Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Road to Mahabalipuram


On the first weekend after class, the manager of the Heart of Yoga program set up a trip to Mahabalipuram (also referred to as Mamallapuram), a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 60km south of Chennai.  About half the class met up for the trip at 7a.m. on Saturday morning, got on a tour bus and headed South for our first site-seeing trip in the city.  The moment we got out of Chennai, the landscape changed in character.  Chennai is a proper city, with man-made structures at every turn and most buildings built side by side so there is little open area except for the parks. 

Once we were out of the city there was plenty of open space, with a clear view of the Bay of Bengal for most of the drive.  The topography is flat, with distant hills here and there.  The open space was refreshing, as was the silence we enjoyed whenever we were the only ones on the road, which was the case most of the time on the way there (the way back was a different story).

As we drove, most of us were quiet, looking out the window at the scenery.  From afar, it looked feral with no signs of people.  But on closer inspection you could see trash littered across the field of grass.  It was mostly concentrated along the road and dispersed from there, likely with the help of the wind.  There was at least some disappointment on most faces.  We were used to the trash in Chennai and accepted that the population density and the lack of waste management infrastructure contributed to it.  But out in the open?  It seemed unnecessary.

And yet is still managed to be beautiful. 

Mahabalipuram was no different.  When we arrived the density of trash increased again.  We got off the bus and were met with hoards of street vendors and beggars of all ages.  It was a bit overwhelming.  There were areas that had all manner of rubbish accumulated right next to signs explaining the significance of these sites.

The city is centered on the various 9th century monuments built there, most of which resemble enormous temples, and all of which were carved out of single rocks.  They portray scenes from The Mahabarata, the Indian epic most famous in the West for its inclusion of the Bhagavad Gita.  The city, at its prime in the 7th century, was a major port and its temples built between the 7th and 9th centuries.  Most of them were concealed by the elements and then rediscovered, leading to its re-establishment in 1827 by the British.  Some of the monuments, we were told, were recently revealed in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The monuments are nothing short of spectacular.  It was easy to get lost in some of these areas, they were so expansive, and infact I did at one point.  I had a momentary rush of fear as I realized I’d lost my whole group when I lagged behind trying to get the best photos possible.  I went back to where our bus had dropped us off and it looked like there were people in it so I figured they’d all returned and were waiting for me.  But as I came up to the bus I realized it was a completely different group of people.  This was not the right bus.  Ours was nowhere to be found.  So I picked up my pace headed back to where I’d been, figuring the group would either be looking for me there or had headed in the one other possible direction, deeper into the exhibits.  It was the first time I felt like that here.  For the most part I’ve been comfortable getting lost in Chennai, but I wasn’t in Chennai and to say that English is broadly spoken here is a laughable overstatement. 

The dogs which I’d passed a couple of times on my way to the monuments the first time and then on the way to the bus were visibly agitated as I returned.  They sensed my unease and started to bark, clearly channeling the same agitation I was (this happens a lot here, by the way; it’s bizarre; everything feels more connected here).  I got to where I’d been and didn’t see anyone so I headed further in and finally saw some familiar faces. 

It had been easy to lose them.  You could walk through tunnels that had been carved out with pillars strategically left to support them and come out on a completely different part of the exhibit.  And with the crowds it was easy to disappear.  At one point a herd of school children stampeded into a display that everyone seemed to be curious about.  They suddenly came to a bottleneck and the pushing started, dragging a handful of us in what felt like an ocean swell of bodies.  The kids pushed and chattered, trying to squeeze into the exhibit.  They were so strong that I felt like I was carried up 15 steps to the mouth of the display.  These kids are little but with that kind of determination they are a force to be reckoned with.  I was almost thrown into the exhibit with a few other kids that stumbled over the doorway as the passage opened up.  There was a large cylindrical stone in the center of the room that I almost fell on top of in the process.

I met up there with two other KYM students whose wide eyes betrayed the fact that they’d just experienced the same thing I did.  We all stood around the stone trying to figure out what it was until one of the students, via her Kindle, mentioned it was the Shivalinga, the phallic form of Lord Shiva.  I’d read about this representation but had never seen it and it was interesting to have a bunch of 7 to 10 year old school children walking around and staring at a representation of Lord Shiva’s humongous penis.  It was also interesting to think that a few minutes back I had almost ended up on top of it.  Oh, the irony.

Despite the room being small and the exhibit brief, I was in no rush to leave.  Going upstairs at least had the benefit that I was going against gravity.  I could see myself tumbling down steps if I tried to leave anytime soon.  So we all waited until the kids left, which occurred more quickly than we suspected, literally giving the sensation of the ebb and flow of a powerful tide.

Some areas looked more finished than others but all of it had a mythical quality.  Among the more impressive statues is one of an elephant that was so carefully carved, the curves on its body are unbelievably smooth. 

The areas that contain the monuments are kept very clean and usually behind guarded gates.  It was here that I saw my first public trash can in India.  But anything outside of that doesn’t have the same level of attention.  The surrounding area is an amalgam of street vendors, goats, dogs, beggars and stores selling art, textiles and trinkets that would make any tourist happy.  And trash.  Lots and lots of trash.  Everywhere.  But it didn’t detract from the place and in some respects gave it a sense of authenticity.  This was a place past its prime.  It’s the same kind of beauty you find in the wrinkled, worn face of an elderly man or woman.  As the body ages, its fa├žade deteriorates and reveals what’s inside.  Something that has the wisdom of age and that is, if you believe in these things, close to or akin with the divine.

This is something I’ve come to appreciate here.  In the U.S. we’re used to beauty being manicured.  I remember the shock that Jessica Simpson’s Marie Claire cover caused a year ago, when she appeared with no makeup or retouching (http://photos.posh24.com/p/809390/z/jessica_simpson/jessica_simpson_marie_claire_c.jpg).  Plenty of celebrities followed suit.  Kim Kardashian being the one who received the most attention for her picture in Life & Style magazaine (http://images.eonline.com/eol_images/Entire_Site/2010411//467.kardashian.wilkinson.baskett.lands.lc.051110.jpg).  All the magazines and news shows loved talking about how brave these women were by doing this.  Really?  Brave?  That seem like a strong word, given that from the pictures it looks like they had some foundation on and that their hair had been styled and they probably had on some powder to reduce the shine from the strategically placed lights.  No.  Not brave.  Have them take a picture with a point-and-shoot camera using on-camera flash right after they’ve rolled out of bed and then we’re talking.  And even then it doesn’t come close to the challenge of seeing beauty in something that initially disgusts us.

Seeing the landscape as we drove South, analyzing my initial awe at the scenery, my repulsion to the trash and my realization that the latter ultimately did not take away from the former, it struck me that our concept of beauty in the States requires hours of cleaning, reorganizing, tidying up, proper lighting, preparation infront of a mirror, hours of work at a gym or editing via the forgiving tools of Photoshop.  We identify and accept beauty only in an idealized state, which by definition means that we see beauty as our imagination defines it, not as it is.  We find it difficult sometimes to see beauty in something that is unpolished, in something dirty, in something broken.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there to be seen in these things.  India is proof of that and most of the people I’ve talked to change their views when they’re here.  They begin to see beauty in the day to day, sometimes despite the dust and grime and sometimes because of it.

That is what India is to me: a place that forces me to look past what something looks like as compared to the ideal I have in mind for it… an ideal that falls grossly short of the actual beauty of its being.  If I am not able to appreciate the monuments in Mahabalipuram or the landscape that we drive past to get to them because of the trash, because of the congestion, because of the noise, then there is something wrong with how I see.  

A friend of mine was telling me that in his months here he hadn’t come across any women that had caught his eye, except for one who works at the house where he’s staying.  She’s younger, that much he knows, but her exact age is hard to tell, and she’s at least 6 months pregnant.  She isn’t exactly beautiful the way we normally would think of someone beautiful, he explained, but you can see that she knows herself, that she’s lived a tough life (the life of a Sudra, the second lowest tier in the caste system, is relegated to service jobs, which are hard on the body) and survived it and there’s beauty in that strength.  You see all those things in her face.  She makes no attempt to hide them.

“Nothing is hidden in India,” my friend told me.  This isn’t entirely true.  Some things are.  AIDS is not discussed at all and this is expected to be one of the places with the highest incidence of infection.  Gays and lesbians are practically invisible, a necessity of life for the safety of the individuals.  And attitudes towards women (and by default the incidence of abuse) are still lagging behind many other countries.  But there are plenty of things that India leaves out in the open for everyone to deal with, which other countries do their best to conceal: poverty, illness, hunger, homelessness, unhygienic conditions.  These are things that everyone has to deal with, not just the poor.  Every rich person in Chennai has to drive or walk past it.  The luxury to avoid it is not available to them.  Perhaps this is by design.  India is, after all, the birthplace of the Buddha, whose journey began precisely because he saw poverty, illness and death just outside the palace walls.  There is wisdom in having these truths available for everyone to ponder.

A friend mentioned to me that in my blog, I seem to be focusing on what is wrong with India, something that I received with a bit of shock.  I don’t mean for my descriptions to come across that way.  I am merely writing about what I see, from the reference point of what I’m used to.  There is nothing wrong with India.  At least nothing more wrong than there is in any other place I can think of.  It has areas that can be improved upon, certainly, and that, in doing so would benefit its people greatly.  But every country has these areas of improvement and India has the benefit of having gotten something right that many others have not:  it is a place that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is, that makes no excuses for its conditions and that offers you its shortcomings without shame.  What you do with it, what you think of it, is up to you and will, in the end, say much more about you than it ever will about India.

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