Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Arunachaleswar Temple, Thiruvannamalai, India

I walk along the dusty main street into town, dodging cows and calves, side-stepping cow patties, weaving my way around rickshaws, and arrive at the Arunachaleswar Temple.  Four large gopurams occupy four cardinal points in this complex.  Hindu pilgrims come here to worship Lord Shiva, who appeared as a column of fire atop Mount Arunachala which rises  behind the temples highest gopuram.

Darshan (ritual prayers) are underway when I arrive.  A group of about forty bare-chested men clang finger cymbals, tambourines and beat drums as they chant.  Their upper bodies gleam with coconut oil.  Intense jade-green sarongs are wrapped around their waists.  Sandalwood beads strung around their necks. Framing them on either side are groups of female pilgrims dressed in flaming-red saris, garlands of flowers--jasmine, marigolds and roses woven into their thick black braids. 

Other pilgrims are dressed all in white.  Some men with shaven heads anointed in a yellow paste. 

At noon bells clang, drums beat, voices raise in a repetitive, two-syllable cry as the faithful offer their prayers to Shiva.

Some red-clothed children in the serpentine line to enter the temple spot me as I sit and write on the marble steps of the sheltered arcade opposite.  I smile and wave.  They cover their mouths and giggle, wave back.  I wave again and they wave harder.  A group of the youngest skip in my direction, then scurry away in a fit of shyness.s  They make more tentative forays and retreats waving and grinning.  Finally a mother and six children all attired in flaming red walk over to me, the littlest children hiding behind the mother's sari.

"Thank you, hello," they say. giggling.
"Hello, thank you," I return.
We continue about five rounds of this.
The mother says, "I mother," points to man now walking towards us, "He husband."
I shake the soft Indian hand shake with all of them.
"This my son, my daughter," the husband says.  "Other - my brother's children.  We are two families."
"Nice to meet you," I say.
"Nice to meet you," echo all the family members.
"What is your good name, Madame," asks the father.
"Diane," I answer.
"Diane. Diane. Diane." echo the family.
"We take photo?" The husband points to family and me.
"Oh," I say, "I thought no photos were allowed in the temple.
"Yes.  Yes.  Sorry.  You are correct.  I forgot.," he says.

Bells clang.
They all turn to see where the rest of their family is in the queue, then turn back to me, raise their hands to their faces, say: "Nameste," and scurry off.

I lean back against the pillar, appreciate the cool breeze, and study the reliefs of melon-breasted women, flowers and elephants etched into the columns.

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