"A.S.K", I told the man as I handed him three ten rupee notes at the unreserved ticket counter. "Ask-aa?" he said, as he punched away with two fingers on a well worn out keyboard and handed me the piece of curved paper.
Arsikere - a small town of mostly railway prominence, and a journey of 166 kms out of Bangalore. To me, the getaway meant a good break from the regular SilkBoard-Madivala-Electronic City mayhem, and a Saturday spent clickety-clacking through rural Karnataka landscape seemed perfect.
The morning passenger to Hubli was yet to be brought into the platform. A burly man in charge of handling over the caution orders for the run upto Arsikere was catching up on the sleep he missed by resuming where he left off, on the bench on the platform. The express to Mysore was cooling off after a nocturnal run from Mayiladuthurai. The sweater clad homeless man lingered around near the warmth of the diesel locomotive.
At around eight the shrill horn sounded and we pulled off. Entering or exiting metro cities via is typically never a pleasant ride. It's the same with Bangalore. Taking the mainline to Madras gets you rolling at a good pace through miles and miles of construction sites, garish coloured buildings and subjects you to an atmosphere liberally peppered with sand and dust. The exit to Mysore presents a formidable array of smoking garbage and slum-dwellings. The line to Arsikere via Malleshwaram and Yeshwantpur felt slightly more bearable, and the urban buildings soon gave away to suburban, and finally to rural.
As the man opposite me unfolded a copy of the day's Malayala Manorama, I went Aha! He had spoken to me earlier in English, and I had replied accordingly. When the time was ripe I dropped the 'surprise the Malayali' bomb. Casually, as if to continue the conversation, I asked - "Saar engottaa pokunne?". His head popped up above the newspaper and his shining eyes said it all "Aha! Malayaali aanalle!". And that was how I made the acquaintance of Fr. Abraham.
The scenery had switched to the pure rustic now - Kucha roads, ragi and maize fields, and incandescent bulbs lighting up the occasional cluster of houses. This was a single line, diesel territory and the only electric poles that were around were the small unassuming ones bringing power to the lone houses set in the middle of fields. It was a cloudy morning, we were ambling along at a leisurely pace and stopping at every station enroute. Golhalli, Bhairanayakanahalli, Dodbele, Dobbspet - all of them small stations that crop up suddenly on the way, as if to put a break to the monotony.
Tumkur was like waking up from a dream. A harsh blot on the landscape by man, reminding you of dust and crowds and packed human settlements, the train seemed to heave a sigh of relief as we exited and picked up pace. We had picked up a good number of food vendors as well, and for a while the coaches were filled with the smell of chutney and chai. It was time to head to the door. I gave up my seat to a middle aged gentleman who was only too glad to sit down, sat down at the doorway and put my feet out. It was heavenly. We must have been trotting on at no more than 65 kmph and the world seemed to be completely at peace. At every station there was just enough time to get off, stretch my legs, have a good look around the platform and nod politely at the birds chirping away in the tall trees lining it.
Mallasandra, Gubbi, Nittur, Sampige Road.
This was life at its unhurried best, where you didnt have to fight your way into a coach or worry about the train starting off before you boarded it. Halt stations, akin to rural bus stops are probably the most passenger friendly in that respect. And what's a single line route without the pleasure of waiting for crossings! At Gubbi we halted a little longer than usual and I went up ahead to have a little chat with the drivers. We were waiting for the intercity from Shimoga to cross. The train controllers in the section seemed to be doing a good job and within a few minutes the train came roaring up the gradient. A short while later we let out a long blast of the horn and set off at our own sweet pace. My camera had caught the attention of a few lads in the first coach and I had made friends with them by employing whatever kannada I had picked up after coming to Bangalore. The boys Praveen and Naresh were also heading to Arsikere, and I kept feeding them little bytes of railway information on the way - what the triangular board with the number 20 on it meant, and how we would pick up pace after passing the circular 'T' board and so forth.
We played hide and seek with a few low hills in the last leg of the run upto Arsikere. At around 12.30, we pulled into Arsikere, a little over half an hour late. The end of the station towards Hubli is a lovely one - lined with grand old trees and maintained spotlessly clean with the track heading straight into the hills. The other end leads to Hassan and Bangalore. Bharat, who had suggested that I make my weekend getaway this small town in the first place, dropped a tip that the food was decent too. Excellent, I thought as I picked up a warm packet of puliyogare from the vegetarian refreshment stall on platform 1. The sun had gone behind the clouds and there was ample time to sit under one of the trees and savour the spicy sour stuff.
Arsikere is named after a tank ('kere') during the time of the Hoysala kings. The town was a prominent place during their rule, and the 'Arasi' in the name refers to one of the princesses of the Hoysala dynasty. A 13th century temple built during their reign is also situated here - while wikipedia calls it the Ishwara temple, the locals simply call it Shivalaya. A short auto ride later, I was left to myself with the birds and trees at the breezy Shivalaya grounds.
On first glance, it seems a tad smaller in size than the photos might suggest. The place around the temple is protected by the ASI, and is maintained spotlessly clean. Huge banyan trees line one end of the temple, and brightly painted houses overlook the other.
A few men were sitting around and gave one long glance to the stranger with his camera, and resumed their business of doing nothing. The small area around the temple is to be negotiated barefoot, and consists of neatly trimmed grass and upon which the old stone structure resides.
The main sanctum sits all the way in the rear end, and is guarded by a 16-pointed star shaped mandapa. Set in solid, cold stone, it felt easily a couple of degrees cooler just sitting on the smooth granite slab set amongst carvings of animals, gods and the like. Wonder how many generations must have sat in the same spot, over the same piece of stone.
There's this powerful emotion I feel at times when visiting old monuments, especially empty ones - and that is one of the voices of the past. Walking around in the cool breeze, with nothing but the sound of birds and the occasional passing bus in the air, I couldn't help imagine how it must have been centuries ago, with the devout thronging the place. The air heavy with the smell of kumkum and camphor and incense, the priest conducting the morning puja and the crowd standing on their toes to catch a glimpse of the figurine, anointed with sandalwood paste and adorned with freshly made flower garlands, illuminated in the light of the camphor flame during the deeparadhana.
The courtyard is home to some lovely, quaint objects. One being the small Nagaraja stone figurines set at the base of trees: This is something seen quite a lot in Kerala temples. The second was a set of rocks, no doubt from the same site, with various engravings on them, laid out neatly in a row on a raised platform in the grass. There was something terribly attractive about quiet charm of it all, something I would never expect in the grand temples of Tamil Nadu or the marble steps of the modern day ISKCON shrines.
I spent a long time around the place and it turned out to be an afternoon well spent. The next train out of Arsikere was only in the late evening and I thought I might as well check out the tank which gave the town its name. "Neer jasthi illa saar, yakke hogubeku?" The auto driver was justified in asking. There isnt much water in it sir, why do you want to go there?
I dont know boss. Chalo.
We passed over the railway line to Bangalore and he stopped his auto by the side of the road while I strolled around taking in the place. It was a large water body, no doubt more beautiful during the monsoons. The railway line ran below, on the other side of the road in the form of a long S-curve to the side and I couldn't help wishing for a freighter to turn up. Where are trains when you need them!
A masala dosa and a green banana from the shop nearby, and back at the station. Lady luck was kind - the returning passenger to Bangalore was running late by two hours or so, and was due in half an hour.
By now I was pretty much tired to do anything more and eyeing the sizeable crowd that would probably be thronging all the stations enroute, got into the coach and climbed up to the luggage rack. A few gulps of water, and with some help from the chugging loco I was soon napping to the swaying of the coach over the single line track to Bangalore.