In August, I was traveling down south—Kumbakonam in Tanjore District of Tamil Nadu to be precise. The place was a breathing paradise with the rains turning the usually arid and ochre land into wet and lush green expanse. I have never seen this place like this. So pleasing to the eye it was that I for a moment felt as if I was in a rain forest.
I had gone there to attend a wedding in the family, and post the wedding had a few days to loiter around town. My extended family, reloaded with elders, cousins and their kids, decided to hire taxis and visit the nearby temples. A day excursion of sorts!
Knowing my usual disinterests in visiting places of worship, my mom broached the topic and tried securing my consent to join. I reluctantly gave in. Not a very religious guy you see—at least not in the conventional scheme of things.
Then the discussions started—which all temples to visit. A thorough perimeter grid was created in each of the elder’s mind and plotting of each temple by importance and sacredness was accomplished. As a result, it was decided that it needs to be a two-day excursion.
Day 1 – Heading north of Kumakonam and covering all the temples, and extending their much awaited subservience to each of the deities in the domes.
Day 2 – Heading East of Kumakonam to cover some key temples that were a bit off from the usual route to be clubbed on day one.
So much for signing up for a day excursion. Now I was auto-pulled into for Day 2 as well.
Initial thought of was utter disbelief, and then I rationalized it and said to myself, “come on, I could indulge in my own pastimes during the trip… eating, talking, unraveling myths about the temples, trying to understand the architectural influences in the temple motifs, and most importantly the “PRASADAM”.
Then our trip started. A sixteen-seater Mitshubishi van arrived and I seated myself by the window. It had rained until an hour ago so the roads were clean, the tree lines lush green, and no darting sun to be seen. Pleasant journey lay ahead of us.
It seemed to me that apart from the kids, my brothers and their wives, and me, none of the elders were interested much in the journey. They were focused on the next temple on their itinerary. It seemed like they were playing “join the dots” game, with temples serving as patterned dots. And finally when they finish their mini-pilgrimage a grand image of heaven would emerge from the temple dots they connected. Believe me there was an air of utter seriousness when it came to sequential ordering of the temples we visited. Wow! Mesmerizing!
Soon we parked outside our first pit stop. Let me be honest, although I was reluctant to join this troupe, I was bowled over by what I saw when I got down. Sheer size and intricate detailing coupled with quaintness of a temple that was built around 2000 years ago. I was standing in front of the Shiva temple in Patteeshwaram. It seemed straight out of a mystic lost world movie. As if once we entered the Gopuram (the conical dome at the entrance), we will be teleported to a distant land in strange time and space continuum.
For a moment I kicked myself for forgetting my camera back in Delhi, while in a rush to leave for the airport. Darn! I needed a strong optical zoom and manual adjustments to capture the moment as I could see it. My smartphone camera was just not smart enough.
While soon I lost my entire clan to reverence and rituals in the temple, far more interesting things caught my attention. The architecture was clearly from the Dravidian era; with pantheons of gods, demi-gods, heavenly creatures, and related legion crafted almost in every direction one could spray a sight.
The stone walls of the temple haven’t seen much of restoration but they looked solid. Somewhere from the moss that grew on their walls I knew that they hold within their mortar bonds stories that traversed centuries or even millenniums. Hordes of worshipers with their troubles, woes, sadness, happiness, joys, victories, thankfulness, reverence, belief, faith, wishes, offerings, gratitude would have walked these very aisles. For thousands of years, this temple has stood its ground amidst invasions, natural calamities, communal bitterness, coronation of multiple kings, assassinations, treasure hunts, myths, and god knows what else. But stood its ground and even in its faded façade is far more intriguing than the most modern and state of the art architecture could be.
The Shiva element! Like an all absorbing and evolving truth.
At that moment, I felt privileged that I joined my folks on this mini-pilgrimage. I said to myself, stop cribbing you idiot. You are amidst timeless keeps. Memory for life and a provoked thought that could potentially alter how I look at life, my own life and of those around.
As a writer, I was always believed that I am here to create. Something that would last, perhaps outlast generations, and seep through as thought matter. Something universal and indestructible. That something will be my absolving, my claim at immortality—a part of me that will transcend. And here I was right at the centre of something similar. Right at the centre of a belief system. A belief system so strong that when it was conceptualized it had no room for eradication. The temple is just a manifestation of that thought in form and matter.
I asked myself, what I am in front of such a singular thought factor. Can I, in patches or in percentage, ever match this?
That gave me a silent stroke of realization. About the people who believed in their dream that his temple will go nowhere. That someday perhaps a bloke like me would come and remember them. Perhaps there were more like me who would have walked this temple lanes and felt like I felt. Honoring their glory.
It is not about a temple, or the ones I visited in my trip ahead—I visited many and each seem to have its own glory and stories hidden and waiting to be unraveled. I looked around the population that was settled by the temples and realized that these temples were the single most potent economic vehicles for this villagers, strongly rivaling agriculture. There were flower vendors, tea stalls, kiosks selling small take away religious books and other religious motifs. Entire generation supported by the temples. For them the temple is their only source of livelihood.
It made me see the whole temple trip business of ours in a very different light. I suddenly felt important and ran out to buy flowers for Puja and tea and biscuit for all my relatives. I think I made a tiny fraction of a contribution to the long standing tradition.
We moved on from temple to temple and I kept paying attention to the myriad architectural marvels, the black stone walls, the faded yet colorful murals of gods all around.
Every once in a while I would see a young kid selling flowers or fruits on the temple lanes and I will smile at them and feel how lucky for them to have an anchor like this in their lives. They may not be the most well off financially, but they have something that my contemporaries in cities don’t. They have a belief and unlike many of us in cities they are not a generation lost to misguided thoughts and ambitions.
I agree with all my heart, I had a deeply satisfying excursion, and it triggered me to pen my thoughts down affirms my satisfaction. I could have wrapped up all I had to say in just two or three paragraphs but I rambled on.
I am sure some of you might have had some moments like this in your life where you suddenly feel part of history. This post is dedicated to all such moments.