Saturday, March 13, 2010


The rest of our visiting team doesn't plan on telling me that we're driving through anaconda or King Cobra country. They're in one of the other vans and their driver casually points this fact out to them when they talk about the passing scenery.

My friend, Hilary, stresses to them, "Do not tell Christine."

Good thing they keep me in blissful ignorance—I’m enjoying the drive out of the city of Trichy and into the countryside. The thought does cross my mind that there has to be snakes out there in the swaying grasses and down by the river. But I push the thought away. Somehow I know God will not ask me to confront my phobia on this trip.

We drive along the wide, powerfully flowing Kallanai River, over a narrow road in the midst of construction. There are no giant graders or bulldozers to build the infrastructure of this roadway. Men and women do the work by hand with shovels, picks, and buckets of stones. I wonder about the women wearing worn cotton saris, doing such hard manual labor. Rail thin, the flesh of the women's cheeks sink deeply into their faces. Have they left their children at home during their work day? Could I do the same to put rice or lentil stew on the table for my children? Of course I would do anything to feed my kids, but what hardship the poorer Indian women face.

Coconut palms and banana groves dot the emerald green countryside. We come to the Grand Anicut otherwise known as the Kallanai Dam. An ancient Chola king built this dam over 2000 years ago. Sitting at each end of the dam are stone statues of elephants in full royal regalia. Flood waters from the past monsoons have receded, exposing sand bars in the middle of the river. I can see the pride and pleasure on Antony's face as he invites us out of the vans to stroll across this dam built of Indian engineering so long ago.

The air is delightfully warm without the sweltering heat that will come in the summer months. As we walk across the dam, the occasional cow with brightly painted horns meanders along with us. Goats playfully butt heads. People from nearby villages run to capture the cows then lead them home. Children play and stare at us with inquisitive and laughing eyes.

At the far side of the bridge we get back into our vehicles and drive through more tiny villages until we come to a Catholic retreat center. A large church with white Gothic spires takes center stage, but I already feel as though I'm in a natural cathedral from the towering palm trees. Their shade will be a gentle refuge from the harsh heat in the hot months to come. But right now it’s cool with a late afternoon breeze. Everything in this retreat center is scrupulously clean, but it's the raucous din of thousands of birds cawing, singing, squawking in the trees above us that makes me feel as though I'm already standing in church. The birds are so loud; it's hard to hear the person next to you unless they raise their voice slightly above normal.

Inside the building, people kneel or sit on the smooth stone floor on either side of a long nave. There is no stain glass on the large windows. Intricate grail work in the shape of Christian symbols keeps the birds out but allows their song to enter.

We take the stairs up to the Adoration Chapel. Behind a glass wall, a life-size statue of Christ kneels in the posture of the famous painting of the Lord’s agony in Gethsemane. The only difference being the landscape behind the Christ figure doesn’t look like the familiar olive grove in Jerusalem, but the landscape of India. I make out the flat lands and rivers of this land, a countryside reminiscent of the one we just drove through.

The statue of the praying Lord makes me think of Thomas, His disciple who came to India centuries ago. Here in this place of towering palms, gentle breezes and riotous bird song, I feel not only the apostle Thomas’s prayers for this subcontinent, but that of the Lord's—centuries of prayers for India.

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