Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Night of the Snake Goddess.

Deep in the interior of the southern Indian state of Karnataka is a town called Hampi, a ghost town, for it lies in ruins and is inhabited by untold thousands of murdered phantoms. Five hundred years ago it was a bustling Hindu metropolis, famous for its sacred sculptures and cave temples. Throughout the town winds a placid river, snaking amid tumbled boulders stacked up miraculously to defy gravity, supposedly the leftover debris from Hanuman’s monumental building of the bridge to Sri Lanka to rescue the princess Sita, kidnapped by the demon Ravan.

There is a cave where Sita is said to have hidden her jewels as a sign to her husband, Rama, that she had been taken this way. And the town is dominated by a tall Mandir, covered in effigies, where Rama is said to have paid homage to a meditating Shiva before continuing on his quest of defeating the demon and reuniting with his wife. The magical beauty of the town gave its reigning Hindu monarch much hubris, he was rich, powerful and superior to the Moslem kingdoms that surrounded his territory of Hampi. With cruelty and trickery he kept the Muslim kingdoms divided and quarreling amongst themselves; raiding their villages he robbed, tortured and murdered them mercilessly. After a lifetime of oppression the Muslim kingdoms could take no more and, over-coming their differences, they united into one mighty army that swept down upon Hampi and butchered the bad king’s soldiers, lopped off his head and slaughtered every other living soul in the vicinity.

In a few nights hundreds of thousands of Hindu men, women and children were cut to pieces on the streets, in their homes or praying to their innumerable gods in the Mandir. All the temples were desecrated, the icons shattered, gods and devas having their noses, ears, arms, heads lopped off so that the city lay in ruins with no Hindu gods left intact to lend protection. As a final curse upon the place a council of Muslim seers proclaimed a fitting end for Hampi would be to cage within the city’s boundaries the pagan Hindu’s favorite monster, The Snake Goddess, who would devour any foolish trespasser into Her domain.

For hundreds of years the town lay accursed and abandoned, phantoms howled up the streets and whispered in the broken doorways, flitting in and out of the moon’s shadows, and reigning over all this was the horror of the Snake Goddess, slithering, hissing, showing up in the most unexpected places to kill unwary travelers. The local natives, Hindu and Muslim, were painfully aware of Her presence and prayed to Her fervently to leave their families and tribes alone, often sending an unwitting pilgrim into Her embrace as sacrifice to appease Her hungry wrath. But all this was kept secret, from fear and reverence, the town slumbered and was overgrown with jungle and few remembered its history.

The twentieth century rolled around and in the 1970’s western Hippies discovered the town’s existence, its bleak beauty, isolation and squatting potential attractive to their beach-bum ways. They’d heard about the lost city of Hampi whilst camping naked on the beaches of Goa, it was arcane, remote, only for the hip cognoscenti, it took many days travel into the interior of Karnataka, in those Hippie-trail times one could sit forty-eight hours on cold-concrete waiting for the next bus.

In 1973 when I was 23 I made the tedious journey to the much ballyhooed sacred city of Hampi. There were no hotels or restaurants, the few who wandered here lived in the temple-caves amidst the broken iconography, we carried our own food in and shared it, only occasionally relishing a beedie and sweet biscuit at the one grungy chai shop by the bridge over the river. At best there would’ve been 7 Hippies spread out over the labyrinth of caves; I chose to stay with the one Sadhu Baba in residence, he was famous for making black clay chillums with a snake entwined about its barrel, much desired by Western Big Babas who loved to flourish the fashionable chillums above their heads as they yelled, “Bam Shankar!” then toking down on the charas mixture within and breathing out smoke like hell-fire.

And yeah, I smoked lots of hash with them, I even dropped acid and tripped wickedly among the amazingly psychedelic statuary and bass reliefs carved upon every wall in every nook and cranny, an overload of imagery and myths so that I ending up spewing badly into the river; I felt like I was vomiting up the entire universe, Big Bang particles, galaxies, stars, a torrent of seed ideas, Platonic ideals, archetypes, brainwashes and fixations poured from me so that by dawn my Mind seemed scrubbed, detoxed, refreshed.

I even saved a drowning Hippie girl who panicked in waist-deep water and screamed her tits off while some Indian Hindu pilgrims made picnic nearby and glumly watched her drown as if they were Eloi from “The Time Machine”. I rescued her and eschewed the puffing up of my hero chest, my ego had been attenuated, my hubris quashed, I did it for the sheer love of life and the humility of a servant, thus I may have been spared the vengeance of the wrathful Snake Goddess, who lurked in the dark caves and watched every human act to see if pride intruded. I escaped Hampi with my skin intact, my Mind emptied, my heart full and from henceforth I led a life of achievement and adventure for the next 27 years. Then at the dawn of the third millennium, in 2000, I returned, grown into a big fool, narcissistic, selfish, headstrong, about to finally meet the Snake Goddess and receive my come-uppance, as if She’d been waiting for my flaws to out all that time.

I’d been called back to India after 21 years of chasing a non-career as an artist in Auz and was prancing about Goa ecstatically trying to forget my travails, then moving onto Hampi where I hoped to relive the mystique of my earlier visit. I had little money and stayed at an inexpensive ashram where I hoped to find peace and quiet but the Baba in residence was married with children and they all made an unholy racket day and night. I was unhappy and restless but somewhat consoled when I met up with the luscious Nicorette, queen of the zombies, who brought on the first misadventure. Nic was just as beautiful and as deadly as the Snake Goddess and possibly awakened Her from slumber and incited Her wrath for no female could trespass in Her domain who was more hypnotically gorgeous than She.

We were trying to get to a trance-party on the far side of Hampi and some drunken Indians offered us a lift in their jeep, they continuously maneuvered the car’s seating arrangements so that she was squashed in the front seat between their lumpy frames and groping hands with me shoved out of the way in the back, but I kept insisting on sitting in front between them and Nic or, just as they were settling in next to her in front, I would make her get in the back with me. For an hour we played musical chairs, the Indians getting drunker and more uptight, they just couldn’t get their slippery hands on her big tits and finally they threw us both out of the car and told us to walk. Though dumped in the middle of nowhere we breathed a sigh of relief for they probably would’ve raped her and then sodomized me for good measure, no port too unattractive in an intoxicated storm.

We wandered all night under a full moon through the maze of tumbled rocks and desecrated iconography, occasionally finding a carving of the Snake Goddess glaring at us from the shadows, the sibilant hissing of the river following us as we stumbled about entirely lost. I started to lose heart but Nic is an Amazonian warrior queen, nothing fazes her, she strode on resolute, confronted every beastly pagan image and laughed in its face and I hung onto the strings of her One Million Years B.C. fur bikini. Eventually we came to a huge lagoon that was impassable and I was resigned to spending the rest of my shortened life there but along came one of those basket-boats the locals are so adept at paddling and Nic called to them to rescue us and, for a small fee, they took us to the other side and safety.

This escapade should’ve warned me that Hampi had certain dangers always lurking for the unwary but I was a fool and continued my explorations while Nic went on her merry way to chase her lotus-eating in other exotic locales. I could endure the noise of the ashram no longer and had a rousing argument with the Baba on how he’d lied to me about the tranquility of his abode; I played the white nabob outraged by the medieval set-up and possibly raised the dead with my shrieking. I set off in high dudgeon with my bags to find a cheaper place but as the ashram was the cheapest I had few alternatives. Then I espied an ancient, empty temple by the riverside, though creepy like something out of a Hammer horror film, it was spacious and nobody seemed to pass close by to bother me so I determined to move in and camp there.

A local peasant saw me carrying my bags inside and, his eyes rolling, warned me to stay clear of the place; it was evil, for long it had a bad reputation for unholy incidents, robbers and worse could come in the night and murder me. I pooh-poohed his superstitions, I was strong, brave, rational, nothing could touch me, and besides, I had nothing to rob. He shook his head sadly at my Western narrow-mindedness and left me to my fate, the sun was setting and he desired to be safe indoors before darkness took over.

I was just turning fifty years old and thought the best part of life was over, the bloom of my youth withered, I was fatigued, my aspirations were evaporating, desires ever unsatisfied, I was cynical, nihilistic, reckless, I’d come back to India not to find my Self but to get lost, maybe disappear. At dusk I wandered down the main street of Hampi town to flit amidst the broken porticoes and tumbled, carved stone facades as if I were a proto-ghost, I could almost see the thousands of shadowy presences who’d once thrived and been murdered there and with them I dwelt in sorrow on the frailty of human existence.

There are many chai-shops on this desolate main-street and one of the specialties available is bhang, a drink made from crushed marijuana and, hoping for consolation, I drank a few glasses and got quite inebriated, or stoned shitless in Hampi-hippie terminology. I tripped back to my temple-ruin abode and lay down dizzily upon my bedroll on the hard stone floor. Spears of moonlight penetrated parts of the grotto but for the most it was pitch black and eerily quiet except for the tinkling of the river nearby. I was somewhat stupefied from the bhang and tried not to envision ghosts in the shards of moonlight wavering at the edges of the temple. I sang a jolly song to myself hoping its naiveté would ward off any malevolent presence.

I couldn’t fully sleep, just slip in and out of dozing, always aware of the strangeness of my environment. And as the doze was setting in, an hallucinogenic dream-state seemed to take over, and I heard a wet slithering sound followed by a piercing hiss. This snapped me awake, I sat up with my back against a cold stone pillar, and tried to see into the dark, to decipher some ghastly creature prowling there waiting for my vulnerable sleep. But there was nothing, behind me just darkness and silence, at the front only the carved portico under the moonbeams and the river gurgling not far off. I tried to stay vigilant but gradually dozed off again, and just as I slipped under once more came the squelchy slithering sound, like a long serpentine body dragged across the rock floor, then furious hissing seemingly in my face.

This continued throughout the night, I didn’t get a wink of sleep, every time I dozed off the slithering and hissing came closer and closer, from the back of the temple towards me, I sat stiff-backed, eye-balls popping, straining in the dark to see what evil approached my stupid, hallucinating form. Had the Snake Goddess come to claim my flesh and soul for daring to camp in Her sacred abode? What silly mumbo-jumbo nonsense! I’m a scientist, a rationalist, there are no snake goddesses! Yet I swear I heard these sounds, loud and clear, and even vaguely made out the horrific outline of Her gory face, just like in a Hammer horror film, the Gorgon with snakes for her hair, forked tongue tickling my nose, welling up from my unconscious, trying to turn me to stone.

Whatever It was, It approached close-by, I could almost feel Its fetid breath upon me, I held my breath ready to be swallowed whole but not without a fight, they’d hear my screams all the way to the market place. Half-conscious I felt It slither past me, undulate up the wall and across the ceiling, there to hover directly above and drop upon me with grotesque fangs bared. I snapped alert and gazed up at the ceiling imagining the horror hanging just above my head. Something fell into my eye, a piece of grit that flew about the primordial temple in the light breeze. I rubbed the irritation from my eye and, satisfied nothing else lurked above, drifted back into my fugue, it was now just before dawn and I thankfully fell exhausted into a deep sleep.

When I awoke to the glorious light of day my left eye was swollen, I had something in it that no amount of flushing would relieve. While having chai I asked other tourists to look in my eye to see if there was a foreign object lodged within but nothing could be discerned. Back in Auz I went to my G.P. and he informed me I had Blepheritis, caused by a bacterium like a tiny poisonous serpent and almost impossible to cure, I had to scrub my eyelids several times a day for months to gain temporary relief. 

Though life-weary I’ve noticed that when confronted by life-challenging dangers I’ve fought hard to live, it’s hard-wired into me, no matter the nihilistic tendencies tugging at my soul. I was made to overcome my Western spoiled brat ennui, get on with life, overcome obstacles and enjoy existence to the max. And so I believe I escaped a mental breakdown in Hampi, if you’re mentally vulnerable India has many sites to unravel you.

I didn’t believe in the Snake goddess, I fought off Her superstitious idea as just a nightmare bogey-woman, maybe a left-over from my turbulent emotional trauma with my mother in early childhood, and fear of female sexuality in general. But as mythopoesis for a bacterial infection, it was a good fit, the Mind is an amazing phenomena and plays incredible tricks upon us all, especially when it comes to an infinite universe: nature spirits, gods and goddesses, cults and superstitions, magical thinking easily takes over.

I’ve suffered from the eye infection for many years now and it reminds me to stay strong, walk with care and treat every living creature I meet with compassion, for all my fuck-ups, many other lost and hard-working people are far worse off. (I have to carry on like this as I’m a bit of a curmudgeon and most people get on my nerves, it’s the human condition, flawed, we’re all in it together.)

If you enjoyed this story please go to the WEB address above and consider buying my book of tales about growing up anarcho-queer, rock and roll punter and mystic adventurer in Australia and India of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.