The sky turns darker with every passing minute as the car weaves its way through the small-town traffic of two-wheelers, buses and cars. Thick clouds in various animal shapes stretch across the pale blue canvas of the sky, their broad arms slowly moving to merge with each other. These clouds are dark, but a fringe of white shows at the edges. Soon, they will blend into the deep blue darkness of the sky, and be studded with Night's gemstones.
The car begins its ascent up the hill. Everything around is cloaked in the gloom of twilight- the rocky face of the hill, the giant statue of Hanuman, the brambles and shrubs. This is no rose-tinted twilight; the world is made of only one colour, blue. The clouds are occasionally lit up by flashes of lightning and turn momentarily a ghastly white, very different from the placid white they are as they play in the soft sunlit sky of morning. Night certainly has a way of transforming objects and exposing the eerie shapes that lie hidden all day.
As the car climbs further up the hill, twisting its way on the road cut out of rock and bordered by mysterious thickets, the half-veiled Moon rises in the sky. Her handmaidens are yet to arrive, and she basks proudly in the glory of her own splendour, as if bestowing a cold, pitying smile on the less fortunate inhabitants of the earth. Blue mingles with silver- a shimmering evening sky.
Up on the hill, the car draws to a halt. Mendicants in saffron sit against the walls, arms outstretched. Ladies in rich silks smoothen their saris and look around to assure themselves of other women's envying glances. There is more to the decision to come to the temple than just worship. Vendors with tulsi garlands follow devotees up the steps to the precincts of the temple, trying to persuade them to buy their wares. Colourful shops selling almost anything one could possibly want (and not want) line both sides of the broad flight of steps. Psychedelic lights frame pictures of gods and goddesses; cheap toys catch the fancy of a little boy who runs to his mother, a toy in hand, asking her to buy it in an immensely desperate tone. The still air bears the mingled fragrance of incense, fading flowers and kerosene.
Once in the narrow, winding passages leading into the temple, a different ambience takes over. The stone floor is cold and, at places, damp; bare feet tread the path that millions of people have taken over centuries. A narrow roofed passage appears, with a few shallow steps and square windows in the wall. All noise but the chirping of insects in the distant gloom ceases. Fortunately, it is not dark enough for a hyperactive imagination to conjure up images of phantoms that exist, perhaps, only in the mind, and are stirred to life at the merest provocation of darkness and solitude. Further down the passage, the lights of the chambers of the temple come into view.
The stone walls are alternately warm and cool to the touch. The figures sculpted on the pillars stare passively at the rows of the troubled or thankful people passing by. Do these figures come to life in the dead of the night, when nobody is watching? They are perhaps real; they play a game with the pilgrims.
Closer to the sanctum sanctorum, the huge, exquisitely carved pillars make one marvel at the accuracy with which they were constructed in an age when there were no engineering aids as we know them today. How did those artisans design and build with such precision and symmetry? I run my hand across the relief on the brass door, feel the weight of the rings on it. Marvels.
The sandalwood paste-covered stone idol of Narasimha gleams in a mixture of the light cast by oil lamps and neon tubes or electric bulbs. Serene and magical, this is the Vision that people travel far to thank, to lay their burdens at the feet of. The jewels embedded in the sandalwood paste shimmer with an ethereal beauty. Can the most sceptical of people help but realise that there is an other-worldly power at work, exuding strength and grace in this small stone chamber that people throng for comfort and gratification? A power beyond measure, whose searing heat draws hordes of people year after year to view it in its natural form on one single day; people willing to put up with masses of jostling humanity for a fleeting glimpse of the unsheathed stone image of Narasimha.
Centuries of prayer impregnate the atmosphere in the temple precincts. Those seeking the gratification of a wish embrace a stone pillar and pray hard. Demands and bargains in abundance- who is satisfied with his lot, really?
The ghosts of the past seem quite real in the relative quiet of dusk. Children laugh. Anklets jingle as light girlish feet patter up and down stone steps. A priest, deep in study, leans over a low wooden desk in a secluded corner. Are these scenes from hundreds of years ago playing themselves out all over again?
It seems like sacrilege to step on the inscription on the steps hewn out of black stone. Much devotion and care must have been poured into those words on stone which will, in all probability, wear out in another few centuries as people go up and down the steps, none pausing or caring to decipher the ancient lines. This is the way out- God has been bothered or appeased, and it is time to perform one's duty towards the offerings and the sense of taste.
The night sky is liberally sprinkled with stars big and small, and a planet or two. Lightning still streaks through the masses of clouds, but there is no sign of rain. The air is clean and fresh and reveals the beauty of the sky in its entirety, unsoiled by the blanket of smog that invariably shrouds the city sky. From atop the hill, I see as many stars on one night as I would in an entire week in the city.
The car begins its descent homeward. The hills loom dark and large, miles away in the distance filled by the twinkling, tiny lights of the town. Blue deepens into black, punctuated by glaring neon and starlight. An aeroplane cuts through the clouds, red lights blinking intermittently before it vanishes into the night. A breeze starts up; Winter is at her games, teasing creatures with promises and threats of arrival, building false hopes, before she is suppressed by the earth's sending out vapours of heat to curb her vivacity. She is approaching, though, bringing along clear blue skies, mellow sunshine, and other playfellows.
Worship cannot quite be restricted to the walls of the the structures we create. Being out in the open, feeling Nature, is much to be grateful for.