January 1: A New Year Begins
What a day. Udipi is reached at half past five in the morning and we take a taxi to the Swadeshi Hotel where we have rooms booked. I make a small altar on the table and we gather at 7.30 for a short kirtan. I explain some of the significance of Madhva and the south Indian acaryas generally and the temple culture of Udipi. We breakfast on traditional idlis – steamed rice dumplings – and wada – savoury dahl ‘donuts’ – then walk the short distance down the hill into the temple square, the very heart of Udipi.
Wada ‘donuts’ and idli ‘dumplings’
Joining the line of pilgrims, we pass through the metal detector at the main entrance. Here, all males remove their shirts, a traditional practise for visiting temples in the south. The inside of the temple is lit by occasional shafts of sunlight but the black granite interior still makes it cool and dark after the brilliance outside. We slowly reach the position where darshan of the deity is taken and we look through a metal grill with nine windows to where the form of Lord Krishna holding a butter-churning rod is standing. Sri Krishnaya namaha!
Lord Krishna, the reason for the entire town of Udupi
Krishna was brought here around 1250 AD by Madhvacarya, the great Vaishnava saint. He was on the beach at nearby Malpe chanting the names of God when he noticed that a ship was in danger of running aground on the rocks. Waving his top cloth he warned the sailors who, in gratitude, gave him the only thing that a renounced monk could accept, a large boulder of clay they were using as ballast. Madhvacarya intended to use the clay for tilak, the forehead markings made by Vaishnavas. There would be enough in this boulder to last the entire ashram for many months. When the clay was broken, the deity of Krishna was found inside. Taking this as a direct gift from his Lord, Madhva installed Him in a temple and the town grew up around Krishna, the Lord of Udipi.
Madhvacarya, the Vaishnava saint who brought Lord Krishna to Udupi.
There are eight temples surrounding the town square in Udipi with the Krishna temple very prominently situated. Each temple was established by a sanyasi and resembles all the others in size and architecture. (I manage to visit each one before we leave). For 800 years the heads of each of the eight temples have followed a system of taking it in turns to become the head of the main Krishna temple. Every two years there is a grand ceremony as the head of the Krishna temple surrenders his post to the incoming sanyasi. The retiring sanyasi then has 14 years to raise funds for the entire cost of running the temple during his next term.
We talk to one family who are holding an upanayanam diksha, a spiritual initiation, for their 12 year-old son today. I ask if we can attend and they are happy to have us. It turns out to be a traditional ceremony in one of the eight surrounding temples: this one is dedicated to Lord Narasimha. It’s a very involved ceremony during which the ‘new birth’ of the child is signified by recreating the womb, covering him in white cloth and winding kusha grass around him. He receives the gayatri mantra – a traditional mantra with 24 syllables – from his guru, who also shows him how to count the mantras on his fingers and how to execute some preliminary daily spiritual duties. We left the family after offering our blessings to the boy and leaving a donation, returning later for a traditional ‘Udipi Brahmin’ lunch of 25 different dishes.
A traditional south Indian dinner. In addition to the wada and idli there are dosa, crispy pancakes rolled up and served with coconut chutney. All served up on a banana leaf!
After some shopping we attend the colourful Rathayatra in the evening. There are huge puppets, fireworks, saxophone musicians, flags, an elephant, cannons firing, and of course Lord Krishna as the centre of attention.
I could only fall asleep after midnight last night, but still managed to rise at 4.00 to join the others at 4.30 in the hotel lobby to walk down to the temple for mangal arati. To my surprise there was no drumming or nagesvaram music as there was at this time in the morning the last time I’d visited. My last visit coincided with the ‘100,000 Lights festival’ during which the town was thronged with different singing groups and lit up by countless candles at night. But we had our early morning darshan of Krishna, the deity said to have once been worshipped by Lord Krishna’s queen, Rukmini.
The front of Udupi Krishna temple
Returning to the hotel, I fell asleep and did not wake until 10.00. By this time, Gail had already booked us all as contributors to the Rathayatra that night, as well as sponsors of the pujas throughout the day. Gail was delighted at the puja she’d already attended and told me that we’d all been invited to lunch in the prasadam hall. Peter felt unwell and Moira was keeping him company so I ate with Gail. Lots of rice and rasam or vegetable soup, augmented by a delicious chutney made from dates, tamarind and corella (bitter melon) Following that we were served payasam or sweet rice, with date parathas.
We change our pounds into rupees, and feeling incredibly rich visit some of the surrounding shops. I buy some small old bronze items, an old ghee lamp, and some new brass puja items for when I conduct weddings. I also visit a music shop and buy some south Indian music tapes for my daughter Jahnavi. She plays violin and finds Indian music – particularly the southern or Carnatic style – fascinating. Gail and I then visit some of the other small temples which surround the square. They are mainly empty but it is good to see how the town centre is organised. Udupi is centred around it’s temples because the town grew up because the temples were here. In one respect, not a lot has changed in 700 years because the same things are important to the local people. Modernity and the attraction of technology is also here though, as it is throughout India.
Lord Krishna’s chariot
The evening is a trip to Vaikuntha, it really is. We watch the swami perform puja from a privileged vantage point just to the side of the main altar, then accompany him to watch Krishna being taken out on a boat around the temple ‘water tank’ – a good sized pond with surrounding walls. Three different groups of musicians play music to Him as the illuminated boat passes three corners of the square tank.
Lord Krishna’s evening begins with a boat ride around this temple ‘tank’
After the boat ride, He is placed on a gold-plated, purple-cushioned, palanquin and borne through the temple passages and out into the courtyard at the front of the temple. Krishna is then lifted high onto the majestic silver chariot and positioned safely with a comfortable view of all His devotees. I smash a coconut, the elephant trumpets, the band plays, I grab the ropes and pull the chariot (along with a hundred others!), and we are off.
Halfway round comes the fireworks and crackers. Big roman candles are set off sending up fountains of sparkling white light into the night sky. Then comes minutes of Chinese firecrackers on the road. Crumbs of highly flammable camphor are positioned in a long line stretching down the road before the chariot and set alight. They burn with small yellow flames. For some reason still unknown to me, there are two children in strange red, white and black devilish costumes dancing through the flames. Then two eight feet long pieces of white cloth, soaked in ghee, are raised on poles and set alight. Two pillars of flame light up the road, a flaming doorway for the Lord to pass through.
Slowly the chariot lumbers back to the temple, me straining at the rope and sweating in the humidity. There are concluding pujas within the temple hall, a gift of some rupees to the swamis who reciprocate by giving us cloth worn by Krishna, sweets and dry rice. We also give small rupees to the Brahmins and cooks and have a light meal of idli ‘loaves’ with sambar, a light wet vegetable dish, coconut chutney and banana halvah. What a night!
A swami in the Udipi temple
Our train south from Udipi, which we are to catch at midnight, does not arrive. The Midnight Express becomes the 1.30 am Express. Not surprisingly, although it is officially named the ‘Super-fast Express’ the speed is no more than what we would term medium, and what the French would call very slow. Its all in the perspective. I spend a disturbed night on a narrow upper bunk but 18 hours later we are in Cochin.
January 3: Cochin-A Christian, Jewish, Chinese, Hindu kind of town.
After a very careful midday breakfast of chips and spring rolls in the vegan restaurant of the Bharat Hotel where we’re staying, we take auto rickshaws to Old Cochin, beginning our visits to famous landmarks with the first ever Christian church in south India. Then to the Chinese fishing nets that line the river. We continue to the old Jewish synagogue. It is hundreds of years old and very attractive inside with polished brass fittings and dozens of glass chandeliers. The only sad fact is that the local Jewish community, the first and oldest in India, has dropped to around 50 souls. And most of them want to ultimately leave to live in Israel.
The old Cochin synagogue. (Only there isn’t a new one, nor is there likely to be)
Next to a well constructed old wooden palace that has beautiful paintings of the Ramayana on the king’s bedroom walls. The area of Cochin we’re in is steeped in Catholic history and there are many small churches. There are also many surprisingly well-stocked antique shops – honey-traps for us tourists – and although we are strapped for time I bargain for a ghee lamp and a bronze spoon.
18th century mural of Sita and Rama at the Matanchery Palace
At 6.30 in the evening we attend a traditional kathakali performance preceded by a demonstration of make-up and an explanation of the emotions and the mudras – hand gestures – expressed by the dancers. The elderly dance-guru of this institution danced for 50 years, beginning in 1958. His two students are very good and wear striking costumes. I am convinced of a Chinese connection for this relatively modern art form.
January 4: Allapey – Where I get lost
It’s a nice view from my window, looking down on the harbour. I chant, walking back and forth in my room as the sun rises, and pack after breakfast. Krishna, our driver for the next two weeks, has arrived with a 13-seater vehicle. Bigger than we need but very safe looking, and Gail has used the company before so they’ve been generous.
I chant a Ganesh stuti for blessings at the beginning of a journey, crack a coconut, and we all throw rice – we are off to Allapey, a town whose name is spelled in at least four different ways. I am to remember Allapey for the rest of my time in India.
The journey passes smoothly and I see more of an Indian state I’ve never visited before. Allapey has a canal running through the town with numerous houseboats bobbing on the water. They are large craft with decorative wooden prows and sterns, surmounted by a thatched enclosure with several rooms and even balconies.
Houseboat in Allapey. Originally rice boats, there are now many of these plying tourists along the peaceful backwaters
We have breakfast in town after briefly visiting our guesthouse where the proprietor is out. Foolishly I fail to take note of the name of the place or the location. I will regret it later. The ‘hotel’ where we eat, although ‘Veg’ as opposed to ‘Non-Veg,’ is pretty dingy and grubby, and the food is about the same. We all agree – I think – to meet at 6.00pm by a festival arch in the centre of town. I go shopping and am successful with some brass and bronze in a small place two miles out of town ‘where tourists don’t go.’ I actually believe the guide who takes me there as the prices are OK. I buy some dhotis with ice-cream shade borders (the middle-aged Vaishnava equivalent of Hawaiian shirts) and order some kurta shirts to be stitched and one for my son Mali. I even buy reading glasses. Its been a good day, but then it all starts to go wrong.
I wait for over an hour at our designated spot, and then become concerned that one of us got the spot wrong. It couldn’t be me of course – the seasoned India traveller and pilgrimage organiser.
By this time I am hungry and eat up the road at the ‘Hot Kitchen’ – some alu-gobi (potato and cauliflower) with chapattis, and vegetable rice and veg cutlets. Well I said I was hungry. It’s a fine meal but I’m getting worried as its getting dark.
I call England and ask my daughter Jahnavi to text Gail with my location. Some time after I jump on an auto rickshaw to try to find our guesthouse myself. All I can remember is a red earthen lane leading to the place and an unpronounceable Malayalam name beginning with a ‘T.’ I try waggling my tongue in a dozen different ways to recreate the syllables of the name of the place but the driver looks even more bewildered. As bewildered as I now feel.
An autorickshaw in Allapey. My mind was as empty as this one.
All this time Gail and Peter have been waiting for two hours by the bridge, then driving up and down in that area trying to find me. I call home again – cheap these days from India – but the message has not been sent. My mind is somewhat desperate but my intelligence is alert to the suspicion that this is such a bad communication period it must the shadow of some inauspicious stars. (Blame it on the stars then)
I phone again to get Gail’s mobile number but cannot get through. It turned out that I had been misinformed when told that you have to dial 00-44 if the sim card was bought in the UK. By this time I begin thinking about staying somewhere else for the night. At 10.30 pm I am just negotiating a price with a dodgy-looking chap on a motorbike when Peter and Gail turn up with our large, safe-looking van. The guesthouse manager, Mr.T.A. (Jacob) Chacko is also with them. They have already visited the hospital and the police station and have only just received a text from my daughter Tulasi. We are all relieved, and back at the guesthouse, Moira is particularly relieved. All’s well that ends well. Suitably humbled, I fall asleep on a Mickey Mouse pillow.
January 5: A day and a night on the peaceful backwaters.
After a breakfast of fruit, toast and yoghurt on the balcony we walk a few yards up the road to an Ayurvedic centre. The thing to do while you’re in in Kerala, apparently, is to have a full body oil massage and an excursion on a houseboat. Today we got to do both.
I was laid out on a huge, thick teak table in a room with a corrugated tin roof. Peter, Moira and Gail were all in other rooms. I took comfort that any pain I would experience from the heavy massage was going to be shared by all of us. I shouldn’t have worried. I was massaged from head to toe for one hour. The man knew his stuff, and although I winced a few times the Carnatic violin music was enough to comfort me.
We collected our overnight bags from the guesthouse and followed Mr. Chacko down tracks and through back yards, past men working on boats, to the edge of the water where ten houseboats were moored. These boats are very big up close and look like a thatched cottage placed on top of a Viking longship. Ours was owned by Mr. Chacko and had a crew of four. There were two twin rooms, a sitting area with a table upon which had been placed a platter of fresh fruit, and an upstairs balcony.
After a few minutes we set off, engine running quietly, onto a large placid lake with purple water lilies and a variety of birds. From the balcony Peter and Moira were spotting many colourful birds, some as large as kites or as small as hummingbirds.
We moored up after maybe five miles and arranged for lunch. While I was saying the prayers a crow stole the puri from the offering plate. Undeterred by the attention of some of the thousands of birds flocking in this watery countryside, we had a nice lunch, gently rocking as another boat passed by, or pausing briefly as someone paddled up trying to sell us huge prawns or some other unfortunate river creature.
Moira relaxes on the top deck
We continued along the waterways, studying the village life on either bank, watching the birds through binoculars, or getting down to some quiet reading. What a change this was from the normal clamour of India’s roads. We stopped for the night and the crew tied up the boat to coconut trees. Peter and I jumped in the water. It was warm yet cooling – perfect for the end of a hot day. A small Durga temple nearby provided us with a spot to visit. But we hardly needed any more to see after watching life on the riverbank all afternoon.
Jumping off the boat into the water at the end of the day was wonderful
And so was breakfast the following morning
January 6: Temples, Palaces, and an Ashram on our way to the Beach
I awake at 2.30 am with a mosquito buzzing in my ear and cannot fall back to sleep. I chant sixteen rounds walking up and down the river bank, under the palm trees and the golden moon. Then, just as the east is beginning to glow, I chant my Gayatri mantra with my feet in the water. The canal is still warm. Sitting up on the balcony I hear a brahmana chanting his morning prayers very loudly. His confident voice echoes across the water and fills the space with sacred sound. I go to see him and give he and his wife a donation. Their house is no bigger than a room. Later, he comes back with a picture of his acarya and sings his guru stuti just by the boat. He smiles a lot.
We return to Allapey by 9.30, pick up our bags and driver, laundry and tailoring, then head off to Varkala, a beach resort where we are to spend three days. We make four stops along the journey, all to interesting places.
First is a Parthasarati temple – a place where Krishna is worshipped as the chariot driver of Arjuna. Days later I learn that this might be the place where Bilvamangala Thakura lived and wrote the Krishna Karnamrita, later treasured by Lord Chaitanya.
Then we stopped off at a ‘Snake temple’ with ‘30,000’ snake sculptures, all decorated with yellow turmeric powder. Then, some miles later, an old summer palace of the King of Travancore, Marthanda Varma. This naturally air-conditioned palace, with cool breezes blowing through it, had some great rooms.
The entrance to Krishnapuram Palace, the summer home of the King of Travancor
My favourite aspects were the sunken courtyards, the indoor swimming pool, the heavy carved wooden architecture, and the giant mural of Gajendra Mokshana, the liberation of the elephant Gajendra. Its a favourite story of mine as it closely relates to the struggles of devoted yet clumsy souls who somehow are saved by the Lord. I was once told to meditate on this story by an astrologer in Vrindavan. The king would meditate on this large, colourful painting after he had taken his bath in the pool. Although surrounded by luxury, the king was always apprehensive of the plans of the neighbouring kings.
This is not the mural in the palace, but a painting of the same story
Next was the ashram of Amritanandamayi Ma, the ‘hugging guru.’ Near the tsunami-ravaged beach villages the place is an international centre for her followers from around the world. Some ten-storey buildings. Lots of Europeans were there, all with their own philosophies it seems, but united by either curiosity or devotion to ‘Amma.’ There was a large auditorium for her regular audiences, during which she hugs thousands of people in turn until the early hours of the morning. Some rather serious white-clad disciples were in evidence, but mainly foreigners in yoga clothes. After more mercifully air-conditioned driving we arrive in Varkala.
Aerial view of ‘Amma’s’ ashram on the tsunami-hit coast