Sunday, November 05, 2006

Woah. I can't believe it's over.

(Posted by Mo, who's computer is not connecting for some reason that is just part of being in India, and is who zen and lazy right now to log in under her own ID)

So we're back from a mindblowing week in Kerela, and I can not even begin to tell you of the awe and beauty that is inspired by the things we've seen. Wild elephants in the mists of the Western Ghats, spice plantations in the jungle in the monsoon, cruising on a houseboat through the night in the backwaters, theraputic aeurvedic massages, traditional dance and music and worship and joy. We feel cleansed and filled and grateful, and have had a chace to look back at the gift these last four months have been.

We will be doing posts in the coming weeks that bring the things we've seen to you, but for now, on our last evening in India, back in Chennai where it all started, we are packing and weighing our over-full bags, going for some fabulous Chettinad food, taking in some carnatic music and a Bharatanatyam performance by a beautiful girl with dark, dark eyes. We will be saying our quiet goodbyes - filled with very mixed emotions - to this amazing place.

On different planes flying different routes, Brand and I shall both be arriving back in T.O. Tuesday afternoon. We invoke sweet Ganesha one more time for a safe and comfortable journey.

See you soon.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Winding Down...

So, I'm done my work assignment and Brand and I are starting to wrap up our time here in India. We have one more week of traveling adventures before we return to the Great White North, this time to Madurai, Tamil Nadu, and Thekkady & Kumakorum Kerela. We're doing it in style, which should be quite the contrast to the backpacking trek of the last go. We'll be visiting one of the biggest and most important temples in India, the Periyar Wildlife reserve to see free roaming wild elephants, spending a night on a houseboat in the backwaters, and then two nights on the beach in (purportedly) one of the most beautiful places on earth. We're going 5 Star all the way baby, and it's all free, baby (on the points I've accumulated from the hotel work's been paying for, whee!).

So we won't be posting this next week, and for those of you in T.O. awaiting our return with baited breath? Well be joining you in just about 8 days.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006



When we say a city is old we must always think of the scale in which we speak. Americans might say that Boston is an old city, for it was founded in 1630, almost 400 years ago. The English would say that London is an old city, for it goes back to the days of Rome – who is old indeed. The Greeks would say Athens is an old city, for she was fighting against Darius the Great while Rome was but a muddy village struggling for life in the unimportant west. The people of the ancient middle east would scoff, for they know that there were cities that existed there before Greek was even a language. Babylon, ancient of cities, was founded 2500 years before Christ, and even she was not the oldest. But all the cities that old are gone now, having been destroyed and abandoned long since. Some few have been rebuilt in the centuries after their destruction, and some were so old that even after centuries in ruin the cities built on their ashes are now ancient themselves.

But when you say that a city is old in India you must compare it to Varanasi. Varanasi is older than Latin or Greek as languages, older than Christianity and Islam put together, possibly older than Babylon, and maybe nearly as old as Sumner itself. 5000 years ago, at nearly the same time as the pyramids of Egypt were having their foundations laid, the first pilgrims came to Varanasi to wash their bodies, burn their dead, and send their prayers to the gods. And in the 5000 years that have followed, 5000 years in which every major religion of the earth has had its holy books written, they have never stopped coming. In Varanasi this day you can see the remains of rites that are as old as the mythic cities of the Tigris and Euphrates, as old as the pharaohs, and yet are still practiced where all their contemporaries have passed two millennia into the dust.

To be in Varanasi is to be overwhelmed with the knowledge of humanity's vastness. Seeing the women clothed in bright silks bathing, the corpses being placed on sandalwood pyres to burn, and the ashes and dirt of both being washed away down the sacred river Ganges is to know how small you are in the face of the world. Before the father of the father of the language I write in was first spoken people came to this spot and worshiped and lived and died.

Earlier this year I was in Chicago and I looked up at the Sears Tower from the base and saw what humanity has built, how far we have come. A few days ago at Varanasi I looked from the base of the ghats back through history and saw how far we go. The two together are dizzying, but I tell you straight that the view in Varanasi caused me even more vertigo, for it is a longer distance back than any building could ever hope to be up.


Unlike Chicago or Rome, the story of Varanasi is not to be found in her buildings. Invader after invader has swept through Varanasi's five millennia of life and they have all brought fire with them. There is actually little physical in this most ancient city that is ancient at all. Most of the ghats and the buildings around them are less than 400 years old.

Once you come away from the ghats and the sacred river most of Varanasi does not even look old. It certainly looks decrepit, but it seems more a shell burned out too fast by hard living rather than a venerable old man come to a ripe age. And in many places the hard painted streaks of globalization and modernization stand out. Billboards for movies, gold and silk shops, Xbox 360s, and every other consumer good are thick in many of the streets. Petrol stations and high rise hotels crowd the temples shoulder to shoulder, pressing each other for space enough to breath in the narrow roads that are always choked with smog from the millions of autos that pass through the city in endless clamoring, honking waves.

In this most ancient of cities the story of age is found in the people and in their rites. Varanasi is the history of humanity written in flesh and ritual. To come here and learn one cannot look at the safe and controlled walls of ancient structures, now relegated to exotic names of dead dynasties. One must look at the people on the ghats, the thronging, screaming, filthy masses filling the streets and see what history has written upon them, what history they write with their very lives.


Varanasi is sacred to Shiva, and it is a city of temples. If you go into any tall building in Varanasi you will be able to look down a see a temple, and probably five or six, all within the range of a baseball pitch. Most of all the ghats are choked with temples, so full that temples were built too far down into the river and are now being claimed by the sacred river Ganges. They too will pass, as all the humanity that has come here has passed, and such is fitting in a city sacred to the Destroyer.

The Ganges, sacred river of thousands of years, so sacred that its geography was mimicked in Java and Cambodia to give credibility to the reigns of kings who would never have a single member of their dynasty come within 1000 miles of the waters, is at its most sacred as it passes the ghats of Varanasi. To die and be burned here, to have your ashes given to the waters, is to attain Moksha – salvation. The trains to Varanasi are thus choked with the dying, old men and young girls sagging in the supporting hands of their families, trying to hold on long enough to see the sacred river, to die knowing that they have come to the banks of eternity and may now pass on to the other side.

At dawn and at evening it is hard to walk along the ghats, for they are so crowded with humanity that passage is a trail of shoving, jostling, milling crowds that move with the same slow tide as the sacred river itself. Naked sadhus and pious Brahmins, widows with begging bowls and priests chanting mantras press against you and block the way. Humanity is everywhere, in every color and shape and state of life, under the towering gopams of the Small Pox temple.

Gods and temples, the living and the dying, the bathing and the burning: in their churning, milling, screaming masses Varanasi is sacred.


In the midst of all this age and sacredness, in the confluence of all this karma and devotion, it should come as no surprise that Varanasi is a pit. It is a dirty, nasty, reeking city full of people who are angrier, less hospitable, more violent, ignorant, ugly and selfish than anywhere else I have ever been. The sheer ugliness of the hatred and selfishness I saw on face after face in Varanasi would be shocking in the worst neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and in India it was nearly enough to take my breath. In a country in which I had never passed through a city in which a dozen people did not invite me to their homes for a meal I found myself alone in Varanasi.

So busy is the city, and so accustomed to death and the passing feet of people who only come here to pray and leave or die and leave, that in Varanasi it is rare for one individual to care about the passing of another. Only the touts reach out their hands to you, for in this city those whose intentions are elevated are too busy to pay attention to you for they must attend to their own karma.

Throughout India I rarely saw violence, though I sometimes heard of its passing close before or behind me. But in Varanasi I saw it paraded through the street like the idol of a god. Dozens of rickshaw drivers beat each other bloody on the streets every day I was there, and their brawls threatened to turn into riots until police with machine guns came and beat them into submission. Mo and I were assaulted one night when our rickshaw got stuck. Men on the street screamed at us and demanded money, and when we did not give it to them they hurled trash and bricks at us while our driver struggled to get us clear. We were not hurt, but it was more because the men were drunk than because of any beneficence in the city.

In the ancient city of Varanasi, holy to gods and men alike, there is ugliness and brutality on display just as open and just as ancient as the sacred prayers and holy fires. It is a city where degradation, hate, and filth daily rinse against the ghats, a putrid river of rancid karma that seems at war with the sacred waters of the Ganges. Here life comes out from behind its masks and lets you see it true: profane and sacred all at once, brutal and brilliant and always, always defying your expectations.


On our last night in Varanasi Mo and I went out on a boat to do puja on the Ganges. While the conch shells wailed in the background, accompanied by the brass clash of temple gongs and the ululating calls of the Brahmins' mantras, our guide helped us and our group light hundreds of little candles that were placed in leaves filled with flowers. They told us to give the candles to the waters, along with a prayer to whatever god we might worship. For each candle we were to give a different prayer: for ourselves, for our family, for our country, for our world.

Our group put hundreds of the candles into the water. Some of them tipped and vanished under the surface almost instantly, or were lost under the hull of the boat as it glided through the night. Others streamed out behind us, staying lit for hours as they drifted away down that dark stretch of river that has taken so many prayers, so many lives, over the millennia. When all the candles were in the water we sat quietly, watching them drift away as the sounds of the city filtered gently around us. It was a moment of silence, of peace, and for me of something aching and sweet and terrible.

I wrote this poem as we sat in the boat, looking out at the candles in the night. It came to me suddenly, and I spoke it aloud to Mo. With her help I remembered it later and wrote it down. It is my last statement about Varanasi, and the Ganges, and that night.

This thin line of lights
Is a history of prayer;
Candles in leaves and flowers
Upon the sacred water.

In this darkness I cannot tell
Which is yours and which mine
Nor which still burns bright
And which has sputtered and died.

All I know is that tonight all prayers
Are our prayers together, and that
All will be lost to the water,
To the darkness, and to time.

-Robins 10/12/2006

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Happy Diwali!

Friday, October 20, 2006


Monday, October 16, 2006

Lord of the Mango Tree

Kanchipuram is an old city and in its time was a grand city. This 2000 year old ramble of temples and dynasties, say some schools of thought, was the home of Bodhidharma before his travels to China. Down the dusty streets and under the mango trees of the town the father of Chan and Zen Buddhism once meditated. It was here that, if he existed at all, he came to the realization of mind-only and the rejection of devotional rituals that would change the way Buddhism was seen forever after.

Not long after Bodhidharma's time the Buddhists rulers fell to the great Hindu temple builders of the Pallava dynasty, the same kings who built the monuments of Mamallapuram. What they started with the shore temple they finished here, bringing temple architecture to a zenith that would forever define the Dravidian style of temples. The Cholas would add refinements, certainly, but it was here that the glory of the soaring gopurams and reflective tanks reached their finalized form – a form that lasts to this day, almost 1200 years later.

It was in these great temples that the Brahmins received, recalled, or rehallowed the great center of Kanchipuram: the mango tree under which Lord Shiva was married. This spot is now one of the holiest in all Hinduism, a spot where the divine touched the world and a god married a goddess, sealed forever in an act that guaranteed the continuation of the universe. Even to this day you can see the mango tree where they were married, a marvel of nature that gives mangoes of four different flavors, one for each of the Vedas.

Once upon a time all of the great Tamil dynasties built their temples here, trying to outdo the Pallavas. The Cholas and the Pandyas, in turns, would build temples to rival that of the Mango Tree. They built to Shiva and to Vishnu, making Kanchi one of the few places in India equally holy to the two great gods, a place where rival sects both come for their holiest of pilgrimages. It was during this time that the great traveler Hsuan Tsang cam to Kanchi and commented on how pious and brave where its people, how great its universities and centers of learning. The temple city was even spoken of with love by Kalidasa, the Shakespeare of India, as the Jasmine City, sweetest of all cities of India.

Even into modern times Kanchipuram was vastly important. Robert Clive, in his drive to dominate India, appeased local sensibilities by giving a fabulous necklace to the great Vishnu temple. To this day it is said that the god is dressed in that necklace for holy days and great processions, a sign of the truce between Clive and the holy city.

When Mo and I came to Kanchipuram we knew all of these stories, and we felt the excitement growing as we saw the gopurams of the great temples rising above the plains and forests, visible from miles away. We then drove into a Kanchipuram that was only a shadow of its former glory. It is now a town of dusty streets, crowded and polluted, clogged with the refuse of a thousand pilgrims who venerate the temples and pollute the city that houses them. Around each temple are touts and salesmen who harass and chase anyone who wishes to go into the silence to the temple. So aggressive are these con artists that one pried open the door to my car and tried to shove shoes onto my feat, climbing into the seat beside me and screaming the whole time. I had to physically remove him from the car, and came as close to violence as I have in India. The story of Jesus and the money-changers suddenly gained new relevance to me as I watched aggressive, bullying men browbeat humble pilgrims into purchasing wares that they could not afford just so that they could be left in peace to worship.

Inside the temples themselves the scene was different, quieter and calmer. There were till touts, however, temple priests who would press their services on you, drag you from point to point and give broken, incomprehensible descriptions of myths and gods they only half understood, and then demand thousands of rupees in payment. However, unlike the touts outside, these priests would take no for an answer once you grew wise to their ways, and with only ten to twenty minutes of arguing and ignoring their increasingly frantic pleas, you could be left in peace to enjoy the holy ground.

The inside of the temples of Kanchipuram do not disappoint. They are ancient, they are massive, every part of them is carved with images of gods and demons, an unfolding stone mandala of myth and ritual through which the light of sacred fire and the thunder of sacred drums recalls to mind that the worship here has continued unabated for 1400 years. The echoes we heard through the stone forests were heard by Kalidasa and Hsuan Tsang, by emperors and viceroys and sultans, and perhaps even by gods themselves. Golden and soaring, massive and crumbling, the temples are a wonder of the world.

After seeing the temples Mo and I went for lunch. We had our driver, a local boy, take us to a little place – out of the way, down a back ally, used only by the locals. It was an adventure to make our way through the dark ally and up the narrow stairs to a place where tourists never come. We sat down with gusto to a wonderful South Indian meal and half way through noticed that the place mats proclaimed the restaurant had just become a chain. It has a branch in Toronto. We came a very long way to find a restaurant we could have eaten in at home. No matter where you go, there you are.

After lunch Mo went silk shopping. Kanchi, you see, is famous not just for its temples but also for its saris, which are made of the best silk in all of India and hand woven with silver and gold borders. We went into a home loom and saw a sari being woven in the traditional manner, unchanged in hundreds of years, and then were bombarded with saris to buy. We saw wedding saris that were made with over 20 pounds of gold, embroidered into patterns that would leave the mind reeling and unable to follow their grand geometric design. We saw saris like those that princesses and movie stars buy for their formal occasions, and we saw saris that every little girl in India dreams of being able to grow up to own. Mo bought two of them after a haggling session that lasted over an hour and a half, and got such a good price that I couldn't even fault her for making the single largest expenditure of money we made in India.

Aside from the touts the people of Kanchipuram were amazing. We saw the rich in their gorgeous silks and the poor in their rough homespun standing side by side and looking with wonder and devotion at what their ancestors had wrought in the name of their gods.

But beyond the pilgrims and the gawkers, we met the others – the folks who make India like no other country. One of these was a new friend of mine, a local art teacher who was very interested in both how I taught my students in America, and how I managed to be a "fatty." He, you see, very much wanted to be a fatty, but couldn't gain weight no matter how he tried. He told me that he would never be considered an accomplished man unless he could become a fatty, and so begged me for my secrets.

The person that struck us most in the heart, however, was a little girl who we met at a Vishnu temple. We weren't sure if her parents were inside and she had been left to wander, but from what we could gather from hand signs and body language it seemed she was an orphan who lived under the care of the temple. Her face was beautiful, haunting and distantly sad. She drifted like a ghost behind us, avoiding all attempts to photograph her or to get close enough to actually talk. (In the end we only got a photo of her by accident, Mo hit the shutter while cleaning the camera.) For hours she followed us, not begging for or accepting a thing from us other than our presence. In the end she followed us from the temple and stood by our car as the touts pounded on our windows and screamed. In the midst of it all Mo and I looked through the touts and met her eyes, and she smiled sudden and startled. She could not believe that in the midst of all the sound and fury, in the shadow of the storied and mythic gopurams it was her that we chose to look at. No one had ever chosen to see her, and her alone, in her entire life and that realization left us broken hearted as we left Kanchipuram.

Once it was a great city, now it is a ramble of mythic temples filled with orphans who find it hard to believe that anyone would chose to look at them.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

We're Back

This is just a placeholder post to let all and sundry know that we're back in Chennai. We've been on the road for 21 days solid, and rarely slept in the same bed more than once in that whole time. We've backpacked through 7 Indian States, seen a dozen palaces a hundred temples and met a thousand new people. We've been to a Muslim house for dinner durring Ramadan, done puja on the Ganges, seen the place where Ram lived, been assualted, and come home exausted but healthy, happy, and safe.

Much, much more to come.