In pursuit of peace
I didn't ask her name. There's no time. Such thoughts never occurred. The atmosphere was ostensibly spiritual and the air thick with incense. We had stumbled upon a serendipitous moment in the fourth courtyard of the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple in India's Tamil Nadu state. I was stepping out of the 10th century complex built by the Chola dynasty when she caught my attention. Attention's what she was dying for. It's her lifeline. Before I could realise I had fallen into her trap, she walked over to me. She wore a string of jasmine flowers in her greasy hair braided down both sides, and many more hung lose from her forearms. She was like a walking flower shop.
"Ayya, mallipoo venama?" she asked, offering a jasmine garland to me. "Five rupees only."
Big beautiful eyes with fluttering lashes. Hunger and fatigue were manifest behind her veil of effervescence and in her thin swarthy body clothed in a semblance of silk. I was sure she had little schooling. She could be one among the millions of children across India who skip schools to make sure their families don't go to bed hungry. She's certainly not more than 12 years old.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, I just wound up my visit."
"Never mind, sir. You can make another visit. The more you prostrate, the better; the healthier," she reasoned.
"I am in a hurry, girl. Maybe next time. I'm rushing to take a bus to Thanjavur," I explained my situation. "Besides, no female companion to wear the flowers."
"Ayya, flowers know no gender. Take three for ten rupees. You earn blessings and I earn a living." She strung together her business acumen and oratory in her native Tamil language to convince her client.
"Forget the flowers. What do I do with them? You keep this money," I said, extending a fifty rupee note.
"God is everywhere, sir. You come with me," she grabbed my wrist as if she knew me a lifetime, and started to walk back to the complex. "I don't beg, I only sell flowers," she said, as she crossed the gateway and turned right to show me a little idol perched inside a high groove on the tall courtyard wall. The one-foot deity was beyond the reach of both of us.
"You can now pray, sir. I will do the rest." She threw the garlands one by one onto the wall which landed on the deity by a fortuitous ricochet.
"You' re so lucky," she said to please me. "Romba nandri, ayya (thank you so much, sir)," she said, giving back forty rupees. Gratitude radiated from the corners of her wide eyes.
Her honesty and her resemblance to the late Bollywood icon Smita Patil who acted in the National Award winning movie Chidambaram, tethered me to the eponymous place which always beckons me. It's a perennial inner call. I decided against leaving immediately. It's on this cobbled payment G Aravindan's movie ends with Shivakami (Smita Patil) and Shankaran (Bharath Gopi) hanging their heads in extreme guilt and seeking redemption. It's a glorious moment when art and life, seeking a peaceful redoubt, knock on the doors of a decrepit, ancient structure that has for centuries symbolised the intrinsic link between creativity and spirituality.
I lay there for a long while, until the canvas of blue overhead turned orange and a murmuration of birds painted intricate patterns on it. Chidambaram is probably the only place where the sunset doesn't rain agony and depression. Close your eyes and get drenched in a monsoon of creative ecstasy, peace and tranquility. Open your eyes and enjoy the vivid carvings of all the 108 karanas (actions) from the Natya Shasthra, a treatise on the classical Sanskrit theatre. Sharpen your ears and listen to the foot beats of creative spirituality, while shutting your mind to the chants of spiritualism from the other side of the spectrum.
My heart throbs happiness. It isn't something that you can elicit from isms. In my homeland, communism failed us. Socialism betrayed us. Spiritualism divided us. Isms set dos and don'ts. They contrive to place cognitive shackles on creative thinking. They make humans dogmatic creatures. I have wriggled out of it.
To all the people who ask me what next, I have no answer. It's an uneventful voyage I started as a little artist that took me to different ports of call - politics, fine arts, music, photography, theatre, journalism and literature. Writing is where I have anchored myself last, but does it offer peace? I am yet to hear from my heart. The thrill of conquest evaporates when I realise, "Yes! I can." I am determined to seek out peace, never mind where it takes me. It could be a person or a place. It could be a temple or a mosque or a church. It could be the last frontiers of my own creativity.
It could be Chidambaram. In the search for peace, there are no borders. I would love to spend hours in the Adoration and Reconciliation Chapel at the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni in Tamil Nadu. It's a place where absolute silence elevates you to a different level of existence. I would spend hours praying over the tomb of the 15th century Sufi saint Shahul Hameed, provided all the scamsters operating from the Nagoor Dargah are locked up.
It could be Bacharach on the Rhine, a medieval German village of castles and vineyards. I would spend my mornings harvesting my gorgeous hillside winery, enjoy fishing in the Rhine in the afternoons, gossip over a pint sitting by the cobbled streets of the quaint, romantic town in the evenings, and write a book in the cold wee hours in the company of the finest Rieslings.
It could be by the bank of the placid and picturesque Phewa Lake in Nepal's Pokhara, where I would row my boat through the veil of morning mist to capture the first blush on the cheeks of the Himalayas. I would wander the well-swept lakeside, bargaining for the curios I would never buy. In the evenings, I would place myself in a rustic pub on the banks of the Phewa and write until my words would grow wings and dance with the whistling wind.
It could be in the shadows of the monumental Brihadishvara Temple in Tanjavur, a 11th century granite structure on the south bank of the river Kaveri. I would spend the days exploring the numerous inscriptions and frescoes on the walls, or simply let the tranquility of the enormous courtyards overwhelm me. Or I would stand in awe of its art and architecture and let peace pervade my body and soul.
As I stand at a crossroads, what always beckons me is Chidambaram, which means Ambiance of Wisdom, or Clothed in thoughts. Follow in the footsteps of Shivakami and be a shoe keeper? Or follow in the footsteps of the honest little girl who sells flowers? I don't know. But if you dare ask me why Chidambaram, I could only say, "Because it's there."