottles of Fanta, again. I understand some of the retail opportunities on offer - for instance, a garland of flowers, a coconut or two, perhaps even a fresh tub of red kumkum powder, are all perfectly logical requirements, on the way to worship - but which pious Buddhist suddenly needs a new sari, at the temple-gates?

We arrive, only slightly rosier than when we set off, and don’t turn a hair at the two thousand percent mark-up on the entrance fee, for being pasty-faced. They clearly aren’t inundated by visitors from the west, or there’d be more evidence of maintenance. As it is, they slap on a bit of cement, when the cobbles are conspicuously falling apart, although I imagine tourist casualties have to hit double figures, before they crack open a bag of Birla’s finest. Still, we don’t begrudge them a hundred rupees a-piece, so we slide a couple of Gandhi portraits across the counter, and we’re in.

Sadly, so are about four hundred grey-uniformed school children, pencils and notebooks poised for cultural input. We create a ripple, just walking along. As they spy us, they put education on hold for a minute, to say hello, and ask us how we are. It will be a shock, being back in the UK, where very few people care how we are, and even fewer ask. However, all representatives of the Little Flower High School of Thane are fascinated to know, so we bask in pretend fame, while we can.

In the upper chamber of the caves, India finally gives in to graffiti, and I’m delighted to see that it’s in transliterated Hindi, so even I can get the point. - Scrawling on walls really isn’t a big thing, here, apart from hand-painted adverts for The Speak Well English Academy, or for Lux Cozi Innerwear For Men, which are creeping green with mildew, just before, just after, and during the monsoon. The one bit of graffiti you can’t help but notice, as soon as you step off the plane, is the word “Beanbag” and a phone number, sprayed in aerosol-paint, on every available piece of corrugated aluminium. We ask, and ask, wondering about this obsession with floor cushions, but no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming for ten months. Then, enlightenment: “Beanbags” are Ladies of the Night. Perfect. We’re given back-word, a fortnight later, but it’s too late, and “beanbag” has passed irretrievably into the family lexicon. – Here, on the cave-wall, it says, in the manner of lovesick British schoolboys, “Raj Prem Atish” – Raj loves Atish. I don’t know Hindi for “4 EVA” but I expect that’s there too.

While we’re peering into monastic cells and admiring stupa, up above, the beggars arrive for business. We hit Beggar Row, flaunting stumps and hollow-flanked babies. “Namaste – hello – hi – bakshish – money – bakshish – hello...” The litany follows us down the steps. Received wisdom recommends giving to an organised charity, not through car-windows to a syndicate, but round a bend, we pass an ancient lady, who takes up less room than a floor-cloth. We both turn, remembering the same line from the guide-books, and tip the coins from our pockets into her lap. Give to the old. We look at each other and laugh, because we now have no money for the sulabh-wallah, who guards toilets, so we’ll have to cross our legs all the way home.

Today, Buddhist temples are on a two-for-one offer, apparently, because we climb back into the car, and Monu says, “One more!” He doesn’t believe Mr Roland’s map, so we stop to ask for directions of every paan-seller and stray cyclist on the way. This time the car-park’s only vaguely within sight of the mountain trail leading to Bhaja Caves. – “See this stairs? Go!” says the boy from Lucknow, so we do.

There’s no big entrance, the wonky path just melts into caves, at the top. On the way up, we pass three goats, sprawled across the steps, enjoying the view, in the midday sun. I’m quite glad to see them, because, this week, it’s the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha. Think “turkey” and “Christmas.” “Cut the goat!” says Monu, slicing his finger across his throat. We see goats in their hundreds, led by the ears, along the street, or in double-decker lorries, all heading in one direction, to slaughter. Goats, with tinsel woven into their fringes, and ribbons tied round their silky ears, goats in necklaces. We see a child, kissing his goat goodbye, while another pulls the heads of two tethered goats together. Monu laughs. “Make the fight,” he says. Outside Mankhurd school, a boy straddles a branch, twenty feet up a tree, to cut leaves, for his goat’s last supper. On the road, I see small hooves sticking out of a sack, in the vehicle alongside us, then realise the whole truck’s filled with corpses. No refrigeration, nothing more subtle or hygienic than a hessian bag for a shroud. Lentils have increasing appeal. – So it’s good, to see goats still breathing in and out, after Tuesday.

When we get there, panting again, Bhaja Caves are empty, except for the man on the gate, who welcomes us in, then, before our shadows are well clear, hawks and spits on the floor. I’m almost certain it’s a coincidence. We look down into the valley, where bullocks are pulling a ploughshare. Or, plugging, according to our Delhi guide, Amit. I ask him, what they do with all the boy calves, since (Cow is God) they can’t be of use at the table. “They plug the field,” he says, simply. Outside Mumbai, just before we join the motorway, the sign reads, “No bullock-carts on the expressway.” They’re allowed in the maze of city roads, though. We often see them, impervious to seven honking lanes of maypole-traffic, trotting on with their water-tank or cartload of melons.

I peek over the parapet, down the hillside. You can peer over any ledge or wall, in India, however remote or sacred, and never not see an avalanche of litter below. It’s not that no-one cleans up here - they do - but then someone else come and tips it all out again, to sift through, and abandon. This country has the most picked over litter in the world. Picked over, just not picked up.

The caves are brilliant, better than the famous Kandheri Caves, in Sanjiv Gandhi National Park, better than the Elephanta caves, a boat-ride over the Arabian Sea. And, no crowds. On the way back down, we meet maybe a dozen culture-vultures, on their way up. A long way, we tell them, but worth the climb.