I am standing on a few inches of stone and held tightly in place by dozens of bodies radiating outward from every side of me.
It is hot and dark and there is sweat trickling from odd places, such as the drop moving down the back of my left thigh and making its way toward my ankle. Some people cough, others are murmuring, a woman leans her hand on my shoulder-there is nowhere else for it to fit in this dense puzzle of bodies and prayer.
All of us crane our necks in the direction of the same thing. We are in the Chidambaram Temple peering toward Nataraja in the central shrine. Rows and layers of ghee lamps line a series of doorways progressively framing Nataraja, teasing our attention and drawing it back into the space of the inner sanctum. The rows of shadow and illumination make me blink and refocus in an attempt to determine foreground from background.
A young priest moves easily around the sanctum, ladling more ghee into each of the lamps so that the glow shifts and flares, offering a sudden illumination of Nataraja’s graceful form enveloped in elaborate decoration: the intricately stitched gold thread of his clothing draped and wrapped around him and almost concealed by multiple layers of his perfumed flower garlands, the glitter of precisely placed jewels catching and refracting light, everything glowing in a confounding of light with gold and gold with sun and with moonlight in a way that I can’t entirely capture in words.
Gazing through the progression of recessed doorways leading to the center is like moving through layers of your consciousness. In fact this area of the temple is called the Cit Sabha—the hall of consciousness, and its physical arrangement invites you into an analogous inner experience. As I move through layers of thought and awareness, I realize that the layers are not necessarily sequential-they shift, like tectonic plates moving in the earth of my psyche. It makes me think of how mica can be peeled back and peeled back, revealing endless glittering layers beneath. So what appears to be on the surface may actually be found in the middle or bottom and what seems set or fixed in my mind, in this place, in my life, contains infinite layers of subtle definition. Nothing is entirely what it seems or what I expect it to be, but I can choose to find meaning and to create beauty.
So this is where I am. In an orange and purple silk cotton sari, jasmine woven into my braid, forehead dotted red with kumkum and marked white with vibhuti, and exhausted, ecstatic. I’ve stayed on in Chidambaram for a few extra days at the end of a pilgrimage with my friend and teacher, Douglas Brooks, because I want to do exactly this- join my body to the other bodies in the Cit Sabha at night and at dawn for darshan, which means seeing and being seen. This is what I am doing right now.
There is really no way to explain why or how I love this as much as I do.
Some of my friends on the trip were interested but not moved, some were drawn to it and others perplexed, and I understand all of these reactions because I can’t really even explain why it does what it does to me, which has only a tangential relation to the customs of my New England Catholic upbringing. There is some connection I can make with my love of ritual, with the smell of incense and the lighting of candles, but it departs from there. It is an entirely separate thing, although it accesses a similar part of me. I am back in Chidambaram for the fourth time because being in the heart of the temple feels like falling in love. I feel myself soften and melt like the ghee that overflows from the lamps to the stones under my feet. It touches me in a way that nothing else can, causing me to bow down inside myself.
Suddenly, as the priests close the folding doors surrounding the Cit Sabha, the electricity goes out. We are in utter darkness in the heart of this colossal labyrinthine temple. But nothing happens. No one shrieks. No one flinches. No one panics. There is a slight sway of our bodies to the left, then to the right, then back to center. I feel us breathing together as one giant body made of many parts. Someone lights up their cell phone, then lets it go out again. We are looking at one of the most stunning sights I have ever witnessed. In the concentrated light of the ghee lamps glowing in the blackness everything has turned to gold. There are layers and layers of intricate illuminated detail.
It is dazzling and I have this thought, “This is the most beautiful thing I will ever see.”
On this visit to Chidambaram there have been frequent brief power outages, but this one lasts and lasts. We stay for several minutes in this suspended place before the electricity flickers back on, the silvery doors of the Kanaka Sabha are folded shut in the moonlight, and we begin to weave our way back through the temple toward the East Gate, where we retrieve our shoes from the shoe check, dreamily making our way past the cows grazing on garbage in the street to return to our hotel.
It is always hard to leave Chidambaram and return to my life in NYC. I burst into tears coming back from the airport when my Supershuttle driver brusquely decides to deposit me several blocks from my apt despite my enormous bags, lack of a winter coat, and my pleas to drive around the block. I am still in that place of smiling at people and having them smile back, of a shared experience of beauty, and it catches me off-guard. As he drives away, I gather myself, return to that crowded stone hallway inside myself, feel the connection to the other bodies around me, and gaze inward at the layers of golden honeyed light. Something inside me softens and something else takes form. Then, shivering, I drag my bags slowly back to my apartment, turn on the heat, and begin to unpack.
So this is what I have decided to say to myself in 2013:
Find meaning. Create beauty.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta