April 16th – Kanniyakumari, the tip of the iceberg

Formerly known as Cape Comorin, Kanniyakumari is a pilgrimage town that is set right down on the most southerly tip of the Indian mainland, and is famed for the point at which the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal meet; an auspicious location for all Indians. Tamils hold this town in high regard because one of their most famous national exports (a poet who I’ve never heard of) did lots of his best work here and has a 130-foot statue on a small island just offshore, and many Indians also come here to pay homage to Mahatma Ghandi, whose ashes lay in a specially-built temple here for some time before being scattered off the cape. Quite a nice touch, I thought, was that the design of the temple enabled a shaft of sunlight to filter through the temple structure in such a way that it fell on the spot where his ashes lay on October the second, the day of his birth. That is, of course, unless October the second happens to be an overcast day.

So the town, as could be expected, was pretty busy. Pilgrim families milled around, entered and left the temple, bathed in the steps that descended down into the choppy sea and took disposable-camera shots of each other. They also queued in the spectacularly long line for the ferry-boat service out to each island and then no doubt queued in an equally long queue to get back to the mainland. We could see it from the harbor; It was long and did not look in a hurry to move. A hundred meters of snaking, human boredom at this end convinced us it wasn’t worth the hassle. Despite the foolish temptation to swim, we left the Tamil poet for the Tamil Poetry fans and made-do with the temple.

This seemed to be a good move. It was our first taste of the intensely sweaty, greasy, noisy, smokey, barefooted South Indian temple-worship experience. The high-walled square compounds that house these temples usually hold several different chambers and a pair of what are known as ‘gompurams’– the ‘impossibly high pyramids’ that I described back in Matale. These pyramids are decorated with carvings of various deities and religious characters, are painted in bright color schemes and tower over the temple complexes, making themselves visible from miles around for all to be drawn to.

Outside the temple gates were a throng of people all depositing and collecting their shoes that had been paired up in immense piles against either wall, while attendees perform impossible feats of memory in retrieving pairs from the colorless jumble for five Rupees a time. The worshippers file in through a large room that channels those entering off in one direction and regurgitates sweating but religiously cleansed worshippers out from another. This temple- strangely enough- forbids males from wearing a top inside, so I am pressed up against one podgy, sweaty back whilst another woman squeezes up against mine as we shuffle forward like cramped penguins, through one low door and into another hotter, darker, noisier room.

We filed in a long line around the outside edge of the room, against the grey, greasy walls that are coated in thick, grimy oil from the lamps and incense that constantly burned in there. The stone walls echoed with the clang of bells that the priests struck and the murmur of the hundreds of prayers being hummed as people clasped their hands to their faces and bosoms all around me, and so the entire environment felt alive with the power of the place. I had no idea who they are worshipping or was expected of me, so all I did was watch. As they passed the carved statues that dotted the perimeter, some would touch their fingers to their foreheads and then to those of the carvings, so that both the worshippers and the worshipped gained blobs of grey and black smear between their eyes. As the line passed through a turnstile and doubled back on the inside to approach the central pillars, people threw clutches of notes over a low gate onto a red drape that was littered with flowers, notes and coins.

Suddenly, I saw what we have been waiting for. On top of a stepped plinth is a small, foot-high statue in the same, grimy stonework and with a flower-chain draped around it. The figure itself is quite unremarkable and pretty small, although I’m sure the focus was on the substance rather than style; on its forehead was a clumsily-daubed smear of red paint and around it is was forest of incense, flowers and other such paraphernalia. The line slowed and shuddered as various worshippers crossed themselves in the similar way, touched their foreheads to the railing or just reached out to it while muttering to themselves. Feeling supremely shifty and unsure of myself, I simply gave it a little nod as I passed. I doubt many were watching me.

And before I knew it, the system was done with me, and the line passed through another low door, through the main room and ejected me, slightly dazed, back out into the bright, cool, clean air of the temple entrance, where Alec, sweating and grinning, is waiting for me. The spectacle was amazing; not only was the contrast between standing on a rocky break and being squashed up against a greasy deity as stark as could be imagined, but the focus of energy of the entire site and all the efforts and noises and care taken in the construction of the place all seemed to focus in on, and revolve around, the disconcertingly small statue at its centre. It was a very striking situation, and a magical experience to partake in.

***

Portrait through train window in Kanniyakumari, India

Third class travel
-Kanniyakumari, India-

After the buzz subsided, we decided to move on. It had become a pretty conscious decision to keep things snappy for both of our sake; Alec only had a few weeks ahead of him before his flight home from Mumbai and I wanted to spend several weeks in the Himalayas before I flew home in August, which were still three thousand kilometers away. Places to be, people to see…

We did not book the seats of our six hour train journey north to Madurai and we spent in second class, sat on the upper-tier wooden seats. The floor of these standard-design train carriages sat at almost head-height to the average-sized person stood next to one, and was perhaps three meters taller again inside, giving ample room for two levels of duplicate seating. Outsiders observing these trains very often would see through the barred windows, two rows of heads facing each other, with two corresponding rows of dangling feet swaying above. This can obviously provide a very social environment in which to spend train rides, and we sometimes found ourselves unwittingly drawn into enormous family meals spanning both upper and lower berths, with dishes and pots being passed up and down to one-another. But, of course, like India itself, sometimes things become a little too social, with elbows, knees, legs, questions, bags and snores becoming in generous supply, while personal space and patience begins to run pretty low.

Goodbye through window at train station Kanniyakumari, India

Friends and strangers.
-Kanniyakumari, India-

This was the case in this journey, and we arrived in Madurai tired, dirty and much later than expected. It had taken us 6 hours to travel just 230 kilometers. And, like the cramped train we had just stepped off, the busy streets seemed even messier and more chaotic here than those of Trivandrum’s. The high residential buildings crowded in around narrow alleyways, littered with the same piles of bricks and weaving rickshaws that darted in and out of the bustling grid-like roads that sliced through the city. Everywhere, there seemed to be people milling around, sitting, walking, shouting at each other, hovering around Chai stalls or just watching as the world passed by. The canteen-style restaurant that we ate in that night had the same hectic, bustling air about it, as the waiters dashed about the place, filling plates, scribbling bills, ushering people out and hustling the next table in. The whole place seemed like an absolute circus, but perhaps this just normal in a country of a billion people.

***

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