In a small room tucked within the stone walls, a cat lies curled up on the stone tiled floor. Three kittens play about her. One of them is fascinated by the twitching tip of her tail, while another investigates an ant crawling along the edges of a stone tile. The scene reminds me of the lines – “A mongrel bitch has found a place/for herself and her puppies /in the heart of the ruin /May be she likes a temple better this way” from Kolatkar’s Jejuri, which is in a way fitting, since this is the purportedly original house of the same god, several hundred miles to the south.
The third kitten, meanwhile, has taken a considerable degree of interest in a pot of khichdi cooking on a slow wooden fire. This annoys the scientist turned astrologer mother fanning the flames, seeing as the pot is meant as ritual offering for the gods. She stamps her feet, but this has little effect on the kitten, which proceeds to sniff at the fire out of curiosity. It burns its tiny snout, and retreats to its mother, yowling in pain.
Meanwhile, I step out and sniff the cool morning air.
The sun is just peeking out from behind the clump of peepal trees topping of the ridge that lies to one side of the temple. Behind the rear wall, and across the largish temple water-tank with half its steps missing, is a dilapidated structure with a number of arches. For a moment I imagine it full of tired pilgrims seeking shelter for the night, but the vision quickly passes.
Its only occasional inhabitants these days are the monkeys – hundreds of them populate a large fig tree by the tank. I step closer to photograph the arches bathed in the soft orange glow of the rising sun. The monkeys do not take kindly to this incursion on their sacred grounds, and respond by making a loud hooting and screeching commotion. Chastened, I withdraw.
Like the hulking remains of a fort some distance away, this place has its own mythology. Here was the ancient town of Prempur where Shiva, as is his way of dealing with all things evil, slayed a demon called Malla who was tormenting the townsfolk. Here he forged a sword (a khand) and felled the demon with one stroke, and convinced by the villagers to stay on, took up residence at the temple they built for him. The town itself got “swallowed up by the earth” later, presumably because its inhabitants sinned, with the result that this place is now in the middle of nowhere.
I’m not a religious person – I don’t believe in God – and even if there is one, I see no reason why he should have anything to do with the lives of insignificant beings such as us. And yet, I find the stories and myths of religion fascinating. Timeless, in a way, they inspire me in a way not unlike mountains or rivers, or the ocean – witnesses to millenia – rising above the mundane. On second thoughts, perhaps I *am* religious.
The grouchy father is having an exchange with the priest on the modalities of a ceremony in which I will apparently be playing a lead role – something called a maharudrabhishek. The priest’s clan have been caretakers here for generations, which means that we possibly share a kinship dating back to the 16th century, which is when my ancestors left, to escape persecution and seek asylum (and opportunity) in the Hindu-friendly Marathi-speaking lands to the north. There is certainly a resemblance between him and the portraits of my ancestors from seven or eight generations ago that used to hang from the walls of the house.
Or I could be mistaken.
As the ceremony commences, I get on top of the platform, shirtless. A dog enters the inner sanctum and lies down on its stomach facing the idol, forepaws extended and crossed under his chin, looking like any other devotee of the god. As I rather ineptly bathe the idol in milk and holy water, the priest chants hymns and the inner sanctum slowly fills up with the first worshipers of the morning. They are careful not to disturb the dog for fear on incurring his wrath.
The nizams and sultans of the deccan tried not to mess too much with the local deities, though. Perhaps, it is fitting, at this point, to tell you the story of the Adilshah of Bijapur who was stung by a swarm of wasps when he desecrated the original Mailar temple by slaughtering a cow on its premises. Needless to say, he repented, and built the much larger temple where I stand. This action of his brought him great success in his campaigns against the mughals. Thereafter, the temple enjoyed royal patronage and is still sacred to the local Muslims. The old temple can be seen in the distance, across a field strewn with ruins.
In these parts, every mound of rubble has a story of its own.