Apr

15

 The town of Srirangam is on a river island adjacent to the city of Trichy in the state of Tamil Nadu in south India. The central function of Srirangam is the thousand-year-old temple Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple dedicated to Vishnu, a principle deity in Hinduism, the preserver in the Hindu trimurti that includes Brahma, the creator, and Shiva, the destroyer. The temple is said to be world's largest functioning hindu temple with seven enclosures, and is on the list of becoming a UNESCO site. On the other side of the river in Trichy there is a rockfort with 7th century temples dedicated to Shiva and his son Ganesha.

For our Trichy visit, we decided to stay in Srirangam as there appear to be a few good housing choices on Airbnb. We booked a two-bedroom apartment that is probably within the fourth enclosure of the temple. The hosts are two young fellows probably in their upper twenties. Upon our arrival, they welcomed the two of us in the apartment, and while introducing the space, they informed us that this is a complex of brahmin families, and thus as a rule non-vegetarian food should not be consumed on the premises. Well that was fine with us and we respected it. They also told us that when we meet a guard at the gate we just needed to tell him that we are the guests at this apartment. So, that's noted. The two hosts also belong to the brahmin class.

The two-bedroom apartment with a living area, a dining area, a kitchen, and two bathrooms is on the second floor of a three-storey building. The interior decoration and furnishing was basic but neat and clean and enough for all living needs. There are windows on three sides. The design is that the windows mostly face into the shades, or gaps of walls, making the interior relatively cool but sacrificing any view. There are ceiling fans in all areas, and there is an AC in each of the bedrooms. Actually, AC's were not quite necessary even when the outside temperatures falled between 25 and 38 degrees celsius.

Inside, we were not seen by anyone, and though at times we heard conversations from other homes and as a matter of fact, some women did talk quite much, we did not make much noises to be heard by others. We did quite some reading and browsing in the apartment. The hosts prepared us a 4G wifi dongle that worked very well.

Out from the door of the apartment is a half open corridor with homes fully lined up on one side and half on the other side which has the open stairs. There is an elevator by the stairs but it was not in use. Outside the building there is not much yard space, just a walkway to the gate between the wall and the building. The ground floor apartments have doors open to the walkway. That was where we often saw some mid-aged women sitting outside. Every time, we gave greetings and a genuine smile. That is my attitude first acquired when studying in northern New England but fortified three years ago travelling in Sri Lanka where the buddhists believe authentic smiles giving other people happiness will also gain oneself credits for future lives. We are not buddhists but took this as a good way of life because smiling while giving other people a happy sense also at the same time makes ourselves happy on the subconscious level.

In the Srirangam complex, it was our first time discovering that smiles do not always give other people happiness. The women, though fixing their eyes on us while we passed by, had very numb eyes and faces. There were no reactive expressions to our smiles and greetings. I tried a bit to discern if there was any happiness behind the expressionlessness and actually found none. It just so appeared that happiness is not in their desire, "Is it perhaps a stage of enlightenment?", we questioned ourselves. We didn't know the answer, but kept doing our way of life during our limited times going in and out.

At times, we also saw men, the brahmins, always shirtless, riding motorcycles going in or out, not as idling as the women though. They generally ignored us, giving us not much chance for interaction, although during a couple times when we forcibly greeted some of them with our hands firmly folded, they did give us a nod back.

Coming back in the first evening from outside, we met the guard at the gate for the first time. We greeted him while walking in, but he stopped us. He did not speak much English, but appeared in a way that we the tourists were going into a place that is not for tourists. We explained in English that we were the guests at an apartment inside, but he didn't understand it, then we had to show him the key, though not marked with anything, he started to understand though still feeling confused that we stayed in there. He hesitantly let us in. As we walked past him, he showed a gesture much like a thumb up but with his thumb at his mouth while looking at us in a confused expression. We saw that similar gesture from Laos police while driving in Laos. It meant asking for a bribe for drinks. We couldn't believe that this man drinks, so just shaked our heads and walked away. At some later occasions and even at the time of our departure, he made the same gesture again, and I still don't understand what he meant.

We booked for four nights at the apartment. In the third morning at about 7am, someone rang our bell. I didn't have proper clothes on, so having said "coming", I went to put on my shorts and t-shirt. Before I finished with the clothes, there was the second ring. Then I hurried to the door. It was a man probably in his sixties, shirtless, (why did I hurry to put on my shirt?), certainly a brahmin, with a face not too happy, a bit angry actually, Just as I opened the door, he said to me simply "who are you?" with the three words nearly equally toned but a bit accent on the "you". What a question?! By a stranger? How should I best answer it? (Can anyone here make a suggestion?)

A thousand answers then came up to my mind. Leo Jia, probably the most obvious. But I knew then he would ask "who is Leo Jia?". So that wouldn't do. An investor? A speculator actually? A quant trader? He won't understand it, I am sure. A doctor of philosophy? A former business executive? Well, does he really care? A world traveller? A life-long learner? Well, that sounds too broad to him. A Gandhi ji admiror ("Live as if you are to die tomorrow, learn as if you will live forever" is my motto)? Well what if he doesn't like Gandhi ji (I was shocked to learn some Indians don't)? A Shiva enthusiastic (been through a third into the wonderful TV series "Devon Ke Dev Mahadev", we were deeply touched by Shiva)? Well, he is most likely a Vishnu devotee. A newbie Vedanta learner? Well, does he learn the Vedanta? Or do I have enough to talk with him about the Vedanta? I just got started.

Or just to be dangerous enough, as Vedanta teaches: "A god, just as you are one"? I actually have been learning about the question "who am I" since many years ago, and recently came to realize that this is the most proper answer: I am a god. Well, that's very likely too dangerous there. He doesn't seem enlightened enough. Or he wouldn't have asked this question, and he definitely wouldn't show anger in his face.

So I chose a most practical answer: "I am the guest of this apartment".

As if not understanding my answer, he asked again, in the same way, "who are you?"

I answered again: "I am the guest of this apartment".

Then he said: "no foreigners are allowed in this building". (Well, should I have chosen a different answer? And I hadn't come up with the answer as a foreigner) Anyhow, I told him then I need to contact our host, then he nodded and left.

The young host came very shortly, and apologized repeatedly for the old mind. The older man turned out a leader of the community.

So we agreed to leave. As we were waiting for our Ola auto outside the gate, the guard showed up with his mouth-thumb gesture again, and we had to ignore him on that.

It was an exceptional experience. However one can make out of it, I chose to believe that God sent the old man to quiz me. Even though I didn't give the correct verbal answer, the answer in my mind leads to the correct one.


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