Sacred Sites

Day Three: Chennai. If yesterday was about shopping and education, today is about peace.

After a mostly sleepless night we awake at 5:30 for a full yoga class and meditation. Even though we’d both rather sleep we cannot deny the amazingly positive effect yoga has on our fatigue and overall outlook. Not to mention our little chai hangover.

Chai is a cunning seductress and in most cases very kind. Rather than the jolt received from coffee, chai is a slow and gentle rise to clarity. But at 2 am it is not clarity I am seeking, it is sleep. And sleep sits in the corner just out of reach like a meditating monk waiting for me to come to it. Between us are thoughts and questions and frustration. When things become quiet, just for a moment, I make my move. I reach sleep for the briefest moment only to be dragged away again by a needy thought.

So no chai tonight.

This morning, confident I have figured out this electricity situation I attempt hair drying once more. This time the blow dryer ramps up and stops abruptly. Smoke is seeping out of the converter and I spastically unplug the hair dryer from the converter, the converter from the power strip and the power strip from the wall. Convinced the converter could reignite itself at any moment I take it with me to keep an eye on it. Apparently my hair is just supposed to do whatever it does. Why I feel compelled to blow dry my hair when I am wearing the same pants for the third day is beyond my comprehension.

For our temple tour of Chennai we have been asked to wear our finest, and perhaps newest outfits. As everyone makes their way to the bus they are glowing and crisp in their temple finery.

Our first stop is Kapaleeswaran, home of many temples, or actually shrines, in one. There are many people there, mostly Hindu. It appears to be a big day for them. As we are led around with commentary on each shrine, I am stuck by the devotion of those around us. Lying face down on the ground with hands in prayer position and ankles crossed, men prostrate themselves before entering each shrine in reverence. Women only have to bow half way. There are beautiful small children running everywhere. We are the only ones taking pictures. It seems somehow crass, but necessary. I am careful not to let the act of shooting photographs take me out of the moment. I don’t want to miss anything or forget anything.

We are guided to meditate briefly under a pavilion before we move onto our next temple. As we sit in silence, busy Indian life continues around us. Birds are flying under the pavilion above us, cawing to one another. Children are playing, adults are in conversation, bells are being rung, somewhere someone is chanting. We are still.

For every one American there are 12 Indians. Imagine that for a moment. If you work in an office imagine 12 times the people. What would 12 times the people look like at your favorite grocery store? The day before Christmas? If you teach, 12 times the students. It’s overwhelming. Every day all the time lots and lots of people. There is no privacy. Ever.

Yet these people know peace. Sure some meditate, even fewer do yoga, but it’s beyond that. It’s beyond circumstance or even DNA. It’s known. They KNOW peace. They have to. They can be completely still internally while chaos rages externally. They have mastered spirituality on such a level that most of us cannot understand or probably attain.

It is evidenced at our next stop, the temple of Shridi Sai Baba. This one is a quick run through. It is in an area thick with beggars. There are people everywhere. As we enter, hundreds of people are sitting calmly in que lunes much like you would find at Disney. They are still and quiet and waiting. Outside, horns honk, throngs of people walk past and they sit still.

A little break in temples, we are returned to our hotel for a traditional southern Indian banana leaf lunch. We will not be consuming banana leaf, we will be eating off one. With our hands. As some of us take it seriously and concentrate on not dropping too many crumbs, Karin and I suddenly regress. We are playing with our food. Making up stories and finger painting with rice and dal and spicy potatoes. Well, she is, I have no potatoes left. Aware we may be caught we halt the hijinx and fold up our leaves. We’re done. Nap time.

An hour later we board the bus again for St. Thomas’s basilica and tomb. On our way there we catch just a glimpse of the Bay of Bengal before we turn away from it. The church is lovely and traditional as cathedrals go and is peaceful, but for me, lacks something found earlier in the temples.

Last sacred spot of the day was the Ramakrishna Math, a beautiful, serene ashram. In the main temple there was a large statue of Ramakrishna sitting in meditation that served as an invitation to do the same. It was the epitome of peace. I could have sat there for hours, but there was more to experience on these impeccable grounds.

An hour later we have visited several shrines on the property of this ashram, been treated to an education by one of Swami’s friends and perused the bookstore. With a sense of deep peace we slowly walk back to our bus.

But we’re not done yet! On to the Park Sheraton for tea. What a difference in energy. Just one green tea. No chai tonight.

Tomorrow we travel to Thiruvannamalai. Go ahead, try to say it.


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