…or Melukote, or Narayanadri, or Vedadri, or Yadavadri, or Yathishaila, or Thirunarayanapuram. We were guided to this small town north of Mysore and west of Bangalore by friends who had visited many times in the past to support the work of the Janapada Seva Trust. Part of the Trust’s work involves organic agriculture, and I wanted to learn what that was like for them in a very different environment (not to mention the different crops) than Maine. In addition, Alison and I always enjoy visiting out-of-the-way areas when we travel to try to get a better feeling on what “normal life” looks like. Melkote, although beautiful in many ways and full of ancient wonders and important institutions, does not get the daily visits from tourists that a city like Mysore does. It does host a significant festival (Vairamudi) once a year attracting many people (hundreds of thousands according to Wikipedia), but perhaps primarily Indian and religious. Our hosts told us that Melkote attracted the odd backpacker every so often but that white visitors were still unusual.
The town is built on a rocky hill above the high plains of southern Karnataka state and had been a walled and fortified town at one point long ago. We arrived as guests of the Trust, which is located near the top of the main hill beside the entrance to the Yoganarasimha Temple and reservoir.
We were put up several blocks away in an empty house overlooking the Cheluvanarayana Swamy Temple, which gave us to chance to walk through the neighborhood on our way to and from the Trust during the three days we visited. Early in the morning that often meant meeting a troop of macaques (bonnet macaque, Macaca radiata) during their morning rounds of the town, as well as several dogs we began to recognize when we encountered them elsewhere. We also got to witness the daily creation of new kolam on the walkways in front of their home’s entrance. These were beautiful drawings made by hand using fine white powder laid onto the freshly washed, moist stone or concrete surface. Often the kolam changed each day, which made every morning’s walk even more of a discovery.
Famously the cows in India wander freely and are accepted as a part of the community. This seemed true in Melkote as well, though it also appeared that most cows were owned or attached to specific families, and they spent some time penned within a home’s outer walls, primarily for the morning and evening milkings. Late morning small herds of cows (and often other livestock like goats, sheep, and water buffalo) were shepherded through the streets, either on their way to a grazing site (which in some cases means a pile of fresh garbage) or having been collected from the grazing site being led back home.
The house were we were staying sat within a perimeter fence and contained an obvious concrete cattle stall system for up to six cows, including troughs for feeding, steel rings for tying onto, and a water tank for drinking from. Our hosts told us that ALL good Brahmin families keep cows — though it’s a coincidence that the homonym “Brahman” is an American cross-breed of several of India’s indigenous cattle (generally referred to as the sub-species Bos taurus indicus) called “Zebu” in aggregate.
Jersey and other cross-breeds chillin’ near the morning veg market with the local milk cooperative facility in the background.
Because I’m a cow guy I noticed that MANY of the cows walking past us each morning and evening were obvious cross-breeds of Zebu with Holstein and/or Jersey breeds. Our hosts explained that these were popular because they were much better milkers than the indigenous cattle, but pure European breeds were unable to tolerate the extreme heat of southern India, so cross-breeds were the best option for families depending on milk.
Along with the morning herding routine, we also noticed many people carrying small covered metal pails with them at the same time. It turns out that this is the surplus milk from a family’s cow(s) that they would walk down to the milk cooperative tanks at the bottom of the hill on the main road. Or it was milk for families who didn’t have their own cows that they had picked up from a neighbor or the milk cooperative. Milk is an important part of the diet we observed, mostly added to their tea or coffee through the day (ALWAYS offered to guests on arrival), or made into yogurt for sauces. Since I’m lactose-intolerant, as grateful as I was to receive the regular offer of milky tea or coffee, when I asked for black coffee or plain tea I was met with a stunned head waggle as my hosts attempted to process that and deliver it to me. We later learned that its very unusual for locals to drink tea or coffee without milk. Eventually I gave up and graciously accepted all hot beverages offered to me and dealt with the digestive consequences.
Our own routine in Melkote involved scheduled tours, primarily of the Trust’s work, in between stretches of relaxed conversation before-during-after meals, or rest periods back at the guesthouse during the heat of the day…did I mention the heat? I had escaped Maine during a snowstorm on April 4th only to land in South India during their hottest month. With blue skies almost every day the temperature regularly hit the upper nineties in the afternoon; at night it cooled into the eighties. And, being sub-tropical (12.66 degrees North) the sun during the Spring Equinox was nearly overhead, which makes for sudden dawns and dusks as well as seeing your own shadow more like shower drippings pooled around your feet at midday. We were prepared for the heat and the sun, and it never really bothered us. It seemed to bother the locals everywhere we visited, who unanimously told us how unusual the extreme heat at that time was, and that they normally began to get rainstorms at this time, in advance of the true Monsoon which normally overtakes the subcontinent in June and July. Late in most days we watched giant spongy cumulus clouds develop overhead, and a few nights we saw lightning flashes in the distance, perhaps with the low rumble of thunder, but it never rained while we were in India.
Living in a Monsoon climate was visibly apparent in Melkote, though: enormous stone reservoirs had been constructed — some an unknown age and probably over a thousand years old — and were still partially full of water. There are at least five of them inside Melkote itself. Normally they are associated with temples, most dramatically the one steps away from the Trust’s buildings at the foot of the Yoga-Narasimha Swamy Temple that perches on a promontory high above the town. We toured around the reservoir, which is not the drinking water for the town today, at dusk on the first day we arrived.
Cheluvanarayana Swamy Temple just two blocks from the house where we stayed.
It was a shocking (but not unpleasant) introduction to the extraordinary richness of the history of this small and probably “normal” South Indian town. We had just met the many generations of the family that runs the Trust, and as the light suddenly began to fade they suggested we take a short walk to see a bit of the town, and we literally turned the corner of their street and in front of us was the entrance to this massive ancient monument. This became a normal experience in Melkote — turn the corner and !POW! you see an awesome example of the human experience in this landscape that is probably older than anyone knows.
The Rayagopura temple shortly before we were shooed away by a wedding party wanting to use the unfinished temple/fortress for their portrait picture backdrop…
The typical European experience is to GO to see the (empty) ruins of the past culture. Here, in Melkote, the “ruins” are still being used, and also preserved, by the present day culture that lives among the citizens. In many ways this is thrilling as a tourist because instead of having to imagine the lives of the people who built the “ruin” you get to see it being used, theoretically in an unbroken chain linking all the way back to its construction. Huh.
This “living history” extends to the rituals and celebrations that appear to crowd the Indian calendar as multiple religions and cultures erupt in their own “shout out” to ancestors and gods seemingly every day. When we arrived the guesthouse had mango and ______ leaves tied above the threshold, as did just about every other front door in town. This was a sign of the New Year for one culture (celebrated as Ugadi in Bangalore at the equinox, but which wouldn’t be celebrated in Melkote until the solstice or autumn equinox in Melkote, apparently).
On our last night in Melkote we finally hiked up the promontory above the town at dusk to the Yoga-Narasimha Swamy Temple to see the figure of the Lion God housed there, draped in flower garlands. These little windows into the eternal are also around every corner, including shrines in the houses and backyards of many — if not all — of the residents. Significant shrines occupy prominent points of landscape and/or architecture and obviously intend to draw everyone toward them. We knew very little of the backstories and significance of all these Bits of God but were affected by their beauty and significance to those around us. Instead of focusing on the specifics, though, I chose to absorb the town as a whole — stray dogs, cows, daily kolam, blazing heat, drumbeat of clothes being washed, ice cream ads on the sides of buildings, and the few residents we were able to get to know a little bit about. I left Melkote with a sliver of understanding (probably outweighed by my parallel amount of misunderstanding) about a small town on the high plains of South India. I missed many more things about Melkote, but I don’t feel slighted. I feel a deep sense of enrichment, which is what I hope travel ultimately can offer.