THE very essence of existence lies in magic, in miracle. Surrounded by big blocks of old stone, pilgrims stand in a long line, waiting for a glimpse of God, an affirmation of life itself. It is early evening in Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu, and the gate to the main sanctum of Ranganatha—Lord Vishnu—at the Srirangam temple is about to open. Through a maze leading to the deity, the queue moves slowly. It is quite warm inside and the slowness of movement makes the pilgrims restless. They have come from all over, from India’s numerous towns and villages and cities, for a darshan of a deity they can worship anywhere. But, here he is in his swayamvyakta kshetra, self-expressing abode, where he has chosen to be on his own accord and not because a devotee or sage asked him to.
As I stand in the line between the very young and the very old, I imagine the poet Tiruppan Alvar being carried by a Brahmin priest on his back to the sanctorum, climbing the steps I can now see from a little afar. Since he was considered ‘untouchable’, Tiruppan was not allowed inside the temple; so he would sing outside, on the bank of the Kaveri. One day, a Brahmin priest got so enraged at the sight of him that he hurled a stone at him, leading to an injury. When the priest returned to the sanctum, he was shocked to see the idol bleeding from exactly the same spot where he had hit Tiruppan. The priest was then directed by the deity to get the poet inside so that he could listen to his songs.
It takes me about an hour to reach the steps leading in. The crowd that had been listless all this while is suddenly overwhelmed by the sight of a Vishnu idol, its eyes closed and lips sealed delicately in serene composure. Some of them utter, “Ranga, Ranga,” folding their hands and raising them above their heads. One woman has tears rolling down her cheeks.
In five minutes, I am at the sanctorum, looking at Vishnu in recline, resting on a serpent. There is no time for a second look. The security staff urges everyone in Tamil to hurry up and move on. There are too many waiting behind me for this glimpse. In less than fifteen seconds, I am out.
But I carry the image inside me.
IN AUGUST 1962, the writer VS Naipaul, while on pilgrimage to the cave of Amarnath in Kashmir, met ‘Sugar’, a man from Madras. They struck a friendship, and over the next 25 years, Naipaul and Sugar met thrice again: two months after their first meeting, five years afterwards, and then twenty years later. By the late 1980s, Sugar had turned into a sort of holy man. Men just came and sat with him in a small house in the Brahmin locality of Mylapore in Madras. They hardly spoke. But as Naipaul notes, ‘To come and sit in the room where we were, with the tarnished blue walls, and with a glimpse of the dark kitchen, was a form of meditation.’ Times had changed in Mylapore and indeed in Madras and the rest of Tamil Nadu, but Sugar’s sanctuary had remained intact, writes Naipaul.
I thought of Sugar often after I read Naipaul’s description of him in India: A Million Mutinies Now. When I decided to travel across Tamil Nadu in October, it was almost as if I was looking for Sugar to offer him my friendship through a journey, a reverse of a journey, he had made in 1962 to my home. My grandfather, who never travelled further than Punjab from Kashmir, often spoke about Srirangam and Meenakshipuram (in Madurai), of which he had heard from an ascetic from Bengal who for years would come every summer to Kshir Bhawani, Kashmir’s most revered shrine of Goddess Maharagya. It is located in a village where my forefathers lived for hundreds of years till the exodus of Hindus from the Kashmir Valley in 1990.
My grandfather would be visibly moved as the ascetic, who had travelled all over the South, narrated to us the story of how Vaishnavites had saved the sanctum sanctorum of Srirangam from Islamic marauders in the early 14th century. The ascetic had referred to some old document of the temple, which he said recorded how 12,000 Vaishnavites had given up their lives to preserve the sanctity of their God.
One summer, the ascetic did not return. We never saw him after that.
After we left Kashmir, we lost many strings of our old ways. Initially, in the 90s, we thought this exile was going to be temporary. Most of us had been forced to leave suddenly, as streets outside erupted in violence, much of it directed against us. When we departed, a lot of what made us what we are was left behind. In the mid 90s, a Hindu professor known to us, who had chosen not to leave, was stopped by a Muslim colleague in old Srinagar. He said a boatman had stolen rare books from deserted Hindu houses and put them up for sale nearby. When the professor rushed there on his cycle, he found the place swarming with German and other foreign scholars who were buying these books for Rs 20 a kg. The boatman offered to sell them to the Hindu professor as well, but at Rs 30 a kg.
These indignities notwithstanding, we took our gods along with us, no matter where we went. A few years after the exodus, when it became evident to us that the exile may be permanent, we began to create replicas of our shrines elsewhere. So a Kshir Bhawani shrine came up in Jammu, a shrine of Goddess Sharika came up on a hill in Faridabad.
Indian civilisation survived because, to quote Fernand Braudel, it had filtration systems without filters. This happened despite the fact that we had no fleet or ambition, or a great dream
But in spite of these efforts, we lost our scaffolding.
That we had lost it became evident to me when a few years ago I visited the replica of the Kshir Bhawani shrine in Jammu with the filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra. As we stood outside the narrow lane leading to the shrine, an exiled lawyer recognised us and volunteered to take us there. In front of the Goddess, Chopra suddenly remembered a hymn he had heard as a child growing up in Kashmir. After going through several popular hymns, he finally recognised a line that made us realise that he had recalled Gauridashakam, written by Adi Shankara himself. It is very popular among us, and there is perhaps no prayer that is offered in Kshir Bhawani without this hymn.
Chopra was curious about who had written it. The lawyer jumped in and said it was a part of Mahimnastotram, a hymn to Lord Shiva written by Pushpadanta.
It was not just a matter of a hymn’s authorship. It was symptomatic of what cultural effacement—forced and self- inflicted—can do to a people. In a recent essay, the French philosopher Regis Debray writes: ‘The American way of life may have covered the body of Mother India with a mantle of malls and screens, bars and music videos, ringroads and fast food, but it will not find it easy to abolish what amounts to the soul of this breakwater of humanity: wonder at the cosmos, laughter at the joke that is life, which makes of death, for each individual, a comma, not a stop. In spite of the global market and of consumerism, India has some chance of remaining a civilization, instead of becoming a mere folk culture among others.’
Indian civilisation had survived because, to quote Fernand Braudel, it had filtration systems without filters. This had happened despite the fact that we had no fleet or ambition, or a great dream and a mobile force, which Debray argues are necessary for a civilisation.
Were the filters getting choked? Did we run the risk of becoming a mere folk culture?
SRIRANGAM IS NOT a temple, but a city. Once I have entered the main gopuram or the gateway, I am led into a vast space full of shops, selling saris and religious paraphernalia, among other things. Spread over 156 acres, they call it the world’s largest living temple.
A group of pilgrims walk in front of me. They are from Bihar, four generations of a family that has hired a minibus to visit all the pilgrim spots in Tamil Nadu. The young and the old stand in front of every idol, every inscription, their lips mumbling prayers said for centuries, the reflection of oil lamps shining in their eyes. I spot them later at several other temples. As I see them, I recall the words of KV Rangaswami Aiyangar in his introduction to Tirthavivecana Kanda, Lakshmidhara’s 12th-century record of pilgrimages: ‘Long before wise statesmanship attempted or accomplished Indian unification, Akhand Hindusthan [unified India] had sprung from the wanderings of pilgrims.’
In 1323 CE, when Srirangam faced its worst invasion, the devotees built a wall to defend the sanctum sanctorum. The record the Bengali ascetic in my ancestral village had referred to decades ago is actually the Koyilozhugu, a historical record of the temple. According to it, after the sanctum was closed, an alternate idol taken by Vaishnavites to the village of Gopurapatti was worshipped for several years before prayers could be resumed at Srirangam.
Outside the Airavateswara temple in the town of Darasuram in Kumbakonam, I come across an old, calm man who offers to show me around for Rs 300. He shows me the magnificent sculpture of the Sharabeshvara avatar of Lord Shiva that he assumes to bring back Narsmiha to his peaceful state when he cannot control his anger after he rips open the demon king Hiranyakashyap’s chest. One of the steps is a decapitated statue of a horse, damaged by invaders.
“How do tourists or pilgrims react when you tell them the history of this severed head?” I ask him.
He does not understand the question immediately. I repeat it and he nods when he does.
“They say nothing. There is no reaction,” he says.
For the next two weeks, I travel all around, exploring every sculpture, touching pillars and stones, applying on my forehead every bit of sacred ash that is offered to me. I recite hymns that I learnt from my grandfather. But it is the sum total of the journey that I am hoping will provide the scaffolding. As Diana L Eck writes in her book, India: A Sacred Geography: ‘The mental map of India envisioned in the narratives of the sages, enlivened by the eruptions of the divine, and imprinted in the soil with the footsteps of millions of pilgrims is still a powerful and compelling force in India today.’
I try to imagine how Naipaul’s Sugar must have felt when he made that arduous trek to the ice lingam of Shiva 4,000 metres above sea level, surrounded by ascetics and wanderers and ordinary people, moving slowly up the mountains.
Had that pilgrimage enhanced his solitude, his stillness, his melancholy, as Naipaul notes two-and-a-half decades later attracted others to him? Was he like me looking for some sort of scaffolding? Would the reclining Vishnu at Srirangam have offered him an insight into what he was meant to be? Did he, like others, not react to the headless horse statue at Darasuram?
The pilgrim’s quest remains. And that is why the journeys through the mental map of Bharat must continue.