Vaikuntha Ekadasi: Tirukkurungudi. Dec 29 2017

Vaikuntha Ekadasi (Dec 29)
Adhyayanotsavam Day 11
Ira Pattu Day 1
Text: Tiruvaymoli First 100 (recited while seated)
Text (Iyarpa): Poykai: Mutal Tiruvantati (recited in procession)

It is impossible to describe Vaikuntha Ekadasi. Suffice it to say, it is a complete sensory overload. I’ve experienced this particular day at a few temples, and I keep coming back to space and how space shapes your experience. There is also time of course–the day is packed. You begin at 3 AM and go, go, go, without a pause. The day thus has this curious feeling of moving very, very slowly because you’re building to the climactic opening of the Vaikuntha Vasal–god descending, the alvar there to meet him, and the rest of us poor, confused folks just carried along in the sea of surging humanity, with all of its sorrows and joys. At the same time, you’re moving so fast through the day, with one event following the next, that you feel like you’re living on fast forward.

Herein Tirukkurungudi, the vasal (doorway) on the northern side is set between a rabbit-warren of granite pillars. So a crowd of some 1000+ people squeeze in, trying to get glimpse. There’s a tall, narrow door through which everyone must pass, following Vishnu. Tirumankai awaits on the other side, held aloft, above all of us, so Nambi and he can see each other directly, with nothing and no one to obscure the view. There is a sense of urgency and intimacy that such space creates–so different from my experience at a temple like Sri Vaikuntham, with its rather wide prakara. But wherever you are, the doorway is narrow–and passing through it on this day is a bit like being born–forcing your way through a tight space to new vastness. You are indeed transformed–you must become something else on the other side. God too is transforming–he passes the gateway to confront himself in another form–Tirumankai who is really Nammalvar who is really Nambi. How many layers of identity, of self, of knowing there are! I marvel at this, even as I am running around trying to find a proper vantage. I briefly see myself through the eyes of those gathered, and come up away with the impression of a lunatic in a sari, running blindly. Never more am I an alvar poem.

The bells are clanging, so many different drums are beating, a conch is blowing, people are chanting Govinda Govinda Govinda Govinda, and each time the name just crests on the other–an antati of chanting, looping, looping, looping. Infinity in the name. There are massive, massive oil flames leaping up to touch the stone ceiling, light glancing off the jewels adorning the deity. Someone is earnestly waving a fan to cool the god. I don’t think it’s much help, but I suppose, it’s the thought and the action that count. Amidst all of this, I am trying to take photographs. I am weaving my way through a crowd so dense that it seems they’ve all merged into a single body. At times, I cannot breathe. I am drenched in sweat, a welcome treat to the mosquitoes that will feast on me later that night. My ears are ringing. I hear Vedic chanting low and deep, valiantly trying to keep up with the frenzy of Govinda Govinda Govinda Govinda. I think of Andal’s parrot crying this out. She thinks a taunt–a name she longs to hear, but brings so much pain. Yes, this is what it feels like to live in an alvar poem.

I am glad that Selvaprakash, our team member photographer, working on an allied project, is with me. I know if I don’t get a shot, he most certainly will. I am comforted by this, and by knowing that I’ll go through this ritual 9 more times, and eventually I’ll get what I need. It’s a great lesson in knowing that one has many chances to get it right. You are born again and again and again. Eventually, you’ll go through the door and come out properly formed on the other end.

The sounds, the smells, the sights just fill my body, and then I just sweat it all out–is this what poets mean when they say the self dissolves? I am melting in the heat, in the fire, in the crowd. After the stillness that descended the previous night after Tirumankai’s moksam, this seems to have dialed up the emotional register to about 50 million. This is lunatic overload as David Shulman would say.

Nambi processes the narrow corridors. I am lost in the crowds, and he is a far away blip, illuminated only by the towering flames. An alvar poem.

It is ever thus.

Adhyayanotsavam Day 10: Tirukkurungudi

Adhyayanotsavam Day 10 (Dec 28)
Text: Periya Tirumoli 10th and 11th Hundreds; Carrumurai
Tirukkolam: Rajangam
Conclusion of Pakal Pattu Utsavam

This was the day that Pakal Pattu builds to–Tirumankai Alvar’s moksa. You live with his amazing Periya Tirumoli for four days–2 hours a day (one day, 3 full hours) hearing the recitation, hearing the words, that extraordinary poetic voice that was so uniquely his. He has such a penchant for the long poetic line–breath does not come easily when reciting his texts–that *is* the point. One stumbles, and while this might seem an error, to my ear, it always sounded consonant with the journey he describes. Language sometimes fail; indeed, often fails us at the critical juncture. It fails us when we have really important things to say. Despite the Tirumoli’s poetic virtuosity, it often contemplates what it means to hear, to speak, to sing, to say, and what those limits might be. The resonant recitation, with their occasional falters burnished my understanding of this poem as never before. Revealed to me parts I had not considered before–drew my attention to compositional structure, poetic voice, sensibility in new ways.

I cannot really fully describe the experience of how the moksa unfolded at Tirukkurungudi. With the drums beating and bells clanging, the last verses of the Tirumoli and Tirunetuntantakam being recited, Tirumankai, clothed in white, is carried to Nambi. He is laid prostrate at his feet, and simply covered in a mound of Tulasi by two priests. The mound reaches Nambi’s chest, and the fragrance of Tulasi engulfs us. Narra-t-tulaay Narayanan was everywhere, intangible, and unknowable. It was as though an alvar poem had just come alive, and we had all been dragged into it. My hands were shaking so badly, I couldn’t hold the camera. And I had started crying without even realizing it. I kept thinking that I couldn’t see through the camera viewer because of the smoke. I am shocked that I actually have photographs of this event.

It will take me days, possibly months, perhaps really years, to understand what unfolded yesterday. It was a profound, deeply moving experience. To think that this will all happen again, that the Parampada Vasal opens the following day (Dec 29) and we tumble head-first into the Tiruvaymoli–it seems almost past bearing. How can we live with this much feeling, this much emotion, this much intensity? But we will. We most certainly will, although we will likely not be the same on the other side of the door.

Adhyayanotsavam Day 9: Tirukkurungudi

Adhyayanotsavam Day 9. (Dec 27)
Texts: Periya Tirumoli 8th and 9th Hundreds
Tirukkolam: Amrita Mohini and Vina Mohini

I could only think of anticipatory transition yesterday. The day before pakal pattu concludes; the last day of kaleidoscopic alankaras, of multiple forms. Tomorrow, we return to stability of a sort, of a different kind of movement, and the love of a very different kind of poet. In my years of following this festival, I am always struck by the interplay between image and sound, between hearing and sight. Tirumankai keeps using the phrase, kandu-konden, I’ve seen/sought and found. It’s the refrain at the end of the opening decad of the Periya Tirumoli. You have to seek to see, see to seek, yes?

The alankaras draw you naturally towards sight, but this is after all the festival of recitation, of sound. I will write separately about sound, about the language of instruments, of the places of silence, and of unseeing as well, in a separate post once I can make sense of my somewhat inchoate thoughts. Those do not always go together–sound often directs one how to see when one cannot actually see. Imagination activated to hyper reality.

When Nambi becomes Mohini (as do many Vishnus in different temples, almost invariably on this 8th day of pakal pattu), it points us not just to transformation, but to a primordial story of experience–the churning of the ocean of milk, about which Vasudha Narayanan has thought extensively. While most temples give us only one iteration of Mohini, with the golden pot filled with the sweetest most precious nectar–here, in Tirukkurungudi, we get a second Mohini, playing the vina. One could be forgiven for mistaking her for Sarasvati, but this is a god of trickery, and this is part of the play.

As Amrita Mohini, s(he) towers like a sun, glowing orange, afire with the nectar of immortality. It’s a beauty that burns. In the evening, she is white as the full moon, as though draped in the ocean of milk itself. It’s a beauty that soothes. S(he) is the sun and moon, disc and conch, dark and light, in short, all of time itself.

On this day of almost transition–anticipatory transition–it makes sense that we are offered the nectar of immortality, and are invited to contemplate the nature of time itself–for that will loom large once the gates of heaven open tomorrow, on Vaikuntha Ekadasi.

Adhyayanotsavam Day 3: Tirukkurungudi

Adhyayanotsavam Day 3. Dec 21.
Texts of the Day: Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli.

Today, Beautiful Nambi became both bride and groom–Andal and then himself, Rangamannar/Rajagopalan. As I sat listening to the recitation of the Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli in the afternoon–it was a kind of resonant, languorous performance, with such care given to the long vowels–especially a and e–I found myself tumbling into the text in a kind of interstellar like moment. It was an odd, odd experience, characterized by a certain viscosity of feeling that suddenly gave way to clarity, as though infused by a shot of cool water. That viscosity was diluted, but not as a lessening of intensity, but as the freeing of emotion–a river undammed, I suppose. My least favorite section of the Nacciyar Tirumoli has always been Varanam Ayiram, (NT 6), the dream wedding, but yesterday as the gosti recited the line “tirukaiyal taal parri”–he cradled my foot in his beautiful hand–I just couldn’t hold back the tears.

The first alankara was Andal, and Nambi’s goddesses looked to me like Andal’s gopis.

The second alankara of the day was Rangamannar/Rajagopalan. As Tirunarayanaswami explained, Andal sang that they glimpsed him in Vrindavan (vrdinavanathe kandome), hence this alankara.

The festival layers complexity upon complexity–recitation, alankara, prasada–each sense engaged, heightened, polished. Complete, total immersion.

Adhyayanotsavam Day 2: Tirukkurungudi

Adhyayanotsavam Day 2 (Dec 20):
The recitation of the 3rd and 4th Pattu of Periyalvar Tirumoli, and Periyalvar Carrumurai.

Naturally, the alankaras (tirukkolam) for the evening were Krishna, Krishna, Krishna. Alankara 1 during gosti, tiruvaradhanai, tirta viniyokam was Kalinga Krishna. Alankara 2, for Sertti Purappadu a bloodless killing of Bakasura–anticipating Andal: Pulinvay kindanai.

Vishnu here in Tirukkurungudi is called Alakiya Nambi, the beautiful prince and Sundara Paripurnan–entirely, completely, wholly, fully beautiful. Who can dispute this?

Adhyayanotsavam Day 1: Tirukkurungudi

Adhyayanotsavam Day 1
Dec 19, 2017

Mattalam kotta vari cankam ninra uta….Kotai describes her dream wedding in these words. But it’s what ran through my mind in a loop as the first day of the Adhyayanotsavam came to a close at Tirukkurungudi. This festival, which I’ve now seen at several temples, is intense (as all festivals are) and emotionally demanding. I often wonder on Day 1 if I can survive to the end, to Alvar Moksam. Between the deep resonant recitation of the day’s Prabandham, to the astonishing alankaras, to the music and percussion bouncing off the walls, anubhava flowing in all directions in an almost visible electric current, your body feels completely possessed and taken over. Even though this festival is called the Adhyayanotsavam–The Festival of Recitation–it’s the visual spectacle that dominates the arangam. To anyone who has encountered alvar poetry, this is not at all unexpected. But it does give you kind of intimate insight into how the poems work and why they work the way do. It’s how poetry makes not just worlds, but gods too…enough with words. What can be said about such beauty?

The Beginning

Adhyayanotsavam Pakal Pattu begins–Nambi makes his way from the sannidhi to the pakal pattu mandapam. Recitation of Periyalvar Tirumoli begins at 3 PM this afternoon. The alvar and acarya in attendance….

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Awaiting the gods. The Kaisaka Mantapam/Pakal Pattu Mantapam, Tirukkurungudi, stands ready. The day before the Adhyayanotsavam. Dec 18, 2017. 5 PM

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