Sunday, January 19, 2014

Writing that transcends

‘A community of mortals’: a headline written to snare. The story it led me to, though, is so powerful that I am delighted to have been snared. 
Alexandra Zelman-Doring’s tale of her husband’s heart attack and the hours that followed is the runner-up in the Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize for 2013. It is personal and universal, anecdotal and data-based. Above all, it is moving, but also wise. 
Several sections of the essay stay with me, but none more so than this line: “Borne on the brink of the music, it came to me: human beings endure impossible things.” We certainly do.

PS: Another powerful read is Raghu Karnad’s essay on Indians who served in the British army during the second world war. The essay, which melds the personal with the general, was runner-up in the prize for 2012.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Lord of light

The Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple lit up during the lakshadeepam of 2008
For a long heartbeat it seemed as if all the light in the world had cascaded around me. It was warm, benign light; just the sort of radiance you’d expect from a spiritual experience. And so it was — my first ever lakshadeepam at Thiruvananthapuram’s Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple.
Though I’ve lived in Thiruvananthapuram for 25-plus years, I’ve actually attended only one lakshadeepam, in 1996. And but for that feast of light, there’s little I recall of the occasion.
Celebrated once every six years, the lakshadeepam or lighting of a hundred thousand lamps is among the temple’s most important festivals. Preceded by the murajapam — the ritualistic chanting of prayers in turns by a large group of Brahmins — the lakshadeepam is one of those ‘experiences of a lifetime’.
In A History of Travancore P. Shungoonny Menon writes that the lakshadeepam and murajapam rituals were first performed by Karthaveerarjuna, “one of the Kshatria King(s) of a former age”. The first murajapam and lakshadeepam in more recent times were conducted by Marthanda Varma, possibly Travancore’s mightiest ruler. While the first murajapam was conducted in 1747, it did not end with the lakshadeepam; that happened three years later in 1750. In the 264 years since then, the lakshadeepam and murajapam have continued without a break, every six years.
The eastern approach to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy
temple during the lakshadeepam of 2008
Then as now, the ritual is intended to bring peace and prosperity to the region and its people. The murajapam involves the chanting of three Vedas — the Rig, Yajur and Sama — in a specific cycle and also chanting the Vishnu Sahasranaman or thousand names of Vishnu. The 56-day-long ritual culminates in the lakshadeepam, when a hundred thousand lamps, possibly more, are lit across the temple and its precincts.
Over the past few decades, some aspects of the lakshadeepam have been tweaked to suit changing circumstances. Electric lights have replaced some of the oil lamps used for the lakshadeepam, especially in the outer regions of the temple. Similarly, the temple is now lit not only on the actual day of the lakshadeepam, but also for several days afterwards. And from this year on, there will be another, rather visible, change — high levels of security. For this is the first lakshadeepam to be held after it was publicly revealed that that the temple is the repository of a substantial trove.
What hasn’t changed though is the essence of this unique festival of light. And as dusk falls on January 14, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple will be enfolded in a very special radiance.