Thursday, April 19, 2007

Extreme India

India offers, like most large countries, a diverse topography. From the dry Deccan plateau in the south, hemmed in by the Western and Eastern Ghats and sub-tropical southern lowlands... to the Gangetic plane in the North, spanning across Uttar Pradesh... to the tea plantations of Darjeeling, Scotish highlands of Shillong in the far North East... to the Himalayan hill stations in Himanchal and Kashmir in the Northwest, to the arid deserts of Rajasthan in the far West... it's diverse. Many of my Indian co-workers see it as unparalled in scope, but this is myopic, for America, even Ecuador, have impressed me with equal diversity. In truth, topography is never, or rarely, distinct. But one trip abroad will prove this.

In the last few weeks, I've experienced extremes of India. I participated in a Rajasthani pilgramage to Amer Fort outside Jaipur in the sweltering, parched heat of the desert, and two weeks later was admitted alongside sadhus into a South Indian temple for the solar new year in Tamil Nadu. Both locations meant friendly inquiries, crowds, heat, beauty and squalor. The walkway up to the Amer Fort in Rajasthan was lined with beggars of every deformity, in the worst states of penury. With an arbitrary flip of a coin, the sari-clad women ahead of me would pass unsentimentally to the top. My throat was clenched, and my coins were not enough. The futility, the sadness, the reality of life, the stoicism, the shallow feeling of support, the coyness of philanthropy, it was frustrating.

Two weeks later, on the road between Trivandrum, capital of Kerala, and Kanyakumari, the southern-most tip of the sub-continent, I stopped off at famous temple. I was traveling alone, and hired a car for the day, as the bus schedule would not permit for my hasty Hyderabad return. My driver, a worshiper of Devi -- an incarnation of Parvati, wife of Shiva, (yea, it's complicated) -- was pretty excited to be headed to Kanyakumari. It's not only the tip of India, but it's also a sacred Devi city, and the location of Vivekanandra's famous meditation and spiritual epiphany. And Sunday was a festival day.

So after roadside puja for the Devi idol on the dash, we stopped at a Tamil Nadu temple. At 7am I was admitted to the temple despite the fact that I'm non-Hindu, a rare event. Without a shirt or shoes (though not in mandatory dhoti or sari), I was allowed inside in Hawaiian-bought O'Neil boardshorts. I was the only foreigner, and stood alongside sadhus and other worshipers as we passed through the darkened, damp, stone passageways which were lit mainly by oil lamps. There were men chiming bells, many colorful women crowded around idols, waiting patiently to catch a glimpse of an elusive golden statue comprised of Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva, and shuffling past me with eyes fixed. Toward the end of my time in temple we encountered the hoisting of a Devi, Shakti or goddess, and Nandi Bull, carrier of Shiva, statue by a dozen skinny-armed, dhoti-clad men. Amidst candles and chanting, under the cool canopy of stone that encapsulated us in time and moment, the men hoisted the statues above their heads for a Tamil Nadu solar new year procession. It was truly exceptional.

We continued onto Kanyakumari, where I was taken in by a local Karnatakan family who escorted me around the Vivekanandra temple and monument. I survived the over-cramped barge ride to the island thanks to the reassuring grip on my bicep from my host-father. He did not speak English, but would nod and smile, and held both his 14 year old son, and my arm as he guided us onto the undulating barge.

Boarding anything in India is sheer chaos. The transportation is invariably moving, and single-file "lines" are notoriously wide and convergant. Once aboard, I was given a seat and a history lesson. The exciting thing about traveling solo in India is that you're never alone. My cricket jersey prompted innumerable questions about whether I was affiliated with the BICC, and my beard meant half the time the hello was in Arabic. Salaam Alaykum. At all times I was surrounded by five people asking where I was from, if I was married, and how I reacted to the spicy food. California, not married, food no problem. Same same. Sunglasses prove refuge from eye contact and engagement, and I found myself wearing them more to secure moments of solitude amidst the inquisitive but friendly crowds.

India's diversity allows a panoply of experience, sometimes extreme, trying, always fascinating, and invariably expanding.

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