A lot happened this week, but I’m going to focus on one story in particular from our weekend in Valparai. Valparai is a mountainous area in Tamil Nadu that is a part of the Western Ghats full of waterfalls and wildlife (from elephants to monkeys to leeches). Sunday morning we left the homestay that we had rented and maybe drove an hour before Vinay realized he forgot his passport in our room. We pulled over where we were to kill some time before Vinay’s passport could be brought to us, and we went to get some chai and coffee— two constants throughout my time in India.
After having our drinks we started to explore the place and were advised to stay on the main road. These instructions were followed until we saw a few kids hurriedly roll tires down a hillside path towards a quaint, colorful temple. Intrigued, we decided to follow and explore. Cam and I walked until we were standing in front of what looked like a little village and an elderly man slowly approached us. We returned his warm smile and he began to speak to me in Tamil. After it became clear that he was hard of hearing and I was lacking in my understanding of Tamil, a couple of the kids began to help translate. There were 3 boys and 1 girl there who were in the age range of middle schoolers, and I introduced myself in basic Tamil and English. One of the boys helped elucidate what exactly the man was saying: this temple or koil that we stood next to was brand new and was to open soon.
I asked the kids if we could see the temple up close and they were eager to let us through the entrance. It was a relatively small structure with vibrant paintings adorning it, and it was clearly devoted to the god Shiva. At first we awkwardly huddled at the temple’s main entrance and complimented the beautifully designed architecture, and we would have been satisfied with just that experience. But then a friendly, middle-aged man, who I assume had caught word that some curious Westerners were in town, came and explained that the temple had just been finished. He was soon accompanied by a pandit who opened the doors to the main enclosure where a lingam sat, and before I knew it, my DukeEngage group and I were a part of a Hindu ceremony.
It was a short and sweet puja. When the pandit brought around the fire I modeled the hand motion to make towards it for the rest of my group, and when he reached the kids he put some vibhuti on their foreheads. At the end the middle-aged man asked for a “simple donation” and Priya obliged (I forgot my wallet in the bus!) Afterwards, Priya and I began to answer some questions about Hinduism for those who were curious, Kenny and Lucy taught the kids a clapping game (“Slide”), and some more locals came to interact or just observe. I ended up chatting more with the elderly man who first came to talk with us, and my translating friend who helped earlier stayed to facilitate the conversation. The man strongly recommended that we visit another temple next to some nearby waterfalls later that evening, but as he was telling me this, we got word that Vinay’s passport had just been safely brought to us.
Before we got back on the bus we played Slide with some of the kids one last time and then yelled “Goodbye!” mirroring their grins. And as we drove away, somehow the kids found us again further down the road and we waved from the window one more time. Ironically, this was the first time we had visited a temple during our stay in India. And it wasn’t just like any other temple experience — it was incredible to meet such friendly locals who would want to include all of us in a ceremony, especially at a newly constructed koil that we randomly stumbled upon. I don’t know what the chances of that happening are, but I’m glad we had to make that stop outside of Valparai. Thanks Vinay.