Asia | India | Karnataka | Hampi (Vijayanagar) – Clapping Flamenco with Dolphin and Gypsy – part 2
About 4:30 I rode down to the river, to a huge expanse of slick, weathered granite, undulating softly to the water’s edge. Families sat eating sweets at the edge of the sacred flow and boatmen in bowl-shaped coracles offered passage to the other side. I leaned my bike against one of the six or seven giant egg-shaped boulders scattered along the bank and sat to watch the light shift across the landscape. Ten meters away, I spotted a random bas-relief of Parvati a supplicant had carved out half a millenium before.
An older man, an Indian with English enough for conversation, sat down next to me with the usual menu of questions: Name, country, age, marital status, job. Then asked me what I thought of Hampi. I told him I liked it very much, that it had a sacred sort of feeling. That it probably would have had it even without all the temples, but that they just seemed to grow right out of the rock, which made it that much more bewitching. His name was Hira, which means diamond he told me, and would tell me again 8 or 9 times in the next 24 hours.
I asked him where he was from, what he was doing, and he said he was a retired teacher from a town 60km up the road. He was returning to Hampi as he did each month to make offerings to the temple a stone’s throw from where we sat. The temple was dedicated to Lord Rama and his wife Sita, and Hira’s wife was named Sita and had died the year before, so he made regular offerings there of sari, food and money in her memory. Hira introduced me to his daughter, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his incredibly charming granddaughter. They shared some homemade sweets with me, asked questions translated through Hira, and treated me more like a fellow human being than any Indian I’d met since leaving the ashram.
He asked if I would like to come the next morning to participate in the offerings. I said I would, very much, if it would be no imposition. He asked if I would like to join him and his family for dinner. I said I would especially like that, and it was a very kind offer. We set a time, 7:30 that evening, in the main temple at Hampi Bazaar, where they rented a pilgrim’s guest room from the priests for forty rupees a night. He pointed to the main temple, it’s main gompura visible a kilometer off, towering 30 or 40 meters above the rocks and coconut palms in the foreground, silhouetted against the sinking sun.
The air was cut by words shouted in Spanish and a splash, as off to our right the same couple from the bus appeared, she in a different outfit of Rajasthani manufacture, he still shirtless and in shorts standing knee-deep in the river, arms outstretched, eyes clenched shut above a grinning mouth full of oversized teeth.
“Vente…..ohhhhhh vente! Vente…..Vente conmigoooooooo…” he sang, rotating slowly around in the water, tilting his head toward the sky. He dove horizontally into the river, splashing and diving his way out into the main flow, disappearing beneath the surface periodically, then popping back up again, singing the same ecstatic song.
Hira and his family and I all stared, incredulous for a few seconds, but eventually unable to contain ourselves, giggling and waving to him as he pulled himself up on a rock 20 meters offshore. He struck a series of vaguely classical-looking ballet poses, singing and clapping, while the young woman in the mirrored shawl laughed and clapped on shore.
“Is he always this happy?” I asked her.
“Yes, always. It is his…mmmm….nature.”
“Where does he get all his energy?”
“From the earth, I think.”
“The words he is singing….’Vente conmigo.’ Maybe my Spanish isn’t that good, but doesn’t that mean ‘Twenty, with me?'”
“Heeheeee….no! It is ‘Come with me, come with me’ It is a song from Spain, from the Canary Islands. He is from there.”
“And you also?”
“No, I am from Spain. Umm….the main country.”
“Well, I’m Carl, nice to meet you, and this is Hira.”
Hira took over at this point, pouring his interest and hospitality over Nadi the way he had with me, until he had explained his whole story to her as well and invited both of them to dinner and puja the next morning. He asked her about her Rajasthani clothes, and got a long soliloquoy back, about gypsies in Spain, and their Indian roots, and the deep solidarity she felt with them and by extension the people of Rajasthan, even though she’d yet to visit there.
Hira shared more sweets which his daughter in law produced from a series of plastic shopping bags, and by the time the singing man swam back in, we’d all been assembled into a large, multi-racial tri-lingual family of sorts, laughing and singing and talking until nearly dusk.
He told us his name was Delfin (“It means Dolphin. You know…dolphin! EeeekeekeekeeKEEEEEE!”) He showed us the collection of crosses he had strung together like charms on a cord around his neck, and the blue string tied diagonally across his torso, a tradition from the Canaries, apparently. He joined Hira and I and a few other family members on a little coracle tour of the river’s far bank. When we finally returned, it was nearly dark. Delfin and Nadi found a little shivalingam carved into the stone and lit incense sticks to stick in it, chanting some Sanskrit they’d learned at a temple in Thiruvanamalai the previous month. I rode home, agreeing to see everyone at dinner.
Dinner was odd for a few reasons. First, Delfin and Nadi never showed, though we waited in the temple courtyard until after eight. Also, Hira’s family wasn’t the only one staying there; the south wall of the temple courtyard was lined with a dozen or so small rooms, each rented out by a group of pilgrims there for puja at one of the dozens of holy sites nearby. It turned the courtyard into an approximation of the front lawn at someone’s family reunion. Kids ran races back and forth between the 500-year old carved stone bull and the even older ceremonial gateway, grandmothers chatted over tea on a stone ledge nearby, and girls washed dishes with water from the holy well.
After deeming half an hour too late to keep waiting, we all walked into their room, sat ourselves cross legged on some straw mats and closed and bolted the door. Then Hira’s daughter in law produced a series of tiffin tins: small, lidded metal containers that serve as the Indian equivalent of Tupperware. Out of these came rice, pulao, roti, dal, and….mutton.
“Isn’t meat prohibited in this whole town. Holy town, yes? Brahmin law?”
“Oh,” said Hira sheepishly, “we very much liking mutton.”
“Fair enough. I won’t tell anyone. Shhhhh.”
“Hehe. Yes. Shhhh!”
And so the first meat I’d eaten in four days was had in the courtyard of a Hindu temple.
The next morning I returned to the same riverside spot as the evening before, to find Hira and his family washing clothes in the river. It was a gorgeous, brightly lit morning, and I sat quietly in the sun while women carefully shaped lingams out of the sand on the river’s bank and sprinkled them with flowers, fruit, ghee and incense.
After offerings and washing were done, the boys started stripping themselves down to their shorts and paddling out into the river.
“Now we make bath!” said Hira. “Will you come?”
“Why not?” I said, and slowly disrobed, trying hard to maintain the same detached, nonchalante expression as all the other men wore. Predictably, removing my shirt brought choruses of discussion and pointing as the spider tattoo below my collarbone was revealed, and Hira spent a good three or four minutes asking me about it and relaying my answers to the gathered audience.
The water was just cool enough to refresh, making me more awake at 8am than I’d felt the whole previous day. Bars of soap migrated from hand to hand, and I lathered and scrubbed and doused as thoroughly and deliberately as I could. I still finished what felt like hours before everyone around me, and stood back on the rock, dripping dry in the climbing sun while Hira and five or six other men sat in waist deep water grinding the soles of their feet clean with river stones, and women in dripping saris resolutely ignored me.
Just as we had finished drying and dressing and started walking toward the Rama temple, we caught sight of Delfin and Nadi coming out.
“Oh, good morning!” I said, “We were just going to make puja.”
“Oh, we just make there, four times! It was very nice,” said Nadi.
“You can still come this time?” asked Hira.
“Hmmm…yes, OK. We come.”
“This is Sita?” asked Delfin after we got to the temple.
“No, this is Rama. Rama is man. Sita is woman. From Ramayana, you know?”
“Oh, yes. Ramayana.”
“Sita there is wife. Sita name of my wife. You see that sari there? That is my offering. I make sari offering to Sita there.”
“Oh,” said Nadi,”Beautiful sari! Very beautiful!”
We went through the motions of the puja, eating pieces of coconut handed us by the priest, sipping lustral water from our hands, slipping five rupee coins into his soft hands. Nadi rummaged through her bag and found some incense to light, then offered it up and rang the temple bell a couple of times. Everyone looked very pleased.
After it was over and we’d all had our parting cups of chai at the shop outside the temple gates, Hira announced he and his family had to return home shortly. Nadi and Delfin and I decided to cross the river and hike up the Hanuman Temple, a brilliant white structure atop a high rocky hill, visible from nearly every other point in Hampi.
As we were paddled slowly across the river by a 9-year old kid, I remarked how I’d never been to a country with so many rules, so many people intent on telling you what to do. Not just the rules of puja, but random strangers telling you to sit in this seat not that one, telling you you must go inside the shop, you can’t just look from outside, and Nadi immediately agreed, emphatically adding a few examples of her own.
“But at last,” she said, sinking back into the curved wicker womb of the coracle, “we can do what we want.” She reached into the yellow shopping bag next to her and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, some large Rizlas, a lighter and a Magic Marker-sized stick of hash. In the time it took us to cross the river she had rolled a large conical joint, lit it, clasped it between her palms while mouthing words of offering to Lord Shiva, smoked it down to a stub, then hopped over the side of the coracle to swim the last hundred meters of the way.
The hike up to the temple and back would probably have been a four hour venture for me alone, including half an hour or so paused at the top to savor the view of water and stone and structure down below. For Delfin and Nadi and I it took about 11. We got lost a couple of times, Delfin lost his sandal in an irrigation ditch and had to walk 2/3 of the day on bare feet, and we stopped about once every hour and a half to roll and light another spliff.
It took the guidance of three passers-by to get us to the base of the stairway up the hill, including one kid who insisted on walking us the last five minutes, even though we could see it from where we were. Predictably, he demanded money on arrival, and protested violently when I passed him five rupees, shouting that it wasn’t enough and we had to give him more.
When we finally did reach the summit, the two Spaniards rushed inside to make more puja, then emerged and wandered over to a spot sheltered by a rock overhang just out of sight of the temple. While Nadi rolled another joint, Delfin pulled a watermelon, a guava and a feather from the plastic bag, cut the guava into artfully serrated halves, then assembled a little shrine out of them with the watermelon in the center, feather and three incense sticks sticking out of the top. We ate the fruit, went back to the temple, made an offering of hash to the priest, whereupon he produced his own chillum which he packed and lit with more speed and skill than even Nadi could muster.
Getting lost on the way back down, we didn’t reach the river until an hour after nightfall, trapping us on the north side of the river.
“Police make new law…no coracle can go after 6pm,” we’d been told by a man in the restaurant where we stopped for dinner near the landing. We walked down to the water to see if this was true. Two coracles lay there overturned, with no paddles or boatmen in sight.
“I think we sing, and see if help comes to us,” said Delfin, and he erupted into spirited flamenco. Nadi and I clapped, simple rythms at first, then more fervent, more syncopated, until the three of us fell into a sort of drumless drum circle, laughing and crying “Andale! Andale!” to each other as we took turns leading out with new patterns. Two Israelis sitting nearby walked over to listen. The moon rose, half-full and bone-white. It went on for an hour like this.
I ended up sleeping on the north side of the river that night, Delfin and Nadi waded across at a ford further down with the aid of a boatmen drawn by our clapping. I haven’t seen them since, and I never found out Delfin’s real name, but I can still hear that clapping and it still makes me laugh.