After a lapse of a few years, I began to listen to the Kantha Shashti Kavasam again. The hymn has sentimental value to me – in the past, it gave me a sense of connection to my childhood and ancestral ties and generally operated in the role of a mnemonic. In the unholy ennui of the present, however, my rediscovery of it brought out a whole different kind of awe: the schmaltz of my memories and the high-pitched vocals are the only delicate things about it. The Kavasam isn’t just beautiful; it’s badass.
If you’re not familiar with the text (there are some terrific English translations online), the Kavasam (meaning “armour”) is a long invocation to Muruga, beloved deity of the Tamils and crown prince of the Saivite cosmos. Composed in the 19th century by Devaraya Swamigal, it’s a lyrically magnificent work. It begins, naturally, with praise and welcoming, and then, once the little lord is nicely flattered, begins to get quite specific in its demands.
Up until about midway through the hymn, the devotee puts forth requests for protection, mostly in the form of a list of the various body parts long enough to sound like a recitation from an anatomy textbook. Having ensured that the pretty prince with the pretty vel has been appointed to look over everything from each of the thirty-two teeth to the colon, things start to get very lively.
Now, up until this point, things are still pretty standard, as far as devotionals go. Then out pop the monsters. Great tail-shaking devils are named and dismissed, as are fire-eating ghouls, baby-devourers, night-roaming spirits, folk entities special enough to have names of their own – all of whom henceforth must run away as if struck by thunder upon hearing no, not our little lord’s name – but the singing supplicant’s! After this comes the litany of voodoo tricks – of which the supplicant has a suspiciously impressive knowledge of. The hymn ends with more medical grievances and praise to the deity, but not before its most spectacular segment: in which Muruga is asked to tie up the devotee’s enemies, roll them up, stomp stomp stomp on them, break break break their bones, pierce pierce pierce their bodies and set them on fire.
Basically, if you want proof of the inherent badassness of the Tamil people, look no further than the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam.
Is there a holy text as hardcore as the Kavasam? Maybe some old Hebrew stuff – but then, the god of the Old Testament is generally seen as curmudgeonly and cantankerous. Unlike the adorable little Muruga, sweet-smiling with bells around his ankles and flowers behind his ears… who will eviscerate your enemies.
There are lots of things from my Tamil heritage that I’m grateful for. Most importantly among them: Sangam poetry, curvy hips and a high tolerance for libations. The drama, intrigue, sabotage and high stakes apparently also come with the genes, if the texts and arts of this culture are anything to go by, but then so does the little avenging god, resplendent, ecstatic – completely aware of the devious nature of his chosen people, and just as prepared to bestow the grace of his bling in your moment of need. Bring it on mofo, my lord has a vel and I’ll have you know that it is bejeweled, baby.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.