I’m about to begin a whole new phase of my Indian adventure in Gokarna, which is about three hours by totally chock-a-block, standing-room-only train from Udupi, and two hours south of Goa. Lee and I found a pleasant bungalow near the beach for $10 (a bargain for two), so I can take my aching knee to the Arabian Sea for cooling therapy twice a day…and swimming,too. But, first, let me tell you a bit about the excitement of the two days before we left Udupi.
Good fortune sent us a new friend, Bharat Devnani,who is an Indian who has lived in Australia and California, and is well aware of both worlds. He is also a Hindu, conversant with the complicated theology of the religion. He made it come alive for me and actually was able to get me into the most venerable temple in this part of India. The pilgrims seemed to be pleased that a westerner took such interest in their ceremony and were most welcoming. The statue of the baby Krishna, which resides there, is over 5,000 years old, and is revered by thousands of devoted pilgrims, who swarm into town several times a year. This particular celebration will last six days, two of which we experienced.
Many of you may have seen the ancient chariots that abound in towns throughout southern India. I shall put some photos on this blog when I return, to show you their immense size (several stories high) and the colorful decorations with which they’ve been adorned. And the ones in Udupi are not the biggest. During these celebrations they are pulled by hundreds of men grasping thick ropes in an attempt to move the massive wheels. The other night, before the men attempted this feat. a female elephant, Subhadra, did it by herself, resting her huge head against the body of the chariot and grunting wih exertion as she strained every muscle and moved the structure. Then she went to the other side and pushed it back. I have it on video. Something else I shall post when I return. This amazing elephant, decked out in fancy headpiece and sparkling cloth, is a show person in her own right. Before the ceremony began, she stood in a wide circle and cajoled people to come over, put one rupee into her trunk, after which she gave the rupee to her trainer and gently tapped the lucky person on the head. Yes, I did it.
There is an oblong palate that is prepared for Krishna, ringed with lights and kept lit by a generator that is pushed behind as it circles the entire square and moves in front of eight other temples, each one administered by a priest. Krishna has been placed in a cradle on the palate and the crowds follow, with several bands playing, costumed children dancing, and candles being lit at intervals on the ground. The drummers in the band are phenomenal…muscular young men with costumes, jewelry, and the fastest drum beat I’ve ever seen. It’s like a trap drum on steroids. Sweat pours off their bodies as the drumming becomes faster and louder. One of its members plays a clarinet-type horn in a squealing, insistent alleatory fashion that would surely please Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. A litle further on someone shoots sparklers and small rockets, and then a long piece of white cloth is set on fire and burns furiously to cinders. This is symbolic of eradicating evil spirits from the earth. All the time that this is going on, Subhadra is marching backwards, with open mouth and upraised trunk, waving white pom poms and bowing to Krishna. She seems to have an affinity for the deity, or at least for the warm attention and cheers of the crowd. When a complete circle has been made, Krishna is returned to the temple, the pilgrims continue their wait to get into the inner sanctum, and Subhadra returns to her “residence.” Just for fun we walked over to watch her get fed and this was a blast! First, since she can get excited when fed, they chain her left rear and left front leg to the pavement with a thick chain. Boy, do they pull it tight. I was amazed that she just stands there and helps them…but I guess she knows what’s coming next. When this is done, handfuls of what looks like wheat is thrown into her mouth. I suppose she chews it, but I couldn’t tell. Then, several large branches are placed in front of her and she deftly removes all of the leaves and eats the stems. The trunk is an amazing appendage with functions too many to innumerate here (this is why we have google?), but she is able to twist those branches and manipulate them and be ready in no time for a second helping. Since I read that elephants eat about 500 lbs of food a day, I didn’t stay around any longer. Besides, I had to get up for an early train. Happily, I was told that Subhadra would be unchained after eating, so she could spend a restful night before the next performance.
In our final discussion with Bharat he clarified several things about the Hindu deities that I had studied when first in India in 1987, but gotten rather scrambled up. I don’t want to get into heavy theology here, but it is fascinating how similar all religions are when they talk about the soul, values, fear, the material world, the spiritual world, and the struggle to find meaning in life. Krishna, who was the center of these ceremonies, is considered the supreme male…a symbol of the head of the house taking care of the family. We are all family, and within us is both male and female. He has his home only in the spiritual world. Brahma is considered the creator-architect; Vishnu the maintainer; and Shiva the destroyer. These three take care of the material world.
You can imagine how much I’ve been contemplating religion and spirituality during my weeks in India…first with the Tibetan Buddhists and now with Hindus and Moslems. How much better we all would be if we allowed everyone to find joy and fulfillment by followingt his or her own path, without judgment, realizing how similar we are after all.
Two old cows just walked into the internet cafe, mooed, nuzzled my leg, and walked out. No food here, Bossy. Go to the dosa restaurant. Or go find the rest of your clan. They may be in the town square, obstructing traffic. I’m outa here….