Tag Archives: Hinduism

The Venus Flytrap: Forgotten Wives

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The sudden thunderstorm that had broken over Srikalahasti the previous afternoon didn’t come back with us. Driving down a highway still bemirrored with mirages, I contemplated it with pleasure: a storm with neither aftermath nor announcement, one too stubborn to be tamed or tempted home. Nothing in the landscape showed how it had come and gone. The heatwave slipped me into a nap, waking to the sound of directions being asked for. At a point just before where the Arani river flows from Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu – but how would you know except if you looked on a map, proving again how borders are arbitrary? – the village of Surutapalli stakes its place. An intoxicated Shiva had fallen asleep here, having tasted some of the halahala arrested in his throat. People come to see him in slumber, but stranger still to me was the alcove in which Dakshinamurthy sat. South-facing and tree-canopied here as elsewhere, except with one unusual element: on his left thigh, his wife.

I asked the priest for her name, and it was Gowri. Supplicants approach the couple from the west, and both their faces tilt toward the same. She without complete mythology, known only as consort. How marvellous sometimes to learn, how much more marvellous at other times to imagine.

As I dive deeper into a book I’m writing about mermaids (specifically, about the lost and little-known) I find that I have unexpected company from another book finished long ago, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Hanuman, that god who has a bit of the trickster in him, which somehow makes his loyalty even deeper. He is usually understood as celibate, but in South East Asian renditions of the epic, his partner is Suvannamaccha, whose name means “golden fish”. Each morning as they attempted to build the bridge to Lanka, the vanara army found their work had been destroyed, the rocks returned to the sea. One night, they discovered the mermaids dismantling it. Their leader was the lovely Suvannamaccha, whose father was Ravana. She and Hanuman must part almost as quickly as they fell in love, but their child is yet another hybrid: fish-tailed, simian-faced.

Then there are Ganesha’s three wives: Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi. Here, we like to think of him as the child, Pillaiyar. But even when depicted as a spouse in North India, he’s shown with only two of his own. But which two?

The worlds of both gods and men are full of forgotten wives.

As I put the finishing touches to this column, the almost-full moon is mottled by clouds. There is the odd coruscation of lightning. Rain is coming after all, but in its own time – who knows if it heeded my invitation or only its own whims? And I remember another forgotten consort: the Rig-Vedic agricultural goddess Sita’s husband Parjanya, lord of rain. Before Rama, there was rain. I think of an adorable stone tablet in that temple in Surutapalli, of the footprints of the exiled queen Sita’s children, water collecting mysteriously in the indentations of baby toes.

May all that needs quenching in us – our thirsts, our desires, our curiosities – be quenched.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 11th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: “Girl Power” Meets The Goddess

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A few months ago, at a foreign event promoting a book of writing by Indian women, an audience member posed a question about what they saw as the paradox of the mistreatment of women vs. how “everyone in India worships goddesses”. The question perturbed me, most immediately of all because each of us onstage was of a different faith background (the inquirer’s assumption only addressed mine). So I said as much – that the misconception that all Indians are Hindus is dangerous to begin with.

But the question was also disturbing because its reductiveness was familiar: we hear those statements in India too. Navaratri is an interesting time to ponder this. On the one hand we witness faith as lived expression, and on the other hand, for example, there’s the way brands “modernise” goddesses on social media. (Well, considering it’s Navaratri, perhaps there should be a few more arms and hands in this, but let’s get to those later.) Many attempts to contemporise fail to capture something vital: that the power of the Goddess is ancient, not modern. She exists, as all who actually know her know, beyond linear time.

So what does some cute graphic putting her in a pantsuit and a smart caption about how badass she is really do? Does it blur the distance between pedestal and mortal circumstance, or reinforce it using superficial symbols? There’s subversive and then there’s simplistic. The girl power-meets-goddess figure rhetoric is just as empty as any other get-clicks-quick scheme.

All major religions today need feminist reform movements. Hinduism’s faces a trick door: unlike other major religions, it already has principal feminine icons. The challenge then is not to excavate the buried feminine, as it is in Christianity for example, but to raise questions about the patriarchal co-opting of the same.

“We worship goddesses and beat our wives” is the most tired, most falsely equivalent condemnation there is, and ties in far too closely with another problematic proclamation: “Don’t treat her badly because she embodies the goddess”. Does she? What if she doesn’t want to? What if she’s neither interested in being your sister nor your idol? And if the average abuser doesn’t connect the abstract feminine with the actual woman, is it fair to expect that his philosophy be so literal? Have we actually considered what his philosophy may teach, instead of merely aggrandising its symbols?

It’s not goddess imagery that needs revamping, but our relationship with religion. For many people, the more their ethical compass develops, the more they will veer away from religion altogether. For those who find themselves still drawn to spirituality, a more deeply interconnected matrix is needed: one that brings together creativity, sexuality, the intellect, politics, ritual practice and the intangible.

This means interrogating what the highly subjective endeavour of “worship” means, studying scriptures, reinventing liturgies (like wedding chants, for example), challenging taboos and more. And for Indian feminists of most faith persuasions, the effort collapses completely if the end of caste is not also a leading principle. It has to be holistic. All in all, feminist spirituality is pretty demanding – but believers already know that the love of God always is.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 6th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When The Devadasis Were Virgins

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Aruna Sairam shuffled onto my playlist with a song of a longing devadasi, and I called a friend who knew it well. He had the original Telugu text of Paiyyada, while I pored over an English translation. Together, we transliterated: ‘The one who rested his head on the fabric over my breast is embittered by me – aiyo…” At the end of our spontaneous cultural salon, he mentioned another Kshetrayya padam, one in which the raconteur says frankly to the deity Konkaneswara that it will cost a hundred gold coins just to enter her house, and three crore to kiss her.

The poem reminded me of one of my favourite devadasi songs in Tamil, which goes – “kathavai saathadi / kaasilathavan kadavul aanalum, kathavai saathadi”. “Shut the door, girl – if he’s empty-handed, even if he’s god himself, shut the door!”

When Rukmini Devi Arundale appeared on a Google doodle last week, it was the devadasis I thought of again. In the 1930’s, Arundale appropriated the devadasi dance known as sadir, angularised its sensuality, censored its eros and turned it into the caste-privileged form renamed as Bharatanatyam. This was part of a larger project of erasing their matrilineal, woman-centred culture, which had garnered disrepute (it came to be banned all over India). This should be widely-known, and isn’t, because of the sheer domination of one narrative over another. Before their fall from grace, devadasi women from as early as 8th century were known as: dancers, musicians, multi-linguists, land-owners, endowers of public infrastructure, impresarios, polymaths and poets. Today, they are dismissed as sex workers.

We forget them both: the mid-20th century devadasi in a system of ruin and abuse, and the medieval devadasi whose empowerment and erudition remains beyond what many women enjoy today.

I’ve also been reading about the Asur people of Jharkhand and West Bengal. I heard about them just a few days ago, when their traditional telling of the epic battle between Durga, my beloved goddess, and the buffalo Mahishasura, whom the Asurs trace their lineage to, became the stuff of headlines. A fascinating alternative rendering, not unlike how Ravana has the sympathies of Tamil people.

But I’m not convinced that the story we’re being told is the one the Asurs themselves tell. When the word “prostitute” was raised in reference to Durga, as a means of literally demonising those with this belief, I wondered – what if the original word was “apsara” (like the transgendered Mohini, who used her seductive charms on asuras too, before she bedded Shiva). What if, indeed, the word was something like “devadasi”? And if it was “sex worker” – well, as a woman who happens to be Hindu, I am frankly more offended by misogyny than blasphemy.

Another mythological word we misunderstand is “virgin”. It means a sovereign woman or goddess, by no means devoid of sexuality, and in complete control of her own. Hence, unmarried. Like a devadasi was, except to her god and her art.

Myths are full of history, and history is full of myths. We can love their messy richness, and if we must sieve them of anything, let’s sieve the manipulations that serve only their blinkered tellers.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 3rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

A New Short Story

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To celebrate its second anniversary, The Hindu Business Line’s BLink magazine has published a fiction special. My short story on Sri Lanka, family and faith, written exclusively for this issue, is in it.

Warakapola

In Warakapola we stop for the first time, at the Bhadrakali-Hanuman kovil by a hill on the A1 highway, the first of many roads on this journey. We climb the few stairs to the temple to see its strangely companionable deities, but our grandfather gets out of the vehicle only for the Pillaiyar at its base. He holds a dried coconut with both hands, and circles it in the air, making his entreaties to the god of beginnings. And then he breaks it open on the ground, using his better arm. On the second try, it cracks open.

We bought the coconuts as we left Wellawatte and divided them into two bags. One is in the backseat, the other lodged between the driver and my grandfather, in the front. They must not be stepped on. We stretch our limbs out and try to sleep.

Nobody tells us — although there are those in the van who know — that it will be 10 hours to Batticaloa, in all.

You can read all of “16 Coconuts To Pillayaradi” here.

The Venus Flytrap: Devotion, Desire, Darkness

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There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.

 

kaliflower

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

An Interview, In Film & Text, On Luminarya

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The marvellous new Luminarya, a website celebrating women around the world, carries a lengthy interview with me, conducted both on film and in text, which also includes footage of me reading from my Devimahatmyam sequence of poems, “The Secret of Secrets”. See it all here.

A Sequence of Devimahatmyam Poems

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Open Space India/Talking Poetry have published “The Secret of Secrets: Five Poems After The Murtirahasya“, a sequence inspired by an appendix to the Devimahatmyam, a seminal Hindu text on the Goddess (more on the reference used here). These were some of the last poems I wrote, back in mid-2011, and I am delighted to finally be able to share them.

The Mucukunda Murals

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Two hours by car from Tanjavur, through a meandering scenic route of paddy fields, bucolic groves and glimpses of the sun-dappled Kaveri river, is the temple town of Tiruvarur: birthplace of Carnatic music’s triumvirate of doyens (the composers Kakarla Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri), and the site of the crown jewel of the South Indian Shaivite cult, the Sri Tyagarajasvami temple. Estimated to be around 1300 years old, the temple blossomed under the aegis of the major reconstructions of the Chola dynasty, and gained prominence owing to the many travelling bards who, seized by revelations, were moved to song within it. In the modern era, however, certain parts of it fell to neglect, most notably the Devasiriya Mandapam, an auxiliary hall within which is contained a trove of radiant 17th century ceiling murals.

Up until three years ago, the murals were in a rapidly deteriorating state owing to water seepage, fire, human negligence and other factors. When Ranvir Shah, the maverick behind the Chennai-based arts and culture organisation Prakriti Foundation, was told by temple authorities a decade ago of plans to whitewash the paintings, he managed to stave off this travesty for eight years, when the necessary permissions for restoration were secured and a collaborative effort with the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) could begin.

He wasn’t the only one concerned with preserving the stunningly detailed, exquisitely painted murals. The Indologist David Shulman, in what he calls “an act of despair”, visited in 2006 with the photographer V.K. Rajamani so as to document the images before they were lost forever. Shulman and Shah, among others, met – propitiously, as anyone associated with this project now says – and from this was born a major undertaking to restore and preserve what are now known as the Mucukunda Murals.

Dating to the late Nayaka/early Maratha period, the murals narrate, over the course of 50 panels, the mythology of how Tyagarajasvami – or Shiva in his mode as householder and king, flanked by his consort and child-prince in the iconic Somaskanda configuration – came to reside in Tiruvarur. Legend has it that the monkey-faced Chola ruler Mucukunda brought the deity from the heavens at his own request. Tyagarajasvami, who before this had rested on the chest of Vishnu in the cosmic ocean, moving in tandem to that deity’s breath, was bored in Indra’s heaven. This god of momentum and relocation desired settlement – specifically, in a locale already associated with Kamalambal, a powerful goddess with Tantric significance, as well as a different, more primitive aspect of Shiva as lord of the anthill. When Mucukunda, having helped Indra defeat a demon, is offered a boon, Tyagarasvami secretly communicates to him the desire to be taken to Tiruvarur.

Indra, hesitant to part with the god so quickly, has six more identical figures made, and asks Mucukunda to choose the original. Again, Tyagarajasvami gives Mucukunda a signal (different sources suggest a smile, a wink, or an intuitive understanding), thus allowing him to leave the ennui of heaven, and make the town his abode.

The origin story of Tyagarajasvami thus exalts him as a god who chooses his own tribe, and this sentiment remains strongly ensconced among those involved in the restoration of the murals. The release of Shulman and Rajamani’s elegant coffee table tome, The Mucukunda Murals, on January 26 in the Devasiriya Mandapam celebrated the near-completion of the restoration work, and was well-attended by a large gathering of scholars, aesthetes and local devotees, who carried mirrored trays as they walked beneath the murals so as to look at them without strain.

In brief lectures, a panel of noted experts on Tiruvarur – Professor Rajeshwari Ghose, Professor Saskia Kersenboom, Professor Davesh Soneji and Professor Shulman – shared their personal connections to the temple and its deity. Kersenboom, author of the pathbreaking 1987 book Nityasumangali, spoke about the “cinematic flashback” she experienced during her first visit to the temple in 1975, during which she saw the devadasis in procession as they had been in the generations before their art was banned. Ghose quoted an anonymous Tyagarajasvami kavacham, in which the poet tells God to take away anything from him but his ability to appreciate the arts, because it is through them that he experiences divinity. She also credited the temple for having been the wellspring of the Tamil bhakti movement, inspiring the pilgrimages of the Nayanmars and Alwars and giving the collective Tamil consciousness a meaningful identity.

At no point was the numinous quality of the events that led to the restoration, and indeed to that particular day of celebration itself, underplayed. In what is perhaps an unusual method of doing things in this modern (and that too, academic) context, the lectures ended to coincide with the Sayaraktsha Pooja, the dusk prayer to the deity. The entourage reassembled at the sanctum sanctorum, chanting Om Namashivaya Namaha in front of the glittering Tyagarajasvami, before the evening’s performances began.

Evoking the panegyrical element of all pre-colonial temple performances, the concert was highlighted by the magnificent recital of a portion of the mohamana varnam by dancer Shymala Mohanraj. A disciple of the legendary devadasi Balasaraswathi and one of the foremost torchkeepers of that lineage, her supreme command of the stage and consummate, unostentatious grace were breathtaking to behold. A deeply endearing rendering of kuruvanji songs by Tilakamma, who is also of devadasi heritage but no longer able to dance, also served to fortify the idea that age is an externality – beauty and passion transcend such limitations. A nagaswaram presentation by T.K. Selvaganapathy and T.S. Palaniappan (who trace their musical lineage to 22 generations), accompanied in part by a padam by Kersenboom, and as a performance by eminent vocalist Aruna Sairam rounded off the evening. At the heart of the entire ceremony was an exploration of lineage in all its forms – hereditary, intangible, karmic and incidental. But most importantly, a new understanding of lineage, stripped of hegemony and baggage and brought to the simplest level: the absolutely personal epiphany of the workings of cosmic leela, and one’s place within it.

In the afterglow of this rare, possibly miraculous, story of triumph over the forces of aesthetic ignorance and bureaucratic negligence, it’s easy to forget that a multitude of precious structures throughout India face dissimilar fates. The Mucukunda Murals have been saved, for now, by “the co-operation of public and private interests in temple conservation”, as Soneji puts it. “I hope this is a model that will catch on”. Perhaps God only winks at a chosen few, but the responsibility for the protection and maintenance of our architectural and artistic heritage lies with all who care to watch, refusing to allow such losses in our own lifetimes.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: Ways of Worship

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It’s 8pm on a full moon night in October and the spray of the huge waves shoots above the barricades and drizzles us from time to time. This is a village on the Balinese coast, a day before the writers’ festival begins. When the sun is out, the sea is postcard-stunning. It looks just like what someone who has never seen the sea might imagine it to be like. At night, it is this: vivid, histrionic.

We’re a table of a dozen, half of whom are too far away to politely shout at over the sound of the waves. We have come from all over the world – one of the coordinators mentions that a writer called in tears from an airport somewhere between here and Mozambique. This is the calm before the storm: by the time the festival starts, 110 writers would have arrived here.

I’m fascinated by the kind-faced educator from New Zealand and the playwright who lived with AIDS orphans in Burundi for a year during the early 90’s. The American who sits down across from me turns out to be John Berendt, the author of the acclaimed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I give him my book. To my surprise, he asks me to sign it for him.

It is the day after the anniversary of the 2002 terrorist attacks on this island, the ones that confounded the world, because who in their right mind would bomb paradise?

We talk about temples. Bali is over 90% Hindu, practicing a highly ritualistic and animistic variant of the religion with a profoundly philosophical bent. The agricultural system, for instance, is based on the notion of “Tri Hita Karana”: the three causes of happiness are good relations with God, other people and the environment. Incidentally, “Tri Hita Karana” is the theme of this year’s festival.

I am menstruating and will not visit the temples: there is nothing taboo about doing so based on what I believe, but I will not violate those of a place I visit. Besides, I know from experience that even the ruins – no, especially the ruins – possess immense power. Last year, at another festival elsewhere in Indonesia, we were reading at the 11th century Borobudur stupa. The vibrant local dance closing the evening came to an abrupt halt – one of the dancers was possessed. She could be heard screaming and crying as she came out of her trance.

Jean Bennett, the educator, speaks of the psychogeography of elevation: you can read the spirituality of any place based on what stands at its highest point. Around the world, there are the pilgrimage points of cathedrals, and then there are those of capitalist gods. We manifest what we worship upon our landscapes.

Driving into Ubud town the next day, where the festival will be, we pass two striking statues. One is of a Durga unlike any I have seen. She looks like a Kwan Yin riding snakes. The other is a dramatic Arjuna standing atop an elephant’s back. Bali is unapologetic about its spirituality. It’s neither a place that trumpets its ways of life militantly, nor does it suppress it under the guise of progress. This is not a place that ever deserved a terrorist attack, let alone two.

The festival is about to start. The literati will descend on Ubud and turn it, for a few days, into an artistic nucleus. I have a new book, a brand new batch of business cards, the validation of being a guest of this prestigious event. I’m a poet in paradise. I cannot wait to see what I will come bearing back to the world.

An edited version appeared on Saturday in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.