Sapphire God of Kolnapaku
Kolnapaku is a small village surrounded by green fields in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh state. To reach it I began by taking the bus from the capital Hyderabad to Aleru, a small wonderfully sleepy town 60 kms away. What brought me to this small town in Telengana, the most politically volatile, almost feudal, historic and ethnically diverse part of the state?
My father's family would be a good reason. But following the family trail would bring me to a full stop at Warangal. The impulse to visit Kolnapaku originated 12,000 miles away in Washington DC while surfing the India-related web pages on the Internet and reading a terse one line description indicating the presence of a sapphire idol in a Jain temple.
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Getting off the bus at Aleru, the first thing one notices are the wide streets lined on each side with vendors selling colorful dyes, toys, kitchen utensils, fresh flowers, and mouthwatering bundi laddus and jangri. I walked past the tiny meter guage station, across the railway tracks, and into a small alley where the street was made of mud, the houses were made of mud, thatched roofs proliferated, and shops seamlessly carved into the exteriors of homes sold Pepsi and Coke - the triumph of capitalism! Under the shade of a huge banyan tree in an impromptu town square, I found autos, buses, taxis and that oft celebrated vehicle of love and pastoral existence--the jutka , tanga, ghoda-gadi, the humble horse cart by any name; replete with a thatched cover, emaciated horse and lean, hungry-looking jutkawallah . This young sprightly man with a shock of hair that he kept tossing off his forehead, stuffed me into the horsecart, threw hay at my feet and bade me to command him. Sensing the happy vibes between this fellow and his horse, I requested permission to photograph, whereupon, the genteel young man blushed, refused and leaping onto the cart, with a quick flick of his wrist urged his beast into a fierce gallop. There not being a single other person in sight, I was compelled to photograph my own feet (see picture) sitting on the bale of hay that would eventually feed the horse!
A green six miles followed. Here and there, my enterprising friend, offered rides to comely subziwallis who alternated between a lively discussion with our jutkaRomeo and blitzing me with questions about where I came from. Just as we saw the gate to the temple, I was offered a guava by a subziwalli who bemoaned the fates that had kept me single and who hoped that this visit to Kolnapaku would bring me the husband of my dreams. Refraining from comment, I looked at the green fields and thought, hmm, could one build a house with a view like this? Where kids would climb up trees to discover tree houses with the makeshift parabolic roofs of horsecarts, where horses would be bicycles, where jamun and guava are teatime snacks and a dreamer with a camera and a laptop could have the perfect window in a room.....
Moving towards the temple which was under extensive construction, judging by the wooden supports on the exterior, I left my shoes at the threshold and stepped inside. The interior of the temple was reminiscent of a Buddhist monastery : no pillars, no aisles, just a large cool square facing the sanctum sanctorum. A small screen, about 4'x3' in dimension was situated five feet from the doorway. At this point, if I wished to get closer to the chief deity of the temple, Neminath, a Jain Tirthankar , I had to leave all baggage (literally and symbolically?) behind this screen. Since this would include my camera, I postponed making the decision for a while and gazed at the statues that glared back at me from their niches in the walls. Black granite bodies, silver eyes with black granite eyeballs, silver bracelets. These wide eyed figures sitting in the classic lotus posture had a lean severity alien to my eyes that are soft with the gentle forms of Hindu gods and goddesses (even in their most ferocious forms like that of Kali, the bodies are fleshy and voluptuous).
Confused by the hostility of the demi-gods, I moved towards the main deity, leaving my camera behind. A group of slender men and women were chanting mantras while the priest performed the aarti in front of them. I joined them and was rather tongue tied until I realised some clever builder had anticipated that an ignorant soul such as myself would occasionally join the congregation. On the side of the door of the room where the main idol was placed, the prayers were inscribed for all to see. I strained to see the idol and was disconcerted to find only the silver eyes of the idol staring back with the rest of the body hidden by the gloomy darkness of the chamber. Finally, I asked the priest if I could get closer to the idol, only to be told that if I wanted to see god, I should look at the idols on the pillars of the temple. What does one do, I remember thinking. Somehow, the argument that I had crossed a major body of water, one continent and a half, 4 states in India and risked everlasting notoriety in the family annals as an eccentric did not seem adequate plea.
Frustrated by the flat refusal of the priest, I circled the temple, following the perimeter of its shadow. Here and there I saw an industrious workman or two clearing away debris, removing some pieces of stone at the cornices. A hundred or two or even seven hundred years ago, workmen like these must have carved godlike forms like these into the columns, I thought. Inward looking, contemplative, poised at the brink of action or caught in the act, these Jain gurus appeared remote, yet less placid than their Hindu counterparts. I don't know if there ever is a time when the light can fall on these sculpted forms, so certain is the shadow that falls on them that light appears only as speckles on their bodies. Some of the workmen volunteered that the bits and pieces of sculpture and large broken pieces of columns I had glimpsed earlier were some of the last original material of the temples. And what of the sapphire god, I asked, at last unable to restrain myself? The statue made of 'Neelam ' was found mysteriously in the ground, said the workers. That's true, said the priest who stood behind them. I, who came swearing allegiance to Pentax, Fuji was fast learning that a camera can only capture that which the eye can behold. Trade links with China? Sapphire in these parts? Or was it turquoise? My questions seemed stupid and pointless before the stone wall of their faith.
Back here in Washington, I look back on my journey with amazement. Traveling to new places, someone said, is really traveling to other parts of oneself. I believe now that I came as a tourist from my suburban self to the Eastman Kodak Technicolor vision of Kolnapaku, all 70 mm color, vitality and magnified emotions. So even as I write now, I drink thirstily from that moviescape of romance, beauty and small town life. I can still hear the subziwallis asking me, will you come back? So what if I didn't find the mysterious blue god? Wouldn't you go back to a place where people tell you God sees you, God is you, God is everywhere, in the green fields, in the horse, in the bus that takes you back to the city, in America...
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.