If there is an indirect connection between the Sree Narayana Guru Samadhi architecture at the top of the Sivagiri Hills and myself, it is the age that we share; both are forty eight years old. To be accurate this architecture is one year senior to me as it was consecrated in 1968. Somehow, there is always a karmic connection between myself and this place, exactly the same way many people from the villages near and around Sivagiri feel. We all revere Sree Narayana Guru as the ultimate Guru and his great philosophical sayings, ‘One Caste, One Religion, One God for human beings’ and ‘Whatever be the religion, the human beings should be good,’ and so on, have been there always as the backdrop of our intellectual and world view formations. If you ask me what made Marxism successful in Kerala I would say it was the teachings of Sree Narayana Guru. The ground that he tilled was fertile enough for the Marxists to sow their seeds. Sree Narayana Guru stood for uplifting the downtrodden caste and class. He stood against all what had been dubbed as Brahminical then. He consecrated a non-Brahminical Shiva in Aruvippuram and established an Ashram in Aluva called Aluva Advaita Ashramam in order to impart the Vedantic education to the downtrodden castes through the medium of Sanskrit which was denied to them for ages. Interestingly, Guru found the place for this Ashram exactly a few kilometers away from Kaladi where Adi Shankaracharya was born.
I have not been visiting Guru Samadhi at Sivagiri for many years and this time I make it a point to visit the place. Varkala, where Sivagiri is located has changed beyond recognition. When I get down from the bus, the very same town where I had spent three important years in my life (the formative years between the age of sixteen and eighteen) looks absolutely strange. The layout of the town has been changed by the arrival of an underpass. When I was a student at the SN College, Varkala this underpass was not there. There was a level cross which used to cause a huge traffic commotion and delay in those days. There had been a demand for making a fly over or an underpass since then. However, it took many years for that to happen and by that time people like us had grown up and left the place. There are two important junctions before we enter Varkala town. One is the General Hospital junction, the roads that run parallel to the sea shore and the road that comes from the undulating landscape away from the sea shore converge at this junction and I used to think that only the sick people got down at that junction. Now with this underpass we enter the town directly and reach the heart of the town called ‘Maithanam’ (literally means a ground). If you take a left turn and travel for around two kilometers you could reach the famous Papanasam Beach and the illustrious Varkala Janardhana Swami Temple. If you take left and go further you reach the Guru Samadhi. In those good old days, the junction that led to Sivagiri Guru Samadhi was an important one. There were two movie halls at that junction, namely Varkala S.R and Vimala, not really twin theatres but stood side by side. S.R was a famous brand in Varkala and it had several buses in the local routes. Also it is was said that Vimala was S.R’s wife. The other two movie halls were Saina at Maithanam and Vasu beyond Varkala Railway station. All these single screen halls went into various changes over the years and I believe Saina has been closed down by now.
I cross the former railway crossing which was once a busy area now looks absolutely abandoned. There are two workshops on the either side of the tracks; one is a motor bike repair centre and the other is a car workshop. People who have something to do with the motor vehicles hang out there. Some auto rickshaws are parked under a tree with their drivers sleeping inside them. I reach the S.R junction and find that the theatre is still in business. I see the posters of one of the latest Malayalam movies. It was in this theatre I had seen my first movie with a pornographic clip inserted. In those days the college boys used to skip afternoon classes to catch up with such movies where were exhibited as ‘Noon Shows’. Getting into a theatre for a Noon Show was a difficult task as we needed to hide from the public eye. We were constantly afraid of being caught by the elders. We also used to conjure up the funny scenarios in which the elders from our own families or neighborhood sitting next to us or in the near rows and pretending not to have seen us. Though we were afraid of being caught by the college authorities and even by the theatre owners who we foolishly thought would betray us by reporting our presence in the theatre to the college authorities, never thought that the Noon Shows were run for people like us only. We did not have the smartness to think so. My first experience of watch a porn clip was revolting and I never attempted to watch such movies again.
The road that leads to Sivagiri is a broad and winding one. The sun is too hot to bear. I look for some shade and to my frustration I found the shade giving trees are alternatively grown on either side of the road. That means, if you walk under the shade for fifty meters, the next fifty meters you have shade on the other side of the road; either you have to cross the road and go under the shade of the trees or you have to wade through the scorching sun for another fifty to hundred meters to get under the shade of another row of tree on this side itself. As I find the zigzagging would be dangerous though the traffic is almost nil on this road, I prefer to remain on the left side of the road and walk. Before you reach the foot of the Sivagir hills, you have to cross a small bridge that in fact is the bridge that goes over the famous Varkala Thurappu (Varkala Tunnel). Once upon a time this canal was the main waterway that transported people and goods from south to central Kerala and further. As coir and coconut crops were the main business items, they used to be transported in huge boats with manual oars. As it took many days to reach from one place to another as the manual rowing was taxing and slow, the workers in such boats used to live inside the boats. As they cooked inside the boat, they had developed a special menu for themselves, which now has become a part of the water tourism in houseboats in Kerala. The houseboats are modeled after the erstwhile goods carrier boats, which were known as ‘Kettu Vallam’. Today that tunnel and canal looks absolutely abandoned and clogged by weeds and creepers. Ironically, this is the case with Allappuzha which is known as the Venice of the East. Recently in my visit to the place, I noticed that one a stretch of the canal is cleared and in use for touristic purposes but rest of the canal is choked by weeds and disuse.
On my right I could see the huge open space which provides the stage and auditorium for the annual Pilgrimage in Sivagiri to commemorate the life and philosophy of Sree Narayana Guru. In 1928, the same year Guru entered Samadhi, a few of his disciples had approached him with an idea of conducting an annual pilgrimage to Sivagiri. Though Guru was against the idea first, finally he accepted the request of the disciples. He asked the Pilgrims to wear yellow clothes, observe ten days of vrat and propagate the ideas of education, cleanliness, organization, trade, trust in god, agriculture, handicrafts and technical training. Guru was not only a philosopher and spiritual leader but also a practical thinker and social reformer for he knew very well how a society without education would remain groping in darkness. To education, he joined all other life missions to create an integrated system of living. And Guru thought of using the occasion of Theerthaadanam, Pilgrimage as a rallying point for these ideas. On 30th December to 1st January of every near, this Pilgrimage takes place in Sivagiri and during all these three days there are cultural and spiritual congregations, public meetings, ideations and presentation of art and culture by the reputed professionals as well as the local talents. Sivagiri Theerthadanam is one of the biggest annual spiritual congregations that spread the ideas proposed by Sree Narayana Guru. The open space now remains empty; but during the Pilgrimage days this space turns into a huge make shift auditorium with state of the art facilities.
There has been an announcement recently by none other than the business magnet and philanthropist, Yousuf Ali that he would like to give Rs.2 crore to the Sivagiri Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham, an organization and Trust created for propagating Guru’s ideas, in order to make a permanent auditorium for the Sivagiri Theerthadanam. Mr.Ali did hand over a cheque worth of the same amount to the directors of the Sangham. I became curious on this philanthropic act only because it happened almost during the same time as a controversy regarding Sree Narayana Guru’s sculpture done by one of the organizers of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. This artist who hails from the Muslim community in Kerala soon dissociated himself from the controversy by making no public statements regarding this. The same Yousuf Ali had contributed Rs.2 crore to the KMB Foundation a year back. When I read these two events parallel I could see some deeper meanings to it. Sooner than later this same business tycoon was elected as one of the members of the Pravasa Bharatiya Friends of Modi Award committee. Reading these things together I could understand that Yousuf Ali is one such business man who despite his religion keeps good relationship with the so called RSS backed BJP Government at the centre. I do not have any problem with Mr.Ali. But what I see is the larger politics played by the KMB through Mr.Ali. The KMB is making its position safe even in a scenario when the BJP becoming a power in Kerala. This is the same KMB that talks about religious persecution and intolerance of the BJP government. I would say, if you see it carefully, the artist who has done the controversial Guru sculpture is the most apolitical and opportunist artist in India, who in order to cover up his cowardice and double standards keep talking about ‘political’ in art.
I walk towards the foot of the Sivagiri Hills where the famous Sarada Mutt temple is located. Consecrated by Sree Narayana Guru himself this is one of the rare Saraswati Devi temples in India. Guru gave prominence to education in his philosophy and he thought it was important to have a Saraswati temple than any other temple at the foot of Sivagiri hills. The Guru Samadhi is further up and there is a new flight steps have come up. In those days, though there were latterite stone steps, one could feel the soft sand under one’s soles. But now they have been made into concrete steps with a coat of cement over it. At the first bend of the steps, I could see a new temple coming up. Artisans from Tamil Nadu are working there; I am sure this new introduction is to turn the Guru Samadhi area into a more ritualistic and ‘Hindu’ space than a spiritual space. I am not surprised. Wherever I go these days I could see new temples coming up and old temples getting renovated. Guru was for making more temples for he thought that these spaces could become the centers of education, organization and above all cleanliness. But today temple making is a good business as more and more people are inclined to the ritualistic side of the religion than the spiritual side of it. They do not even acknowledge the fact that Adi Sankaracharya who had organized Hindu religion as we see today had said it categorically that Vedic Rituals were also to be discarded at some stage for complete spiritual awakening. In Ramana Ashram I could see Vedic rituals getting prominence. And Sivagiri too, I could see things changing.
The Guru Samadhi temple architecture is unique and quite imposing. The yellow color bell shaped building is visible even from a few kilometers away from the site. As there are tall trees and coconut groves around it, the vision may not be as clear as we see certain other monuments. But the sight of this monumental structure even seen through the foliages is so soothing a vision and one gets attracted to the place. As I reach there, some kind of puja is going on and a group of people are thronging in front of the white marble sculpture of Sree Narayana Guru. The architecture, which has no parallel perhaps in India, was conceived and designed by LM Chittala, an architect from Madras. In my childhood, I had seen the making of it in a movie titled ‘Kannum Karalum’ in which Kamala Hasan and Sreedevi were child actors. As we were growing up this architecture became a part of our consciousness. As the students of the Varkala SN College, we could not have passed a day without seeing this building even if we did not go to the hill top every day. Finally the aarti is done. I go towards the crowd and manage to go before the idol of Guru, which is one of the best Guru idols ever made. Sculptor Pasupathi Nath Mukherjee, the then professor at the Banaras Hindu University arts section did this sculpture. I have not heard anything more than this about this sculptor. Almost all the sculptures of Guru that we see today all over the world are modeled after this sculpture. I take a pinch of holy ash smears it on my forehead and do circumambulation of the structure three times. One young swamy is giving cut banana and dried grapes as Prasad. I go there and stand there extending my palm in the crowd. It takes almost three minutes for the swamy to put a spoonful of that delicious prasada on my hand. What scandalizes me next is the priest of the main sanctum sanctorum calling out the names of people with their ‘stars’. From this understand that no longer people treat Guru as a philosopher but a God who could fulfill their wishes. Does it put me off? I ask myself. But when I think of it, I need not be put off by this. Everyone is not a reader of Guru’s philosophy. Reading is the way of a Jnana Margi; those who trust the idol could be Bhakti Margis. For them it is real what they believe as real. So long as it does not reach the level of fundamentalism, it is fine and perhaps even worth encouraging.
Photography is strictly prohibited there in Sivagiri. There is a board saying that if you want to take photographs, ‘do ask someone’. People hide behind a jackfruit tree within the campus, the only one tree which they have taken all care not to cut off, and take photographs stealthily. I walk out of the building and come on the road going around it. I click a few pictures from there. I climb down and enter the Sarada Mutt. I used to spend a few hours every week here when I was a student in the SN College. With a lot of trees the campus is always cool. Soft sand cover the whole area and walking barefoot is a wonderful experience here. Sarada Devi is the idol here. I believe that I have been blessed by the Goddess of learning and writing. ‘Like waves in the ocean, Oh Goddess, make me remember the right words in time,’ sang Ezhuthachan, who recreated Ramayana in Malayalam (Adhyatmaramayanam). I say these words every day. Whenever I used to go to Sarada Mutt, I used to pray for the same. I want only words; I could create worlds with those words for I am nothing but a wordsmith. I stand in front of the sanctum which is in an eight cornered building (ashtakona kshetram). The door is closed. Through the glass door I could see the face of the Devi faintly. I train my eyes I until I see her and smile at her. Then I walk back and sit at the hall in front of the temple. You just sit there, it is a meditating experience. This place calms you down. I fish out my mobile and think for some time. The name, Johny ML has been a burden for me for quite some time. I want the name Aksharananda, the name that I have given to myself permanent. I ask permission to Devi. She gives me permission. I change it into Aksharanand in the facebook. After sitting there for a long time I come out and go to the book stall and souvenir shop which is now a well stocked one compared to the one in my memory of college days. I buy a small framed picture of Sarada Devi. And she is going to be with me. I buy the pictures of Guru and a couple of books. Then I come out into the fire of a mid noon sun. I feel it like Baptism by Fire. I feel good and I walk, this time without seeking any shade to sooth myself.