Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Cave of Sittanavasal Hill - Monks' Retreat at the Fringes of Pudokottai, Tamil Nadu (India)

Somewhere in nowhereland called Trichy in South India, I decided to head deeper into the desolate plains 38 kilometers by bus to Pudokottai. Pushing the so-called envelope, I hopped into another bus and traveled 20 kilometers further. I was forewarned by my readings never to head into Sittanavassal alone. There were anecdotes of muggings on solitary visitors and these fleetingly gave me goosebumps. However, goosebumps never stopped me before. That late afternoon, I found one of the last buses bound for Sittanavasal for the day, albeit my last chance to discover for myself a road less taken in that area.

I wasn't going to town. But to an outlying cave turned into a temple.

It was late. The sun had graduallly slid in the horizon; its existing light providing a hypnagogic overlay in the surroundings. I asked the driver's assistant to inform me when I am in the area already. Then I hopped out of the bus and found myself morbidly alone on a steppe with nothing but shrubs, rice paddies, a pond littered with lotuses, and from a distance a hill with a cave - the Cave of Sittanavasal Hill.

I walked up the hill to find a cave where meditating monks take shelter. There was no elaborate temple to speak of. The famous Sittanavasal Jain Temple is located elsewhere at the town proper further north. This was just an empty cave on a considerable elevation, with a breath-taking view of the green valley below.

En route to the cliff, I heard voices. I realized I was not alone. I had mixed feeling about this, anxious even. They could be the heel and anti-heroes I was duly warned about - and I could be in trouble! Or they could be hospitable locals. I crossed my fingers. And guess what: six Tamil students were on their way to visit the cave temple. I gainfully acquired 6 new friends and protectors who acted as though I was a guest in their own abode. In principle, I was. More than anything, I was thanking the heavens to be in their kind company in the midst of the distant heath.

"Sittanavasal", the conspicuously tongue-twisting term, is a word play of a Tamil word that meant "abode of great saints". Sittanavasal Cave - aka "Arivar Kovil" - has a long and rich history behind it. Try 7th century, when it had been ascribed as a Jain Temple; a marbly rock west of the stony mound, excavated in a bluff. The monks (with nothing but their robes) would sit, cogitate and sleep on the slippery floor of the cave - to meditate, pray for enlightenment and attain nirvana. Unfortunately for me, the cave was deserted at the time of visit. I couldn't get near the interiors said to be inundated with fresco-secco art. There were protective bars probably meant to discourage prospective vandals.

The hike up the hill wasn't a walk in the park. In no time, I was drenched in my own perspiration. In contrast, my new found friends didn't even break into a sweat. How embarrassing!

There were minor concavities and colorful altars of elephants, horses and goats nearby. The sprawl of the fields yielded not a single dwelling. The place felt like a "wild south" if there ever was one in India. By the time we got back to the deserted highway to wait for our bus, the last few gasps of sunlight have but dissipated into the darkness.

I rode back in introspective silence towards Pudokottai to catch my night bus back to Trichy. There was something immensely satisfying with what just transpired. As an added bonus, the guys - who were still practically strangers - decided to pay for my bus fare. For all intents and purposes, I am far from being a pauper, but financial capacity hardly plays into the hospitality of people or their generous culture. How's that for an all-inclusive adventure? How lucky could I get?

This is the Eye in the Sky!

View from the rocky cliff - the western plain of Sittanavasal Hill.

Well polished stone beds or Ezhadippattam (aka Jaina beds) used by Jaina ascetics. There are Tamil Brahmi inscriptions (as well as vandalisms) written on these rock beds. On one of these beds, sallekhana - "fasting unto death" - has been performed. Ouch.
My protectors, guide and friends from Pudokottai.

The climb up this slippery, uneven hill to get to the westward cave.

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