Once our Air India flight gets us from Mumbai to Coimbatore, we head to our hotel. Although we entertain the idea of going for a walk, in a matter of minutes, all three of us are sound asleep. It takes all of our energy to get up less than two hours later to shower and dress for dinner. We slip our feet into sandals for the first time, oblivious to the snowstorm back home that has canceled my co-leader’s flight, and head to the hotel bar, where we drink Perrier and sample some local fare: tikki paneer, roasted cauliflower, sesame fried veggies, tikki chicken, and spicy fried fish. It is important to note that the retreat is strictly vegetarian, no eggs, and the only dairy is for chai, and the milk comes from the pet cow on site. Over the spread of savory treats, we plan tomorrow’s excursion to visit some nearby temples and decide to head to the retreat a day early. A short stroll around the hotel grounds in the warm night, the air full of honking horns, barking dogs, and the peachy glow of the city several miles away completes our evening, and the three amigos quickly retire.
We rise in the morning, eat a humongous buffet breakfast including guava juice, traditional Indian fare, omelettes, and pastries, oh my! It takes awhile to work out the details of our itinerary for the day with our driver–there are no two or three-lane highways here in India like 93 North or the Mass Pike, so the three of us have no real understanding of what we are about to experience (picture two lane small town roads often with four “lanes” of traffic, each car, truck, motorcycle, bicycle, cows, horses, and pedestrians all trying to pass each other or through each other). We pay our bill and are swept away from the luxurious steps of La Meridian hotel in our chartered car and into the humanity-filled streets of Coimbatore.
Our driver’s name is Krishna, which seems the perfect for a someone taking us on a temple tour. Our first stop is Perur Pateeswarar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva (also known as Patteswarar), and his consort Parvati. The parking lot is full of devotees and beggars, along with vendors selling sweets and flower offerings to the deities.
We are instructed to leave our flip flops in the car so the aren’t stolen while we walk through the temple, so this is really the first time our feet connect with Indian soil. We walk across the dirty lot and venture inside. I manage to catch this snap while our feet are still clean:
Alexis and I both manage to take a few pictures inside the temple before we are quietly but sternly told “no picture!” Our feet take us deeper into the belly of the temple, where various shrines guarded by priests who offer pujas smudge devotees with sandalwood paste, haldi (turmeric), and Vibhuti ( holy ash). Women chant quietly, and people move about in their daily prayers.
I don’t see another westerner in the place, and before long it is clear we are being watched and followed. It’s interesting being a tourist and yet somewhat of a spectacle with our winter white skin and Annie’s strawberryish hair. One doorway leads to a stone courtyard where we slip out and take a few pictures of the architecture and the natives passing by. In a moment we are surrounded by a group of ladies in silk saris and a few men in white who ask where we are from. We take a photo of them, they take one of us, and then one lady asks “selfie?” Before long we are having a full-fledged selfie extravaganza in the temple courtyard. Indians LOVE selfies! I regret to say that my own pics of this moment don’t do any of us justice, so you won’t be seeing it here, but trust me, there are many selfies to come!
The man who had been shadowing us for fifteen minutes inside the temple finally approached the photo shoot and pressed his way into our group and begged us to meet his family and do selfies with them as well. This is his family (he is on the right).
Amazing how the word “selfie ” and a few phones could bring a dozen strangers into such a sweet moment of curiosity and sharing. A few more hugs and pictures with these beautiful people we will never see again, and we are heading to the car and onward to the ISHA ashram about a half hour away.
It is very clear when we arrive at ISHA that this is a huge organization with an impressive complex. Some of the highlights include a massive statue of Shiva, a huge brick dome with a shiva lingham made of mercury in the center (if you are interested, take a peek on Google), several smaller temples and two bath houses, each with a lingham in the center which devotees press their foreheads or hearts to while in the pool.
We spend hours here: meditate in two different shrines, have lunch, and take the literal plunge into the women’s pool (men and women have different bathing pools). There is a protocol for the bath: first pay a donation at the door, then strip and put on a saffron robe, shower, and stow your belongings on a shelf before heading down a long wide stone stairway to the water. All three of us climb in, and a lady up on the steps gestures to us that we must walk around the lingham four times, put our foreheads to the stone (which means face under water), then our hearts, and finally swim over to an waterfall which cascades down the stone face of the pool– at least 50 feet high–where you have to walk under the falls and stand in the downpour. After a minute or so, we exit the pool, head back to the dressing room, and turn in our orange tunics before wandering back to the very first temple in the complex before leaving ISHA and heading North to Coonoor. Annie wants to buy a pink lotus to leave at the shrine, so we walk up the steps and there the flowers are floating in a huge basin. They might just be the prettiest flowers I have ever seen.