It is sunset when I walk into the Azhagar Kovil, 20km outside Madurai. Azhagar Kovil means “handsome lord’s temple” in Tamil: a tad immodest, I think, even for Vishnu, the flamboyant Hindu god who is known to enjoy the good life.
As it turns out, I may be wrong about the provenance of the name. The hill that cradles this 3rd century temple is called Azhagar Malai, or handsome lord’s hill. Is the temple named after the hill or vice versa? Likely the latter, for this is a temple of ancient provenance, older than the 7th century Madurai Meenakshi temple down the road.
A classical Carnatic music song sung by Oscar-nominated musician Bombay Jayashri goes, “Azhaga… Azhaga… Azhaga enru…,” which is like calling someone, “Hey, handsome”, except that this particular endearment is for god and happens to be the ringtone of the temple priest that I am trying to connect with.
Devotional ringtones and caller tunes are a unique feature of India. They are a calling card that occasionally flummox the caller. The man who irons my clothes is an example. Every time he burns a hole through my husband’s shirts, I call him, frothing with fury, only to hear his soothing caller tune that goes, “Om namah Shivaya”. My anger dies down. I feel guilty for planning to yell at the man who has such a divine caller tune, which perhaps is the point of his choice, and a smart strategy at that.
The priest who I am trying to reach has chosen the Tamil song, “Azhaga… Azhaga”, about the god in this temple—composed by contemporary musician Ambujam Krishna—as his caller tune. It is like choosing a Coke jingle as your caller tune if you happen to be an employee at the company—a display of corporate loyalty.
Azhagar, also called Sundara Rajan (meaning handsome king, thus reinforcing the theme in case you didn’t get it the first time), isn’t as famous as his sister, Madurai Meenakshi, whose grand 7th century temple attracts about 20,000 devotees every day—a fact that I relish both as a woman and a sibling. Devotees wait in long lines to get a glimpse of the green-hued goddess.
In contrast, Azhagar’s sprawling temple with its carved stone pillars, dance halls and spacious sanctum sanctorum is relatively vacant. There are probably 2,000 devotees in total on the day I visit. It doesn’t make sense. If the point of a pilgrimage is to commune with the divine, why not choose a less crowded and equally, if not more, ancient temple?
Some of it has to do with resonance. Different gods resonate with different people, and Hinduism with its vast pantheon of gods allows for picking and choosing. Children naturally gravitate towards Hanuman for his strength, and Krishna for his playfulness. Feminists may like the Shakti cult, which focuses on goddess worship; hence the choice to visit Meenakshi the goddess instead of Azhagar the god; and so what if they are siblings? My mother is a Devi worshipper not because she is a feminist but because she likes the maternal, nurturing, forgiving nature of female goddesses.
Some gods are chosen for you based on caste and culture. I was born into a Shaivite family that worships Shiva even though I am drawn to the aesthetics and ornamentation of Vaishnavites who worship Vishnu. If Shiva is the yogi, the saying goes, Vishnu is the “bhogi”, or the lover of good things.
The ascetic Shiva likes abhishekam or ritual baths done with water and milk. Vishnu, on the other hand, not only likes to be bathed in fragrant sandalwood paste and
other expensive unguents, he also likes alamkaram or ornamentation, with sumptuous silks, diamond crowns, gem-studded necklaces, flowers, incense, the works. He would have fitted right in with today’s metrosexuals with their love for well-cut bespoke Saville Row suits, Tom Ford perfumes and Cleverly shoes.
The good life analogy applies to the prasadam or sacred food as well. If you like to eat, you might as well make your way to a Vishnu temple, rather than the Spartan offerings of Shiva: a yogi who lives atop Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, eschewing clothes for a tiger skin; smearing himself with ash instead of perfume; and wearing a serpent around his neck in lieu of a diamond necklace.
You go to Shiva when you want to reach a higher yogic plane. The point is to give up earthly pleasures, including food and emulate his life: living off the roots and herbs of his Himalayan abode. When you live on top of Mount Kailash, how do you procure the raw materials for a feast? Of what use are sumptuous rice dishes and ghee-laden sweets when all you need is oxygen? And how do you light a lamp, let alone a cooking fire for making sacred food when you are surrounded by ice?
That said, Shiva is the rock star in the Hindu pantheon of gods, particularly the divine trinity of Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the protector and preserver; and Shiva the destroyer. Of the three, Brahma the creator is the least charismatic and has the fewest temples. Shiva and Vishnu go lock-step in terms of charisma.
Shiva exudes a raw sexuality, and not just because he is worshipped as a phallic lingam, but also because he dances the “Rudra Thandavam” or the dance of fury, holding the dead body of his wife in his arms—long story.
Vishnu, on the other hand, is the consummate performer, taking many forms or avatars to suit the time and place.
Shiva can afford to be ascetic, angry and dismissive, given that he is responsible for the tail end of the creation cycle: destruction.
Vishnu, on the other hand, maintains the order of the universe. He is like a politician and CEO, weighing the wants of multiple stakeholders; pushing and pulling the sails so that the boat tilts back and forth but never loses balance; giving his people the feeling that they are in control, yet handling the reins adroitly so that both saints and sinners get what they deserve.
Vishnu engages in diplomatic negotiation with gods and demons, but has no compunction about ruthlessly decapitating people with his discus, the Sudarshana chakra, when he needs to. Shiva can afford to walk off in a furious huff, seeing no need to “make nice” with anyone. Vishnu, on the other hand, has to take multiple avatars just to make sure that the earth is in balance.
There are temples dedicated to a few of the 10 avatars of Vishnu, with Rama and Krishna being the most famous. There are also temples for the various forms of Vishnu, where he takes on certain qualities based on myths and stories.
Thiruvananthapuram’s Padmanabhaswamy temple, believed to be India’s richest temple, is a Vishnu temple where he rests on a coiled serpent floating on the ocean of milk. Kerala’s famous Guruvayoor temple is based on a story in which the planet Guru, or Jupiter, and Vayu, the wind god, carried this idol of Vishnu to its location. Tirupati’s Balaji temple has sister shrines (or, brother shrines, in this case) in San Jose, California, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Azhagar is not an avatar of Vishnu, although one priest at the temple tells me that since the god is seen here on a horse, he represents the last of Vishnu’s avatars, known as Kalki. Legend has it that Kalki will ride in on a white horse, not as a knight in shining armour, but as a witness to the pralayam or world destruction.
My image of pralayam, gleaned, no doubt, from paintings and movies that I watched as a child, shows the earth being submerged by tsunami-like waves and scorched by forest fires—an image not that different from the bleak portrait painted by modern environmentalists who speak of glaciers in Tibet melting and submerging entire plains and valleys.
Indian mythology paints the earth as a giant rolling ball sinking into the ocean till it renews itself for the next yuga or earth cycle. Thankfully, there are several hundred centuries before this apocalypse caused either by climate change or the Kalki avatar kicks in.
If this temple houses Vishnu in the Kalki avatar, devotees ought to be thronging this place to pray for redemption and safety when the earth goes to hell. If apocalypse will strike during this earth cycle, called Kali yuga, wouldn’t you want to hedge your bets by praying to Vishnu as Kalki? I think about this as I walk around the empty corridors within the temple. Where are the pilgrims and why aren’t they here?
Some temples do better than others, because of their access, location or brand value. Some temples are the benefactors of their own success, leading to a virtuous upcycle and more devotees. The Tirupati temple, also dedicated to Vishnu, is 50 times more famous than the Azhagar temple, even though it is hard to make a case for why you should visit Vishnu in Tirupati when you can just as easily visit him on Azhagar Hill.
Pilgrimages are called “tirtha yatras” in India. The word “tirtha” connotes a sacred place, sacred water mostly—crossing a river and moving to a higher spiritual plane. Tirthas are places where you cross over to the other side physically and spiritually.
The word tirtha probably made sense because most ancient temples were located besides water bodies: lakes, rivers and the sea. The point of a pilgrimage was to show god that you had taken the trouble to visit him; to think about him. In that sense, pilgrimages, much like ritual fasting, prayers, or sacrifices, are a transaction with god. It is like saying, “I worked so hard to come all this way to see you, so you might as well do something for me, like getting me that promotion I have been working towards or finding a suitable bride for my son.”
All of which leads to the big question that really has no answer: why go on a pilgrimage at all, if god is supposed to be everywhere?
At the Azhagar temple, the lamp has been lit for the evening’s offerings. It is 6.30pm, but being July, it is still bright. The neivedhyam, or offering of food, has just been placed in front of the small, golden statue of the god. The fare looks mouthwatering. The dozen of us milling around can hardly wait to get a taste of this prasadam, or blessed food, after it is ritually offered to him. Is it bad to think of your stomach in the presence of god? How will I ever reach a higher plane if I question everything and think of food all the time?
Food becomes sacred food after it is ritually offered to god with much pomp and ceremony—after the ringing of bells and the chanting in Sanskrit. Neivedhyam becomes prasadam after it is blessed by god. The word prasadam literally means mercy or blessing.
Azhagar temple prasadam includes piquant lemon rice, bright yellow in colour and specked with black mustard seeds; tangy tamarind rice; and sweet pongal flavoured with jaggery, cashewnuts, cardamom and tonnes of ghee. But the pride of place goes to the Azhagar Kovil dosai, famed in the area for its taste. The word “dosai” is the south Indian, and correct, way to pronounce what north Indians crudely call the “dosa”. I will use both terms in this section, depending on context.
The recipe is simple and boils down to one foolproof cooking technique: the dosai (pronounced though-sigh) is deep-fried in ghee, giving it a richness and depth of flavour that no amount of healthy, low-cal cooking can replicate. Imagine a crepe or a pancake that is deep-fried in ghee. You have yourself the Azhagar Kovil dosai, except this is a savoury concoction.
Pounded white rice is ground with whole black urad dal, curry leaves, asafoetida, black pepper and salt. The resulting mixture is deep-fried in large containers. As is common in temple cuisine, all the ingredients are native to India. Whole black urad dal—vigna mungo—is an ancient bean, highly prized in India and Pakistan for its bland, nutritive properties. The two most popular breakfast dishes in south India, the idli and the dosai, are a fermented combination of dehusked urad dal and rice. The dosai at the temple doesn’t tamper with this black bean.
I visit the temple kitchen. Two women sit on the floor rolling a mound of yellow mixture that contains the infallible combination of flour, sugar and ghee into laddoo balls. Two men are deep-frying dosais that will later be sold to devotees for Rs40 a pop.
“Every temple has its specialty item,” says Chellappa, one of the cooks. “Tirupati has its laddoo. Palani has its panchamritham. Azhagar temple has its dosai. The taste comes from the water that we use. There is a spring called Noopura Gangai, which supplies all the water for this temple. It is what gives our prasadam the distinctive taste.”
The natural spring that gives this sacred food its distinctive taste is at the top of the hill, reached via a steep, wooded path. The way up is gorgeous and quiet, with ancient, arched trees; rustling wind; lots of birds and falling leaves. Close to the top, however, it gets crowded. Whoever says that Indians are unfit and unhealthy ought to visit its temples. People—old and young—bound up the hill, laughing and chatting with each other. The pull of god is greater than the creak of their joints.
At the top is a temple for Rakhayee, a tribal goddess. This spring originates from under the goddess’s sanctum sanctorum and is therefore invisible. It flows out through a hole and down the steps of this temple. Hands reach out to scoop up the water. People drink it; sprinkle it on themselves, and all over their loved ones.
There is a shallow tank that collects the water. One family dunks their naked baby into this tank, amid all the hands. Nobody bats an eyelid. This is holy water after all. It will purify everything. The baby won’t fall sick, he will only get healthier. People dunk empty Coke bottles and fill it up with the holy water to take back home. The filth all around is at odds with the supposed purity of the water.
Three women walk by in a jingle of anklets. Seems appropriate in this place. The word Noopura means anklets. It is a quintessentially Indian ornament. Necklaces belong to every culture, ranging from the ancient Greeks to the Zhou Chinese. Earrings, bracelets and hair ornaments, too, are found in many cultures. Two ornaments, however, seem to belong to India: one is the maang-tikka, worn in the parting of the hair in the middle of the forehead; the second are jingling anklets. Of the two, the anklets are still popular in India, worn by women still. The other ornament that is worn on the forehead is relegated to brides these days.
The anklets that gave the Noopura Gangai its name belong to Lord Vishnu. The story behind this natural spring shows the scale and colour of the ancient Hindu imagination. The story begins with a demon named Mahabali who wanted to conquer the three worlds. So, he conducted a grand fire sacrifice, or yajna, at the end of which he decided to give alms to a long line of Brahmins. Vishnu took on the form of a small boy. When his turn came, the demon king grandly asked, “What do you wish for? I will give you anything you desire.”
The young Brahmin boy asked for three steps of land.
The demon king laughed scornfully and said, “That’s it? That’s all you want? Why don’t you ask for more? I am the master of this universe, after all.”
The young boy insisted that all he wanted was three steps of land. You know what’s coming, right?
The king agreed. “Go ahead,” he said. “Take your three steps of land.”
Big mistake. Before his very eyes, the small boy grew taller and taller, reaching to the heavens, and then some. To infinity and then beyond. One foot covered the entire earth. He lifted his other foot upwards so that it covered the entire galaxy.
The king slowly realized that this was no small boy asking for a mere portion of land. This was the lord himself. Standing in this fashion with one foot on the ground and the other on the sky, Vishnu asked Mahabali, “Where shall I put my third step to fulfil the promise you made me?”
A suitably chastised king knelt on the ground. “Put your third foot on my head, O lord, and push my ego into the underworld,” he said.
As a child, it was thrilling to hear my grandmother recite this story when the electricity went out and there were flickering candles all around. My cousins and I would sit around my grandmother with round eyes and imagine Vishnu with one leg turned upwards to the skies like a yogi. The moral of the story, my grandmother would say at the end, is that pride comes before a fall. The arrogant king didn’t realize that the small boy would be the cause of his downfall when he grandly offered three steps of land. Figure out how to subdue the ego and all will be well, my grandmother would say, echoing the theme of many Hindu parables.
Trivikrama is a a magnificent name that means the victor of three worlds: the earth, the heavens and the netherworld. It is but one of the thousand names of Vishnu that is uttered in Vishnu Sahasranamam. Many Tamilian childhoods have as background score the recitation of these 1,000 names of Vishnu as rendered by the incomparable M.S. Subbulakshmi.
The Vishnu names I know by heart are the 12 that my grandfather used to recite while doing his evening prayer or sandhya vandanam:
1. Keshava, one with long, matted locks
2. Narayana, who gives refuge
3. Madhava, who gives knowledge
4. Govinda, who knows and cares for cows
5. Vishnave, the protector in the divine trinity
6. Madhusudhana, killer of the demon, Madhu
7. Trivikrama, who lifted his legs so he could conquer the three worlds
8. Vamana, an avatar of Vishnu
9. Shridhara, the beautiful lord of love
10. Rishikesha, master of senses
11. Padmanabha, whose navel is shaped like a lotus
12. Damodhara, one who had a cord tied around his waist as a child
Each name has a story behind it—of battles fought, demons subdued, benediction given, wisdom dispensed, compassion offered and devotees charmed. It is this Trivikrama name and attendant “form” of Vishnu that gave rise to the holy water that lends flavour to the food here.
The twist to the story has to do with Brahma, the creator who sits in the heavens spinning the wheel of life. When Vishnu’s foot reached up through the clouds into Brahma loka, or Brahma’s abode, Brahma did what any quick-witted, self-respecting god would do at the sight of a potential usurper: he made nice. He poured water as abhishekam on Vishnu’s foot.
This water eventually flowed to earth and became the rivers of India—the ancient Hindu imagination didn’t extend to Europe and the Americas, and anyway, my ancestors believed that crossing the seas was a sin and discouraged it. The water that Brahma poured over Vishnu’s feet became the holy Indian rivers: Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Narmada, Sindhu and Cauvery.
The water that washed over Vishnu’s anklets took a different path and perhaps physics will have a reason why the water impeded by heavy anklets would make their way south to Madurai and became the Noopura Gangai. Devotees believe that taking a dip in the Noopura Gangai is akin to bathing in the Ganga, or even better, the Triveni Sangam—the confluence of the holiest of India’s rivers—the Ganga, the Yamuna and the now-dead Saraswati. No wonder, people were dunking newborn babies into this water.
Although I didn’t realize it, Azhagar Hill is the site of not one but three temples. There is the Vishnu temple; the temple to Rakhayee, the tribal goddess; and a temple to Muruga called Pazhamuthir Cholai, which happens to be one of the “six battlegrounds”, of this warrior god.
Why the crowd of temples, all on one hill, I wondered.
The appropriate site for a temple, according to Sanskrit texts that deal with the subject, sounds like a real estate developer’s wet dream. Temple sites had water bodies—lakes, rivers and the like. If they didn’t have flowing water, a temple tank would be built and filled with water. Ideally, temples were built near beautiful gardens with blooming lotuses and other flowers; where animals could frolic without fear of injury; where ducks and other birds would fly freely and make patterns on the water and wind. When the nature-worshipping ancients created human-like gods, they brought their love for nature with them and chose to build temples near the best sites. The good energy and harmonious vibes of these places caused the gods to come out to play, said the texts.
Other Shilpa Shastra texts talk about the magnetic resonance of the places where ancient temples were constructed. Some say that a large square copper plate is placed beneath the garbagriha, or womb chamber, to collect the magnetic energies and disperse them to all the devotees that circle the sanctum sanctorum. Perhaps this is why my mother and aunts circle around temples: to increase their magnetism.
When I come down the hill, it is evening. A purple shamiana has been set up outside. A small gold idol riding on a silver horse has been placed on a raised platform. Some 30 priests stand in front of this idol, all bare torsoes and bobbing tufts of hair, chanting Sanskrit hymns with exacting rhythmic cadences, called chhandas or meters. A group of us devotees wait under the awning of the shamiana, listening to them and salivating from the ghee-laden smells that waft towards us.
The dosai that is offered to the lord is much bigger; about the size of a pizza. It is made in a special pan that lends itself to slow cooking. The pan is made of five metals: bronze, brass, lead, copper, gold and silver.
In 2009, a calamity occurred. The ancient pan that the temple had used for centuries broke into pieces. The priests consulted astrologers and soothsayers to try to figure out why god had destroyed the pan that gave him his daily meal. Perhaps he wanted to go on a diet, perhaps he wanted a low-fat version of his daily offering. But these were modern considerations, not something that would affect a god who had lived on such scrumptious if calorific foods for 18 centuries. Eventually, the temple cast a new pan made with five metals. It cost Rs72 lakh.
I didn’t see this special five-metal pan that is deep enough to deep-fry a large pizza-sized dosai. It is not taken out of the temple kitchen. But I did see five large dosais that held pride of place amidst the food offerings placed before a small golden image of the lord. This is the utsava murthy, or the festival idol, a miniature version of the main deity, usually made of metal and used during festival parades. The main Azhagar deity, black in colour, carved out of granite, stands over six feet tall within the sanctum sanctorum. There is no way you can move it during festivals when the god goes on a ride around town. The smaller idol outside is but a few feet tall, made of gold and mounted on a silver horse.
There are many manifestations of god within a Hindu temple—a useful thing for a devotee in a hurry. Hinduism has no problem with straightforward and fairly transactional relationships with gods. Devotees go straight to the specific gods that occupy the sub-temples around the main temple, depending on need and circumstance.
They may approach Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, to pray for the bank loan to come through quickly. They may circle the navagrahas, or nine planets, upon the advice of an astrologer, particularly if they hear that Saturn is in a bad location in their horoscope and will cause a prolonged period of bad luck when all projects fail. Propitiating the nine planets through flowers, milk, oil lamps and food offerings is a never-ending part of the weekly life of believers.
Couples may hang a tiny toy cradle on the peepul tree that houses the Naga, or snake god, so that he stops eating up the embryos that are supposed to grow in the woman’s womb, letting them conceive a baby. Still others simply duck in and do a sashtanga namaskaram—make every part of the body touch the ground—in front of the kodi maram: a flag post clad in brass, silver or gold that stands at the entrance to the inner sanctums.
Hindu temples not only house god, they are god. The figure of god makes up the architecture of the temple. The sanctum sanctorum, also called garbagriha, is the most sacred spot in the temple and denotes the godhead. The next circle is the natya mandapam or performance hall with many pillars that make up the body of the god. The entrance to the temple is the god’s feet.
As for the kodi maram or dhwaja sthambam that rises erect and vertical from the God’s body, think about it. What might this be—this erect object that rises from the body of a god? At least, this was the explanation given by one Sanskrit scholar. That may work for male gods but what about female goddesses?
The more common explanation is that the kodi maram is a flag post, connecting the earth to the heavens, and serving the more utilitarian and festive purpose of allowing flags to fly on special occasions. Some say that the large pole also serves as a lightning rod.
This flagpole is made by cutting a tall sacred tree, often teak, which has specific auspicious markings such as bark shaped like the conch that Vishnu holds, or a section of the bark that looks like the serpent that Shiva wears around his neck. The tree is cut slowly to make sure that it doesn’t touch the ground. Then comes a slow process of tempering and softening it by soaking it with oil.
Finally, the wooden flagpole is clad with beaten metal, often brass, but also silver or gold if the temple is rich. The idea is that all the gods reside in this pillar with Indra, the king of the gods on top. This is why the kodi maram is sometimes called Indra’s flagpole. By prostrating in front of Indra’s flagpole, a devotee is essentially prostrating in front of all the gods.
If the temple’s flagpole offers one quick option for the devotee in a hurry, the travelling miniature idol allows god to come to your doorstep when he or she goes for a ride around town during festivals. It is this utsava murthy who is receiving the food offerings when I visit the Azhagar temple. He is also listening to long Sanskritic words of praise: songs and poetry that pay homage to this god and this temple, considered one of the 108 divya deshams, or divine places, of Vishnu.
In a 2015 paper published in the journal, Neuro Image, a team of scientists from the Centre for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento, Italy, studied the brains of “professional Vedic Sanskrit Pandits” in India who were used to memorizing and reciting 40,000-100,000 word oral texts and discovered “massive grey matter density and cortical thickness increases”, in the brains of the Vedic priests, somewhat similar to what was seen in London taxi drivers, in previous studies. The paper, which is available online, is fascinating, not only because it describes how the Vedic priests’ brains changed, but also talked about the subjects and their training.
The typical student at a Veda-patashala, or Veda school, is almost always male, says the paper. They memorize the exact pronunciation and invariant content of the Vedas and Vedangas (sub-texts), starting as young as age eight, with 12 being the average age of the initiate.
The Vedas, identified in the study as “late bronze/early iron-age oral texts passed down for over 3,000 years in an unbroken tradition in India”, form the core of the knowledge of these young priests. Passages are memorized and practised for 8-10 hours daily for at least the first seven years.
During this time, the young Vedic students master a very specific type of recitation with exact intonation and accompanying hand gestures, totalling about 10,080 hours over the course of their initial training: certainly over the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell made famous. These oral texts are long: 40,000-100,000 words, relative to the 38,000 words in the Book of Genesis.
“We note that while the ability of Yajurveda Pandits to perform large-scale, precise oral memorization and recitation of Vedic Sanskrit texts may, prima facie, appear extraordinary or bordering on impossible, textual memorization and recitation are in standard practice in traditional Sanskrit education in India,” says the paper. “Thus, while the Pandit’s memorization capacity may appear unique to graduates of a Western educational system, it is one of several memorization-related study traditions current in the Indian subcontinent.”
Unlike China, which chooses its athletes based on body type and propensity, there is no entrance exam, nor any selection criteria that tested good memory for these young acolytes who would go on to become Sanskrit pandits. In other words, the training of these Sanskrit scholars is a triumph of nurture over nature. The young boys who populate India’s Veda-patashalas do not exhibit any specific or special genetic predisposition. They aren’t chosen because they display an innate ability to “moonwalk with Einstein”, to quote the book that talks about winning the memory championships in the US. None of the pandits in the study, for example, came from “traditional family lineages of reciters”. Their brain’s memory component became larger—physically—because of their training.
At the end of the prayer ceremony, containers of sacred food are offered to the lord with much pomp and circumstance—the ringing of bells, the loud chanting and the chasing away of the monkeys who populate the temple. Finally, the chief priest brings out the blessed food to the waiting populace.
First comes the sweet pongal. We swallow it with gusto. It is delicious, but no different from the ones we make at home. Then comes lemon rice: the same. Very good, but I could just as easily have made it myself. Tamarind rice: better than usual. Then again, this is a Vishnu temple and Vaishnavites are known for their tamarind rice.
Then comes the pièce de résistance: the dosai. The priest brings out small pieces of the dosai and distributes it to all of us. I greedily take a bite. It is unlike anything I have ever eaten, with a bite of black pepper, redolent with ghee, hearty with the girth of whole black urad dal and rice, and flavoured with green curry leaves. The cook attributes the taste to the water from the Noopura Gangai, but I cannot taste this distinct water.
After the ceremony, I approach the priest who I have been chasing all day. His name is Madhavan and he is a very busy man. Madhavan is no different from many of the priests I have encountered at temples. But over the course of the next few hours, as I interact with him, I gained new respect for the priestly class.
Sure, they size up devotees based on wealth and stature. Sure, they arrange for special passes or access to the deity in exchange for cash. But in that, they are not different from many “fixers” in other areas.
I hold priests perhaps to an uncommonly high ideal. They work uncommonly long hours, waking up at 3am to do the pre-dawn puja, and ending their day at midnight, when they put the god to bed.
For this, they get paid very little. No wonder they entreat rich devotees to give them a little something in exchange for special rituals: a commission model approach in a profession that isn’t necessarily lucrative. As I think this, I catch myself. Am I getting co-opted into the whole religious worldview? Is this search for sacred food turning me into one of those Indians whose only prism through which to view life is Hinduism and spirituality?
Of medium height and build, and exuding a pleasant disposition, Madhavan should have been an investment banker. He has the cheerful, smiling countenance of someone who has had long practice in recognizing and massaging opportunities as they come.
When I tell him that I’m a journalist, he says, “Good. Very good. May god be with you.”
Over the next hour, I find him to be unfailingly courteous. He anticipates people’s needs and delivers their wishes with an artless transparency, in the hope that his delivery of their desires will lead to good things, not just for the organization that he represents—in this case the temple—but also for him, personally.
I tell him that I want a sound bite from him; an interview if possible. He replies that he needs to do the sandhya vandhanam: the thrice daily practice that devout Brahmins are supposed to do every day. Madhavan tells me that he will return after his ritual and talk to me. He races up the stairs to what I imagine to be the priest’s office, which actually is part of the 3rd century edifice. It is 7.30pm.
Half an hour later, an assistant summons me into the room. There are ancient, carved pillars overlaid with a ceiling fan, tube light, and all the accoutrements of an office.
Madhavan has just had a bath. His long hair is tied with a towel that hangs like a low chignon on his nape. He is clad in a white dhoti and is dressing up for the evening rituals: applying the sacred chalk (thiruneeru) and red kumkum on his head but also on his arms and chest. It is both decoration and identification.
I watch him getting ready for his priestly duties. It reminds me of that line in Sex and the Cityabout a little girl “wearing her mother’s pearls”, and watching her mother get dressed up for an evening out.
Madhavan’s dressing up ritual is just as intimate, except that I am a stranger—a woman at that—watching a priest get dressed. I try to avert my eyes but am fascinated by his process. It reminds me of my maternal grandfather who adorned his head with the same design.
Although I belong to an Iyer family, which worships Shiva, my maternal grandparents belonged to Tirunellayi village (former election commissioner Tirunellayi Narayanaiyer Seshan is my mother’s first cousin), where the Brahmins had Vaishnavite proclivities. I know this because every time the priest said “Parameshwara Preethyartham”, during the homan (fire rituals), my grandfather would interject. “Say Narayana Preethyartham,” he would correct.
It wasn’t “As per Parameshwara or Shiva likes,” in our family. It was “As per Narayana likes.”
My maternal grandfather’s caste marks were a vertical white “namam” shaped like a cup, in the middle of which was a red vertical line. He had a box with all his tools: a thin stick for drawing the marks, a block of what looked like chalk, a red herbal dye for the middle red line and a sponge with which to correct stray lines. Every day, after his bath, my grandfather would sit down in front of the mirror and draw these lines on his forehead with great relish. Every day, during my summer vacation, I would sit beside him and watch.
Madhavan’s decoration-lines on his forehead were the same as my grandfather’s, only more elaborate, somewhat thicker and longer. He also streaked similar lines on his arms and chest. As he dressed up, he talked about the temple: its provenance, and the story behind its appearance and architecture. He told me about the Kalki avatar of Vishnu; about the special pan which was used to make the lord’s prasadam; and the blessed water from the Noopura Gangai that gave taste and fragrance to all that it touched.
After the interview, Madhavan insists that I have dinner at the temple.
“But I have only just eaten the prasadam,” I protest.
He will have none of it. “You have a long way to drive to Madurai,” he says. “Why don’t you have a little bite at the priests’ dining hall?”
We walk out of the priest’s office. Madhavan is mobbed by multiple parties. One group has come from Mumbai and wants special access into the sanctum sanctorum right away—at 9pm. Another group is waiting to collect the sacred food they had paid for last year. A third wants conduct a special puja for their daughter’s wedding next month. Madhavan is a whirligig.
He calls a junior priest who is walking by. “Take this group to the sanctum sanctorum right away and make sure that they have a relaxed darshan,” he commands.
He turns to the group and his tone changes into one of customer-friendly hospitality. “Please go with my boy over here,” he says. “You will be taken care of.”
He quickly arranges for the second group to get their prasadam from the temple office, and grabs an official calendar to fix a date for the special puja for the girl’s wedding, all the while making sure that I don’t slip away so that I can have dinner at the temple.
After the flurry of instructions, he runs towards the building on the other side of the temple. I follow suit.
Inside, in front of a black idol, there is dinner being prepared for the priests. Pooris are being rolled out by two men. A woman stands behind a curtain frying papads to serve with the hot bisi bele bhaath (hot-peanut-rice); there is potato curry and dal to go with the pooris, and yogurt to finish the meal.
Madhavan fusses around me, making sure that I get a banana leaf on which to eat and a cup of cold water. He instructs the lady in charge to make sure that I get a good dinner.
“Please eat. I have to go for the lord’s procession,” he says.
He yells for an assistant, who comes out riding a motorbike. Madhavan jumps on the pillion of the bike, waves at me and takes off towards the entrance of the temple where the lord is being carried out for some fresh air and village sights.
It is 9.30pm and Madhavan’s day is nowhere near over. The whole group will come back at around 11pm. The priests will have dinner together. Then they will go home, only to wake up at 3am for the next day’s prayers. Whatever you may think about their fixing and brokering, the stamina of an average priest is pretty high.
The food is piping hot and extremely flavourful. These priests eat well. The dal is made with yellow moong with just ginger and salt for flavour. The potatoes are cooked in the south Indian style—they aren’t runny. Best of all is the bisi bele bhaath with a dollop of ghee on top. I eat with relish even though I am really full.
As I walk out of the temple after the meal, I see the group in a distance going around the village. The utsava murthy is being taken out on a procession so that the lord can see his people. There’s a group walking in front, singing songs and beating drums. The priests walked to the side and behind, chanting the lord’s praises, even though it is after 11pm. How many times during the day will they do this?
The moon is high in the sky. The air smells of neem flowers and mango leaves. I am sated from the food and the conversation, ready for bed. As I drive out of the temple, I wonder when the lord is going to call it a night. I have a date to keep the next day: a date with a green-hued goddess who carries a parrot on her finger.
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