VIII: Caught Between Cyclones

I have finally left Thiruvanamalai. For a week I was caught between two cyclones – The Operation Cyclone that the NSG called their anti-terrorist actions in Mumbai, & Cyclone Nisha that has been ravaging Tamil Nadu. In the last couple of days the rains finally ceased & now I am in Mamallapuram, next to the choppy waters of Bay of Bengal. It was definitely time to leave the old temple town, especially as my room was progressively turning black with damp. One morning I woke up to find fungus everywhere – my hat, my bag, some clothes & even my chess pieces all had a furry look & feel.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best room in the world after all. On one occasion I was in my mosquito net chilling out, when I felt a wee tickle. It turned out to be an ant, which I casually flicked away. Then putting my feet under the covers I touched something weird, turning out to be a few hundred ants chomping on a bit of banana which had previously stuck to my foot & came off in the bed. I found this quite a disturbing experience, which resulted in me flailing around like a madman & vigorously shaking sheets & mattress onto the street below.

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One of the most interesting sights in my last few days at Thiruvanamali was a circus-like spectacle of an eight-year-old girl balancing on a rope about my head high. While her dad sold popcorn; her mum knocked out some funky rhythms on a metal pan; & her older brother did the bass on a djembe, her legs wiggled wiggled left & right like a supersonic pendulum. Then, she did all that again, but this time balancing a pot on her head!

I have also been to the movies – situated in a fine building – to watch Death Race dubbed in Tamil. It was quite cool actually, for dialogue wasn’t really an essential pillar of the movie. There was also an old-fashioned interval, when the audience of 100 percent males dived for the samosas being sold by a couple of cheeky kids.

I have finally visited the famous temple that I’ve been walking past several times a day for two weeks. It begins with leaving one’s shoes at a little shack just outside for two rupees, then wading through several decrepit beggars & a police electronic bomb detector unit just to get inside. On the way in, a very cheeky monkey came & stole some food from a toddler’s hand, whose pathetic cries accompanied me inside the sacred space. Aranachaleswaram temple is a fine affair, consisting of 3 concentric rectangles leading to the inner temple at the heart of the complex. The inner courtyards are entered through similar gates to the main ones – n, s, e, w – gleaming white majestic edifices with the entire Hindu pantheon poised in many poses.

Deeper into the temple I saw my first elephant of the tour, which turned out to be the ultimate penny arcade machine. After being hypnotised by the gentle pacing, left & right, of his two massive front legs… I placed a rupee in his trunk. The elephant than patted me on the head with said trunk & gave the now mucus-dripping rupee to his trainer. Better still was watching him, ever so politely, use the loo. He took a few steps to one side, separated his back legs & pooed & peed AT THE SAME TIME – a feat we humans can only dream about. This got me looking at his penis – not in a gay way – the outer skin looked just like a big black brain & the ‘nob’ was as polished as an ebony jewel. It was the elephant’s eye which I found the most remarkable; possessing an otherworldly, almost alien aura, & with the loveliest eyelashes in the whole of nature.

On my last day in Thiruvanamali I saw both a lovely sunrise & a soul-searing sunset. In the morning the clouds had finally dispersed, revealing the landscape which I hadn’t seen for a week… all round me mountains peeked out of the milky  distance like nervous children. The sunset was amazing. I had just settled down on the rooftop, listening to my MP3 player & reading a spot of Shakespeare, when just as ‘patience’ by Take That came on, I looked at Arunachala. There is a legend that it was here that the dreadlock’d god Siva produced a lingam of fire – a measureless column – & won the submission of Vishmu & Brahma. Perhaps it was some mythological memory of an ancyent eruption, but I swear down, as the sun was setting the clouds were in just the right place to produce the same effect – a mighty golden column coming out of the mountain. At the very same time there was a wee cloud just big enough to cover the very peak of the mountain, in the same spot where I was blessed in Siva’s name by that Guru. I really did feel it – the mind monkeys had cleared from my mind on that occasion & this time I felt that Siva was saying ‘nice one son’ & wishing me well on my way

The next day, just as I was about to leave, I woke up to the sound of the rain. ‘Not again’ I cursed, wanting to hit the road, but then the rains cleared & Aranachala was revealed in all her glory, a scintillating rainbow arched perfectly from flank to flank. Remarkably, the same wee cloud as yesterday was again at the summit. ‘That Siva’s at it again’ I thought & finally left town. Three buses later, beyond those scattered heaps of boulders that form the regions hills, I was heading towards the coast, passing several large lakes where paddy fields once were – the devastating consequences of the recent rains. Apparently in the state these past couple of weeks there have been landslides, 700 bridges have collapsed, over a hundred dead

Mamallapuram is a bit of a tourist hotspot, with a fine beach & some amazing temples carved out of the rock. It got wiped out by the Tsunami in 2004, but is well back on its feet again. I’m staying in a far-too wicked room for 300 rupees. I’m basically paying 2 pounds fifty more than last time – which was only 1.50 itself –  but now I get a massive marble-floored room, this huge oak table (perfect for writing), a clean double bed, a wicked fan, a big TV with all the channels & a cool balcony overlooking the street – with not a hint of damp or mosquitos anywhere!  Suffice it to say I blagg’d the price down off a naive young guy, who got a proper rollicking off the boss when he found out. (I should be paying at least 500). Negotiating the cheaper price meant buying in bulk, so I’ve been forced to hole up for a week. By the way, I haven’t seen one advent calendar as of yet – the chocolate would probably melt – but I still miss them. I reckon there is a market for traveler-friendly portable advent calendars, with wee little fans to keep the chocolate cool (Dragons Den here I come).

Mamallapuram
2/12/08

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