I went to South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks, and an intrepid group of 22 other travelers. We flew into Chennai and visited Thirupathi, Thirutani, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thiruchendur, and Madurai. It was a whirlwind trip both geographically and internally. There were so many amazing and incredible experiences that I would like to recount, so this five part series is my attempt to do just that.
Part 2: The Poonai
Poonai means cats in Tamil. As in, our tour guides feel like they are “herding cats” to get us on the bus, get us off the bus, into the temple, out of the temple, checked in to the hotel, checked out of the hotel, and make sure everyone gets their bio break when the need it. Oh, and, of course, to make sure everyone has their chai. Over the years the trip has become more and more sophisticated in that our guides now know that shopping must take place in the beginning to make sure we have the best saris (and dhotis) for our travels; they know when to make a pit stop as well as where and how; even during our picnic lunch in a banana field, we had everything one could ask, hot delicious sambar, tamarind rice, and curry complete with straw mats to sit on so we weren’t on the hard ground.
Of course the Poonai come mostly from the US with a few other countries represented, Sweden and Thailand, but I believe we all are a little South Indian at heart. How else could we get up so early to have someone else help us dress — I tried diligently to tie my sari myself, and came relatively close, but my sari-tying never lived up to our guide Bharati’s standards — and not to mention, eating with our fingers. You have to want to be in South India to be in South India.
Sometimes the challenges were real, being so far away from comforts of home, but daily, the people on the bus, my friends new and long-time were continually nurturing, supportive, curious, welcoming, open, and maintaining a positive attitude. It was hot and the roads were sometimes bumpy, and the ground on which we walked barefoot was often less than clean. Over the years, the Poonai have developed some rituals and nicknames. Once, there was a guy named Chuck (which may or may not be his real name) who tended to wander and who accidentally got left behind. Of course this was discovered relatively quickly and they went back for him right away and all was well, but now, after every temple and every re-boarding of the bus, we do a “Chuck check.” You have to make sure that your roommate is there. I ended up with two Chucks, my bus-mate whom I would sit with, my “Bus Chuck,” and my roommate in the hotels, my “Chuck Chuck.” These ladies were so wonderful.
My Bus Chuck, Harriet, is a head-strong activist resisting the corruption in government that we are seeing so much of lately and standing up for women’s rights in so many ways. My Chuck Chuck, Shannon, is a brave soul who is stellarly living her truth and being a positive influence in the world. The conversations that we had really helped me figure some things out in my own life and to get in touch with places and events that I may have rejected, ignored, or wished away. This past year has been emotional for many of us, as the American “Id” has risen into power and the #MeToo movement has swept social media. Figuring out not just ways to cope and to deal, but ways to make positive change is truly priceless. Having a non-judgmental sounding board is really the best therapy. 🙂
We may not have all known each other at the beginning of our trip, but we all came for similar reasons, to “see and be seen,” darshan. Please check out Douglas’s post regarding darshan. “The practice of darshan arrests the mind into singular focus, places the body in often uncomfortable positions (spoon up, lean in…), and it compels the heart to race into a kind of fury, chaos, and wonder that is difficult to explain but from doing it, and doing it, as it were, “properly.” Think of it this way: our whole cognitive and somatic being allocates our attentions, regulates and assigns meaning to our environments, in terms of both inside and outside awareness.”
Speaking of spooning up, at most of the temples, there were long lines to see the inner sanctum deity. We had to hurry up, rush rush, and then wait, and then the moment when he or she is revealed. Quite often we had to squish really close in order for everyone to have a chance to see. In that moment we were “Spoonai”… and when the new folks needed to get up front in order to have the best view, they were “Newnai.” Joyful, child-like enthusiasm at every turn. And at the same time, we were immersed in one of the most sophisticated philosophies on the planet. The rituals, habits, and mantras reveal a rare depth of humanity.
One temple, the Tillai Kali temple in Chidambaram, is especially breathtaking. The images of Shakti, the goddess, are striking and they can and will meet you at every level of your awareness. We visited twice, once at the beginning of our trip and again at the end. On a particular occasion, as I was standing in the back courtyard area, somewhat dazed and just absorbing the experience of being there, Mariah walked up to me and whispered the 66 syllable Durga mantra into my ear. I was caught by surprise because at first I thought she was offering the mantra that I was familiar with, Om Dum Durge Bhagavati Namasthite, but then it became clear that she kept going. More syllables that spun into an amazing mantra that represents the churning of the milky ocean of consciousness. Shakti, the feminine form of infinite consciousness who manifests in the world, is continuously churning, making more, giving the value added experience, the “plus one.” As Mariah, unprovoked, spoke this mantra to me, I felt it a gift to help me recognize that churning within and all around, and in the next few days myself had committed those 66 syllables to memory.
By the end of our travels, we were functioning as a unified whole. A group of individuals with our own unique desires, needs, and habits that existed completely in support of each other as well. Friends, Poonai, for life.