Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Land of the Three Waters

I remember back in the early days of messing around on Google Earth (before Streetview took all the glory) I discovered what the word "antipode" means and that, by inverting the coordinates of any given location, I could find its exact opposite side of the globe. It was on this day that I realized how foolish I was for thinking that if I dug deep enough in my elementary school's sandbox, eventually I'd make it to China. In reality, I would have come out somewhere in the Indian Ocean - onto some God-forsaken, middle-of-nowhere ocean floor somewhere equally far from Madagascar, Western Australia and the southern tip of India. My closest hope of salvation would have been the French Southern and Antarctic Lands several hundred miles to my south. Unless I was digging in my winter (their summer), the several dozen scientists that live on the island would have probably all gone home. In the end, it was a good thing that I never made it all the way through. It probably would not have ended well for me. 

This is all to just set the scene for my visit to Kanyakumari, India's southernmost tip and dubbed "The Land of the Three Waters". It is here that the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal all meet after the Indian sub-continent finally ends its 1000 mile separation of the three. As I stood out on the point, dipping my toes into the water, I imagined my desolate antipode resting under the water somewhere thousands of miles in front of me. There was no land between my big toe and the Antarctic. 
Dipping my toe into the southern tip of India

Waves crashing into the southern tip of India

The Antarctic is a pretty abstract concept when you're in southern India. The heavy heat either bakes you dry on the east side of the peninsula in Tamil Nadu, or steam cooks you on the west side in tropical Kerala. A narrow mountain range divides the two and, driving, you cross from West Texas to Bali in a matter of minutes. The contrast is jarring and spectacular and the only thing that seems to hold the two separate universes together is a little two lane road that we whizzed along to and fro across the southern tip of India. 

I had the good fortune of getting to tag along with my aunt and her colleague, Christine, in southern India while they were visiting a factory to set up some purchases. (Thanks again you two for having me along!) We spent a day  in Tirunelveli going over designs of dried botanical arrangements and then took off for a few days of adventure while the artists created samples back in the factory. We visited the beach town of Kovalam, saw an old wooden palace and visited a few temples. It was a great little tour of India's southern tip and I can heartily recommend it to others looking for a good corner of India to explore. 

I could write about a lot of experiences I had in India over just a few days, but I think the experience(s) that struck me the most were the temples. Maybe I wasn't going to the right temples when I visited Northern India back in 2011, but the southern temples just seem to have so much more character. Sensuous is the way that I would describe them if I only had one word. Given my rambling so far, that might be the only word of mine you read about South Indian temples, but if you'll indulge me for a few more paragraphs, I have additional observations on the subject. 

It wasn't until I was back on the plane returning to Saigon that I finally arrived at the apt metaphor to describe South Indian temples: they're like a good, cured cast iron skillet that has been passed down from your great-grandmother. This metaphor may seem strange, but let me lay it out for you.

I think the piece that finally did it for me was a bas-relief of the monkey god within Meenakshi temple in Madurai. After making my way from the imposing gate through the dark layers of the temple lined with sculptures of Hindu gods and warriors, I made it into one of the central altars buried deep inside. If I hadn't had a guide, I would have been completely lost at this point. He directed me to the monkey god altar and I noticed it was very shiny for a stone sculpture, with globs of white and yellow smeared all over it. My guide told me that it was butter and lard - that people worshipped this altar by smearing cooking fats over it and then draping it in floral strands. 

Altar to the Monkey God at Meenakshi Temple
This was the literal parallel that got me onto the cast iron skillet metaphor, but the connection goes deeper than just a shared surface for butter. Worshippers at these temples offered all sorts of organic materials in these temples. Flowers were probably the most common, followed by bananas, coconuts and other fruits. I only saw the butter used once, but oils are smeared all over worshippers' bodies and burned in tiny lamps all over the temples. Priests bless worshippers with the ash from burnt wood and you'll notice little pots of ash at other stations around temples used to worship at altars. Colorful inks make worshippers and altars standout in the darkness. Most of the inks are plant based and are gone within a few days, so it's a safe bet that anything that is colorful has to be tended to on a daily basis. Some of the inks are made from spices, which provide a powerful scent that corresponds to the vibrancy. Then there is the largest mass of organic material of all - the temple elephant. Larger temples have a resident elephant that will bless you in exchange for monetary or edible donations. 

Elephant blessing at the temple
All these oils, ashes and inks blend together and layer over each other to create a truly sensuous environment that would be lost if someone went through with a sponge and bucket of soap. The character of these places is caked into the walls over centuries of worship. The altars are enclosed in layers of inner chambers and low corridors that make it difficult for any essence to escape into the outside world. It's like these temples are designed to trap the fumes and textures of all that enters and this accumulation makes these temples so special. Like an old, well cured cast iron skillet that has cooked thousands of servings of biscuits, gravies and caramelized onions, its flavor develops and matures over the generations. If you scrub it too well in the wash, you sterilize it and strip out all of those flavors. The sandstone walls of those South Indian temples are the spiritual equivalent of Grandma's cast iron skillet. 

And trust me, once you've walked around a temple for an hour, it stays on you. I left the Meenakshi temple in Madurai and got straight on a plane to begin my trip back to Saigon. As I sat in my seat, I could feel the oils between my toes and smell the spices on my shirt. My skin was greasy and fingers were sticky, no matter how many times I washed them. At Christian church, I approach the whole experience with scrubbed skin and crisp, pressed shirts. The whole affair is pretty clean and sterile in comparison to South Indian temples. It felt different, and even uncomfortable, to have all of these residues all over me after visiting the temple, but isn't that the whole point? What better way to remember and hold onto an experience than to feel it slide between your toes or smell it on your shirt a few hours later. I know that to some of you that might seem disgusting and, full disclosure, I  showered aggressively once I finally got home, but I can appreciate the sensuality of old time religion. In the end, it worked. I can't wait to go back and experience all that again. 

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