Nothing is casual about a pilgrimage to the six Murugan temples of Southern India. It is a down-and-dirty journey to gaze powerfully into the eyes of God. Literally. Traveling to places where foreigners rarely step, and for good reason, is a commitment to bathe in the underbelly of unfolding consciousness.
To be transported inside by places outside of nearly unimaginable sensual potency, for a brief moment, allows the mind to dwell in its own strength and power. Astonishing clarity is gained when removed from domestic mundane life. The extremes of heat, exhaustion and over-crowding are a small price to be pushed into the womb of consciousness, similar to the way pilgrims are pressed through the inner sanctum of the temples toward the chosen deity, the source of being.
In a high state of alert, any effort to align the senses is overwhelming. Every smell is overpowering, unanticipated and unavoidable. Fragrant jasmine juxtaposed to rotting feces, mixed with the soot of camphor flames and incense, all become part of the daily inhalation. On the exhalation, the tastes of curried spices, sweet cardamom and salty sweat dripping from your forehead delight the palate. The pungent smell of urine under bare feet is a constant reminder to follow the customary and respectful gesture of never extending your feet at anyone or any shrine, ever.
The lack of hygiene can trip up even the most veteran traveler. For Westerners, the funky, wild and organic trip sometimes involves vomiting and diarrhea. Nevertheless, the food is delicious. Only the resilient and ready are suited for eating with your hands off of a banana leaf at a local food joint so jammed with pilgrims that the person next to you is spitting on your white rice while chatting loudly in the Tamil language.
The spear that Murugan holds in his hand as a symbol of the power of transformation and protection leads the assault on the sense of sight. It is an ecstatic gift to exchange intimate glances and meditate with eyes wide open, to see the dance of bliss unfold around every temple pillar, to see yourself more clearly. Peering through the cracks of consciousness with divine sight at the gentle and beneficent form of the divine, who longs to see you as much as you long to see him, is Dharshan, the reason for the journey.
The women’s colorful dress, rainbow-spectrum saris that tantalize the eyes, dot the landscape and stand out against the men in plain white sarongs with gold trim, usually shirtless and full of smell. The cries of pilgrims whose voices find ecstasy in their shared sojourn are as ceaseless and irresistible as the song that blares mantra from loudspeakers in storefronts. “Aarogya! Om Muruga!” “Be well! Blessings of Murugan!” The piercing ringing bells and deafening horns instantaneously arouse awareness, and unexpectedly the outer barrage of banging ceases. You are bathed in the earnest silence of stillness in your heart.
The severe crush of the crowd as you join tens of thousands walking with worn ancient stone underfoot at the cultural gathering place takes your breath away. Not only is it hard to respire, but hard to comprehend that you are here, making pilgrimage in this utterly transfixing world, more surreal then anything New York City has to offer.
Both stepping in monkey crap and bathing in the sacred ocean waters of Trichendur imprint the soul with a sacred mudra, a seal indelible to cherish always. Pilgrimage removes people from ordinary life and compels everyone involved to confront the meaning of relationship. Realizing that billions of people have done this pilgrimage over tens of centuries connects you to all living beings and to all who have ever lived. Everyone is a part of you and every part of you is present. You are one, from the beginning and unto the end.
Understanding the heart of devotion needed to manifest our deepest desires is critical to our yoga. Yoga means engagement. What you do is what you will become.
When you do Mother India, when you see her authentically, you churn the deepest parts of yourself to reveal and recognize your desires, hopes, foibles and fortunes. From recognition to recollection, you are forced to release yourself from preconceptions, make finite expectations and push through to another side of being.
The painted faces and smiles of strangers transport you inside to the unexpected, unanticipated, implicit and covert conversations of intimacy. Then it all draws to an end. Leaving, still longing to drink the nectar of this world and articulate more clearly your heart’s song, the evocative and emotional narrative continues to unfold.
I offer heartfelt gratitude to my dear teacher, Dr. Douglas Brooks, who invites undaunted souls to join him on pilgrimage to South India each year. To learn more about these experiences and to plunge into the heart of our yoga, take Douglas’ online courses at srividyalaya.com. For more information on how to get your life aligned, and to participate in transformational global service and yoga journeys, visit jordanmallah.com.