[fusion_text]IMG_0823With the conference in Delhi completely behind us, our motley crew of 9 scholars officially embarked on our southern India trip to Madurai on Sunday December 7th.  Collectively, we represented Australia, Canada, and the United States. We awoke at 3 am to catch a 6:50 am flight to Madurai, with a stop over in Chennai. Once we arrived in Chennai, I noticed about an hour into the layover that I had left my fleece jacket on the plane. I inquired at a Security Desk at one of the gates about it and was told to “wait 10 minutes,” at which point some polite soul appeared and placed the jacket in my hands – have you EVER had that happen to you on an airline?? On another note, see the flight reader board photo below – the various languages include Tamil, Hindi, and English. What a place!

This 10-day trip to Madurai was initiated by our accompanying travel guide Dr. David Willis (Professor of Anthropology at Fielding Graduate University) who had lived in this part of India for five years (plus another 30 in Japan).  The actual contents of the 10 days were programmed by Dr. V. A. Vidya, Co-Founder and Academic Director of the Chella Meenakshi Centre for Educational Research and Services. When we arrived from Chennai to Madurai, we were heartily greeted by Mr. J. Rajasekaran (Shekar, pronounced “shaker” for short), who is married to Dr. Vidya.  I had been told by Dr. Vidya that Shekar had an abundance of energy, but there was no way to prepare ourselves for the whirlwind that awaited us.  He is positively lovely in spirit and expression! We made our way out of the airport with our multitude of luggage, and he and our driver Pandi proceeded to pile up that mountain on top of the van we’d call home for the next 10 days. Once secured, we made our way to the Hotel Royal to freshen up and have some tea.

From there, we set off for the famous Meenakshi Amman Temple. The photo I managed to capture below simply does not do the place justice. It’s enormous in size, to start – with very tall walls of figures rising upward into the sky. The ground floor is a maze of tunnels which houses various street vendors and a myriad of prayer options. People of all castes and faiths are welcome into the Temple, though there are some parts that are reserved for Hindus only – see photo below. Shoes are removed and we each proceed through a body scanner and search prior to entry, but the process is fast and peaceful.

Sekar and Mrs. Rama (from the Centre) took us for a 2-hour tour of the Temple, recounting numerous stories about the various gods and goddesses.  Shiva is the principal goddess worshipped and in fact the Meenakshi Temple is dedicated to her. God Ganesh is the male most worshipped. Ganesh is a god who is believed to remove obstacles. The predominance of goddesses cannot be overlooked, and our guide Dr. Willis believes the general respect women enjoy in southern India is perhaps in part due to the prevalence of goddess worship (interesting, no?). Inside the Temple, the constant sound of prayer and chanting is quite lulling, and I found the whole experience very grounding and peaceful. The sheer number of activities one can partake in to honor and thank the gods and goddesses is dizzying. That so many devotees can recount the stories and associated activities is a testament to the manner Indians incorporate their spirituality into daily life.

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