Gods Go for Beach Outing, Find Little Sand

Masi Magam Festival, Pondicherry

Yesterday marked the Masi Magam festival in Pondicherry, a celebration which allows the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva – or at least their temple-idol look-alikes, more numerous than ersatz Elvises at a Las Vegas convention – to stroll among the sea-side villages on hand- or ox-pulled carts and have a ritual dip in the waves.

It’s very festive, as all good festivals should be.

And very loud, as all good Indian festivals should be.

Everyday Indian life is already ear-bleeding loud, but religious festivals always take the din over-the-top. My friend Dee in Bangalore was recently seeking psychiatric intervention after a week of incessant chanting at the neighboring temple – over the loudspeakers, no less. The temple AV guys invariably set the volume on their yard-sale PA systems to decibel levels that would shatter glass windows in neighboring villages, if only (a) the villages had glass windows, and (b) the levels weren’t ten-times higher than those which might permit anything resembling audio fidelity. The only thing noisier than noise is noisy noise. And that’s just how we like our noise in India, thank you very much.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Masi Magam.

As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m not above making fun of other people’s religions – which, by definition includes all religions, since I refuse to join any faith that would have me for a member, to paraphrase Groucho. But it is not my aim to make this Hindu festival sound silly; nor is it to snicker at the numerous people having epileptically convulsive, ecstatic fits in reaction to the passing-by of the Masi Magam parade floats. It’s all good, as my twenty-something friends like to say.

Or, it’s almost all good. The problem, you see, is that for Masi Magam to be… well… Masi Magam, the gods are supposed to have a beach outing. That’s a little tough to do in Pondicherry, ever since our top politicians and government bureaucrats have decided to line their pockets with kickbacks from contracts to build pointless, sand-eviscerating groynes and seawalls along the Pondicherry coastline. Where there used to be seven-and-a-half kilometers of beautiful sand beaches, with the waves of the India Ocean lapping gently upon them, now we have rocks – lots-and-lots of them, trucked in at great expense – with the sea beating violently against the land. There are only a few miniscule stretches of sand left north of the Pondicherry harbor, the little-used engineering fiasco which started the inexorable process of beach erosion in the late 1980s.

So the gods didn’t have a whole lot of choice of bathing spots. Ultimately, they turned up at the largest remaining bit of sand they could find, a tiny ten by sixty meter spit in Kuruchikuppam. Because of the intense congestion of people and deities, the latter didn’t so much get a bath as a shower. With no room on the “beach” for wading in, the water was scooped from the sea and brought to them high on the embankment.

Certainly, the empathetic gods of Hinduism will understand and forgive the inconvenience. They will surely pardon the politicians and administrative officials who have quite literally sold Pondicherry’s beautiful sand beaches for their own corrupt lucre. Won’t they?

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