Tuesday 16 October 2018

A Mahamagham travelogue

The planet Jupiter called Brhaspati or Guru in Sanskrit and Vyaazhan in Tamil, revolves around the Sun, traversing one zodiacal constellation every year. In twelve years it completes a revolution of the Sun. The day it enters the constellation Leo, called Simha in Sanskrit and Simham in Tamil, and aligns with Alpha Leonis, the primary star of Leo, is considered particularly auspicious in the Tamil country. Alpha Leonis is called Magha in Sanskrit and Magham in Tamil. This is commemorated by a ceremony involving the large temple tank in Kumbakonam, one of the holiest cities, in a country full of sacred cities. Both the town and its tank have a history shrouded in the mists of time. A great legend surrounds this twelve year cycle, similar to the Maha Kumbha Mela that is celebrated every twelve years at Prayaaga, the confluence of the rivers, Ganga and Yamuna. The Maha Kumbha Mela witnesses the largest congregation of Hindus for any ceremonial event; perhaps the Mahamagham is the second largest such congregation. Both are logistical nightmares for governments, especially in the age of cheap rail and bus travel.

My friend Siva suggested that we attend the Mahamagham festival of February 2016, a few months earlier. I agreed, though with deep hesitation, because I suspected it would be an unpleasant experience. I am not particularly religious, I doubt the Gods stick to a timetable to shower their blessings, crowds can be unpleasant, my parents had a terrible time when they attended the Mahamagham in 1968 before I was born.. the list of negatives was long. An author once said of writing, “I don’t like writing, I like having written.” I didn’t want to regret not going to Mahamagham. There is a long list of things I regret not having done. So Siva booked  train tickets and a hotel room in Swamimalai, a town near Kumbakonam.

Another friend, Rajaram, overheard my Mahamagham plan, said he was also going, but staying with a friend, and offered to help make my trip better. Arriving at his friend Sowmyan’s ancestral house two days before I did, he extended Sowmyan’s offer of hospitality - that Siva and I stay at this ancestral house. Remarkable?! Yes and no!

Before James Watt and George Stephenson changed the logistics cost and speed of travel altogether with their steam engines, and therefore the world’s culture with it, this offer would have seemed unremarkable. Travel was expensive, lodging cost nothing. Trains made travel cheap, and in decades, lodging became expensive. There is evidence that Mahamagham has been celebrated in Kumbakonam for a few hundred years – there are inscriptions that state that, Govinda Deekshita a minister of the Nayak period, repaired the tank. But pilgrimage in India is far older than that, and legends of hospitality to strangers are legion. The thinnai porches on the outside of most traditional houses, a few thousand of which still survive, are the great-grandmother of AirBnB and so are the sumptuous meals total strangers, especially travellers and pilgrims are treated to, with a spirit of hospitality.

Let me add that our host, Sowmyan, lives in New Jersey, and was himself visiting Kumbakonam. And a vast set of his family was coming to stay in this house, as guests for this festival.

For a brief background, Kumbakonam, is historically very significant and important in Tamilnadu history, but its importance is insanely out of proportion to its size. It is the hometown most famously of the 20th century mathematical genius Ramanujan, but has produced a tremendous number of scholars, administrators, and musicians over several centuries. From one end of the town to another is a maximum of five km in any direction, and the current population of the town is around 140,000 (Wikipedia). But Mahamagham brings a million visitors on that day perhaps and several thousands for several weeks preceding it. An earlier Mahamagham in 1992 was marred by a tragedy, a stampede in which about fifty people died and the government took extreme precautions to avoid a calamity during this one. All public and almost all private transport was stopped outside the city. Only the police and emergency services, and bicycles and occasional two wheelers were allowed in the city. Several mutts (Hindu monasteries), business organizations, charities, and individuals organized free meals and snacks, coffee and tea, water sachets and other minor conveniences to pilgrims.

We arrived around 4.30am, on the morning of the February 21, the day before Mahamagham; and Rajaram, who is an early morning exercise fanatic, accompanied by Ramki, Sowmyan’s brother, walked all the way from our hosts’ residence to receive us at the Kumbakonam railway station, and walked all the way back to his house on Bhaktapuri street, very close to the Kaveri river, not far from the Sankara Mutt. This must have been at least three km. The residents were in varying stages of wakefulness, except the cooks who were already making coffee and breakfast.

We had coffee, met some of those who were awake, had a coffee, chatted a bit and then we were off to the Mahamagham tank. Feb 21st was Ayilam, one day prior to Magham, but an Ayilyam Bath in the tank ranks almost as high as the Magham bath, and there wasn’t much else to do, so off we went, the five men army – Rajaram,  Sowmyan,  Ramki, Siva and me.

The sacred Mahamagham water tank is an artificial lake, with steps laid of granite, and pavilions called mandapas, most of which are at least five hundred years old, since they have inscriptions etched by the rulers of the early sixteenth century. But most likely these inscriptions are of repairs and modifications, not the original ceremonies, which are now lost to history, a sadly typical story in India. The roads to these tanks were made one way by the police, even for the pedestrians. All pilgrims entered the tank from the eastern steps, waded through to the western steps, guided by policemen and women in knee deep water. The implementation was somewhat more chaotic than the description.

People were streaming into the city from all directions, bag and baggage, having got off buses or other vehicles from towns all around. Quite a few thousands simply walked all the way from their native towns, as part of their pilgrimage. Some went to find lodgings, to freshen up and then come to the tank. Others simply joined the queues bag and baggage. We reached the end of one of the mile long queues. I think all five of us were in T shirts and shorts. Most of the men wore veshtis or lungis, most of the women wore sarees, and girls wore paavadais (half-sarees is the Indian English word for these). A few females of different ages wore salwar kameez, which have replaced sarees and half-sarees in almost all schools, but haven’t yet outnumbered sarees in rural south India. Most men had bare upper bodies.

The Mahamagham tank was filled with rainwater in the past. But modern infrastructure - pipes, sumps, electric pumps, rooftop water tanks, tar roads with no channels, and such have killed off all such natural inflows. And massive dams like Mettur and Mysore, have shut off natural supply to almost all cities in Tamilnadu along the Kaveri. For this festival, the dams were partly open, and the narrow strip of the Kaveri that flowed in Kumbakonam had some water, greenish and uninviting. Water was pumped into the Mahamagham tank via long pipes and motors from the river (ironically close to Sowmyan’s house), and constantly being pumped out to keep it fresh and at least somewhat hygienic. The water level was kept around knee level; which could still drown infants, if their parents didn’t have vise like grips on them. Several thousand people standing in the tank probably doubled the water level.

There are 21 sacred “wells” in the tank, named after various Gods, like Agni Indra Yama Varuna and so on. The belief is that the water in the tank is celestially filled with the water of the Ganga itself. And the water in these wells are blessed by the Gods they are named after. None of these are real wells, just circular walls holding some water, filled by the same Kaveri water pumped in by motors. Some people try to get a chombu (mug) full of water from each of these “wells”. Some people, perhaps 1%, brought chombus made of copper or brass or bronze, but most of us used plastic mugs. Rajaram and Ramki waded into the crowds surrounding these wells, plunged their mugs and dowsed Siva and me before pouring water onto themselves. We went from well to well, in some designated order, and about forty minutes later, slowly climbed out of the western end of the Mahamagham tank, our legs reminding us that we had been in water quite a while. The whole thing sounds somewhat dull, but is full of action. There was plenty of sand and other things in the tank and in the wells, so our hair and bodies got sandy after the bath. But, hey, how often do you get physically dirtier while spiritually and mythologically cleaner, while bathing fully clothed with twenty thousand strangers?

It was sight to see some people dipping themselves in the tank while holding their luggage over their heads, to not get wet; some dunking their kids, most of whom were delighted, some of whom were whiny, and perhaps a few, frightened; policemen and women in uniforms, pants pulled up to the knees, soaking in the water for hours, forming long human chains, guiding people to go in one direction only; announcers over loudspeakers, cheerful in spirit and positive in language, tirelessly advising people of simple safety procedures, and where to re-connect with lost friends or relatives; women trying to order each other around while ignoring other women’s orders; some taking selfies with cellphones, mostly boys, careful not to bless their cellphones too, with a holy dip.
We stepped out, and headed to the Porramarai kulam – the Golden Lotus Pond, a different one nearby – but gave it up; it was a much smaller tank, but had a much longer queue, and we weren’t that desperate for extra blessings.

Wet but happy, we walked backed to the house for a sumptuous lunch. Rajaram had arrived in Kumbakonam a couple of days before us, and was posting item wise Facebook updates of the magnificent cuisine churned out by the cooks, under the supervision of Sri Ganesan of Kattuputhur, a village near Trichy. The kitchen was pretty much running most of the time, with breakfast, lunch and dinner served to all the guests, in batches of six to ten at a time. Plus the occasional coffee. Food was served on plantain leaves, both by the cooking staff and the ladies of the host family, as is the tradition. Diners sat on the floor, cross legged. Small portions were transferred from the large vessels in the kitchen, into aptly smaller buckets for sambar rasam etc, trays for rice, and other vessels for vegetables. Madi, for those who know what it means.
Left to right: Mine host Sowmyan, Rajaram, Siva, Ramki


Only some orthodox families continue this tradition nowadays, but this reminded me of my how my grandmother used to serve us. The last time I ate like this at home was perhaps Deepavali day in 2003 in Bangalore at my Saroja patti’s house with three aunts, half a dozen cousins and a nephew and a niece. Nowadays meals are often simply piled up on dining tables, and we serve ourselves. We also visited the Nagesvaran temple, but it had huge crowds and we couldn't see our favorite sculptures on its walls. We met Shashwath and his family at the temple, and Facebookananda Rajagopal Venkatraman on the streets. The afternoon was spent in siesta, conversation and coffee.

We walked to Ramaswamy temple around dusk, past the yaanaiyadi Pillaiyar, the Sarangapani temple and its chariot, on the people filled streets with no fear of vehicular traffic. Rarely does one experience traffic free roads in a city unless there is a nationwide or statewide bandh. Kumbakonam is a small town with a disproportionate level of traffic because of its geographical and cultural centrality.
A street in Kumbakonam
Mahamagham eve

The second day was almost a repeat of the first, except THIS Was the Mahamagham Day. We all showered before sunrise, and headed to the Mahamagham tank by 7.30. The actual Mahamagham would be around noon, when the Gods of almost every temple in town would assemble around the tank, but that event is for people with a level of devotion far beyond mine. Our group this time included several of the senior ladies of the Sowmyan family, and we had to wait in hour long lines snaking half a mile away from the tank, even at this early hour. The senior most of them, Mangalam mami was the most enthusiastic.

There were far more policemen and women, standing in series, khaki trousers folded upto their knees, holding hands, and guiding people to move slowly but surely from east to west, and not wander in all directions unmanageably. The  public address system continued their job with not the slightest hint of boredom or apathy. Kudos to the Tamilnadu police. In fact, they were there in strength all over the streets of the city, ensuring peace and discipline, especially queuing. Never in India I have seen queues regulated so well. If this festival goes smoothly, Rajaram said for the umpteenth time, Jayalalitha will win the Tamilnadu elections in a landslide. I was skeptical, but he was right, her party won a majority later that year.
The kulam (tank) on Mahamagham day.
Photo by TR Shashwath

We made our way across the Mahamagham kulam, in knee deep water, and ducked under a few times, slowly wading to the other side. Mangalam mami got several more dips and ducks than the others, much to the amusement of some of the policewomen, some of whom half heartedly tried to get her to speed up. About half an hour later, we emerged on the other side, our legs quite heavy but hearts very light and walked over to a coffee shop, where everyone ordered coffee, to warm their chilled bodies. The most memorable conversation of the year followed. I declined the coffee. Why asked Mangalam mami. Oh I just don’t need it, I remarked casually. Are you very orthodox, she anxiously followed up. Imagine this 80 year old lady in a madisar saree asking that question, of me, of all people. I guffawed uncontrollably. Please have coffee also, or I’ll feel too guilty that you are left out she continued. Nothing can stale such inherent kindness. So I had coffee.

We then walked back to the house. Not content with bathing in the waters of the Mahamagham kulam, some of us men also walked down to the Kaveri with its greenish water and waddled around in it, dissolving the grime and dust of walking back the streets. I have wanted to swim in the Kaveri ever since I read Vandiya Thevan’s aquatic adventures in Kalki’s historical novel Ponniyin Selvan. My 2011 first trip to Kumbakonam featured a sad dirty Kaveri, Sowmyan’s  house is very close to the river, so after about half an hour of floating, diving under, feeling the river’s bottom, we ravenously devoured the luncheon whiles savoring the many flavors. We watched the actual Mahamagham festival on television, all the Gods assembling on the banks and steps, a centuries old ritual capturing the eyes of millions.
Returning from the Mahamagham kulam

Selfie with the bathers -
Mangalam mami front and center

In the afternoon, Rajaram walked with us about four km to the bus stand and came with us to Tiruvarur. Our return tickets were booked from Tiruvarur, this was Siva’s plan. We reached the Tiruvarur temple almost sunset, Siva couldn’t resist bathing in the Kamalalayam kulam, then we toured the temple and headed home to Madras.

Other travel stories

Kerala LMS 
Patrick and Dakota - West Virginia  

Mahamagham during the British period