Srivaikuntham: December 2015

Fieldwork in Tirunelveli is slowly winding down. It will conclude with a divine quarrel and a reconciliation.

The whole festival has built to this point…it’s swung between union and separation, between Vishnu moving in and out, both of the physical space of the temple and the capacious space of the heart. Watching these rituals unfold has sharpened my understanding…no, I stand corrected, my experience, my anubhava, of the alvar poems. They’ve become poems in three dimensions, full and fleshy.

And yesterday, in the shy dark of dusk, despite (or was it because of) a bone-deep weariness, I felt this–a kind of shaking up of the blood.

Last night was the Vedpari Utsavam…and it’s when Vishnu finally catches the wily Tirumankai. I was at Srivaikuntham, where Vishnu goes by the appropriate and poetic moniker, Kallappiran–Lord of Scoundrels, Master of Mischief, and boy, does he live up to his name. He comes out on a golden horse (endowed to the temple in 1932), dressed to the nines. And he holds a long spear, shimmering gold that points straight ahead. Sharp and singular.

Tirumankai follows in a smaller palanquin, obscured by the sheer massiveness of the horse. He runs after Vishnu, who clops along at a happy pace. Tirumankai needs to lumber. At some point, Tirumankai races ahead. Now, Vishnu must do the chasing. Eventually, they stand facing each other. I watch this dance in fascination.

Things are about to heat up. Tirumanaki as legend would have it, was a thief. But a devout thief who only stole for the benefit of fellow devotees. A thief nonetheless. Now, Kallappiran, true to his name, decided to make some mischief and have a little fun. He came as a handsome bridegroom and put himself right in the path of the thief who stole for the right reasons. And was robbed blind. Now, the story can take many different turns–but in essence, Tirumankai, is unable to run away with his prodigious loot. He gets mad and accuses the handsome bridegroom of an enchantment. The bridegroom readily admits to this, and promises to reveal the secret. Come close, he says. Tirumankai edges close. No, no, closer, he urges. Still closerclosercloser, till they are so close as to almost be one. The master of the game leans down and whispers eight syllables–his name, the vessel that contains all–and Tirumankai realizes that he’s been bested. The master thief had something to teach him after all.

So, the festival last night unfurled this encounter. That’s what all the chasing is about. Eventually, when they face each other, there is reading of the accounts: you’ve taken necklaces, and pearls, and silks. Do you admit this or not? Tirumankai faced with the magnitude of his thievery, reluctantly admits his guilt. All this was well and good. And I enjoyed the spirit of fun in which this festival unfolded. After all, everything has been so solemn thus far. Grace-giving and Grace-getting always seem such serious work.

And then the air changed. And at the very instant that Tirumankai makes his admission, a great group of men began chanting the opening verse of Tirumankai’s extraordinary work, the Periya Tirumoli. I’ve always had a special place for this section–there is such despair and quiet power in the words: vadinen vadi varundinen: I faded, and fading I suffered.

வாடினேன் வாடி வருந்தினேன் மனத்தால்
பெருந்துயர் இடும்பையில் பிறந்து
கூடினேன் கூடி இளையவர் தம்மோடு
அவர் தரும் கலவியே கருதி

ஓடினேன் ஓடி உய்வது ஓர் பொருளால்
உணர்வெனும் பெரும் பதம் திரிந்து
நாடினேன் நாடி நான் கண்டுகொண்டேன்
நாராயண என்னும் நாமம்-

I sought fulfillment in legions of women, he says, lead astray, intoxicated by pleasure.

And then, I crept closer. I saw all that matters: the syllables that form Narayana. That name.

Last night, I too was speared through the heart.

So here he is, Kallappiran, ready for the hunt:

Tentirupperai: December 2015

I’ve been thinking a lot about temple space. How people fill these spaces with waiting–I’ve always trained myself to ask and to take note of when a mandapam is used, for what festival, at what moment in the festival. Yet, the answer really is, that the mandapams and kuradus are almost always in use–they are rooms in which to wait, to cultivate patience, to gossip, to make friends, to make space for someone new, someone lost, someone come a long way to heal or to learn, to fulfill a vow or to see something special. A place to sleep, to rest, and most of all, to wait. This is all so obvious, and yet, it is not. It is in the waiting moments that you see things that have escaped your eyes. They are spaces through which we move and we stay. Spaces through which god moves and stays. Built of stone and fixed in place, but ever moving and ever changing.

All this became all the clearer in Tentiruperai last night. I was there to photograph the festival–7th day of Irapattu Utsavam. It was magnificent. A light rain dusting the air, that special, heady rain-perfume intoxicating the senses, the sounds of the drums, the conch, the nagasvaram. The chanting of Tiruvaymoli, the lively chatter of the women exclaiming at Vishnu’s astonishing beauty. And then, unmistakably, the shrill, high pitched sound of a kitten’s meow. And there, they were, a whole troop of them, racing out of the garbha griha, siblings chasing each other, tumbling about in play, trotting happily out for the bowl of milk set out by the priest. Regardless of whether the curtain was drawn or not, whether the occasion was solemn or not, whether Vishnu was within or without, these little kitties, cared not a whit. This was their palace, and no one minded. No one shooed them, as they went where most cannot go. And one couldn’t help think about puppies or piglets, who would have no such free reign of the space. Boundaries again. Of a different kind.

Here are two of the many kitties of Tentiruperai. Happily fed, cuddling up against their Amma on a cool winter’s day. I call them Sri (Mum), Bhu and Nila.

Tirunelveli: December. Adhyayanotsavam

I am really enjoying the new turn in my Nava Tirupati project–it’s been an eye-opener learning to work with(in) a network of temples. One of the things I’ve observed is the elegant choreography of movement. Not just that of the processional image (all the different gaits that the palanquin-bearers use..Vasudha Narayanan writes about this beautifully in Vernacular Veda, if I recall correctly), but particularly of the women as they come in and out of the temple. They know precisely where to stand and when. They know when to arrive to maximize not just their time, but their line of sight. While I sit around for hours together, not knowing precisely when an event is set to start, I can always tell by when the women begin to trickle. All dressed in their finery, clustered together, friends gossiping and chatting, gathering together in tight circles, while they wait in expectation. They position themselves just so, along the processional route. They know they must stand behind the men, but can position themselves for maximum vantage. They move in unison as the procession moves from place to place, from mandapam to mandapam, from akam to puram. I follow them faithfully, and once in a while, one of them will take pity on me and tell me where to stand. I learn how to see a procession, dare I say how to see god, by seeing the women.

Now, as for the men in the temple. Most of them are very good at yelling. Usually at me. I learn something different from them. I learn about being proprietary, I learn about protecting god from intruders, I learn about boundaries.

It’s a good thing I like Andal so much. She didn’t care for boundaries very much.

Nammalvar in Tirunelveli

This is Nammalvar territory, so I am not at all surprised to have found many, many Nammalvars carved on pillars and lintels. I’ve found a great many pairings of Nammalvar and Ramanuja. And I found a lovely, unusual Nammalvar and Madurakavi at the temple in Varagunamangai. So far, this is the first I’ve found marking a lineal descent from Vishnu to Nammalvar to Ramanuja. An unsubtle Guruparampara located on the outer wall of the Gopuram of the Kaisini Vendan Temple, Tirupuliyangudi Temple, Tirunelveli. Looking forward to the treasures of Perunkulam, Tentiruperai and Tirukolur.

On the same note, here is one of Nammalvar with Madurakavi on one side (R) and Nathamuni on the other (L). He’s wearing a tall conical cap (recognizable today as what the Araiyars wear, and if you peer closely enough, he holds the talam in his hands). Located on the lintel, Aravindalocanan Temple, Irattai Tirupati, Tirunelveli.

Lineages are emphasized over and over again here in the Nava Tirupatis. So, I am looking forward to revisiting the paintings at Alvar Tirunagari, ones about which Anna Seastrand has written so well.