I went to the Rock Fort Temple in Trichy yesterday afternoon. You enter through a portal in the bazaar and find yourself in a vast complex with covered stairs leading up every which way. All along the route are shrines, some lit by concealed shafts of sunlight. You emerge into day about 100 feet below the temple; in the last bit the stairs are carved out of the rock itself, not particularly regularly. The temple itself is not as dramatic as its setting, but from the top you can see all of Trichy. It’s not such a big city, which may be why I’m enjoying it so much.
There’s something about the fact that you are required to take off your shoes to enter temples that makes them more memorable. I’ve always loved walking barefoot, and I find that the experience of a place is heightened by feeling it underfoot: stone alternately cold and hot, rough and smooth. There’s also the contrast between shade and sunlight, which in such a hot climate affects you viscerally more than visually. Even the necessity, in many temples, of climbing a number of stairs contributes to the sense of full-body participation. [I was guilty yesterday (via email) of making fun of some of my grad school friends for still being obsessed with their thesis topics; I have to admit now that I’m still caught in an exploration of haptic experience and phenomenology of place.] My one gripe is the ubiquity of awful fluorescent lighting, the same as in Portugal. The saving grace is that it has been installed so cheaply and haphazardly that it will be easy to rip out once material wealth spreads more equally around India.
While visiting these temples I will admit to having two radically different trains of thought. The first is a deep appreciation of the peace (accentuated by the cleanliness and good smell!). The second is less worthy: I can’t get out of my head how beautiful the women’s saris and jewelry are and what I would like to buy for myself and my friends. I try to justify these thoughts by the excuse that I have been trained to be visual, but the sad truth is that my character contains equal parts spirituality and materiality. How trying to be so aware of one’s own vanity.
I’ve been staying in a hotel in Trichy that has TV – what luxury! Indian TV generally shows Bollywood flicks, news, Indian Idol, slapstick shows, shoot-em-ups, and music videos – usually featuring a beautiful woman in an expensive sari whose hair is perpetually caught in a wind machine while her face expressively lip-synchs. The other half of the channels are American, or at least have American names and play shows in English. Some of the delights on offer last night were: a ‘Who’s the Boss’ marathon, ‘Different Strokes’ and ‘Sex in the City’. I opted for the movie ‘Bowfinger’, which reminded me that Eddie Murphy was probably the best comedian of his generation. That is some Funny Shit.
I might have forgotten I was in India had it not been for the commercials. Most common are advertisements from all the major beauty manufacturers for ‘fairness cream’ which is what it sounds like. Western women still want to get a tan; Eastern women are obsessed with losing it. Go figure. The second most frequent ads are public service announcements: one shows a little girl choosing produce on the street, obviously promoting better nutrition; a more poignant one shows a black screen on which is printed the words: Miss Manisha. The word ‘Manisha’ is gradually erased, then letters are added to make the word ‘missing’. You hear a child laughing, then you see the words: ‘Save the Girl Child’.
I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping lately. I’ve cut caffeine down radically, so I think the culprit is dehydration. Without going into detail, let’s just say that that my body is constantly dehydrating itself. For that reason I should be drinking more than the two liters of water a day I average, but then there would be the problem of finding un-disgusting facilities when out and about. I’ll bet you don’t envy me that.
Took a day trip to Tanjore today – the slow passenger train with wooden seats. It turned out that the compartment I chose was swarming with cockroaches. The Indian passengers didn’t seem too pleased about it either.
The Maharaja’s palace in Tanjore is much more run-down than I had imagined, though with beautiful murals and carvings. I found my favorite of the day in the museum: ink drawings on stone of various animals and fantasies of humans who look like them. I climbed the bell tower to get a look at the labyrinthine palace; five stories of narrow, steep, dark staircases, but a rewarding view at the top. I stayed for an hour, not only because I was afraid of the trip down, but also because it was cool and quiet. I tried to nap but kept getting woken up by a bird whose song sounded exactly like R2-D2. I felt foolish when, descending, I realized that my bird was actually schoolchildren playing toy flutes.