Talk about over stimulated. I had only slept a few hours. It was either slowly steam myself without the air conditioning or try and live with the drone of the unit in my room. In the end I went native. My mind was full of images and questions, like where to next. Had I made the right decision to go to Rameshwaram and see the Ramalingeshwara Temple with my limited time. It is apparently another major site for Hindus and pilgrimage.
I got up at 5am and was out in the streets by 5.30 with the ruck sack on my back. It wasn’t too bad though I did wonder if the guitar was a good idea after all. It was still dusky and so the full cacophony of horns hadn’t found their voice yet. The train station was literally minutes away and I strode up to it full of vigor. As I walked into the wide modern driveway approach I saw there were shapes scattered all across the pavement, I looked again and realized they were people sleeping with a cloth here and there pulled over them, an arm sticking out here and bare legs there, one or two sat upright, most laying down still asleep maybe a 50 or 60 people. I thought at first naively they can’t all be waiting to catch the early train. They were of course homeless. It was remarkable sight and I wondered why they had all gathered there? Perhaps because the bricks were warm in the night and quite possibly because the train station place had been swept and it wasn’t so grimey. I have no real idea, at that moment I had no time to stop and be shocked. Though my eyes drank it in as a swept by.
I held my own in the ticket queue, one or two tried to push in but I was having none of it. A gentle tap on the shoulder and a polite sorry mate with a thumb pointing over my shoulder and they were all apologies. There was a tall police man dressed in brown, combed black hair sharp creases in his shirt and trousers polished shoes. He kept order with a stick under his arm. I think there would have been a scrum otherwise.
I found the train waiting on Platform 4 train I double checked of course and then walked along it looking for a seat through the grilled and shuttered windows. It was 2nd class, which meant bench seats and open windows. It wasn’t to bad on a short journey like this I thought, 3 hours wont be too bad though it was defiantly basic rough and ready and well used, paint worn off all corners and the body polished metal gleaming through. There were 34 large ancient fans on the gray white ceiling of the carriage and apparently would seat up to 105 people there, wasn’t much else to do at first but count things .
There was what appeared to be an unhappy looking middle aged couple opposite me, 4 naughty little boys next to me who constantly said “hello” and would lean right over to see what I was writing not that they could have read it, I don’t think and an old man fast asleep with his feet up to the right side. I forgave the couple they were just probably tired like I was, though they never spoke a word all the way. I wanted to give the bananas away to everybody on our two benches but I didn’t and regretted it later. Always go with the gut no matter what, there will be a reason. The woman bought tea through the window at Parkmakudi station they drank it quickly then threw the paper cups out of the window. It was remarkable to me. It brought up such a lot of memories for me today of back in the 70’s and 80’s in England.
You see the journey today was a journey through squalor and stench if I’m honest. As the train set off the carriage was filled with the smell of rancid urine. I thought I was down wind of the toilets at first which would have been miserable. But as it picked up a little speed it cleared as the train moved steadily through the suburbs of shacks and huts to the next station. Then there it was again at the next town, a real stench. Nobody else seemed to bat an eye lid. So I did my best not too, but my taste buds revolted The view out of the window with the odd interval of green as we got further away from Madurai was of decay and neglect and if I let my imagination go there horror, there was garbage scattered all the way to the destination and not just the odd plastic bag hanging off a tree, but piles and fields and roads and streets and gardens in front off and behind the houses. At one point I watched a woman walk out of her front door and throw a plastic bag full of rubbish about 10 feet from her front door and that was that. I have been asking myself over and over what has happened here.
This is a mind set and am I wrong to be baffled by it, I’ve only been here 4 days and maybe I’m missing something. It’s as if everybody is numb to it. I’m not sure what the distance was from Madurai to Rameswaram but apart from a few miles of green fields palm trees and banana plantations in between the villages on the journey and I did fall asleep for a little while, it was truly squalid.
Please don’t get me wrong here I am not riding a European high horse I am genuinely curious as to why. I see the gut wrenching poverty, it is stunning but where is the help. It is not just the poor who have created this. I was thinking about the dead river in Madurai and I suppose how the hell would you start to begin to clear it up anyway. I recall there was anger in Britain back in the 70’s about this very thing. Indians had come to Britain for a better life and I can see the mentality here. I saw it at when I first lived in the east end in the early 80’s there were rubbish chutes and dustmen, but many immigrants still threw their rubbish off the tower block balconies. It has shed some light on it for me as I couldn’t understand it. It is a mentality and here after 4 days who am I to criticize. I Have honestly asked myself was it like this before the British arrived, I suppose that is a hard question to answer. It apparently got a lot worse for the peasants during the British rule here (according to the museum yesterday) but then did the British eventually pulling out leave some sort of vacuum or scar that has still not healed. I really don’t know. I was just thinking.
Once in at Rameshwaram I got the pack on and just began walking into town, or at least where I thought town was, and it looked like my inner compass was as usual pretty good. I walked up the startling main dirt road for about a mile. I was on a mission to get somewhere decent to sleep tonight as fast as possible and get the pack off my back. I knew I was drawing looks but I just kept on. At a junction I asked a policeman who was stood in the road looking on over the chaos. He looked really chest proud that I’d asked him. He told me a good hotel looked at my load and called in a tuk tuk. Told the guy where to take me and that was that we were weaving and wizzing down the high street horn blaring.
I’d thought Madurai was remarkable but here were swamis in orange and dreadlocks, there were shaved and painted heads, long black braided hair, white chalked brown bodies lines of beggars sat along the road, painted faces, the white peaked caps, white shirts and long waistcoats, of course the saris, billowing pink trousers , turbans of green and blue and bright pink, all pushing and shoving and shouting through clogged streets of blaring busses and honking yellow tut tuks, cows dogs goats trucks trailers cars and in amongst it all were what seemed to be ordinary families with kids here on a pilgrimage for real. It looked like pandemonium, it looked incredible.
The first try at a hotel was a dud. No room. Oh oh. Mind you the place looked like a bomb site and I was very relieved. The guy on the desk said try the “Ambika lodge”. I didn’t understand it but the Tuk Tuk driver knew it. It turned out to be not too bad at all. Polished white tiled floors, clean fresh room and a big bold and pad lock on the room door, excellent. I paid up 1200r. The only draw back was no windows but hey, within 10 minutes I was back out in the street.
We’d passed a place on the beach where pilgrims gathered to bathe a sacred place called Agnitheertham about 100 meters from the main temple just down the main street but down into or across to another world to me. Apparently a dip in the sea here will remove all your sins so I’m off in there tomorrow fore a long swim. It was amazing to watch all the people, the swamis sat around reciting prayers others teaching and wagging their fingers clouds of incense rising up to the heavens, some people taking away jars of water or hands full of sand, others young and old swimming and shrieking fully clothed in the ocean, the cows came along too, they just seemed to want to be around all the fun and the noise, everybody was soaked. It was a bit stinky too down wind from the two giant rubbish bins placed incredibly right behind the place.
The temple itself seems to be a place where pilgrims come to bathe or be cleansed at the 22 wells or Tirthas which seemed to be dotted all around the place I watched as groups and individuals arrived at the Tirthas where the Temple helpers would draw buckets of water on long ropes quickly up and pour it over the gathered heads, pilgrims would have to complete all 22 and apparently the waters here have health giving properties that will clean all your chakras.
I suppose I had always imagined a pilgrimage to be a very solemn thing to be and do, but not here and I didn’t initially warm to the place as I had done in Madurai as it seemed dank and wet under foot but I hadn’t understood that that is what people come here to do, to get soaked so I think I’ll go and get soaked tomorrow. I could do with a cleanse.
The temple itself was built to house the Rama Lingams in the 12 century. Legend says that Rama sent a messenger (Hanuman) to the Himilayas and to bring back a lingam and worship Shiva to atone for his own sins. The messenger had been late coming back and so a monkey lieutenant had made one out of sand from the beach here (hence all the little piles of sand and prayers down at the beach earlier) the ceremony had gone ahead as they thought they had the lingam but then the messenger had show up later. But instead of being cross Rama decided to venerate both lingams.
As my feet slapped along the wet stone floors of the huge corridors lined with fierce mythical lions pillars, I across the couple who’d sat me on the train or in fact they had come across me. They were soaked just like everybody else. The guy in particular seemed very happy to see me.
“Oh you came here, good” Then we shook hands and went our way. I tried to get into a particular entrance but was told no to non Hindus. Fair enough. Then for some reason as I walked back around the corridors a guide coming the other way seemed to take a shine to me. I thought he was trying to sell me a tour as he talking really fast about Brahma and Brahmins, Shiva, lingams the gods this that and the other I honestly couldn’t keep up with the pantheon, then the couple came around the corner and it turned out that this was their personal guide for the day, the guide was so surprised that he said for me to stay with them. So I went along I had my for head painted white and the red dot of my third eye and asked to chant ‘Omni va Shiva’ to show respect as we walked around. They took me into the holy of Holy’s here normally the guide said Europeans not allowed. There were hundreds of people queuing right along the corridors waiting to get in. We stood a moment and then the guide arrive back breathless and said to us all
“Come come this way quickly” we went around the other side of the inner temple through a stone doorway, I could see all the pilgrims looking at us, then up the down ramp and the guide pushed us literally into the crowd at the front of the shrine. He’d asked if I had 50 rupees. I’d said yes
“Well get them ready” he said. A guard at the front tried to pull me out
The guide said something to him
Looked at me nodded and said
So I held up the rupees the guard blinked then took it and waved me right to the front the lady I was with was getting knocked about so I shielded her to give her time to look. There were people crammed up behind me everybody soaking wet pushing and heaving. I craned my neck over as far as possible to see what was in the shrine. It looked strangely far away and you know when you put mirrors facing together you get that infinity effect well for a split second that is what I saw with a small black featureless figure wrapped in a shawl far far away. Then that was it, I was pulled out.
The guide was so excited he said Did you see it, did you see the lord ?
I said yes I did but I wasn’t sure what I saw.
You are very lucky very lucky indeed. Europeans never get to see in him.
We walked on a little to other important shrines which I wrote down. The couple were so lovely and seemed very devout. They didn’t say much. But the guy seemed really pleased that I had been allowed in. They turned out to be Ukay and Shyma and had travelled all the way from Putna near Varanasi to be here, a long journey indeed. One I was making the other way around.I took a few photos of them and said I will send them. Then we all went our separate ways . I went to meditate to the sounds of the remarkably beautiful music (kritis on ambal swathi Sanskrit series)one of the priests kindly wrote it down for me after I’d hounded them. It was piped out all through the temple and set the hypnotically beautiful tone. The meditation was good and I’m gaining confidence in what I’m getting but I was dropping down tired and needed to eat.
So after walking back to the hotel barefoot to get my boots I went looking for a restaurant. I went down to the fist place I had gone ear the beach to as I’d seen it had said restaurant but when I walked in there were a series of coloured plastic bowls along a make shift table in a big open room Now I am not squeamish at all with places and would have happily sat there in that run down ramshackle place but the drilling and horror stories I had before I left England of viruses and disease are still ringing in my head. So I turned round and walked straight out. In another place too I actually sat down then just got up and left when I saw how they were serving the food.
After a long walk in the sun through the chaos and colour dust sand and dirt of the streets I got to a place that was recommended as a good restaurant I was expecting a restaurant. I’m not sure it was one No offence but it seemed more like a soup kitchen and whilst abroad there are all sort of different rules abut what to do or how to get served. So I stood in line looking across this crowded room at the people sat there already eating it seemed to be the thing to do to make them uncomfortable so you could get their table, then somebody would stand over you and make you uncomfortable. It was a popular place which was a good sign. A young guy was scraping the spilled food and water of used tables with what looked like a window cleaners tool, then a quick wipe down and that was that. As I said I have no problem with it at all, I am just really paranoid right now about getting sick but I really needed to eat. Anyway then I realized that I needed a ticket so I asked the guy behind the desk who tried to tell me that I would have to wait for 15 or 20 minutes that basically I’d lost my place that I didn’t really have, I wondered why they hadn’t told me. Imagined him telling his wife later
“You know this English man just came and stood in the middle of the dinning room today and he never even ate just watched everybody eating”
Then just out the corner of my eye noticed a few people coming out of a side room where it said “air conditioned dinning room” so I sort of asked but said
“I’ll go in there eh” when we get hungry in my family, I can put it aside for a while, but then stand aside.
He said “ok then”
The room was really dim but had if I can say so a higher class of clientele. You can see money in India, it’s really odd. So there I was hob nobbing in a dim quiet room somewhere on an island I’d never heard of before. I just said I would like something to eat please. There was only one dish on the menu which was served up on tin trays with 7 or 8 little dishes each with a different sauce in them. I sat there for a while and asked the waiter guy if I could have some rice please which they brought out in a big silver dish and when you looked like you’d eaten what the first spoon full they would come over and give you anther great spoonful . I thought for a while they were not understanding me as I had my food sauces and all that but no rice and everybody else on the other side of the room was getting some. The 3 guys at my table hadn’t got anything at all. I’d asked about 3 or 4 times and in the end I asked the silent guy next to me
“How do you say rice in India”
He said “You say rice”
He wasn’t being a smart ass, it was just that nobody in the darkened room was talking everybody had food anxiety and I was just trying to get my bearings of how you do this food ordering thing in India, I trying to blend in, you know look like a local but everybody was eating with their fingers and I realized they’d realized that I wasn’t room around there when he brought me a spoon.
Well ,why aren’t we getting any rice? I asked poiltly
“They say they have run out in the kitchen” he said. I felt sorry for them, at least I had the sauces and they looked really fed up trying their best not to stare at my food.
Eventually a young lad burst out of the kitchen with a steaming pot of rice, I went to 3 spoons full and it was actually really quite nice. When I’d had my fill I went out to the other room paid 75r including a bottle of water and then treated myself to a tuk tuk back to the hotel across the road from the Temple. I really really needed to sleep a little.