It’s 6:30am and I’m standing barefoot in the middle of the street. Men dressed in wild, colorful costumes dance and flow around me, as others with drums and trumpets pound out a mesmerizing beat. I’m photographing as fast as the camera will go, and the men smile and are thrilled. This morning, and this evening, are possibly the most sensory experience I’ve had in India – incredibly visual, with vibrant costumes and crowds of revelers, pulsing music from roaming bands of drummers, smells of flowers and incense, and the overwhelming crowds, heat, and humidity. Read on and do not miss the photo gallery!
Although I am in Madurai (Tamil Nadu) to visit Aravind Eye Hospital (see previous blog entry), I was incredibly lucky as today is one the biggest festival days of the year. Even better, I happened upon my host at 6:00am when he was heading out to offer prayers at Meenakshi temple. We arrived there before most of the crowds, but there was already excitement and activity with people dancing outside while others went in to pray. Everyone is in a festive mood, as it is the annual Chitirai Thiruvizha festival. This day celebrates the marriage of Shiva to Meenakshi, presided over by the local god Koodal Azhagha. I’m here at the huge Meenakshi temple, and later today over a million people will turn out to watch the statue of Koodal Azhagha in his procession from a temple on one side of Madurai to a temple on the other side.
The Meenakshi temple is the most stunning Hindu temple I have seen anywhere anywhere in India. It is huge, with 14 gopurams (towers) in a large complex of courtyards, ponds, and passages. I didn’t have time to explore the whole complex, but could see some of the many intricately carved gopurams from the edges of the courtyard with the Golden Lotus pool, below. To further my luck, just last month they removed the last of the scaffolding from a multi-year effort to restore and repaint all the gopurams. Some sources say this temple is 2,500 years old; others say that although the original temple was built then, the current structure is about 300 years old.
While inside the temple, I spent about an hour photographing people who were coming and going. I barely needed to ask permission, as many were thrilled to be photographed, and many more actually stopped me and asked for a photograph. Many young kids would run off and return with their whole family, for another photo. With the spectacular costumes involving colorful flower necklaces, body paint, and peacock headdresses, all caught in sunrise light, it was a photographer’s delight.
Outside, many of the boys had a large pouches of water with a shoulder strap and a pointed spout. They were having so much fun walking the street and squirting everyone and everything… it was tricky to keep my camera dry, but the rest of me was often wet.
At about 8:30 we headed back to the guest house, struggling to make our way through the traffic and the crowds beginning to fill the streets.
I spent the day visiting Aravind Hospital, but in transitions outside I could feel the temperature rising past 100 degrees. It was humid, too. Whew.
At 5pm our meetings were over and we squeezed through the jammed streets to make the 2-block walk from the hospital to the guest house and then to Dr. Aravind’s house. Dr. Aravind, the nephew of the hospital’s visionary founder and current director, invited us into his home. There, the whole family came by, nearly all of them playing a leadership role in the hospital system. In his courtyard, villagers from all around Madurai had set up camp; Dr. V had always been generous to allow visiting villagers to use his lawn as a place to rest and watch the procession.
We had a wonderful dinner of traditional Tamil festival food and spent a lot of time on the streetside watching (and photographing) the crowd. To our left, a street vendor was blasting Bollywood music so loud the air shook. To our right were two smaller temples, each blasting their own music. The crowds were happy and festive. Passing vendors sold ice cream, masala-covered cucumbers, and chat. Others passed out free rice bhat, or jaggari, as a free prasad on this spiritual day.
Finally, well after dark and well behind schedule, the procession arrived. The gold icon, called the Sundararajar, stopped at each of the nearby temples… apparently, devotees of that temple can donate money to encourage the god to stop and bless their temple. “A big money-raiser for the temple,” I was told. Thus the delays, due to many such stops.
As the statue passed, people lit small lamps, which appeared to be made of coconut shell, banana leaf, and oil. It is important that, when the god passes, there be light and that the lights not go out.
Boom! Just then, a fireworks display is launched over our heads, with the full moon as a backdrop. The people, sweaty and wet and happy, begin to disperse. It’s 9pm, and I have to head for the airport. What a fantastic day!
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