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Vibhuti - Cow Dung Initiation

INDIA | Friday, 5 August 2016 | Views [908]

The time has come to step outside of what feels comfortable. Life in the retreat is a very sanitised version of what lies outside, but we're pretty comfortable with that. However, We came to see India and are not going to do that unless we get the local bus, or perhaps more wisely a tuk tuk and venture out into Tiru. Our first stop is the Ramana ashram where they are serving hot food to those waiting in a sizeable queue. There are several Westerners, some tourists like us, while others appear to have fully embraced life here, from religion down to the clothing.

The next stop is the Shanti Cafe, which is closed. There is a German and a French bakery but we pass on these. Our tuk tuk deposits us outside the east gate of the Arunachaleshwar Temple, where we will meet again two hours from now. I am feeling completely outside my comfort zone in the midst of all this chaos. It's a word I find I'm using quite liberally here because it so aptly describes how it all appears to me. India seems like some sort of scrabble for life, a fight for survival and still there's this gratitude which I find so humbling. There is also a sense of community for those without the support of family, that is at least very evident in The Ashok Tree community.

Meanwhile, here we are in the midst of it all in the centre of town and our smallest note is a INR500 (roughly £5). Our first task is to find a way to reduce this. By chance we find a supermarket where we buy a few items and are now street-ready! We enter the temple, leaving our shoes at the gate (they are not permitted in our bag). Having just walked through a small vegetable market, I'm starting to see why shoes are considered so dirty-they usually are!

Near the centre of the huge temple complex, there is an elephant who, it seems, is to stand there and bless people by touching their heads, no doubt for a fee! Frankly I would like just to set him free. No photos allowed here, or anywhere else in the temple complex. The ground is hot underfoot, but keeping to the painted pathways is at least slightly cooler than the bare hot stone. We pay INR20 to go inside the main temple, quite unprepared for the 45 minutes queue we find ourselves in, to see something as yet unknown. Inside its dark and dingy, the stone is almost black and smoke stained from the oil lamps burning just inside the entrance. The lighting is dim and small ceiling windows don't produce much light, or air! The stone floor is reasonably cool but the air is warm and stuffy. Industrial sized fans unfortunately do not oscillate so the best spots in the queue is in front of one these. Had there been a means of escape I rather think I would have taken it.

The lady behind me strikes up conversation which normally starts by enquiring which country you are from. Personal space distances here are quite different from what we are used to in England, and having someone so close as to be touching, especially in this heat is an unwelcome space invasion. I buy myself a couple of inches by putting my large should bag between us. Her sister who is visiting from Bangalore moves forward to chat. She is a fascinating well-educated lady who has represented her country on the issue of women's rights at the White House. I am so absorbed in the conversation that I have forgotten the almost claustrophobic feelings I was experiencing earlier. We are the only tourists in here and it probably helps pass the time wondering what we are doing here to pay our respects to Lord Shiva and receive vibhuti. Vibhuti is a whitish powder received into your hand and then either applied to the forehead or stored in carefully folded paper. Govodan later applies this to our foreheads and Priya, later still, explains that it is cow dung which has been heated until it becomes this white dust. I'm not sure I'm enthralled about having cow dung on my forehead, but having spent almost an hour barefoot among hundreds of other bare feet, I suppose a little cow dung isn't going to hurt!

We meet our tuk tuk driver at the appointed hour and are quite relieved to have survived the whole experience. As is often the case, the reality is less scary than the prospect, despite Vero's encounter with a hungry monkey! Even they seem to know we are soft-touch tourists! I'm quite surprised how infrequently we have been approached and asked for money. Perhaps being a less touristy destination, begging is not the common phenomenon here that I have heard it is elsewhere.

Our final stop is back to the shops near the ashram, which are clearly there to meet the tourists needs, but as nothing in town appealed, we'll take our chances there. A sari may be overdoing it somewhat, but the half and halfs (long top with loose trousers) are practical and could be worn separately elsewhere. The salesman speaks excellent English and has, we banter, been to university to study sales. This amuses him as he continues to open more cellophane packages with beautiful scarves, shawls, hand embroidered cotton shirts, pashminas, cushion covers and anything else he can think of to tempt us with, including a huge selection of rugs. The final 'best price' is doubtless over the odds, but it's a price we don't mind paying so once out outfits are bagged, we get back to our patient tuk tuk driver.

Back at the retreat, I'm grateful for a cup of delicious masala chai (tea), freshly-made, along with everything else here.

Tags: ashrams, cow dung, initiation, masala chai, retreat, shopping, templesl


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