3 March 2007

Westerner's View

. . . Tiruvannamalai is a holy city; a dense huddle of temples, ashrams and housing gathered at the foot of a small sandstone mountain. Though small, the sacred mountain Arunachala rises majestically from the dusty plains and glows a warm red in the morning light.

An area overflowing with the ashrams of various gurus, dead and living, and their spiritual devotees. The main street is an absorbing spectacle, lined with stalls selling pooja (offering) flowers, chalks, coconuts and bananas. Cows with decorated horns mingle with the traffic. Conscientious Westerners in crisp white pyjamas hurry past beggars, sleeping pilgrims and wild-bearded Sadhus (religious wanderers who have forsaken all relations and possessions) hunched over cooking stoves in their necklaces and dirty orange robes. As I stood, gaping, a funeral procession, all drums and trumpets, went past leaving a trail of colourful flowers trampled into the road. The woman, only hours dead, was strapped to an improvised taxi-float preceded by howling relatives. While most people here are vistors of a sort, we, the uninitiated, felt like the only tourists.

There's a real 'goldrush' energy about the town, with so many people believing they are on the cusp of discovering some divine secret of the universe or at the very least, salvation from their suffering and existential insecurity. As a heathen, I can only compare it to the street preaching scenes in 'Life of Brian'!

In Western-orientated cafes and coffeeshops we eyed up the busy noticeboards to find out what was going down: four different kinds of yoga class, satsangs with gurus from India, Australia, UK and Germany, classes in meditation, astrology, palmistry, strange dance and 'movement' classes with names like 'Somatics' and soul clensing mass blessings from visiting saints.

. . . We paced respectfully around the ashram temples, viewing the enlightened at close quarters and doing our best to imitate them. The Westerners, perhaps out of an earnestness about their quest, perhaps mysticised by the foreign and the ancient, appear to take things more seriously. Spines are straighter, lotus positions more athletic, eyes always closed, sublime expressions willing nirvana to come. The Indians, running the show on their home turf, effortlessly breathe life into the ceremonies in much the same way they do the markets or the street outside!

[Extract from Morgalogue]

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