Kanchipuram; Return of the crazy Spaniards; Temple, temple temple!; In which we realize that we're the only foreigners in town; Quite the strangest birthday ever

We rose from an insect-ridden, nightmarish sleep and went out gritty-eyed into the honking bedlam of the street. Even at this hour it was already hot. The breakfast of choice in the south of India is the dosa, which can be thought of as a savoury crèpe, sometimes stuffed, sometimes not. They’re a whole lot cheaper than the crèpes we had in Paris, certainly - here they cost around Rs20 or CAD$0.50. They make a surprisingly filling breakfast too.

Visiting temples was the theme of the day. Kanchipuram is a temple and silk town, and since we can’t afford and don’t want any silk we reckoned we’d just admire it from the streets and save ourselves the hassles of sales pitches. There are five big temples in Kanchipuram, scattered around the town. The first temple we visited was the Kailasanatha Temple. It was a half-hour walk away at the edge of town, and a stinky walk it was indeed, by the side of the canal.

The temple is huge and set in the middle of a big lawn. It’s a square plan with a wall around the outside, an inner courtyard and a square inner building which rises in a four-sided tiered pyramid, all in grey-white stone and streaked with black. Every surface is lavishly covered with deep relief carvings and ornamentation in fantastic detail. It’s impossible to miss, it towers over the surrounding streets. It was early enough in the day that the beggars, hustlers and tour buses hadn’t yet arrived, so we were able to slip off our shoes, leave them outside, and enter the temple un-accosted. Un-accosted, that is, until we were snagged at the door by a man with an ID badge that said he worked for the Department of Archaeology or some such thing. He took charge of us immediately and began to usher us around pointing out features and relating the history of the temple and the meaning of the carvings. I’d really rather have gone around alone since I sensed that a shakedown would be coming at the end, but the moment of opportunity for getting rid of him passed before we could seize it. We were lucky to get away with only paying him 200 rupees - $5 for 15 minutes work must make him the most highly-paid man in Kanchipuram. We did learn a lot from him, though.

The temple is dedicated to Shiva, one of the three main gods of the Hindu pantheon, whose aspect is the Destroyer. I’ve always thought that the title gives an incorrect connotation to his role, though, and represents him as somewhat evil. In the Hindu cosmology the three great roles of creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe and everything in it are assigned to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively, and destruction is seen as necessary, natural and integral to correct function. So I think of Shiva more as a cosmic janitor or dismantler rather than a destroyer.

In any case, the temple is covered in carvings of Shiva in hundreds of different poses - dancing, reclining, fighting and so on. His wife, the goddess Parvati is there too, and lots of carvings of their son, the elephant-headed god Ganesh (my personal favourite). Incidental characters are occasionally present, such as in a scene where Brahma judges a dancing contest between Shiva and Parvati, or a representation of the archer-god Arjuna. The carvings are incredible to see. The detail of the ornamentation on the roof is fantastically intricate. All around the inside of the perimeter wall are little alcoves for shrines, and at one point they had all been painted inside with brightly-coloured frescoes. Criminally, the whole temple was covered with white stucco in the 19th century during British rule. The stucco didn’t last, but when it came off it took a lot of the original frescoes with it. A couple of them have survived the centuries - amazingly in this heat and dampness - and the abuse. The detail and lifelike human forms and figures are far more realistic than anything produced in Europe even a thousand years later.

The temple was full of Western tourists. Their tour buses pulled up in the street outside and they debarked, took a turn around the temple and boarded again, having walked probably ten steps in Kanchipuram. We did see two familiar faces though - Rafael and Juan Luis, the two Spaniards from the day before. We were very happy to see them, and they likewise. They both had red and white tilaks on their foreheads and Rafael was wearing a flower garland around his wrist - I think they like India. We decided to join forces again, since we’d made a good team yesterday, and go on to see the next temple together. It was a long walk across to the opposite edge of town, though, and we stopped for lunch on the way at a chain restaurant called Saravani Bhavan (they have locations in the Toronto suburbs of Mississauga and Scarborough, according to their menu - who knew?). We’d eaten there before and it was cheapish decent food. Rafa and Luis had never eaten Indian food before, either at home in Spain or the day before (their first day here, and they’d somehow eaten tapas). So we introduced them to Indian food as we know it - palak paneer, aloo gobi, biryani, channa masala and naan. They both liked it very much, they said. Rafa had trouble tearing his naan using only his right hand - it’s an acquired skill that needs more than a bit of practice.

Our second temple of the day was the Devarajaswami Temple, dedicated to Vishnu. It has a big paved interior courtyard reached through an archway, with buildings scattered inside. We left our shoes at the archway, wondering whether they’d be here when we got back. A pushy attendant rushed us inside, and when we glanced back told us explosively that our shoes would be fine, they’d move them somewhere safe. Not much reassured, we followed him in onto the burning hot paving stones of the courtyard. Naturally I had something to prove to all the Indians wandering around casually on their calloused, insulated feet, and so I sauntered just as slowly as they did, gritting my teeth against the feeling of my soles charring black.

The main building of the temple is the “thousand-pillared hall”. It’s a hushed, shadowed space inside - there are no walls, only pillars, but the pillars are set so close together that they block out the sunlight. It was cool, dark and cobwebby inside, and the ravens nested at the tops of the pillars, so I had to be careful where I put my feet. It was a far gloomier and more solemn place than the Kailasanatha Temple, fashioned from darker stone, and the carvings were rougher and blunter. A raised dias took up the centre of the space, with a vaulted ceiling overhead. The big, flat stones of the floor were shakily carved here and there in the looping Devanagari script. Hanging from each outside corner of the roof were chains, their interlinked circles all, incredibly, carved from a single piece of stone.

The other building in the temple that non-Hindus were allowed to enter was the “marriage hall” which commemorates the wedding of Vishnu and Lakshmi. Its pillars were detailed with erotic carvings that put me in mind of the illustrations in the Kama Sutra. There was a third building as well, but it was reserved for Hindus and walled off with crowd-barriers anyway. As we watched, a priest tried to squeeze between them, knocked one over with a giant crash, and spent the next two minutes fighting to get it back upright, in front of a hundred spectators all laughing, before finally giving up and stalking off in indignation. It’s a good thing that Hinduism doesn’t rely on the dignity of its priests, as a rule. A nice lady in a red sari, who we’d been trading laughs with over the priest’s difficulties, came over and told us that she’d seen the shoe-wallah move our shoes into the corner, so we shouldn’t be alarmed when they weren’t where we left them. I was a bit touched by her thoughtfulness. By this time, people were filing in, the women all dressed in the finest, brightest silk saris, for late afternoon puja. We took that as our cue to leave. Our shoes were safely stashed in some cardboard boxes near where we’d left them. I made sure to tip the shoe-minder - I’m very happy with the idea of tipping the man who makes sure my shoes don’t get stolen. The thought of walking these streets barefoot does not make me happy.

We walked back along Gandhi Street to the more populated part of town, collecting double-takes and stares along the way. We’d long since gathered that the four of us were the only foreigners in the entire town. We hadn’t seen any others the whole time we were there, and it was evident from the way we were being treated as a novelty and a curiosity that we were uncommon. School was letting out as we walked and the streets were swarming with schoolgirls. Their uniform is a pleated maroon dress with a white shirt underneath. The dress has some sort of complicated, draped shawl or wide straps over the shoulders and the back, and they all wear their hair in two looped braids tied with garlands of flowers. They all giggled and smiled or tried not to smile, and half of them wanted their picture taken. Progress was slow.

Rafa’s mantra for the day up to this point had been Tem-ple! Tem-ple! Tem-ple! but after a day of temples and hot sun it had changed to the phrase Beer!. I’d more or less expected to more or less dry in India, since alcohol isn’t really readily available. Rafa and Luis had found a place that sold beer the night before, though - trust a Spaniard! It was an upscale bar in a hotel, and each bottle of beer came with more bowls of snacks than we could possibly have eaten: vegetables, crackers, beans that nobody ate. The beer was very cold and felt very good going down. The conversation got round to horoscopes, and I admitted that my birthday was that very day, and so it turned into an impromptu party. Very generous, they paid for the whole evening. I’m constantly humbled by peoples’ generosity.

We were all a little tipsy after two bottles of beer each, and so we decided that it was time to head out and find the next temple. It was fully dark by this time, we were surprised to discover. I forget the name of the temple we were trying to find. I got us close, following the map, but then came to a dead end. It was a fun neighbourhood we were in, though, all the kids playing on the little backstreets, everyone very friendly and lively. The Spaniards are people-magnets. Everyone loved them, because they love everyone. One group of boys had a couple of baby chicks that they’d dyed bright pink and green, we had no idea why. As fun as the backstreets were, though, they weren’t getting us closer to the temple. Rafa tried to get directions but started asking for an entirely different temple than the one we’d started out looking for, so we got sent somewhere else completely.

By this time the beer had done its work and we all needed to pee desperately. There are no public washrooms anywhere, though. In the end, we didn’t have much choice except to say when in Rome and go in the alley like everybody else. We did find a temple, in the end. The entrance was around the corner from a giant wheeled contraption, like a rolling temple itself, with meter-high wooden wheels and all painted in red and yellow. We didn’t know anything about the temple, even its name. Inside was dark and musty. Rafa said we should touch the bottom of the doorframe for luck and walk through the temple in a clockwise direction - I’d never heard of either of those customs, but went along with it. Sheryl did say she saw a little girl touch the threshold of the door and rub her hand all over her face. In the inner sanctum were two priests and a shrine, behind which was a huge indistinct black carving of feathers or wings that covered the whole rear wall. In the flickering candle-light, it was impossible to tell what the carving depicted. In exchange for an offering, people were receiving bundles of leafy green herbs from the priests, and they were throwing them on a table facing the shrine. I didn’t know who they were making offerings to, but as we left, we heard the priest at the door mutter Vishnu, Vishnu.

It was now half-past seven in the evening, and we had to rush - Rafa and Luis wanted to get to a fourth temple. They’d gone the night before and knew that evening puja was at 7:45, so we needed to hurry to make it in time. I don’t know the name or the patron of this fourth temple either. It was arranged in the now-familiar style of a large internal courtyard with buildings holding shrines scattered around and a rectangular pool with steps leading down to it. The stones were still warm under out feet from the heat of the sun. An attendant took us to a shrine to Parvati or Lakshmi (I forget which) and then, unaccountably, disappeared. Rafa and Luis gave themselves tilaks from the dish of red powder beside the shrine, but Sheryl and I didn’t. I’m not sure of Sheryl’s reasons, but I just didn’t think it was acceptable, not being a Hindu. Strange, since I’ve worn a yarmulke in a synagogue often enough without a qualm and I’m not Jewish either. Really, it was mostly a desire not to be a dumb tourist, blindly imitating customs when I have no idea what they signify, and what privileges or obligations they denote. You see that a lot here, tourists with tilaks or wearing saris or salwar kameez. I think that visiting India, for a lot of people, is all about playing dress-up. Is this good or bad, contemptible or admirable? I’m not really sure.

It was for a different set of reasons, though, that I didn’t join the worship ceremony. The building was lovely - dark, incense-clouded, damp stone in a passage around an inner room, all lined on the outside wall with statues in black stone of all the thousand gods. People were filing in, filling up the inner sanctum where they gathered around a long stone table, and spilling out into the passage. Rafa and Luis joined the crowd around the table in the inner room and Sheryl stayed in the passage, but when the priest began tapping the gong, I left to wait outside. I’m always uncomfortable when confronted by genuine religion. This, exotic religion though it may be, is still religion - and religion of any sort is an abomination and a crime against humanity. I was half disappointed in myself, though, for not embracing the mystery and the otherworldliness of it, for not just letting myself go, losing myself and joining in. A catch-22, as they say - double-thinking it causes me to lose either way. Rafa and Luis were glowing when they emerged, though.

By this time I was feeling physically terrible - the cold I’d known was coming ever since the germ-ridden flight to Chennai was beginning to catch up to me and stomp on my head. I’d promised to use our computer to copy some of Luis’ photos so that he could free up some memory cards, though. They’d offered us the use of their shower, too, which I wasn’t about to turn down. They’d ended up at a hotel which was roughly eight times more expensive than our fleabag, and it showed - they had a nice shower with hot water instead of our filthy tap and bucket. It took an hour to copy the photos and take our showers, by which time I was exhausted and quite ready to retire to our vile accommodations for the night. All in all, quite the strangest birthday I’ve ever had, I think.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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