Shopping on West Car Street, Chidambaram
I was walking with Bharathi and Vishali on West Car Street. We had
just gone sari-shopping and Vish had paused to look at the bangles at
one of the shaded market stands lining the west gate entrance to the
temple. The sweet smell of guavas oozing with juice in the midday sun
permeated the air around us. We had nowhere to be for a few hours, and
this rare moment of lingering felt slow and satisfying. The hair on top
of my head felt shockingly hot to the touch as I adjusted the jasmine in
my braid, drawing a few damp strands off of my forehead and back into
some attempt at order.
As we looked through our purchases from the sari store, talking about color, fabric and style, Bharathi suddenly asked me, – Susanna, which is your favorite God?
Standing yards from the entryway into one of the world’s greatest Shiva
temples, which I had just traveled across the world to visit for the
third time, there was no question - Shiva Nataraja, I said. She paused and looked at me. I wondered what she was thinking.
But Jesus? - she asked – He is yours. Don’t you love Jesus? Surprised, I said –Yes, Jesus is great – I love Jesus. This was so inexplicably funny to me that I started laughing. Then I clarified – I love Shiva AND I love Jesus. They’re both good. And you? Bharathi said – Me? I love Shiva – and she touched her heart. I said – Oh, yes, Shiva…
and touched my heart as well. Then she laughed too. The three of us
purchased some bangles, bobbypins, and sari clips, then hailed an
auto-rickshaw to return to the Hotel Saradharam for lunch.
Driving from Chidambaram to Swamimalai
We climbed into one of the two white vans outside of the hotel, and I
eased myself into the cool air-conditioned seat just behind the driver.
As everyone settled in around me, I looked at the dashboard, which was
evenly ornamented with two little deities: on the right, a shiny
gold-colored Ganesha sat cross-legged, and to his left stood the Virgin
Mary, gracefully draped in blue robes.
I loved seeing this juxtaposition just a few days after my conversation with Bharathi. I pointed to the dashboard – You like Mary and Ganapati! - I said to our driver – Me too! He said – Yes, yes – Mary and Ganapati! Very good! Then, because we had exhausted his English and my Tamil, which doesn’t go beyond Hello, Thank you,
and ordering food, we smiled at each other as he began backing the van
out into the street for our ride to the Subrahmanya temple in
I remembered how, when I was here in December, every roadside
restaurant seemed to have a crèche, or manger scene, with lots of
rainbow-colored tinsel, Merry X-mas banners made of shiny cardboard
letters, and sometimes strings of blinking lights. Somewhere in the
vicinity there would be a Ganesh or a Subrahmanya, Ganesha’s warrior
brother, who is particularly popular in Tamil Nadu. There didn’t seem to
be any conflict or contradiction in the two different belief systems
being simultaneously acknowledged and celebrated, and there didn’t seem
to be any attempt to separate them. On the contrary; the Christian
figurines were mixed right in with the Hindu ones. Everyone was invited
to the party.
Contemplating the Temple
It’s a funny thing to fall in love with a set of traditions that
aren’t yours by birth or by culture. I find myself constantly asking
myself why the Hindu Tantrism that I’ve spent the last decade studying
with my teachers John Friend and Dr. Douglas Brooks
resonates so powerfully for me and makes so much sense to me, offering
such beauty and richness that I cannot imagine extricating it from my
everyday thinking and way of being in the world.
Unlike the Catholic churches in which I grew up, the Shiva Nataraja
temple in Chidambaram is not geared toward one particular group of
Hindus with a specific set of codified beliefs. Imagine a Jesus church
designed to accommodate every conceivable sect of Christianity, as well
as anyone else who happens to think that Jesus is cool. This is the
surprisingly inclusive paradigm that we step into when we come to this
I love the fact that I am not forced to choose here – that it is as
ok for me to be as inclusive as I am selective. Because I am an
outsider, there is a curiosity about why I am here, but never a critique
from any of the people with whom we interact. Part of this may be an
effect of language differences, but it honestly seems to be a non-issue.
The Dikshitar priests never ask us what we think or believe, even
inviting us into their home. The other visitors to the temple are
friendly and openly approving of our presence here, the women patting us
on the shoulder and saying Super-good! when we wear saris. It
seems to be accepted that if we are here, Shiva means something to us.
Our showing up is explanation enough.
What we talk about when we talk about Nataraja
In class, I tell my students that the names of the gods are names for
different aspects of our selves. When we talk about Nataraja, we are
talking about an amalgamation of concepts that comprises our identity.
When we look at Nataraja, we are looking into one of those endless
reflecting mirrors in which we catch glimpses and slivers of glimpses of
our limitless selves. The complex cosmology of Nataraja reminds us that
we are dazzlingly diverse. We are additive rather than reductive, like a
cubist painting that reveals infinite perspectives from a single
vantage point. We are multiplicity itself.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
I have come to Chidambaram in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu with my teacher, Dr. Douglas Brooks, and some friends for the annual Ani Festival, which marks the seasonal transition. This is one of the only times that the temple’s presiding deity, Nataraja, is removed from the Cit Saba, the heart of the temple, and brought through the streets in the most spectacular way imaginable: towering and elaborately carved carts hosting Nataraja and several other deities are draped with thousands of flowers strung into garlands, while surrounding the carts are burning ghee-torches, music, fireworks, and innumerable pilgrims. Hundreds of us pull the carts’ giant ropes to move them through the streets around the temple complex. We have come to honor our friend Kirubakaran, one of the temple’s Dikshitar priests. Kirubakaran was chosen to lead the festival this year – a once in a lifetime opportunity for him, for his family, and for us.
Take a profound religious ceremony, cross it with the ultimate street fair, add the 4th of July, and you’ll have a sense of what it is like. The way in which I’ve described this 10-day opulent visual extravaganza to my friends is “Fellini on acid” because I don’t know how else to evoke the wild sensation of it all. The truth is that it is deeply sweet and ecstatically beautiful. It makes you want to bow down. And you do so again and again.
So it is in this context that I find myself wondering about the urge to write, to record. I’ve actually written less this trip than I have in any of my previous trips to India. I wanted to just be in the experience instead of continually engaging in the meta-cognitive process of thinking about what I’m doing while I’m doing it, evaluating what I’m seeing and experiencing, processing what I’m receiving through my senses so that instead of just sweating, I am thinking about writing about sweating, and then revisiting my wording and revising it in my head until I think, “Yes – that is perfectly evoking this moment of sweating.”
A few years ago, my parents decided to stop taking photos when they traveled for this very reason. They didn’t want their trip to be a step removed from the actual experience by having every view mediated through the camera lens. I understood and admired this decision, yet I can’t seem to utterly commit to it. I am proud of myself when I put down the camera for a couple of days and let my friends document the experience. But I happen to be a profoundly visual person, who learns and recalls through my own process of documentation. My art history notes from college were outrageous – outline form with thumbnail sketches. I retained amazing amounts of information.
Ideally I would be able to do the trip twice – once just sinking into the tough lushness of it all, into the realm of the heightened sensory experience that South India has to offer – and then a second time with my camera, my notebooks, my pens, my computer and its satisfying clicks and taps. This is my fantasy. But, of course, it is the fleeting quality of the experience that makes it so precious, that intensifies it and makes me yearn for what has already occurred yesterday or an hour ago, even as I sit here typing these thoughts. The visceral feeling of the experience slips away, leaving an evocative residue captured by my words, my images, my overflowing notations on my life.
Friday, August 5, 2011
|Looking down at the stones beneath my feet, early morning, Chidambaram courtyard|
In the late morning the stones of the temple courtyard burn the soles of your feet, so you walk very quickly scanning for the light-colored ones while headed for the shade of the main complex. You say hello to Ganesha at the temple threshold, and then move more deeply into its center, passing by the priests engaged in business and ritual, weaving through streams of other visitors headed for different shrines in the seemingly infinite corners of the temple, which is essentially a walled village the size of multiple football fields.
When you arrive at the heart of the temple, you find Nataraja, intricately adorned in vibrant silks, jewels, and garlanded with flowers. Endless patterns of ritual revolve around him involving fire, liquid, smoke, and substance, immersing you in a complex synesthetic experience.
The dusty grooves of the temple stones capture occasional puddles of coconut water, milk, sandal, and ghee that cool your toes as you step through them. The bats swoop and chatter through the air accompanied by the temple music’s drums, bells, and horns. Smoke from the ghee lamps and the homa drifts through pillars and columns. Your forehead is host to sweet-smelling smears of ash that mingle with the scent of jasmine from your hair. And you listen or join in with the murmurs of mantras that swell like tiny whispering waves. You are permeated in every sensory manner and you release into it. The temple is a body, pulsing with life. When you are in it, you become an element of its chemistry.
|Jasmine outside the temple|
|A Nataraja murti|
|Morning in the Chidambaram Temple courtyard, South Gate|
Om Namah Shivaya
|Vishali walks through the Chidambaram Temple Courtyard|