When you come to India if you have patience, you lose it; if you don’t, you learn it – Kathy Bender
After an arduous week of construction, education and compassion, we were rewarded with an opportunity to visit some of the major sights within the proximity of Chennai. An early breakfast and we were whisked aboard two comfortable air conditioned buses. Our ultimate destination was Pondicherry but, in tune with the philosophy that permeates the region, the journey was as important as the destination.
Our first stop was the memorial to Rajiv Ghandi, who as Prime Minister campaigning for re-election, was the target of a suicide bomber posing as a devotee. Ghandi, a victim of the Sri Lanken War, was killed by a Tamil Tiger woman. The Ghandis, like the Kennedys in American Political History, all suffered a violent death in the service of their country. Their position in the Indian social and political psyche remains legendary.
The memorial is in the form of 7 obelisks, each ornately carved and topped with a traditional symbol of India’s heritage. At the centre is a simple granite rectangle bearing a bas relief coloured carving of Rajiv
Our second destination was the city of Kancheepuram, renown for its temples. Here Stephen took off his squadron leader hat and assumed the role of tour guide. We were educated as to the names and roles of the major gods, Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva along with their respective vehicles, children and the domains under their control
The temples, ornately carved with images of the Gods, have been constructed through the centuries under the aegis of the dynastic kings of each era. Despite the passage of time, most of the temples, made from granite, show little signs of deterioration. Stephen, explaining the myths and legends that accrue to each specific carving, elicited a link of images and recollections of my childhood. Similar themes such as jealousy between siblings, as exemplified by the race around the world for the Fruit of Knowledge, evoke memories of Cain and Able as well as Adam and Eve. The sense of invulnerability resulting from a prophesy as felt by Narasimha, who was killed by a half man half lion emerging from a pedestal at dusk, is directly tied to the legend of Achilles in Greek mythology. Likewise the prophesy of the 3 Shakespearean witches who provided Macbeth with a sense of security based on seemingly impossible occurrences which ultimately came to bear, resulting in his demise. The first temple we visited was in honour of Parvati, the next two, Shiva and the final one Vishnu. Its 96 ornately carved columns told stories of battles between Muslims, Europeans, and Hindus. As a counterpoint, many of the carvings related to the Kama Sutra, showing that making love and making war hold equally high positions in India’s long and colourful history.
Speaking of long and colourful, our after lunch stop was for beautiful silk scarves and wraps. The girls had a wonderful time selecting, modeling and comparing the various patterns and, after doing their share to rejuvenate the Kancheepuram economy, we were on our way to Pondy.
The rest of the voyage was uneventful as the two buses sped, well maybe not exactly sped, to the famous coastal town, arriving just as night was falling. First impressions of Pondicherry, or Pudicherry as it is now called (note to self – invest in Indian sign manufacturing company when you get home), was of a city less blighted by slums and poverty. The city’s roads were well demarcated, there were traffic lights that actually worked, Pondicherry exuded a certain cosmopolitan charm. The hotel Mass was more than acceptable particularly since it offered the volunteers their first hot shower in a week. Those of us who have been residing in the annex guest house, however, had to do without our Jacuzzis and personal daily massages that we had left behind back in Chennai, but we decided to suck it up and put the welfare of the team ahead of ourselves for once.
When presented by Stephen with the option of dinner a la carte or buffet, we unanimously decided to spoil ourselves and chose to be served rather than deal with self-serve as we had earlier in the day. The two buses pulled into a swanky LA styled hotel and we were led outdoors to sit near the pool – a romantic and upscale placement. The staff scurried around setting up temporary seating arrangements next to the open kitchen, replete with delicious smells wafting out and tempting our taste buds. I now understand the overwhelming popularity of the buffet in India – one gets to eat before passing out from starvation.
Drink orders were taken and, being of British heritage, I was looking forward to my first gin and tonic of the trip – a drink invented by the British Troops during their Indian colonization to allow for easy ingestion of quinine- a drug used to combat malaria. It was akin to eating a hot dog at Yankee Stadium or Crepes Suzettes at the Eiffel tower. Sadly, the G&T will have to wait a bit longer since the waiter informed me that there was no Tonic Water available. It was a harbinger of things to come.
With drinks and food ordered, we sat around chatting about the experiences of the day waiting for our cocktails. And waiting and waiting and waiting. Eventually the maitre d’ decided that he may as well actually hire some staff to serve us. He pressed several new faces into service, some of whom may have actually worked in the hotel business at some point in their lives. A few us were starting to foam at the mouth in anticipation, including Stephen who had received clearance from the home front for a beer. Lori and I opted for Mojitos, a drink I associate with Cuba more so than India. We sat and waited somewhat patiently as the rest of our party received their libations while the bartender waited for the mint to finish growing prior mixing up our two servings.
Dinner was eventually brought forth as we were serenaded by the delightful squeal of misbehaving, spoiled children who decided to use our elongated table as the centerpiece for their game of chase. Lori tried to get me to use some yoga breathing techniques to block out the annoying distraction, but I’ve always been a fan of a different form of relaxation, something that comes with a high alcohol content.
When the meals finally arrived, it seemed that the waiter had learned everything he knew about service by watching Manuel on Fawlty Towers. It began with Kimberly being offered her repast. “Here is your steak” the waiter declared with obvious pride that he had managed to deliver the goods in less time than it took for the moon, to orbit the Earth. “ I ordered chicken” was Kimmie’s slightly vexed reply”. “This is chicken” replied the waiter, deftly changing lanes with the skill of an F1 driver. This charade was repeated with virtually every presentation, as we watched the food morph from its original incarnation into the desired order right before our very eyes. I am now a believer in the Hindu philosophy of re-incarnation. An animal died and was reborn as a different species directly in front of the astonished crowd. This magic took place for the benefit of all except yours truly. I explained to the waiter as he placed my meal down in front of me that in Canada lamb does not have feathers or drumsticks. Opting for a new tactic, the waiter explained to me that there was as much lamb available in the kitchen as there had been Tonic Water. He thoughtfully and unilaterally determined that I would enjoy the chicken just as much.
We finished dinner full of good cheer, aided to no small extent by the appearance of several bottles of Carlsberg. We awaited our individual bills since the waiter, at the start of the meal, was advised of our desire to go Dutch in East India. He meticulously kept track of each individual’s order and, at the end of the meal, presented a single tab that Candice, in her role of Director of Fun, took back to her room and spent the rest of the night dividing up.
The meal featured Stephen as the after dinner speaker as he regaled us with a story of his encounter with Vishnu in his 11th incarnation as Dominic the Volunteer. We hopped on the buses for our trip back to the hotel and despite my vow of secrecy forced on me by the Triplets, must say that their vehicle was like sitting in first class as compared to our coach. The extra leg room, contoured velour ceiling and amply stuffed seat cushions made for an exquisite journey back. Before carrying out your veiled threats, girls, remember – one phone call to Visa and you’ll be walking home from Kochin
Morning brought us down the streets of Pondicherry one last time. It was odd to see French styled street signs featuring the familiar cobalt blue background bearing names such as Rue de la Marine in the midst of India. This particular road housed the ashram started by Sri Aurovindo, an Indian fugitive from British justice who took refuge in Pondicherry seeking asylum from charges of sedition. His time in prison and subsequent inner spiritual development led to the creation of one of the most peaceful, tranquil and spiritually wholesome places I had ever visited. While I was allowed to enter as a tourist, I felt a strange uneasiness and discomfort as I wandered in amongst the disciples and the meditating faithful. I did not feel that I had earned the right to participate in this level of tranquility and left the building after admiring the flowers and the palpable silence.
Stephen has planned our weekend vacation perfectly. Our next destination was Auroville, a large plot of land dedicated to the New Age, the physical embodiment of Sri Aurovindo’s vision. My initial reaction, which was shared by many of the group was a sense of disharmony brought about by a large number of armed soldiers traversing the grounds. Shoes were a no-no but rifles were OK? Why would a military force be required to promote world peace? It turned out that the soldiers were there for the same reasons as the rest of us – to bask in the physical realization of one very special man’s dream. The existence of Auroville, located seemingly in the middle of nowhere was dumbfounding. A brief video introduced the visitor to a spiritual vision that had taken wing and come to fruition over the past quarter century. Designed as a haven to transcend traditional religion, eschewing established paths in favor of seeking the divine presence that existed within every soul, the project’s centerpiece was a perfect crystal orb designed to focus human concentration. It was contained in a pure white environment housed in a large oblate spheroid covered with gold discs. The term ‘oblate spheroid’ was taught to me in elementary school. It refers to a round object flattened at the top and bottom. The words sounded funny at the time but I never forgot them. I remember thinking to myself “When would I ever use that term in my life?” It seems appropriate that after these years that the single usage of the epithet would apply to a special and unique object that verged on other-worldliness.
The shopping areas and restaurants served the visitors like a well oiled machine. Instead of wind chimes and finger cymbals, the gentle clanging that I heard was the sound of cash registers ringing up sale after sale. Someone with a strong organizational and marketing sense was behind this operation. Initially I had felt that the main motivation behind the existence of Auroville was spiritual enlightenment. I left the property feeling somewhat cynical about the impetus behind it. I apologize for my cynicism, but it is very difficult to shake 50 plus years of jadedness out of my psyche this quickly. I looked to buy an appropriate T-shirt before leaving but was unable to locate one with the message that I wanted on it. As yet the marketing department has not come up with “There’s no Place Like Om”, but I’m sure its in the works.
By the time we had reached the stone carving village of Mamallapuram, we had maxed out on beggars, hawkers, vendors, animal abusers, mothers with rented children and other assorted locals desirous of separating us from our rupees. Lily’s shriek as a hand holding more souvenirs was thrust through the bus window, reminiscent of the scene from Night of the Living Dead, spoke volumes for all of us. Some vendors were relentless, not receptive to stern no’s or indifference as clues to move on to the next ‘customer’. The level of our groups’ compassion speaks for itself. We are here trying to help out a little corner of humanity, but the overkill and constant bombardment leads to desensitization and a feeling of intrusive annoyance.
Upon Stephen’s advice, we ignored the plethora of pleadings from the multitude and moved on the see some of the most awe inspiring stone carvings, some of which dated back to the 8th century. In the capable hands of our guide, stories were recounted based upon the displays in front of us. The gods came to life as tales of jealousy, penance, anger and trickery surfaced in the revelations. Unlike the attributes of the Western conceptualization of God, which places Him above human behaviour, the actions of the Indian Gods underline human foibles in an anthropomorphic sense, which serves to bring their Gods closer to humans rather than create a distinctive division. Whether temple, statue or gigantic butterball, the formations proved to be a unique and inspirational insight into Indian history, culture and religion. I will always be indebted to have had the opportunity to be shown such a fascinating cross section of a new culture presented by a man who had equal portions of knowledge, passion and respect. Thank you Stephen Raja.