The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Trip to sacred India continues
Blessings reign in India
Students experience enthusiastic worship in Minakshi Temple

UTC professors Dr. William Harman, philosophy and religion, and Dr. Elizabeth Gailey, communication, are leading a five week summer study tour in India. The trip is made possible through a generous grant from the University of Chattanooga Foundation, which covers approximately 75% of student costs including travel, lodging, and food.

What follows is a firsthand account of UTC student Janel Watson.

Sunday June 20, 2004
10:45 pm

I will be leaving Madurai in the morning by bus for the southwest state of Kerala. We will stay for five days in the seaside city of Cochin. This will be a nice break from our long stay here, and as with all travel in India, will promise an adventure.

I returned to the Minakshi Temple yesterday. I found the elephant ordained to give blessings – for the cost of a few rupees, of course. I was blessed twice. The first time, I stared down the elephant’s trunk and hesitated to give him my coins. I was afraid of clogging up his nose. However there was no nose choking – he just gave the money to his trainers. The elephant then smacked me on the forehead – I assumed it’s the smelly slime he left behind in my hair that is blessed. I was offered a chance to ride him – maybe I will on a day I feel daring, but I was already standing out from the dark-faced crowd enough by being the white woman who squealed when the elephant whacked her.

Around every corner of the temple interesting scenes unfold. Women draw kolams on the floor (beautiful, intricate patterns made from rice flour). They use their hands to distribute the powder with perfect consistency. Men are so enthusiastic about their puja (acts of worship) they appear to be doing calisthenics. They prostrate themselves before images of gods, followed by jumping, clapping, and reaching towards the sky. Every surface depicts images of deities, and without any obvious reason to an outsider some are worshiped more than others. Giant columns with Siva or Visnu carved on the side are covered with red kumkun powder and decorated with flowers of garlands and fruit. Tiny brown bowls filled with melted wax and flaming wicks surround these images on the floor. All of these details have meaning, some of which I am learning. However, what I know is dependent on who I ask – every question seems to have many right answers. The Minakshi Temple, like all temples we have visited, holds no services or lectures. Yet people gather and visit in masses to spend time with their gods and develop their spirituality. I am amazed that without the structure of a Sunday morning service Hindus make their religion such a part of their daily lives. Indian culture is dependent on family networks, independence does not seem to be a priority – except in religious practice. Individuals are free to worship in their own way and on their own time.

Just as intently as I watch others I find myself watched. Entire families approach us, and even ask for us to join them in photographs. Staring eyes are everywhere I turn, and when these eyes approach the first question is always “Coming from?”. Young children cannot resist practicing their English on us, at the very least saying “Hello” – sometimes four or five times – hoping to get a response.

Today I enjoyed a bicycle rickshaw tour of the city. Our guide has been lurking around our hotel all week inviting us to see the city with him. As we began our journey he pointed out small decorations near the ground on the corners of buildings. A closer look revealed miniature temples – no more than a foot tall – complete with small offerings to fit the proportion of the shrine. Our guide said this was the true reason Madurai is known as “the temple city,” because there is a temple on every corner.

The most interesting stop we made on the tour was at a banana market – an alley, at least 50 yards in length, entirely devoted to bananas. Little thatched huts stood side by side, and each featured dozens of stalks of fresh bananas hanging from their roofs. They are short and thick compared to what I eat in the U.S., and come in a variety of colors. Green, yellow and red each have their own distinct taste. Behind the huts I noticed small rooms with no windows. Our guide explained that bowls of dried cow manure are set on fire and placed in the room with the bananas to ripen them. In an hour they turn from green to yellow, making me reconsider my morning ritual of a fresh banana at breakfast.

Burned cow dung is also used for blessings. Priests in front of shrines and temples bless devotees by smearing white ash across their foreheads – again, for only a few rupees. I received several of these blessings before realizing what exactly had been burned to make the ash.