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Travel Blog

A South Indian Journey

A sporadic blog ... my little computer endured one too many power surges so I am resorting to the delights of pen scribbles on paper. Then there comes the challenge of finding an internet cafe. My latest posting comes from a small room in Srirangam in the shadow of a temple gopuram (tower). Today is the birthday of Ganesh and the world is out for an evening stroll. The streets alive with bells and motorbikes the air sweet with jasmine and marigold.

And the next posting? Who knows. That's the wonder of India.

Thoughts from a Rooftop, Tiruvanamalai. 29 August, 2010

It seems in India there are simultaneous worlds of experience happening; always. Except perhaps in the sleepy hours after noon when the sun vents full force. Even the crows' caows are sleepy.

Now the sun is nowhere to be seen. Thunder claps fade and the aftermath of a monsoon shower chlorophylls the air. On the mountain the langur monkeys will be coming down through the forest, swinging on their long tails, to drink at the dam.

It is the English hour for tea. I am awake while Jimmy the dog still dozes, curled on the bench beside me. Innocently he sighs, quivers in a dream.

Cannon-like explosions exclamate the air. A corpse procession is heading toward the cemetery leaving in their wake a road strewn with marigold garlands. All afternoon shots are fired alerting us and the Gods a soul is on its way. Buses pligh the same road, lorries, auto rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles. And the flowers are crushed by the living.

Presence of mind these past days seems dreamlike to me. Taking for granted my body; the way it wakes then moves from place to place unencumbered. How swiftly change occurs. I forget this is happening every millisecond of a moment. A cellular dance in and between heartbeats.

A week ago in our "shute" room in Trichendur I held a bandaid and wondered. Should I take this?

On weekends the hotels in seaside Trichendur fill with families come to worship at the temple by the ocean and to swim, the women in swathes of petticoat and metres of sari silk, for purification and
blessings.

We wanted to come too and the only room left at the inn was a "shute" at double the price. I pictured something like a tunnel under a stairwell before the anomaly of Tamilian English dropped. It was a suite! Four pillows instead of two, a bathroom long enough to fit an elephant with mosaic tiles of dolphins that would make a Grecian bathhouse proud, 24 hour hot water, two bedsheets instead of one and a strange, dim-lit, minimalistically furnished sitting room at the entrance where you could listen to the musical doorbell play a tune if ever a visitor arrived. The tune? As synthesised and generic as the chiming of a reversing car. Jingle Bells, Happy Birthday, Moon River. And in a showcase basket in the bathroom one bandaid packaged with four cotton buds, a shower cap, plastic comb and two toothbrushes. These are the luxuries found in a Trichendur suite.

Jimmy has a red collar and a clipped ear. He shares this rooftop with us overlooking a mountain that rises from the plains like a pyramid. He is sleeping deeply now. I can hear his breath above the sound of coconut, neem and custard apple tree leaves rustling in the beginnings of a twighlight wind. Long inhales, each exhale a quiet snore. 

The rhesus monkeys are late. Perhaps the rain has delayed their daily scavenge of the neighbourhood? They come each afternoon, for the custard apples, balancing on the concrete ledge of our roof to rip the skin off and bite into hard white fruit, spitting seeds out as they go. There's an urgency about them, with their Star Trek ears and grizzled little faces. I watched one urinate in delight. Downstairs a baby cries. Down the lane women begin to tether their cows for the night. The sound of reed brooms sweeping each dirt entrance of every house. Clouds of dust sully the rainwashed air. The rising scent of roasting cummin seeds, coriander and curry leaves in woodfire smoke.

I sweep through the sensations in my body. Jimmy wakes up at the sound of the bell on the milk seller's bicycle. From house to house he pedals, buying milk from families who own a cow and then selling it to those who don't, ladling it from a metal pail tied to the back of his bike with rope. When the paddy fields are jewel green and the grass so long it falls down, a layer of cream settles at the top of my pitcher. Before the monsoon when the land is all rock and sienna, when the riverbeds are dry, the milk pours out thin as water.

Two nights ago I walked across the rooftop, looking for the rising moon. With my eyes in the sky my feet bumped into sleeping Jimmy. He rose up in terror. He was a street dog once, all bones and fear. I felt the cold of a sharp tooth on my finger. After placating Jimmy's barks I noticed blood where his tooth had been and my own breeding of fear. He had been innoculated against rabies four  years ago so I was assured not to worry. But to be safe I should see a doctor. The head of the family downstairs concurred saying, "better to get dogbite needle."

At the hospital the doctor said I need three rabies shots as the dog is not immune. He needs a booster every year for that. The year Jimmy was innoculated was the year an animal sanctuary in town systematically gathered all stray and pet dogs for immunisation. Suddenly the town felt safe and made friends with its dog community. There was the perception this was permanent. However rounding up every dog for annual boosters would prove a logistic nightmare. "Better you have five shots," the doctor said, changing his mind.

I wanted to bury my head in the grainy soil of the mountain. Denial drowned my reason while the cacophany of waiting patients outside in the hospital corridor left me no room to escape. But on the bright side these injections are a vast improvement on the vaccinations given a decade ago.

As she prepared the syringe Mary, in her white sari and nurse's cap, told me the miracle of her first conception at the age of forty after days and nights praying to God. She thought her baby would be a boy she said, rolling up my sleeve, but when she heard her baby's first cry and looked down saw it was a girl. A huge, beautiful girl. It is legal in India to have an abortion but illegal to have a sex test during pregnancy. Girls carry the burden of a dowry. Boys on the other hand bring money and wives to help in the household. "But I was so happy with God's gift," Mary said.

In the waiting room a dog sleeps on its back under a bench, legs dangling in the air. An ancient grandmother stoops in on a young boy's arm. An old man reeking of cigarette smoke hobbles past me with a bandaged ankle. A baby boy with oiled curly hair coughs over his mother's shoulder. To mask his perfection he has a mole painted on his cheek. This will keep the evil eye and kidnappers away. Two women bent at the waist sweep the corrridor with their reed brooms.


From Madurai to Tiruvanamalai,  26 August, 2010

Two hours into a bus journey I open my eyes and am assaulted by a solitary house sitting in a field of paddy stubble. The chimney is lollipop pink and its two storeys, a perfect cube, are painted in horizontal stripes of lime green and fluorescent orange. On another bus climbing hairpin bends into the Western ghats the forests are an ancient world of baobab and breadfruit, glades of towering bamboo sounding like the creak of wooden ships at sea and a myriad of trees I cannot name. What is the tree with leaves that turn to the colour of the sun and are bigger than a human face and the one whose white bell
shaped flowers fall at dawn?

Oblivious to the trail of bus exhaust behind me I feel as if I am in a place sacred as the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. This is the India I romance about. Then, around the next corner, behind an iron wroght fence with spires sharp as a tiger's tooth, is a vision electric. Freshly made up in a ravishing hue of bright purple, every ledge and cornice highlighted in zig zags of white, is the home of a well-to-do, up-and-coming family.

I am charmed in unlikely places by the remnants of old signboards hung above sleepy tea shops or an old brassware vendor. The gentle smile of Lord Krishna adorning the entrance of a tailor's shop and the benifience of a cobra tressed Lord Shiva rippling over the corrugated rollup door of a store selling incense and halved coconuts for temple offerings. Amply bosomed starlets in glamorous poses that predate Bollywood fade into the wood they have been painted on. Above a kadi shop, behind a tangle of electic wiring, a life-like Mahatma Gandhi spins. A painter might repeat designs over and over or be commisioned
to create an original. An icon for a church grotto or, in flowing script, an advertisement for a refreshment shop's latest drink. "No Added Fruit, Contains Added Flavours." Or a tailor , " God made Man but M.C. Tailors makes Gentleman."



Lean fair faced men modelling underwear, women dripping with gold and dressed in sari silks, roly poly baby boys thriving on Formula Food, a spotless white formica kitchen - these are the larger than life images now competing for space on non-existent sidewalks, highways, overpasses and high rise appartments. Every village within sight of a passing train advertises Pothys, the ultimate superstore for women, selling fabrics, readymades and saris. Across the mudbrick walls of entire communities Pothys' name blazes in high gloss red and yellow paint. Digital printing on billboards and vinyl has infiltrated town and villlage, viral as satellite television and as accessible. Entrepenours from humble tiffin houses to mobile phone dealers aspire to tempt passers by with pixel perfect images for a picture perfect life.

Politicians too have embraced this technology and I find myself cursing as I am forced into the frontline of a bus overtaking a lorry on a major road. The little sidewalk that remains has been commandeered by a row of ten metre high vinyl flags. Stately figures benignly smiling, dressed in long white lunghis looking stylish with sunglasses or studious in reading glasses implore passers by with their slogans. One even breaks through chains and walks through fire in his quest for the liberation of the common man.



At twilight a soft glow descends onto the streets. Open drains are less visible; the accumulating stench from a searing day absorbs into evening  incense offerings. Piles of rubbish disappear into the darkness of corners and the remnants of sidewalks are again being swept free of grit. Our train pulls out of the station, bound south. In a ramshackle of corrugated and palm thatched rooves I spy the eyes of a politician. His outstretched hands are stretched across the length of a small house. The elections are long over; what pledges did he keep and what about the ones broken? At least one family will sleep protected for the coming monsoon. I imagine them at night, unrolling their sleeping mats in the light of a kerosene lamp; the long shadow of a man voicing promises keeping them dry.


New Moon Pilgrimage, 7 August

Today is new moon in the month of Aadi - one of the most auspicious days for pilgrimages. While thousands thronged to Rameshwaran on the southern coast for a cleansing dip in the ocean and then baths in the temple’s 17 wells, we decided to visit Sathuragiri in the Western Ghats at the invitation
of a dear friend, the Major Poonaswamy.

We had climbed Sathuragiri last year with the Major and a small group of pilgrims - a six hour ascent. For two nights, in (almost) pristine forest, we stayed in a simple ashram, joining a mother cow and her calf for pujas at dawn. The clang of a bell and birdsong; sound of water as the priest washes the black stone lingam growing crooked out of the earth. Sathuragiri is a place reknown for its siddhas (holy men) and if you stay up late at night you can sometimes see flashing / zipping lights travel across the mountains. These are their alive spirits. It was a peaceful retreat that included a further day’s walk to the plateau above where wild herbs abound and a maha lingam, a giant natural stone pillar rises from the forest floor. Wreathed in swathes of silk with a multitude of camphor and ghee light flame offerings scattered around its base, the lingam is a symbol of the male principle of the universe.



Last year we noticed a constant trail of broken shoes  and now I understand the reason. We had climbed at a quiet time but during new and full moons throngs of pilgrims flock to the mountain. Aadi’s new  moon (our August) is the most auspicious day-night of the year. The stars are in perfect alignment and
many extra blessing from the siddhas and ancestors are to be had by those who climb. Major said to come and see. 20 lakhs (200,000) people would be coming .he said and he will be staying at the base of the mountain overseeing a small ashram. where the pilgrimage begins. 

We changed buses at Srivilliputtur for Tani Parai. It felt like 100,000 pilgrims were catching the same one. You can't be polite in this situation. It's a matter of push and shove with all your might to just get on. People throw their bags into the windows expecting them to land on a seat and then it will be there waiting for them.. This is an almost perfect theory.  We rumbled for two hours. down narrow country roads toward the Western Ghats. For the last five kilometres the scene outside our window made Woodstock look like a teddy bears picnic. Under groves of mango trees and coconut palms whole
villages and families camped. Tarps, washing, cooking , loudspeakers.. Along the side of the road there were balloons for sale, inflatable leopards and dolphins, sugar cane juice, trolleys on the back of bicycles advertising Uncle John's ice cream, fly studded jaggery sweets and pakoras glistening with oil, wind up fluffy chicken toys, combs, gaudy beads and tulsi malas. And one humble selection of dusty second hand shoes laid out in a row.

Inside the gates of the ashram was a sanctuary of smiling faces and the luxury of a  room with
a fan; its three walls piled high with sacks of rice and onions. The Major's voice was hoarse
from two days of talking and organising but it didn't stop him. With his shock of white hair he cut an authoritative figure  in a green lunghi and  bright striped orange tshirt. Over two open fires women stirred long wooden paddles in huge pans of a bubbling ferment of corn and grain gruel. The Major offered us a cup, explaining it nourishes and is cooling for the stomach. A smattering of lemon pickle between sips and we are revived.

Peter and I decided to walk at least a few kilometres of the path up to a small temple remembered from our last visit. Major warned us that at some places there can be bottlenecks of people; the sheer numbers mean you simply have to stop and wait for the line to free up.  In one instance, he recalled, there was a standstill of six hours and what we had previously climbed in five hours can sometimes take
as much as twenty four.

Consider the worst traffic jam you have been in, multiply by a hundred and translate cars into bodies..
We walked for ten slow minutes then things bottlenecked. Well of course what you do is push and shove because that usually results in something. So we did, in the spirit of things but did not budge an INCH. I
felt like some pallid memsahib saying, I can't go on, gave Peter my water and turned back. into the ongoing crush of the faithful. The major had said 20 lakhs of pilgrims. In my humble estimation it felt more like two million.

Back at the ashram buses continued to ply past as the cooks inside wielded paddles through huge cauldrons of rice. It took five men to lift one up to a bench behind the front gate.
Banana leaves were handed out and bedlam ensued. Four of us ladled out the rice. Two cauldrons of tomato rice, a lemon rice, then a sambal rice. The food kept coming and so did the people. After three
cauldrons I took a right wrist RSI break. In the meantime Peter returned having managed only another 50 metres before turning back.


Halfway through a cauldron of Tomato Rice

Many places offered food and all had a clamouring of pilgrims at their gates. In two days, one of the ashram's cooks said, enough rice is prepared to feed 20,000 people. Think about it. And if someone wants two scoops of rice or returns for seconds it is given freely.

A sadhu turned palmist sits by the side of the road reading the outstretched hand of one pilgrim whose head, newly shaven, is smeared with a protective paste of water and turmeric. What does the future hold for him? Will his prayers be answered? Pushing and shoving our way into a return bus I contemplate the meaning of generosity and the places where blessings are found.



Rajapalayam, Tamil Nadu. 3 August

Mid morning and a breeze from the western ghats cools the air. Today is Aadi Perukku where it is tradition to dress in your finest silk sari, wear your best gold jewellery and take a dip in a river. The monsoon is at its peak and the water is free flowing and high. But this year the monsoon is late and the riverbeds are dry so I'm unsure what happens. Mirroring my concerns a group of concrete penguins raise their orange beaks to the grey skies in consternation. From their rocky playground a dolphin dives mid air. Rabbits observe the Gods posturing amongst each other and a group of white cranes whose necks have worn down to wire and whose feathers are peeling  faded shades of limewash stand at the deepest part of a dry pond. Tonight the children will come and bring this menagerie to life with their shouts and screams, the ringing of their anklets. Each child with a dark mole painted on his or her face to keep the evil eye away. My beautiful child is marked the myth goes. Who would want to kidnap one with such disfigurement?

I have had my breakfast - a spicy omlette and paratha (tandoori rotis not till 2pm madam) and a blood curdling cup of strong masala chai. A team of cooks prep in the kitchen and a woman in a sage green sari with pink petticoat sweeps a weeks accumulation of bamboo leaves into the pond bed.

The newspaper says Aadi Perukku is a day to BUY all your heart desires. The finest gold bangles, a washing machine, a new rice cooker, a foreign trip perhaps. Think picnics in Europe. Food, fun and frolic is the order. Happiness can be bought. Today happiness is on sale in commemeration of what began as a fertility rite.

Am I happy? In a land where disinfectant is poured neat onto floors and public lavatories, lime powder sprinkled on every corner and wall favoured as a urinal and where the drains don't flow but seep instead with a heavy film of grey grease; a fermentation of the town's fastitidious need to wash and sweep. Where every woman's hair glistens with oil and the scent of Madurai jasmine and rose. Where I catch the eye of the woman in the sage green sari and smile and she dances her head in response, puts her hand to her mouth.Give me money not your smile.

Happiness is not the word I would choose. But I am a question. Don't ask me what question. It marks my throat and heart like a small weight. The weight of two small bulbs of garlic at the market yesterday. When I told the man that was all he shook his head in disbelief then found the tiniest weight to balance it with on his ancient scale. Okra, eggplant, a bunch of curry leaves? Surely you want something more? No just garlic. And before catching the bus back to Rajapalayam I buy a coccnut and drink deep the colourless milk as flies swathe the cracked hulls at my feet.

As Bollywood tunes play at full volume and I find my fingers tapping along to the beat, outside my dusty cloudy bus window the world bewteen Srivilliputtur and Rajapalayam rushes by. Fields of cotton and bullock carts in procession piled high with bales of white fluff ready for the mills to weave into lunghis and surgical bandages. (Rajapalayam is the Birmingham of India.) A square of sunflowers, heads all turned toward the West inspires me and traffic in a constant state of head-on blurs me into immunity. Is this the joke of Gods or simply the phenomena of a modern world  marking itself on these narrow village roads lined with vinyl placards and billboards of pontificate politicians? Or maybe it is simply leela. a play of phenomena. A dance.