March 06, 2004

A Blast From The Past

Last month, while I was vacationing back home in Madr… er, Chennai, we decided to head back in time and make a trip to the famous temple town of Thiruvannamalai. Nestled amongst the Eastern ghats about 200 km south of the English East India Company’s port of entry, it was my paternal grandfather’s place of birth (a.k.a “native place”) that he had migrated out of in search of greener pastures a good half century ago. My father had last visited this town more than thirty years ago, and this was his opportunity to experience the nostalgia and eerie fascination from observing the changes to things he grew up with.

Our time machine was a Tata Indica “v2” (Version 2? Vee-twin engine? V 2 ours 2?), the indigenously manufactured four-door hatchback that seems to have caught my (and several others’) fancy. Speaking of automobiles, I am amazed at the profusion here in Chennai of four-wheeled runabouts no larger than two 2-wheelers spliced laterally together. Paint them yellow and black, and I might have difficulty differentiating an Alto from an auto. It is certainly a sign of the times – the veritable explosion in spending by the nouveau riche upper middle class software engineers and marketing folk.

So we hopped into our little diesel-powered dune buggy, tweaked the dial to “Thiruvannamalai”, and set off at 5 a.m. on a cool Tuesday morning. The international airport and several other landmarks flowed by as we sped southbound on highway XX towards our destination – the adventure had begun. Having been steeped for the past half decade in the American Way Of Driving with polite adherence to lane markings on divided highways, blipping the horn not more than once a month, and using turn indicators even to signal lane changes, local highway driving was a stark re-exposure to the Indian Way: our cab was soon overtaking a car overtaking a van overtaking a lorry overtaking a bus overtaking a bullock cart. It is a rare event, the occasional impatient American abusing the highway shoulder to pass Grandma in front carefully observing the speed limit. However, I was taken aback at the alarming regularity of this occurring during our trip, especially considering that the shoulder in question was usually the one for opposing traffic. The definition of a 2-lane highway here seems to be “2 lanes going my way, 0 lanes going the other way.” No wonder then that every accident I read about in The Hindu was a head-on collision.

The journey was at least as intriguing as our destination: the view from my window was a rolling collage of uniquely Indian cultural artifacts and oddities. About twenty-five kilometers or so away from Chennai I heard a “Whoosh” in my head while I simultaneously imagined tearing through a translucent membranous goop: we had entered the countryside – the heart and soul of the Real India. Scores of vast fields, crop plantations, muddy enclaves and lush green meadows raced by. Population densities declined to numbers that my 1975 Casio calculator could handle. Tiny villages passed by that were spaced regularly apart as though to remind us that civilization still existed. One such village appeared to have a sense of humor about itself: it was named “Salai” (Tamil for “street”). Exterior walls of houses occasionally doubled as a new form of advertising, screaming out names of popular silk sari stores. Fields were often dotted with palm trees along their borders, as though to provide some contrast to the tired eye. One such opening had a curious set of ten trees of varying heights planted smack in the middle in a straight line: it looked to me like a bunch of Tolkienesque talking trees posing for a group photo after a soccer game.

It was heartening to note that villagers have adopted cutting-edge machinery to process grains from their harvest: 2003 model Tata Indicas and Hyundai Santros. If you have ever wondered why highways are sometimes represented in maps with dashed rather than solid lines, I might have stumbled upon the real reason. Sections of the highway often disappeared under huge mounds of harvested crops that were laid out to be violently crushed by ongoing traffic. I imagined the poor lot of crop stalks as they cried out loud, forced to revoke the innocent grains they harbored within. The smarter lot would often cling to the underside of our car to later make their heroic escapes to freedom from the wily farmers. By the way, this must also explain the tire treads I noticed on the rice I ate yesterday.

Soon, tell-tale signs began to crop up, betraying our destination which was only a few kilometers away. The number of temples I noticed on our approach to the town would probably be rivaled only by the number of engineering colleges I counted on our way out of Chennai. Temples cropped up everywhere, ranging from creative stone arrangements, to rooms holding several idols, to miniature versions of the popular tall gopurams. The highlight was the stone temples built by Raja Tej Singh (since corrupted to “Desingu Raja”) on the tops of a pair of hills, about an hour from the town. With steps carved onto the slopes for access, the sheer magnitude of engineering effort they must have demanded for the times is itself awe-inspiring.

Before we knew it, we were taking in the magnificence of the towering gopurams of the Thiruvannamalai Annamalaiyar temple, with the hills as a dramatic backdrop. The temple is certainly huge, with four newly constructed gopurams augmenting the existing ones. However, the stone gopurams built ages ago outdid the new ones in grace and magnificence. We proceeded to perform abhishekhams and obtained our dharshan. Except for the odd monkey that attempted to snatch my prasadham and bit my pants out of dejection, our visit to the temple was generally uneventful (as most temple visits are, I expect).

Thiruvannamalai is known at least for two more places of significance: Ramana Maharishi’s ashram and the Ashtalingams along the Girivalam. The former is a tribute to the great saint Ramana Maharishi who lived here during the early parts of this century, while the latter is a collection of 8 “lingams” or forms of the phallic representation of Lord Shiva scattered around a roughly 5 mile-long trek known as the Girivalam. We stopped by both of these, though we decided to let our Indica do the walking for the five mile stretch instead.

Our next stop was of historic significance to me – we headed to “Padi agraharam”, (pronounced "puddy", rhymes with "buddy") a small village tucked away in the backcountry about a half hour’s drive time west of Thiruvannamalai. To show us the way was my father’s cousin, whom he was meeting after more than three decades. We picked him up from his home in the center of the town and set off to Padi in arguably the most modern piece of machinery to ever enter our destination in a while. After a ride past five other villages, the school responsible for my grandfather’s education, and a plot of land once his property, we arrived at the diminutive village.

Right in the middle of one of only three streets in the village was the green house now partitioned into three homes, once the property of my grandfather and the place where my father had spent the early years of his life. The current residents graciously let us in, and our visit seemed an event for them in their possibly slow and mechanical lives. I stepped in, ignoring our cab driver helplessly watching a throng of local lads (their average age not more than eight) gleefully inscribe their names on the dusty rear windshield with their fingers. The house was a blast from the past, with the traditional skylight, wooden carved pillars, ornamental wall insets for oil lamps, and a grinding stone thrice my age. I clicked away furiously, my digital camera flashing as it crammed its flash memory with our flashbacks.

Back in Thiruvannamalai, our hosts gave us a sampling of the traditional rustic hospitality that has since been all but forgotten in the jaws of busy city life such as in Chennai. Our hostess had cooked up a full meal for us at short notice (read “gatecrash”) and proceeded to serve us in authentic style on banana leaves. It is an understatement to say that we had to literally tear ourselves away from their gracious offers of bundles of vegetables, packaged food, and what not as we took leave to return home.

Having eaten a late, yet sumptuous lunch, we began our drive back to Chennai. Relaxing in the back seat on our way out of the town, I had an opportunity to observe the streets chockfull with business named after the various temples, their gods, and the eight lingams that the townsfolk were all decidedly proud of.

It said “Achtung Baby”. I closed my eyes and fell asleep.

Posted by beemboy at March 6, 2004 09:51 AM
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