Sunday, June 05, 2005

Sri Sailam in a day

Our visit to Sri Sailam, one of the 12 holy Hindu sites in India was nothing if not eventful. We had a fantastic time, but ended coming back the same day instead of staying overnight.

Ten of us (plus two drivers) set off in two cars at 6.30, working our way through Hyderabad and out into the countryside. It was a long time until we came to any areas that were light on people, this is a very populated part of the country. Cows and water buffalo wander back and forth across the roads fairly regularly, herds of goats are pretty common too and chickens are running around at every Village. There was the occasional hairy black pig too. So the wildlife was out in force from early on!

About 2 hours out from Hyderabad the road was blocked by a burnt out bus. Working our way around it we immediately encountered lots of armed men in plain clothes. These turned out to be police. They wanted to borrow a mobile phone to contact their headquarters because there was a second, unexploded bomb at the roadside (it was in a plastic water bottle). There was no mobile coverage in the area and they clearly didn't have radios of their own. They let us through and we noticed the small crater in the middle of the road a few metres past the bus. It looks like it was a landmine or a remotely detonated bomb, we were told it went off at 9.30pm the night before. Whilst there were several different versions of events offered to us, it appears most likely that Naxalites were involved. A government minister had apparently been visiting the area recently. There has apparently been a lot of Naxalite activity in this area.

So excitement over, we still had another 2+ hours of driving ahead of us. We came to the Sri Sailam dam, pretty big but awaiting the monsoon before there is much water - due June 7th we were told with some certainty! People boat, fish, swim, wash people, wash clothes in the lake beneath the dam. On the way up into the hills above the dam we passed the hut where the operators manage the flow of water through the dam. It was marked "Remote Control".

In Sri Sailam itself we first tried to find accommodation which had in theory been booked for us. Everywhere we went was full. We eventually found one place that had rooms, but the owners were insisting on one night's room charge in advance plus a second night's charge as a deposit that would in theory be returned. We weren't having any of this. It was at this point we discovered that the trip to the forest was suddenly off. Now we were told that we needed permits from the appropriate government department well in advance and they were usually only given to VIPs and Bollywood movie stars! Plus it was summer and all the large animals wouldn't be out during the day in any case. We had noticed that the town consisted of the temple complex and some shops and that was it. Things were starting to look a little less exciting....

After much schizophrenic discussion, we decided to visit the temple straight away, eat Cliff bars and crisps in the car and head back to Hyderabad before evening fell. Driving through the forest after dark was not looking to be such a good idea, what with the landmines and the tigers....

The temple complex was really worth the visit. We bypassed the two hour queue inside winding chicken wire fenced corridors by paying 100 rupees for our darshan. That gets you straight to the front of the queue. This is one of the 12 holy temples of Shiva in India. There were lots of little shrines and amazing architecture. At the front of the queue you stoop down to see some monks preparing coconut, flowers and flour in what I think was a silver litter for carrying the statue Shiva. This gets brought out in the evening time in a procession. An old lady gave me one of the little red dots on your forehead. Many people (though a minority) had gone one extra step and had their heads shaved for the occassion, including women and children. I had that done before I left Dublin, although not quite shaved enough. There was holy water, holy incense flames and all manner of things I didn't understand at all.

Just outside town is a second shrine to Ganesh, much quieter than the main temple where the press of people was intense. This was a much more peaceful experience and well worth the short time it takes to visit (you walk around and you're done, no stopping allowed). One of our group managed to leave his camera on a stall outside this temple and when he realised a few miles down the road, the camera was still there and waiting for him when we quickly returned. How cool is that?

We made it home, past the smouldering bus and through the herds of wandering cows just in time for tea. What a day! See the day in pictures.



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