Friday, September 26, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues: Girivalam- Circumambulating the Mountain

(Haji Ali, Mumbai, India)

A spiritual abode of any sort cannot exist with an equally thriving material surrounding. A few months back when I was visiting Haji Ali, a peer’s shrine in Mumbai I found a series of shops selling flowers and offerings for the shrine. I was not surprised to see them for I had seen such shops in the vicinity of every shrine in India. They force the devotees buy flowers and silk cloths, along with incense sticks and camphor cubes. Folks coming from distant and remote villages spent their hard earned money on these in order to get the blessings of the gods and saints. What surprised me at Haji Ali were shops selling wrist bands, head bands, bandanas, caps and t-shirts that flaunt the red-green-yellow combination of Rastafarian colors and the images of Che Guevara. Standing there I was wondering who would be the potential consumers of such vignettes from a peer’s shrine. I tried to connect the Rastafarian colors with the Black Panther Movement, though they are not connected ideologically but are connected with the theme of blackness. Black Panther Movement had an Islamic tinge to it which later became the movements like Nation of Islam with fire brand leaders like Malcolm X at its helm. The sociological reason that I could find there in seeing a lot of Rastafarian merchandise was the class of the devotees. A lot of people from lower and lower middle class visit Haji Ali that is located at the edge of the Arabian Sea, with the path towards it getting submerged in the high tide hours. Lower middle class youth revel in their rebellion and by cultural seepage effect they get to worship icons like Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Bob Marley and even Mike Tyson. Youth reach their icons of rebellion through different ways; the rich ones via pub, discotheque and university routes and the poor from streets, slums and other subaltern routes. Bob Marley of a weed smoking college boy and Bob Marley of a slum kid are two Bob Marleys. However, merchandise of rebellion eventually takes them to the market place.

Coming out of Ramana Ashram we decide to eat some breakfast. We collect our footwear from the counter. The old men give us strange glances. I ask Shibu whether they are expecting some money from us. Shibu tells me that no monetary exchanges are entertained in the Ashram premises. Though they all look like sadhus who have renounced the world, the bond of currency notes has not yet severed by many of them. They try to tell us something in crude Tamil which we ignore and walk off. Contrasting to the scene that we have just witnessed is another scene in which we see sadhus and mendicants sitting at the gate of the Ashram and smiling at the devotees. Shibu speaks to them and promises to come back and give them alms. Right across the road there is a row of shops and one of which is a restaurant. It looks like a standard restaurant that serves the standardized food catering to all kinds of tastes. As foreigners live abundantly in Thiruvannamalai, there are restaurants that sell food items that sound foreign and taste Indian. There is a small super market, a shop with trolleys and computerized billing system; there are coffee stalls and tea stalls, and there are stalls that sell tender coconut water. We are not looking for anything other than some light dosa or vada. Manjurian food sounds to be an assault not on our taste buds but also on our consciousness. The misshapen red balls that hide its contents in the generic word Manjurian send shivers down our spines. One restaurant’s flex board advertisement invites us with all Punjabi food available on earth. Puris sit ballooned over plates and eating it would obviously cause bloating of our stomachs. So we walk a few paces towards our left to reach Sheshadri Swami Ashram where there is a canteen that serves simple breakfast.

 (Sheshadrin Ashram entrance, Thiruvannamalai)

Sheshadri Swami was a Siddha, a spiritually liberated personality who could perform wonders and even change shape and assume the guise of animals and birds. Sheshadri Swami was active in Thiruvannamalai even before Ramana came to live in the hills. It was Sheshadri Swami who had found the young Ramana inside the Viroopaksha caves and brought him out to the world. By the time Sheshadri Swami saw the young sage, Ramana, his thighs had been eaten by termites and other pests. Till the end of his life, Ramana Maharshi used to get puss filled boils on his thighs once in a year. He used to believe that the termites’ poison that had gone inside his body tried to come out periodically through these boils. But Ramana suffered the pain with equanimity and did not cause any fuss over that. He used to work in the kitchen in the early mornings, right from cleaning and chopping the vegetables to cooking them deliciously, even when he had severe pain in his thighs. A day of Ramana Maharshi started with his work in kitchen, attending the cattle, going for walk in the Arunachala hills, giving darshan to his devotees and once in a while engaging in discourses. Though Sheshadri Swami did not become as popular as Ramana Maharshi, their ashrams are adjacent to each other though the ashram of Sheshadri Swami looks more like a temple than an ashram.

At the canteen in Sheshadri Ashram we eat our first breakfast in Thiruvannamalai; dosa, vada and tea. The woman who serves the food does it with a smile on her face. She is old but agile. Another woman joins her after sometime and her face is covered with turmeric paste. She has flowers on her hair bun. She must be a married woman doing a job in the canteen. She looks at us from a distance and smiles at us. Finally she comes near us and asks whether we needed something more to eat. Thanking her we get up, wash our hands, pay our bills and walk out. We do not know then that our breakfast and sometimes lunch are also going to be from this canteen in the coming days. The road just outside the canteen is now busy. This is the same road that people take for doing Girivalam. Girivalam literally means Circumambulation of the Mountain. Giri means Mountain and Valam means going around or circumambulation. The tradition of going around the Arunchala Mountain is centuries old. Every month, on the full moon day people from nearby towns and villages come to circle the mountain. And on the Karthika Poornima day in December people from all over the world come to do Girivalam. There are people who go for Girivalam every day.

(JohnyML at the Girivalam route. Pic. Shibu Natesan)

Arunachala Mountain is said to be a dormant volcano. Legends say that this is a manifestation of Shiva in the form of a Mountain. The profile of the mountain seen from a particular angle looks like the face of Shiva. It is proven that there is a strange sense of gravitational pull around this mountain that makes it one of the haunts for sages and people driven by spiritual quest. Going around the mountain is said to give spiritual strength as well as physical strength. The total distance around the mountain is around sixteen kilometers. Ramana Maharshi used to go for Girivalam regularly, at times alone and at times with devotees who wish to do Girivalam with Ramana Maharshi. They used to cover the distance in two or three days and Ramana and his devotees used to take rest in different temples along the way. When Ramana went alone for Girivalam he took another path right at the foot of the hills which went through the forest. This route today is not taken by many people thanks to the unexpected risks involved in it including attacks by wild animals. There is another route which goes through the villages and fields at the foot of the mountain and this route is also not preferred thanks to the lack of road facilities. The outer road that circumambulates the mountain is taken care of by the state government’s Public Works Department and is maintained more or less in a good condition. During the full moon days and Karthika deepam day, the state authorities ban vehicular traffic on this road and let the road be taken over by the devotees who run into lakhs and way side merchants who make a good business on these days.

The day we reach Thiruvannamalai is neither a full moon day nor a Karthika Deepam Day. However, we decide to go for Girivalam. Shibu, though he has done it several times before, does not know the actual distance. What he could tell me is that it is quite a long distance. But he assures me that we could walk slowly, take rest in between and finish it if we feel like or we could walk back to our resting place. We turn to our right and hit the road. The weather is pleasant as it has been raining for some days. Cool breeze wafts by and we feel refreshed after the breakfast. As we walk on, we see a lot of mendicants walking towards the Ramana Ashram. They are on their way to the ashram because they want to assure their place in the queue for lunch. They do not seem to be interested in begging. What do they do after they have enough food? They relax, says Shibu. They sit and see the world goes by. They do not have assignments to finish, jobs to do, tasks to complete, broken relationships to mend, thoughts to think. They are happy in their nothingness. After food they spend their time sleeping or chatting. They all have found their small little places of dwelling under the trees or abandoned temples or inns. Could there be any Malayali mendicants here? There could be, says Shibu. As the mendicants look alike one cannot discern their regional status. In between we see a lot of new age Sadhus, neatly dressed in saffron or white clothes, tastefully drawn religious marks on their foreheads and jute bags filled with books or fruits hurrying towards the ashram. They must be worrying a lot about their looks, it seems. They try hard to appear as spiritual beings. We walk past them and suddenly I see someone who looks like a Malayali sitting on bench in front of a wayside teashop, sipping tea and in deep thought. Later we come to know that it is Ganesh Babu, an artist who has shifted to Thiruvannamalai from Kochi.

(Durvasa Temple, Thiruvannamalai )

We have not yet got the rhythm of walking. We negotiate between us whether to walk by the right side of the road or by the left side. Finally we decide to go to the right side. As we walk further we reach a tea stall with a few people hanging out in front of it. Suddenly someone calls out to Shibu from the tea stall. It is a woman’s voice and the owner of the voice turns out to be Gayatri Gamuz, a Spanish artist living in Thiruvannamalai. She beckons us inside and she is seen sitting with her brother who is also a temporary resident of this holy place. As they catch up with the good old days, I find it a bit strange as Gayatri seems to have some reluctance to talk to me directly. Her words to me are formal and she is more focused on Shibu. I find it strange. Gayatri has been a good friend of mine and I had even written her catalogue for one of her solo exhibitions. But I tell myself not to worry about such a small issue. Has Thiruvannamalai started working on me? I do not think so. Gayatri’s deliberate aversion towards me is a gnawing issue for a while but I decide not to address it. They speak on for a while, as I stare at the road vacantly and sip hot tea given to me by the tea maker. After sometime, Gayatri and her brother take our leave. We stay there for some more time and drink one more round of tea. Later as we walk on we get our rhythm. We talk and walk and click a few pictures here and there. I pose before a gate made in the form of a gaping lion that leads to a public pond which lies dried now. Almost after a kilometer we see a forking road and we take the right turn. Girivalam officially starts at this junction as we find the pavements are laid well with interlocking tiles. As we step on it we feel good.

We are now on our left side. It is said that all the people who go for Girivalam should walk on the left side of the road. They say that right side is reserved for Siddhas and invisible beings. If you walk closer to the hill by the right side of the road you will be disturbing the passage of the invisible beings. As Girivalam is undertaken from left to right, people hardly take the same road to come back. But it is also a public road so one cannot insist that everyone should walk on the left pavement. People walk by the right pavement also but they are not devotees nor are they doing Girivalam. They are minding their daily business of going to the work place or fields. Once we are on the left side pavement, we see a number of mendicants sitting along it. They say hello to us. Some of them speaking in Tamil and many speak in Hindi and a few of them speaking in English. An emaciated mendicant with a beaming face speaks to us and asks us to stand at a particular place and look at the Arunachala mountain from that perspective. Can’t you see Shiva’s face? He asks. Yes, we can, we tell him. Mountains are like clouds; you mention an image and look at the hills or mountains or clouds, they start looking like that. I remember showing Shibu, Tagore in the clouds gathered at the western horizon, from a hill top. We walk on. Many of the mendicants here expect alms from us. Some plead. Old women wearing saffron clothes literally beg and it fills us with a lot of pain. We give some money to them and walk on.

 (JohnyML at Girivalam route, near Durvasa temple, Pic Shibu Natesan)

Along the way, we see women at the pavement selling some kind of a yellow ritual thread. They tell us in the universal language of wayside hawkers that buying the thread would bring us great blessings. We do not know what to do with the thread. Also we see women tying a very thin yellow thread around small coconuts. These are rituals offerings and materials for worship, we know. We do not know what particular wishes will be fulfilled if we tie them wherever it is supposed to be tied. After a couple of kilometers, we reach a small temple. It is Durvasa Temple, Shibu tells me. Shibu has already told me about his rendezvous with a fierce looking priest in his last visit in the same temple. He exactly looked like Durvasa, Shibu tells me with a chuckle. I look for the same priest here but he does not look anything like that fearful sage from the myths.

Durvasa is a wandering sage referred in many places in epics like Mahabharata. He is well known and revered for his short temper. With tremendous powers gained by painful penances, Durvasa moves around the land solving problems of the kings and commoners alike. One day he visits Kanva Maharshi’s ashram. He sees a young lady sitting there lost completely in day dreaming. She does not show him customary respect as she is completely unaware of his arrival. In fact, her name is Shakuntala, the daughter of the celestial nymph, Menaka. Shakuntala is in love with Dushyanta, a very valiant king. Pregnant with Dushyanta’s son and the romantic thoughts about her lover, Shakuntala does not know the presence of Durvasa at all. He gets into a rage and curses her. Whosoever’s thought she was lost in, he would forget her and would refuse to recognize her. Hearing the curse, Shakuntala wakes up and pleads for mercy. Finally he says that he cannot take the curse back. But there is a remedy. He would remember her if she shows him some kind of a stamp of love. This is a pivotal moment in the making of Bharat, India. Dushyanta forgets Shakuntala and abandons her. When he finds his wedding ring inside the mouth of a fish, he remembers everything and regrets. Finally they are all reunited. This is the crux of Abhigyana Shakuntalam by Kalidasa. And Durvasa is famous for his role in ruining Shakuntala’s life, at least for a few years.

(Entrance of Adi Annamalai temple)

There are hardly any temples for Durvasa in the land of sages and sanyasis. This is one of the rare temples though it is nondescript and too small to be noticed. However, people from the neighborhood come in groups and do worship at this temple. What I notice here is a tree with its branches fully covered with the yellow thread that I have seen with the women vendors along the road. I do not have anybody to ask about the rituals. Why should one tie this thread at the branches of this tree? What good one would get if he/she does so? Somehow I come to a conclusion, as I see a lot of young women tying this yellow thread around the tree, that they all must be seeking the blessing of this raging sage for not hampering their lives by making their men forget them for any reason. Durvasa is supposed to be khipra kopi (short tempered) and kshipra prasadi (easy to please). So tying of these threads must keep him pleased. We spend some time near this temple. Sitting at wayside bench we give rest to our tired feet and watch the village folk thronging around the temple and then packing themselves on an open truck without any complaints.

We reach Adi Annamalai. It is a pivotal point as far as Thiruvannamali is concerned. Before the Thiruvannamalai temple was built in 10th century, this was the first temple therefore it is called Adi Annamalai, the original Annamalai. It is a very laid down village and the junction has a few tea shops and sweet shops. A common tap at the right side of the road provides the village with drinking water. Old women sit around it and wash their clothes and talk to each other. Elders come around and sit at the tea shops. Weary foreigners also come here to have their regular tea and silent chats with the local people. We drink tea from one of the shops and make a few acquaintances there. Promising them that we would come back tomorrow to do more chats, sketching and photography, we continue our walking. Adi Annamalai is a halfway point. We have to finish another ten more kilometres to complete our first day’s Girivalam. As we walk on sun light becomes sharp. We see serious devotees walking without footwear. We see people doing salutations to sun. One girl walks against us and suddenly she stops there at looks at Arunchala Mountain. Then with studied ease she bends and touches both her palms on the floor. For a moment we are wonderstruck. We slow down our pace and wait to see what she would do next. She does not do anything else. Standing there bending like that for a few seconds she comes back to her normal vertical position and says a prayer to the rising sun. And without any fuss she walks off. We almost feel that she did that feat to show off her skills in yoga. My legs pain as the footwear I have on are not good for long distance walking. We decide to buy another pair of light walking slippers. A further right turn will take us to the city side of Girivalam. Now the sunlight has become strong.

 (Google map of Girivalam)

As we take a turn towards right, loudspeakers permanently installed at the pavement play out Shiva chants. Definitely, hearing such chanting makes someone calm down. But my focus is on my aching legs. I could feel my legs as two heavy appendages fitted to my body which I am supposed to haul further. A few more kilometers. We enter the city. We could see one of the four gopurams of the Annamalai temple. Generally people go to the temple after Girivalam. It is the beginning and ending point for many. But seeing the crowd and considering the tiredness we decide to walk ahead further and reach Ramana Ashram. After walking for more than ten kilometers we are hungry again. From a comparatively neat shop we eat idli and vada. Once we are back at Arthur Osborne’s house, it is already twelve o clock in the noon. We take turn to take bath. Then we lie down on the swinging cot. Shibu tells me some stories. I listen to it as if I were hearing a lullaby. Has this Girivalam done any good to me? Have I changed a bit? I do not have the energy or mind to think about it. What I know is the growing pain at my feet. It eats me up. I sink in it. And the pain becomes a pool of darkness. Shibu has already slept. The cot swings slowly. The ancient fan up there makes a light humming noise. Between the pain in my legs and the noise of the fan, the bed swings me to a different zone where I meet my sleep, which has been evading me all this while. I embrace it and then I cease to exist. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues: Monkeys in the Ramana Ashram

(Gate of Ramana Ashram)

Bare soles touch the earth of Ramana Ashram. Pilgrimages demand bare souls and bare soles. I think of Maria, the protagonist of Paulo Coelho’s novel, Eleven Minutes, which I had translated a few years before. Maria is a young woman from Rio in Brazil. Ambitious, vivacious and deeply thoughtful she makes her journey to Switzerland only to become a sex worker. She undergoes several experiences, both good and bad, memorable and despicable, but she still holds on to the life of a sex worker thinking that one day she could go back to Brazil, buy a farmland, build a house for her parents and live a happy life forever. Caught in too many developments on which she has no any control Maria becomes friendly to a businessman who comes from Britain to perform all his fantasies on her. He tortures her and at some point she experiences a sort of spiritual ecstasy. Another artist who also befriends Maria however only needs her friendship. She craves his physical intimacy which he refuses to give her. One day he takes her to a frozen riverside and asks her to walk barefoot on the rough pebbles. She obeys him and while walking barefoot, her soles are bruised and as she braces on she feels the same spiritual ecstasy that the businessman had given to her through physical torture meant to eke out carnal pleasures. Barefoot walking is a pre-requisite of all pilgrimages. Baring of the soul is the result of such walking. One has to be receptive, one has to be tolerant and one has to have the ability undergo pain.

One of the prime demands of culture is detachment from nature. First step towards this detachment is wearing clothes. And the next step is wearing footwear. We feel a chill passing through our spines when we see men and women walking barefoot. Their soles are rough, heels cracked like parched earth and toes crooked. We turn our eyes away and feel, how abominable they are. We have learnt to keep our feet beautiful. Pedicure is an industry today. But when you are on a pilgrimage you are asked to walk barefoot. It is a call to feel mother earth. It is a way to return to your original nature. You are not born with a pair of comfortable shoes. When you go for a pilgrimage, you in fact walk towards the origins. It is like viewing our lives in reverse order. We all walk back, slowly and one by one the burdens that we have accumulated wear off. We become light. Removing footwear is one of the first steps towards a pilgrimage. As I hand over my footwear to the old men inside the counter, I am reminded of one of the incidents from my youthful days. I had gone to Papanasam seashore at Varkala. Papa Nasam means annihilation of sins. At Papanasam seashore, on a particular day in a year people from all the nearby towns and villages gather in order to do ‘bali’, a ritual offering to the departed souls. Priests recite mantras and hand over rice balls to us. We are supposed to remember our dead and gone forefathers and mothers and keep these rice balls on the plantain leaves. Fat black crows descend on them and gorge on those rice balls. These crows are the spirits and souls of our ancestors. I had never believed in all those things. Some fifteen years before, due to familial pressure I had to go for bali at Papanasam. We were not supposed to wear footwear. We removed our shoes almost half a kilometre away from the seashore and started walking. I found it immensely painful to walk as small stones started poking into my soles. Throughout the walk I had been continuously reminded of my father by the small little stones piercing into my inexperienced soles.

(Old tree at the entrance)

At Ramana Ashram in Thiruvannamalai, like in any other holy place in India, people walk barefoot. The earth is soft here and it does not hurt that much. However, I place my feet carefully and I repeatedly tell myself that I do not want to get hurt by earth. Before we enter into the premises, at the gate itself, Shibu speaks to the old mendicants and beggars sitting there. They seem to be familiar with Shibu as he asks personal questions. The beggars do not demand money, instead they with a familiar smile on their faces exchange pleasantries with Shibu. He tells them that he would come back in a while, that means he would come back and give some money to them. They are all happy listening to his words. Day is still young but the Ashram premise is full of people. When I say full of people it is not in the same way we see in other commercial religious places.  There is no urgency in anybody and nobody seems to be walking in hurry. Yet, they all seem to have some purpose to their visit. They all look pious and silent. Nobody shouts and no exhorting calls are heard. But I am not too impressed because I have experienced such lack of urgency amongst people in some other holy places too. Abandoned and less frequented holy places are such heavens on earth where a different time scale is followed. Such places always attract me and Shibu. Perhaps, it is just a beginning for us to go to all those places and forget ourselves. At that moment, the sceptic in me just wakes up and asks, are you succumbing to the illusion of silence. I smile at myself and press on with Shibu.

On our right there is a huge tree around which mendicants wait in silence. They hardly speak to each other but I am sure they are not contemplating any philosophical issues of life. But their tranquillity cannot go unnoticed. Reading my mind Shibu tells me that they are all waiting for their ‘food’ to come. Beggars and mendicants in Thiruvannamalai come to Ramana Ashram to eat their free lunch. Ashram kitchen, apart from providing food for the inmates and registered visitors, liberally provide food to the mendicants who silently stand in a queue without making any ruckus. Ashram inmates and other volunteering devotees serve the food to these people. One need not become a beggar to get food from Ashram. You could simply stand there and get your food. What do you need, Shibu asks me. These beggars are not driven by greed; they are sages in their own ways. They do not collect money. They get food and they sleep somewhere in the abandoned shrines along the road. They do not fight for a specific place on the pavement. They are regulars and the regular devotees even know them by names or by faces. It seems to be true as many mendicants say greetings to Shibu and he makes small talk with them. Begging is a part of the spiritual realization, I remind myself. Ramana Maharshi also had begged and his disciples also used to beg around the villages. Buddha and his disciples used to beg. Begging makes people leave their intentions to gather. When one stops gathering anything in life, one becomes free, free of greed and avarice. Whatever is given to the mendicant by the grahastis, family people, they are supposed to take without complaint. Great sages like Sree Narayana Guru too used to receive food from people who ate stale food or non-vegetarian food. Though sages are vegetarians, the great ones like Ramana and Narayana do not deny whatever food offered to them when they beg for it. It is not because beggars do not have a choice but because the giver has only that to spare at that given point of time. There are numerous examples of sages and kings receiving food from the lowly people that include Rama receiving food from Sabari, the tribal woman. Buddha had received milk from a shepherdess. Paulo Coelho in his autobiography writes about him standing by the wayside with open hands and people giving him alms. To receive you need to be empty; to be empty you need to be devoid of ego. When you are filled with you and when you are not ready to surrender, extending hands to receive help becomes a difficult task. The egoless could give and take help without attaching worldly values to it. What I witness here at Ramana Ashram is that; egoless waiting for food.

 (Monkeys at Ramana Ashram, Pic by J Jayaraman)

As we move forward we come to a set of three or four steps and on our right we see the bookstall and administration wing. Both Indians and foreigners move in white clothes or less flashy clothes. The book stall is filled with books on and by Ramana Maharshi. Shibu introduces me to several books that I have not even heard of before. Who am I? is one of the best-seller books in Ramana Ashram book stall. That contains the crux of Ramana’s teachings. It is available in most of the Indian languages and foreign languages. Shibu shows me the books written by Arthur Osborne and also by Paul Brunton, whose three chapters on Ramana Maharshi had made the sage a rage in the western world. The book shop has CDs of Arunachala Chant, a hundred odd verses in praise of Shiva manifested as fire in the Arunachala mountain, by Ramana Maharshi himself. This chant is sung every evening at the Ramana Samadhi, the tomb of Ramana in the Ashram by the trustees, inmates and devotees. Apart from a huge collection of books all published by Ramana Ashram itself, it also has merchandises like posters, photos, audio and video CDs on Ramana Maharshi, lockets, incenses, incense sticks, bags and so on. Shibu tells me that though so many short films had been made on Ramana Maharshi, none had recorded his voice. He also informs me that the sage was in some way reluctant to record his voice. Merchandise, I think, is a part of any holy places. People want to carry some memories of their visit to these places. So they buy things related to the place. Here, Ramana Ashram is not different, though it sells more of Ramana literature. Bookshops and libraries sooth me so I find it absolutely comfortable there but Shibu tells me that we need to take a look at the Ashram. He is more like a guide to me here and he seems to have a secret intention to reveal some magical experiences which I consciously refuse to accept.
As we come out to the open courtyard that leads further to the Maha Samadhi of Ramana’s mother and Ramana himself, we are received by a host of simians playing around in families. These monkeys are everywhere and they seem to be too friendly with the people who come there. Most of the time they mind their own business, either by playing around or by sitting idle. There are a number of infant monkeys with them and watching them is a delight. We sit on a raised platform that forms the plinth of the Mother’s Samadhi and watch these monkeys play. They come around and peer into the bags of the people. Some of them get bolder and forcefully tries to open the bags. Amused people do not chide them but speak to them in caring words, as if they are speaking to their own children. Monkeys listen and turn away and go; they immediately forget that they have been conversing with human beings. Once they are back in their pack they engage in various activities that we generally call, leela, play. They play and sometimes they do something that is quite unsuitable and unworthy to the Ashram’s sanctity. They seem to be in an eternal quest for love making. At regular intervals male monkeys climb on the female monkeys and make the obscene act. It is obscene only because we are sitting in a place where obscenities are not supposed to occur even remotely in our minds. Or many be we are basically obscene people who see obscenities in anything and everything. So, even the innocent natural act of these monkeys looks so obscene to our obscene minds. But nobody seems to mind. Tired and starved (self-imposed starvation, I am sure) foreigners look at them compassionately and smile. With careful slowness they all walk further, leaving us at the raised platform. We will come later and start sketching, Shibu tells me. You may read something while I sketch, he adds. I nod my head in agreement. But I do not know what I am going to do when he would be sketching. Am I going to write something? That will be too much, him sketching, me writing. It might sound ideal but might look hilarious. So I push that thought out of my mind.

(Main shrine at Ramana Ashram)

It is time for us to move further. On our left we have Sage Ramana’s mother’s tomb and a Shiva temple built around it. A granite structure that looks so ancient is however comparatively new. Ramana Ashram is established here mainly because of this mother’s tomb.  As a young boy Ramana had left his home and come to Thiruvannamalai (more about it in another chapter). He first went to the premises of the thousand years old Thiruvannamalai temple. Initially temple people thought that he was mad. But the radiance of that teenager’s face was so strong that they were drawn to him. After a year or two he migrated to the Arunachala mountain and went into a deep meditation inside Viroopaksha cave. As he sat there immobile for many months his body started getting eaten up by termites and moths. Sheshadri Swami, another Siddha who was living in Thiruvannamalai found him out and brought him to light. From there Ramana went to Skandashramam, another cave abode further up in the mountain and made it his place of meditation. Knowing about her son’s whereabouts Ramana’s mother came and started serving him. As she grew older and fell ill, it became imperative for the disciples of Ramana to bring her down to the foot hill where the Ashram is located now, for medical purposes. Though Ramana did not shift to this place, when his mother passed away and was put into Samadhi, Ramana too decided to come down the hills and decided to live there. A temple was built around the mother’s Samadhi later.

The temple is with high ceiling and carved pillars. There is a deep silence in the chamber. I train my eyes to see the innards of it and I find a few large windows. I see people sitting in silence and in meditative posture at these windows. Darkness and silence in there is accentuated by the old granite stones which are used for building it. There is a door at the right side from the inner sanctum of the chamber that crosses over to the Ramana Samadhi, the tomb of Ramana Maharshi. It is a very huge hall which could accommodate around thousand people. It has large doors and huge windows at one side. Right at the end from where we emerge through the door from the temple’s sanctum, we see a huge platform on which a golden life size idol of Ramana is installed. We see people sitting along the walls like beads in a golden chain and some people right in the middle of the hall like suspended particles in a strange universe. They all sit erect with their spines straight, a feat I feel difficult for me to emulate. They all are in deep silence and seem to be in the quest of asking who am I? Many are walking around the Samadhi of Ramana Maharshi. Shibu whispers to me that we too walk around. We start our walk and I see the photographs of Ramana in his many moments around the sanctum sanctorum. Go round and round. It is a symbolic act of going round the Arunachala mountain that Ramana used to perform every week. We are also going to be doing it very soon. We walk around and Shibu seems to have already gone into a different zone. I walk, thoughts coming up like waves in a sea in my mind. What am I doing here? Are these people who sitting around successful in stopping there thought process? Who am I? Is that I the I that feels emotions, thinks the thoughts? Is that I the I who struggles to identity with the thoughts or body? I am not going to waste my time thinking of it all. But the place is soothing and comforting. I like silence and any place that gives me silence is good.

 (Peacock at Ramana Ashram)

Shall we go? Shibu asks me with his eyes. I nod again. I am here to obey his wishes because he has brought me here. At times it is good to let things be taken care of. If we think that we are the authorities of our lives, we are not going to go anywhere because the world is created with the energy of the people who live here and who have lived here. Every living thing in the world emanates energy into the world. Even the inanimate things are filled with energy. So the world is a constant flux of different energy levels. If we need to do anything in this world, either we need to surpass this energy or we need to come to terms with this energy. However we try, if we are in a collision course with this energy, we are not going to go anywhere. So I follow Shibu. He takes me to the next spot in the Ashram premises. As we come out, something above our heads flap. There is sharp cackling sound. We look up. There at the white cemented railing on the terrace we see a peacock in his regalia. He proudly shows off his beauty to the visiting public. Everyone’s eyes are turned to the bird. Nay, they all have fished their mobile phones and cameras out. They are now taking pictures. They seem to have forgotten to use their eyes and brains. They want to process anything that they see around through digital images. This is digital meditation. Happiness through digital images. I click therefore I am. Shibu has a camera in his bag. I do not have a camera. But I have a mobile phone which allows me only to make and receive phone calls. It has a camera but I do not take any pictures with it. I do not take pictures with it because I cannot download it anywhere. As I do not download I cannot show it to anybody else. When I do not share an image then it is not an image. How liberal the world has become. It thrives on sharing. Detached sharing. Has the world achieved that the sages have been trying to achieve; dispassionate sharing? My thoughts go haywire.

This is where Ramana Maharshi lived, Shibu tells me. I find myself standing beside him at a humble room, standing like an oasis in the middle of the land around. It is not accessible and could be seen through a netted door. I peep in and see a small divan, a walking stick and a few humble accessories. Sages do not need so many things and Ramana was a sage. The room is very narrow and has two windows at the front. We stand there in silence. May be I have a few rooms like this; at Sabarmati Gandhiji’s room. At Pondicherry, Aruobindo’s room. At Sivagiri, Sree Narayana’s room. One day my room? I am becoming ambitious here, I scold myself. This is Ramana’s brother’s Samadhi and this is one of his disciples, Shibu tells me. Now we are at the right end of Ramana’s room. There we see two small shrines dedicated to Ramana’s brother and a disciple. As we walk on from there we see the dormitory for inmates. At its courtyard we see a white peacock. It is alone. Devoid of colours it feels like a soul amongst the worldly people. This peacock’s ancestor was gifted to the Ashram by some queen, Shibu tells me (or King, I do not remember). And without a mate, it seems to be utterly alone while the other peacocks and peahens, like the monkeys occasionally engage in love pranks.

 (Lone white peacock at Ramana Ashram)

Out there at the left side of the courtyard, adjacent to the Ramana Samadhi cum prayer hall, there is series of water taps from which both the human beings and monkeys drink water. There are monkeys who cleverly open the pipe, drink water and then close it and go. They have learnt it in the natural way. And when they are thirsty they do not look for dirty puddles. Instead they come straight to the tap and drink water. Between the taps and a building that is the dining room cum kitchen there is a narrow corridor that goes down to an inner courtyard. We pass through that and reach an opening which in fact also is a vestibule sort of place opens to the Samadhi prayer hall. Amidst of this vestibule there is well which must have been the main source of water before proper water supply came to the premises. Even today to Viroopaksha cave and Skandashram water is drawn from huge ponds or wells down the hills and devotees carry it all the way up. At the other end of the inner courtyard there is modest rectangular building which Shibu tells me as the Old Prayer Hall. It was where Ramana Maharshi used to sit in meditation and all the devotees coming from all over the world waited in prayer for the sage to speak to them. We go there and peep through the netted door. From the darkness I could see ghostlike forms emerging and I find that a few people sit in utter stillness and silence. Shibu whispers that we would come later to go inside. Curbing the urge to go inside and to know what is the inside like, I turn away from there and walk with Shibu to see further. Along the dining hall, there is another courtyard and on the left side of it there is a humble residency complex, where Shibu tells me that some senior administrators, inmates, devotees and doctors stay. Just outside of it, along a wall there are three small tombs which are interestingly not of human beings. Ramana Maharshi used to love crows, dogs and cows. One of the cows, Lakshmi was very close to Ramana and she was taken to be the incarnation of one devotee who used to look after Ramana Maharshi. After her death, Lakshmi, the cow was buried there and a tomb was built on it. Next to it are two tombs, one for Jackie the dog and a crow. People pay their tributes to these animals’ memories too.

Walking from there further up we reach the boundary wall of the Ashram. There is a small gate built into it. It was the entry as well as exist point to the mountain. Maharshi used to go for his mountain walks through this path. The gate came much later. Crossing it, if we walk further up towards the mountain we will reach Skandashramam and then further down Viroopaksha Cave. We decide to make the trip to these places later. We turn to right and steps into a new building which now houses the library of Ramana Ashram. It is nine o clock in the morning only and the library is not yet opened. We peep though the glass door and find an empty circular space. How could there be a library with no books, I ask myself. We enquire about it and someone informs us that the library has been shifted to the first floor of the building. There too we decide to pay a visit later. Coming down from the library we once again come to the main courtyard of the Ashram. The inflow of people has thickened by now. We feel a sudden rush of hunger. It is time to have some breakfast. We come out of the Ashram. The beggars and mendicants are still there. Shibu tells them that he is going to be there for some days. That is a cue; they get it. This man is going to give us some alms one of these days. What do you feel? Shibu asks me. I am hungry, I say. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues- Living in the History House

(Vakkom Palazzo, a five star hotel in my village, Vakkom)

‘Hotel Thiruvannamalai’- while big hotels have their recognizable brand names, the most inconspicuous lodges in dingy alleys have all the fancy names in the world. In my small village Vakkom, I have seen ‘Vakkom Palazzo’, one huge five star hotel near Panayil Kadavu, making people as well as itself wonder why it is there. Vakkom is not a tourist village. Vakkom Palazzo is built with the intention of attracting tourists from Trivandrum, Varkala and other nearby towns where tourism has been developing slowly. The owners of the hotel, I am told, thought that they would get bar license and liquor could be one of the biggest attractions for the patrons. Unfortunately, at least for the investors of this hotel, the Government of Kerala started taking stringent actions against bars and limited the allotment of bar license to new hotels. To make matters worse, the government also started contemplating a blanket ban on liquor in the state. Today Vakkom Palazzo stands like an anachronism in our village. Sometimes, when I pass by that way I smile unto myself thinking that the hotel is built for giving job to a lonely security man in his stylish uniform. People at Vakkom speak about this hotel with reverence tinged with something that moves between irony and sarcasm. Anybody visits their relatives at Vakkom, they are religiously asked whether they have gone to see the hotel. Now seeing the hotel from outside itself is an attraction for many people. Also the village folk call it differently; for some it is Vakkom Palazzo, for some others it is Vakkom Plaza, yet another group calls it Vakkom Palace and some simply refer it as Plazzo. However, you look at the sign boards of the lodges in any of the tourist centers, you may find names like ‘Taj View’, ‘Lake Side’ and so on often referring to the famous monument or place in their vicinity. Recently in South Delhi, in one of the rundown alley ways I found a cheap restaurant with a name ‘Bon Vivanta’!

Hotel Thiruvannamalai, however is neither a five star one nor a very cheap seedy one. It is right opposite to Ramana Ashram and the reason for its nomenclature is logical and understandable. Haunted often by the backpackers, the building looks more like an unplanned residence block rather than a designer hotel. In front of it a man sits reading a Tamil newspaper. His Enfield Bullet motor bike is propped on its stand and it reminds me of a villager sitting on a charpoy in a North Indian village, sipping his morning tea, with a buffalo munching away the cuds nearby for company. Shibu Natesan as he is inclined to many things including Enfield Bullets, HMT watches and Maruti Gypsy, makes a small talk with the person who neither shows overfriendliness nor outright disinterestedness. Apparently, Shibu had stayed here before and he is a good bargainer for rates. But, seasoned in handling such enthusiastic patrons, the man in front of the hotel gives us a half smile. I peer into the hotel and find that the reception is right inside but almost under a flight of steps that go up. It looks like the man has extended his reception desk to the streets so that he could have fresh air, great morning sunlight, his favorite newspaper and a philosophical disinterestedness for the worldly affairs. Though detached he is, almost replicating the philosophy of Indian sages who ask everyone to be detached from the material world, when it comes to money he seems to be too attached to make any departure from the proven materialism. Shibu struggles with his Tamil and enthuses him with some comments on his Enfield Bullet. Unrelenting the man is, he sticks to his price but asks one of his assistants to lead us to a first floor room. Now Shibu seems to have a choice to make. He has stayed in some other room in the same premises and he wants it now also. The man tells him that it is already occupied. But like any other Indian artist who has developed certain peculiar traits in due course of becoming rich, Shibu also has got certain peculiar traits. Despite his repeated pleas the man does not give us the room Shibu wants. Finally we settle in the room that the man has chosen to allot us.

(Abul Kalam Azad, photography artist)

The room is not so big though it could accommodate two people. We look at each other and keep our backpacks down. Slowly, the room accepts us and more importantly we accept our room. Once the mutual comfort level is established between us and the room, we start planning our day. It is just seven thirty in the morning and we exclaim how convenient it is to travel by road at night and reach Thiruvannamalai early morning and save a full day for ourselves. We mark it as an important point for future use. While I go into the bathroom, Shibu goes down to give some advance money at the reception desk and also to ensure that we get his favorite room by next morning. After taking bath we spread out ourselves on the bed looking at the vacant ceiling and bare walls with a sense of resignation. But we are happy for we do not feel any fatigue. We think of several things including going for a cup of tea. Suddenly Shibu’s mobile phone rings. It is Abul Kalam Azad at the other end. Abul has been in living in Thiruvannamali for the last three years and he has contributed immensely in making Thiruvannamalai famous among the Indian artists. He leads the Ekalokam Trust Photography (ETP) at Thiruvannamalai and also runs a small gallery called ‘Kalai Illam’ there. Small scale solo exhibitions take place in Kalai Illam with joint efforts and good will of the people around. Azad, a former Press Trust of India Photo journalist has this exemplary quality of making friends anywhere in the world. Shibu had promised to inaugurate an exhibition of Krigen Ulhman, a former Hippie artist living in Thiruvannamalai at Kalai Illam. Now Azad is there in the line. We have decided not to disturb Azad by pressing on him for accommodation or anything of that sort. But Azad enquires about our whereabouts.

Things change with that one phone call of Abul Azad. Next development of events could only be compared to a well edited film scene. Azad comes and in his booming voice chide us for not letting him know about our arrival in the town. Both of us smile vaguely and mumble things to explain the situation. Azad has come by a scooter. He speaks to the hotel assistant in Tamil. What he says is that we are shifting and they could cut one day’s rent and the rest of the money could be given to us. Sensing Azad’s arrival, I strongly believe, and also knowing Azad’s persuasive nature, the hotel owner has already gone away by his Enfield Bullet. In five minutes’ time we are in a different place. We pack up our things again. We haul it down on our backs. We walk behind Azad like two school kids. Azad is wearing a white dhoti and a white short kurta. Across his shoulders hangs a small leather bag which contains ‘I do not know what’. I like the way Azad walks with a lot of confidence. He picks up his phone and makes a few phone calls, shouting in Tamil. What I gather is that he is engaging some other person to influence the hotel owner to return our money and apparently Azad is successful in that. Following him we reach the next alley, which is just opposite to Ramana Ashram. Shibu shows me the place and I look at it with my unenthusiastic eyes. I am not yet converted to his enthusiasm. I have my reservations. I refuse to think much about my reservations about the place.

(Arthur Osborne)

Azad pushes a gate open. We are now in a beautiful property. On our left there is a huge two storied house which looks like a heritage building but is currently used by someone. However, the building does not seem to have any occupants. On our right, there is a big but modest bungalow with a long verandah sheltered by a roof and netted large windows. Two dogs come to us barking. Azad scolds them in Tamil. They look at suspiciously. Azad opens the house where Tulsi Suvarna Lakshmi, Azad’s commander in chief in Thiruvannamalai is already there. The house looks inhabited by somebody and is exactly the same way. On the walls there are a few paintings intricately done. On the table there are vignettes from Ramana Ashram. The furniture smells of past. The divan linens are clean. The red oxide coated floors shine. The bungalow is designed in a curious way. There is an L shaped outer layer that covers the drawing room of the house which has a large permanent high table in the middle. Around it there are high stools and obviously this place is where people gather to have some drinks, though I do not see any personal bar nearby. We keep our bags on the divans. On the right side of the hall there is an attached bathroom and on the left there is a narrow bedroom with a dressing table and mirror. Just behind the pillared drawing room, there is a bigger chamber with a swinging cot. On the right side of it there are two doors; one opens to the kitchen and the other opens to the backyard. The lights are rather yellow in the rooms which accentuate the oldness of the building. One could use this bedroom and one could use the swinging cot, Azad tells us. We look at each other. We have already decided to use the swinging cot.

We are not there at Ramana Ashram. Nor have we gone to the Thiruvannamalai temple. I have not understood anything of Thiruvannamalai. Yet, we have already touched the history of it. It is better to say that we are living in that history. You are lucky because you are living in Arthur Osborne’s house, says Azad while lighting a cigarette. Arthur Osborne, does it ring familiar? I ask myself. I draw a blank. Arthur Osborne’s house? Shibu exclaims. He seems to have heard of this name. My studies later and conversations with Azad and Shibu reveal to me who Arthur Osborne is/was. Arthur Osborne (1906-1970) was an English writer who became one of the greatest disciples of Ramana Maharshi. It was through his writings and biography of the sage, ‘Ramana Maharshi and the Path of the Self Knowledge’ the western world came to know about the sage. After coming to Thirvuannamalai, Osborne left his teaching and writing career in England behind and devoted himself to Ramana Maharshi. He till his death edited the Ashram journal Mountain Path. Arthur Osborne’s son was Adam Osborne who is the inventor of personal computers. When I know that we are sitting in the same house where these great people lived, I feel a sense of wonderment; a first feel of extraordinary about the place. We were supposed to live in that small hotel room. Azad has brought us here. And we are sitting in a place perhaps, Arthur Osborne sat and wrote his journals and books. Arthur Osborne Estate is huge and it is one of the houses that were built in those days.

(Adam Osborne)

Azad leaves with Tulsi and Leo James, the young photographer who has come from Dubai to participate in a project called ‘Project 365’, an ambitious project to document Thiruvannamalai continuously for three hundred and sixty five days. Initiated by Azad himself, this project currently on has around twenty photographers from all over India engaged in all aspects of Thiruvannamalai as a place. We sit there is silence for a while. We do not know what to do. We consider options. Should we go to the Ashram first or should we go for a walk? Or should we just sleep off on the swinging cot? Finally we decide to make a visit to the Ashram and then go for a walk, and then come back and sleep. We step out of the house and as Azad has instructed we lock it up. The dogs come rushing to us. We walk out and latch the gate from outside. A voice calls out from the seemingly abandoned building, Please close the gate when you go out. It is in Tamil and it has a rustic tone to it.  We train our eyes to see the person who has called out. It is a female voice. But we are not able to see her. So we stand there staring into a dark patch in the building which is a netted door. I notice there is a narrow aero bridge connecting this building and Osborne’s house where we are living. We say, yes to the vacant building, latch the door and come out to the alley. A cow lazily passes by. A young sadhu in his saffron uniform comes against us. Our eyes lock and release. We see an old foreign woman standing and looking at a frog hopping across the road with piety. Her face beams with a smile. Isn’t it a bit too much, I ask Shibu. He smiles. You are going to see more, he tells me. We cross the road, which is now busy with plying vehicles. We are now at the entrance of the Ramana Ashram. I am not going to change, I tell myself. I know this spiritual bullshit. But I am going to play along. As if he could read my thoughts, Shibu tells me, this way, let us deposit our footwear there at that counter. We leave our footwear there. The old men there at the counter tell us to leave it on the floor. But Shibu insists that they should be kept inside the rack and reluctantly the old men take our footwear from us. Turning I step on the earth of Ramana Maharshi Ashram with my bare soles. Something happened? I ask myself. Nothing. Nothing is happening. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues: Women with Flowers on their Hair Buns

(source - net)

Scenes from a strange land appear before my eyes as we start our journey to Thiruvannamalai in a Tamil Nadu Road Transport Corporation bus. Framed by the window of the bus, the scenes run fast backward. It is still dark and the images closer to the view are silhouetted by the early morning grey. I am lucky this time as the landscape artist in Shibu Natesan prefers to take the aisle seat. Dipped in deep silence we absorb the sights and sounds in and around the bus. Women wearing flowers in their hair buns come in and settle down.  Milkmen and vendors walk in from inconspicuous bus stops drenched in idle talk and deep concerns of daily lives. Some people doze off as their journey had temporarily disrupted their early morning slumber. Children, like children all over the world, are excited, exactly the way artists are, by the simple fact that they are moved from one place to another by a moving entity called bus. The interior of the bus is sparse compared to the air conditioned bus that we have been travelling in a few hours before. Shibu had told me that there would be Tamil devotionals playing in these buses generally. I hark for the raw voices of devotional singers but in vain. My ears are filled  with the idle chats between the conductor who has just finished issuing tickets for all and has settled by the driver to keep him in good humor so that the snaking roads of a rural Tamil Nadu that lead us to Thiruvannamalai are negotiated well and safe.

On my left, from the changing grays of morning sky, I gather the feeling of travelling towards north. Cool breeze from the paddy fields touch the faces of all the passengers and the strands of their hairs fly southwards, giving away the sense of seeing a black shredded black flag of an army that wants to survive any kind of adversities. The palate of sky is now more complicated. Dark clouds that have been scattered all over are now given golden and silvery edges by the ultimate artist of the universe. He seems to be very good at wash technique as minimum strokes of light turn the maximum area into a surreal expanse. Somewhere, the source of all lights seems to be struggling to come out as if a shy bride tries her best to come out of loving but forceful embraces of her bridegroom in one of those early nights of her marriage. The love pranks between sun and clouds go on for a long time till the world down there is sprinkled with an even light that helps me discern the people and structures along the way. At a junction, the bus stops and the bus conductor announces that it is a tea junction. A black skinny man with a steel vessel fitted on the carrier of his cycle stands down there selling piping hot tea in small paper cups. We look at each other and decide that we could have our first tea only when we reach Thiruvannamalai.  I see that most of the passengers seem to share our mood. None of them buys tea from this vendor except for the bus conductor. Even the driver seems to be disinterested. After a minute or so the bus starts moving again.

 (Woman making Kolam - source- the Hindu)

We are silent. Shibu may be thinking of his previous visits to Thiruvannamalai, I imagine. I look at him. Though he is very animated while talking to me, now he is sitting still without changing his facial expression. I prefer not to break his inertness; maybe he has reached a sort of equilibrium with the movement of the bus. My mind is not at peace. The skeptic in me surfaces again and again and asks me why I have undertaken this journey. Is it going to be a life changing experience, as hinted by Shibu several times before? Or is it going to be a fun trip? I do not like fun trips. I do not even like the word ‘fun’. Yes, travelling helps one to realize many things. Those are occasions that bring in so many different sights and sounds, individuals and their stories into our experiential zones. They could correct us; they could also lead us to grave mistakes. But nothing is fun about all those things. Fun is for those people who undertake journeys for the heck of it. They live by handbooks and they organize their trips with the clear intention to derive fun out of anything and everything that they do while traveling. I have seen people who are on vacation behaving like monkeys because they believe that they have worked hard enough and it is time to have fun. So if people are going to a sea shore destination, even at the airport or railway station they start behaving as if they have already reached the sea shore. May be seeing them in their pursuit of fun is the real fun for people like me who dispassionately, if not reluctantly take up trips. Maybe this is a very personal view.

Villages along the road are nameless for me. They do have names but are written in Tamil. The time I try my rudimentary knowledge of Tamil alphabet the bus must have gone a few meters ahead. Hence most of the villages remain nameless for us. As I sit at the window seat, I get a clear view of the early morning life of these villages. One thing soothing about Tamil Nadu villages (or even other South Indian villages) is the scene of people doing their devotional rituals before their homes. While the male folk spend their time idly at the tea shops or many of them do their daily chores of tending their cattle, agriculture tools or already on a walk to the fields, women are seen making Kolams before their homes. Kolams are intricate designs drawn in front of the houses in order to welcome a new day. Women take bath in the early morning itself and come out to draw Kolams before their houses. They sweep the surface clean and sprinkle water or some of them give a fresh coat of cow dung paste on that surface. On that they draw intricate patterns with rice powder which is known as Kola podi (Kolam dust). Women bend over the floor and their skilled fingers drop this powder evenly along the dots that they have made on the surface to control the patterns. Though many Kolams look identical and they do have some set patterns, individual creativity could also be seen in these Kolams. Kolams are supposed to be auspicious patterns that invite divinities to home or ward off evils from entering it. Despite these Kolams, drunken men and rude youth walk in and out of these homes crossing these auspicious patterns without heeding much to their divine meanings.

 (Woman with turmeric paste smeared face- Source - net)

I see a lot of women making Kolams. Irrespective of the grandeur or sizes of the houses, whether they are rich or poor, all the houses have Kolams before them. Though, in our popular imagination, Kolams or Kolam making beautiful women are seen as the representatives of god fearing high class or high caste women, the fact is that irrespective of class or caste most of the women in Tamil Nadu make Kolams in front of their homes. Another interesting thing that I notice is the complexion of these women. They are all dark. But in movies women are always fair skinned. The new generation movie makers in Tamil film industry work with a lot of dark skinned actresses and cast them as heroines in order to consciously defy the commercially driven idea about beautiful women. The raw energy of these movies has made them cultic films and there is an added craze for such movies in Tamil Nadu today, as the posters and the television ads show. Here I see the dark skinned women in a different light; they are all tinted with a dominant yellow color. Most of the women look like as if they have just come out of yellow powder box. The reason is that most of the women in Tamil Nadu smear turmeric paste all over their bodies in order to enhance their dark beauty. It not only enhances their natural beauty but also prevents a lot of skin diseases. Turmeric with a lot of medicinal properties is a traditionally accepted beauty aid in Tamil Nadu. It is also connected to the Devi cult. The goddesses in Tamil Nadu are decorated with Turmeric powder or paste. Each woman shares some kind of godliness by emulating the female deities in their vicinity.

(Kerala women in 'nightie'- for illustrative purpose only- source- net)

In the early morning hue, it is not easy to make out the faces of these women. But I could see the general pattern; they all wear very colorful sarees, which in Tamil is called Chela. As a strong contrast to the Kerala women (Malayali women) who are seen in and out of their houses in night gowns which is called ‘nightie’ in general, Tamil Nadu women are not seen in these shapeless gowns. They all wear sarees with different patterns. There was a time in Kerala too when all women wore flowers in their hair. Women or young girls coming out of their homes, freshly bathed and decked with natural flowers used to be a very sensual experience. It emanated innocence, purity and sexual appeal at once. But in due course of time, Kerala women shifted to deos and perfumes and started wearing decorative hair clips than natural flowers. Tamil Nadu, also Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (at least in the rural areas) still uphold the tradition of wearing flowers in their hair. There is no obscenity attached to this custom as we do in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi, where flower sellers approach the waiting cars at the traffic lights. It is a clear indication that if you are buying flowers for your women or women are buying flowers from themselves, there would be some sexual encounter that night. Because of this connotation, women who think a lot about their modesty do not buy or wear flowers in these cities. There should be sociological reasons pertaining to nautch girls and harem women in these cities who wore flowers that prevent contemporary women from wearing flowers. But women wearing fresh flowers in the early morning and coming out of temples or places of worship is one of the most beautiful sights that I have ever seen in my life.

(Goddess in Tamil Nadu- Source

There is a lot of poetry in seeing flowers on women’s heads. It elevates them to the heights of godliness. How can a woman be so ruthless and brash when she has flowers on her hair? She would be the epitome of beauty. Some may find these are male chauvinistic observations and too much dipped by sexual anticipations. But I would also like to ask how a man could be arrogant and brutal to a woman who wears flowers in her hair and appears as fresh as nature itself? How can a man accompanying a woman with fresh flowers on her hair be looking around to see other women? How can a man be brutal when he is surrounded by wonderful women wearing flowers? Am I asking all the women to wear flowers so that sexual harassment could be done away with from our society? I should be dreaming if I ask so. But what I am saying is that we have been pushed out of such a heaven of poetry where women decked themselves up with flowers and men sung praises for them. We have become plastic people who deck themselves with plastic flowers and people who find their conjugal happiness in plastic dolls. We are the members of a degenerated civilization. I am not asking for women’s role in the society as objects of adulation. I am asking for a society where one could be a poet unto himself and also a worshipper of beauty. When people worship beauty they become calm and once they are calm they look for something deep within themselves than looking for pleasure elsewhere. They all will turn into spiritual beings. Am I asking for a flower revolution so that everyone becomes beautiful and everyone becomes a poet? I do not know. What I know is that the future is going to judge me based on this paragraph. It would call me a chauvinist. But I do not mind because I am a poet.

(You rarely get it right- from Taj- Source - net)

Loud speakers send out Tamil devotional songs. They come to our ears like wake up calls. I look at one of the milestones on the wayside where it is written ’20 km’ to Thiruvannamalai. In another half an hour we will reach our destination. I look at Shibu and he smiles at me and says that I am about to get some glimpses of the great mountain, Arunachala. I look out for the hills and I do see one of them on our right side. I ask him whether it is that mountain. Shibu shakes his head in negative. I feel a sense of anxiety inside me. Is the first glimpse of Arunachala going to be as depressing as my first encounter with the celebrated Taj Mahal? Years before I had gone to Taj Mahal, the memorial of love in Agra. Since my childhood I have been hearing about Taj Mahal, seeing the illustration and the great emperor who built it, Shajahan, who is always seen in profile, sniffing a rose flower. It took so many years to understand that Shajahan has another side as I saw the painting of Abanindranath Tagore, in which he is shown as an old captive, looking at Taj Mahal at a distance under the moon lit sky. Taj Mahal as a package comes to your mind even before you visit it. It is burdened with beauty and history. So when you go there you expect so much and you are clearly disappointed once you see it in reality. You enter Taj Mahal through a side door and a white expanse of marble manifests in front of your eyes, almost blinding you with its glory. You imagine that it is just like what you have seen in innumerable calendars, posters, photographs, fancy prisms and film sets. As you walk towards it, you find its glory diminishing. It becomes just another monument where tourists throng and take photographs. Before the proliferation of the mobile phone cameras and digital cameras, people used to get photographed in front of Taj Mahal by the roti graphers. Rotigraphy is a term coined by the photography artist, Satish Sharma, to qualify the pavement photographers of Old Delhi who clicked the photographs of tourists and local people using box cameras and large negatives in order to eke out their daily rotis; therefore Roti Graphy. One of the attractions of the rotigraphers in Taj Mahal is that their skill in shooting people as if they were holding the tip of the great monument of love. They show you the albums filled with strangers holding the tip of Taj Mahal. Attracted by this technical achievement, people who are lucky to have their film loaded cameras try to emulate this feat only to come up with results showing kids, women and youngsters awkwardly groping various parts of Taj Mahal except for the tip. The camera man always wonders, each time he looks at the album in later years, what he had missed though he had seen the person in the picture holding the tip of Taj Mahal through the view finder. He goes to the grave with this shame.

(Arunachala Mountain- Thiruvannamalai- source- net)

I am afraid that I would be equally disappointed by the first glimpse Arunachala. So I sit extremely cautious and prepared. Many hills come and go and each time Shibu tells me that ‘not this not this’. Neti Neti (not this not this) is the root of Indian spiritual philosophy. What is your soul? What is I? You attach your soul with so many things; your I-ness with so many manifestations. But philosophy says, not this not this. We will come to know about it later in details. And I wait for Arunachala to manifest before my eyes. Finally at a turn, right in front of the bus, at the horizon level there comes up the magnificent Arunachala. It is magnificent not because of its sheer size, but because it looks different and it looks different because it, from this side, looks exactly like a perfect mountain. Thanks to associative thinking I start imagining too many things about its magnificence. It is the seat of Lord Shiva. It is where Shiva manifested as Fire. Eons before it was a volcano. So many things come to my mind and I try to hold on to my skepticism. It is just a mountain, I tell myself repeatedly. And we are going to be around it for a few days, exploring the so called spiritual feel about it. Our primary destination is Ramana Ashram, the abode of Ramana Maharshi. And the life saga of the sage cannot be separated from this mountain. So I keep looking at the mountain, which now moves to my left side and sometimes to the right depending on the curve of the road, unsettling my views about it. Suddenly defying all thoughts about divinity and spirituality, a town appears before our eyes. We are here, Shibu whispers into my ear. How is it different from Villupuram or any other bus stand that I have seen in my life? It is a typical bus stand in Tamil Nadu, I tell myself as the bus enters the Thiruvannamalai bus stand. Thiruvannamalai. The magical word that I have been hearing for the last ten years from Shibu and later from a few other friends. I am finally here. We get down there and propping our bags up on our shoulders we alight there at the stand. Sharp sunlight pierces my eyes. We will have some tea now, says Shibu. We enter a bustling town with tea stalls doing brisk business. Auto rickshaw drivers solicit us. Shibu asks one of them to wait. Shibu’s Tamil is as good as his Hindi; only the intention and gestures could translate the words into meaning. After having a cup of tea, we get into the auto rickshaw. We are in Thiruvannamalai. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Najeeb Comes back to Meet an Old Friend

(Najeeb Vahid, second from left in red jacket with his badminton mates in London)

My architect friend and well known alternative modern structural designer, Lijo Jose, after reading my ‘Finding a Muslim Friend in You’ that I had written in December 2008, addressing my long lost friend, Najeev Vahid, in the wake of the Hindu-Muslim strife immediately after the Mumbai Terrorist Attack, asks me what happened after my happy meeting with him a day before (3rd September 2014) in my home at Vakkom where he came to meet me with another close friend, Syam Mohammed Raice, who works in Dubai. Immediately after that happy union I re-posted my old blog in the facebook and it was the reason for why Lijo asked me that question.

A long, enduring and warm hug is what Najeeb gives me as he steps out of the brand new white Scorpio of Syam. I suddenly imagine a scene from one of the popular generic movies of Mohanlal. Rich, powerful and stately Mohanlal comes with Siddique to meet their school time friend, a struggling writer, Sreeraman, who lives in their childhood village. The reunion is filled with unspoken words. I need not tell you who are Mohanlal, Siddique and Sreeraman here.  But I have to say, I see Siddique in Najeeb. They tell me that they have been driving around in the village at night waiting for me to come back from Trivandrum where I went for a drive with Shibu Natesan. I am late and it is quite late. Syam’s mobile phone rings and Najeeb comments that the call is from the Home Department and is a final warning call to Syam.  Najeeb is still in his irreverent best.

(Syam Mohammed Raice's white Scorpio)

Najeeb looks the same. If you wear a khaki shorts and a cream color shirt you could straight away go and attend the classes in Vakkom High School, I tell him. That was the color of our uniform. He has not changed at all. Except for a little darkening around his eyes and close cropped hair that hides his otherwise curly hair, he looks the same. He squeezes by back and shoulders and he feels the same. I warn him not to beat me with his rough palms. He had this habit of beating my thighs where baby fat was refusing to fade during the high school days, with his strong and rough palms. I used to cringe when he did that. I heard you had escaped from Dubai to London, I tell him. He glowers at me and clenches his first. Suddenly he becomes Mammootty. I hear him saying the famous dialogue of Chanthu in Vadakkan Veeragatha. “Chanthu, the one who used reed needle instead of iron needle. Chanthu, the one who bribed the blacksmith. Chanthu, the one who gave a faulty sword to his friend. What else the gossip mongers say?” Najeeb does not ask this, instead he punches me softly on my stomach and asks, what else I have heard about his mythical escape from Dubai to London. I smile into the darkness.

I apologize to Syam as I am not talking to him that much because Najeeb has taken over the scene of reunion. He is in his irreverent best. Slangs fly thick and fast from his mouth. Each time he utters a word that could be eminently beeped out and gleefully stored in our memory, he looks around in the darkness to see whether some elders have listened to his harangue. Old village boys in us have not died out yet. They are still careful. They still respect the elders around though irreverence is the underlying theme. Najeeb and Syam wear white dhoti and they have adequately double folded it above their knees. I wear a saffron lungi and a white kurta. Najeeb asks me whether it is my ‘usual’ dress. I tell him that it is my dress for the night, may be for the time being. Syam is not surprised at my dress code as he has seen my various avtars in facebook. Syam is an ardent fan of Kerala Transport Corporation. He always posts the pictures of Transport buses, picking them from the site of a group of IT professionals who spend their money to even rebuild and conserve the bodies of some of the old transport buses. We all carefully protect something from our past; it could be busts or buses. Syam wears a white shirt with lines and Najeeb wears an olive green shirt with white vertical stripes.

(Syam Mohammed Raice in Dubai)

Najeeb tells me that he had a struggling period in London and now finally he has found his foothold. He has two children, a fourteen year old son and seven year old daughter (am I right there?). They must be speaking very accented English, I muse. Yes, says Najeeb. But they speak to me in Malayalam, he adds. Also he adds that they speak to his wife (their mother) also in Malayalam. “Otherwise there will be bloodbath,” he says with twinkling eyes. Najeeb’s accent too has not changed. His accent, like his body remains unchanged. Vakkom seems to have this blessing of making its people to be original in their manners and language. If we are bad we are bad to the core, and we are good we are the best. But when it comes to language, we are puritans. We do not mimic any accent though some of us thanks to habit spice up our talks with some broken English sentences in between. Najeeb when he swears positively looks up and takes the name of Allah, let his name be praised. He remains the same even in that aspect.

Out of curiosity I ask them how they thought I was at Vakkom. They were moving around in their huge SUV making many necks turn even if it was night and there at the SN Junction they found Sunil Lal, our beloved friend (I have devoted one full chapter to him in my To My Children Series’. “We found a snake at the junction, with it hood open and shaking,” Najeeb tells with a laugh. In our village the drunken yet standing ones we call, snakes (paambu). “Which one was that snake?” I ask, though I know the answer because I have just seen him while passing the junction a few minutes before with Shibu as he comes to drop me at the gate. “Sunil Lal, who else that could be?” Najeeb says. Sunil Lal, the moment he saw them had told them about my presence in the village. In village things travel fast than facebook virals. The other day I had seen a woman at the bus stop. I suddenly had a feeling that I knew her. I went and asked her whether she was so and so. She was just getting into bus and I too was taking the same bus to a nearby town. Once she settled down, she came to the edge of her seat and asked me whether I was the same Johny who used to live at Vakkom. I said yes. She told me that he came to know about my presence in the village another friend who had told her about meeting me quite accidently when I went to see the flooding of backwaters almost a week back. Friends remember me and I remember them, that is a good feeling.

It is time to go as Syam’s mobile screen glows again. One more warning call for Syam, Najeeb says. How will you escape the wrath of your wife today, I ask Syam. “I am going to take Najeeb with me as a shield,” Syam laughs. Najeeb’s family is in London. So he decides to go with Syam ‘specially for protecting him from his wife’s wrath.’ We all laugh. When shall we meet again? The question manifests amidst us. They are all leaving in a week’s time to Dubai and London respectively. “I may come to Dubai in December,” I just tell them. “You are my guest,” Syam says. “You just need to let me know, I will fly down to Dubai from London for two days,” Najeeb assures. My head reels and I am overwhelmed by their love. I am an avadhootan, the one who without home or money. They are people who have gained things in their lives their hard work and determination. I say thanks to them for visiting me. And the words sound hollow as Najeeb gives me a warm hug again and squeezes my hands. In that half an hour we remember so many friends who have left the village for building up their career and life. “Amongst us you and Kamaneesh became big,” Najeeb says. “No” I say.  “We have become more refined human beings,” I want to add. But I remain silent in humility. The white Scorpio takes a turn and with a boom it goes and fades into future, only to reemerge in another ‘present’.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Women in Metro: Photographs of Manoj Bharti Gupta

(Photograph by Manoj Bharti Gupta)

Inside the metro rail compartments, people hardly get time to act. They are in their vulnerable best. Before they enter the metro coaches, while waiting for the trains to come they are almost like trained animals who are ready to obey the whiplashes of the trainer. Once they are about to get in, they all lose their control and their primordial animal nature comes out in full play. Those who want to get in do not mind to squeeze the ones who are elbowing their best to get out. Trained by daily practice, many know how to get in and how to get out without getting hurt or without hurting others. But the novices make all the attempts to create ruckus and many others deliberately do that. Once they are in, whether they get seats or not, they are a different lot. They lose their animal nature and become trained human beings. In the circus of life, they are the willing animals of performance. Human beings generally do not ‘behave’ inside bathrooms and lavatories. They are simple and natural being stripped off of all egos. Inside the metro trains too they tend to lose their ego by entering into a total dialogue with themselves. Sometimes, it is the same case with those people who are left alone in the platforms, especially in late or very early hours, waiting for the trains to come.

(Photograph by Manoj Bharti Gupta)

Manoj Bharti Gupta has been recording the people who travel by metro in Delhi for a long time. His photographs are candid shots of people who are totally unaware of a photographer amongst them. Each moving person in a city is a potential camera. He/she has always been like that. Whether he has a camera with him or not, a person who walks along the streets or travels by a vehicle doubles himself as a camera recording the visuals and events through his eyes and storing them into his memory. Today, every human being is a photographer, willingly or unwillingly. I should say that most of us are willing photographers when it comes to taking selfies and belfies (selfies of one’s own butts). Armed with mobile cameras everyone tries to become a photographer at some stage in their lives. The new motto should be, after Descrates, “I click therefore I am”. Manoj Bharti Gupta clicks photographs of the metro travelers in Delhi not because he want to collect the images of interesting people but he likes to see them being themselves. It could be purely my way of looking at Manoj Bharti Gupta’s works, but I would like to see them as capturing of images that are engrossed in their own selves.

 (Photograph by Manoj Bharti Gupta)

Out of several bodies of works that Manjo Bharti Gupta has created out of the metro travelers, I like a particular body works photographs, aptly titled ‘Women in Metro’. One may suspect him of having some strange sense of voyeurism. Voyeurism is a curse of the photographers and a good photographer cannot be born without a heightened sense of voyeurism. However, in a scenario where we are over burdened by theoretical awareness, voyeurism in and by photography could be a bad human quality. If the voyeur is a male then he could be treated as a criminal. Voyeurism becomes severe when it is seen as male gaze. All the photographs have a voyeuristic aspect in them. But gaze is peculiar to the male photography that makes the subject’s gaze nullified. Though Manoj Bharti Gupta takes the pictures of the women metro travelers as immersed in their egoless states, he does not employ his male gaze. Instead, he uses his lens as a dispassionate capturing device. He almost lets his eyes go innocent. As an art viewer and art critic, I fail to see any kind of male gaze in Manoj’s photographs. They are voyeuristic in a sense that he turns almost existential and poetic in his frames.

(Photograph by Manoj Bharti Gupta)

I look at those frames/photographs, where women are seen in different locations of a metro rail. They are inside the compartments or in the platforms. They are alone or could be in a crowd. They are accompanied by men at times, and often they are alone. There are women who share light moments with their spouses or boyfriends. There are women who sit alone and sleep or brood over something. There are women who listen to music. There are shoppers, there are wanders, there are nuns, women in military outfits and in their many guises. I particularly like those images of women who stand alone in lonely platforms. One of the most sensitive pictures taken by Manoj Bharti Gupta shows a small girl child standing alone near a metro mascot that prods the parents to take tickets for their kids who are more than three feet tall. There is another very sensitive image where he captures a pair of beautifully manicured and booted female legs. The most interesting pictures are those show women alone in the platforms; I can’t help if I am repeating it. They, surprisingly, in Manoj’s views do not look vulnerable. They are ready to face the world ‘all alone’.

 (Photograph by Manoj Bharti Gupta)

Aditya Dhawan is one of the photography artists in Delhi who keeps a consistent interest in photographing people inside the metro trains. His pictures show the social contrasts and social contracts. But Manoj’s pictures have sheer documentary quality, without leaning towards any kind of ideology. He does not make any value judgment of women or their contexts in his pictures. Manoj Bharti Gupta takes a lot of interest in the human ‘aloneness’, which is unique and lonely at the same time. Before closing this short note appreciation, I should say, I have not yet seen Manoj in person though both of us live in Delhi.