Monday, April 9, 2012

The battle

The snake gods keep watch from a roadside shrine as the procession with the Velakali dancers makes its way towards the Padmanabhaswamy temple.
Thiruvananthapuram’s Padmanabhaswamy temple was not just one of the anchors of spiritual life in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. It was also a patron of a number of arangams or art forms, some performed inside the temple and others outside.
Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore writes in Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple that 99 arangams are believed to have enjoyed the temple’s patronage, though details are now available of only around 55 of them. 

The cameras start clicking as the performers go through their opening moves.
Among the arangams associated with the temple is Velakali, a martial dance traditionally performed by a sub-group of the Nair community. The dance was generally performed during the temple’s annual Painkuni utsavam, one of its two major festivals. Staged on the eastern approach to the temple, the dance is believed to recreate the Kurukshetra war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
Only a handful of the Velakali performers are men; 
the rest are boys.
Now, much about the Padmanabhaswamy temple changed over one suspense-filled week last June. For that’s when a committee appointed by India’s Supreme Court to inspect the temple’s vaults reportedly discovered tonnes of gold, silver, precious stones and jewellery in the vaults. And in the blink of an eye, the Padmanabhaswamy temple went from being one of India’s important Vishnu temples to, arguably, the world’s wealthiest religious institution.
In the weeks since then, change has swept across the temple precincts: new security measures have been introduced, shops around the temple have been relocated, long term plans for managing the vaults are being drawn up and the contents of the vaults are quietly and methodically being inventoried.
The young warriors are all set for battle.
Meanwhile, the temple’s spiritual routines, including its festivals, continue pretty much as they have for decades if not centuries. As I wrote a couple of years ago, in March/April every year imposing figures of the five Pandavas are erected in front of the temple’s eastern entrance for the duration of the 10-day Painkuni utsavam or festival. Once made of wood, the fibreglass figures are an integral part of Painkuni utsavam.
Boredom writ across his face, a young performer waits for the final segment of the Velakali to start.
Gouri Lakshmi Bayi writes in Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple that the figures of the Pandavas are erected to ward off rain during the festival. The belief, she adds, is that the figure of Arjuna, supposed to be the son of the rain god Indra, is especially useful to keep rain away. Which is why the Painkuni utsavam is also called the pancha Pandava utsavam or the festival of the five Pandavas.
Every performer wears a breastplate of golden beads 
and carries a tiny wooden shield and cane.
Back in the early 1970s, the Velakali performance during the Painkuni utsavam was scrapped, possibly due to financial challenges. Over the years, there were some attempts to revive the Velakali tradition, but none of them worked.
During the final stages of the performance, the dancers are at the foot of the steps that lead to the temple’s eastern entrance.
Last year though, people who live around the temple chipped-in to raise the money required to revive the Velakali during the Painkuni utsavam. So last April, after 40-odd years, the Kauravas once again got to fight the Pandavas in Thiruvananthapuram.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see that battle. So when the date for this year’s Velakali was announced, I was determined to be there. As were a couple of thousand other people and a small army of photographers and television cameras.
Residents of one of the temple’s outbuildings keep an eye on things, as does a security camera.
One hundred dancers took part in the Velakali performance at the Padmanabhaswamy temple. Armed with small wooden shields and canes, the dancers are believed to represent the hundred Kaurava brothers. The performance, accompanied by music, ends with the defeat of the dancers who pretend to flee in disorder.
And as the Kauravas lost yet again and dusk crept in, a new cohort of armed guards quietly slipped into place to keep watch over the Lord’s treasure. 
One of the armed police patrols that guard the temple.