A Temple by the River: Bhakatavatsala Perumal Temple

This morning, I visited a gorgeous jewel of a temple located right on the banks of the Tamaraparani. The location is so scenic, idyllic, really. One can walk to the river bank from the temple, although this path was closed as the temple priest hadn’t shown up.

The temple has one of the most delicately carved, richly detailed vimanas I’ve seen. While the rest of the temple is quite plain–there are a few striking sculptures on pillars and so forth–the real workmanship is in the vimana, where the long ago, anonymous artists have worked hard, unrelenting granite as though it’s soft as soap, pliable as wax. I was thinking of Crispin Branfoot’s work on the expanding temple, and how well this gem exemplified it. There are inscriptions galore to delight the epigraphist’s heart, many of them unrecorded/unreported. Leslie Orr has probably been here many times over.

The temple had fallen into terrible disrepair some ten years back. It then came under the control of the Central ASI, who took the temple apart and rebuilt it. It’s now a well maintained temple, with a priest who keeps the temple open in the morning from 8-11 AM. And the morning light made an already striking temple even more gorgeous. The stone just glowed in some places.

I will certainly be returning, hopefully many times over, to really take in the beauty of that stunning vimana.

Also, on the vimana, an extraordinary Narasimha, the likes of which I’ve never seen.

Bhakatavatsala Perumal Temple, Cheranmahadevi.

Finding Home at last?

Today I visited my ancestral village for the very first time. Although I was born in India, grew up here, and my life’s work brings me back to this very place again and again, I’ve never managed to make it to the village. Not once. I’ve even driven past the sign board announcing it a few times. I’ve observed that it is my ancestral village, and that I should come, but I never have. Not until today.

This is the village, deep in beautiful ten-Pandya Nadu, where my maternal grandfather was born and raised. This was where he studied, gaining life-skills that pulled him and his family out of difficult circumstances to forge a better life for all of them. This is where my paternal grandmother studied, where my paternal great-great-grandfather helped run a school. Where my uncles and aunts studied.

This is where the house in which my grandfather was born and lived still stands.

This village is quaint, charming, quiet, lovely. It really is a village–not a town masquerading as a village. The hills rise blue, grey and misty in the deep background. In the foreground, the fields are iridescent green, and birds of all sorts flit and float by, bursts of color against the impossible green. The canal runs cool, swift and clean, beckoning the young boys who hurl themselves with great screeches of joy into its waters. The women and girls bathe on the shores more decorously, but with no less enthusiasm.

In a land of temples, this village seems thick with them. On either end of the street of my grandfather’s house (Mela-Theru) is a Shivan temple and a Perumal temple. Around the corner is a goddess temple, with the beguiling and deceptive name, Anandavalli–creeper of joy. She did look quite thrilled to be spearing the demon. These are old temples, that hold their marks of oldness even beneath the explosion of overenthusiastic tile and renovation.

On a parallel street, called Kila-Theru, are two more temples–utterly gorgeous–again a Shiva temple and Vishnu temple. The Perumal has the impossibly evocative name Kariya-manikka Perumal. The temple walls are covered in inscriptions, and the temple seems virtually untouched. Same with the 13th century Shiva temple–Vilvanathan–covered in inscriptions, and almost untouched since the time of its first renovation in the 13th century, according to an inscription dated 1203 CE (save for the likely addition of the goddess shrine). I am thinking of Leslie Orr…

My trusty driver, Kesavan, observed that for all my temple wanderings around Tirunelveli, did I think that such treasures lurked so close by? No, I did not. But now that I know, I must return, again and again.

When I was in this village, in the rain, in the embrace of the hills and the fields, I understood in a completely new and different way, why I love this land so much. Why this Pandya Nadu calls to me on some primeval level.

There are so many ways to come home, and having lived between lands for so long, every journey is always a homecoming, in whichever direction I go. Now, I have found another way to come home, another place to call home, and yet another way to to find my way in this vast, vast world.

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.