Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 7, No. 3, 2008
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
Sylvain Richard
Robert Rotondo
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somverville
David Solway
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


Michael J. Evans


Michael Evans, a former art educator, is a West Coast artist, photographer and writer, who travels to India to find inspiration and spiritual renewal. For more details, visit:


© Michael J. Evans

The solar blast from the southern Indian sun has weight, it presses down on the flesh, forcing it to retreat in defense. Pores open, sweat leaves the body in a steady sticky stream, sapping energy and vitality. A walk of a kilometer or two along hot rough roads can leave one limp and listless. Morning’s fresh garments become soaked and stained with India’s ubiquitous red dust.

Heat from the Sun’s relentless onslaught also gets stored in the concrete roof and walls of the small room I rent. At night, it is slowly released and the room heats up like an oven. There is no air conditioning. I sleep naked, spread-eagled under the ceiling fan, set to medium, as a compromise between its cooling power, which is deterrence to mosquitoes, and its noise, a discordant chatter due to strained and cracked ball bearings. In a semi daze, rivulets of sweat run from the center of my chest to the sheet below. The hours slip by sleepless. Around 4 a.m., the room begins to cool, and sleep is near. But around 4.30 a.m. loud music from the Temple starts up. It is followed by a Hindu priest nasally chanting out an incantation that is being broadcast from large banks of loudspeakers that have been set up over Varkala’s hills.

© Michael J. EvansThis strident reveille goes on to 6.30 a.m. By then, taxis and scooters have started moving in the lanes and for most Keralans, a new day has begun. Exhausted, sleep finally takes me into its benign oblivion to about 8.30 a.m. Then, with heat returning, I groggily roll out of bed, stand under a cold shower, and with a mind that has become foggy, slowed by too many nights of interrupted sleep, I contemplate another day.

To cope with fatigue, the wise traveler adopts a rhythm of days to move, travel and explore, and days to chill out, relax and catch up with chores. Today will be a wash day. I need to wash a pile of clothes that have become heavy with sweat, salt, dust, sun tan oil, and chai and curry stains. High humidity will slow the drying process. Sudden gusts of wind can send the freshly laundered clothes off the line and back onto the red dust again, so I plan to watch over them and do some writing.

Over breakfast of Masala omelet and coffee at Silver Star Cafe, I open my diary, now full of erasures and scribblings. I scoff at my numerous deleted tentative itineraries, imagined journeys and destinations, created in Canada’s temperate clime and penciled in from reading a new crisp edition of the Lonely Planet. Plans to do the backwaters of Kerala, tour the spice markets of Cochin, have now given way to a plan to retreat from Varkala’s heat and move north to Goa.

By chance, I overhear that trains are filling up fast. A Hindu festival has drawn 1.5 to 2 million women to Trivandrum, Kerala. They are participants of Attukal Pongola at the Attakul Bhagavathi Temple. During the four day festival, they will camp out in a five kilometer radius around the temple. At an auspicious moment, a signal from a priest will start them cooking freshly harvested rice as offerings to the Goddess Shivarti, the goddess of learning. Surya, the Sun God and giver of all good fortune will also be worshipped and the direction the boiling milk overflows will be taken as an augury for the coming year.

The Festival ends on Sunday night. The next day, a mass exodus begins and the rail system becomes plugged as it moves millions of women back to their homes in the north.

In the midst of this migration, a “Hartal” -- a general strike -- has been called for Tuesday. Hot headed leaders of Kerala’s UDF party have called the one day strike to protest the Indian Government’s modest and long overdue hike in the prices of petrol and diesel fuel. Tuesday could be chaotic, so I decide to forego the clothes washing ritual and head for Varkala’s train station make a reservation.

I set off on foot. On previous trips into Varkala, I had paid 50 rupees or more each way for an auto rickshaw, but I hadn’t noticed the road’s gradients. Today, after walking 1.5 kilometers in the relative cool of the morning, I’m already soaked. At the junction near the Janardhana Temple, I hop on a local bus and pay 3 rupees to complete my trip to the train station.

By the time I arrive, a lengthy line up has already formed at the reservation counter. While waiting in line, I notice a large hand painted sign on the wall. It is a long list of 27 concessions, conditions for claiming reductions in the cost of a ticket for a wide variety of citizens. Looking down the list, I was surprised to learn of my entitlements. If I could claim them all, the Indian Government would end up paying me to ride the train!

My turn came and a rather stern looking reservation clerk looked up from his computer. I enquired about the availability of seats on trains going north to Goa. There was one on Thursday. The reservation clerk pointed to a tray of forms and told me to take one and fill it out. I found a seat and started to fill out the small form. But I was confused, I couldn’t find a line entry for my passport number, nor could I recall the four digit train number the clerk had uttered. Nervously, I rejoined the line, conscious of the fact the clerk was entitled to refuse my form since it was incomplete.

When my turn came, I pushed it under the glass. The clerk glanced at it and frowned, but rather benevolently, he ushered me to the side and said quickly:

“Passport Number, do it here! Hurry; there is only one seat left!”

I quickly entered my passport number, the train number, and ticked a box for a second class sleeper and another box requesting a senior’s concession. After attending to a few more customers, he waved me back to the window, glanced at my form and begun typing data into his computer. A few moments passed, and then he suddenly looked up from under his spectacles.

“That will be 254 rupees!” he said.

Incredulous, I realized that I had both my ticket and my 30% seniors discount and that on Thursday morning I was going to travel over 1000 kilometers, nearly 60 % the length of the Indian sub-continent for just $7.50 Canadian! The combined flights down the east coast of India from Bhubaneswar to Trivandrum had cost me 8,000 rupees or $200.00 Canadian!

Awed, I pondered the benevolence of a system that could move millions of pilgrims all over India so efficiently and cheaply, but also made it as affordable as possible by granting so many concessions for reduced fares. I was awed again, when a few weeks later; the Indian Government announced it was cutting rail fares by a further 5-7 %. Indian Railways runs more than 14,000 trains a day, carrying a total of over 18 million passengers.

I also contemplated how the quality of engineering built into the rail system during the British Raj might benefit India in the future. Europe was already introducing TGV express trains capable of traveling at over 350 kms/hr. connecting major cities on its rail system. In the post oil era, India is well placed to move towards this green and efficient form of mass transit. India’s rail system was engineered to high standards capable of supporting fast passenger express trains. Major cities are linked by Rajdhani and Sahatabdi express trains. This is in contrast to the United States, where the rail system was engineered for slower freight trains rather than fast passenger expresses. The extensive interstate highway system was developed when oil was abundant and cheap. India’s road system is not so well developed. As the world price of oil escalates, India could back away from investing in expensive highways and instead use its resources to follow Europe’s lead and develop a high speed rail system for the 21st century using its abundant hydro electric power.

I needed cash, so I took the bus back to the Bank of South India in Varkala. But the “check girl” was away sick that day. So I continued on foot back to the Bureau of Exchange at the junction near the Janardhana Temple and the ancient village tank -- a distance of about one kilometer.

© Michael J. EvansI arrived hot and dusty and needed a refreshing cup of chai, so I wandered over to a small hotel that had a shaded verandah overlooking the ghats, the steps used for bathing and worship, that led down to the village's reservoir of fresh water. The square reservoir, which in India is often referred to as a tank, was about the size of two Olympic swimming pools . At water's edge on the ghats, a group of local Hindus were taking their daily bath and washing their clothes. Nearby, close to an ornate stone fountain, a group of young boys were having great fun testing each others mettle by doing back flips into the reservoir's cool waters.

This peaceful scene was soon shattered by a volley of ear spitting explosions from shells scaring crows away from the Janardhana Temple opposite the tank. I downed my chai and left. After cashing my check, all seemed quiet, so I decided to visit the Temple. It was originally built as a shrine to the god Vishnu over 2000 years ago. The Temple was rebuilt in the 12th century and has been an important pilgrimage center ever since.

I walked up to the shoe stall, took off my sandals and their expensive Velcroed-in orthodics, and passed them over to the wizened old shoe lady. She gave me ticket # 456. Not intending to use my camera, I stashed it deep in my bag I climbed up the long flight of stone stairs. Half way up, I stopped and paid the 25 rupees entrance fee, but declined to pay an additional 100 rupees for cameras and photography.

Once in the Temple grounds, I walked around, but the stone and sand paths were too hot for my untempered feet, so I sought out narrow bands of shade that ran along the side of the Temple and gingerly moved along them. Finally, feet burning, I decided to find refuge from the sun in the outer sanctum.

© Michael J. Evans At the entrance, I paused at two large, brightly colored statues of Garuda, an important lesser god in Hindu mythology. At his feet can be seen the serpent he slew in order to create a life sustaining elixir. Worship of Garuda is said to help eliminate poisons from the body. Eliminating poisons from the body is a central concept in Ayurvedic medicine called “panchakarma” meaning the five actions needed to cleanse and rejuvenate the body. Also in the temple is a shrine to Hanuman, an important figure in the Ramayana. He is often depicted carrying a mountain. When Lord Rama’s son Lakshama was seriously wounded in battle, Hanuman was sent to fetch Sanjivani, a life sustaining herb from Pronagiri Mountain in the Himalayas. When he couldn’t find the specific herb before nightfall, he displayed his incredible strength and lifted the entire mountain up and took it to the battle field so many helpers could help locate the herb. The herb was found and Lakshama was saved.

Another myth describes how Varkala and its main beach, Papanasam, got their names. In the Ramayana, Narada was a traveling monk who was approached by a group of mendicants who confessed to sinning. Narada was wearing a cloak made from bark fiber called a Vakkulum. He threw his cloak into the air, the place where it landed became known as Varkala. Narada told the mendicants they were to pray there in a place by the seashore. That beach became known as Papanasham, meaning “Redemption of Sins.” At the far end of Papanasham Beach, mineral springs gush out of the bottom of the cliff that encloses the beach. They are reputed to have medicinal qualities that are said to cleanse. It is no accident that Varkala has evolved into an important center for Ayurvedic medicine.

As my eyes adjusted to the dark of the outer sanctum, I stood respectfully still, admiring the statues of the deities. Suddenly, a priest walked by me gesturing and loudly ushering out two female tourists whose movement or demeanor had clearly offended him. I stayed absolutely still, intent on honoring the gods. He ignored me. After he passed, I took a long glance into the inner sanctum, a sacred area only accessible to Hindus. It was dark and mysterious, with walls blackened with soot from years of incense burning and votive offerings. Peering in, I could vaguely see the shrine to Vishnu in its dim recess.

On my way out, I paused for my eyes to adjust to the bright light. By the exit, I was drawn to a large curious looking Banyan Tree. The top was festooned with dried coconuts and the bottom was strewn with hundreds of cheap plastic dolls that had long since lost any coverings. I was curious about what these offerings meant and thought to look it up later. I surreptitiously took out my camera and took a quick shot.

Suddenly, a voice behind me yelled out. A rather stout young man wearing brown slacks and freshly ironed shirt, rushed up.

“Camera, you pay 100 rupees. See ticket? He demanded.

“No ticket!” I exclaimed. Embarrassed, I quickly produced a 100 rupee bill.

“Sorry, I meant no disrespect. I just took one, a photo of the tree. I was curious!” The man took my 100 rupee bill and stuffed it in his shirt pocket.

“Okay for me now to take photos of the Temple? I asked. “Yes, OK!” he replied.

Deciding to get my money’s worth, I settled into an hour or so of photography. Relaxing, I took images of white peace doves, brass Ganeshes, and the outer walls of the inner sanctum that were blackened and textured by innumerable incense holders.

When my batteries ran out I went over to the Kuttambalam, a long open colonnaded structure, and sat under its shade to replace them. A young couple came by and we started to chat. They were from Montreal, an editor of an arts magazine and his wife; we found lots to talk about. After an hour or so, I bade farewell and headed to the top of the exit stairs.

The Temple had become eerily quiet; there were no priests or other tourists about. I carefully eased my way down the hot steps. At the bottom, I walked over to the shoe stall. It was empty, the shoe lady had gone! I went behind the counter; the rows of shelves were empty. My sandals and their expensive orthodics were also gone! A bolt of anxiety and fear flashed through my body! Damn it! I would have to make it back on hot pavement without sandals. My feet were already scorched.

Looking right, I could see a few auto rickshaws lined up in the junction of the road that went over the cliff back to Varkala beach. I could take one, save my feet and accept the loss of my sandals. I looked left, the road ran straight. The left hand side was shaded, once down by the beach, I could walk on wetted sand and work my way back with minimum damage to my feet. I took my chances in the shade and turned left.

© Michael J. EvansAfter about fifty meters, I saw a long low shed to the right. I noticed a beggar lady sitting quietly in the shade. I looked more closely; there was something by her side. I quickened my pace, and recognized the flash of blue from my orthodic’s liner. She had my sandals! I crossed over, smiling broadly.

“You have my sandals! Thank you so much !” I passed over my ticket and paid her 30 rupees. I could have hugged her.

Sandals on, I proceeded down the road feeling elated and grateful for the sudden reversal of fortune. Getting hot, I decided to enter a Kashmiri jeweler’s shop, ostensibly look at rings, but also to cool down. As I sat down to peruse a tray of rings, the door opened and a fresh faced young English girl popped her head in.

“Do you have any scarves? I need one, I’m visiting the Temple!” she asked. The owner pointed to a shelf of cheap polyester scarves. “Over there, 100 rupees!” he said.

While she was making her selection, I told her about my visit to the Temple and the encounter at the shoe stall. She listened with interest, smiled and said.

“Just before I left for India, a good friend of mine told me that when you go to India, you have to take a little bit of trust with you!”

How true! That afternoon, my attachment to India, its people and its culture, deepened.

Photos © Michael J. Evans

Related Article
Bad Belly in Delhi

 = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
Couleur JAZZ 91.9
Montreal World Film Festival
2007 Millennium Summit, Montreal, Nov. 8-9, info =  1.866.515.5009
Care + Net Computer Services
E-Tango: Web Design and lowest rates for web hosting
Armand Vaillancourt: sculptor
Available Ad Space
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis