Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tamil Nadu & Southern Kerala

With the 24-hour bug in check, I headed to Mahabalipuram on the Bay of Bengal coast, south of Chennai. This spot is renowned for its ancient rock carvings, which were entertaining for about half the day and then the ocean provided a nice relief from the heat. I had a late lunch of shark's fin, although I probably should have known that I was contributing to further decline of an already imperiled population. I had to try shark once and it just tasted like fish, really.

The next morning, I headed to Pondicherry, a former French Colony. At the bus stand, however, there is absolutely no evidence of this region's past. The Indian population here has exploded! I walked a good kilometer to the Ashram, where I hoped to find lodging. I found it at the Ashram's international guest house. The room looked quite clean, but ended up getting me with bed bugs. Sri Aurobindo, a political activist during the period of social upheaval against the British rule, turned into a spiritual guru and profound writer on the subject. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram complex was a disappointment to me. I went in hoping to find activities, but found only meditation in a courtyard centered around a flower-hewn tub of water. When I asked about activities, I was told somewhat snobbishly "read the literature," at which point I made for the exhibition (which provided a more summary-style version of the litterature). Here, I learned about the tremendous following that Sri Aurobindo inspired. People would come from all around to see him and he was highly venerated. Ultimately, he decided that spirituality and politics should not mix and he devoted his life to spirituality and the unity of mankind; and that unity represented itself for him as faith in a higher being.

Sri Aurobindo's primary student was a French lady who came to be known as "The Mother." She was also quite clever and claimed when Sri Aurobindo died that his spirit and strength now resided in her. She too inspired large crowds and admiration. I find it amazing that in a society that still poses the question on a billboard in Bangalore--should girls and boys be treated as equals? SMS one or two--that a foreign woman could be such a powerful religious figure. It was "The Mother" who founded Auroville, a town 10 km north of Pondicherry, which was set aside to grow into an international community intended to strive toward the unity of mankind. Her rationale is that man is imperfect and will thus be replaced by a more perfect being, so we must strive toward that perfection. Work was a very important element in her discourse on this subject.

The next day, I had went to Auroville to see for myself. It turns out that the first person I ran into in Auroville is an Australian who works in guest relations and is responsible for the University of Washington undergrad group that comes to visit Auroville once each year. He directed me to the visitor center and the Birla Mandir, which is a globe-shaped bronze-colored ball at the center of Auroville, designed to represent the unity of mankind. If one were to go inside (requires advanced reservation), intense concentration would be expected as a single shaft of focused light is directed to a small area within this globe. I only saw the Birla Mandir from the outside and it was impressive. It is the only aspect of the town that is complete. Everything else is a work in progress and large amounts of creative research are underway in a variety of different areas. The whole thing was very neat and subtle. You couldn't tell where the town edge is, but it is circular and there is a town architectural masterplan. Architects get excited by the freedom of expression possible here. I think what helped Auroville to succeed is the fact that people come here with ideas and a desire to work, rather than to escape reality, a feature in most aspiring Utopian societies, which I believe contributes to their downfall. Life is hard here for people because decisions are made on a consensus basis (they are experimenting with new systems of governance) and thus it is difficult to get things done. There's also no cash flow as everything is put on "the account," which is some amount of money you are given as a "starter." People here also have to interact with the realities of the outside world and as such it is not an escape.

Well, I think thatAuroville is a very cool place, so last night I asked myself what I would do if I went there. I think that one of the greatest problems in India (and southern Asia in general) is the accumlation of rubbish (mainly plastic bottles and wrappers, but all kinds of junk) as people just throw items on the ground, without thinking. After these items pile up, people burn them, creating noxious fumes in the air (making my eyes tear on the buses). My idea is to innovate a high-temperature incinerator that burns this rubbish more cleanly (I've been told that higher temperature incinerators are cleaner and although not ideal, are better than the lower-temperature burning alternative). My thought would be to build upon the idea of the solar kitchen that exists (and feeds 1000 people for lunch) in Auroville. Since I'm not good with electronics (and photovoltaics), my thought would be to use mirrors and powerful magnifying glasses to focus the solar energy on small regions...and try to generate enough heat to melt the plastics. I have some research to do in order to determine whether this actually reduces the relative to low temperature flames. Thus, this is a fledgling idea, concocted last night as I was trying to think what ideas I could explore if I were to spend more time in Auroville. It's kind of a fun question to ask yourself: What idea, experiment, or societal development project would you explore if you had the time, appropriate environment, and access to some resources?

My next stop was Tiruvanamalai. I came here to see the inspiring temple complex and Ashram. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi inspired many by his presence. He would meditate for long periods of time and spent 7 years in a cave temple on the local mountain. I went to this temple and truly meditated for the very first time in my life. Part of the spirituality of this site is because of the mountain, which is geologically quite old and associated with Sheva. The mountain aspect to this helped me feel a small degree of spirituality. I descended to the main Ashram, where there are opportunities for both seated and walking meditation. Lunch and dinner at the Ashram were really terrific. You sat cross-legged in lines organized by rows of bananna leaves (i.e. plates) in a big open room and servers would come around and dole out rice, sambour, pickle, chutneys, etc.

Note: The story you are about to hear is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

That same evening, I took the bus to Salem in order to meet a friend that I'd made on the bus, who was an off-duty conductor. I had some reservation about truly trusting his friendship, but I decided to give it a shot. We met late at night in the Salem bus station and he and I searched for a hotel with limited success. We decided that I would stay with his family about 20 minutes outside of town. His family warmly welcomed me at 2AM and I had a wonderful time with them after I got some sleep. Keel's wife and two daughters were really sweet and everyone seemed a little amused at my inability to utilize my hands efficiently for eating (somehow food always seems to slip through my fingers). Keel took me up to a place that was near and dear to his heart, a nearby mountain village called Yercaud. We took a bus with 20 hairpin turns probably 3,000 ft. up where the air was cooler and coffee plantation (originally developped by the English) replaced the savanna scrub. I was a bit bored in Yercaud and getting sick of Keel's company. After returning to Salem, Keel and I met up up with his friend, the bus driver who is the union leader and also a politician...go figure. Did anybody ever warn you never to trust a politician? Well, this guy also poses as a granite/marble slab broker and after a quick trip to the local watering hole (featuring alcohol that grows on palm trees! that tasted disgusting, unfortunately), we met with a client of this polititians. It turns out that Keel was along with him because Keel is a certified broker. Keel told me that the politician was a good man and wouldn't ever cause me or him any problems, but sometimes he bends his morals and it quickly became clear to me that Keel was willing to bend his morals as well (as an accomplice). The client was unsure whether to go through with the deal. Keel asked me (in the client's presence) how the floors of his (Keel's) house looked. The house had beautiful granite floors, so I responded to that effect, inwardly furious that I was being forced into being an accomplice to this shady interaction and already upset that I was there in the first place with a "friend" who would do such a thing.

Well, from that point onward, my relationship with Keel went downhill. He kept telling me I should come back and visit for a longer time and kept repeating himself and apologizing for things. After we parted ways, I received stalker-like numbers of phone calls from him and just decided to start ignoring them and it seems that we've cut off contact. It is unfortunate that our relationship ended this way, but it is a reality in India that many of the most outgoing people are not trustworthy, so if I continued playing his game, at some point I'm guessing he'd try to extract money, in spite of having professed no interest in that motive.

After a long overnight bus, I arrived in Kanyakumare, the southern tip of India, the confluence of the Arabian Sea (West) and Bay of Bengal (East). It's sunrises and sunsets are famous and the sunset didn't disappoint. Children were bathing in the waters here and at the temple, men (including me) are required to remove their shirts. Two small rocky islands are just off the coast. One features a very impressive statue. A white, Christian Church is also notable in town. The next day, I headed to Panaburnam Palace, mainly carved out of teak wood in the traditional Keralan style of architecture. From here, I hired a rickshaw to go to a large bridge which transported water in an aqueduct high above a stream valley, below. Very impressive in a setting of lush coconut trees and people bathing in the streams. I had a chance to talk to some young girls who were bathing in a stream near their mother who was washing clothes on the opposite bank. They asked me to take their picture. In no relation to this incident, about 15 minutes later, I was alerted that in Tamil Nadu, I should never take pictures of girls around my age. The men might throw me in jail, they said. Apparently, I could probably pull a foreigner ignorance card, but I decided not to take further risks. The cab driver took me back to town. We'd agreed on a rate of 6 Rs/km at the outset and I told him I'd pay 50 Rs for his waiting, but when we arrived, he demanded 120 Rs more than the math called for. I argued with him for 5 minutes and then another rickshaw driver came over to "arbitrate" the situation. He heard both our cases and of course sided with my rickshaw driver. I demanded an explanation, but all I got was something about "up and back" which sounded to me as though they were just doubling the odometer distance, arbitrarily. I knew they were trying to scam me, so I paid what I thought I owed and stormed off. Fortunately, nothing further ensued.

Yesterday was the 9th day of a women's festival in Tivandrum, the capital of Kerala. The festival will be discussed in the next post, but it is called 'Attukal Devi Prasadam.' Although there were enough people there yesterday to create crowd control issues, today, authorities estimate 2.5 million people will attend the final, 10th day of the festival.

I made a trip to the beach resort of Kovalam. The waves were big enough to body surf, the beaches were nice, and the palm trees were gently swaying, but a parade of vendors detracted slightly from the experience. I had an Ayurvedic Massage by a licenced doctor, complete with hot oil, followed by an herbal steam treatment. I was put in a wooden cask, seated, while a pressure cooker with hose attached pumped herb-infused steam into my chamber.

Back in town, I ate a sinfully delightful fish masala. Later in the evening, I told a German girl she could crash on the floor of my room, knowing full well that it was going to be very challenging for her to find a room in town at 10PM the night before the final day of the festival. Well, after the concierge of my hotel had told herc that no rooms were available, he demanded she leave the premises while she waited for me to run a quick errand. When I came back, the concierge was irate that I was trying to house another person in my single room. I tried to reason with him that we'd pay extra, but he presented a single, illogical argument about the price of the room meaning that only one person can sleep there. Well, I guess the name of guest house, 'Kukie's Holiday Inn' describes the owner pretty well. I was not pleased, to say the least, with this inflexibility. We searched the town for 2 hours, with no success finding a budget room and received very terse and unfriendly responses from hotel owners. By phone, we did manage to find my friend a room for the night.

Today, after attending the festival, I head to an Ashram for 3 days of Hatha Yoga boot camp...5 hours of yoga per day...

1 comment:

vinesh said...

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