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 1: The South Indian People
These folks win the prize for resilience. It is their “winter” season and the temps were in the 80s and close to 90 everyday. A “three shower day” I call it. It is a harsh climate, especially without air conditioning. And if you have air conditioning, you are not always guaranteed that the electrical grid will hold up throughout the day. It is challenging, and yet, I saw so many smiles on people’s faces.
Their homes come in many shapes and styles, but we visited one village, where our tour guide Babu has a small farm. We first stopped at a traditional potter’s home. He was spinning pots on his porch, where the roof made of bamboo and thatch hung low. So low in fact that one of our travelers hit her head on the bamboo post sticking out. It was bloody. Everyday they have to duck to get into their home. It is low for a reason though — to keep the sun out.
At this same village we visited a small outdoor temple. Douglas advised that most of the goddess deities we saw here are related to the monsoon and even small pox, the things one has to deal with in this climate in order to survive. Even in this small village, it is clear the villagers take pride in their place, the artwork and attention to detail is amazing.
We visited Babu’s farm after that. He also allows his home to be used as a school for the village children. He told us that when the children first started meeting visitors like us they were so shy, if they said anything they might ask your name, but now they are friendly and open and asking how we are doing. We offered the girls bindis, nail polish, and hair ties. The boys were all about the pens.
In Babu’s home some villagers served us a traditional South Indian lunch. Thali meal. This consists of rice placed in the center of a large banana leaf (yes, literally a banana leaf) with a variety of curries spread around the rice. You mix the curry into the rice with your hands and eat with your fingers. There is no silverware anywhere. The tamarind curry is truly dee-lish.
Our group wanted to be respectful of the culture and so we would wear saris — it took the ladies hours to get ready in the morning. Guys get to wear dhotis, which is basically a big sheet wrapped around your private area. 15 minutes tops to get ready for them. It was so worth it to dress the part. When South Indians would see us in traditional dress, they would be so happy and want to talk and take our photographs. It was interesting to me how, seeing Westerners dressed in traditional South Indian fashion, they weren’t repulsed by cultural appropriation, on the contrary, they were so happy that we were trying to “fit in” as it were that they printed a photo in the newspaper. It was a Tamil language newspaper that Babu and Douglas translated to say basically, ‘look at these Westerners going to temple in traditional Indian clothing, doing their best to follow the tradition and temple rituals, they might help inspire our young people to do the same.’ I am paraphrasing, for sure.
One temple that I really loved was the Murugan Temple in Tiruchendur. This is right on the Bay of Bengal. I think perhaps the laid back beach vibe might be a universal experience. Many people would go to the temple, have darshan, which means to see the deity and be seen by the deity, and then walk outside and take a dip in the sea. The people we met here seemed especially joyful and happy to see us. There were Shakti pilgrims dressed in red saris, and Ayappa pilgrims in black dhotis. Once, after some of our group had darshan, a few of us were waiting in the hallway for the rest of our group. We were standing in front of other shrines where a continuous stream of people were rolling by. One of the Ayappa pilgrims spoke to one of our male travelers within my earshot. As I was listening, he was saying that they are so pleased to see us at the Murugan Temple. It was not just his words but the whole gestalt of smelling the incense burning, the heat of the day, the darkness inside the temple, the sacred air we were breathing… as this pilgrim was speaking, my heart was bursting. It felt as though some hard outer shell was crumbling and an even greater love was beginning to shine through my own chest. It felt like a deeper connection to my own soul. It felt like a merging of different layers of my awareness so that I became more complete as myself. I wanted to hug everyone, but in that moment I just kept breathing deeply and feeling even more deeply. It was enough to just be there.