Monday, October 11, 2010

Gods on the roads

The idols of Saraswathy (on the elephant) and Subramania Swamy (on the silver horse) enter Trivandrum
Sometimes, even Gods need to travel on the roads built by men.
In September/October ever year, deities from three temples in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district go on a road trip to Thiruvananthapuram and back. The idols of Saraswathy from the Thevarakattu Saraswathy Amman temple in Padmanabhapuram; Subramania Swamy or Kumara Swamy from the Velimalai Murugan temple at Kumarakovil; and Munnuttu Nangama from the Sthanumalayan Temple at Suchindrum travel some 150 kilometers along India’s National Highway 47 on this annual jaunt. 
Of course, being Gods, they travel rather differently from ordinary mortals. For one, they are escorted by an entourage that balloons as they get closer to Thiruvananthapuram. And then, there are the vahanas or vehicles in which they travel — Saraswathy on the back of an elephant, Subramania Swamy on a silver horse borne by a phalanx of men and Munnuttu Nangama in a palanquin.
But why do the three deities go on this annual sojourn? To understand that, we need to back in time.
Many, many moons ago, it seems, there lived a Hindu mystic and poet called Kambar who wrote several works in Tamil, including the Kamba Ramayanam. Now Kambar, who travelled around a bit, always carried an idol of Goddess Saraswathy with him. Towards the very end of his life, realising that his time was up, the sage gifted the idol to the reigning monarch of the Chera dynasty that once ruled large swathes of Southern India. In return, the Chera ruler promised Kambar that the Navarathri festival to honour the Goddess would be held every year. 
The silver horse on which Subramania Swamy rides
All this of course happened long before the erstwhile Indian Kingdom of Travancore — which included today’s Kanyakumari district — even existed. However, over the years, those who ruled this part of the world kept the Chera monarch’s promise and honoured the Goddess every year; a tradition the royal family of Travancore continues even today.
It is, however, not very clear just how the idol of Saraswathy ended up in Padmanabhapuram. I guess the Chera King who received the idol built a temple for the Goddess in Padmanabhapuram, which of course later became the capital of the rulers of Travancore.
Late in the 18th Century, the capital of Travancore was moved from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. Soon after though, Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, the then ruler of Travancore made a vow to the Goddess that the Navarathri festival in her honour would henceforth be observed with all splendour wherever the royal family resided, by bringing the deity there, writes Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of the royal family of Travancore in her book Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple.
And so, in the Malayalam month of Kanni (September/October) every year, the three deities are brought to Thiruvananthapuram for the nine-day Navarathri festival in honour of the Goddess. The festival is celebrated through music, dance and, of course, a panoply of poojas or religious rituals to honour the Goddess.
Once in Thiruvananthapuram, the idol of Saraswathy is installed in the Navarathri Mandapam that is part of the palace complex alongside the Padmanabhaswamy temple. The idols of Subramania Swamy and Munnuttu Nangama are taken to two other temples — the Aryasala temple and the Chenthitha temple respectively — till it is time for them to return home after the festivities.
The elephants lead the way
What I’m not very clear about, perhaps because I haven’t dug around enough, is why Subramania Swamy and Munnuttu Nangama accompany Saraswathy on this annual visit. However, a report that appeared in The Hindu a few years ago says this:

“The idol of Sarawathi, the patron goddess of the arts, learning and weapons, comes accompanied by the idols of Subramania Swamy and Munnooti Nanga. Lord Subramania, the warrior god signifies the king, and the sword, the ayudham (weapon) that he wields for the protection of his state and subjects, while Munnooti Nanga symbolises the kundalini shakti.”
As in previous years, this year too, the three deities arrived in Thiruvananthapuram a few days ago. The times may have changed and Travancore is now mostly a memory, but the devotion with which the Gods were greeted as they travelled to Thiruvananthapuram was perhaps as passionate as it was a hundred years ago. And as the procession wound its way towards the Padmanabhaswamy temple and the Navarathri Mandapam, the timeless sounds of the chenda and kombu merged with the strains of a police band’s rendition of ‘saare jahan se achcha, Hindustan hamara’ to create a an exceptional symphony for an exceptional occasion.