From Kasi to Kalpathy for the car festival and from there to Vaikom for Ashtami, soon after returning from the US, was a spiritually rejuvenating reward. The presiding deity of the oldest Shiva temple in Kerala, is affectionately called Vaikkathappan, father of Vaikkom or Mahadevan, God of gods. The sacred vaikkathashtami festival lasting twelve days, takes place during the dark lunar fortnight of the Malayalam month Vrichikam and concludes on the Ashtami day. People from far and wide converge there in thousands to pray and receive the blessings of the God.
True to his name everything is ‘mahat’, big and great there. Situated on the shores of the Vembanattu kayal or backwaters, in a huge courtyard of about eight acre land, with four big gopurams or towers on all four sides, two elephant houses in the east, the campus welcomes you with a broad pathway, lavishly leveled with crystal white river- sand, where elephants in a row march majestically, carrying the ‘thidambhu’ or symbolic idols of the gods. The main entrance to the Sreekovil, sanctum sanctorum itself is an imposing structure with a high roof supported by gigantic pillars. Even the temporary shed constructed for the annual Ashtami festival, with uprooted fully grown areca palms as pillars, is so huge that jumbo elephants pass through it, in procession, majestically and comfortably. It is so high that the tip of the tall umbrellas over their head, held high by those standing on the pachyderms, do not touch the roof! The six feet tall Sivalingam, installed on a three foot platform looks magnificent. The kitchen, the vessels, the lamp holders, umbrellas and other accessories for the elephant procession-everything is ‘mahat’ there! And almost in every house in Vaikom, there will be at least one person named ‘Mahadevan’.
According to the legends it was on the Vrichika-krishnapaksha -Asthami day , the God appeared before Vyagrapada Maharishi who was the custodian of the Lingam handed over by Khara and later consecrated by Parasurama. In the morning, the God is worshiped as Dakshina moorthy, the great guru who imparts of wisdom and knowledge, and at noon, as Kirathamoorthy, giver of success in all endeavors( sarva karya jayam) and remover of obstacles ( sarva vighnopasanthi). In the evening, the Lord assumes the form of ‘shakthi panchakshari), is in a very happy mood, enjoying his leisure with the divine consort and sons, Ganesha and Karthikeya. Ideal time to ask for what you want!
After paying obeisance to the magnificent golden flag staff and the Stambha Ganapathy in the north eastern corner of the Belikalpura, I walk further and enter the Namaskara mandapam where the Ramayana story is sculptured on the inner roof. The huge single stone Nandi gives me permission silently, to move towards the Sreekovil. It is round in shape, roofed with copper plates and has two chambers, the outer one, the Mukha mandapam and the Gharbha griha, the inner chamber.
Ha! What a magnificent manifestation of the cosmic consciousness is this, in my front!
I see three prominent, glittering chandrakalas, crescents, adoring the head of the Lord and their captivating appearance stimulates every nerve center resulting in a spontaneous flow of Sankaracharya’s immortal ‘ Sivanadhalahari”, from the cavern of my heart.
“Kalabhyam choodalamkritha sasi kalabhyam ——
I see three prominent eyes, so powerful that fire of anger emitted by one of them, I have no doubt, would have turned the god of love into ashes, when he intervened in a wrong time.—
I see a prominent nose, ‘thripundram’, three white lines of ash marks, colourful garlands around and the golden icon of his physical form in the center with the Ganges on the head, rudraksham on the chest, snakes around the neck and siva abharanams on his four hands.
I become emotional, struggle for words but somehow completes the slokam,
“Karasthe Heamdrau, girisa nikatasthe dhanapathau,
Grihasthe swarbhoojaamara surabhi, chinthamani ganey,
Sirasthea seethamsove, charanayugalstheghila subhe
Kamartham dasyoham, bhavathu bhavdartham mama mana.”
“The golden mountain is in your hands; Kubhera, the lord of wealth is close by; Chinthamani,Kamdhenu and Klapaka tree adore your house; all heavenly auspicious things are at your feet; the moon adores your head. What is there I have with me, to offer you, oh! Mahadeava? I have nothing else but my mind.”
“It is, indeed, an immersion in ‘anantha lahari or absolute bliss, to stand before the great God and recite the slokas soaked in bakthi or devotion and beauty. A marvelous experience it was, the Vaikathashtami worship. Absolute peace and unalloyed bliss- that was what I experienced on that morning.
The monkeys of the mind were waiting for me to come out of the Sreekovil and the moment I was out of reach of those power triple eyes of the Lord, they started playing their tricks. Deep down from the valley of memory, the taste of ‘pappadams’ and ‘paladapradhaman’ appeared on the tongue tip, untimely though not unnecessarily.
‘Where is the thidappally?,’ I inquired a good looking woman, coming out of the shrine, clad in snow white mundu. That was an unnecessary, untimely question but attracted by her serene looks and charm, I uttered some stupid words, as it has become a habit with me for some time now.
‘Thirumenikku enthaa visakkunno- it appears you are hungry?,’ She asked, kindness and consideration reflecting through a simple innocent smile. I blinked as usual.
‘Hold my hand if you don’t want to fall on your knees. Pakshe jan chovathyia- but I belong to backward community,’ She was worried that I would be pushed down by the surging crowd.
‘But, you are charmin,’ I smiled and offered my hand and added, ‘I am not a Namboodiri (Kerala Brahmin); anyway, hold my hand firm’
Kuttymalu, that was her name, took me to the grand kitchen full of huge copper and brass vessels. ‘This is the place where the ‘pradal’, the great offering to the ‘Annadana prabhu’ is prepared,’ She bent down, touched the floor and taking the dust to her head, continued, ‘This is a holy place, where, Vaikkathappan was seen working. Therefore, the ashes from the fire- wood ovens here, is the main prasadam in the temple. It is believed to possess curative power’
‘Yes, I know,’ I replied. ‘I have in my house one such rosary brought by my wife, long back . She was born here’. That statement brought us still closer.
‘That is the ‘Manyasthana’ where the Lord, disguised as Brahmin, was seen eating his ‘pradal’ and a sacred lamp, ‘badradeepa’ is kept there, even today, as a mark of respect to the God, before the mass feeding starts’
She then took me around and showed the other sacred places like, Vyagrapadasthana, where the great saint performed pooja and received the blessing of the Lord in person, Mathrusala, where the belistones of seven divine mothers are worshiped, theerthas or holy tanks and many other things.
Pointing her finger at the top of the flag post, she said, ‘the twelve day festival commences with a ceremonial hosting of the flag and the thread for the holy flag is brought with pomp and pride, by a fisherman of Untassery family. This right is the reward granted by the then ruler, the Maharaja, for helping him and his parivar for crossing the backwaters in an emergency. In fact, every section of the society participates in the celebration and do you know that the NSS and SNDP (prominent social organizations) conduct the first three days’ festivals. Even goldsmiths have a part to play. Four Brahmin groups, ‘samoohams’, compete with each other in serving rich foods to the devotees.’ (The taste of the idichupuzhinja payasam, a variety of pudding, I enjoyed that noon in the Vaikkom samooham, is still fresh on my tongue- full four servings I had; hell with my diabetes)
‘Why do you laugh?,’ She inquired removing the sand from a granite platform, with her upper garment, preparing a seat for us, while repeating her statement about the presence of the God in the kitchen. ‘Did I say anything wrong?’
‘You didn’t,’ I confessed, ‘I was enjoying mentally the sight of the Lord, in the form of a cook, holding a long ladle, with his dothy tied above his knees, and his body painted with holy ash here and there,: I replied, looking into her eyes to see whether she was able to catch up with me.
As calmly as she took my hand to lead me out of the rush inside the temple, Kuttimalu, who teaches Sanskrit in a college,spontaneously but slowly recited the sloka from ‘Kumarasambhavam’ related to Uma’s brusque reply to shiva who appeared before her in the form a vadu (Brahmin bachelor) and denounced the attributes of the Lord.
“Vibhooshanolbhasi pinaghta boghi va,
Gajajinalambi dukoola dhari va,
Na Viswamoortheyravadharyathe vapu:”
Adorned by jewels or crisscrossed by snakes, attired by elephant skin or silk cloth, carrying the moon or skull on the head, no one knows the real form of the Viswamoorthy , the omnipresent.
That settled it. Here is a person who speaks my language. For hours together, sitting under the golden flag post, we discussed about the great epic of the immortal poet.
Comes night and we are in, to get enthralled by the most famous ashtami vilakku.
Having learnt that Karthikeya , his son was engaged in a war with Tharakasura, Vaikkathappan, the ‘jagath pita’ or father of the universe, becomes restless and like any other earthly father, awaits anxiously, for hours together, for his successful return. The lights are dim, the drum beat dull and occasional and He is alone on an elephant, unaccompanied by any royal escorts. The people who witnessed the pompous procession of the Lord, a little while ago, sit silently sharing His anguish and anxiety. The sky is derived of clouds and the air gloomy. Time drags on.
Suddenly the sound of drum beats and pipe music becomes audible from a distance and we go outside. Yes, it is Karthikeya, the Sura senani’s victory parade, after conquering the asura. He is coming from Udayanapuram, his abode, with his court and army, to meet his parents and pay tribute.
The royal procession of the celestial army chief, is awesome. I have never seen such a breath taking procession anywhere. A score of majestic tuskers in their caparisoned splendor, With mahouts atop them, holding glittering idols of Karthikeya and other devathas, high tinseled silk parasols (muthukuda) and swaying white tufts (venchamaram) and peacock feather fans (aalavattom) lead by a big orchestra of drummers and pipers, arrive majestically towards the eastern gate of the temple where the Lord is waiting patiently. The people of the town has arranged a rousing reception for the winners, with Nirapara(paddy filled brass measures), nilavailakku(brass ornamental lamps), flowers, thoranas(decorative small flags artistically woven with leaves from the coconut and plantain trees) etc.
A happy and proud father gets ready to meet his son of valor along with others. The oil lamps glow brighter, the drum- beats become louder, the pipes and bugles pour out melody. The divine meeting is so artistic and articulate that people become emotional and their enthusiasm is infective.
All the caparisoned elephants, there are a dozen of them, assemble around the proud jumbo carrying the head of the family. For more than an hour, the whole family celebrates their union and victory of the family member, which brings peace for the world, , when drummers and pipers produce their best and the lamp holders illuminate the whole campus. People rejoice.
Even good things have to come to an end and it is time now to say good bye. Karthikeya and others, take leave of the divine parents. Their elephants, one by one, slowly and sadly approach the patriarch, bend the right knee, raise the trunk, and bow before him. The jumbo of the father, lifts the trunk and blesses. There is practically no high sounding drum-beating and the music flowing from the pipes, nadaswarms, is soft and sorrowful. Not only the people who witness the scene of separation but even the elephants bow their heads with sorrow.
The father slowly comes to the main gate to see the children off and one by one, they take leave again.
By attributing form for the formless and providing family and shelter to the one for whom the entire universe is abode and family, we derive a unique pleasure We feel that, by doing so, the God has come closer to us. The Kalpathy car festival, The Vaikkathashtamy and several other celebrations illustrate this .
While returning from the temple after the fireworks at around four in the morning, I asked Kuttymalu, how the elephants were acting so meticulously, as if they were trained for a professional circus show.
‘They are trained to synchronize their action with the sound from the sanku, conch,’ she clarified .
‘And their eyes were moist!’
‘As they are animals’
‘I understood, Kuttimalu’. I held her hand without her asking.
‘I like you Kuttimalu,’ I said and held her close to me.
‘Won’t you come for the next Ashtami?’, She asked while bidding adieu, along with her parents. ‘I am your Karthikeya , though I have not won a battle’
‘You are,’ I asserted, ‘ You have won my heart’
‘Now your eyes are moist,’ she taunted me with a mischievous smile and queried, ‘that means?’
‘I am an animal,’ I admitted and moved towards the bus-stand.
I had no courage to turn back and say ‘good bye’ again.
Jan 13, 2009
Leaving for the Kerala trip, with my sister, her daughter in law and little Ishaan tomorrow. The top priority in the otherwise sightseeing tour is Vaikkathashatmi on the 7th of this month, which happens to be my actual birthday, though my official birthday has passed on, with the benign blessings of the gods at the Greater Baltimore temple, to whose divine presence , my son Sharath and DIL Meghana, lead me with love and care. The Vaikkathappan’s darisanam on the dawn of the next day also happens to be important for me as that will be my star day, vritchika Hastham, according to the perinkulam astrolger Mookkunni, who wrote my janmapatrika, a valuable, though seldom used written document.
It was three years ago that I was earlier endowed with the blessings of participation in the extravaganza of Ashtami celebrations, which was so enthralling that I came out with a story, “Vaikkathashtami, an emotional extravaganza”, which drew the appreciation of many and severe censorial slashing from a senior scholar whom I revere for his elucidate writing and enviable knowledge. The reason for the ire of the elderly soul was my narrated companionship with an imaginary character,Kuttimalu, an young woman who helped to go around the temple explaining the importance of places and events. My explanation that the woman never existed in reality and was purely a product of my imagination and my narration was linked to the union of the Divine Father and His son and the subsequent separation, movingly enacted by the caparisoned pachyderms carrying the idols of Vaikkathappan and Subramania Swamy, didn’t carry much weight with that puritan Brahmanasri and our debate went on for days, giving literary entertainment to the readers.
This is the problem if a writer combines reality with imaginary events and characters, in his works, but having used to that habit, I find it hard to come out of it. I am writing stories not autobiography.
The skirmish with the senior, however, left no ill feeling in our relationship, thanks to his generous heart. My respect for the elderly scholar continues. He too continues to love me and magnanimously and unreservedly blessed my children when I invited him for their weddings, in July this year. The strong and silky cultural web that winds our elders is so elastic that it can afford to absorb any shock but suffers no fracture or retains any dust , when the windstorm passes away.
Vaikkathappan’s call came again unexpectedly while I was in USA and I am more excited now (not with the hope of meeting with my imaginary woman- friend , but because I can meet my Lord on my janmanakshatram ) .
If the life is tuned in a spiritual mode, unexpected union with the Divinity occurs. Who expected this day, last month in Florida, I will be making a trip to Vaikkam to submit my obeisance to the Mahadevar that too on my birthday.
Dec. 3, 2012