I am staying in Trichy only because I wanted to visit Srirangam. My accommodation is close to the railway station in a little alley. It is an old building and nicely maintained. My room is airy, large, clean and comfortable. It is good value for money. As is common in these parts, an attendant came with new sheets and pillow cover, made the bed and left a jug of water on the table. There is nothing fancy or modern in this hotel. It is simply tradional South Indian hospitality for the budget traveller. I quite like it.
For breakfast, I had chappati – thick, large, hot ones served with chutney and vegetable kurma. It was lovely. Then I took a bus to Srirangam. Plenty of buses go past the railway station towards Srirangam. Having visited Srirangam this morning, I might as well spend the rest of the day doing some sightseeing in town.
Any local fellow will tell you that the thing to see at Trichy is the Rock Fort. So I go there in the afternoon, having nothing else to do in particular. I pause for a while at the St Lourde’s Church, a fascinating Neo-Gothic building. The building is white except for striking brick-red highlights of pinnacles and spires decorated with a multitude of finials.
Across a walled water tank, I can see the fort walls standing on top of a rocky hill. The sunset colours the scene golden. The rock and the walls stand out in this light but what really catches my eye is the shining gilded vimana of the temple inside. I walk through busy streets to finally find the little temple entrance leading to the fort.
It is a long way up. I spend an hour walking around but not really looking. At some point, I peep from a little window. What I see is breathtaking. Entire town is spread out before me. River Cauvery flows in the distance. Beyond is the same spectacular scene I had seen this morning – the gopuram of Srirangam towering above a sea of coconut palms. The banks of the river are busy with people queuing up to immerse their Ganeshas. It will be quite a scene at Tiruchirapalli tonight. There will be many processions of Ganeshas making their way to the river.
I sit in front of a sanctum along with a handful of devotees. A woman is meticulously pouring out oil into little lamps. She has a plate filled with these lamps. She does it slowly with full awareness as if each act is a prayer. It takes her many minutes to complete this. A woman is reading bhajans from a little book. Another woman is having a little basket of flowers in her lap. She is weaving them on a string into a garland. This will be her offering for this evening’s ritual. A couple of guys are sitting next to me waiting for aarthi to begin. The priest inside the sanctum cleans the linga. He bathes the linga with pots of water. Then he offers pots of milk and pours them out. A little later the linga is decorated with stripes. Garlands of flowers are hung neatly. Flowers are loosely scattered with order on the peeta. Meanwhile, the woman has lit her oil lamps and offered them at various places in the temple. When the priest is ready, aarthi begins. Everyone leaves off what they had been doing before and stand up to pray. The evening darshan is underway.
I leave the Rock Fort and find my way to the Nandrudayan Vinayagar Temple. It’s not a well-known temple and I am here only to attend a flute recital of Carnatic music. The performance is supposed to begin at half seven but nothing happens till ten minutes to eight. The performers start to arrive. Meanwhile, I sit around swatting mosquitoes and chatting with the solitary priest.
‘Nalla karyatha panni mudikira vinayagar (Lord Ganesha here facilitates the completion of auspicious events),’ explains the priest. ‘Come I will show you around the temple.’
He takes me around and introduces the different idols. He has stories for everyone of them. He understands the specialization of each God, the associated legends and the benefit of praying to each one. Not all gods are the same to him.
‘You see the deity inside,’ he points to Ganesha in the sanctum. ‘He has a third eye, like Shiva. He is enshrined here as a yogi. Anything you wish, will be granted. Pray for anything – job, promotion, education, marriage, kids.’
He pauses for a while and continues, ‘The Lord here does not expect any donation. No money is needed to seek his blessings. All he requires is a real prayer.’
He walks me to the Navagraha group of idols, ‘You see here. Surya is in the center. All the other deities are facing him. People pray to this group to protect families and traditional values.’
We walk to a smaller sanctum by the side. He shows me a particular idol, ‘That is Pattinathar. Have you heard his story?’
‘He is the only man to become a linga. He performed many miracles in his lifetime. There is a shrine in his honour in Tiruvottiyur.’
My interest is kindled by this nugget of religious history. Tiruvottiyur is the place where I lived as a boy. It is a suburb of Chennai. I have scattered memory of the place. I have never heard of Pattinathar until today.
The old priest offers me the temple prasadam. We chat for a while. His entire life is a dedication to prayer. He never leaves the temple. He tries hard to remember the last time he went somewhere. Once in a while he breaks off from our conversation to attend to devotees who come in small numbers. By eight, the performers are assembled and the concert begins in a back hall. Only five avid listeners are sitting down for this evening concert. One wonders for how long these old traditions will survive. Reality TV shows have taken over in popular appeal.
Surprisingly there is no exposition of raga. The recital starts straightaway with a composition. The flutist does not bother with announcements of raga or tala. It does look like I am the only one in the dark. Those sitting around me know every bit of these famous compositions. The girl next to me is following the tala with precision. She does not lose a single beat. She does it almost without attention like it’s her second nature. In Carnatic music recitals, one’s ability to follow the tala is an important aspect of enjoying the recital.
At about nine, the flutist puts down his small instrument and picks up a longer one of a lower scale. This is the kind of flute that Hariprasad Chaurasia would use. He introduces the raga – Abheri. He plays it for many minutes, weaving the mood note by note. I am enjoying every bit of it. When he is done, he returns to the smaller flute to begin the composition in the same raga.
But now it is quarter past nine and my hotel is a long way away. I wonder if there are still buses back to the railway station. I make an early exit from the recital. I have to walk a long way towards Rock Fort to get a bus. The streets are packed at this late hour. Music is blaring loudly from noisy speakers. People are dancing, half in madness and half in ecstasy. Decorated Ganeshas are in procession to be immersed in the Cauvery. It will be one more year before these scenes of celebration return to Trichy.