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Was Not on Our Itinerary

by Mamdouh Sakr

“Sir, see this is Hanuman.”

I nodded and looked at a gigantic statue of the Hindu god, a huge human figure with a monkey head, covered with golden and red accessories and topped by a decorative conical headdress. The priest, who became a guide as soon as he saw us entering the temple, continued his inapprehensible stories about the infinite Hindu mythologies, while I was trying to entertain my family. I reminded my wife quickly about Hanuman, the monkey god favored by businessmen and students, and turned to my elder son who tried to cling to masks of sudden seriousness and interest; only to leave his younger brother alone in his childish boredom and whining.

It was not piety that made us linger in front of Hanuman’s milky statue; we just had to understand what was happening. In a few minutes we were hurried by a nervous ancient sadhu, who barely covered his groin with a tiny wrinkled cloth, to take off our shoes and socks. He kept knocking on the floor with a stick till my wife surrendered and started removing her socks. Tamil and Malayalam words surrounded us, until some of the audience kindly shouted, “This way, this way.” Beggars formed a concave semicircle by the entrance, which was hidden by small competing booths selling posters and plastic statues of the numerous kind-looking deities. I pulled my boys towards their first Hindu experience and encouraged my wife not to think a lot about what her bare feet were caressing. The small entrance swallowed us and suddenly we were in a hot damp tunnel, whose walls and ceiling were made of lavishly carved ochre stones, while the floors had been softened by devotees’ steps of more than 100,000 days. Noises echoed and the scents of different oils and incenses embraced us till we were stopped by two smiling priests, who gave us a metallic token and took our cameras, mobile phones, and my t-shirt. As soon as I was adjusting my blotched glasses, a giant priest appeared in his elegant white dhoti and started stuttering the history of the temple as we followed toward a large square courtyard.

In an attempt to keep my family amused, I pointed toward a multi-storied pylon, studded with colorful deities, “Sir, look at the walls of the Gopuram, look inside, Sir, see the paint, Sir.” “Now, you can’t go there, paint go bad, Sir, very old four hundred years but you can see paint now, Sir.” I needed my camera and a moment to appreciate and understand the intricate compositions of gods, heroes, and kings all colored in pastel pink, light blue, olive green, and ochre. These mythical characters were besieged by peacocks, chariots, chhatris, serpents, and demons. “Sir, Sir…here,” our priestly guide was 100 meters ahead and pointing toward an endless arcade created by a series of giant stone lions with elephant trunks, where every two trunks carried a huge stone beam to roof the corridor. I had to control my obsession about architecture in this architectural paradise and make sure that my two little boys were following and my wife was avoiding the few puddles in her way.

The hymns vibrated in a hidden corner of the huge shrine; the heat whirled ruthlessly as we followed our leaping guide towards the dark interior. He stopped by two gigantic richly ornate chariots, and started explaining in his Tamil-studded English how these huge structures are carried and pulled by the priests in the annual festivals. He pointed at his shoulders where two coarse bumps protruded, and said melancholically, “Sir, I’m honored and blessed every year.” The white dhoti disappeared while I was trying to explain what I hardly understood to the rest of the group, who looked miserable, scared, bored, and disgusted. Any wise man would have just run away quickly from such an evolving tornado: “It is too hot,” “Can we go to the car now?” “I don’t want to continue, I cannot see these statues properly…it is very dark,” “Why? I don’t understand…” “What was he saying?” “They could have at least let me keep my socks, the floor is not clean at all…”

I was saved from such a typical family conversation by a shout. “Sir, here sir.” I ran toward a wide courtyard where enormous piles of jasmines, lotuses, and other unfamiliar flowers in white, pink, and crazy orange were gathered. Ancient skinny women were crawling by the piles to fill small reed concave trays, which were quickly taken away toward an adjacent hall.

Nothing around could be related to the twenty-first or the twentieth century, no florescent lamps, no tacky plastic clocks, no Japanese tourists with their huge impressive cameras, and definitely no one was ranting into his mobile phone. Hymns crescendoed and aromas became thicker as more old weak people carried the flower baskets to a crowded hall. The scene succeeded in distracting my group a little, as we hurried toward the place where all the flowers were taken.

All of a sudden we were surrounded by ecstatic devotees covered in sweat and noise, praying, kneeling, crying, shouting, and throwing flowers on a small golden idol. The dancing torches animated the sculptures that surrounded us, and bestowed dark shadows over the desperate wrinkled faces. The different tranced faces merged into one turbulent sea, the loud mantras echoed infinitely, the orange, golden, and red blotches scratched the balmy darkness of the shrine, where I saw my Isis. The vibrant Hindu temple of Suchindram, forgotten somewhere between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, took me back to Ancient Egypt, where a lesser number of more serious deities were worshipped. I did not care about whom of those among us would have been allowed in to the “Holy of the Holies,” or if the wandering priests were too relaxed and casual in the presence of the goddess.

I witnessed how ancient religious and cultural traditions transcended at least three millennia of revelations, wars, conquests, exoduses, and fanaticism. How gods and goddesses failed and succeeded, loved and betrayed, felt tired and jealous, cried and slept in an endless spectrum of intricate colorful sagas. That steaming hall where the small golden idol was being showered by freshly cut flowers could have been anywhere along the Nile thousands of years before the advent of the ambitious Alexander, the arrogant Antony, the Holy Saint Mark, and the blessed Ahl al Bayt. Our deserted temples, venerated only in documentaries and touristic brochures have lost their gods, worshippers, and aura, and are just sadly standing, waiting to be punished by witnessing the running of children in their holiest spots and the sprinkles of quick flashes on the sacred texts.

The boys, frightened from the claustrophobic noise and the intense musky heat pulled me out of my unorthodox contemplations toward the main gate. However, our guide was waiting by one of the corners to show us elaborately carved luscious figures. The boys, who had accepted coming to India as long as we didn’t waste the holiday in temples and museums, were furiously whining to return back to the air-conditioned car, they spread all of their legitimate excuses in front of their barefooted mother to escape a semi-scary and sticky experience. The guide jumped from one corner to the other alluring me with statues, carvings, and frescos depicting vivid legends of the powerful and cunning Hindu gods. “Sir, this temple is very famous, it houses Sthanumalayan, do you know him, Sir?” He continues without looking at me. “Brahma, the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer are worshipped in one sculpture, it is Sthanumalayan, Sir.” “Come see the drawing, Sir.” “Look Sir, here is a representation of Ganesh as a goddess, only in two temples in India, Sir.” We zigzagged from courtyards dotted with heavy stone pavilions to large halls till I lost any sense of space or orientation, and found ourselves heading outside the temple.

Within a few minutes we were back in the car, the boys nibbling their chocolates, my wife cleaning her feet with ten wipes while I was thanking the driver who had suggested that we stop here to see this temple, which had not been on our itinerary!!

No place on earth can shake you, humiliate you, honor you, and enlighten you at the same time as India does. In a family holiday to Kerala tailored mainly to leisurely stays by coconut palm-lined beaches, lush tropical forests, and verdant tea plantations perched a few steps beneath the sky, India blinked with its wisdom and mystery to show us how its ancient land is still fertile with mysticism and devotion. I left my camera by the gates of the temple, whose name I could not pronounce or remember to enjoy a memorable experience that photos can never describe. Although I cannot recall the shapes and figures of the idols, I will never forget that eternal state of consciousness and the unusual feelings of happiness and contentment that engulfed me.


All artwork is courtesy of Reda Khalil.

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