Why We Give in to Local Legends While Travelling

It's easier to suspend disbelief when you're on the road.  
In the Thar desert, hugging a tree. Photo courtesy Niloufer Venkatraman
In the Thar desert, hugging a tree. Photo courtesy Niloufer Venkatraman

Until last week I’d never even heard of Blarney Castle, let alone the Blarney Stone. The exalted rock popped into my world when a friend who needed to give an eloquent response to a detractor, exclaimed in jest, “I wished I’d kissed the Blarney Stone.” Curiosity piqued, I learnt that the rock is part of a medieval castle near Cork, Ireland, and is installed in a wall below the castle’s battlements. According to legend, if you kiss it, you will forever have the gift of the gab. Blarney Stone is one of Ireland’s biggest attractions. To kiss it, you’ll have to get in line first. When your turn arrives, lie on your back, lean backwards over the edge of a precipice, while holding on to an iron railing, and smack the grey limestone rock. Absurd? Apparently Winston Churchill didn’t think so when he brushed lips with it, nor Mick Jagger, or Homer Simpson. And every year, over three lakh people travel to Blarney to make the intimate acquaintance with an obscure piece of the castle’s wall.

Every culture seems to have wish-fulfilling legends. All over Thailand, I’ve noticed that the big bellies of the standing and laughing Buddhas appear polished even when the rest of the statue is not. After all it’s a globally prevalent belief that rubbing the Enlightened One’s belly brings good luck. Similarly, at Abraham Lincoln’s grave in the US, visitors rub his nose for luck. And at Ellora in Maharashtra there are, err… certain parts of statues—below the neck for females and below the navel for men—that are smooth and shiny from people repeatedly rubbing their palm against them.

Do these acts bring good fortune? Why do otherwise logical people succumb to these stories and legends? Why do lovers tie padlocks to the railings around Ponte Vecchio in Florence? Why do people stick their thumb into a hole in a Byzantine column in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia? If you’ve ever tossed a coin into a fountain and made a wish, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Part of you knows it’s far-fetched and unlikely to have any bearing on the future course of your life, but another part would like a quick zap that corrects life’s annoyances.

Now I’m normally of scientific temperament. You’re unlikely to find me booking a ticket to Cork to kiss a stone. But I’ve noticed that it’s easier to suspend disbelief when I’m travelling. Despite being the sort of person who doesn’t fall for these kinds of stories, I humour the improbable.

On a trip to the Thar a few weeks ago, I travelled deep into the desert to a tiny village settlement of Mundhari. In this stark, arid land we saw ancient wells with clean, crystal-clear water and nearby, some 100-year-old trees. According to local lore, hugging one of these sacred trees could suck out all your troubles; the tree’s energy would drain your worries.

Before I knew it, there I was, hugging the tree trunk and wishing my stresses away. Absurd? Perhaps. But it allowed me for that brief moment to let go of reality and imagine a better world. Every once in a while, I think, we all want to believe that a simple, instant and magical solution exists, that will fix all that we find bothersome in the world. Something as simple as a hug or a kiss.

Appeared in the March 2015 issue as “The Improbable Kiss”.

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    Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through wilderness or the bylanes of a city, and to instill in her daughter a love for the outdoors. As Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India her gig involves more of pummelling stories into shape than actually travelling.

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