Life is like a jigsaw puzzle. We keeping arranging the pieces; at times we are successful in getting the right to pieces together and at other times we do not know why we get only the wrong pieces. There is something karmic to it, it seems. The karma that we have done so far directs us to certain pieces that happen to us as the effects of those karmas. Those people do not believe in karma call it chance; an accident. Some people think that life itself is an accident; the birth is accidental. I believe that such people miss the point. Sages have talked about the ways in which life takes many forms in successive births depending on the karmic deposits. However, those people who believe in the materialistic political ideologies suddenly counter it with the argument saying that such belief in karmic theory is only made to consolidate the social division and hierarchies. In India, today if we speak of karma, they would definitely say that it is all made up to justify the casteist logic or the caste system prevalent in India. Nobody likes caste system; and there is no reason why there should be caste system at all. But it is said that in the beginning caste came as a part of social division and no caste was looked down upon. None was considered high or low depending on the caste. It was more like a labor division or professional categorization. But the idea of caste system took root when organized societies started handling more and more centralized power and affluence. Hence, we should say that caste system is more of a socio-political derivate than a religious imposition which unfortunately got colored by the theories of religion only to gain more authoritative and convincing parlance among the common people. If we keep a debate on the caste system out of this context we could continue to say that karma gives everyone a chance to improve their lives in which ever strata they belong to or whichever form they assume to have. Materialists would say that if someone is deprived of the chances of improving how could they achieve a better life? Ironically, everyone attaches improvement to material flourish. You could be absolutely blind and ignorant in terms of knowledge and vision but if you could amass a lot of wealth you would be passed off as a great personality. But the idea of karmic improvement does not have anything to do with the materialistic improvement. It is all about turning the life into a pious act of living on the earth.
I would like to believe that each encounter has a karmic predestination, whether it is with another human being/s or with a place or event. Life is led by a chain of karmic suggestions and the job of a human being is to attune him/herself to those suggestions by sharpening one’s sensory powers. So many people meet so many others and they simply forget having come across such people. People read and forget; people experience and forget. Their encounters are absent minded and devoid of any karmic intensity. But if you are intense in your approach and intense always in all your sensory faculties, then nothing leaves you without it becoming an experience. All the experiences are not fundamental; but fundamental experiences would change you for good. These are called life changing experiences. Interestingly, each experience is a life changing experience though most of the people do not see it as so. The life changing experiences however do not take you to different directions; if you are attuned to life, it would definitely lead you towards the ultimate mission of life; the realization of your own self and attaining in complete bliss. When you become the seer and seen in that state of being, you do not differentiate between one experience from the other as you understand that everything is a part of the whole. With the gross body in place and so much focus on the gross body, human beings often miss the experiences and take whatever comes as a part of the routine. They are afraid of new experiences and they define experiences as going for vacation; the purposeful means to make experiences. An intense living is something that you become fully aware of all what is happening to you, all what is coming to you and all what is going from you.
That’s why I think that my intention to visit Vizhinjam, the ancient port city in Trivandrum, South of Kerala was karmic in many ways. Couple of years back Vizhinjam became the talk of the country when the Government of Kerala gave the contract to develop this port into a state of the art port to the Adanis who are supposed to be close to the BJP party and its leader and India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. There was a lot of hue and cry about and against this allotment. Though I had journalistic interest in that subject at that point of time, I did not feel like visiting the port. But recently when I was searching casually about the ancient sites in Kerala, I found that in Vizhinjam there was a rock cut cave which was dated in 8th century CE. The pictures that I saw in the websites were not very attractive but I thought that it was some sort of an indication that I should be taking into consideration. I checked for the other sites near around Vizhinjam and found out that the place was inhabited mostly by the fisher folk and there were a few mosques and churches in the area. When I decided to visit the place, I had no idea that there would be something waiting in store for me that would directly connect myself with Poonthura Swami whom Gopikrishna was extolling the other day. I definitely had no intention to visit Poonthura and even if I had wished for it, I would have postponed it to another occasion. But the jigsaw pieces of life were falling differently before me and I had to do nothing but pick up the pieces and try. Karma is such that when I picked up the pieces those turned out to be the right ones to complete a beautiful picture.
In this trip I am accompanied by my nephew, Arvind Prakash, who has a special interest in this visit for he wants to do some photography near the sea apart from having a Biriyani meal from some restaurant. We get down at the Trivandrum central bus stand and take another bus to Vizhinjam. The noon is hot and had it not been to a new place I would have slept all the way for the breeze that comes in is so soothing. As we approach the Vizhinjam area, the quality of the breeze changes; it becomes salty, cool and I feel sea in it. As a person who has been brought up near backwaters and sea, I could sense the change in the wind and I could differentiate between a wind coming from the eastern direction and the ones coming from the western direction. I anticipate the site of a sea. At Vizhinjam bus stand, which is moderate and less populated, we get down and come out to ask for the directions to the rock cut cave and the churches. The local guys who come forward to direct us enthusiastically show us the way to the rock cut cave temple and they point out at the opposite direction to say that it is the way to the churches. I make a quick decision to visit the rock cut cave first and the churches later. We thank the people who have directed us and walk. The sun beats down on us and we regret to have not taken umbrellas or caps with us. The whole town has gone behind the shades, I feel, because there are very few people on the roads and even the tea shops and restaurants look deserted. Only a lottery ticket seller looks hopeful. Kerala is full of such fortune seekers; the sellers and buyers of lottery tickets. They say they make a decent living out of selling lottery tickets. I believe the lottery makers have now created a lot of small sum prizes so that huge number of people tests their luck. What you lose is Rs.50/- and if you get you start getting Rs.500/- onwards. In all the town centers I see people thronging before lottery counters. Also in the night buses to villages I see lottery sellers sitting in semi-darkness and comparing the day’s sales.
From the Vizhinjam bus stand, walk a few yards up and take a left turn and immediately after ten meters you see an inconspicuous gate that leads to an enclosed plot with a signage of the rock cut cave. There is a slender paved way leading to the cave. At the edge of it you are supposed to remove your shoes though there is no instruction written anywhere there. We go near the cave and the name cave does not match to the idea of a cave. It is a moderate monolith with a small square door cut into it and a broken bust of Dakshinamurty Shiva is kept inside. The shrine is not on a pedestal so that it stands below your knees. Due to the constant lighting of lamps and agarbattis, the idol looks dark and oily. I could see red kumkum and yellow turmeric powder smeared on it. On the right side of the square encasement, on the flat front portion, we could see the faint depiction of Veenapani Shiva (Shiva holding veena). Though the face and other gestural details have been chipped away by time and perhaps vandalism, one could understand the iconography by closer observation. On the left side of the frontal portion we see the relief life depiction of Shiva and Parvati. The same erosion of the surface is visible here too. We go behind the rock and climb up and then climb down by the other side where a huge banyan tree stands. An old dog has taken refuge there. Arvind kneels down in front of the cave and takes some photographs. Someone makes a polite cough and says that it is a live shrine with puja done every day so we should not take any frontal pictures of it. We could step back and take pictures. It is when I notice that apart from us there are three more people in the campus. Slightly hidden from the view they have been sitting on the other slender pavement under the cool shade of a huge tree. I profusely make apologies and tell them that we did not know that it is a live temple. They give us a friendly smile.
The setting is serene and there is a pervading calmness and it is the right backdrop for any conversation to start with absolutely strange people in a given temple context. They are three people. We wear our shoes and are about to leave the place. Then one of them asks our whereabouts. I tell them that I come from a village called Vakkom near Attingal, they show the smiles of familiarity. One of them recounts the name of a famous politician who hails from our village and I tell them that exactly the same place. Then they ask what has brought me there. I tell them that I live in Delhi and while searching for the sites to visit in Kerala I found this place out and thought of visiting it. One of them asks me how this place is described in the net. I tell him what I have read about it. Then he tells me the history of the place which is not officially mentioned in the websites that I have gone through. The official story is that this place came into prominence between 8th century and 12th century CE under the Ay kingdom. They had developed this port and a fort and this place had a name ‘Kottappuram’ too, which literally meant Fort Area. Then there were wars with Cheras and Pandyas, and the eventual prominence was that of the Cholas. There are historical evidences from the place that this port had relationships with Greece and the Arabic world. According to this man who is ready to impart his knowledge about the place, this area had around twenty four temples of different sizes. Around 1000 years back there was a Tsunami in this place and around twenty temples were sucked away by the sea. Now there are three abandoned temple ruins in the area, which nobody visits these days and the fourth one is this rock cut cave, which withstood the onslaught of the ancient Tsunami. Another person chimes in with another side of the story. He says that the shallow encasement in this rock cut temple is in fact a door to a deep cave which has been blocked with granite slabs for preventing people and animals going into it. I look at the cave once again and if I want I could believe it and if I do not want I could do that also. I prefer to believe it for it gives a mystic aura to the place.
“Apart from the website, who else has talked to you about this place?” one of them asks me as if there is a larger purpose behind that question. I think for a while. “None has told me apart from the websites,” I say, then I add, “But such places of power and spiritual pull naturally attract people. For example, the other day I visited a friend of mine and he was telling me about Poonthura Swamy. Nobody used to tell anybody about him in those days but siddhas and avdhoots used to come there even from the North. Spiritual paces perhaps do not need such advertisement as they have this natural ability to attract,” I conclude. I look at their face. They look different. They smiled alike. Their eyes were sending glances to each other. “What did you say, did you say Poonthura Swamy?” one of them asks me. I say that I did say it. Then they tell me in unison that they come from Poonthura Swamy’s ashram. I feel shocked. How come? They say that they have come there for some purpose. I do not ask them what the purpose was. They introduce themselves to me. One of them fishes out a laminated picture from his pocket and gives it to me. I look at the picture and see an old man sitting on his haunches. “This is Poonthura Swamy?” I ask. Yes, says the man and adds, “It is for you.” “We are here to take you there,” says the first man. I say, no. “I want to go the churches first and then I will come there,” I assure them. “We can take you there right away,” says the second man. “No, let me come all by myself. Let me finish visiting the churches,” I say. “There we will give you calendar also,” the third person entices me. I smile and tell them that I really would like to have that calendar. Then I take leave from them and walk out of the premises. I do not want to look back for the simple reason that I do not want them as human beings. I want to see them as karmic angels who have come to direct me to a place that my friend had mentioned a couple of days back.
At the fisher folks’ village on the other side, Arvind goes berserk with his photographic enthusiasm. The number of boats moored there are simply a visual treat. Along the horizon line I could see two mosques and I find that walking to them would take at least an hour and I do not dare to walk under this sun which shovels down fire from his celestial workplace. Just above us, on the hill there are two temples; the one at the foot of the hill has a huge and imposing sculpture of Jesus Christ. He reminds me of the Angel of North by Anthony Gormley. Suddenly a drunken man appears and I show him the picture of a church that I have been wishing to visit. It is a church named ‘Our Lady of Good Voyage Church’. As the name mentions the Mother Mary of the church is supposed to protect the fishermen who venture into the sea for their livelihood. The drunkard shows us the way. We have to walk through the winding narrow paths that run in between maze like houses. Finally we reach the church and at the peak of it I see that the tower is designed like a fishing boat. Inside the church some parish function is on the one side of the hall. On the other side of the altar a group of worshippers are singing hymns. On the right side of the altar are the pews that have been pushed to a side. A host of worshippers who have come by a tourist bus now come to the altar and start taking photographs than saying prayers. Mother Mary holding the infant Jesus on the left hand has a boat held high in her right hand. On her right side there is a Crucified Christ and right under his feet He is seen laid to rest in white clothes inside a glass casket. Two old women sitting on the floor and saying silent prayers just call out to me and say in a language which is a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam, “Periyavare (Sir), did you see the kurisadi church?” I say that I have not. They get up from there and ask me to follow them. They take me to the boundary wall of the church and points to the foot of the hill where the huge Jesus Christ stands. I pretend that I have not seen it and promise to see it while going back. Though I have already seen it and even photographed it, I tell this lie to them in order not to dampen their enthusiasm.
After the church visit, I decide to go to Poonthura. I ask my nephew whether he is energetic enough to follow me. He says yes and reminds me of the Biriyani. We get into a bus which would take us to a place called ‘Ambalathara’. From there we need to take an auto to Poonthura Swamy’s ashram. At the Ambalathara junction we see a decent restaurant and we eat Biriyani there. Biriyani is a food that would never be upto an imagined mark. Here too the food is not upto the mark, passes a judgment by Arvind. I could not help agreeing with it. Then we take an auto rickshaw to Poonthura Swamy’s ashram. The moment we get down from the rickshaw, inside boundary wall of a temple I see one of the men who have just met me there in the cave temple. He waves and asks us to come inside. Poonthura Swamy was living in the road side hut and the temple is a bit away from the hut. The temple is a good granite structure and he tells me that fifteen years back on a Pooradam day Poonthura Swamy attained Samadhi. His physical body was lowered and on which within two years this stone temple was built with Lord Shiva as the shrine. We see the ashram head, Swamy Sugathan. He is a scientist retired from the Indian Space Research Organization and now has huge dread locks. He offers us tea and biscuit which we take it in a shed where we meet Murugan, the blind helper of Poonthura Swamy. Murugan was a vagabond from the neighborhood who became the helper for Poonthura Swamy. Now he spends night in the temple and day time at the hut. The blind man is a happy person. Despite his multiple handicaps he seems to be very pleasant and enthusiastic.
That particular corner in Poonthura does not seem to be exceptional but it’s very ordinariness makes it exceptional. The roadside hut under the banyan tree is where Poonthura Swamy used to spend his time in mediation. He never used to talk to people. Those who came seeking blessings often got beatings and abuses from him rather. That story reminds me of the Mookkippodi Swamy of Thiruvannamalai. Mookkippodi swamy’s abuses and beatings are considered to be his blessings. This time when I visited Thiruvannamalai, in many a shop I saw the merchandise with Mookkippodi swamy’s picture giving me a clear indication that the people had come around him to make him an establishment. They must be waiting for his Samadhi so that they could start an organization and ashram around his name and start a good business. Inside the hut the floor is laid with soft sand. One could sit inside for hours together. I see one young man sitting in meditation there. Across the road there is an ashram coming up in the name of Poonthura Bhagavan, the one who had disappeared one day. Just behind the hut there is a huge palm tree and a temple. There are some small structures that house local deities like ‘Karanavar’ and ‘Karanvathi’ (Uncle and Aunt). Sugathan Swamy gives me a calendar with a picture of Poonthura Swamy. I buy a small book about Poonthura Swamy from him. He asks my name. I am very reluctant to say my name. Finally I say, “Johny Lakshmanan,” but I add, “I have another name; Aksharananda.” He smiles at me. The name ‘JohnyML’ seems to be pushing me down. I would like to do away with it. I want to be free from it. With this thought I leave from the place with a promise that I would come back again.