My days with Sri Papanasam Siva
Chapter 9: My arrival at Ambasamudram
Like Adi Shankara, I too travelled to places by foot. Shankara could even reach the top of Himalayas, travelling through thick jungles, crossing over difficult hilly terrains and dangerous rivers. He had no map, no compass and no written travelogues. Today, conditions of travel had tremendously improved over the centuries and therefore my comparison with Adi Shankara is inappropriate and unfair.
Honestly, I didn’t have much direction while I set forth from Courtallam. I believed I was being guided by some inner voice. I passed through Tenkasi which was just at a walking distance from Courtallam and Lord Siva christened as Kasi Viswanathan majestically sat there in a colossal temple built during the days of Parakrama Pandian of 15th century. The beauty was (or was it a pity), I learnt that the main temple tower at the entrance was damaged by a lightning sometime in the 15th century, may be soon after its construction and had still remained a flat tower for nearly five centuries. Though I had frequented Tenkasi very often, for strange reasons, I never reckoned it as one of the places I was destined to. So I set Papanasam as my next destination. Besides, inexplicably, I had no engagement with Sri Kasi Viswanathan at Tenkasi and so I moved on. The chief priest at Courtallam temple with whom I had become very friendly over years had given me a detailed account of the region, especially about the river Tamirabarani. Papanasam attracted me much more than other places, to start with.
The river Tamirabarani had a great history. However much the North Indians may feel proud about their perennial rivers like Ganga, Sind or Brahmaputra that have their origins in Himalayas, Tamirabarani, the perennial river of South was unique in the sense its origin is yet to be discovered. Even today, it remains a secret and mystery. It is believed that Tamirabarani originates inside a cave in the Podhigai hills, travelling almost about twenty five kilometers through a dense forest of herbal plants, where it doesn’t even see sunlight, before it falls as ‘Banatheertham’ in the upper hills of Papanasam. During the course of its one hundred and fifty kilometers of travel till its final merger with the sea in the Gulf of Mannar, many other smaller river tributaries originating at different places in the Podhigai hills join it and enrich the whole region. From the days of the epic Ramayana, the river had assumed spiritual and religious significance for various reasons. There is also a mythological story that the river originated several thousand years ago from a small divine pot the sage Agasthiar used to carry around.
Ambasamudram was a small town on the way to Papanasam, on the banks of the river Tamirabarani. As I walked closer, I was beckoned by Lord Siva sitting over there in another majestic temple built almost thousand years ago by the Chozha kings. I walked, marveling at the tall ‘maruthu’ tree linings on the banks of the river Tamirabarani on the way to the temple. The trees with thick branches had grown sky high that even sunlight could penetrate them only when their leaves bristled with the wind. They presented a picturesque scenery of a marvelous arcade. I walked through the arcade of trees imagining myself to be a king, greeted by thousands of on-lookers lined up on both sides, waving their hands, and bowing their heads. Like a camera, I captured the image of this beautiful place, as I walked past the trees and reached the temple. Just then, it began to rain all of a sudden and I took shelter in the front corridor of the temple. It was mid-afternoon and the sanctum sanctorum of the temple was closed. I was standing there for sometime looking particularly nowhere.
An old mendicant sadhu, who blanketed himself with a torn rug, spotted me and beckoned me.
“Are you new to the town, thambi?”
I nodded. Having had a very powerful association with a ‘sadhu’ at Courtallam, I wondered whether I was due to have yet another encounter with a yet another sadhu.
Hesitantly, I went closer to him. He asked me to sit by his side. I obeyed without resisting.
“So………… you are an outsider, I know……………… I know most of the regular visitors here. By the way, did you eat anything at all? ............... You look so famished,” he remarked.
Looking at my blank face, he continued, “Don’t worry! The temple would be serving annadhan (free food) shortly and the food would be just good. Just bear with your hunger for some more time.”
He seemed to be reading my mind.
Actually, I was very hungry and looking for some food. I felt relieved. It was a long story how I had been managing myself in the last several days when I walked from Courtallam to Ambasamudram.
The sadhu continued, “My name is Ambalam. What is your name?”
“People call me Poornam.”
“Pardon me, I can’t speak loudly. My vocal cords got damaged due to a disease during the last heavy rains that flooded the whole Ambasamudram and nearby villages. Have you heard about it?’ he continued.
I shook my head in the negative.
“Paiya, you must have been very lucky not to have seen the gory calamities of that rain. It is a horrible story!”
As the rain intensified, I had nothing else to do. I was willing to hear the story. I urged him to tell me about the last rain.
“This river Tamirabarani has several tributaries. Some join it at the upper regions of the hills and some along the plains. Those that run at higher altitudes are wild, running uncontrollably through thick forests and hills. It was not uncommon for the river to get flooded every now and then due to heavy downpour in the upper hills. There are not many water reservoirs along the hilly path the river takes. A few barrages help diverting water for productive agriculture, but do not help containing floods. We don’t even know who built these dams and when. The terrains are difficult and the plains suffer because of flash floods. Several villages got inundated in water and disappeared as a whole. Hundreds of people had died. Serious diseases had spread post flood and had infected several hundred people. Who would want to hear the sad unpleasant stories of a few survivors, anymore? Do you want to?”
He knew he had my full attention and that I was eager to hear the stories. Ambalam didn’t wait for my answer. He started telling me stories of a few individuals who survived the last flood, five years ago.