celebrating Diwali, Festival of Lights, in Thanjavur

27 Oct

the last few days have been some of the best yet since I arrived in India. in case you missed it (like I have for the past 24 years), Diwali was yesterday.

I learned a lot from my coworkers (who hail from all corners of India) that Diwali is…

1. short for the full name of the holiday Deepavali and is known as the festival of lights.


2. celebrated differently throughout the country [my colleagues from the north celebrate in the evening, and those from the south the evening before and very early the morning of]. and

3. synonymous with firecrackers. no matter from where you come, firecrackers are part of the tradition.

most of my coworkers returned home to be with family. but those of us still in Thanjavur celebrated in a hodge podge way that combined lots of traditions (and made up new ones). it was kind of perfect in its uniquely quirky way.

here are a few of the highlights…

pre-Diwali:

my roommate Vani and I ventured out the night before to get clay votive-like oil lamps to place outside of our house on Diwali night. apparently that’s custom is more popular up north, so we searched high and low for those little clay pots.

in the process, I got to see a Thanjavur I’ve never before experienced:  crowds and crowds of people with a bustle and buzz in the air that made this small town feel like a city. it was something else.

early Diwali morning (4:58am to be precise):

Vani knocked on my door to rouse me for our early temple visit. she wanted to see the big temple for which Thanjavur is known before it got too crowded. we reached the temple by 6am and only a handful of devotees were there. it was a treat to wander around with so few people. and you could sense that this day was special, that this was a holy day. that’s an experience I’ve only had within my own faith tradition, so I tried to soak it up, this horizon-expanding day.

Diwali afternoon:

Vani and Sabya cooked delicious vegetable biryani for us to enjoy.

so tasty!

then Praveen, our coworker, brought by a box full of delicious homemade sweets for us to enjoy. we feasted while watching lots and lots of   Bollywood movie songs on TV.

Diwali evening:

Vani and I lit the tea lamps outside our house before I departed to Ramya’s for more celebrating. the candlelit glow suited our guest house.

once at Ramya’s, I was spoiled with tons of homemade sweets (see left), cracker bursting (read: setting off fireworks), and delicious homemade idly and vada with fresh coconut chutney. just Ramya, her brother, mother, father, and I there, it felt like an intimate family gathering, and I soaked it up. her family has welcomed me so warmly since I arrived, and it was a treat to join in their festivities.

Diwali evening (later):

once I arrived back at the guest house, thinking the festivities were over, our watchman greeted me with a smile and a bag full of more crackers. lots more. and no care that the holiday was winding down and our neighbors heading to bed. around 10:15pm, the five of us started setting off dozens and dozens of rockets, spinners, and bombs. it started to rain 10 minutes in, but that was no deterrent. with the joy of small children, we laughed, shrieked, clapped, and turned our heads skyward (or sideways, depending) with each new cracker, excited to see its fate.

Diwali drew to a close after 1am. I went to sleep last night tired in the best possible way, full-hearted and thankful for my life.

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smiles and more smiles

24 Oct

one thing I can always look forward to upon my arrival in Karambayam is the curious stares and excited waves from nearby school children.

the local primary school yard faces the main road just across from the health center, and I have yet to escape their notice when I arrive or depart. [I try to be discreet, given that they’re in school and I don’t want to interrupt their learning….no such luck.]

it always starts off with one eager “hi!”, to which I smile and wave back while mouthing a quiet “hi!” (again, trying to be mindful that they’re in school). by the time I’ve started waving, a dozen other children have noticed, and before I know it, the whole class has rushed to the school yard edge to bid me welcome or farewell.

this 30 second exchange makes my day. every.single.time.

I’ve yet to capture this moment until now. but with my dwindling days in Karambayam, I knew I had to snap a picture of their great send off.  this is the picture that resulted.

I’m sure their teachers loved me.

meet Zeta.

24 Oct

this is Zeta, one of the many stray street dogs on Arulananda Nagar (our hood).

shelter from the storm

 [note: she’s not really a stray…Zeta and Zorro (her “beloved,” as my coworker refers to him) loyally lounge and scavenge outside our guest house day and night. sometimes they even follow us to dinner around the corner. I find it cute. some of my coworkers and roommates (whom I won’t mention) aren’t as enamored.]

yesterday I guess the rain became too much for Zeta, and our dry balcony with a view was just too appealing. so, she made the bold move to come in the gate, climb the steps, and plant herself firmly outside our door for the duration of the storm. and for a few more hours after.

some of my housemates were less than pleased with Zeta, but no one dared send her back downstairs. she seemed too at home.

along for the ride

14 Oct

two weeks ago, when talking about our upcoming weekends, Ramya mentioned her plans to visit her favorite temple. when I asked her why it was her favorite, she replied, “well, I just like it. I feel protected there.”

of course I asked if I could come along, and she generously agreed.

early that Sunday morning we set out for the temple. two buses and a lot of stares later, we had arrived.

it was unassuming, simple, and bustling with activity. not built by a famous king or renowned for its architecture, this temple isn’t a tourist attraction. rather, it’s a local place for local people to offer puja, or worship. I’m pretty confident I was the only spectator there.

Ramya effortlessly guided me through the dense crowds: families lining up to offer puja; mourners offering prayers for their deceased; and, most interestingly  to me, dozens of bald children milling about with heads freshly shaved and covered with soothing sand (part of the Hindu hair-shaving custom known as Mundan).

since staring is not taboo, I indulged. I greedily drank in the sights and sounds, enjoying the rare opportunity to observe earnest worship by faithful Hindus, uninterrupted by throngs of foreign spectators like me. wrapped up in the moment, I didn’t even notice when a woman came up and rubbed a thin white powder known as kumkum across my forehead. so caught off guard, I didn’t even offer a word of thanks for the blessing before she had scurried away.

I didn’t take any pictures at the temple, but here are a few shots from right after our visit.

the woman who let us keep our shoes at her stall; Ramya always keeps her shoes there. Ramya's visits are so frequent, the women shared, "Ramya's like a daughter to me."

that woman's friend; she also wanted a photo. I love the color of her sari.

on the ride back from the temple, Ramya began asking me about my religious traditions. somehow we started talking about popular Bible stories for children, and I began narrating the tales of Jonah and the whale; Zaccheus, the wee little man; and Noah, his ark, and the animals two by two. Ramya had never heard any of these stories and seemed genuinely tickled to hear them. I, too, felt like I was hearing them for the first time, newly appreciating the story of Zaccheus and his being seen, acknowledged, and affirmed by Jesus despite his small stature.

it was a lovely morning.

Rosy hot chips

14 Oct

I continue to find new fun things about this small town, the latest being a store that shares my name (sort of).

my new favorite stop-n-shop

time is winding down in thanjavur. just 3 weeks of work left before I take off on my 6 weeks of travel.

I can only sort of half-way process this. I arrived just a few weeks back, right?

on the agenda this weekend:

throwing a farewell party for a friend,

attempting buttermilk biscuit making in the toaster oven (wish me luck!),and

finalizing travel plans for my mom’s upcoming visit to India (I’m so excited I can hardly stand it).