Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A South Indian journey - Michael Wood

xii - Lastly i would like to thank the staffs of the various temples in this story who kindly allowed a non-Hindu access to their shrines.

2 - Near by was Mr. Balasubrahmanian's Carnatic Music Bookshop, a treasure house of traditional Tamil culture its shelves sagging under texts of Thyagaraja and other 'modern' greats of southern music.

2 - Bharata Natyam - an art form now enjoying a renaissance  after its suppression in the temples by the British in the early years of the century.

4 - There, everyday towards 12, two eagles comes to be fed from bronze bowls by Brahmin priests in a mysterious ritual which was reported nearly four hundred years ago by european visitors. Always around midday; always two eagles - never one or three. It is one of those strange Indian fairy tales (like rope tricks, snake charmers and self mortifying fakirs) about which we read in our childhood books - and which turn out to be true. A foretaste of the wonders and illusions which lie beyond.

4 - To the west and north-west, the tamil country rises to high wooded mountains, the western ghats and the Cardamom Hills, which still abound in wild beasts.

4 - This is where Tamil civilization grew and flowered - 'the most splendidi province in the world', Marco Polo called it.

10 - And again at ten, for the offerings of honey, milk and coconut, and then in the evening when the age old tamil hymns are sung by the oduvars, hereditary singers from the middlingcastes like her own who must stand outside the sanctum, for this is the preserve of the brahmins with their sanskrit rituals.

10 - Murugan: a beaming cherub with a plume of peacock feathers.

11 - he throws his tea in a great arc from jug to cup and back again never losing a drop.

13 - Nothing is standardized and hence nothing is ever monotonous.And for all the great variety of people jobs,religions and castes, there is not the huge disparity in wealth and condition you find in the great northern cities of India, where the poverty is desperate and seemingly irredeemable. The man who bags bottle tops by thecanal bridge has his own independence and economic being, and no less than tax collecter and the town archaeologist his own outlook and philosophy.

14 - Now all around it the order is shifting: in the rich houses in the bazaar in the huts by the canal, in the Muslim and Harijan villages in the hinterland.

16 - The inner shrines were ringed by a maze of pillared corridors, which that night were thronged with beautiful young men dressed in white, foreheads shaved, their long black shiny hair worn in a  tight bun to the left side: these we learned were the dikshithars, the hereditary priesthood of chidambaram.

16 - In answer to our questions, they readily explained: 'God is half-man, half-women, and is token of this we wear our hair this way.'

16 - he was singing, not in sanskrit as you would expect in any Brahminical temple in India, but in Tamil: quietly, almost  as to himself , more quaker introspection than Roman chant. Around him everyone stood or sat rapt,listening to his soft quavering baritone - a honeyed voice, as the Tamils say (the very name of their language is said to mean 'sweet,proper,speech')

17 - When the puja was over I asked her about the man with the briefcase; he turned out to be he neighbour and she introduced us to him: 'He is an oduvar, one of the traditional poets of Tamilian lands.The name means "he who sings". These are secular people non- brahmins from the lower class of people.In them there is an unbroken line back to the saints.It is they alone who sing the saints' songs in the temples, songs from over a thousand years ago.They sing in tamilian, here, and in other places such as sirkali, and mylapore in madras, where they still flourish.'

18 - He explained that the hereditary reciters of the tamil hymns have handed down the saints' songs, usually within the family, in living chains of transmission from ancient times, an oral tradition which is specifically not brahminical but tamil.

18 - Unlike many hindu temples,this was open to all, of whatever caste or creed. Inside, a little knot of people quietly leaned on the rail, meditating or simply staring into space.

18 - his smiling features were almost invisible beneath the garlands of fresh flowers he receives everyday and the strings of precious jewels given by wealthy devotees.

19 - We peered through a lattice of silverwork into the inner room where none but the officiating priests may go, the 'little hall' sung by the saints over many centuries; a place already celebrated when the poet saint Appar came here and sung its fame in about 650 AD

19 - At the side of the statue of Nataraja was a curtain sewn with golden vilva leaves.
'What is behind?' I asked.
'Nothing' she said.'It is empty'
'They say this is the secret of Chidambaram. It means that God is nowhere.only in the human heart.' She smiled.

21 - We sat in brahmins' houses in Tiruvengadu as they dispensed nostrums for her younger son's 'problems'.

21 - Mala refers to her husband simply as "he", in the respectful form. This is the ancient Tamil custom; it is to protect him for to name him would be inauspicious.'

22 - That would be to court bad luck. Children, too, need to be protected from the inauspicious and not only from the evil eye but from the eye of love. New babies, for example, must not be looked at with 'too much love', or overpraised.

23 - In east car street the marriage hall was given over to commerce for the whole month( there being no marriages during the inauspicious time).

24 - For the priests themselves, festival is a bonaza time. They are unique in india, a hereditary clan who marry endogamously, that is, only within their own kin. One of the last of the independent priesthoods to survive, they have always done things their way. Tenaciously hanging on to their patrimony here, they still administer the great temple by the old rules, even refusing to keep accounts to the chagrin of the local tax inspector.

24 - They trace their right to administer Nataraja's shrine back to the 6th century A.D. Since the sixties they have come under increasing fire from the state's Dravidian nationalist parties with their atheistic, anti-temple and anti-brahmin manifesto. Many temples have had land and endowments confiscated.But not the dikshithars. Not long ago they defended their case vigorously in the High Court in Delhi hiring the best lawyer in India to resist being 'nationalized' under the umbrella of the Hindu board of Charitable Endowments. Citing their 6th century foundation legend as the basis to their claim,they won.

24 - They were said to be 3000 strong in ancient times, but today they number about 700, of whom maybe 300 are working priests who run the temple on a monthly rota.

26 - Also enclosed were the horoscopes. Mala would never dream of undertaking any important venture, let alone arranging her children's marriages, without consulting an astrologer. She obeys the almanac for all her children's rites of passage, for illness, jobs, even journeys. (Nor is such astrological fatalism confined to traditional people or to the lower classes.In fact, I know highly educated professional people in Madras who regularly do the same, even for business decisions.)

26 - The point, Mala explained was to find a person compatible not only in birth chart, but in temperament and family background, someone kind and good who would have sufficiently assured career prospects to ensure a stable home for the children. Love was not the first priority; love would grow later if the couple recognized the right spark in each other.

26 - The dowry system was still firmly followed in all castes. A 'good' marriage with an engineer or doctor would cost at least a hundred thousand rupees, maybe several hundred thousand.

26 - then, out of the blue, Rebecca asked Mala whether she could get our horoscopes done too.Would it be possible for her to give our birth dates and times to the astrologer as the temple, in order to see how the tamils would read our charts?

27 - I was fascinated by all this, although I had no interest in, or knowledge of astrology.

27 - At any rate,the readings were done, the astrologer was engaged and we went to Mala's house to meet the Brahmin whom she had asked to interpret our birth charts.

27 - Mala was sitting by oil-lamp light, the priest next to her, mopping his brow. It was stifling hot in the room and the mosquitoes were having a field day.The priest stood up and smiled, pressing the tips of his fingers lightly together in the gesture of greeting.

27 - It soon became clear that we were to be treated as seriously as any tamil couple contemplating marriage.

28 - 'A good omen!' said the priest with a humorous wink of his eye, waggling his eyebrows.

28 - Brahmins are tolerated rather than loved by the tamil masses, and as a group the Dikshithars are not universally liked in the town - arrogance and money-grabbing being cited as their main failings - but there were many exceptions, and Rajdurai was one of them.

28 - His story was a rather sad one. 10 or 12 years ago, his wife had died in childbirth. The little girl survived and now lived with her mother's parents; but for Rajdurai the death of his wife meant he could no longer do puja in the Nataraja temple, for in order to perform the rituals, the priests must be married; the death of one's spouse meant one was no longer auspicious, no longer ritually pure, and these old rules were still zealously maintained by the Dikshithar community.

29 - then inTamil, he asked Mala a question about our religion,She replied, 'Christian' (There was nothing strange in that - Rajdurai's clients include Hindus, Christians and Muslims.)

29 - 'In Tamil Nadu, horoscope is essential for life. Birth, marriage, building a house, buying a wedding sari, starting a new job: for all we make a horoscope. All politicians will consult astrologer before elections. You see, we believe planets are major influence on life. Now, in personal horoscope everyone has natal star. In tamil astrology the star under which you were born is very important. You both share the same star: Arbitam the 27th and last of the important stars to the Tamil astrology.

29 - But most prominent was Rebecca's Saturn, and this was of great concern to Rajdurai. 'Saturn is a great malefic to the Tamils: by nature he is arrogant and ill-omened. His blessings are overwhelming but his wrath can create untold misery. Consequently he is universally worshipped.

30 - At Tirunallar near Karaikkal there is an ancient Saturn temple which is visited by people from all over Tamil nadu indeed by Tamils from all over south Asia; the temple is decicated to lord Siva but Saturn has a place inside the outer wall of temple. Here, the legend says, Saturn was made powerless when King nala took refuge with Siva when Saturn wanted to destroy him. It will be necessary for you to go to him to make the appropriate offerings.'

31 - 'Still, you are a good combination,' Rajdurai continued. 'Very nice. One thing, Michael: in consulting with your wife you must defer to her in everything for final decisions on important matters.' Then he paused. 'You will be having two children.'
'Boys or girls?'
'Both female.'
'You will do much travelling. God will do this for you.Though you may wish to stay in one place. One important warning. Do not take up other people's problems: if you do, the problems will come to you and you may end up in prison.Also, Michael, beware wheeled traffic during this next year.'

31 - 'You have government jobs?'
'not exactly,' I replied, 'though I did once work for the BBC.'
'Whatever, you will be millionaires in 10 years' time.'

32 - Unlike north India, in Tamil country we do not discriminate against one religion at the expense of another, and members of one religion find benefit in pilgrimage to those of the others.'

33 - You will do puja there.Before you go into the sanctum, on the right-hand side, there is the famous shrine to Saturn. this is very important for you to visit. It is the most celebrated shrine to Saturn in India. Very many people go to this place, even Indian people from abroad. The Lord here is very powerful and not to be disregarded.

34 - Tiruvidaimarudur

34 - She will bless your marriage and your forthcoming daughters.

34 - Others may be optional, but these you will do: Chidambaram, Vaithisvarancoil, Tirunallar, Suryanarcoil, Madurai and tiruchendur.This is your journey.'

35 - What is there at tiruchendur?

35 - it is run by an ancient community of Brahmin priests, who resemble the Dikshithars who serve Lord nataraja here in Chitambaram.

35 - I said I wasnt really sure at this point in my life that i came into any of those categories. No matter. It is important to be open-minded, that is all. A good atheist will also draw nourishment from such a trip! The point, as the saints say, is not temples or idols or holy baths, but what you carry with you in your heart.

36 - It didnt matter that I wasnt a caste Hindu. 'But returning to the purpose of our meeting, please be assured you are a fine combination, a good pair, and the signs for your marriage are auspicious. As for children, as it says in the Kural, the ancient Tamil book of wisdom: "Of all the good things on this earth, there is no finer gift than to have children who are able to learn the lessons needful for life." '
'You must always remember Saturn.'

39 - But passing the first year is the major hurdle - perhaps because in the old days so many poor children never made it that far.

40 - there is also the first cutting of the hair, the first feeding with cow's milk, the first seeing of the sun and moon, the seeing of the first cow, the first giving of solid food (rice): all these are accompanied by special rituals

41 - After Rajiv Gandhi's assassination here in Tamil Nadu in 1991, the new government had set out to put an end to more than 40 years of Nehru's socialism the creed on which independent India had been founded.A godman who had no qualms about being seen in the press worshipping at Tirupati before a political campaign in the south.

42 - Higginbottom's Bookshop, founded in 1844 and still growing strong.

42 - On the shore there is a monument to Annadurai, the dravidian nationalist who delivered Tamil Nadu its first DMK government when Nehru's Congress Party was kicked out in 1967; this was the beginning of the state's proletarian revolution. here too is the memorial to MGR, the film-star chief minister who died in1987: 'People here have now given their verdict on behalf of MGR's co-star miss Jayalalitha as the new chief minister,' said my Tamil friend.

43 - it is said that no culture loves flowers as much as the tamils.( You can see it in their poetry too: in the Tamil Odes,one poet manages a minor botanical tour de force, naming 99 different kinds of flowers in a single poem.)

44 - through an open doorway in the line inspector's office is a huge old framed print of the god Venkateshwara, festooned with shrivelled braids of the morning's marigolds.(Venkateshwara is the bringer of money: his is reputedly the single richest shrine in the world. )

45 - further on, the crowds poured into a cinema to see the latest hit by the tamil star Rajini Kanth. (Madras is now the hub of the biggest film industry in the world.)

47 - Everyone, he said, was excited about the changes which had already come about within two years of Rajiv Gandhi's death; in particular, Rao's government's loosening of the restrictions of forty years of protectionism.

47 -their friend bhima....... ,but what bothers me now is the fear that unfettered capitalism will ride roughshod over the 500 million poor who live in dire poverty. They will not share in this improvement once we abandon  the solialistic ethic. I fear the gap between them and the rich will grow only wider.'

47 - This was the time when the hindu fundamentalist party, the BJP, was threatening to reclaim the sites of Hindu temples allegedly replaced by mosques in the Middle ages; in north India the Ayodhya mosque, the legendary birthplace of Rama, was already a battle ground.

47 - We brought up our kids not to be aware of it. The success of the BJP is to bring it to the fore. Thankfully this is not such an issue down here, where Hindu-Muslim relations have always been peacefull.

48 - Tamil Nadu has had its own conflicts over myth and history. Not as explosive perhaps as in the north,but still tumultuous.The great issue here has been the Tamil nationalist or Dravidian movement which has dominated the state since independence. It started back in the twenties as the self respect movement: asserting that caste and brahmins and sanskrit were alien elements in the south, and and that northerners had discriminated against the dark-skinned southerners. There was a pure Tamil culture, it was claimed, which could still be recovered by rejecting these intrusions from the north.

48 - At one period Dravidian political independence was seriously mooted among the reformers. Most prominent of these was E.V.Ramasami Naicker, or 'Periyar', a rotund iconoclast who died in 1973 aged nearly one hundred.In 1947 as indian independence loomed, Naicker wrote in the hindu newspaper warning the south not to replace the dominance of the british by the aryans in Delhi, and calling for an independent Dravidistan. but the reformers did not let up in  their fierce agitation against traditional Brahminical culture in the south.Naicker even publicly burned the Ramayana on the Marina  Beach, saying that the story of Rama's conquest of Srilanka was merely a parable of the Aryan domination of the south.

48 - Naicker was above all unremitting in his railings against the privileges enjoyed by the brahmins - not only temple priests like the Dikshithars, but Brahmins like ashvin and prithvi. In his most vitriolic speeches he even called for the killing of Brahmins. Historically, of course, the Brahmins had been top of the caste system. though not necessarily the best off economically, they were supported by great tracts of land across  the south in the form of temple endowments. Also,they were the specialists in literacy. Hence, not surprisingly, they had done well under the British, who needed their skills to administer their empire. Later, when Congress was voted out in 1967, a wind of change blew through Tamil Nadu as the lower castes began to exert themselves: a revolt against a millennium or two of history. Suddenly brahmins found the boot was on the other foot: discrimination against them, including wholesale seizure of temple lands and treasures. in a few decades the old world which been inherited from ancient times had been turned upside down.          

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