The heat and the temple festivals

(I wrote this post a few days back, but I have been traveling and having some trouble with my computer.)

The heat has settled like a woolen blanket over the city, and people are adjusting as best they can. Vendors line up wedges of watermelon under glass covers to keep out the flies. These and tender coconut water sell quickly. An institution trying to do a good deed in Madras these days might mix buttermilk and salt in big buckets and hand glasses of it out on crowded streets.

It is also a time of temple festivals in Madras. The idols of each temple must be aired regularly; they’re taken out of their sanctums and taken around the streets. I attended the festivities at two of the oldest temples in the city, the first at the Kapaleeswar Temple in Mylapore. Near my house at the Marundeeswar Temple in Tiruvanmiyur, I saw two parts of the festival, and I liked it better than the one in Mylapore. Here, too, the temple deity, Shiva in the form of Marundeeswar, was taken on procession in the middle of the day. The chariot was a high one, with the deity and the priests standing at least 6 or 7 feet above the crowd, and devotees using two long ropes pulled the deity around the temple.

A few nights before that, I had gone out to dinner with a friend of mine. We were talking very late, till midnight, so he walked me home. As we turned into the area in front of the temple tank in Tiruvanmiyur, we saw a crowd under the large maidan where a band was playing. In the middle of the crowd was an enormous palanquin, on which was placed the decorated idol of Shiva, carried by a large group of young men. The idol was held facing the door of the temple. Two red flags flanked the palanquin with the sun and moon on them (Surya and Chandra), as well as two lamps. To our delight (we are both serious Bharata Natyam dancers), the idol danced! The palanquin bearers rocked the deity from side to side, while running back and forth on the maidan, the idol making a graceful zig zag. The lamps were moved up and down with the rocking and the flags were spun, horns were blown and drums were beaten, showing how the universe itself spun when Shiva danced.

More than the idol, I was mesmerized by the palanquin bearers who were intensely concentrated on their movements, at the degree of coordination needed in a group of that size in order to make the deity perform its intricate dance. Eight young men bearing Ambal’s palanquin ahead of Shiva did a pradakshanam around him, executing a kind of complex two step as they carried her. These men were closer to me, I could see their knitted brows, their profuse sweating, the order and beauty they carved as they progressed through the chaos of the crowds and smoke. These were obviously not priests, and because local people were involved with the rituals of the temple, this festival seemed to be much more concerned with reinforcing bonds of community, a kind of collective adoration of the god rather than the kind of individual awe invoked in bigger temples like the Brihadeeshwara in Tanjavur or in a cathedrals.

History, as I found in my reading, supports this intuition. The nadanam or dancing of the idol has been taking place in Tiruvanmiyur (thought to be at least 1,200 years old) and in a series of other temples in Tamil Nadu for hundreds of years. These boys who hold the palanquin were exercising hereditary rights to participate in temple rituals held by certain of the fishing communities in Madras in the temples of Tiruvanmiyur, Parthasarathy in Triplicane, Tiruvottriyur, Kapaleeswar in Mylapore and others. Srinivasapuram, the slum I’m studying, was born out of one such kuppam or fishing community, called Mulli Kuppam, which has a long recorded history. An important part of my project now has become about trying to find the earliest recorded mentions of this kuppam, which have proven and will prove to be useful in the slum’s struggle for rights to their land.

One historian of Madras, B. M. Thirunaranan, posited in a volume of essays written for the tercentenary celebrations for the city in 1939 that in the early days of the spread of agriculture, most of the early settlers in this area must have been fishermen. Slowly, as in-land lagoons dried, leaving behind clayey rich dirt, farming became more popular. He suggests that the early farmers, because they were in a minority, exchanged ritual status in the temples for permission from the fishermen to build and expand their holdings. The Kapaleeswar temple was originally built directly on the seashore, and then moved inland. When the British landed in what is now Madras in the 1600s, there was no city, only a handful of fishing villages. Madras the city was formed from the amalgamation of these villages and centered around Fort St. George.

Unlike most poor communities in the cities, the largest slums of Madras are built around the oldest residents, these fishermen. Their claims to traditional land rights will prove very important in the struggle for rights and resources after the tsunami.

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