Thanks to the information from some guy Uli talked to on the street (the usual thing a self-declared introvert does all day) and of “our” new rickshaw driver we ended up visiting two temple festivals/ceremonies over the last couple of days.
The first took place in Ernakulam a short ride away and we went there in the late afternoon with Max. Unfortunately we missed the elephant – although we could still see his “left-overs” – but it was an interesting experience. We were the only Westerners and non-believers and as such ourselves a minor attraction. The rules of conduct inside the temples seem to be the same everywhere: as non-Hindus we generally can’t go inside the shrine and if we can (occasionally) I can’t take any pictures there. Outside the shrine the message was: knock yourself out with your camera. Other than that, everybody has to take their shoes off, that’s obvious, but nothing else we did or didn’t do seemed to have raised any eyebrows. I guess we get some slack for being non-Hindus and Westerners.
It was a great colorful scene: the women were wearing their Sunday-best saris in all colors of the visible spectrum and the man showed up as usual in shirt and pants or lungis – basically a piece of fabric that is wrapped around the hips and secured by tucking one end in. There must have been hundreds of people patiently waiting in line to get through the door into the main court and then to the shrine where they quickly pray and burn oils, incenses or offer what looks like candy (Shiva seems to have a sweet-tooth).
Then they circle the shrine clockwise many stopping on either of the four walls to make donations, pray, burn more oil in lamps and receive dots of color on their forehead (I should have looked up the proper name for these “dots” and will do so but its getting late here …) All four outer walls of the shrine have little oil lamps and on regular days a good number of them are burning but during the festival every single one was burning and people kept pouring oil in.
The outer edges of the roof were decorated with long strings of marigold and jasmine leis which nicely contrasted with the light of the burning oil lamps. I have to say that in my mind the bright fluorescent lights that were an obvious recent addition took away a bit of the flair and ambiente, but they sure make it easier for the little old ladies in their saris to negotiate the uneven pavement.
The main attraction for our son was right outside the main gate: firecrackers were being burned for 10 rupees a pop in honor of Shiva. Firecracker might not do the “explosion” justice, though, it was basically gunpowder that is set on a special container of stone and light with a torch through a short length of more gunpowder. The ensuing explosions almost blew out my ear-drums but Max – hands tightly clutched over his ears – had a great time (in fact we had to go back today and check whether the firecrackers were still there – and they were – so we bought a few to entertain our son and in honor of Shiva, of course).
I took quite a few pictures feeling more intrusive than I probably was perceived to be, as everybody was smiling at me and people would come up and pose. My original plan was as clever as useless: I was wearing my pink-and-grassgreen Salwar Kameej (pyjama-like pants and longish dress over them) thinking I could just “blend in” and stand in a quiet corner and take some pictures with my long fast lens. Needless to say there was no quiet corner and the whole blending in thing didn’t work terribly well either: most Indian woman aren’t 5’10”, haul around a big camera plus bag and are followed by a blond kid and a towering husband in a bright red t-shirt.
A Secret Mission to a Festival
Encouraged by this experience Uli and I planned a secret mission to Alwaye, a town about 25 km north of Ernakulam. We dropped Max off at school and depriving our son of two 45 minute rickshaw rides, which he will never forgive us should he ever learn about them. We had “our” rickshaw driver, Rajiv, take us to this even bigger festival in honor of Shiva the next morning.
The main event, unfortunately, had happened the night before but what we saw gave us a good impression and a sense of relief that we didn’t attempt to make it to Alwaye with Max the night before – as we had briefly discussed. They must have had thousands, if not more, people attending the night before, a special ponton bridge was build over the river to provide better access and a huge area around the temple was filled with people selling everything from little devotional figurines, to spices, oils, pots, seeds, cheap plastic toys from China and handwoven baskets. And food, of course, there is always a food stall somewhere close by in India. We did our round around the shrine and attracted more than our fair share of vendors trying to talk us into buying devotional figurines and glass bead bracelets. I ended up buying a brass ring that allegedly contains a couple of pieces of elephant hair – looks like black nylon to me – and probably is – for a whooping 20 rupees.
It was nice to have Rajiv along for most of the time as he helped translating and so I got some excellent shots of people. I was quite amazed that people didn’t mind in the slightest to be photographed while performing religious ceremonies (taking place outside in stalls or on the steeps leading down to the river) but quite happily agreed to be photographed and then just carried on.
The road back was long, hot and dusty and so we stopped at the supermarket and liquor store for some refreshments (liquor store products are strictly for evenings and in the apartment only) and something quite funny happened: Rajiv, who all morning didn’t want to accept any water, or food, or ice-cream from us and made do with 20 rupees worth of peanuts took the opportunity – after I had left to go to the supermarket – to sprint after Uli on his way to the booze store and asked whether maybe he could have a little bottle of Smirnoff as well. Uli bought him one instead of giving him a tip and by the time I got back to the rickshaw the booty was securely stowed away.
I am still wondering how this story played out with his wife in the evening: “Darling, you know how these Europeans are, he simply insisted. I would have offended him terribly by declining. You see, I really was in a bind – I just had to accept it graciously and make a brave face.”
Anyway, we now have a rickshaw driver who calls us twice daily to see whether we need to go somewhere, anywhere.