“Archanai will be done in Tamil” I read as both of us were standing in the long queue, waiting to get a glimpse of Arjuna’s charioteer. The Parthasarathyswamy temple, Chennai’s oldest surviving temple, situated in Triplicane, once‘Thiru Alli Keni’ (‘The divine Lilly pond’ is the literal translation), has withstood the challenges that time has thrown on it for centuries, witnessing everything that has happened in Chennapatnam, Madras and Chennai. For many years a Brahmanical stranglehold, or rather a Sri Vaishnava stranglehold, Triplicane has retained its traditional charm and flavour even as modernisation has, for many years now, slowly invaded its territory. The narrow alleyways between rows of ancient Aiyangar houses and shops doesn’t seem to hinder, even a wee bit, the unceasing traffic of bikes to cars to cycles to tricycles to cows to what not. The temple is hailed as one among the 107 ‘Divyadesams’, that every follower of ‘Visishtadvaitam’ has to visit in his life so that he clears the basic entry criteria into the 108th Divyadesam which is ‘Sri Vaikuntam’ – the abode of Sri Narayana. Kartik was eagerly eyeing every single soul that passed by, hoping to have some good Saturday time pass. Triplicane lifestyle has evolved around the Parthasarathy temple over the centuries, much like how Sri Ranganathar has defined Srirangam life.
The archakars, sporting big Sri Choornams on their foreheads, were chanting Tamizh pasurams (Divya Prabandham I guess) aloud as we entered the ‘Garbha Graham’ or the Sanctum Sanctorum, where the Perumal has been installed. I have, right from my childhood, been enticed by the beauty of the ‘Thiruman’ or ‘Sri Choornam’ or ‘Naamam’. The ‘Sri Choornam’ is a mark of the Vaishnava who undergoes ‘Pancha Samskaaram’- the five tasks that the ‘Ai’yangar (Aindhu – Five in Tamizh) is entrusted with. The mark gives an intellectual look to the individual who sports it. In fact, I have, over the years, met many intellectual ‘Aiyangars’ which generates a certain kind of natural respect towards this community in me. Apart from their Vedic mastery, ‘Aiyangars’ have distinguished themselves in various fields all over the world. The ‘Thiruman’ comes in 2-3 different colours which, I learnt, signifies the ‘aachaaram’ or intensity of orthodoxy of an ‘Aiyangar’.
And I noticed that there were ‘Aiyangars’ with different levels of ‘aachaaram’ inside that mini hall in Sarojini street as well… A week earlier…
‘Sri Oppiliappan caterers’, read the badge on the white and white dress of the boy who greeted me with a ‘Fruit squash’ as I entered the mini hall. The hall was almost full, with every eye awaiting the arrival of the ‘Nichayathaartha ponnu’. I went and sat in the front seat beside a big bare bodied ‘mama’ who had tattooed the Sri Choornam all over. The ‘payyan’, a ‘US mappillai’ crossed us and the mama asked me “Is he the mappilai?”, his resounding tone enforcing authority. I nodded. Arthi had already sent the photo of her ‘would be’ through e-mail to me. There were many such bare bodied ‘mamas’ in the front rows, chatting with one another and awaiting the start of proceedings. Sitting quite and witnessing Brahmanical conversations is something that I had loved doing always. One ‘mami’ greeted another ‘mama’, anxiety written on her face: “How’s your amma? Is she doing fine now?”. The confused ‘mama’, after a brief pause, replied “No mami. That is not my amma. It was my appa who slipped down in the bathroom. He is recuperating well.” Betrothals and marriages are functions that bring a complex network of relations together and such errors are common given the fact that one is expected to remember a huge amount of multifarious information like the state of one’s ‘akka’s mattu ponnu’s appa’s health’ or ‘athai’s peran’s baarya’s delivery date’ etcetera. People meet after long gaps that they have volumes of matters to discuss and gossip upon. A set of youthful guys, the 20-25 age group, were standing near the entrance, discussing something, I guess, about the latest case study in IIM – A that one among them had worked on, or about how the repetitive yet unchallenging Infosys coding work had eroded another’s weekends… Two girls ,6-8 year olds I guess, clad in traditional ‘Paavaadai chattai’, their oiled hair adorned with ‘kunjalam’ (an ornamental embellishment meant to beautify the tresses), were competing with each other and taking turns to distribute the threaded jasmine to the ‘mamis’ in the hall. There was a sense of pride in their execution of the work that has been assigned to them. A set of ‘mamis’ were discussing a host of happenings ranging from how much of progress has one’s daughter made in her ‘paattu class’ to which stream of engineering is the state first son of another ‘mami’ would opt to how yet another ‘mami’ enjoyed the Lord’s darshanam during her recent temple trip. All these conversations are generally interspersed with examination of the pair of new diamond earrings from GRT or the new shade of ‘Pattu pudavai’ from Rangachari. The ‘Shastrigal’ announced the agreement of both the parties and the marriage date and went on to recite verses from the Vedam and Divya Prabandham. Arthi was in un-uniform (I mean Saree ;-) Courtesy: Ravi) and Srini (the US mappilai) was ‘Bhavyam’ personified. The myriad hues people were attired in, the smell of ‘Puliyodharai’ emanating from the kitchen, the ‘Aiyangar bhashai’ – everything conglomerated to give me a sense of inexplicable delight. The Aiyangar bhashai….
“paacha”, “nochu”, “rangu”, “thambu”, “varadha”… “thaligai”, “unchavruthi” - Sujatha’s ‘Sreerangathu Devadaigal’, a collection of short stories, which I had read recently, gave me a taste of ‘Aiyangar bhashai’. All short stories are set up in Srirangam, the Divyadesam that houses ‘Sri Ranganathar’ in full splendour, posing the same way he is believed to in ‘Sri Vaikuntam’. I was amazed by the author’s narration of the various facets of Srirangam in the 50s and 60s – the huge temple in the middle of the town surrounded by lanes on all sides, the Aiyangar households, their lifestyle, their unique ‘bhashai’ that has over the years faded to such an extent that there are very few Aiyangars in the Dravidian mainland who speak this slang today – all this woven as part of the larger fabric of each of his remarkable storylines. Thank you athimber for introducing me to ‘Srirangathu…’ (My athimber had culled out this compilation from desikan.com when he was in Saudi some months back.) Sujatha’s potent descriptions of the Aiyangar characters in the stories enticed me like iron filings towards a powerful horseshoe and I sat non stop for a day to complete the entire collection. The RSS movement in Srirangam, the reach of the Dakshin Bharath Hindi Prachar Sabha to places like Trichy during those times when information didn’t travel as fast as it does today, the Periyar movement and its effects in such a Brahmanical throttlehold, the various festivities of the temple and how ‘Chakkarathaazhvaar’ formed an integral part of the Srirangavaasi’s existence, the never ending gossips when people unite at places like ‘rangu’s shop’ – the sights and smells of an entirely different milieu…
I have to admit that I’ve been ferociously bitten by the ‘Aiyangar’ bug nowadays that my inspirations have come out as this piece of writing. I can write about Triplicane, Arthi’s betrothal or ‘Srirangathu…’ for the next four days non stop. But then there will be no one to read such a long piece. So I stop here.
“SrImathE RAmAnujAya Namaha”