Sun is really hot in this part of the world. Miles after miles one sees nothing but the glassy planes that reflect sun light. It's just February end. The summer has not yet come in officially but it is pre-summer heat assuring the people a really hot summer ahead. Tamil Nadu has been under the grip of political heat for the last five months. When we visited Brihadeswara temple, Tanjaore last time in October 2016 we had felt the heat of politics very close to our skin. We were staying in the guest house of Tamil Nadu Tourism Department as it was located close to the temple; we could go for the early morning prayers from there. Tanjaore is known as the rice storage of Tamil Nadu. We could see the lush green fields on either side of the road. A contrasting visual had just come up in mind. In Kerala all along the roads where the concrete jungles ended and the suburbs began one could see depleting rice fields with their visuals being blocked by huge hoardings that advertised housing complexes, jewellery, burqa and motor vehicles. Now a days one could see the hoardings that educational institutions that sold degrees for an exorbitant price. But in Tanjaore fields there were no hoardings to be seen for good. However whenever we hit the town roads we saw flex boards of varying sizes, all of which having the domineering face of the then chief minister Jayalalitha. What we noticed then was the standardised image of the chief minister; she was shown wearing a green sari and matching blouse, plump face and a slightly sagging double chin. She was looking neither young nor too old. And she was in the Apollo hospitals, Chennai from where she would never come back to office. Her death would change the course of Tamil Nadu's political history and we were yet to witness all those.
Some commotion was happening just outside our room. We were getting ready to go out for the evening prayers. Upon coming out of the room we saw a sea of footwear just at our doorstep. The origin of that sea of leather and rubber was the next door which we thought was housing more people than a mini stadium would contain at that moment. We were looking for our sandals. Soon the next door opened and a wave of dark men clad in white starched dhotis and shirts came out. Some of them looked like leaders and some of them looked like followers. The most interesting yet eerie part of the scene was that most of them were neither leaders nor followers but young men looking like thugs and plunderers capable enough to do anything for the leaders. The sea of humanity filled the corridor and we stood at the shore watching the spectacle silently. We knew that Jayalalitha was in hospital and all of them were either from the ruling AIDMK or the opposition DMK who were deciding their next political move if the worst had happened. Sooner than later, from the black and red flags fitted on the innumerable vehicles that had been haphazardly parked in the compound we understood that they were from the ruling party. Suddenly we panicked; we thought something had happened to Jayalalitha. Tamil Nadu has its worst history of vandalism and self immolation at the moment of their beloved leaders or film stars. A few buses would be torched and shops looted; that's how they expressed their frustration. The first impulse was to leave Tamil Nadu at the earliest. But we hoped for the best and stayed on. Jayalalitha 'lived on' for another two months.
A city or town is always felt than seen. There is a sudden change that not only alerts your eyes but also the whole being. There is an methodical madness everywhere. Traffic increases and roads widen. Hoardings appear and small markets form before your eyes. Tamilians like the French had had the habit of opposing other languages; as a political ideology they opposed Hindi after Indian independence and as a proud people they extolled Tamil, one of the oldest languages in the world, to heights. They opposed English but the Hindu newspaper became the most reliable English paper published from Chennai, erstwhile Madras. So if you do not see any English boards or signage anywhere in the public space do not worry; just brace yourself up for figuring out the place with your google map, gut feeling and the rudimentary understanding of Tamil if any. Slowly we figure out the place is Rajapalayam and the district is Virudhunagar. An ancient Cantonment town established by the Rajus sent by the Vijayanagara kings to spread the influence of the kingdom towards the south. The Rajus became successful in doing so and they became the rulers of the place as well. The glory of RajapAlayam remained till the Naykar rule in the 17th century CE.
"Have you heard of the Rajapalayam Breed of Dogs?" Shibu asks me. I look at him. Then he describes the peculiarities of the dog. "It's white in colour, has a pink nose and golden pupils," he says from the driving seat. I imagine different kinds of breeds and finally imagine a dog that suits to the descriptions given by Shibu. "This breed is very special and very costly. Because of that you don't even see a stray dog in the streets of Rajapalayam," he says. Shibu likes cars and dogs and owns them. I too like cars and dogs but I do not have any. Shibu has a dog whose name is Tinku the second. He is very friendly to me. Tinku the first was a fiercer one but had fallen to some virus and died. In my childhood we had a dog and his name was 'Kuttan'- no fancy name at all. Kuttan is a homely name. Kuttan could be a boy at your home or in the neighbourhood or a dog at your home or in the neighbourhood. If someone calls out 'kuttaa' invariably a boy and a dog would show up at the courtyard. That dog grew up with us and died one day. We never got a dog home ever since. But I have a way with the dogs. They come barking and I speak to them like a friend and they become docile. But I don't like spoilt dogs that grow up inside homes. One day I saw a dog giving a kiss to Shibu at a friend's place which he later told me that was the first dog kiss that he ever got in his life. Like Lady Macbeth he went on washing his lips for sometime.
Dogs get their names from the enemies of their owners. Most of the Indian dogs have got names like 'johny' , 'Tipu', 'Kaisar' and so on. Names like johny, tommy etc come from the Indians' hatred for the colonising white people. When they used to treat Indians as dogs, the very same Indians retaliated symbolically by giving their dogs the names of the white masters. Dominant history demonised Tipu Sultan for being a Muslim. Though he had fought against the British and had earned the name of Mysore Tiger, the Indians tend to hate him because the history written by the British made him and his father Hyder Ali look like the enemies of the Hindus. So the Hindus name their dogs as Tipu. Naming is an ideology as well as strategy. One of the most faithful beings in the world dogs are looked down upon by human beings. They may by a dog spending a few lakh rupees but they never give them divine names. They are always called names that sound cute and less ideological these days. However the age old system of naming the dog with their enemy's name still prevails. I look up to the Wikipedia to know more about the Rajapalayam breed of dogs. They are the hound dogs, fast and strong, used in breeding Dalmatian dogs. Even in Rajapalayam the breed fell into bad times and now is almost extinct. There have been efforts to revive the breed since 1981 but the city that gave its name to the dog breed now seems to be having any even as a sample. I look for some stray dogs in the city streets and find none. Perhaps the stray dog issue could be solved if the government declares dogs as high worth creatures and naming the stray as Canine Indica straytist with national culture and mythological values every stray in the country would find a home.
Try as much as you want with all the resources that you have to reach a place to worship a god or goddess if providence does not will it to make your will realised you would never get to that place. A detour or an accident, a quarrel or a calamity could dissuade you from going there. But if the cosmic forces will to take you somewhere none or nothing could stop you from reaching there. Both Shibu and myself had never thought of visiting the Srivilliputhur Andal Temple in RajapAlayam. We drive by and suddenly there comes up a temple gopuram in the sky sending signals to us. But we incline to neglect it as we take a right turn. We are not looking for a god here but a lemon. Two bottles of palm toddy are in our Murugan the Gurkha. To drink it we need to get a piece of lemon to squeeze it in. Before we could say lemon or look for a shop that sells it there comes up a signage that tells us Srivilliputhur Andal Temple or Srivilliputhur Deva Desam temple. The pull is so strong and we park the car and get out into the hot street. The young man in the shop where we park the car is so helpful that he tells us that it is his responsibility to make sure that none touches the car.
We walk towards the temple as its history unveils itself to us. Andal was an 8th century Saint and poet who is said to be the consort of Lord Vishnu. This is a Vaishnava temple. Periyalwar, one of the saints who lived here was wishing to have a daughter and one day he found a baby girl under the basil tree. He adopts her and names her Andal; as she grows up she becomes a staunch devotee of Vishnu, Ranganatha. Andal one day worships Vishnu by garlanding the idol with the basil garland that she is wearing. Seeing this periyalwar gets upset and chides her. In his dream Vishnu appears and says that he likes the garland that Andal wears and the worship should be done so henceforth. Andal is said to have married Ranganath here and dissolved in him. Srivilliputhur temple is a two in one temple with the idols of both Andal and vatapathra shayin Vishnu. Created by Pandya kings this temple gopuram is the tallest one with 196 feet vimana. The picture of it is used by the Tamil Nadu government as its official emblem. Till 17th century CE the glory of the temple remained high and there was an attack on the temple by a Muslim chieftain. During the British period interestingly the administration of the temple was given to the king of Travancore.
We reach the sanctum sanctorum of the Andal Temple. A marriage is on. As it is the place where Andal got married to Vishnu most of the marriages are blessed here. We stand there praying, surprisingly I realise that my prayer is all for the well being of the couple who have just got married. The girl looks beautiful and the boy elated. The garbha gruha throbs with the mangala Dhwani; auspicious music played live by traditional musicians using takil and nadaswaram. We come out. There just outside the mandapam there is a flex board that announces the marriage that has been held just now. The bridegroom is Sathiamoorthy MCA and the bride is Sangeethavalli MA BEd. In an adjacent hall a grand feast is getting ready. We could smell the mouthwatering fragrance of the freshly cooked foods.
We walk back. The vendors call out at us to come and get some souvenirs. Flower sellers here sell more leaves than flowers. Andal was found under a basil tree. And she worshipped Vishnu with basil flowers. So a true devotee should buy some basil leaves garland and give it to the priest. We find it sheer waste of plants. But temples are economic centres too. There is a parallel economy there. The woman who has asked us to keep our footwear for us sulks as we refuse to buy basil garlands and sweets from her. She refuses to take money. What makes this temple town interesting is the presence of young girls in saris who 'woman' all the shops that sell temple related stuff including sweets and prasadam. Unlike other vendors they do not shout and entice you. These mini versions of Andal stand and look at you dispassionately. In fact we don't need anything from the shops. But we take their faces and gaze with us. Lo.. there is a shop finally showing some lemons. We go there buy one and get it cut. Back in car I squeeze half a lemon into one bottle and shake it up well. Then I take a sip. A strange taste passes through my food pipe. I trace it in my mind. It settles. My stomach has accepted it. I take one more sip and hand the bottle over to Shibu. He too takes two sips ritualistically. Suddenly we imagine Bangalore really close to us even though it is a good 350 kilometres away from where we are now. The red Indian G Wagon ambles back on the hot asphalt road from the sidewalk. The road heaves a sigh along its undulations.