Monday, June 6, 2016

India: March in Madras

Hiraeth (n.): the desire or longing to go back to a place that has been so changed that it does not exist anywhere except in one's own mind. (Welsh)

As it turns out, Chennai is a huge center for Christians in India, as it is the place where St. Thomas the apostle (that's right, our friend Doubting Thomas) was martyred. As such it is the home to many, many Christians and lots and lots of relics and cathedrals and all of the things I obsess over.

First up, the Saint Thomas Basilica, known as San Thome to the locals. It's quite a large churchit looks like a lot of the Spanish cathedrals I visited at first glancebut once I stepped inside it became clear that the cathedral took its Portuguese heritage and applied a uniquely Indian spin. The first thing I noticed was the fleet of ceiling fans that bedecked every column, jutting out over the congregation on adapted flying-buttress mounts, incorporating form and function in a way that wouldn't be necessary in Lisbon; likewise the stained glass windows are patterned with large panes of color that coordinate with the mosquito netting.

I made my way up to the altarpiece but was flouted in my academic pursuits because the figure of Jesus, a rare statue that depicts Christ as fully-clothed, had been removed for Lent. This wasn't altogether surprising (at my home church we observe the season by covering our altar's cross with a purple shroud) but it did rather bring a halt to my search. Luckily, there's a museum! Its collection consists of a lot of old stone carvings (both Classical and local styles), some human remains excavated from the San Thome grounds, and a collection of relics from Saint Thomas, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Philomena and Saint Francis Xavier. The museum is also the antechamber to the underground crypt of Saint Thomas (which is air-conditioned!).

Chennai is also home to another monument to Saint Thomas, the Saint Thomas Mount. Located on the top of a hill overlooking Chennai (you can see straight to the ocean,) the altar is built over the place where Saint Thomas was martyred. The church is home to an impressive collection of relics—I counted over sixty different saints—as well as a number of Saint Thomas's personal effects. One of the most notable is the Cross of Saint Thomas, which is said to have been carved by the saint himself and to weep blood. I don't even know how to approach conserving a bleeding stone cross, but luckily for me the stone hasn't bled since 1707. There is also a portrait of the Virgin Mary reportedly painted by Saint Luke that Saint Thomas used for his own personal worship. Suffice it to say that the Mount is home to some heavy-hitting relics.

I also visited a collection of local temples in Chennai, which I'll have to do in bullet points because there is just so much to get through:
Mylapur Temple was undergoing restoration while I was there, but it had no shortage of visitors. Members of the community were participating in the cleaning and maintenance of the common areas, while priests cleaned and cared for the statues behind closed gates. Lots of color, and great smellsI came at lunchtime, when many temples serve a simple meal for visiting pilgrims.
Murugan Temple was under construction at the time I went. The only hall open for worship was a small linoleum-and-fluorescent-lights temporary structure, and I made an offering for the repainting of one of the shrines. The idols and offerings are all being held in a central location until they can be properly installed in their new homes.
Amman Temple, my personal favorite that I visited, is right off the Chennai beach and one of the few places you can catch a breeze in the city. It is also a unique temple-going experience: right from the moment you step through the gates, you are directed on a tiny (one-person-at-a-time, can't-really-turn-around tiny) path that twists up and around the pyramid of the temple, leading you to each statue in turn. It's a bit dizzying, and not for the claustrophobic, but I loved it! I wouldn't recommend it at peak hours, though.
Permar Temple had real live conservation work going on! Way in the back of the temple (I think it took at least twenty minutes to get from one end of the complex to the other) they are conducting a mural conservation project, which is distinct from the routine repainting that most temples undergo every 10-ish years. Of course nobody was there when I was, but it was so neat to see the work in progress!

My final notable stop was to the Government Museum of Chennai, which I visited for its Hindu Sculpture Gallery. At the entrance to the gallery was this notice, translated from the Tamil:
All these images are religious in purpose; with a few exceptions they are designed to remind worshipers of the divine, conceived by Hindu philosophy as the Impersonal Absolute. It is easy today to slip into the mode of seeing the sculptures as works of art: products of great creative minds. While being these, there is a function they fulfill, something governed by a different, though not opposed, set of considerations. The sculptors followed the rules laid down in the Silpa Sastras. These sculptures are the most imperishable art, frozen for the moment...for posterity. They are shaped and formed in the art of creation, and live for [a] moment of specific duration.
A "different, though not opposed, set of considerations." I like it. (And for those who don't know, the Shilpa Shastras are a set of manuals that are the standing authority on Hindu iconographythey are the canon that include rules for proportions, manners of interpretation, composition and even guidelines for architecture.)

On a more personal note: while I was in Chennai I had the pleasure of doing a homestay, trading my solitary travel lifestyle for a temporary family, and it was absolutely wonderful! Living with a series of aunties and uncles (who seemed, more than anything, to be determined to feed me until I burst) provided me with an insider’s look into India and its culture, as a well as a sense of security that I hadn't known I was missing. It also meant that I had an enormous extended network of family and friends that were eager to take me under their wings and send me headlong into daily Indian life. I attended three weddings, went to Easter services and the accompanying massive family gatherings, ate my way through no less than five ceremonial feasts, and participated in the neighborhood children’s spirited celebration of Holi.

I am extremely grateful to all the people who took me under their wings, feeding me idly and masala dosa until I burst, and extending to me their endless kindness. My personal life was a source of great stress for me while I was in India, but because of these people I had a family who was willing to go above and beyond to take care of me. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Wearing a saree at my first Indian wedding

I spent my last week in India doing a tour of the South and its most sacred places, meaning I was in a new city every day. I took it as a chance to conduct a serious comparative study of the butter chicken masala and na'an of South India (spoiler: Madurai won) but also to have as much information about temples and history and religion and culture thrown at me as possible. Shout out here to my driver, Danielhis AC game was on-point. I don't think I'd have survived a week of above-40C temperatures without him.

I departed Chennai and our first stop was Kancheepuram, where we visited several temples in the town and I participated in my first puja, or fire ceremony. I was blessed by a priest and had red powder smeared on my forehead to represent the goddess, Parvati. In Kancheepuram I also had my first experience of the dangers of summertime temple-visitingsince temple complexes are massive and partially outdoors, the stones heat up to dangerous temperatures and can leave blistering burn welts on your bare feet. I took to carrying a pair of  what I dubbed Temple Socks (patent pending) to protect my poor wimpy feet.

Interestingly, larger temple complexes are much like large cathedrals in that they have a main sanctuary (or "sanctum sanctorum") that houses the main sacred object (i.e., a relic, statue, altar, lingam, tomb, dedication to a local deity or saint) which is the temple's main attraction. Just like in a cathedral, however, there are several smaller annexes (equivalent to chapels) where worshipers can find a fairly standard set of gods and goddesses, like Shiva, Ganesha, Parvati, Murugan, or any number of their various incarnations. There are also marriage halls, multi-purpose meeting rooms, and sometimes even enormous reservoirs for sacred bathing contained within the labyrinthine passages.

Next was Mahabalipuram, which is a small town on the coast that is best known for its archaeological wealth. I visited Arjuna's Penance, a series of carved caves very reminiscent of the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, but on a much smaller scale. My favorite part was seeing the vague imprint of paint on the ceiling of one of the smaller cavesfor 6th century pigment, that's not a bad paint job! Nearby are the Five Rathas, monolithic mini-temples (I say mini only because Indian temples are HUGE) that tell the story of five brothers fighting for one girl (there's one temple each for the girl and the brothers, with the twins sharing one structure). They are 1,300 years old and carved from sandstone; since they are right off the shoreline, the sea air is slowly but surely eroding them away, and there is as of yet no way to save them from their (eventual) destruction. A little further up the coast is the Shore Temple, which is made from granite and stands only meters from the Bay of Bengal. It's a structural temple (as opposed to monolithic or carved, like the Rathas or Arjuna's Penance) and it has a material advantage over the sandstone structures in the area. It's gorgeous, especially with the sea breeze!

The next day was Pondicherry, which is a beautiful city even further south along the coast. My personal highlights include the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which I visited to meditate for a few hours. It's absolutely beautiful and equally silent, and it's easy to forget you're in the middle of the city. Next I visited the Sri Manakula Vinayagar temple, which was a shock to the senses after the quiet of the ashram. Not only is it a very, very busy and bright temple, but they. Have. An. Elephant! Named Lakshmi, the elephant is a vessel for Ganesh. For a small fee you can pay to feed the elephant and she will bless you for Ganesh. I have to admit I was too much of a coward and too afraid for my purse to do it, but I did stare adoringly for a while. What are the ethics of taking care of a living vessel of a god? Way above my pay grade, that's for sure.

Then it was off to Tanjore, which was super duper cool! First we waited for the heat of the day to wear off (which was a process that got more essential by the day, I swear) and then we headed to Tanjore Palace, where they have a library of ancient and religious texts from around the world. Cool conservation tidbit: since the library isn't climate-controlled at all, the curators of the collection have lined the glass boxes with a local aromatic wood that keeps bugs from getting into the books. Totally neat! There is also an art gallery inside the palace where I went to go pay my respects to the carvings of godsto my surprise, it is a regular and encouraged practice to touch or rub the statues on display for blessings. My guess is this links back to the "different, though not opposed, set of considerations" that governs sacred sculpture on display in the Chennai Museum; these sculptures, though in an art museum, are somewhere in between the realms of the artistic and the sacred, and their inclusion in the latter means that they are still very much interactive. Our final stop of the day (pro-tip: always visit Indian temples during summer sunsets. It's cool enough to walk around and the buildings glowwin-win!) was Brihadeeswarar Temple, which is enormous and just over a millennium old. While I was there I participated in another puja, and I was given a knotted cord to wear around my wrist to protect me from the evil eye.

The next morning we drove to Trichy, where I burned off my feet and the rest of my legs visiting the Rockfort Temple. Spoiler alert: it's on the top of a mountain. I nearly died. I got to the top of the temple complex (which is built much the same as others, with a progression of temple halls and smaller chapels, but this time the progression was vertical) and I wasn't allowed into the sanctum sanctorum. It wasn't the first time I've been denied entry to a sacred place, and I'm sure it won't be the last, but gosh did my legs hate me for it. Luckily there was a smaller temple to Ganesh further up the mountain, so I hiked up and was rewarded with stunning river valley views, plus a visit to Ganesh at bathtimethe priests periodically bathe the statue with milk, herbs, and other materials to maintain its spiritual purity and care for the god it houses. Next we went to the Srirangam Temple, which honestly redefines everything I have ever said about Indian temples being huge: this one has a city inside of it. It's the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world, and occupies 156 acres of land. I didn't visit all of itnot by a long shotsince there are many parts I am not allowed into and others are uninhabitable for poor wimpy me during the heat of the day. One of the parts I remember best, however, are the relief sculptures covering almost every inch of available wall space in the temple. There are particular sculptures that are treated with similar reverence to the principal statues inside the great halls of the temple, anointed with oils and decorated with colorful powders and flowers, proving that nothing inside these temples is just for decoration.

Later that day we went to Madurai, where I visited the Meenakshi temple, which may have been my favorite temple of the trip. Not only is it mostly covered (my soles wept for joy) but it has so many interesting and varied areas for worship that I was ooh-ing and ah-ing every time I turned a corner. There's the Hall of a Thousand Pillars (spoiler alert: it's 985 pillars), the outer shrine to Meenakshi (I wasn't allowed inside the sanctum), the Hall of the Temple Tree (nandis, celestial lingams, and a golden flagstaff representing humanity and the universe are located here) and a lot more Halls that I didn't get to visit. There's even a museum! Seriously, these places are massive. The part I found most interesting, however, was a repeated pair of sculptures that kept cropping up in almost every part of the temple: Shiva and Kali. The story goes that Shiva and Kali were having a dance competition. Shiva, being the Lord of the Dance, had a distinct advantage and won. Kali, in her anger, grew very hot, and to this day worshipers pelt her statue with ghee (clarified butter) which is meant to cool her down. Not surprisingly this has begun to degrade the statue over the years, and now certain statues of Kali have been ghee-proofed to preserve them. Conservators, fighting the good fight! But what about the story? Are centuries of tradition to be abandoned? And why choose material culture (the statue) over immaterial culture (the ghee throwing)? Is one more important than the other? More unanswerable questions for Lindsay.

My next stop was the island town of Rameswaram, home to the Ramanathaswamy Temple dedicated to Shiva. My guide told me I was lucky—the temple had just been restored for the first time in twelve years in February. All the paint was fresh and bright, and he explained that this is the prime time to come visit a temple, when it's looking its best. The main attractions of the temple are a series of sacred baths that are among the holiest in the country, so there are a lot of wet pilgrims walking the halls. There is also a 3600-year old lingam, created by the goddess Sita, and all interactions with the lingam are facilitated by priests. I often wonder if this is not the reason that so many of these sacred objects have lasted so long; the implementation of a mediator in the form of a priest allows interaction with the object while maintaining its relative safety and minimal exposure to the elements.

Finally I made it to Kanyakumari, the final stop on my tour and the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. First I took a ferry out to Swami Vivekananda Rock, which is a temple on a rock out in the bay off the tip of the peninsula. It has a memorial to Swami Vivekanada, a historical figure who is considered a saint in India for his works spreading Hinduism and nationalism in India and the world, as well as a small shrine to Kanyakumari, the local patron goddess, whose footprint is preserved on the surface of the rock. Next I went back to shore and dipped my feet in the holy waters of the thriveni sangamam (the convergence of three seas—the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea—is considered very holy and has purification properties) and then made my way to the beach with the rest of the pilgrims to watch the sun set. Not a bad ending to two months in India!

My last night in India at Kanyakumari Beach

So! That's India. I'm so proud of you for reading all of that. My next entry will be about my month in Indonesia. I'm already in New Zealand, with less than a month left on the road, which is more than a little absurd. But here's to ending well!

If I could just keep your attention for a minute more, I'd like to make a quick podcast recommendation. It's called "Museum of Lost Objects," and it's a program about antiquities and sites that have been lost, looted, or destroyed during the conflict in Iraq in Syria. Here's a link if you're interested; I highly recommend it. It's right up my alley—maybe it'll be up yours too.