of music, saints and temple towns....
C Kumara Bharathy (Parathy)
The overcrowded Cholan Transport Corporation bus disgorged me at the Thiruvaiyaru bazaar and sped on its way raising a thick cloud of dust in its wake. The cyclists stopped in their mid tracks, momentarily blinded by the dust. Passersby covered their faces with shawls and sari fronts - munthanai - to escape the blast of this hot dust. Life paused a moment. Eventually visibility returned. Not until the uncovered trays of colored sweets arrayed in the snack shops (misspelt "snake bar" by the local sign artist) and colored liquids in the sherbet bars have been given yet another coating of fine dust. Thus ensuring that the consumers of these edibles are kept immunized against all the bugs and microorganisms of the universe. An initial bout of diarrhea at the intake of all the enticing stuff in the way side shops should be expected, just like any vaccination reaction, but the living systems within the body and outside soon connive to reach a harmonious existence without our conscious intervention.
Picking my way gingerly through the pot holes, avoiding stepping onto cow dung, I look for the telltale signs of a Uduppi style restaurant- a traveler's oasis in any South Indian town. Be it a spiritual journey, going to a musical Kutchery (concert of Carnatic music), or to a marriage ceremony, the South Indian ritual is to start with Kaappie (coffee) as a prelude in enhancing the delight of the forth coming event. Or for that matter, it is just the right starter before aimlessly wandering cum wool gathering, which I was embarked in this instance. The brew as it descends scalds the tongue but it restores equanimity to the soul. After being jostled about without having achieved anything of significance one needs a Kaappie. Like all coffee aficionados South Indians have a fanatical following for their own favorite brew. The South Indian Kaappie is a strongly brewed decoction mixed with thick milk, served steaming hot in "ever silver" tumblers.
The classical way to drink is to pour the hot stuff into the mouth in correct quantities to feel the tongue tinge, without actually touching the tumbler by the mouth. There are lots of theories in Madras about what makes a great coffee, but I suspect the secret ingredient of excellent coffee of Uddupi hotels is the creamy and cheaper buffalo milk.
Uddupi is the generic name for vegetarian places with Brahmin chefs, and a garlanded painting of saint Raghavendra hanging above the cash counter- kallaappeddi. At this time of the morning, 'sarvar' boys are in neat dress, the marble top tables look clean and floor has a scrubbed look and smells faintly of Jeys fluid. Incense is still fragrant. The saint and array of gods wear fresh jasmine garlands. The cashier, with a vermilion dot on his forehead, is nearly smiling. The hotel has just got ready to serve the passengers from the buses. The condensation in the glass showcases advertises that the vaddai and bonda are just fried. In another few hours, with sun beating down mercilessly the magic would wear off. The freshness evaporates from life in general, leaving the sarvers and cashier ill tempered. As the hours drag on, a weariness touches everything. The floors and table tops becomes irritatingly sticky with ground food. Pieces of paper would have littered the floor. If you dont carry a handkerchief, then you are provided with small pieces of cut news paper as tissue, which you use and crush it and throw it away without hitting anyone. Anyhow the waste bins are overflowing. However at this time, the morning melody has bestowed some hygienic order in the place and a benign outlook in me and everything is just fine. The taste of coffee and iddly - the morning tiffin consumed at this faraway place in deep Tamil Nadu is Amirtham - food fit for the gods. Thus having achieved a genial disposition, this planet appears to be a worthwhile place to wander about.
Stepping outside the Uddupi, I wend my way in the general direction of the temple. This temple town is in many ways similar to other countless temple towns of Tamil Nadu. Avoiding particle collision in a truly random motion is the only justifiable traffic code here. Application of any other previously man made rules like keeping to your left etc is to invite trouble. Total random events have to be responded to spontaneously and need constant course correction. The chaotic motion of the bustling crowd, the traffic of cars, rickshaws, three wheeler autos (poor man's taxi), horse drawn jutkas and an occasional procession (some times included is a temple elephant as the mascot) is what makes an Indian bazaar exotic.
Right in front of the a holy temple grand entrance, in another famous temple town of Kancheepuram, I have seen a sculpture reminiscent of folk art, which bears a fair resemblance to EVR Periyar, with an inscription in Tamil " There is no god, No god at all, God does not exist". Ironically these temples are administered by the DMK (an ethnic and avowed atheist party) government. The DMK in power, have also erected this statue of its founder - a great rationalist. They put garlands on EVR once a year with great fanfare. I am sure the temple officials will be called in to officiate the function. The folksy style of the statue and the stately granite statues of the temple in the backdrop is an un reconcilable contrast no doubt. But the surprise is that such opposite point of views could co-exist in uneasy harmony without great contradiction and what is more they seem to compliment each other. The women folk of the household of political stalwarts obtain blessings from the Kancheepuram math pontiff. It is all in a days work. This entire milieu of profound contrast brings a smile to the mind, call it irony if you like. These are to be seen in a kind of way, with a genial frame to make sense out of chaos.
The Thiruvayaru temple complex is surprisingly free of the bustle. It seems to be majestically aloof from the meanness of the market place. Thiruvaiyaru has been cited on the banks of five rivers, (Aiyaru) from which it derives its name. Pics: Godess of learning Saraswathy with Veena. An example of profound in a temple town. poetry in Sculpture. It is destined to co-exist and rub shoulders with the common place - both profound and profane get on.
The title Thiru (sacred) is an honorific one, a custom to venerate temples built more than a thousand years ago. Such temples have legendary associations with various mythologies of India, which dates beyond the realms of known history. These are set in a period - perhaps in the twilight zone, when man appeared on the planet. The god, man, beasts and demons encountered each other casually - just like that. God materializing in person conferring boons, which suddenly lifts all the load of sorrow off the devotee's mind. A Rishi cursing the arrogant king " Here! take this curse ( piddi sabam ).....for this (what you have done) you shall be born as a deer.." and after victim's pleading Rishi relents and gives a way out, usually a spiritual penance. Then there is the Prince meeting a lovely girl by the riverside abruptly declaring " Whomsoever you are, you shall marry me - now " - the key word here is "now". The irate Gods subduing tyrant demons. These demons were only granted boons by the same god, aeons ago for their sincere penance. Demon and gods are not exactly the right words to convey the mood but I will stop digressing too far.
Here the mythological beasts talk like humans. On the whole all had a rollicking time. There was a lot of space and time in these myths, without the modern pressures bearing constantly on the mind, wherein lies their attraction. The heroes and heroines of these myths roam freely in uncrowded deep forests, valleys and act as free agents, with a courage and conviction we often lack. More particularly the extempore love affair by the riverside breeds a secret desire to emulate the hero's behavior. This is not surprising in a society, where even to getting to talk to an average looking unchaperoned girl is an achievement ( those days in my native place, that is) - leave alone the princess and beauties. It is all a kind of surreal reality, more real to large number of Tamil people than factual reality.
The hold of mythology in Tamil Nadu is under estimated. Looking at "Hindu" the Madras daily, there are several "musical -lectures" - kathakaladshepam going on in the city on Mahabharatham, Ramayanam and not to mention other Puranams. The names of these singing orators like Agnihotram Dattachchariyar evokes memories ancient.
Dear astute reader! you have to allow me to narrate this in my own winding way, I cant do this hurriedly, but I assure that I will spare you the specifics of mythology, for then we get into a delicious, unending loop of story within story.
In fact written factual history nor the grandeur of the temple are not usually the factors that make a temple holy in the public eye. The believe is that the sacredness is vested in them by the seers and enlightened sages. They 'composed" poems that praises the deity and sanctified the surrounding area. "Composition" is not the appropriate word here. Let me try again. A seer first identifies the hallowed ground, meditates and gets divine authorization ( through dreams or more directly), takes abode in the place and at the inspired moment "sings" the poems. Thus the place is elevated as being "The spot sung by the seer". Over the years several such luminaries would have reiterated the myths and truths, so that these become a living folklore - an area in the mind, rather than a real place. The vast body of this devotional literature is called Thevaram, puranams and Divyaprabandham. The form and style of rendering may change over time but they remain as the fountainhead of creativity - or could it also indicate the lack of it at present - depends on your point of view. In fact the acclaimed performances of Indian arts in prestigious Carnage hall or Queen Elizabeth art center are all influenced in one form or another by these old classics.
(Pics: Bhrigadeeswar temple in Tanjore, built by Rajaraja Cholan over a thousand years ago. As you drive through the flat landscape, unexpectedly, as if from no where, on the next curve, a magnificent temple comes into view, like a space station, as if it is a silent sentinel watching over happenings in the universe and aloof. But approaching on foot, it is inviting and feels as if it has grown out of the very earth and an organic part of it. The builders seem to have foreseen the incapability of future generations to maintain these structures and they have made them virtually maintenance free, including good drainage- citing them in excellent spots adjacent to a sheet of water. The additions by the 20th century inheritors of this heritage, include iron chains supported by galvanized pipes and railings to regulate the crowd on festival days and notice boards. The bright painting of the gopuram - with its old stone sculptures, is another bounty by the new India's business magnets. In this land of poverty, to expect more care is unreasonable, but the adoration of the common folks compensates and elevates them above the well kept museums).
There are several such architecturally imposing "sung" temples with fine sculptures around this Tanjore area alone. Tanjore delta is nourished by the celebrated river Cauvery. The river too has been venerated and loved by poets down the ages, that it has come to symbolize the Tamil culture. Today, after damming upstream for hydro projects and irrigation, the river itself is diminished and has been the center of political controversy. Not withstanding these mundane haji-bhajis, it is still more than just a river and the legends continue to be nourished. There is a legend as to the origins of river Cauvery. The seer Agasthiar has been associated with creating the river. The same one also figures prominently as god's emissary in averting another geological catastrophe, thus saving Southern part of Indian sub continent, perhaps a primeval memory of the lost continent of Lamuria submerging.
Fertile cauvery delta dotted with ancient temples Map courtsey: Microsoft maps
Loitering under the cool canopy of lush tall trees along the banks of the river, one enters a different world. The city has ceased to exist. Listening to the murmur of the river is soothing. There was an unsought benediction. The worries big and small drop off on their own accord. A much needed respite, in this case. Chatting with the man who just had a dip in the river and drying himself (with the same clothes that he was going to wear), I learnt that the small unpretentious quaint temple, under which we were sitting, is the samadhi ( his body is enshrined here) of the eighteenth century saint composer Thiagarajar.
This information was new to me. Thiagarajar is recognized as one of founding fathers of modern Carnatic music. Though I had known vaguely about this saint, till now I did not appreciate his true dimension - he is not just another brilliant composer but a gentle mystic and seer, whose goodness radiates an unsought benediction, to all those who sit here. His influence seems to be growing imperceptibly on me since this journey. Not that I was now becoming an ardent fan of Carnatic music. Nothing melodramatic as such. Even today, I can not distinguish one raga from another - this fact never bothers me. This affection is of a platonic kind, which conveniently does not demand any effort on my part. That is the advantage of adopting a gentle saint as role model - not model, but as something to cherish in mind, shall we say - not for any one particular reason but generally. Mystics works unknowingly (you are blessed with your status quo intact). He does not expect miracles from you, if anything it is the other way around. And why not ? after all he is the one who knows and has it not been amply clear from the start of this relationship that I am the ignorant one.
But I can listen with attention to a good Kutchery. The rapt concentration of the artistes followed by joyous camarade among the performers is infectious. When elaborating a raga, it appears that the artist strives to express in music an elusive inward order, that resides deeply within the heart, yet unknown to him. Whatever the words that are uttered, whether nonsensical or sublime appears to be only a means to reach this depth. Often in elaboration of a raga, meaningless sounds are uttered, but these have a quality to please the mind. Listening to a live classical recital is a meditative process - that is, if you are latched on.
But there are ceremonial aspects to a Kutchery. The music festival season in Madras is in December. The mood of anticipation and the exquisite atmosphere of these kutcheries are simple audiovisual treat. The expatriate culture vultures book up all rooms in Woodlands, Dasaprakash and Sheraton. The weekly Journals are full of jokes on kutcheries. The music clubs called Sabas come to life. The harassed secretaries of Saba, vocalists' phobia of sore throat and Madras eye, pompous celebrity, and aspirants seeking "a chance", all become fodder for the cartoonists. 'Chance' is a word with specific microtonal connotation in Madras and the general dictionary meaning comes to mind only with a time delay. The image it creates is of young people doing penance and tramping in front of studios and offices for "a chance" in film world, then the much awaited chance happens. Rest is history, the usual rise to infinite heights of fame and power. This is a popular rags to riches story in this tinsel town (surprisingly reenacted several times), so much so the word "chansu" is a folk idiom in Tamil.
Getting back to the Kutchery. Music critics rave and rant, inform and confuse by turns. The fierce climate too relents and is gentle. The Ashok trees lining the streets are in bloom. Up and down the auditorium aisles, Kancheepuram and Mysore silk saris, stalk in stealth, glide in grace or amber along self-consciously, leaving a trail of jasmine fragrance. Ah! these evenings in Madras with a whiff of fresh jasmines! From the mansions of Mambalam and the town houses of Mylapore, they come in all shapes of daintiness. Oh! to be in Madras, now the season is here!
Getting back to Thiruvaiyaru and my karmic bond with it. There has been long musical and poetic traditions associated with this place Thiruvaiyaru. A number of such poems of this deity have been taught and sung in my native Jaffna. The custom in those days is for schools to start the day with singing of Thevaram by a student. The morning assembly is deemed to be called, when, the old peon hits the rusty lorry rim hanging in the courtyard with an iron rod. The iron rod, the scepter of his office is carefully stored in the principal's room, lest some adventurous student uses it in an untimely manner and create confusion - even teachers once upon a time did not wear wrist watches. This contraption symbolizes the bell. The principal looks among the crowd of assembled students and signals by eye contact for a boy to come forward. However the students try to slink away and look other side, however this tension does not last for long. The chosen victim goes up the platform, lights a camphor and waves it around the idol. He sings, the inspired creations of the saints of yesteryears in an agonized flat sing song voice to get it over with - omitting the flourishes and inflections.
The names of these "sung temples" have been uttered in veneration in all family ceremonies for years. The image slowly sinks and lodges into the consciousness. As a child it was thought that these far away places are not easy to travel to and in some sense are not real places - if you know what I mean. It would have been incredulous if we were told at that time, you could simply get a bus ticket and go to these places. Fortunately no body told us about the accessibility of these spots and the magic and awe were thus not destroyed. This may not be the ideal spiritual education but then that was the set of conditions we had.
This digression explains my wanderer's urge towards remote places with names starting with Thiru. Obviously, I could not be so frank in admitting to re-enacting a childhood fantasy to those practical people surrounding one. I had a more pretentious reason like "to understand life" for their consumption. People were happy that the fellow is at last being serious and achieving spiritual merit by the holy pilgrimage. Whereas I was just loafing. Anyway, this distinction is a fine line.
Long before the present form of Carnatic music was known, hymns have been sung in distinctive style - the pann isai, which is in vogue to this day. These styles of Thevaram singing may have been the forerunner of the Carnatic music. This temple music is still sung in daily worships and other religious rituals. It is hummed in the nights on lonely roads, to keep 'evil winds' - kaththu karrupu away, a verbal talisman. It is a companion from birth till death and perhaps beyond, for these hymns are sung on the last journey.
Thiagarajar's prolific compositions are in Telugu, his mother tongue. Though this temple town is deep in Tamil Nadu, the saint belonged to a small sect of Telugu speaking Brahmins who were Vaishnavaites - that is worshippers of Vishnu. Whereas Thiruvaiyaru is a predominantly Tamil speaking community with Shiva as the presiding deity of the temple. A saint is exempted from these details. He simply does not recognize that these exist. For us lesser beings, such social prejudices and small quarrels are what make the life eventful and juicy - and incidentally keeps us away from bigger mischief. By all accounts he was recognized as a great soul by all, even while he was living. It was not a posthumous award. It was he, who totally shunned fame and publicity and buried himself anonymously in the remote village. He daily went out through the streets begging alms for a living - a matter of spiritual austerity than need. He strummed a tampura (string instrument) and sang his kirtans while on his rounds.
My recent informant (man after the dip, now with wet clothes on) said emotionally, that the saints' hallowed feet have been imprinted in these streets. This meant of course that he would never dream of walking in these streets trodden by the saint with footwear on - a mark of disrespect to a holy place. While I happily agreed with him, I had decided to wait long enough till he leaves, so that I can wear my sandals to get back to the bus stand in the smoldering tarmac. Not that I mean any disrespect - but just a different view point. This devotion is not a one off reaction. All Carnatic musicians have this tremendous affection for the saint and venerate him as "Satguru". Today there are hardly any famous halls in the world in which his compositions in Telugu have not been sung. For a man who wanted to be anonymous and who was at peace, celebrating his deity Rama, it is an irony.
Thiruvaiyaru is not always a backwater as it is now. During the January celebrations of Thiyagarajar birth anniversary, the entire music world descends into this riverside shrine, overloading the fragile infrastructure, but injecting much needed cash and excitement. The TV crews and journalists romp around in search of 'human interest' stories. The saints 'alms gathering' is ceremoniously reenacted in all pomp and pageantry! A simple daily act of the saint taken to sublime heights. His compositions are sung by the famous artists as well as aspirants (Kaththukuddy - literally means yapping puppies). The grand finale of the celebrations is the singing of five jewels - Pancharatna Kirtanais. These are sung in unison by all artists present. It is a moving experience. The novices and the great names in music all sing together, sinking differences for the occasion. The spiritual bond overcomes hierarchy and makes them all equal as devotees. The performance is spontaneous, inspired and passionate. The ethereal presence of the saint for the invocation of this kirtans is palpable.
"Entharo Mahanubhavalu Antharikku Vandhnam" Taking a line from his five jewels " There have been many great souls in this earth, to them all, my salutations"
Picture credits: Home pages of: Mohan Iyer for images of Saraswathy and Thiagarajar,. at website. This is a one stop site for Carnatic music. http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Amphitheatre/3070/ . From the Brochure for Ravikiran'c concert in Wellington 98.
" Wise man points his fingers at the moon and the fool looks at the finger "- Zen saying