The Call of the South: Part Three: Kanyakumari
It is impossible to write a simple and straightforward account of anything in India. Say you want to write about a place. You start gathering your information, your memories, your thoughts. And you find you have stepped into Looking Glass Land, a mare’s nest of goddesses, demons and kings, ancient travelers, age-old feuds and modern politicians. The strangest of bedfellows clamor for your attention, and you cannot afford to ignore or dismiss any of them. You have mythology rubbing shoulders with history. You have to consider politics, religion, culture, science and economics, each with its attendant brood of issues and points of contention. The past and the present are inseparably intertwined. You step back and view this lively patchwork, this teeming tapestry. And you say, wow.
This is how I felt when I set out to write a simple travelogue of my recent visit to Kanyakumari. I thought I would read just a little bit about its history, and soon found myself neck-deep in a fascinating array of lore and information. I have to share some of it with you. My narrative will not be simple or straightforward. It will weave, like a drunken sailor, from history to legend to science to travelogue. But, I promise, I will try to keep it brief.
One of the earliest extant mentions of Kanyakumari is in the Periplus of the Erythraean (Indian) Sea, which dates from the 1st century AD, and includes information on the sea routes and ports from the Red Sea to the Malabar Coast and beyond. This document makes several mentions of Komarei, or Komar – yes, Kanyakumari. It refers to “…a place called Komar, where is the cape of the same name and a haven. Those who wish to consecrate the closing part of their lives to religion come hither and bathe and engage themselves to celibacy. This is also done by women; since it is related that the goddess once on a time resided at the place and bathed.”
So the legend of the goddess of Kanyakumari was known even then. Why should that be a surprise, because this legend is ancient, timeless. It dates from the era of the evil thousand-armed demon Banasura, who had struck terror throughout the land. There seemed to be no end to his depravity, no limits to his power. In despair, the gods approached Parashakthi, the Supreme Goddess and begged her to crush this monster in their midst.
Parashakthi came down to earth as a young girl, and lived in the place now known as Kanyakumari. She grew into a lovely young lady, and fell in love with the dashing Lord Shiva from nearby Suchindram. A passionate courtship followed, and wedding plans were made. Watching the young lovers from their perch in the heavens, the gods recoiled in alarm and horror. For one condition that had to be met for Parashakthi to successfully kill Banasura was that she had to be a virgin. Marriage was out of the question. The fate of the world was at stake. Love was its casualty.
The gods dispatched Narada to the southern tip of India and told him to take care of matters, to ensure that no wedding took place. Blissfully unaware of any of this, dreamily imagining her married future with her beloved Lord Shiva, young Parashakthi set about making grand preparations for the wedding. Huge cauldrons of brightly colored rice were cooked. The day of the wedding dawned.
But now, we have to step back a few hours. In Suchindram Lord Shiva had turned it in early, also lost in dreams of his love. Just a few more hours…He was to get married at midnight, the auspicious hour set for the ceremony. And then, Narada struck. While the land was still shrouded in darkness, he crowed like a rooster, announcing the dawn of a new day. Shiva awoke with a start – he had overslept (he believed) – the auspicious hour had passed, there would be no wedding now. He remained in Suchindram. And a few miles to the south, beautiful Parashakthi waited…..waited..…and waited….and in fury and disgust flung the cauldrons of colored rice onto the ground, which is why the sands of that beach are multi-hued.
She remained a virgin princess – a Kanya Kumari – and she went on to vanquish Banasura, and peace reigned, if not in the hearts of the young lovers, then in the rest of the world. Lord Shiva remains at Suchindram, in his temple, and Kanyakumari has her own temple, the Kumari Amman temple, near the beach with the multi-colored sand. Scientists will tell you that the real reason for the colors is the presence of several minerals like zircon, monazite, garnet and rutile. But nobody pays much heed to the scientists on this matter. The sad story of the virgin princess and the feast-that-never-was is what you will hear from everyone in Kanyakumari.
Back to our history books. The great Ptolemy, one of the most distinguished men of antiquity, a mathematician, astronomer, musician and geographer, wrote a treatise on geography, the Geographike Syntaxis, around 150 AD. He did not want to write a book on geography with poetic descriptions of snow-capped mountains and verdant valleys, rushing rivers and lush forests. He wanted to use the tools of mathematics and the known science of the day to map the world and its coordinates with precision and rigor. This was all very well in theory, but in practice, he had to rely upon the extremely limited knowledge of the time, as well as on highly unreliable and conflicting reports from travelers, and his map of southern India looked like this (please click on the picture):
Source: Ptolemy's Geography
Ptolemy ignored the suggestion in the Periplus Erythraean that there was a peninsula at the end of India – his Land’s End is squat and broad, with Taprobane, present-day Sri Lanka, looming large, all out of proportion to its true size. Both Ptolemy and the Periplus regarded what they called “Kory” – Point Calimere, near Rameshwaram – as the southernmost point of India. Ptolemy wrote about the pearl fishers who dived for pearls in the sea south of Komarei. Many of these pearl divers were condemned prisoners, employed by the “Pandion” King.
The “Pandions” – Pandyans, one of the ancient dynasties that ruled over southern India from as early as the 6th century BC, held sway over Kanyakumari– and enriched themselves with the pearls from the nearby seas – until the early 10th century AD. After that, it was a regular revolving door of ruling dynasties, from the Cheras to the Travancore Venads to the Madurai Nayaks and back to the Travancore kings from the 18th century. It remained as part of the Travancore kingdom until Indian independence in 1947, at which time it was incorporated into the newly-formed Travancore-Cochin State. In 1956, after heavy agitation from the Tamil-speaking majority of Kanyakumari District, it became part of the state of Tamil Nadu.
There is a sizable Christian population in this area, thanks to the efforts of the 16th century missionary Francis Xavier. Islam also came to these parts, brought through traders and missionaries. There is evidence of the influence of Jainism, in temples and sculptures in nearby towns. All of them have contributed to the rich potpourri of the heritage of this place.
How can I not write about Swami Vivekananda, whose name is immortalized in Kanyakumari with the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, built in 1970 to commemorate his visit to that spot in 1892, where he attained spiritual enlightenment, and penned these words, inspired by his vision of one India?
"At Cape Camorin sitting in Mother Kumari's temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock - I hit upon a plan: We are so many sanyasis wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics-it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva used to say, `An empty stomach is no good for religion?' We as a nation have lost our individuality and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to raise the masses."
My daughter and I reached Kanyakumari too late to view the fabled sunset. The skies were still rosy, though, and the cool evening breeze was clean and fresh. Our hotel, called the Sea View, had a spectacular view of the entire sweep of the land’s end – the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
I had been very disappointed with Kanyakumari on a previous visit, and so adjusted my expectations accordingly. I knew not to expect peace and quiet, or wide open spaces, or unobstructed views of the oceans. I knew that this little town was untouched by the fantasies and ideals of town planners. And, knowing the colorful history of this place, the numerous confluences of influences, it only seemed apt that it should be a jumbled mélange. Never mind that it was an eye sore. Besides, it was a joy being with my daughter, seeing the place through her eyes, wandering through the crowded streets along with pilgrims and travelers from all over India (judging from the medley of languages we heard), gazing at the brightly-lit shops and their gaudy plastic goods, walking around the Kumari Amman temple (where we successfully hardened ourselves against all attempts to make us buy coconuts and bananas), the old and the new, the spiritual and the commercial, the ugly and the beautiful, all living together in happy and messy harmony.
We spent the night in Kanyakumari, our hotel room windows thrown open to the breeze from the sea. We awoke at dawn, along with hundreds of others, all facing east, and watched the daylight brighten the town. Many bowed their head in silent prayer, some laughed and frolicked on the sand, a few watched the sun rise from their homes and hotels, sipping hot milky coffee.
We walked about for a while, and amused ourselves watching this rooster trying to stay erect in the stiff wind. And then it was time to leave. We had a flight to catch. But there was one more place to see before we headed back to Trivandrum. That is another story for another day.
"Ancient India as Described by Ptolemy" - by Ptolemy, John Watson McCrindle
"Ptolemy's Geography" - by Ptolemy, J.L. Berggren, Alexander Jones
"A History of Tinnevelly" - by Bishop R. Caldwell
(c) Kamini Dandapani
To be continued