A pilgrim's perspective

Beyond the
Gopurams
Priti Aisola
Wisdom Tree
2014, pp 312
Rs. 345

Early on in her second book — a mildly philosophical travelogue, Beyond the Gopurams — novelist-poet Priti Aisola makes a pertinent point about our (frankly curious) Indian attitude to people’s origins.

Whilst performing her recently demised father-in-law’s ceremonies at Hyderabad’s Sringeri Math, the author was frequently subject to puzzled glances and questioning — was she a Telugu, or not? A faintly annoyed Aisola revealed herself to be a Hyderabad-settled UP-Punjabi, married to an Andhraite.

I touch on this seemingly frivolous matter because Aisola recounts her temple-tours through three South Indian states (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) — and does it in a manner that is enchanting, informative and rooted in the local milieu. The book is replete with correct terms in the appropriate languages — and they are all explained well in the glossary. At the end of it all, I, a Tamil and middling temple-traveller myself, have learnt some more.

After a decade abroad, Priti and her Foreign Service-official spouse moved home for six years and spent their time taking care of family elders, besides travelling — occasionally as ritual penance, at times for personal satisfaction. The resultant book from Priti is replete with detailed accounts of visits to varied South Indian shrines; there is even a bit of Paris, art, a Buddhist shrine, a wildlife sanctuary, a concluding dissertation on death... something of a mix.

True to the title’s tagline, the book is indeed a woman’s spiritual journey through South India. Here is a lady with deep knowledge and understanding of her spiritual roots, even while her critical faculties are ever on alert. Thus it is that the administrators of hallowed holy spots are questioned by the author about their decidedly lackadaisical attitude towards hapless pilgrims. For instance, at Tiruvaiyaru (birthplace of poet-saint Thygaraja, home to the carnatic music festival held every January), the author experiences uplifting music, piety, devoted throngs, generous free meals and nauseating unhygienic bathroom facilities that nearly spoil it all.
Despite these hiccups, Aisola persists with her seeking — and provides readers a vivid narration of her journeys ‘without and within.’ Her account begins from Chennai, where a good and knowledgeable friend, Chandra, (‘steadfast guide and narrator of stories and anecdotes’) initiates the Aisola couple’s tours, starting with visits to Chidambaram, Sirkazhi (home to Bhairava, Shiva’s ‘dreadful’ form, which he assumed when he decapitated his father Brahma) and Vaitheeswaran Koil (residence of the healer-physician forms of Shiva and Vishnu).

The author’s account of the Chidambaram Rath festival is a delight to read, bringing alive the divine frenzy, smells, sights and sounds: sambrani incense, the ratham’s garlanded fragrance, the singing of thevarams (hymns of the Shaivite saints). An early-morning vibhuti abhishekam to Lord Nataraja is witnessed and poetically described as a ‘grey veil that concealed the radiance of the idol but enhanced the divine mystery.’

Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur tour is followed by a session through Karnataka; minor health problems dog the author, but she soldiers on, appreciating the paintings in Mysore’s Jaganmohan Palace, resting at the Circuit House (most of these government-run rest houses are portrayed as dusty, shabby places), then moving on to yet another Shiv sthal, this time Nanjangud. Next stop is the Talakaveri, (the hilly source of the Kaveri), where the coffee farms beckon. At Madikeri, a Mother Kaveri sculpture enchants. However, Murudeshwar with its massive and modern Shiva-on-a-hill leaves the author unimpressed; she’d rather bow to an austere Dakshinamoorthy Shivji on an ancient temple niche.

Back in Tamil Nadu, the author visits the Isha Yoga Centre near Coimbatore — a multi-religious place of worship and meditation, where a solidified mercury rasalingam rests in a teerthkund (water tank) that washes away a pilgrim’s cares, while another, a dhyanalingam, welcomes people of all faiths. In these testing times, such accounts are heartening to read.

Most of the journeys are to Shiva temples, but there is also the occasional detour to Vishnu shrines (mostly in Andhra Pradesh). Simhachalam impresses, as does Sri Kurmam, the only major shrine devoted to Vishnu’s Kurma (tortoise) avtar — but even here, Aisola is delighted to come across a statuette of Shiva with his damru.
Towards the end, there is a chapter on the ancient temple of Thiruvalangadu, near Chennai; the author narrates the hair-raising story of the beauteous Shiv bhakt who chose to be turned into a skeletal hag and finally became one with her lord.
Aisola’s writing is completely in tune with the book’s hymnal tone. Waves wash rocks, ‘like a ceaseless abhishekam’. I do have a couple of quibbles — some unnecessary details (for instance, a restaurant’s wall colour); and the lack of any photographs.
Ultimately, however, it works — the descriptions, personal perspectives, slokas, nuggets of information, almost everything.

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