I had a lot of trouble pronouncing the name of this town: “Thiruvannamalai”. It required me to roll my tongue too much and too many times. It had too many syllables. Hailing from North India, living in the south Indian city of Bangalore, I initially found south Indian names to be tongue twisters – especially the longer ones, with many letters in them. I often felt like a foreigner in my own country; foreign to the names, to the food, to the traditions and even to the hair styles!
To remove this foreign feeling in our own land, my friend Shuie and I decided to explore south India. The journey started on an ironic note when Shuie, recently returned from the US, had trouble pronouncing “Thiruvannamalai” to the bus conductor. We just shrugged when the conductor looked unhappily quizzed. “It seems like we are going to be foreigners here for some time”, Shuie exclaimed, and we burst out laughing. The conductor suddenly shouted “Right!” and the bus started moving. “That is how they signal to the bus driver”, I explained to a startled Shuie. We laughed again as the bus hurtled along to Thiruvannamalai.
Life in Thiruvannamalai revolves around the Arunachala temple and the holy Arunachala Mountain, and our few days there were no different. Anyone, from a child to an old woman, on any road, by-lane or house, at any time of the day, can point you to the temple. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of rejuvenation who destroys all negativity. The Arunachala Mountain is believed to be the place where Lord Shiva himself appeared as a shaft of light to dispel ignorance from the world. It is revered by Shiva devotees as a sacred place of pilgrimage.
We reached the temple at dusk. It was buzzing with people in single colour clothes. A bunch of people in red clothes; another group in just plain black clothes; yet another bunch in green. It was a bit strange. On our first day to the temple we were overcome with a strong sense of peace that pervades the temple, which penetrates into one’s very being. Despite the crowds, the calming energy was unmistakable. On the second day, the calm had settled in. Seeing a bigger crowd of people at the temple we got more curious. I nudged Shuie to ask these people why they were dressed like that. After a few exchanges of , “No, you go”, “No, no, you go”, I managed to bully him into asking an older gentlemen in a green dhoti why he was dressed like that, and well, what was he doing here.
I saw them talk animatedly from a distance, making me curious as a cat. My patience caved in. I had to know what they were talking about. I went and stood next to Shuie, smiling at the group. I listened to the old man who was talking about his home town. When he finished talking, Shuie introduced me and thanked him and we took our leave. As soon as we were out of earshot, I asked him, “SO?”, my eyes wide with expectation. He smiled triumphantly.
“They are worshipers of Lord Muruga, who is associated with the color green. Similarly the ones wearing black are devotees of Lord Shiva and the ones in red worship Devi, the divine Mother. They are all here on a pilgrimage, having taken leaves from their jobs to visit all the sacred temples. The old man I was talking to is a lecturer in a college.” I was quite taken aback. I thought these people were villagers! I couldn’t help thinking how we automatically associate simple clothes with poverty. These people were devotees who had put aside their material life for a few days and had plunged into a spiritual practice with all their heart. I was again reminded of how little I knew of the many traditions in my own country.
We ate a south Indian breakfast at the small restaurant tucked inside the Seshadri ashram. The owners spoke Tamil, and only Tamil. We only knew how to say “Thank you” in Tamil. So we just gestured to them that we wanted masala dosa and kaapi (coffee), for two people. We were glad to get what we had ordered and made sure we thanked them. Wanting to have something sweet all of a sudden, we walked around in the nearby market street and found a sweet shop. This time it was my turn to do the “talking”. I bought a few sweets. The shop owner who spoke a very broken English with a fake and heightened accent asked me a lot of questions about me which I did not want to answer. When I was done, he asked me, “Which country are you from, madam?”
I dint know whether to get mad or laugh. “India!” I answered. Shuie was smiling.