Prologue February 2014

We are driving back from Chennai beach through the slum. Ok to be accurate, we are crawling through the fish market on the edge of the slum on the edge of the beach on the edge of Chennai. Even in the locked car with a/c on full recirculation the smell of the fish is penetrating. The fish lie there eyes all milky, guts smeared on the ground below. The flies covering them are like a heaving pepper crust. Stall holders are pushing trolleys laden with more buckets of fish to hawk to the evening throng, the madding crowd. Down by the water’s edge, looking away from the market’s filth there’s a film crew with a press of onlookers and extras filming – on some level I wonder if it’s drama, reality or both? Children press against the car windows begging. Shoppers and commuters patiently wend their way through, each occupied in their own drama, threading between waves and cameras and stalls and traffic and road works. It’s a chaotic whirl, but it’s a whirl that’s outside the secure insulated bubble of the car. And inside my bubble I’m starting to realise I’ve lost my heart.

Karthik is pattering a monologue on change in India, loss of moral values, the concentration of wealth in the upper and middle classes. While some things change, caste is still very bad. Progress isn’t helping the ordinary family who lives and works outside IT. He’s just a poor man who wants to make enough money to go back to the country and live with his kids. He so rarely says much, so rarely opens up about his thoughts, and I’m not listening. Well I’m listening but not processing.

My heart is somewhere back behind us on the beach.

Home is where your heart is, but tomorrow even though I’m on a plane going home, I’m leaving mine here.

All India is change…

Chennai Beach

2014… Coming home to Cochin, to India and finding it different

So as this 2017 trip draws to a close, I’ve finally finished uploading my 2014 trip. I’ve posted it in reverse order so you can read straight down from the top and they’ll be in order. Even those of you who read the emails 3 years ago didn’t get the pictures and may find that I’ve redacted something new. I have inserted some bits from 2006. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, this reworking has made me cry, and smile again.

day-1-img_0676Namaste, Welcome to India, to Cochin in Kerala. Welcome to the travels of your unemployed, ex-engineer, Aunt. Woohoot.

Ok I’m determined to have a great positive happy relaxing trip so I hesitate to start with a gripe, but bloody poms sitting around the pool on FaceTime with their iPads at full volume yelling about the curry should remember the words of Kerry O’Kieffe after Sydney: “five nill, five nill, five nill!” Bloody irritating wankers. Well now that’s off my chest – Namaste welcome to Kerala – god’s own country. It’s 8 years since I was last here but I’m still sure they’ve no idea which god’s this country is, so all are welcome.

The boys in the hotel restaurant are competing to be the first to introduce me to every local breakfast delicacy so I’m having to fight them off. But it is delicious and does set one up for the day, although at three breakfasts a morning I’m starting to feel like a Hobbit. Continue reading “2014… Coming home to Cochin, to India and finding it different”

Munnar, magic mountains of tea

Well I’d just you written a long winded pompous discussion on cultural change in an internet savvy media educated India and the sad loss of naivety and values in the name of economic development. But it came across snobbish and ethnocentric which was not my intention so I ditched it. Progress inevitably changes people, I am happy that many Indians have thrown off the vestiges of the British Raj and see themselves as equal with the best in the world, I just hope 5000 years of culture survives embracing western “values.” But if John my driver is any indication I have little hope.

I don’t like him, I may yet yell at him (he wouldn’t get it he’s so blissfully self-confident he could be a gen-y) but I’m stuck with him so I’ll cover my girls thoroughly and tell him to mind his own business when he wants to know everything from my weight to whether my husband lets me have other boyfriends. Yes I invented a husband who I’ve now had to flesh out for 500 subsequent questions. I have now swapped to “that’s never a polite question” as a standard response. It’s my holiday and so long as he continues to accept my instruction not to poke the accelerator like it’s a prostitute I won’t vomit in his car.

So moving on from critical observations… Today I’ve moved to Munnar up in tea country, does 5,000 feet sound right? The boys in the hotel in Cochin farewelled me with a four course breakfast which was lovely and fortified me for the 5 hour drive. Less said about the actual drive here the better.

day-4-img_4957There’s not too much to say about Munnar other than it’s lovely. The steep hills are covered in tea bushes which are plucked regularly by women, it’s totally manual. They must get osteo and RSI injuries. Their access paths and the regular trimming of the rows of camellias make the hills look like pin cushions or maybe tea cosies. They are dotted with granite boulders and occasional thin spindly trees to control temperature and give the birds somewhere to sit, it makes them look like a Japanese painting in steaming hazy tones of green. Everything smells of tea and you can inhale the anti-oxidants. Continue reading “Munnar, magic mountains of tea”

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.

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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.

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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.

Shiva – Lord of the Dance – Nataraj

Close your eyes and imagine you’re having a dream… you can see a fire in front of you, a big vertical circle of fire that’s pulsing with energy so it’s as though it’s alive.  It’s burning in the air like a slow turning annulus.  And in the middle of that circle of flame you can see the silhouette of a figure dancing.

You move closer and realise the dancer is the most beautiful man you have ever seen.  Muscles so defined they’re almost sculpted, wild dreadlocks flying, dark skin glowing, sweat droplets flying and glistening like prisms of molten gold in the flickering firelight.  Dancing, a balance of perfection in motion, and always, permeating your very being, there is a thrusting pulse and drumbeat.

The energy of the fire, the energy of the dance and the pulsing drumbeat draw you closer.

You approach and see that this magnificent man is dancing one leg raised in the air, foot pointing toward release and salvation, inviting you to take the first step to walk the dance of your salvation.  Somehow in the frenzy of constant movement, his other leg is fixed on the ground.  Except it’s not on the ground, as you get closer you see he is standing on the back of a dwarf.  The dwarf is ego; he has risen above everything the dwarf represents and selfless he’s dancing in the centre of the energy of the universe.

You move closer again, drawn by this thrumming beat that seems to be coming from inside you, deeper inside you than your own heartbeat, from the very pulsing life of your cells.  You see that the drum is in his hand.  He has four hands swirling round his body in this magnificent untameable dance.

One hand beats the drum, the pulse of life.

One hand is the pedestal for the dance of a cobra, swaying languidly, thrusting provocatively, head raised, hood flared, tongue darting, eyes like diamonds this symbol of renewal, fertility and the sexuality of sustaining life.

One hand is empty, pointing at his raised foot.  The empty space between hand and foot forces you to acknowledge the agony of the apparent absence of god, times of absence of meaning, to confront the empty vacant voids in your soul, times when you’ve had no choice but to gaze into yourself and weep tears into the darkest abyss.

His fourth hand holds fire.  Fire that is the end of all things, fire that is destruction, because in this dancing beautiful man you encounter all the elements of life; creation, salvation, renewal and destruction.

His third eye pierces your very soul.  You gasp at that naked knowing.

Flying around his head are matted wild dreadlocks, cascading and crashing together like rapids and logs on a ragging roaring river.  In his dreads, like jewels in the celestial sky, are both the sun and the moon, for this is the bringer of light to the world.  Drawing closer still you see in the dreadlocks a small boat.  The dreads flow like water, like the mother river Ganga the source of all life and fertility flowing out from this man’s head.  And in the boat you see a skull, for death holds no fear in the realm of such magnificence.

Water coming from the river Ganga, his mistress, his lover, flows into you through the pores of your skin, all life comes from Mother Ganga.

And still this man dances, this god, this human perfection, this primal beauty…  sculpted muscles, genitals raised, dreads flying, arms twirling wildly, drum pulsing, pulsing inside your body as the flames burn.  Look into the beauty of the divine and meet the eye of the god.

You feel utter peace at the centre of all things.  The fires burn, burn with the energy of life and the universe…  everything is complete in the dance, nothing can be added by strivings or destroyed in tragedies.  The rapture and freedom are intoxicating, it moves you to another place.  A place where you are above ego, and where your true self is safe to let go and your soul can dance with the god…

Dance

Namaste – the god in me acknowledges the god in you, and in all things

Eventually everyone comes to Rick’s

Chronologically you’ve already had the next episode embedded in 2017 so if you missed The people in the restaurant  aka Murder in the Mansion pop over and read it here.

I’m struggling writing to you about being a Temple Junkie this last few days so I’m just jumping up to today. Patience is a virtue and you’ll get your temples in due course. We arrived in Pondicherry about lunch time. This once French colony does still have a very French feel and look and it’s not just that the policemen wear caps that make them look like they’re straight off the set of Casablanca! Anyway the hotel’s on a dingy road down the corner from the bazaar and I nearly didn’t get out of the car. Lucky I did because inside this heritage mansion’s grotty exterior is a beautiful boutique gourmet hotel – best yet this trip even without a roof top pool.

After lunch of BBQ prawns and lemon rice followed by chocolate pudding (it is a French colony remember) and sending off my washing, I decided on a walk. Karthik decided I needed company and he also needed a walk. Continue reading “Eventually everyone comes to Rick’s”

The Dedicated Temple Junkie – because it was totally worth it

So the totally excitement means I can never see too many temples, and believe me I’ve tried…

The first Vishnu temple Ranganatha was in excitement mode on the day before the end of festival. There was a massive chariot outside over 10m tall and the next day the gold deity dressed in a ruby studded cloak was to be taken outside at 6am and pulled a full lap of the temple town by hundreds of men.

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Apart from standing in muck, I had a great time. I was allowed inside the 5th wall where the statue was being prepared to be taken outside. There was much chanting and incense and drumming and blowing of a double reeded instrument called a Nadaswaram. Then the curtain hiding the god from the people was dropped and people raised their hands above their heads pointed in prayer and sought the blessing of the god. The carvings around the huge complex were astounding and I’m sure will prove boring and repetitive in my 1000 odd photos. But I had fun and quizzed the guide on Hindu mythology. Continue reading “The Dedicated Temple Junkie – because it was totally worth it”