Some cherished journeys
For a week now, the TV has been bloodied by dreadful images of the closing chapters of a long and painful war in Srilanka. There was nothing to exult in the proclaimed victory. The agony of the displaced and the dispossessed continues to haunt.
Srilanka has always been dear to me. Because, it was the location of my (somewhat delayed) honeymoon. And it is the first foreign land we ever visited.
We got the opportunity to go on a Honeymoon Trip only five months after the wedding, thanks to the rigidity of the groom's work schedule. I don't know what we were thinking. There we were, two completely naive young people, still green behind the ears, with a "Slim and trim" bank balance but with a helium balloon of a daydream to go on a foreign trip !
Foreign Travel , in those days, was still a big deal.
And the red tapes around foreign travel were pretty muddled . Forex released per family per trip was only $500 ( this when our rupee was only 14 or 15 against it). And we had to show a mountain of documents to obtain a visa. Why visa, even to obtain a passport, we had to get a testimonial from a D.I.G. and attestations on our SSLC marks cards from an assortment of Gazetted Officers. And the cyclostyled questionnaires to be filled everywhere........phew ! They almost made us suspect that we were held guilty of some criminal malfeasance till proved innocent !
Passports obtained, we perused brochures at all well known travel agencies to choose a destination ( i remember the agencies never gave away the precious brochures !). And zeroed in on Srilanka. Primarily because it was the only "Phoren" we could afford, secondarily because it could be done within 4 days.
Port of Embarkation was Trichy Airport. Then just a glorified bus stand. Luggage was literally kept on stone benches under tin roofs near the tarmac. Immigration was a tortuous process , Inquisition style. Every single thing we carried ,except our tooth paste, was examined,evaluated and endorsed in the backpages of the passport . Today, my children roll their eyes upward at the long list of endorsements, ending with: " Silver Toe-rings ,1pair: Value: Rs.75."
Colombo,before lunchtime. We had made arrangements with Ramakrishna Mutt for a room in their hostel and were wondering which transport to take when a Sinhalese co-passenger who had befriended us on flight offered to drop us there ,as his home too lay in that general direction. He seemed to be a prosperous businessman and had just visited his daughter was was studying in Bangalore. He got off first, at a beautiful bungalow within a garden ,and told the driver to see us safely to the Mutt. Which turned out to be quite a distance away and would have severely dented the wallet had we taken a cab. He had probably sensed our rawness from the anxious queries we had heaped on him throughout the journey and had been gracious to not only drop us but also to invite us to a party at his house that evening ! At the party, he put us on to a friend who patiently counselled us on how best to cover the city and get the most out of our modest allowance. After dinner, the host arranged to have us dropped by some of his friends. The man's magnanimity is unforgettable. As well as inscrutable. What can i say, except that i believe in Angels.
As per the wise counsel received, we chose a packaged tour only for the Ratnapura Gem Mines and Kandy, and did the city tour by ourselves on local bus. For the pilgrimage to Kathirkamam ( or Kataragama), we unwisely took mofussil road transport and got stranded there as the return route, always erratic, as we learnt later, got cancelled. After running hither and thither till dusk, we managed to convince a transporter of green produce to give us a lift upto Galle, from where we took a cab to the hostel well past midnight. It was a foolhardy adventure, about which nothing was breathed to elders at home upon return !
Kathirkamam is the abode of Murugan as a Mantra Shakthi, so the idol is not open to public viewing. Indeed i dont even know if there is an idol in there or just some Yantra. All we get to see in the sanctum is a curtain with a picture of Karthikeya printed on it. The temple is a simple structure, nestling on a remote hillock in a plateau strewn with little shrines for many gods. The place seems always crowded. It is a centre for yogic and tantrik practices as well as some painful rituals of self mortification. Lances shot through the cheeks and tongue, hooks stapled through body parts and hung with lemons, firewalking, carrying live embers on palms etc. As it was not the festive season, we dint see the more gory ones. But there were graphic photographs proudly displayed in the little snack shop -where we had Hoppers ( Idiappam) topped with fiery sambal and fragrant tea.
A local indigenous tribe called Veddas claim that Valli Ammai, the huntress (whose romance with Murugan is one of the most cherished mythological stories in tamil) was one of them , a daughter of Kathirkamam . Their name for Murugan is Kande Yaka and they believe Valli and Kande still play like children among the sylvan settings of Kathirkamam. Ofcourse, in mainland Tamil Nadu, Valli is bestowed with a different citizenship.
Kathirkamam also has significance for adherants of other religions.
There's a Buddhist Kataragama : developed around the iconic personage of King Mahasena, now the deity Kataragama deviyo, a minor Bodhisatwa.
And an Islamic Kataragama : its the sanctuary of Al Khidr ( a mysterious saintly being) who, it is claimed, gave the place its name.
Perhaps all three characters , Skanda,Mahasena and Al Khidr, evolved from the same source matreial ,buried in a distant prehistoric past. Who knows.
The holy stream here has a lovely name Manikka Gangai ( The Emerald Ganga).
On the way to Kathirkamam, we also saw the impressive buddhist pagoda, Tissamaharama. Where we wasted half a roll of film trying to get the whole dome into the frame.
And there have been subsequent visits.
While in Srilanka, we never miss a visit to the elephant orphanage in Pinnewala. The sight of 30 to 40 elephants of all sizes marching through a narrow avenue and splashing into the river to frolic like little kids, is truly endearing and never tiring to watch. A little craft shop here called " Elephant Dung" sells innovative paper products all made from the same raw material : elephant dung !
On our last visit, while driving from Pinnewala towards Kandy town, we were taken aback when on the hilly roads, a bevy of heavily made up nubile girls in shiny, glamorous outfits suddenly burst onto the road, waving and gesturing. A movie shooting of some dream song sequence ? No, they were village lasses selling cashew nuts grown in that area ! The eye popping dressing style was to attract custom it seems !
My one regret is that, to date, i have not managed to pass through the inner most portals of the golden sanctum at Kandy. And we are yet see Sigiriya and Dambulla.
One surprise however, is that the Cultural Show in Kandy has remained unchanged, in format and venue, from that day to this !
Finally, to share a cheap thrill : you are not going to believe this, but a batik Kaftan i picked up for SL.Rs. 90 on that very first trip , is still in use, unfaded, unfrayed ! 31 years and still going strong. Just like our affection for Srilanka.