Awakenings Under a Black Plum Tree – Chitra Gopalakrishnan

“From dawn to dusk, you see six differing divine forms of Lord Muruga at the Palani temple, when he, the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, is presented to his devotees. It is like a seeing the kaleidoscopic realities of this world, its complexities and ever shifting truths,” explains Bala.

He is a Tamil scholar who accompanies me to the temple.

Struggle or prayatanam is elemental to the Hindu temple experience.

I have taken a cramped bus ride from Coimbatore the evening before, sweated up 693 roughly-hewn, warm, stone steps from two in the morning to get to this on-the-hill temple in Dindigul district of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This just as the sun has turned into a jovial crimson ball.

As I wait patiently for two hours, with fifty devotees, for the priests to draw the curtains at the sanctum sanctorum and show us the divine, I hold out my palms, like them, in supplication to receive his grace.

My chance for an intimate communion with god is startlingly brief yet wholly complete. I see and am seen by the celestial deity. In the space of this moment, I understand soul interiority. I am in a place of stillness, knowing God as peace, bliss and love.

As the world regains its shape around me, I hear the song man of the temple. The oodhuvaar’s free-form verse from the 15th century Thiruppugazh, literally meaning ‘praise of the lord’, is in complete harmony with the raga (melodic framework) tala (rhythm) and bhava (emotion). A musical way to worship is the only way here, I am told.

Pazham meaning fruit and nee meaning you. This holy town that derives its name from two Tamil words. I hear his ditty on this. Its lush lyricism washes over me, rinsing away my tiredness that trembles at the edge of a full-blown bone weariness. I soon intuit his task is more than to sing, it is to transfer truth through melody.

When the oodhuvaar pauses, I approach him for legends of fruits associated with the temple. “My songs have mysticism, philosophy and poetry and you must elicit meaning by distilling their essence,” he says.

I accept his challenge.

He sings. “My first form here this morning is of a little boy with shaven head, wearing a loincloth, a recluse who has ran away in anger from his divine parents and his younger brother Ganesha. I am here because Sage Narada offered a mango to my parents, describing it as the fruit of knowledge, one to be given to their favorite. My father decided to give it to the son who encircles the world thrice first. While I, the older and agile, set off on the journey on my peacock, my younger and portly brother Ganesha simply circumambulated my parents thrice claiming them to be his universe. He got to slurp the fruit. Furious, I shaved my head, discarded my clothes and jewelry, wore a loincloth and came here to prove I am right. Only an aged, woman-saint and poet called Avvaiyaar could calm the injury to my essential being, my understanding of myself as being the protector of self-knowledge. This by singing, “Pazham nee, appa. Gnana pazham nee appa.” You are the fruit. You are the fruit of knowledge of wisdom.

Bala joins us to add to the story. “It is said that Lord Muruga’s statue here has nine poisonous substances yet are carefully balanced to renew the world. His prasadam (offering of the god to his devotees) of bananas, sugar, honey, ghee and cardamom, called panchamritham or the five nectars, does the same. Devotees come here repeatedly to tonsure their heads to indicate such a renewal in their lives.”

The temple’s head priest who has in turn followed Bala says with excitement, “I am unable to resist the temptation to narrate another fruit story related to Muruga.”

“Though he was fond of the woman saint-poet Avvaiyar, Murgha took on the avatar of a young shepherd boy to guide her to a path of renewed understanding and be the saint of the masses as she professed to be. This as she had turned a tad egotistical,” he says.

“Come along with my song of this story,” he invites. I listen to his rendition of the story in verse.

“Avvaiyar has walked far on the heated, blistered hill slopes of Palani and come to a patch of grassland where she finds shade beneath a black plum tree. Weary with hunger, she tries to pluck some of its fruits.

Just then Murgha, camouflaged as a shepherd boy, calls out from the tree’s branches where he is perched. “Would you like to eat some fruit?” When Avvaiyar says ‘yes’, the boy asks her if she would “like it hot or cold” (sutta pazham venuma illai sudatha pazham venuma?). Irritated by what she believes to be his ignorance yet strangely puzzled at the boy’s question, Avvaiyar coldly replies, “I prefer it cool”.

The boy shakes the tree so the fruits fall on the sand below. Avvaiyar collects the fruits but seeing sand sticking to the fruit blows on them. The boy exclaims, “Is it too hot for you?”

The head priest stops his song, folds his palms to acknowledge a devotee, and says to me in speech, “It is then that Avvaiyar realizes he is no ordinary or ignorant boy but divinity incarnate who has come to remind her of her mission. To tell her that ego like sand sticks to the fruit and that to purify the soul and be a saint who guides the masses, worldly knowledge is not enough, one has to overcome the ego and acquire divine insight.”
Against a yellow, glowing and brightening sky and within some hours, I have learnt how fruits teach us to rebirth one’s true inner nature. And how it is this power that helps one withstand both pain and pleasure with the same equanimity and that it is this balance that is at the heart of all healing and renewal.
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