In Memoriam: Pandit Varadadesikar, my teacher

Pandit Varadadesikar (1923-2017)
Sanskrit Scholar, EFEO, Pondicherry
Manuscript Cataloger, EFEO, Pondicherry

Photograph taken in 2007, EFEO, Pondicherry. We are reading Periyavaccan Pillai together.

I learned to love commentary from him. I understood anubhava from hearing him interpret alvar poems. I appreciated his understated zeal as he lost himself in their wonder. And how patiently, he taught me. This blundering, bumbling kid come to Pondicherry via North America. How he put up with the inanity of my questions, the staggering deficiency of my knowledge. He lived on Perumal Koyil Street, on the street parallel to mine-each of us tightly embracing the Vishnu temple from either side, as if saying, ‘I won’t let go.’ From the tiny balcony of my rented home, I could peer past the Andal Sannidhi Vimana and see the top of his house. Sometimes, we would run into each other outside of our classes, in the temple, and he was always a bit surprised to see me. I never quite understood why. But we would chat, he would tell me some little unknown tidbit about the alvar, and we would part. I sometimes had class in his home, and these were always marvelous affairs–he lived with his son and daughter-in-law, and their two children. I was a somewhat exotic creature, crashing about Tamil Nadu by myself, sometimes with the ‘American’ husband, turning ruby red in the bright tropical sun, in tow. Mama was bemused, but loved to hear of my travels to various temples–he couldn’t travel much by the time I knew him–and my travels were his vicarious experience of sites he had read about but never visited. Srivilliputtur was one of those places. So, I would bring him paal khoa from Srivilliputtur (he would confess that he shouldn’t eat it, but he still would), and tales of my various temple adventures, which he would listen to enraptured, describing them in detail, to bring them alive for this man I grew not only to respect but feel a deep, abiding affection for.

I could go on and on–so many memories. They come flooding in. He was a great teacher, a generous scholar and a very wise man. And like all great teachers, he gave so much more than he knew, and much more than I can ever match.

The loss of a teacher is never easy. I had dreaded this day. And now it is here.

Srivaikuntham and Alvar Tirunagari: Paintings

Srivaikuntham and Alvar Tirunagari are a pair. Located across the Tamiraparani, they are intimately connected, almost a tight embrace. As Vishnu and his devotee, Nammalvar are bound together, so too are their two temples. Here is one example: these are the only two Tirupatis with paintings from the 17th/18th century. While the Alvar Tirunagari temple’s paintings are located in the pradakshina patha of the Nammalvar Sannidhi, the ones at Srivaikuntham are located in the pradakshina patha of the Vainkunthanathan/Kallapiran Sannidhi. They are enormous, striking, impressive paintings of the Divya Desa. Here is a selection of these glorious paintings.

     

  

Vahanas

Ever since I heard Richard Davis‘s paper on vahanas at the UW Madison Conference a couple of years ago, I’ve found myself looking at them with new eyes. Here’s a selection of vahanas from temples in Tirunelveli. I find these vahanas absent their gods, a slightly melancholic sight.

           

Mohini Tirukkolam: Alvar Tirunagari/Tirukkolur

Many moons ago, I read Vasudha Narayanan‘s Vernacular Veda, in which she describes the Mohini Tirukkolam that Alagiya Manavalan of Srirangam dons during the Adhyayanotsavam. The women of Srirangam, she reports, exclaim in delight at the wonder of the gender bending god’s ability to exceed Sri herself in glamour and beauty. Since that early reading, I’ve been utterly fascinated by the Mohini Tirukkolam, and find it popping up in all kinds of contexts, in so many different temples. There’s Andal donning it during the Markali Festival (the vertiginous nature of the gender crossing in this case has kept me busy for many years), there are various Vishnu-s in temples across Tamil Nadu who become Mohini for a day. And of course, there’s Nammalvar at Alvar Tirunagari. Imagine my surprise when I found Nammalvar dressing up as Mohini not only during the Adhyayanotsavam, but also on the occasion of the Avani Festival at Tirukolur (Day 9).

With Mohini on my mind, I went to visit Kalamegha Perumal (how gorgeous and evocative are these names!) at Tirumohur this morning. Tirumohur is where Vishnu is supposed to have manifested as Mohini during the Amrita Madanam, hence the name of the town Tirumohur or Mohanapuram. Alternately, it’s where he assumed his Mohini form to get Siva out of his Bhasmasura pickle. There is nary a Mohini sculpture at this temple to acknowledge these sthala puranas, except these two on the temple’s 2nd gopuram–one churning of the ocean (North side) and one Mohini (south side).

      

It took me right back to where I started, with Vasudha Narayanan‘s book that started it all for me. While there were no Mohini-s to be found, there were these two exquisite sculptures of Rati and Kama, glowing gold in the cool dark of the temple interior.

       

Magical times in Tamil Nadu….

 

Alvar Tirunagari Paintings

There are beautiful old paintings in Alvar Tirunagari. Located within the inner prakara of the Nammalvar Shrine, many of them have worn away to nothing, while several still retain their old brilliance and charm, showy in their vivid, arresting color palate. They are on the walls and on the ceilings.

 

I’ve been trying to see these paintings for as long as I can remember, and at long last, through what can only be termed divine intervention, I was granted permission yesterday. I had to arrive before the temple officially opened and photograph the entire prakara very very quickly, like my life depended on it. I was given a meager 2 hours. In the end, it took 2.5 hours, even as priests kept popping in to ask me if I was done. My project in the prakara was delaying the Alvar’s morning bath. I was given permission to see the paintings and photograph them on the condition that I make them available to the temple. I am not much of a photographer, and I was nervous at the task placed before me. I am happy to say that the photographs (close to 400) have turned out well. By that I mean, they are in focus and you can tell something of the subject matter. I leave the task of translating their glory on to the lens to those whose talents with a camera far outstrip mine.

It was thrilling to see these paintings. And thank god, for Anna Seastrand whose painstaking work on these temple murals, has allowed us to understand these complex, confounding, extraordinary works of devotional art. I am glad I don’t study mural painting as it’s a very painful task. Who knew that photographing paintings in tight, cramped, poorly lit quarters could cause one so much discomfort? And for those interested, Anna Seastrand has a great essay about these very paintings in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies; a must read.

Avani Festival: Tirukkolur

Today was Day 9 of the Annual Avani Festival at the Tirukolur Temple in Tirunelveli. Tirukolur is the purported birth place of Madurakavi. On Day 9 of the festival, the teacher, Nammalvar, visits the student. He arrives with great pomp and circumstance–an elephant leading the way, trumpets and drums heralding his arrival. When he gets to Tirukolur, his student is waiting, eager to see his beloved teacher and to welcome him home. Watching this festival brought alive to me, not for the first time, the intersections of hagiography, festival, alankara, gesture in such a way as to invite you into a world of imaginative hyper-reality. As I watched the rituals of greeting unfold, and the verses of Madurakavi filled the morning air, mingling with the elephants quiet huffs, the bleating of the goats, the sighs of liquid feeling in the women gathered so tightly around, it seemed like I was watching two old friends meet after a long time. So much love passes between them, between, behind, in the words that are said and unsaid, sung and unsung, heard and unheard. Simply marvelous stuff is this world of temple festivals.

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.