Even in Goa it’s hard to avoid politics. Apart from the constant temptation to check on the latest Trump outrage or Brexit dumbfoolery, it’s state election day here tomorrow. That means, among other inconveniences, that the whole place is dry for four days. Why? Because otherwise, local politicians would be out winning votes, and raising the temperature, with free booze.
This is India and the twin topics of politics and corruption are never far from any conversation. The world’s largest democracy is in a continual state of ferment as its billion-odd inhabitants clamour daily to have their hopes and fears heard, their dreams realised, their dreads averted. There’s an immediacy to life here unlike any other. And yet …
Earlier this week we spent a couple of days in a place I had never heard of until this trip. Hampi is a vast archaeological site in the state of Karnataka, three hundred kilometers east of Goa, on the hot dry Deccan plateau. Its temples, palaces and bazaars are all that remain of a great city that stood along the palm-fringed banks of the Tungabhadra River, and sprawled for many miles through an other-worldly landscape strewn with vast red boulders.
Hampi was founded in the fourteenth century by a pair of Hindu brothers, and sacked by Muslim invaders from the north in the sixteenth. At its peak as a centre of trade and power, some five hundred years ago, it boasted half a million inhabitants, reputedly the second-largest city in the world after Beijing, and was protected by an army of two million men.
During its brief flowering the city must have rung day and night to the sound of the mason’s hammer as thousands of labourers and craftsmen toiled to raise and decorate the huge, tiered Hindu temples, the stepped palace buildings, royal baths, elephant stables and other courtly buildings that towered above the rest of a city the size, perhaps, of modern-day Edinburgh.
In one place two tall carved granite columns support a lintel from which a pair of scales were suspended. Here, on ceremonial occasions, the king had himself weighed, after a mandatory period of fattening by the palace kitchens, against the gold and precious stones that were to be given to the temple priests. In another, an enormous, ghostly Ganesh, carved from a single piece of granite, looms from the shadowy inner sanctum of a temple, his joyously rounded belly the diameter of a man. And in another, in the shadow of a gigantic boulder, the tethered cows in a temple courtyard are serenaded in shifts by the priests who chant without cease, day and night, for the belief that should there be a moment’s pause in the singing, a great earthquake will strike.
Watching the sunset from a seat on the warmed bare rock of a nearby hilltop, it’s easy to imagine that the pale reddish boulders littering the landscape in every direction, some the size of small houses, many perched precariously on top of one another, must have been broken and scattered by some seismic convulsion.
In fact they were thrust up from the earth’s crust between two and four billion years ago by volcanic activity. Over such an unimaginable span, even granite will be eroded by wind and rain and dust; and so they have been sculpted and balanced by time itself.
There is nothing better than these ancient boulders to illustrate the fact that for all the immediacy of life here, there is so much in India that transcends the temporal. What was once the second largest city in the world is now no more than an elaborate necropolis, its people and their stories at best forgotten, at worst unheard of – by the majority such as me. Yet the boulders have changed scarcely at all since those days; and tomorrow it is election day here in Goa.
In these desperately troubling times, when ignorant, arrogant, foolish people seem bent on making dangerous, unkind decisions wherever one turns, I find that a consoling thought.
A reminder that I will be talking about RB Cunninghame Graham, Scotland’s forgotten political and literary legend, at Winter Words, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 16th February, booking details here. And our next The Stories We Tell Foundation weekend takes place here in Birnam, 11/12 March, booking details here.