It’s 6:00 am in the morning and going to the temple on any festival or a sacred day is an extra special, because, we get to go with our beloved grandfather. Our regal grandfather is dressed in a mundu (dhoti) and veshti (an upper garment) both laced with a thin line of kasavu. At 75 he is an impressive figure. As he watches us race down the stairs, each wanting to be the first to reach him, his eyes soften and a smile hovers around his lips. But he doesn’t let go of that patrician demeanour, to do so would be fatal, for we are a rambunctious lot.
Each of us jostles to be the one to hold his hands as we walk to the temple, but with a stern look, he puts a stop to it and the youngest one, get to hold his hand while the rest of us follow. My sister and I feel deprived because we are no longer the favoured ones. A couple of our younger cousins are visiting and they get to hold grandfather’s hands today. As we shuffle along rather morosely, grandfather turns around and gives us one of his smiles and tells us how Lord Shiva got the name Neelakantha.
The Devas and the Asuras churn Palazhi (the milky ocean) for amrutha (elixir). Many wonderful things come up but it also churns up haala-hala, a pot of poison, so potent that it could wipe out all the creation. Now, this would be disastrous.
The Devas and the Asuras are in a panic. But Lord Shiva calmly walks up and drinks the pot of poison to save the universe. The Devas are aghast but relieved. However, Goddess Parvathi is frantic. She lunges forward and puts both her hands around her husband’s throat pressing so hard that it becomes impossible for him to swallow the poison. The Devas fearing the end of the world rush forward to hold Lord Shiva’s mouth so that he doesn’t spit it out. In this struggle, the poison solidifies around Lord Shiva’s throat and the skin around his throat turns blue. Grandfather, the narrator, par excellence weaves his magic in, with words, his deep voice, rising and falling in tune with the incidents that unfold and we his audience, listen, enthralled.
Before we know, we have reached the temple. This temple is an extremely ancient one and it is said that Lord Rama, ascended to heaven from this spot. But there was a Shiva temple, here much before that. The origins of this temple date back to ancient times. It is beautiful, serene and its ancient history and divinity are whispered, to all, by the light breeze and the speckled rays of golden sunlight.
Grandfather, patiently answers all our questions about the temple and things we see around. He lets us stop and admire the wall paintings and sculptures. He also lets us pick the picchi (a type of Jasmine) flowers which have fallen to the ground. And since the temple priest is his friend we are always given extra prasad. Grandfather, introduces us to people, who are visiting the temple and who we haven’t seen before, slowly acquainting us to a wider world, without us even realizing it.
On the way back, we divide our lot of pichhi flowers, prasad and chandan while grandfather tells us that we are not to trouble our mothers and elder sisters. We are to be handed over to the men in the family for a day, and as long as we do not disturb the women, they let us run amok.
Our elder cousin sisters are like Apsaras – svelte, beautiful and graceful. They seem to glide around gracefully while we trot and tumble and run around with no particular aim. Come Shivratri and Thiruvathira, they are the stars. They are the ones that the women in the family seem to pamper around this particular time. They whisper to each other, and giggle for no particular reason and shoo us away when we ask them why and what? Our cousin brothers do not torment them as much as they do us. Their ways are mysterious to us and though we outwardly display disdain we too want to grow up soon and enter their secret world of soft whispers and suddenly suppressed mirth.
They tell us that a real Shivratri fast is done for a whole day and until twilight the next day and if you are really a devout you don’t even need a sip of water, just Shivanaama is enough to sustain. Grandmothers of yore who had this miraculous power are brought out of the tomes of our family history and resurrected and remembered.
The women in the house have been up since 3 in the morning. They will have nothing but fruit and tender coconut water and all that they eat will have to be sanctified. They will read Shiva purana, chant Shiva shlokas, sing bhajans for Shiva and Parvathi, and then prepare for the evening puja. We are not to fast, for we are too young but no rice/wheat or carbohydrates is cooked today, only pulses spiced with a little cardamom and sweetened with jaggery. We too wish to fast and enter their hallowed circle but they laugh and tease us and call out to our elder cousin brothers to take us away.
(Main image Neelkantha: Credit artist Vibha Singh)
To be continued…