Pg 1, Tamilnadu Pg 2 Pg 3 Pg 4, Nadi Leaves Pg 5, Temples Kids_School Pg 6, Auro & Ramana Pg 7, Hosts/Final Day Pg 8, Photo Album
Chidambaram, Rock Carvings, and Vishnu Temple
Time moved on. At breakfast the next day I ordered items I had no clue re what they would be. They arrived with sides of some things that, except for the spicy coconut puree, I still have no clue about. I ate, was filled, and enjoyed what would be my usual meal cocktail, 7-up. Everywhere safe bottled water was available, offered, and protected me successfully throughout the trip. By 10a my driver, having any last remnants of English fully removed from his mind, arrived and we were on our way out of Chennai. Mahabalipuram is 2-3 hours from my home base http://www.answers.com/topic/mahabalipuram. For at least 1000 years and most likely 2000, the people here have been carving sacred images out of granite and sending them to temples, homes, and gardens throughout India. The artists use all four appendages to hold and mold their work, sitting amongst the granite flakes, watching the tourists wander by. There are hand sized moveable granite balls, inside of granite balls, and there are 20 foot high statues of exquisite detail. During the 1000+ years of the Chola Dynasty ending a bit before 1300 A.D. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chola_dynasty , these artists were commissioned to create the greatest temples in all of India, a great South Indian heritage. Their temple entrances are comprised of 1000's of figures carved into edifices and arches reaching over 6 stories tall. In Mahabalipuram, at the Ocean's edge, there are some unusual granite outcroppings a few blocks from the shore. These enjoyed the craftsmen's handiwork and temples were carved right into the rocks as they sat, and continue to sit to this day.
Mahabalipuram. Exterior rock carvings.
Mahabalipuram. Exterior and interior views of Temple carved into rock outcropping.
From this day on no sites on my pilgrimage would be closed to me. Here there is an ancient temple to Vishnu. A small temple. At the entrance, sandals removed I was placed in the hands of the Pujari. Devotional ceremonies to deities are called Pujas. The priests who perform these rituals, Pujaris. They are Brahmin caste, and caste is no more separable from what is Indian than white is separable from what is milk. As would be the case in every temple I visited, the inner sanctum, that place some say is reserved for only devout Hindus, was offered to me as if it were the rightful home of my soul. I offered a few rupees to the Pujari. He approached the reclining figure of Vishnu, the figure with gold hands, gold feet, and a gold hallow fanning out about his head, and chanted on my behalf a call to connect me with the heart of God in this one of thousands of His forms. Then he returned to me, blessed me with the first of many swipes of white ash across my forehead, and a point of red powder between my eyebrows. I was now one of these people, my people now, and from the response I got as I wandered about this was no secret.
Mahabalipuram. Picnic grounds. It appears some rock carvers a 1000 years ago, or so, had a sense of humor.
People everywhere loved having their pictures taken. Yes, I left them with rubber animals, and more smiles.
As we were leaving the center of the temple my driver conveyed to the older Pujari leading us out, that I knew the Gayatri Mantra http://www.eaglespace.com/spirit/gayatri.php. This is a sacred chant known to all Hindus and considered to have immense power for those who chant it. I had chanted this mantra, years before, 175,000 times. The old Pujari began to chant the first line, as if to show me he knew what it was we were indicating. I joined in with him, our eyes locked, and we flowed thru the entire chant in unison, his eyes growing wider with the recognition of how sacred, unexpected, and totally real this moment of merging was. My first temple and maybe, just maybe, Vishnu had connected me with the sacred that India has protected and nurtured for some 3000 years. This initiation deposited me within a temple of spirit that I would reside and share in for the rest of my visit.
Entrance to Vishnu Temple in Mahabalipuram, viewed from
top of rock carved temple. Ocean in background.
Close up of same entrance.
Walking around the rock carvings the man who saw clearly I would purchase no tourist trinkets from him, poured out his knowledge of the history here, the dynasties that had built and torn down, protected, warred, amassed fortunes, and disappeared. He smiled when I gave him a rubber animal, not that much different a response than that of the three children picnicking with parents when they found me dropping a giraffe, dolphin, and goat into their hands. Whimsy seems to work anywhere.
Mahabalipuram. Huge temple compound at ocean side. Close up shows weathering from salt and see winds. The tsunami of 2004 uncovered remains of shoreline temples that could be over 2000 years old.
Pancha Rathna (5 Chariots)
Down the road a mile or so are the 5 Chariots, Pancha Rathna, more images carved into the emerging granite crust of our earth. School children, all in uniform, accompanied by devoted teachers, added dimension to my experience. And then the drive back to The Woodlands.
Mahabalipuram. Pancha Rathna (Five Chariots). Five "small" temples carved into rock outcroppings.
Driving in South India
I must report a bit on driving and riding in India. The back of all the trucks have this sign, "PLEASE HONK!" Honking is a sort of hello in India. "Yo, I'm here! Where are you! Honk. Honk". Roads are usually almost two lanes. Travel is usually in three lanes. Passing tolerances need only assure no paint is lost. The roadway accepts traffic of any kind: goat, cow, dog, monkey, tractor, bull drawn cart, foot, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, autos (which are 3 wheeled taxis), cars of sizes from tiny to SUV road hogs, busses beginning with Lego sized mobiles up thru at least 6 sizes culminating in A/C Tour Buses we find common at US tourist destinations, and huge lorries carrying tons of sugar and rice. All of us weave about each other like gnats in a swarm, and it is undeniably clear that nothing about traversing these roads can be personal. Everyone drives for everyone. When we pass, on a curve of course, and the huge load of sugar cane obstructs our view, the old man hears our horn and steps off the road, the tractor moves to the side, the oncoming bus, does the same, we duck in, all curve back onto their main trajectory, and moments later, each repeats this communal doe-see-doe. Should the oncoming lorry piled twice its height with bags of rice have no room to slide out of our path, the flashing headlight convention warns both my driver, and the driver next to us, that all accommodation must be made by us....and it is. I never got my survival system at ease with this cultural dance, and learned to simply look anywhere but straight ahead. In a land of a billion people, 94% of whom are traveling I am sure, and thruout 14 days of travel, I saw no accidents, and only 3 damaged vehicles. American egos, put in a vehicle, are clearly dangerous.
Vehicle occupancy is limited to the number of people in a
If the bus can make it, surely we can?
The Ganesh on the dashboard could be the same one that is
Normal village traffic.
That's a couple tons of sugar cane that everyone, but me, knows wont drop on us. Bricks are formed in fields, from the local dirt, stacked up in artful designs to dry, and used for all masonry building, usually with a final coat of stucco.
No problem! Typical Chennai traffic.
I Meet Ganesh, In His Driver Form
Today as I write this my travels are merging into one long menu of experiences, with a loss of confidence about which days, hours, and order it all occurred in. But perhaps that kind of accuracy would obscure the blessings of this trip. What follows is probably what happened.
Shrini called the taxi company, always taking that extra effort to protect me from my own naiveté. Ganesh, a proud father of two, mid 40's, and creative enuf to communicate anything needed during his week of conveying my body and soul along my pilgrimage, met the standards Shrini knew would offer the protection to ensure against any troubles. What he, I am sure, did not know was how similar Ganesh and I would be at that soul level that mutual travelers sometimes find. Ganesh would find me food, water, directions, and guide me thru the temples and protocols necessary to allow me to simply enjoy the moments as they unfolded. We were the best of Don Q. and Poncho, Lone Ranger and Tonto, Laurel and Hardy, and Montana and Rice. Even today I feel him beside me....that natural was our fit. How shocked I was to see the other side of him, when we returned and he entered the presence of my host: Caste is everywhere if you are Indian. Ganesh has two children, and returns the 10 hour bus ride, every three months, to his little village somewhere farther south, to spend a longed for 10 day holiday with his family. The 10 days were near and his excitement bubbled up about the upcoming trip often. Ganesh has been a driver for 14 years. His life is providing the resources that will ensure his children become engineers, and their family's new standard of living then will provide for him and his wife when they can no longer earn money on their own. That is how it is done here.
Tom C., Ambassador, and Ganesh
We checked into a very western like hotel in Chidambaram. Some things were different. I was admonished by the tiny, and like always, beautiful young woman, providing some unclear service at her desk on my floor, to not leave my room door open, even if just for a moment. The monkeys know where food is likely to be, and she was sure I did not want such a visitor. She, was wrong of course. I would have liked nothing more than to get up close to a monkey. Alas, they don't feel that way about their larger cousins, and I had to be satisfied with several distant views during my trip.
Annamalai University, Chidambaram.
Dr. Karupaya met us at the hotel, and took us on a driving tour of the University: The medical, nursing , dental, engineering, agronomy, music, and more departments spread across very dry flat ground, covering an expanse of land comparing to any large education campus here in the US. Incomparable was the fact that the watchman, quiet acceptable to everyone, brought his cow to work with him, allowing it to graze about at will until the end of his shift. The large open pavilion in the middle of campus was filled with students practicing their yoga asanas under the direction of a respected elder. The newspapers regularly report on the incorporation of yoga in treatment protocols for diabetes, blood pressure, and other common ailments. This is not breaking news in India, just reports of programs available to the populace. Dr. Karupaya, when in his lab, was busy determining the best sowing methods to maximize the yield of a flower that provides alkaloids used in successful cancer treatments.
Entrance (& Ambassador), Annamalai University, Chidambaram. School of Agriculture
Sculptures at entrance to School of Dentistry. Detailed archway at alternate entrance to Annamalai University.
The Worlds Shortest Report on The Indian Economy
Years ago here, researchers like Karupaya at this University, had created the breakthrus that now permit India to not only provide sufficient rice for all its people, but to also export to foreign markets. Nowadays the farmer sells his rice for about 8 rupees a kilo. Then, at least in the case of rural people, they can go to the government warehouses and purchase their rice for 2 rupees a kilo. Do you sense a move here by politicians to win the rural vote? You should. But do not rest easy about the plight of the poor. Call centers have created a huge gap in income between the educated and those still in the work slots of tradition. The wealthy can purchase more, the demand raises prices, costs of basics increase, and the poor tenant farmer, sees the power of his rupee shrink. Inflation is a daily concern in India's editorials. In response, the annual India budget came out while I was visiting, and it entailed the largest increase in the Education Budget since the country was founded in my year of birth, 1947. That increase, take note America!, 37%!!!! How do they do it? In part by scheduling the replacement of aging MIG-21's, not all this year as some had hoped, but at one or so a year for far into the future.
Vishnu Temple, Chidambaram
The temple at Chidambaram http://www.tamilnation.org/culture/architecture/chidambaram.htm was the first large temple I entered. The intricately carved entrance...there must be some architectural name for this structure...but in any case it is maybe 6 or more stories high, covered with thousands of detailed human, animal, and deity forms, with each level up showing less carnal elements and ever increasing spiritual themes and symbols. The Chola dynasty commissioned temples beyond number for most every village, and especially for the larger population centers. These structures are periodically repainted, at government expense, about ever 12 years or so. So I saw them in varied states from exquisite to quite faded. Chidambaram Temple was newly painted. It was tall beyond imagination. I should say THEY were tall, as there were 4 such entrances, at each side of the huge rectangle compound. The visual impact was of degrees my mind had no capacity for. I could only stand, mouth open, tears releasing and staining my cheeks. What wondrous things we humans can do. What endless stories of gods and goddesses are anchored in this rock! What effort of stone carvers, generations of such, rest here before me, singing the certainty of Realization for every sentient being! How many brush strokes, from real fleshy hands, have covered the details of this exquisite mountain! How perfect is it all in stripping off the visitors importance, and depositing him inside the temple walls, awash in humility. My mind had not the capacity for all of this. I could only stand and cry the sweet tears of awe.
Entrance to my first large temple, Chidambaram. The last little shop on the right watched over our shoes, and the young girl we retrieved them from was clearly more pleased with the rubber dolphin than the few rupees we left behind.
A look back at the entrance from inside the temple grounds.
Close up. One of 4 such entrances to Chidambaram Temple.
Breath taking. The symbolic power; the hands and effort that created this; the artists who painted it; the millions who have pilgrimaged to be here, for over 1000 years; its massive size: All because the spiritual life is woven thru every moment and every act, and this ever present awareness has drawn this people for millennia to praise the One Unspeakable with a thousand faces.
Then the first of a series of inner temple experiences, so full of novelty that I cannot fully parse them out separately anymore. One enters a hall, each support displays a detailed carving, one wall a long series of a finite number of classical dance poses, there is Ganesh http://hinduism.about.com/library/weekly/aa083000a.htm, there Durga http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/durga.htm, there Parvati http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parvati, there Muruga http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murugan there.....this list does not end....only my memory of strange names, all portals to the One Mystery. On the ceilings are bright, or faded, paintings of story scenes from the scriptures. Then a temple in the temple. And again inside that a temple, reserved for only the Pujaris, where the image of this temple's main deity rests. The deity had been bathed and dressed in clean cloth, as it is every day. Offerings are delivered to the Pujari who presents them to the deity and returns most of them to the person, along with the deity's blessing. The visitor is also provided a dash of ash from the alter to smear upon the forehead, and often a small packet of red powder, tamarind perhaps?, to place a red dot between the eye brows. The symbolism of it all was not explained to me, but I know the feeling I found there: Of being connected to the blessings thought to be of the deity, and of being of the community of those who honor what is sacred here. If I did not visit a temple and receive these marks there, I myself replaced the ash and red dot on my forehead most everyday. Shrini commented at one point, having learned I was not only informed about most of the Hindu tradition, but that I had practiced some aspects for years, and clearly was sympathetic with its highest principals, "You are more Hindu than most Hindu's." With some effort I was able to shake off my pride at this moment, and let even this moment of recognition fall away. How sweet it is to be seen. How dear is the present.
Dance pose detail. Interior of temple
In America we have little doubt anymore that being a priest, nun, pastor, is no assurance of evolved character. People are not different in this respect in India. Imagine a Pujari meeting a 1000 souls a day with hearts open and yearning for some more intimate connection with God. The pilgrims put out their hands as cups to receive a blessing, and while chatting away to another Pujari chopping open the coconuts, he plops, again, and again, with his attention elsewhere, a pinch of sacred ash in the hands of a sincere devotee. Martin Buber http://courses.washington.edu/spcmu/buber/index.htm has not had an impact here, any more than he has at some communions. I sadden at the loss of all these moments where souls could connect and do not. It is not a private pain, nor limited to a South Indian temple. We all know this loss. And then the present dawns again. How wondrous.
So I sit with Ganesh, Karupaya, and his best friend, on the granite floor of the temple compound, feeling dusk fall. We chat. But mostly we sit, quietly relishing a cosmopolitan moment, in a very provincial setting, knowing we are the meeting of many worlds, and we shall not be here, in any sense, for long.
Dusk Has Fallen
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