If you see a lake in the middle of a forest, it feels like a fairy tale. If you see it at the foot of a mountain, then it becomes sublime, famous Nigerian novelist Ben Okri says in his latest novel ‘The Age of Magic’. At the foot of Thiruvannamalai, along the Girivalam route, on full moon days a river is formed, a river of people. It trickles down from remote villages in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and forms a huge river of people on the Girivalam road. This river of people flows northwards and comes down to south where the Annamalai Temple is located. On its shores, along the way another set of humanity, comes parking with its wares. They are the wayside vendors hailing from distant areas, coming there to sell different kinds of merchandise, from household items to souvenirs, from calendars depicting gods and amulets that ward off evils. Tender coconut sellers and sugar cane juice sellers come with their trolleys and equipments, tea and refreshments stalls prop up and the whole place gets a festive look. People who come by buses, trucks, auto rickshaws, cycles and all the possible wheeled vehicles buy things from these vendors; and for them the Girivalam route becomes an elongated and laid bare super market of exotic things. On Karthika Poornima day, the full moon day on the month of Karthika, which falls in the first week of December, this river floods.
To our surprise, Shibu Natesan and myself realize that we are there on a full moon day. As our visit is not planned according to holy days, it comes as a bonus. We suddenly see people, events and things that we would not have witnessed had our visit been on another day. We decide to go for a walk by ten o clock in the morning itself as we know that by afternoon the rush will increase and there will not be any space even to walk. In the early morning itself the streets are filled with people. Villagers walk with determined faces as they brave the asphalt with their bare feet. We flow along with them, merging our egos into this river of humanity. The flood gates are opened slowly and as we pass a nearby ground where buses that bring people from villages park in innumerable numbers, we see men and women urinating in public. Feminists, I think, should learn a lesson from these village women. They stand side by side with men and urinate, standing! With studied movements they do it without shame. None ogles at them, except us, the visitors, with no anthropological interest but with suppressed perversion trying to climb the wall of affected decency.
(A chariot in Thiruvannamali. pic by Shibu Natesan)
As we take the right tune that hits the main path of Girivalam, we come across a series of ‘kili jyotsyans’, people who tell your future and past, if possible present (which is a difficult thing for most of them) with the help of a caged parrot. The birds are well trained, as we believe as we have seen them in our childhood days in our village, and they pick up some cards with a god’s picture on it. The jyotsyan, the fortune teller, then would tell your future looking at the picture of the god. This god is going to determine your future. You listen to their soothsaying and push a paltry sum into this fortune teller’s hand and move on, satisfied or worried, depending on what you have just heard. Most of them are doing brisk business as spirituality does not satisfy the village visitors’ ultimate curiosity for natural redemption. They want to know what lies in future for them. Soothsayers tell them what they want to hear and both the parties are satisfied. Soon I realize one thing; the birds are not ceremoniously brought out of the cages when the patrons come and squat before them. Soothsayers ask the patrons to pick up the card. You, well bloody become your own destiny, leave my bird alone, they seem to say. You pick up your card and listen what you want to listen. The birds are now props in the stage of a mysterious drama called human life. They sit inside the cages, not dreaming the vast sky up there, but the next green or red chilly that would come inside the cage through the thin bars. They have become accustomed to the ritual of being passive agents of human destiny. They are not just interested. But they pretend to be busy and serious, just like the extras in a party scene in a Bollywood movie. They are given a role and they are supposed to act it out, often out of focus.
We pass the fortune tellers and innumerable ripples of saffron clad mendicants. Unfamiliar and strange looking mendicants manifest from nowhere and they look like river fossils washed ashore by a full tide of this human river. With their primitive eyes they command the pilgrims to drop coins into their begging bowls. This is a sort of silent extraction of human piety. People come with bag full of coins to drop into these begging bowls. Some mendicants speak in local languages, some speak in Hindi or English, some are philosophical, some are abusively mundane and yet another lot communicate with you in absolute silence. Their silent stare would haunt you for a long time. Where are they coming from, both of us wonder as we walk on. They are not seen here in the next morning and they were not here a day before. They happen from nowhere and disappear into nowhere. There are some mendicants who command a better price in the spiritual way side as they look good and are charismatic. Less charismatic beggars and mendicants gravitate around these better ones and share the piety that is eked out by the leading ones. The advantage of being around them is that there is always left over in the world, they know. Some strategically position near book stalls and food stalls so that the changes would automatically go into their bowls. Location is important for any business. In begging too you need to be positioned strategically. For spiritual begging, you need to strategize your spiritual positioning in the material world. Beggars know it, perhaps better than the corporate guys.
(Pilgrims on a full moon day at Thiruvannamalai- Pic by Shibu Natesan)
While the river of humanity flows around the grand hill of Arunachala, the side shows meant for their entertainment have too many varieties. Some people just dress up as somebody else; the bahuroopis. They are the professional fancy dressers; they could stand still like a statue for a long time. Professional fancy dressers have their whole family with them to give support, right from make up to providing food and water. Street is a make shift home and theatre for them. If a god appears before you all of a sudden, you need not feel frightened or elated. It is just another man who is trying to make it when the human river flows. Perhaps, this rural agricultural worker comes and asks for alms you may reject him and you would even shoo him away. But when he comes as Lord Rama or his sidekick, Hanuman with a tail for children’s amusement, then you may give a few currency notes to him. In India, like elsewhere in the world, religion is a comfort as well as a veiled threat. At the other side of the street, we see a completely decked up cow and people thronging around it. The decked up cow does not look like a Kamadhenu or Pegasus. It looks like an ordinary cow painted with turmeric powder and sindoor. If it is brought into a gallery space, it could be passed off as a live performance by a cow artist, I mean an artist uses cow or bull as a dominant image. We walk up to it and see what is special about this cow. Soon we see the distinction. This cow has got five legs, apart from the four regular ones, there is one coming out of its hunch on the back. This boneless piece of leg hangs out from its like a hopeless memory of all deformity in the world. But the owner, a woman dressed up in a similar sari, vermillion and kumkum, and amply decked her face up in the same pattern collects quite a lot.
It drizzles a bit. We feel a cool breeze touching our faces and we feel good. But people are not feeling good. They are here to do a day’s business; if it rains...Crores of rupees will be lost. Along the sixteen odd kilometres around the Arunachala Hills this market for a day is going to get affected by an uncalled for rain. As the rain clouds gather in the sky the faces of people too go dark. South Indian people are dark skinned. They become darker than black when they feel bad. Fair complexioned Indian people rarely go for this pilgrimage. Their pilgrimage ends at Ramana Ashram and its vicinities. They opt to do the Girivalam on week days, obviously not on this day, when the villagers infest the roads like maggots. But the foreigners walk, they want to know. Once they know, they too retreat. But human beings are such creatures of faith; they challenge their fate. When you know that it is going to rain and ruin your business, they become more aggressive in their demeanour. They challenge god with hope. They hope against hope. We too pray for a sunny day because seeing the plight of these people, who have even brought a full harvest of a mango orchard on the roadside, we believe that the gods must not be crazy.
(the singing mendicant at Thiruvannamalai- pic by Shibu Natesan)
Beneath a tree, under the canopy of a big sheet of discarded flex board, we see a man painting his body with metallic silver paint. We go near to him. He has almost finished his body smeared with metallic paint. A few patches are left on his back showing his dark brown dry skin. His emaciated wife, whose age cannot be determined (poverty is another leveller like death as it levels the ages of people beyond recognition) by her looks, helps him paint those left out patches. We stand aside and look at him curiously. He is not offended; he is here to be looked at, an object of gaze, someone who has overcome this aspect of male or female gaze. He is here to take gaze and return nothing. He looks familiar. Do we know him? We look at his accessories. There is a pair of round rimmed spectacles, a long stick and a pocket watch hanging from his waist. Oh, here is the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. This man is enacting Mahatma Gandhi, not the live version but a statue in his famous Dandi walk posture. He could stand for hours, still, they say. He looks absolutely tired. His daughter who could even become his grand daughter ogles at us from within the flex canopy. What is there in her eyes? I see fear in her eyes, it turns into disgust, it then turns into hatred, then to horror and to rebellion, and then to reconciliation with poverty. I feel her eyes like a screen saver set in ten seconds. It changes and brings in all the beauty of the world to sooth our eyes. But the screen saver of her eyes I see her life saver, emotions and resigning.
Gandhiji is not able to move. He makes each move painstakingly. He seems to have lost his interest even in life. The metallic paint that has been smeared on his body since god alone knows for how many years now, is not helping him to breathe at all. The discomfort is palpable. He cannot drink enough water; if so he may need to urinate and a statue, that too of Mahatma Gandhi cannot urinate. He has to go without food and water. Gandhiji was fond of it for getting his ideals in practice. But here is a man who does it for food and water, what an irony! Shibu wants to click some pictures. He too is in an awkward state. He is not a photo journalist looking for the right moment. He is an artist looking for the right moment of life. But here there is a life coated in metallic paint, heavy in breathing trying to get up and to stand like a statue. Our eyes fall on the girl with screen saver in her eyes. If her eyes give us consent he would click his picture. She looks at us in fear. Finally she surrenders to the desire for money. She is here to get money through her father’s act. Her eyes relax. Shibu takes out a couple of currency notes and start clicking the pictures, but without hurting the man’s privacy in the middle of this human river. He is alone, utterly alone. He is marooned in a metallic island. I go and give him the notes and we walk off, our memories dipped in metallic paint.
(the Gandhi impersonator. Pic by Shibu Natesan)
“What are you taking and where are you going? When death calls, you call His name?” in rustic Tamil accent he sings with a pair of small symbols to accompany his rhythm. He wears a saffron head gear. His eyes glint in the fire of spiritual ecstasy. His body resembling granite block moves forward and backward as he sings. His voice rises into the heavens, shaming the high pitches that a professionally trained classical singer. The inflexions and tonal variations of his song and voice reverberate in the sky. Like us, people too stand there in absolute awe. I sharpen my ears and try to catch the meaning of his songs. The philosophical depth of his song and voice actually escape my poor linguistic skills in Tamil. But when a voice could take you to a different plane of being, why you need to seek for meaning of words? In his song, words disappear and meaning of life only manifests there. We stand there awestruck. We are not able to move. He finishes one song and moves on to another. The rhythm is not catchy as the first one. But he does not mind it. He is involved in his singing and the meaning that he alone knows. Meaning, as far as he is concerned, it seems, evolves as he sings on. People reverently put money into the bowl before him. Other mendicants who have positioned themselves around him look at him with equal reverence. Once in a while, another mendicant tries to croon a bhajan and fails miserable. Another blows a conch shell. Yet another one says, Om, repeatedly, all failing to attract the devotion of the pilgrims. But they too do not feel bad. They soak themselves in the ambience and try to do whatever they could. We move on. A small snake struggles to cross the road. People give it way to cross. None panic. We stand there and watch the snake struggling. It wants to go straight but its body dynamics takes it sideways. We look at it with amusement till it crosses the road and disappears into small crack at the foot path.
We walk further. We see business thriving. We reach a stall where amulets are sold by educated spiritual activists. We buy a few. One of them helps us to wear it on our wrists. As Shibu embarks on his collecting souvenirs from that shop I just decide to move around and what else is happening there. Four people, two men and two women hold a blanket open and another one smeared all over with bibhuti (holy ash) stands there and shouts: One rupee for our Shiva temple. I look around and see a flex board temporarily fitted there. It says that somewhere in a village a Shiva temple is being built. On the flex board there is a floor plan and elevation of the temple is clearly printed. It is going to be a grand one. People throw one rupee coins, two rupee coins, five rupee coins, ten rupee notes, twenty rupee notes, fifty rupee notes and occasionally someone puts a hundred rupee notes. Right in front of my eyes, the blanket fills up and the weight of the coins is too much the men and women cannot hold the blanket any more. They transfer the coins and notes into a container kept next to them and then again open it before the people. The blanket fills up again, instantly. They empty it again into the container. As the man’s wailing voice for Lord Shiva weakens, an assistant takes it up. The coins rain again. Crowd sourcing or crowd funding, I tell myself. But it is a successful model.
(Song of life- Pic by Shibu Natesan)
We walk on. We see too many things. Wounded and diseased beggars are strategically removed from there. It is a dignified begging zone. On a full moon day, love and money could flow and glow, like madness but no disease and pestilence. It is a sanitized zone of spirituality. As we walk on we see different sizes and shapes of spirituality manifested in material forms. There is an Ashram of Jaggi Sadguru, there is a Sai Mandir, all newly built in marble. But people seem to have no interest in those temples. They look abandoned compared to the rusty old temples along the road. When in pilgrimage, one looks for the tried and tested, not the organized and upcoming models. But sooner than later, I tell Shibu, that these places also would start attracting people through the fireworks of spiritualism. Long haired and beard youngsters and serene looking girls sit at many a stalls that sell spiritual discourse of hitherto unheard of spiritual gurus and swamis. Even if Jiddu Krishnamurthy or UG Krishnamoorthy walk by this way, people will not recognize them because there are more impressive swamis out there in the market. I was losing faith.
And it rained heavily by evening.