09/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Clips from India: Madurai (ii)

"You have all this luggage?" said the man who came to take me from my hotel to the bus for Madurai. A foam mattress, a suitcase, two huge duffel-bags of books, a computer.

He hung them all except the suitcase on various rungs on his motorcycle, then had someone dump the suitcase on my lap (I sat in back) while he stuck the foam mattress between his feet. The system worked superbly, until the wind blew the foam mattress up into his eyes and he was blinded, but I pulled it back with one hand. They say people in India face terrible risks on the road because of the belief in reincarnation, yet I wonder if it is not just a belief in ingenuity. As we hit potholes and bumps, and darted between horse-drawn carriages, rickshaws and a bus, and skidded over a clump of sand, I had absolute faith that suitcase, computer, bookbags, and mattress (and myself and he) would make it to the bus.

It was a three hour bus journey, through dusty flat towns--with several chai stops-- from Rameswaram to Madurai, the oldest commercial city in Tamil Nadul. There, I was to hire a car to the hill town of Kodaikanal, another four hour drive away. Yet, in-between the drop off and the pick up, I hoped I had ten minutes to see the Sri Meenakshi temple, one of the most famous in the world.

Luckily the car agency was only a ten minute walk from the temple, so I ran down a dusky street filled with rushing people and vehicles--tourists and businessmen and students and rickshaws--and found the enormous temple to my left. A young girl smiled and waved me to her side when I indicated, with a gesture, I did not want to wait the long line to get through the metal detector (the bomb security was high), and I briefly joined her group of friends.

I prayed immediately once inside the temple: please let me run into an educated Indian archaeologist who can--in ten minutes--explain to me this 500 year old temple.

Passing (at a brisk trot) imposing columns carved with ancient jumping monkeys and Shivas and Parvatis, and all sorts of bodies in yogic positions, I found myself at a vendor selling trays of flaming vats of oil: nine tiny flames on each tray--for 27 rupees.

"What do I do with them?"

A tall gentleman behind me laughed. "Take them and pray to the nine planets: you see we Hindus believe each of us is connected to the universe, and so we pray to the power of planets. Go to that stand!"

I went to that stand--a table of extinguished candles--and tried to see how I was supposed to slide my hot wicks off the tray without burning my hands.

"No, no," the gentleman laughed. "Take your tray and walk once around the altar and pray."

"Pray for what?"

"For yourself."

So I walked around an enormous cage where nine bronze elephants stood in rows, each signifying a planet, carrying my flaming planets in two hands.

The gentleman pointed next to a column inscribed with what seemed entwined snakes, running up and down. "You know kundilina?" he said. "These are the chakras, between each spiral."

He began to explain another engraving to me--of an avatar of Vishnu--but I told him I only had 4 more minutes, and I would like to see a mandala, so he and a friend who joined us, tried to convince a guard to unlock the gate to one of the inner sanctuaries of the temple, where a l6th century painting of an astrological mandala could be found.

The guard could not be convinced, but we raced around the chambers of the temple, until we found another entrance--and there, hanging on the wall, were two parchment mandalas: one for the heavens, with circles for each planet, and one for the fruits of the earth, from gee to coconuts.

"I hope I helped you a little bit," the man said with a slight bow. "You know meetings like this are not coincidence. You must have called me with your spirit!"

He gaily waved to me as I ran past the lotus pond, out the temple, and through the rush of streets to the car.