The destination now is Bangalore. A month back Shibu had agreed to the management of the Chitra Kala Parishath, Karnataka, functioning from Bangalore to go there for an illustrated lecture as a part of an artists' camp to be held in the month of February, which he thought would also fall in the same time of our road trip. So we decide to the familiar road via Tenkasi but without getting into the famous temple which we had visited a few months back. Tenkasi has one of the biggest Shiva temples in India. Established by the Pandya kings who ruled Tamil Nadu from 2nd century BCE to 17th century CE Tenkasi Viswanathar temple is said to be the South Indian abode of Shiva and visiting the temple is considered to be as auspicious as visiting uttara Kashi which is also known as Benaras or Varanasi. A year back I was planning to visit Benaras and also had done the basic reading and research prior to the visit but the idea did not materialise due to various other factors. Recently a friend of mine who is a professor in Benaras Hindu university extended an invitation to me but I said the calling had not yet come. The destiny, if you would call all what happens to your life as that had something different in store for me. My destiny was to visit dakshina Kashi first and then the northern counterpart of it that I am always looking forward to with some sort of exhilaration and anxiety.
The name Kashi for the Hindus of India as well as for those people all over the world who rever Hinduism as a world religion worth following is a name that evokes multiple senses of spirituality and spiritual deliverance. In Kashi the dead bodies burn at the ghats and the living bodies burn their excessive desires and become pure spirits. People visiting Kashi for curiosity sake and with touristic intentions could perhaps tick off one more destinations in their logbook but for a real believer the one who goes into Kashi is never the one who comes out if at all one does so. 'Going to Kashi' or '(someone) has gone to Kashi' itself an expression that underlines the person's intention to renounce the world. Going to Kashi, Hinduism says would deliver one from all sins committed so far or it would absorb one into its spirit. Even dying at Kashi is said to be a passport to heaven. Scholars who have written about Kashi say that it is not one temple that makes Kashi a holy city but innumerable temples that make a city holy. One of the former naxalites who has taken the path of spirituality, Philip M. Prasad in one the interviews says that India is a wonderful country whose centres of faith are like an underground network of termites, with one baba here and one sanyasi there the whole country has been woven into versions of the same faith; that's the beauty of Hinduism. It sounds so true when you travel through India where even in the remotest of place one would see a temple and a baba who has perhaps nothing to do with the temple.
In Tenkasi, in front of the Rajagopuram Shibu and myself had stood in awe. The morning was still not busy though devotees from different places had already come to the vicinity of the temple. We entered the temple and didn't know that it was just a beginning and it would take us many other temples in the country which had already created the invisible net work of a culture that stands like monolith despite all the intrinsic differences and counter ideological movements. The idol in there is a lingam, the iconic and emblematic representation of lord Shiva. In many a temple in India the Shiva idols are left in its primal symbolism. The priests do not add a face or thripundram (three horizontal lines with holy ash, Vibhuti). Nor do they add a third eye right in the middle of three lines. The naked lingam which often of granite sits safely on a vulva like form with a downward curve at one end. It is the perfect symbol of the unification of Shiva and Shakti, Purusha and Prakriti, Yin and Yang, Word and Meaning, the doer and the deed. When the dancer and the dancer become one there happens nothing but prayer, says Tagore in his play, Natir Puja. In Shiva lingam we see this perfect union; it's a prayer.
In this trip we do not want to go to the temple again. Our idea is to cross the city as early as possible so that we could cover a major distance by evening and could settle for the night before we reach Bangalore. Shibu has already geared up his Force Gurkha with an inflatable bed, fans, additional battery and so for a night stay in the car. It is his standing wish to spend at least five years in the vehicle, visiting places and paint from live models and places. Hence we are very thrilled to start our night stay in the car. However we want to reach as close to Bangalore so that by next morning we could resume our journey by empty roads. Somehow, as we pass by the holy city of Tenkasi I just could not stop thinking about our last visit. After coming out of the temple I had to take a leak and was looking for a public comfort station and sooner than later I found one. To my dismay I found the gates to the urinal locked. I asked a person standing nearby. Without giving any damn to my growing discomfort the person said that the janitor had gone on leave that day and he did not see a chance of the urinal functioning that day. An important temple with thousands of male and female devotees visiting it a day has only one comfort station in its vicinity which is under lock and key. Finally I went by the Indian male way; urinating in the roadside. Not so comfortable with this I went looking for a suitable cover and after roaming around for a full ten minutes found a partial cover which exposed only my awkward profile to the world and I did it only to raise my head in all relief and see the board of a local magistrate court! But in Indian legal system with a snail's pace and laxity would take at least a few years to punish me even if I had been caught doing an inescapable offence!
We are now in the road that leads towards Bangalore and we have to cut at least six districts to reach the Karnataka border. By nine in the morning we stop at a wayside shop to have a cup of tea. A few villagers sit on bench reading newspapers. We look at the papers and find one of the latest political dramas covered in detail with pictures. Sasikala/Chinnamma was asked to surrender before a court in Karnataka by the Supreme Court of India and she had gone to the memorial shrine of Jayalalitha/Amma to seek permission and pray. Sasikala did something very peculiar there in the shrine at the Marina Beach; she slapped the marble slab thrice with a strange emotion sweeping over her face. Her act had sent the whole of India talking about it. The Hindu newspaper said that the slapping was an old time practice called 'vanchitam cheyven' (I will take revenge) which was prevalent in Chera kingdom. Many theories were discussed hence we too were curious about it. What's it all about, I ask the newspaper readers. They say it is about Chinnamma's act. They sound scornful and full of hate for her. What did she say while slapping the slab? I press on. The villagers seem to be not really literate. "I could read only big letters," one of them says. We try to make sense out of the pictures once again but in vain. One thing is sure: you find hardly any supporters of Sasikala. They want their Amma back not Chinnamma.
It is time to meet a happy couple. Shibu tells me about the palm toddy that he had tasted in one of his trips along the same route a couple of years back. He vaguely remembers the place and luckily the vagueness vanishes and clarity comes in. He presses the break pedal exactly the place where he had once bought a bottle of palm toddy. A couple whose age could be anything between thirty and forty wait with their wares there on the road side. We cross the road and as Shibu exchanges pleasantries with the couple I look on. The man is strong and his muscled body is only clad with a pair of shorts. He has the tapping equipments fitted to his modest two wheeler. They have a few bottles (two litres each) of toddy with them and we buy two bottles. I am a bit skeptical about driving after drinking this. Shibu assures me that it is not intoxicating at all but it has good taste. The man and woman tell us in unison to add some lemon juice in it before we drink it. "We put choona (lime) around the palm shoots to ward off the insects and other creatures. Adding lemon would neutralise the effect of the choona otherwise it could give a burning feeling."
We take some photographs and go back to the car. We need to get some lemon before we drink it. Both of us had left drinking and smoking long back. This is just an experiment and now to experience it we need to get a piece of lemon. Corona beer does not have choona in it but people drink it adding a piece of lemon. Rum drinkers suggest that a piece of lemon in it could do wonders. Many cocktails taste good only because of lemon and mint. Coconut toddy and many other alcoholic drinks are consumed with lemon pickle for a lick now and then. Here we need a piece of lemon to neutralise the calcium carbonate content in the toddy. Though our destination is Bangalore for the time being our destination seems to be a shop where we get a lemon and in the sweltering Tamil Nadu as if in magic all the wayside shops seem to have vanished into thin air leaving no trace of that yellow fruit called lemon.