Darl's adventures in India: part three.
One thing I'm conscious of in writing this is that I must be careful
not to alienate you. It's a fine line to tread: I shouldn't supply
too much detail, because then you'll feel as lost and bewildered as I
did when I first arrived here in Tamil Nadu, but then I mustn't not
give you detail because that would be, well, boring. My limited
experience of other people's gap year tales is that they become a
confusing swirl of amazing Amazonian white water rafting, dinners of
raw fish, and spiritual moments with gorillas. I have tried to avoid
this, because it wouldn't really mean anything to you, at home, to
read any of this: it's just too remote. With this caveat in mind, I'm
going to talk, only briefly, about some things I have done out here.
Two weeks ago, I went to the temple town of Rameswaram, the closest
Indian settlement to Sri Lanka: so close, in fact, that the police
presence is very large. The town's island is connected to the Indian
mainland by a causeway for road and rail that is about 5km long and
The views from this sleepy fishing town-come-pilgrimage centre are as
idyllic as you could wish. The sands are white, the sea is painfully
azure, the palm trees loll over the water at their infinite leisure
and little fishing huts cluster with ludicrously picturesque ease
around the swathes of beach. Swimming in the Ocean - so salty it
almost supports you entirely - is of course a must, as is visiting
the small shrines that dot the coastline. As is burning your
shoulders so badly they peel for two weeks.
When the tide goes out, these coastal shrines tower over virtual
deserts that stretch as far as you can see, and quite probably
further: the sea here is very tidal indeed. When you're done
beaching, head back into the town itself to Rameswaram's temple: one
of the most important sites of worship in South India.
Two branches of worship, usually quite different, are united in this
temple. Here it was that Rama (an incarnation of Ganesh- the elephant
headed God that you will recognise, whether you know it or not)
worshipped Shiva. Thus worshippers of both Ganesh and Shiva (two
thirds of the trio of high Hindu Gods - Vishnu is missing) come here.
Boasting 22 wells (teerthams) all of which have different healing
properties, pilgrims flock here in vast numbers. The temple site is
very large, and the corridors alone stretch for kilometres. It's a
veritable hive of spirituality, and you do feel very intrusive just
wandering around. It is easy to get lost, and end up inadvertently in
the Hindu-only sanctum of the temple.
Once you're there, however, everyone will be very nice to you. You'll
be taken around all twenty-two wells, and your last set of dry
clothes will be drenched as bucket after bucket of purifying and
slightly salty water is tipped over your head. You'll then be led
through the rest of the inner parts of the temple that you're not
meant to see, including an enormous cow carved out of a single piece
of marble, and the site where Rama worshipped Shiva. Your forehead
will then be smeared with sacred flour, and you will wander out of
the temple feeling utterly dazed, and not a little disrespectful for
having done all this without the least inkling of its significance.
So you might then want to go home and read about it.
That evening, it might be a nice idea to drive out to the very tip of
the peninsula on the roof of a truck, and watch the sun set, orange
and flame-red, on a horizon that is almost entirely sea.
See? That's why I haven't told you what I've been doing. Because you
all hate me now! My sister told me it was fortunate I hadn't had any
spiritual gorilla experiences because she would break my legs. Now at
the sound of rumbling crowbars I feel fear.
Last weekend I went back to Kodaikanal, the hill station I wrote
about last. This time I used my time rather better. I think I've
already talked about the Kodaikanal view: it's just silly. You
shouldn't be able to see that far. It doesn't make sense. Anyway.
I found it an enjoyable way to spend my time getting up at about 5am, well before sunup, and trekking through the weird gathering
half light 4 miles to a rocky outcrop called Pillar Rocks, because of
the drama of the... rocks. From there you can see the sun rise over
the enormous plain, and see the shadows that the hills cast over it
in the misty golden light. Watching a day break is something I'd
never done before, but it was utterly worth it. Walked back and dined
raw fish omelette! Oh, yes. Omelette. It was good. It was very
After breakfast we set off again, this time to Suicide Point; an
outcrop of rock that juts out 6 metres over a sheer drop, entirely
unsupported. In the gently swirling mist, the feeling of being
suspended unimaginably high was palpable. The walk there and back was
more of a 5 mile scramble each way through jungle, up and down rock
faces, surrounded constantly by very large, inquisitive and
aggressive monkeys. All that's missing is the rafting.
Joking aside, all this 'experiencing' if you will, has made me think.
Obviously, part of the point of my being here is to do these
extraordinary and unrepeatable things, but all the same you have to
wonder to what extent by immersing yourself so thoroughly in
'culture' and 'experiences' you are actually cheapening it. Yes,
Indian people get up at 5am, but they do agricultural labour and not
trekking. What I'm trying to say is that this cultural tourism -
which I am very much enjoying, don't misunderstand me - seems a
little false, a little forced. Something feels not quite right. It's
not that out here volunteers do things because they have some notion
that they Should Be Done: they do have genuine interest, but at the
same time you're conscious that Indian people don't live their
'culture' - if you'll forgive my abuse of the word - at this ferocious
pace, and that really you take maybe a year or two to see Tamil Nadu
and really get under its skin. If that would be enough time.
I think I'm going to post this now, even though I still haven't
talked about the treatment of women here or the poverty or the smells
or anywhere near enough.