The last time I went to a temple to pray was several years ago. That must have been when I was in primary school when I used to go to a small temple in the Railway Colony in Erode. I remember the way that temple came up after a devoted railway worker declared that he had a dream where he was ``informed’’ of a vinayaka idol lying in the Cauvery bed. He carried the idol to install it at an open ground near the Railway station. A small canopy came up soon and that was where I used to pray every day. I do not remember as to what I prayed for!
And over the years, more idols came up around the vinayaka there. And the number of devotees too increased. I recall going there, early in the morning, day after day during the Tamizh month of Marghazhi. And carry home the delicious panchamirtham (fruit punch) and pongal. Families in the colony would take turns among themselves, each day, to arrange the prasadam during that month.The quantum of ghee in the pongal was indicative of whose day it was. Medical Officer, Dr. Parthasarathy’s was perhaps the best.
Those were times when he was the most affluent man in the Erode Railway colony! His son was my class-mate too. And I recall instances when we would walk up to his house to enjoy refrigerated water. A fridge was indeed a luxury then. And the family would have wanted to maintain their status by ensuring that the pongal was the best with lots of ghee!
It was perhaps around the same time that I was beginning to turn into an atheist inflienced by my father. An active trade unionist and a rationalist in his own way, he would, however, take us (my mother, sister and me) to various temples in and outside Tamil Nadu. I recall visits to Srirangam, Thiruvanaikovil, Tanjore, Rameswaram, Tirupathi, Somnath, Dwarka and even to Pasupathinath in Katmandu. These are just a few of the temples we had been to and I can say with conviction that I did not pray in any of these temples. My mother did pray.
Well. Let me come to the provocation to this post. Last week, I was at Trichy with my wife, son and his friend Gompo. And the visit was planned. Early in the morning on Tuesday, October 16, 2007, we were there, waiting in the queue, at the Rangatha temple at Srirangam. And after a darshan, went over to the vinayaka temple atop the hill (the Rock Fort temple) and thereafter to Tanjore; the drive down the cauvery banks, stopping over at Kallanai (a dam built in the Eighth Century AD) and then at the Thyagaraja temple at Thiruvaiyaru was simply great. And I did feel music and the divinity there at the Thyagaraja temple.
We resolved to be there in January 2008 for the aradhana. The very thought of listening to maestros for several hours sitting on the banks of cauvery excites me.
The hundreds of acres of lush green paddy fields that we saw during this drive explained to me the socio-politico-economy of the region. The temples hold several hundred acres of fertile land and the elite who control the temple administration lord over the land and the landless workers on these fields. I now know what it means to the politicos in this region to remain believers. It helps them control the land and the produce from there!
The Brahadeeswara temple at Tanjore is a magnificient structure. And so is the bull there. I explained to my son that a bull blocking the sight of the deity is an integral part of all Siva temples. And also narrated the story of nandanar (though related to the Chidambaram temple), to my son, Chinku, in brief. Our next stopover was at Kumbakonam. An early morning darshan at Swamimalai (one of Muruga’s six castles), Thiruvalanchuzhi (the vinayaka idol there is not bathed because the legend is that it was made out of the froth that came during the churning of the sea) and the priest there was patent enough to explain the legend to us. We were the only visitors at that time.
Patteeswaram was another temple where the architecture impressed us. And Darasuram, now under renovation by the UNESCO will also offer us lessons on the socio-economy of the early Chola kingdom. Building such huge temples protected like a fortress by compound walls and the moats around them must have been possible only when a large number of men were released from agricultural labour to construction. And that must have increased the pressure on agriculture in a big way. Well, this must have caused the fall of the Empire too!
In a sense, I could feel the social history of the times and also the spiritual-temporal nexus of the Empire through the temples. I recalled my early lessons on Marxist historiography; D.D.Kosambi, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar and Shireen Ratnagar.
The Thirunellar temple with Saturn as the deity was another experience. There were devotees from all over India. And despite the boards that clarify that heavens won’t fall if pilgrims carry the offerings home, I found everyone insisting on leaving the packets of gingely oils sachets and the flowers from there (after the archana) with beggars hanging around the temple. Well. The devout would mind carrying them but the poor could not afford to reject the packets!
The dargah at Nagoor, my next stopover was a different experience. We were led into the premises and blessings came in exchange for cash offerings. Velankanni was just pomp and the well lit pathway and the large parking space and the several hotels were all evidence of the cash flow into the shrine from India and outside.
The day after, we were at Uppiliappan Koil, considered as important by the devout as Tirupathi. And thereafter at a temple for Raghu in the vicinity; partaking some curd rice was mandatory there. It was delicious. The temple too was huge. Our next destination was Poompuhar, where Cauvery meets the sea; the city, we are told by Ilango’s Silapadikaram, was a mighty centre for trade; mightier than the capital cities of the Tamil kings. It is now a pale shadow of what it was supposed to have been. It is now deserted, except for the fishing community and the school children who are brought there as tourists.
We then went to the Vaidyanathaswamy temple a few miles from Poompuhar. The Siva deity there, according to legend, is the healer. And there we found a whole lot of astrologers. The temple was massive again. And the pond there, according to the legend, does not host frogs.
And then we reached Chidambaram; a massive temple with fortress like walls. And unlike all the other temples we visited, this one is controlled by the Dikshitars. The other temples are controlled by the Hindu Religious and Endowments Department of the State Government. There are 370 priests in all and together they control the temple, its properties and its administration. The Nandanar story is related to this shrine. And in Chidambaram, we find Siva and Vishnu in the same place. And this is perhaps one of the exceptions where Siva is found with his consort Parvathy in the same shrine.
And adjacent to the shrine is a dark corner blocked by a black screen. The priest pulls the screen aside to show you the Chidambara Ragasyam. It is a lesson in theology. The golden leaves (of vilvam) are hung around and you get to see an image of god there … the message that god is formless. Was it a culmination of a long debate that devastated Tamil society (very much Dravidian) between the Saivaites and the Vashnavaites? Or was it something larger?
Well Chidambaram marked a grand finale of our temple trail last week. I will narrate the Nandanar story to my son sometimes later. May be when he comes home for his next vacation.
I think I must add one last line. I remain a non-believer.