A Big Post For A Big Country

Fair warning: This post is mostly me reflecting on visiting India. There are a few pictures mixed in. I will post a ton of photos on Facebook later for those who are interested.

 

I had a history professor in college who I truly hated. This really should not have been a surprise to me or anyone who knew me, since I majored in History in college precisely because of a few history teachers who I thought were boring or at least bored by the topic they were teaching. I mean come on, it’s history! It’s awesome. If you can not get excited about it and relay that excitement to your students then why teach?

This professor in particular drew my ire at first for what I thought was his simplistic approach to history. Additionally, this was a once a week night class where most of the students appeared to be somewhat remedial as well. I of course was retaking the class because I was not happy with the B I had received in it before. It was US History up to 1877 or somewhere near that time I believe. The professor wanted us to write essay each week on themes of history and how we connected to them. This was back in my “diversity means excluding me because I am just a dumb white guy” phase so perhaps I was just not open to this idea at first and I rebelled and wrote terrible papers basically saying what a terrible idea I thought this assignment was. I thought of this professor a lot on the trip to Southern India Iris and I took last weekend. We attended a friend’s wedding. It was a Christian wedding but at the same time it was not. It was an Indian Christian wedding. It was unmistakable a church with the usual iconography, but one where Jesus had a garland of flowers around his neck. It was a Christian service, done by a guy in the normal white robes. Of course, he spoke in Tamil. There was a choir there, but one where the women were all in Sari’s. The songs were familiar to me but as they were all song in Tamil I did not know the words or how to sing along. I commented to Iris that this was incredible to me because here is a theme of history, two in fact, coming together in front of us: religion and trade.

Christianity is not native to India. By some accounts, it came to Kerala in AD 50 or sometime there about so it is old, but it is not native to the area. I could probably look this up, but I am sure being run by the British and being exposed to Europeans for hundreds of years via trade is what helped Christianity gain strong following in the country. Indeed, the church we were in was Lutheran so for sure that denomination of the religion had to come to the southeast coast of India, where I found myself pondering that professor, sometime after the Reformation in the 1500’s. So there it is, a theme of history I can connect to. A literal way to see the abstract concept of the ebbs and flows of history. I am an American living in Malaysia teaching English to Arab students, who traveled to a wedding in India to see an Indian woman from Brunei, who lives in KL and is a citizen of India because you can not be a citizen of Brunei unless you are a Muslim, marry a man her parents matched her with and who she does not really know.

On a side note, that professor I mentioned earlier also taught us that Africans were enslaved by Europeans in large part because of their, um, large parts: His theory was that the legend or reality of Africans having big dicks caused the Europeans to enslave them out of jealously or to hide their shame at having gone to Africa just to see if the legend was true. Seriously, this is what he thought. I hated that class and that professor but he was right about history having themes that stretch throughout the ages and connect one period to another.

I also thought a lot about a book I read some years ago called “Christ Stopped at Eboli”. It was about the heel of the Italian boot. I thought of it when we were driving on a bus, with no air conditioning I might add, through the countryside of India to visit the home village of the Bride’s mother. The book’s title is implying that God has not come to this part of Italy and as a result the countryside is rather desolate. There are plenty of pictures to follow that will show this.

So anyone, enough ruminations about history. India! It has always been my dream to visit this country. I am a bit in love with the Hindu culture. I love the seeming contrast in the country that one always reads about. It is the most beautiful country, it is the ugliest. The people are so nice, they are gang rapping women everywhere. It is poor, some guy has a 24 story home in Mumbai. It lived up to my expectations and then some. We will go back, as my dream visit is to go up into the mountains in the north, to Varanasi or someplace like that, and bathe in the Ganges River.

I am going to try and leave room for Iris to post about our trip at some point too, so if I am vague on things, that is because I am leaving space for her. Case in point: The wedding. It was for a woman she works with and therefore is much much better friends with her than me. Case in point, I met her for the first time in India. On stage. While her husband was feeding me some of the wedding cake with his fingers. Have at it Iris!

So the first day was the wedding. Then we slept for awhile because our flight did not get in until roughly 2:30am our time, and we had to be ready pretty earlier the next morning. This getting ready involved Iris wearing a sari for the first time, an experience I am obviously going to leave for her to describe. After we woke up we met up with the other “outsiders” to the wedding and had dinner. Pretty much every single person at the wedding was related to the bride or the groom except for myself, Iris, Lai Wan (a co-worker of Iris and the bride), and Wendy and Dawn, two friends of the bride from Brunei. I stopped off after dinner to buy a dhoti for the next day. A lot of the men were wearing them at the wedding. It looked comfortable (it was) and since we were traveling to the middle of nowhere in India I figured I could dress accordingly. (I did) People were going to be looking at me anyway, so wearing a traditional Indian outfit was not going to get me more attention.

We got a lot of stares every we went on this trip. We had a few people stop to take pictures of us. A lot of times we were very obviously the subject of conversation and not surprisingly: we only saw two other white people the entire trip. To be fair, we did see them twice, but this just illustrates my point: This is not a tourist center. This is not Kerala or Goa, this is Tamil Nadu and Trichy-a city I still do not know the proper name for (it is really long) I got hit with a stick by an old Indian lady one day while walking around the market. She pointed at my tattoo and hit me with her stick, saying something in Tamil as she did. It was not a “hey nice tattoo” sentiment for sure. I covered up my tattoo everytime I left the hotel except for that one day, and looked what happened! A group of school  girls stopped to talk to Iris at one of the temples we went to, telling her how beautiful she was. I mean she is beautiful for sure, the most beautiful woman in the world in my opinion. I am sure they saw this…and her white skin. In Malaysia you see these a lot too: White is good, brown is bad. Most of the face washes you find in the grocery store advertise how white they will make your skin. The women on TV, in the soap operas and what not, are fairer skinned than the average Malay woman you see on the streets. In Indian culture this is very prevalent too. The book I read on this trip was by a famous Indian writer because I am a dork and planned that out, R.K. Narayan. I have read a few of his books and short stories. The one I was reading in India had a main character who was looking for a wife and the fairness of her skin was very important to both him and his mother. Darker skin was ugly and considered by the mother to be a sign that she was not worthy of marriage into her rich upper caste family. Also, if you get bored, you can look up the skin care product once sold in India that was for women to make their, um, baby making regions whiter and therefore much more attractive to their husbands. Seriously. I watched the TV ad. Did not understand a word of it, but the message is very clear.

Anyway, the ride out to the town was interesting to say the least. There was both a lot to look at and very little of it. Every once in awhile a little town would pop up but for the most part, as I said earlier, it was a barren landscape. Very hot and dry.

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The road side refreshment stand we stopped at on the road to Kodiakanal Road
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There were cows just wandering everyone in India. This one was owned by someone
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The “street” of the house we ate lunch at in Kodiakanal Road
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The mountains of Southern India

The meal was amazing. More on that in a special “How To Lose Weight” post later this week.

One thing we did is put jasmine in our hair. Well, the women did. Apparently it is tradition for the husband to do it for their wives.

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My handy work
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The new groom putting some flowers in his bride’s hair

After Kodiakanal we visited the big bazaar in Trichy. The city, while nice, really does not have a lot to see and do if you are visiting. The bazaar is one of the few things we had on our checklist. It was chaotic and wonderful, in the the ways I figured India would be. Lots of traffic, lots of people selling lots of random things. It sits at the base of the Rock Fort, something else on the checklist.

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The next day, we headed out on a tour of the temples in the area. This was truly special. We arranged the night before to have a motorized rickshaw (or tuk tuk or whatever they are called in various parts of the world) drive us from temple to temple during the day and wait for us. This was worth it’s weight in gold. It was nice to be able to spend as long as we could wandering the grounds and enjoying the atmosphere of each temple without worrying about getting to the next one or even back to our hotel.

The last temple we visited was the second largest hindu temple in the world!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_large_Hindu_temples

Read up on it yourself. We went to three temples that day. The second one is number 11 on the list, so built roughly 1800 years ago, no big deal. The last one is number 2 on the list.

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detail of one of the gopurams
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Building a new gopuram at Ranganathaswamy temple

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a pic from the top of the main building at Ranganathaswamy. Gives you a small overview of scale

The first one was old, not sure how old. But it was special. We ended up inside the temple, in line to pray, give an offering, and be blessed by the priests. We were not sure how to proceed at this point, not wanting to offend anyone and walk by the alter without giving respect but also not really sure how to get out of that area. One of the priests, clearly reading our body language, waved us forward to the altar area. He insisted. He pointed to a spot right up front as I tried to casually walk by and indicated that we should assume the prayer hand position. One of the priests brought the sacred fire and showed us how to use it to bless ourselves. He then took some of the sacred ashes (I have been told it is cremated Elephants, could be wrong) and anointed those of us who were okay with it. Then the original priest brought a giant garland of flowers from the altar and place them onto me. Obviously I let my traveling companions know the rest of the day how blessed I was. Upon exiting the temple I gave the garland to out driver, who right away placed them on the front of his vehicle, something very common in India.

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Me after being blessed
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A random procession on the street leading towards the temple

Oh yeah, I got a blessing from an elephant this day too. I am so blessed, jokingly and seriously. We saw an elephant earlier in the day from afar and were happy with only that interaction. Upon spying the elephant in the second temple, I had to get closer. The man in charge of the elephant, not sure if he was a holy man or not, was very nice and we talked a bit about the temple and the elephant. It has a name…I do not remember it, but the blessing was from Ganesha, a favorite in the Hindu pantheon of gods by myself and probably most westerners.

Our last stop for the day was the Rock Fort. It is an old fort turned into a British fort, turned into a temple. We spent a good bit of time up there enjoying the locals, who loved us as I said earlier, and watching the sun set. Because it is a temple, you have to walk up the 344 steps sans shoes. It was a bit hot to say the least.

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The Rock Fort from the Bazaar

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The sun setting over Trichy

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Ranganathaswamy, from the Rock Fort

So even though I wrote a lot and shared at least a few photos on here, there is nothing I can really say to explain India and what this whole experience of living overseas has meant to me. It is a once in a lifetime experience, and yet my daily life! Going to a wedding in India and visiting this part of the country is an opportunity we never would have gotten living in America. Of the top ten places I would want to visit in India, Trichy would not have made my top 50 last year at this time. It probably would not have made my top 100 even after living here in KL (a lot of the Indian population here is from the state of Tamil Nadu) Personally I would vote for living like this forever, overseas, visiting and exploring this incredible world we live in.

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Just one of the man stalls at the Onion market. Seriously.

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That’s all for now. A food edition to come later this week and maybe a rare appearance from Iris! This weekend her Aunt and Uncle are visiting us in KL and then the week after that we are off to Myanmar for 10 days! There will be a lot of posting about that visit too I am sure!

 

Jumpa Lagi

 

Kevin


2 thoughts on “A Big Post For A Big Country

  1. Just out of sight in a lot of those photos with the beautiful color is a lot of trash. We saw a few people using the bathroom aka the street, very freely. When we took a ride over the river, you could see people washing their clothes in the same part as people showering and worse. One branch of the river we went over had people living under the bridge, on the river. The smell of that river was awful. This is India: It is beautiful and ugly, colorful and dark. A great contrast that, to me, is summed up nicely by the Taj Mahal: The most memorable monument of the country is…a tomb, one that is slowly being eroded by pollution.

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