Later that day when the parade began, the streets surrounding the temple had become the temple itself. Shiva Nataraja was at large in the outside world, with Shivakamasundari following closely behind him. The dikshitars had carried the large murtis up five flights of stairs in an outdoor loading dock built specifically for the purpose of loading the deities onto the carts that would carry them through the town. The carts were a beautiful sculpture of wood and stone; they were about six stories high, with god and goddess on the top floor. The wheels were taller than I, and the whole thing was decorated in tapestries and fine cloth. Of course Shiva and company were decked out in their finest bling as well.
There were long, thick ropes, as thick as the palanquin logs, that were used to pull the carts through the streets. And since the streets had become the temple, many people were not wearing shoes. Massive amounts of humans were laughing and pulling and stepping on each others toes to provide seva, service to Shiva, by carrying him through the town. You could not not laugh at the entire spectacle. Who would think to celebrate in such a way? Women were drawing beautifulmandalas in the streets with rice flour as a sort of red carpet for these statues. And all just to honor Consciousness, life, the full spectrum of being. The culture of south India is all about ananda, bliss, on this day.
As the hours passed, the throngs of people in the streets got bigger, more crowded. Everywhere we went, the westerners in saris and lungis were a definite attraction. Indian people have perfected the stare, but it always felt very benevolent, loving even, as though they were proud to share their culture. We took turns pulling the carts and walking beside them and sometimes our group stayed together and sometimes we broke up into smaller groups. You had to really pay attention to stick together in the large bustling crowds. At one point in the afternoon I decided that I just wanted to be immersed in the joy of the crowd on my own, so I let my friends in front of me get further ahead until I was absorbed in laughing, dark brown skin. The mass of humanity was like a current of consciousness moving through the streets, with others on the sides shoring up the banks of the river. I settled into a space on a bank in order to watch the immense carts travel by. Indian ladies and children near me smiled and laughed and asked if I was enjoying myself. A bull was walking through the center of the street against the tide. Nobody was about to stop him.
After a short while, a friend from our group appeared a few metres away in the crowd. “Are you alone?” she mouthed. “We’re going this way.” And she pointed behind the street to an alley where we could catch up with the others and take our place at the loading dock to watch Shiva and Shivakamasundari disembark after a long days’ journey. We raced through the alleyway, over motorcycles and gullies, around little children, being careful not to step in cow dung, and finally climbed the same five flights of stairs on which the dikshitars had carried the heavy palanquins earlier that day and a lifetime ago. I was so thankful to have a seat after all that time.
Sitting there, I was not prepared for the wave of emotion to overtake me when the two main carts rounded a corner in the distance and began inching closer. There was a fine haze in the air, as there often is in dusty, hot south India in the late afternoon. Through the haze the immense carts looked so regal and I began to feel a distinct connection to every other festival in Chidambaram that had taken place just so. Historians date these celebrations to approximately 1000 C.E., and I began wondering, how many lifetimes had I spent in that very spot? It was eerie and deeply calming at the same time. The colorful carts, the drummers, dancers, and horn players, the street vendors selling sweets, the women drawing decorations in the streets, the men, women, and children who were so animated and joyous to participate, all swirled into one massive wave of humanity that reflected the ananda that is our true nature.
I thought of my teachers, past and present, I thought of my family and friends, I thought of my experiences, all of which have supported me and led me up to that very day, that very moment. The joy and love all around me was inside me and I could not contain it as tears came to my opened eyes.