Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Madurai: Meenakshi and Gandhi

My days of exploring the south have begun to slow down a bit. I’m currently writing from the YWCA in Chennai which, to my delight, has both wi fi AND toilet paper. After spending the last week in five different cities, in five different beds (if you count trains), staying six nights in one place and catching up on sleep (and e-mail) sounds pretty wonderful. I’ll also be meeting up with my dear Mysore families again because they’re visiting Chennai for a family function. From Chennai, I’ll be in Hyderabad for another five nights with Savithri’s brother and his family, and then will have two weeks up north in Delhi on my own before heading on to country #3: Morocco. I realized that I’m exactly halfway through my time in India today.

Backing up: From Kanyakumari I took another train to Madurai . (And, in fairness to the Indian railway system, I must say that all of the trains I’ve taken since I took those photos on my Bangalore to Kochi trip last week have been much nicer. Although I still feel like I’m in an obstacle course when trying to navigate my way through my train trips, I’ve learned that not all trains are created equal). See below:

Madurai is pretty much famous for one thing only: The Meenakshi temple. It’s a pretty great thing to be famous for. There are thousands of temples in South India, but most people agree Meenakshi is one of the top five, at least.

I was very glad that Natarajan put me in touch with his niece, Vidya, who lives in Madurai and was generous enough to take me around the temple and then back to her house for lunch. With hundreds of pilgrims from all over India coming to the temple, as well as the sheer size of it, it would have been an overwhelming place to conquer on my own. I was glad to have a guide, and someone who could take me through the incredible murals and stone pillars and ceiling paintings and explain what I was looking at.

Meenakshi is believed to have been born with three breasts. There was a prophecy made that when she met the man she was going to marry, the third breast would melt away. Upon meeting Shiva, this is exactly what happened. And, one breast lighter, Meenakshi soon became his wife. The temple was built in 1560 to celebrate their marriage and give offerings to them.

While in Madurai, I also had a chance to visit the Gandhi museum which may have made an even greater impression on me than the stunning temple. Perhaps because I’ve been rather emotional (read: sleep-deprived) lately, I could not make it halfway through this museum without tears in my eyes (Note to self: when you already stick out like a sore thumb, being emotional in public places does not help your case). It was pretty pathetic, although as a friend pointed out to me when I told her this on Skype, of all the reasons to cry, Gandhi is a pretty good one.

I think I just hadn’t been prepared to come face to face with this:

The dhoti (loincloth) that Gandhi was wearing the day he was assassinated has found its resting place in Madurai because it was there, in 1921, that Gandhi first decided to wear dhotis exclusively as a sign of national pride. It was in Madurai that Gandhi proposed that all freedom fighters wear “Khadi” (hand spun and hand woven fabrics) that were made in their own villages as a sign of self-reliance.

I had pulled myself together when I walked over to the next exhibit and found the letter below. It was so astounding to me that I copied the entire thing down:

To Herr Hitler/Berlin, Germany/March 27th, 1939

Dear Friend,

Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my appeal for whatever it may be worth.

It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not in them without considerable success? Any way I anticipate your forgiveness if I have erred in writing to you.

I remain your sincere friend,

M.K. Gandhi

Of course, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense that Gandhi would reach out to Hitler, as they were both major world leaders of the time, but to actually see this correspondence was mind boggling.

I had walked through the entire museum when I discovered that near the exit there was a smaller exhibit that was all about Gandhi’s influence on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. I hadn’t known that Martin Luther King and Coretta visited India after Gandhi’s assassination in order to talk to people who had known him and learn more about his strategies of nonviolence in the places where they originated.

And then next to this was a photo of Barack Obama, in which he’s sitting in his office and has a photo of Gandhi behind him. (And you all now know about my potentially problematic, but nevertheless, unconditional, love for Barack Obama). So then I started crying again. And then I realized I really needed to leave the Gandhi museum.

But seriously. What an incredible person.

“I do not want my house to be walled in all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” –MG

p.s. Speaking of names, in case you didn’t know, “Mohandas” is Gandhi’s real name. Mahatma, meaning “great soul”, is what the people of India soon began calling him.


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