Monday, January 25, 2010

Kovalam - From Maharajas to Tourists

Those days there was only one hotel at the Kovalam beach, or that is the blurred image in my mind. I as a kid visited Kovalam way back in the 1960s with family, no idea why they took me there. The sparkling sea waves lashing the rocks gave an unforgettable scene. This hotel, I feel, is the present Sea Rock. But it has lost all identity in an over populated crowd of hotels now. Kovalam was always dear to me, when studying and working away from Kerala I used to spend a part of my vacation at Kovalam, lying that I am going back. Having a beer and tuna at the beach hotels, that was in the eightees. The way Kovalam changes is amazing, every year it grows. The palm groves are no more visible, only buildings, crowds, but then that is how life is.

Kovalam was originally a pilgrim spot, where people worshipped ancestors on the black moon day of Karkidakam, when it was called Avadu Thurai. The place was also famous as the birth place of Kovalam Kavikal, considered mile stones of ancient Malayalam language. Then it became the place where the Travancore kings went on holiday and during the British period also the European officers. It was in the seventees that the place became a haven for the then breed of hippies. Back packers arrived in their hordes and a sub-culture of anarchy thrives, with it drugs, drinks and women. Kovalam became an island in the conservative Kerala society. Liberal values got mixed with the vices, later to balance. But the native is still not a sought after species at Kovalam, it has its own religion and rituals.

Kovalam beach is always in vibrant mood and the small bay formation and the hillocks add to the charm. One can swim in the sea for most part of the year, where often the same tourists come almost every year, like migratory birds. There are unique features in Kovalam and many hotel boys and owners get married to foreigners, many own land here and have made it their home. The relationship is enduring, simple villagers love the tourists and as a German friend once told me, it is a search for authenticity that drives westerners. Their culture has become too fake, appearences alone matter now, how places like Kovalam with genuine people beckon them. I have made many friends at Kovalam and one of them now runs an art gallery cum cafe at the junction. The sketches he do on the nearby bay of Vizhinjam are cute. But the one friend I always talk about is another English man, I met him in 1985 perhaps. An young artist from Birmingham, who worked for ten months every year and spend two months at Kovalam. He had come to identify with the local people and talked about tourists in third person.

Do you know why these ladies and men lie down on the beach, he once asked me, I said tanning, sun bathing, and he said no. It is to show off their bodies he said, it is a kind of reverse voyeurism, he added. I said what is wrong, god has made beautiful bodies to enjoy what is wrong if they show it. And for the local people, from a severely conservative society, this is a major attraction for them. Seeing the semi-clad men and women, before the arrival of the pornography sites in the internet this was an escape for the sex starved people. For in south India to show off body parts for women can be a serious offense, it is always neatly packed in sarees. So the only option for the natives is to see these blondes, how they crowd the beach. It is not quite natural, all animals have such rights, but that is how human social values are. So Kovalam has its functions, and for puritans to say that it is all indecent is an amount of self denial, some of them peep, some stare, some stand and watch for minutes. And those from liberal cultures realize how precious there wares are. But Kovalam does have its negatives, like the money power of tourists making the native sub-human, the differential sexual freedom for foreigners and natives, the begging culture of native traders and vendors who try to please the foreigner and look down at the local people. But end of the day what endures is the sparkling waters of the sea, the infectious joy that everyone shares on the beach where the cultures melt.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Sabarimala - Fusion at the Forest Hills

Come December and this one place becomes a melting pot, of people from all southern states. Others come too but the presence is predominantly of the four southern sisters, call it Dravidian if you wish.Dravidian is from Thiru Avidam, as some scholars tell, meaning the sacred place, though much misunderstood. It is the territory of the saivite Sidhas, saints. Clad in black and chanting they come to Sabarimala from all over and the place reverberates with the calls of ‘Swami Saranam’. Announcements in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam echo in the forest hills. It is the abode of the rain forest god, Ayyappa, within the Periyar Wild Life Sanctuary in Kerala. Within the thick forests nestles the small temple town, opened once a year. At other times it is restored back to the wild animals: tigers, leopards, wild elephants, assorted others. They open the temple at few other times too, but it remains closed for most of the year. In the December cold and mist it is a trip that gives one energy for a year. One can see endangered wild life, like lion tailed macaques, also other monkeys, boar, flying squirrel, and also wild elephants at times.

This is a unique place which makes one see for real the Hindu dictum of all life as one family, as said in ‘Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam’, every living thing is god. Even the animals are called by the honorific term ‘Swamy’, thus the donkeys brought as drought animals here, called Kazhutha in Malayalam and Tamil, are ‘Kazhutha Swamy’. The police posted here, who get some privileges like wearing khakhi casuals, are ‘Police Swamy’. Every one, with out any possibility of showing their class, caste or position, get addressed as ‘Swamy’ as well. It is seeing the god in everything and everyone. That is the core concept of the ‘Ayyappa’ belief. It is a lot of freedom, to wear the dress one feels like, or just enough to keep modesty. If a classless society is a dream in Communism, it is for real here. It is also a place where the deep ecology debates are in practice, altruistic concerns for life around a part of life. There are places where one feeds to wild animals, though it is rare to see this in practice, seen all over in Tamilnadu where monkeys are seen fed at forest temples.

Long back the shrine was inside a dense jungle and trips of unarmed pilgrims to the forest shrine was then a matter of life and death. Family members waited with alarm at home till the pilgrims returned. But rarely do wild animals attack them, the devotees of what is perhaps their gods too. Presently there are well laid roads and facilities, but till fifty years back this was different and the place had meager facilities and lot of wild animals. But the forests have shrunk and the region has gone under massive monoculture plantations of rubber, it is no more cold here and the river is dammed. This adds to the general warming of the climate. The management of the temple is by the Devaswom Board, a body of petty politicians, but is for couple of years now under a Commissioner, a creative IAS cadre officer, appointed by a Court of Law. The results are visible and the general face lift that the temple received raises questions about who should manage the place. There are amble facilities like free drinking water for pilgrims and general discipline are visible.

The forest shrine on a hill top can be approached after a dip in the holy river Pampa, the hill gods look down on the hordes of pilgrims that flock here. The traditional baggage is a two headed cloth bag called ‘Irumudi’ which is filled with the worship materials like coconuts, rice, camphor, incense and other things. Originally this must have been the luggage for survival in the long haul. The ‘irumudi’ is ritually carried on head, whatever the status of the devotee. The climb to the hills is hard and the hills are steep and rocky. The trip is not for everyone, only those who follow a rigorous daily schedule of following a certain life style for forty one days shall qualify to visit the shrine. The pilgrims come from far and wide and to them it is a return to nature trip. Sabarimala pilgrims from various sttates can be seen cooking food, eating and taking rest at the road sides and this is indeed an escape from the routine. Those without the rigour of month long penance and restraints and those without the Irumudi are not permitted to enter at the holy entrance, called sacred eighteen steps. It is an ascetic life that the deity here represents and the protocols try to preserve that dignity. There can be questions of whys, like why not women, why vegetarianism, why the caste Brahmin control, but these are questions best left to the saints.

It is the rainforest hills, springs abound even today, where, it is believed, the saintly Ayyappa sat on penance and there is a belief that the lady Sabari, after whom the hill shrine is named, waits nearby as goddess Sabari for taking his hand in union. But this union can happen only when the place has no fresh visitors, as agreed upon between Ayyappa and Sabari. With millions coming in every year bringing more and more people this is still not possible, as the legend tells. There are theories that this was once a Budhist shrine, going by the chants and other rituals, but presently the rites are the right of a Nampoothiri priest, as in most other temples in Kerala. The nominal authority of a local royal family called Pandalam Raja, originally linked to the Pandya kings as believed, remains over the temple whose representative still sits at the place. The place also has a unique story of Hindu – Muslim brotherhood and a Muslim place of worship is also there in front of the temple. This is of ‘Vavar’, a close aide of the warrior Ayyappa as believed, whose descendants come and sit at the allotted place at the shrine during festivals and are piously honored by the pilgrims. The ‘Kadutha Swamy’ linked to a martial family, is also having their place at the shrine, several other families have their nominal rights at this temple.

A trip to the trekker’s god inside the forests is indeed a return to nature, in a fast life modern culture. In the 1950s the wood temple caught fire or was set on fire by miscreants. Later it was rebuilt with granite and copper and then the fame brought in huge numbers of people. As legend tells Ayyappa is born of Lord Siva and Lord Hari, the Vishnu principle, it can be assumed that this was an order which brought together the clashing Saiva – Vaishnava sects of the Hindu belief. Like Muslims and Hindus now, this too needs as Ayyappa. South India it seems was predominantly Saivaite till the Vaishnava – Jain, Budhist beliefs came in the recent past. The southern western ghats of India, one of the world’s richest zones of biodiversity, has its own cultures and beliefs and Sabarimala retains a part of that vibrant model.