Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Thiruvannamalai and Mammalapuram

Once again I have to apologize for my long absence from this blog. An unfortunate series of events has prevented me from posting, but I am once again committing myself to being a more frequent updater! I’m going to stick to my guns this time!

Okay, since I have a very, very long post about my nine-day trip to Northern India coming up at some point in the near future, this post will be a bit shorter…Although it is still quite long. Just a brief overview of the two weekends prior to my big journey! We’re going back in time a bit to the second and third weekends of September…

As the second weekend of September rolled around I was rather exhausted! I’d traveled the previous two weekends and so was looking forward to a relaxing weekend on campus. Saturday was a day for rest, a bit of work on med school applications, and then several hours spent at the pool! And let me just say that going to the pool here in Vellore is basically like stepping into a different world…The pool itself is big and gorgeous and is surrounded by green grass and chairs for lounging. The sounds of every day life fade and there is near silence. There is even a ping pong table and a “snack” counter that serves pizza and French fries. It is quite an amazing find in the middle of a city that is in general dusty, congested, and very, very loud. I had to pinch myself just to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming! Anyway, some friends and I spent hours at the pool just relaxing and escaping from the oppressive heat of midday. After pool time, I attended the Women’s Hostel Day.

Women’s Hostel Day is an annual affair in which the residents of the Women’s Hostel (these are all female medical students) put on a show and welcome guests into their home. It is also the ONLY day of the year in which men are allowed to enter the hostel. Even the resident’s fathers or brothers are not allowed entrance at any other time. The festivities included traditional and modern music and dance, a series of short plays, and art displays and the production was done completely by the women of the hostel. There was definitely a message of female independence and empowerment to the night, with an emphasis on the fact that women do not need a man in order to be successful in life. It was all very impressive. The entertainment was followed by a dinner of chicken biryani, after which we were all invited to tour their hostel. It was really interesting to get an intimate look into how the permanent students of CMC live. I truly felt privileged to be welcomed into their rooms to talk and have juice and to simply gain a bit of understanding about what their days are like. And, I marveled at the fact that as medical students they still made time for art and dance and music and were able to put on this amazing affair.

After our wonderful day of doing practically nothing on Saturday, a group of us visited the city of Thiruvanamalai on Sunday. Thiruvanamalai is about an hour and a half trip by bus from Vellore and is actually home to one of the holiest temples in India. This temple is annually visited by nearly as many people, or possibly more, as visit the Vatican each year…

It is hard for me to describe Indian temples to those who haven’t seen them… Basically, they can be one or a series of towers called gopuras. These towers start out wide at the bottom and then get smaller and smaller as you go higher – sort of like a stack of rectangular Legos of increasingly small size. But what is most awe inspiring about these structures is the incredibly intricate carvings that cover every inch of the surface. When I really consider the fact that these temples were built hundreds of years ago, I have difficulty comprehending how images of such complexity and beauty could possibly have been carved into stone. Anyway, as you walk under each gopura, you pass into a new courtyard. The temple at Thiruvanamalai had seven such courtyards…I think. And in the final courtyard are the actual shrines to one or sometimes multiple Hindu gods.

Apart from the actual majesty of the temples themselves, what was truly incredible to witness were the displays of faith and prayer that were ongoing all around us. The Hindu style of devotion is completely foreign to the Christian worship that I am familiar with – people lie in total prostration before statues of their gods, flowers and food is left at the alters as offerings displaying their devotion, and people decorate their hands, hair, and foreheads with colored powders. As one of only a few foreigners within the temple, I almost felt like I was intruding on something sacred (and it was sacred…), but like with the events of Women’s Hostel Day, I felt privileged to witness the true devotion that surrounded me. Although it is not my faith and they were not my Gods, it was a spiritual experience.

Well, we wrapped up the day with a late lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant and then the bus ride back to Bagayam. Although the buses are always crowded, hot, loud, and chaotic, I actually rather enjoy riding on them. I sit in the seats that were not made for people of my size, listen to my iPOD, and just enjoy the scenery flying by the window. Through the music and the sights outside the bus window, I can escape from the chaos that surrounds me and just marvel at India.

The following weekend, my friend Sarah and I set out for the small city of Mamallapuram.
We left early Saturday morning and took two buses for a total of about 4 hours to get there. Once there, we checked into our hotel, slept for about half an hour and then headed out. Saturday was mainly sightseeing… Our first stop was the Shore Temple which was built in 700 AD. Again, I found it hard to believe what people have been able to construct with only the most basic of tools. From the temple, we wandered to this park-like area which contained rock carvings known as the “Five Rathas.” Basically, these are temples and sculptures that were carved out of one solid block of rock back in 600 AD. Pretty awesome. While there, Sarah B and I were caught in a rain storm and had to take shelter inside one of the temples. The atmosphere was actually rather eerie and the way that the storm just rolled in was incredible. That night we had an incredible dinner of fish, calamari, and prawns at this little, out of the way restaurant. I have definitely noticed that many of my fondest memories revolve around food!

Sunday was our shopping day. Mamallapuram is a very tourist-oriented city so they definitely cater to the shopping desires of Westerners. And although I sometimes feel slightly guilty about being a “typical tourist”, Sarah and I did take advantage of that fact. I bought two shirts, two pairs of pants, a pair of sandals, a silver anklet, and two tiny little metal statues of Hindu gods – I was definitely indulging in some retail therapy! ☺ I'll try to take some pictures of the clothes and post them online so you can check them out (I still haven’t quite managed getting photos posted on the blog). After shopping, we went to a second area of town where there are all of these caves and temples and spent some time walking around and checking them all out. It was basically like a giant park atmosphere amongst millennia old temples. There were literally hundreds of Indian families walking around and picnicking and just enjoying their Sunday afternoon. To wrap up the weekend, we had a late lunch (at 4) and then hopped a bus back to Vellore. This time we had to take three buses, but it was all good.

So, this concludes my very late recap of two weekends in September. More posts will follow in the next few days with more recent information…I swear. I just moved into a new hostel and I now have internet access more regularly, so posting to my blog should be a bit more simple! I hope that all of you are doing well and that life in the US is moving forward as it always does. Life here continues at a pace that is at once slow and fast. I’ve been in India for 10.5 weeks and assume that the next 10.5 weeks will pass just as quickly. But, I still miss all of you! Thanks for staying interested in what’s going on in my life and keep in touch! I love getting emails!

Love and Miss You All!