Racing bullocks and raiding temples with the god of Himalayan meditation and paradoxical percussion, the dancer of life and death, cemeteries and sex.
Yesterday we rose at 4am to beat the traffic jams for a three-day excursion south-east to the state of Tamil Nadu (see photos here). A surprisingly well sealed highway, lanes separated by pink and yellow flower bushes. Biblical-looking flat roofs with external stairs; corrugated iron, red-tiled, or thatched roofs above white-washed mud walls and dirt floors. A glimpse of road-side monkeys. A barber in a shed. Freshly moulded bricks laid out to dry, then stacked in a grid with air holes. Women weaving twine, washing clothes in buckets, hanging them on the line, boiling pots over open fires. Bright saris bending in emerald-green fields. Level crossing barriers raised by a manual crank handle. Small wayside shrines with a few flowers or a candle. Towering outdoor statues of the gods. When we stopped at toll booths, sellers lifted baskets of fresh vegetables or peanut snacks to the bus windows. We passed the turnoff to a missionary hospital town I’d heard of, Vellore.
Our destination was the small town of Tiruvannamalai, meaning “red mountain” (population 130,000). Every full moon, thousands of pilgrims come here to circle the holy Mt Arunachaleswar. Most are on foot, but we rode bullock carts around the 14 km circumference. Our singing and clapping attracting friendly attention, the drivers periodically geeing up their plodding steeds (with painted blue, ballooned or streamered horns) to race and overtake the other carts. Sadhus or holy men were asleep on benches, sitting in meditation or walking barefoot, in orange robes or bare-chested. Many wore the Hindu sacred thread, a cord hanging for life from one shoulder to the waist. On top of a gateway, monkeys chased each other around stone carvings of gods. One beggar had fingerless, leprous hands. To ward off evil spirits, rooftop corners often display a carved monster mask, and building scaffoldings have scarecrows with fierce painted faces.
At 10 hectares, the Tiruvannamalai temple is one of India’s largest. It dates from the 11th century though was mostly built around the 18th. We entered through a gate beneath the 66m high gopuram, a 13-storey pyramid covered in hundreds of carved stone deities. The local Lutheran pastor is friends with the temple’s high priest. He alone may enter the inner sanctum, an enclosed cubicle representing God’s unknowable darkness, much as only the Jewish high priest could enter the holy of holies in the Jerusalem Temple.
We crammed into an airless chamber, sweltering even now in “winter” – you’d need no mystic gift to enter a dazed visionary trance in summer. The priest saluted the idol and dabbed our foreheads with sandalwood paste in a blessedly brief ceremony, before leading us into a cooler, roomier area and giving us floral garlands and bags of pastries. A relief to escape the gloomy, wet-floored, black-idoled interior for the temple courtyards outside. Monkeys ate bananas by a large water tank. An elephant took coins from tourists’ hands. Stalls sold trinkets like beads or god statues, flowers for offerings, food offered to the deity. Holy men and beggars sought alms at the entrance.
This morning we slept in until 5:30am. We stepped outside past shaggy bearded Sadhus, just waking at our gate. Women splashed water to settle the dust on their thresholds before drawing geometric floral patterns with coloured sand (known as kolam or rangoli). People were sleeping on the street; wrapped head to toe in blankets, they looked like corpses. We climbed part-way up the 800m hill to watch the sunrise. The temple hovered below, shrouded in haze, and the sound of traffic horns, bells and gongs, chanting and drumming floated up. A holy man, Ramana Maharishi, meditated in a cave up here for 20 years until 1922, then built a peaceful ashram (spiritual retreat centre) in the town below. Somerset Maugham met him here in 1938, inspiring the holy man in his novel The Razor’s Edge (see Maugham’s account of the encounter here). We descended past hawkers setting out the day’s trade of black and white stone souvenirs: statues of Shiva, his bull Nandi and elephant-headed son Ganesh, or the holy sound of OM chiselled like a cursive “30” on profiles of the holy hill.
Mt Arunachaleswar is devoted to the god Shiva, who is said to have manifested himself on the summit long ago as a blazing pillar of flame. Ever since he’s been worshipped as the lingam, an upright phallic cylinder signifying virility and fertility. Shiva’s temples contain black stone pillars, their rounded tops peeking out from chains of blossoms heaped like colored quoits around a pole. In Kashmir, pilgrims hike for three days to a mountain cave to worship an ice lingam, a stalagmite that melts and re-forms every year.
Of India’s many gods, Shiva may be the most strange. He’s the destroyer and re-creator, ascetic and erotic, lord of life, death, time, and sex. He is the great yogi who meditates in the Himalayas with a tiger skin, a necklace of skulls, and live serpents as belts and bracelets. He holds a trident and in his hair rests the crescent moon, sign of passing time. From his matted locks tumbles the holy river Ganges. His skin is smeared with cremated ashes and three horizontal white lines cross his forehead – and that of his devotees.
Between Shiva’s eyebrows is a vertical third eye that pierces spiritual reality. The gods once sought to rouse him from meditation by sending the beautiful love god Kama to seduce him from his chaste austerity. Like Cupid, he drew his sugarcane bow and fired a flower arrow. Shiva merely opened his third eye and its fire reduced Kama to ashes. Here he is with his wife Parvati and elephantine son Ganesh:
Shiva is the divine paradox, the reconciler of opposites, and Shaivite Hindus reflect their god’s bipolar nature. Some are fiercely ascetic. They live naked in cemeteries, smeared with ashes and eating from skulls. A few embrace his other extreme, seeking seek enlightenment through hallucinogenic intoxicants and sexual intercourse.
Shiva is often shown as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, dancing on the dwarf of ignorance within a ring of flames, the circle of cosmic unity and the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. One of his four arms grasps a small drum, sounding the rhythm of creation, and a second arm wields the fire of destruction. Occasional depictions show the right side of his body as an athletic male, the left half as a voluptuous female. He gains spiritual power from both austere self-denial and union with his female counterpart. Reflecting Shiva’s duality, his consort may be the peaceful Parvati, model wife and mother, or the less demure Kali, who tears out of the entrails of mortal men and drinks their blood like all-devouring time.