Priests, Piety, and Petty Gain: Dec. 31st
There are three main gods in Hindu religion. Brahma, the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer (and re-creator).
Shiva can be thought of as the original grunge rocker. A bit of a wild man, his hair is unkempt, he’s smeared with ashes from cremated corpses, he’s a bit inclined to altered states of mind (so to speak), and he likes to be as non-conformist as possible. Not exactly a Brahmin’s concept of a good neighbor. In the south most folks divide into two camps. Like Protestant and Catholic, the folks choose the way of Shiva (the path of meditation), or Vishnu (the path of devotion). Strict Brahmins are inclined to be vishnaites. I have no doubt that I would choose to be a shivaite.
Shiva doesn’t get along with arrogant folks. Brahma, the creator, has the usual arrogance that accompanies the creative spirit. As a result of Brahma’s arrogance, Shiva and Brahma have had major fights through the ages. Shiva had to cut off the most arrogant of Brahma’s heads to save the universe from unneeded pride. One of the fights that Shiva had was with his father-in-law, Dakshina. Dakshina, the father of Sati, did not bother to invite Shiva and Sati to a sacrifice ceremony. He was clearly too unkempt to be part of the ceremony. However, Sati and Nandi showed up just to give Dakshina a piece of their mind. In the curses that got exchanged, Nandi cursed Dakshina and his kind, so-called Brahmins, and foretold that they would turn into money-grubbing ritualists selling their half-baked knowledge for petty gain. Dakshina cursed right back. Shiva’s followers would wander the burning grounds of the world, smeared with ash and wearing bones.
Part of doing the temple scene, as an obvious American is that you have to fight off temple guides. These are usually the unfortunate victims of Nandi’s curse. Imagine a cassette tape recorder that only has one badly translated speech. Now imagine that speech in a way that really grates. That’s your typical temple guide. We finally clued in that Steve could handle these guides. I pushed off the first one when he told me he wasn’t a tour guide, he was a Brahmin priest, and proudly pointed to his sacred thread over his shoulder. Steve got the next one:
"Do you speak English?"

"Yes sir, very good English sir"

"What day is it?"

"Very good art - 12th Century sir".

He wanted 150 rupees. I told Steve that 50 was the maximum he should pay. Steve offered 40 rupees, and the guide disappeared to wait for the next foreigners. Wow! Great technique.
Today’s temple was in Tanjore, the capitol of the Chola Empire. It was a Shiva temple containing the world’s largest lingam, a 15 foot high by 10 foot round pillar which embodies Shiva’s male aspect. The lingam in turn sits in a yoni, a round, vulvic-shaped vessel representing the female aspect. We were fortunate enough to see the lingam bathed in frothy hot milk and water. After collecting in the yoni, the fluid left the temple through sluice gates and the devotees rushed outside to wash their hair and drink in the blessed milk.

I’ve got to find some ash and bones.

After that seminal moment, our last stop on today’s pilgrimage was Swami Millai. In Indian guides to the Chola Empire, Swami Millai is often mentioned as the most important satellite town of Tanjore. All of the famous Indian bronzes have stylistic trademarks that originated in this south-Indian town a millennia ago. Last year I heard that this village still continued its tradition of making bronzes in the original Chola style. What better way to acquire great bronzes than to go to the village that made the originals?
I had no idea where to go in the village when we arrived. There were the usual signboards (Shop Here - Fine Icons!). Jude found some random guy walking down the street who of course said "Sure, I have a neighbor who makes bronzes". Usually you have to be careful when this happens. If a sale occurs the "guide" will usually get a commission, which makes it harder for you to bargain. However, since I didn’t know where to go, I had no choice. As we walked around the village, all I could hear was the "ting, ting, ting" of hammers and chisels against metal. Everyone is in the bronze or brass business here.
After the first hour of walking around, and convincing the guide that I wanted good bronzes, and not tourist junk, I had to wonder just what he did for a living? He obviously could afford to take the whole day off and walk us around.
"What does he do, Jude?"

Tamil, tamil, tamil... "He is in Finance, sir".

"Does he work in a bank?"

Tamil, tamil, tamil... "He makes interest sir."

"He’s a loan-shark, Jude?"

"Yes, sir"

Ah yes, just the guy I want showing me around a strange town. Especially when Sue and I have 1 lac rupees in our pocket.
One shop had a framed "Geneology of the Sthpatis ", a family lineage of sculptors starting from Viskwakarma, the cosmic sculptor and architect, on to 10th century Chola sthpatis and then on and on to the proud shop owner, whose name was at the botttom of the chart. Jude was a little scared when my eyes dilated over a 5-foot Shiva. "Won’t fit in the trunk sir!" However, eventually I found two excellent pieces and Sue found a decent Ganesha. Useless negotiation commenced, and soon I had a 3-foot bronze standing Parvati, in the style of a Chola queen, and a seated Parvati.
Nothing’s better than an ancient sculpture high.