Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Home is where etc, etc: A Srirangam story

Went home after what seems like an eternity. Went to Srirangam. A place I hold so close to my heart that it has withstood all my bravura about being a failed atheist.
Never knew a homecoming would turn out to be a soul-therapy. All it needed was for me to take one look at the steamily dirty Cauvery to get this all's-well-with-the-world-and-god's-in-his-heaven kinda feel. Human floatsam and jetsam can never ever sully a great river. And she is the greatest there ever was...
Be that as it may, it is the town itself that gives me this time-machine experience every time I set foot there. True, one sees the same semi-cartoonish vertical vertigo that every little town goes through: where there were once sprawling naalu-adukku houses complete with a mitham, thinnai, vennir-ul and saami-room, all you now have are ugly pigeon holed apartments.
The real surprise of the town, however, lies protected in the womb of the temple, inside a small shrine near the sanctum sanctorum, around the magical-realist legend of Surathani, the daughter of Sultan Malik Kafur (1310-1311 AD) of Delhi.
Without sounding docu-drama-ish, the legend of Surathani (or Bibi Nachiyar as she is known) is perhaps one of the best examples of `secularism' (oh, that awfully-bandied, vilely-abused word!) that is cast in stone in what is considered to be the foremost Vaishnavite shrine in the country.
In a nutshell: when Kafur's men invaded Srirangam, they raided the ancient temple and carried with them the idol of the main deity--Ranganatha--as war keepsake to Delhi. So entranced was Surathani by the beauty of the idol that she refused to part with it. Following an appeal by devotees, Kafur decided to return the idol to Srirangam, but had not reckoned with his daughter who followed the idol all the way down south. Upon arrival, she prostrated before the sanctum sanctorum and died almost immediately. Till today, she retains her Muslim identity in an all-Vaishnavite temple and accepts only rotis as prasadam.
Not that the legend--or what we know of it today--is blemish-free.
But then what is a legend without some leeway?
A few years back, when I recited this legend to a gender studies researcher from the University of Pennsylvania--who had come down all the way to Tamil Nadu to do, of all things, a research piece on Avvayar--she chortled: ``Sub-ordination of the feminine! An extension of the Andal, Meera, Radha etc, etc concepts to a Muslim princess to prove the superiority of a male Hindu god.'' Hunh?
Maybe the Surathani legend was a construct of patriarchy, maybe the princess herself would have been none too happy to be thought of as a dim-witted, obsessed thulakachi.
But, the legend doesnt end there: thinking his daughter had been done to death by the devotees, an enraged Kafur once again ordered the invasion of the temple and what followed was perhaps the bloodiest period in the temple's history: the deity himself had to go underground, the temple was shut up and 13,000 devotees died in protecting the temple from the invaders. For nearly six generations, only a ghostly sliver of glory.
Sounds familiar, doesnt it, this vengeance-is-mine twist to the tale?
Whatever, when all else has been reduced to rubble and dust, legends will still rule the world and perhaps the princess will have the last laugh...