It is 4.30AM, it is still pitch-dark and already half the hotel is awake. From through the thin walls we hear muffled conversations, the sound of clothes being slopped in a giant washing bowl somewhere and an eerie hymn drifting across the rooftops.
But it is quiet out on the dark streets and there is, for once, both calm roads and cool temperatures. As we shuffle through the almost empty streets, we pass nothing but the other lone shufflers, piles of scattered rubble and rubbish that was suddenly so much more prominent than when the street was full of people. Here and there sleep hunched figures in doorways, in groups on mats by the road or in the odd cart, limbs trailing off the end. As I approach one sleeping old bloke whose reclining Bugs-Bunny, foot-crossed pose is too good to miss, I attract the attention of a couple of chuckling observers while I tune my camera.
“It’s too dark”, I shrug and smile back to them as I twist the aperture dial in the gloom.
A second later, without so much as a sound or murmur from anything, the electricity cuts out and our entire existence is plunged into utter, silent blackness. Not a single light burns, and I suddenly felt disoritentated and totally weightless, motionless, bodiless in the uniquely still and silent night air. With my prophetic words still ringing in my ears and the muted chuckling of the onlookers now sounding like they are actually behind me, I attempted to shuffle forward and reunite myself with Alec. Did I turn around when the lights went out? How far ahead was he? Which way was I even coming from when I stopped?
Not that way, that’s a wall in front of me.
After we had linked up again and drank a surreal Chai tea by the light of a single candle with the early-rising Rickshaw drivers, we eventually established the festival was indeed at nine, and not, as we had inferred, at five. As with the previous day, we had received a number of conflicting answers as to when the main ceremony of the day began.
We had also spent an hour attempting to reach the Ghandi museum in a Rickshaw that had required us to take a short-cut through the bulk of the old town to get across the river to the museum. In doing so, we had undertaken an Italian Job-style weave all through different narrow back-alleys and passages that only a Rickshaw, a Michael Caine-driven Mini or two-abreast pedestrians could squeeze through. Every so often, we would emerge from the shady alleyways and into a broad, bright, sunny avenue that had been cleared of all but the smallest of transports. As we quickly buzzed across these broad, main streets like mice from one skirting board to another, we saw there had been mysteriously daubed two fat, white parallel lines lengthways down the street like a giant racetracks had been drawn out across the city. We had no idea what they were until we learned what the main festival consisted of.
We drifted with the crush of people that flowed from the temple square, through the city and towards an unknown destination as the hubbub grew and the mass of people became thicker and slower. Hearing the same MC-style babbling that periodically deafened us back in Trivandrum, we emerged into a wide intersection that was a sea of black heads that I was conveniently able to see over, all focused on the imposing centrepiece.
Standing proudly before us was a towering machine that any Lord of the Rings fan or fantasy miniature enthusiast would have fainted over: A monstrous chariot, a pillar of colour and intricate decoration, a siege tower of religious worship. At its base were four heavy, ten-foot wheels that supported a solid carved structure of rich brown wood. From the heavy base it rose up and out in a thick, meaty structure like some sort of sea-galleon, from which a host of temple-like pillars sprung up. In an amongst these pillars perched podgy men with microphones who leaned out over already thronged crowds, babbling words of encouragement and hype. Every so often, they weaved through the foot-wide multicoloured columns to the other side of the structure and addressed the other side of the crowd. Above them, much like the smaller effigy of two nights before, there towered the same gompurams that mimicked the temple that towered above even the chariot, stepping up into the glaring, fanged, octopus-like face that was so prevalent in the iconography here.
The entire structure, the entire vehicle was intricately decorated with all manner of detail and artistic techniques that we had experienced in Madurai and before. The thick, spiral-stripe wooden wheels towered well above the tallest males (even me) and featured the chunky chariot axles that stuck out the size of watermelons. The stocky, chocolate brown wooden base was covered in the richly detailed Jain-style carving that I would soon become familiar with in north India; patterns, textures and protruding images of various Hindu deities blared out at the crushing, sweating hordes of worshippers who elbowed one-another to reach out and stroke whichever was closest to hand. Above it, the platform was draped with flower chains and tassels that often dangled and spilled over, dropping caught petals and ribbons onto the churning, stinking sea of people below. And around the thick pillars and up to the miniature gompuram above was wrapped embroidered stripes of blue and yellow and red that themselves ended in thick-stringed tassels that dangled down over the crowd.
It seemed very fitting, given the inclusive, collective feel that these festivals seemed to have, that the chariot was pulled by hand by the crowd. Behind it and closest to us was two teams of orange-shirted young men dressed like they were off to the gym, headbands and all, who stood in a steeply ascending line along railways sleepers that were jammed under the back wheels at a dramatic angle with a supporting pivot beneath. Ahead of it trailed thirty pulley ropes, tightening and slackening periodically as the crowd shifted, creating not only a type of organic, rhythmic pulse to this vehicle of worship, but also adding to the siege tower image I had in my head. War and religion- was there history in this object’s conception?
The vehicle was stationary as we reached it. The crowds were being serenaded in Tamil by the men at the helm, gesticulating theatrically towards the crowd and off ahead of them, in what sounded like part-sermon, part-political tirade, part MC hype. Occasionally he would yell something and receive a collective, shrill yell back from the crowd with hands waved in the air and reaching out to the vehicle; back and forth this exchange would go until the excitement and volume reached a fever pitch. Then with a tremendous roar from the MC and a hysterical collective scream from the crowd the teams of lads at the back would all jump in tight synchrony, so that with a comical >boing< that rang out over the deafening screams, the vehicle would receive a jolt and a jump start just as the ropes at the front would all at once tighten.
It moved at a terrifying and surprising speed, thanks to the three long lines of rickshaw drivers, family dads and shirt-and-shoed young lads that gamely tugged at the front, to the cheers and encouragement of the crowds around them. Likewise, the whole crowd set off too like a calm lake instantaneously blowing up into a tidal storm; the flow of people went both alongside the chariot and away from it, the two waves of people crashing together around us in a mad panic. The high number of worshippers killed annually in stampedes at religious festivals does not surprise me one bit. As the chariot rolled away from us and down the street, we peeled away from the swell and back the way we came to join the mad rush down the alleyways between the streets. Like a stampede of thieves running from the law we pushed and shoved each other, jumped over walls and bikes and fell over people and rubble as we twisted through the alleyways to wherever these guys had decided the next best vantage point was.
Then I heard a voice.
“Follow me, follow me!”
The boy that was running over the car next to us gestured over a crumbling wall and we crashed past the sideflow of bodies, out through a courtyard, down a side-alley and back into the main street as the vehicle trundled perfectly down the street towards us. The boy was no-where to be seen. At least, he appeared to be no-where to be seen; he may well have been standing right next to us for all we knew but his three foot height was no good in this crowd of adults and I wouldn’t have been surprised it he was on a roof by that point. But searching around for his face to thank him, I noticed much further down the street and outline of a second chariot much like this one, trundling down the street and away from us just as our one slowed to a halt. This festival was obviously bigger than we had realised. What luck to have been in Madurai purely by chance!
As the crowds continued to flow into the intersection we were now in and before the chariot had even stopped, the MC had resumed his rapid-fire babble of Tamil crowd-rearing. Again the process repeated itself, with the mass conversation between chariot-master and crowd easy enough to follow with a scream of your own in any language. It was extremely hard not to become as caught up in the heady excitement of the whole situation as all these countless worshippers clearly were. The crowd themselves all seemed infected with this wonderful atmosphere of collective participation, family involvement and an outpouring of religious expression rarely experienced in such a public arena in the west. We quickly fell under the spell too.
But we experienced as much attention towards us as towards the festivities themselves, me especially because of my half-foot height advantage over almost everyone else present. Yelling children approached with their freshly-schooled English, grubby hands and enthusiastic faces and threw their arms around one another’s shoulders:
“Hello, one photo please?”
Jovial shopkeepers yelled from their storefronts in booming voices:
“Welcome to India! You are from?”
Even earnest-looking young girls approached with their expectant mothers hanging back:
“Do you have a wife?”
I shook hands for the first time with someone that had six fingers. It felt like a rather full handshake, but I didn’t realise this one was unique until I looked for myself and saw that the little lad had a thumb that forked after the second digit into a fork-like super thumb. He saw my surprise and beamed at me.
“Special finger,” he exclaimed, proudly.
Exhausted, we retreated by midday to a sleep that struck us both instantaneously. I had yelled myself sore, was drenched in sweat, had nerves that had been shredded by four hours in heavy crush and a knee that was peppered with bruises where it had spent the entire morning jostling for space with my spare camera lens. And it was worth every second.
We left Madurai straight after the adrenaline buzz had worn off from chariot chasing, although perhaps we should have saved some of it for the tiresome ride up into the interior hills to Koddaikanal. After train ride rammed to the rafters full of departing worshippers, we had to stand on one packed bus for two hours and then had another four hour journey. For the second ride, I had to make do with sitting on the driver’s hot engine block and facing backwards for the windy route up the steep green hills (I missed the view) with another Bollywood bombshell on in full volume behind my head. The upside was the collective sight of the entire bus’s faces glued to this sweeping, sexy, kung-fu Bollywood epic for the entire ride, old and young alike.
Koddaikanal was our first of the Hill Stations- old colonial settlements up at the cooler altitudes where the pasty British civil servants, administrators and bureaucrats could spend the hot season. Often conceived and built in the longing memory of the British holiday towns that were so far from the baking plains, they were intended to be pleasant, picturesque and appealing for visitors. In the new India, they have not lost any of these qualities. Koddaikanal sits in the forests of the Western Ghats (Ghat meaning ‘step’ in Hindi), of whose Eastern counterparts are called the Eastern Ghats. Both chains of hills hug their respective coasts and run up the sides of the Indian subcontinent, with the Western Ghats petering out shortly before Mumbai, almost 1600 kilometres away. Naturally it was dramatically cooler up at Koddai’s 1200 meter elevation and the pine trees, damp air and Indian taxi drivers dressed like someone had rolled then in a 1980’s car boot sale were a beautiful change from the dry dusty plains. The whole mountain vibe that I was enjoying was somewhat enhanced by our eating our dinner that evening in a little chalet type restaurant by candlelight after a power cut.