Lessons From Shiva, Science Fiction, and Sangria

After bidding an emotional farewell to the adorable children at Edith Benson, we took a final day excursion to the Shree Ambalavaanar Alayam Temple, the first public Hindu temple established in Africa.  We were welcomed to this beautiful temple by an informative guide, who was eager to show us around and introduce us to the detailed and fascinating history of Hindu cultural practices.  He initially told us that one could find many animals on the temple grounds, including mongoose, roosters, and nonpoisonous snakes.  He explained how all creatures coexist harmoniously at the temple; animals are the friends and brothers of humans.

Our guide proceeded to show us the mother’s temple, which was dedicated to the goddesses.  Like the ancient Greeks, the Hindus recognize a number of deities for elements that include energy, fire, love, prosperity, knowledge, etc.  This particular South Indian temple is an Ambalavaanar temple, which means it is dedicated to Lord Shiva.  One could see this by the predominate number of colorful Shiva statues throughout the temple, in addition to a giant statue of Nandi, the bull that is Shiva’s mount.  I find Shiva to be an especially fascinating deity because he is both a creator and destroyer.  In this sense, he is the purest god who fully embodies the birth, death, and rebirth ideal that is so central to Hinduism.

Finally, our guide showed us where a few unique rituals take place at the temple.  The first was a large firewalking pit, where 8-11 tons of wood are burned for an annual rite of passage ritual.  Next we approached a small altar featuring a statue of Lord Ganesha, where prospective suitors participate in a special ritual that will ensure them a prosperous marriage.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all of the beautiful statues and altars that make this temple such a unique place to worship, and I am eager to learn more about the complex and intriguing Hindu religion.

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Following our tour of the temple, we watched a film for class called District 9.  I remember seeing this in theaters a few years ago and feeling physically shaken by the brilliant yet chaotic visual effects.  This time wasn’t much different in that regard, but I did appreciate seeing this movie again after visiting the townships in Johannesburg where this was filmed.  It was difficult to watch the Afrikaner officials nonchalantly present the “literal” aliens in the city with eviction papers before transporting them to District 9, as this is exactly what happened to a lot of non-whites that I met here in South Africa.  When the protagonist contracts an alien STD after undergoing an operation, he must fight for his life as his health deteriorates and the government tries to track him down to virtually use his body as a medical experiment.  In this instance I am reminded not only of the evident struggle against AIDS in South Africa, but also of the individual character struggle that the protagonist faced in Tsotsi.  Both characters begin as archetypes of the callous anti-hero, yet as their stories progress they become more sympathetic towards the victims of their cruelty.  In the end, the fate of both characters is left ambiguous – just like the fate of the South African nation itself.

After an exciting day of spiritual and philosophical reflection, it was nice to wind down at Taco Zulu.  This Florida Road favorite features unique menu options that include pizzas the size of tabletops, staple Mexican dishes of every variety, and the most extensive cocktail list I have ever seen in South Africa!  We were excited to dine out with the new American arrivals who enrolled in our same study abroad program for a semester abroad at Howard College.  It was great to share our favorite experiences from this trip and learn more about what they hope to explore during their four months in Durban.  I can’t wait to keep in touch with them and hear all of their awesome stories!

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