Everything that ain't India



The biggest willy I ever saw, in fact probably the biggest willy in the world, is attached to a gigantic Jain statue in Shravanabelagola, about an hour out of Hassan. The giant appendage and its lucky owner, a Mr. Gommateshwara, stand perched on top of a very large hill and the only way to get there is up, up, up one million steps. Even the prospect of the biggest willy in the world was not enough to make that grind worthwhile.

Four thin Indians came to the rescue, carrying a sedan chair on poles. I cast my pride aside and stepped in. With a lurch we set off – by the time they hit the steps I was leant back at such an angle I thought I’d fall backwards off the chair – but once I got used to it, once I relaxed and decided to embrace my humiliation, I quite enjoyed it. It was apparent, by the grunts and groans of my bearers, they were not quite so enthusiastic.

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Luckily, Dogster is a greyhound of a man – with a few changes in personnel and the distribution of a vast tip all parties got to the top quite content. I walked through the entrance and into the courtyard. There it was. Willy Wonka. What a sight.

The statue is fifty-eight feet tall, chiseled from a single piece of rock, a boggling act of faith that, every twenty years is drowned in lorry-loads of milk, watched by mega-thousands of devotees. Today just a few of them were content to pour cow-juice over his big toe presided over by a chanting Jain priest, sitting bare-chested between his two enormous feet. It was a delicious scene, somehow profound, very moving – once I could take my eyes off the equally gigantic appendage hanging high over his head.

The others wandered off on various guided tours inside the rest of the complex – I was so taken by the epic simplicity of the scene I held back, took many photographs and tried to take it all in. Beside the priest was a young shaven-headed woman in a white robe with a look of such doe-eyed devotion, such dedication, I was mesmerized. Soft chanting, hands clasped in prayer… it was a beautiful scene. Everybody was in white; the statue was grey stone, the sky was light blue – the electric orange of the chrysanthemum garlands the only splash of colour in sight.

The German tourists arrived back, fresh from their guided tour. His prayers finished, the priest stood up. To nobody’s surprise at all, except ours, he was stark bollock naked. Mrs. German let out a strangled squawk and fled. She had to be carried down the hill in my sedan chair and then fed schnapps.

I, on the other hand, rather liked it – not the priest’s willy, that was an image I didn’t really need to dwell on – but the Jain philosophy behind it all – the abandonment of clothes, possessions, home, family, wealth…

I had a lot to think about on the long bus ride home.


Hampi was hot, dusty and, to my stupid eyes, at first sight rather dull. Main street of Hampi Bazaar was lined with backpacker hovels, their dreadlocked inhabitants splayed in various attitudes of ‘coolness’ in the restaurants along the road, waiting, no doubt, for their daily dose of diarrhea to prove just how cool they were.

An elephant blessed tourists with its trunk inside Virupaksha temple, rather tall, multi-layered Shiva structure, more impressive outside than in, surrounded by stalls selling tourist tat that overflowed onto the dirt. Huge, barren boulders made up a surrounding landscape that, seen in the right light, with the right drugs, must have been impressive.

We were zoomed round the sites efficiently enough, lectured, corralled and bused to the next one. I like my sites to be living, not ruins, generally. As I never listen to the guide, nor read a guidebook in these situations, I had no idea what I was seeing. Just ruins. I was having an attack of ignorance at the time. On another day, in different company, perhaps I would have found it fascinating but for the first part of the day I was distinctly underwhelmed.

We trundled from place to place, in and out of buses, hot, bothered and tired. Eventually, late afternoon we headed for the piece de resistance – the legendary Golden Chariot, the very object our train was named after. You’ll see the pictures on the website. It’s famous – rightly so – as is Vittala temple surrounding it.

Nearby, on the river-bank, blankets had been spread out, refreshments provided while five dancers did their Indian thing, very gracefully, very beautifully, as the sun set behind the temple. It should have been sublime but I was in a grump, thinking that perhaps we might be allowed to see the most famous site in Hampi before the sun went down. So I demanded a car, left the group and went inside.

I was the only one there. The sun slid down behind the hills and my spirits slid up. Just me and the Golden Chariot and my special temple, covered with delicious carving, the details etched sharper each second as the shadows grew. An ancient frangipani tree covered in new white blossoms stood silhouetted against the sky, night slowly tumbled around me and, just for my private thirty minutes, I was lost in awe. One of the pictures I took that evening is my screen-saver. I look at it every day.

After sunset the group arrived. That was fine – I’d had my moment alone – that’s what I’d been craving all day – my soul was at peace. We were gathered for a special occasion, the illumination of the temple – a special event, just for us – if only someone could find the key to turn on the lights. We waited – and waited. Ten minutes turned into an hour and the bonhomie started to fade. New best friends got a bit bored, the photographers started to fret. There was nothing to see.

Then, just in time, just before the troops turned rancid, in a single instant of wonder the illuminations were switched on. If there was a high point to the train trip – this was it. The main temple and the surrounds were lit in a pure white light, every detail of the sculptures, the pillars, the friezes glowed gold – gold, gold, wonderful gold. For one stunning hour we wandered, each of us just lost in awe. We were allowed inside the forbidden area, the guides played the musical columns, each one a separate note, we stood and stared and felt very small, very poor, very humble.

Well, I did, anyway.