Adhyayanotsavam: Nanguneri

Adhyayanotsavam Day 1: Nanguneri.

I met such lovely people today. The two young girls who sang so sweetly for Devanayakan. The old grandma, her body bent with age, but with an ageless face, bright with love. A woman who has been to all 106 Divya Desas. The priests and sevarthis, who guided me with patience and kindness.

Although the Nanguneri temple is large, it’s constructed in a way that everything feels really intimate. The spaces are tight, so you are forced to stand cheek to jowl with your companions. But no one pushes or shoves, instead they ask you to bend lower so they can see above your head, or they make way so someone behind them can catch a glimpse.

In the morning during the Tiruppalandu Todakkam, right before the recitation began, the priests wave lamps and incense before the god–both the primary image and the utsavar. This temple, like so many others in region, is mostly lit from oil lamps. So from the far off distance where we ladies have to stand, Vishnu seems so far away–a dark, shadowy figure, with only the jewel-encrusted naamam glinting at us; his silver eyes twinkling in the light. When they waved the incense this morning, even that was obscured, but as the smoke cleared, it seemed he came into even clearer focus, as though emerging through that smoke. Periyalvar was placed before him–and so it really seemed like he was having the legendary vision that we too were all privileged to witness. And then quiet. The Jiyar’s voice rose, like the smoke, and the opening words of the Tiruppallandu filled the air. What a beginning! It was spectacular.

In the evening, the festival began in earnest, and by the time we were about 30 verses into the Periyalvar Tirumoli, the place had filled. Women sat clustered together following the recitation in their books. The men recited without pause and with a breathless quality. In that closed, small space, the sound felt more intense and concentrated, less dispersed. So too, how we see and experience Devanayakan. The processional corridor is so tight that the palanquin barely fits. You are forced to follow, and you lose sight of the image hidden inside. It’s like an alvar poem come to life–the teasing of presence and absence. To me, this is what the Adhyayanotsavam is about–poetry making a world, a world into which we are drawn each day more deeply and more inextricably.

Tomorrow is Day 2, and the Tirukkolams commence.