Journey to the Saneeswaran Temple in India
Jill Pirdas has just returned from a trip to south India. She is privilaged to have been able to live experiences off the beaten tourist track. She knows why cow's uteruses hang in trees, how to run away from an elephant, why termites nests are often reveared and can give you tips on head shaving.
By Jill Pirdas
"Better take our shoes off now, it'll be easier in the long run," my brother advises.
I look doubtfully at the ground strewn with sharp gravel and cracked concrete. How will my pink and pampered feet manage? But I must do my best. I'm under close scrutiny as always: a white woman in deepest Tamil Nadu where tourists fear to tread in their sensible velcro sandles.
For all that I try to conform in dress and in manner complete with shoudidar and shawl, thali* and toe-rings, eyes stare. Some shout cheerily "Hi granny" as I walk into town, an acceptable title here in southern India, although two years ago they'd shouted "Hi akka" - sister! My brother doesn't notice the staring anymore, he's lived here for so many years, and anyway he can burst into Tamil where stares melt into smiles and heads waggle.
Lady lighting camphor
We park the car in the shade of a banyan tree next to a stream. Someone is chopping up a goat on a stone slab, the hooves neatly piled nearby. First we go to the taps and wash our feet before proceeding to pay tribute to Ganesh. The plump elephant-god, festooned with long grasses, sits cross-legged on his rat. I start off in the wrong direction, we should circle the god clockwise; people smile indulgently.
(left) Instructions as how to present the crow - (right) Crows for sale
There are stalls selling black tundis borderd with brilliant orange: special temple-wear for men. Bowls containing coconut, bananas, and garlands of marigold, rose and jasmin are for sale - offerings to the god Saneeswaran whose temple we are visiting. Also on sale are pans brimming with burning camphor oil, smoke curling and twisting up to the sun, clay models of animals, miniature people, and above all crows. It's heartening to see that the god's vehicle is the humble crow, whereas Shiva - the destroyer - proudly rides a white bull, Durga - the warrior goddess - sits astride a lion and Brahma - god of creation - is depicted as mounted on a swan.
Saneeswaran's father is the sun god; his mother is a shadow. The sun god's wife had found things too hot for comfort being as she was in such close contact with her husband, her complexion was being ruined for a start. Craftily she presented her spouce with her shadow who conveniently conceived Saneeswaran in her place.
Worshipers file into the sanctuary, hold their hands over a purifying flame, present their offerings to the god and are blessed. Each receive a dot of sandle-wood paste, a finger-tip disc of vermillion powder and a smear of white cow-dung ash on their foreheads.
Returning to the car we find a ceremony being performed under the banyan tree. The buddha-like priest smiles up at us and says a few friendly words. Before him sit three young boys who have been copiously smeared with the different pastes. Between them and the priest stands a miniature pile of wood resembling a funeral pyre. The fire is lit, and now smoke embraces the lads as they sit attempting to look solemn. The priest holds a bundle of fresh betel leaves, tears off tiny fragments and throws them into the flames as he chants in sanscrit.
We watch in silent contemplation not really knowing what rite is being performed. The sandlewood smoke drifts over us and we are drawn into the devotion of this place. A breeze stirs the aerial roots of the great tree, the shadows move back and forth: flickering sunlight and bars of shade. Overhead a crow calls.
*Thali - Married women wear gold necklaces replaced by yellow threads if they have had to pawn or sell them in times of need.
(Photo of Jill surrounded by dalit (untouchable) kids in a nearby village)