On Day 5, I wake up, tummy feeling slightly better and no longer feeling the desire to curl up into a fetal position on my bed and whimper like a small child due to stomach pain. It’s a pretty lazy morning, and I have fun playing Carom with our cook Pramila’s children. I’ll probably butcher the rules now, but to my understanding, Carom is a classic Indian board game in which you use your fingers to strike a playing piece toward a series of white and black chips (and one red chip). The aim is to launch the chips into holes at the four corners of the board. One player goes for the white chips, the other for the black chips. First player strike in all of their chips wins, though the red chip must also be scored in order to win te game. It’s kind of like playing pool, only with your fingers and chips instead of cue sticks and balls. I used to play this game all the time as a kid growing up during summers in my dad’s native village of Kavuluru. It’s a nice trip down memory lane. Per usual, some family friends arrive to see us and say hello to my grandparents.
In the afternoon, we depart for the five hour car journey from Hyderabad to the coastal city of Vijayawada. Along the lonely stretch of highway, we pass by countless roadside stalls and restaurants, but also several lush, green fields of rice, palm trees and more. In the U.S., I often jokingly refer to my ability to withstand heat as byproduct of ‘my people being from a tropical country.’ In reality, much of India is not covered in jungle despite the stereotype, but here on the freeway between Hyderabad and Vijayawada, it really feels like the cliche ‘tropical country’ fits.
We arrive to my dad’s apartment, part of which serves as an office for some of his staff in Vijayawada (part of his business runs here in India, so he has an office in Vijayawada). We’re greeted upon exiting our car by no less than seven staff members, along with one of their wives, who has even kindly cooked and brought dinner for us after our long journey. They’re my dad’s senior staff here in Vijayawada, what you might call his “posse” “entourage” or dare I say, “squad?” #SquadGoals (protip: if you don’t get the reference/meme, Google it. I promise that your life will be forever altered). The staff are even so nice they’ve placed signs welcoming me and my mother home to Vijaywada! I’ve never even met half of these people, but I’m already overwhelmed by their kindness and hospitality.
The following day, we wake up to the sobering news that someone driving a truck deliberately drove through a crowd of people in Nice, France on Bastille Day, killing more than 70 people. As far as horrific weeks go in terms of international and domestic killings, this is pretty high up there. Like anyone else in the world, I’m terribly saddened and frustrated by the inhumanity in the world, and despite all our efforts to the contrary, oftentimes our inability to change things.
We also realize that the dangerous political situation in the Srinagar area of Kashmir (mentioned in a previous blog post) has become too hostile for us to travel there as originally planned. So instead, we meet with the travel agent to explore other options, and decide to cancel the last leg of our North India trip in Kashmir and instead head to Amritsar and Dharmashala instead.
Afterwards, we head to the outskirts of Vijayawada to have lunch with close relatives, whom I refer to Prasad Tata and Vija Amama (Grandpa and Grandma). Thereafter, we hop in the car for an hour-plus ride to Amaravati, the area that will soon become the new capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh, as well as the historic religious town in the Guntur district of the state that inspired the name for the new capital. I’m not too impressed thus far by the development of the new capital, as it seems that all they’ve done is widen a few roads and lay down concrete, while the majority of roads are still dirt or rubble-ridden. The area where the new capital will be is right now a series of different villages interconnected by lush green farmland. It’s a shame to think that in 10-15 years, much of this agriculture and greenery will be replaced with monochromatic gray office buildings and shopping complexes. Seems like a bad move to turn some of your state’s most fertile farmland into an industrial and cosmopolitan complex, but we’ll see how it plays out.
Our first stop are the ancient Undavalli caves. Engraved into the walls of the caves are statues and portraits of various Hindu deities, but the real treat is the immensely large reclining Vishnu statue (one of the major Hindu gods in the trinity of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva), the largest that I’ve ever seen of its kind. In addition to a tourist site, the caves serve as a place of prayer, as many come to offer their respects at the feet of the Vishnu statue. We notice several bats nestled in a corner of the cave in sleep. Batman! I think this might be my favorite of all the sites we see in Amaravati today, but my excitement is tempered by the god awful, sweltering heat. We’re all about three notches above socially acceptable sweating at this point. I’m tempted to run back into the air conditioned car after just a second of this madness, but I remain, tempted by the caves’ wonder.
We get to our second destination, which is a recently constructed Buddhist ‘stupa’ with a several stories tall Buddha statue in the center. On the walls at the base of the statue are engraved panels capturing what my dad calls ‘Buddha stories.’ This statue is intended to serve as homage to the original Buddhist stupa in the area (and let’s be real – a blatant tourist money-making attraction), which is now crumbled and decayed. This area historically held great significance as an important center for Buddhism (back when the religion still flourished in India).
Our third stop is the original Buddhist stupa site, where many a century ago, an actual stupa was erected as a religious symbol and gathering site for Buddhist practitioners. Various rulers changed hands in controlling this area, but the stupa remained intact for some time. Now, however, it lays decrepit and in ruins, with all the nice pieces of the stupa scattered to different museums. Still, it’s nice to soak in the history and imagine the kind of religious discourse and events that must have taken place here. Near the stupa, we encounter some crazy-looking birds that hang upside down in the guise of bats, and based on the white splatters on the ground and stench in the air, poop an inordinate amount.
Our last tourist site before we head home is a historic temple in Amaravati. Legend has it that a piece of an important lingam (a small statue that represents an actual aspect of a Hindu god, essentially) fell here, at the site of this temple, when the lingam was cut from a demon’s belly. The other four or five pieces were reportedly scattered at other temples in the area. Traditionally, you’re supposed to make a pilgrimage to all of the 5-6 temples in other day, but we opt for the tourist-lite version and just visit one. I’m not allowed to take photos inside the temple itself, but inside the temple is where the main ceremonies, rituals and prayers are conducted before statues of the gods. People make offerings of coconut, flowers and money to the gods (the money goes back to the temple). While I find temples like this an important part of the country’s religion and culture, for me, ‘paying before you pray’ in front of indifferent priests isn’t really my cup of tea. I’m not much one for Hindu rituals, but if I do them, I’d prefer to do them at our small local temple in California.
To cap off the day, we meet up with my dad’s employee and good friend, Srinivas Uncle, cousin Zinny (who has come from Bangalore to her home in Vijayawada) and her husband, Sanketh, at a restaurant called Barbecue Nation. Here, servers char-broil various kebabs of meat and veggies fresh on your table for endless amounts of grilled delight. At the end, we have an early birthday celebration for my dad, and the servers in true American fashion come out singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in full chorus and bearing a small cake.
And with that, our first full day in Vijayawada concludes! Next up: dad’s real birthday celebration, replete with dancing, singing and more!