Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Profound Moments in the 'Brighton of South India'

Breakfast in the station dining hall
After 15 days of asceticism and austerity in the Sivananda ashram, I finally escaped 'yogatraz', light of heart and even more so of body. The sun rays shone through the palms as I descended the mountain back to civilisation to take the local bus 1.5hrs down the mountains where I would be reunited with my friend and sometime Indian travel companion, Liz. A girl I had met in the ashram had tipped me off about Swami Isha Layam, a 'self realised human' who was living somewhere outside of Trivandrum. Apparently she had randomly met a gay couple from New York in a Keralan coffee shop who were on a 'guru tour' of India and had insisted that she go and meet him. She said that the guru was full of useful insight, so I had vowed to find him as part of my ongoing spiritual quest and ask his advice on some issues that had been preoccupying me. Once we had eaten a hot breakfast of channa masala in the train station dining hall (so quaint), we hopped into a rickshaw and out of town to find the ashram. 

Swami Isha Layam

Pupil of the Isha Layam school
Despite the fact that the taxi driver had assured us he knew where we were going, there was the usual confusion and much asking for directions before the rickshaw drew up outside a tiny ashram. We went inside and asked to be granted an audience with the guru. We were ushered into a grimy room where he was sitting cross legged on cushions, amidst a of racket of incense, statues, packets of sweets and ants. 


Me and Liz with the school children
Although his answers to my questions tended to be of the abstract nature, he did impart some useful insights - pointing to the differences between 'path' and 'goal' i.e. our goal should be the same although our path may be different and the vehicles or means of travelling it may vary. So for instance, when I asked him if my path should be in TV and film or in writing, he said that I may reach my goal (to be successful in a creative pursuit) through all of those means. The goal is the same, the paths vary - or we travel the same path in many different vehicles. We discussed the difference between positive and negative thoughts. Swami said that thoughts are just thoughts, neither positive nor negative. It is how you use the thoughts that matters. After an interesting session, in which we discussed his vision for a Global Energy Parliament, we took a tour of the local school that Swami has built. Apparently it started with one class, but as the children grew, more classes were added and more children joined and now there are around 100 or so receiving education there. 

In more secular matters, once Swami knew about the professional experiences of Liz and I, he got very excited and called for his colleague to come so that we could spend more time together and explore if we could help them in some of the areas they need support: digital marketing, web development and even music composition and film making (another Indian coincidence - Liz is a composer and I am a wannabe doco maker!) I was perhaps most arrested by the sight of this girl - after beginning her spiritual life in India in none other than the Sivananda ashram that I went to, she began her quest for a guru. She heard about Swami and, she told us that as soon as she met him, she chose to renounce her worldly life to serve and follow him. Meeting this woman was extraordinary. Although we discussed the achievements of Swami and the school and the global energy parliament in a normal fashion with her, she would not be drawn on anything in reference to her own life. She had given it up and renounced it. When Iasked about her family and how they felt at being left behind she simply replied "I try to not have any attachments'. She told us that she felt embarrassed to be before us as she was - she said that her skin was bad, she was ill (she had a terrible cold) and that she was losing weight for no reason. Swami didn't know what the matter with her was. There was no discussion of her going to the doctor. Her conclusion was that her body was obviously going through a stage that it had to go through, in order to continue her journey on the path of servitude to the guru. This didn't make any sense until we saw her with him. We walked over to Swami who was standing in the middle of the school, tenderly speaking with the little children that came his way. Suddenly, the pale devotee was filled with light. It was arresting to watch.

Once we were done with the intensities of Swami and his renunciate, we shored ourselves up with hot street food and fresh coconut juice and hopped on the train for the three hour trip down to Kanyakumari, the most southerly point of this enormous continent. We would also be crossing into Tamil Nadu, the fourth state I had reached in as many weeks. Travelling India by train is a great way to get around - you chug along at pleasant speed and both windows and doors are completely open, allowing you to hang out and witness snapshots of village life. The tropical south is deliciously watery and literally every other minute we passed a lakeside scene: men rearranging their dhotis after bathing, women washing, the proliferation of thousands of lily pads.  Everything is picturesque: little children running out of tiny cement houses or standing and gazing out from the mud and the banana leaves, coconut palms swaying in the breeze as sun sets.

Travelling by train is a pleasant way to go
 We arrived at nightfall to Kanyakumari, which on first encounter resembled a 'Brighton of South India' - a tiny little seaside town with countless shops selling ornaments adorned with shells and tacky tourist paraphernalia such as light-up Ganeshas. Despite this, we weren't hassled, surprising given that we were the only white people in sight. We thought that the many 'fancy shops' were aimed at the Indian population who come in their droves as part of pilgrimage to worship at the temple of Kanyakumari, which literally means 'virgin sea goddess'. 

View of the sunset from the train window
We woke up at 5am and sleepily followed the crowds down to the beach to watch the sun rise. We shuffled in amongst many Indian tourists, most of whom were young men dressed in black dothis, sporting bare chests, beads and tikka smeared foreheads. We got chatting to a group of such men who told us that they were undertaking Sabarimala, a complex pilgrimage that lasts 40 days. Once permission has been obtained by the pilgrims family, they must undergo many rituals such as bathing, trimming hair and nails and offering puja. Once the pilgrim has received his 'mala' he becomes Lord Ayyappa (the offspring of Siva and Vishnu in female form) for the duration of the pilgrimage and must abstain from all impure activity. I'm presuming that having obligatory photo calls with white girls must not be on the banned list - as usual, we were asked to pose with them for pictures. However, they were nice boys and it felt good to cross the cultural boundary with people who looked so strange and different and to have a human exchange. I think that they felt the same way. As soon as the orange-pink orb of the sun peeped up above the clouds, a round of whooping and applause erupted from the crowd, in a typically Indian sense of occasion. Kanyakumari is a significant place, not only because it marks the end point of India, but it is where three oceans mingle (the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian sea). The confluence of oceans is really very conceptual (how can you define water after all?) and many tourists may be disappointed to look out upon a vista where these man-made boundaries are indiscernible. However, legend has it that although the waters are the same, the sand is three different colours and those who look out across the vast nothingness can't help but be moved. So - three seas, three sands and also three religions are present on the most southerly tip of India - Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. 

Sun rise over Kanyakumari
Men undertaking Sabarimala
 An incongruous wedding cake of a building arises out of the ground at Kanyakumari and this is a memorial to none other than Gandhi, whose ashes were immersed in the waters here in 1948. Gandhi had previously visited the place in 1937 and his correspondence notes that the Kayakumari which literally means virgin sea goddess is as untouched as her own name - there is no port here and so the waters are largely untraversed. The fabulously whacky pink testament to this great man stands at 79 feet (his age at death) and there is a hole in the roof through which, apparently, the sun shines at midday on his birthday and for the rest of the year no rainfall will penetrate. This knowledge was all imparted to us by a twinkly eyed elder (for a fee, of course), who took a shine to chucking my cheeks and moving my hair out of my eyes (he was caught up in the devastating 2004 tsunami, which affected Kanyakumari and a memorial stands here - so was especially concerned with the importance of sight, having lost most of his in the waves). 

The Gandhi memorial 'wedding cake'
After sunrise we progressed to the temple where we witnessed the aftermath of what I now know as 'Eve Teasing' - a very angry Asian woman was screaming at a young Indian man and gesturing to the growing crowd that he had groped her breasts. The embarrassed youth now faced a gang of men, determined to step in and defend her honour. One boy even gave the perpetrator a swift right hook. The woman (good on her) did not let up and continued shouting and screaming until the offender was deposited at the tiny police office outside the temple. Liz and I both looked at each other and agreed that if we were a victim of such an act again, they we would respond as this lady had done. We have both learned that the best way to get results in India is to appeal to mens' sense of chivalry.

We deposited our 'chappals' ('shoes' - generally not worn inside at all in India and certainly not in holy places), then chose to queue with the other Indians rather than pay for fast track entry to the temple.  over Kanyakumari ). We were the only white people - and certainly the only women - in the queue. It seems to be the case with most leisure activities that only the men are present. So we were certainly an object of fascination, which was difficult for us as we were equally as curious to gaze upon our fellow temple goers but did not want to appear provocative. Due to the regulation of the Sabarimala and the fact that the Kanyakumari temple is a place of sacred femininity, men are not allowed to wear shirts. Liz and I found it rather difficult not to stare back too much at the hoardes of hunky half naked men who surrounded us. We found it rather unfair that men are allowed to parade around with their shirts off, meanwhile we, cloistered up in our conservative clothing have to keep our bodies (and our desire) under wraps! 

Crowds gather to watch sun rise
 Once we had queued for the best part of 40 mins, we finally gained access to the inner sanctum, which contains a representation of the deity, whose nose was pierced twice and light shone through. This is to signify Kanyakumar's virginity - apparently the usual practice is for brides to remove their jewellery so as not to irritate their new husband in the marriage bed! We offered puja (fresh flower garlands woven on thread by a local woman) and so were allowed into an enclosure in front of the shrine to pray. Having practiced yoga and meditation every day for 7hrs per day for the past 15 days I sank easily into a meditation and counted 108 mantras along my prayer beads - similar to the use of rosary you chant one mantra per bead. The beads are then said to become a circle of power as you chant, equivocal to one thousand chants. Once I had completed my chanting I experienced the now-familiar feeling of boiling heat that rises up in my body, the energy that surfaces once I have 'successfully' meditated. On exiting the temple we bowed before the shrine and were disappointed to find that, although it had hitherto been decorated in votive candle holders in the shape of female genitalia, sadly they were no longer in sight. But, as I was watching men light oil lamps, a little old lady gently annointed my forehead with ash and ritually poured the flame from an oil lamp into my third eye. I was overcome with emotion and spontaneously erupted in tears. It was a powerful and profound place. 

Taking the ferry

In the afternoon we took a rickety old rust bucket of a ferry over to one of the rocks about 500 metres off the tip of Kanyakumari to the Vivekananda memorial, which is where Swami Vivekananda is said to have swam out to, sat upon and meditated before achieving enlightenment. The boat also passed the Thiruvalluvar statue, India's Statue of Liberty, a memorial to the Tamil poet who wrote the Thirukkural, an epic poem on ethics. The statue stands at 133 feet, which denote Tirukkuṛaḷ's 133 Chapters and the show of three fingers denote the sections on Morals, Wealth and Love. Our enjoyment of these philosophical places was somewhat impaired by the excitable group of schoolchildren who were hanging off our arms, asking us what our 'good name' was and asking for photographs. We were like local celebrities!  

Thiruvalluvar statue
The school children were loving us!

In the evening we went back to the highest point of Gandhi's wedding cake and watched the sun set over the three oceans, squeezed once again amongst exicted Indian tourists and as we gazed out over the 3 seas, were filled with an overwhelming sense of profound gratitude for this moment. One extremely hot meal later (we forgot to ask for 'not spicy') and we were back in our very lovely hotel room (we splashed out at 650 rupees and got towels! soap!) ready to begin the next leg of our journey, venturing north up the ancient state of Tamil Nadu.

Kanyakumari: where 3 oceans meet
Watching the sun set

Gandhi memorial at sun set


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  2. I think children's were enjoyed more. Nice place to visit and for enjoyment.

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