Palani’s heavenly panchamritham

Carnegie Hall has nothing on Hindu temples. I think of this as I stand inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Palani temple, waiting for the doors to open. I have visited countless temples in my life and everywhere, the routine is the same: long lines of people—call them fans or devotees—waiting for hours to get a glimpse of the object of their adoration, be it an actor, musician or, in this case, god. Different queues based on how much each ticket costs; and the wait for “show time” when the curtain opens.

The curtain, in this case, has covered the idol of the impetuous god, Muruga, who stands atop Palani hill—150m above sea level. To reach him, you have to climb 693 stone steps or take the winding “elephant footpath” through sacred groves. I try climbing up the steps at first, but switch to the elephant path to save my knees. As temples go, Palani is accessible. It is not crowded in July when I visit. The barricades that snake around the temple complex for use during Thai Poosam and Panguni Uthiram, the temple’s largest festivals, when 200,000-300,000 pilgrims congregate in Palani, are largely superfluous now.

Photo: Shoba Narayan

It is 6pm on a cool July evening. The heat of the plains far below has dissipated. A crowd waits in the sanctum sanctorum—patiently, agreeably, not just resigned to their lot, but also welcoming it as part of the religious experience. It is part of the hardship or prayatanam that devotees endure in order to reach the divine—the religious version of “Eat your broccoli or bitter gourd if you want the ice cream.”

Behind the curtain, a silhouette of the god is faintly visible. The priests are doing the raja alankaram—dressing him up as a king. An elderly man, called an oodhuvaar, is singing free-form verse in praise of the lord. It is remarkable how similar gospel music sounds across religions. The elderly male voice praises and entreats the god to shower his blessings.

Oodhuvaar is a Tamil word that doesn’t just represent singing. It has more weight than that. An oodhuvaar is someone who explains, who transports an important truth through song, who convinces, who makes people understand.

The songs that this oodhuvaar is singing are in Tamil—my mother tongue. It gives me joy to listen to the words and understand their meaning. Finally, I can relate to what my husband says when he goes into raptures over Urdu poetry. When I ask for a translation of the Urdu verses, he tries, but says that English simply doesn’t capture the nuances of Urdu. Well, the same could be said of ancient Tamil poetry—and here, for once, unlike with Hindi and Urdu verse, I understand everything.

I grew up in Chennai at a time when Hindi was banned. Then chief minister M. Karunanidhi wanted all state-school students to learn Tamil. Within a year, in middle school, I went from learning Hindi as a second language to learning Tamil—a historical fact that I resent, and that impacts me to this day, particularly when I travel to north India and am shamed by my stuttering Hindi.

There has been one unexpected benefit though. Studying Tamil literature has exposed me to the glories of Sangam Tamil verse that seduce the reader through its combination of mysticism, philosophy, eroticism, descriptions of nature and sheer poetic beauty in a way that is hard to convey to the average Urdu speaker—and if I were texting, I would put a smiley face at this point.

A lot of Tamil literature begins with “Thiru”, which is an honorific like “Mister”, or “Shri”. Thirumurugatrupadai, for example, is about Muruga and his six battlegrounds, which are the six sacred hills for Muruga. It dates back to the 2nd century. There are references to Muruga in the Tolkaappiyam, which is considered to be the oldest work of Tamil literature.

The most famous Tamil verses on Muruga come from the Thiruppugazh, literally meaning “praise of the lord”. My aunts in Chennai still go to Thiruppugazh classes and memorize its words and music. Written by Arunagirinathar, who like Saint Augustine of Hippo led a hedonistic life before converting to spirituality, Thiruppugazh flows through in an easy Tamil meter with rhythmic musical words. Every Hindu god and goddess has verses of praise. Apparently, there were 16,000 verses, of which only 1,365 have been discovered. Madurai-based Tamil scholar, S.S.M. Sundaram, knows them by heart, and visiting temples with him as I did over three days is a particular pleasure for a Tamil speaker.

Legend of the hills

Muruga is, perhaps more than other gods, linked to Tamil Nadu. He used to be popular in north India as Karthikeya, but the Middle Ages saw a gradual decline in his worship. Today, pilgrims from as far as Mauritius, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka—wherever there is a large Tamil-speaking diaspora—come to visit his aaru-padai-veedu or “six-army-houses”, depicting Muruga as a warrior-god. Palani is one of these six hill temples dedicated to Muruga.

To get to Palani, you fly to either Coimbatore or Madurai and drive for two-and-a-half hours. The Palani hills are an offshoot of the Western Ghats and form the backdrop to the Arulmigu Dhandayuthapani Swamy Temple, as this temple is called. The temple stands atop a hill called Siva-giri, meaning “Shiva’s hill”. The one beside it is called, perhaps appropriately, Shakti-giri, or Shakti’s hill.

Legend has it that the short sage Agastya, who is seen in sculptures as far away as Java in Indonesia, commanded his disciple Idumban to take two hills from the Himalayas down south. Idumban balanced the two hills on either end of a stick—which ended up being the template of the kaavadi that devotees carry for Muruga.

When he came to Palani, Idumban decided to rest his feet a bit and set down the two hills. At that time, Subramanya, as Muruga is sometimes called, appeared in front of Idumban and told him that he had claimed those hills. Idumban said, “No way.” A battle ensued. Muruga killed Idumban, whose dying wish was that anyone who carried a kaavadi and walked up to Palani should be granted whatever they wished for. Ergo, the kaavadi that thousands of pilgrims carry to this day.

At the bottom of the hill is the Shanmuga river, now overrun with water hyacinths and weeds. In its heyday, the idea was that pilgrims would bathe in this river before climbing up the hill. With its green hills and valleys, the area must have been picturesque before the 7 million pilgrims who visit Palani annually laid siege to this small town.

When I land in Coimbatore, the place of my birth, and listen to the musical cadences of its Tamil, I feel a confidence and comfort that I never do in north India. Two hours later, I am at Palani hill. Here, too, Tamil is spoken with the finesse and intrinsic politeness of the Gounder community who populate this region; their speech is as elegant and refined as Urdu. I grew up with these people and easily fall into the respectful way of speaking, so different from the brazen abrasiveness of Chennai Tamil.

Nobody is speaking inside the sanctum sanctorum. They sit or stand quietly, listening to the oodhuvaar. After about half an hour, people twitch and shift, as herds of deer do when they sense an impending event. A corpulent man appears and loosens the rope of the large temple bell. The musicians—a drummer and a nadhaswaram (sort of a south Indian oboe) player—start tuning their instruments.

The crowd stirs, recognizing that the supplementary actors have taken their positions. Suddenly, without warning, the curtain is swiftly drawn open. The crowd doesn’t go crazy exactly. It is more like a collective chant of “Muruga, Muruga”. People fold their hands into a namaste and raise it above their heads, as if to attract his eyes. They hold their palms out in supplication and to receive his grace. All eyes are on the idol, dressed as a king with a bejewelled crown and purple-and-yellow silk clothes. There are garlands of jasmine, marigold, tuberose and roses. There is the flickering light from countless oil lamps that encircle his image.

The temple bell clangs as the priests perform the aarthi. Drums beat, bells clang and the singer’s voice attempts a crescendo above it all. Unless you are used to it, the sensuality of the experience is overwhelming. The priest takes a multilevel oil lamp with flickering lights and circles it around the deity. All of us pray—for success, prosperity, peace of mind and salvation. Everyone’s eyes are glued on the lord standing deep inside. We are, at this moment, taking darshan of the deity.

In her book, Darsan: Seeing The Divine Image in India, Diana Eck, the religious studies scholar at Harvard who has authored many books on Hinduism, says that this moment, when pilgrims stand before the lord, is “the central act of Hindu worship”. It is the moment when you see and, equally important, are seen by the deity.

“Since, in the Hindu understanding, the deity is present in the image, the visual apprehension of the image is charged with religious meaning. Beholding the image is an act of worship, and through the eyes one gains the blessing of the divine,” writes Eck. Taking a darshan is like gaining audience with royalty. It happens during a fleeting moment that is charged with significance. So, devotees do what they can to gain the attention of the lord. My friend, Ranvir Shah of Chennai, told me to lift my touching palms above my head so that the lord could see me.

Although the voice in my head asks, “If the lord is omnipotent, won’t he see me without my having to do a thing?” I obediently do what Ranvir told me to do. The aarthi ends. The priest comes out to distribute vibhuti or sacred ash to the devotees. The security personnel begin their litany: “Move on, sir. Move on, lady.” The darshan ends. The moment of communing with god is gone. The line moves on—or rather, we are hustled out.

A group of devotees, clad in rich silks, are quietly led from the side to the inner room, right in front of the idol. It is clear that they have paid for this privilege. The priests are deferential. I used to get annoyed that you could pay to gain closer access to god. It irked me on many levels. Wasn’t god above such mundane transactions and bribery? Wasn’t devotion enough to get close to him? Shouldn’t he punish those who wield their wealth as a way of queue jumping? Weren’t the priests supposed to be pure and holy instead of selling access to god to the highest bidder?

Instead of trying to wrap my head around such complicated concepts, I should simply view temples as theatre, which they are, and which they do magnificently. The front row is reserved for the VIPs; then come the moneyed class that can score good seats to witness the divine; and then there is the general public.

Unlike theatre halls though, the general public doesn’t pay for entrance into Hindu temples. They just wait in queues for hours. I have tried long and hard to make my peace with the hierarchical structure of Hinduism, and indeed of all religions. Perhaps I should just bring them down from the pedestal, bring them down from the realm of the divine to the realm of the commercial, view them as a spectacle.

A spiritual spectacle

All religions perform spectacles in a way that could shame Broadway. Perhaps they were the original theatrical form. When people got bored in ancient times, they went to the mosque, church or temple not just to commune with each other and the divine, but also to get their daily dose of excitement—to witness something beautiful in a dramatic setting. The experience is multilayered and many-pronged. There is music, dance, elephants, chanting, a colourful cast of characters, and a flow of events that leads up to a highly charged moment with the opening of a curtain.

This format isn’t unique to Hinduism though. I recall visiting the shrine of Hazratbal in Srinagar during the Meraj-ul-alam festival. Thousands of devotees waited in the lawns facing the mosque—unmoving, unwavering in their faith, held in thrall by just the waiting. At the appointed hour, an imam came out on the balcony holding aloft a lock of the Prophet Mohammed’s hair. Called Moi-e-Muqaddas, this holy relic was displayed only 10 times a year. The waiting congregation chanted verses from the Quran, tears spilling down their cheeks.

No Broadway play could have achieved that effect, and all for a few minutes of display. Before a casual observer could register the import of what just happened, the imam walked back inside. The waiting crowd sagged as if a rug was pulled out from under their feet. Then they folded up the rugs on which they had been sitting. Everyone quietly dispersed from the lawns of the mosque, carrying with them a glimpse of the divine, which after all, is the purpose and signature of a religious experience.

At the Palani temple, this special glimpse of the divine happens throughout the day, but most particularly during the six pujas. It starts at dawn and ends late at night. Before each puja, the curtain is closed and the lord is dressed and decorated. At 6am, he is in his simplest form—the famed aandi-vesham, where he is clad in a simple loincloth as a monk-beggar-mendicant (the word aandi connotes all three).

In this avatar, Muruga’s big ears are visible. Devotees believe that this god with his wide-open ears will heed their prayers. Why else would he be depicted that way? At 8am, Muruga become the vedan, or hunter, who claimed the lives of fierce demons, but also the heart of the gypsy girl, Valli. And so it goes through the day, till 8.30pm, when he is divested of the flowers and ornaments of the day for the palli-paatu or the “slumber-lullaby”. The worship ends when the idol is moved to a nearby room and put to bed horizontally.

Inside the sanctum sanctorum, the worship ebbs and flows. After a while, I go out to the spacious corridors of the many praharas or mandalas that encircle the temple. Outside, I find a slim man sitting by himself. We get to talking. He name is Senthil and he is a miraz pandaram, he says, and has served at the temple for generations. Palani temple has 32 priests and 64 miraz pandarams. They work long hours and serve their god and the general public. In Palani, there is a quaint custom associated with putting the lord to bed.

“At the end of the day, the accounts are read to the lord,” says Senthil.

What does this mean? I ask him.

“Oh, we tell him things like, ‘Today, we got Rs50,000 from the sale of the Rs100 tickets; and Rs3 lakh from the sale of panchamritham.’ After all, this is his temple and he needs to know the day’s takings.”

Wouldn’t he know it already? I want to ask. A god can see—through his divine eye—the day’s accounts without having them read out to him, right? This then, is the difference between a true believer and someone like me for whom faith is still a question mark. I know believers who look at clouds and see goddesses. I look at clouds and see potential rain.

My mom is one such believer and I often have arguments with her about why it is necessary to do this elaborate act of puja that Hindus do. It involves abhishekam or ritual bathing; alankaram or decorating with flowers and jewels; and aradhanai or praying to an idol. Why make all this fuss when a simple act of meditation will do, I ask my mother? My mother calls prayer bhavana, or imagining. In her view, this play-acting—decorating the idol, putting it to bed, reading the accounts to an all-knowing god—nudges the devotee closer to an understanding of divinity.

“Do you think you are like the Buddha?” she asked me one day. “Do you think you are so evolved that you can simply sit down and realize god? The average devotee needs lots of props.”

The theatre reference again, I thought. The idol and all the actions and objects that surround it—the flowers, the decoration, the rituals and the imagining are props that help pilgrims on their path to the higher plane.

In Palani, I witness an even more dramatic act, an intense display of faith. A woman rolls around the temple, doing the anga pradakshanam or full-body circumnavigation of the temple. An older woman, presumably her mother, walks behind her. Halfway through her circumnavigation, the woman starts laughing, somewhat madly, I think. She chants Muruga’s name. “Kandanukku Haro Hara! Muruganukku Haro Hara.” Temples allow for these kinds of trance-like behaviours. What would seem weird outside seems perfectly normal in a sacred space, and particularly so for this ancient god who was worshipped by tribals centuries ago.


The Harappa connection

In a fascinating paper, epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan, who deciphered the Brahmi script and is an expert on the epigraphy of the Indus Valley civilization, links Muruga with Harappan deities. In the paper, Mahadevan says that a Harappan pictorial ideogram or inscription of two intertwined bangles was called muruku. It referred to a primitive tribal god conceived as a “demon” who possessed people and was a “wrathful killer or hunter”. The interesting thing is that the Harappan people had a “skeletal deity” with similar traits revealed through “pictorial depictions, early myths and Dravidian linguistic data”.

By linking Muruku or Murukan with the Harappans, the paper shows that Dravidian Tamils worshipped this god in the earliest mists of time. The Sanskritization of south India converted the demon Murukan into lord Murugan and made him a compassionate handsome god rather than a wrathful demon-like hunter.

He has a number of names in south India, particularly Tamil Nadu:

• Senthil: red-faced one.

• Kanda: a Tamil variation of the Sanskritic Skanda, who also happens to be the hero of Aatish Taseer’s excellent novel, The Way Things Were.

• Kumara: son, in this case, of Shiva and Parvati.

• Karthikeya: son of the Krithika sisters who raised him—long story.

• Valli-Manaala: the one who is married to Valli, a young gypsy girl, who is one of the two wives of Muruga.

• Vela: He who holds a spear or vel, using which he killed the demon Soorapadman. The story goes that the demon assumed the form of a mango tree when he knew that defeat was close. Muruga speared the tree into half. One half became a peacock, which is his vehicle or vahanam. The other half became a cock, which adorns his victory-flag.

• Vadi-vela: one who holds the spear like a stick. Palani town is full of shops with names such as Vel Medicals, Vel Batteries, Vel Condiments and my personal favourite, Vel Wines.

• Subramanya: lord of the serpents.

• Shanmukha: one with six faces.

• Saravana: one who was born from the Saravana lake. And in the current world, one who gave rise to a popular restaurant chain, Saravana Bhavan.

• Guha: one who resides in the cave of the heart.

In Palani, he is called by the rather longish name, Dhandayudhapani—the one who holds the dhandam or staff as his ayutham or weapon. This staff was used by the rishis (saints) of yore to help with their meditation—as anyone who read Amar Chitra Katha comic books as a child will recognize. The dhandam is infused with many layers of meanings. Depending on usage, it could mean punishment, a mendicant’s stick, a controlled life or the curse of a saint. The dhandam and the kamandalam, a copper pot for carrying water, were the two essential accoutrements of Indian ascetics. By imitating the guise of one with his aandi vesham, or beggar appearance, Muruga was actually making a point to his parents.

The story goes back to the Puranas and could well be the oldest example of sibling rivalry. It began with a fruit—a gnana pazham—or the fruit of knowledge. Sage Narada, the troublemaker, came to lord Shiva carrying this wonderful fruit that would give him the benefits of all knowledge. Shiva being a loving father wanted to split it in half and give one half each to his two sons, Ganesha and Muruga. Narada immediately said that cutting the fruit would reduce its impact. He also gave them an idea—a competition, if you will. The two children would circumnavigate the world. Whoever returned first would get the fruit. Immediately, Muruga climbed on his trusty steed, the peacock, and flew off. Ganesha merely walked around his two parents—Shiva and Parvati—and said that to him, they represented the world.

Carried away by this wisdom-laced flattery, Shiva immediately handed the fruit to Ganesha. When Muruga appeared a few minutes later, red-faced from the exertion of circumnavigating the world, he discovered that the fruit had been given to his quietly gleeful brother. So, Muruga did the ancient equivalent of, “It’s not fair.” Being a god, his version was more than just a childish tantrum. He climbed up a hill and refused to come down.

It took an aged woman-saint named Avvaiyaar, played superbly by K.B. Sundarambal in the film, Thiruvilaiyaadal, to pacify Muruga. She walked up the hill singing, “Pazham nee, appa. Gnana pazham nee appa.” You are the fruit. You are the fruit of knowledge of wisdom. As compliments go, calling someone the fruit of knowledge is pretty much up there. Muruga calmed down but stayed up on the hill.

The five nectars

Palani’s sacred food is the tastiest and the most famous. The minute I told people that I was going to Palani, the orders came fast and furious. My mother wanted half a kilo of panchamritham, the temple’s famed prasadam. Distant aunts and uncles who I hadn’t spoken to for months, suddenly called under the pretext of enquiring about my health. In between, they let it slip that they had heard I was planning a temple trip and that they would love some prasadam. They were so transparent in their “ask” that I wondered why they even bothered to call. My mom should have simply said that I should bring back half-a-dozen bottles to distribute to friends and family.

The website describes panchamritham as the world’s oldest jam. It’s a nifty marketing tactic, even though I cannot vouch for its authenticity. The name itself resonates with taste. Panchamrithamliterally means “the five nectars”, or ambrosia of the gods. People expect something fabulous, which, depending on your taste, panchamritham is or isn’t.

The recipe is simple and is easy to get from the temple. The five ingredients are bananas, country sugar, honey, ghee and cardamom. But like all great recipes, the taste comes from the choice of ingredients. Palani panchamritham uses three types of bananas, all of which are native and come from nearby towns and villages. They are chosen for their low water content, and are together called “hill bananas”. The sugar is also unrefined brown country sugar. The trick is in the ratio. Below is the recipe that I got from the temple authorities for one batch of the prasadam.

Bananas: 152kg

Country sugar: 288kg

Kalkandu or rock candy: 15kg

Ghee: 6kg

Honey: 2kg

The below two ingredients are add-ons to the original recipe.

Dates: 25kg

Cardamom: 0.5kg

The logic of why certain temples serve certain prasadams makes for a fascinating exercise in reimagining history. Palani is a hill temple. All the ingredients in panchamritham are found locally, says Santhana Lakshmi, a schoolteacher and local historian. The five ingredients of the panchamritham have “heating” qualities as per Indian healing systems such as ayurveda. The lord chose them because hill districts were cool and misty and his devotees would need such nutritious and heating foods in order to climb up the slopes to see him. The other logic is, of course, the widespread availability of the ingredients in the local area. Just as people climbed Everest because it was there, people may have made panchamritham with certain ingredients because they were there.

Santhana Lakshmi is an amazing Tamil speaker. For six minutes, she speaks confidently on camera, without stuttering pauses, about the history and culture of the temple. Later, she reveals that public speaking is her true calling. Tamil Nadu has a rich culture of public debate, with men and women participating in equal measure. My schoolmate Bharati Bhaskar is a celebrity because of her public speaking and debating skills, all in chaste Tamil. Santhana Lakshmi idolizes her and wants to follow the same route.

I meet Santhana Lakshmi at the temple’s panchamritham-making facility, which looks like a factory. It is a large building with clean corridors and industrial-size mixers. The raw materials—sacks of country sugar, containers of honey and ghee—are all stacked separately in different rooms. The largest room holds the stainless steel mixers. When I walked in, two men are standing aloft an electric lift and pouring the bananas into the mixer. Then comes the brown sugar, which is measured out in large stainless steel boxes. After some vigorous mixing in multiple large stainless steel containers, a brown, thoroughly mixed jam-like substance is poured from a pipe into bottles. The whole thing is automated.

Indians are in two minds about brown coloured sweets. We don’t take to them unequivocally, like Western people take to dark brown chocolate. The panchamritham’s brown colour reminds me of the Deepavali marundhu or Deepavali medicine that my grandmother used to make. To a young child, this mixture of jaggery, dried ginger, coriander seeds and other mysterious ingredients tasted pretty rotten. The panchamritham, thankfully, hides its healing qualities well.

At the other end of the metal pipe sit a bunch of women who collect the bottles of panchamrithamand screw caps on them. “There is no human touch in the whole process,” says the supervisor proudly. “The whole thing is mechanized, sanitized, and completely safe.” I’m not sure that this is a good thing but I cannot put my finger on the reason why. Sacred food as a sanitized product is difficult to wrap my head around.


A truck pulls into the large shed nearby. Three men stand on top, unloading unripe green bananas that will ripen gradually in shades of green and yellow. Six women sit on stools on the other side peeling ripe bananas. “Notice that they don’t touch the bananas,” said the supervisor. “They peel and pop the banana into the container, which goes straight into the mixer.”


Traditional preparation wasn’t this way. When my 78-year-old mother was a girl, she remembers that panchamritham was made by stamping all the ingredients together, like the barefoot grape-stomping that happens in Bordeaux and Burgundy. People used to make pledges to lord Muruga, stating that they would prepare panchamritham if he alleviated or solved a problem. They would fast for days and purify themselves. After showering and cleaning their feet thoroughly, they would put all the ingredients into a giant cauldron and proceed to mix it buy mashing it with their feet.

“We used to get scared to taste panchamritham in the old days,” said an aunt of mine in Madurai. “We didn’t want to eat something that other people had stomped on.” Perhaps this is the reason the supervisor is emphasizing the factory-made panchamritham of the current day.

The reason that this food gets its reputation for magical curative properties is not simply the mix of its ingredients. It has to do with the ancient siddha saint called Bhogar. Ancient India had three streams of indigenous medicine: ayurveda, siddha and unani. Of the three, ayurveda is the most popular. Siddha medicine originated with saints called “siddhas”, and there were 18 of them. Patanjali, who wrote the yoga sutras was one.

These saints gained tremendous powers through penance and self-control and these “siddhis”, or gifts, are still talked about by Indians today. There are eight such siddhis, known by musical names as anima-siddhi (shrink yourself), garima-siddhi (make yourself heavy), mahima-siddhi(grow large in size); travel the universe with your mind; go into another’s body; make all desires come true; attract any person or thing to you. What is the Muruga connection, you ask? Well, Muruga, through his father Shiva, was the guru of the siddhas. He taught them all these miracles. Bhogar was one of the siddhas and he lived in Palani. In fact, he created the idol of Muruga that is worshipped today.

Legend has it that Bhogar used 4,448 herbs to create nine poisons that would elevate the body to a higher plane. Not satisfied with this, he mixed the nine poisons (called nava bhashaanam in Palani) to create the one master medicine that would cure all illnesses. When these nine poisons condensed, Bhogar shaped them into an idol of Muruga and established it in Palani temple. The idea was that the milk, honey, panchamritham and other ingredients that were used to bathe this idol would absorb a little of this master medicine, which, when consumed by humans, would give health and healing.

Devotees firmly believe in this legend. Many will only consume the panchamritam that has been used for abhisheka (ritual bathing) of the lord. I too dutifully bought the abhisheka panchamritham.

I returned to Bengaluru and found myself suddenly popular with all my elder aunts and uncles. They visited me to have a taste of the panchamritham and asked if I had extra bottles to supply to them. If you haven’t tasted panchamritham, you ought to try it. As my mother said, “It tastes like heaven but is actually a healing potion. Where else will you get this combination?”

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