Sunday, February 7, 2010

Blessed by an Elephant

One day before the reunion, we went to Tiruchirapalli, about a five-hour car ride from Chennai. We left at 5:00 a.m., accompanied by my brother-in-law, Ranganathan, and his wife, Soundara, in a taxi we hired for the day, and returned around 9:30 the same night. I was glad we didn't take the train. Departure times would have required staying overnight at a hotel and losing extra visiting time with other family members. And the sleeper cars wouldn't have given much of a view. From a hired car you can see everything flowing by the windows: The small villages with wares in front of markets, fields with various crops and small shrines near the roadside. Engineering colleges have sprung up everywhere.

In Trichy (as the city is called for short) we first visited some of Ranganathan's Sanskrit students, where we ate a wonderful lunch and they all caught up on news of a pilgrimage the students had taken to Tibet. Then we went to the Rock Fort Temple, a dominant landmark in the city and home to Ganesha, the elephant-headed God.

Ganesha is my husband's favorite deity, so anytime we go to India we visit this temple in order for him to pay his respect. The temple has been carved inside a giant rock and is in two levels, the higher level rising above the city, and bearing a shrine at the top. At the lower level you enter into a gateway topped by a fabulously ornate "gopuram", a feature of South Indian temples. Then you pass through a hallway with ornate paintings on the ceiling and stalls on either side selling garlands, coconuts, turmeric for worshippers, along with small statues and carvings.

The main shrine area is vast, with a counter to one side to check in your shoes, votive candles to another side, and at the far wall, steps lead on higher to the road and the next level. In the center is the shrine, and inside sits Ganesha, covered with garlands and attended by priests. Worshippers throng the rail and sit in the aisle leading up to the enclosed room. The outside of the shrine is topped with more lovely carvings and paintings depicting religious scenes. This is the main worship area and we spent some time there before proceding up the steps to the next level, which houses another shrine and the temple elephant just inside the entrance.

The first time I visited Rock Fort, I was charmed by the notion of being tapped on the head by an elephant for a blessing, but I thought of it more as entertainment for children and tourists. Children are entertained by this, but older people take the idea seriously. Westerners often hear of the cow being considered sacred in India, but the elephant is seen as spiritual as well. At Rock Fort, the temple elephant is considered a representative of Ganesha's power, and many people feel truly they've been blessed by her tap.

Temple elephants are female, and Asian female elephants have only small stubs for tusks. The one at Rock Fort is a gentle giant named Lakshmi, and she is 17 years old. I wrote a picture book about a small girl's visit to Rock Fort, and on this visit I wanted to firm up details in case of a re-write, so I had a list of questions for the trainer, which my husband and brother-in-law helped me with. I also had a new respect for Lakshmi's "job" from the little I had learned since my last trip. Lakshmi takes her work seriously. She is used to people coming up, giving her their coin, and waiting for the tap. As we talked to the trainer, she grew restless, as if aware we were talking about her. When I gave her my coin, she was quick with her tap. Then I paused and simply looked up, regarding her.

It is quite an experience to look an elephant in the eye. For one thing, it's a beautiful eye: a deep golden color, rimmed in black; warm and expressive. For another thing, she seemed as curious about me as I was about her, as if she wondered who was this creature asking so many questions about her. For another thing, for such a huge creature, she had a sweet face. Not just because of the decorations on her trunk and ears, but because of the soft expression. Obviously she is tenderly cared for.

My brother-in-law gave me an additional ten-rupee note for the trainer who had so patiently answered my questions, but he in turn directed me to give it to Lakshmi. Once again, she took the tribute from my hand, passed it to the trainer, then blessed me. By then, it was time to move on so other people could have their moment. As we walked away, I looked back, and she had turned to follow us with her eyes. They say an elephant never forgets. I am wondering if, on a future visit, this will be so.

On this visit, we did not proceed up to the top of the rock as we have in the past. Time was short, and we had a relative we wanted to visit in nearby Sriringham before heading home. Stairs inside this second level, however, do take the worshipper past another shrine inside, on up to the top shrine and a large rock face area where you can get stunning views of the city.

But I was content to leave with the memory of Lakshmi's curious gaze following us out the doorway to the road.


RAD - Dot Painter said...

Lovely. I wish to experience the gift from an elephant as you described!

Anonymous said...

Such a lush setting! So wonderful for a writer to experience. I had heard that about elephants - their memory. They are amazing creatures.

This entire descriptive piece is so vividly written that I was pulled into the scenes. I would love to see your picture book. Rock Fort - and the "gentle giant named Lakshmi." This is all so beautiful!
Ann Best, Memoir Author of In the Mirror & Imprisoned