The Afterlife, The Aftermath
At least, this is the message that has been relayed to us, unsolicited and with no expectation of remuneration, by a frantic astrologer my mother knows. This message, in turn, had been relayed to him by the ancient sage Agasthiyar, by way of a holy leaf he consults, the jeevanadi, on which writing mystically appears each morning.
You don’t have to believe this. But my mother does, and so we are going to Kovur, a village both inside the city yet somehow outside it, to do what the astrologer has asked us to do.
Leaving Chennai, a peace reenters me—a peace I recognize from travels within greater Tamil Nadu: to the Cauvery delta steeped in the history of sacred music, the minty-aired Nilgiri hills, the strange and surreal enclave of Pondicherry. The Tamil country moves and inspires me, filling me with a profound ancestral passion. This is the geography of the 2,000-year-old Sangam poems, which radicalized my own writing. This is not, however, the milieu of my daily reality. I was born in Madras (later renamed Chennai), grew up outside the country, and returned under complicated circumstances three years ago.
Chennai is a blemish, a suffocation. I have felt in my body how I breathe differently in the city, like it has garlanded me with something bearing a heavy pendant, a stone that falls right between my breasts. But whenever I leave Chennai, I remember why I love India. Within half an hour of driving, we are in the Kanchipuram district, even though the addresses on signboards still end with “Chennai.” Still, the landscape changes. City limits as rubber band—stretching, stretching, incorporating small rice fields, flashes of green, a herd of black buffalo plodding down the road.
“Look at them!” my mother exclaims. “Their bodies are so kola-kola.” That almost onomatopoeic Tamil word suggests bouncy, well-fed flesh.
“You don’t see these in Chennai anymore,” says my father.
“In those days you could see them in Sowcarpet,” she says. My father had grown up in Sowcarpet, a wealthy, filthy North Indian ghetto in the north of the southern city. When he was a boy, they had reared cows in the ground flood of his three-story house. I remember the aversion my maternal grandmother, who was from Sri Lanka, had for the city and the people of Madras, how she blamed all my childhood failings to being “half a Madrasi buffalo.” I think I acquired this same aversion over time, but perhaps I only inherited it.
“They call these Delhi buffalo,” the driver supplies.
My grandmother disliked Madras and hated Chennai, and had the misfortune of having to die there. She was cremated at the burning ground not far from our apartment—close enough that on a daily basis, the drums and raucousness of a Tamil funeral can be heard in the near distance. Traffic holds up on a regular basis for the procession, the hired dancers who do the dappan koothu, a psychopompic mourning performance. Only men can participate in the death rites; when they took my grandmother’s body out of our home after the rites of preparing her corpse, the women were stopped at the gate. Not for us, the sight of a body burning.
I love to watch the dappan koothu. I consider it good luck to even see the aftermath of a funeral, the roses trailing along the road, swirling in scumwater after rain.
We don’t have a garland, and we’re early by almost an hour. There is a neat avenue of ashoka trees leading up to the temple, also lined on either side by the low tenements of the mostly abandoned agraharam, the traditional quarters of the priests and their families. Though some of the doors open out to overrun weeds, there is a space on each small porch for the sleeping traveler or mendicant, a characteristic of Tamil residential architecture that is almost obsolete. But there are no flower-sellers, strangely enough. The driver suggests going to Kundrathur, five kilometers away, the site of a famous temple, where there are sure to be garlands to purchase.
My father says he has seen this temple and this area on television serials. It’s the site of many cinematic elopements.
Like many temples to Murugan, an indigenously Tamil deity, Kundrathur is located on a small hill. As we take its stairs, my mother reminds me that this is meaningful: Murugan was my grandmother’s favorite god. In my grandmother’s intriguingly clairvoyant family, Murugan was known to appear in visions.
We can’t take a single step without stepping on goat excrement. Halfway up the stairs sits a mother goat, her two darling kids cuddling together just above her on one of the landings of the cement banister.
The town of Kundrathur gained importance during the reign of a 12th-century king of the Chola dynasty, Kulothunga Chola II. The king was a Shaivite, a devotee of the paradoxical and passionate god Shiva, and among his chief ministers was the bard and scholar Sekkizhar, who hailed from Kundrathur and composed the Periya Purana, an epic in verse about the lives of the sixty-three devotional poets known as the Nayanmars. It was also Kulothunga Chola II who constructed this Murugan temple, the only one in Tamil Nadu that faces north.
The story goes that Murugan, warrior and crown prince of the Shaivite cosmos, rested on this hill while traveling between Tiruporur and Tiruthani. In some of his forms, he has six faces. Here in Kondrathur, if there is more than one I fail to notice it, for the one face I see is stunning: covered in white holy ash, the idol in the sanctum sanctorum is beatific, benevolence beaming from his large black eyes.
The rest of the temple is fairly ordinary. As with all temple complexes large or minor, one follows a clockwise pattern of worship around the compound, beginning with the idol of Ganesha, Murugan’s elephant-headed brother and the god who must be invoked before all others. The nine planets and the sun are circumnavigated nine times. Vairavar, Shiva’s fierciest and most annihilative form, assumes a docile place in most Tamil temples: a small shrine in a corner, where he is portrayed innocuously in stone with his vehicle, a dog. There is a goddess head under a tree, flanked by representations of snakes, and from the tree’s branches hang wooden cradles—tied symbolically, for wishes made.
Everything seems in its place within the temple, but there is something about Murugan’s smile—it comes alive beneath the patina of holy ash.
On the way back down, we buy chickpea sundal for the goats. The half a dozen casual ascetics we had seen on the way up to the temple ask for alms as we exit. “Muruga, Muruga,” they call. Addressing the god, by way of the god in each one of us.
What we are here to do, at the temple in Kovur, isn’t strictly permissible.
The practice of taking archana—generic prayers made specific by identifying a person by name, birth star, and lineage—is meant for the living. The supplicant places her or his hands on a tray held by the priest, upon which are placed a flame, offerings of flower and fruit, red and yellow turmeric, and holy ash, and gives the priest these details, which he repeats. He incorporates them into the prayer, garlands and circles the flame before the deity, then brings out the tray again for blessings and to receive coin and cash offerings, depositing a coconut with betel leaf, a banana, and the sacred powders into the palms of the waiting supplicant.
The instructions received by my mother’s astrologer were to perform an archana using both my grandparents’ names. My grandfather is in Sri Lanka for a few weeks, although normally he lives with us. My mother decides to contravene religious custom because she believes the message to be directly from the sage Agasthiyar. Faith, like city limits, can expand to accommodate everything it needs.
This temple isn’t as famous as the one at Kundrathur, even though the poet-saint Tyagaraja once sang here. In fact, its name on the board outside does not even bear the deity’s correct name—a moment of confusion ensued when we first arrived, because the astrologer had been quite specific. Above the sanctum sanctorum, however, is a sign that indicates that it was the right temple. The major gods all have multiplicities of forms and names. Here Shiva is Thirumeyneeswarar, and worshipped, as he usually is, in the symbol of the phallic lingam. As with many temples, if the idols are made of metals, not stone, they are enclosed; a particularly lovely brass Murugan, with his two consorts, also has a home here. The small room in one corner of the complex containing the navagraha, the nine planets and the sun, has graffiti all over its walls.
Is it spontaneously or with expectation—after all, this entire evening is charged with the sadness of the soul itself—that I get painfully emotionally? I cry as I pray, and avoid the startled eyes of the group of young men who are worshipping at the same time. Grief is like a wall coated in dust: a single rub and what lies underneath comes back, fresh and fierce, an undulled color.
Perhaps the priest notices. I keep my face down when I touch my hands to the flame he carries and raise them to my eyes.
Before you leave a temple, you have to sit down somewhere in it for a few moments, a custom that might have had its roots in the need for rest after all that circumnavigating around sanctums (“In old times, walking around the temple complex daily should have been enough exercise for anyone,” my mother says). I sit on the floor alone. A small boy in bright white sneakers runs in for a quick hi to the god—or so I think. He should have left his shoes outside the temple, but he probably didn’t want to have them stolen.
I don’t know where my father is, but my mother is nearby, and as we prepare to leave, the priest calls to us. He is in front of the goddess’ shrine, to the lingam’s left, where an idol of the divine feminine principle as Thiruvudai Nayagi is decked in a brilliant shade of green—a color my grandmother wore to perfection.
He hands us both clusters of small leaves, saying that they are from the mahavilvam tree, sacred to Shiva.
Then the priest reaches behind him and picks up a pink flower, an anemone of yellow stamens at its center, over which a single petal raises a hood. “This is the nagalingam,” he explains. “These plants are mentioned in Agasthiyar’s writings.” Naga means snake; the flower suggests the iconography of a lingam being watched over by a serpent. I look at it in his hand, intact and lovely. It falls apart the moment he places it in mine.
“That’s good,” he says. “If the nagalingam disintegrates when you hold it, it cleanses you of your sins. To be cleansed of one’s sins, one must first shatter. The flower shatters for you.”
In English, I discover later, this is the cannonball flower. A name that also implies devastation.
My mother talks to the priest for a long time. He tells her this temple also offers a specialty—weekly prayers for the ancestors, performed for a fee with or without the presence of the requester. “We will mail you the prasadam,” he says. Fruits and sweets, the blessed edibles remaining after prayer. She does not tell him at all about why we are here.
My grandmother died on the last day of October, 2008, which makes the anniversary of her death three weeks away. Her birthday, what would have been her 82nd, has just passed. She was ill during her last one. The birthday before that, her 80th, was the last we all celebrated together. I had arrived back in India, swollen with stress and dislocation, four days before. Spending her last year with her is the single thing I don’t regret or resent about having moved to Chennai.
I find my father sitting elsewhere in the temple compound. “Why do you look so glum?” he asks. I don’t say anything. On the way to Kovur, my father had expressed his doubts. Part of my grandmother’s ashes were immersed in the Ganges at Varanasi, a gesture which Hindu belief maintains causes an end to karma, rebirth and the limbo of the soul. “Is she in heaven or isn’t she?” My father is no cynic. He simply could not reconcile the message that she was unhappy with the faith that she was at peace.
I don’t believe in heaven or in hell; my spirituality is more complex. Or perhaps I too only believe whatever I need to at any given time. Still, I don’t worry for my soul. I worry for what is right here, right now, the purgatory in which I live, grieving in a godless city.
“He didn’t call anyone else,” my mother of the priest says on the drive back. “And he mentioned Agasthiyar. That’s why I can really believe.”
I don’t know how I feel about the astrologer who told us to go to Kovur, but I do know this: since my grandmother’s death, I have no doubt her spirit is always with me. I know this. She has consoled. She has interfered. Dead grandmother as deus ex machina. And—this is the part that needles me—because of my inability to reconcile a particular experience, shortly after her demise, within the larger framework of my life itself and my understanding of the universe, I haven’t been paying much attention to the various intuitive memos she’s been sending me for months. I’ve been fighting with my grandmother’s ghost, if you will. If she needed to get through to me, she would need an intermediary.
You don’t have to believe this. I almost don’t. But as we drive back into the city, the weight in my chest that makes its appearance whenever I reenter Chennai is not nearly as palpable as the subtle sense of reassurance I am carrying back with me; a sense of something protecting me, some complicated armament, raising its hood over the heart of an impossibly fragile thing.
Sharanya Manivannan is the author of Witchcraft, a book of poems. She is also a columnist, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in Drunken Boat, Softblow, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Full of Crow and elsewhere. She can be found online at www.sharanyamanivannan.com