Even if one’s sense of religiosity is a bit numb, a temple in India can easily be found using one’s sense of smell, says Siddharthya Swapan Roy.

It was in the summer of the year gone by, when, having played a game of who-takes-more-sips with a bunch of stubbornly buzzing chunky black flies, I finished my thick sugary cutting chai (a less than full serving of tea) and set the glass down. Only a couple of flies decided to lick at the sticky edges of the stinky and finger-stained glass. The others went back to the mould-covered pile of excrement lying right next to where my two (former) college mates and I had just finished our little meal of unreasonably dry and pungent batter-fried chillies and nearly stale bread.

The blazing hot midday of Buldhana seemed to have nothing in common with the cool pre-dawn city of Pune which we had left 400 kms behind. The journey after Aurangabad had been on a highway that shimmered in heat in the distance, running through hundreds of acres of fields baked and cracked open by a cruel sun and an all pervasive drought. In fact once our car had rushed past Ralegan Siddhi on the left and the first orange of the morning sun peeping over a hillock to our right, anything cold and having water in it seemed like impossibility and the lands of one of India’s most advanced States had become stubbornly unyielding.

But we were in high spirits. Ignoring warnings of a dire fate that awaited those who left the comfort of their urbane homes and ventured into the torturous summers of Maharashtra, we had set out to see something we had been planning for a really long time — the Lonar crater. At the edge of the crater stands the famous Daitya Sudan temple.

Studies by scientists show the crater was formed by a huge meteor that crashed into the earth at this spot over 50,000 years ago. The gigantic crater is nearly two kms in diameter and 150 metres deep. The impact, apart from creating the crater it seems, had sprung a leak in the hill side and a perennial stream comes off the rock face.

In the 17 century, Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar had undertaken development of the region, and water supply to the surrounding villages had been one of her priorities. As the stone foundation plaque bears witness, it was under her auspices that the temple grew up at the spot, and the spring was enclosed in a cow’s-mouth-shaped spout carved out of basalt.

Whether the unusual landscape of the crater or the alkalinity of the water or the uncommon flora, the impact did many interesting things to the place and has left science and awestruck belief intertwined. In fact the very rock worshipped by believers inside the temple is highly metal-infused, as meteorite pieces tend to be, and as the name “Daitya” (meaning giant or ogre) amply suggests, there is some remnant lore about the games of gigantic forces.

But as elsewhere in India, here too belief overtook science a long time back and the place now attracts pilgrims by the hordes and godless blokes like us who are amazed by science and nature are far outnumbered by those who seek divine intervention into their bleak fates. “News” of how the spring water has miraculous (not medicinal) effects and how all wishes come true when prayed to the divine rock in this magical place is widespread. And those who run the little pilgrimage ancillaries here viciously defend the holiness.

An excess of excrement

Until you’re almost at the temple you can’t find too many signboards that lead you to it. But even if one’s sense of religiosity is a bit numb, the temple can easily be found using one’s sense of smell. For, the unquestionable holiness of the shrine notwithstanding, the place is abundant in shit of varying degrees of dryness. Nearly the entire surrounding of the temple is smeared with stinking blobs of canine, bovine, porcine and human origin. To add to that every patch that has a cart parked or a couple of haystacks stacked together or is barely hidden by a broken wall doubles as a urinal for shameless Indian men.

Summoning all the nimbleness at our disposal and avoiding having our shoes smeared, we went near the temple. A huge cacophony of men, women and children had collected near the spring spout and were making full use of the free holy water — bathing, drinking and even washing their clothes in it. Some even held plastic bottles under it taking “parcel” orders with them. One look at the dirty puddle below the spout and we decided to give our awe the pass and settled for simply wetting our hands and taking a sniff at it (and the turbid grey water smelled distinctly fishy).

Out from the temple the spring runs down the rather steep incline into the crater. Unlike the crowds thronging the temple, barely anyone goes down to see the crater. We did.

As a child I was one of the innumerable many who wanted to become a “space scientist” and explore the beautiful dark skies — maybe ride a space shuttle and see the stars and planets up-close. So this was quite literally a moment I had been awaiting for a lifetime.

So barely breathing due to the excitement, I rushed through the dense thickets down towards the crater leaving my friends a few steps behind. A few fathoms downhill and I realised that even if my juvenile excitement receded I wouldn’t be able to breathe freely.

As I said, there weren’t too many people along this path and that meant there was ample privacy here. Which in turn meant that, in a district (actually state) which doesn’t as yet realise development doesn’t mean making factories and roads alone and toilets are an integral part of the growth story of a civilisation, the privacy was used to relieve one’s selves.

What is a supposed to be a monument of natural history turned out to be monument of open defecation. And right till the very edges of the lake the horrid state of affairs lasted. Had it not been for a childhood promise made to myself of seeing the crater, there was every reason to have abandoned the expedition and run for one’s life.

Barely five minutes from the revered cow mouthed spout, the stream had been clogged in a revolting green black mass of PET bottles, discarded sanitary napkins, Styrofoam plates and glasses and what not. The holy stream had stopped being a stream and fell more like a repulsive leachate. And horror of horrors, a couple of young boys from the locality were merrily crab hunting in the crevices and mirthfully planning how they’d cook their catch.

There were old stone temples on the way down whose ornately carved ceilings and columns held tales unreadable by us but had collapsed in on themselves. But other than us, sheep (as shown by the trail of droppings), monitor lizards (who swiftly disappeared into crevices as our footsteps disturbed them) and drunkards (smashed beer bottles bore witness) seemed to have had been the only visitors.

Different place, same story

The lake itself was a huge stinking mass of water that frothed at the edges. Farmers were growing tomatoes and some other vegetable near the soft and swampy banks. Though they (and their buffaloes) had looked in our direction with an unambiguous look that said, “Ah, urban oddities”, tired perhaps of the rushing descent or perhaps the load of disillusionment, we accepted their invite and sat down on a makeshift bench to catch our breath. We sat there until the sun had all but gone down and then, climbing back up in silence, drove off to Buldhana town, which in turn is run over with pigs and their abodes — the open gutters.

Now, as I pen this story two years after the aforementioned, I’m in a different place in an even more different season trying to have breakfast. Having breakfast in Mahur, a town forgotten by development, is located in Nanded district of Maharashtra, is an ordeal. Why? Because of the rains, the road is a huge mess of clay and excrements of mules, cows, dogs and humans. I’ve just walked in and am trying to drive the sights and smells away before I can dip the little bread into an awfully pungent broth served with a dry potato wada and tell myself — it’s OK, the tea is heated till boiling point and is therefore safe. I’m trying not to recall how, after sundown and before sunrise, Mahur’s roads are lined with squatting people. Most, of course, carry their mobile phones with them — sometimes to be used as torch lights in the dark, sometimes for catching up on FM radio, at others to take calls from friends. But most of the times because modern India can’t live without them.

Oh, and before I forget, Mahur is a renowned pilgrimage destination (home to the Rohinin Mata temple), and every single day buses full of pilgrims from all over the State come and seek the blessings of the holy mother — which, as we’ve been told by the owner of where I’m eating, are infallible and can guarantee nearly everything from a much sought male child to a job promotion on to an election win. You merely have to close your eyes and pray.