Some say good bye to people and some say good bye to events. This is a time in my life when I am closing things related to the current phase of my life and moving on to the next phase. I am saying good bye to people, events and a little more. The Brahmotsavam activities in the Sathyanarayana temple close to where my parents live in Chennai is something I have been increasingly involved in for the past three years. The 2003 Brahmotsavam happened at a time when I had just 1 week's gap to switch between jobs. And that was no mean coincidence. I had read about the 2002 fiasco in the online version of "The Hindu" newspaper, while in the U.S. The next year I was present in person. As the chariot negotiated the same right turn, we all watched with bated breath. A person was stationed to lift the very same cable wire that played the villain the previous year. We all let out a big collective sigh of relief as the chariot thudded and gawkily turned right and rolled its way into Thambiah road in its noisy wooden wheels. Among other things, this event taught me that bad starts don't mean a thing. If you want to, you can comeback from bad events and bad phases. Sometimes it is good see failures early on in life. It provides the rich base of experience required to negotiate bigger challenges. Since that time my involvement with the temple increased and I took active interest in learning things concerned with daily activities of the temple and the sort of festivals they celebrate. Why they do it and how they do it? While I am excited about moving on to what I think are 'greener pastures', I am also a touch misty that I will be missing the festivities next year and possibly for many many years to come.
The Brahmotsavam is an interesting festival. In the pre Doordarshan days, Brahmotsavam was the major form of entertainment for many people living near a temple. Nowadays retired parents, whose children have gone outside Chennai ( or out of the country ) to pursue career interests, find that such temple related activities occupy a major portion of their retired lives. I find that people walking towards the evening of their lives find sudden attraction towards God and involve themselves in such activities to attain some sort of fulfillment in their lives. I see that many of the participants are people who consider their involvement as an atonement to the many years of theistic neglect. A neglect that is possibly a result of material and career related compulsions. This leads to another interesting thought. Is what we consider important today really that important 50 years from now ? (or) Should we really worry about such things? Are we all condemned to do things that are important only for a very short period of time? In a "long enough timeline", it is interesting to note the changing importance of many things that we do. What we consider as "the big thing to do" now and in different stages of life is also largely disconnected. Isn't there no way to link these short-term "importances" to achieve a much larger and more satisfying long-term goal? Can career, spiritual, artistic and other goals be inter-connected to achieve a larger meaning to life? Now in this disconnected state -- there are things that you know before hand as ones that may not matter in the long(er) run. However, they are the ones that we still have to do (and do very well) because they are immediate, closer to our current reality and so more important. The M.S, MBBS, MBA and other material and career related aspirations are good examples of what I am talking about. I realize that someday I may become one of these people and whatever I do in the next 30 years may not be as important as what I do after the next 30 years.
In any case -- Brahmotsavam is usually a 7 to 9 day festival. Many Temples customize Brahmotsavam to their own style. Thirupathi has its own style of doing Brahmotsavam. While Kancheepuram, the temple town, does things slightly differently. Our Sathyanarayana temple here features the Hamsa Vaaganam, Yaanai (Gaja) Vaaganam, Simha Vaaganam, Garuda Vaaganam and last but not the least The Chariot. IMHO, in Madras, no other place outside of West Mambalam can celebrate Brahmotsavam in such a grand style. Given the congestion and traffic problems, I do not think, any other part of Madras (even Thiruvallikeni) can host such an elaborate and grand celebrations. The rectangle formed by Thambiah Road, Bhaktavatsalam St, Arya Gowda Rd, and Srinivasan St offers the correct amount of seclusion and has enough space for a crowd of around 2000 to 5000 people.
There is the Oonjal sevai (A sort of a swing/cradle) every day. The Uthsavar ( The version of the God that can be taken out of the temple and into the streets in a Oorvalam) is brought outside in a grand manner. Music is provided by a Nathaswaram group and a band. 4 people bear the Utsavar on a Palanquin (I hope the usage is right here.. I really did not get a better word. Palanquin usually means A covered litter carried on poles on the shoulders of four or more bearers, formerly used in eastern Asia . Only that here it is not covered but open.) as they come out of the temple. Outside the temple, the bearers dance to the music and it appears as if the Utsavar himself is dancing to the band. Later they place the Utsavar on the Oonjal. The Oorvalam (The procession of the Utsavar on the streets) then happens on a much bigger palanquin with 4 people bearing each leg of the palanquin, making it a grand total of 16 bearers. Depending on the day of the Brahmotsavam, the Utsavar is placed on an elephant, Garudan etc and taken out. The people who bear the Utsavar on the Vaahanam are specially trained. While this temple is assembling its own set of bearers, in the past specialists have also been brought in from Mylai's Kesava Perumal temple and The Srirangam temple to assist in the proceedings. These specialists know how the handle the palanquin and can move it in a style that will provide an illusion of the Utsavar dancing. The work of these specialists in any Brahmotsavam is something that we all neglect to recognize. I was thoroughly impressed with the way they did some moves, which made the Utsavar appear as if he was walking with a swagger and at the same time dancing wonderfully to the tune.
The chariot (or the Ther) is something that I pulled for the 3rd year in succession. Starting from Srinivasan St pulling the chariot using a rope ( called vadam ) was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Admist loud whistles all the cable wires floating above were cut down. None of the residents complained about this at all. I guess for once, these old people did not mind missing their soaps/mega serials in their lives. The funny thing about such events is that there are always thousand people shouting gzillion instructions. Each offering his own advise on how the chariot should be pulled. As it happens, nobody but the person next to him would be even remotely interested in that piece of advise. It was hot and humid but the kind residents of the four streets gave us water, butter milk and rose milk along the way. A person was specifically appointed to cut the over hanging wires (see picture on the left). There were fireworks on display too. Late in the night (which is 9:30 PM in W.Mambalam) people gathered for a huge fireworks display. Needless to say the fireworks sucker that I am, I kept taping every aerial bomb that was sent up. Then there was the classic thing with Thirumangai Mannan/Alwar. Legend has it that there was a person called Thirumangai Mannan who stole jewels and valuables from people. One day he stole it from God Himself. After releiving God of all his jewels Thirumangai mannan finds that he is unable to remove the metti-like minjee from His feet. After trying hard he realizes that the person whom he is trying to steal from is God Himself. God then catches him and fines him a lot of money. Thirumangai Mannan on realizing his folly apologizes and writes some paasurams (hymns / verses) in praise of the Lord. He was granted moksham because of this and was henceforth called Thirumangai Alwar. There is a sequence which was enacted where masked people carrying the palanquin of Thirumangai Mannan enact a robbery-chase scene. Then a big litigation ensues where God names each stolen article and Thirumangai Mannan is fined for various thefts. Then a group of Veda Parayana Goshtees sang the relevant paasurams before the day's events got over.
Standing with near and far family members and with people in the neighborhood, enjoying a common event, brought out a variety of emotions. I wasn't here hundred years before so I do not know things were then. But this festival must've done its best to take us back in time to the way Brahmotsavam was celebrated decades or centuries ago. The simplicity and innocence of the whole thing is the key here. People just want to celebrate. Especially the Thirumangai Alwar enaction. It is so difficult to find temples that do it in today's times. Nobody has the land or space that such elaborate pursuits require and certainly the people who are interested in spending time watching such medieval form of entertainment are dwindling. But here the team spirit was unmistakable. There was a collective pull in everything we did in the last 7 or 8 days, I began to develop familiarity with many faces. I was nodding and acknowledging more people than I ever did in all my life in this area. I am to start my M.B.A in University of Michigan, Ann Arbor this Fall of 2005. I worked my rear-end off all last year to get where I wanted to be. I quit my job 2 weeks ago and am getting ready to leave. Now, I find myself increasingly unwilling to and unable to disassociate myself from this temple, this neighborhood, this city and this phase of my life. But such things have to be done. Standing every night, watching the fireworks on display, I knew that I may not get to see this event for some years to come. And I couldn't help but feel a touch emotional. These are innocent, simple times. I was leading a quiet and peaceful life (well! at least by my standards). I had to go and complicate things, didn't I? Like Gollum and Smeagol, I think inside everybody there is a personal guy and a career guy. While for a major part of the year, the career guy dominates you, kicks you, makes you get up at odd hours, sleep at late hours, miss birthdays, functions, events, makes you lose touch with people. Then in the end when the career guy's job is done and he dusts his hand and gives over the reins to the personal-guy and leaves the scene. The personal-guy finds that his side of life is in tatters. He cleans up the leftovers, renews the broken bonds, the missed events and shouts at the career-guy, "My god man! Look what you have done. What did you do? Don't you know what is important?".
Well! Who does?