Our Maruti Esteem stuck in the mud after cyclones hit India's East Coast. See the truck in the back? Takes a village to move a car.
On Pilgrimage in South India: Dec. 30th
In Hindu religion things are commonly divided into fours, the four castes, the four faces of Brahma, the four manifestations of Shiva, etc. Today I am meditating on the four stages of man (not woman, mind you, but man, as in most Hindu philosophy).
The first stage, the student (brahamachari) starts from age ten or twelve till one gets married. The second stage, the householder (gri-hasta) lasts from marriage till the birth of a grandchild. During this stage the householder has responsibilities to family, his job and company, and the community in which he lives. When the grandchild is born, the householder may choose to leave his family and move away to focus on religion. He renunciates the world and concentrates on spiritual adventure. This stage is known as the forest-dweller or vanaprastha. In the last stage, the age of the ascetic (sannyasi), location is immaterial. Whether you live in your village, or whether you live in the forest it does not matter, since you are able to distinguish "your true self, from your finite self".
Pilgrimages are a common ritual in India for exposing families to the stages beyond, of renunciation and spiritual nourishment. We are on pilgrimage this week, as our lobby manager reminded me when I checked us into our hotel in Trichy, a major city in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. My fellow pilgrims are Sue, Steve Garrison, visiting India during Christmas break, and Julia Mitchell, a lost traveler from Apple who we have adopted for two weeks.
As in all pilgrimages in India, getting there is part of the process. I rented a Contessa (the so-called Cadillac of India) so that the five of us (including Jude) could have a place to sit. Of course we are rich Americans, all of us, so our sacrifices are few. Being winter, I gave up the need for an air-conditioned car. This was a mistake, since the message it communicated to the travel agency was that I was a poor NRI (the worst kind), and that I didn’t deserve a great car. Silly me. Thirty minutes out of town we lost the front hood of the car (Hey, it’s a rental). A search in a nearby town turned up 5 meters of rubber wire. A quick application of Boy Scout knot basics, coupled with the usual village kibbitzing and the hood was tied onto our front looking like a Christmas package. Then we discovered that the petrol gauge didn’t function. No problem, Jude found a tree branch long enough to stick down the tank (after fiddling with the lockable gas cap for a half-hour). Presto - instant gas gauge. Then we had to get our food out of the trunk for lunch. But the key didn’t work. I had a similar experience in Bangalore about three weeks ago, and had come educated this time. Fifteen minutes later I had the trunk open. Our newbie American friends learned how to do it on the roadside, so to speak, and promptly sat on a bed of hive-raising brambles. Pilgrimage indeed. On our first trip in India, everyone kept wishing Steve and I "Best of luck, old chaps". You understand why.
Lots of dusty roads, wrong turns, and detours later we ended up at Tiruchirappalli (aka Trichy). I bought the first round of drinks at a bar in the hotel called "The Wild West Saloon", complete with cow skulls on the wall, and "Howdthy parthenerrr"s from the waiter. The movie on the TV was an Indian version of a Jackie Chan special. Imagine overweight Indian Wayne Newton doing Kung Fu, and you get the idea.
The pick of today’s adventures was the Sri Jambekshwara temple, an 8th to 10th century temple complex/town with an axial layout, and a series of gates and halls designed out of interlocking golden rectangles. Stunningly simple, and complex at the same time. The temple is designed and scaled to accommodate the temple elephant. Shanti (peace) is the current incarnation. I made fast friends with Arjun one of the two brothers who are Shanti’s mahouts. Shanti is a 39-year-old elephant who came 33 years ago, when Arjun’s father brought her from the Kerala elephant mela (*). Arjun walks Shanti around and in the temple halls four times in the morning (about 4 miles total), and twice in the evening. She eats lunch at various sites about the temple, and stands in one of the cross-spaces during the rest of the day eating bananas, and blessing visitors. She is not chained. Arjun tells me that he prefers female elephants to male ones since the females are kind and understanding. I asked him if he wanted a male, and his response was "No, sir, many chains required sir, kills mahouts sir, difficult to train sir". Arjun’s brother is a painter, and he showed me how he paints Shanti, with chalk in shades of red and blue. I asked him how much time he spent with Shanti. "Closer than my mother, sir", was the reply. In India that is an incredibly strong statement. Shanti is an exceptionally sweet elephant though. She won Julia’s heart by the simple act of standing with her back legs crossed, like a schoolgirl curtsying to a guest.
Shanti, her race and her keepers have been attending to pilgrims every day for ten centuries.
* A mela is a convention-cum-festival. The two melas that I most want to see are the Kerala elephant-mela, and the Kumbh mela, held every twelve years, where the sadhus/ascetics of India gather for a down-home spiritual gab session.


A few rupees and we're off to our next adventure.