Indians love to make noise, and at times it feels as though the subcontinent is one great ululating street party – shouting, tooting, banging, and playing loud music with an abandon bordering on the gay. At times, India is just like Munch’s “The Scream” – only with the sound, and it took me weeks to psychically adjust to the traffic noise and the liberal employment of horns.
My bus from Kumily departed a five minute walk east across the state border – and so it was I entered Tamil Nadu. Like the Keralans, the Tamils boast a culture distinct from that of their northern counterparts, with a vast population that understands little Hindi – almost as a badge of pride – and has threatened civil unrest if Hindi should ever become the Official Language of India, as some (many millions) would like. With a literacy rate to match Kerala’s, Tamil Nadu is an economic heavyweight, and New Delhi must tread carefully with her. As I would also learn, the Tamils are deeply and proudly conservative, and even as their cities modernize at a phenomenal rate, so do they continue to fill their temples, mosques and churches, at the same time preferring traditional Indian dress to the Western fashions often seen in the north. In Hampi I had seen Hindu fossils, but in Madurai I saw for the first time the religion breathe.
My arrival in Madurai coincided with a festival in which the gods are traditionally sailed around a tank. A very large tank. With a water crisis in Tamil Nadu, and no water in the tank, the gods had to make do with being carried around the dusty ground of an empty pool. Judging by the amount of excited noise being made in the lead up to the moment, no one seemed too fussed by the inconvenience – and judging by my hotel’s indifference to the impact on the mental health of residents caused by the skin-blisteringly loud music being played outside our doors, they clearly thought we weren’t much fussed either. Just as Indians tend to pollute their streets, so do they astound the airwaves by turning up their stereos so high one hears more distortion than music, and the vibrations surge through the listener’s body like a bus through cattle. One doesn’t dance so much as one’s cells dance. Inched and budged by the sonic energy, you feel it from the inside out.
For the three nights leading up to the festival climax, I was sleepless, but that didn’t stop me relishing a visit to Madurai’s extraordinary Sri Meenakshi temple. One of the finest examples of Indian architecture, the temple complex is like a series of human pyramids built from a colourful cast of gods, heroes and creatures, almost as alive as the thronging mass of pilgrims and tourists who pour through the labyrinthine corridors of the temple like blood circulating around the belly of some strange beast. With no priest officiating, worshippers are left to the business of puja and prayer, daubing gods and bodies in ash and ink, bestowing garlands of fruit and flowers, and fixing their hopes on better crops, exam results, or another son. Throw in a few elephants and monkeys and you have a spectacle to surpass your average Sunday service in Sydney.
Hinduism is not a proselytising religion, and whilst not all Indians are Hindu, most Hindus are Indian, and so there are places in India that will remain forever hidden from foreigners, like those gloomy sanctums of Meenakshi with signs warning “non-Hindus” to stay away. (Imagine signs on churches saying: “Atheists Out!”) But whereas one would have to be omniscient to weed atheists out of queues for the Vatican, it is easy to spot a backpacker in a Hindu grotto.
But all such thoughts were soon drowned out by noise. And as is often the case in India, that’s what matters. So I didn’t get much sleep in Madurai, but the spectacle was well worth it – a kind of religious New Year’s Eve, with cows and elephants and no safety regulations, as fireworks sprayed in all directions like friendly fire, up and across a skyline dominated by the silhouette of Meenakshi, and the glittering of the moon.