So this is India….
It is almost two hours since the plane touched down at Chennai, what with checks that all our formal paperwork is correct, and huge queues to be checked for Ebola, but we are now edging our way closer and closer to India. (After all, until you clear customs, you are still in transit.) Fatigue has bestowed such a dream-like quality to the last hour that I am beyond excitement…
At last, we are out in the bright, hot scented air of Chennai, to be met by two representatives of ExploreIndya. More precisely, by the rep, and our driver, Gandhi (yes, really! To we stay-at home Europeans, until now, there has been only one Gandhi….) We are immediately relieved of our baggage, follow the pair to our driver, and are bedecked with a fragrant - almost overwhelming - garland of orange blossom. (You can keep Hawaii, mate) - this garland, and the smiles that seem everywhere are so unexpected that I begin to wonder whether this is, after all, a dream.
But you cannot dream India.
After a sound night’s sleep in the very comfortable, clean and peaceful Footprints Bed and Breakfast, we set out with Gandhi. It is seven a.m, and already very warm - hard to believe that it is February, and the temperatures in winter-gripped Britain hover between -3o and +5o centigrade. Our destination this morning is Mylapore temple, whence we are driven by the skilful, very helpful Gandhi.
The temple is an amazing structure, its granite base topped by layer upon layer of vegetable-dyed stucco. It reminds me, somewhat irreverently, of a massive, many-tiered rectangular wedding cake. Some highly skilled patissier has carved, with infinite care, row upon row of representations, just a selecton of the three hundred and thirty three million Hindu gods.
Lakshmi, our guide from Storytrails, has greeted us, wreathed in smiles. She is lovely to behold, with shoulder-length curly hair, and exudes a warmth that is clearly part of her nature. The hair, she tells us, should traditionally be tied back, especially when visiting the temple. Her grandmother most definitely does not approve of Lakshmi’s hair style. (We shall hear more of Lakshmi’s grandmother’s knowledge of Hindu lore anon…) Hair is very important to Hindu women, and later in the morning we see a ravishingly beautiful young woman, her hair far shorter than my own. She will have “sacrificed” her hair at the temple as an intention for some major family event, perhaps a sick family member. The sacrifice is done to bring about a longed-for outcome.
As we walk barefoot around the temple, our right shoulders to the building, because the left side is not as respectful, Lakshmi regales us with stories about a few of the multitude of gods of the Hindu faith. Shiva, to whom Mylapore temple is dedicated is the god of destruction. When Shiva dances, all is destroyed. To Western minds this concept may seem negative, but from destruction come new beginnings. After Shiva has danced, the only thing that remains is the skull he holds in his hand, from which will come renewal and rebirth.
Lakshmi explains that during Hindu ceremonies - the marriage ceremony or the naming of a child, for example, loud and sudden noises - a sneeze perhaps, or a cough, are thought to be impropitious. So much of what we discover is suffused with concepts of what is seen by Hindus as inauspicious. We learn that every day there is a 90-minute period when there is an inauspicious conjunction of planets. (With the exception of Saturn, those in question are not planets recognised by astronomers. And, as in Western mythology, Saturn has a negative reputation.) None of the preliminary planning of a special event should take place at this time, or the outcome of the event will be doomed to fail. We are impressed to learn that Lakshmi’s grandmother, being one of the older generation, can recite the calendar of daily inauspicious times. Lakshmi laughs and explains that, being of the computer generation, she herself simply Googles when she needs to learn when Rahu Kal will fall on a given day.
Our walk around the temple continues; we pass a very young calf, tottering alone through the temple courtyard, several bony cats, one of which is petted and fussed by an elderly man, come to pay his respects at an adjacent shrine, and a family who have brought food. As the mother serves it into wooden bowls, one of her sons offers it to passers-by. This is an act of thanksgiving for some family event, the family are sharing their good fortune with strangers. Family is at the heart of this people, and of the Hindu religion, but it extends into the wider community, and we in the West could learn well from this.
Our trip to the temple concludes, and already our senses are awash with the sights, sounds and just a few of the endless stories of India.
Thank you, lovely Lakshmi, and Storytrails India.