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 Shutterstock.com)
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.