Thursday, March 25, 2010

In India..In God's Own Land

It’s now been a month back since I came back from my vacation in India, although it already feels like a year. Everything seems just so distant and surreal...the morning namaaz from the nearby mosque, the newspaper man, the milkman, the growing buzz of traffic, the national anthem from a nearby school, the steady hum of the mid-day calm and the evening rush of activity…
I was going home after over two years, and I donot ever remember having so many musings. For the first time in two years, I witnessed an act of racism, in Hyderabad airport. The customs officer called a “White” man standing behind me to the front of the queue with obvious preference to color. The next thing that struck me was the number of “non- white” faces around me. I did not even realize how much I missed that until then. Then came our car driver who was honking almost non-stop at a near empty road at 2 in the night! I was finally on the other side of the world.
Two days after I landed, I was off on a trip to attend my cousin’s wedding. I was excited about the wedding as it was my first trip to god’s own land. We were a group of 35 people traveling in the train from Chennai to Trivandrum; needless to say the journey was littered with the latest gossips and re-runs of bygone seasons. I do not sleep well in trains, and was eagerly looking forward to a new day. I was not disappointed. I was up before dawn, and the first hint of sunrise unveiled the glistening Kerala backwaters, surrounded by countless coconut trees (a site I never tired of for the next 4 days). I somehow knew that I was going to have many first experiences. How right I was.
The first and constant and most noticeable thing that one cannot miss is the water served with meals, be it in someone's house or in a restaurant. A typical Keralite serves lukewarm water that is pink in color. The pink comes from the herb pathimukham which has numerous medicinal properties according to the Ayurvedic literature. And of course, it was easier finding Ayurvedic stores in the smaller towns of Kerala than a regular pharmacy.
Trivandrum itself was not very impressive, I was a little let down by the me it neither held the old town charm nor the new city thrills. It was lost in transition. This Kerala trip was however planned as a pilgrimage by my parents, and on that count I was not disappointed.
My first visit was to the 300 year old Anantha Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum. It was unique for the Lord’s eternal sleeping posture, it’s impressive mythological history, and (forgive me) the Dravidian architecture. I was also told that this temple architecture was unique in Kerala. It looked like any other old South Indian temple to me from the outside, but I understood what it meant as I visited more famous temples deeper and farther inside this land.

Once we were cut loose after the wedding, my parents, a cousin and I made our way to the famous Guruvayur. By the time we reached the temple town, it was 130 am. We were all enthusiastic to witness the “Nirmalya Darshan” of the baby Krishna at 4 in the morning. The lord is woken up, given some butter, bathed and dressed up before being paraded around the temple on his elephant at 6 am everyday. I was very pleased with the pre-dawn darshan and the Sri-Veli (Elephant ride), but what spoilt it for me was our decision to brave the now large queue to have one more peek at the idol. Unlike other famous temples in the south, lord Guruvayur has no preference for people willing to spare a few crisp notes, and only makes an exception to the old and disabled. Alas! If only there was an organized queue! There were tens of thousands of people fighting their way to the front…pushing and squeezing so much that it is hard for the ordinary man to keep his mind on the God for many hours in this ill-behaved throng. My own horrors were too many to pen. In the end, I was glad for a gasp of fresh air and the feel of only my own skin.
Anyway, if you examine this photograph and compare it with the previous one, you will see what I was talking about. The Guruvayur temple looks like a typical Kerala temple. I have never seen this kind of a dome on any Hindu temple in any other part of the country. This was a first for me…
Image copyright with
We then visited Aanakotai, the place where they housed all the 64 elephants belonging to the temple. It was not a big place and they were chained on atleast 3 legs (some obviously violent ones were chained on all four). They were visibly bored and threw heaps of dirt and hay all over themselves for pleasure. Apart from this, they seemed to be well cared for but I would not be surprised at any protests from animal activists.

Our next pit-stop was the Mammiyoor Shiva temple. A visit here is a must for all Guruvayoor visitors. It is a pleasant small temple, surprisingly not very crowded and has more than enough power to negate the memories of the crowd in Guruvayur temple.

Loaded with information from local people, and having found a good deal on a rental car, we made our way to Thiruprayaar, an abode of Lord Rama. This is famous for it’s divine powers and is unique unlike other Ram- mandirs. The deity is that of only Ram without the customary presence of Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman. This is unheard of and may sound quite ridiculous to some devotees. However, the local men told me that (Malayalam bears resemblance to Tamil, and hence my survival and enlightenment) there are 5 other separate temples to honor not only Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman, but also temples for Bharat and Shatrughna within a 50 km radius all in different directions! Well, that was a revelation. 

Thiruprayaar was beautiful and it was an experience I can never forget in spirit. It is on a low lonely hilltop, adjacent to a huge clear lake surrounded by trees. The temple is majestic, with vast open spaces and scarcely populated. Feeding the fish in the lake is believed to be equivalent to feeding the Matsya-avatar of lord Vishnu. On one part of the grounds, people can burst fireworks by paying a nominal amount. of money .The first time was a shock that literally shook every nerve in my body. The sound of fireworks in the otherwise unearthly calm place was unnerving. A fellow worshiper explained that this was done in order to relieve people of their innermost built up stresses. One never knows when the fireworks are going to sound, and yet I shook less every time and was feeling more at peace with the world. Another memorable aspect of the temple is the deity itself. Rama’s stand- alone deity is somehow cleverly made to emit a burning flame from within it’s forehead. The priest explained the divine illusion. The idol has a small gold leaf ingrained in the forehead and the oil lamps around it are arranged at angles such that they reflect off of his forehead resulting in a mind-numbing effect. I felt like I was in the very heart of God’s land…

We were now on our way to visit the mighty Kodungallur devi. The goddess is as beautiful as she is renowned. The most unique feature of this temple is the  sanctum with idols of the ten devis . They are Brahmani, Narayani, Maheshwari, Indrani, Chamundi, etc. who, according to mythology sprang from each of the gods to help kill the demon Mahishasura, hence acquiring the name of Mahishasura Mardini.
We did manage a few more beautiful temples on our way back to the Trichoor railway station to make our way home. The most interesting among these was was the Koodal-Manikyam temple. It was as big as the Padmanabha temple, it had a bigger tank and it had an elephant...and it had only one sanctum with one deity..that of the great Bharat, whose devotion to his brother has not been given enough praise in our mythological books. I left Kerala in a state of musing and awe, overwhelmed with my lack of knowledge.

The rest of my trip passed in a blur. I attended two more weddings and have no noteworthy experiences. I wait for a new journey…a new experience and another wonderful sense of overwhelm.


Priyank said...

Well I was kind of waiting for your musings about the India trip, and this more than makes up for the wait.

Well, this is the magic of local trivia. I remember a trip to uttaranchal where the best spots were shown to us not by guides but by locals. The best one being a sunset from our driver's home, accompanied by baby-goats :)

And the anecdote about the custom event leaves me confused... coz I have often seen foreigners being teased / troubled at the airport. I would rather relate this scene with a US airport.

Sur said...

These little tidbits of info is what makes visits to historic places worthwhile, these narratives are what make history exciting. Remember the tales of the ranis at the golconda? One has no way to confirm these stories, but who cares anyway! ;)