Monday, February 13, 2012

Guru-shopping in Tiru, India

"Not knowing is true knowing."
 ~ Gyalwang Drukpa

"Keep the company of those who seek the truth; run from those who have found it."
 ~ Vaclav Havel

I've just come from the far south of India, where I spent five weeks in the uber-spiritual guru-rich town of Tiruvannamalai, also called Tiru. I've been hearing about it from friends for years, and now that I've been I wonder what took me so long. The Indian guru-saint Ramana Maharshi spent decades there before his death in 1950, but it has been a place of pilgrimage for maybe thousands of years. The impressive Mount Arunachala rises up at the city's edge, and it's considered a manifestation of Shiva. Tiru is also ground zero for Advaita/Vedanta, or Non-Dual teachings. You could go on and on about it, and trust me, people do, but here's the short version: You think you're separate. You're not.

Over the last few years it's become a magnet for Western spiritual seekers and the gurus that want to lead them. Swing a stick and you'll hit a guru - and sometimes that seems like a good idea. Gurus are offering "satsang," (meetings or teachings) on a daily or twice-daily basis during the high season, January and February. At a glance it seems like multiple gurus are talking about Ultimate Truth and all saying different things. But the deepest truths aren't captured by words, they're only pointed to by words. Misunderstanding is bound to ensue. Between our limited minds trying to understand, multiple messages, and the fact that not all teachers are what they claim - this place seriously messes with your mind. I love it.

Love to you!

From the Lonely Planet travel guide: "There are temple towns, there are mountain towns, and there are temple-mountain towns where God appears as a phallus of fire. Welcome to Tiruvannamalai."

How beautiful is THIS kid? Wow. You could see that her Dad was a Muslim, so I guess that makes her one too. As if you could accurately classify this beautiful human so simply. Where is her Muslimness? Is there some fixed identity there? I'm thinking not. 
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Workers outside a train station.
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Oh, the glamour of international travel! I can only imagine the envy. This is Kate at the top and Jen at the bottom trying to catch a few winks at 1 a.m. The trip had started the previous day with a 5 a.m. wake-up, two-hour drive to the train station, 12 hours on a train, then almost six hours in nasty traffic in this car to arrive in Tiru at 2:30 a.m. We found out later that there'd been a political killing that day and road closures as a means of protest.
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Inside the huge and ancient Shiva temple in Tiru, these pilgrims managed to forget the sobriety of the occasion for this photo. The girl saluting cracks me up.
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There are so many versions of the tikka, or dots on the head. Powders, colors, paints, felt sticky-dots. I don't know the difference. I think they're all related to the "third eye," the eye that sees truth. More on that here.
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These guys were friendly and all wanted to shake my hand, which you'd never know from this photo.
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I love walking through vegetable markets and taking photos. People in the south were especially keen to have their photos taken.
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The same guy as in the previous photo. Nice tomatoes, dude.
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She's a little young for the Mommie Dearest look, but it kinda works.
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Kids hanging out at the market.
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I've heard that these pots are hand-hammered, but I'm not sure. The dimple pattern looks to be from hammer blows.
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An offering plate on fire is being carried through the crowd during a religious ceremony near the big temple.
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The common man's SUV.
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This Ganesh statue is inside the Ramanamaharshi Ashram. Ramana is considered quite a saint in India, and both Indians and Westerners flock to his ashram. Ganesh is but one of the reported 330 million Hindu gods. Don't be misled - at its heart it's not so different from Christianity. As a young kid put it to me, "God is One, but he has many faces." It's another way of expressing the inexpressible: God is everywhere, limitless, all-knowing, and beyond conception. 
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A street scene at night.
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Lovely kid.
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I love this guy's stance. He's ready for action.
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A common scene along India's country roads. Chatting, bike-riding, motorbikes, carrying farm produce on your head.
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The annual Pongal festival, based around the harvest, happened during our stay. On one of the four days the cows get a new paint job on their horns, and the lucky ones even get brass bells at the tips. He looks like he's wearing a jester's hat. 
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In south India these amazing geometric patterns are a part of everyday life, although this one is more grand because of Pongal.  They are endlessly varied, and the women who create them make it seem effortless. You can see more here.
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She wasn't sure about me, wisely enough. But she did let me pick her up, which is always fun.
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Rumor has it that this powder is considered healthy for kids. You see it sometimes on adults, too.
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This little shop is next to a busy road. You can see the remains of Pongal designs in the dirt. 
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The Collage of Pharmacy? Maybe. I guess it could be "College." Who can say?
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I took a long walk along the highway and was rewarded with a beautiful sunset.
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It's so easy to make a connection with kids, whether they speak any English or not.
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This graceful lovely is carrying water from the well to her house. No doubt she sees it less romantically than I do.
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Doing laundry by hand in the public wash house.
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Unfortunately this isn't unusual all around India, but especially in Tiru. Some blocks will be spotless while others look like this. There's no garbage system in most places, so it just gets scattered. It drives many Westerners crazy (me, for instance!), but the Indians don't usually seem to mind.
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An impressive set of horns.
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I thought this was a boy until I saw the ankle bracelets.
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Dried chilis at the market.
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What a character this guy is! He should be in a movie. His legs are so bowed they're deformed, but he still carries heavy loads to his cart. The green leaves are paan, which is a bit like chewing tobacco. More on paan here.
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Devotion, in the form of lighting candles in front of a small temple.
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Devotion, in the form of treating your guru like he's some kind of movie star. This is the birthday party of Mooji, the big dawg of gurus in Tiru these days. He gets treated like he's the Second Coming of Brad Pitt. Come on people - the guru can't do it for you, and treating him like a celebrity doesn't get you closer to That Which You Seek. Says the guy who doesn't really know That Which He's Talking About.
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A candle-lit representation of "Om," considered the sacred sound of the universe.
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I thought my milk coffee had a little extra oomph here in Tiru. This might explain it! This looks to be a small municipal dump, but there are great piles of trash maybe 50 yards outside the gates. I guess it was too far to walk.
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Oh, this young woman just makes me melt. What a smile and a natural beauty. Jen was playing with her young daughter for the longest time, and she beamed throughout. (I don't even have that many teeth!)
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This woman walked by as Jen was playing with the kids, which by now had turned into about six girls doing a one-hour dance recital. (What's going on with her teeth? Inexplicable.)
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This man was washing banana leaves for use as plates - a common use of the leaves in south India. 
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Many people get their heads shaved as part of a religious pilgrimage, and some get this paste/powder on their heads. I suspect it's sandalwood, but I don't know.
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At the entrance to the big Shiva temple, people pray and hold their hands to the sacred flame.
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I love this guy. There are many slackers and posers in India who wear the robes for all the wrong reasons. He doesn't strike me as one of those. He is a bit of a dandy, though, so what do I know.
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We heard some amazing drumming and singing as we were walking down the street, and stepped in to see this young man singing verses of the Koran. Really stunning vocals and an incredible amount of music coming from that one drum. Wow.
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A Muslim vendor at the vegetable market.
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A lovely smile.
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These are maybe the biggest Indians I've ever seen. A group of them were unloading 100kg (220 pound) sacks of sugar from this truck. The two guys on top would hold the their foreheads together while they slid the sacks to the edge of the truck, then the guys on the ground would carry it single-handedly, barefoot, up a ramp and into a storage room. 
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(The End)