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Posted April 30, 2012 by Backpackology.org in Culture
 
 

The South of India

Meandering further down the Indian coast, I loop around the southern tip of India, through Kerala and Tamil Nadu, before turning back up north, taking up the long and reckless road to Pakistan…

Fleeing from the hippy swarms and ravenous hotel touts, I dive off the beaten track, into a small, nondescript village on the Malabar coast, in Kerala…

While the village of Kuruva’s droopy palm trees and romantic beaches are fine and all, my visit’s raison d’être is something far more unusual, and far more fascinating…

“Photo! Photo!”

Chai-addled local kids jostle to have their picture taken, Thottada Beach.

“Get back to work!” I told them, “Sneakers don’t make themselves!”

I came to Kuruva to try to track down an ancient Theyyam ritual–a rite similar to an exorcism, practiced by a sect of Hindu mystics…

Villagers give prasad (offerings) to Veeran Theyyam, the warrior deity, Kuruva.

The dancer dresses in elaborate costumes that represent the deity or spirit he is trying to summon. He then dances into a trance, allowing the spirit to enter his body and possess him…

Once possessed, the dancer becomes a puppet to the will of the deity, and the deity commands him to do such things as charge screaming into the crowd and steal someones cell phone, or leap barefooted into a shimmering mound of hot embers…

The theyyam dancers have also been known to drink excessive amounts of alcohol (fermented coconut toddy) before performing these holy antics. Not that I’m suggesting an obvious correlation or anything…

After the theyyam has tended to the (decidedly odd) whims of the spirit, he then gives blessings to the villagers, before a priest appears to exorcise the deity back out of the theyyam…

Gulikan Theyyam, Kuruva.

The Gullikan Theyyam has an awesome hat. Also, he can do low-grade circus tricks with stilts.

The Baali Theyyam repossesses a bag of fireworks, after a group of hooligan kids interrupts his performance by launching M80s at him.

I may or may not have been part of this group. You can hear the full tale, and learn more about Kuruva and the Theyyam rituals, by checking out the story “Gods Amongst Men.”

Vayanatyu Kulavan Theyyam, the questionable suicidal who leaps into a roaring fire in “Gods Amongst Men“.

From Kerala, I set off on a five hundred mile foodie pilgrimage to Hyderabad, just to have an authentic bowl of Hyderabadi Dum Biryani.

Along the way, I faced a long bus-to-train transfer in Madurai, and spent a few hours exploring the Sri Meenakshi Temple–the most famous temple in Tamil Nadu, and perhaps all of south India.

The temple is built in classical, colorful Dravidian style, with the ubiquitous, pyramidal gopuram rising fifty-six yards above downtown Madurai, in a riot of vibrant, intricate sculpture work.

The sprawling temple complex is devoted to Sri Meenakshi, the fish-eyed goddess who was born with three breasts. The legend goes that when Meenakshi was born, a prophet forsoothed that when she finally met her husband, her superfluous third breast would melt off…

And then one day Shiva came along, and apparently saw this woman with fish-eyes and three breasts—one of which was LITERALLY MELTING OFF OF HER BODY—and instead of rushing to find medical aid, or instantly vomiting upon himself, the first thing he thought was, “I want to spend the rest of my life with this incredible woman.”

And thus Meenakshi became the consort of Shiva. It’s like a pruriently disturbing version of ‘The Frog Prince,’ except instead of transforming into a beautiful goddess, the fish-eyed Meenakshi probably just got horrific scar where her breast fell off. It’s like ‘The Frog Prince,’ meets ‘Erin Brokovitch.’

Hundreds of statues adorn the gopuram of Sri Meenakshi Temple, depicting demons, heroes, and gods with so many limbs, it must only be an inconvenience.

Unless, of course, they’re playing Bananagrams.

I was desperately looking for a statue of a disfigured, fish-eyed super model, before someone informed me that the term ‘fish-eyed’ isn’t literal, and actually means ‘perfect eyes’ in classical Tamil Poetry. While this makes the legend seem a little less creepy, I still have difficulty understanding how they decided ‘fish-eyes’ was the best descriptor of feminine beauty. Then again, these are the guys who’s love stories center around mutant damsels with melting private parts.

Inside the temple, devotees light puja candles for the gods.

Pilgrims wander through sculpted pillars, under a colorful, lotus-studded ceiling.

The holy elephant gives its blessings, Sri Meenakshi Temple.

Catching my train north, I bid the south farewell (and just in time, barely escaping the sweltering arrival of the monsoon)…

Instead of heading straight north, towards Calcutta, I head west, traveling thirty hours by train into Andhra Pradesh, for my famous bowl of Hyderabadi Dum Biryani…

The Charminar Express chugged north, through the Tamil hills and over dried up, sandy river beds, slicing through the fertile farmlands of the southern interior.

After thirty chaotic hours, I arrived in Hyderabad, only to have my initial plans foiled by a bloody, widespread city riot. Despite my tribulations, I managed to get my hands on a celebrated biryani at Persis Paradise… before paying the bill, returning to the train station, and riding another thirty-four hours back east, towards Calcutta, the squalid, cultural heart of India…

But that deserves a whole travelogue unto itself…

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To see the full story of my plight for Hyderabadi Dum Biryani, check out “A Hyderabad Idea,” part one (‘A 500 Mile Foodie Pilgrimage by Train‘) and part two (‘Paradise on My Plate‘).

Or head north towards Calcutta in the Photo Travelogue “The Great Trunk Road

To peruse other Photo Travelogues from across Asia, click the ‘Photo Travelogues‘ button at the top of this page.

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