Trivandrum, India – spicy adventures in tropical Kerala
Indian street scenes are rather hard to describe.
Imagine yourself driving through the streets of your own Western city…
Maybe you’re in London, or New York, or Amsterdam. Maybe you’re in a less famous place – Oklahoma City, or Dusseldorf, or Galway.
Anyway – and please follow me in this thought experiment – imagine you’ve got a series of buttons and knobs in front of you on the dashboard of the car, which allow you to fine-tune the images you see through the windshield to look like whatever you want.
Looking at the knobs, you decide to dial a few of them up: first you dial “absolute fucking chaos” up to 10, then you hit “bright colors”, then “dusty and dilapidated”.
Now dial the “sidewalks and traffic lights” knob down to about a 1.2, until you start to see people just wandering along the streets, dodging moving cars, motorbikes and autorickshaws with no organization whatsoever.
Now imagine you see a button which promises you can switch all the people in your street scene for 20 to 50 times the same number, but the women will mostly be wearing outlandish pink and limegreen sarees, while the men will have mustaches, red dots on their foreheads, and (often but not always) be wearing a white sheet like a skirt and some sort of sandals, which they’ll kick off at any opportunity to walk around barefoot. Definitely press that button.
Okay. Are you still with me?
Now, in our little thought experiment, make the whole city a giant nest of shopping streets, but “shopping” in the sense of narrow doorways in crumbling plaster buildings, with long bunches of red and green bananas hanging on hooks, or stacks of chickens in cages waiting to be bought and decapitated, or somewhat larger places like “Krishna’s Computers”, or “Dr Aravind’s Ayurvedic Clinic”, or “Chellam Umbrella Mart and Mattress World”.
Each business needs a middle-aged gentleman and his wife sitting on plastic chairs in the doorway, gazing out at the traffic, sandals on the ground next to them.
Now add in the tea stands, and the fried food places, most of which are little more than a metal table covered with a plastic tarp roof. Be sure to surround those with barefoot rickshaw drivers. If you see a switch that says “city government does / does not collect trash” then just switch it firmly into the “does not” position, until further notice.
Now look up at the sky and press the button that offers you the possibility of adding large numbers of eagles and crows circling over the slaughterhouses and butcher shops. Put in some women sitting out in the hot sun with large stacks of mackerel and other fish on sheets of newspaper, collecting flies. Get several stray dogs lying flat on their sides anywhere there’s space. Add the haze in the air and the smell of burning coconut shells.
Got all that? Can you keep that image in your head for a moment?
Thanks for following along with this little thought experiment, but you’re probably not even close. You still have to come out and see it to believe it. You need the full 360-degree immersion.
Welcome to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
Kerala is a region on the southern tip of India, and Thiruvananthapuram (or Trivandrum for short) is its capital. That’s where Morena is from, and that’s where I arrive at 2:25 AM, a few days before Christmas, to be greeted by a six-deep wall of South Indian faces staring at me at the arrivals gate.
Morena waves, off to my left. She’s with her mom, who I’ve never met. Officially, Mom doesn’t speak English, but she sees me and says, “Oh, too cute!”
Ok, thanks, Mom. I guess.
We find the driver, and speed off through the mostly empty streets. I look around. It’s dusty. It’s dilapidated. The streets are abandoned, except for a few late-night walkers, stray dogs, and people huddled around brightly-lit tea stands.
“So if David Lynch made a movie about the apocalypse in some tropical paradise, this could look like what was left afterwards… you know, the rubble,” I say.
Morena sighs. “Try not to say those things in front of my family.”
Sorry, India. Your first impression isn’t always great.
In any case, Kerala is a region of about 35 million people. The local language is Malayalam, and the literacy rate (as anyone you meet will be happy to tell you) is the highest in India, around 95%.
They also have the world’s richest temple.
The story goes thusly: there’s a Shiva temple in Trivandrum, which for at least a thousand years has been claiming to have huge secret vaults full of treasure that make it the world’s richest. Several years ago, the government decided to check into it – after all, if there was really so much gold down there, they’d like to know.
The temple said no, we can’t open the vaults, someone took them to court, and eventually, the judges said they had to open 5 of the 6 secret vaults to see what was inside. (The last and largest one was left closed, because, legend says, opening it would cause “untold disasters” to befall the people of Kerala.)
So finally the government auditors came in and opened the vaults and it turned out the legends didn’t lie. They’re full of treasure, quite possibly the largest accumulation of gold in the history of the world.
Visiting Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum
Back to a couple of weeks ago, when I was still in Barcelona, and Morena called me.
“Just one thing,” she said. “Actually, you can go visit the temple. Technically it’s only for Hindus, but the Hare Krishnas could make you a special certificate saying you’re a Hindu… And I guess you probably don’t want to do that because it’s totally lame.”
I snort. “What? Of course I want the Hare Krishnas to certify my Hinduism so I can visit your temple… Sounds fun!”
“You have a strange concept of fun“, she says. “But okay.”
So we go. The Krishnas make me a certificate, saying I’m a practicing Hindu, and we take it to the temple. The guy in the temple’s tourist office waggles his head in the typical Indian way, which might mean yes or no, speaking to Morena in Malayalam.
We walk out, and she’s angry. “He says you don’t look like a Hare Krishna, and his boss is going to give you an in-depth quiz on Hinduism when we come back tomorrow.”
Tourist office guy doesn’t know who he’s dealing with, though. Morena’s mom is an influential, well-connected person who has the phone number of everyone in Trivandrum. Informed of the situation, she makes a few calls, and within a half hour we have a promise of entry to the temple the next morning, as well as a private tour guide.
Back at Sree Padmanabhaswamy the next day, I take off my shirt and shoes, put my (borrowed) mundu on over my shorts, and drape the shawl over my neck – all required by the temple dress code.
Inside there’s a massive patio where every column is a deity carved out of stone. There’s a very elaborate “gopuram” – sort of a layered tower carved with thousands of figures representing stories from the mythology.
The main attraction, though, seems to be the idols. Next to the idol of Ganesha, the guide hands me a cocunut, and tells me to throw it, hard, at a large stone. Having not broken too many coconuts in my day, my first attempt is a bit weak, and the coconut just rolls away.
“Stupid coconut… I’ll show you!” I think to myself, as I pick it back up. My second throw hits the stone so hard we’re all sprayed with coconut water.
“What was that about?” I ask Morena.
“It’s an offering to Ganesha. He loves coconuts.” Later on, I do some research. Patron saint of authors, bankers, intellectuals and scribes, Ganesha will remove all the obstacles in the path of those who bring him coconuts. Really. It’s true. I read it on the internet.
(Incidentally, that linked website has a service where they’ll smash 108 coconuts for you, at a special “Ganesha Vortex”, and all for the low low price of $126 US. I’d jump on that while supplies last, because it sounds like a pretty good deal to me.)
Approaching the Sanctum Sanctorum
The main deity at Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is, logically, Padmanabhaswamy, an avatar of Vishnu, who appears in “yogic sleep” on top of Adi Shesha, a 5-headed cobra demigod.
Everything in Hinduism is a rather long story, what with all the gods, their wives and children, their many names and avatars. Probably better I didn’t have to take that quiz.
In any case, the main story here is the scene around the statue of Padmanabhaswamy. Imagine, if you will, a couple of thousand dark-skinned shirtless guys, wearing sheets around their waists instead of trousers, as well as a fair number of women in sarees, lined up behind a metal railing and pressing towards the idol. Our tour guide (who looks exactly like everyone else, by the way) knows where to cut the line, and knows the Brahmins sitting inside with the oil lamps, so we push our way in.
People are shouting, and the guy at the door tries to close it on me, but Morena drags me inside and we’re there with the golden Vishnu.
It’s a sweaty moment, pressed in a crowd of the faithful, viewing the deity through the three doors into the sanctum sanctorum – or, if you’d like the official local word, the garbhagriha. You can only see three bits of Vishnu: his head, on the bed of five cobras, his navel (Brahma emanating from within, somehow) and his feet.
After that, we’re out of the pressing crowd and back in the regular crowd, still sweaty, barefoot and shirtless, and I feel like I’ve just had the most Indian experience ever.
Preparing for my Indian wedding
Now that we’ve talked about the world’s largest collection of gold, perhaps we should talk about the second-largest: the gold we’re going to be draping on Morena for our wedding.
Maybe I mentioned before that the reason for this trip is that I’m getting married.
But before we can relax in nuptial bliss, Morena and I are having a Hindu wedding, and everybody in town’s been invited.
The cost of this event seems wildly out of proportion to the financial situation of the area, but who am I to say? People out here really love gold. And for the most part, it’s being paid for by Morena’s family – all I have to do is show up.
And show up I have. My first day in Trivandrum – after a brief nap at the Hilton – Morena comes with Mom, an aunt and the driver. We go to Lulu Mall to buy an outfit for me to wear to the temple, as well as several sarees for female guests. (Apparently, part of this whole plan involves buying clothes for the people they’ve invited.)
Lulu mall is new, and just like any nice mall anywhere in the world, except for the people inside and the products those people are buying. By which I mean it’s airy and bright, with shiny stone floors. They’ve even got a Costa Coffee!
After a double espresso I start to feel like a normal person again, and we get me an kurta made of tassel silk. That’s the easy part. Next stop is the food court, where Morena orders me chicken lollipop and mutton biryani. It’s the best mall-food-court meal I’ve ever had, by far.
After that, we head off to what can only be described as “six mind-numbing hours of jewellery shopping”. Luckily, Morena’s brother is there by that time, and we wander the mall, talking about guy stuff while the ladies look at necklaces and bangles.
This goes on for several days: the trips to the mall, the buying of sarees for relatives, the visits to ever-more-expensive jewellery shops. The wedding-industrial complex has hijacked my Christmas, and I may never escape.
(The best moment is when we go to a very expensive shop to have my necklace cut for the big day, and the “alterations department” turns out to be a dingy, cluttered little room with two old guys sitting in lotus position on the floor. In the end, they decide my necklace is already a good size, but I’m glad I saw the scene. When I tell Morena’s brother about it later, his response is “What’s the lotus position?”)
Eating like a Raja in fabulous Kerala
On the other hand, the food is great, and there’s lots of it. Once I get used to the idea of eating rice and fish curries with one hand – no silverware except the spoons for serving – I enjoy the cuisine a lot. It’s spicy enough to be challenging, but not debilitating.
On Christmas day I head down to a new hotel in Kovalam, a town on the beach, where my Mom is expected to arrive in a couple of days.
Kovalam is much more touristy than Trivandrum, but it’s mostly Indian national tourism. You have the typical scene: people milling around on the beach in their regular clothes, with only a few European tourists in swimsuits. The beachfront has a few bars, a lot of restaurants, and some shops selling Indian-themed stuff to the visitors. Ayurvedic massage places abound, as do hotels and hostels.
I get a beer and some spicy squid, and sit outside the restaurant gazing off at the Arabian Sea. An old lady walks by, balancing a large tub of fish on her head. Hawkers sit next to piles of coconuts and papayas. A crow lands on the railing next to me and caws.
This is certainly not how I envisioned my life going, at age 40. But all in all, I’m pretty happy about it.
Join us next time, for Part II of the Indian Wedding Saga…
Right here on The Chorizo Chronicles.
Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.