Sitting at the granite steps of Ramana Ashram, Shibu Natesan and myself watch a small commotion out there in the courtyard where the mendicants queue up for getting food served by the Ashram kitchen and distributed by the enthusiastic devotees of both Indian and foreign origin. They consider it as social service, a sort of surrendering their ego before the homeless and destitute who come to Thiruvannamalai in search of solace. While serving foods into the humble begging bowls that these mendicants carry in their hands, the volunteers see the face of Ramana Maharshi reflected on their serene and egoless faces. None elbows his way up here for food as that is a common Indian tendency while queuing up for anything. Food distribution has not started yet and the mendicants stand patiently there. They seem to have moved by the scenes of chaos unravelling in front of them right there in the courtyard. We see a small crowd gathering up there around an auto rickshaw. People crane their necks to see what is going on inside the rickshaw. Led by curious the incoming devotees go near it and stand there. Some fish out their mobile phones or cameras and start clicking pictures. Women and men stand around the vehicle with folded hands showing reverence. It looks like a mobile shrine has come to halt amidst them.
Curiosity is a prime mover of human beings. Motivated by this irresistible emotion people do things that otherwise they are not expected to do. Right from peeping into a half opened door to kicking on crumbled piece of paper or clothe to know what lies beneath it, from climbing up walls to standing on toes to get a better view of things happening within a crowd, and from ogling at the computer or mobile phone screen of others to checking out facebook profiles of unknown people, curiosity leads people to unknown arenas from where at times there is no return. Curiosity could change the course of life for better or worse. It could send people into ecstasy or into madness. Curiosity could kill the beauty of something or someone and even at times it could enhance the feel about a person or thing, provided how one approaches the same thing once the curiosity is tested, experienced and satisfied. We too get up from the ledge of the building and walk towards the auto rickshaw. We are curious to know what is going on there. Shibu takes his camera out of his bag and looks for chink in the thick wall of the crowd so that he could see inside the vehicle and the object of curiosity and contained in it. I follow him and I too move around the crowd for a better view of the ‘thing’ inside.
(Ramana Ashram Shrine- JJ Jayaraman)
Inside the rickshaw we see a shrunken old man in his mid sixties. A diminutive figure with thinning curly hair and a rough beard could pass for another mendicant beggar had he not been sitting in that vehicle and attracting devotees around him. He does not wear a shirt. He sits straight and looks straight outside through the windscreen of the vehicle. His eyes are like that of a rat caught inside a trap. Though there is no fear in his eyes, there is some spark that reminds me of a rat’s eyes. His small lips are held tight as in an attempt to control or a contemptuous smile or an unbearable rage. People go near the auto and move back as they are warned by the locals. A woman stands to the vehicle as close as possible with folded palms, her lips quivering with some chanting. A man wearing khaki shirt and a black lungi stands in front of the auto. If the vehicle is a moving shrine then obviously he looks like the anointed priest of this mobile sanctum. Some locals speak to him in Tamil to which he responds reluctantly. I understand that he is the charioteer as far as the divinity sitting inside the vehicle is concerned. Some people come, show reverence and retreat. Another set of people just pass by without giving much attention to the theatre in progress there. They seem to know the content of the drama; smiles on their lips show it.
The man’s loin clothes look dirty. I feel nauseous as I look at it. He has a few clothes rolled up around his waist and it reminds me of a man who has been undergoing dialysis and carrying his urinary bags around his waist. It looks abominable. Going closer to the rickshaw and yet keeping a safe distance from the ‘divine’ force sitting royally inside it, I check out the contents kept at the seat; a few packets of Britannia biscuit, a bottle of water, a bundle of dirty clothes and some shapeless forms made of so many unknown things. The man looks straight and occasionally turns his neck slightly to left or right. Like a matador moves strategically from a charging bull, the devotees move backward with a gasp and comeback again once the man keeps his head straight. Daring ones including the woman who is in a spiritual ecstasy stand there and wait for some inevitable to happen. What do these people wait to happen, I ask myself while Shibu continues taking pictures. The man’s dirty clothes are almost soiled and I could not find a divine feel about him. However, if these many people are standing around him and waiting for something to happen, then he must be somebody with some capacity. But what is that?
The journalist in me wakes up suddenly. I keep my spiritual quest aside and decide to interview a few local people stand around the vehicle. Who is this person, I ask one of the people who seems to be too local to be a visiting devotee. ‘Mookkappodi Swami’, he says. The Snuff powder swami. He has got his name as he lives on ‘snuff powder’. Mookkappodi is the Tamil word for snuff powder. I turn my head and look at the man who has been sitting still for a long time there in the rickshaw. His nose, as I notice, is filled with a black powder and the dirt that I see around his loin clothes is from there. He wipes his nose and smears it on the clothes. He is an unpredictable character with a lot of supernatural powers, says the reverent devotee of this particular swami. He says a few things about the swami and his spiritual powers. He cannot claim himself to be a Siddha, yogis with supernatural powers and could take the form of any organic being. After interviewing a people on the topic of this interesting swami, I come to feel that when it comes to his reputation there is a divided house. Some people take him too seriously and some take him as simple nuisance. Some people worship him and some others just hate him. The uneducated amongst the devotees believe that he has powers to change the course of others’ lives. The educated section feels that he is just another swami.
Legends say that if you get beaten up or slapped by Mookkappodi swami lady luck will smile on you. That explains why people try to stand near to his vehicle but be cautious about their positions. The woman who has been standing there as close as possible is trying to get beaten up by this swami, one of the interviewees tells me. If she is beaten up, he desires will be satisfied; it could be marrying off her daughter or getting some wealth by default. It could be alleviation from poverty or redemption from illness. The basic idea of getting beaten up by the swami is to become rich; that means accumulating wealth. I see the irony there; you take spiritual help to become materialistically rich. Spiritualism here is another currency, though that was not Ramana Maharshi wanted in his ashram premises. Mookkappodi swami not materialistic. He lives on snuff. He moves around in this auto rickshaw permanently hired for the purpose, visits temples and independent homes, take his bhiksha and retires to some wilderness. People say that he is more than hundred years old. We do not see any trace of hundred years in his body or face. Nobody knows where he spends his nights and days. This mystery is what helps him to be popular amongst the people. He appears from nowhere and disappears into nowhere. In between there are many stories good, bad and ugly.
Mookkappodi swami is eccentric in his nature. Spiritual beings are eccentric. But in an organization methodical madness works not the complete no bars hold type of madness. Mookkappodi swami’s eccentricity has brought him some amount of disgrace too, especially within the Ramana Ashram premises. Seeing this mendicant and the respect so many people have for him, Ramana Ashram authorities had allowed him to visit the dining hall of the ashram and have food during the lunch and dinner time. Mookkappodi swami used to enjoy these meals. But he is a spiritual being with some amount of eccentricity, which turned out to be a curse for his own well being. While visiting the ashram dining hall, this swami started playing some pranks a few years ago. He used to go inside the kitchen where food for hundreds of people was cooked. Driven by his divine madness, Mookkappodi swami once threw a packet full of salt into a cauldron where the food was getting prepared. The whole food was spoilt. If it was in a secular situation, people would have knocked this swami’s spirituality out of his shell. But within the ashram premises violence is not allowed. On that day Mookkappodi swami was ousted from the ashram dining hall very cleverly by the ashram authorities.
This ouster was conducted in a very interesting fashion, says one of the ashram authorities. Knowing the spiritual powers of Mookkappodi swami, the kitchen workers in the ashram used to give him a lot of respect. The moment this swami entered the dining hall or kitchen they all used to stop their work and stand in reverence. This was an encouragement for the swami and he enjoyed the reverence shown by the ashram workers. Once the salt incident took place, the ashram authorities gave clear instructions to the cooks and workers in the kitchen. Even if the swami came again, none should show any reverence by dropping everything down and standing in supplication. Mookkappodi swami came again in all his mischievousness and playfulness. But lo, none was giving any damn to him. People pretended minding their business. This was a shocker for the Swami. He tried to make his presence felt in various ways but nothing was working as the instructions were strong and for the workers it was not a spiritual thing but a deed that got them their livelihood. A few days that followed Mookkappodi swami came and none showed any sign of respect. Even at his spiritual heights, the swami realised that things were not working for him the way it used to be. He stopped visiting the kitchen and dining of the Ashram. Now he makes occasional visits to the ashram premises during the lunch distribution time, sits in his auto rickshaw, receives his food and goes back to his secret life of a yogi.
As we walk back to our temporary abode in Thiruvannamalai, Shibu speaks of such mendicants and yogis whose lives have been so interesting, at times bordering comedy. Paul Brunton who has extensively written on Indian yogis and spiritual gurus, besides writing about Ramana Maharshi and introducing him to the western world, has also written about such eccentric yogis in his book titled, A Search in Secret India. We find that day in Thiruvannamalai extremely satisfying. We go back to our swing cot for siesta, carrying the comic legend of Mookkappodi swami in our minds.