Pleasantly surprising India . . .


guest-verdun-1At this moment I’m in India with my wife. But which India? Saying you’re in India is like saying you’re in Europe, or in Africa.

India is a land of several cultures, religions and languages. Not an area of darkness, as Naipaul suggested, but a vast and complex variation of light. We humans perversely see only that which we wish to see.

We’re visiting the south, right now in the state of Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian homeland.

You want to see Hindu temples? Go to Tamil Nadu. Temples in all their exquisite explosion of colour and intricate sculpture telling the stories of the gods.

We have just come from an ornate temple in Pondicherry, where we, among a throng of Hindus, received a blessing by one of the priests of the god Ganesh, he of the elephant head. An interesting story with a moral.

Ganesh was the son of Shiva, one of the holy trinity of Hinduism: Brahma the creator, Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the protector.

Anyway, the story goes that when Shiva took Parvati as his wife, they had a boy they named Ganesh. But Shiva went away for a long time to meditate. When he returned  to his home he saw this sulky teenager slouching at the gate. Shiva asked if this was Parvati’s house. Ganesh said yes, but would not let Shiva pass. Shiva cut off his head and went in.

Parvati asked him if he had met his son Ganesh at the gate. In horror Shiva rushed outside followed by Parvati.

To cut a long story short, Shiva cut off the head of a passing elephant and put it on Ganesh. Moral? Teenagers, don’t sulk
and slouch.

Back to Pondicherry. If you plan to go to southern India, don’t miss Pondicherry. By all means miss Chennai, but not Pondicherry. It is a surprising city to say the least.

Once a French possession, it retains a peculiar semi-autonomous status. The Indian police dress as if they’re gendarmes; you can buy baguettes and croissants at the bakeries; there is a magnificent tree-lined boulevard flanked by a wide promenade running a mile along the seafront; and we attended a mass celebrated in French by an Indian priest at one of the gorgeous Catholic churches.

Yet, adjoining this enclave of Franco-Indian heritage is a small Muslim district lined with houses of fine architectural design. And beyond that lies the bustling Tamil district at the centre of which is a market 20 times the size of Cheapside Market, full of everything you could possibly want to buy, wonderfully smelly and seething with chaos and cacophony. Magnificent!

As an Indian friend in Barbados told me before we came here, “you’re either going to love it, or you’re going to hate it”.

I was struck by the similarities between Hinduism and Catholicism: they both have their pantheons of iconic objects of reverence; they are both fiercely sacramental, seeing this world as full of signs and symbols of a universal transcendent spirituality; and they both attach value to having places of worship that are aesthetically pleasing.

Of the three traditional paths to God –– truth, goodness and beauty –– we sadly often neglect the latter. Unfortunate, because as all artists –– especially poets –– know, beauty is a trusted way to the spiritual dimension of reality.

I recall some 30 years ago, shortly after I had lapsed from an intolerant atheism into a more humble agnosticism, I was attending a conference in an old part of Mexico City, and during a long break while a subcommittee was wrestling with a meaningless draft communiqué about irrelevant issues, as happens at all diplomatic meetings, I wandered outside to stretch
my legs and clear my head of the nonsense I had been hearing all morning.

It was hot and sunny, and when I found myself outside of an old Catholic church built on the site of an even older Aztec temple, I went in to seek refuge from the heat. It was blissfully cool, dark and hushed, with just a few old folk mumbling their prayers at the side altars on which candles flickered in the dark. The interior of the church, with its stained glass windows
and intricate sculptures, even in the semi-darkness was strikingly beautiful.

As I sat there, I lost track of time and then felt an uncanny sense of being in the presence of the sacred, a feeling that stayed with me even after I had left the church. Of course, being an agnostic blindly committed to an exclusive naturalistic explanation of all reality, I put this experience down to a mental aberration caused by the intense relief of temporarily stepping out of the mind-numbing world of diplomacy.

Only much later did I recognize it as a minor epiphany provoked by the beauty that engulfed me and that made my mind more open to the spiritual, so that I began for the first time to read seriously about religion, this universal dimension of human societies that I had many years before dismissed with all the intellectual arrogance of youth.

But back to Pondicherry.

Can we in Barbados learn anything from this incredible city?

On the lighter side, the evening before we chanced upon an exhibition of arts and crafts sponsored by –– I swear! –– The Backward Classes And Minorities Development Corporation. After doing a double-take, I wondered whether we in Barbados might benefit from such an entity. Hmmm . . . . More seriously, the street that runs alongside the mile-long esplanade is closed to traffic every day from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., inviting hundreds of families to come out for a stroll in the cool of the evening.

The lesson I drew from this is that Bridgetown needs to be more welcoming to people on foot in the evening. This would not only lead to a healthier population, but also stimulate more economic activity.

(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)

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