• Shelley Dark

15. of blessed buses and burials

We are leaving Thanjavur. I am trying Indian food for breakfast. I have appam, which is a lacy crepe cooked in a small buttered wok-shaped saucepan until it's a crisp bowl shape. Then it's filled with all sorts of savoury fillings. I have it alone, but a fellow traveller tells me that the kitchen chef filled it for her and it was delicious.

This is the chef. I try a couple of halting words in Tamil.

During breakfast overlooking the river, a man is shovelling sand in to his bullock dray. He has to judge the load finely because he returns through deep water.

Before we leave the hotel, our bus is blessed in god's name by a pujari. This will keep it safe from bad influences. He lights what I think are camphor balls and puts a tilak (mark with coloured powder) on the front of the bus, the wheels, the steering wheel. He waves the flame around at the same time. We have marks put on our foreheads in blessing as well. Under the wheels he puts limes. When we drive off they will be squashed which will ger rid of bad spirits. Indians bless everything, from toasters to houses.

John is interested in this photo for the tyre tread. I wonder with all this blessing if I will need a seatbelt today.

We are going to Madurai. Along the way, our guide has arranged for us to see part of a Hindu funeral ceremony. Photography will be allowed. I wonder at at this but I know from our last trip to India that death is considered the chance at moksha or escape from the never-ending cycle of birth and death. That a display of grief is inappropriate when the ashes are to be consigned to the water.

We are welcomed under the open-sided shed where the ceremony is taking place. A man with the mourner sees me and my camera and invites me to come closer. I am told that the young man with shaven head is the son of the man who has died. I put my hands together to him. He smiles at me. I am struck by how different our cultures.

He's a handsome young man.

The body has been cremated previously. Only the bones are left, a small heap on a banana leaf. The young man sits in front of them and the ceremony begins. An official begins putting powder on the young man's hands, yellow, red, brown. Washing it off each time, applying more, washing it off. It runs off his hands on to the bones. Flowers are added.

Then fruit is added, rice, coconut, bananas.

This man is there in some sort of official capacity. Remember what the horizontal mark on his forehead means? Yes. Follower of Shiva.

On the other side of the road, ashes and flowers are thrown into the river. People dunk themselves under the water. I'm not sure whether it is part of the funeral, or whether these are simply people bathing. I'm told that ashes have been thrown into the river. It's all part of the process. The ritual. Faith.

Meanwhile goats are eating what's left at the other end of the shed. No one minds.

The flowers float away. I feel as if young man's father is at peace.

Further along our way, we stop at the Ranganatha temple, one of the largest complexes in southern India. It's just had its 12-yearly paint and is looking very brightly coloured. Except for the white tower, which was never painted as mark of respect to one of the king's favourite masons who died in its construction.

It has seven walled enclosures and 21 huge gopuras (towers with entry gate and corridor underneath). Unlike the Shiva temples we have seen, this one is to Vishnu. Unusual in this temple are amazing sixteenth century stone carvings of horses and riders. It's more like a social gathering in this temple, the outer enclosures open to us at least. People are eating, sleeping in the cool shade, chatting, relaxing. Lots of families.

That's Vishnu lying on the cosmic ocean. Looking very relaxed.

That's the white tower.

Picnicking in the grounds.

You've seen the horizontal stripes on the foreheads of the followers of Shiva. Vishnu's sign is a red vertical stripe, sometimes with white on either side. It's like morse code for identification. Hindus adopt a god as their own special god. I htink mine is Ganesh.

The carved horses are very impressive.

Even if some of the scenes are a bit gruesome.

We go up on the roof of the temple and it burns my feet. We are walking barefoot in the temples when we forget our sox. I've lost my squeamishness about it and hardly flinched when I stepped in a bowl of milk yesterday. It's baking hot up here. Ram notices I'm hopping and brings me a piece of carpet. That's service. I come down and talk pidgin to devotees sitting on the temple floor. They invite me to join them. I sit on the floor too. We have a great conversation in gibberish. All want their photo taken.

She speaks a little English.

It always surprises me when old men point at themselves, wanting their photo taken. Of course I oblige.

The openness of their faces warms my soul.

Still to come, the remnants of the wonderful palace at Madurai, the beautifully coloured ceiling of the Minakshi temple, and a little of the Madurai bazaar.

I'll leave you with a novel piece of advice from the Expressways Authority of India. Until we meet again...



"I never travel without my diary.  

One should always have something

sensational to read on the train."  

                                - OSCAR WILDE

shelley dark 

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