When a mini civil war ensued while boarding a bus to Chamundi Hill

Dervla Murphy looks through the sheen of pacifism and mysticism in an amusing and straight-forward account of her journey with her young daughter through South India

Buses frequently leave Mysore’s bus stand for the top of Chamundi Hill, but because of the temple’s popularity as a place of pilgrimage it is extremely difficult to board one. Twice this morning we were left behind, having been at the head of the queue, and for this I blame my own absurd European reaction to people in a hurry. Instinctively one moves aside to let them pass and today I had to make a real effort of will to overcome this automatic reaction. I also had to make an effort of muscle to push, pull or slap people out of the way as we boarded the third bus. Rachel was nearly trampled underfoot and became momentarily panic-stricken, yet this was a bus with separate entrances for men and women, so I only had to deal with the weaker sex. The strength of some of those wiry little peasant women, who could curl up in my rucksack, is quite extraordinary.

Here I again noticed a bus conductor treating women and lowcaste men as though they were draught-animals, shouting at them abusively and occasionally even striking them. For a people who are widely believed to profess a philosophy of ahimsa, or non-violence, the Indians seem inordinately aggressive in their daily lives. It was Gandhi who created, almost single-handed, the false impression that they are gentle and peaceful. All the still influential kings and heroes of Sanskrit literature were expected to be ferocious slayers of men and, apart from the Mahatma’s not entirely successful ahimsa campaign, there is nothing whatever in the past 2,000 years of Indian history to support the view that Hindus are basically pacifist. Their violence, indeed, is part of the mystery of India, for it always seems to have causes and cures unknown to us.

This morning’s pandemonium, for instance, seemed almost a minicivil war. First men, women and children fought tooth (literally: I was bitten on the forearm) and nail to board that bus, and then the seething mob of women was set upon by the conductor and clouted and shouted at to get it so arranged that another dozen could be fitted in. Yet ten minutes later the conductor and his women victims were laughing and joking together, like old friends, and men who had recently been doing each other grievous bodily harm were cordially exchanging newspapers. At which point I remembered N. C. Chaudhuri’s remark that ‘Somehow an alkali is always present with the acid of Hindu life: it is a marvellous and boundless tolerance of bad language and blows, which is some sort of a conditioned reflex of forgiveness. The Hindu possesses a faculty of callous charity.’ He needs it, too.

Chamundi Hill is so precipitous that Mysore quickly shrinks to toytown proportions and on clear days the surrounding country can be overlooked in every direction for at least one hundred miles. Twothirds of the way up we stopped for everyone to unwedge themselves and pay homage to a sixteen-foot statue of Nandi, hewn out of solid rock in 1659. Despite the early hour he was wearing fresh garlands on his forehead and the bell of his gigantic necklace was draped with marigolds. Our fellow-passengers produced further garlands and Rachel asked in a penetrating whisper, ‘Do they believe bulls are gods? Is that a statue of a real bull? Why is he so big? Is he prehistoric?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘he’s not prehistoric and he’s not real and Hindus don’t think bulls are gods. But some of them worship Nandi as a symbol of the god Shiva, and he is generally regarded as a sort of chamberlain, or guardian, of all Shiva’s temples. And he represents, and protects, all four-footed animals.’ ‘I see,’ said Rachel, untruthfully.

As Chamundi Temple is now being turned into a tourist attraction its environs are becoming unattractive. When we arrived a canopied figure of Chamundi, which normally resides in the innermost sanctum, was being carried round a courtyard on a palanquin and perfunctorily whisked with yak-tails. In attendance were four grossly fat priests covered in sandalwood ash and red powder – the first fat Indians I have seen since leaving Bombay. The contrast was most striking between those pot-bellied parasites, with greed ever shining in their eyes, and the throngs of simple, prayerful, underfed worshippers devoutly doing their pujas and repeatedly handing coins to the priests or their attendants. As soon as we appeared, two of these minions were deputed to harass us, which they did with considerable verve but no success.

(Excerpted from On a Shoestring to Coorg written by Dervla Murphy published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi 2018)

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