Thursday, January 29, 2009

South India in the wet season

Tropical South India is a totally different country than North India. Southern land is rich red clay. Its trees sprout coconut and banana and its rice paddies are flooded from heavy rains.

My parents, who are devout Hindus, went on a month-long pilgrimage to the holiest temples in South India last month. My friend and I tagged along.

Here’s a highlight from four weeks of “Parent Pilgrimage” -- a whirlwind tour of Hinduism’s most revered temples.

India has four temples that are the holiest sites in Hinduism. These are called the four “dhams,” and they are located in the north, east, south, and west. Earlier I blogged about our visit to the eastern “dham” in Puri, in the Indian state of Orissa. This story is about our trip to the southern “dham” in Rameshwar, in the state of Tamil Nadu.

My great-great-grandmother visited the dham in Rameshwar. So did my great-grandmother and my grandmother. Now I’m here with my mother. Five generations in a row.

Rameshwar is an island, connected to mainland India by a train that rides across the Gulf of Mannar. It’s only 20 miles from the nation of Sri Lanka, although the connecting ferry between the two countries stopped running more than a decade ago, deterred by civil war in Sri Lanka.

Hindu mythology says that the Lord Ram’s army once built a bridge connecting Rameshwar to Sri Lanka. The army was trying to rescue Lord Ram’s kidnapped wife, the goddess Sita, who had been kidnapped by a demon living on Lanka. According to religion, the rocks that Ram’s army used to build the bridge to Lanka miraculously floated, buoyantly, atop the ocean -- making bridge-building far easier.

Of all the Hindu myths, Ram’s story – written in the Hindu holy book Ramayan – is the one I carry with me from very early childhood. When I was a little kid, I slung an empty Pringles can across my back and pretended it was my archery pack, and I was a soldier in Ram’s army, fighting the demon of Lanka. When I was a little kid and I couldn’t sleep at night, I would repeat the name “Ram” to myself again and again, like I was counting sheep.

Then I started attending Catholic school. By fourth grade I decided I loved Jesus, and I set out to follow God’s Ten Commandments. I even prayed Hail Mary’s on the rosary – the full rosary, which takes about an hour -- every night for a month. I was the only student in my class who wasn’t baptized.

This worked until I was 9 years old and my mom took me to Pashupatinath, the holiest temple in Nepal. At the center of Pashupatinath is a giant statue of a golden bull – Lord Shiva’s holy bull, Nandi.

Seeing this golden bull reminded me of the “golden calf,” which, in the Biblical chapter of Exodus, the Prophet Moses warns the Israelites to never worship. Moses felt so vehemently anti-golden calf that he announced that God’s First Commandment is “thou shalt not worship any other gods besides me.” But the Fourth Commandment is to “honor thy father and thy mother,” and my father and mother were worshipping the golden bull. I was in a Catch-22: I could either obey the First Commandment or the Fourth Commandment, but I couldn’t obey both at the same time.

At this point, age 9, I got confused and gave up. I’ve never been particularly religious since.

Fourteen years later, I’m traveling with my parents on a pilgrimage around India.

As we rode the train to the island of Rameshwar, we saw what looked like rocks floating on the water. But they weren’t floating this time. They were flooded. The area surrounding Rameshwar had been submerged by heavy rains, and the streets turned into canals. Fences and poles stuck out from flooded plains.

Little did I know I was about to be submerged in water, too.

The temple at Rameshwar contains 22 wells covering a 2-kilometer area. At each well, a temple official casts a rope down into the abyss, pulls up a bucket of water, and dumps the entire bucket on the head of the person in line. Pilgrims come from across south Asia to get doused by well water. And so I figured – being part of a pilgrimage – I should too. I mean, when in Rome …. it wasn’t exactly a Roman bath, but it was definately a public bath.

About a dozen men, including 2 male children, all wearing black longis (long skirts) to show their religious devotion, joined my parents and I. Together we were led around the temple to 22 wells. Each well had a different name and signified a different god or geographic location. One signified the Ganges River; another signified the city where Buddha found his enlightenment.

We always let the Men in Black finish first. Then I’d get doused. Afterwards, my parents would get splashed on their hands and feet. And then we’d move on to the next.

And you know what? It felt a little like a baptism.

Five generations in a row.