It was 6:00 am and the temperature was 29C—and climbing—as we pulled into the smallish coastal city of Mangalore, India. I had been reading up on the city, planning my visit, and all indications were that this was a not-too-touristy working town, known for its spicy seafood and not much else. It sounded perfect to me: the seafood didn’t tempt me much (I’ve just gotten over a nasty bout of norovirus) but the idea of just walking through a regular Indian city sounded great. We have very little time in India and I wanted to soak up (and photograph) as much local culture as I could.
My GPS indicated we were docking about seven kilometres from town, which meant I’d need transportation. Finding a taxi is not a problem in these ports; finding a good deal is. None of the drivers want to simply deliver you to a spot in the city—they expect to take you around for the day and be paid handsomely for the service. And as I was one of the first off the ship, the drivers knew there would be hundreds of customers behind me, and weren’t too willing to negotiate. I ended up retreating into the shade for an hour until most of the other passengers had left, and then tried to negotiate a better deal. I found a fellow who would take me around for a very reasonable price; the down side was that he spoke virtually no English. I didn’t care; I had my guide book and he had air conditioning and it seemed like a good match.
Raj wanted to show me one of the Hindu temples. I’m not much of a temples-and-churches tourist, but I was happy to make an exception in this case. I’ve been talking in my presentations about the relationship between wildlife and culture in Asia, particularly about the religious and symbolic significance of monkeys, tigers and elephants. It’s pretty fascinating, and I was especially interested in seeing how the Hindus here represented Hanuman, the great monkey-king and hero of the Ramayana.
I wasn’t disappointed. We stopped at a huge temple complex where visitors like me were welcome to wander around as long as we removed our shoes and didn’t get in the way of the worshippers. I found it absolutely fascinating. There was a huge shrine to Hanuman, represented as powerful man with a monkey head. Hanuman is considered a reincarnation of Shiva, I believe, and in the great epic the Ramayana he summons his army of monkey-warriors to rescue Lord Rama’s kidnaped wife, Sita. The monkey temples of Asia are dedicated to him, and monkeys are honoured as manifestations of the hero.
I was struck by the lurid imagery in the temple: in one statue, Hanuman rips open his own chest, revealing Rama and Sita next to his heart. The symbolism was beautiful but the blood surprised me at bit. I was reminded of my own Roman Catholic upbringing, where the various books featuring the lives of the saints are filled with graphic, bloody imagery. Some of these images made quite an impression on me as a kid; I imagine these have the same effect.
I watched the goings-on at the temple for some time as Raj stood back and let me wander. It was a rare privilege to see the devout making their offerings, taking their blessings from the shrine attendants, and enacting rituals that were new and arcane to me. (I was not comfortable photographing any of these though I did shoot a couple of the shrines from the outside.)
Leaving the temple, I tried to communicate to Raj that I wanted to see a local, traditional market. He nodded his head and drove me straight to a giant, modern mall. Um, nope. After much gesticulating I was able to get him to simply drive for a bit, and eventually we came across a busy street market. I asked him to stop, and told him I wanted to simply wander and photograph for a while. He insisted on coming along with me, which turned out to be a pretty good arrangement. He was very patient with my photography, and he had one skill that proved indispensable: he knew how to cross the streets. I have written in another article about the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh City; suffice it to say that these were worse. Raj would simply walk out into six lanes of moving traffic, with me close at his heels. It was terrifying, and at one point I very narrowly avoided being reduced to an anonymous little red smear on an Indian street. In retrospect it was good adventure; at the time I very nearly soiled myself.
We ended up in a fruit and vegetable market where I seemed to be the only foreigner. All the merchants were friendly and good-humoured, calling out to me as I passed. We squeezed through narrow passageways filled with heady odours of people and cilantro and ripe bananas. Here and there merchants were gathering at food stalls for a quick lunch; dal and biryani and I’m not sure what else were on the menu and it smelled amazing.
At this point we had been wandering for a few hours and I was drenched with perspiration. I felt a bit self-conscious about it; why oh why do the locals not sweat like this? We made our way back to the taxi and I asked Raj to take me back to the ship. “Happy?” he asked. “Happy. Very happy,” I replied.
Onward to Mumbai.