Our driver, who had gotten progressively more crazed on the trip south, careened into Kanya Kumari at about 6 pm. We had consulted the Lonely Planet guide like a people who don''t believe in oracles might consult an oracle. Based on that consultation we made a S.W.A.G. (sophisticated wild-assed guess), and asked the driver to deliver us to the Hotel Kanya Kumari which was on the list of middle range accommodations. Middle range is 500 – 1000 rupees in season, which is now. Our hotel rate was approx. $15. The place looked grim and grimy but it would do.
Kanya Kumari is at the southernmost tip of India, offering a shoreline to both the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is not much of a tourist destination but is a huge destination for pilgrims. After we put our backpacks in the room we went out to have an after-dark look-around. It felt like descending into hell. It seemed that everyone was dressed in black or at least dark colors. This was such a contrast to Amritapuri where almost everyone dressed in white. We had thought that was a little weird and cultish at the time but now we missed it. The streets were crowded with beggars. We saw too many awful examples of “manufactured beggars” - pitiable children who had been twisted and maimed to make them good beggar material. The sidewalks were liberally decorated with piles of human feces. People were coughing and hawking and spitting and everywhere the vendors were aggressively shouting and selling.
It felt like a total absence of the sacred, a place from which beauty had permanently fled.
Dinner was not so good and Eli decided to supplement with a fried banana. He got sick. We were pretty much on nervous system overload and were looking forward to getting back to the hotel for refuge. But when we got there we realized it was seriously infested with mosquitoes, ants and bedbugs. When I reached into my backpack, a swarm of bugs flew out. We were well chewed up within 30 minutes and our mosquito nets wouldn't work since the ceiling was too high. We covered ourselves in DEET which kept the mosquitoes off but that did not seem to deter some invisible biters. There were no top sheets and just one yellowed and thin bottom sheet. We assumed there were probably lice about. But you know, when you've just seen a hundred beggars bedding down on the side of a busy road, with the cement for their mattress....the rule is NO WHINING!
That was night number one in Kanya Kumari.
The goddess Kanya Kumari is an aspect of the Divine Mother – a reincarnation of Parvati, the consort of Shiva and the mother of Ganesha. Kanya Kumari – in a truly Kali-esque display of fierceness – single-handedly conquered and vanquished the demons who had been prevailing. She secured freedom for the world. There is a huge and ancient temple, the Kumari Amman temple, built in her honor, where pilgrims worship and give thanks. After our first night in Kanya Kumari I decided that perhaps this vanquishing goddess had forgotten to clean up her own bedroom.
There is a lot to say about Kanya Kumari but I will focus on the Kumari Amman temple and my experience surrounding our visit there. We got up at 4 am, had a quick wash and headed to the temple.
The streets were much quieter. The beggars and homeless families had already been evicted from their nightly real estate. As we headed to the temple entrance, the only vendors who approached us were selling either jasmine (to make an offering to the goddess) or chai (to make an offering to our stomach).
At the temple entrance we slipped off our shoes. The entrance guards started barking at us. We thought maybe they wanted us to leave our bags outside. What a perfect dilemma for a woman – was I committed enough to entering the temple of the Divine Feminine to leave my handbag unattended? Happily, before I had to struggle much with this question, we came to understand what the commotion was really all about. They wanted Eli to take his shirt off! It's unusual, but in this temple, all men must remove their shirts.
We proceeded into the temple and things became dream-like so I will tell it like a dream.
I am at the opening to an ancient temple. I'm not sure where I'm going and so I follow crowds of Indian women and bare-chested men. There are no Caucasians here except Eli and myself. We go deeper into darkness. It feels like a labyrinth – I have no idea of direction and simply follow the ceaseless stream of devotees. I know that we are going to “the middle”. The temple walls are massive, the ceilings are low. As I pass though doorways I must bend very low, as if no human pride can enter deeper into the abode of the goddess. The stone walls are covered with carvings of deities and animals, gods and goddess and symbols of the sacred. Yantras are drawn on the floors. I pass several shrines to Ganesh, Everything is thick with gravity and darkness.
We pass a flaming lamp - “the eternal lamp” - and I pour my oil offering into it, say a prayer and a mantra.
We move deeper, bend low again and enter a chamber. I know we are at the middle. We file past a stone opening, and deep within that opening, attended by a Brahman, is Kanya Kumari. Without being told, I know that it would be an absence of the sacred for me to blog a description of the innermost part of the Kumari Amman temple .
We leave that innermost chamber. Eli and I wordlessly agree to sit off to the side and meditate. Then we begin the journey back out towards dawn.
The town of Kanya Kumari is famous for it's sunrises and sunsets. We emerged in time to see one of those famous sunrises. As we were sitting and watching, all the elements that had made us feel like this town was a descent into hell were still present – just a few yards away a man was defecating on the rocky ocean shore. All the garbage and grime were still there. Nothing had changed in the world of human concerns. But apparently something had changed inwardly. Kanya Kumari must have vanquished some demons in our minds because both Eli and I were now finding that, although the hellish grimness remained in the background, what had come into the foreground was a clear awareness of life continuing and love happening: human connection, parental love, community and friendship. Several young men, dressed in tattered black, surrounded us. We would have seen only annoyance or menace the night before but what arose now was happiness and humor. They spent half an hour trying out their English, taking pictures, laughing at us and at themselves.
After watching the sunrise we walked awhile and were flagged down by an old beggar sitting at the side of the road. We would have seen only suffering and hopelessness the night before, so much so that we probably would have dropped some rupees and hurried on. But what arose now was sweetness and wisdom. His English was better than anyone we had encountered here and his eyes were clear and gentle and full of awareness. We had a wonderful conversation with this old beggar who was such a devotee of Jesus that his eyes grew brightt as he spoke of it. He had a rosary and bid us farewell with a cheerful sign of the cross and said he would pray for us. (If all goes well we will upload a video of this encounter at the same time we upload this blog.)
I had really asked myself – the night before – how I would be able to find “that which is beautiful” in this town. It would take some sort of miracle – like maybe a goddess, in a truly Kali-esque display of fierceness, would have to single-handedly conquer and vanquish the demons which had been prevailing in my mind, thereby securing my freedom to once again see beauty and the presence of the sacred. circumstances.