I don’t remember at what point in life I stopped being religious. ‘Religious’ as in carrying out rituals in an attempt to appease the Gods for favours in return. Hailing from a ‘God-fearing’ (yes, fearing more than revering) orthodox Tambram family, that is an anomaly. And perhaps, a sacrilege too. My life should be heavily dotted with holy practices bearing incense smell and hymnal resonance - things that, as per them, eventually fetch us loving husbands and children with filial sentiments. Things that fill our chests with mortal treasures.
But I fell off the beaten track. By destiny or by design.
I wasn’t raised with irreverence towards religious deeds. I was trained to utter prayers that I barely understood (and often mispronounced); I was taught to follow traditions that reflected our so-called Brahminical pedigree; I was given to believe that divine retribution was real – that God was uncompromising when it came to deviations and punished ruthlessly if we erred. He rewarded if we didn’t depart from the divine decrees, but that came with cardinal virtues and religiosities and their rules couldn’t be bent. The Do’s and Don’ts in our business with God were final and incommutable.
But as I crossed the youthful years, my growth pattern changed in ways that was not expected of me. Like coconut trees in Kerala that went askew and made acute angles with the earth on which they were planted. I began to equate man with God in a curious way. At some point, I even marvelled at how the Hindu Gods had diverse life stories, and how they had similar ethos and pathos as our own lives. How then did they differ from us, I wondered.
It took a longer time for me to arrive at a definite answer to that.
With the imagery of God and His purpose getting distorted in my head, temples stopped being post offices and petition centres to me, and I rarely went there to beseech. Yet, for some reason they still held a unique attraction that was unequalled by any other centre of power or pleasure. I occasionally visited places of worship, just to soak in the ambience that was imbued with the smell of camphor and oil, of burnt wicks and sandal paste; where bells resounded the loud (and sometimes garish) aspirations of devotees and lamps flickered like hope in the dark sanctum dedicated to deities with different names.
Particularly, temples in Kerala became a landscape of tranquility for me - their concourses a meeting point of mind and matters; their pathways grazing lands for a wandering spirit; their ground a seat for self-scrutiny. It is only for this reason that I still visit some temples there once in a while. Not to solicit anything specific nor to seek forgiveness for sins committed, but to just inhale the smell of piety that stuck to the stone walls and pillars. Religion was out for me, but piety still lingered in forms that I didn’t care to explain to anybody – not even to my mother pickled in orthodoxy.
‘Amma, I am planning to go to Guruvayur. It has been five years,’ I announced a week into my vacation a month ago. Five years is a long time to be away from a place that gave me vibes I received only in one other place of worship. The Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum.
Given Amma’s fragile health that keeps us all guessing which way she is going, and what the end game would be like, I wasn’t sure if she would want a quick dekko of the Lord in my company, although taking her and bringing her back safely was a huge responsibility. But Guruvayur is one place no devout Hindu can say ‘no’ to and she jumped at the opportunity, almost as if offered a ticket to heaven.
‘But I won’t be standing in the queue and going inside. I am happy to be just there in the temple precincts and feeling the ambience,’ I made my intention clear, wondering if it would go down well with her, and what she might have to say in response to my departure from tradition. What do people go to Guruvayur for, if not to catch a glimpse of their beloved deity at close quarters? If not to undertake the penance of waiting in long queues?
I wasn’t game for all that. It wasn’t the purpose of my going there. I suspected that my changing perceptions about life and other broader aspects of it were already casting aspersions on my upbringing as a pious brahmin and a pronouncement of this nature might only deepen my mother’s suspicion about my diligently built faith lurching forward and falling on its face.
‘I will take the senior citizen’s queue,’ she said matter-of-factly, as if emboldened by her resolve to go in, whether I consented or not, whether I accompanied her or not. It wasn’t the easiest option for someone with fragile health to take, for queues of all kinds took more or less the same time to make it to the sanctum, but given the circumstances, it was the only way Amma could find a way to fulfil her wish. She had come a long way from foisting her preferences on others and was now beginning finding her own ways to cover last lap of life.
Our preferences were clearly going their separate ways, I reckoned. One of us had to budge and give in if the day had to end in a blessed manner with no secret disillusionments pushed under our bosoms. She wanted to go in like any other devout person, and I preferred to stay in the vicinity, like an agnostic pariah.
Those were moments of feeble conflict between my own perception of faith and my need to offer support to hers ignoring my personal beliefs. Taking a call meant either sticking to my guns and risk being seen as selfish or altering my view of what the visit meant to me. The moral conflict of ‘them vs me’ couldn’t have been any more glaring than this. Life always challenges people to choose between two difficult things, putting us between a hard place and a rock. To be or not to be.
But having reached a stage where I gave such conflicts scant regard, and also because I realised that such ideological clashes were an oscillating mind’s conspiracy, I readied myself to take it as it came.
‘1000 rupees ticket, amma?’ I asked, not grudging it should she show interest. My skepticism about these money-making practices by the authorities notwithstanding, I was prepared to get her a ticket if it would guarantee her a fast darshan. But she declined my offer for her own reasons. I didn’t insist either, glad that she had chosen to be reasonable. I remembered R.K. Narayan mentioning in one of his stories that old age and decrepitude tamed everyone in the end.
Byzantine queues greeted us as we slowly sauntered into the temple complex. People who had shorn a day off their schedules to seek mercy and benevolence of a God who never disappoints the ‘faithful ones’ thronged the space.
Faithful ones – I wondered how many where there to offer their undisputed devotion and how many to trade their allegiance. Prayers for peace and boons, pleas for clemency, this for that, something for something else. The reasons for which people flock these religious real estates are endless. In the end, it is to seek and pocket something that the outside world does not easily bring. Lasting peace.
It would have been impossible for me to walk through the maze of men and women waiting for their turn to drop their baggage of woes at the deity’s feet up close and take Amma to where she could unburden herself too. It seemed like a long way to redemption.
‘Long queues, Amma,’ I said, weighing our options. ‘Let’s ask for the senior citizens’ line,’ I added, hoping it would be less intimidating in numbers.
‘There is no separate queue for senior citizens at this hour. It is now restricted to two hours each in the morning and in the evening,’ a temple employee whom I had approached said.
My face fell. Did that mean that old people could now see the deity only at designated hours and not when their hearts chose?
The large clock hung below the manager’s office said it would be another five hours before Amma could gain access to the sanctum, and it was beyond what we could afford in terms of time and Amma’s feeble condition. Her feet aren’t steady, and she sways like a Casuarina tree even as she stands. The only option left with me was to make a request to the staff to help her get to the sanctum without going through the usual hassles.
‘Amma is not in the best of health. And she can’t stand in the long queue. Is there something you can do? I said supporting Amma’s arm to keep her from lurching and falling.
With no choice left, if it came to that, Amma might have agreed to worshipping her deity from the outer confines, but knowing how much she desired to go in, I wanted to take every chance I could to give her the coveted, inside experience.
‘You may talk to the manager,’ said the staff, pointing at the office of the man in charge. It was a chance we had to take. Should he be a man of compassion who saw that Amma deserved to see her deity, then he would arrange something. It would happen if it was destined for her. Her faith would lead her to where she must go.
I took amma by hand to the manager’s office. The short flight of stairs to the office would have been tough to climb for her, but the staff outside spared us the ordeal as he quickly inquired our purpose of visit to the manager’s office. I presented Amma’s case and he was prudent enough to see that we were genuine in our request. Amma indeed was very frail and she couldn’t have stood in the snaking queues. He asked me if I was accompanying her, and if I would go with her inside. I nodded, making sure my hand was still gripping her.
The man called out to the security manning the gates and asked him to allow Amma to walk through into the inner precincts. It was as if all hurdles in front of her fell by a single command of the Almighty, as if the mountains crumbled with one gust of divine intention. We joined the crowd that was crossing the threshold and squeezed in to enter the main arena. My only aim then was make sure Amma got her darshan without being pushed and shoved by the crowd. It didn’t matter whether I got to see the deity or not. Helping her see it was my only objective on that day. In it I will find my fulfilment. That I had piggy ridden on her to get palpably closer to the Lord was a bonus to me. I had no intention otherwise to go inside. There was no desire, hence there was no intention. But I felt as if He had a desire to see me, and hence arranged for it and coasted me in like an anchoring ship.
Keeping my arm around Amma steady but not heavy, I filed past the ‘nada’ that offers the promise of salvation to millions.
It was a fleeting moment in which I gave myself a quick reminder of what the deity symbolized and what lay beyond the confines of the sanctum. An ardent utterance of His name, a gentle palm placed on the heart as a reverential gesture, and a fleeting glimpse of the bedecked form of Guruvayurappan later, I emerged with Amma feeling triumphant. Triumphant of having got Amma’s wish fulfilled; for having made it through the seeming hurdles effortlessly. For having been given a wild card entry. This episode was all part of a cosmic narrative of which we have no inkling.
Amma’s agenda completed, I asked for some time to sit in the temple grounds to accomplish my purpose of going there. I had little clue what I had wanted, but I knew my visit to the temple would be incomplete without the me-time there. Amma took it as time I needed to chant slokas, all of which she had assiduously taught us in childhood. That I had dissolved them all in my quest for something greater than words and symbols, she probably did not know. Or did she?
The crowd that had converged on that point had various agendas. There was a gathering in front of the kodimaram that craned its neck for one final peek at the Lord. The Lord’s names fluttered out of their lips like soft dandelions in an evening breeze. Amma joined them to take in the last dreg of divine benediction for the day, leaving me to merge with the air that I so coveted.
I recalled the sandal smeared countenance of the Lord inside with a mercurial smiled etched on it and I glanced at the scores of people whose only to-do item for the day was to get their share of blessings from the vast quantities He showered on his subjects. Through them all ran a common thread – that of being the Lord’s children. In them all, a shared wish – to be blessed by the Lord. In all a recurring plea – to be protected from evil and perfidy.
In all the faces, a hint of disquiet; inside them a roiling sea of hidden emotions.
In all the eyes, a flutter of angst; in their corners a tentative tear.
In all the hearts, a distinct quest; within them a rainbow of hopes.
People with names and titles, with an assumed power to create and destroy with spurious pride lurking inside.
People like books with dog ears and sepia pages, lodging stories with common plots and themes and tales like that of the Gods and Goddesses they worshipped.
And witnessing them all, an all-pervading, uniting presence of which I was beginning to get an undeniable sense even amidst the teeming atmosphere. There was nothing that distinguished us, except for the names and the forms they represented. Behind the bedecked sculpture inside and the bejewelled humans outside, there was a monitor on which we all fell as silhouettes and shapes, performing shadow plays.
Both God and man, under a single marquee.
I didn’t perceive it when I passed by the main nada or when I uttered the chants. It came when I watched the men, women and children, when I witnessed the essence of existence in them all in equal measure. What sustained me, sustained them. What strengthened me, strengthened them. What led me, led them. I held it all in indescribable awe as a wave of benediction swept over me and made me prostrate to the unmistakable ‘presence’ of the universe in every devout face, every echoing pillar, every glistening lamp around.
In that moment, there was only a binding sense of intense love emerging from the backstage of my consciousness. Love as in wanting to take everything in a sweeping embrace, regardless of what and who it was. Love as in getting insanely romantic with the closest affinities that I had in life. Love as in seeing the settling calmness of the sky in every eye I met.
What unfolded before me in those poignant moments was an endless tapestry of human lives woven into the fabric of love beyond barriers and limited confines.
A love without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.
A love without impositions.
A love that is supreme and sublime.
A love that I worship as God, and sometimes, as Guruvayurappan.