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Published: February 3rd 2019
There’s India. And then there’s India.
I went on a quest. To find the real India. Whatever that is.
In Madurai I met an auto rickshaw driver, Anand, who enjoys taking foreigners around. So we were off—early mornings and evenings.
“I’m done with the big temples. I want to see the temples and shrines of folk deities, Ayannar and Karuppana Swami, the small places, the common places. Villages.”
He seemed to know them all. The surprises came in their simplicity, their locations, their power.
Over gravely roads, through fields of waving sugarcane, dense plots of banana trees, coconut palms gracing the skyline, pools of water settling in the rice paddies. Villagers went about their daily business—men hung out at the local tea shop, reading the newspaper, chatting, chatting. Women carried water pots on their heads—water sometimes slopping over the sides—with another pot attached to the hip.
“Do you have a headache?”
“No,” each one said.
Bottles of cooking oil crammed a basket on a scooter, and the driver stopped at the mud houses to sell. Women decorated their outdoor hearths with lines of rice flour, sometimes washing the surfaces beforehand with cow dung
and water which serves as a natural antiseptic.
Women combed their long hair, freshly tangled from a wash. Pigeons to be sold for a meal gathered on a rooftop. Atop a huge mound of rice straw, a woman tossed dusty bundles here and there. A man helped below, although I could not figure out their goal.
Through villages and over bumpy roads we traveled. A spreading banyan hosted a Ganesha statue. And Mariamman was there, too—she appeared everywhere it seemed—under trees, along the road, near Ayannar and Karuppana Swami temples. She’s one of the original folk deities—goddess of rain, fertility and disease. Sometimes not so nice, sometimes generous, always powerful, always alluring. I lingered around Mariamman time and again, sensing her intoxicating power.
There were more, lots more. Rakkayiamman and Nagamman and a host of others. Each having a different personality, each drawing devotees according to their needs. A pile of rocks, covered with turmeric colored Kum kum, supposedly housed a snake, who comes out at night to eat the eggs and milk left for him/her. He/she is a snake deity, and devotees gather in a big way on full moon nights to honor him/her. Statues of
Nagamman and Rakkayiamman are nearby, a cluster of snakes that melt into female faces and back again.
So many deities. It is said there are 33 million Hindu deities. I can barely distinguish a very few. I mostly know of their mystery. That’s what came to me on my quest around Madurai. Mystery.
Other beings—demons, and guardians, deities and beasts, dancers and musicians, stones and trees—all mingled in temples and shrines and roadside niches. In one place Ayannar is graced by an eagle—in another, a parrot. Beautiful naked women frolic near a deity on the statue of Karuppa Swami. In another temple, a Shrek-looking demon is trampled by the horse of Karuppa Swami. The priest told us the demon is made of eggs and different herbs. Giant snakes curl around guardians, and sometimes they stand alone, mouths open, tongue unfurled, begging for change, rebirth, transformation.
I was beginning to find the village India I craved.
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