It was the winter month of December (the month of ‘Margazhi’ in the Tamil Calendar) – the time of the year when the traditional Tamil folks (especially the women) wake up early hours of the day to be at the temple for the recital of Tiruppavai.(Tiruppavai is a song comprising of 30 verses, in praise of the Lord, rendered by Andal, one of the 13 Vaishnavite-followers of Vishnu- saints).
I chose to visit Srivilliputhur*, the birth place of Andal, renowned for the Tiruppavai recital, to get a first hand feel of a special event I had only heard from my grand parents.I took the night train from Madras to Tirunelveli**, a town famous for Halwas(No trip to Tirunelveli is complete without a taste of the ‘Iruttu Kadai(dark shop) halwa’).
There are many pleasures of a train journey, one not so is of last minute passengers making a maddening rush to their compartment. And I found an alarming number this time around.After a quickish bath, I took a 45 minute bus drive to watch the sun rise at the sea shore temple of Subramanya at Tiruchendur(50kms South East of Tirunelveli).
A few hours at the beach and I continued my bus journey, onto 9 other temples called ‘ Nava Tirupathi’.(All of these temples are within 5-10kms of each other and are a must visit for any Tirunelveli visitor-Most of these are on the banks of Tirunelveli’s famous river-The Tamaraibarani).That night my dinner at Tirunelveli was all of 1/2 kg of Halwa, after which I took a 2 hour walk around the city, going through all the famous old streets of Tirunelveli including visiting the most famous saree shop of the town-The Pothy’s.
Tirunelveli is also famous for the round the clock road side eateries…. A walk down the railway station road after 11pm and you would find hundreds, sitting on small stools, having their ‘idlies - dosas with chutney – sambar’ for their dinner.As I usually do during my train trips, I stayed the night at the retiring room at the Tirunelveli station(This writer has a long term agreement with retiring rooms at all railway stations in Tamil Nadu and believes that retiring rooms are the best(and safest) place for overnight stay in TN, especially for travel freaks and for women travellers).
After a 2am wake up and bath the next morning, I took the first bus out of Tirunelveli for a 2 hour drive to Srivilliputhur.(For those not too familiar with transport facilities down South, TN has got by far the best moffusil bus transport service in the country in terms of connectivity, frequency and round the clock service-
All places in TN have 24 hour bus connectivity).
By 4am that morning (that was the time I reached my destination),the small temple town of Srivilliputhur was already buzzing with activity, with one bunch of young girls and boys running around to make their morning flower sale and another bunch for other pooja articles.For an hour, I was a witness to the loud musical recital of Tiruppavai (that was the purpose of my trip) by 15 plus temple priests, all clad in dhotis. Moved by this recital and wanting to understand more, I chatted up with the priests about the Tiruppavai and its significance, the unique way of chanting these songs and the visual song and dance enactment of the ‘Paasurams’(the 4000 divine songs/hymns of Vaishnavite Saints) that is rendered through the month of Margazhi at this temple by Araiyars(King of Songs).
As I dug deeper and deeper into the subject, questioning and probing the priests (the art of questioning and extracting information was put to full use that day), there were insights of the temple culture and traditions that dated back to 500 AD- art forms that were slowly vanishing in this fast paced world, artistes who were in dire straits with very little money to even feed their family and a temple song & dance service, once performed regularly in over 100 temples- now in just three- seeing a slow death.My chat lasted almost 6 hours (that would not be a surprise to those who know me well!!!) and I must confess that those were the best ‘hours’ I had spent in a long long time.
In those few hours, I truly transcended into another world- a world of peace and solitude.Following a story that I wrote that fortnight, the priest wrote in to me via the almost non-existent post card, that he had received very many enquiries about the revival of the traditional temple art form called ‘Araiyar Seva’ from across South India including funding contributions for the artistes.Three months hence, the educational requirements of the kids of this artist have been taken care of by a corporate chieftain, one who to this day prefers anonymity on this front.
A quiet early morning peace seeking temple trip had transformed into something quite unexpected- a discussion that resulted in gaining insights into less known facts about the temple culture of Tamil Nadu, culminating in contributions to the (financially) poor priests and the revival of the song and dance rendering of vedic hymns, a ritual that had been practised for over 1200 years.
By that evening, another bus trip had brought me to the temple town of Madurai. I spent an hour at the famous Meenakshi Amman Temple and by 9pm I was fast asleep in the night train I took back to Madras.
*Srivilliputhur is about 75kms south west of Madurai and is a very small town. Also, known for Milk Bedas
** Tirunelveli is about 700 kms from Madras and is a night’s journey from Madras (about 11 hours)- Another 100 kms down South from Tirunelveli and you would reach Kanyakumari, the southern tip of India
***Madurai was once the capital of the Pandya Kingdom and is about 500kms from Madras on the Madras- Kanyakumari route
+In the 1980s, Vaigai Express (Madras- Madurai super fast day express) was one of the fastest trains in South India, the ‘Deccan Queen’ of the South…