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Monday, 15 February 2016

Visit to Thirunaangur: A Slice of Bharatiyata

2016 is turning out to be quite an eventful year for me in terms of journeys. A fortnight ago, I was in Goa to meet my friends. On the 9th of February, I’m already embarking on another trip. Just last month, we’ve bought a new SUV and this has impelled us to fulfill what has been my husband’s longstanding desire - a visit to Thirunaangur in Tamil Nadu for the auspicious occasion of the 11 Garuda Sevai Utsavam
Garuda - the vehicle of the Lord
We pick up two of our relatives and leave at 7.00 am. The sun is not fully up but Bangalore’s traffic is. 
It takes us a while to crawl out of the city; chanting the Vishnu Sahasranaamam keeps us busy and frustration at bay. 

But once we’re on the National Highway to Salem, there’s nothing to stop the SUV from touching the speed it’s designed for – except for the toll plazas where we pay up for the luxury of a well-maintained and motorable road.

By 10.15 am, we take a small break at Salem at a spot in the middle of ragi fields to replenish ourselves with idli and coffee. 

Then, on to Aatur where the National Highway ends and so does the comfort of the drive. The car stereo is playing a duet with the lady singing “Nee pogaadha oorukke poiyaana vazhi sollurey.” She’s accusing her paramour of giving her wrong directions to a place he hasn’t ever visited. Tamil love duets are not just melodious – they’re prophetic too. Or so it seems to us as we get directed to an avoidable route that is as bad as only a road with tarred patches can be. After an hour or so, we reach Vadalur, where the backbreaking ordeal ends; we travel onwards to Sethiyathope and Seerkazhi which is the town closest to Thirunaangur. By then, it’s already 2.45 pm, much past everyone’s usual lunch time and we hurriedly tuck in to chapatti with tomato gojju and the staple curd rice. 

About 30 minutes later, we arrive in Thirunaangur that is just beginning to bustle with the activity of vehicles small and big pouring out devotees young and old, rich and poor, men, women and children driven to seek the Lord’s blessings on this auspicious occasion. 

We find a parking spot and get busy asking for the Agrahaaram, armed with just the names of two persons who we expect will provide us shelter and food during our stay. The village folk look curiously at us – which one of the four Agrahaarams do our would-be benefactors inhabit? But they don’t see any cause for worry because they’re okay with putting us up, too. Amazingly hospitable, I’d say, to offer to house and feed 4 people whom you’ve known only since the past 5 minutes. 

A couple of SOS calls to a few relatives who have previously been to Thirunaangur give us a few more details. We realize we are in the right Agrahaaram and only need to locate the right house. Luckily for us, a passing maami knows the ladies we mentioned and directs us to their home. We reach there, and I find there’s a post office right opposite – a fact that our informant in Bangalore had forgotten to mention. Unless, of course, it was a new development in the last two years. But there is no time to fret over this. I am overwhelmed by the warm welcome we receive as if we were long expected guests although the hosts haven’t ever seen us, let alone known we were coming.

We refuse the offer of lunch but gladly acquiesce to piping hot and strong kaapi that comes in a sturdy tumbler and dabra. We’re told the proceedings have already begun at the Thirumani Maada temple and that if we rush, we may be just in time to catch at least a part of it. Our host stops a passing rickshaw, bargains with the driver and sends us on our way.
Jostling for a view of the Lord
The temple area is teeming with devotees and we manage to push ourselves into the crowd seeking a vantage position to witness the happenings. 
Lord in the palanquin
Each deity arrives in a multicoloured palanquin and the garland that adorns Him is offered to Thirumangai Azhwaar, the poet saint who has sung paasurams (prayers) in their praise and invited the deities to participate in this utsavam.
Thirumangai Azhwar and Kumudavalli Nachiyaar
Suddenly, I realize my husband is not next to me but I am too absorbed in the goings on to bother. A little while later, I get a text message from him, asking me to come into the temple. I push my way through the devotees and slip out from under a restraining rope on their advice, only to be stopped at the temple door by some officials. But praise to the Lord - or, maybe it is Male Chauvinism ki Jai triggered by my ability to paint an image of a demanding husband summoning me from within. Whatever the reason, I’m allowed inside, where I stand in a queue to reach the sanctum sanctorum for darshan of the Lord and catch up with my lord, too!


 8 of the 11 deities have already been welcomed and established in the designated spots. We move out of the temple to witness the welcoming of the remaining 3 deities. As time passes, the crowd is growing bigger but despite the jostling that happens whenever a deity is on the move, we manage to stay firmly in place and soak in the divine atmosphere.

Someone asks me a question and I share information that I’ve only recently gained from overhearing another conversation. To another question, I honestly admit I don’t know. There are people who talk compulsively of temple events they’ve visited in other places. Some women amaze me with their ability to admire each other’s jewelry in the middle of looking beseechingly at the Lord and praying to Him with overt emotion. I notice these things and tell 
myself to remember them for writing a blog. And smile to myself as I realize – to each her own obsession. And yet, here we all are, united by a common desire for His grace. And He, the Benevolent One, is ready to bestow it on us, unconditionally, regardless of whether we have done anything at all to earn it.

By around 6.45 pm, we head back to our designated “home” and sit on the outer porch, discussing our experience and socializing with other people who have similarly made this their home for the day. I also take time to flip through the images I’ve captured on my phone. A maami sitting next to me looks longingly at them and asks, “Oh, you managed to take pictures even in the crowd?” I take her phone number and share the pictures with her on WhatsApp.

By around 7.30 pm, we are ushered in for dinner, which is an astonishing display of teamwork with clear division of labour. The women have done the cooking and the men serve it skillfully, coaxing us to take a second helping of a varied menu ranging from Kancheepuram idli, two types of sewai and dosa to halwa, tayir saadam and at least four other dishes, the names of which I’ve forgotten. All I remember is that the food was delicious and served with a warmth and affection that is rare amongst strangers. My offer of helping to serve the next batch of people is dismissed with a smile and a gently firm “No, we will do it ourselves.” I hang around though and make do with helping to clean up the floor after the plantain leaves have been removed.

As we relax post-dinner, in a place liberally sprinkled with maamis, I find my attention drawn by 3 in particular. It is their speaking crisp, unaccented English while being clad in the traditional madisaar that actually has got me interested. Politely, professing genuine curiosity, I ask them about this unique combo. I learn they are from Poona, Coimbatore and Mumbai respectively and that they have all been working women who have retired a few years ago. Participating together in such temple-centric events is their way of catching up on some “me-time” away from the otherwise steady family responsibilities they shoulder. Their cheerful disposition and family values, willingness to make time to participate in our traditional religious practices and strong sense of faith provide me with a paradigm of what to look forward to after I retire.

We are told to rest until about 2 am, when the procession of the 11 deities borne on their respective Garudas will reach our “home.” At 1.45 am, we hear the sound of fireworks going off and the nadaswaram that heralds the start of the procession and get into position outside the house to receive the Lord. 


Each of the 11 deities on His Garuda arrives borne on a platform carried by10-12 youths.
  He stops in front of each house in the Agrahaaram to receive offerings and bless all those who have gathered there.

 I manage to click a few pictures despite the throng.

The last deity departs by around 3.30 am; some of us trudge back to sleep while others bathe in preparation for an imminent temple visit.
After a fitful sleep under an open sky on the terrace of an unfamiliar home, I wake by 6.30 am to a village that is still and astonishingly calm in comparison to the excitement of a few hours ago. 

After a refreshing bath and cup of kaapi, we pay another visit to the temple but the exhaustion after the hectic activity of the past few days means it will open – if at all – much later in the day.

Our two host maamis have obviously not slept a wink and yet, at 9.00 am, we’re fed a multiple-course meal that is delectable. I firmly believe it is not just their culinary skills but their goodness of heart that has made the food so tasty and satiating. I say as much to them as we thank them for their remarkable hospitality. They offer to pack idlis for our return journey but we don't take them up on it. They insist we carry a bottle of buttermilk at least for the journey and we accept. 

Nothing we say or do can ever repay the kindness and warmth they have shown us, but as a token of our gratitude, we try to contribute a small amount of money into the family hundial. They flatly refuse to accept it; what they have done is their service to the Lord, they say. My husband too refuses to back down. Finally, when they see he’s not relenting either, they offer a small compromise – they will accept it as a donation for the annual temple Brahmotsavam against a valid receipt. Left with no alternative, we agree.

We exchange phone numbers. They give us directions for our return journey. They ask us to come again next year. Soon, we’re back in our SUV and after brief prayers at the Thadalan temple in Seerkazhi and the Govindarajar sannidhi in the famous Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, we head back home to Bangalore.

A speaker I heard recently described the uniqueness of Indian culture. He spoke of the concept of “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam” – the idea that the entire world is my family and how it is based on the idea that everything and everyone is inter-related. He spoke of how Bharatiya thought is “Sarvasamaaveshak” and yet, “Ekaatma”. That is, it includes all of existence and yet, understands that this diversity is only apparent; within, all of us are One.
During the 8-hour journey back home from Tirunaangur, I realize my experiences there have indeed been a striking, live example of what that eminent speaker sought to convey.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

When time stood still

Green fields

A very mild mist across the seemingly unending forest cover

Sloping, tiled- roofed houses scattered here and there

Wind that smells mildly of the sea and fish

No traffic

A silence that I can actually hear    
                                                                                                
As I sense and experience all this, I’m struck by the thought of how much I have missed it all for close to two decades. Almost immediately comes the blinding realization that nothing much seems to have changed in what I consider my native place.

Goa

The land I was born in. One I lived in for the first 24 years of my life before I had to move to Bangalore.


23rd January, 2016, at this time of the day, I was in a state of excited anticipation. I was to leave Bangalore that night for Goa to catch up with my friends whom I’d left behind 19 years ago.
THEN
  I’d gotten back in touch with them a few months ago thanks to WhatsApp and was already familiar with the high of reconnecting. So, what would meeting them in person be like? We left college as young guns, unaware of what the future held in store for us but filled with the bravado of youth. The years that flew by saw us take our different journeys on the highway of life but what kind of a toll would it have taken on each one? What would we have in common to talk about? These were the thoughts running through my head that day.


By 24th afternoon, I had forgotten I’d ever had these questions.

 It was like I had never left these people who assembled at the Sharada Classic at Margao. We laughed observing each other’s idiosyncrasies that hadn’t changed in all these years. We noted new behavior and laughed over it, too.  Of course, we swapped stories of all that had happened over the years of leaving college. Expressed satisfaction that each of us was doing well in whatever we had chosen to do. And, when someone (no, very surprisingly, not me!) suggested we talk of the life lessons we had learned over the years, everyone did so without the slightest hesitation. We used technology to connect with two of our classmates who couldn’t make it to the meet. And took loads of pictures to send to those living in another time zone. 
NOW
Later in the day and the next day, I met a few of my school friends. People I hadn’t seen in about 23 to 25 years. My memories of them were even older and blurred. But that didn’t stop us from re-connecting with an ease that only comes with familiarity that has developed during our youth.

Everyone I met told me, “You haven’t changed at all.”

Which cannot be entirely true.

I know of the graying hair and adipose tissue that greets me when I look into the mirror every morning. I realize the difference in my thoughts and behavior as compared to the times when I was younger.

But maybe because they are looking at me after so long and maybe because these are not the things they are looking at, they feel I haven’t changed.

I told them, “Goa hasn’t changed much at all, thank God.”

They don’t entirely agree.

There are Dominoes Pizza and KFC outlets now. Lots of Russians setting up home in the state. Trees are being cut to widen roads. The signature coconut tree of Goa may no longer be a tree.

As I leave Goa after spending two days there, I wonder, “What, then, is the yardstick that we use to decide if something has changed?”

I find the answer as I ponder over my response to Goa in 2016.

Things do change. But whether we perceive them as changed depends on us. If the emotions they evoke in us have not changed, we are left with the feeling that nothing has changed.