Riding in the Rain
July 14, 2010
In England rain is one of life’s necessary evils. In India, a wet, cold (ok 22 degrees plus but chilly by Indian standards) morning is a cause for celebration. Nevertheless, even Indian enthusiasm for the rain takes a bit of a beating when you’re caught on a bike in the stuff. Within a few seconds of a sudden, fierce shower, city roads are emptied of all two wheeled traffic; riders and pillions either abandon their bikes for the relative shelter of a shop front, tree or bus stop or cram, bike and all, into the few dry metres of road under a bridge. They’re missing out.
Riding through a monsoon storm is not so far removed from sailing through a fierce squall – minus the salt and plus the odd tree branch, complete with electricity line. Not safe, but definitely fun. And the monsoon is the best time to see India, tumultuous but shining new. Poets have always celebrated the rains – varsha – for their drama as well as the generative surge they bring to the land. And of course the passion and romance of storm outside, couple inside – even Buddhists monks several hundreds years again were singing the same thing. Any respectable Bollywood film has at least one soaked-through-in-the-rain scene. This is the land of the wet sari after all, and standing in the rain can be sexy even in London (think Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and A Funeral…)
Road Veda chose Kukke Subrahmanya for its latest monsoon trip, a jungle pilgrim spot in the Western Ghats dripping with green even in high summer. Kukke is the home of Subrahmanya, Shiva’s first son born, after several hundreds of years of lovemaking, to help the gods defeat a particularly troublesome anti-god. Here he reigns amidst a glorious mix of other, local traditions; it is to this temple that you come to rid yourself of the snake curse. Despite a visit a couple of years ago by India’s number one cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar (who had the snake curse and wasn’t playing very well as a result), Kukke Subrahmanya is still almost unknown to all except those who make the pilgrimage to its temples.
The one-street town sits at the bottom of a valley down which thunders the Kumaradhara river. Once you hit Sakleshpur, a hill station high above Kukke, there are 50 glorious kilometres of steep and treacherous ghats that follow the river down to its base. This is a notoriously bad road. It used to be so broken that everyone was forced to go slowly. A recent resurfacing job – which is already beginning to come apart, no Indian road survives more than one monsoon – means that cars now career round the corners in order to overtake the rumbling trucks. When the road is running with water, the stakes become even higher. Glorious nonetheless for the road is also inhabited by the huge clouds that sit in the valley. As you ride, you first hit a slow, slight rain, then the belly of the cloud – where your vision reduces to about 20 metres – followed by heavy rain. Finally the mists start to thin, the rain peters out and the wet road glints in the sun.
When you turn off to Kukke, you have the road to yourself; the trunks trundle, and the flashy cars zoom, on to Mangalore and the coast. Here the road takes you through the bottom of the valley, across bridges and past the luminous orange of temples. And then the pilgrim-covered banks of the Kumaradhara and Subrahmanya temple itself, its towering gokula set off by the soaring Parvata mountain behind, bare feet, dhotis and cows before. All oblivious to the rain that descends in straight lines, softly and silently.