Che cosa succede quando Stella – seria storica dell’arte e divertente (“almeno si spera” – dice lei) insegnante d’inglese – si concede finalmente di realizzare un sogno accarezzato da decenni, ovvero di andare in India? Che sorprese e soddisfazioni la aspettano? Scopriamolo insieme…
What happens when Star—a serious art historian and a fun (“at least I hope I am,” she says) English teacher – finally allows herself to realize a dream cherished for decades: to go to India? What surprises and satisfactions await her? Let’s find out, together…
“India…it had never crossed my mind before I had to catalogue Jain and Moghul art and architecture slides as part of my pre-digital era job at the University of Southern California while studying there. Gorgeous or intriguing lines, colors, styles, approaches, coupled with fascinating subjects, messages, blendings and distinctions of local and international cultures all buried deep into my heart, but career-building called.
As I got more and more interested in philosophy, niggling thoughts returned to India. A personal tragedy made me rethink my priorities, and at the school where I teach I saw a flyer for a trip to India led by Sonia Sgarella. I had hesitated the year before. Friends had gone without me, and had had a wonderful time. “We had such a wonderful time!” continued to rankle. “This time, I’m going!”
I’ll confess that, at first, I was quite disappointed that we weren’t going to see the Taj Mahal. First time, and maybe the only time in India, and no Taj Mahal?! So be it. The itinerary? Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. I had never heard of them, but the monuments on the itinerary and Sonia’s expertise and reputation for being a knowledgeable guide that didn’t waste loads of time in trinket markets to get things that could be purchased at home convinced me. I also began digging.
The results? We were going to see the flowering of the aboriginal culture pushed to the far south beginning in about 1500 B.C. by a more energetic civilization, whether, as some scholars believe, the Aryans invading from the area of Iran, or, as other scholars believe, a local flowering.
Super! I ended up being even happier, even if I wasn’t going to see the Taj Mahal, at least this time around.
I looked up the most important architectural monuments, I read up on them and on the history to prepare myself as quickly and as best as I could. I was sure I would be transported into rapturous states by seeing the temple art in person.
It was nice. It was interesting…
…southern Hindu temples have protective walls because they also functioned as treasuries needing defense whereas in the north they didn’t, so, apparently, they don’t (I hope to find out in person, soon). Southern Hindu temples for all their great reach to the sky also are characterized by noticeably horizontal energies thanks to the arrangement of the decoration in strongly marked horizontal fasces…
…and Hindu temples have to be entered barefoot (often, thankfully, socks are allowed, though they’ll earn you a few giggles) – quite a disgusting and painful prospect, at least for this occidental.
However, the differences of one southern Hindu temple from another are so fine, are on so tiny a scale for a non-expert, that explanations lingering over minute details in the individual stories of the myriad of unfamiliar gods as seen through the multitude of small packed images, can, despite Sonia’s very expert panoramic insights, be tiresome, even for an art lover.
What I hadn’t expected, and what wasn’t on the itinerary, impressed me the most:
…the colors, smells and tastes; the differences in daily life that turned into little adventures;
…the general lack of freely wandering sacred cows (often tethered and intelligently moved from day to day to keep the grass well and evenly cropped, with their life-giving milk, they are like Ur-mothers);
…the gritty and ratty condition of the immediately post-independence structures (mid-20th century) contrasting with juxtaposed luxury;
…the horrifying sanitary conditions along rivers and in the streets along which the sidewalks, permanent home for some, are carefully and constantly swept by women bent over in half and using a tightly gripped handful of long twigs (I only saw one man sweeping, and that was as a custodian in the Ratha architectural complex);
…women in a small, but very tidy, village isolated along a narrow stretch of road cleaning pots and cooking over fires whose design evoking blessing for the family hearth is renewed every morning.
…the delight still savored for wearing traditional clothes or the encroachment of westernized habits;
…the anticipation and exhilaration of watching brightly costumed long performances of epic heroic and divine tales;
…the all-pervasive Hindu spirituality – greeting the morning sun, visiting temples in red and yellow pilgrim saris for the ladies, circumnavigating an ancient and sacred baobab tree, or…
…climbing a penitential mountain of stairs,…
…leaving the often harsh bright daylight to swim in temple blackness slashed only by a few rays of light coming from a stonework grill, from a glaring bulb, or from flickering votive candles,…
…getting blessed by priests…and leaving one’s monetary offering of thanks,…
…accompanying Shiva (evoked by his shoes in the silver palanquin carried by white-robed priests) to his wife’s little house for their nightly delight (the next morning, he and his shoes had to make it back to his part of the temple complex without us).
…seeing fields being plowed with oxen and a wooden plow by a man naked except for a white turban and loin cloth even while talking on a cell phone; seeing the first stage of mucky work for preparing the freshly picked ginger that I use to make some of my favorite cookies; seeing the jaw-dropping first step seemingly millennia old in the process for transforming sugar cane into brown sugar;
…seeing the reality of the back-breaking work of those picking the leaves for the tea I love to drink, or of making bricks (3 days of work are needed for a small 10’ x 10’ one-room building, though many still live in palm leaf huts…augmented with electricity);
…melting at the eagerness of the little scrubbed faces topping neat uniforms and tiny dirty shoeless feet in the immaculate little local elementary school;
…trying not to melt at beggars…mostly polite; seeing priests;
…being touched by people going about their daily business of loving their children, of moving themselves and family members from point A to point B, of transporting, selling and buying goods, whether sitting directly on the street, or…
… in the brightly colored bazaar stands.
We also saw remnants of colonial life,…
…but most of all what struck me was…the eyes of the people:
…some of them suspicious, cautious, curious, or perhaps even filled with envious spite.
…some of them willing, but hesitant, but…
…most of them warm, real, soul to soul, even when you are exchanging glances from a tourist van, they are delighted to see you try to waggle your head in their “hello/O.K.” gesture.
Sonia was right. Our lovely local guide Priya may have needed a bit of language help now and then, but she more than made up for it with her warm personality and, as you can see, her eyes sharply on the look-out for the unplanned experiences that added the satisfyingly marvelous depth of real life in her beloved country to the whirlwind of a two-week trip.
So, that was that my first, but will it be my only trip to India?
No, no, a thousand times, no.
At least one more with Sonia (and, hopefully, Priya) tugs at my heart…and perhaps more.”