India: A Masala of Culture and Architecture. Guest Post by Ross E Hayes. Architect (retired) Urban Planner

IMG_0745The landscape of India bursts with energy. Travel tends to pull my mind in diverse directions so I like to look for patterns in the masala of architecture and culture I’m seeing here.

We have an assortment of elastic bands littering the area around the telephone in our kitchen at home in Calgary. The delivery person uses them to tie around the floppy morning newspapers transforming them into manageable projectiles that land with a thud on our front porch everyday. Perhaps an image of India as an elastic band that pulls pieces together will help me manage what I’m seeing.

Last week we attended an evening performance of Kodavas traditional tribal dance. The sky was black except for bright stars and a brilliant full moon. The dark skinned male performers danced by a blazing bon fire. With long sticks and metal swords they clacked and clanged while dancing in a big circle to the haunting nasal sound of a lone vocalist. The tribe is said to descend from Alexander the Great’s army that invaded India in 327 BC. They migrated down the Malabar Coast (the southwest coast of India) and settled in the fertile hills of the Western Ghats. Now, a hundred or more generations later, they are almost fully integrated into Indian society but they still bring something different, something Greek, into the spicy Indian mix.

In Mumbai, we visited the newly renovated Magen David Synagogue. IMG_0029A friend of mine helped with the renovation, and I wanted to see it first hand. It is an open, brightly lit beacon in a crowded neighbourhood. We could hear the sounds of school children singing in the adjacent Muslim school and the children played in the courtyard in front of the synagogue. Chairs and carpets, the aftermath of a major social event, were being removed from the rear of the building.

In the middle of the 19th century Jews escaped persecution in Iraq (which was their home at the time) and came to Mumbai to settle. The congregation of 20,000 persons was reduced substantially after the chaos resulting from partition of India in 1947. Families dispersed to the far corners of the globe where they flourished. However the Jews left a legacy in India and the renovated synagogue is a good example of continued investment.

The Qutb Shahi Tombs are set in a peaceful landscape in Hyderabad that, in the late 17th century, was overrun by the Mughals, creating a dynasty that lasted until India’s independence. IMG_0379The traditions of Islam flourished and the city became a focus for the arts, culture and learning.

Toward the back of one of the tombs, a small patch of brilliant turquoise mosaic reflects the intense sunlight. Persian, we are told. From Isfahan. (Isfahan is several deserts and a few mountain passes away from south India. And as dedicated as the artisans may be, I wondered how they ended up in India.)

IMG_0375The story is a sub-plot of a bigger cultural flood, that of the invasion of India by the Mughals in the 15th century, adding one more piece to their vast empire part of which included Persia. While less kind to other prisoners, the Mughals recognized the importance of artists and craftsmen in the embellishment of their capital, Samarkand, then one of the most beautiful cities in the world and Persians artists were brought to that city to contribute their talents to its magnificence. As the Mughal influence spread across the sub-continent, the work of Indian stonemasons was combined with the talents of the Persians. And what a legacy they left; elegant expansive palaces, impenetrable and ingenious fortresses, delicate domes silhouetted against the blue sky and elegant details. Mughal architecture has today become the icon of Indian design.IMG_0833

The English also left no less of a legacy. An English architect designed the Wodeyar dynasty Palace at Mysore in 1915, replacing an earlier structure that had burned down. IMG_0837I am told that it is in the Indo-Sarcenic style. Perhaps. But I cannot help but feel that the term itself cages the enthusiasm and spirit of the design that probably should be left untamed. It is an exuberant collage of fortress-like corners, broad arches, light domes (I counted 10). Colonnades defy gravity, resting on pillows and lotus leaves with arches that spring like the ruffle of a peacock’s tail. Cast iron columns, fabricated in Scotland, rise to support a delicate glass roof. To remind the viewer that this is not frivolous business, the walls a lined with a brilliant display of paintings with troupes on foot, horseback and elephants.

The architecture of the English colonial period is seen across India and like the Mughals before them, they have made a lasting contribution.

Is the elastic band I’m looking for to wrap up my understanding of architecture and culture into a pattern in India a broad one, like the masala of Greeks, Mughals, British and the Iraqi Jews, all of whom came and injected their vitality into the heart of the sub-continent?

Wait a minute. I’m in a small village outside Tellicherry in Kerala and a Theyyan Dance is in full swing. IMG_0735The whole village is in attendance to witness the spirit descend into the bodies of the five dancers. Their enormous red headdresses gyrate in the hot sun to the erratic beat of drummers and a short, and very odd sounding trumpet.

A group of elders comes out to push back the crowd. The wild erratic movements of the dancers need space as they leap into the air and run clockwise, then counter-clockwise around a small temple.

As quickly as the dance takes hold, it comes to a stop. Villages seek advice from the dancers, and judging from the expression of their faces, receive sage counsel. They have been blessed. The spirits have returned to their village once again.

I think about my elastic band analogy. It would not fit this one. No band would stretch that far.P1060092

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In My Socks: Climbing Seven Hundred 1000 Year Old Stairs

IMG_0522At the top of Vindyhyagiri Hill that I see in the distance is a majestic granite monolithic sculpture of Lord Bahubali, a revered Jain saint. (What I didn’t know at the time is that I would soon be climbing all 700 steps to the top of the hill and to the foot of the statue. In my socks.)

At the gate to this world famous site in Karnataka South India we dodge touts, postcard salesmen, socks salesmen and fake tour guides. Then following a rough homemade sign, we twist our way through the crowds to the shoe check in. Like most religious sites in India shoes must be left outside the entranceeven in this case which, for me, includes a scary long flight of 700 steep stone stairs to climb. I will have to chill out my fear and simply imagine that the new socks I brought with me to India are hiking boots.IMG_0529

Cutting through another welcoming party of hawkers and self-promoters we make our way through a simple gate and start to climb the granite stairs. The noon sun beats down and the sky, blue as though it were painted for a children’s story book, is unbroken by clouds. Colourful crowds of barefoot climbers––families with young children, large groups of school children, and a handful of European tourists––grab the sturdy railing alongside the stairs, and laughing and romping about, make their way up in a long line.

“Take your time,” a French tourist says to me as I stop to rest and chat. “You’ve got 600 more stairs to go.” IMG_0530Far below a checkerboard of green vegetable gardens, vineyards, coconut groves and fields of millet and corn glitters in the sun.IMG_0522

It’s easy to pad up these ancient stone stairs one slow step at a time (we’ve had lot of stair practice this week visiting old forts and the World Heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora even though I could usually wear my hiking shoes there.) Pad, pad, pad. I like the feel of rough-cut granite through my socks. The rhythm of my stepping up the stairs is mesmerizing and I’m brought into an ancient world I did not know about.IMG_0531

Sravanabelagola, the town below, means monk of the white pond. Towering above, serene and simple, the sculpture that represents the deity Bahubali, is a five story high monolith carved out of granite in 981A.D. People of the Jain faith, (which was founded in the 6th century B.C. to deal with the constraints of caste in Hinduism) have been making pilgrimages to this site for over a thousand years. I can only imagine their thoughts as they plodded along up the stairs to work toward their goal of achieving complete purity.

I reach the foot of the giant rock saint in an hour or so. IMG_0538For me it is not the faith that brings me here but the sight. I am living in history, surrounded by the lives those who have come to this place for inspiration.

Slowly I pad back down the 700 granite steps, refreshed and enlightened.IMG_0544

Even with my socks on.

Gentle India:Yoga

P1050869“This is your wakeup call Ma’am. It is six o’clock. Have a nice day,” the quiet voice on the phone tells me. With a quick hot shower and a cup of tea in the still, dark, morning our day begins. Sunlight is beginning to break its way through the tall trees surrounding our cabin in the woods as we walk a couple hundred feet along a rock path that leads to a large open pavilion. A few yoga mats are laid out. One is for me. A small candle with a ring of marigold and rose petals around it burns in the corner.

I silently sit down on my mat, cross my legs, and breathe in the smell of burning incense. A small thin man wearing a turban strides around the pavilion swinging a vessel of smoking eucalyptus leaves to keep the mosquitoes away. The only sound is the sweet song of birds––singing in dozens of different voices. Am I awake? I feel I as though I’m in a mystical dream world.

“Please sit comfortably. Make sure you are comfortable. Keep your back and neck straight. Close your eyes gently. Be aware of your surroundings,” the slow quiet lilt of Doctor P., the young woman who is the in-house physician of Ayruvedic medicine and our yoga master this morning, intones. How can I not be aware of the beauty of early morning all around me?

“Be aware of your body,” she says next. Aware I am. My thighs are burning and the rest of my body trembles with awareness of muscles I didn’t know I had before I came to this place a few days ago. Now I’ve been here long enough to know that soon I’ll forget my initial discomfort of sitting with my legs crossed in front of me.

My 1½-hour practice, that was long and difficult when we first arrived, comes to a close too soon. “With a little smile on your face, open your eyes with a few blinks,” Doctor P. says.

It’s not hard to smile. I open my eyes and the pavilion is flooded with sunlight, the early morning mist is disappearing into the forest and my day unfolds.

After a breakfast of fresh fruit, porridge and yoghurt Ross and I take a long walk through the farm past the greenhouses and some other sheds where the cows sleep at night.P1050874
Farther on there is a little Hindu shrine to Ganesh, a god of good luck that some of the workers decorate with chrysanthemums and pray in every morning.IMG_0491P1050878

My favourite spot is a small raised pavilion in the middle of the vegetable garden. It’s surrounded by bougainvillea and has a big mat on the floor with colourful handcrafted quilt and pillows to lean back on. Gentle breezes rustle the leaves in exotic trees at the edge of the garden and dozens of colourful birds call out to one another and  perform their little dances near the pavilion. It’s and ideal place for writing and sketching.P1050882

Ayruvedic principles, (arus=life; veda= science) including a vegetarian diet, herbal treatments (for me a message,) yoga and a no-alcohol-on-the-premises policy, in Shreyas retreat, near Bangalore, are a big healthy change, from my usual life style.

“This place is as good as it gets. Anywhere,” whispers Ross.

Gentle India is waiting for me to discover . P1050890

This Is India

IMG_9945How can anyone sleep? Way up over the Bay of Bombay is a thin slice of silver in the black sky, which reminds me I should stop looking out my window and get some rest. The sea glistens like thick molasses. It is 5am, and the in the darkness I can only just make out the gathering place beneath the triumphal arch of the Gateway of India. Under a dim street lamp a couple of dogs are curled up asleep on the seaside promenade.

The emptiness is silent—even the pigeons are asleep.

I’ve been here before. I know that soon India will wake up. I can hardly wait to start another journey. After an 11 ½ hour flight to Frankfurt, and a short change onto another flight 9 ½ hours to Mumbai, I’ve arrived as though by magic into another world.

It’s 5am and I am convincing myself that I should stay awake. There is long orange line stretching to the horizon, hinting of daylight. Slowly the sun breaks through the mist. A few small boats begin to quiver and move out to sea; a vendor or two push their carts into place beside the promenade. The dogs have changed their positions.P1050424

And my stomach is growling in anticipation of a breakfast of the sambar, masala dosa and coriander chutney that I’ve been dreaming of all year.

Now it’s 7am and the harbour and gathering place beneath the arch have come alive. There are a few little boats moving out to sea with fishermen standing in them casting their nets. A small ferry, the first of the day, makes its way across the bay to the 1500 year-old labyrinth of caves and Hindu temples carved into the rock on Elephant Island. In a corner near the arch a monk is emptying a large sack of grain for the pigeons and a large crowd of people gathers around them. A trio of men dressed in shorts and long shirts is facing the sun and beginning a yoga practice. Colourful women with their saris flowing walk along the promenade in small groups. The vendors have come to life.IMG_9974

After breakfast in the garden, I brace myself for the mayhem outside. I know with my sun deprived Canadian skin I’m like a sitting duck on the street and try my best to comport myself as a local. It doesn’t work. I am surrounded by the postcard sellers, giant balloon sellers and touts offering city tours “cheap cheap cheap.” I try hold my eyes straight ahead and (skilfully I think) work my way into group of teenage school children passing by. It’s a triple bonus. I’ve escaped the postcard sellers, am guaranteed safe crossing the busy streets, and I’ve helped the school children practice their English.P1050472

I love wandering up Chhatrapati Shiva Marg, slightly off the usual tourist pathway, past Mumbai’s 19th century colonial buildings ­–– the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, Elphinstone College and the David Sassoon Library. It is a feast of colour. I don’t mind being enticed to step into the tiny women’s cooperative shops along the way that offer a stunning variety of hand-loomed textiles, embroideries and weaving from cottage industries in the surrounding districts.  P1050498

Late in the afternoon we settle into a quiet evening (in our palace hotel) with a yoga practice, especially designed for us by the “palace” yoga master, to help us “detoxify” the effects of jet lag.

Slowwwwly. Breathe in and out. Relaxxxxxx. Strechhhhh your body.

Ommmmm.

Sooooo hummmsa hummmsa sooooo.

This is where I am. India. P1050388

The Maharaja’s Palace and Jazz: Just Stop Your Busy Day and Take Five

This story sums up my experiences in Incredible India even though I wrote it over a year ago. The message is to stop your busy day, and just take five ( for me, take five minutes). It’s a wonderful world. 

“Have you heard about the three things you must have to drive safely in India?” Our driver chuckles. “Good brakes. Good horn.”

“And the third?” I ask.

“Good luck.”

I quickly decide to save myself from the terror of driving in India by looking only out side windows and only when necessary. The car brakes and swerves around elephants and camels with wide loads of wood and rebar strapped on their backs. We honk at India’s holy cows lying not-quite-on the median of the new four-lane highway, but in the shade of beautiful bougainvillea landscaping. Through the Aravalli Mountains, we twist and blast our way around blind corners. I note that Hindu temples are strategically situated and they prompt me to squeeze my eyes shut and ask the powers that be for a long life.

In due course, we swing south off the highway and careen along a gravel road surrounded by forest reserve owned by the Maharaja of Dungarpur. Twenty minutes later we veer off through a gap in the trees and come to a dusty stop in front of the royal residence that will also be our hotel for a few days. Our driver phoned a few minutes ago and the Maharaja’s nephew is waiting for us. After a few quick namaste’s and welcomes, his assistant, the hotel manager, leads us toward our room.

“This is the office,” he says, as we pass beneath the stuffed heads of four of tigers, six wild boars, several deer and one sloth bear. “We have wireless in this room and at the pool,” he adds.

We walk into the adjacent palace courtyard and around an exquisitely carved temple surrounded by water, to one more interior courtyard. In the middle is an enormous white marble dining table set for thirty people. Carved into the centre of the table is a long rectangular pool filled with lotus flowers and goldfish. “This is where you will eat breakfast and dinner,” the manager tells us.

There are surprises everywhere, giving me that being surreal-world feeling again.  

The Maharaja shot ninety-nine tigers in his day and they are all here, almost hidden, their heads staked high on the walls. The family now pride themselves on being conservationists. A team of young museum curators are in the ballroom with ancient royal clothing organised on the floor ready to catalogue for a family museum. At the door there is a fleet of mountain bikes ready for guests to ride around the estate’s vast nature reserve. The tigers are gone but I’ve been told there are a few deer, fox, and wild boar bounding about.

A curtained archway behind an immense locked wooden door leads into a gigantic room. Ours. For us, filled with an eclectic assortment of memorabilia from the sixties, it has the stamp of home. A low arch leads to a marble balcony overlooking Lake Galbsagar and its finely crafted temple island.

This is my place. My armchair is waiting.

Lake Galbsagar is a mirror; the sound of swarming water birds – herons, storks, cranes, egrets, ducks – fills the still late afternoon air. My Maharaja, Ross, scouts out his battered blue metal water bottle and pours for us. India’s favourite Scotch Whiskey. Black Dog.

Am I in heaven?

“Yoohoo. Hello there. Be sure to come for before-dinner-cocktails with us at 7 o’clock,” Maharaja’s niece-in-law calls up to us as she walks along the lakeside path below and waves.

The royal family’s friendliness is infectious and we are eager to join them. Sober or not.

Later, with difficulty we work our way through the dark, back under the stuffed heads, the dim eco lamps, and down the stairs to the big dining room.

Candles fill the courtyard but no one is here.

“Hello. Where is everybody?”

A young man with a tall white chef’s hat peers around a partition at the back. “No. No. It’s not here. Follow.”  He leads us through a giant doorway into a damp muddy field. The night is black even though the stars are out and the moon is full behind the trees. Something alive scuttles across in front of me. I stifle a scream; it’s a chicken. I scramble through what appears to be a vegetable garden with my fancy new, but cruelly uncomfortable sandals. I struggle to keep my culturally appropriate Rajasthan Bandhani, a colourful tie-dye sarong, wrapped around me as I trudge through the “we water at night,” save-the-environment mud.

In the distance I see a dim light shining from another one of those low-watt eco bulbs hanging on the end wall of a long shed which Ross says is the old stable. I’m still struggling to keep my clothes wrapped while choking back laughter at the ridiculous situation I find myself in. Why didn’t I wear jeans?

“Hey. Stop a minute.” Ross croaks in a hushed tone. “What’s that I hear?”

The noise, it sounds like snare drums, intensifies as we get closer to the shed.

The door opens. Louis Armstrong’s gravely voice resonates through the old stable, “It’s A Wonderful World.” The Maharaja’s family is beaming with delight. I recognize the manager, even though he’s wearing a tux now.

Where are we? I’m confused. Then I realize this is a surprise the Maharaja has for us. It is his new museum and it is filled with his old, shiny, like-new antique cars, elegantly spot lit.

The family walks with us between rows of vintage cars and at the end we enter a glass room and sit at a sixties style bar.

Surreptitiously, our favourite jazz pulsates through the old stable. The crack of snare drums, the tingle of cymbals vibrating, the soft rhythmic strike of piano and the silk smooth saxophone playing the melody in “Take Five” brings a flood of memories.

Start a little conversation now.

Just take five.

Stop your busy day and come out to see that I’m alive.

Just take five.

This music we listened to often in 1965, as we dreamed of travel, was composed by Paul Desmond a few years earlier while he was touring with the Dave Brubeck jazz quartet along segments of the Silk Road in Turkey, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Take Five” was inspired by the melody nomads played one day while walking by the open door flap of his tent. After the group finished their tour, Dave Brubeck and his wife wrote lyrics for the music.

“Why do you go? Why do you go back?” people ask me.

Because I can’t close my story.

I say.

Just stop your busy day and take five.

It’s a wonderful world.

Next Post: Where Travel Musings has taken me. What’s next?

Yoga and a Giant Pangolin

This is an excerpt from my recently completed manuscript, a memoir about travels along the Silk Road  during the past forty-five years.      

Rajasthan. January 2011

For as long as I can remember I’ve travelled India, although vicariously, through books. Marco Polo might be my muse. When my own story about the Silk Road began almost half a century ago now, Ross and I had to change our plans to work and travel in India because of a war. When we finally got there for the first time, in 1994, I was involved with UNICEF and went on a tour to learn about children’s health and education.

This time I’m going to India to rest and to try and fuse the information I’ve gathered over the years so I can find a way to close my story.

By the time Marco began his return voyage to Venice more than two decades after he set out, he was a different person. He’d had twenty-four years’ experience visiting places in the Far East and when he journeyed around the coast of India aboard a merchant ship on his way home he was more open to diversity, able to relax and admire what he saw.  His stories paint a rich picture, drawing his readers’ attention to India’s geography and natural phenomena. “Everything is so different,” he writes over and over. He describes peculiar animals, birds, flora, food and drink. He’s fascinated by the variety of people, their languages and customs, local arts and crafts. He tells the reader of an India so vast and complicated, it would take him another year to recount all the stories.

I’m in awe of Marco. Like him, I’ve changed over the years. Travel is finding news ways of seeing everything. A yoga practice might be a good starting point; after all, yoga originated in India long before Marco came. Millions of people who live here now practice it and it fits with my travel focus of fusing information. In this case the body, the mind and the spirit.

My private yoga practice will be in the old former hunting lodge, somewhat off-putting for me – it’s different from the sparking new yoga studio I go to at home, with forty other participants crammed in together. My thoughts are mixed; I begin to wonder why I want to do this. But here I am. In Rajasthan. In my expedition-weight long underwear (damn, why did I leave my yoga gear in Calgary?) waiting for the yoga lesson and my introduction to India.

Kumar, impeccably dressed in pressed white cotton yoga pyjamas is expressionless. “Come,” he says, leading the way across a park alongside the environmental reserve to the lodge. And the yoga mats. I stumble along behind, uttering a few Canadian pleasantries to try and take the edge off and perhaps eke a smile out of his poker face, but he is steadfast. This tall man with a perfect, straight spine, neatly cropped black hair and tidy moustache is dedicated and wants me to take his instruction seriously.

Somehow my long underwear gives me a comfy-homey feeling that overpowers the discomfort I feel when I’m totally out of place. The peacocks and peahens on the path scuttle away screaming their sympathy “Help. Help.” Are they crying that they’re here in this quiet natural setting to help me feel safe?

At the entrance to the lodge, Mr. Singh, the 80-year-old turbaned Rajput caretaker I met yesterday, claps his hands to his heart in prayer before smiling through his magnificent white handlebar moustache. “Namaste,” he says, welcoming me before he leads me up a zigzagging narrow staircase, designed two hundred years ago to confuse intruders on their way up to the second floor, and mixing me up even more.

In the Maharajas’ days of glory this lodge would have been surrounded by a hundred trumpeting elephants waiting to take hunters out to the adjacent forest to shoot tigers, Mr. Singh remembers. I like Mr. Singh’s presence. He told me he belongs to the Rajputs, a historically fierce warrior caste; now he’s here to protect me.

At the top of the stairs is a small terrace overlooking the environmental reserve. My yoga mat has been neatly placed on the shiny, cool, stone floor facing the forest.

I take a deep breath. Fresh, warm breezes, punctuated with the scent of bougainvillea and hibiscus, soothe me. A deep blue sky frames tight green clusters of the Aravalli Mountain Range surrounding Lake Pichola and Udaipur’s famous white marble palace. It is late in the afternoon and the day cools as the hot sun begins to sink into the hills.

“Take your place. Your mat is your own private space.”

Thank you. I take my place. I stand on the mat. So far so good.

Kumar kneels, and nods, affirming that I should do the same.

I kneel. My crackly knees break the quiet. I stifle a nervous self-conscious giggle.

“Relaxxxxxx. Close your eyes Mrs. Hayes. Ommmmm. Say ommmmm with me,” he says almost too quietly for me to hear but with a definite no nonsense tone. I do my best. I try to keep my eyes shut but I have an urgent need to know what’s happening. Where am I? What’s going on? What do I do now?

“Enjooooyyy the practice.” Kumar chants. I make an effort to calm myself.

I’m told the position of stillness is yoga’s most difficult. And for me it is impossible.

I open my eyes.

The air, the sweet smell of the park, the sun beginning to settle down behind the hills is background for a strange slow movement of some sort at the edge of the park, behind Kumar. Kumar’s eyes are still closed but mine are wide open now.

Something deep within me says, “Be still Nancy. Do not speak. This moment is special for you.” A peculiar beast about the size of a large pig emerges from the bushes and shuffles along the edge of the park. The creature is covered with huge smooth scales, the colour of Rajasthan’s dry earth, shining in  the light, from the tip of its long narrow head to the bottom of its elongated fat tail. Then it slowly, surely, disappears into the forest.

I am calmed, in awe. What have I seen?

I return to my muse, Marco, the model traveller of seven hundred years ago. “Remember this gift and take it with you,” the voice inside me says. Would I have missed the giant pangolin, the giant scaly anteater, a rare sight even in India, had I not been in pursuit of stillness, relaxing and enjoying a quiet yoga practice while I’m here?

Coming next: The Maharaja and Jazz

Sacred Surfaces: guest post by Ross Hayes

“Sacred Surfaces” reflects Ross’s enthusiasm as an architect and urban designer.  The drawings and photographs you see below are also his.

We leave the swerving, braking and horn-honking traffic of downtown Maduri inTamil Nadu get out of the car and walk along a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard leading to the 17th century Hindu Meenakshi Amman Temple. We enjoy the sudden quiet. No cars, busses or trucks. But jammed with pilgrims.

Our shoes and socks are stored outside the temple and we proceed barefoot through one of the gateway (gopurams) towers.  Fifty meters in height, the tower is a tiered structure decorated level after level with figures of people meditating, praying and dancing. There are warlords and statesmen, gods, demons and beasts. They are painted in pastel hues- corals, grey-blues, yellows and pale greens. Originally they were monochromatic, but we are told that colour was added to make the place friendlier.

I think back to Greek temples, which are today appreciated for their simplicity and the natural colour of the materials. It wasn’t always like that. In many cases the stone, brick and even marble was covered with a carefully prepared cement to pick up coloured decoration. The cement stucco was capable of such a high polish that it would reflect like a mirror. In the bright sunlight, I speculate that Greek temples must also have dazzled the visitor.

While the Meenakshi Temple is enormous and covers 45 acres, it does not overwhelm. The heartbeat of the place takes its cadence from the personal gestures of many individuals. They at times jar with one another. But they provide the pulse of the place.

I anticipate a more contemplative atmosphere as we approach the inner part of the temple. And am surprised to find that the entry, which is flanked on either side by richly carved columns, has been transformed into a bazaar.  Merchants call out. Gold and silver coloured trinkets, bright packages of pigmented powder and small statues – all glitter under the glare of bare fluorescent light.

I pass a black granite ox, head tilted up slightly, with elongated eyes and a broad blunt nose. He sits in a golden cage. Yellow and red garlands are slung around his neck and a white one is perched, slightly off centre, on the top his head. Just behind, musicians leaning against the temple walls, fill the space with sound. The nasal resonance of a reed instrument, like that of a soprano saxophone, rises and falls in long sustained notes reverberating off the hard surfaces. The percussion intricately follows his lead. I try to count out the timing, but it is more of a flow than a count.

I turn the corner and go by an elegant gold flagpole with what appears to be three layers of horizontal clouds streaming out from the top. Then I pass a group of enormous wooden wheels from a chariot used to convey deities around the temple grounds. I continue on with the crowd (there are 15000 people a day that visit the temple.) As the melancholy sounds of  music slowly fade, we enter a vast, dimly-lit hall. I try to make sense of what I see but cannot get my bearings. The flow of people dissipates into separate channels and countless eddies. I am disoriented. My eyes adjust and shapes begin to emerge from the dark surfaces, but their haphazard sequence does little to guide me. Small offerings, a grain or two of rice, personalize the hard surfaces. In some places, the placing of thousands of hands has deepened the sheen on the rock. In others, oils highlight  a shape. Some stone figures are enhanced by bright silks draped over parts of it giving it a human quality.

A group entering the hall, kneels in front of one of the figures. The crowd instinctively shifts to make space. Others, individually or in small groups moving through the space in diverse directions, pause in reflection. They touch the figures, light candles and at times dust them with brightly coloured pigments.

These deities are not alone and aloof. They are dressed up and decorated by the pilgrims, like members of their family.

Three figures that appear to grow out of the black granite of a wall are partially coated with yellow pigment. Why yellow, I wonder? And why just part of the figure?  Nearby, feet extending from base of an enormous sculpture are dusted with red powder. The rounded shapes of a pregnant woman, draped in silks, glisten with fresh oil. A small garland has been carefully placed on her head and smudges of red highlight the edges. Not far away, a small face with a large turban has been draped in blue and yellow fabric. The surrounding wall has been dabbed with rough trident shapes. In places, the markings have been applied over each other and have blended into a rich orange- red.

Each surface has come alive. From the diverse offerings of many hands a story is told, one which is understood at a personal level by those paying their respects. Perhaps the decoration of surfaces in the temple is a way of expressing gratitude. A way of making something that is otherwise hard and cold, part of oneself. Is this an Indian tradition?

Our visit coincides with Pongol, the great Hindu harvest festival. On one of the days, farm animals are decorated.  We see two magnificent bullocks, pulling an enormous load, decorated with banners flying in the breeze from a chord between their elegant curved horns. Flowers are draped along the side of their faces and down across their chests. They appear to be proud. And certainly their owners are grateful. We are told that the harvest has been good.

Sidewalks are often decorated with kolam designs, which in some cases include coloured depictions of natural objects, in others, curvilinear designs are set out around a series of points. In India, decorative surfaces and colour are everywhere. We talked to a group of women with their children in the courtyard outside one of the temples. Strong features contrast with bright saris; an orange, yellow and green shawl on one women, magenta, orange and gold on another. Flowers embellish their jet-black hair.

It is not surprising that the instinct to embellish a spiritual place is so strong. It personalizes an object, brings it into focus, providing a platform from which you can reach out to a larger spirit. It creates a complex, and at times seemingly discordant environment. But one which combines the unique expressions of many individuals, creating a place that is very rich.

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