Trichy; Bazaar and Rock Fort Temple; In which we declare an addition to our personal pantheons; Lourdes Church; A temple of Shiva the night before a festival is a strange place to be; Thieving little bastards; Altercation on the bus; Drinking with the doctor

We had big plans today - Trichy has a lot of things to see, but not enough to spill over into a second day of sightseeing, so we wanted to get it all done in one big push so that we could move on to Madurai in the morning. Three temples, a church, a bazaar and a museum. That was only a little bit over-ambitious, as it turned out.

Trichy Municipal Bus Number One takes you in a big circle from the main bus station to each of the three big temples in turn and then back to the station, but only in one direction (this becomes important later in the day). It took us nearly all the way to the Rock Fort Temple, our first destination. I tried to follow the bus’ route on the map, but quickly got lost. The Rock Fort Temple is perched on a hundred-foot-high rock hill and makes an unmissable landmark - all I could tell was that we were wending indirectly closer to it, which was fine by me. We jumped off the bus in front of the once-white neo-gothic facade of Lourdes Church - it was our second destination of the day but we decided to see the Rock Fort Temple first and then come back.

The route to the Rock Fort Temple led past the huge Teppakkulam temple tank (the temple tanks are big rectangular pools with tiers of steps on all sides, filled with murky green water) and through the bazaar streets. The bazaar was packed and very cheerful. Everyone was smiling at us - or more accurately, smiling at Sheryl. Everyone loves her, here. I don’t get smiles very often here - never from women and only occasionally from other men. I don’t know how much of this is a cultural thing and how much is me. Even when I smile back at a woman who has made a point of smiling at Sheryl, she’ll almost always look away. Some of the younger women are bolder, naturally, and a few of them in the 18-25 range have been downright saucy. But most of the time I feel like a ghost trailing along behind Sheryl, for all the notice that anyone takes of me. I should probably be grateful for the opportunity to take some candid photographs of people, I suppose.

The Rock Fort Temple seems big and gloomy at first, after the noise and heat of the bazaar. There’s a small Ganesh shrine in the front, where we left our shoes before going on to the ticket booth. The solid rock of the hill has been bored with tunnels and stairwells leading from one temple to another. The main stairs up are steeply cut through a big tunnel. Their front surfaces are all painted in vertical red and white stripes, like a circus tent. The smell of musty stone and sandalwood incense was heavy in the cool air. We followed the steps up into an open-air space with a lane that led off to the side. At the same time, we both caught sight of a stall selling bundles of grass, and thought elephant! Sure enough, there was one just a little farther onward inside the rock. The pendant hanging around her neck was, sadly, not in English, so we couldn’t read it. She was older than Lakshmi, our first temple elephant from Pondicherry. She had the same tilak of three horizontal lines on her forehead. Unlike Lakshmi, she had no jewellery, but she did have a necklace of bells that she curled the end of her trunk through and shook. Sheryl tried to feed her some grass, but she didn’t want it, only breaking it open and messing around with it on the floor. The reason for that became obvious when someone fed her a big chunk of stripped bamboo - clearly she felt she didn’t have to settle for grass. She was still kind enough to bless Sheryl with her trunk, though.

Up, up and up the red and white stone steps, past a pillared hall with painted figures and the big Sri Thayumanaswamy Temple to Shiva. Non-Hindus were not allowed, so we continued past and further up into open air. Perched on the very top of the rock hill was the Vinayaka Temple, dedicated to Ganesh the elephant-headed god. A curving, crazily tilted staircase led up to it. We paused for a few minutes to enjoy the air and the view. Everyone at the foot of the stairs was smiling happily. Sheryl was accosted by a young girl and her mom who wanted their picture taken, and I chatted a bit with a man sweeping up the fallen leaves and trash.

Up the steps we went to Ganesh’s temple. Our guidebook said that non-Hindus were not allowed inside the temple. Ganesh is our favourite Hindu deity, though, and we were willing to give it a try to say hello to him at home. We paused respectfully at the threshold, and the priest saw us and waved us inside with a big smile. He gave us a blessing and smeared a white tilak on our foreheads. I’ve been reluctant to accept that so far on behalf of other deities, but I don’t mind it from Ganesh. The priest gave us each a fragrant pink flower and some “Ganesh sweets” - you have to love a god with a sweet tooth, don’t you? The priest also dragged us to the side of the temple and made some poor guy take a photo of the three of us together, using my camera. It was fun, and I suppose we’ve somehow now declared our allegiance to Ganesh and added him to our rather eclectic personal pantheons. I did notice that the priest neglected to return my pen, though, and wondered if this was Ganesh’s first effort on our behalf, being as he is both the creator and remover of obstacles. I reckoned I’d better rise to the occasion and deal with the obstacle if I wanted to remain in favour, so I went in, retrieved the pen (it was only absent-mindedness, I think) and we continued on our way around the back of the temple. There’s a little circuit hallway there with windows that look out over the city. Below the windows, the rocks were strewn with grass and flowers - offerings to Ganesh, I suppose.

Down we went again to the Sri Thayumanaswamy temple, dedicated to Shiva. We were allowed in here as well, but only on the condition that we put our cameras away. This temple had ceilings painted magnificently in bright-coloured flowerlike abstracts. The cavernous, mostly empty space contained shrines scattered here and there in the gloom. One had a nice “family portrait” of Shiva, Parvati and the kids. The priest who was showing us around kept asking for money, which is expected and understood - but this one was asking for foreign money, and coins at that! He was a collector, it seemed. We had nothing to give him, of course, since we’ve been travelling so long and don’t make a habit of keeping unconverted money. He took a hundred rupees without batting an eye, though.

Out again, past the nameless elephant, and to the exit, where we retrieved our shoes. They were unmolested except that we discovered why the pile of shoes we’d left them in had been so much smaller than the main pile - it was directly in front of a trash receptacle (a hole in the wall). Someone had left a present of trodden-on flowers in one of mine.

Lourdes Church, when we reached it, was lovely and empty. No pews filled the huge interior - there was nothing to obstruct the soaring spaces and vaulting lines. It was - unexpectedly - magnificent. An empty church is a surprisingly awe-inspiring space. The exterior was in the Neo-Gothic style, once bright white and now streaked with black from exhaust fumes. It sits in the cool green grounds of St. Josephs College. The College has a museum of natural history exhibits collected by the Jesuit order. I really wanted to see it, having a taste for Victorian natural history and a curiosity for what Jesuits might consider exhibit-worthy, but we arrived five minutes too late for its noon closing. It didn’t open again until 2, and we weren’t able to wait. As we left Sheryl was accosted again by two little girls wanting their picture taken. This country is mad for photos. Sheryl has finally started showing people their pictures, at least, which is what they’ve all really wanted all along.

The same Number One bus took us to our next destination, the Sri Jambukeshwara temple north of town. Not knowing exactly where it was, we got off a bit too early and had to find the temple the hard way, through the backstreets. The temple’s exterior entrance is surmounted by a gigantic gopuram - a stepped four-sided pyramid, every surface riotously carved. Demons, gods and animals all romp along the pyramid’s levels, painted in brilliant colours. The spaces in between the figures are painted a bright sky-blue. Our guidebook called this temple an “oasis of tranquillity” but it was as crowded as a train station at rush hour. Lots of families were camped out on patches of floor, and hundreds of women stood around wearing red and yellow saris like a uniform. There were beggars everywhere, and as they spotted us they began to make the now-familiar hand-to-mouth eating motion, and made a wordless bleating maa-aa sound. Just inside the temple was another elephant, our second of the day. I think this one was male because he was very fuzzy and had a very lumpy head.

We had somehow managed, inadvertently, to slip inside without paying for admission or for our cameras, so we started nervously when a priest hurried over after a couple of minutes. We didn’t really want a guide at all. We’d have preferred to walk around by ourselves. He was too insistent and forceful for us, though, and we couldn’t shake him loose. I’ve not yet mastered the art of saying no to priests, it seems. He was a funny round old man wearing only a lungi (a skirt, mostly worn tucked up and wrapped around). He gave us another white tilak - good thing Ganesh’s had worn off - and hustled us around the huge temple shouting “You come! You come!” and explaining things in fractured English. He showed us the partially-submerged lingam, the “Shiva Tree”, painted and hung with pieces of turmeric root, the naga (cobra) statuettes, and lots more besides. It turned out that tonight is the yearly Mahashivaratri or “Night of Shiva”. It’s an overnight observance of vigils, rituals, singing and dancing, and it’s why the temple was so unusually busy today. Te priest invited us to come back to the temple at night to witness the event.

As we followed the priest around the temple we collected a train of four or five young boys (ten to fourteen years old, maybe). I don’t know if they were locals or just in town for the festival, but they were very familiar with the priest - horsing around, punching or slapping him and running away. He’d make threatening backhanded motions but all of us knew he was helpless. Obviously Hindu priests don’t command the same respect as they do in other religions. A sixth sense (I like to call it “experience”) warned me that the kids were planning something - they stayed way too close and were way too touchy - grabbing my earrings, and such. Sure enough, eventually they worked up enough nerve to make a snatch for the satchel I was wearing, slung crosswise over my shoulders. Because I’m not stupid, though, it was far too sturdy and tied too tightly closed for them to get anything out of it. I yelled and feinted a grab for one of them so that they scattered. I’d have loved to break some fingers, but I knew I hadn’t a chance of catching the thieving little bastards.

We had to give the priest 200 rupees in the end, as a “temple donation” (that is to say - straight into that dirty loincloth). We tried to get away with 100 but he caused a stink. Some of Shiva’s priests are quite shockingly greedy. We decided we’d had enough of temples for the day, so we skipped the third and largest temple in Trichy and jumped on a bus back to the Cantonment area, where we were staying. I’d rather have gotten back on the Number One bus which went there in a circular route via the big temple, but Sheryl didn’t want that. Surprise, the bus we jumped only went as far as the northern, smaller bus station, three kilometres short of our hotel.

I had stuffed the bus ticket in my pocket after paying. It must have somehow fallen out, or possibly the flimsy paper simply disintegrated in the hot, sweaty depths of my pocket. In any case I didn’t have it when they came around to check tickets before letting anyone off the bus at the station. A couple of conductors and a supervisor wouldn’t let me leave. I spent five minutes going through my pockets and bag over and over, looking on the floor, looking everywhere and not finding the stupid ticket. The conductor knew damn well he’d sold me a ticket and made a half-hearted attempt to convince the supervisor (I think - none of this episode happened in English) but the supervisor wasn’t having it and began yelling something about a fine. All this in front of a bus full of people waiting for the bus to leave. The conductor searched my sweaty pockets himself, as if I was hiding the ticket to make him look bad. He can’t have enjoyed it very much, but I’m inclined to say he deserved it. Finally they gave up and let me go after paying for another ticket. If I’d known it would be so easy I would have paid the lousy two rupees instantly - avoiding that scene would definitely have been worth the nickel the ticket cost.

I was in a foul mood and feeling completely drained by this point, and I needed a couple of minutes to count to ten thousand and remember how to breathe without grinding my teeth before trying to find the right bus to take us where we needed to go. I saw the #88 pull in, and I thought I remembered seeing it at the other station opposite our hotel - sure enough, it was the right one. The ride back was crowded, hot and long, with traffic jams everywhere. A Tamil girl a few rows ahead was making eyes at me the whole time - she’s going to get herself in trouble carrying on that way.

When we finally got to the bus station we both needed a drink in the worst way. It had been a very long and trying day. There are enough tourists in Trichy to support a couple of bars, and one of them was beside our hotel. It was called the Nice Bar and was up three or four flights of stairs. It was a dark, nearly black room and we couldn’t see a thing when we went in. Sheryl went off to the bar to secure two bottles of Kingfisher, and the man at the next table called and gestured me over. We got talking. Somu had had a run of bad luck and was drowning his sorrows. He was still a very interesting guy and very curious about us. He was a doctor at the local hospital, he said. It never pays to believe what people say about themselves in bars, but he knew his biology. In fact, he quizzed me on the structure and function of the DNA molecule. I was impressed that I remembered all the nucleotides. The conversation got increasingly weird, though, as I got through the bottle of beer. It had been a very hot day and I hadn’t had enough food or water, so the Kingfisher hit me hard, weak though it was. We settled up after only one beer and went back to the hotel, where I fell on my face for two hours.

We thought about going back to the Sri Thayumanaswamy temple for Mahashivaratri, but the thought of getting all the way back across town and then coming all the way back to the hotel made us cry a little. Too, Shiva is by no means our favourite deity, and his devotees have a reputation for aggressiveness and occasionally, violence. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I had a bad feeling, exactly, but I definitely had the strong idea that a bit of caution was in order, and later when we went for a walk I reminded Sheryl not to show any affection in public, or even to touch me. I figured that tonight, of all nights, was not the time to fail to observe propriety.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

March 6th, 2009

The people smiling back/looking is an interesting thing.. Its a culture thing mostly as you guessed.. But very probably, if you were by yourself and dint have a girl to your side, I bet you would get more glances and smiles your way! On the same line of thought, I do find it amusing though that later you (almost) warn a Tamil girl for passing looks at you ;)

Sheryl got the Kingfisher from the bar? I’m surprised there wasn’t a glance/pause before she got her bottle! Maybe its in her blog, I will have to check.. And talking of DNA and biology, its a strange coincidence indeed that I happen to be a graduate student in molecular biology at the moment :-)

¬ Ganesh
March 7th, 2009

I never said I disapproved of her looking! ;) Only that probably others would!

Molecular biology? You have my great respect, sir. The future of the human race is in your hands. Treat us well, will you?

¬ Chris
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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