When I left you last, I had just found my way to Auroville, the intriguing international community just outside of Pondicherry. This was the first time since my arrival in India that I really settled into a place, for more than just a night or two. Five days all in all I spent in Auroville, trying to get an idea of what this place was really all about. There were many interesting encounters, mostly with Europeans, who were passing through Auroville in the hopes of curing some-or-other malady of western life. Their means were varied, among them: meditation, reiki, vegetarianism and other interesting dietary choices. One man we met had decided the answer was through an entirely liquid diet, no solid foods was his path to enlightenment. He explained that it gave him incredible energy, “digestion by the mind”, was his sort of metaphysical explanation. It all went pretty far, some of it over my head, but what I did understand was that a juice-and-ice-cream diet for years on end was decidedly not any cure I was looking for. For his part, the fifty-something year old balding man seemed about ready to keel over, as much energy as he proclaimed his diet gave him. I was surprised to find some parallel ideas when reading a compilation of some of Gandhi's texts, La Voie de la Non Violence (The Way of Non Violence), the basic idea being that what you eat affects how you think, how you act and how you live your life. In plain English it is summed up in the old adage: you are what you eat. Gandhi took this adage to the extreme, describing his own experimentation with his diet. He was a vegetarian from a young age for religious beliefs, non violence for Hindus and Jains includes animal and vegetal life. This was all certainly food for thought for me. I was happy to be reading Gandhi. So much in India has proved to be entirely beyond comprehension, I have been seeing, smelling, hearing and talking so much and it feels good to find a balance with reading, a different type of cultural intake and a different way to process the experiences I have been living.
After five days in Auroville, enjoying the beach, meeting new friends and venturing to various hippie drum circles in search of le son (the sound), it was time to take the road onwards. We decided to forge ahead to Tanjor, taking a bus by night. We arrived at 12:30 to a sobering scene: the stench of sewage and roads full of garbage, the city was more or less silent; India goes to sleep unabashedly early. We made the tour of hotels, waking up several unfortunate hoteliers, who were sleeping in the lobby area, but alas! all of the ruckus to no avail. All the hotels were full and no one seemed keen to invite us to share their floor. We weren't out of luck yet, this was the perfect opportunity to make use of the tent! So many people were sleeping outside that we assumed we would be in good company and, after finding a park near the city temple we struggled to mount the tent. It was a good half-hour struggle, the stakes did not want to take to the arid ground and without a hammer, or even a rock it was a losing battle. And then, glory! One lone rock extricated from the corner of the park. We snuggled into our tent feeling more or less secure, if hot, and we settled in for the night. Only a few short hours later we were awoken, as a mystified Indian poked around our tent, undoubtedly confused about what in the world it was doing in the middle of a park. Wiping the sleep from our eyes, we broke down camp, fitting everything back into our packs to take on the temple. If the sleep had been marginal the night before, the temple did not disappoint. Ranked as one of UNESCO heritage sights, it was stunning, bigger than the other temples I had seen until present. In the place of the bright colors of other temples, carnavalesque at best and unapologetically gaudy at worst, the temple had maintained its simple rock facade, adorned with intricate stone carvings. In an outer court, Hindus passed a piece of money to the temple elephant, in exchange for a blessing of some sort. I napped on the steps of the temple's interior court, making up for the few hours I had slept the night before. Later, we made our way to the city center, with cars and rickshaw stuck in a traffic jam, as a procession passed by, and we spotted our second elephant! While it was tempting to stay another night in the city, we were tired and we couldn't find a hotel in our price range, and so, a little disappointed we took the bus on to Madurai.
Madurai! One of my favorite cities I have visited so far on this trip. It was bustling and fast but the people we met were kind and the city had a definite charm. Our first trip on the city bus was offered to us by a stranger, who bought our tickets before we had even realized what had happened and without the time to give thanks. We visited the city temple and the market just across the street, buying a few souvenirs. I finally had to give in to all of the tempting fabrics. It is overwhelming for the eyes. So many patterns and colors, each one more beautiful than the last. The market was situated in an older, secondary temple, the stalls of the vendors surrounding the middle, holy area. It is such an interesting relationship here, between the sacred and the material. The two are in close co-existence, but instead of denying this partnership, like we do so often in the western world, it is accepted and even seems to be encouraged to some extent. The temples are often home to vendors, relentlessly hassling even the most pious to buy what I can only describe as religious memorabilia. It is all there; for a few roupees you can buy offerings (the classic coconut and banana duo), what I think are prayer beads, and then of course the more mundane pants, fabrics, clothes, etc. Every god has to be paid its dues. Being devoutly religious, I am starting to religious, comes at a cost here.
Religion is everywhere in India, marking even the landscape. We took an afternoon trip to village just outside of Madurai. Home to a temple of its own, Tiruparankundram was nestled against the base of a small mountain. And at the top? You guessed it, another temple. And as a special bonus, it was also home to a mosque. We climbed the mountain with the idea of watching the sunset from the top. Even in the afternoon with the sun already lowering in the sky, the heat was intense climbing that mountain. Even summertime in humid Vermont cannot compare. The mountain was crawling with monkeys, who were just waiting for the moment to snatch an apple or camera from our unsuspecting hands (it wasn't until the way back down that we actually had to fend off a monkey that tried to rob Remi). The top was a welcome relief, and to our surprise and delight, a Muslim family almost seemed to be awaiting us, inviting us with open arms to join them for the dinner they had prepared to eat at sunset. Atop the mountain we joined them for a chicken briyani, though they spoke little English and our Tamil is nonexistant, we laughed and joked together, one of my favorite encounters from the trip so far. Their hospitality and openness were unassuming; it was such a simple act of eating together and yet so genuine, bringing out the best of the religious ideals that they lived by.
The religious fervor was at its peak in Rameshwaram, au bout du monde, or on the edge of the world. This holy place is doubly important, first for some historical, or possibly mythic, figure who came here to pray, but at the base, because it is the place where the Bay of Bengal and the Ocean Indian meet. Protruding into these waters, it is the very south eastern tip of India, like the Indian Cape Cod or Florida Keys, plus deep religious signification that doesn't apply to the American examples. Remi's impression of the temple: aqualand, indian version. We walked in, not knowing what to expect. Inside the temple everything was dark and wet, the ground drenched, we grimaced as our bare feet met the slimey temple floors. A certain odor oozed from the walls of this closed place that had been wet for too long. We almost wanted to turn around (at least I did!). And yet, as we came into one of the outer courts, a burst of light, and we came upon processions of people, milling around, sopping wet! Indians raced around in inexplicable delight! The crowds were crazed. Priests were quickly hauling up buckets of water from the various wells in the temple (22 in all, quite a circuit for these ardent believers), sloshing bucketfuls of water on the heads of the gleeful temple goers. Wow. We left the temple dazed, happy to dry off our feet and absorb all that we had seen on a more tranquil beach, a few kilometers away from the Pilgrims beach that butted up next to the temple.
The next day we made a pilgrimage of our own, to the bout du bout as our French Guide, le Routard adeptly names this place. A rough English translation leaves you with, the end of the end or the tip of the tip in this case. In fact Rameswaram is about 20 kilometers inland from the actual place where the seas meet, giving us our mission for the day: reach that point. We got somewhat of a late start, missing the first bus we wanted to take by minutes, but by twelve noon we were on the bus in the right direction. White sand and a deep azure ocean met us as we stepped out of the bus, to an overwhelming sun. While there were shuttles that would take you the remaining 5 km to the tip, the beach was too inviting. We made it our project to walk to the end, but what we didn't know was that the 5km marked in the guide book, were actually closer to 10 or 12km in the real world. Would this walk to the end of the world never end? And yet, I admitted to Remi, it felt appropriate that such a walk be at least a little bit epic. We were walking to the edge of the world, after all. Enrapt, we watched as the beach grew smaller, at long last, we jumped into the ocean, feeling the water crashing together. As it was growing dark, we caught a ride back with some friendly Indian tourists.
Ather highlight of Rameswaram was Remi's unforgettable haircut. The barber was totally old school, you could tell that he would never replace his scissors with an electric razor. But the cut wouldn't have been quite so memorable if it weren't for the (entirely) unsolicited massage that followed. The barber took to Remi's back and neck as if it were a nice slice of meat that needed to be tenderized before cooking. After what I can only describe as a well intentioned beating, the icing on the cake was the extra 50 roupees the barber wanted to charge Remi for his “massage” treatment. He assured us that he offered full body services and he could, indeed, accompany us to our room if we wanted round 2. We graciously declined and got on the next train out of town, headed toward another famous gathering point of the seas.
Kanyakumari fits a similar description as Rameswaram: holy both for its dramatic location at the cusp of the earth and sea, and for some other mythic and/or potentially real person who came here to pray some 200 years ago. We arrived at 5 in the morning, after a night of little sleep but lots of crazy-man-talk on the train. A Hindu had decided to serve as our personal companion for the train ride, chatting incessantly in Hindi with an occasional word in English, but more drastically deciding to purchase an additional ticket at his intended destination to see us to our final stop: everything in the extreme. We got off the train feeling a little extreme ourselves: who wants to pay for a night in the hotel when you can sleep on the beach? Maybe it was the spirit of India that had gotten into us, maybe it was just the promise of a free night of lodging. In any case, it was already 5 in the morning and we had nothing to lose. We were hot and tired from carrying our sacks, which somehow felt heavier than when we had packed them in Rameshwaram, when finally we saw a promising sign: Sunrise Point, 200 meters! Onwards we marched, collapsing into the sand with great joy. We didn't even really think to question the hundred something hindus that were already gathered here, at the feet of the temple where the land extends into the sea. I closed my eyes and escaped into sleep. Needless to say, everything was clearer in the morning! We awoke, surrounded by Indians, who seemed only slightly surprised to see our makeshift camp, and were more delighted than anything to greet us and come take pictures. You couldn't blame them, really; we were quite the site. Everyone had assembled here to watch the famed sunrise at the edge of the world. Without further questioning, we joined them, rejoicing the new day.