I finished the Tiruvaymoli some time ago, and thought I would take a break, recharge the brain, and then turn to the next big translation project–the Sundara Kandam of Kamban’s Ramayana. But then, a couple of mornings ago, I woke up itching to do more Nammalvar. Why? I don’t know. He composed four works, and I’ve completed two. I suppose, given my obsession about finishing things, I want to finish the set. Thankfully, they are small works. The Tiruvaciriyam (named after the meter) is just 7 verses, while the Periya Tiruvantati (The Big Antati) is 87. So, both texts almost certainly incomplete. They are attributed to Nammalvar, but there’s no concluding phala sruti, so it’s possible someone else composed them. Hard to say. But the opening of the Tiruvasiriyam is strikingly similar to the opening (thematically speaking) of the Ciriya Tirumatal, which is attributed to Tirumankai. Again, no phala sruti, so it may be Tirumankai, it could be another alvar poet, it could be someone unknown to us. Anyway, we go by what the tradition has bequeathed to us.

So, here is the opening verse of the Tiruvaciriyam. It’s quite beautiful.

Draped in crimson clouds
limned by the flaming sun
the cool glowing moon and countless stars
your jewels, your lips red coral,
your body a mountain of luminous emerald
this is how you lie in the arms
of the king of the sea:

a flame of yellow silk and shining gems
lips and eyes glittering against your leaf-dark skin
a lotus rising from your navel,
asleep on a poison-spitting serpent
in the midst of the ocean
with its crashing roaring waves

Śivaṉ Ayaṉ Indraṉ and every other god
bow before you
before your petal-soft feet
that took the three worlds.

A Taste of Tirumankai

I am done with the Tiruvaymoli translation. Feeling at loose ends, I revisited by beloved Tirumankai. Here’s a lovely verse in the female voice.

Heavy with the fragrance of full-blown jasmine
the gentle breeze arrives as the cool moon rises
It wanders everywhere, feeds on me
not sparing me a single night’s rest.
Stupid girls say stupid things—let them.
His woman fragrant with all her flowers
he keeps her close, nestled into his chest
He’s in Kuṟuṅkuṭi
Take me there.

Tirumaṅkai. Periya Tirumoḻi IX.5.2

Tirumankai Festival: Tirukkurungudi

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.

Goodbye, Moksa: Tirukkurungudi

Vitu Vidai (Jan 8 2018): The Goodbye

I don’t know how people weren’t weeping by the end of the proceedings yesterday, as Tirukkurungudi’s magnificent Adhyayanotsavam drew to a close. This is one of few temples that adds an extra day to the 20 day-festival, a final day of goodbyes, releases from promises, and returns. Tirumankai asks to be released from his “vitu” and returned to this world, to return from the Nitya Vibhuti–the eternal land–to this world, our Lila Vibhuti, our land of play. In keeping with this notion, what a play we and he staged!

There is so much to say about this one day, so long, so complex and multi-layered. It may seem that Alvar Moksam *is* the point of the Adhyayanotsavam, but really, at Tirukkurungudi, it’s about goodbye, transition, separation and that tantalizing promise of return.

At the end of an eight hour day, where the action is non-stop, Nambi creeps towards the Vaikuntha Vasal. While every evening at the end of the day’s festivities, he rushes back on, carried on the shoulders of his palanquin bearers, last night, he moved at a snail’s pace, moving from the Ira Pattu mandapam, through the Vaikuntha Vasal and back to his sannidhi, his original place, Vaikuntha itself. As he left, they extinguished the electric lights behind him one by one, until he was lit only by the glowing luminsence of the towering oil flames. As he reached the Vasal, he turned and faced the crowd that awaited him on the other side. He stayed a long time there, as though as reluctant to leave as they to let him go. If on Vaikuntha Ekadasi, the refrain was Govinda Govinda Govinda, a rallying cry as god descended to the world of play, today, there was silence from the devotees, and only the plaintive cry of the nagasvaram, which seemed to echo the heart’s plea: don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.

He crosses the threshold–he’s in Vaikuntha now, I suppose. I really don’t know, because space has become so confused, and time as well. As he waits, Visvaksena arrives, and with him the keys to the Vaikuntha Vasal. Under the watchful gaze of Nambi’s deputy and Nambi himself, the Gate of the North is closed shut. For good measure it is locked and sealed with wax. The gateway that made the descent possible, for Nambi to be intimate and here, seems irrevocably closed. You could feel the weight of grief in the gathered devotees, as if that weight alone could make him stay, if only grief was like gravity, and one simply had to accede to its power.

I take my own Vidai today, admittedly, in a bit of a stunned, overwhelmed state. But not all goodbyes are forever. The Vasal will open once again. Nambi will come again, and so will I.

I took more than 1500 photographs yesterday. I haven’t even sorted through them. This is a sample.

Adhyayanotsavam Day 20: Alvar Moksam

Alvar Moksam (Jan 7, 2018), Ira Pattu, Day 10, Adhyayanotsavam, Day 20.

Here in Tirukkurungudi, Tirumankai receives moksa twice. First, to conclude the pakal pattu utsavam and the recitation of his Periya Tirumoli, then again, at the end of the Ira Pattu Utsavam as the recitation of Nammalvar’s Tiruvaymoli draws to a close. In both cases, he is himself, but is understood as being both Nammalvar and Tirumankai, just as Nammalvar is both Nambi and himself. This duplication, replication, transformation is a theme that I need to return to and explore in greater depth.

The final day is brought to a close with a recitation of the last 100 of the Tiruvaymoli, verses that the commentarial traditions have long held express Nammalvar’s final union with Vishnu. This event is enacted at the end of every Adhyayanotsavam at every Srivaishnava temple, but with always a slightly different flavor. Regardless of what form this enactment takes, the result is always a moment of enormous potency and power, and a deeply, deeply affecting experience for everyone assembled.

At Tirukkurungudi, the recitation of the last hundred moved with brisk, precise efficiency. Until we reached the sixth hundred. After this, at the conclusion of every decad, there was an elaborate tiruvaradhanai and the offering of some delectable naivedya. With each Aradhana, the tension went up just a little bit more. The recitation slowed infinitesimally with each of these aarathis, so that in the end, sound acquired a viscous quality. Each aarathi was waved a little bit more slowly, lingering on the feet, on the face, on the chest with its shining jewel. It was a true light and sound show for the ages.

In the end, they brought Tirumankai out from among where he was with the rest of the alvar. He was lovingly brought to Nambi’s feet and completely immersed in a pile of fresh, green tulasi that rose up like a little hill. The fragrance that filled the air in that moment was exotic and unfamiliar–tulasi, incense, sandal, camphor, the flowers, the food–each distinct in their own way, but mingled together, they produced a scent so unique as to be unreproducible.

As the moksa unfolds, the gosti recites the final ten verses of the Tiruvaymoli and then return us, as the poem intends, once again to the very beginning–uyarvara uyar nalam, to the highest good.

Who possesses the highest, unsurpassable goodness? That one.
Who cuts through confusion and graces the mind with goodness? That one.
Who is the overlord of the immortals who never forget? That one.
at his luminous feet that cut through affliction, bow down and rise, my mind.

Nammalvar. Tiruvaymoli. I.1.1

PS. My photographs from yesterday were a bit of a miss. I got some good shots, but I am so relieved that Selva was with me, as I know he got what I missed. It was very difficult to photograph yesterday as there was so much movement, so much happening in different places, and my position did not give me as clear a line as I would have liked. I couldn’t find a steady hand, a steady heart or a steady eye. I found myself really anxious, wanting to make sure I got the photographs I needed. This was the first time I felt this way through the 20 days of the festival, and the anxiety translated itself, predictably, in what came through. In contrast, despite all this anxiety, what I have in my mind’s eye is luminous and clear. I suppose that should suffice. But sometimes it doesn’t. But having another photographer by your side, is a sure comfort.