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Published: December 13th 2016
Thousands of tiny lighted clay pots of oil shimmered on streets, alleys, balconies, and shop steps around Madurai. Karthigai Deepam celebrates the birthday of Murugan, the second son of Lord Shiva, and people here eagerly anticipated this holiday.
Outside the door steps of houses, women had created purple, pink, yellow and red flower-shaped kolums right on the street, and placed oil lamps and flowers. Women swished from house to neighbor’s house in their best saris, trailing jasmine sweetness.
Children ran up and down the streets, tossing fire crackers, waving sparklers, and setting off billowing light fountains. They were having a blast.
I covered my ears.
I waved at families through their open front doors, thanked them for photos. People rushed out to invite me into their homes. I drank tea at one, coffee at another, coffee at yet another, ate cookies and sweets and snacks, took more photos, wrote down family names. They all asked me to visit their homes again. Some invited me to lunch. At another, a group of women and I talked about husbands and children and work. There, I was instructed as to the proper way to talk with women: first ask about
their husbands, then ask about their children, then about their parents. I asked everyone about the husbands and children, but did not get to the parents topic. And of course they asked me about my husband, and looked shocked or confused when I told them I had no husband. “I’m sorry,” said one, and I said with a smile, “But I’m happy, it’s just different in America.” Before leaving individual houses, they did a blessing for me, and put dots of red on my forehead, kungumum.
"Do you remember me?” a tall young boy asked me as I fled the noise on the streets. He flashed a mouthful of white teeth, dark eyes set in a fresh round face. Of course I remembered him, mostly because I was astonished at his impeccable English as he explained how his grandmother was using all natural coloring agents from a leaf to make henna-like designs on his younger sister’s hands. This had been on another street nearby, several days previous.
“Do you remember my name?” His name was Nandishwara, and this twelve year old walked me up and down the narrow brick-paved street, introducing me to his friends, classmates, relatives, and
neighbors. A wandering minstrel used curved sticks to beat a drum hung from his neck, and I moved my shoulders and hips to the beat. Then he held out his hands for a donation.
"Give what you can--5 or 10 rupees, it's up to you," my young guide said.
Nandishwara took me to the neighborhood temple, down a narrow alley. That evening it was glorified with hundreds of oil lamps glowing at the base of the central deity/tree—an ancient looking being with ropey sides dotted with sandalwood paste and red powder.
“Just don’t photograph the tree.” That would be very disrespectful. Women were praying, walking around the small platform where the tree grew, and taking ash and red powder for their foreheads. Nandishwara instructed me to wish for something—but don’t tell ANYONE what my wish was—then three times ring one of the hundreds of bells hanging on a rack before me, then walk around the tree three times. I completed my ritual. Then Nandishwara told me it is a very powerful place, especially on this evening, and my wish will come true. As proof of the power of the place, he said that each bell hanging there
was evidence that someone’s wish had come true, because the fortunate recipient returned to thank the deity with a bell.
Well, truth be told, I did not make a wish, so I can tell you what I did. I simply gave thanks for all the wonderful people who have been showing themselves in my life here in the Goripalayam neighborhood of Madurai. At that moment, as I stood before the flickering lights and hanging bells of all sizes, and the bright-eyed children and women in elegant saris, I needed nothing more.
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