Jul 10, 2005


No doubt due to the corrosion caused by the western influence, as someone I know would say, only after having met with all my friends and relatives did I realize that I ought to pay a visit to goddess Meenakshi, when I visited Madurai last. There I was, enjoying my morning coffee without a care in the world, when one of the countless acquaintances, with the liberty of having seen me since I was a kid, pointed out in the most accusatory and incredulous tone that I hadn't yet gone to the temple.
So, that auspicious day, though I didn't know that at the time and would have postponed it otherwise, with two toddlers in tow, we set off to the temple. We crossed the grand threshold happily enough, joining all the people milling about, chanting and chatting - me pointing out the wonderful sculptures, the kids getting a thump on their heads by the cute little elephant, oh it was all very merry. The first sign of things to come was the wedding parties around the holy pool, but I missed it completely. I was still smiling happily as I turned around, stood in a queue, another sign I missed, and got the tickets, and only when we entered the sanctum and encountered a mass of heads, did it dawn upon me what it meant to visit Goddess Meenakshi on an auspicious day.
Mind you, I am not new to crowds, but this was the mother of all crowds. There was absolutely no space and the sanctum was filled with people. One moment we were standing there mouth agape and the next we were going with the flow, so to speak, strange elbows nudging us, strange voices booming all around us. With enormous effort I broke away from the general direction the crowd was moving and came to the special queue for the ticket holders. My uncle murmured in a low voice that if I was willing to grease some palms, we could move ahead through the wicket gate. I, though not promptly, disagreed and declined to this blatant, though wise in retrospect, idea and joined the long queue. This was a hot day and the fans mounted on the walls were of little use. We fashioned some hand fans out of the odds and ends we had and tried to keep the kids busy as we waited.
We stood and stood as the queue inched at asnail's pace, all the while watching the wicket gate being opened with dexterity allowing herds of people into the sanctum sanctorium. The noise, a meaningless jumble of a thousand words, echoing on the dark stone walls, the draining heat and the dim light bulbs were all getting to us now. The kids were beginning to get uneasy, we were sweating at a rate of fast approaching dehydration, beginning to get hungry and thoroughly disgruntled and our tolerance was fast evaporating. The fates of those who hadn't bought the special tickets were even worse. Farther away from the special queue, this other crowd was getting bigger and more unforgiving by the minute and they were being pushed and pulled as they struggled to get a glimpse of Her. By the time we crossed the gate and entered the inner sanctum, I was beginning to seriously doubt the purpose of my presence there. Where was the peace and serenity that I was expecting?
The inner sanctum was another story. Some wise guy had deemed that those with the special tickets deserved to sit in the small chamber in front of the deity for a few minutes. Now there was already enormous traffic, those entering into the chamber, the priests and the assorted staff regulating the flow. To top it, the good people in the chamber hardly seemed satisfied with the opportunity given to them and were sitting rooted to their spots or worse, upon entreated to leave, were standing right there, blocking the view of the less unfortunate ticket less mass of people, who could hardly stand let alone sit, passing by beyond the chamber straining to see the deity. The priests vying to get our attention, the incessant monotonous chanting with no depth to it, the police woman desperately cursing to get the attention of the blockers, the faceless crowd with a thousand folded hands moving like an automaton, crying for help.. I felt suffocated, even guilty and need to run away from there arose from the middle of my being, constricting my throat. With barely a glimpse at the deity I rushed out at the first opportunity gasping for breath and as soon as my family joined me, we all trudged out without a word. I knew I couldn't really blame anybody there but I felt like bursting into tears.
As I walked around a huge pillar, disillusioned, a strange despair filling my heart, a wave of fresh air wrapped around me in a gentle caress. And I noticed him. An old man, doing his hereditary job, shirtless, his bones sticking out of his bare chest was swaying his fan , fashioned of peacock feathers, seemingly heavier than his thin frame, with all his might, unmindful of the heat and the sweat and the waves of uncaring devotees walking past him, with a certain soul shaking single minded devotion. With a muffled sob, I pressed some money into his rough, ancient hands. Without a word, he swept the fan of feathers and for a few brief moments let it touch my head and fill my parched heart, in a gesture of tranquility and benediction.

July 10, 2005