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Published: August 27th 2019
“They look like vultures, not eagles.” I was with my driver Muthu, viewing a sign commemorating the spot where the priests used to feed the “eagles” that came daily to the hilltop temple of Thirukalukundram.
“No, no, they are eagles,” he insisted. After all, the temple’s name includes a shortened version of the Tamil word for eagle, “kalugu.”
The sign depicted a priest feeding two white birds whose heads looked very much like vultures. And from my later internet research, I learned that they were indeed Egyptian vultures.
Everyday since “forever,” a pair had come to this place to receive the food offerings. But for the last 15 years they haven’t come.
It would have been nice to see the birds and the feeding. Nonetheless, Muthu and I trudged up the 539 steps to visit the small temple on top and take in the view.
Before we ascended, Muthu had asked,”Do you want to do a puja with the coconut on top?” Only in exceptional places will I do the traditional puja, or prayer offering, in a Hindu temple. Most times I just think it’s a “business” for the priests, so I wasn’t so enthusiastic. His
the tank seen from the top of the hill
Where every 12 years a conch floats to the top
urging finally convinced me. And besides, he was going to carry my daypack with the water and puja offerings.
So when we entered the dark temple chamber, Muthu handed the priest the coconut and other offerings and indicated the prayer was for me.
I told him my two sons’ names.
“Husband’s name?” I shook my head.
The priest disappeared and we heard him cracking the coconut. I waited to pray before the Shiva lingam in the inner sanctum while the priest rang the bell and passed a lit camphor oil lamp in front of the deity. But he skipped that part. Probably because I was a tourist and he thought I didn’t know any better.
He returned with the cracked coconut and a tray of sacred ash and red kumkum powder, offering me bits of each. Then he handed me a wilted flower.
“Would you like to make an offering?” He wasn’t asking, he was demanding. Muthu had already given him 10 rupees, but now he wanted 100. Muthu handed me the note and I gave it to the priest in thanks for his (non) services.
As we left, a wave of cynicism hit me. “See? I told you Muthu, it’s just a business for them!”
“But it was good to offer the names of your sons and your name. It is a good thing.” His faith is so strong, even when such things happen.
Muthu was happy. He saw the deity, and now had the coconut and planned to ask his wife to make a chutney out of it. He also planned to feed the two bananas to the monkeys lurking around the stairs. A hunky male approached us, intent on getting the banana, and I skedaddled.
We descended the steep stairs and walked around the town’s market area. I had no idea coconut shells yield coconut oil. A shop situated across the street from a mound of discarded shells had large grinding wheels that were churning out the oil. A man fed coconut shells on top, and out dripped a viscous oil at the bottom.
Next door a man and his wife were cleaning and splitting banana leaves to sell for discardable “plates.” We chatted for a couple minutes, then we moved on to a tea stall. The ramp into
the shop crossed the open sewage sluice, and dozens of men gathered around the stream sipping small glasses of brew. I saw the banana leaf guy and chatted again while I sipped my glass of tea, asking about his family and his work.
Ahh, I’m back in India, I thought. This feels great. I had let go of my cynicism from the temple experience and was enjoying the bustle of the town. We bought flowers, Muthu stopped into an office for a new driver’s license, and we made our way back to the car.
Muthu reminded me of the story about the big tank in the town. Every 12 years a conch shell floats to the top, and the priests take it to the nearby temple and secure it. I told Muthu next time I’d bring a conch and toss it in the tank. Then they’d find two conchs, and what would they think then? We had a chuckle about that one.
Yes, I’m back in India, with all the people and the baffling stories and strange happenings and street dogs and street cows and animal poop everywhere and uneven sidewalks and people spitting and crazy drivers
and open sewage and thousands of deities and gawd-awful music screeching at gawd-awful hours and all the things I really get annoyed about.
I love it.
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