Friday, March 10, 2006

Smells Like Teertha Spirit

City of Peacocks
Mylapore, Madras

I moved from Triplicane to Mylapore and felt a big weight lifted off my shoulders. Now instead of beggars, rickshaw bandits, screaming babies and Israeli backpackers, I'm surrounded by temples, fruit and flower vendors and old Brahmin men in traditional dhoti, their foreheads plastered with vibhuti ash and kumkum dots. The Leo Coffee Co. downstairs roasts and sells the traditional, famous Madras south indian coffee and the aroma drifts up the stairs tantalizingly. Triplicane has too much negativity and desperation surrounding it and am too sensitive to deal with it.When I have to visit VP or the kids I will just go in a rickshaw. Mylapore is the heart of old Madras ("Mayilapur" means city of the peacocks), and in turn, the heart of Mylapore is the famous Sri Kapaleeshwar Temple, a big 800 year old Shiva Temple. The temple tank (a sort of sunken pond, with stone steps leading down to the water, behind the temple) is full for the first time in 18 years, because there had been a drought for so long till last fall's rains in Madras. Now the evening breeze blows tantalizingly across the water and through the palm and banana trees. A "teertha" is any meeting place of divine space and the earthly plane, but most commonly it is a place of sacred water, where devotees can bathe and thus come into direct contact with the gods. Now the empty, green scummy tank - when last seen it hosted just a few crusty water lily pads - is a teertha once again.

Today is Ekadashi (the eleventh day of every Hindu lunar month), an especially auspicious time - and this particular Ekadashi is special because it falls on a Friday (sacred to the goddess). Devotees crack coconuts and toss them into the tank, as per custom. Sanskrit mantras pour from shopfronts, no longer chanted by priests but looped on the electronic Mantrambox machines. All the shops and restaurants have That Madras Smell - a deliciously clean old-school Brahmin smell of camphor, sambrani incense, and jasmine flowers.


Refusing to employee the Triplicane Rickshaw Mafia (a de facto union of drivers who monopolize the corner of Vallabha Agraharam and Triplicane High Road, very literally preventing other drivers from stopping), I found an unaffiliated rick along the Beach Road and persuaded him to go to "Star Talkies Corner." He turned out to be one of these drivers who not only did not know his own city, but believed I could not possibly, either - asking directions from all and sundry even as I pointed the way and explained the direction to him ("left cut, age! age!"). The idea that I could know where my new hotel was seemed incomprehensible to him and he slowed at nearly every corner to enquire from others, so maddeningly that I almost hit him with my newspaper like an unruly puppy.

A few things have changed since my last visit to Mylapore. At least one of the old, nondescript concrete buildings on North Mada has been "renovated" into a hideous, flashy mirror-paned structure completely at odds with the historic surroundings. At least it isn't taller than the nearby temple gopuram (the distinctive, stepped, profusely carved temple tower native to Tamil Nadu, which recalls Mayan pyramids in its shape...or, do the Mayan pyramids recall the Tamil?). There seems to be just a bit more "money" in the area - but that's true all over Indian cities. Shanti's Dance shoppe used to be just a tiny hole in the wall north of the Temple, near all the silversmiths' shoppes. Now they have a big AC showroom with marble stairs. I think the new shoppe used to be a high-end jewellery store. Speaking of which, my favorite silversmiths, Nalla (spelling?), now appears to be closed for renovation. I used to buy all my wedding presents for friends there. They had everything from giant pure silver oil lamps to tiny paduka (symbolic feet of Lord Vishnu) - something for every budget. Every shoppe, no matter how big or small, sports the Evil Eye talismans - usually strung lemons, or a combination of ritually prepared coconuts and conch shells hung in the doorway.

The Sri Ramakrishna Mission, a beautiful cathedral-like temple modeled on Calcutta's Belur Math, is round the corner. Mylapore feels like home. I used to close my eyes during my travels and see the stretch of RK Math street that runs east of the temple, for no particular reason. Now I wonder why I stayed away so long.

4 comments:

Libran Lover said...

Just a small correction: Ekadasi is the eleventh day of every lunar fortnight (not every month). So, every month has two ekadasi days. :)

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Yeah, I know that, but each month only has ONE waxing ekadashi. I just don't know the name for it.

Libran Lover said...

Waning fortnight = Krishna paksha (Krishna = black/dark)

Waxing fortnight = Shukla paksha (Shukla = light/white)

So, the 11th day of the waxing fortnight is called Shukla Ekadashi.

Hope that helps.

little rock said...

Yeah, I really don't understand how there can be THIS many Israeli backpackers in this world. LR