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Overviews, Reviews and Views: One x One
Mirror Mirror... Espejo Espejo... by by/por AA Bronson


Mirror Mirror...
by AA Bronson

During a recent sojourn in the little town of Mamallapuram (population: 9,200), just south of Madras, in the state of Tamil Nadu, perched on the sea shore, populated by a most exceptional grouping of 7th and 8th century Palavian rock temples and the most exquisite Tamil boys, Chrysanne Stathacos, traveling wth a homosexual companion (whom she likened to a "Raj"), divided her time equally between excursions in search of Saivite lingams, ritual trees, and abodes of the goddess Parvati.

Mamallapuram was dominated by a shoulder of rock which contained the town within a vast amphitheater of primordial presence. Massive rocks, the size of houses, were littered along its angled crest, some hollowed into shrines, others carved into elaborate temples imitating the wooden structures of an earlier time. In the Tirumurti Temple, at the far Northern tip of this undulating mass, Chrysanne returned to view the eight-sided rock lingam: it vibrated under her touch. A relief of Parvati, Siva's wife, located immediately behind the lingam, had its yoni rubbed and blackened (by soot? by ash?) into a greasy spreading hole, a sacred but visceral object of devotion.

Chrysanne sat on the temple steps - steps which were of one piece with columns, interior walls, painted ceilings and the massive roof, one also with the lingam, which vibrated behind her. Her companion snapped her picture. For once they had escaped the cacophonous flurry of rabid post-card sellers, dealers in cheap cottons, small stone carvings, and sandals of questionable life span. Only the hum of the lingam filled her ears.


At the Shore Temple, the most spectacular of Mamallapuram's sites, with its double Siva spires punctuating the long stretch of beach, tourists milled in confusion. Indian tourists from the North, with cellular phones and video cameras, posed pictures of their preppie families with exotic westerners in hippie drag, or better yet, Westerners affecting the dress of the lower castes, or even Siva devotees, got up in bedraggled lunghis, bare chested, rastaed hair, garlands of marigolds around their necks, smears of red pigment and ash proudly displayed on their foreheads. Together they peered through the heavy grated doors at the remains of these three most precious shrines, two to Siva--one with a sixteen-sided black basalt lingam, the other with a shallow circular indentation in the floor, an invisible lingam in fact--and in the third a sleeping Vishnu, sleeping on the coils of the ubiquitous cobra.

So Chrysanne posed with two Indian children, at the request of their delighted father, in front of the grate to her beloved lingam, the little boy with his red baseball cap proudly sideways, the girl with her red ruffled skirt (Indian girls of the "better" families were frequently dressed in a sort of mock-Spanish splendor, Chrysanne noted).


After two weeks languishing in Mamallapuram, Chrysanne insisted on seeing the sights. They rented a car and driver for a three day excursion to nearby Kanchipuram, one of the seven holy cities, site of a thousand temples and ten thousand lingams, coincidentally a center for handloomed silks: the local specialty was a shimmering border of 24 karat gold thread, spun into the most intricate traceries of birds, beasts and arabesques. Together they sat cross-legged on the floor of the finest sari shop (A.S. Babusah, Silk & Lace Cloth Manufacturers). As the salesman brought out increasingly elaborate saris, the extent of their fetish began to dawn on him. Assisted by three of those quick-limbed Tamil boys, he flipped open sari after sari with a deft theatrical touch, culminating finally in a devastating wedding sari of gold and white, a rich creamy froth of miniaturized decoration covering all six meters. Chrysanne's companion was captivated. The sale was made.


The Brahmin priest at the Ekambaresvara Temple, who came upon them halfway through their circumambulation of the massive colonnade, punctuated by shrines, insisted on performing a ceremony more elaborate than most. He led our duo into the innermost shrine of his keeping (the main shrine, which featured a famous lingam of earth, was off-limits to non-Hindus) and after the usual sequence of chanting, little fires, incense, and so on, had our friends circle the altar five times, while meditating on their innermost wish. Chrysanne was astonished to find the altar flanked by two enormous gold-framed mirrors (could they possibly be twelfth century?), which repeated the idol of dancing Siva into infinity. She found herself in Anne de Cybelle's famous mirrored room, transported from India to France, from the Twentieth Century to the Nineteenth (or was it the Twelfth?). The video phone in front of her rang. On the miniaturized screen she saw the Brahmin priest; he was giving advice on the future: in two and a half years she must return to this place; she would find her life transformed; marriage was a strong possibility; every time she bathed she must put the red pigment on her forehead and remember her wish; the idol of the dancing Siva repeated a thousand times represented each of the 986 shrines to Siva in Kanchipuram; she had visited them all, made the most sacred circumambulation of the city; she was ready to visit the temple of the Goddess.


In the 1996 India Handbook published by Trade & Travel it is stated of the Kamakshi Ammann: ".There is little of interest for the non-Hindu to see." Consequently Chrysanne found a refreshing paucity of Westerners in this, her favorite of the Kanchipuram temples, dedicated to Kamakshi, the "loving-eyed" Parvati, consort of Siva. And Kamakshi looked favorably upon Chrysanne: as her companion chatted with an elderly scholar, who told him the tale of Parvati's battle with the dragon--and the remains of the dragon are buried here--Chrysanne wandered at ease around the compound, under the wishing tree tied with little rocks wrapped in cotton (each rock symbolizing a wish for a child) and tiny painted cradles (each cradle symbolizing a child born, a wish come true), around the ceremonial water tank with its carved guardians, beneath the gold-leafed multi-storied stupa which marked the inner sanctum beneath. She made friends with the keeper of the temple bookstall, who showered her with gifts: images of Parvati, also as Kali, and for her friend, a miniature lingam, images of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Mahrshi, lord incarnate, the sage among sages, the sweet one, and the solemn advice that next he must learn Sanskrit, before he might proceed. They each bought a yantra, inscribed on a small square of copper: they were reminiscent of the paper charms available at Enchantments in the East Village, New York.

The Indian scholar introduced Chrysanne to the resident elephant, decorated with saffron and pigments, speckled with albino spots, who gratefully accepted a coin from her palm and gracefully blessed her with a tap of its trunk and a light shower on the top of her head.


Returning to the Ekambaresvara, Chrysanne made a visit to the giant mango tree which sat at the center of the temple compound, said to be two thousand years old. Each of its five branches fruits a different variety of mango. It is surrounded by a low wall, entered through a small shrine. Here Chrysanne paid the usual obeiances, circumambulated the tree five times, and tied two small rocks in cotton amongst the many hundreds of rocks and miniature cradles which laced the branches. Her friend the Brahmin priest, who must have been psychic, she thought, appeared from his neighboring shrine to watch her performance. Do you remember me? he asked. Chrysanne avoided returning to the magical mirrored room, although it called to her loudly. The video phone could ring off its hook, she didn't care. Two and a half years, she thought. I'll walk through the looking glass in two and a half years, and maybe I'll find my way back to Anne de Cybelle, the Psychic d'Elle Arte.

* Part 1 appears in Chrysanne Stathacos: "...and so beautiful", Lombard/Freid Fine Arts



Espejo Espejo...
por AA Bronson