Visit to Coimbatore 1—Spirit of the Land
Visit to Coimbatore: India's Jasmine Capital -- July 1998
Part 1: Spirit of the Land
Having completed our work in Mysore we continued on to the next important destination, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu state which, in recent years, has gained fame for its jasmine absolutes. Through his numerous contacts in the essential oil industry Ramakant had come to know that a small company headed by Mr. Sivaramakrishna and his son-in-law, Mr. Sethuraman were producing Jasmin grandiflorum and J.sambac absolutes of the finest quality. They graciously offered to host our visit so we could gain a first-hand exposure to the current workings of the industry. Prior to our visit I had begun importing modest batches of their products and Ramakant had initiated systematic testing of them so that we could have authentic data on the composition of the oils so that interested parties would be insured of quality and purity. It was our wish, therefore, that during our visit we should fully document the cultivation, harvest and extraction of jasmine so that, while offering their excellent oils to aromatherapists we could also bring the subject to life by showing how each step of the process was done.
The road from Mysore to Coimbatore began with a visit to the famous Chamunda Devi Temple and Nandi Bull on a high hill overlooking the city of Mysore. As our car made the ascent panoramic views of the surrounding countryside delighted our eyes. The monsoon rains had brought the land to life and in the distance we could see the graceful tapestry of many small farms with their crops of sugar cane, bananas, coconuts, ragi, mango, wheat, and a wide assortment of vegetables. The rich diversity of agricultural crops is a lovely sight unto itself but there is some intangilble essence which radiates from the land which fills the heart and mind with a deep sense of awe and wonder. For thousands of years the countries people have cultivated a deep religious outlook on life and this devotional attitude has seeped into the contours of the land. Invisible though it be, it exerts a powerful influence on those who approach the land and its people with love and respect.
The Sri Chamundeswari Temple sat at the very top of the hill which towers 1,320 feet above the city. Sitting outside the temple precincts were several flower sellers purveying delicate garlands and other votive offerings. Hibiscus, roses, jasmine, tuberose, and marigolds were tastefully arranged so that devotees wishing to honor the goddess of the shine could make their humble aromatic offering with locally collected flowers. As the time for darshan was fixed at 8 AM and we were there prior to that time we were able to see numerous simple and beautiful men, women and children gathering at the entrance preparing for an event that carried deep spiritual meaning in their lives. The scene we were witnessing here is repeated throughout the length and breadth of the country each day at tens of thousands of temples great and small. At a moment considered auspicious the gates swing open and the people surge forward into the inner sanctuary where the image of their chosen diety sits, often bedecked in a glorious profusion of flowers. Incense burns, bells ring, priests chant holy mantras, and people touch their eyes and heart or prostrate on the ground before the symbolic manifestation of the Unseen Power which fills their life with hope and meaning. Here time comes to a standstill for the religious fervor and devotion depicted has been an intregal part of the Indian way of life for thousands of years. It is not uncommon for successive generations of one family to have worshiped at the same temple for several hundred years. In our own quiet way, we too joined with the millions of Indians making their way in various parts of the country to the temple. We made our obeisance in the inner sanctuary where the goddess was enveloped in a rainbow cascade of a hundred beautiful garlands. Perhaps I am just returning to places I have been many times before in previous lives. Certainly I can say that having visited dozens of the countries sacred shrines, that none of them seem foreign or strange to me.
Having completed our small pilgrimage, we continued down the hill where the collosal Nandi Bull(16 feet long and perhaps 12 feet high) was to be seen. Carved from a single boulder in the 17th century, it sat in a shaded grove where a priest was busy in adorning the black bull with flowers and aromatic pastes while singing sacred hymns in honor of Shiva's chosen mode of transportation. Stone steps proceeded from here up the hill to the temple from which we had just come. Another set of steps descended to the foot of Chamundi Hill that were used by those wishing to acquire added merit by making their pilgrimage on foot. As I stood photographing the decoration of the bull, several women and small children came up the hill from below. Small Indian girls, their eyes alight with innocence and purity were chanting sacred mantras as they went past the Nandi Bull. Their sweet, melodic, and gentle voices were the perfect compliment to a scene of profound natural beauty. At such moments I quietly bow my head in gratitude for the wonderful opportunity to be in a land I dearly love.
Our road wound through a quiet land where people went about the buisness of tending their small farms and living the simple unassuming lives common to agricultural communities the world over. We stopped along the way to stretch our legs and admired a radiant field of miniature sunflowers in full bloom. In a neighboring field a young farmer was tilling the soil with an ox drawn wooden plow of local make. Soft billowy clouds drifted through a bright blue sky whose pure light lent a radiant grace to the landscape. Cool breezes refreshed us as we admired a well-cultivated land revealing the harmonious work of man, beast, plants and the power of nature. Several hours into our trip we entered a mountainous region which offered a nice contrast to the more open space of the Deccan Plateau through which we had been passing. This was the area renowned for its natural sandalwood forests.
Small farms and villages were neatly tucked into narrow valleys formed by the surrounding hills. This narrow mountain range eventually led to a steep descent via numerous hair pin turns to the plains of Tamil Nadu. At the top of the pass we could see to our south a drier hotter land out of which numerous rocky mountains jutted. The curve of the mountains range in which we were sitting gently curved to our West forming an agricultural basin that included the Kaveri River delta where a great deal of India's rice production occurs. It was a land of contrasts where one could see both the exhuburant growth of irrigated lands in contrast with more arid zones.
Once on the plain we proceeded West towards Coimbatore. The roads through Tamil Nadu were some of the finest I have ever traveled on in India. The villages through which we passed were also cleaner and neater than most I had encountered. In the mid-part of the day dark-skinned, loin- clad farmers carefully tended their fields with simple tools and patient care. Their lithe glistening bodies radiated a health and natural vigor that was a delight to see. Their daily activities of sowing,tilling, weeding, harvesting, etc. provided the finest type of exercise known to man. From the land they so carefully tended they produced a simple selection of fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes which fueled the trim bodies that were perfectly adapted to the environment they lived in. It was an inspiration to see a world in which very little waste occurred. We stopped at a roadside coconut stand run by a farmer and his wife. With expert, deft movements they opened the top of fresh green coconuts filled with the most delicious fresh pure water imaginable. I eagerly quaffed several of these delicasies and thought there could not be a finer, more environmentally friendly way than this to get ones refreshment. More than that, there is a spirit of deep friendliness that flows between us at this time. I cannot help but love these simple people whose lives are so much more evolved than mine. People often deride farmers as being backward and uneducated but a look into the sweet purity of their eyes will often reveal a level of consciousness which can only be attained by a direct engagement with the elemental powers of life.