Madurai city of my soul

This is why I keep coming back

Today has been a good day.

We’ll catch up on the last three days eventually, but first I want to tell you about today while I can still smell, taste, see, feel and hear it in every vibrating pore of my soul. Today I am happy. And yet now I have no idea how to begin. My companion for the day was Mrs Malar (pronounced like Gustav Mahler) a diminutive woman appointed as guide, but after 13 hours friend. We were born just 4 weeks and half a world apart.

We left the hotel this morning for the obligatory stop one of the programmed tour. A palace which was 75% destroyed by the grandson of the builder for construction materials. What was left showed a bizarre agglomeration of Chinese, Italian, Indian and Catholic influences. All a bit odd really. Malar and I spent most of the time talking about my going to Uni to study and her son’s desire to go to Australia for an MS in computing.

Then it was off to the whole reason I’m in South India… Sree Meenakshi Temple. I came here briefly about a decade ago and have been drawn back ever since, it was on that flying visit I became enchanted by the Natraj – Shiva the god who dances.

The current temple is about C17th but it continues an unbroken 4000 year tradition of belief and worship. The Greeks recorded the temple as ancient when they traded here for pepper and gold in 300 BCE.

Outside the temple is hot open paving, dusty and dry, Madam want postcard? You approach the temple with it’s amazing multi-coloured gopruam (towers), many shopkeepers offering you a view from their roof if only you will enter and buy. But instead you leave your shoes and enter the dark gloom of the temple corridors and the womb of the world. It’s cooler, the light is from flickering devotional oil lamps, smells of smoke and incense, sounds of prayers, chants and muted conversation. It is an intensely holy place, you can feel that from your bones. Priests pass by on duties unseen, people bend touching head to chalk marks on the floor aligned with deities, Hindus only line up to enter the most holy place and petition the god. This is space utterly outside profane time. There are no photos allowed inside so you’re going to have to visualise while I remember.

The temple is for the goddess Pavarti and her husband Shiva. In most of India Shiva is one of the three principal deities; here he is the husband of the Queen. According to the local version of the legend the king and queen of Madurai were without child and were miraculously granted a daughter Pavarti. Pavarti grew to command an army that ruled South India. As she conquered northward she encountered the army of Shiva and falling in love with him laid down her arms and returned to Madurai. Shiva followed and they were married. To this day Pavarti is known by the people as Queen of Madurai, Shiva her consort.

Inside the temple, in the gloom, printed on a large sign board is the everyday Sanskrit prayer which Malar starts to chant to me. A woman stops to listen, others join. The gold flag pole rises up through the roof taking the prayers to heaven. Nandi the bull transport of Shiva sits at the entrance to the Hindu only area, taking prayers inside to Shiva. Flowers adorn Ganesha – I say a silent thank you to the remover of obstacles. 2013 is over dear friend – thank you. People solemnly process nine times clockwise around nine deities representing the nine planets – it’s important to keep your planets aligned, your spheres in Harmony.

Nearby are statues of Shiva and Pavarti as Kali. Pavarti is young and fertile. Kali is an incarnation of Pavarti looking aged, perhaps after menopause, a fierce strong 100% woman, demon killer and warrior protector. And Kali dances with Shiva.

We left Shiva hearing the petitions of devotees and moving with a bowed Namaste past Ganesha went to the hall where Pavarti receives her people, giving audience from 5am to 9pm daily. Then out into the air to sit on the steps around the water tank. Breathless. A safe walled place within the temple to remember that the outside world, the sky, still exists.


The last step on the programmed tour is the museum in the north east corner of the complex where I said hello to the Natraj statue of that first visit in 2001 or 2002. This depiction of Shiva has the most amazing cosmology I’ve ever heard and it gets a blog post of its own next – I promise, you’ll need a cool drink, or shower.


Then Malar took me shopping – it’s how guides make their money, it’s ok. Seems several of my newest friends first met me when I was paying to meet them. So four shops later and my Natraj had found me, as had another Ganesha – cheaper for two madam. Suddenly Malar became my long time friend, negotiating on my behalf to get best Indian price.

After a very late lunch I organised with Karthick that I would to go back to the temple at 730pm. Well we got quite lost on the way and parked at 735, so there we were driver and madwoman running through the streets of Madurai to the temple as though our lives were at risk. I didn’t understand the rush but kept up as Karthick was on the phone to someone who seemed to think we were late.

Little did I know Malar was waiting for us because this was a special night – one of only 15 nights a year when the statue of Pavati is brought out of the temple and processed once around outside the walls. 5 nights in January before harvest. 5 nights in February (including tonight) to bless the harvest. 5 nights in April (don’t know why, maybe the coming monsoon rains). Remember this is a goddess based fertility cult at its most raw ancient best.

Well fireworks, drums, the temple elephant, then the two woman-drawn carts bearing first Pavarti and then her children. Malar took off her shoes and ran to briefly help push one cart, returning flushed, sparks in her eyes. “Did you see?” Grabbing shoes and my hand she shouted “Come” and off we ran up in front of the procession to be sure to get first to the East Gate where Pavarti would return inside. As her cart drew level and stopped, Pavarti was surrounded by intensely prayerful women, drums, whistles and yelling. Above the racket Malar shouted in my ear “THIS is Pavarti, Queen of Madurai” and in such an intense moment I confess I had goose bumps and teared up.

We walked away, me to enter the temple alone and just let it all wash over and around me, after agreeing we would meet again in an hour.

Well what an hour… I was blessed by a priest, met a Hindu Saint, saw Pavarti go back into the temple and her empty gold chariot re-emerge, and better yet I just people watched. So special. I smiled when Karthick came past, just silently checking on madam.

Two people told me I must be there for 930pm, very special. So at 830 I went out to find Malar as agreed and convince her we should stay for the nightly marriage of the gods – putting Shiva to bed in Pavarti’s bed, both deserving of rest and recreation after a hard day’s work in the temple. Remember it’s origins are most likely a fertility cult, and your fertility goddess had better be getting regular bed-action to ensure a bountiful harvest.

So Malar and I went back in for my third trip into the temple and waited for Shiva to emerge for connubial bliss. To the blowing of conch shells, running of priests, chanting and shouting, out emerged a silver palanquin containing the god. The crowd surged, again Malar grabbed my hand, yelled “Come” and like teenagers again we ran. Ran ahead of the procession, pause to bow to Ganesha, leap over the door jamb for Vishnu, reaching the spot where Shiva would be prepared to be taken into his wife’s bed.

Chanting, smoke, incense proceeded the arrival of the God… A cacophony of sacred music, almost jazz like in style. The god prepared for his bride with sandalwood and flowers, washed with holy water and finally taken into her chamber to recline until 5am tomorrow.

Ministrations finished, again Malar grabbed my hand, yelled “Come” and we were off running through the quieting, darkening temple. Our shoes were outside the north gate which would close now the god and goddess were in bed. Past the closed stalls and museum we fled. One inner gate closed, “I know a side way,” breathed Malar dashing off between shuttered stalls to emerge again into the night air and the closing north gate.

Laughing at ourselves we tumbled breathless back into the street. “Postcard Madam?” As we walked to collect out shoes, the chappal keeper laughing as I tipped him – again! Three tips in one day I was his best customer.

And so that was my day. Malar’s brother came to collect her home safely. Karthik brought me back to the hotel. And in 7 hours he’ll be back to take me to see the produce of the god’s fecundity – the vegetable and flower markets.

The rocky town with the name I can’t pronounce

So before the temple junkie diversion I had already taken you to Pondicherry where I was kissed by an elephant. What happened next? Damn I keep getting behind. Apologies for any confusion or repetition. The next day in Pondicherry started early walking with Karthik up to the big Sunday food market at 630am: a riot of fish, fruit and veg and flowers. I photographed the cauliflower man. He told Karthik that everyone photographs him. In my best Hindi I told him that is because he is beautiful. Half the market cried laughing. It was huge.

Then it was off with Joseph the guide to a commune and ashram. I’m of the view that “the Big Golden Golf Ball” is a cult and a scam so we’ll leave it at that.
Continue reading “The rocky town with the name I can’t pronounce”

Feeling odd – from Hyderabad to home

Soundtrack Leonard Cohen, Suzanne

1130… 2017
It’s Republic Day here at home, Australia Day there at home. I’m going home to Mumbai to my second favourite city in the world. I feel odd, shakey inside. Colonised. Coloniser. Post-colonial.

I just finished packing, looked out the hotel window. A poor man is washing trousers in a muddy puddle on a construction site. It’s the same image I saw on my first morning, on my first trip to Mumbai in 2001. Refugee women cooking breakfast on rubbish fires, washing clothes in muddy puddles on a construction site. It is India. Progress, change, the same.

Today I feel lost inside. 

I was born on the land of the Kulin nation
I grew up on Wurundjeri land
Today I live on the land of the Turrbul people
My ancestors were English and Scottish
I am Australian, my soul Indian
Today I journey, always coming home.

What to say. Where to look. Who to be. Human? Woman? Anthropologist? Ex-engineer? Just me? Who is that?

On the way out last night, the Uber GPS said, “You will arrive at 2015.” Time travel or taxi?

I guess the only way to find out is to go. Journey home. Always coming home. Home is where the heart is… right?

And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there

November 2006
Hard to imaging that I didn’t even want to come to India when my first work trip came up more than four years ago – five years ago, wow time flies. I raised a sardonic eyebrow when a friend offered the advice: “You like people. There are lots of people in India.  You’ll be fine.”

But fine I was, WOW, more than fine. Come with me a moment, I will get back to this trip I promise, but if you’re going to have any chance of understanding how I feel about India you need to go with me on this – did you ever read Pookie books when you were a kid?  You know about the little white rabbit with wings?  Well, I have these memories of sitting up in bed with Mum reading me the adventures of Pookie.  She bought me all of them. He was a little lost rabbit, different, who found home and belonging on arriving in the Gypsy night market full of incredible sights and smells too foreign and wondrous to imagine.

So there I was, 2001, starry eyed like Pookie in the back of a black Ambassador taxi inching out of Mumbai airport into a full on Indian traffic jam.  Back then direct flights from Australia landed after 10pm.  And it was also Ganesha’s Birthday, a festival that is just huge in Mumbai.  Imagine Pookie’s lights, a million little pixie lights strung over stalls made for the festival, twisted around barrows selling food of unknown tastes and ingredients, with awesome smells.  Everywhere women selling garlands of flowers.  Fresh coconuts split for juice, sugar cane squeezed to make some sweet elixir, later advised by my local friend to be too hygienically dodgy for me drink.  Glass cabinets of fried samosas of a million different varieties.  Amazing exotic flowers festooning multicoloured smoke filled entrance ways, beckoning, offering passage to new worlds where mysterious temples are inhabited by brightly lit, smiling, blue idols.  And everywhere incense and smoke from small fires.  People rushing in and out between the traffic, cars ignoring lane markings – are there lane markings? I laugh, unable to wipe the grin off my face.  Horns are blaring, head lights flashing all in a relentless press to get somewhere.  Children laughing, calling, running out, adults carrying impossibly balanced loads over miniature foot bridges before disappearing into shanty towns shrouded in mystery and smoke. Everywhere full of people and laughter and magic lights.  So much pulsing life.

And I sat hypnotised in the back of my taxi inhaling the scent and wonder.  Like Pookie, uniquely at home.  Somehow belonging.

Waking to the next morning’s foetid reality after a pre-dawn tropical thunder storm couldn’t dampen my wonder.  Naked children were playing in puddles. Those narrow foot bridges had been over open sewers foul with every kind of rubbish and excrement. Scrawny yellow dogs snapped and chased and barked.  Brightly clad women squatted, cooking over rubbish fires in a squalid shanty town clinging like the torn underskirts of an ageing sari to a freeway construction site where men were already working in the dawn light, swarming like a million ants.  Squalid, dirty, raw poverty.  But shining with the pride and beauty of the human spirit. I felt truly at home and that feeling hasn’t changed.

On arriving this time I simply passed through Mumbai on my way down to God’s own Country and, perhaps foolishly, I economised on an airport hotel.  That economy meant the hotel was “functional” at best and that I only slept courtesy of the airline earplugs I had stuffed in my bag.  I should say immediately that I still slept with a smile – in fact I don’t regret it at all.  Peaking between the dusty hotel curtains before bed to see where all the noise was coming from showed, even through the filthy glass, that five floors below traffic is still snaking down the same main road into Mumbai along which my taxi crawled five years ago, and it’s still gridlocked in one continuous traffic jam, even at midnight.  The look also showed that my room’s twinkling ambience is courtesy of the top floor of my hotel being festooned with constellations of a million pixie lights.  Home again, home again, jiggity jig.

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look amid the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror

2215… 2017
I’m back in the familiar Marine Plaza Hotel in a subtly shifted Mumbai. So much has changed, so much is still the same. The drive was much faster, more prosaic, even with the engineering feat that is the new Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link. But Haji Ali Mosque is still at the end of its causeway, all lit up and floating. And the Tower of Silence is still there, looming above the unsilent. I always used to have tomato soup and a club sandwich when I arrived here, going native with the vegetarian tandoori sticks tonight!

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you will trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind

There’s no place like home… India

India is the land of my soul, the place where I feel so at home my heart aches with joy. No, you smarty-pants people, not indigestion, it’s heart-warming joy and belonging. I know every trip is different, it was just that leaving Brisbane this time was so rushed with preparations and distractions it hardly felt like I was supposed to be enjoying myself. But when the plane tilted turning to come into Bombay Airport and I caught my first glimpse of India, well my heart soared as Mata ji, Maa Durga, mother earth goddess, welcomed me back. I was grinning like, well a lot! Couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

When the plane touched the tarmac I realised the random selection on my phone was colluding with the universe: it was Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral that was reaching it’s enormous, brass filled crescendo in my ears, reverberating in my being. I knew I was not alone.

After a couple of hours in Mumbai meeting a dear sister-friend in person for the first time, it was into a car for the three hour drive to Pune, and the 6th National Bioethics Conference.

img_6593No the traffic hasn’t become any less traumatic, I just photographed a quiet bit!

To be honest I didn’t see too much of Pune, and not only because of the terrible pollution that shrouded everything and made breathing a chore. I spent a huge amount of time eating dhosa for breakfast, preparing for the conference, or at the conference, or getting to and from the conference in took tooks. In some ways, after 12 or so trips to India, this has been a trip of firsts. It was my first time in Pune. It’s my first time here “alone.” I’ve always been here for work or as an affluent tourist, and in both cases have had a hired a/c car and a driver. And now here I was standing on the road flagging took tooks, giving directions in my limited  Hindi. When I went out of the hotel there was no uniformed Karthik (name changed) waiting for me, I just walked off into the surrounding streets to explore. Continue reading “There’s no place like home… India”