India is in the grips of a spate of Hindu festivities, as every February and March. With feet hardly recovered from the ‘Shivaratri’ pilgrimages and cheek and body piercing marks still livid, Hindus flocked to yet another celebration. This time the main event centred around many men seeking blessings from the Gods for their babes in arms, all suspended in the air as ‘Garudan Thookkam’ or hanging eagles.
My first experience of this latest festival came last Thursday when I was invited by P., one of the teachers, to visit her local temple and stay overnight. ‘Temple not very far’, I was assured, so I left my chapals (read sandals for English) at her front door and braved the tarmac and dirt roads again on bare feet. Whereas this may not have been an issue for Indian feet, my Western feet started protesting almost as soon as we left, but I made it to the temple and back… And the first evening of the Thookkam festival at this temple was not dissimilar from what I had already encountered a few days before: cheek piercings and carrying of ‘carveries’; only the ‘hanging eagles’ were missing. Those would make their appearance on the last day, with small children in tow but minus the meat hooks. I was curious…
Preparation for the last day, the following week Tuesday, was in full swing. Groups of men dressed in orange loin cloths were in fasting mode and lounged along the walls. Fasting did not mean that anyone went hungry, it merely referred to abstaining from worldly pleasures such as meat, alcohol, cigarettes, and as none of them were allowed a visit home for the next few days, I assume sex was included in the list as well. Purification of the body as well as the mind before they would be taking the flight of the eagle. The evening concluded to the sound of colourful crackers, or fireworks as we know them.
So this Tuesday after school, I made my way to the temple with another teacher to attend the final moments of the festival. We kept chapals on this time, as we had someone who would be looking after our footwear. The colourfully garlanded street near the temple was filled with vibrant umbrellas and market stalls were vendors were plugging gaudy toys, plastic kitchen ware, jewellery and sticky, sweet and spicy snacks. In the temple I fought my way through the throng of devotees who were all gathered near a huge wooden wagon bedecked with bright orange and yellow flowers and palm and banana leaves. At the front of the cart, the fasting men were being prepared to start their flight of the eagle and they were being trussed with cloth and sheets to very long poles protruding from the cart. Once the men were securely fastened and their hands dusted with chalk to make them less slippery, small, naked children were placed in their arms, ready for them to be hoisted to dizzying heights with only the tied sheets and bare hands to keep their offspring safe. And at the back of the cart, muscular men hauled the ropes which forced up the poles to turn the men into ‘hanging eagles’ to the roar of the audience and families who watched the spectacle. An extended line of eager youngsters and burly men took charge of a long rope and dragged the wagon around the temple. Luckily, this did not take long and I am sure family members will have heaved a sigh of relief when their children made it safely back into their arms. A different kind of baptism for sure and one which requires a lot of guts and no fear of heights.
I have no idea when the festival came to a close, but I was woken at six in the morning by the urgency in P’s voice. ‘Madam, quick. Crackers…’ By the time I was properly roused and dressed in an appropriate manner in case her husband appeared, daylight was piercing the morning and I only glimpsed the last two blasts of firework through the banana trees. Whereas I trundled back off to bed until proper waking up time, P. had already been up for a while tending to the daily laundry by hand and now making a start with breakfast and lunch… And husband, well, he was still sound asleep; I needn’t have worried about covering up to be decent, his day only begins at about 7. But he did cook a very nice chicken curry the night before.