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Saturday, October 03, 2015

Episode 2/Chapter 12: What, If Our Dreams Come True!

The Story so far…..

Armed with the extraordinary power of the blessings he received from the mysterious sadhu at Courtallam, not knowing what exactly lay ahead, Poornam walks all the way to Ambasamudram, on his way to Papanasam. There, in the Siva temple, on the banks of Tamirabarani, he encounters another sadhu-like mendicant. Developing a conversation with him, Poornam hears about the colossal damage that had happened in Ambasamudram region due to the flash floods in the upper regions of the river. Ambalam, the mendicant narrates a few stories of people who suffered due to the floods.

What follows is the narration of the series of stories of people who suffered in the floods…… Having heard the first story of pathetic zamindar Ratnam and the second story of the gypsy girl Jhia, the narrator is now ready to listen to the third story in the series.

Chapter 12: The Story of the temple poojari

“Are you okay, ‘thambi’?” Ambalam enquired with concern.

“I am deeply moved by the story of this little gypsy girl. I am at loss of words to express my feelings,” I replied unable to control my choking voice.

“Your looked really frightened. Your eyes were fixed and frozen.”

“Actually, as you were narrating the story, I was visualizing every bit of it. I felt transported in time and it looked as though I was myself experiencing the flood.”
Not able to muster more words, I stayed quiet for some time and then asked Ambalam, 

“Do you know where this girl can be found?”

“I hear that she is not doing the street shows anymore nowadays. She is a nomad and never in one place. Shall I continue the rest of the stories or you feel tired?”

“Please do continue. I am all ears for them. I am already getting a hunch feeling that my life is going to be tied with some of these people.”

“Then let me tell you the story of Easwaran, the poojari.” 

Easwaran was a pious ‘poojari’ (priest) in the temple in a nearby village. He was a disciplined worker and he followed a rigorous routine. He opened the temple very early in the morning. He would bring water from the nearby well. The well was open and deep. He had to draw water standing on the edge of a stone bridge that was placed across the well. There were sharp stones and rocks at the bottom of the well. In the twilight of the morning, standing precariously over the bridge, he would use a brass pot tied to a strong rope to draw water from the well and he would carry it on his shoulders to the temple. He would have to make several rounds to fill the big brass vessel with water so that he could start performing ‘Abhishek’ (holy bath) for the deity. In between, he would run to the ‘nandavanam’ (a garden) that was located just outside the temple corridors, to pluck flowers for decorating and garlanding the deity and also perform ‘archana’(a ritual offering of flowers to God). On most days, his wife Meenakshi would join him in the temple. She would bring ‘prasad’ (food offering to God) prepared at home for the deity, to be offered after the ‘poojas’ were over. She would also help in making flower garlands for the deity. Even as the morning ‘poojas’ got over, he would have to attend to devotees who came to the temple for worshipping. Then he would have to prepare for the mid-morning ‘pooja’, after which the temple would be closed till five in the evening. He would carry home the small food that was left over after distribution to devotees. Evenings were usually more crowded at the temple and he would be busy till around nine in the night, when the temple was closed for the day.

Easwaran was strict about adhering to sanctity, traditions and ‘Vedic’ disciplines. He would not allow outsiders inside the sanctum Sanctorum. Fearing sanctity could be lost, he would neither physically touch others nor allow others to touch him. The village people respected him a lot for his devotion and sincerity.  He had a melodious voice and rendered several devotional hymns like ‘Thevaram’ or ‘Thiruvasagam’ or ‘Abhirami Andhathi’ with great dedication and involvement, that tears would roll down his eyes when he sang them. On normal days the temple had very few visitors, but on special days hundreds of people from nearby villages thronged to the temple. The temple somehow managed to survive from the meager contributions from the villagers. But Easwaran never complained about finances and he attended to his temple duties without ever raising a voice.

Though he was now married for the last two decades, he was blessed with a baby girl only last year. The little girl was very cute, fair and looked very pretty. His wife would bring the child to the temple everyday and the little baby grew up listening to the various hymns and chants that went on in the temple. Easwaran believed she was a divine child.

That day, Easwaran was very sick running high temperature. Ignoring the advice from his wife, he took a bath in cold water as usual and went to the temple. There was no substitute for him and he had to perform the rituals in the temple as usual, alone. Meenakshi quickly finished her ‘prasad’ preparation and rushed to the temple to help Easwaran. Struggling and trembling, Easwaran managed to bring water from the well once, but more water was required for ‘abhishek’. He couldn’t walk another foot and sat down near the deity breathing heavily. He looked at the idol of the Lord and prayed to Her to send some help. Meenakshi offered to bring water from the well, but Easwaran refused. It required great expertise to stand delicately on the stone bridge, drop the pot tied to the rope into the deep well, deftly swing the pot to fill it with water and then pull the rope. A small mistake, one could find oneself falling into the deep well and at that wee hour, not a soul would be available for help. Somehow the village never provided a proper pulley system to draw water from the well.

Time was running out and there were no visitors at the temple. The early morning ‘poojas’ had to be performed in time without delay. Easwaran tried to get up and go for drawing water from the well, again. But he felt very weak and couldn’t move. His head spun and everything blackened out for some time. Without waiting for his permission, Meenakshi went to the well. Her first attempt was very successful. She brought water and filled the brass vessel. Easwaran looked on with consternation and signaled caution to her. She had gone ahead more confidently this time and her second attempt also succeeded with ease. Easwaran relaxed for some time and closed his eyes. Meenakshi went again to bring water and didn’t return. Meanwhile, Easwaran had lost all sense of time and his baby girl was quietly sleeping in one corner, undisturbed.

Sadasivam, a ‘pandaram’ (someone who lives on alms given by devotees of the temple) was the first to realize that something was amiss. He had come to the temple, as was his routine, to pray and seek alms from temple devotees. It was the crying of a young child that caught his attention first and he rushed in. He used to spend a few minutes with this baby almost every day after his prayers. But, today, the baby was all wet and crying, but had no one to care for. He ran to her and lifted the baby. He didn’t know what happened and what he needed to do. He saw Easwaran lying unconsciously inside the sanctum sanctorum, near the deity. He didn’t dare getting inside the sanctum Sanctorum for fear of spoiling the sanctity of the place. He rushed outside and after several minutes brought a couple of people. Easwaran was lifted and brought out of the sanctum Sanctorum. With high temperature, his body felt like a hot plate. Someone ran to bring the local ‘vaidhyar’ (doctor). But, those days, even an emergency situation moved like a slow motion movie.

When Easwaran regained senses, he first turned his head here and there looking for Meenakshi. Words failed to come out of him and he struggled to finally question about the whereabouts of Meenakshi. Immediately someone dashed to his house and not finding Meenakshi there, rushed back. Easwaran was confused and he fumbled for words. He couldn’t connect things clearly and completely. Finally, he managed to signal to the people to look for Meenakshi near the well.

There alas! Meenakshi was floating in the well water. Pandemonium broke out and the whole village quickly assembled in the temple. Rescue teams were constituted and Meenakshi’s body was recovered from the well. Everyone was scared of informing Easwaran, but they had to tell him the bad news. Easwaran broke down completely when he heard the news. He shouted aloud, ‘Amma…….’ and he collapsed.

Nearly a month passed by since Easwaran lost his wife to the well. He was devastated and stayed in a state of shock. Some temporary arrangements were made by the local people to take care of the temple routines, as Easwaran was in no state to manage it. He wore a blank look all the time, completely disconnected and was in a state of depression. Villagers took care of him and his baby very well.

Easwaran believed so much in destiny. Destiny is a convenient explanation for many unpleasant things in life and is a kind of acceptance of the inevitable. He soon recouped himself. He began to accept the loss of his dear wife, as an ill-fate. The baby was a daunting responsibility. One of his very distant cousins offered to take care of the baby. They took the baby to their distant village, with a promise to bring the baby back every now and then.
‘Kodai’ festival (The annual summer ‘poojas’) at the temple was approaching. The village and its surroundings depended on agriculture so much for their daily living and agriculture depended on rains. Without the rains, there was no water for the crops. A number of sacred rituals associated with the festival would have to be performed with meticulous care, to appease the Mother deity so that She showered plenty of rain.  

One day, he was back in action at the temple as usual and people were happy. He knew the procedures for the annual temple festival thoroughly and the villagers were relieved to know that they wouldn’t miss their annual festival that year.

He started organizing things for the preliminary poojas required before the actual ‘Kodai’ festival began. He prayed intensely to Mother to bless the village and the people with plenty of rain. He was pleasantly surprised, when the very same day, the sky turned dark and it rained heavily at midnight. Next day, he profusely thanked Mother for her kindness. Little did he realize that it had rained torrentially up the stream in Tamirabarani.
‘Poojas’ in the temple began in all earnest, on the day fixed for the summer festival. Easwaran and many others didn’t sleep the previous night. There were endless formalities around the ‘Poojas’ that needed to be taken care of meticulously. Many elders and youngsters were at the temple helping him on a variety of errands and he looked completely at balance and command. He never looked like the one who had lost his wife in a terrible accident only a month back. It appeared the whole accident and trauma of the experience was pushed behind in his mind, as though it never happened.

People started arriving at the temple from very early in the morning. Hundreds of people registered themselves for offering ‘bali’ (animal sacrifice) at the altar of the temple and formed long queue. Offering ‘bali’ was a very important and sacred ritual to many. ‘Mother’ was always pleased with ‘bali’, people strongly believed. Easwaran had to offer sanctified holy water for all those animals, and perform mini ‘poojas’ for every animal before they were offered as sacrifice. He had also to take care of the big crowd of devotees, waiting in front of the main sanctum Sanctorum, to offer flowers and take blessings from the Mother. He was moving like a dart, appearing in one place, disappearing suddenly and reappearing at another place. Though he arranged for some assistance, people insisted that he alone performed the ‘pooja’ for them. They believed that when Easwaran performed the pooja, Mother answered immediately.

Sun was slowly rising in the sky and the people began to feel the heat and humidity. The temple was overcrowded and there was not an inch of space to stand anywhere. Long queues waited outside, to enter the temple, while another long queue waited patiently for their animal sacrifice. The whole place looked chaotic, but when someone observed closely, there was complete order even in chaos.

And, suddenly it started raining and soon it became a heavy downpour. Initially, the crowd was happy with the rain and everyone thanked the ‘Mother’. When it rained non-stop and the rain water stagnated in the temple surroundings, the crowd again rejoiced. The rain eventually stopped after some time, but the temple appeared to be floating in water. Almost everyone was wading through water here and there. Small children were the ones to enjoy playing in the stagnant muddy water.

Little did they all realize that they were about to face one of the worst calamities of their life in the next few moments.
Sudalai had been awake for the whole night.  His job was not an easy one. He had the most unpleasant task of ensuring that the bodies of those departed souls fed to the flames were fully burnt and turned to ashes. Yes, he was in charge of the cremation ground in another nearby village. He performed his job with great satisfaction and lived happily with the small money he received from the families of those deceased. He had a difficult job to do. But he was a philosophical man. ‘The world needed people like me to make room for new entrants too.’

Sudalai was also a pious person. He was a regular visitor to the temple where Easwaran performed poojas. But he would never enter the temple. There was a stigma attached to the community in which he was born and to the job he performed. Though, by the laws of the land, un-touchability and the social taboos were banned and largely removed for the oppressed communities, Sudalai was always extra careful. He never wished the sanctity of the temple to be spoiled by his entry into the temple and he was scared of inviting the wrath of the Mother. He never complained and was quite contended with worshipping the Mother from outside. The ‘Mother’ had kept him very happy in his life. ‘What did it matter, whether he entered the temple or not?’ he thought.

Easwarn knew the exact time when Sudalai would visit the temple every day and he would come all the way to the outside of the temple, to give him the temple ‘prasad’, though on his own, Easwaran never invited Sudalai inside the temple. Easwaran greatly appreciated and admired Sudalai’s piety.

To make matters worse for Sudalai that day, there were two deaths the previous day and both families insisted upon cremation before sunset. Sudalai was late today, as he had to sit a whole night with the burning bodies in the cremation ground to ensure that they were fully burnt. The two bodies that were cremated the previous night seemed to be solid rocks and they took their own time to burn. Everything got finished that early morning only. He cleaned up the place and returned home in a hurry. He was already late to the temple. Today was a special day at the temple and he had to hurry. Though most days he would go to the river to have his bath, today, he had no time. He quickly finished his bath at home. When he stepped out of his house located at an elevation on the outskirts of the village, he noticed something unusual.

There, before his eyes, a few small huts in the far horizon on the slopes were floating in water. That could only mean one thing. The river Tamirabarani was in spate and must have breached somewhere. This was happening for the second time in his lifetime, the last it happened was almost a decade back and he was still haunted by those memories.

He became numb and motionless for some time, with what he saw. It took some time for him to return to normalcy and grasp the gravity of the situation. He immediately ran, doubled up and headed towards the temple.

There was hardly any place to stand even, inside the temple. The public did not appear to be initially bothered about the crowding. Women took more time in front of the deity and men shouted from behind. Many became restless and started pushing others. A few fell down and others stamped over them. Soon it became a stampede, chaos and commotion inside the temple.

Easwaran was outside the temple and watched the situation helplessly. That was when he heard the terrible sound from the far corner of the temple wall. He quickly waded through the water and saw a huge trunk of a tree floating in water, moving swiftly and hitting the temple wall repeatedly. He also saw that the water was no more stagnant, but had gained flow, as more water gushed from behind the temple. The tree floated swiftly to the front, where many children were playing in the water and before Easwaran could do anything, it hit them with force. Some children gasped, some cried, some shouted and the younger and weaker ones were pushed under water and carried away. Before anyone could notice, a few small kids were already floating in the water and the floating tree was pushing them further and further with force. Many people quickly rushed to save the children, while others tried to hold the tree from moving further.

Suddenly, there was another big gush of water from behind the temple and water entered the temple from outside. Everyone was terrified and started running to get out of the temple causing more stampede.
Sudalai ran at breakneck speed. He had a good physique and was used to the terrain. But to reach the temple, he had to cross a small canal. A cut ‘palmira’ tree placed across the stream was the makeshift bridge. But the bridge was missing today, when he reached there. The canal was brimming with water, that was flowing down with force. Sudalai didn’t hesitate; he jumped into the neck deep water. The water current pulled him, but he managed to reach the other side and continued his run.

When he reached the temple, the situation there was something he would never like to witness in his life. He was quite strong mentally and in his profession, never scared of dead bodies. He handled them as inanimate objects as such, but he always prayed for the dead soul. But today, his stomach churned, seeing so many floating along the river.

The temple was in the middle of a valley, sloping down and as Sudalai galloped down the slope, he trembled and his stomach churned again. He saw the trunk of the big tree moving swiftly down the river and pushing the kids, animals and birds along with it. For a moment, he tried to count the kids. For a strong man like Sudalai, he felt dizzy for the first time.

He saw Easwaran and many others struggling to reach the log and prevent it from floating down. He too rushed. Seeing Sudalai, Easwaran felt relieved. Together, they all managed to hold the log from pushing the kids. But, several of them had already drowned in water and were seen moving away down the stream. A few more rushed to help.

They managed to hold a few kids, lifted them in their arms and shoulders and carried them away on a high platform, built in another corner, in front of the temple, where a tall and colorfully painted mud statue of the Standing ‘Ayyanar’ stood looking ferocious, holding a huge sword in his hands. The rescue process was slow, but they made progress. The rescued children shivered and teetered in fear. Sudalai’s contribution to the rescue mission was significant.

Easwaran suddenly extended his hand to Sudalai and held his as a show of solidarity. He didn’t feel bad about it now. Whatever he thought, he then suddenly hugged Sudalai emotionally and then holding his hand, led him into the temple.

That was a great moment for Sudalai in his life. Even in the midst of chaos, he felt liberated, as he just stepped inside the temple.

Did the ‘Mother’ bring in this chaos so that he could enter the temple? He was puzzled.

As they entered the temple, they couldn’t help walking over a few who had fallen on the ground due to stampede. People were still moving in and out, searching for their near and dears, crying and shouting. Releasing his hands from Easwaran, Sudalai turned his attention to rescuing people who were strapped inside the temple. He shouted out to others for help. His authoritative voice had its effect and some semblance of order returned. More people had now focused on clearing the pathway inside the temple. A few more bodies were removed from inside the temple.

Easwaran somehow managed to clear through to the Sanctorum and there, the Mother stood in waist deep water, with her right hand signaling refuge to those who surrendered to her. She was shining in her new ornamentations and decorations. Easwaran cried aloud, ‘Oh, My Mother! Why this deluge?  Who is at mistake here? What wrong had these innocent children committed? Why are you punishing them all?’

The day passed into evening and then into night. The rescue operations went on slowly and were hampered by darkness everywhere. Thick burning wigs were brought in for better lighting, but intermittent rains at night hindered all their efforts. The operations went on throughout the night. When it dawned the next day, the whole place resembled a massive burial ground.

Easwaran, keeping his both hands over his temple, cried for a long time. The human loss was colossal. Easwaran and Sudalai were among those survived. ‘Why did I survive?’ Easwaran questioned the Mother.


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