The south Indian city of Kumbakonam lives up to its epithet. Temples are everywhere: their elaborate gopurams (towers) rise dramatically along its crowded, narrow streets, and in the villages and towns around the city, a varied pantheon finds representation. The city’s large Mahamanam tank is said to collect India’s holy rivers in miniature, imparting this local and insignificant seeming landmark a grander, pan-Indian connection. Bathing in the tank on the day of the Mahamanam Festival – Tamil Nadu’s own Kumbh Mela – is akin to washing one’s sins in such rivers as the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, and Cauvery (see rare picture from 1905 below of the festival and the tank; picture credit here).
I grew up with little interest in temples and deities. As characters in stories and epics, the gods with their quirks and foibles were fascinating, but as idols to be worshipped in a temple, they were invariably boring. Kumbakonam has the usual – Shiva, Vishnu, Murugan; there’s also a rare Brahma temple. But the majority of the holy places around town pivot on a fascinating theme -- the deification of celestial bodies: the sun, the moon, the planets, better known as navagraha. It made sense to me that these mysterious entities, markers of time, direction and the recurrence of seasons – and, in the case of the sun, indispensable – should be worshipped.
In the temples I visited as a child, the navagraha were personified as black figurines, their details faint; they were typically arranged on a raised platform in three rows. Though I was always instructed to circle them devoutly, they were never the main attraction. In Kumbakonam, there is a temple for each graha. Though they consist of five planets, the grahas generally refer to celestial landmarks – the sun (Suryan), the moon (Chandran), Mars (Chevai), Mercury (Budhan), Jupiter (Guru), Venus (Shukram or Velli) and Saturn (Sani). The remaining two, Raagu and Ketu, are not actual bodies but nodes: “they are the two points of intersection of the paths of the Sun and the Moon as they move on the celestial sphere”[source].
The Gurukovil (or Guru Temple) is in Alangodi; it has the most garish gopuram (tower) I have ever seen. Though striking, I personally prefer the understated elegance of older temples, such as the Brihadishwara. The difference is in the degree of detail: the newer temples tend to exaggerate (dilated eyes, fiery moustaches, tusks and teeth), while the older temples prefer abstraction and are yet noticeably sensuous.
The cool inner sanctum of the Gurukovil hosts a lingam with a Nandi facing it. Guru himself is to the left of the sanctum, almost an afterthought, reached only by walking halfway around. But he receives plenty of attention from worshippers. I caught a glimpse of him right after an abhishekam, bejeweled, garlanded, slits that were eyes marked out from his otherwise ash-covered form. It was also at this temple that I noticed four Muslim women in black chadors lighting candles for him (I mentioned this in an earlier post).
That same evening, I went to the Suryanar Kovil (Sun Temple). Guru was here too, facing a large idol of the Suryan: the heavyweights of the solar system, Jupiter and the Sun, enjoying a tete-a-tete.
The rest of the temple hosted the other seven grahas, each housed in a smaller enclosure, aptly around the sanctum for the Sun. At one of them, an archaka (a priest) was conducting an abhishekam for a large family. This meant stripping the black stone idol that represented the deity, bathing it in water, milk, a mash of chopped bananas, honey, jaggery and dates, washing it again with water, and finally dressing it in new cloth and adorning with flowers -- all this while prayers with a distinctive cadence were chanted.
The priest was stocky, pot-bellied and wore earrings and a sullied sacred thread; his veshti (a white wrap-around) was worn in a complicated, many-layered fashion and sat tight over his wide waist. He did his work earnestly. But the lady of the family – who was clearly in charge – was not satisfied with the material aspects of the abhishekam.
“Why aren’t you adorning more? Shouldn’t you be using more fresh flowers? What about the clothes for the grahas? I paid a lot for this; and I specifically asked for something elaborate.”
The priest was immediately on the defensive.
“Amma, what use is it telling me? I have no control over these things. You should have been more specific when you paid for the abhishekam; you should have told the people there. What use is it coming and telling the Iyer [Brahmin priest] here?”
It was a comical tussle about money and service quality in the middle of a somber religious ritual. As the priest moved from one graha to another (from Raagu to Chandran to Budhan), the lady kept insisting that it wasn’t enough. And the priest kept defending himself in his distinctive Brahmin-accented Tamil. At the end, the lady gave money to the priest as was customary, but he refused it, leaving the family bewildered and dissatisfied (though some of the younger members snickered).
There is a subtler issue at work here and it has to do with political control of temple revenue. The government of Tamil Nadu – currently led by the avowedly anti-Hindu Karunanidhi – has increasingly taken control of many temples. You pay for services, such as an abhishekam, to the temple officials and it is they who decide what you get. I am speculating here, but this probably puts priests at odds with the officials: the former who once had more control now have less say.