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Chinese mysticism in a temple prasad

M R Venkatesh, Chennai, May 12, 2012, DHNS 23:04 IST
Popular consciousness may not insta­ntly pop up this delicacy as something ubiquitous as the delectable “Tirupati Laddu.” But “Palani Pancham­irtham”, the oldest form of jam of fruit-mix from the kitchen of the ancient Sri Dandayuthapani Swami Temple, the hill-shrine of Lord Muruga in Palani in South Tamil Nadu, still veils a divine secret that even the best of science is yet to fathom.

A file picture of Palani temple. One is not lost in its embedded wisdom. Every time it melts, in your mouth, “Palani Panchamirtham,” seems to twang a riddling response from a deeper collective unconscious about an esoteric alchemy the “Moolavar” (presiding deity) at the Murugan Temple has come to signify for ages. “Panchamirtham” as a fruit-mix is common in many temples and even in households as part and parcel of any elaborate pooja to a deity.
But the uniqueness of “Palani Panchamirtham”, collected after the “abishekam” (the daily ritual bath performed on the deity), lies not just in its deliciousness. More important, it encapsules what devotees believe are some “astonishing” properties like long shelf-life sans refrigeration and its medicinal value.

Its unshakably honeyed taste and the Palani Temple authorities aver that the older it is, the better. It owes as much to the quality of fruits that go into its making as the art of preparing it. The Panchamirtham’s basic ingredient is the small-size “Viruppaachchi plantains”, a special variety which has “very little water content” that ensures a longer shelf-life.
The temple has a tie-up with the farmers of Viruppaachchi, a village on the Palani hills from where this banana variety gets its name. According to the temple chronicle, the practice in vogue for long for making the panchamirtham is to first crush this plantain variety fully, and “kandasari sugar” grown in the nearby Kangeyam area is mixed with it. Then “Malai Theyn (hill honey)”, seedless dates and a small amount of sugar candy are rolled in with the basic ingredients.
Cardamom and ghee are the “last items” to go into the preparation, all mingled meticulously in the right proportions. All this is still profane jelly, culinary experts may brag. But the key to the panchmirtham’s nutritional richness transcending that level to acquire a sacred tag is rooted in the ontology of the presiding deity itself. The original idol of Lord Muruga or Karthik (as known in the North), consecrated atop the Palani hill, along with the “Thiru Avinankudi” shrine at the foot-hill, is revered in Tamil religi­ous tradition as the third of the six hill abodes of the peacock-riding warrior god and Lord Shiva’s younger son.

The temple whose construction in its present form is credited to the ninth Century Chera King, Cheraman Peruman, its metaphysical underpinnings go back to a few millennia earlier.
Piecing together various literary and historical texts, the main deity of Muruga atop the Palani hills is strongly believed to have been fashioned in the pre-Christian era by a “Siddha Purush (great soul),” Bhogar, not out of stone but out of ‘Navapashanam’, nine poisonous herbs or minerals “mixed in a proportion to confer high medicinal power to cure diseases.”

Even noted experts like Prof M S Saravanan, an earth scientist and mineralogist who was part of a State-appointed panel in the 1980s to examine the original deity, amid concerns that the idol was thinning out due to constant “abhishekams” perfo­rmed over centuries, found their scientific tools unable to epistemologically crack its composition.
“Only a carbon dating test of the image can throw final light,” says the temple chronicle.
What has deepened this mystery is Bhogar’s Chinese connection, about which there are varying accounts. One version has it that Bhogar, born in South India around 3000 BC, visited China in search of the truth, where he gained knowledge of medicine, astrology and spirituality, returned home to use this expertise to fashion this timeless idol using rare medicinal herbs.

Interestingly, another version recounts Bhogar taking the knowledge of the “Siddha medicine” to China. Yet, according to the temple chronicle, his preceptor, Kalanginaathar, was believed to have been a Chinese himself who migrated to South India and attained “Siddhi” here after mentoring Bhogar.

Thus, the original idol, being hypothesised as a “store house for millions of good bacteria”, any “abishekam” to the Palani deity with water, milk, panchamirtham’ or sandal paste makes them absorb in a rub-off effect a miniscule of that dynamics. The milk and the panchamirtham thus become medicines to cure certain kinds of diseases, like asthma and skin ailments.
All these are weaved into the temple’s metaphysical core, imparting an esoteric/ curative quality to “Palani Panchami­r­t­ham”. This belief system, though, is largely in the realm of a mystical past and the institutional structure of worship makes it beyond the realm of scientific testing. But what is vital is that its effects are believed to be “real” by countless devotees.
As clouds of the Chinese puzzle still sail over the Palani hills, over the years the daily “abishekams” to the main deity have been reduced to the bare minimum on the expert panel’s advice to protect the idol from further deterioration, even as technology has fine-tuned panchamir­tham-making. The poojas partly hinge on the restoration advice of the formidable Kerala astrologer Unnikrishna Panicker, who is also well-versed in the “Agamas”.
“The preparation is now fully mechanised; none of the ingredients are handled directly by human hands to ensure total hygiene,” a senior temple official told Deccan Herald over the phone from Palani. The panchamirtham even undergoes Pasteu­risation to increase its shelf-life before automatic machines fill them into pet jars and laminated tins for devotees to just grab.

And to legally protect its product quality, uniqueness and reputation attributable to its geographical area, Palani pancham­irt­ham may soon go for Geographical Indications registration like Tirupati Laddu and Darjeeling Tea.

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