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Tiruvannamalai and Gingee

11 Jan

Yesterday Astrid and I took a taxi from Auroville to Tiruvannamalai to check out the Arunachaleswar Temple and see the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram. The trip was excellent, leaving in the early morning mists, driving through farm lands and seeing people getting their day started. We passed schoolchildren in their uniforms riding bikes and talking, farmers working in the rice paddies, herders moving goats and cows off the road, toward the cattle market, and vegetable sellers readying their stands for the day. We passed through frenetic bazaar towns where traffic came to a screeching halt while horns honked, people haggled and laughed, and dogs barked. The land changed from fertile, super neon green fields, to rough rocky terrain that looked like someone just picked up a pile of boulders and set them down on the landscape to form a mountain.

We arrived in Tiruvannamalai at 9:3o am and went straight to the Arunachaleswar Temple that covers 10 hectares and is one of the largest temple complexes in India. It dates from the 11th century, though much of the structure was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It boasts the second tallest gopuram in India (pictured at the right) at 13 stories. From the minute we entered the temple you could feel the peacefulness of the place, there were few beggars, few people trying to tout their guide services, and no priests trying to lure you into a puja that you didn’t want. It was wonderful, we were able to walk around totally unmolested and just drink in the beauty of the Technicolor shrines (below), the chanting of the Vedas over the loudspeaker, and the overall serenity of the spot. We sat on the steps of the main temple and watched as the Indian elephant that blesses devotees was led out for the temple closing at 11 am and then watched as the two sacred relics were carried out on a temple chariot by fifteen men (moving to a raucous tune of a horn and drum) to be ceremoniously locked away until the temple reopened later that afternoon.

After the temple we took a short drive to the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram set at the base of the beautiful Mount Arunachala. As we arrived, the ashram was in the process of feeding about 100 sadhus and other poor people in its parking lot- something they do everyday at 11 a.m. and walked around the site and visited the shrine where Sri Ramana achieved samadhi or conscious exit from the body. The feeling there was incredibly serene and very relaxing.

On the way back to Auroville, we stopped in Gingee (pronounced ‘shin-gee’) to visit the ruins of the Krishnagiri Fort that dates from the 13th century and has been held by many armies including the Vijayanagars, the Marathas, the Mughals, the French, and the British. The only armies that were here yesterday however were an army of goats that were climbing the 500 misshapen granite steps to the top and eating leaves from the bushes in the process. From the top of Krishnagiri, you can look out over the surrounding countryside for miles and miles away from (most) of the traffic noise and people. We could have also visited the Rajagiri Fort across the valley, neither of us felt like walking the 1560 steps to the top of that one!

After a month here in beautiful Tamil Nadu and Auroville, we leave on Tuesday to take the overnight train to Trivandrum in Kerala and begin to work our way north to Mumbai to leave on 14 Feb.



Auroville…The Grand Experiment

23 Dec

What do you get when you cross an arid plateau-which is now a lush forest, 25,000 Tamil villagers, 2,000 international residents from 71 countries, really bad potholes- which masquerade as roads, an alternative lifestyle, and a 70 meter golden golf ball?

You get Auroville International Township, a place where ecology and spirituality combine to make an alternative community open to people throughout the world. Auroville was founded in 1968 and the vision for it is that there will be 50,000 people living there in a sort of futuristic utopia where clean water, renewable energy, education and no money reign supreme. The charter of the city sums up these intentions nicely:

  1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
  2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
  3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
  4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

The center of Auroville is the Matrimandir or Temple of the Mother that does not belong to any religion or sect. It is known as the soul of the city. When the township is completed, the Matrimandir will be the absolute center of the city and all buildings will emanate from it in a spiral, galaxy-like fashion. The Matrimandir itself is really a sight to see. The entire surface of the ball is covered in large and smaller concave discs that are embedded with golden pieces of glass. It is an engineering marvel and totally beautiful from a distance- especially at dusk when it is lit from below.

There are many issues holding back progress in Auroville though- a lack of housing is causing newcomers to have a difficult time of integrating into the township. Newcomers must go through an entire year to become an Aurovillian and they must also be able to pay for their own land and house to be built- which becomes the property of Auroville. The money exchange system is difficult too- Aurovillians get a small stipend (called maintenance) on which they are supposed to live each month. The maximum amount an Aurovillian can receive is 5000 Rs per month, or around 112.00 USD. Now, it can be done but it is difficult to be sustained on this amount and newcomers are not even eligible for this maintenance.

So while there are problems, there are many great things about the community as well. Education plays a huge role in the township and local Tamil villagers are being educated both as children in integrated schools and adults in handicrafts and vocational work. Ecologically, the 20 sq. km have been transformed in the 40 years of Auroville’s existence from an arid plateau with very few trees to an amazing jungle teeming with flora and fauna. While Auroville has a way to go to realize their goal it is amazing to see what they have accomplished in such a short time.

Astrid and I were only staying for a week originally, but we decided to find a longer term place and spend a few weeks exploring the township, doing some yoga, and looking into life here. It’s not a place where I think we would ever live permanently, but it is an interesting experiment. We’ll post more later.


Puri and Konark

5 Nov

Well, its no beautiful beach town, in fact, part of the town reminds me of this beach ghost town that Astrid and I happened upon in Sicily a few years ago. But what Puri lacks in ambiance, it makes up for with a laid-back relaxed vibe that makes it really easy to be here.

We are staying in Z Hotel on Chakrathirta Rd., also known as CT Rd. Funnily, many people say that CT stands for “Cheat Tourists,” which many of the shops and restaurants are designed to do. The Z however, is a piece of sanity and relaxation away from the chaos of hawkers, touts, and rickshaw drivers. The place used to be the rural get-away house of a Maharaja and the owner keeps it in very good condition. The staff are helpful and the room tariff doesn’t break the bank, which is always good at the end of the month. The sea breezes waft through the room and fill it with salt air, a welcome change from exhaust fumes! To the left is a picture of Puri Beach at sunset just behind the Z Hotel.

Yesterday, Astrid and I rented scooters to go to Konark from Ganesh Tour & Travels, also on CT Rd. He charged me Rs. 150 for each scooter for the ENTIRE day, 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The ride to Konark, which is about 40 km from Puri, was fantastic riding through animal sanctuary lands with green fields, sand dunes, snaking rivers, and incredibly blue sky. It was hot and steamy from the morning rains, but riding on the scooters was so cooling we didn’t even notice the heat. The crowds of crazy drivers that are so ubiquitous in India were also absent, so we were basically on the road by ourselves for most of the journey, passing a bullock cart, a herd of goats, or a bicycle here and there. The cars that were around passed us without incident. This was the first time since we got to India two months ago that we actually had the freedom to do what we wanted to do on our own time schedule. IT WAS FABULOUS! No waiting for a taxi, no waiting for buses, no waiting for anything!

We arrived at Konark around 10:30 a.m. and were immediately dogged by a guide that wanted us to use his services. I had read that this would happen, so we let him show us where to park the scooters and had him show us on the sign board at the entrance to the temple complex that he was in fact a registered guide as there are only 29 registered guides. He showed us his ID and it matched so we accepted his offer. I’m so glad we did, he was very knowledgeable about the temple, the carvings, and the history that we would have been lost without him. It would have just been another ancient temple and we would have missed the intricacies of it without him, as well as the Kama Sutra/ Tantric carvings. BTW, I can’t remember his name, but he was number 20 on the board, just look him up if you are there.

Designed to look like a cosmic chariot of the sun god, Surya drawn by seven horses, which represent the days of the week, the temple sits on 24 stone “wheels” that represent the 24 hours in the day. The temple stands 35 meters high and at one point there was another temple behind it that stood 70 meters high. It is gargantuan! The whole complex was positioned to catch the first rays of morning light that would illuminate the deity inside the temple. For more info, check out the Wikipedia page about Konark and the Sun Temple.

We finished our tour in about an hour and a half and ended up paying the guide for two hours because we were so pleased. This temple is one of those “must-see sights” and you should do it with a guide. It makes if far more interesting.

After getting back to Puri around 3:00 p.m., totally sunburned and hot, we returned our scooters, had a snack and then took a long nap. A totally peaceful day!

Oh, if you ever get to Puri, try Peace Restaurant on CT Road. The food is so fresh and good and they get fresh seafood everyday. Everything we had there over four days was incredible. Try the ten grilled prawns for Rs. 150 or about $3.50 US.

We leave tomorrow for Bhubaneswar and a flight to Mumbai and then Goa to see the Portuguese colonial influence on that side of the country. See you on the beaches!


Bhubaneswar…Beware of the Pandas

1 Nov

Not the furry, cuddly, black and white animals that you might find in zoos and Chinese rainforests. These pandas or Hindu priests are sleazy, disgusting creatures that lurk inside Hindu temples. BEWARE! Once they see your white skin they jump into action grabbing flowers and trying to hand them to you, getting you to offer them to the deities and pray for your father, your mother, your sister, your brother, and your crazy uncle Larry. Then comes the best part, you get to pay for this honor and they don’t want measly ten rupee notes, no, they want hundreds only. One hundred for father, one hundred for mother, and one hundred for the aunt you don’t talk about rotting away in a women’s correctional facility in Bakersfield, CA. (Ed. note: I don’t have a crazy uncle Larry or an aunt rotting away in prison, but if I did, the pandas would want me to pray for them.)

I’ll admit it, even after reading all the websites, the travel books, etc. I got suckered into the scam- and it is a scam. Having never been in a Hindu temple, I did not know the etiquette. Am I supposed to give a holy man the finger and tell him to bugger off? I guess I am. But these pandas are counting on the fact that you won’t. That you will be good little rich, white people and go along with the prayers, that you will open your shoulder bag (which is obviously overflowing with money) and give freely. I got away with only giving a couple of ten rupee notes. I feel the need now to apologize to my family- of course you are worth more than twenty rupees, but not when I am getting scammed.

Our autorickshaw driver-cum tour guide (who barely spoke a word of English) quickly ushered us out of the temple and back into the rickshaw. He turned to me and mimed the signal for money (rubbing fingers together,) the signal for no (palm facing me, waving side to side,) and the signal for get out of here fool (a sweeping motion with the hand.) He must have really wanted me to understand because he went through it about seven times and another two before we entered the next temple. OK, OK, I get it…sheesh.

Unfortunately, Hindu temples across the board are difficult. If you can get in, meaning you are either Hindu or male, though sometimes women are allowed in, you ALWAYS have to deal with these pandas wanting to give puja. Finally, we just gave up and went to temples that were open as archaeological sites. They tended to have more presence anyway, and rarely do you have pandas, or anyone else for that matter, coming after you.

That being said, Astrid and I really did enjoy the temple architecture of Bhubaneswar. An example of the Kalingan style showing influences of Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu styles with arches, carvings, and domes that look like Buddhist stupas. The best place by far to see these temples is the Mukteswar and Siddheswar temples in Bhubaneswar pictured here, and the Sun Temple in Konark.

To the left is the Siddheswar Mandir with a red-painted Ganesh greeting you as you come closer. The feeling here was calm and serene with only a couple of families walking around. A huge change from the other frenetic temples we walked through.

The Mukteswar Mandir pictured to the right, in the same temple complex as the Siddheswar Mandir is one of the most ornate temples in Bhubaneswar, and one of the most beautiful.

From here we leave by bus for a one and a half hour journey to Puri to spend some time near the beach by the Bay of Bengal, see the Sun Temple at Konark and sort out the next leg of our trip.

See you there.