National Highway 47 and Suchindram
The distance from Trivandrum to the temple town of Suchindram on the promisingly named National Highway 47 is barely 50 miles. This is the deep south of India. The land of gently swaying coconut palms and emerald green paddy fields, red earth and sea-misted air.
But these days, it is also the land of one crowded little
town cheek by jowl with the next one. Neyyantinkara. Parassala.
Kaliakkavillai. Kuzhittura. Marthandam. Padmanabhapuram. A Christian
college of engineering, and a rival Catholic one, eyeing each other across the
highway. Nagercoil, with its jumble of dozens
of schools and colleges, hospitals, dispensaries and clinics, shops, temples,
churches and mosques. There is traffic of every conceivable variety – human,
truck, bus, bicycle, car, bullock cart, rickshaw, handcart. And there is noise,
competing for diversity and attention with the traffic, from honking buses,
blaring car horns, tinkling bicycle bells, hoarse rickshaw air horns, teashop,
temple and mosque music, yelling vendors, barking dogs, mooing oxen and people
shouting across the din to hear each other. And potholes, and dust. There is the merest, barely-there, blink-and
you’ll-miss-it tantalizing glimpse of a coconut grove or paddy field before
the next town comes up and you are enveloped in the chaos all over again.
This is where we were early this year, my daughter and I, slowly
bumping our way down National Highway 47, so named perhaps as an optimistic
symbol of the new Shining India, but in reality, in a comforting and reassuring
way, very much representative of the India that will always come to mind when I
think of India, the India of chaos and confusion and bustle and awful
roads. Utterly unique, and so intensely
alive and colorful.
We arrived in Suchindram well over two hours after we set
out from Trivandrum
This is the magnificent old temple at Suchindram, variously
called the Sthanumalayan
The name Suchindram means the place where Indra made himself
pure (suchi). There is a racy legend behind the name. Apparently, Indra (a Vedic god of
an all-too-human disposition) coveted the beautiful Ahalya, wife of the stern
and pious sage Gautama. His desire for her made him throw caution and propriety
to the winds. Very early one morning, Indra arrived outside Gautama's hut, and crowed like a rooster. Sage Gautama
awoke with a start, and thinking that he had overslept, hurried to the river
for his morning ablutions, while Ahalya continued to sleep. Indra, disguising himself as Gautama, entered the
sage’s hut, where he fulfilled his desire for the lovely Ahalya. He was caught
in the act by Gautama who, realizing that it was yet too early for his bath,
returned sooner than anticipated by the amorous Indra. In his fury, Gautama
cursed his wife to be turned to stone; Indra was shamed for life by being
cursed with having his entire body covered with female genitalia. Naturally,
Indra could not go around like this without being mercilessly teased and
ridiculed, and so he made his way to where Suchindram is today, to pray and
undergo rigorous penances which would purify him and absolve him of his curse.
It is believed that Indra continues to worship at this temple every night, and
so the priests ready the sanctum for his visit every evening. These priests
take a vow of secrecy, to never reveal what they see or experience in the
temple at night.
No cameras were allowed inside the temple, so we spent some time taking these photos before entering the temple.
As we wandered around, people yelled out to us in Hindi – oh, the sheer disgrace and effrontery of it, Hindi - has it wormed its way here as well, into the far south of Tamil Nadu? – “aayiye madam, dekhiye” (come along, madam, take a look). I grew up during the anti-Hindi movement in Tamil Nadu and still have strong views about Hindi making its way into places where it has no business being. Irrational, perhaps, but these strong sentiments do not die easily.
At the entrance to the temple we were sucked into the coconut and banana buying routine. A few steps inside, we were buttonholed into buying a very long and very poky thulasi malai (holy basil garland). A man tailed us all the way around the temple, giving us garbled accounts of the various legends and stories that it is known for. We saw a lovely and unique statue of Ganesha with the body of Parvathi, his mother; a majestic dancing Nataraja; halls with intricately carved pillars, each telling a variety of stories; the famous musical pillars; the long, cool corridors and the sanctum sanctorum, aglow with candles. Then we made our way towards the Hanuman, who looked down at us in benign majesty from his height of 18 feet. Yet again, before we quite understood what was happening, we were made to buy a good quantity of freshly-churned butter, which, smeared messily on Hanuman’s head, seemed like a complete waste of it to me. The tulasi malai and a vadai malai (garland of vadais, dried lentil cakes) were draped around the Hanuman. At least the vadais did not go to waste. The man who had been tailing us snapped his fingers, and like magic, dozens of people clustered around us, all beseeching us for a piece of the vadais. We were only too happy to oblige.
We walked out of the temple into the cool evening air. The sun was setting; it would be too late to catch the sunset at Kanyakumari, our next destination. That was okay. We would enjoy what we could of it from National Highway 47.
To be continued.