The smallest temples in the world?

Somewhere in the jungle in the south of Karnataka are these tiny temples.

They have been here for centuries, if not millennia, used by the local tribal people as part of their animistic religion (believing that all things have a spirit or god in them and worshipping them).

I believe that there are three of these temples in all, one represents rounded hills, the second steep pointed hills and the third a squarer type of hill. The two that we saw are only around 40 – 50cm high and are within a few hundred feet of each other. The third is ‘lost’ as far as our guide knows, but the tribal people are likely to know where it is and still use it.

The small copper pot and stone-carved receptacle which you can see here are thought to be around 1,000 years old and are still used in worship. Our guide asked us not to disclose where these small temples are as the artefacts could be stolen by ‘antique hunters’ who would get a good price for them.

There is a sense of timelessness at these tiny temples, a feeling of being part of something ‘other-wordly’ and unique. People have risked the dangers of the jungle to come here; the wild elephant, leopard and tiger no deterent to their determination  to worship god in their own special way. Long may these places remain a hidden haven for the local people who see them as part of their past, present and future.

Why do Tamils paint their cows?

I’ve just been looking back over this blog and noticed the post about Pongal from 2012. If you want to know why Tamils paint their cows you will need to read this! Today is Day 1 of Pongal, so I would like to wish a happy festival to all of my friends who will be celebrating.

In the previous post I mention the beautiful green rice fields after the monsoon. Sadly, there is less rice in the fields this year after a poor monsoon so everyone is hoping that this year things will get back to normal.

Happy Pongal!

 

A CNN Hero from Madurai

I first came to India through my connection with the Joe Homan charity.  Many westerners, particularly in todays economic climate, say that we should no longer be sending money to India which is now becoming a wealthy country; it is up to the Indians themselves to care for their own poor.

Many people believe that Indians do nothing charitable.  It is true that in the past few gave to those whose ‘karma’ it was to be poor, but the younger generations of emerging India have an emerging social conscience, they are just not in a position yet to do everything for themselves.

Please take a look at this video to see what one person has done in our local city of Madurai (winner of CNN Top 10 Heroes 2010).  People like this need our continued support until India can stand on her own two feet.

Find out more about Narayanan Krishnan here

Narayanan Krishnan

There’s an elephant in the High Street!

Last week I took some of the guests to visit our local town of Dindigul, a great place to see life as it is for millions of Indian people today.  Whilst there we were lucky enough to witness the Masi festival of the local Kottai Mariamman Temple.

The streets were crowded with people there for the opening ceremony of the month long festival.  First of all we came across stalls which were giving away free food – sponsored by local temples or businesses.

Free food!

We then moved into the Palani road.  This is where we usually buy electronic goods, computer equipment, building supplies etc. yet on this day we found it to be a swirling riot of colours, incredible noise and subtle scents.  For me it felt very strange to see the road thronged with people carrying their temple gifts on their heads…

Celebrating the goddess

…or playing their drums for the deity.

Temple drummers

 An incredible mixture of the ancient and modern.  But that was just the beginning!  To our surprise we saw a temple elephant leading the procession.

elephant in the High Street

A beautiful creature decked out in its festival finery and decorative paint.

temple elephant in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu

Three men accompanied the elephant – two on foot and one riding – to ensure that she remained calm and played her role to perfection.

Palani Road, Dindigul with elephantt

As with all temple elephants, this one could be persuaded to pass on her blessing.  All that our guest was required to do was to place 10 rupees in her trunk (which she passed to her mahout) and then bow his head for her to place her trunk on him in blessing.

Blessing from temple elephant

Many people handed their children up to sit on the elephant – either to take a photo or as a blessing – but many of the children were not impressed!

riding the temple elephant, Dindigul

we are not amused!

The amount of time that goes into preparing the elephants robes is impressive.

temple elephants robes, India

We thought we had seen everything and were just about to move on when the car carrying the goddess approached.

Temple car, Palani Road, Dindigul

This was a huge trailer covered in flowers, the bright patters which adorned it were also flowers attached to the superstructure.  The worshippers pushed and jostled and crowded around to get as close as they could to hand over gifts of flowers either at this car or one of the ones following.

Temple car, Tamil Nadu, India

There were thousands of people, each with their small bag of flowers, and the scent was overpowering.  The flowers were to be used by the priests during the day as they offered unbroken puja (worship) to the goddess  for 24 hours, so everyone knew that their flowers would be placed on the shrine at some point during the day.

Goddess of the Kottai Mariamman Temple, Dindigul Tamil Nadu

HIndu priest collecting the flowers

The festival will continue for the rest of this month although the remaining processions will take place at night so that more people can attend – and stop further disruption to one of the busiest streets in Dindigul.

Flowers placed before the Hindu goddess

We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon such an act of worship in the middle of a bustling town, and to have been treated with such kindness and generosity by all whom we met –both man and beast!

Hindu priest, South India

Hindu temple elephant, Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, South India

For the local newspaper article please see The Hindu

A light by any other name…

Deepawali light

Sorry I’ve been away for so long but I have been experiencing issues with internet connection – one of the joys of living in rural southern India!

Last week saw the whole of India caught up in the four day celebration of Deepawali (shortened to Diwali), the biggest Hindu festival. It is the festival of lights (deep meaning light and avail meaning a row i.e., a row of lights).

The origin of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India, when it was probably an important harvest festival although there are many different legends about how it began. Some believe it is the celebration of the marriage of Lakshmi with Vishnu. In Bengal the festival is dedicated to the worship of Kali. Most people worship Ganesh at home during Diwali as he is a symbol of wisdom and good fortune. Diwali also commemorates the return of Rama with his wife Sita after Rama had been in exile for 14 years. It also remembers how Rama killed the demon-king Ravana, so is a celebration of good overcoming evil. It is said that, to celebrate the safe return of their king, the people of Ayodhya lit the whole kingdom with little clay lamps and set of fireworks.

The first day of the festival, Naraka Chaturdasi, celebrates how Krishna killed the demon king Naraka.

On the second day of the festival, Amavasya, people worship Lakshmi the goddess of wealth. Amavasya also tells the story of Vishnu who defeated the tyrant Bali and banished him to hell. Bali was allowed to return to earth once a year, to light millions of lamps to dispel ignorance and darkness and to spread love and wisdom. It is on the third day of Deepawali — Kartika Shudda Padyami – that Bali steps out of hell and lights the lamps to signify good defeating evil.

The fourth day, Yama Dvitiya, is a family day where sisters invite their brothers to their homes.

So, for four days, all of India (including Athoor village!) celebrated Diwali with lamps and fireworks which are said to be an expression of thanks to the gods for health, wealth, knowledge, peace and prosperity; some say that the sound of the fireworks lets the gods know how thankful people are for the goodness they have received.

So, in all of the stories connected with Diwali, we see good overcoming evil, and there is the hope that this will continue through the next year. There is an expectation that humans have a part to play in this, committing ourselves to doing good deeds to bring us closer to divinity.

During the celebration of Diwali there are lights everywhere, the scent of incense and candles, a feeling of togetherness, hope and joy. And at this time, all around the world there are other people getting ready to celebrate their ‘festival of lights’. The Jews are looking forward to Channukha whilst Advent and Christmas will soon been here for Christians.

All over the world people of different faiths are celebrating together the triumph of good over evil; light dispelling ignorance and darkness; the coming of joy and hope. As a turbulent 2012 draws to a close perhaps we should take time to reflect on all the things which we share in common rather than all the things which divide us.

Diwali lights

The Brahminy Kite

In Hindu mythology all gods have their special vehicles. Vishnu is carried by Garuda, the white headed Brahminy Kite.  It is considered to be very auspicious to see one of these birds so we are incredibly lucky that they are frequent visitors to the lake and we, and our guests, can sit on the veranda and watch the kites riding the thermals or wheeling and diving when they find something to eat.

This kite has discovered a dead turtle which he is enjoying for breakfast!

Brahminy kite with turtle for breakfast

Police, chicken biriyani and a Hindu god

 

There is just one day a year when I would ask you to not visit us at Lakeside.  This year that day was18th July.  The Sadaiyandi festival.

The path up the hillside

Just five minutes walk from us are two banyan trees.  Beneath one is a statue of Durga, a mother goddess, whom women pray to if they want a child.  Under the other is a statue of Sadaiyandi who is a local protector god.  From the banyan grove there is a steep narrow winding footpath up the hillside to a small cave temple.  Inside are some small statues to various gods including Ganesh who is always a great favourite in south India.  This small cave has been a focus of worship for as long as people can remember.

On the day of the festival at least 40,000 (yes forty thousand!) people travel down our single track road to the grove, most of them climb the hillside to the cave before having a picnic in the grove or down by

The cave temple

the lake.  To describe it as ‘chaotic’ would not be too far from the mark.  Hindu worship is always lively and to have so many people in one place can lead to arguments, accidents on the hillside, pick-pockets, drunkenness – the same as anywhere in the world where huge crowds gather.

To monitor all of this 150 police officers are stationed in the area, a particular focus is down by the lake to make sure no one tries to go swimming after drinking – there have been drownings in past years.  Lakeside hosts the group of 10 or more police Inspectors who have overall charge of the festival, providing them with a chicken biriyani lunch and a place to rest when off duty.  We enjoy it very much as it gives us a chance to get to know them better, and discourages ‘sight-seers’ from the temple!

For us the night before the festival is the most difficult part as there are fireworks and music all night long.

No sleep for us on the night of Sadaiyandi festival!

View from the cave temple

An Indian Catholic wedding in Tamil Nadu

We recently attended the wedding of some Indian Christian friends.  The groom has been incredibly helpful to us in banking matters since our arrival in India, and we now feel like a part of his family.  The couple both come from a village on the south-east coast of Tamil Nadu – a very strong Christian area with Portuguese influence.

 

 

 

As with all Indian weddings music is very important and each couple hires a band to welcome them to the church and lead them in procession from it.

 

 

 

Here, the groom is entering the church under a double umbrella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have been to many Indian weddings and they all have their attraction.  There is a calm solemnity in the Muslim weddings, and a lively exuberance in the Hindu weddings.  I personally found the Catholic Christian wedding service and mass most enjoyable because the entire congregation participated in the hymns, creeds and prayers.  For me there was a sense of participation which I found quite moving.

 

 

 

 

During the service the couple made their vows and exchanged rings before lighting candles around a cross.  They also exchange beautiful garlands which is a typical part of all Indian weddings, no matter what the religion.

 

The bride wore a beautiful traditional sari, and also a white veil and train at least 10 feet long!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As they emerged from the church after the service the band played loudly and enthusiastically while the happy couple were led to their car under the double umbrella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the reception they cut the cake

which was shared with the guests whilst the couple made themselves comfortable on their ‘throne’ on the stage.

 

 

 

Guests then went in turn to formally great the couple on the stage and wish them all the best for the future.

 

 

 

We wish the happy couple all the best for their future life together!

Does India practice religious tolerance?

Our Lady of RansomChurch, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 A friend in England sent me an email last week asking about an attack on Christians in Tamil Nadu. This makes it sound as though the state is full of religious tension, but that’s not the case. Just as in any other country many ‘religious’ problems can often be about something else.

The caste system is illegal in India yet, particularly in the villages, the prejudices still survive and the dalits (untouchables) are still treated as though they are worthless by some higher caste people. There are often reports of this in the newspapers. For example you will hear of exclusively Hindu villages where the dalits are not allowed into certain temples, and sometimes the other villagers build walls across the road to stop them walking past the temple, even if it means a detour of miles for the dalits to reach their homes. This is, of course, illegal and the rulings usually find in the favour of the dalits and the walls come down. Many dalits are Christians and so tensions between them and other villagers can often be classed as religious problems rather than facing the issues of caste.

As well as caste problems there are often village feuds which have gone on for generations, sometimes the protagonists are of different religions – and so it is reported as a religious problem. Or you may find a young couple choosing to marry rather than have an arranged marriage. This always causes tension in the rural villages, but when the couple are of different religions it can be even worse. There have also been cases where a rich Hindu has converted and given a great deal of wealth to the church, he has then been targeted by ‘anti-Christian’ forces – who often turn out to be disgruntled family members who feel they have lost a part of their inheritance. Having said this, there are small groups of Hindus who target people of other faiths but these are not the norm and are not tolerated by the huge majority of the population.

The south Indians are a rather voluble people and can be physical at times. Arguments and sometimes fights can break out between two people with family members and neighbours joining in, but they usually quickly die down again. There are even problems with the well educated whom you think should know better. Please take a look at these two newspaper articles in the Times of India and the Hindu about lawyers rioting in the High Courts and causing injuries to judges, police and journalists as well as damaging property. If this is how the well educated try to get their way in India then is it surprising that the less educated, sometimes illiterate villagers resort to violence to try to sort out their problems? Please let me say here though that although these things happen I have now lived in India for over three years and have never seem any violence of this sort (neither have any of our guests, and certainly none have ever felt threatened during their travels in south India). Indeed, all I have seen is the odd family squabble as I pass through a village – and I’ve seen much worse than that outside an English pub on a Saturday night!

From what I can find out about the incident my friend mentioned (I think it is the same one), a group of Christians had gone to a Hindu area with a van fitted with a megaphone and were preaching evangelical tracts and trying to convert the local Hindus. (I am unsure whether the Christians were from the local community or elsewhere). When the local Hindus asked them to stop the Christians refused and continued to use the megaphone. The Hindus then stole the keys of the vehicle, smashed the megaphone, tore up religious materials and beat up some of the Christians. Whilst I in no way condone any of those actions I can’t help feeling that the Christians in this particular case were inflammatory in the way they approached their preaching. If people want to evangelise then there are surely better ways to go about it without antagonising the local pop[ulation? (I’m a Christian myself). This particular incident was settled by the police sitting down with both sides and coming to a compromise so that in the end the Christians did not feel the need to file a case against their attackers.

India has laws protecting people’s right to their faith and to be free from persecution or from others making derogatory remarks. These laws are used by Christians as well as people of other faiths for their protection. There was recently an interesting article about ‘India’s god laws’ in the Hindu newspaper  I suppose, in summary, I’m saying (and this is purely my own personal view) that yes there are instances of religious intolerance in India but I don’t think they are as frequent as many would believe and sometimes stem from other problems in the local communities. The issues tend to be localised and the vast majority of people never come into contact with problems. I have certainly never felt threatened because of my faith, but of course I am a foreigner writing from a newcomer’s perspective so I can’t truly know what it is like for some Indians in their small village communities. I just hope that as India emerges more and more into a leading role on the world stage that tolerance and understanding will grow hand in hand with wealth and technology.

(Around 6.1% of Tamils are Christian, and about 5.6% are Muslim; in some area such as the extreme south east Christians make up almost half of the population, about 44%).

Easter Greetings from Lakeside

The state of Tamil Nadu has a population of over 72 million (2011 census figures). It is a vibrabant population with deep spiritual roots, and many of our foreign guests at Lakeside are surprised by the diversity of faiths – the biggest building in our village of Athoor is a Catholic church.

88.3% of the population of Tamil Nadu are Hindu, 6% Christian, 5.5% Muslim with the remaining very small number belonging to other faiths (e.g. Jains). In the towns and villages of Tamil Nadu the religions live side by side; although Christians and Muslims tend to have their own living areas centred around their places of worship these are well integrated into the life of their neghbours. The capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai, is believed ot be the place where Saint Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus, was martyred and so Christianity has a rich history in this area.

We currently have five staff at Lakeside, two of whom are Christian with the remaining three Hindu. Today, our two Christian staff are on leave, celebrating Easter with their families. We would also llike to take the opportunity today to wish a very Happy Easter to all of our friends and customers from everyone here at Lakeside.

The owners and staff at Lakeside wish you a very happy and peaceful Easter.