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Published: February 8th 2019
Human Figures behind Bars
A secure place for the statues at Irutukkal Muniyappan temple outside of Salem
“You’re very young.”
That’s the first thing I said to Vinod when I met him in the Fortune Pandyan Hotel in Madurai. Then I noticed his eyes with the long eyelashes.
He did smile, I believe, when I said he was very young. I needed an experienced driver for my three-day trip. This 29 year-old has been driving since he was 16. Good enough for me. Plus, those eyes.
After I explained my plan to go to non-tourist destinations like Dindigul, Salem, Mallur, and Mohanur to see the small and unusual temples, and searching on the Google map on my IPhone screen for locations, and trying to plot a route, he and I got tired of planning.
“We can plan the first day, then after that we’ll plan the next,” he wisely said.
Great idea. I’m always changing my mind about where I want to go and never know the exact route to take. Being spontaneous yields a lot of memorable surprises.
I had warned him—we’d be stopping on a whim. My whim. And that’s what we did, because I had many whims. Sometimes he was going too fast, and I didn’t insist on stopping.
Other times I made him turn around. That meant suddenly stopping and either backing up or heading across the road in front of oncoming cars and scooters to make a three-point turn.
Soon he was looking for temples, too, the ones dedicated to village deities that have captured my interest this journey to India. I changed the route many times, sometimes unintentionally, and made him drive on roads that didn’t exist. One track, no tracks, detours, cow paths, we tried them all. I’m certain that few westerners travel those routes.
We crawled around potholes and sudden drop offs, through narrow streets and back roads while villagers stared at me with their mouths open. But I loved the green of the paddy, sugarcane fields, banana trees, flocks of goats and sad-eyed cows.
“Jallikattu,” Vinod said. Beautiful hump-backed bullocks strutted along the road and were being hauled in trucks in the same direction we were going. It was still Pongal month, when this traditional hump-chasing and hump-pouncing event happens all over Tamil Nadu to the delight of thousands of fans. A policeman sent us down weed-filled roads to avoid the congestion. Thank goodness for GPS. I declined to attend
Terry and the Guardians
At the small town of Mallur, these deities dominate the hillside.
the event although I’m sure I would have been given a premium view since I would have been the only western tourist.
Then we got delayed in massive traffic following a political rally with a loudspeaker booming vacuous promises. We became one of the political groupies, without the sticker of the smiling politician plastered on the car.
We were in the middle of nowhere, on the way to nowhere, and activity surrounded us.
And soon the travel, not the destination, became the journey. Vinod was playing his music list with American bands I didn’t know. Artists rapped and droned about life on the streets. “Do you understand what they’re saying?”
“No,” he said. “Play your 70’s music.” So I started with The Eagles, and pulled up a few more musicians popular from my era: Simon and Garfunkel, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and so on. He liked most of it. I was certainly happy, barreling through the Indian back-country singing along with the music from a magical time, then stopping to visit a temple. There was something remarkable about the trip. It was feeling very good.
And because Vinod seems curious
Villaiyandavar Temple at Anaikarai
Built so a real elephant would cease destroying the foundations of a dam being built by the British in the early 1900’s.
about foreigners, we both came to know one another a little better.
He realized I’m not a decrepit old lady who can’t walk. “You walk fast! I’m thinking what is this 65-year-old woman?” He thought I’d be like the majority of women my age in India—many of whom stay home and do housework and don’t get out and walk, let alone ride a bicycle.
He had tried to drive on a road between houses that was two feet narrower than the car, and we had to back up. It was the wrong direction anyway. We parked next to a tethered water buffalo and walked the rest of the way to a temple I randomly chose off Google Map to visit. He wanted to drive the last 100 meters, even though the dirt track skirted a deep canal that scared me. After spending a day in the car, I needed the walk.
“You don’t have to go,” I assured him. But I was thinking, oh come on—you’re so young, walk a little. But he did visit these places with me, usually, except for the times when he was talking on his mobile, trying to execute a business deal
Caretaker of the temple
Her husband and son had passed; she was caring for this small temple.
back in Madurai. Or when talking to his mother.
And when he did visit the places with me, he improved my experience. He asked questions of the priests and the other visitors—everything I wanted to know, he asked and translated.
“Why can’t women go into the inner sanctum of this temple?” It was a Karuppanaswamy temple near Dindigul, where they were offering and sacrificing goats and chickens. Vinod asked about the women, and essentially he was told it’s always been done that way.
A devotee warily watched me photographing the goat offering, and told Vinod foreign visitors in the past have photographed and complained to authorities about the animal sacrifice. Vinod explained to the man I wasn’t photographing for that purpose.
In fact, after offering to the deity, the animals are slaughtered and cooked right there at the temple. Huge pots of meat were boiling away nearby, and men were grinding masala in a mortar and pestle. Food is offered to temple goers who need a meal. The meat is not wasted but is consumed.
Another temple had thousands of padlocks lining the fence and hooked to tree roots and branches. We were both fascinated—devotees
lock their wishes at the temple, asking the deity for specific things. When their wish comes true, they return and unlock their padlock and toss it into a special receptacle.
“The wishes of thousands made visible in these padlocks. Looks like few people get their wish,” I said. There were thousands still on the fence and in the trees. My perception, however, was incorrect; Vinod surmised that they cleared the receptacle occasionally. He learned that he was correct when he asked the priest.
I started thinking of him as my research assistant. Then Vinod became my photographer. Because of his height, he could get some great angles. Plus he took photos of me—getting mobbed by the boy students at one place, getting dwarfed by the huge statues at another. Sometimes I just handed the camera to him because I didn’t want to leave the vehicle. Once he climbed atop the platform where a reclining female deity was resting with her bloody tongue stuck out. He got a great photo.
After documenting my mobbing experience at the temple in Anaikarai, Vinod told the students to back off, then learned more about the temple. When the British were building
Beautifully maintained, we spotted this one near Salem from the road, nestled in a coconut palm grove. It appears to have several lines of the seven virgins.
the large dam nearby in the early 1900’s, an elephant damaged the foundations night after night, preventing construction progress. The British then built the huge elephant statue. In his trunk he holds a coconut, and he has guardians all around. It is a most magnificent elephant, with other smaller horse statues within the temple fence itself. After they honored the elephant in this way, the destruction from the rogue elephant ceased, construction continued, and the dam now stands today.
I found the places through various websites, a pictorial book someone published online about folk deities in Tamil Nadu, Google searches, and by looking at my google map on the iphone. Then of course there was the whim part—I’d see a horse statue rearing into the sky, or a curious cluster of white rocks, and told him to stop so I could investigate.
On my approach of the white rock enclosure, two boys inside suddenly pointed at the rocky hills. A lizard with a two-foot body and a tail just as long trotted under a rock overhang. The boys were so excited. I could see them planning to capture it for the stew pot. Vinod gave the boys the
two cookies I had given him that I received from the hotel that morning. They seemed to have bonded over the lizard excitement. Big smiles all around.
Vinod’s Mom checks up on him while he’s driving. I can see why. As he slalomed through cows, goats, bicycle riders, buses, scooters, and speed bumps, he chatted with her, assuring her he had eaten. He had not. I was getting worried—that first morning I had had a huge buffet breakfast at the hotel while he said he would eat later. I always worry about being driven by someone whose blood sugar level is low.
“Tell your mother you have another mother in the car,” I said. I lectured him on the necessity of eating. And having plenty of water. He didn’t seem to listen, just like a real son. I had no impact on getting him to eat. Until I told him to stop for lunch because I was hungry.
I learned a few secrets about my driver. I discovered that Vinod is “directionally challenged.”
“Is this the right direction?” he asked repeatedly. Sometimes there was no other direction, or it was so obvious with glaring clues like
Ayyanar Temple at Mallur
Very large statues dominating the landscape.
the setting sun. I assumed the navigator role, constantly consulting my GPS on Google Map.
“Just do exactly as I say.”
“In about one kilometer we’ll turn right.”
“Ohhhh, this isn’t right. Go back,” I’d say. I missed some turns, too, mostly because he liked to drive fast. But somehow he knew where every centimeter of the car was, enabling him to turn around in tight spaces and weave between carts and vehicles with no problems.
Sometimes I just closed my eyes to avoid the scene. It was like a wild video game, and he had the joy stick, except it was all too real.
By the end of the third driving day we had discussed many topics, including politics, Donald Trump (worth about 1 minute), the former woman Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu who was rumored to have been having an affair with a lady friend, drugs (widely available in Madurai, and not just ganja), beer, love, marriage, girls, career, virginity (I was fascinated with the “seven virgins” who kept appearing in the temples,) food, temples, etc.
I shared a personal experience of being drawn to Narasimha, the lion-headed form
The Dark Stone
Irutukkal Muniyappan Temple outside Salem—the first word translates to dark stone. This may have been how this temple started.
of Vishnu. This 8th century temple outside Madurai is cut into the rock, and Narasimha sits with an alluring black mane and hypnotic eyes and I fall in love when I see him and want to jump on his mane and snuggle. The experience startled me, and I confessed to Vinod. He casually told me that some deities have that kind of magnetic pull for certain people—I happen to be drawn to that deity.
I blabbed on about my family, my travels, my Indian friends, and Vinod listened. The thought occurred—hey, I’m the older person here, with a young man who’s facing a host of difficulties and pressures and decisions. I thought I’d be listening to his stories, questioning him, sorting out the issues, maybe offering some sage advice, but here he is listening to me. I was grateful for the attention. I told him he was a good listener, which will serve him well in any relationship.
Then I learned another secret. (Revealed here with his permission.) Vinod likes to do wheelies on his motorcycle.
“Why?” I asked. He had no explanation. But he admitted he had a terrible accident that left muscles in his face
“I’ve lost all my beauty,” he said. He was serious.
Until he called attention to it, I had not noticed. I saw instead a young man trying to figure things out, uncertain of his future in India, dreaming of going to America someday, burdened by the pressures and expectations that a traditional culture places on a worldly young person. But despite his concerns, he listened to a traveler like me and participated in the journey.
That’s real beauty for me.
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