Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fire of the south


Years ago we had been to Thiruvannamalai on a Paurnami day and had witnessed an amazing pooja ritual in the light of the moon. So when we were planning our trip to India last year we made sure we would arrive there on the evening of the full moon day. Now Thiruvannamalai is actually the birth place of my paternal grandfather and amazingly the first ever temple we’ve set foot at in India. Hence we always make it a point of heading there after visiting Kanchipuram.

Thiruvannamalai is home to the Arunachaleshwarar temple which is one of the Pancha bootha temples representing fire. Every Kartigai Deepam devotees hike up the hill (which looks the same from all directions), to deposit ghee which is then lit for 7 days and 7 nights. the interesting thing is the fire is not fed with ghee or protected from rain. And everytime the light is lit it rains.

Plaything Deep in sorrow

We have this whole ritual we follow everytime we’re there that hasn’t changed much from the first time. We’d head for lunch and the first ever lodge in the city that’s nothing but a backpackers place but perhaps the cleanest I’ve seen and with the nicest people, so we’ve stayed there a few times. We usually head there for the lovely lunch spread of the spiciest banana leaf food that is thankfully different from the rest of Tamilnadu.

Light Contemplative

The only problem while I still don’t know the street name, I can direct you to the place without fail if you follow the main town entrance. That’s what I told our lovely driver. We hadn’t started of on a good note but it was nice to see he hadn’t held a grudge. You see I had insisted on hiring an ambassador since we have a huge luggage bag. However our over zealous hotel manager with an ego bigger than his head screwed up our travels. Despite asking him numerous times if everything was ready, the nut never set up the travel details. Thankfully the lovely assistant manager managed to get everything set when he realised the folly of the idiot.

That’s when the driver turns up in a Tata Indica and I flew in a rage at 5 in the morning. Later I find out the poor guy had been woken up just that morning and told to head there to pick us up. Despite the rocky start we got along well since he only spoke when needed. Eventhough we took slightly longer to arrive in Thiruvannamalai then we usually would since he kinda lost his way – he was a pretty nice guy who talked only when needed.

Arriving around 3 pm, there was an unusual number of cops around the town but since we were super hungry we set out to look for our lunch place. We reach the place to find it looking different. I had a bad feeling it had changed hands and true to that, the restaurant was now owned by the owners of the newer more posh hotel in town and sadly the food wasn’t as good. Sigh my favourite food place no longer existed.

Anyway we decide to go find a place to stay near the temple so we won’t need to wake up the driver for our wee hour prayer moments. That’s when the problem began. While circling the town looking for a hotel the waiter had told us, we got wrong directions from a cop which led us out of the main town area. The moment we were out we realised in horror that the city was suddenly swarming with people and all access into town had been closed.

Now I have been there for their famous Kartigai Deepam celebrations numerous times and this was slowly looking like a mini festival for Malaysians just imagine a crowd the size of ¾ of our yearly Thaipusam. Desperate to get a hotel or head to the temple we try the girivalam road backwards and came upon hordes and hordes of people. At one point we couldn’t drive further as the crowd was just too thick. That’s when we spotted a public bus making a turn into a road away from the crowd and decided to follow it.

We drove through instant parking lots, villages i’ve never seen before and such, getting stuck here and there as people desperately tied to get around the blocked roads. It was absolutely crazy. Our driver finally cracks up and we both start cracking jokes on our weird luck. We were cut out of the town in mere 2 minutes! The villagers were standing in their balconies watching the massive jam us outsiders were causing. It was such a scene. We drove into dead ends, reversed our way out, got bicycle riders and auto drivers to guide us here and there and finally 4 hours later we found our hotel.


I rushed in hoping to get a room, though I was pretty sure we wouldn’t with all the crowd in town. As luck would have it, there was one non ac room available for us and I was so relieved I told the receptionist.

4 hour kalichi room kadechade periya vishyam – neengeh booking pohdungeh!
Geting a room after circling for 4 hours itself is a big deal – please just book the room ;p

Now I sometimes test the hoteliers and give a local address and claim to be Indian. My uncles address in Trichy was super easy to memorise so I got away with reciting at such speed most people just gave me a quizzed look and didn’t say much. But I was dealing with a very smart and funny lady.

Her: engehrindu vahringeh
her: where are you coming from
me: Chennai but trichyleh iruhkohm
me: From Chennai but we’re from trichy

Her: Ongeh orulenduh mayilsamy vandhurukareh
her: Mayilsamy has arrived from your town

At the point all I could think was – was she talking about trichy, Chennai or Malaysia and who the hell was mayilsamy???

me: um teriyeleh
me: umm not sure
Her: Malaysia irundhu vandhu ipdhi Trichynu sohlringehle ;p
her: You’re from Malaysia but claiming to be from trichy eh? ;p
me: hehe so how did you know?

Apparently a lot of Malaysians stay there but she was confused for a second coz I was in a saree and she had never seen a Malaysian in a saree. The hotel people from the manager to the wait staff are just lovely people. I had one too many humorous moments with them.

Turns out Mayilsamy was actually a tamil movie comedian (who I couldn’t remember when she asked me) and he was waiting in our room for a bit as they were cleaning up his room. They asked us if we wouldn’t mind waiting for our room first, of course we had no problem. What she didn’t tell us was he was there with actor Lawrence. We found out when we made our way to our room to find them sitting in our room still. They both apologised, smiled shyly (we did the same) and proceeded to the room in front of us. My mom and I had a good laugh as I filled her on who we had seen. Lawrance is an incredible dancer you see. The smiley nonsense continued a few times that evening coz somehow everytime I opened our door to get something from the staff they seemed to be walking outside or opening the door as well. Each time I was tempted to ask him why was he dressed as a cowboy?? ;p

Anyway we cleaned up and told our driver to take the rest of the day and morning off since the temple was just a walking distance away and proceeded to the temple. Only upon nearing the temple did we realise how crazy it was. It was crazy. Now the temple is usually inaccessible on festival days without a politicians letter. If we had known we would have gotten it arranged since we kinda know the local MLA (politician) but since we usually don’t visit family friends and relatives we hadn’t told anyone we were heading to India. You see I have a strict 1 relative/ family friend rule for each trip and that had gone to family in Trichy.

pockets of light Thoughtful

Anyway we decide to leave our slippers at this lady when I met this little kid selling camphor. Now i usually ignore most as they can be very irritating but this gal was interesting. She asked me and when I politely said no, she smiled and walked away. I just couldn’t get her face out of my head but we were in a rush. We decide to get flowers for the temple and I spotted this lovely thick strand of tightly tied jasmine in a style I hadn’t seen anywhere else and decided to get it for myself.

The sweetest thing happened. Mom hadn’t placed the flowers properly and it kept sliding down. 2 doors away another flower seller who had been watching me, asked me to come over and she expertly coiled the flower around my pony tail and gave me this weird smiley satisfied look. I was pretty touched and left after thanking her. I get this in KL a lot, our usual flower vendors will actually send me strands of jasmine if they know i’m at the temple for free. When I asked them why they’d say they like seeing me with flowers. ;p Perhaps it was the same feeling?

As we neared the door I realised there was no way we could get in, I walked to the side to find a long queue snaking around the temple walls and we’re talking about a massive temple courtyard. After walking up and down i figured there was no way we would be able to go in. At that point we regretted not taking the Kanchipuram Kanchi Kamatchi’s main priests invite to stay for the full moon prayers.

How we were to know the tables had turned and Thiruvannamalai was now home to monthly festivals instead of its once a year festival mood. We quietly turned back and decided to head back early the next day. We headed back to the slipper lady and found the little gal there again. I decided to chat her up and bought some camphor from her because she goes to school in the day and only helps out in the day. She beamed in happiness when I bought the camphor. I was just happy to see that innocence was not lost in the child, which was perhaps why I was attracted to her in the first place.

The next morning we were out by 4 am only to be met by an already long line of people waiting to go in but considerably smaller than the day before. So we got in line and waited for the doors of the temple to open. Now the normal lines and special lines were only separated once you were inside the temple so it was a mad rush when the doors were finally opened when people began pushing themselves into the line from everywhere. I pretty much left the camera in the bag till right after we got out of the temple as I didn’t want to create any extra attention.

We finally made it into the inner sanctum to find that prayers weren’t being conducted. This is way I try not to head to a temple during one of their major celebrations. The priests only do the brahma mohortham pooja for the select few and abandon the temple for the rest of the day to the bored sidekick with a tray and a look of intense power to herd people around.

So it wasn’t my favourite visit to the temple but we got out to this amazing display of blue skies and brilliant pockets of sunlight around the temple. Having stood and struggled to get in, I refused to leave and walked around watching and taking photos. This is a really beautiful temple with the sacred hills of Annamalai as its backdrop and what a beautiful day to be out. If you look to the left of this photo you will see the lines of people trying to get into the temple. I know not the best picture but our movements around the temple were restricted because of the crowd. There’s one spot near the tree where you can see all the temple’s gopurams. As I was making my way there and old man stopped me to point it out, i decided to be polite and not say that I knew.

The temple and the hills have a lot of legends associated with it. Mainly being the story of the ego clash between Brahma, Vishnu and Siva which marks Kartigai Deepam. For those familiar with Saint Arunagirinathar the composer of thirupugals, many of his stories take place here as well as his transformation into a parrot.

Most of all what I love about this temple is the sense of peace it projects. Despite the craziness of the festivals, there’s always such a beautiful serene feel to the place.

Hot Idlis In the shadows Steaming hot
Outside the temple it was a festive mood with makeshift shops popping up for the devotees. Instant thosais and pipping hot idlis seem to be on the menu. We walked back to our hotel to find our complimentary breakfast ready to be served.

We left after another circle around the hills for a proper girivalam and headed back to Chennai.

UPDATE : on Lawrance - anantha filled me in on the movie he was acting in at that time - just saw the photos it was definetly the same costume ;p

V-Eyez Imagery
My photography blog
V-Eyez Imagery on Facebook