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anuja iyer


It was one of those annual trips to an outstation temple with family and relatives that invariably comes on the travel list for some reason of 'Venduthal' or 'Parigaaram' that gets suggested by some astrologer or the other. While my belief in such things don't really coincide with my larger conviction of believing in myself, it is a futile exercise trying to reason out with my mother who chooses a new astrologer every season coming up with a fresh list of to-do-things at temples. I'm more spiritually inclined than religious and to me prayer is doing what brings you peace of mind and need not necessarily happen within the realms of a place of worship. But such indulgence for the sake of going together with family and pleasing elders makes my rest of the year smooth when I need to step out on my shopping tours, vacation camps and late-night outings. Also I'm told that such trips to ancient places of worship don't happen unless the God / Goddess of the temple want you to be there. So I respect the popular sentiment and just go with the plan without making a fuss.

Last week amidst the chaos of storm 'Neelam' and friends suggesting to cancel the trip, we decided to go ahead with our date with Meenakshi Amman at her sprawling, magnificent Madurai abode. Such trips, besides the opportunity to see the deity and seek her blessings, give you the most fascinating brush with history and pleasure in discovering the ancient architecture built purely of out of passion, hard work and hardly any technology that modern construction today facilitates. The very thought that a 16th century wonder or even earlier maybe, the very same temple had witnessed the presence of great Pandya Kings, Queens, rituals, homams and that it stands rock solid even today amazes me like a child going after a butterfly in a garden as I scrutinize every intricate carving, artistically built Gopuram (huge gateway towers on all four directions), the temple tank surprisingly filled with water, every solid pillar holding the temple together, those story-narrating paintings on the wall / ceiling and deciphering the significance of specific temple elements / idols & its history. When foreigners from across the world come to our places of worship and genuinely attempt to understand our beliefs, customs, art and architecture, we should all the more be intrigued by the marvel of such work.

It takes at least 3 hours to cover the entire temple that includes a ‘dharisanam’ of all the idols, archanai, aarathi (slightly more for Abishegams) and spending time in understanding the relics, reading the stone engravings and feeding the animals of the temple. Being an animal lover, I quickly bought a few bunches of 'Agathi keerai' (as approved by the caretakers) to feed the calves, cows in what they maintain in ‘Pasumadam’ and some bananas for the elegant elephant stationed at the temple corridor. It was a delight to watch animals that were for a change well-fed, bathed, decorated and taken care of amidst another world outside where animals die of starvation, eat from garbage bins, are subject to cruelty by humans in the pretext of pleasing Gods, run-over on the highways and slaughtered for commercial purposes.

Lastly, the yummiest aspect of these temple trips - the sumptuous 'prasaadam' after the 'Neivedyam' to the Gods ranging from freshly made puliyodharai to chakkara pongal to panjaamrutham make such visits totally worthwhile. What I disagree with some believers when it comes to holy trips is when there is this barter system of asking God to give you a better job, lots of money, more money while you promise to climb up the hill and come to see him or break 108 coconuts if your prayer gets fulfilled. Let us stop doing business deals with God and rather go to temples for pure reasons of thanking for all the things we've been given or pray for others' well-being. It's always your choice to climb by foot or spend the money of buying coconuts and breaking it when you can otherwise spend on an 'Anna Dhaanam' and feed hungry stomachs. But that’s a very personal belief and wouldn’t like to take on those who get their drive in life through such practices. However, prayer and devotion have to stem from a deep-rooted selfless motive with complete surrender to what you believe in a supreme force above you and what we term as God. It can have various manifestations in various religions but the basis of believing in God is one and the same where faith (in something or in someone) gives you a grip in life.

When I was in primary school, 'moral science' was one of the subjects taught as the first period on alternate days. We had a surprise class test one day and there was this True or false question that said: You should fear God. True or False? I ticked the box that said 'False' and when the test answer sheets were handed out after correction by the teacher, there was this huge 'X' mark for me in red ink pen indicating that my answer was wrong. I just didn't understand why we should fear God when we almost consider Him / Her as our confidante and confess things that we wouldn't even do to our own parents. Respect, reverence, love and faith are some of the emotions that one should feel towards God but fear is something that I never understood then and even debated with my stunned teacher. Many years later now, my reasoning is that we were probably taught to fear God to ingrain a warning against any wrong-doing because he can also punish as much as reward you. The belief that there is someone over-seeing your actions and you are being watched, if not guided by your sensible brain and conscience could probably be the rationale of that teaching.

As kids, the only access to television watching came in the form of cartoons, my favorite being Popeye and Woody-Woodpecker tapes that my Uncle bought from Australia and the entire bunch of devotional movie cassettes from Raj Video Vision (all being those VHS tapes when CDs were just an idea in the inventor's mind) ranging from Thiruvilaiyaadal to Saraswathi Sabatham to Kandan Karunai. Thanks to Rajinikanth, we did occasionally get to watch his commercial films like ‘Raja Chinna Roja’, ‘Maappillai’, ‘Sri Ragavendra’ etc. that were clean films that even kids could watch and till date he continues to cater to them with a U certificate including ‘Endhiran’. But what such devotional genre of films did was to sub-consciously instill certain moral values and teach us the difference between right and wrong in an entertaining way. I loved listening to stories from my grand-parents and when I missed them, these films came to my rescue when X-Box and Wii games were not even thought of. That makes me belabor the importance of such films and wonder where all the film-makers have gone in churning out that genre, which if made today will obviously be suited to the current taste and technologically superior to the earlier films. The questions hovering in my mind are: Have we stopped being devotional or stopped embracing that genre of films or do we think it’s uncool to make or see such films anymore or is it commercially unviable when even historical films like ‘Karnan’ get re-released and run for a 100 days? Arai En 105-il Kadavul where Prakash Raj plays the role of God is the most recent film suited to modern beliefs of God and who / what He really is and also bordered on ‘Aanmeegam’. We may not really want the actors to put on those huge ‘kreedoms’ on their heads, jazzy costumes, heavy jewellery and an even heavier make-up. But narrating stories of faith, religion, beliefs and even key historical rulers seems to be an unexplored genre of films in recent times. Directors can always find creative solutions to story-telling provided the producers back them up. If the Telugu industry can churn out a film as recent as ‘Shirdi Sai’ where Telugu superstar Nagarjuna played the titular role, why can’t the Tamizh film industry too attempt something similar when you’ve a willing audience to watch such films?

In an increasingly complicated and violent world today where cuss words, immoral practices, shameless corruption, heartless deception and ruthless kidnapping and murders surround us both in real and reel life, devotional or spiritually oriented films wouldn’t be too inappropriate a genre to make and market. It might just come as a breath of relief and put some sanity back in people’s thinking. While we wait for such new films to be made, let’s just hope the earlier films have been well-preserved and transferred onto higher formats so other children can have access to the yesteryear films. While Obama and Romney are hoping for their votes to come in, should you wish to cast your votes in favour of films of devotional genre, please do watch them in theatres when they release.

Jai Mata Di!

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