Saturday, December 24, 2005

Pondicherry: not quite subcontinental Paris

Pondicherry, South India is a mysterious masala of French and Indian influences. A former colony of France until the 1950's, one sees a lot of pastel-colored colonial houses with stylish balconies and columns...and with Hindu blessing symbols drawn in chalk on the front porch to attract the prosperity of gods and goddesses. Baguettes and cafe au lait are sold in cafes alongside pakoras and chai. It's pretty cool to see the blend of cultures and colonialism, though I'm very grateful I wasn't a white memasahib here in the 20th century trying to survive the heat in corsets and petticoats.

We toured around some of the city's sites and, by far and away, my favorite thing was being "elephant blessed" by a real elephant!!! There's a special Hindu temple devoted to Ganesh (the elephant god) in Pondicherry with a lovely, big, live elephant standing out front wearing silver ankle charms and painted with Hindu symbols. It stands there quietly, kind of flopping its trunk around and waving its big, wrinkly ears, but will bless you if you put a rupee inside of its trunk! Yes, inside its trunk!?! Both Andy and I had to do this, so we took a turn and went up to the elephant -- they're awfully big when you're one foot away -- and dropped a rupee coin into one of its pink nostrils (which are like the size of our mouths up close).

I was worried mine was somehow going to roll right through his trunk to his brain, but the elephant just nodded it's head (quite perceptibly) and then I bowed my head and the elephant rested his trunk on my head gently for a second. I was so excited -- I've never been elephant blessed and loved being so close to a gentle beast that's regarded highly by this society. Then, after I stepped away, the elephant moved his trunk behind him and dropped the rupee coin on the cement by a temple worker! I could have done that a few more times for sure, but didn't want to make more of a spectacle than I already was in my white bare feet and Western clothes.

In fact, during our tour that day, Andy and I were barefoot almost half of the time! We weren't quite expecting that, but Hindus and other cultures belief the feet are unclean (and ours definitely are here!) so you're asked to remove shoes before entering temples, ashrams and other special buildings. It's a little shocking to be walking the streets without shoes, but it's good for the soul to experience things in reality and I'm looking at the skin-on-gravel regimen as good foot exfoliation. ; )

We also visited another old temple that had a very old statue of a monkey god, and were asked to eat "pradesh" afterwards. Hindus and Sikhs believe in the communal, uniting factor of food and have temple-blessed snacks (usually rice) on hand in many temples for people to share in before or after visiting. Isn't that awesome? It's such a great way to look at the act of eating and the Sikhs especially believe that eating is an act of equality, that eating together is more important and equalizing than obeying the stringent caste systems.

Anyway, they have temple workers who volunteer and cook the "pradesh" and then wait outside to give worshippers a helping on a banana leaf. Yes, a perfectly green, waxy banana leaf. In our case, "pradesh" was a saffron-lemon rice the color of gatorade with bits of peas, carrots and onion. I wasn't sure if I should partake of it, but the man behind the giant cauldron of rice bellowed at me, "Madame!" and pushed a serving of the banana leaf out to me. Startled, I reached for it with my closest hand, my left!, and that was a mistake!!! "Right hand, right hand," he bellowed at me again. I quickly switched hands and grabbed the leaf and then walked off to surreptiously watch others eating.

Many of the Asian culture believe the left hand is unclean and used only for bathroom duties, so I committed a faux pas by sticking out my left hand. Whoops! The other people grabbed the pradesh with their right hand, then placed it in the left hand for holding only. With their right hand, they dug into the rice with gusto and ate with fingers. I was feeling self-conscious at this point and just kind of poured some of the rice in my mouth off the banana leaf so I didn't have any more hand mix ups. Andy learned from my mistakes and ate with fingers quite adeptly from the banana leaf--I'm quite certain he's on his way to being part Hindu.

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