Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ascetics at Play

After days (weeks! months!) of cold showers, squat toilets (and no toilet paper), intermittant electricity, and sitting on the floor while eating with fingers (right only, the left hand is a substitute for the above omission), the pilgrims from Sangha Shantivanam arrived by bus in paradise on Wednesday, the Mamalla Beach Resort in Mamallapuram. We were greeted by a herd of porters bearing cups of coffee and tea and (for some mysterious reason) pukka shell necklaces. Asceticism is certainly all right, in its place, but there is nothing like a hot shower and television, even if all it telecasts is Bollywood MTV.

Those pilgrims not on their death beds (like yours truly), had a marvelous time in Tiruvannamalai, guided by the intrepid Michael who was once a monk in Big Sur. He arranged for a tour of the magnificent Arunachelaeswar Temple, pulling strings to allow non-Hindus to make pujas with the priest under the eye of the monkeys who guard the temple. The temple is in the shade of Arunachala, the sacred mountain of Shiva, and the object of Ramana Maharshi's pilgrim when he came to Tiru as a young man. The ashram that grew up after his death in 1950 plays host to thousands of pilgrims, many from western countries, and the sight of light skinned psudeo-sannyasis, gone native and strolling down the street, was a constant amusement to me.

Our group, split between an ashram guest house and the Sheshedri Ashram next door (which received very poor marks from those staying there), ate most of its meals in the large dining room where brahmins served food on banana leaves to hundreds of guests at an assembly line pace. When I was able to eat, I prefered the small "German Bakery" near the guest house where I could drink a lemon juice with ginger and honey and eat a cheese and mushroom omelet for breakfast. The bakery's facilities appeared to be made out of bamboo, and a rare cat could be seen underfoot. In the morning the chef fed a club-footed peacock and said it had been coming for over a year. He had to chase the dogs away from the bird's meal. There was a flock of peacocks in the neighborhood, one of them a relatively rare white one.

Cyprian and Michael made arrangements with J.P., a Lutheran pastor, to hold mass on the front porch of his church a block away. I missed Sunday services and Monday evening, but was well enough to attended Tuesday evening, liberally dosed with the strongest DEET repellant. It only seemed to make the mosquitos more aggressive. Three little girls watched the service and the oldest crossed herself as we did. Both Cyprian and Raniero now celebrate the Eucharist Tamil-style, seated at a small altar and including flowers and fire along with incense. The caterwalling of crows and peacocks, along with the buzzing of skeets, served as a backdrop to our celebration of the Lord's meal. It was quite powerful.

Some of our pilgrims hiked to the top of Arunachala and others visited the caves on her side where Sri Ramana and others have lived. Other pilgrims undertook the several-hour pradakshina (circumambulation) of the mountain, on foot and by three-wheeler. The four days spent in Tiruvannamali provided an illuminating contrast to our time in Shantivanam and added depth to our understanding of spiritual practices from both traditions. The God in Jesus is almost indistinguishable from the God in Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, and the devotee who worships Krishna is not far from the disciple of Christ.

We said goodbye to Michael and J.P. on Wednesday morning and boarded the large bus that will carry us for six days on the last leg of our journey. Khan from Marvel Tours, a young man with an earring who told Cyprian of his desire "for an American wife," ("Should I keep him away from Barbara and Michele?" he wondered) came to escort us to Kanchipuram, a city of many temples southeast of Chennai. I thought it would be a short two hours, but Khan said the trip would take at least four. "Very bad road," he told me. The problem was construction of dozens of bridges to facilitate irrigation, and every few hundred yards there was a "digression," a detour of such bone-jarring intensity that some of us were seasick from the rolling motion of the bus, an ancient vehicle that was probably new in Gandh's time. While the journey contained some fascinating scenes, particularly the many brick-manufacturing areas, by the time we reached Kanchipuram, a large dusty town, we were exhausted.

We were greeted by Geeta, a tiny woman of indeterminate age (she is "very old," Khan told Cyprian). She walked with a limp and gave orders like a general. Cyprian could not have biryani at the A/C chain restaurant (with a branch in Sunnyvale) where we ate lunch but had to have to talis with everyone else. If there is a Hindu version of a Jewish mother, she would be it. We all loved her instantly and Radha said she learned more from Geeta about Hindu practices than she had in a lifetime of study. Geeta was to be with us for two days, and after filling our bellies with food and lime sodas, we told her to skip the temple tour and take us to the resort.

I developed an "extended" tour last year after participants said the less than two weeks India was not enough. Because I had been to Mamallapuram and Pondicherry with Russill and Asha's group three years ago, I asked the tour company to include an extra five days. Unfortunately, Lewis and his 20-year-old son Emmanuel could not join us for this, and left by car for Chennai from Kanchipuram. Lewis, a skilled accupuncurist and chiropractor, had done wonders for me and left behind a pile of pills; I shall always be grateful. Emannual was a poised and curious young man and fit right in with this group of elders. I think his life will forever be changed by India. Sr. Barbara and Sr. Michele left us after Mamallapuram. On their final night, Michele's passport and a large amount of cash seemingly disappeared. This resulted in prayers and high levels of anxiety on the part of all. But the missing items were found, tucked into the bed covers, and the release of fear and stress was exchilarating.

The Mamalla Beach Resort is similar to the GRT Temple Bay Resort where I stayed three years ago, with a pool, beach area, outdoor dining, and a variety of wildlife, such as white geese and white doves. Their charm was offset by loads of bird poop on every surface. The pool was wonderful and I used it liberally. Others walked the beach into town, carefully navigating the people poop.
Geeta arrived on Thursday morning and gave us a wonderful educational tour of the carvings of Mamallapuram where 7th century artists created masterpieces of bas relief and temple structures out of single giant stones. The tradition continues and today every other resident is carving pieces large and small, religious and pornographic, for the temple and tourist trade. We had a lovely lunch in an upscale hotel and ended our tour at the 8th century Shore Temple, now a national monument and world heritage sight. It's one of the earliest temples constructed in India and is a model for all other temple architecture. It also contains both a reclining Vishnu and a Shiva lingam; all other temples are dedicated to one or the other god, but not both.

I visited in the Shore Temple in January of 2004. Less than a year later the tsunami struck Sri Lanka, Thailand and India, killing thousands. I saw a photo in the newspaper of the Shore Temple surrounded by water. Today it is back to the way I remembered it, with wide grassy grounds. In fact, there has been new construction of walkways and the land all around is a national park. On the day we visited there were large groups of school children in identical uniforms, and various pilgrims, including the omnipresent men in black outfits with beards who are bound for Ayappa. There was also damage from the tsunami at the beach resort but no one there was injuried. Waves dragged a freezer from the kitchen out into the road and overturned a car. Al the first-floor rooms had to be repaired, and the pool looks brand new. Those who walked down the beach reported damage obviously caused by the giant wall of water.

Now we are in Pondicherry, two hours south, and we're staying in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram New Guest House at the south end of town in the French district. More later.

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