Pune Encounters

I sleep well in the cool January nights, and by sunup, re-energized by the hotel’s instant coffee and margarined toast, I am ready to brave the streets of Pune once again. I use the morning for a visit to the 8th-century Pataleshwar Caves temple, to the north of the Peths, about which I previously wrote, on the other side of the river Mutha. Wandering the district, I first wonder if I can be in the right place for such a venerable site. I am surrounded by concrete high-rises and new construction sites, and an exuberant flow of traffic fills the broad multilane thoroughfare at the precarious edge of which I walk.

Rounding a corner, I find a shady park, and it immediately becomes quieter, as if the umbral light of the dense tree canopy has deadened the outside sounds. A few paces beyond the entry, a stone structure is found sitting in a serene grove of trees, carved from a single boulder of hard gray stone. A stone roof, held aloft by square unadorned pillars perhaps 3m high, covers a stone bull, which has been freshly garlanded with flowers. It looks a bit humble and small among the massive stone that surrounds it. Beyond this structure, a temple to Shiva is carved out of the rock, a dark chamber lit only with oil lamps (and a few dim electric bulbs), and infused with a pungent incense. It is very much a working temple, with a steady flow of people coming in and going out.

I meet there a bearded European who, recognizing me as a non-native, begins a conversation. His English is grammatically perfect, but he speaks it with a thick accent; he is a Romanian from Maramureş, now living in Canada. He instructs me about the place. Together, we ring the bell, (“Louder,” he says, “So that the gods can hear you!”), and we then perambulate the structure thrice. “Now, make your prayer!” he instructs, and I hold my hands together and bow my head, as a courtesy more than a prayer.

In the courtyard, I am greeted by a young Hindu woman, who speaks in excellent English. “I am studying robotics at the local engineering college,” she tells me. Then she asks, “How much does it cost to live in California?” I tell her that I don’t really know, but that it probably costs a great deal.

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