An exciting day
Though it was only 7 in the morning, the couple were already sweaty in the hot sun. They left the hotel before sunrise to escape questions from the inquisitive villagers. They reached the base of the Erannana Betta, a squatish sort of rocky mountain in a short while and had begun the ascent just as the sun turned from red to yellow.
The only sounds were of the birds chirping in the distance as they left their nests and the rustle of the leaves in the breeze. Climbing up, the couple were startled by pieces of brown rock seemingly coming to life and disappearing into the crevices. These turned out to be brown lizards, basking in the sun on the rocks, invisible until they slithered away as the climbers approached.
The couple were busy with their thoughts. Both were glad to get away from the Canadian winter and be here in the India. Venky needed a break from his work; he wanted a break from people who came to him constantly with trivial problems; he wanted to get away from people and enjoy some solitude. But solitude was an exaggeration. Venky was a social creature and never sought to be alone. He wanted someone around…be they his wife Anitha, his friends or his family.
Anitha thought of the abandoned temple at the top of the mountain and excitedly hoped to find something worthwhile in there. She had come armed with a metal detector, torch and even a small pickaxe to dig if needed. She knew that priests in olden days had buried gold under the temples to keep God’s wealth safe from the marauding Moghul invaders. The childish fantasies she had of treasure hunting stoked by the books she had read, still haunted her imagination.
Venky was excited about his new wide angle lens and wondered how many good shots he could get before the sunlight became too intense for good photos. He knew that this mountain had lots to offer. Dramatic views of the emerald green fields below, soaring eagles in the blue skies, massive boulders and if he was lucky, some wild life too.
Suddenly, he froze in his tracks…he had heard a sudden soft hiss. Paralyzed with terror, he saw a snake raise it’s hood with lightning swiftness, remain still for a second with hood upright, then slither away with equal speed. Hoarse with fear, he croaked, “Watch out!” Anitha, turned and just caught a glimpse of the fleeing cobra’s tail. She was not sure what she saw but was shocked by the dread in Venky’s face.
Unnerved, they stopped for a drink and rest. Shaken, by the encounter with the deadly reptile, Venky started talking voluminously; the chatter would scare away any other reptiles in their path, he hoped. The path got steeper as they climbed; they gripped the rocks for support but the rocks were already too hot in the blazing sun. They wanted support but din’t dare grip the strong but thorny bushes clinging to the path.
They wished they had dressed more suitably for this climb.
They reached the summit by ten O’ clock. The sun beat down on them and sweat poured off their backs. However the strong breeze was cool and refreshing. Weak-kneed, they lay on the ground, looking at the blue sky over them. The sunlight, bounced off the whitewashed walls of the temple and dazzled their eyes while the inside of the temple seemed like a deep, dark rectangular hole.
Sipping a little of the delicious though warm coconut water, they walked into the temple. Unsure whether to enter with the shoes on, or leave the shoes outside, they poked their heads into the temple’s doorway. Walking inside a temple with shoes is blasphemous for sure ! But who knows which scary creature may be crawling around on the temple floor!
The floor was dusty and cool. Spiders and lizards scampered away at their approach. Venky aimed his camera and excitedly told Anitha, not to move. He wanted to capture, the lizards crawling over the neglected & dusty stone idols, a rare sight. Anitha, impatient to explore the temple, asked him to hurry and started unpacking her gear.
Just as they were exploring the outer periphery of the temple, Venky came across a terrifying sight. Behind the temple, under the lone Honge tree, the couple came across a blood curdling fight between two natural enemies, the cobra and the mongoose. This was not the usual fight one sees in fairs where a captive mongoose fought with a captive and defanged snake but a real fight in the wild jungle!
The cobra hissed and quickly slithered forward, hood upright and struck at the mongoose. The mongoose, quicker, drew back, just out of reach of the cobra. The cobra, hood upright, struck again at the mongoose and the mongoose moved back only to jump forward on the cobra’s back and grab it’s neck. The snake encircled the mongoose in it’s coils for a few seconds but the mongoose came out of the coils and bit the cobra’s back again.
Anitha watched the fight, mesmerized by the fury, speed and deadly strikes of the snake and the equal fury, speed and agility of the mongoose. The two fighters fought on, oblivious to the humans watching their bloody duel. The couple realized this would not be a fight unto death as the snake nor the mongoose would give in.
Anitha, who had come out of trance by now, could not bear to think that either one will die. She gathered sand in her hands and threw it at the fighters with a shrill scream. The bloodied snake slithered away into the bushes. The mongoose gave one startled look at the 2 people, and quickly disappeared. For a brief, bitter moment, Venky rued that he had not captured a movie of this rarely seen fight but was ecstatic with the several photos he got.
It was time to explore the temple and the surroundings but Anitha was too scared and excitable to do anything now! She stepped fearfully on the grass, looking out for snakes and scorpions. Anitha held Venky’s arms tightly and refused to let go. They decided to have their lunch and rest; they needed to get their heart rate down before embarking on any other adventure. They unpacked the lemon rice and curds rice and served it onto the banana leaves they had purchased from a farmer in the village. ‘Did you see the way the mongoose attacked the head of the cobra? ‘Venky asked. ‘Yes. My God! The mongoose was so damn bold and crazy…going after the cobra like that!’, Anitha exclaimed. Both were awed by the courage of the mongoose and admired it’s tenacity in going after the deadly cobra. Both agreed that the cobra was scary and gave them the creeps.
Eating the rest of the lunch in silence they watched the scene before them …the vast green land below and blue sky above with fluffy white clouds floating around. They could feel the cool gentle breeze fanning their faces and hear the distant chirping of the birds, palm leaves rustling in the wind and of course the ubiquitous trucks & buses. Venky nervously glanced around several times, half expecting the snake to return!
I wish we could stay here forever’, Anitha told Venky. “Mmm. Yes. This place is so cut off from people. We could buy this mountain and build a small house here. Why build a house? We could live in the temple! You can paint and photograph daily while I write my novel” replied Anitha. Both laughed at this idea.
They were thinking of the glorious fight they had just witnessed. He thought of the photos he had taken and she was grateful that she did not have to see either of the two brave creatures die. Thoughts floated in and out of their minds like unbidden guests wandering around. This simple curds rice tastes so good !
Is it because of the air? Or because we are hungry after that long climb? If we lived here, would we have cell phone reception? But why do I want a cell phone? Why not live here, in peace, cut off from the world? One can go to visit people when one needs them. Why do I need people anyway? To buy food? Can I live without tv, people, phones, books, work, friends…How long can I stay here before I get bored? One day? One week? What does one need to be happy?
Each thought that came into their minds chased away the previous thought and they sat, leaning against the temple wall, in companionable silence.
“Come on. Help me.”, Anitha asked, as she washed her hands and threw the empty banana leaves away. Venky grinned. He did not believe in the treasure which she had come up here for. He decided against teasing her, knowing she could take only a few seconds of teasing before she would lose her cool. “All right. Pass that here” he said and fixed the batteries into the metal detector. He knew they would have to descend in a few hours. Descent from the hill, in the dark was unthinkable. He did not want to meet another snake, especially, in the dark! He had had enough snakes for one day!
But he also knew that Anitha was stubborn and would not come down, until she found something! He gave an exasperated sigh. He was raring to go home to his computer and check his photos and was impatient about this hunt for a ‘treasure’, he did not believe, existed. But he kept mum, knowing she would fly into a rage and accuse him of being selfish, if he suggested leaving now… “You got photos which is what you wanted. And you want to leave; but what about me…I have to get something too.” Venky loved his wife but was terrified of her temper!
Anitha slowly passed her metal detector over every inch of space in and around the temple. Nary a peep out of the machine. Sweat rolled off her face and underarms, She was thankful for the balmy coolness she felt when the wind entered her loose cotton shirt. She listened intently for the beep as she swept the metal detector around. Venky followed her, also listening. We should have brought one more detector and saved time, said Anitha. Too late now, replied Venky.
Venky asked, “Hey. What if the treasure is not metal? What if it is stone carvings? What if it is palm leaf books? Your detector wont detect”. Anitha snapped. She knew, he did not share her romance about buried treasure and this had always irked her. She wished she could find something today to prove him wrong. But also knew the chances were pretty slim. Bringing the metal detector was only wishful thinking. Deep down in her heart, she knew, the odds of finding anything worthwhile were remote. Yet she hoped. She had heard since childhood, stories of her uncles finding silver coins in mud walls, gold ornaments buried in pots in fields and she hoped she too would find something some day. THIS DAY!
Then they both heard a soft peep. She was not sure if she imagined it and ran the detector on the same spot a second time. This time too the sound was faint but unmistakable. Her heart beat faster and she ran to get the pickax. He smiled and prayed, that after an hour of digging, she would not end up with some rusty old nails! He did not want to see her disappointed yet knew that finding treasure in this mountain, outside the poor, drought stricken village of Vaderalli was impossible. When the villagers have been poor for generations, what treasure is there to bury?
The ground was hard and Anitha wanted to pour their bottled water on the ground, to make it easier to dig. Venky firmly refused. He took the pickax from her and started digging. After making a hole, two feet deep they saw a muddy cotton bag, crumbling with several holes in it. Anitha excitedly, tugged at the bag and the cloth gave way completely. The bag had a dark & heavy metal statue of Narasimha,. Anitha was grinning triumphantly with a ‘I told you’ look in her smile. Both gazed at the statue with joy and wonder. It was beautifully carved with exquisite detailing of the jewels, claws, mane of hair and clothes of the deity; the Lakshmi in Narashima’s lap was dainty with a slim waist, and a beautiful face. It seemed to be carved in the Chola style. Venky guessed it must be at least a few hundred years old.
‘To whom does this statue belong? This is a Shiva temple and how can a Narashima statue be buried here? Do you think someone stole it? Do you think it belongs to the priest or somebody else? Who lugged it all the way up the mountain? How long do you think it has been buried here?’ Venky and Anitha babbled the questions at each other for which neither knew the answers. Anitha took the statue out and tried digging deeper in case, there was more inside. Venky asked her to stop being greedy. She then held the metal detector over the hole but there was no further beeps from the machine.
The discovery of this statue on the top of this remote mountain was a mystery to both. Who on earth owned this statue? The farmers in the village below were followers of Narashima but it was unlikely anyone of them would own statue. The farmers generally had a cheap photo of the God Narashima nailed to a wall in their houses. The village priest was a Smarta Brahmin and a poor one at that. He was a follower of Shiva and so this statue could not belong to his family. The richest landlord in the village was certainly not religious and he was the type who would buy more land with his money or spend his money on women and drinks than on a statue.
What if the statue was buried by someone from outside this village, they wondered. But who would climb this little known mountain and bury this here? And why? Maybe the statue belonged to the Narashima temple in the village and for some reason, had been taken out and buried at the top of the hill. But how to find out more about the statue without revealing that they had found it? And whom do you ask? The villagers were mostly illiterate and did not know much about their own ancestors, let alone, the history of their village or it’s temple. There was little information about the background of this tiny village in any of the government documents too. The origin of this statue continued to puzzle them.
Anitha was keen on taking this statue for herself but was also torn by her conscience. She felt she should make at least a small effort to find the rightful owner of this statue. She also knew how deeply disappointed she would be if she did find the rightful owner and had to give it up!
They had to try & find the rightful owner quietly. They knew how people would swoop down on them, claiming the statue, if they let out even one peep about this discovery! They were not cynical but knew how millions of antiques from India had been robbed by the very people who were supposed to care for them…the government departments such as the police, the archeology depts. Even the temple trusts had been involved in antique smuggling.
They packed their things and got ready to descend. Anitha carefully packed the statue in her bag and asked Venky to swear to secrecy. She had already grown attached to it and considered it her own. Venky said, ‘You are the one who can’t keep a secret. I bet you will blab about it to the first person we meet’. Anitha disagreed . If she had to shut up about the most exciting thing she had ever found in her life, so be it, she thought.
Venky felt sorry for Anitha. He knew how much she loved to talk and keeping quiet about this wonderful find, would be torture for her! She had been dreaming of finding buried treasure ever since she was a ten year old reading adventures and now to shut up when she found a buried treasure …it was awful !Anitha was quiet on the way down. She already felt crushed by the weight of her secret.