The Tirumankai Alvar Utsavam began yesterday. This year, it will run 11 days and will culminate in a grand celebration on Karttikai Deepam. I’ve always had a soft spot for Tirumankai, and so this festival has special meaning for me. I sat with the women yesterday, at the threshold of Tirumankai’s sannidhi, because we aren’t allowed in during the recitation. The men recited the first 100 of the Periya Tirumoli. The thunderous opening refrain–Kandu Konden Narayana Ennum Namam--is like a thunderclap in your heart. The recitation at Tirukkurungudi is beautiful. The men have deep resonant, even musical voices, and unlike so many other places, the recitation doesn’t crash along at some mad clip. It’s measured, so you can actually hear the words, understand the meaning. As the recitation moved along, a small cluster of women assembled at the threshold, with bundles of fresh green tulasi stalks piled between them. Their hands moved in synchrony with the recitation, as they plucked the delicate green tulasi leaves, creating a little hill of fragrance. Most of the women were draped in tulasi green saris, and it seemed in my fantastic imagination, that the women were themselves tulasi plants. The air filled with the distinctive spicy herbacious scent of tulasi, and my senses felt overwhelmed. So many alvar poems speak about the haunting fragrance of tulasi–the touch of god–to know it in your body and through your body. I am struck over and over again, by how much these festivals seek to recreate the experience of an alvar poem. And this was really brought home to me, as the women quietly noted the content of the verses as they were recited. Oh, how long the verses are, how difficult it is to recite the long, long lines of text. Here, they told each other, is the decad on Badari, Salagramam, Naimsaranyam, Singavel Kunram, Tiruvenkatam…and the words created an imaginary map, paintings of the mind to transport them to those sacred sites. As the alvar said, come take me, claim me, give me grace, to the god at Tiruvenkatam, one of the women so overcome by emotion, dabbed at the edges of her eyes. Another pressed her palms together, eyes closed, transported into another world, into another place–his words were their words–claim me, take me, love me. I was so moved by these women, their love, their devotion, and unexpectedly, I found myself crying too. As much because of Tirumankai’s words, so sincere, urgent and brimming with a fierce love, as for the women’s immersion in his words. Anubhava spilling all over, crashing over us like a river in spate. I felt something quite profound in their company. As the recitation closed, and we all pulled ourselves together, one of the women turned to me and said, “he just wrings you dry, doesn’t he.” I could only nod mutely, while thinking that I still had an ocean of tears inside me.