Statue at the Hoysaleswara Temple. Photo Credit: Benjamin Mack/GALO Magazine.

Statue at the Hoysaleswara Temple. Photo Credit: Benjamin Mack/GALO Magazine.

Looking at the menu, I had no idea what to order. As I’d become accustomed to so many times during the previous few days, Kesi — an expert in Indian cuisine — had a suggestion.

“Ben,” he began, “Have you ever tried dosa?”

“No,” I confessed. “What’s that?”

“OK, we’ll get that. You’ll like it.”

He was right. A fermented crepe made from rice batter and black lentils, dosa is one of the most popular bread products in South India. Used to dip in various sauces including chutney, yogurt, and sambar (a spicy lentil-based vegetable stew made with tamarinds), dosa is naturally gluten-free, and contains no added sugars or saturated fat. In other words, it’s one of the ultimate health foods.

Though rolled into a thin cylinder, the first thing that struck me about the dosa was how comically large it appeared. Almost as lengthy as one of my considerably long arms, the thing was even bigger than my grandfather’s famously gargantuan German pancakes, each of which was larger than a dinner plate and as thick as a casserole. I was utterly famished, but even in my voracious state, I was unsure if I could consume such a caloric colossus as this.

It would turn out that I could. Each bite of the savory bread (which thanks to the fermentation process is also rich in vitamin B and vitamin C) that tasted like a sugarless crepe or the outer skin of buttermilk pancake, somehow made me hungrier. Within minutes, the entire thing was gone as if I hadn’t eaten in weeks.

“I told you it was good,” Kesi remarked.

“You got that right,” I answered, while also thinking that if I opened a restaurant in Europe or the US and called it “Drive-Thru Dosa,” I’d be making a lot more money than I currently was as a journalist.

Back on the road, “whiplash” was the operative term as the bus ricocheted back and forth along the winding, pothole-peppered roads. Cows, motorcycles, rickshaws, semi-trucks, children with cricket bats, women in brightly colored sarees balancing jugs of water on their heads, and all manner of other vehicles and pedestrians crossed our path. The bus driver swerved around them as if he were playing a real-life version of the video game “Frogger,” honking his horn loudly each time; were he to move to Hollywood or Bollywood, I had no doubt he could get a job as a stuntman.

A while later, we found ourselves at Chennakeshava Temple — considered one of the finest remaining examples of Hoysala architecture, the spacious complex was built in 1117, with legend saying construction took 103 years to complete. Built primarily of granite and soapstone, intricate sculptures and friezes cover almost every surface, with images of elephants, lions, tigers, horses, episodes from Hindu epics, and dancers (known as shilabalikas) being most common. As with many Hindu holy sites, wearing shoes or socks is not permitted, and we were forced to walk across the hot stones in nothing but our bare feet.

It was cooler inside the main temple at the complex — a 121-foot (37-meter) building with a central pavilion and shrine used for worship services and other meetings that was offset by several massive columns holding the stone ceiling up — despite the lack of a ventilation system, aside from the small holes that had been cut into the walls to allow the faintest bit of light in.

Perhaps it was the darkness, the fedora I was wearing, or the fact I was in India itself, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Harrison Ford’s titular character in the 1984 George Lucas and Steven Spielberg flick Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I was no swashbuckling archaeologist (or a 1980s sex symbol), but felt the same thrill of adventure nonetheless inside the ancient structure. And thankfully, unlike what awaited the characters in the film, there were no bloodthirsty cult members apt to rip someone’s heart out.

Sex is a topic with a well-documented history in Hinduism (the famed Kama Sutra is, after all, a Hindu text), and it was certainly well-represented at Chennakeshava: a number of carvings featured explicit sexual liaison between the gods and goddesses, with a level of realism that even today could be considered pornographic. Judging by the images, it appeared that brassieres or other upper-body garments were optional for goddesses.

I wasn’t a Hindu, but I could appreciate the spiritual significance of Chennakeshava. As it had been since antiquity, it was a place for people to come together, a place that gave meaning and structure to people’s lives amidst a chaotic and often frightening world. It was all very beautiful.

But it was the final temple, Hoysaleswara, which was the most beautiful of all. Famed for its carvings, which feature such images as the dancing god Ganesh or the conquests of Vishnu, art critics like Gerard Foekema have called Hoysaleswara “second to none in all of India.” Every image told a different story from Hindu mythology — and there were literally thousands of different images wrapping all around the temple. It was a sight beyond anything I had experienced before, a breathtaking work of art on a whole other scale of architectural accomplishment.

The innermost sanctum of Hoysaleswara was especially inspiring. Surrounded by four circular columns, it was here that the legend claims the dance competition between the young woman and Shiva was held, and it was inside the statue of a cow near an altar to Ganesh that her soul was said to be imprisoned. If life really did imitate the Indiana Jones films, then the statue would have come to life and attacked us.

Of course, there would be no life-or-death struggle with a stone bovine. Stepping back outside, the setting sun lit the outer walls of the temple ablaze in golden light.

I couldn’t help but comment on the postcard-perfect scenery.

“India,” I said.

“India,” replied Kesi.

Nothing more needed to be said.

The photo gallery below is best viewed in full-screen mode by clicking on the far upper right-hand corner.

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If you missed part one of Benjamin Mack’s adventures in India, you can read it here.