8. TEMPLES AND BUNS (March 27 – April 4, 2000)
I rested on a bench at Bhubaneswar station for over an hour. Coromandal Express screamed in grudgingly. It departed on time at 20.47h for a 20-hour journey to Chennai (Madras). Just when I sat down in my airy compartment a family of six poured in. Dev, a young man of about thirty, with his wife, baby son, sister and elderly parents were going on pilgrimage to Rameswaram, where the Hindu God Ram had crossed over to Sri Lanka walking on a bridge he had built of “floating” rocks.
Was I an undesirable intruder? They all looked rather serious and talked little even with each other. I managed to break ice with Dev. He is a GIS (Geographical Information System) expert in Orissa Government. He briefed me on the usual inefficiency of State civil service and low salaries. I offered him to choose their berths to suit family needs. I got the upper one. A train attendant distributed rust-coloured bedding. A waiter took my dinner order of fried eggs and toast and a bottle of water.
For breakfast I flushed down soggy jam-toasts with tea from a mini-flask. In order to allow the family to sort themselves out for the long day ahead, I decided to explore the train. I saw the kitchen, every thing black with smoke and cooking. If I had seen it earlier, probably I wouldn’t have ordered my meals. Next to it was an empty staff cabin with wooden benches and air blowing in from the open window. I sat down there to watch the land roll by occasionally getting a glimpse of the sea. Mr. Beg, young Moslem, joined me to chat. Originally from Hydrabad he lives in Calcutta. He is in-charge of maintaining the train’s air conditioning system that breakdown frequently. He earns about Rs 6000.00 per month just enough for the family. He is happy to be living in Calcutta and he does not experience any religious tension there. How nice!
The train crawled into Chennai’s (Madras) Egmore Station on time at 17.35. I checked in Hotel Pandian nearby. Realizing that there is so much to see in and around Chennai, I booked myself in a 50-ruppee-guided tour of Tirumala and Tirupathi.
Next morning I got up at 5.00 a.m. to catch the bus and had an uneventful relaxed journey to Tirupathi. We had a south Indian breakfast/snack somewhere on the way. On average 100 000 pilgrims flock daily to Tirupathi, the world’s busiest and the richest temple of Venkateshwara, an avatar of Vishnu. My 50-rupee-ticket allowed me special darshan (viewing of god) and also priority over all those others who had paid nothing. They often have to queue for 12 hours in the claustrophobic steel serpentine cage. God, the economist, fixes his prices according to demand: to secure a position of minimal waiting one has to pay considerably more than 50 rupees. Luckily it was one of the less busy days and I was expectantly nearing the famous statue. From far I saw garlands completely hiding the carver’s artistic accomplishment deep inside the temple. Then I saw bands of white cloth covering the middle of his eyes vertically. I was told that his gaze would scorch the onlooker. I wonder if the smart pilgrim behind me sensed anything through her binoculars. It was after nearly two hours of shuffling that I found myself right in line with the idol, still too far to see much. Before I knew that I had viewed Venkateshwara two hefty ladies manhandled me pushing me forward ensuring that no one stopped too long and got scorched!
I saw several bearers in their priestly white dhotis (loin cloth) coming out of the temple carrying on their heads heavy trays piled with sweet buns, the size of a grapefruit, having freshly been blessed by the Lord. Just as I emerged from the temple I received prasad in exchange for my 50-rupee ticket: two of those big buns with plenty of whole cardamoms. Hardly had I turned round when a hungry-looking boy of about seven extended his hand for money. My quick reflex made me hand him one of my buns. The boy ran away looking extremely happy. My Indian co-travellers stood wide-mouthed and one of them exclaimed, “You gave away prasad; just like that!” In the evening back in my hotel I ate part of the bun for desert. It tasted so good that momentarily I regretted having parted with the other bun; at the same time I understood why the boy was so happy to get it instead of money.
The idol of Venkateshwara grants any wish made in front of him. You might have noticed that it has to be very short and quick. So come prepared. For best results come with clean-shaven head. I saw only a few with heads shaved. The temple barbers must have earned very little that day.
For snacks the bus brought us downhill to Hotel Bliss in Tirupathi. This newly built hotel looked very inexpensive (Rs 700/-) for the good comfort and facilities it offered among temples inhabited by so many gods.
Next day (Wednesday, 29 March) I was up at 5.30 a.m. to join the bus tour to Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram). Besides boasting of its one thousand temples of which 200 remain, Kanchipuram rivals Varanasi and Mysore for its fine silk.
By the time we were taken to the silk handloom factory I befriended a newly married young couple Nitin, a Gujarati, and Rajni, a Punjabi, both from Nottingham, UK. In the factory outlet-shop I saw Rajni looking at saris. I had no intention of buying but ended up spending Rs. 3900/- on one. Our bus stopped momentarily in front of a temple gate beside a high pedestal. I found myself looking at an exquisite Indian “washing machine” elegantly doing her job indifferent to snobs like us!
In Mahabalipuram I shared lunch table with Nitin and Rajni and looked at nearby seashore temples and rock carvings.
Intense heat made us very thirsty. I ordered a bottle of water, which was ice-cold. Forgetting my previous experience, I drank it. An hour later my throat-glands swelled and swallowing became a painful effort. Drinking hot tea frequently during the rest of the day relieved the disorder. At three o’clock I broke off from the guided tour and boarded a rickety local bus that took me to Pondicherry in two hours.