As I stepped out of the air conditioned car the hot air slipped down over my head and around me right down to my toes peeking out of my sandals. Cars and motorcycles flew past me on the back road to Pondicherry, blowing my skirt around my calves. I waited until there were no cars coming in either direction before crossing to the matted path of red earth on the opposite side of the road which was the gateway to Gingee Fort.
There were monkeys playing in the shade but we worried about snakes as we walked through the stone gate, stepping carefully in the dry and dusty brush littered occasionally with broken down pieces of trash and piles of cow dung.
Snake bites aren't usually fatal here but they happen often enough to warrant an entire local hospital dedicated to the victims and while they have plenty of anti venom to save people's lives the local homegrown remedies are more effective in not only stopping the poison's effects but keeping it from destroying the tissue and disfiguring the patient.
I've been told that the three places one usually gets bit are on the legs, on the hand and on the face because typically as farmers gather up bundles of grasses to hoist them onto their shoulders the snakes will emerge from their hiding place in the grain to bite the person on the cheek if one can tolerate the image of such a thing.
The light breeze swirled around us in bursts and at first I caught the scent of what I thought might be juniper--spicy and rich--but then the air changed current and I instead smelled the cattle and as we approached the fifty-foot turrets and granite walls I could hear the sound of the cows that were pastured inside the iron gate.
When we got to the gate we startled two cows resting in the shade between the stone pillars and carefully swung open the door, careful not to let the animals out, then followed the path toward the distant wall that was slightly hazy in the heat of the early afternoon.
Staring at my feet to avoid stepping on anything regrettable, as I came around the bend I saw a rock ledge with seven upright stones in various sizes painted with orange markings and guarded by three iron tridents. India is spotted with little local shrines and we'd come across one dedicated to Senjiamman, one of the seven sisters whose chastity was threatened and who committed suicide rather than subject herself to degradation and shame.
Stepping through the crackling brush that snapped angrily with each step the atmosphere settled around me of armies and battles long gone. Besides the two cows lingering in the shade we were the only people there, though it seemed as if I could feel the presence of nearly a millennium of history sinking around us and separating us from the modern road only one hundred yards away.
Shivaji, the Maratha warrior who raged battles almost four hundred years ago, called Gingee Fort "the most impregnable fortress in India" and the British called it the "Troy of the east." Now the three quiet hills of the fort sit alone, surrounded by rice paddies and farmers in their fields, and claimed only by wandering cows and the occasional pilgrim coming to pay respects to the seven sisters who were a fortress of a different kind.
And it's only one small thing along the back road to Pondicherry.
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