Whoring the Gods!
A Temple going experience
How it all began
It all started in 2003, when we just moved to our new house in Sunnyvale. Our little girl was just 5 months old and we had decided to remodel our newly purchased home while living in the master bedroom (me, the wife, baby and a very patient mother in law). With project deadlines at work looming large, I was under extreme stress. To top things off my mother in law's visa was ending and she took off to india. A few days after she left, my brothers wedding got arranged and our trip to india was confirmed for mid august 2003. I came home after another stressful day at work and hit the shower. In what can only be described as an unnatural experience for me, I got a vision of lord muruga (in the form of the Pazhani boy)
and he said "when you come to india, dont leave without visiting me". I came out of the shower and told my wife about the experience. She didnt have anything to say about this one way or another, but was supportive and in her usual style said "sure, we can visit Pazhani hills when we go". So it was decided that when we go to India in august, we will visit the temple on the hilltop.
A trip gone wrong
2003 August came and went. I ended up having nasal surgery two days after I landed in india. We had to cancel our tickets to Pazhani. With a heavy heart I told my parents that we will have to wait for our next india trip.
A second chance
2005 May. My grandparents get married again (renew their wedding wows is the american equivalent) on the occasion of my grandpa's 80th birthday. The 80 year old groom and 75 year old bride blush in style as they get married again..
The entire family is there to celebrate.. this time I insist that we make a trip to Pazhani hills. My wife decides to stay in Chennai with our daughter because she is 5 months pregnant and is not sure if she can handle the train journey and the hot sun. That is when my brother Paddu comes to the rescue. He makes all arrangements for the trip and off we go. We have a very hectic trip planned. We go by train from Chennai(9:30 PM on 2nd June) to Dindigul Junction (we reach the junction at 5 AM on 3rd June). Then we take a bus to Pazhani which reaches there by 6:30 AM and that is when the fun starts.
The first con . .
We had been instructed by our Chitappa (who visits this temple at least once a year because this is his family deity) to go to Devasthana lodge, refresh ourselves and then head over straight to the winch station. His estimate was that we would be able to go up the hill by 8:30 to see the Kaala Pooja and be back down by 10:00 AM to be enroute to madurai. Things started taking a strange turn the minute we set foot on Pazhani. First my brother asks an old man of 60-65 as we get down from the bus "which way to the devasthana lodge ?". The old man, who was nice and courteous says "I myself am going there. Why dont I show you the way?". Initially we are puzzled since this guy is a local but he insists that he is an employee of the lodge and he gets paid to bring people from the bus stop to the lodge. We follow him for 10-15 minutes and he takes us to a lodge that looks new but is not the devasthana lodge. Both of us got furious that we had been taken for a ride. We controlled ourselves and found directions by asking practically everyone we met and found the lodge. It was very affordable and nice. More along the lines of a transit hotel at an international airport, geared specifically for a short refresher break before the trip to the hill top. We were both ready in an hours time.
When in doubt, always listen to Chitappa
Chitappa did tell us specifically to go up the winch, go to the temple office and get one ticket which covers all the special prayer services for the god. He said " you get this ticket and you get to see the abhishegam up close and personal" . (abhishegam is basically annointing the deity with milk, sandalwood paste, fruit potpourri etc.). Just as we are about to go to the winch station the lodge caretaker says "you can buy the ticket up there. but you need to take the materials for the abhishegam with you from down here. They sell the stuff at the temple store." Taken aback by this new revelation my brother and yours truly take off to the temple store which is 30 yards from the lodge. Sure enough, there is a store with official temple seal which sells all stuff required for the service. An old man of 70-75 is in charge of parceling the stuff we buy. My brother pays for the milk which is given to us in a can. There are three young guys (25-35 year olds) who tell us that we have to take a whole bunch of things up there.. the list lengthens. Sensing another con we tell them "we will check with someone else before we buy all these things." Then the old man is about to tell me that the ticket we purchase at the top includes all this and one of the young guys (who is the old man's son!) responds "hey oldie, mind your job and just stick to the packaging. let me handle the business here". In the meantime, my brother leaves the store goes and talks to a middle aged couple who appear to be more confident tourists and they confirm that the ticket we buy at the hill top includes everything and we dont have to take anything with us. However if we want to buy additional material and hand over to the priest that is welcome. We decide to be more careful in the future and tell the guys "why do you lie in gods name ? " we dont get a response from the three fellows. so we march on to the winch station..
Two strikes.. one more to go.
We made out way to the winch station, an old building with sheet roofing, where already 70-80 people were waiting in line. Surprisingly, the one of the employees at the station who was manning the entrance waved to us. We ended up bypassing the line and going straight to the entrance. This sparked a hush hush conversation between paddu and myself. .
Paddu : of all days, you have to wear your "jarigai veshti" today to the temple ?!
Me : this is my "kalyana veshti" and the only one I wear these days. I dont get a chance to wear a dhoti in California everyday, only on occasions. So I have eliminated all the other ones and kept this one.
Paddu : look, now we are being targeted by these guys for bribes.
Me : why do you say that..
Paddu : why else do you think we are walking past an 80 strong crowd to the head of the line ?
we reach the gate and the guy says , "Saar, inge oruththar moonu ticket eduththuttaru.. aana , avanga family ellam ore winchla ponnumnnu aasai padaranga.. ippo vara winch'la rendu seat thaan baaki.. neenga enna sollareenga ? "
for those non tamil folks, he was telling us that a guy had got 3 tickets for the previous winch, but only 2 seats were left in that winch. So he wants to go with his entire family in the next winch. So would the two of you (me and Paddu) like to purchase the three tickets ?
The logical flaws in his argument were worse than the ones in recent hit Tamil movies, and it presented itself as a blatant bribing opportunity cloaked as a problem. Paddu promptly blurted out " how much should be pay ?". Maybe it was his tone, but the winch man became furious. "Saar, i am doing something to help you, but you are seeing me in bad light. you are hinting that I am trying to do something bad here. There are plenty of people who would be glad to go in this winch. So the two of you go sit in the side. we will tell you when your turn comes ".
This was not in the plan ! These days, you have to bribe these $#@&%&'s and tell them they are respectable people. Calling a spade a spade is punishable, not by law, but by the same lawlessness !!. So, we waited for 20 minutes and at that point, we both decided to call it quits. We were going to find an alternate way to go up. So we told the guy to let us out of the line. At that point we saw what was going on. There was a big potbellied guy with a green towel(like the typical politician's uniform) who was sitting at a desk coordinating the whole thing. Sick to our stomachs with what we had just witnessed, we came out , took an autorickshaw and went around to the other side of the hill to use the new "cable car".
This facility was more modernized and was ferrying people up and down much more efficiently. An hour later we were finally ascending in the four passenger cable car. It was three strikes, and we didnt have the stomach for more shocks..
After buying the one and only ticket for the Pooja, we were whisked away to the deity by temple staff like royalty and were given a seat literally 10 feet from the idol. It was a fantastic site and the whole "kaala Pooja" gave me goosebumps. It was a surreal experience to see Pazhani Murugan at that close range. Just when I thought I had found some meaning into why Lord Muruga wanted me to visit him ( I was still asking him that ) when my brother said "come out of your trance, the pooja is over"
At this point I was about to take a 500 Rupee note and put it in the Hundi (collection box). This evoked a suprising reaction in Paddu, one of horror and shock. His expression said " How my brother in California lives such an ignorant life. How can he not know the right thing to do in this situation". I had this "what did i do wrong ? " look in my face. Paddu went on to explain how todays temples are run by the government and how any money we put in the collection box goes to the pockets of corrupt winch operators and politicians. He also went on to explain the plight of the priests in the temples who are now salaried government employees exempt from accepting money from the general public and are therefore living in abject poverty !
Apparently the right thing to do was to give the money to the brahmin priest (the one with the poonal or sacred thread). All this having been explained to me in rapid fire fashion, I changed course and the 500 Rupee note headed for the priests plate. when it was just 3 inches shy of hitting the plate, a strange pair of hands grabbed the note !!
The Hand of God ?
In a swift move that would have given Diego Maradona a run for his money, a young priest (sans thread !?) bypassed the money and said " I will make sure you get the prasadam ". dont worry, go stand in that corner over there. At that point, we were suddenly made to feel like very important people by two or three of these non threaded priests. They gave us all the prasadam one by one and said " can you please give us our Dakshina ? " The priest gave me a look which was very similar to the one that Leonardo Dicaprio gives when he realizes he is going to be confined to an iron mask for god knows how long!. Luckily for me we had a couple of 100 rupee notes which we gave to these men and without looking back made a dash for the exit. We had clearly had enough. The one bright spot was the monkeys outside which seemed to have far more dignity and self respect than the animals inside the temple. We went back to the bus stop to be on our way to Madurai. Didnt know what surprises lay in store for us there !
Paddu explains Temples today
On our way to Madurai, my brother started his lecture on why temples in india are in their current state. Based on my state of shock, he obviously thought this was the best way to bring me to a normal state. I always appreciate Paddu's point of view. He has a level head on his shoulders and is more of a stoic, in sharp contrast to the boiling cauldron of emotions that I am, in most situations. His logic was that kings in those days built temples till their coffers ran dry and the temples in those days(and to a most part today) were the theme parks of yester years. Pazhani would probably rate along the same lines as a trip to disney land today for the then locals. They would make a field trip out of it, and in the process patronize the local vendors, priests and the various people who made an economy out of this temple. This in his words were akin to us buying poporn in a mickey mouse pained container for 5 bucks knowing damn well that the thing would be worth 50 cents.
People dont treat temples the same these days he said. The government has taken over temples, there is no solid economy that directly supports the people involved and that has turned these people to either beggars or thieves ! Having had nothing to eat since that morning and being in an open bus with outside temperatures in the range of 104 F, it was more than food for thought. I had "thought for food" for lunch.
I will write all about our experiences in Madurai tomorrow. The hand needs a rest..
For those of you who are not familiar with some of the Lingo in this post, I apologize. I will add pictorial links to those words tomorrow..