No question! From shrines and temples to sacred sites, and devotional festivals, spirituality (together with family) lie at the heart of society in India. The people love nothing better than gathering to celebrate auspicious occasions...and it seems almost every day is auspicious for one reason or another!
In an earlier blog post, I described the craziness of the Pongal celebration in Chennai. In Kochi, we found ourselves up close and personal with the equally magical Ernakulathappan Utsavan...or simply, the Elephant Festival.
Serendipitously, we caught the last evening of this eight-day celebration. It culminated in the procession through a massive temple of about a dozen formidable bull elephants, beautifully adorned and each ridden by three (yes, three!) handlers, who were also decked out in glittering finery. During the ceremony, the handlers popped up and down on the broad backs of the elephants wielding brilliantly coloured parasols, all in time to ecstatic music, a light show and fireworks.
The elephants, one of my favourite living creatures on the planet, were magnificent and appeared to be well-cared for, though sadly I did find it haunting to see them in such a contrived setting.
We were late, having just ridden into town on our bikes. By the time we arrived at the temple, removed our shoes (a requirement to enter any sacred site) and pushed our way through the crushing crowd towards the elephants, it was dark. As we were shoved forward by helpful, enthusiastic locals (who were thrilled to have us joining the festivities), the temple opened to an enormous, grassy courtyard jammed with humanity.
Before long, the grass turned to mud and our bare feet sank deep into the quagmire, the sloppy stuff squishing up between our toes. The worst of it was, we couldn't see what we were stepping in. Based on its consistency and staying power, I suspect it was much more than just dirt and water. We kept our fingers crossed, hoping not to contract some nasty, mud-born disease.
The spectacle was stunning and, being the only Caucasians present, the gatherers insisted on affording us a prime viewing position inside the even muckier elephant enclosure. The colourful costumes on both man and beast, lights, exotic music and fire-works exploding overhead combined to thrill and confound all at once. I found myself laughing in wonder. It was one of those intoxicating, “I can’t believe I’m here” moments that are frequently part of the India experience.
And then there’s the religious pilgrimages! All devout Hindus are expected to go on at least one a year, as they believe visiting a sacred place purifies the self and brings one closer to the divine.
While making our way towards the Western Ghats, we began to notice throngs of men and women walking barefoot. These devotees were traveling by foot to Palani, our destination for the night. Some had been on the (sizzling hot) road for six weeks and they proudly showed us their burned feet to prove it. Cottage industries flourished en-route to provide sleeping lean-tos, shade, food, water and other bare necessities of life on the road.
Upon our arrival in the town, we climbed the steep stone stairs – all 693 of them – to the hill temple with the hordes of pilgrims, not an easy feat considering we’d been cycling all day. There, long lines of devotees snaked around in queues that would rival those in Disneyland, apparently waiting to catch a glimpse of the impetuous god, Lord Muruga, who purportedly is housed in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple.
Lacking the fortitude to line up, we wandered the inner and outer ambulatories surrounding the heart of the sacred place chatting with and getting our photo taken by the crowds of friendly pilgrims. Holy pilgrimage or not, the celebratory atmosphere was carnival-esque.
At sunset - to tolling temple bells and chanting - an idol of the deity was carried around the temple in a golden chariot drawn by devotees. I’m not making this stuff up, honest!
Stay tuned for more non-fiction...