The evening begins with a bumpy ride to a smallish town about 45 minutes from Kottayam famous for an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. My friend Kirsten and I had visited in the morning to see ancient murals (1560 AD) that survived somehow upon the outer wall. These were obviously not so important to the temple owners. T\\\hey were not well protected and those inside the gates were obscured by various processional furnishings stored directly in front of them. The lighting was poor and it was impossible to properly see these rare works.
Disappointed we paid attention instead to what appeared to be a blessing ceremony for small babies. Their mothers held them as a priest distributed ash and some drummers and trumpet players made a racket. Behind this group, and beyond the tall post covered with gold that indicates a sacred place, men and women entered the inner temple to make their sacrifices of coconut, oil, and flowers. Men took off their shirts and entered bare chested. We began to walk the outer perimeter of the temple and noticed that the walls were lined with tiny oil lamps. One of the priests was scooping oil into each. “When are the lamps lit?” I asked another priest. “Tonight at six.”
In fact, every evening at six. Naturally we would have to witness this. My imagination flashed, but my mind could not comprehend how so many tiny lights could be ignited quickly. We tried to estimate the number. Perhaps more than 12,000?
So now I am ready to see for myself. At six sharp, I sit along a low wall waiting. Nothing seems to happen. Then a priest begins to light a few. A woman takes a light to another section, and a child begins somewhere else. Over the next half hour the lower six louvers of the temple walls began to flicker with a soft glow just as the sun set. Kirsten and I walked slowly around and around the walls as they glistened with fire. Such a tranquil time. So mermerizing.
There were no large crowds, as I had expected. This was after all an everyday event. Light against the darkness. Protection from the “night”. Older women walked past, some children accompanied their parents. At the inner sanctum, more people entered to make their gifts to the gods.
Reluctantly, we returned to our rickshaw to bounce toward our host’s home. We rushed through supper and walked with him along the clay roads to a large Catholic church that was sponsoring a festival. Kerala has a huge Christian population thanks to the Portuguese and Dutch colonists of the past. And St Thomas himself is believed to have founded the church in Southern India and been killed and buried here.
Neon lights and every other type of electric bulb blazed from the church steeples, outer shrines, and around the courtyard. Vendors were ready to sell food and trinkets. Loudspeakers blared music. In fact there were competing loudspeakers, each with different music. We crossed a footbridge to stand across a canal that reflected all of the lights and waited for the procession.
It was a long time coming. Meanwhile families set up small altars on steps that led to the canal lighting hundreds of candles. Fireworks boomed from the direction of the procession. A drum corps led the way with the fast-paced tattoos cutting sharply through the loudspeakers blare. The congregation of more than 3000 began to walk past carrying candles and lanterns. They had traveled many kilometers stopping to pray at various shrines. Many carried brilliant red, green, gold parasols and others carried holy images from the church. (George, our host, remarked that we should see a big procession when there would be thousands of these rich parasols.)
The last to come were the priests walking below a canopy. Then came prayers and chants and at last the fireworks. Fourth of July and New Years rolled into one.
Exhausted after so much stimulation, we walked home by flashlight. Hours of booming and music would continue. We hoped to be far enough away to sleep through it. And the villagers? I think they are used to it. Every evening and early morning is punctuated by loudly broadcast chants….prayers to Allah and the Hindi gods. Christians are expected add their sounds and lights to the mix!