Saturday, January 31, 2009

My God, My India

I apologize for the lower-than-usual quality of these photos - with no editing software to rotate the vertical ones or clean up the lighting, contrasts and colors, they're not as good as they could be. Oh well.

I believe I last left off in Udupi, birthplace of the mighty masala dosa and location of a famous Krishna temple. We enjoyed a car festival on our second-to-last night there; it wasn't so much a car festival as a car-pushing at the behest of a heavy donator. People were taking blessings (bringing the smoke to their foreheads through cupped hands) from used fireworks and from people with fire, but I have to admit I didn't feel much in the way of spiritual purity.

The next day, however, was a different story. After a simple-but-delicious breakfast of masala dosa (what else?) we headed for Mangalore. We were dumped into a pile of fish; I tumbled off the bus and found myself face-to-face with a fishwife and ankle-deep in the water dripping off her wares.

Our first stop was the Manjunatha temple; a temple northeast of the city built in the Keralan style; after circumambulating (walking around the shrines before approaching directly) we sat next to one of the temple's benefactors and chatted for awhile as the noontime mahapuja (grand prayer ceremony) got underway. This temple does a fire puja twice a day, meaning lots of priests with lots of torches accompanied by drumming and cymballing. It was very, um, cymballic of a country so intent on its faith.

Manjunatha Temple is home to the Trilokshetra, one of the finest bronzes in India. It is a three-faced deity (a seated Shiva I believe) and considered the finest outside Tamil Nadu (they are quite proud of this; they have a little sign in several languages announcing it). I couldn't take a photo but I was awed at the nuanced beauty of the piece, which was so detailed that it seemed to be embroidered rather than cast.

Our next stop after the Milagres Church (nice, but not overwhelmingly impressive) was St. Aloysius College Chapel, which reminded me that great works of devotional art are not limited to India and Greater China:

St. Aloysius Chapel is covered on the inside - and I do mean covered - with frescoes. Fairly new frescoes, but fine nonetheless. I could nitpick that a few of the people depicted look a little stiff, but hey. The painted columns could be the envy of marble, and the friezes illustrating the life of Jesus were beautifully matched in color, tone and composition. The colors - mauve, rose, teak, cinnabar, cerulean, sunburst, all the colors you only see in catalogues - were magnificently matched and almost hummed, as though they were in tune somehow, in a fine aesthetic harmony.

It was the closest I've ever come in a Christian religious space to having a spiritual moment, and I am avowedly non-spiritual.

We left Mangalore the next day for Kannur, a small town in northern Kerala. There are really only two things to do there (besides visit a weaving cooperative) - go to the beach and see Theyyam. We stayed at Costa Malabari (very nice - it's a small hotel in a 120-year old traditional house) and first, went to the beach:

...a lovely semi-private and peaceful cove. The sand wasn't as white and the water not as blue as in the Philippines or Indonesia, but it was still quite lovely. The next morning, we rose at 4am and sleepily piled off in a rickshaw to head 20 miles out to see Theyyam:

Theyyam is a north Keralan temple ''dance" - not so much a dance as a form of devotion. Related in form to Kathakali (next post), devotees wear large, unnatural costumes and terrifying makeup and allow themselves to become possessed by the gods of the temple. It's similar in a way to the dangki tradition of Taiwan, except they don't hurt themselves. They just dance a lot, issue proclamations and sayings from the gods, and generally run about. We saw two dancers, one in a very tall mask and one in a wide skirt, in which flaming torches were set, as well as a flaming headdress. Sorry that the picture is not so good, but it was hard to take photos in the pre-dawn darkness and I felt a flash would be intrusive.

The torch-bearer would run up to the audience - separated by gender - who would joyfully take blessings from the smoke. It's the only time I really feel I can use the word worshipful and mean it. I didn't expect this and Brendan and I were the only foreigners there, so of course he had to run up to me first (the gods apparrently like me) - which was utterly terrifying.

The women around me thought it was hilarious, of course.

After Kannur, we headed up into the hills to the Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary. We stayed at Varnam Homestay (highly recommended - I can't speak highly enough of them). Not knowing the distance involved, we hired a Jeep to take us from Mananthavady, the town where the bus let us off. It should have been Rs. 200 - we paid 600 (about $12 US; not a big deal). Turns out the proprietor of the homestay is a police officer who lodged a complaint about the Jeep driver...sweet, sweet revenge.

The next day, we took a Jeep safari through Tholpetty, seeing Hanuman monkeys (langurs), a wild bison and not one but three wild elephants:

Varnam is also near a tribal area, dotted with villages and paddies. You can usually tell tribal women because unlike the other local Hindus, they cover their hair, and unlike the local Muslims, they use kerchiefs, not shawls or hijab.

It was lovely, being welcomed in villages that aren't reliant on the tourist trade or saturated with souvenir shops, and to just get out and meet some friendly people. As monkeys played in the bamboo at the edge of the clearing, we watched the village children run home across the dry rice paddies - almost all of them stopped to us to first gape, then chat. At least one of them had a cell phone; let this be a lesson to American parents who think it's spoiling to give such devices to children.

Our meals at Varnam were excellent, served by candlelight and flashlight as the power went out every night at 8pm sharp for exactly 30 minutes. Amidst the dim glow we enjoyed savory chicken curry, daal of various flavors, some traditional Keralan foods from the mountains including freshwater fish and a delicious green vegetable with potato, cooked with lots of fenugreek leaf and mustard seed, and "magic balls" - rice flour balls filled with spiced coconut gratings and jaggery - raw sugar. Laying in the hammock or relaxing in the traditional-style house, I felt quiet, so at peace as to be sleepy while Beena (mistress of the house) led the cows in or Don (their son) raked the drying coffee .
A lover of coffee since I was about 3 years old, it was utter bliss to fall asleep rocking in the hammock listening to those coffee beans roll back and forth under the noontime sky with a gentle scritch-scratch.
Our next stop was Calicut; unfortunately most of my photos from this stop are vertical so I'll have to post them later. We had only a half day in Calicut and spent it shopping (approximately 110% of the city's income comes from the UAE and overseas Indians working there, so shopping options are plentiful) and visiting ancient wooden Moppila mosques - the mosques built 700-1100 years ago before the Portuguese came through and defaced them all. Fortunately most are still around and still active today.
Unfortunately, thanks to the Gulf influences, they are rather orthodox mosques so I, as a woman, was not allowed to enter. Brendan, bless his progressive heart, wouldn't go in without me. When invited by some students he said "Sorry - either we both go or neither of us do." (For the record I would have let him enter if he'd really wanted to).
The next morning we bundled into a train bound for Cochin - the stuff of spice and dreams.
A few photos of Cochin before my next post:


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