We folded our Madurai tents the morning of Friday, January 15th, and began our drive to Karaikudi, the next stop on our west to east transit of southern India.
Our first stop along the route was at a flower market where all of the vendors were doing a bustling business for Pongal. There were entire mountain ranges of blossoms from the familiar marigold in all of its shades of yellow, gold and orange to tuberose to roses to the more exotic jasmine and lotus to who knows what else. People were buying blossoms by the bagful by weight and in the form of garlands, either by centimeter or in complete garlands. I couldn’t resist buying a garland myself and, even with prices apparently sky high to take advantage of the festival, my gorgeous tuberose (and other stuff) garland was only 170 rupees or about $2.70. The most magnificent thing I saw at the flower market were some wedding garlands being made. They were made up of rose petals and ribbon and greens of some sort. Each rose petal was individually woven into the garland. It was spectacular. I was told that the garlands would be about one meter long and would cost about 8,000 rupees each.
We next stopped when we saw a bunch of people gathered by the road. Turns out they were waiting for the beginning of a motorcycle race. Kids gathered around us and we had a delightful time with them. The race itself was chaotic. At one point, the motorcycles all lined up across the main drag, which was also the main highway, but since no one had made any previous arrangements, general traffic just piled up behind them and tried to wiggle through and past them. I think the race finally started but it was pretty slow going with all the people, busses, trucks, cars, bicycles, tuk tuks, etc. trying to negotiate the same roadway. Helmets probably not required.
We also made a stop at a market that seemed colorful and we had a nice walk around. Hashmat bought tea for all of us from a chai wallah after explaining that tea was one of the safest street foods to have. At five rupees a glass, it was a bargain and a treat and piping hot, just what was required with the temperatures in the high 80s.
We arrived at our accommodations in Karaikudi in time for lunch and a brief rest before we headed out for more activities in the afternoon/evening. I am loving this trip but some days are more exhausting than others and this was a pretty damned tiring one. Our afternoon was filled with new experiences of the terra cotta and human flesh sorts.
We visited our first Ayanar temple, which was wonderful. Ayanar was (is?) a local village diety who was incorporated by Hinduism into its pantheon. It reminds me of how Christianity appropriated pagan festival days and made them significant days in the Christian calendar as a way of making the new religion more palatable for new folk, using winter solstice as Christmas for example. But enough of that religious stuff.
The thing about this particular temple that captivated me were the terra cotta horses. Rows and rows of them in various degrees of patinaed gorgeousness. The figures vary in height but they are large, not quite life size but big. They are offered as a way of making a wish. The horse carries the message to the gods. If I was more confident of the Internet connection, I would dazzle you with photo after photo; seeing as I’m not that confident, this one will have to do..
On our way back from the Ayanar temple, we saw some people cooking Pongal at another tiny village shrine and we made a stop. After we made our barefoot way ever so gingerly across the very sharp-pebbly ground to the area of the shrine, the children were like mosquitoes hungry for human blood, except much more endearing; they swarmed around us in ever changing and increasing groups. They wanted to shake hands, “hello,” “hello,” “hello.” Big smiles.* Many photos taken.
We met the oracles of the village and were encouraged to come back the next night when they would be going into their trances to tell the future. Alas, we would be gone, so, our futures remain uncertain. I watched the guys make the Pongal for the diety. Nothing boiled over but it looked pretty tasty, especially after he added the piles of crushed jaggery, the cardamom, raisins and cashews.
As we drove away from the shrine, the children kept running after the bus smiling those enormous smiles and waving their farewells.
*The smiles never leave the kids faces UNTIL you take their photo (often at their request) at which point many of them get very serious.