When we visited the Brihadisvara Temple, this gave Charles the opportunity to explain the basic concepts of Hinduism to us. I listened hard, but it all left me feeling like I should have bought a “Hindu for Dummies” book. Any religion that has thirty million gods is not easily mastered. It’s all so metaphorical, fanciful, and symbolic. But I did learn that when I see a human figure with four arms or three heads, it is a god not a person. The extra appendages account for the extra powers that gods have.
As we entered the temple complex the breakfast bell was ringing. It wasn’t to serve breakfast to us, but rather to the gods who live within its walls. They get three meals a day. Brihadisvara Temple is a huge place and it took two men almost an hour to walk around with a plate of food and an urn of water to feed the gods who must have been lurking in every corner. When you see a festival and the gods are being carried around outside the temple, they are coming out to visit those who are to weak or ill to make the journey to visit them. At most times they would just as soon hang around at home in the temple.
Charles makes no bones about the fact that he thinks this is all a lot of hooey. Doubtless this shapes our thinking about the subject, which was leaning in that direction anyway. He deplores the fact that only 3% of Indians pay taxes, but many rich Indians give huge amounts of money to the temple and no one really knows what happens to it. He said there was an article in a recent newspaper that said a Hindu priest had a dream that a lot of gold was buried in one spot and legions of diggers, some with heavy equipment that belonged to the government, showed up and started excavating. Nothing was found - what a surprise!
Nevertheless the temple complex was spectacular to appreciate from an artistic point of view. Hindus seem remarkably tolerant of tourists wandering around in their holy places taking photos and just generally getting in the way. We were able to go into the holy of holies in this temple where priests were waving around flaming oil in dishes and doing other mystical stuff. It was good to see it, but we were ready for a change of pace.
And change it did. Besides providing unique and interesting travel experiences, OAT works to improve the living conditions of people who live in the countries they send tourists to visit. A small portion of our trip fees were set aside for this purpose and we are encouraged to give more. We visited an orphanage that definitely put us in the giving mind set. This private facility has been in existence for fifty years and is run by the son of the founder. Although it serves over 200 orphans, the government only gives them $20/day to feed the entire group. The facility has no real toilet facilities and OAT collected the funds to build them three years ago. The money has been caught up in Indian government bureaucracy and was just released this week. We met the two men who had come to build ten toilets when we visited the orphanage today. The children sleep on the floor on mats; there are no beds.
There is a primary school on site. It is a small concrete building without windows, so when it rains hard as it did for a while today, school is cancelled. There are no desks; students sit on the concrete floor with slates to write on. There is no electricity so the school day is shorter in the winter when it gets dark earlier. Some of the classroom walls are black and they are used like blackboards for lessons.
All of the students were gathered in what functions as the dining hall, waiting to meet us. They sat quietly in straight rows. We couldn’t believe how well behaved they were. They sang songs and a few brave ones stood in front and told us a little about themselves in English. Then we went outside and were swarmed by the kids. Even though an OAT group visits every two weeks during the tourist season, they craved attention and a chance to talk to us. Conversation was limited by vocabulary except for the oldest kids who could sustain more than one sentence at a time. We were clutched and held by those sticky fingers like their lives depended on it. Everyone wanted their photo taken. We obliged. A few grabbed my camera and took a photo of me. Great fun!
And in the background it was all observed by a group of fifty senior citizens who also live at the orphanage. They have no families to take care of them in their old age and are functionally orphans as well. Those that are fit help a bit with the kids and some of the kids help those who have difficulty moving around. Many of these seniors were about the same age as we are, but a hard life left them appearing far older. The old folks wanted to touch us, too. There's something about that white skin. When I touched those boney fingers and looked into those cataract filled eyes, I thought of my mother’s boney fingers and tears sprang to my eyes. I have never been so appreciated just for being there.