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India Blog 17 (Most of Tamil Nadu)

June 3, 2010
So now we are in Tamil Nadu.  I have already been here briefly, in Kanyakumari to see the southern most tip of India, some of the Western Ghat towns, like Ooty. Most people are not aware of how old this culture is.  Tamil is one of the oldest languages still in use, the people here traded with ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome.  The Dravidian were driven south by the Aryans to this region around 1500 BC and the culture developed.  This is a land of 5000 ancient temples and even more ruins, something I am excited about and Mary shows slight interest in.  In the Indian epic, the Ramayana, Lord Rama, anointed leader and most respected Aryan, is sent into exile for 12 years.  He is sent to this area because it is thought to be lowly, lacking class.  This civilization thrived through dynasty after (and alongside) dynasty despite being looked down upon by its northern neighbors (because they had dark skin, probably the begining of the caste system).  The culture spread reincarnation, karma, yoga, and vegetarianism (all of which they started I believe) all over South East Asia, resulting in major influences from architecture to religion.  Today there is still some support for groups like the Tamil Tigers (assassinated a president in the 90’s) in the region but it seems to be a mostly peaceful place.
The film industry they have here is called Kollywood, I think, I always get them mixed up.  The films display much of the rich history, but I have been interested in their action films.  Bollywood action stars are all young lean and good looking, while Kollywood stars a big beefy 35-45 year old dudes with thick mustaches that live life by a code and don’t like corruption.  I have now seen bits and pieces of many of these films on television and they are pretty awesome.  Here is one–Hero goes home, sees father, father dies suddenly, feigning weakness and clutching heart, hero leaves because someone has to pay for this, hero kicks ass.  Evil man and henchmen walk through town bullying citizens, hero walks out to confront along the dusty street, bad guys start pushing the hero around, then hero kicks some ass, evil man threatens retribution but the crowd backs the hero and either carry the bad guy off to be mutilated off screen or scare him enough that the evil guy runs away.  This is what I think is happening, I can understand none of the dialogue.
OK, so we leave the mountains in Kerala by bus on our way to Madurai when a tree is split in half blocking the jungle road we are on.  The lines of vehicles in both directions is at least 30 deep both ways and everybody gets out of their cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, ice cream trucks, flatbed elephant movers, bull dozers, horses, tricycles, tractors, minivans, and rickshaws to have a look.  Soon, the crowd surrounding the tree is huge, and in the middle is two tiny guys with tiny hatchets.  This tree, by the way is huge, has many branches and is caught in two other trees across the road as well as a bunch of power lines.  This is not good.  4 hours later, we are on our way, but not without a belly full of ice cream, because the ice cream truck was the first car in line waiting.  The lucky guy probably made more money that day than he had in a while because this was the jungle and there was absolutely nothing near by.  The only problem was that, the little known Indian law that says all trash must be thrown on the ground, extra points for forests and rivers, was in full effect and the area around the fallen tree was soon a heap of skinny stained sticks and plastic wrappers, cardboard boxes, and whatever trash was already in the vehicles beforhand.  I guess I am used to it by now, I try not to participate in it, but I am curious if you have ever had to hold a piece of trash that soon accumulates into 10 pieces for hours because there are no trash cans of any kind even in big cities.  I have done this, but now I just find a big pile and just put it on top, having given in to the dirtiest country I can possibly imagine.  If you were on a boat and somebody threw all the trash they had, bottles, cans, wrappers, bags, food, napkins into the water one after the other you would say something, right?  Here there is no use, they just don’t give a shit, kids do it like they weren’t taught that it is wrong even though I know they were, and adults do it because it’s dirty already so there is nothing that can be done.  It has to be the worst thing about this country.  Piss and shit and trash are everywhere and nobody cares, so I try not to either.
We finally arrive in Madurai way later than we planned.  Its dark, around 730pm and this place is waaaaay crowded.  We want to get out of the city and to a yoga ashram for a few days before starting our temple tour of the region.  We hire a young auto rickshaw driver that says he knows how to get there, but it turns out he doesn’t.  So he gets lost, takes multiple long ways, ends up close to our destination but there are no street lights and he has no head lights, so we have to drive very slow in order to avoid death by oncoming truck or side street ditch.  Eventually we do get there, we give him one of our headlamps so he gets back ok, and we go to sleep excited to get back to ashram life.
The following 4 days at the ashram are similar to before except there are only 7 students there, as opposed to hundreds at the last one.  The food is better, the place is quieter, there is more one on one attention, I can ask questions about confusing yogic beliefs  (why drink milk if they dont eat meat, eggs, and anything unnatural), it’s great.  With us, is Mairead, the Irish girl from before, whom we didn’t know would be there, a Malaysian Buddhist by way of Australia retiree, 2 Japanese, 2 Canadian girls, and a 15 year old Indian boy possibly looking to lose baby fat.  Our teacher, a middle aged looking ancient man who knew both Swami Sivananda and Vishnu Devinanda was funny, smart, and highly enjoyable.  He finished every tidbit of information with the phrase, “Isn’t it?” and had a wonderful laugh.  We actually came to see a yogi that was supposed to be running the place, but apparently the books weren’t up to par and the foundation that owns the place was not happy. I don’t think that the yogi had anything to do with it, but he got the blame, left and is teaching somewhere else I guess.  Over the days here, I get better at yoga, learn more about the lifestyle and history, and generally enjoy myself. But eventually, we leave, back to Madurai.
Madurai is the cultural capital of the Tamil people.  It is one of the oldest cities in India, a major trading hub for the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Now, it doesn’t quite have the sweet smell of yesteryear, the worst traffic I have seen for a major city other than Rome, but it has a few small appealing streets and a fucking awesome temple, the center of which I am not allowed into because I don’t have a third eye.  The temple is called Sri Meenakshi Amman.  It is dedicated to a 3 breasted fish eyed goddess (fish eyed is good).  It is to South India what the Taj is to the north.  It is bigger than what some would think a temple is.  It is surrounded by 12 gopurams, those many statue covered monoliths that are at so many Hindu temples, the highest is 55 meters tall.  The extremely detailed statues on the gopurams are of gods, goddesses, demons, and heroes.  So, Meenakshi is married to Shiva, their son is Ganesh, the elephant headed god.  Ganesh got his head because his mother was the only one home one day while Shiva was out at the Himalayas attending to some divine business.  She didn’t want anybody to disturb her while she was bathing, so she conjured up a a son to guard the door and told him not to let anybody in.  So Shiva comes home and wants to enter but the son says no, not recognizing his father.  Apparently Ganesh has heard stories about his father as a kingly figure, but when Shiva returned he was very dirty and disheveled from the work he was doing.  Ganesh though he was a begger and wouldn’t let him in, so Shiva cut off the boy’s head.  Meenakshi comes out to see the boy with no head and is upset, Shiva feels bad so he sends people out to go look for a replacement head, but they can’t find anything, only an elephant, which apparently was good enough.  So now, Ganesh has an elephant head, is wise, and helps people move obstacles.
Back to the temple:  The paint is redone every 15 years by specific families of painters that pass the skill and the knowledge of the history of each painting down to their children.  There are 50-70 Brahmans that are also generational.  There are drawings along the ground that have 108 different shapes, the knowledge of which is passed down from mother to daughter.  There is a gold domed temple in the center that was the first thing built in the 10th century.  Around the 14th century, the Aryans asked the people of this temple to write down the Tamil holy books, which apparently were not already.  They wrote the whole thing on 60 tablets, I guess they were a kind of commandment type thing to live life by.  The king was not sure which was the holiest, so they put the writing, which was carved into copper plates into a lake and the 3 that floated the longest were chosen as the most holy of all, decreeing them to be blessed and chosen by the gods.  All of the plates are written on one of the walls of the temple.  While inside we noticed that the men lie flat down before the statues of the gods and worship while the women stay on they knees and bend forward.  Curious as to why, we were told the reason.
Apparently, Shiva, as Nataraj (Lord of the Dance) was challenged by his wife to a dance-off. During the competition, Meenakshi (or whatever she is called at this point) matches Nataraj move for move. Nataraj, visibly upset and worried about losing his title as world’s greatest dancer, doen a move he knows she can’t duplicate.  He drops his ring on the ground, picks it up with his toe and raised his foot above his head.  Meenakshi, who doesn’t wear underwear, cannot do it because of her private areas, so she loses.  Well, apparently, the women wearing their sarees, aren’t wearing underwear either, so it is bad form for them to lie down on the floor like the men do to pay worship.
The next morning we leave for Thanjavur.  The place is a dirt road next to a dirtier set of roads.  The only thing it has going for it is the Brihadishwara temple, which is pretty spectacular.  This world heritage site was built in 1010 and was the capital of the Chola empire, which extended their culture as far as the Mekong river in South East Asia.  The huge complex is built entirely out of sandstone and set along the Cauvery River.  The river has been one of the major sources of income and life for this region as long as the people have been here.  Today, this area is one of the poorest in India because of the Tsunami that hit in 2004, killing 7000 people. It is evident from right off the bus that this area has little going for humans, but after leaving this temple, we took a long bus ride through the region to Pondicherry, and I was struck by how originally natural it is.  There are huge swaths of tree orchards planted by the people along roads lined with monstrous rock formations that have been literally cut in half to get to the stones in the center.  The river cuts in and out of towns leading to the Bay of Bengal stretching sometimes as wide as the eye can see before spliting into a delta.  We cut north along the sea lined with ancient temples and dilapidated beach towns, heading for a French coastal haven that is known the most international place in the south.
Pondicherry is not international per se.  Many of the Indian residents speak French, there is a large backpacker population.  A cobblestone heritage walk can be done through the former French Quarter.  But it is still very Indian, with its overbearing traffic, waves of people, dirt and grime, it’s easy to forget that this was a former French colonial town, and is still currently a union terretory.  It isn’t a state I think, but it has its own government, laws, and taxes that are separate from Tamil Nadu, which surrounds it from all sides except for the beach, which is not swimmable. For 2 days, we stayed on the fourth floor of a hotel overlooking the ocean.  The place was nice, I ate a decent steak at a fancy french restaurant, and basically gorged myself after having been deprived of western food for too long.  The only other thing we did there deserves its own paragraph.
I don’t believe in Utopia.  I don’t think it’s real, though I don’t mind people having the notion to start communities that preach environmental sustainability and make quality cheeses.  Auroville is a new age international community started with the soil of 124 nations, where color and creed are things of the past and everybody respects each other, living in the comraderie of shared worship of a guru named Sri Aurobindo and his French old lady named “The Mother”.  Both the Guru and his foreign squeeze are long dead now, but their plan, which is still under construction, is to create a self sustaining community of 50,000 people to live in 80 settlements in the shape of a spiral stretching out from a giant banyan tree and this thing called the Matrimandir.  The Matrimandir looks like the golf ball epcot center at Disney World, except gold.  This is the plan…currently there are 1800 people, a lot I guess, but if you know that this has been a plan for over 50 years, then I say it’s a little underwhelming, this hope for the world.  The 1800 people represent 40 nationalities, and many of them are dicks.  They make it hard to learn from or talk to any of them, they don’t seem to like that this has become a tourist location, despite the fact that this is an international commune in India that worships The Mother and when not farming, spend time concentrating in the Matrimandir, or trying to raise money for the education and health of its people.  Tell me that’s not a little intriguiing. Yes, they do a lot for the poor around India, but this is not a place for the backpacking hippie to decide that he has finally found like minded people who want to change the world, provide hope to millions and listen to the Talking Heads.  This is a place for rich hippies to vacation while living and working off the fat of the land.  It’s cheaper than buying a home in the West (you can’t own land but its yours unless you don’t show up for 5 years) but it is nothing like buying a home in rural India, which is where it is. Overall, the whole thing kinda made me uncomfortable, like the gold concentration orb at the center, or the propaganda video I was forced to watch in order to gaze upon the orb.  It’s not that the place upsets me, it’s just that I think their efforts could be put to better use.
I thought for days about why the place got this sort of negative reaction from me.  Was it how they cut themselves off from the rest of the world in order to make an attempt at being cleaner and more productive than the outside world?  Is that threatening?  I agree that the world is doomed unless it makes major lifestyle changes.  I think it’s almost impossible for an individual or even singe group voice to make major environmental changes in the global world because of the economic factors that differ so much between the biggest polluters, and those most effected by climate change and dwindling natural resources.  Is that an excuse to pick up and leave?  Is this different from the outcast living in a cabin in the woods?  It’s interesting that this place has been around for a while with the same concept as it’s central motif.  Also interesting is that they are nowhere near the mark of 50,000 people and a completed sustainable living community.  I don’t think the world is a whole lot different between now and 50 years ago when seen from the big picture, but I do think we are more aware of our problems as countries and people.  That doesn’t mean we have any solutions, or if we did, are ready to implement them.  Maybe it’s the attempt to find peace as an individual and then spread that sanctity to a like-minded community.  It sounds nice now that I write it out, but the world isn’t connected like that.  Overall, I think its fine to be a self sustaining community; I even think its fine to preach that message from your giant golden golf ball.  I just don’t think taking one piece of land and using it to mold different cultures into one new “peaceful” one is the way to go if you have a global worldview, which this does.  I think its fine if you don’t want to be found, or you think there is a spaceship behind Halley’s Comet. This is the only argument I can come up with right now for my anti Auroville views, and I realize that trying to come up with a believable argument against a peaceful settlement of hippies is difficult, it’s just that I know I could never live there.  I think the time they have had shows either how little interest there is, or how difficult it is for most people to imagine a lifestyle outside the one their citizens and governemnt have alloted them.  I realize this is the crux of it…that many people need to change the way life is lived in order to change how the world lives.
Ok, after a few more days I think I have my response, but I will leave what I wrote before to show how troubled by my negative thoughts I was.
Is setting an example the only thing an individual can do to change the world?  Does doing that mean that followers should be the intended purpose and should those followers be the change in action, growing with more purpose and population?  I think the answer to the first question is yes, but the second is more difficult.  I think I would rather get people to start their own example than to follow mine, even if they contradict me. Most of the human virus on the world comes from apathy, intolerance, and misinformation.  I don’t claim to be to have any answers but I think I know how I can be opposed to those three negative qualities, and I would like to live my life setting that example.  I don’t want any followers.  I would be ok with people learning from my example, but I would not want someone to stop setting their own course, and join the plans of another.  This is what a utopian society like Auroville is.  At least, that is what I was taught in their video and gathered from talking to people there.  If I am wrong and you know why please let me know, but for right now, this is what I think made me so uncomfortable.
One Comment leave one →
  1. Elayne Sawaya permalink
    June 3, 2010 3:20 pm

    Great post Alex
    I agree with your assessment explaining your discomfort. It reeks (sp)
    of Cult in the making. The goal is to be mindful of our footprints as individuals and groups.
    Something BP refuses to do…sorry just had to digress.
    Take care of yourselves.
    Hope to see you soon

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