Returning from a visit in Rome six years ago , I met a priest who quizzed me about the ancient monuments of the city. My answer was brief. The city is littered with buildings and ruins of ancient Rome, the gods and goddesses are known and remembered but they are no longer worshipped. They have been replaced. But not so in Tamil Nadu which I visited a week ago.
After a little more than an hour’s flight from Chennai, we landed at Thoothukudi Airport. After a brief lunch, the driver drove us to Rameswaram and from there we travelled back to Chennai, passing through major cities – Tirunelvelli, Madurai, Thanjavur, Puduchery, Mahabalipuram. On the way we visited temples, waterfalls, nature spots and even the abandoned village of Danushkodi. However it was the Gods and Goddesses who fascinated me most.
At the shore temple of Tirruchendur, one of the six abodes of Lord Muruga, one in our group went bare torso to catch a glimpse of the Lord in the inner sanctorum. To stand in the presence of the Lord, to see the Lord and being seen by Him, such eye contact is always a thrilling and a unique experience for the devout worshipper. This explains why there is always a long queue waiting patiently at any time of the day to see the God or Goddess.
At Madurai there was equally a long queue. The presiding Goddess at the big temple is Meenatchi. The temple complex is an architectural marvel and reminds me of the living moments of devotion of those who contributed their resources and labour to construct it. It has eleven Gopurams, each nine storeys high, covered with the most elaborate sculptures. The Mandapa has 1000 colonnades. The temple complex represents the Chola architecture at its finest and its inscriptions remain a minefield for historians. As we offered our prayers to Goddess Meenatchi, several young couples garlanded with flowers walked past us; they had come to seek the blessings of the Goddess or to thank Her for past boons.
From an interview by William Dalrymple in a local magazine, we learn that Araiyar Srinivasan, the poet singer at the Temple comes from a family that has been singing the devotional poetry of the Alvars since 823 AD. The town of Madurai was built around 800 AD and is mentioned by famous visitors such as Pliny the Younger, Ptolemy and the Greek geographer Strabo as well as in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
Leaving Madurai, we visited Thanjavur, the heart of the Tamil country where the majority of the Tamils in Mauritius come from. Many of the names on shops ring familiar. There the greatest attraction is the Great Siva Temple. Like Madurai, this Temple is located in the centre of the town. It was built around1011 AD, has a tower of 14 storeys, is about 170 feet high and has a massive dome consisting of a single block of stone 25 feet high and weighing 80 tons. Before such a marvel even the most blasé cannot remain indifferent.
While each moment in Tamil Nadu brought new marvels – whether it was the landscape, the food, the temples and dress, or the people – it was the Gods and Goddesses who fascinated me most. While the big temples dedicated to Gods and Goddesses remain lively places of worship with their daily crowds, every village has its own God and especially its Goddess. Often we had to ask the driver to reverse because we had spotted a house where we would discreetly get a picture of either the village God – Protector Madurai Veeren or Muniswaren. As for the Goddess, each village has its own Goddess or a different name for its Goddess. This is true for South India and for the whole of India as well.
When we take a look at the names of the innumerable Goddesses, they remind us of our own Kovils with such names Minakchi, Thugai or Tookai, Veerama Kali, Mariammen and many others which Indian immigrants in Mauritius had brought from their ancestral villages and replicated in the construction of the temples in estate camps, villages and towns. In the early days when they were not able to bring the statues, a stone sufficed for them to direct their prayers. The ritual before the Stone God could be as simple as folding their arms to mutter a prayer and to bow on their knees out of respect, humility and gratitude. Reimagining this act of devotion towards the Divine, one becomes conscious how man and woman have always discerned God or Goddess right from the beginning of human existence before they could read and write. The worship of the Gods and Goddesses dates from time immemorial and this discernment has been given continuous expression right to the present day.
Not surprisingly the names of the Gods and Goddesses are innumerable and if we add to the list not only the village Gods and the family and personal Gods and Goddesses, the list becomes endless. This is why foreigners to India or to the Indian mind, including academics, have up to the present time found Indian religious practices baffling, complex and beyond their understanding. Yet for the simple worshipper, she is offering her prayers to one God or Goddess not to the stone or the particular statue, despite their various names, whereas to somebody brought up in a different culture, she appears to be worshipping several Gods.
In turning to the Divine, she does not need to have any belief in the Western sense of the term, nor any justification, nor even ‘understanding’. It is simply her tradition or as Prof Radhakrishna would put it — her way of life. Whether you use the Western concept of ‘religion’ to apply to it or not, she does not bother. She has been worshipping Ammen as far as she can remember, or Thugai or Muniswaren or Ganesh or Periyachi or Cathery, and she continues to do so in various ways both observable or not. Her act of devotion to the Divine stems from the heart. It is simple, it is varied and may consist of offering flowers, food, cleaning the platform where she worships, bathing the God or lighting a lamp.
Even when some of the rituals for these Gods and Godesses are not practised as in the past for a number of practical reasons, they rarely disappeared from the prayers and most often coalesce with other Goddesses. In Mauritius, the Periyachi ritual may no longer be practised and has been easily substituted by the worship of Ammen.
However, the Tamils in Reunion Island remain strongly attached to Periyachi or Muniswaren. When they order statues for Periyachi, the sculptor from Mahabalipuram informed me that he had no idea what a statue of Periyachi looks like and he had to ask for a picture from Reunion and was sent one so that he could make the statue for the Tamils in Reunion. In Reunion, it is well known that the Tamils have retained many of their original rituals partly out of their communist ideology, which resisted elite religious domination as well as reforms emanating from Mauritius in the 1960s.
Even in India, with the advent of new technology, people who had left their villages for more than a century now inquire from their village folks about their village God. Similar requests are coming from diaspora communities. Internet, Facebook and other social networks have revitalized ways of worship which were once thought would die a natural death.
In the 1960s, sociologists and religious theorists had predicted that with modernization and urbanization, the Gods and Goddesses worshipped by many Indians were expected to disappear. Surprisingly the Gods and Goddesses have emerged in the new urban environments, in London, Houston, Texas and many places in Europe and the U.S. Admittedly old ways of worship have yielded place to new forms of worship but there is continuity between the past and the future, and this eternal past is one of the notable features of worshipping the Divine.
In Britain, where many Mauritians had settled down, many festivals are celebrated – Cavadee, Mahasivaratree, Ganesh Chaturti and Govinden. Tamils from Mauritius took the initiative to celebrate Cavadee in the Archway Kovil in North London as well as in France. Even fire walking, which used to be held within the courtyard of the Kovil in London has now turned into a public procession after the Queen, the Head of the Anglican Church ,had visited the Kovil.
In the past, Mauritians who could not place a statue of Hanuman in front of the flat, now place one in the back garden after they had bought their own house in the rural areas. The South Indian professional in Britain would put up a picture of Muniswaren in the house lobby just like he would have done in South India in front of his house.
Like in India, temples in the new environment of the diaspora maintain the age-old traditions of India and become unique places where Gods and Goddesses are worshipped, where people get together, sing, dance, make offerings of flowers and fruits and light a lamp: unique gestures which give them a sense of the Divine, a sense of mystery which brings forth blessings, comfort and peace in a world where secular certainties have yielded place to increasing secular uncertainties.
- Published in print edition on 16 October 2015