After lunch we made good time. Packs always seem a bit lighter when you’ve got food in your stomach and have just had a rest. Not that our packs are particularly heavy. This was a conscious choice and one of the core tenants of our travel philosophy.
We decided from the outset to travel as light as possible, in the smallest bags possible. It has a variety of benefits, from never having to check bags to being able to hike across the Indian countryside on a whim. There are a lot of other backpackers on the road who take the opposite approach: they have a ninety liter trekking pack on their back, stuffed to bursting, and a smaller pack (usually just slightly smaller than our packs) on their front. They trundle slowly through the streets of backpacker hub cities like large cordura shelled turtles. I’ve lived on the road for close to six months now and for the life of me I can’t figure out what they’re carrying. Our packs (he said, smugly with a self righteous air) are 26 and 29 liters, just slightly larger than a school backpack. Our wardrobes are limited (we wear the same thing over and over and over and are constantly shower washing skivvies, and we don’t have a lot of cold weather gear(I’m currently sheltering from the rain on a cold day in Nepal wrapped in a yak wool blanket because I don’t have a jacket. UPDATE: I bought a fake Northface jacket in Nepal. It was cheap, works great and packs down to nothing) but with a little improvisation, we can get by most of the time. It certainly helps when you make the interesting choice to trek across an Indian city in the heat of the day.
Lunch was the end of the truly crazy traffic and crowds. After a few more hectic street crossings, we were headed out of town. The main road cut from the market, took a turn northwest along the bank of the river and then ventured over the water on a large four lane bridge. I was nervous this bridge, like the overpass, would not have a walkway. This fear proved groundless as we crested the last hill, climbed out of the city and looked towards the island. A wide walking path ran along both edges of the bridge and a few people were hustling across the expanse in the heat. The river under the bridge, represented on the map as a shore to shore wide blue ribbon, was a narrow green snake slithering between two giant expanses of exposed sandy river bed. Small white herons stood on the backs of cows and bison who drank at the waters edge. Trash floated on the still surface like new years confetti, carried by the slow current. On the bridge, auto rickshaws zoomed by with their characteristic gocart lawn mower sound.
There’s not much to say about the hike across the bridge. It was hot, it took a long time and we made it across in one piece.
We paused in the slim shade offered by a concrete power pole on the far bank. A herd of goats passed by, clomping down the steep bank towards the water. A man with a stick herded them along and nodded at us as he passed. We’d made it onto the island.
The island was really more of a giant delta, held like a dusty diamond between two hasps of green water. It’s a teardrop shape about five miles long from top to bottom, with the temple located on the far side. We headed up a two lane road along the southern edge of the island, slowly making our way closer.
When you walk on the roads in India, you’re often walking either on the actual road, or on an unpaved shoulder. Only in the big cities is there something resembling a sidewalk and even that is a treacherous, uneven and broken affair. Most of the time you’re picking your way through rubble and around storefronts. In rainy areas there are small concrete ditches on either side of the road. In some areas these are also sewers. Most of the time they are covered with concrete pavers and this makes a decent walking surface. However, you have to constantly watch where you step: the pavers are often broken or missing and the ditches can be deep and filled with a lot of things you don’t want to fall on top of or into. Like rusty rebar, trash and sewage.
The road to the temple was two lanes (which means a minimum of three lanes of traffic) and either side was fairly open. Jungle terrain and buildings set back from the road gave us a decent walking space. The exhaust was thinner and the traffic less intense. We made good time and soon rounded a long gradual bend and saw it rising in the distance: the temple.
After the curve, the road was ruler straight and the temple sat at the far end. We were still more than a mile away, but the temple stood high above the surrounding buildings and jungle. It looked ancient and colorful and terrifying in the distance. And it was a distance– it took us over an hour to get there from when we could first see it.
Hindu temples are very foreign to a western eye. The temple itself is a set of goparums, which are ornate towers over gated entrances, topping square castle-like walls that surround the temple. The largest is the outermost and each layer of temple are ensconced with smaller and smaller versions until you are in the sacred center. Non-Hindu’s are not allowed into the innermost areas. The large, outer goparum is all that we could see from the distance. The goparum themselves are layered eaves, diminishing in size at each level. This gives the illusion that the building is impossible tall and receding into the stratosphere when instead the top level is perhaps only a quarter of the size of the bottom layer. It’s a fascinating optical illusion and lends the goparums a supernatural scale and feel. This otherworldiness is reinforced by the fact that the entire surface of the goparum is covered with hundreds of brightly colored figures mounted on the ledges. They’re carved into the surface, not in a roman-esque shallow relief but rendered in a full three dimensions. They hang off the edges of the structure weirdly life-like (considering they are mostly minor deities and supernatural figures) as if they were real bodies glued haphazardly on the edges of the temple instead of carved out. The effect gives the impression that the temples are crawling with giant ants, covered completely in a mildly organized chaos incomprehensible to an outsider.
But from our great distance we couldn’t see any of that. As we got nearer the businesses and homes on either side of the street gave way to shops geared towards pilgrimages. Storefronts sported bright flower wreaths and small offerings. Many sold brightly colored banners featuring the elephant headed Ganesh and hundreds of unrecognizable spirits, deities and avatars. Soon we were not the only walkers on the road: we were joined by crowds all headed towards the temple on foot. As we grew nearer, the crowds grew more intense and as we made it to the temple walls we were hiking through a small shanty town, typical of the kind that exists outside of large religious sites. Low tin roofed hutches lined the streets selling fruit, offerings and bottled water. Crowds sheltered up against the tall wall separating the temple from the outside world. The main road was now devoid of cars: they were fended off by a series of iron pilings driven into the pavement and the taxis and autorickshaws prowled back and forth on the other side, waiting for a fare to emerge from the caged area. The traffic now was on foot and bicycle. Ascetics wandered the streets, looking like skeletons wrapped in old leather shambling up and down asking for alms. Crowds sat in the shade of the goparum and pilgrims made their way through the large gate and into the temple area.
By now it was mid afternoon and the light was beginning to shift. We walked through the gate under the goparum. It was at least thirty yards of stone corridor, the arabesque roof a hundred feet overhead. Inside the air was cool. Beggars and holymen lined the walls, raising thin and calloused hands at the crowd flowing through.
Inside the outer wall was stuffed with people and shops. Knick knacks, food, religious icons– it seemed to never end. The road led on, through three more goparums, each one smaller than the one before. It seemed like the temple went on forever, and endless and exhausting array of streets, stalls, people and hiking. The press of the crowd had finally worn us down. We weren’t allowed to the inner areas of the temple, so we returned to the outer wall and bought a water and stood in the relative calm of the small market and admired the gopaurm.
We’d walked six miles– likely more, through dusty streets, impossibly crowded markets, through alleys to get here. We took a few pictures, marveled at the intricacy of the figures crawling over every surface of the tower and debated whether it had been worth the hike. We were exhausted and hungry but we decided it was worth it. We were the only non-locals we’d seen in hours. This was definitely something outsiders don’t see often. We did our best to soak it in and then we turned around and left. Kind of anticlimactic, but there it is. We came, we saw, we didn’t get hit by a bus. A success in my book.
We decided not to walk back. We were sunburned and aching and had breathed enough exhaust for one day. We hired one of the autorickshaws outside the temple and for 300 rupee we were zooming back into town. It took about half an hour to get back to the train station, a journey that had taken us almost five hours on foot. Our driver took us around the market and used the overpass and zoomed through the roundabouts. The ride might have been terrifying if we weren’t so tired and beaten down. But soon we we were standing outside the ticket building at the Trichy train depot, a place we’d been so frequently it was starting to feel like home. It’d been a very full day and we still had a night train to go.