Thursday, December 3, 2009

Return to Thiruvannaamalai

Thiruvannaamalai is home to the Annamalaiyar Temple. This temple is located at the foot of the Annamalai hill and is one of the great Shiva temples of Tamil Nadu. I visited Thiruvannaamalai back in September, but returned there two nights ago to take part in a Hindu celebration.

Every year (the following details are from Wikipedia), there are four "Brahmotsavams," or celebrations. The most famous one is celebrated in the Tamil month of Karthikai or December. This is a ten day event that culminates on the full moon with the lighting of a huge lamp (composed of a cauldron filled with three tons of ghee) on the peak of Annamalai Hill. The full moon that occurs during this celebration is known as the Chitra Powrnami and on this day, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across the world visit this small city to see the temple and to circumambulate the hill - walking a distance of about 14 kilometers...barefoot.

Tuesday night, the 1st of December, we joined the Hindu pilgrims in Thiruvannaamalai to experience this celebration. Although we didn't circumamublate the hill, we did walk about 8 kilometers barefoot. I'm not really sure how to describe this experience except to say that it was a truly intense amount of human beings. People were streaming down the street for hours and when we left at around 1 a.m. there were still thousands more heading into the city. I honestly believe that there were more than one million people on the streets that night.

Since I can't really explain the feeling that I had that night, I hope the video below can convey a small bit of what the atmosphere was like...

video

Three Short Stories from Madurai

A short time ago, a friend and I traveled by train to the city of Madurai. Madurai is the oldest inhabited city in the Indian peninsula and is home to the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple. Because of the huge temple complex present in the center of the city, Madurai is one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites in India. Each year, the city attracts millions of pilgrims and tourists from across India and the world.

Well, two weeks ago, Janina and I became two of those tourists. We spent a wonderful two days in the city of Madurai, enjoying the temples, a palace, the Gandhi museum, and some pretty awesome food. The trip was a perfect mix of historical site seeing, casual shopping, and relaxation. In all honesty, one of my favorite moments from this journey was sitting on the roof of a restaurant, looking out over the city and the temples on the horizon, reading, eating, and just being. Every Indian city that I visit has created unique memories and there are just too many to share. So, in an attempt to summarize my Madurai adventure, I have three short stories.

Janina and I arrived in Madurai via night train at about 5:45 a.m. After jumping off the train and wading our way out of the station, we set off on foot for our hotel. According to the map in our trusty guide, the Lonely Planet, it was only about half a kilometer from the station and should be easy to find. To our dismay, we wandered one of the main streets for about half an hour, trekking up and down side streets and the KT Lodge was nowhere to be found. We finally gave up and started asking people on the streeet. Our first request was posed to a middle-aged man, who replied with great confidence that the lodge was just down the street on the right. Despite following his directions, we found no sign of the KT Lodge. So - we asked again. This fellow seemed less confident, but did give directions. Again, no dice... We asked a series of four or five people and were given different directions every time and still, the KT Lodge could not be found. We were beginning to think that it didn't exist, when a man approached us on the street. He asked where we were going and offered to lead us there. From prior experience with offers like this, we were a bit wary but decided to go with him anyway. Lucky for us, he lead us right ot the lodge and everything turned out just fine...Although, he did spot us on the street later that day and we ended up letting him entice us into a shop for the "free view" of the temples - meaning that to get back down to the ground we had to pass through four floors full of handicrafts and jewelry and various other goods. Basically, it is impossible to escape without buying something. There are two lessons to learn from this story. One, people will always give you directions - even if they have no idea where you are going. And two, nothing is free in India - even directions.

My second story has to do with shoes... Our first day in Madurai, the morning was spent enjoying the sights. Madurai is in the far south of India, so after a full morning in the sun, we escaped the heat in a sweet shop, where we had some Indian style deserts and spent about an hour reading. After leaving the shop, we slowly wandered down an unevenly cobblestoned street. With one step, my left foot slipped on a broken stone and without any warning the straps of my leather sandals ripped off. My shoe (and of course I only brought one pair of shoes to Madurai) was, sadly, unwearable. Well, since we were in the middle of the city, there wasn't much that I could do...So, I started walking barefoot - a very common occurrence for Indian people, but something that I don't have much experience with. The key is to not think about everything that you are walking through, :-)... Anyway, we set out on a mission to find a shoe shop and the first one that we came across was Bata, a large Indian shoe company. I sped inside the shop and headed directly to the wall of sandals. To my dismay, the largest size of women's shoes available was a 7. I wear a 9.5. Women's shoes clearly weren't going to work. I headed to the men's shoes. A men's 8 was the biggest size that I could find, so I just went with that. It was funny, because the salesman in the shop was very confused as to why I was examining men's shoes and kept trying to usher me back to the women's side of the store. I don't think he understood just how big my feet are. Everything ended up alright in the end - I'm still wearing the shoes I bought in Madurai today!

Our second and last day in Madurai, we spent a large part of the afternoon, just wandering around - checking out the market, watching the pilgrims to the temple complex, and just enjoying the city. We stopped at a small roadside tea stall for a cup of tea and the guy behind the counter was just so friendly and excited to have us stop, that we had to take a picture! After snapping a few quick shots, I showed him the pictures on my camera screen. His response was, "Super!" With a huge smile on his face, he proceeded to show the photo to the rest of the men at the tea stall... This is a part of the reason why I much prefer to go to small shops and restaurants, rather than big, Westernized hotels and malls.

And so, there you have it...three short stories from Madurai...