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Journey Thorugh Tradition This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


   As we near thetemple, several shopkeepers beckon, urging us to buy flower garlands, dishesladen with offerings for the goddess, tchotchkesand other baubles. The moststrategic location for a shop in India is near the entrance of a temple, sincethey are the heart of this predominantly Hindu society. All the women and girlshave jasmine flowers in their hair and are dressed in sarisand pavadas.The menare wearing dhotis,or pants and a shirt. Many devotees are on pilgrimages, butothers come as a daily ritual.

Our guide, my grandfather's friend, walksahead of us. He washes his feet in the temple pond and motions us to do the sameto keep the temple pure. Inside, there are towering stone pillars, eachintricately carved with sacred designs of animals and people. Scattered aroundare small shrines, each dedicated to a god or goddess. My aunt, her friend Carol,my mother, sister and I walk slowly; I observe the ancient building, savoringeach detail. Kitcha Mama, our guide, glances back occasionally, wondering what weare looking at. The queue of devotees waiting to see the goddess seems endless,but those willing to pay extra can take a shortcut. We do this, and are usheredto the entrance. The goddess glitters with jewels, saricloth, and garlands offlowers. The shrine is dark except for golden flames. Priests chant hymns inSanskrit while devotees pray. One priest steps forward with a gold platteradorned with a lit lamp, kumkumand vibuddi.My mother pushes me forward so I cansqueeze my arm between the bodies to touch the top of the flame. I then touch myeyes with my hand, taking the goddess's blessing. Paati gives me a mass offlowers and I give some to my sister. The petals are blessed by the goddess too.Female devotees usually fix some of these flowers into their braids. According toHindu philosophy, everyone should see the spirit of the god inherself.

Another priest holds a silver bowl of water mixed with basil.Hands reach out and he places a drop on each. Imitating my mother, I sip thewater from my hand and touch my eyes. Women apply the red kumkumto theirforeheads in the shape of a dot. My mother and grandmother put it in middle oftheir hairlines since they are married. Widows do not touch the kumkum.

Kitcha Mama ushers us out and we follow a priest, another ofGrandfather's friends. He leads us to a large hall decorated with pillars andpaintings that narrate the life of Gomathy, the goddess's reincarnation.Inscribed on the bottom of each painting is a description in Tamil I cannot read.The priest sits us in a circle and tells her story, smiling the whole time. Somedevotees glance at us with interest and come closer. I understand a few phrases,but my mother and aunt must explain the story.

Leaving a temple is hard,especially if there is a foreign-looking person in your group. The shopkeepersnag us to buy their goods. Getting into the car, a few beggars and flower sellerscome to us. Carol gives one some change, and another knocks on the window as wedrive away. Soon, the tips of the temple's towers, the gopurams,disappear intothe sunset.

There are thousands of temples in India, and sometimes Iwonder if pilgrims ever become bored visiting them. But each is unique. Onefamous one is Tirupati at the top of a hill, dedicated to Venkateswara, Lord ofthe Seven Hills, who is said to be extremely powerful. Millions journey here tooffer their prayers. Driving there, I see small houses and apartments. When I askmy mother about them, she explains that devotees actually camp here. Many womenand men are bald, and I learn that many give their hair as an offering. My fathermentions that perhaps he should shave his hair. I exchange glances with mysister; our father is not exactly religious.

Many devotees stare at us aswe buy tickets for the queue. It is Carol who attracts attention, since a whiteperson is a rare sight. My mother tells me to ignore the stares, but it isdifficult. Again, we buy expensive tickets for the short cut, but even that islong. Devotees sing hymns to pass the time. Finally, we enter. Lord Venkateswaraglitters and is magnificent in the few seconds I have to see him. Soon, I ampulled away by one of the many guards. The joy disappears from the atmosphere andis replaced with harsh orders.

Outside, the smells of food and thesunshine warm us again. Everyone receives a banana leaf filled with spicy rice.Food given away at a temple is called prasadam.I quickly finish mine using myfingers and wash my hands. My father purchases the famous Tirupati ladus,a typeof sweet meat, and we begin the steep climb down the hill.

The trainstation is massive, built during the British colonization of India. As soon as weleave our taxi, men wearing red skirts hover around us. They offer to carry ourluggage but my father declines. The platform is a long stone walkway, lined withtea shops and rest spots. Passengers drink tea or coffee and eat appetizers(samosas,vegetable pakodasand paani poori.) My mother has forbidden me to eatanything cooked by street vendors.

"You're not used to the waterhere, and if you drink it, you will become sick," she warns me. Most of thespace in our suitcases is filled with bottles of water.

A queue hasformed to board the train. With a bit of confusion, we locate ourair-conditioned, second-class coupes in the sleeping car and settle in. There aretwo bunk beds in each coupe and bunk beds line the opposite side of the train. Weare separated from the rest of the train by two thin curtains.

Theluggage fits snugly under the bottom beds. There are ropes attached to the bottomof the beds and I wonder what they are for. My mother says that they are toprevent thieves from stealing luggage. Ten years ago, my grandparents weretraveling by train, and while they were sleeping, their luggage was stolen. Eversince my family has been very aware of this problem. As my mother tells us to becareful, I look out the window and realize the train has started moving. Mymother hands out yogurt rice and vegetable curry. Greedily, we eat, and my sisterasks if we can buy food on the train. My father explains that we do not know howthe food was cooked, or what is in it. A little disheartened, she swallows thelast morsels of our food. My grandmother opens a box filled with iddlis,littlelentil cakes. Each is smeared with a type of chili powder, and we finish thosequickly too.

I have the top bed, so my father puts his laptop on my bedand my mother gives me her handbag to guard. Before going to sleep my motherwarns me, "You have to keep one eye open, okay?" Apprehensive, I try tohide it all under my pillow. The lights are dimmed and I try to doze. My necksuffers from sleeping on the laptop, but I remind myself I have to protect ourbelongings. Soon, though, I fall asleep.

* * *

Traffic onIndian streets is chaotic. We travel in a Jeep, with a driver who tries to passall the other cars. He drives in the opposite lane, when empty, and quicklychanges to the normal lane just as a car from the opposite direction approaches.All the others do this too; it is part of the driving culture.

SouthernIndia is beautiful. August is the month before the monsoons, and some riverbedsare sandy pits. Most of the landscape has paddy fields, where rice is grown. Whenthe thick green shoots are watered, the fields look more silver than green.Workers, mainly women, tend the fields. Many are dressed in saris and have foldedthe pleats into their waistbands. Green hills surround the fields, and coconuttrees divide the hills and fields.

Occasionally, we pass fruit and flowersellers. Twice we stop to buy fruit. As we travel from the agricultural settinginto a town, my aunt tells the driver to look for stores selling tender coconuts.Soon we find one, and the shopkeeper slices off the tops and places a straw ineach. We drink the coconut juice, but after sodas and mango juice, I do not findit sweet. My aunt and Carol finish mine.

We drive into anotheragricultural region, but this time we see a field covered with windmillsproducing energy. Other vehicles pass us. Trucks, laden with goods, swerve fromleft to right on the highway. Auto rickshaws, a type of Indian taxi with threewheels, are small and can carry three at most. Thankfully we do not have to ridein these, since the sides are open and passengers must be careful not to fallout. Each setting, the paddy fields, the towns, and the beaches of Kanniakumari,adds to the vibrancy and diversity of India.

Finally we reach Thenkasi, myancestral village. A distant relative greets us and tells us to come in. I haveto bend my head to walk through the doorway. This is where we will stay whiletouring this area. Our host, Sundaram Mama, looks amiable, with his constantsmile and missing teeth. He and my grandmother exchange family gossip while mysister and I observe his home. The walls are decorated with beautiful oldpaintings. Noticing our curiosity, he gives us a tour. There are several largerooms on the ground floor and a steep staircase to the second floor. The house ismassive, though it looks small from the outside. Wondering where the bathroom is,my sister and I ask our grandmother. She takes us and we look inside - it is anIndian toilet. My sister and I look at each other and sigh; we both have ahistory of problems with this type of toilet - it is a bowl installed in theground. My grandmother laughs, since she hates Western toilets. I give my sistera few tips on how to successfully use the toilet, and leave her to her troubles.

Next to it is the showering place. There is no roof, just high walls. Alarge bucket is filled with the hot water from our host's bath and a tiny bucketlies next to the large one. You have to dip the tiny bucket into the large oneand pour the water over yourself. There are little gutters, which lead to thegarden.

Thenkasi is famous for its waterfalls. We drive through manyfields before reaching the waterfall. Once there, I see people bathing. A metalrailing divides the waterfall, with the men bathing on the left and the women onthe right. Most men wear short dhotiswhile the women are fully clothed in Indianpajamas (long, light dresses). Some women are wearing saris and there is a sign,"No bikinis allowed." My aunt and mother immediately enter the waterwhile I take photographs.

The waterfalls are powerful and my mother comesback gasping, "The water falling on your head feels like someone is peltingyou with rocks." She persuades my dad to bathe as well. As I walk toward thefalls with my sister, some people look at me strangely. After all, I am wearing ablue t-shirt that says "Lacrosse" on it, and the pants of my sahvaarkwneez.The cold water feels like when you eat ice cream that is so cold yourteeth hurt. I get used to it, and become numb. The shock of the water drifts awayand I am soaked.

For lunch, we return to Sundararn Mama's house. He tellsus that the family who rents his other house feeds him, and in return he does notraise the rent. He shows us through his backyard and opens a gate that leads tothe next street to the house where we will eat. Two women greet us jovially, andwe sit cross-legged on the floor. One woman places large, thick banana leaves -our plates - in front of us. Both are astonished that Carol knows how to sitproperly and eat with her hand. My aunt tells them that she has taught Carol allshe needs to know about our culture, including etchel,which is when one sipsfrom the same cup as another, or when one touches a person or object with thesame hand he or she is eating with. This is extremely significant to Indianculture, since it pertains to purity.

The women serve the food, and ourbanana leaves become laden with rice, vegetable curries, and lentil soups mixedwith the rice. It takes me a long time to eat and my stomach becomes full. In thebackyard, each of us washes our hands and mouths under the tap.

Thankingthe family, we return to our host's house. In the evening we visit my maternalgrandmother's childhood home. It is a tall building, and the caretaker and hiswife are hospitable. My mother asks if half of us can sleep there, and theyimmediately agree. The wife offers us Thenkasi hahva,the famous dessert of thearea, which is like warm jelly, honey-colored, and melts in my mouth. The tasteis one I have never experienced, and my fingers glisten with its oil.

Weare led on another tour, and my mother shows us where my great-grandfather, adoctor, treated his patients. There are small rooms on the terrace and thecaretaker opens some. In one the shelves are lined with the dolls mygreat-grandmother used for the Navarathri holiday. Boxes and knickknacks litterthe sides of the rooms; I peer into a silver briefcase filled with yellowedpapers. From the terrace we see many houses. My mother tells me how when mygrandmother was a child, all you could see from the terrace were the green fieldsand trees owned by her grandfather.

When the caretaker points out thatthere is an Indian toilet and a Western toilet, my aunt comments, "Anuitawill be happy," referring to my sister.

* * *

TheShembagadevi Waterfall is considered the most powerful and spiritual in Thenkasi.Early the next morning we follow Yitcha Mama two miles up a mountain to thefalls. Because I have a cold, my mother does not allow me to bathe. There is nota large crowd of bathers, perhaps because of the hike. The men and women areseparated again; at each waterfall, the women are given the smaller and gentlersection.

When we visited the Kutralarn waterfalls the women had to bathein a tiny crevice while the men had plenty of space. Since there was a horde ofwomen who wanted to bathe, many pushed others to get into the crevice. My motherwas pushed over a sign and my little sister slipped under the waterfall. Theguard who was supposed to be keeping order had given up and left. Conversely, myfather said that his experience was peaceful and the other men were passive.

As I take photographs, Kitcha Mama tells me that this fall is thought tobe medicinal because it carries herbs from the mountain top. The men glisten withayurvedic oil, also thought to be healing. My mother, aunt and Carol are nowbathing in the male section. Good for them,I think. There are no guards to stopthem and they are enjoying the more powerful section.

Before leaving westop at a small temple dedicated to Shembagadevi, the goddess of the waterfall.We offer our prayers and apply kumkum,then begin our descent. My mother screams,and I turn around. A monkey is clutching her hand, and she is spinning aroundtrying to ward it off. Deftly, it leaps onto a nearby tree.

Manyonlookers offer their sympathy and share their own monkey experiences. My motherexplains, "I was just walking with these cookies in my hand and suddenly themonkey leaped onto me. It grabbed the cookies and instinctively I grabbed themback." I laugh at the thought of her grabbing the cookies away, as if themonkey were her sibling. My father asks if the monkey bit her.

"No,but it scratched me, and I don't know when I received my last tetanus shot."Kitcha Mama tells us that we have to be careful of the monkeys; they are bold andferocious. Finally, we reach the end of the steep trail. At home, we collect ourthings and load the car. Wishing Kitcha Mama and Sundaram Mama farewell, we leaveThenkasi, its waterfills and hahvas.

***

The sea breeze sweeps myhair across my eyes. We have just stepped off the train and are in Kanniyakumari,the southernmost tip of India. While waiting at the station for our taxi, mymother gives my sister and me a lesson in geography and religion. Kanniyakumariis the Goddess Parvati's reincarnation, but she is a little girl forever.

This was my mother's favorite goddess when she was young. She visitedthis temple and prayed to this goddess so that her leg would heal. Itdid.

"Three bodies of water meet here," she continues. "TheBay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean." The taxi arrives andwe go to our hotel. Our balcony faces the ocean, and the view is dazzling. Nearthe shore, the water is emerald green; farther out, it is a startling aqua blue.The scents of salt and fish linger in the air.

After showering, we leavethe hotel to visit the famous Kanniyakumari temple. Walking by the beach, we passtea stalls and many tourists. Shops sell a plethora of trinkets, many of themunique to Kanniyakumari. My father purchases a large straw hat. He stands out inthe crowd, embarrassing my sister and me.

At the temple entrance a signstates that men cannot wear shirts. Muttering, my father removes his and covershimself with a towel. Inside, a poster narrates the story of the GoddessKanniyakumari. She was about to be married to Lord Shiva but an evil demon wastormenting the people and she had to fight him. Lord Shiva told her to come tothe temple and marry him just before sunrise. The goddess slew the demon andrushed to the temple, but she was too late. Ever since, she remained a maiden.After we pray, we drift toward the exit, where there is a store. My aunt, Carol,and mother purchase a few statues.

There are two other monuments nearbythat attract tourists. One is Vivekananda Rock, the other is an immense statue ofthe Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar. We buy tickets and wait to board the ship that goesto these two sights. The ride is serene and I sit on a bench, squished between myfather and sister. Tiruvalluvar's statue is the first stop, but since it is underconstruction, we are told to hop on board again.

Vivekananda Rock is amonument and museum dedicated to Vilvekananda, a nineteenth-century religiousreformer. He and other reformers developed a philosophy that Hinduism shouldevolve with the modern world. (Eliminating child marriages and allowing widows toremarry are two important issues he addressed.) But the story goes thatVivekananda had doubts about his ideas so he stood on this rock to receiveenlightenment. Through devoted penance, he was granted insight and the impressioncreated by his foot remains on this rock. The imprecise footmark is enclosed in aglass case. Our group lazes around for a while, observing other onlookers and thescenery. The sea is gray-blue, reflecting the galvanized clouds overhead. Weboard the returning ship and soon step onto the colorful sands ofKanniakumari.

Viewing the sunrise and sunset are the two most popularactivities. Just before daybreak, we hurry to the beach, face east and waitanxiously for the sun to break through the clouds. Masses of people huddletogether there. Some daredevils stand on the rocks while others sit on stonebenches. A few streaks of butter and pink run through the sky, but nothing moreappears. Many in the audience sigh and become fidgety. After half an hour it isclear that the sunrise will not happen in its full glory today, and the beachstarts to empty.

A little disheartened, we return and eat our breakfast.While our parents finish packing, my sister and I pick flowers, and my auntteaches us how to make rings with them. The bellboy fills the trunk with ourluggage and the manager himself comes to see us off. I get into the taxi, flowersand all, reflecting on my experiences and hoping for a colorful array of futureencounters.










   


By Dorothy R., North Amityville, NY

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Copyright 2006 by Teen Ink, The 21st Century and The Young Authors Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved.
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This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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