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2011 Narrative Travel Writing Contest Finalist

Puja: God and Money in the Indian Subcontinent

 India Ganesh Elephant God

“But I’m not a Hindu,” I reply.

“You can take puja sir. It is all one god,” incants the man sitting lotus in the sand, sandal-paste smudging his forehead, that distinctive sideways nod as he speaks, hands gestured prophetically to the heavens.

A holy man is offering me salvation on a beach in Kerala, South India, a fishing village, home to a 2000 year-old Hindu temple, and above a cliff where budget travellers swarm for cheap rooms, beer, sex, and the unobscured roar of the Arabian Sea.

Varkala Beach is another paradise in the spice-basket of the subcontinent, a blonde sandy stretch flanked by lipstick laterite cliffs, and bounded further east by the emerald, aromatic range known as the Western Ghats. In the coming days hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will arrive in Varkala, washing themselves in the purifying waters while casting offerings to the dead whose ashes were also dispersed from this shore.

But I don’t trust this priest on the beach, one of many who have set up mobile shrines to offer absolution to the coming hordes. “One god” indeed. To give puja is to receive rupees, and no man in India can resist a transaction.

It’s been said that religion breeds corruption. India is the holiest place on earth. In India, everybody wants to rip you off. Such has been my sometimes cynical, bitter, but not quite twisted view in the weeks since arriving in India.

But what underlines the frustrations of the traveler here? India is the voyager crossroads, a place where foreigners must suspend disbelief, must consider not only why they sometimes feel aggrieved, but also what motivates the agent of such disbelief. These are questions that emerge again, and again, as we skirt the storied southern tip of the subcontinent.  

We fly directly into Tamil Nadu, India’s Deep South, to the city of Tiruchirappalli, a rough-hewn temple town with a shiny airport. Untouched by Mogul hordes that vanquished much of the north, the state of Tamil Nadu is lodestar for India’s oldest religious monuments, an ancient repository for five millennia of Hindu faith.

We’re tempted to visit Tiruchirappalli’s Rockfort, a seventh century shrine built on a 3-billion-year-old rampart, but the city’s dusty, downtrodden visage puts the fear in us. We are somehow anxious, to find something, and this is not it. We take the next best option, a 6-hour bus ride south to the feted temple city of Madurai.

Our middle-aged bus, driven by a bar-footed man who swallows small packets of chewing tobacco (gutkha) with the regularity of passing traffic before flinging the sachet into the wind, drifts down a lone flat “highway,” the scenery a little underwhelming, expanses of sand, rock, spindly Deccan thorn trees as prickly as the heat, occasional spots of dusty color and commerce: spare banana stalls attended by stooped women in brilliant shawls; ragged, sun-bleached cell phone stands; men huddled over piles of garlic on the ground; boys decapitating coconuts in fell machete swoops. Business is made by open sewers, while discarded plastic leaches into the dirt. Apart from incongruous evidence of mobile communications, the most remarkable technology is the sight of scraggy men riding warped bicycles from the time of Ghandi.

On the raw Deccan plateau it doesn’t rain a drop from November until April. It is July, and the cracked earth screams to the heavens, willing the monsoon that is late, again. It is obvious that some locals, especially the elderly, don’t have enough to eat. Questions. What are we doing here? I, like some of my fellow travelers, have tended to romance underdevelopment, simplicity. But the feeling has quickly turned to complicity. Luckily I’m antipodean—easier to blame the British.  

Arriving at the swarming Madurai bus station there are more questions. Beggars, vagabonds, the blind, but mostly children, their mothers waiting in the wings, all now stuck to us, like flies. We hand out foodstuffs, mainly biscuits and bananas. It is not enough, not what they want, but buys us space, time to make it to the exit.

And now begins the interminable process of negotiation, a ritual as Indian as the Taj.  Knowing we are fresh from the airport, a lascivious mob of taxi wallahs solicit us with offers of passage to the city center via auto-rickshaw.  We select a young driver and try to agree a price. Other drivers start to get involved, the older bare-footed in stained brown uniforms, the younger sporting spangled jeans and plastic sandals.

This is the prickly moment when two worlds that are neatly separated suddenly and inexplicably collide. Here is a man who works for very little, who has no surplus income, who will struggle to feed his loved ones, who dreams he can one day borrow money and make it to Australia or America to work for below minimum wage. And we are trying, on the basis of good traveler advice, to beat him down by 50 cents. Why? Is it because we implicitly believe he is working for us, that we could not wander around India for the sake of our wanderlust if he was better compensated? He will never see the Taj, will probably never see the palm trees of Kerala just across the mountains. We are standing face-to-face and he is demanding reparations.

Madurai’s vast, vainglorious Meenakshi Temple was built more than 1000 years ago by a Padya King to honour Lord Shiva, god of creation and destruction—he is said to have anointed the temple with divine nectar (“Madhu,” after which the city was named) flowing from his dreaded locks. Constructed around 50,000 granite pillars, the main pantheon is one of numerous additions to a place of worship founded in 1600 B.C. 

Inside the labyrinthine shrine, worshippers prostrate before the multiform deities, and an elephant, a representation of Ganesh, god of good fortune, distributes trunked blessings in return for rupees. We dispense money at every turn: to beggars, elephants, for garlands to adorn the Ganesh statues, for trinkets, a hidden camera fee, a museum fee. Here, religion and commerce stand tall as the twin pillars of sub-continental life. But maybe in our world the two are simply indivisible—our temple is the arcade.

Madurai teems with pilgrims, vagabonds, merchants, bovines, pirate entertainment peddlers, the local Dravidian men marked by thick hair and elegant, robust moustaches, their bandy legs protruding from hitched loin cloths (dhoti). Colorful, a cacophony, but finally a mad house, airwaves stung by jarring, high-pitched dissonance, horns screaming from every rickshaw, taxi and truck in town. In India, this is typical, something you get used to. But as a first stop, the noise, heat, debris and relentless human tide—in a city of only one million—loom as unimaginable chaos.

So we run, for the mountains, like the British before us, cultured colonials who built stone cottages in cool hill stations. Ascending the Ghats—the dividing range separating arid Tamil Nadu in the east from tropical Kerala in the west—is a thrill, a sudden and precipitous rise from sea level until the road drives deep into the range 2000 meters above, to the quaint but expanding hill town of Kodaikanal.  

We stay a night in a sandstone bungalow built by the British in the twenties, hedgerows framing rose gardens and still known as Dalethorpe. On arrival, we pay the taxi driver his fee, with tip. Unbeknown, he then collects his payment a second time from our host. The latter isn’t surprised when the rouse is exposed. Collecting rent from the colonials, I start to think. My partner is angry.

We want to follow some advice to explore an organic farm and sanctuary perched on the granite steep of the Ghats. We are, basically, on the run. We need to immerse ourselves in the dream of India but have barely slept, still have not stayed anywhere more than a night. But as E.M. Foster warned, finding India is like finding the center of a cloud.   

Karuna Farm is a vertical sweep of coffee, banana, mango and avocado, a permaculture village offering accommodations in traditional stone huts, limited solar power, even fireplaces to take the edge off cold nights. It’s worth negotiating the steep, rocky trail in, to find this vision of Shangrila maintained long after it was marked on the hippy trail. Pioneers from Israel and England are building a yoga studio from dirt, and an earthship (a home constructed with tires that are filled with soil for ultimate thermal mass), while a young German family are stopped for six months in their hideaway that surveys the endless, oceanic undulation of the Ghats.   

Nevil, the owner of the farm, is an Indian mountain mystic and stalwart of the ‘60’s who talks of the corruption of the world. Big, elegantly spoken, his face submerged in a prophetic long gray beard, Nevil presides proudly over his dominion dotted with foreign dreamers, all organised, hardworking, determined to leave the West behind, to make a go of it in this vertiginous eastern frontier. Karuna, the name of the farm, means compassion. Nevil began the project almost 25 years ago when he followed a sign from Krishna. He is putting back, he says, and thereby subverting the consumer/consumption paradigm. 

By bus we cross the Ghats into Kerala. We travel all day, hopping dusty old carriages connecting the mountain towns. The travelling is relaxed, the nominal fare (20 cents) does not need to be negotiated, and we watch the verdure condense as the bus penetrates the western side of the range, the latter a beneficiary of the twice-yearly monsoon—unique to this region—that dumps between the mountains and the Arabian Sea coast. Large tea and cardamom plantations come into view. All else is jungle.

The Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary stretches nearly 1,000 square kilometres across the Western Ghats. Elephants and tigers (less than 50 of the latter have survived the poachers) tramp the wilderness, which ushers the promise and wonder of Kipling’s India.

Sanctified by the guidebooks in the 1980s, the traveller ghetto that flanks the sanctuary is today overrun by Kashmiri merchants and attempts at upmarket accommodation. We opt for a $10 room in a basic inn, a last refuge for the dreadlocked and tattooed wayfarers that once pioneered these climes.

The Kashmiris, come from the great trading byways of the Silk Road, with selling in their blood, accost us the minute we enter the main street. This is not the jungle we’re looking for. The chorus is continual: “sir, please sir, madam, sir, come and look in my shop, sir, sir, a pashmina for the madam, sir”. Everyone is our friend. Some follow us. “Where are you from, oh really, a great country sir, please, come and enjoy some tea in my shop, sir, sir, please, ok sir, next time, remember your promise sir.” It’s the quiet season. We try to hide. There is no escape.

Yielding in a moment of weakness after fending off streams of rickshaw drivers and bauble sellers, we are shanghaied by a tour guide possessed with a Steve Irwin-like passion for Periyar as refuge. He is from the local tribe, and wants to pass on his knowledge to ensure the future of this biosphere. He also needs our fee to ensure his family’s future. With no social security, no savings, and visitors thin on the ground, he is struggling to get by.   

As we enter the forest our guide describes the day he saw a tiger along this same track, along with his fear and euphoria as the beast traveled straight across his path. We cross high country, the “clouds” walk, see the spiced mountains cutting high across Kerala’s eastern edge, then drop down into the leech-spiked mud where wild elephants can appear, “very suddenly” whispered our guide, as if we might never emerge from this last habitat.

With an ear to the ground, our guide detects a potentially destructive bison on our trail, which we see just ahead before running in reverse. We weave surreptitiously down the valley, taking in the spectral tropical flora, a spring of fear in our step. En route to HQ we disgorge cash at a local village—the inevitable “shop stop” that our guide pretends is coincidence—buying the purest wild honey in all of Kerala, a cure-all that will keep us strong in the weeks and months ahead.  

We feel good for having met a local, for venturing a little off the trail. And as suddenly we get talking to another habitué, the owner of our inn who, showing us to a drying area for our muddy clothes, proudly identifies his homegrown spice garden as guests sleep in surrounding tree houses.

This erudite man, aged 50, not a gray hair on his head, is proud of Kerala—long the poster child of Ghandian communism, the state claims over 90 percent literacy—but is cynical about much else. Like novelist Arundhati Roy, whose God of Small Things is set nearby, he traces his lineage to St Thomas, the Syrian apostle who proselytised to the Dravidians in the first century AD—Kerala today is 50% Christian, though most succumbed to the Roman brand introduced by Vasco da Gama in the 1500s.

Our host introduces his botanical life work—Ayurvedic herbs collected from as far as the Himalayas, plus coffee, custard apple, passion fruit, mango, honey, papaya, curry leaf, vanilla—while showing where samba deer and porcupines eat from his hand. He holds a microcosm of India’s true riches, those not derived from religion, a heritage plundered without end since the Arabs first hauled spice from this hinterland 3,000 years ago, followed by the Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and the English...   

One night in his restaurant, as an exasperated Belgium man rails against special foreigner entry prices at sites like the Taj Mahal (foreigners pay 750 rupees, locals 10), our host chimes in with some railing of his own. “Most Indians have nothing. Why? Why is Belgium so rich,” he asks the man, enraged. He has been reading the paper, is full of his own reasoning; and, as a man of privilege, his own contradictions. But no longer having to bow to the coloniser. It has never been a level playing field. Now, given the chance, the natives will take what they can.

We head for the coast. Descending the Ghats by local bus we first traverse tea-hedged highlands before easing into rubber baron country, pink and orange mansions standing out among the plantations, the richest cash crop in South India. Suddenly large billboards rear up along the road, massive images of beautiful women garlanded in gold jewellery.

Kerala, militantly communist, adorned with hammers and sickles, is also bonkers for bullion—as we trundle through larger towns, gold souks rival food markets. 

Self-proclaimed “gods own country, gateway to paradise,” Kerala is deified for its sparkling backwaters, a vast network of coconut hemmed lakes and canals running the length of the southern Arabian coast. From Kottayam—grown rich on rubber, it was the first Indian city to achieve 100 percent literacy—we jump a commuter ferry that will traverse the Keralan inland sea.

Aboard the aging, squat wood ferry we creep along canals as school children pile in. Dressed in British primary school blue, the exuberant children filter out at lonely aquatic outposts, islands holding three or four basic concrete homes, watery parishes more often dedicated to Jesus than Shiva. As tributaries feed into lakes and oceans, these hamlets float tenuously on a widening water mass. 

And passing by our commuter chug, traditional Keralan sea craft turned well-appointed houseboats, handsome gondolas with palm pagodas, floating villas rented by the week by foreigners, or owned outright by India’s new golden generation. Trailing the backwaters with the amphibious locals, sinewy fisher folk who at best might own a canoe, the passing plump families enjoying service on their lavish decks seem unreal.   

A night later we make Varkala Beach via the train line that funnels Kerala’s population up and down the flat coastline, crossing, Jesus-like, the monsoonal estuaries that seep in every direction. Our second-class carriage is comfortable if ragged, sometimes suffocating, but wonderfully chaotic as tea wallahs climb between passengers crammed on the floor, hanging off upper bunks, screaming “chai, chai, chai, chai” in a deep staccato; and gypsies, accompanied by harmonium, wail ragas for rupees.

Varkala Beach, its prime cliff-top drowning for much of the year in unhinged wanderers come from the four corners, is now ghostly, most restaurants and bars shuttered in the face of a hulking Arabian Sea. I am waiting out the monsoon here while my partner heads into the emerald forest, to an ashram. This is finally our chance to stop.  

The reggae bars, Ayurvedic resorts, guesthouses and Internet cafes crowding the Varkala cliff-top were not here 10 or 15 years ago. Apart from fishing, the only commerce consisted of a few thatched cottages selling coconuts and cloth for puja (ceremonial worship). The constant had been the temple, which adjoins a spring-fed pool set in a stone amphitheatre. For 2000 years the Hindu has come here to wash away illness and trouble.

I seek alternative routes to make it to the sea, where I travel daily to fill my bottle at the mineral spring, the storied point in the cliff-face that percolates holy water. If I stop for a time on the beach, an intense man, younger middle-aged, hardened by the sun, seemingly destitute, always comes to tell my fortune. He promises that my future is bright. It’s doubtful he makes such promises to himself.     

Though tourism has invigorated the local economy, profits flow to the few. I have been talking to Arkash, a worker at my guesthouse who brings me lunch each day, a culinary kaleidoscope of curries and dhals (thali). This tall man, who walks around barefooted in his hitched dhoti, makes the equivalent of $2.50 a day, and cannot afford to keep his young wife on a dialysis machine. He wonders what he can do, for he is lucky to have this job, the opportunity to work seven days, and yet can hardly survive.

Arkash has never left Kerala. I wonder if he dreams about seeing the world, like I have. But he knows that such dreaming is futile, even for his child. And maybe that is why so many of his kin have arrived on this day, the July black moon, to dip in the waters of a beach properly called Papanasam, meaning redemption from sin.

The crowd is swelling to three or four hundred thousand, people come to commune with god, to receive absolution, a phalanx of bare-chested men lining the shore, flushing themselves in the tepid waters of this “Varanasi of the south.” 

As the procession builds, lepers and the maimed are surreptitiously dropped off at key points between the temple and the beach—sometimes in the middle of the road in an attempt to attract maximum custom. My head shakes at this brand of opportunism. But almost everyone, it seems, is attempting to sell something, a fairground-like expanse of food and trinket stalls erected along the kilometer stretch between the spring pool and Papanasam, both now thrashing with humanity.

The priests who administer the puja ritual on the beach are the final collection point it seems. Hundreds are gathered before these bared, saffron-robed clerics, mass renunciations performed for a fee before the devotees fall into the water and dispense offerings (rice and flowers sent on bamboo rafts) to the dead whose remains were also cast from this shore.  

It is getting late and one wiry, wizened priest, wearing a shiny silver watch, who I spied earlier counting his rupees, offers me puja. I want to be ready. I am not a Hindu. We are all one before God he says. But I am suspended, between belief and disbelief.

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