10 Days of Research and Vacation Pt. I

So for those of you wondering where I have been for the month of October, don’t worry, I’m back! I have been out and about here traveling up and down the state of Tamil Nadu. I have finally begun more independent, out of the office kind of research, and I have definitely been loving it!  Let me just say, it has most certainly reinvigorated my love for my project and my time here in India. Before I set out on the trip, I had gotten into kind of a slump. I felt as though I was just going through the motions of life here in Chennai, and instead of living every day to the fullest, I was simply shuffling through the motions. I was so used to my daily routine, wake up, eat breakfast with the family, go to the office, leave the office around 6:30, pick up some fruit at the fruit market next to the train station, or do some shopping, get home around 8/8:30, eat dinner, take a bath, send some emails and skype with friends if the internet worked, and then go to sleep- only to repeat the process again the next day.

At the end of september I abruptly realized that my time here is coming to a close, I leave on the 31st after all! I was both excited and saddened by this fact. India has been a wonderful place to be, but the hustle and bustle of the city of Chennai definitely was NOT what I was expecting my experiences of India to be. I was (and still am) ready to move on, what can I say, I like having the freedom to move around in order to gain intimacy and exposure to life itself. But I had mainly been ready to go because before this trip I began to feel as though I had done as much as I possibly could do research wise here in the office. If there’s one thing I have learned about India, and this office especially, it’s that Indians love protocol. Many of the impromptu trips, or human to human research interactions I dreamed of having before coming, and desperately wanted to have while here just didn’t happen because the chain of command slowed down the progress of it :(. So that being said, when I decided to take this trip, not only did I plan it according to important hair tonsuring temples here in the south, but also along the lines of vacation stops along the way. What can I say, I needed to get away in order to refresh and reenergize myself.

For 10 days I travelled all throughout the state of Tamil Nadu and went to Palani, Kodaikanal, Madurai, Rameswaram, , the tiny village of Selva, and Vellangani (also spelled Velakanni). Of those 10 days, only 4 of them were really spent doing legitimate in-depth research. Even though I felt a little guilty about taking a trip with a majority of “touristy” visits, the main tenant of the fellowship is to “encourage [the] discovery of self and the world, a greater appreciation and understanding of people and culture, and to enable individuals to act on great ideas through independent study projects rather than formal academic pursuit.” That being said, my mini vacation definitely created within me a great appreciation and understanding of people and culture, especially my long distance bus rides on the state buses! And, although I am now definitely pinching pennies since it is a lot more costly traveling around then just staying at home, I fell really good about India, my project, and sad that in a few days I’ll be leaving here and heading to Durban South Africa. I know, I know, my life is sooo difficult *sarcasm*!

So since I covered a lot of ground in two weeks, and it might get a bit tedious for you to read and me to type my whole adventure, I’ll recap my trip in different parts. So here is part I of my 10 day adventure! I’ll also post pictures from the whole trip in my Flickr feed on the right, so you’ll definitely feel as though you went on this trip with me! 🙂 Feel free to check those out, comment, and send emails since I love correspondence!

Now, on to the adventure!…

I left Chennai on the sleeper bus through KPN travels on the 7th headed to Palani, which is about a 9 hour bus ride away. Palani is one of the 6 abodes of Lord Muruga, who turns out to be the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Lord Muruga is considered one of the 6 important Hindu Gods, and is called Lord of the mountains and therefore all of his abodes reside on/ within mountainous regions.

Legend has it that there was an evil demon named Soorapadman who lived on an island south of the state of Tamil Nadu, possibly Sri Lanka, but I’m just guessing on this one, and was torturing a Deva–celestial beings that control forces of nature such as fire, air, wind, death, etc… so Lord Shiva (Muruga’s father) was called to end the torture. Shiva gave birth to Muruga through his third eye, and sent him off to defeat the evil demon, and of course he won, because good always conquers evil.

Lord Muruga is the brother of Lord Ganesha (the one who has the head of an elephant). It is said that Lord Muruga now calls Palani one of his abodes because of a falling out he had with his family. Apparently a wise sage brought a special golden mango (the mango of wisdom) to Lord Shiva to eat. Being a good husband, he offered it first to his wife Parvati, who in turn, being a good mother offered it first to her sons. Since the mango could not be cut in half or shared (for some reason or another) Shiva and Parvati came up with a test to help them gauge which son deserved to eat the fruit. They decided that whoever circled the universe first would win the golden mango of wisdom. Lord Muruga jumped on his peacock and speedily began to encircle the universe, however Lord Ganesha knew that he was not as fast as his brother, so instead, he encircled his two parents and told them they were the universe and that the universe was within them. Winning his parents over with his philosophy, Shiva and Parvati awarded the golden mango of wisdom to Ganesha. When Muruga returned to see that his brother had won using “trickery” he was very upset and denounced his familial ties and sped off on his peacock, wearing only a loin cloth, to the hills of Palani. There he appeared in the dream of Cheraman Perumal, a King of the Chera Dynasty who was touring the Palani hills. In the king’s dream, Lord Muruga was giving a Darshan (paying tribute to a diety) in the Palani hills. During the dream, he instructed the king to build him a shrine on the hill where he wanted to be worshiped. So now you have all the info on Muruga that I can possibly give you at this time, however, there is always google and Wikipedia to fill in the blanks!

I arrived in Palani after a fabulous sleep on the Sleeper Bus- imagine the night bus described in Harry Potter, and then you’ll know what I’m talking about. If I could only use one word to describe the sleeper bus it would be AWESOME! Each bed comes complete with pillows, blankets, and a handy-dandy luggage storage rack. Plus there were courtesy blinds so that you sleep in peace. I loved the birds-eye-view I had from my bus window, and watching the sun rise in the valley as we neared our destination was gorgeous. Once I arrived, I contacted Mr. Vickraman’s friend and temple hair contact Sobramani who speaks no English and I speak, cogam cogam Tamil terium (very very little Tamil). Becaause of this small issue, our phone conversation consisted of 4 “dropped” calls (my polite way of saying that he hung up on me a few times) but I was persistent none the less, and we finally managed to communicate that I would meet him at the Thirupor Lodge and he would take me to the temple from there. Once at the lodge (a 5 minute walk from the bus stand) I met him in the lobby. From there he took me and my backpack plus oversized purse containing my computer and camera to his home, but first we stopped for tea at a roadside tea stand.

The Night Bus!

I have noticed that the roadside tea shop is like a staple to the Indian way of life and diet, as Starbucks is to American life and culture. The only difference is that the Indian roadside tea shop is very male dominated, but that didn’t stop Sobramani from taking me there, nor has it deterred me from frequenting other roadside tea shops now! Every time I pass one on my way to and from the office there are at lease 10-15 men standing in front of the lean-to aka, the tea stall, all sipping the piping hot, extremely sweet, black tea that has been brewed in milk, from their small glass cups. Until my visit to Palani, I had not experienced the magic of the roadside tea stand, but now, it has become a staple in my diet!  Sobramani ordered two teas, and the two of us stood with the crowd of men at 7:15 a.m. sipping our piping hot black tea. I got a few looks from the men wondering who I was and what on earth I, a woman, was doing sipping tea with them, however, I just shrugged the looks off since this tea was so good! After the tea, we climbed back on the motorcycle and sped off in the direction of his home. Once there, he instructed me to take a seat and wait as he showered and dressed for the day. During this time I got to meet his wife, 2 of his 4 children and their super cute kitten! 15 minutes later, Sobramani was out of the shower and ready to go. The plan was to climb the stairs  up the hill (which really felt like a mountain once you start climbing) to go and see Lord Muruga. We drove over to the temple, left my flip-flops at the free chappal stand since he wasn’t wearing any shoes, and shoes are prohibited within the temple premises, and met his 2nd son who spoke some English so that we could communicate better.

After introductions, we started the climb. Upon entering the temple there were only a few stairs. Being the silly me I occasionally am, I began to think that people were totally exaggerating how many stairs there are to climb– can you really trust the internet… so I though we had reached the top when get got to a small shrine of Shiva. Man was I wrong! Those preliminary stairs were only the beginning! It turns out there are over 2,000 stairs to reach the top of the Hill Temple- as the Palani temple is called. About half way up I was sweating like a pig, breathing like I was running a marathon, and thinking “why on earth am I climbing a mountain for hair?!?!  Do I  really need to see Lord Muruga to see the hair tonsuring???” I guess Sobramani took pity on the sweaty mess I was, and told me that we could take the elephant path the rest of the way up! Thank God was all I could say. I was so thankful when he told me this that I nearly collapsed onto the oversized stair I was attempting to climb. The Elephant path was still challenging and my thighs and glutes definitely felt the hike the next day to say the least! However, the views were spectacular of the valley below as we continued the climb.

Just a fraction of ALL of the stairs! I told you they were giant sized!

View of the valley below.

There turns out to be 4 different ways to reach the top of the Hill Temple; 1) the 2,000+ stairs 2) the elephant path 3) the rope winch or 4) the small mountain trolly. Maybe if I spoke more Tamil I would have understood that Sobramani had asked if I wanted to climb all of the stairs or take the winch before we began, however, I guess I interpreted his question as if I wanted to go to the temple, silly me… But as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger… right?When we finally reached the top, I was covered in sweat and dust, yet so happy to finally have made it! While Sobrmanai purchased the special “fast pass” darshan line tickets, I took pictures of the valley below! When he returned with the tickets, he pointed out the grove of coconut trees that he owns. I must have taken at least 50 pictures of the views, the pilgrams, Sobramani and his son, and even myself before we really even got started discovering the Hill Temple. We finally started walking towards the inner sanctum so that I could see Lord Muruga- even though I am not hindu, and technically not allowed into this part of the temple, but that’s neither here nor there- Sobramani made it work somehow!

The special darshan line was really short, and after about 20 min we had actually made it inside the sanctum sanctorum. Waiting in line to see the presiding deity is like waiting in line at an amusement park. The temple has the path to the Deity neatly plotted out so pilgrims only have to follow along on through the paths indicated by the metal bars. All of the pilgrims in the lines are chatting or shouting, some are praying/ meditating over the special offering they have brought- apparently Muruga loves milk so people brought a lot of that in special blessed milk jugs, sitting crossed legged on the floor during moments of prolonged waiting, or when the line is moving, pushing the people in front of them, and generally behaving like the people you wait in line with to get on the Goliath ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain. As I waited in the line, like a typical American- giving adequate space tot he person in front of me, and trying to stay in single file, three Indian women clearly didn’t have  or hold the same kind of line rules and decorum, and I was pushed and shoved all the way inside the sanctum sanctorum. By the time I got close enough to get a peek at Lord Muruga, I was pushed out from in front of the deity, given some special ash which I was supposed to smear across my forehead, and then pushed out the exit at the other end of the sanctum. Good thing I was wearing my glasses or else I definitely I would not have been able to make out the form of the deity which I quickly glance out for literally 2 seconds!  As is customary in all shiva temples (even though this temple is home to Lord Muruga, he’s still Siva’s son) you must sit after looking at the deity and have a moment of meditation or reflection. As I was with Sobramani, he sent his son to get us some sweet pongal made special at the temple. We must have sat for a least 15 minutes, eating pongal and “reflecting”. Since making it into the sanctum sanctorum is the highlight of any temple visit, after reflection time, we headed back down to 2,000+ stairs, grabbed my flip-flops, said goodbye to Sobramani’s son, and then sped off in the direction of the first of many hair tonsuring halls.

In Palani, I visited a total of 4 tonsuring halls. There is no tonsuring that takes place on the Hill Temple, so the few halls are scattered around the town below the hill. The first hall that we went to was long and rectangular. There are two distinct halls; one hall for men’s tonsuring, and the other for ladies and children’s tonsuring. When we got there, there were not as many people having their hair tonsured as I thought. In fact, many of the barbers were sitting around, chatting with other barbers waiting for someone to walk through the doorless doorframe to get their head tonsured. In the ladies and children’s hall however, it was filled to the brim with families having their children’s heads tonsured. My ears were confronted with the sounds of children screaming and crying, parents and barbers yelling at one another, and the sound of the camera flashes going off as excited families documented their children’s first tonsure. In this hall there were no women having their hair tonsured, however, everyone was super excited to see me snapping pictures of the whole scene, and taking video of their tonsuring experience. In fact, a few families asked me to take “snaps” of their families bald headed child, and many barbers called me over to take pictures of them doing their job. It was a really festive mood in the entire hall, and everyone was actually really excited and eager to find out who I was, what I was doing, and offer their help and insight into why they were tonsuring. Since only children and men were getting their hair tonsured, their answers weren’t as unique as many of the women with long hair, but it was awesome to be able to talk with them anyways about their tonsuring experiences.

The first tonsure hall

After spending about 30 min at the first hall, Sobramani told me we were going to another hall close by where he heard there were ladies tonsuring their hair. When we arrived, this hall looked more like a makeshift tonsure hall since the wooden barber seats were on the concrete floor, and roof was simply a blue tarp that had been tied to neighboring trees to provide shade. This tonsure zone had a much more laid back feel than the first place, and had ladies, children and men all tonsuring in the same area. There was only one woman at this place, however she was only doing a partial tonsure, or as I like to refer to them, a “trim” since the barber generally cuts only 2-3 inches at the end of the hair, wraps it up in your tonsure ticket, and then gives it back to you. Even though she was only “trimming” her hair, both of her two young boys were completely naked and had been freshly tonsured. It was so cute to see the three of them as they left; the two boys bald heads shining with fresh sandalwood paste and the mother holding her packet of hair in her right hand. I started taking pictures of the barbers diligently shaving heads, and again my camera caught the attention of many of the people there. I not only took pictures and video of the people getting tonsured (with their permission of course) but also siblings who shyly came up to me and asked for their picture to be taken. The popularity of my camera definitely has been a theme at all of the places I go. 🙂 Sobramani sat talking with some of his friends at this tonsure hall, and about 15 minutes later he asked if I was ready to go to another hall that was 4km away. Since I was game to keep gathering more information, and hopefully see younger women with long hair tonsuring their heads, I said yes, and off we went to the outskirts of town to the next tonsure hall.

This hall kind of reminded me of Periyapalium’s tonsure facilities in the set up. However, there were no tiled benches, instead wooden planks for the barbers to sit on and tonsure. Here there was an older woman that was tonsuring her hair. Her reason for tonsuring was that she had been having joint pain and asked Lord Muruga to take it away. Since God did, she gave him her hair. This woman had very short hair, and since she is older, Indian culture does not place as much societal importance on her having long hair as it does for younger women. For women in their mid teens through their mid to late forties, really depending on how grey your hair is, hair is one of the main features of a woman’s beauty; hair is used as one of the main attractants for a mate. Without hair, a women is deemed unfit for marriage, or if already married, she is untouchable or undesirable sexually. Her hair arouses physical desire, and when it is gone, it symbolizes she has given up her societal position as an object of desire, and sacrificed it to God, in order to prove her humility before him (or her since she can sacrifice her hair to a goddess) and her position as a humble servant to that God or Goddess.

Sobramani and I stayed at this tonsuring hall for about 30 min. and during which time, I only witnessed the older woman tonsure her hair, plus a few young children. In the corners of the tonsure hall I noticed there were giant burlap sacks stuffed full of something. When I asked Sobramani, he told me the sacks were full of men’s and children’s short hairs. Now I already know that short hairs are converted into the protein, L-Cystine, however, these short hairs are also spun to make car ornaments that ward against the evil eye. Sobramani informed me that his company not only sells hair to Raj Impex, but he also has a hair spinning business that makes these car ornaments. After a cup of roadside tea with Sobramani and some of the temple barbers, I headed off to Sobrmanai’s hair spinning workshop which was a 10 min. motorcycle ride away. I must say, riding on a motorcycle with no helmet, hair blowing in the wind, and air rushing through your clothes is one of the most exhilarating feelings I have ever felt! We arrived at his workshop which is set up in a small village on the outskirts of Palani village where I saw the whole hair spinning operation. The “workshop” is really just an open air lean-to with a tin roof, a generator, 2 spinning wheels, and piles upon piles of hair in various stages of being a finished product. Even though it is a small operation, it gains him a good sized profit. He purchases the short hairs from the temples at 7-8 rupees per kg, and then sells the finished spun and twisted hair ornaments at the wholesale price of 15 rupees. He also has a few touts (street vendors) selling directly for him and they charge 20 rupees retail for the pair of protective  decorations. There are 11 men and women working at the workshop for him, and about a dozen touts selling his wares all over the village of Palani.

Evil Eye protecting car ornaments

One of the many cars happy to be protected from the evil eye.

After the grand tour of the workshop, he took me around the back side of the mountain upon which the Hill Temple is situated and there not only did I get to meet one of his touts but also, I got to visit yet another tonsure hall. This hall was more like a tonsure tent since it was just an open structure with a tin roof, and a few wooden pillars to provide shade and a little protection to the two barbers from inclement weather. At this tonsure tent, there was only one little girl, no more than a year old having her head tonsured. At first she was very calm and relaxed with the whole situation, especially because she had a pot of water to play with, however, when the barber needed her to turn her head in such a way that she couldn’t play with the water, nothing but cries and shrieks came out of her mouth! The 3 minutes that it took to finish shaving her head seemed to drag on and on as the poor child wailed as though her favorite stuffed animal had been ripped to pieces before her very eyes. When her head was fully shaven, Sobramani motioned to me that it was time to go, so we hoped on the back of his motorcycle and he took me the Thirupor Lodge to grab some lunch, and then back to his home where he showed me his stash of long tonsured hair.

In his two story house, Sobramani not only keeps a large locked wooden crate full of hair, but the second story of his house has been converted into a mini hair workshop. In our broken English-Tamil conversation, Sobramani revealed to me that Raj doesn’t always pay the highest price for the hair he collects from the temples, so he sells to other companies as well in order to provide financially for his family. In this second floor mini workshop, not only did he have more freshly tonsured long ladies hair but also, bundles of  “processed remi hair” that he had created. While his attempts were good, after seeing what real remi hair should look and feel like, Raj definitely has the upper hand in making good quality remi hair! Besides remi and non-remi hair, he also had a trunk full of synthetic hair that look like a long thick singular braid that he has his temple touts sell to the women who braid this artificial hair in with theirs in order to make it look longer and fuller. I guess it’s not just Black women who are sporting synthetic extensions!

After learning about Sobramani’s hair operations, visiting multiple tonsuring halls, and climbing a mountain to see Lord Muruga, I was definitely tired out to say the least! Sobramani took me to the bus station, since I was leaving for Kodaikanal that afternoon, and being the wonderful guide that he had been all day, made sure I was on the right local bus to Kodai (as the locals call it), since all the bus destinations are written in Tamil, made sure I had a seat, and got me a bottle of water for the 3 hour journey. Now since part I is so long, part II is next, and part III and IV to follow soon! Oh and HAPPY DIWALI!

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One thought on “10 Days of Research and Vacation Pt. I

  1. Well Alex,
    I rushed into your mom’s kitchen asking her where’s Alex. She explained to me that you were on the road. You see, we have become so accustomed to your wonderful adventures in India that we really felt a lost. So, we need stories!!!!!
    Keep them coming, and be safe,
    Wande, Stelo and Kehinde

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