#22 Mahabalipuram and Chennai, India


Suresh was waiting for us this morning, my last full day in India. We met Rebecca, our guide for the morning. She has a Christian name because she is 3rd generation Christian. We drove to the ruins by the shore in Mahabalipuram, and again found something different than anything we have previous seen. The town, leading to the historic site, is filled with granite stone cutters and carvers. Their yards are filled with deities and occasionally modern abstract sculptures.

The ruins date back to the 7th century and It is thought that the area served as a school. The different sculptures may have been examples of different styles of architecture, demonstrated by instructors and practiced on by students. There are mini-temples, elephants, carvings of deities and the stories that support them. According to our guide, much of the carving is unfinished as war interrupted the work and it was never resumed. One of the highlights is Arjuna’s Penance, a huge carving on the face of a granite rock depicting scenes from the Mahabharatha. Arjunaq and other figures are in yoga poses. Nearby, we saw a priest hand painting a Ganesh in a small shrine with turmeric paste. He was working with great care and reverence.

Near Arjuna’s Penance is a monstrous rock that sits perched on a grassy sloop, called Shiva’s ball of butter. The Sunami hit this part of India and there was a question of its stability. It hit hard and 10,000 lives were lost. When the water receded, everyone near the shore walked toward the sea to see this curious ocean behavior. I might have done the same. There are endless thatched hut villages, housing fisherman and their families along this coastline of the Bay of Bengal. The villages just disappeared.

We made one more stop before Chennai at an Indian cultural center. We enjoyed walking around and identifying the styles of homes we now recognized. Again, it was a place for locals and mostly Indian families were there.

Our hotel for the night, or in my case, a few hours, is the Footprint B&B in Chennai. We have 2 rooms of a 3 bedroom apartment. This time, the bathroom has a beautiful stone plate with oil, a candle, and incense. Lovely touch, no soap…. It is on a quiet residential street, and I love it even for this short time. Suresh picked me up and dropped me at the airport at 11PM. Check-in does not start until 1:45AM and the security guard at the airport did not want to let me in to the terminal. I think he relented when he saw tears in my eyes. The tears were actually for Suresh, but whatever works… I mistakenly assumed that if one gets to fly first class, one (me) should be able to go right to the Etihad lounge. Boy, was I wrong. So here I am writing my last bit about this trip. It is now 2:30am. I got to security about 2 and the officer asked me for proof of where I stayed in Chennai. Seems he does not know the Barefoot B&B. Of course, I had nothing. I fished around and found a card for my hotel in Allepey and for some reason that worked. Eith ad gave me a pass for the Air India Lounge. It is in the old part of the airport, has no wifi and I’m afraid to eat the food here. Looks like it’s been sitting forever. One more hour and I’ll be in my Etihad business seat to Abu Dabhi.

The first Etihad flight was nothing special, and when we got to Abu Dhabi we had to go through this insane crush of people and pass inspection again. Two minutes later, I was showering in the Etihad lounge, then got a foot massage in a private massage room, with scented water, scrubbing salts and lotions. The guy was great and it is just part of the services offered in the lounge.  I still have not really slept. They wanted to make me breakfast, but I had to leave for the next round of security and board my FRIST CLASS SEAT to JFK. So that is where I am now. I have pretty much my own room, with a door that closes, a chef and when I’m ready, they give me pjs and make my bed.

#21 Mahabalipuram, India

Friday we drove from Punducherry to Mahabalipuram. We checked in for two nights at the Ideal Resort. This place is truly a beach resort. There are hammocks between Palm trees, a pool large enough to swim laps, and a very international collection of guests. The gift shop is stellar as is the food. From Pondicherry on, we’ve been back to eating fish, fresh juices, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables. I think I drank 3 glasses of carrot juice today.

And while we are talking about food, the street fried potato ships in Chidambaram were memorable. It was a few days ago, and the temple was closed until 4PM so we walked around the city, taking pictures and enjoying the archecture and the people. The potato chips were an added bonus. The guy offered us each one and 20 rupees later, we had a bag of chips, sprinkled with hot red pepper powder. We also found a woman making masala chai near the entrance to the temple. We ordered three then sat while she made it in the traditional style. She served it in paper cups, then decided we were ready for the real deal and switched each one out to the metal cups everyone else uses. At this point, it was an “oh well”. Obviously, we are not drinking the water, but when we go to local restaurants, order bottles of water, then pour the contents into wet metal cups, I know we are getting just a little bit!

The other interesting incident involved a local woman who attached herself to Ronni. She stuck to Ronni’s side for about 15 minutes, talking nonstop. Ronni clearly gestured that there was no common language, but that did not seem to be a viable concept. The woman did ask, or gesture, what kind of car we drove, but then did not get that we did not have one. She might have wanted us to take her with us. It was a strange, and uncomfortable encounter.

Back to Mahabalipuram, I finally caught a cold, so I pretty much laid low, slept through lunch and dinner. Saturday, I sat out by the pool, caught up writing all of you guys, and watched the mostly French tourists. At breakfast and dinner there is an extensive buffet. Breakfast is always included, but we splurged tonight and got the buffet. I think it was $14.00!!! Every evening, there are three musicians playing classical ragas. We sat for a long time, enjoying the evening, the food and the music.

#19 Chidambaram and the Shiva Temple, India

Before we left Rajan on Tuesday, he took us to the Saraswati Nahal Library, the oldest library in Asia. There are 60,000 manuscripts, including fragile manuscripts written on palm leaves. Hopefully, everything will get digitized soon. The docs that are on display are amazing and not well protected.  What especially struck me was a doctor’s written record of cataract surgery.

We left there to visit a “bronze factory”. We stopped on a small residential street and walked up to the front porch. The factory turned out to be one man and his father. They create Hindu deities using a technique called lost wax casting that goes back generations. The father was using a hand crank to force air into a fire pit. They create the wax molds, mix and melt the bronze, and finely craft each statue. They were selling their work and I bought a beautiful Ganesh.

Wednesday today-

Suresh picked us up and we made a spur of the moment stop at the Mahamaham Tank and adjacent temple. We are driving back roads whenever possible, so passing through villages, small heards of cows, buffalo and goats, through rice paddies and coconut groves. Often the two lane highway becomes a  4 or 5 lane when cars are passing and there is a motorbike, a tuk tuk and a couple of bicyclists. Sometimes there is a traffic jam in the middle of a village. Could be two busses trying to pass, or a slow cow on the road. It is really Suresh’s gift to us, letting us see this rural side of Tamilnadu. Surely it would be easier for him to take the bypass road. There are communities of thatched houses that look livable now, but must be disastrous during cyclones and monsoon season.

Back to the Mahamaham tank – it is in the middle of the town rather than on the temple grounds so people use it to do laundry, or just sit on the steps. It looks like a little lake, but with stone steps descending to the water rather than banks. Traditionally, it is believed that after a huge deluge, the celestial pot containing the nectar with the seeds of life sat here. Shiva shot it with an arrow, broke it, spilling the contents and reviving life. At festival time, the tank will be emptied, refilled, and sealed off for the Brahma priests. 1 – 2 million people gather here. I am so happy to be here when it’s not festival time…

We did not go into the big Temple, but a small one just adjacent to the tank. It was under renovation and restoration and still in use. The workers encouraged us to come in, then insisted we walk around the back to see the lingum. We also saw a family of mongooses. (Had to look up the plural of that one.) We watched men carving statues up by the ceiling, and a woman carrying buckets of gravel on her head. It was a very sweet place. Ronni was blessed with ash, with no expectation of a donation. She later found a place to leave some money. Before leaving, I asked if I could take a picture of this small woman carrying the gravel. She emphatically gestured no, so I closed the camera. Turns out, she wanted to be photographed, just not working. A few moments later, as we were leaving, she grabbed Ronni with enormous strength around her shoulder and posed with her for me to take the proper picture.

Then we left for the Shiva Temple which turned out to be the highlight of the trip. It’s very odd to walk into a Hindu Temple and feel at home. Here is the back story.

Chidambaram is one of the five holiest Shiva temples, each representing one of the five natural elements; Chidambaram represents akasha (aether).

There are lots of ways to translate Chidambaram, but my favorite is that Chidambaram may be derived from chit, meaning “consciousness”, and ambaram, meaning “sky”, the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate aim one should attain according to all the Vedas and scriptures. Shavites, followers of Shiva, believe that a visit to Chidambaram leads to liberation.

So we enter the grounds and meet a lovely priest named Ganesh, (easy to remember). He tells us he is expecting a group from America and cannot be our guide, so introduces us to Mr. Balu (also easy to remember). All of the priests here are shiavite brahmins called Dikshitar.

So here is what happened in the news this week:
The Supreme Court on Monday morning set aside the takeover of the sacred Nataraj temple at Chidambaram by the Tamil Nadu State Government, and paved the way for the return of the temple administration to its traditional custodians, the Podu Dikshitars, thus marking the opening of the year with a major civilisational victory for Hindu dharma.

So they are very happy this week. They are unique in India, in both their roles in the community, and in the temple. They are married, hold temple responsibilities in a rotating fashion, and may be an example of the earliest Democratic process.
Below is a more detailed description, if you are interested…

“Podu Dikshitars have been the archakas and trustees of the Chidambaram temple from time immemorial; they printed their temple constitution for the first time in 1849. A dikshitar gets the right to do sacramental service to lord Nataraja and participate in temple administration only after marriage. The community performs duty at the temple in groups of 20 and each batch stays for 20 days till each has in his turn performed the complete tour of puja at the different shrines of the temple where the daily pujas are held.

Though the daily administration of the temple is done by a nine-member management committee, all major decisions are taken by the general assembly of Podu Dikshitars in a democratic way. The dikshitars live ascetic lives; the temple possesses invaluable offerings of jewellery made by former rulers and rich merchants, which are physically verified as per rules once in four days, 20 days and six months. There has been no embezzlement till date. The Chidambaram dikshitars are different from other Brahmin sects in that they are found only in Chidambaram town and form an endogamous clan; they marry only within their community. They are fervent devotees of Shiv. Their puja rituals are special and are found nowhere else in the Hindu world, and are believed to have been expounded by the sage Patanjali. The Podu Dikshitars were among the first to open the temple to all castes of Hindus. Chidambaram is possibly the only ancient temple in Tamil Nadu which permits non-Hindu devotees to have darshan of the deities including the presiding deity Nataraj. In the two main festivals celebrated every year, devotees of all communities are permitted to participate with equal respect and status.”

I include this information because it helps explain the commonality between us and the Dikshitars. Mr. Balu took us through the grounds pointing out important details and us evidence of auspicious numbers, 5, 7, 9 and 108.

5 senses and 5 elements
7 days in a week
9 planets
108 totals 9 (also number of mala beads)

Then the weirdest thing happened. Mr. Balu ran into a western couple he knew and introduced us. He introduced me as a yoga teacher. Up till then, we were only answering his questions and listening to his explanations. None of us talked about ourselves. So I asked him how he knew. He said he didn’t, God knew. I was totally flummoxed, at least in the moment. Eventually, we parted ways with Mr Balu and headed for the inner temple, home of the bejeweled Nataraja, the spot where, in the story related below, Shiva danced. Here, we could finally go in – we thought. It looked like we might have to receive a family blessing which we were not entirely comfortable with.

Then, when we were just about to leave, we ran into Ganesh again and started talking. Pinchas introduced himself as Paul. Ganesh lit up and he had a friend from the states of the same name, Paul Muller Ortega. Then we started talking about Douglas (missed him and his group by a day or two) and all of a sudden we were mishpokhe (family). Then I began to understand how Mr. Balu knew I was a yoga teacher. We are mostly familiar with the same stories, the tantric view, and we share the phrases we learned from our teachers. It must have been abundantly clear!!!

Ganesh led us up the side stairs, and there, under a dome of 108 gold leaf tiles was this most stunning Nataraja. After practicing and teaching in front of a beautiful Nataraja at City Yoga, for almost 14 years, I felt connected and as moved as I have ever been.

We gratefully accepted blessings from Ganesh and promised to remember him to our mutual friends. So I put it out there to all of you.

Temple Story – and the reason behind the Dancing Shiva, or Nataraja:
The story of Chidambaram begins with the legend of Shiva strolling into the Thillai tree forest.

In the Thillai forests lived a group of saints or ‘rishis’ who believed in magic and that God can be controlled by rituals and ‘mantras’ or magical words. Shiva arrives with resplendent beauty and brilliance, assuming the form of a merchant. He is followed by Vishnu as Mohini. The rishis and their wives are enchanted by the brilliance and the beauty of the handsome mendicant and his consort. Seeing their womenfolk enchanted, the rishis get enraged and invoke scores of ‘serpents’ (Sanskrit: Nāga) by performing magical rituals. Shiva lifts the serpents and dons them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist. Further enraged, the rishis invoke a fierce tiger, which Shiva skins and dons as a shawl around his waist. Frustrated, the rishis gather their strength and invoke a powerful demon Muyalakan – a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. Shiva, wearing a gentle smile, steps on the demon’s back, immobilizes him and performs the Ánanda Thaandava (the dance of eternal bliss) and discloses his true form. The rishis surrender, realizing that this Lord is the truth and he is beyond magic and rituals.

The demon under Nataraja’s feet signifies that ignorance is under his feet
The Fire in this hand (power of destruction) means destroyer of evil
The raised hand signifies that he is the savior of all life.
The Ring at the back signifies the cosmos.
The drum in his hand signifies the origin of Life.

#18 Thanjuvor, a tailor and the Big Temple, India

I think it was Tuesday, we were starving by the time we got to the Gnanam Hotel in Thanjuvor. and we had to find a tailor for Ronni. We took off to find dinner and instead found a sign for a tailor. We followed the arrow down a narrow path, found the shop and met a Muslim Indian who had previously been a principal at a trade school in Abu Dhabi – so his English was great. To our good fortune, he returned to take up the family business. Ronni had an seam edge that was fraying, so as one of his two assistants fixed it, we realized that this was the place to have clothes made. My Indian wardrobe got a sudden upgrade. First he made adjustments to the stuff we bought from the first, and not so good, tailor. Then we chose materials and picked out necklines and pant styles. He advised us on which tops needed linings and we gave him a deposit. He took our cell mbr and told us he would call the following day at 6PM. Then we asked him where to eat.

We were on our way to his suggested restaurant when we saw a veg place that looked relatively crowded, clean enough and a block closer. Turned out to be very good and one of the dishes might be my favorite of the trip – pomegranate uttappam. Uttappam is kind of a thick, puffy pancake, and in this version the seeds had been folded into the batter. There were 3 on the plate, can’t remember what the others were. Out shinning the uttappam, was our waiter. The people in Tamilnadu are really dark, everyone has great hair, and the men mostly sport mustaches and just as often, beards. So when they smile, and smiles come easily here, their faces truly light up. It did not hurt that this man spoke some English. Pinchas patiently watched as we flirted our way through dinner. There is another chapter to our love story. The next day we were looking for a place to eat lunch and went back to the same place. We found our waiter ordered pomegranate uttappam again. He brought me and Ronni one big one each, and each decorated with a catsup heart. We might have gone back there for dinner, but that might constitute stalking…

We had a guide set up for us for the afternoon, Rajan. This time, a thirty something, professor of philosophy and archecture. He was a trip, very knowledgable, with a distinct teaching style, and attitude in spades. He made sure we were listening then framed his questions in the following manner.

“This statue is the most beautiful and important in this collection. Some of my students think that Parvati is in a subservient pose here, and not pleased with her position. What do you think?” We made sure we were paying rapt attention and learned much from him.

Thanjavur is an important center of South Indian religion, art, and architecture. Most of the Great Living Chola (a dynasty) Temples are UNESCO World Heritage Monuments, and are in and around The city. Most important is the Brihadeeswara Temple, called the Big Temple, in the middle of the city. It’s 1000th birthday was celebrated in 2010. It is the largest temple in India, and the tallest. We started out there and learned that it was later a fort, then a larger fort, then an even larger fort. It was built as a tribute to the Raj who built it to honor Shiva. The Raj was also a deeply secular thinker and the statues reflect his attitudes. Our guide pointed out various secular statues on the towers. We found a birthing mother, a nursing mother, the Buddha, a garden nome and a carving of Bacchae. Still, he built a Shiva temple, and within the walls is a huge one-piece carved granite Nandi, Shiva’s vehicle, the bull. Back on the towers, one of the limgums is carved open to show Shiva inside and remind us of his essence.  So far, we have not been able to go inside the inner sanctum. Here as well, “only priests are allowed to enter the inner-most chamber where Shiva resides”.

There is lots lots more, but I’ll spare you… After lunch, our guide suggested we walk the quiet narrow residential streets. We saw the chalk drawings in front of each house, called Kolams. sprinkled every dawn with colored rice flour. They are supposed to bring prosperity, provide food for smaller animals, thereby welcoming other animals into the house, keep out evil and welcome Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth.

“The patterns range between geometric and mathematical line drawings around a matrix of dots to free form art work and closed shapes. Folklore has evolved to mandate that the lines must be completed so as to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering…3×3 symmetry 9 goddesses swastika Kolam with a single cycle, each of which corresponds to one of the nine Devi (Goddess) of the Vedic system.
It used to be a matter of pride to be able to draw large complicated patterns without lifting the hand off the floor or standing up in between…

In the kolam patterns, many designs are derived from magical motifs and abstract designs blended with philosophic and religious motifs which have been mingled together. Motifs may include fish, birds, and other animal images to symbolize the unity of man and beast. Also used are designs for the sun, moon and other zodiac symbols.
The ritual kolam patterns created for special occasions such as weddings often stretch all the way down the street. Many of these created patterns have been passed on generation to generation, from mothers to daughters.” (Thank you, Wikipedia)

The walk went well until the narrow street became an open construction site, among other things. We got through it, but I’ll never wear those sandals again. They took me to Burma, Cambodia and Chang Mai. I took a picture of them, wrapped them well and put them in the trash.

We received our call from the tailor and went over for adjustments and picked up our clothes. We learned that we were his first American patrons! The cloth price was listed on each package, and the rate for the labor was on the wall in Tamil. We did not bargain at all. We think we paid double for the labor, which was totally appropriate.  So if you ever make it to Thanjuvor….

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