Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple Srirangam 29.01.11
I’d asked at the hotel which bus I’d need to get to the temple, I’d given up trying to say Ranganathaswamy Temple, I think they had to because every time I said it people just went blank which quite possibly could have been because they’d never heard it said in a Lancashire accent before. So I wrote it down and just said
“Excuse me which is the bus to the”, lift up note pad point to page “Temple please”
It had the desired effect and I was told bus number 1. Ok cool. But once at the bus station it was bedlam to my eyes. There looked like around 40 busses had all arrived at once and grid locked the place there was dust and horns and whistles and like I say bedlam. I looked across the road and thought.
“Have a laugh” what could happen, I get the wrong bus and end up in a foreign place. You can’t get lost it is a state of mind unless of course you have to be somewhere fast, but I didn’t, I had a whole day to just go where ever it took me. So I metaphorically put my goggles on pulled me trunks up, arranged my tackle and jumped in, wey hey..
I waded across the depo and eventually came to a stop at a guy dressed in brown, he had a whistle, I’d noted a few of them around the place dressed in brown, so they must work here,
“Excuse me” I shouted over the din “Could you tell where I get the No1 from” Lifts up the pad and points “Temple please mate” I was honestly grinning and felt sparkling.
The guy looked at me and shouted back “Its city bus you get it over there” That arm movement again
“Thanks mate” and off I went towards a different pool.
He shouted “srirangam srirangam” to me as I was walking away, but at the time I had no idea what he was saying I just shouted back
“Cheers mate” and have him the thumbs up sign. Later I realized Srilangam was the town where the temple was.
The trouble was what was a city bus and what was not a city bus , every bus in the place was marked differently, like who ever the driver was had painted it up differently given it a quaff so to speak. Every bus I could see had a different splash of colour, they actually looked great, but a little confusing at first to the untrained eye. But then I saw that on the front window of each was a round sticker with the number on. Oh right city busses have stickers on, silly me
I stood a while on the bus station pavement just looking on scouring the place for a No1. Then to my delight there she was sailing into port, lovely and green and shiny silver. I stepped off the curb and asked the guy the question and point to the pad. He shook his head but indicated to get on. So I asked again “Look mate does it or doesn’t it “
And again he shook his head and indicated me to get on. Then I got it, yes here is a shake of the head. In England of course a nod means yes and a shake means no. It was momentarily confusing but then my response was very English, and stuffy and funny to me and baffling to him. I just started laughing again. What the hell anyway, all aboard the skylark. I got a window seat and off we went.
The great beast lumbered out of the station hissing, brakes screeching and deep baritone horn blaring it could have been mounted on a war elephant, as we entered the road rocking and swaying our way slowly through the choked roads. There were two conductors at either end of the bus as it was so packed you couldn’t move down it so they worked either end blowing their whistles to indicate to the driver when to stop and when to go, people jumped on and off at random I don’t recall actually seeing a bus stop, I think it’s just an instinctual thing, It slows down you jump on or off. Man, being a bus conductor here would be a great job for a while you’d be like tarzan swinging along and dropping down here and there conducting the movement with your whistle and a big wad of cash in your hand, yeah man I could do that for a while, great fun.
The bus went through the steel shops district which looked as you’d expect here, dark oily dirt covering the floor right along the street, mind you it covered the people too right along the street. Men hammered sheet metal with lump hammers sat in the dirt, piles of tyres and car wheel rims, men sweated lifting sheets and plates of steel and metal into trucks tuk tuks and carts, then round a corner into a long road that must have been the onion road, because on my side of the street that is all there was. There were tons of onions all sorted in different sizes tiny ones too huge ones in what seemed to be different shops. They were being bagged up in rough brown cloth bags and loaded up in much the same way and into much the same things as the sheets of metal. Then past the “Special prison for Women” I cannot imagine what it must be like in there, and don’t want to try. The bus lumbered on for about an 3 quarters of an hour through the traffic. People are still staring and I’m still smiling and giving a little wave. It is sure fire guarantee of a beautiful smile and laughter returned, maybe because I wasn’t being a prat and was genuinely happy to be there. I just wanted to reach across.
A strange thing too, it’s hot here right as you can imagine, so I’ve wondered why people wear those little cozy ear muffs and I got it today, the noise, it’s something I’d seen in the teams in London. I may just get myself a pair for when I get home, could start a trend, London noise is sharp and harsh compared with this. This is almost musical, almost.
Then across the Kavery River (pronounced Korvery) now after the Vaigal River at Madurai, this was a dream it looked beautiful for the few seconds as we crossed the bridge. A wide shallow flowing river with great sand banks and long grass in the middle, I will come visit tomorrow I said.
Today a mystical penny dropped. There is a thing, a tradition here where the women, I think,draw lotus flower symbols on the front steps of their houses, an obvious good luck symbol. So I was just day dreaming looking out the window and happened to look down and saw the usual lotus symbol but in the middle was a Star of David or that’s how I identify it. I was stunned. You see last night I had been checking out a few hotels before I chose to be decadent for a couple of nights. I’d been to a place just around the corner to compare its prices, it was a quarter of the price but the room I’d asked to see wasn’t what I wanted after Ramashwaram. But above the bed of the room they showed me was a great wooden Star of David I’d said to the guy,
“How interesting a Star of David in a Hindu Hotel room.”
He’d just nodded and looked puzzled. But now there it was again chalked on the floor perfectly symmetrical joined with a lotus symbol. It caused a great deal of thought in me all day and has lit a fuse that will lead somewhere. I tried drawing what I had seen over and over until I got it something similar. I took it to mean the star as soul or man and the flower as the light around the body, the 6-7 layers petals of the etheric field depending on your school, I was thinking along those lines, I had a lot of thought on it but I’ll save you that for now. But I saw it all around the temple all day chalked on the floors. I wondered who had used the star symbol first the Hindus or the Jews and was it a coincidence or was there a connection. I’m sure the latter. I did a meditation whilst I was there and saw the Star of David with steps leading to it up a stone wall and then down from it the other side then later I was outside a pastel orange house there were beautiful white flowers with soft pink centers on lattice work of thick black ancient roots, fascinating.
The bus pulled up and the guy in brown said something and a few people got off but as I said I was now deep in thought and trying to draw stars and flowers as the bus turned the corner I just happened to look up and saw the temple. Honestly I cannot tell you how spectacular it looked. I have been here now about 6 days and have been trying to remember what I was expecting when I set off from London. I honestly cannot remember. What ever it was, it has long been dwarfed by what is here. The temple is just beautiful .It was a sunny day and so all the many hundreds probably thousands of brightly coloured figures that cover the whole exteriors of the towers just shone. It was also a shocking site set as it was in the sea of apparent chaos that has swept up to and into its doors penetrating the first 3 walls over the centuries. The village of Srirangam which is basically now shops and stalls selling trinkets to the thousands of pilgrims. There are even motor bikes and tuk tuks within the first 3 walls, and there are 7 in all. The walled courts getting smaller and smaller as you walk in towards the holy of holy. I wondered if the gods were happy with the encroachment into these sacred places. It was remarkable to me.
The temples location represents the transcendence of Vishnu who is housed in the central sanctuary. Non Hindus are not allowed into this place and I thought fair enough. Though I have a feeling that none of them would have minded in the slightest. There are figures of the blue reclining Vishnu on all the temples exteriors, laying back onto the 7 headed ‘black’ snake Adiesha who formed the island for him resting it on the primordial ocean of chaos and really as I write this not much has changed, these temples do rest in an seeming ocean of chaos, and as I walked through the 3 outer court walls I though if Vishnu was going to meditate here now he’d need ear plugs.
There are no shoes past the 4th wall/gate I was relieved it’s so nice to walk around bare foot on the well trodden smooth stone floors of the temples. I really loved this place regardless of the incursion of the trinket town outside it all added to the charm and the color of the place to me. There were priests in shrines all around the place each had there own god they cared for. Pilgrims would enter they would stand in front of their gods and pray and rock and twist and some would jump and hold their heads.
I am not writing this with the slightest tone of sarcasm. I found the temples peaceful calm light and the pilgrims there openhearted and if I can say so humorous but obviously deeply religious and devout. I was in awe of them, but perhaps not their gods, perhaps because there were just so many of them and I was lost with all their names and what they actually did. It is not of my culture, but the people themselves touched me. It has again really opened my eyes to see such reverence in the shrines in front of these black gods. It had puzzled me why all the Gods images are black. So I stopped and asked a young guy who beamed at his family that I’d asked him. He told me
“The people worship the statues as Gods but God should not be easily visible, and so in olden times the gods were covered in oils (they still are) and lit by fire lamps (candles) so they shone in the half light but were not so easy to see, which is how it should be”
I was lucky enough to receive a blessing at a shrine. It was actually very good of the priest as at most of the shrines the bare chested priests with their white sarongs would stop me at the threshold but this guy could obviously see my deep curiosity and waved me forward, he dished me a small ladle of holy water into my hand along with the group who were in there praying at the time, I combed into y hair with my fingers then he put green leaves and a red ocher powder into my hand and indicated to put a dot onto my for head/third eye. I asked him gently who this shrine was for he simply said
A little sign to the side of the door said
Dear Devotes please visit www.srirangapankjam.com When I get a chance I will.
There were others of course who I took to be down right charlatans at one place at the shrine of the Goddess Nasima, the hideous priest had an old deranged woman sat in the shadows to the side who screamed and ranted at people as they went in to pray. I could see they were visibly shaken by their behaviour, there seemed to be two preists, one of them was taking the coconut offerings off the shrine and eating it slobbering in front of the devotes, he threw chunks of it at the old woman who screeched and stuffed it in her toothless mouth. It was a horrible sight and they made me angry. I stood at his doorway writing in my pad so he could see me. He came out to see what I had written, it’s a good job he couldn’t read English the Hideous fraud, as I walked down the steps I turned to him, pointed at him and then to my eye and back at him.
“I see you” I said. He knew what I meant and smiled an ugly smile. I know I shouldn’t have done but the people visiting there had come from the other side of India, the other side of the world and to my eyes being treated disrespectfully by a nasty fool.
In other places there were students sat in uniforms listening to prayers and lectures, people praying in the dazzling sunlight, children with their heads shaved and painted yellow, running around playing. I was having fun with people too smiling when stared at and laughing with them. Candles burned under the shaded shrines and clouds of wonderful smelling incense blew through the massive stone corridors on the sleepy afternoon breeze. I had the palace of a thousand columns and its carved serpents all to myself except for the bats who squeaked in the stone ceilings above me as I padded softly by. I really loved it there, an ancient place, with ancient roots and its heart still beating.
I met a lovely American couple called Gerard and Bobby who just sort of stopped where I was sitting. They turned out to be a mine of really useful information, were generous and had travelled India before. Apparently they met in WH Smiths in Sloane square in 1972. She’d fallen in love with him instantly and they had been together ever since. She said she’d had an English accent back then. It was great just talking with them. They weren’t hippies, they were a little like me I supposed out there trying to make sense of themselves through the world and what it presented to them. I was grateful for the genuine tips they gave me. I knew I would need the information they brought for me. I think that is how it is isn’t it. People bring gifts for us if you see it.
Then I was just leaving when a guy stopped me and said
“Good time of day you want to see temple roof 5 rupees.”
I thought he was just selling so something so I said no thanks and tried to walk by. He looked genuinely dumbfounded that I’d walked by so I stopped and he called another guy across who said
“ 5 rupees you go onto roof through gate over there, give money to the girl.” Who was sat behind a large sort of counter. She looked like a poor soul. I smiled at her and said gently
“Hello darling, here is 5 rupees, can I go on your roof. “ She just smiled the most beautiful smile and pointed to a closed gate. I pulled it open and went through a little court yard up some stone steps and onto the roof. I swear I burst out laughing with delighted surprise when got up there.
It was just incredible to see. Honestly I could not have imagined the sight, it was the time of day I have always called the golden hour it couldn’t have been better timed . I won’t gush on about it. I will load the beautiful photographs up. I kept asking why me. There was just me up there for most of the time, another couple came took some photographs, they looked as awed as I was. But they left and it was just me with all the thousands of pilgrims below. I couldn’t believe it. Truly a moment I will never forget. What a day and I still had to get back yet.
I’d made my way back to the place where the No1 had dropped me. It seemed to be a terminus, but you never can tell. A guy in brown was stood at the front of the bus, he pointed at me and indicated I get on. I said
“Trichy railway station?” he shook his head I took a step toward the bus but turned and just to be sure I said
“Trichy Railway station?” emphasizing that it was a definite question. He looked puzzled and shook his head again.
“Ok great thanks” and I got on.
The bus was packed then the great beast roared and hissed into life, whistles blew and deep bass horns blew she lurched into the road. The driver put the stereo on it was rocking. Tamil Nadu Rock guitars mixed huge rock drums and tablas with gaiter sounding pipes and booming base. Honestly it rocked, it was classy tasty exotic rock, just up my street. There was girl sat next to me who asked where I was from. I told her London and I was called Michael and shook her hand, it was a broken shy kind of chat. Outside the streets teemed I have honestly never seen anything like it, it was alive. It reminded me of an over stocked fish pond somehow, when all the fish come the surface to feed and all that energy is generated, it was that sort of feeling, but on a massive scale.
“The people here seem happy” I said
She looked puzzled and said “people have problems”
“Oh I don’t mean they are all skipping about hand in hand, but they seem to be all together in this, they are all just getting on with it. It’s really incredible. There is life here” I said.
She nodded and smiled.
And maybe that is it, maybe it was just that day, but I doubt it. There seems to be something in it. There is energy here everybody is just getting along with what ever it is they need to do.
I actually didn’t want to get of the bus but I hoped off the open doors near the station into the middle of the road laughing again and made my way back to air conditioned decadentville on the Dusty McDonalds road. But even that is ok for a couple of nights and come on, I’ve worked hard today. It’s a treat.