From Kanyakumari there are direct buses to Thiruchendur. I arrive at the bus station and within few minutes I get a bus. I don’t know if buses are frequent or I am just plain lucky. As I were to find out soon, luck comes in different shades.
The distance is 88 kms. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to get to Thiruchendur. Soon I realize that the ride is going to take a lot more time. I suspected it the minute I pay for my ticket, a ridiculous price of thirty rupees. This is a slow bus connecting many villages en route. The bus often veers off the highway to leisurely touch small villages. After many minutes, it returns to the highway only to take yet another diversion to yet another village. The landscape is open and arid. The day is windy and many wind turbines installed in this countryside are making the best of this free energy from nature. The wind farms here are an important part of India’s effort to get into renewable energy. I estimate that today I have passed as many as 200 wind turbines.
One thing about this bus is its service and connectivity to the rural poor. It is common in many parts of India for buses to drop people along the highway. This gives rise to middlemen (auto-rickshaws, tongas or shared tempos) who give the last mile connectivity to villages. Such middlemen are put out of business in this part of Tamil Nadu because government buses like this one serve villages directly.
At Ovari, we stop for lunch. It is not even a restaurant, just a thatched shed. It appears to be the usual stop for the driver and the conductor. They probably don’t have to pay for their meals. A few passengers have their lunch: deep fried fish, heaps of rice dished out on fresh banana leaves and mixed with traditional sambar. Once done, the banana leaves, the disposable plates of ancient India, are thrown out in the open to satisfy the appetites of hungry street dogs.
I am quite enjoying this slow ride through rural Tamil Nadu. Tamil movie songs are playing on the bus. The songs are from the era of M.G. Ramachandran, that great icon of Tamil cinema. The countryside lumbers past me in slow motion. Tall palm trees sway in the wind. Young unmarried women dressed in traditional Tamil pavaadai-dhavani are on their way to a local market balancing wicket baskets on their heads. Villages houses, huts and picket fences are made of various dried parts of the coconut tree. The people here have mastered the use of coconut like the people of North East India have mastered the use of cane and bamboo. In little shades on this hot afternoon, women sit around rolling tobacco into beedis. This is one of the few cottage industries that have survived in many parts of India. Painted boards announce village bus stands that are no more than a bend in the road. Somewhere among the occasional wetlands of the region are storks, herons and ibises fishing for their next meal.
The bus is crowded but I am comfortably seated at a window. An old woman boards in a hurry with her things. She hasn’t had time to tie up her false hair which she comically carries in her hands. Her both nostrils are pierced by large stone-studded gold jewellery. The gold has lost some of its shine with the passing years. Yet it glitters against the dark sun-burnt face of wrinkled skin. She may be poor but gold is a symbol of status in rural village. Being a widow, she may not wear bindi or flowers but gold stays. This woman is old village India. You will not find her likes in the cities. At Manappadam, there is a wonderful church. Many folks get down at this village. The bus almost empties.
It takes me four hours to arrive into Thiruchendur. One of the popular gods of Tamil Nadu is Lord Murugan, more widely known as Kartikeya, the son of Shiva and Parvati. One of the famous pilgrimages in honour of Lord Murugan is to cover his Six Abodes. Thiruchendur is one of them. The temple has the uniqueness of being right next to sea. The sight of the tall gopuram from any ship out at sea must be impressive.
The temple has three tall gopurams – West, East and South. Among these, the western gopuram is the tallest. It stands in nine levels, whitewashed like the one at Suchindram except that the spear of Murugan stands pointing up on the Western face. Strings of lights coming down from the gopuram wait for dusk to light up. Pilgrims, priests, beggars, vendors and sadhus are scattered around the temple. Some are lounging in the mandapa on the west. I myself take a nap in the mandapa. This is that hour of afternoon when nothing is happening. It is only after 4 pm the temple will open for pilgrims. At a stage nearby are seated some priests and religious leaders. A discourse is underway before a meagre crowd. The loudspeakers are blaring out to the waves at sea. It looks like some festival is going on.
‘There’s always something happening at Thiruchendur,’ tells me a pilgrim. He lives in Tuticorin and he has been staying here the last eight days for this festival. His forehead is smeared with ash. He talks softly. He wears a white shirt and a simple dhoti. His feet are bare. Everything around the temple is holy and many pilgrims don’t wear footwear in the vicinity.
I tell him about my problem in getting a room at Thirchendur. I have called at many hotels or lodges in town. Rooms are pricey but what irritates me more is that they are deliberately overpriced. At one place a basic room was offered at Rs. 300 and as I walked away, the owner dropped the price to Rs. 250. Never take a room at Thiruchendur without bargaining for it. Then there are places that don’t give rooms to singles. Then there are dharamshalas, what in Tamil they call madams, which take in people belonging to particular castes. Pilgrims of other castes are not welcome. One board bluntly announces,
‘Room may be difficult but there are shared halls for pilgrims,’ tells me this pilgrim from Tuticorin. ‘I am staying in a hall and you have to pay only Rs. 10 a night.’
‘What about my things?’
‘Lockers are provided for free. You will need your own lock and key. Even that is not a problem. You can buy one at any stall for Rs. 35. I usually return the lock and key when I leave. The vendor will give you Rs. 30 back.’
Pilgrims come from all walks of life but mostly are people who have little means to afford luxury. Services in and around the temple have evolved keeping in mind the basic needs of these people. Anything you see or do at Thiruchendur can never be novel. Somebody must have seen or done it before. This is an ancient place of pilgrimage. When pilgrims leave, they will leave with satisfaction.
‘I don’t think our meeting is coincidence,’ tells me the pilgrim. ‘I have been sent by the Lord himself to help you, don’t you think?’
I nod in agreement. ‘What’s your name?’ I ask him.
‘Muruga,’ comes the reply.
Muruga takes me to the hall where I pay the meagre Rs. 10. He assists me in getting a lock and key. I put my stuff in locker. It is a big hall. The place is mostly empty. This is not high season for pilgrimage. But I can imagine the place when the crowds come in. They are dozens of shops selling the same stuff. The fact that so many of them can survice without differentiation is an indication of the crowds that come to Thiruchendur.
One thing I hate about Tamil Nadu is noise pollution. This is a real problem particularly in a temple town. The discourse is continuing unabated but at times they switch to recitation of scriptures and slokas, known in Tamil as sorpazhivu. Elsewhere devotional songs are blaring out from another set of loudspeakers. Vendors who sell CDs, DVDs and obsolete cassette tapes are also blasting out their own stock of songs. Elswhere, preparation for a wedding is underway. Loud movie music almost rips out my eardrums. Everyone is trying to outdo the other. There is only noise as far as I can make out.
In the evening the temple opens. I have a quick darshan. There are two deities in separate sanctums, one of the Lord with his consort Valli and the other praying to Lord Shiva. Reliefs of temple pillars are wonderful. At dusk, I amble for a while on the quiet beach. The lights come on on the gopuram.
‘I need twenty rupees for bus fare to get to my village,’ begs a man without shame. He is clearly lying. He works at the temple. Just moments ago I spotted him switching on the gopuram lights.
A little later a woman wearing silver anklets begs for ten rupees. Apparently she has no money to make a phone call. Beggars have a certain standard here. Their expectation removes guess work on the pilgrim’s part. They state clearly how much money they want.
I have a good night’s sleep and in the morning I return to the temple. The hall where I slept last night is just outside the temple walls. The morning scenes look busier than those of last night. There are pilgrims circumambulating the temple with offerings on their heads. The women are carrying small pots stuffed with bundles of green saplings. The men are carrying multi-tiered pots with similar offerings. A trident of the Lord is decorated in a similar manner. The group poses for a quick picture before heading into the temple.
In a corner of the entrance mandapa, tulabaram is underway. This is similar to what I had seen in Kerala. Offering of certain goods are made to the temple to match one’s own weight. I watch the devotees sit on the scales to be weighed. Prayers are offered according to strict customs while the weighing happens. A couple walks around the scales while their son is weighed by the priest who is busy lifting sacks of jaggery on to the scales. Their prayer is earnest and fervent. By their dress, they look poor. Except for their belief in the Lord, they appear to have nothing else to support themselves.
Pilgrims come in orderly fashion chanting ‘Vel, Vel, Vetri Vel.’ When prompted, the assembled crowds erupt into ‘Arohara.’ The temple elephant is busy at his appointed duty. He is well-trained to bless devotees only when offered coins or rupees. Nothing else will do. A child is lifted up by the mahout for a few precious minutes on the elephant’s holy back. It may be considered a blessing by the parents but the child is terrified. Its wails echo through the entrance mandapa.
Women cleaners employed by the temple are doing a good job of keeping the premises clean. The beach however is not clean and neither is the rest of town. Astrologers sit around elsewhere with their decorated conches and wait to make their confident predictions. At one shop, hair offered to the temple are being cleaned, combed and plaited for sale. A cow suckles her calf. An old hunchbacked woman totters with a staff. Her earlobes drop a few inches with the weight of gold earrings. On the main road just before the long straight approach to the temple stands an old temple chariot with magnificent wooden carvings. This is the temple town of Thiruchendur.