Riding on God’s Chariot

Priti Aisola evokes divine frenzy and fervour she saw on her recent visit to Nataraja Temple in the ancient pilgrim town of Chidambaram in South India – the home to the Dancing Shiva.

Chidambaram literally means the sky permeated by an atmosphere of intelligence and wisdom. According to legend, Chidambaram was once a forest of tillai, a mangrove species of trees. Chidambaram is an important pilgrim centre, specially for worshippers of Shiva, and is located 58 km south of Pondicherry in Cuddalore, the east-central part of the Tamil Nadu state of southeastern India.

From our guesthouse at Ashok Nagar in Chennai we drove to our friend C’s house. This friend was going to go along with us on our visits to temples in the Thanjavur region. In fact C. became our guide and story-teller on this trip. I was ignorant of the significance of the temples we were going to visit and the sthala puranas associated with each of them and he was an inexhaustible library of information.

Above all, he was patient, very patient with me. I troubled him with endless questions, sometimes about the most obvious and simplest of things, and he replied very calmly and conscientiously as if he were explaining something to a curious child. I was amused at times because I did already know the meaning of some of the Sanskrit terms he used but I guess my persistent questions gave him the impression that I was totally unaware of most things to do with temples, their history and significance. However, it was also true that what was common knowledge for someone who belonged to this region and was raised on stories and legends associated with the temples, was a discovery, a beautiful revelation for me.

We drove from Chennai to Chidambaram in C’s friend’s car. His name is A. On the outskirts of Chidambaram we crossed a canal filled with water hyacinth – neelambala. A bund with thorny bushes skirted one side of the canal and wild plants and weeds with long tangled arms barged into the water insidiously, choking the canal. Quite a disagreeable sight! As we neared the main street the pleasurable smell of ghee and sambhrani filled the air and greeted us with an auspicious welcome. We got off the car and saw the main temple chariot and learnt that the temple chariot procession had been delayed by more than a couple of hours and we were grateful for this delay because we would see the ratham being pulled. There were people and people everywhere. The whole atmosphere was festive, colourful and charged with devotion. Most of the women looked fresh and lovely in their richly coloured Kanjeevarams or bold floral synthetic saris. They had taken great care to adorn their hair with jasmine and kanakambaram or jasmine and pink arali flowers. The orthodox Brahmin women were in their madisaars. Women, young boys and girls vied with each other in decorating the road with kolam. With small plastic bags in their hand they bent down to draw simple, or elaborate and exquisite kolam designs on the road. They were oblivious of everything but their own desire to adorn the path where the Lord’s chariot would pass. I think the street must have been sprinkled with water beforehand to allow the kolam patterns to stay. It was a brisk business day for the vendors. A young boy was selling flutes and an old man staggered forward with his multi-coloured burden of paper windmills. Balloons of different shapes and sizes bobbed up and down in the hands of another seller. Another vendor was enticing children with soap bubbles. A makeshift contraption which was an elongated handcart with wheels and a cycle attached in front passed before us. A man sitting on the cart announced something on a loudspeaker at regular intervals. A boy sat beside him in regal posture which said, “I am the king of all I survey.” A man sang from the tevarams, hymns of the Saivite saints, totally absorbed in his singing as he clanged the small cymbals against each other. Men walked past carrying lighted torches with dark smoke trails – kerosene soaked cloth tied to the top of long sticks. Others carried long-stemmed sanbhrani pots.

I turned to my right and saw the ratham (chariot) sway ponderously and then lurch forward. It was being pulled by two rows of devotees gripping the two thick ropes with so much tenacity and faith as if their entire life and its future course depended on it. The ratham was a several-tiered deep brown wooden vehicle replete with ornate carvings and figures. It had a multicoloured conical canopy which was fringed with torans.

From the wide edges of the canopy were suspended long lanterns in colourful fabric. At the widest tier sat the young sons of the dikshitars, the temple priests. In their white veshtis and well-oiled dark hair tied in a side knot, they looked precocious and privileged. The ratham was garlanded with flowers so that the Lord Nataraja, the Lord of Cosmic Dance, and his consort, would have a fragrant ride.

For the people thronging there it was a sacred duty, a blessing to be able to pull the chariot of Lord Nataraja and goddess Sivakamasundari. R, my husband, asked me, “Would you also like to do it? But you must be careful when they suddenly stop pulling as they fall forwards and then backwards. You will get crushed if you are not careful or your foot will get squashed.”

“But I can’t see even a centimeter of free rope where I can place a single finger or the tip of one”

“You have to get a good grip. Are you crazy? A single finger won’t do. That finger will snap. You just have to push your way in. Follow me.” He charged ahead confidently.

I was in awe of the divine frenzy of the devotees. With so many hands gripping the stout coarse rope, with so many bodies tugging, pulling, straining at the rope and so eager not to be left behind in this privileged service to the Lord Nataraja, where did I, a novice in devotion and a hesitant in service stand a chance?

“Come on, follow me. Don’t stand there wondering. Hurry,” said my husband, with some impatience.

“What about my slippers? Everyone else is barefoot.”

“Well, can’t be helped. Why didn’t you leave your slippers in the car when the three of us did?”

“I didn’t anticipate the fact that I might want to pull the chariot. Hopefully no one will look at my feet and disapprove.”

“That’s not the point. This is a divine chariot. Let’s not debate this any further. Just follow me.”

R. plunged into the thick mass of people and I followed, slightly dazed by the charged ardour of the people around me. He got a grip on the rope and he created space for three of my fingers which felt the rough stout rope but had no grip around it. I realized too late that I was the only woman for that stretch of the rope. My arm was wedged between two bodies and one part of it rested against the sticky sweaty red t-shirt of a young man who was quite oblivious of me and my sense of discomfort. Then I felt the rope being yanked, hauled forward, and I felt the pressure and heave of several bodies around me. I released the rope, stumbled. Someone’s foot crushed mine. I felt R. grip my arm, steady me and pull me out of the dense mass of people. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Just hot and my foot is covered with dirt.”

“That’s nothing as long as you are not hurt. Don’t be so finicky. Look at the white woman there. I have been watching her. She just hasn’t let go of the rope. I am pretty sure she has been pulling the rope from the time the procession started. Her face is gleaming with sweat. Her hair is all over her face but she is unfazed.”

I looked at the white woman with open shoulder-length hair and her forehead with sweat- plastered stray strands of hair. In her late forties or early fifties, perhaps, she looked quite attractive in spite of her state of disarray. “I wonder who she is and why she wants to be a part of this,” I thought to myself. Then I looked at the different faces of devotion, of atmasamarpan – of the need for submission to something larger and higher than oneself.

We had turned right on to another street where a temporary platform had been erected against an open mandapam. Here the deities would be transferred and received from the temple chariot at the end of the procession so that they could be taken for the abhishekam which would happen in the very early hours of the next day. The bamboo scaffolding looked very makeshift and shaky and the horizontal wooden planks seemed too clumsily and inexpertly placed to bear the weight of the priests and the bronze idols. I looked at the whole arrangement rather skeptically.

It was dusk and the main ratham was very close to the temporary platform. Now the challenge was to have the latter aligned perfectly with the ratham so that the transfer of the idols wouldn’t be a problem. At this time I learnt that in Chidambaram it is the moola murti which is also the utsava murti. The fervent need of the people to pull the chariot, to embellish its path, to touch the chariot and the elephant drawing it, made even greater and more heightened sense to me now. More and more people had congregated on the street. Among them were weak old men, women, children led by the hand, children mounted on hips and children riding on shoulders. Five or six young women constables were trying to manage the crowd along with other security responsible policemen. They were better at chatting with each other and giggling over their helplessness and timidity in the face of this crowd than at directing and controlling it.

We stood against a new ratham worth thirty lakhs which was donated, waiting for Lord Nataraja’s ratham to be perfectly aligned with the makeshift platform. The ratham was being pulled in small jerky movements and we were concerned. The new ratham was very close to the wall of some houses and in between this chariot and the wall was another scaffolding of metal bars. This created two suffocatingly narrow passages between the new ratham and the wall. We stood against the corner of the ratham at the edge of one of these narrow passages thinking that we were safely out of the path of the ratham pullers. Soon several agaitated shouts and cries of panic rose in the air. With rude sweeps and shoves of the hand all of us were told to clear the passage as the rope pullers were about to move into the narrow passage close to the ratham. People pushed, shoved, shouted, squeezed past, flung their arms around in helpless confusion, jammed their elbows into each other to move away. An old woman was quickly helped away form this dense mass of agitated people. Two children started crying. A woman screamed angrily. The rope pullers at the left front end of the rope thrust themselves into the narrow passage heedless of its suffocating closeness. Rather they thrust into it by a momentum, powerful and dangerous, as it was the combined strength of all the rope pullers who were oblivious of the risk to their life and clueless about the combined uncharted strength of a people driven by blind faith. I marveled at them and also blamed the dikshitars, the security officials and the police force for not paying enough attention to the safety of the devotees. There was a stampede waiting to happen. The invitation was loud and clear. We were all afraid. Ravi panicked. The small made women constables panicked and tried to hide and shield themselves behind Ravi’s ample back. They giggled nervously. He looked at their fear and his own fear and decided this whole business was too much for him. “In a few moments, there will be a stampede. I am getting out. Come let’s go.”

“I am staying.”

“Are you out of your mind? Come,” he said imperiously.

“I am staying. Your friends are here. Nothing will happen.”

“Don’t be an idiot.” He clutched my arm and pulled me towards him.

“Go, Ravi. I am staying.”

He turned away from me and with his bag as a weapon carved a way out for himself. Within seconds there was another massive tug by the rope pullers and people jammed into me. I struggled to steady myself. Something scorched my entire arm. I screamed. I saw the smoldering sambhrani ashes fall and then slither off my entire left arm which for some inexplicable reason was partly covered by my navy blue chiffon duppatta. My arm was slightly red and that was about it. I had been saved but the sambhrani had burnt holes into my brand new duppatta. A man with a sambhrani pot propped on a long stick had been standing behind me, against the ratham. He lost control and the sambhrani pot toppled over. Ravi’s friend C. asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes. It’s nothing much.”

“Are you sure?” Then he laughed. “Consider this as the Lord’s prasadam.”

“Do I have a choice? Is there any other way of looking at it?”

Soon the crowd calmed down and the agitation simmered down as the ratham had come to a complete stop. All of us waited eagerly for darshanam of Lord Nataraja and Sivakamasunadari but the dikshitars had focused the spotlight on the crowd so that we wouldn’t be able to see the deities when their ornaments were being removed before the transfer across the temporary platform. Blinded by the light we felt cheated. Disappointed we left for dinner. After dinner as we drove towards the PWD guesthouse we noticed to our left the tall illuminated outline of a well-known structure framing an arched passage for vehicles. Both of us exclaimed in surprise, “The Eiffel Tower!” It was part of the decorations for the All India Science Conference in Chidambaram.

Paris had been with me and followed me during my stay in Chennai as I attended the kutcheris at the Music Academy and it had decided to inaugurate this journey to temples too. I had met at least seven people who were either from Paris or associated with Paris in my mind. Amazing how some things never really leave you. I guess one’s continued search for them, whether expressed or unvoiced keeps them in close proximity to one. I have also heard people say that you do find what you actively or sincerely seek.

The guesthouse was a very functional place. We were welcomed by a host of people (all idlers, all hangers on, most of them decrepit looking) as they had been told that a senior IAS officer was going to be staying there. We had decided to stay only in government guesthouses because we were traveling on a tight budget. Also, because of the Science Congress, the better- maintained government guesthouse was unavailable. One look at the room and I knew that I would have to ignore the dusty chairs, the threadbare white bed sheet, the dressing table squatting on its chipped haunches, the mirror layered with dust, the dead air conditioner, the stained plastic bucket in the bathroom and a non-functioning geyser. I would have to pretend not to notice the dead insects spattered and crumbling leaves sprinkled in the small enclosed rectangular space with a broken armchair and a large grilled window overlooking the backyard.

We got barely three hours of sleep and were up at one so that we could bathe and then go to the temple for the special abhishekams. The hot water had to be fetched from the neighbouring bathroom. I had asked C. whether I could go in a salwar kameez as I was in no mood to get into a saree at that hour of the night. While I wanted to be comfortable, I also didn’t want to be frowned upon by the orthodox devotees and the priests. He said it was fine. I knew that I would be the odd one out but I was prepared for curious looks and an occasional sign of disapproval.

It was slightly cold at that hour of the night. We left our slippers in the car and entered the temple from the west gopuram gateway. The courtyard of the outermost prakaram was full of people sleeping on the floor. Covered with shawl, blankets, thin sheets, exhausted by travel and lack of proper resting places, people were sleeping in various states of stupor. The place was littered with paper plates, small plastic cups, plastic bags, banana peels, stained flyers and soggy newspapers. Someone blew his nose loudly onto the temple courtyard floor and I squirmed. I was disappointed at the state of the temple but with so many people gathered there this mess was a given. I wished that some garbage bins had been provided and the people sufficiently warned by the dikshitars or the cops not to litter the place. People need to be educated on keeping the temple premises clean but apparently those who ran the affairs of the temple were doing nothing about it. In several places the stone floor felt sticky and soiled under our feet. For me the litter and the unclean floor took away something from my sense of the sacred. It was diluted for some time. At the same I was in awe of the bhakti of the people who had come from far and near and put up with lack of board and lodging and travel fatigue in order to witness the Lord Nataraja and the ananda tandava.

We skipped over sleeping bodies, gingerly stepped past reclining forms and slowly found our way to the thousand- pillar hall. Three constables had reached there a good hour before us and kept places for us not far from the steps of the Raja Sabha. As we sat down, we heard someone say in a voice full of envy and mild resentment, “Look at these white people. How lucky they are!” It must have been some uneducated person because apart from Ravi who is tall and very fair, the rest of us can’t be mistaken for whites even if someone were to encounter us on a foggy morning or see us through alcohol stupefied eyes. I guess my salwar kameez made me stand out as non-Tamil or non-South Indian and, hence, a foreigner. I had to accept my alienation from the general mass of people because I had refused to wear a sari at two in the night (or at two in the afternoon, for that matter, going by its propensity to sweep the dusty littered streets). Two female cops had captured spots for their senior officer. Another friend of theirs was seated next to them. In order to create more space one of the cops gathered her friend in her arms and made her sit in her lap, hugging her around the waist. It was a very affectionate and spontaneous gesture yet it had an intimacy that seemed slightly out of place, a bit incongruous here.

In the thousand-pillar hall the central aisle was free so that the water in brass pots for the abhishekam could be passed from the hand of one dikshitar to another with ease and efficiency. The dikshitars had formed a human chain to pass the brass pots of water from hand to hand till each could be emptied into a massive copper container placed at the outer edge of the raised platform of the Raja Sabha. At this time C. told me that Shiva is abhshekapriya whereas Vishnu is alankarapriya. It was around three in the morning and the excited anticipation in the air was palpable. A rope connected the pillars on either side of the hall. It was adorned with auspicious mango leaves and a tender coconut leaf knotted and shaped into a three-petalled decorative motif. There was the combined smell of sleep, unwashed travel-fatigued bodies and camphor in the air. Some people who had no place to stretch themselves were sleeping on folded arms. Most of the dikshitars had their hair tied in a left top knot. One of them was dressed very brightly in a magenta angavastram with gold thread embroidery. Two foreigners were sitting on the steps leading to the mandapa of the Raja Sabha. One of them was dressed in saffron robes and the other was wearing a yellow angavastram with something written on it in Hindi. I could not read it from a distance but I am sure it either had some common religious chant or Hare Rama, Hare Krishna. The moon was beautiful with the white clouds sailing before it, revealing and concealing it from moment to moment. The next day would be full moon day.

Soon the chanting began behind the blue and white curtain that concealed Lord Nataraja and the goddess Sivakami. Around a half past three all the dikshitars who had been sitting on the steps went inside the enclosure which had the deities and the grilled aluminum collapsing gate was pushed back further. In the open courtyard to our left someone started playing the cymbals. The moment of darshanam (glimpse of God) was drawing closer and the people waited in prayerful anticipation and impatient fervour.

The curtain was drawn aside and shouts of joy and tear-filled gratitude rose in the air. I struggled to get a good view of the vigrahams of Lord Nataraja and goddess Sivakami. I had to look past and above the excited heads piled up ahead of me. The Nataraja was resplendent – it was of a reddish copper hue with a underlying touch of silver and it was much smaller than the idol I had visualized. I couldn’t see the vigraham in its entirety. I could see the face, the abhaya hasta and the hand pointing to the raised foot that offers release. The face was radiant and exuded light and glory. I had never seen a more beautiful and captivating deity. I had come across the significance of the dance of Shiva for the first time in Ananda Coomaraswamy’s book by the same name and had marveled at its rich metaphysical meanings.

The first abhishekam was with vibhuti. Like a grey veil it concealed the radiance of the idol but enhanced the divine mystery. It was followed by abhishekams with milk, curd, sandalwood paste, honey, turmeric and coarsely blended fruit that looked like mashed bananas, crushed grapes and apple to me. After each abhishekam the vigrahams of Lord Nataraja and Goddess Sivakami were washed liberally with water. Each abhishekam was an experience worth recalling again and again. Each of the padarthams (ingredients) used contributed to the splendour of the idols and seemed to bring forth its resplendent beauty and essential glory. Golden, warm brown, reddish copper hue, milky or creamy white, silver tinged, rich ochre – these were the colours that one could see in the idols. Each abhishekam transformed them and made them radiate a beautiful energy and blessings to all present. If the divine has form (swarupa), qualities and attributes (suguna), and if this sublime form has the ability to move, elevate and even momentarily transform the consciousness, it had all of these that morning. I was amazed and touched by the devotion of the people who sat with folded hands or lifted their hands in prayer, ardent appeal and submission before the God that stood in their midst and exuded the most beautiful sacred energy. From where I was seated, I could see Lord Siva’s second left hand pointing downward to the lifted left foot that offers deliverance. The right hands were not clearly visible from where I was sitting – one of them holds the drum – damaru or udukkai – and the other is raised in the abhaya mudra (do not fear). I could see part of the encircling arch of glory, the tiruvasi touched with flame along its circumference but my focus was on the raised left foot that ceaselessly offers release or the promise of one. For most people gathered there, the religious or metaphysical significance of the dance was not a prime concern or the moving force behind their presence – they may not even know about it. It was enough to know that here in Tillai (the whole area was originally a forest of Tillai trees and shrubs) or Chidambaram, Patanjali and Vygrahapada had witnessed the divine dance. It was more than enough to believe that at the time of Arudra darshan,, which was a few hours away, Lord Shiva would re-enact the Cosmic Dance, which would re-energize them and the entire world. In fact, it was a source of great joy and very liberating to believe this. It would add nothing to their joy and devotion to know that Lord Siva’s dance represents five activities (Panchakritya), which are – creation, preservation, destruction or dissolution, veiling and also, giving rest, and finally grace or salvation. For them, Lord Siva was right before them and they would witness his dance of bliss. Uncluttered by knowledge or awareness available to scholars, there is something heartwarming, fresh and touching about this spontaneous form of devotion that I saw in the mass of common humanity here.

We left the temple around six in the morning and R. was very happy because it was his birthday and the day had begun very ceremoniously and auspiciously. I was happy to see him so serenely happy. As we walked out of the gateway from where we had entered, we saw quite a few people sleeping on either side of the pathway. We decided to have our morning tea or coffee before going to the guesthouse.

The road and the roadsides were choked with trash – paper plates, plastic cups, flyers, soiled leaves which had been used to eat tiffin or some rice dish like tamarind rice. I was aghast. On any other day and at any other time, I would have protested about having to walk barefoot and negotiate my way through this unsightly trash but that morning I decided to ignore it and treat it like a minor inconvenience. The coffee or teakadai was open and, at two or three tables, some people had already ordered their idlis and vadas for breakfast. The coffee was superb as expected but the tea was a strong bitter decoction as we had asked for milk and black tea to be given separately. It was a strange and novel request for them. They were confused and disgruntled at having to deal with something so out of the way, early in the morning. Also, they must have been catering to a barrage of customers over the past few days. It was a cool morning and the hot coffee felt good although it was too sweet to be perfect. I had forgotten to tell the waiter, “Sakkarai or sugar kammi.” The latter is like the Hindi word kam, which means less.

The guesthouse smacked of pitiable neglect, looked derelict, smelt of sleep-sluggish bodies, but that was the only place for rest and a bath before we went back to the temple for the Arudra darshan. I was looking forward to seeing the Chit Sabha, the Kanaka Sabha and the Nritya Sabha.