Monday 22 January 2007

Madurai - more temples and Gandhi museum

Another temple
Today's programme started with another temple: a much older, eighth century temple a few kilometres outside Madurai. Luckily I had an above average autorickshaw driver who didn't hoot all the time and only had a few hair-raising narrow misses. Pity he didnt have any mirrors... I somehow get the impression that the traffic in Madurai is even denser than Chennai and Pondicherry, if that is possible.

This temple was in a (relatively) quiet location and I was almost the only non-Indian in the crowd. The temple is literally carved out of the rockface of a huge granite hill. An elderly man who spoke some English attached himself to me as a guide. I allowed him to and it turned out to be a good decision. He led me past the rows of people doing the weekly counting of the takings from the temple collection boxes, up stairs pass a succession of shrines to the main shrine, high up in the rockface.

In theory this area is closed to non-Hindus, but on our way out, my guide instructed me to pay the guard 10 rupees, so this must be a regular 'arrangement'. Inside the shrine, the atmosphere was dark, hot and smelly (all the things put on statues and people). I was pushed forward to the priest, who proceeded to put a garland round my head and mark my forehead with the Siva rede and white markings (for which honour I was then expected to hand over more cash).

We passed the temple holy tree with a shrine to the six-headed god Murugan (who had two marriages, one arranged and one for love). There were various garments and objects left on the shrine and tree, left by women wanting to marry, have children or a long life. The best of the statues was one showing the vehicles of three gods: the mouse of Ganesh, the bull of Siva and the peacock of Durgan. As in Madurai, there were images of the planets, one for each day, with Jupiter being the most important. As Raj had said, the Indians knew about the planets long before the Europeans.

I came across some boys wearing yellow robes. My guide explained they were Brahmin boys learning sanskrit. They are admitted to the temple school between the ages of 10 and 20 and stay there for five years before becoming priests. I met the teacher, who spoke some English and was taken to see the groups of boys quietly studying. I wonder if it was like this in an RC seminary?

Gandhi Museum

My second expedition was to the Gandhi Museum, the other side of the city. The first part, in a series of well presented panels with text and photos, consists of a story of India's subjgation to British control. The text was written with passionate - and justified - indignation as it told the story of the brutal and cynical exploitation of India by British interests, primarily the East India Company, followed by only slightly less insensitive administration by the British Government, ending with the messy period when the British had to be dragged unwillingly to grant independence. It ends however, with a quote from Gandhi that we should hate British control of India, not the British.

The second part depicts the life of Gandhi, from his childhood as a shy boy in Gujerat, an indifferent law student in London, and an unhappy victim of racism as a young barrister in South Africa. It covered in some detail Gandhi's growing involvement in politics in South Africa and his key role in organising and rallying the Indian population there.

His return to India was more complex; as well as his championing of non-violent passive resistance and call for an end to the caste system, there was his growing ascetism. I wonder whether the very qualities which make him so revered in India also prevented him from being a totally effective politician. The tragedy of the failure to prevent partition is still with us. I think I really must learn more about this period of history when I get back.

The exhibition ended rather gruesomely with the relic of the loincloth Gandhi had been wearing when shot - appropriately as it was in Madurai that he first started to wear it.

Buying a railway ticket

I have decided on a rather rash project for tomorrow: a train journey to Tirunveli, where I hope to hire a car to see my final two temples of Tamil Nadu, before taking the evening train to Trivandrum, capital of Kerala. Rash, because the train leaves at 2.15am! That's why I'm having a quiet afternoon.

But first, I had to get my ticket. The first thing you have to do is filling in a reservation application form, including details like the number of the train. I was helped by a young woman in front of me, who turned out to be a third-generation Gujerati who lives in Leicester, but returns with her family to India each year. She and the woman in the ticket office were probably the only people there who spoke English. I am becoming increasingly aware of how little English is spoken. I wonder indeed if, like French in Pondicherry, it is on the decline as colonialism recedes into history.

I joined the queue in the ticket office at 12.26pm. For ages the queue didn't move. My one wish was to advance enough to join the lucky ones on the seats. When it was my turn, the whole operation was very smooth. The computer was working slowly (I had been told that Indian Rail is in the middle of upgrading its system) but it worked, and soon I had my printout. The whole journey in 2AC - the best class - is costing me 456 rupees (about a fiver), including my concession for being over 60. The two journeys will take about seven hours in all. Time is only relative...

I've booked a rickshaw, I just hope the driver turns up at 1.30 as arranged.

No comments: