Saturday, December 3, 2011

Buried Gods

I am not fond of history and certainly not fond of people who cite history as a reasonable excuse for present actions. But it is difficult to evade that subject.
A few days back, I read an article by Mallika Sarabhai in The Week (issue: November 21, 2011) titled ‘Whose history is it anyway?’ The title captures my deepest doubts about the subject. The article deals with the Somnath temple and the people responsible for the current version of its history. I was not interested in understanding if ‘the’ history revolves around acts of looting or whether the British manipulated history and used popular sentiment to divide and rule.
My interest in that article was probably roused by another recent touch with history which made me think about a different set of issues. Why do we accept the destruction of a temple (religious or social institution of any faith) if we are not familiar with those gods? When we resurrect gods buried in the past, are the buried gods and the resurrected gods the same? Let me try to explain how or why I went on that tangential track.
Recently, I visited the village of my friend Vishnu. As a reluctant, lazy and conveniently rational traveler, the history and culture of places have always seemed irrelevant to me because I believe the human mind is roughly universal – the same anywhere and at anytime. Further, the need to know such trivia usually fizzles out when a place and its people provide me with decent meals and good accommodation. I did have that in Vishnu’s village but, I could not evade the history of that place.
Where should I start? The ideal place to start in this village is at the temple on the cliff. The official name of the village (as given on maps) has changed thrice in the last two decades with every generation of politicians following the whim and fancy of the masses without. For the villagers, the name has always been Kadalil (In the Sea) and the pedantic amongst them use the unabbreviated version Kadalil Thazhvaaram (Valley in the Sea). Standing near the temple on the cliff, it is easy to understand that name.
The cliff extends like the rim of a cup around the valley. On one side of the cliff, there is the blue expanse of the sea; and on the other side, there is the green carpet of the valley. On bright sunny days, due to some strange mirage, the sea seems to rise to the level of the rim and the valley appears like a sunken island precariously waiting to be flooded.
There is a single path, about three-man wide, from the temple to the beach. The path takes a winding route through a deceptive mixture of sandy slopes, rocky ledges, thorny bushes and waist-high grass. The rustling of the growth along with the whisper of the wind, the scratching and the scraping of small animals and reptiles, and the fluttering wings or the wild erratic flight of birds and their insistent calls accompany one from the bare rocky top to the beach. The variegated beach extends an alluring invite with its white sands striped strangely with red and black as if a painter had slashed the white canvas viciously and repeatedly in a fit of rage. The sea lies like a lagoon, the colour changing from light blue to turquoise and then dark opaque blue and the depths seem amenable for a long walk into the sea untroubled by the deep. An old wooden board explains that this appearance is fickle and warns of rapids, undercurrents and swarms of poisonous jelly-fish. The villagers claim that that there used to be fishing villages all around and that the beach was pristine white then but now, it is a lovely long but strangely deserted variegated beach.
On the other side of the cliff, there is the village in the valley. From the temple, it is a gradual descent through deep and thick forests interspersed with rubber and spice plantations. Descending further, those plantations give way to agricultural plots with coconut, palm, betel and fruit trees and then, paddy-fields, tapioca and vegetable cultivation. A river flows bisecting the valley, winding, meandering and losing itself in the hills beyond where there are deep caves, mines and tunnels, some still active with the search for precious stones and minerals. In the main part of the village, agriculture has given way to some small industries, shops, hotels, bars, medical facilities and educational institutions. But that is of today and should not concern us here.
The present and the past of this village should be understood in the context of events that took place a few centuries back. The exact dates are unclear from the tattered incomplete texts that remain of those times. Even those texts were probably written many years after the actual events, recording tales passed from mouth to mouth. But those documents written in prose and poetry seem to record the relevant history of the village.
This village was rich even then, utilizing well its natural resources and industrious lot. The landowners and the workforce co-existed with reasonable mutual benefit and peace prevailed, though grudgingly, allowing for nearly all-inclusive prosperity.
The texts that remain of those days talk nearly exclusively about two families that dominated the village on the two sides of the river. The families are referred to as Ekkara (this river bank) and Akkara (that river bank). The two shared a common religion, caste, beliefs and colour. But they lived with open hostility and fierce competition for the riches of the land. Marriages between the two families were not permitted even though it would have been economically advantageous. The records do not mention any early wars between the two families. Maybe, they were more than sufficiently rich or probably too lazy to engage in wasteful fights. Or, it was an understanding with the rulers of the land. The last scenario seems most likely because a village that filled the coffers of the state must have been under the close scrutiny of its rulers.
Like most old historical texts, there is very little mention of the others in and around the village, the majority – the priests, the scavengers, the traders, the labourers, the tribal people populating the deep forests and, the outsiders and the mercenaries that came and went with new ideas and services. It is dry reading mostly, with verbose accounts of the families, their achievements and brave deeds and of course endless passages about the benevolence of the rulers and their charity, good-will and careful administration. 
One of the popular texts amongst the lot is a poem, or rather the little that remains of a poem, about two lovers. I expected it to be a Romeo and Juliet story with the boy and the girl belonging to the two hostile families and the conflicts or heartbreak that followed. There are two sections which describe briefly the man and the woman and if there were sections that told their story, it has been lost.
The young woman belongs to one of these two main families (it is not specified). In the part about her, she emerges after an early morning bath, looking at the rising sun, its crimson rays playing on her wet young body, and then she turns to the hills and the temple, praying to the land and the gods. She is described from head to toe with delicate intimate details. In the last part, she is described as (let me quote from a translated summary in prose) ‘staring deep into those green depths, as into a lover’s eyes, her cheeks flushed and her lips parted and swollen as if ravaged by a million kisses, and with unblinking eyes, unafraid of the wild stare, giving herself to that watchful protective stare’. One prosaic interpretation says that it depicts her bhakti towards the gods and the power of the land. Even today, some of the village women (young and old) follow the custom of enacting the scene every month on the day of the quarter moon.
There are just two stanzas that remain of the man. It is possible that he never got much space even in the full original text. The first stanza describes him rather unflatteringly – medium height (‘about twice a good banana cluster’…that must be about the average height of five feet eight inches, I gather); trim, athletic and well-muscled but not overpowering or commanding. I suspect that the superlatives are probably reserved for the men of the ruling class or the big families. The first stanza goes on to describe a handsome face. It pays a lot of attention to his deep-set wild eyes, penetrating look, the fire and passion within and all that. The second stanza describes him as an outsider or a castaway, with ideas so different and outrageous, dangerous to any society, untamed and bound by no sense of morality or decency. But, nothing remains of his later actions or even about the conclusion of that love-play. Some people here believe that in every month, on the day of the quarter-moon, a wild looking young man appears on the hill, looking down at the village.
As mentioned earlier, the texts mainly deal with the two families and their ruler. These texts mention that the ruler visited the village at least twice or thrice a year, staying there for nearly a week. Without any show of partiality, the ruler stayed with both families enjoying their hospitality and riches. His entourage was accommodated jointly by the two families. His ministers and administrators dealt with the business deals and taxes while allowing the ruler to relax and enjoy a vacation in that beautiful land. The two families competed with each other in pleasing the ruler, filling chests with gold and precious stones, preparing lavish meals and presenting creative shows to cheer the five senses. The inner rooms were decked with finery and every available luxury. In that part of the household, the ruler was served by the attractive and the desirable alone, boys, girls and women, young and old, well-chosen from within the family, ornamented and dressed for the occasion to heighten passion and to satisfy any and every fantasy of the ruler. The texts mention these visits of great importance with reverence and awe.
These texts also describe the celebrations that included the whole village in a carnival-like atmosphere, with scenes of bonhomie between the men of the families and the common folk alongside the soldiers and the rest of the ruler’s entourage, with barrels of alcohol emptied fast, dance and song and other revelry extending throughout the night.
Then, the last visit and the days after are also described in great detail. On the second day of that last visit, a day with the quarter-moon, the ruler was found murdered in the inner rooms.
The women and the boys of the inner rooms were questioned. A young woman was found in the ruler’s chamber, unconscious and viciously raped – probably the companion chosen by the ruler for that night, for her innocence, charm and beauty (the description matches well with the young woman in the love poem). She was tortured further and killed by her interrogators but she never divulged the identity of the killer or how the killer entered those chambers. Some of the texts depict the killer as her rapist. In some, the young woman confesses to be the killer but that seems to be a subterfuge on her part for her lover’s sake. The killer remained elusive. In most of the texts, it is speculated that the killer did not take her away because he never expected the kind of backlash that followed.
In the days that followed, fresh batches of soldiers kept coming to this village, unleashing dreadful violence and killing. The two families were gutted and ravaged mercilessly. In that madness, even the temple and the god was not spared – razed and crushed to the ground, buried for ages. 
After the soldiers left the village, the families continued with the search, torturing and murdering their own and those outside. From the village, people were gathered and taken to the beach. It is said that the pristine white sands got scarred black with the burning and the blood that flowed stained it red. It was a period of vengeance against all and the witch-hunt was particularly brutal against outsiders in that land, against the kind who could disrupt the peace and harmony of the land with new ideas.
The temple was rebuilt many generations later and a new powerful idol was installed. Even today, people go there to exorcise the inner thoughts that they should do without. People afflicted with deep-set worries and conflicting passions are brought here and the afflicted stay near the temple for six weeks observing a strict and austere life. At the end of their penance, they have to walk down the path to the variegated beach and have a bath in those fickle waters. It is believed that the exorcised would survive. On the day of the quarter moon, some men in the village still follow a custom of chasing a young man dressed as an outsider, up the hills, to the cliff and away from the village. It is believed that the new god protects the village from wild ideas and strange people.


  1. Dear Mashe.

    History always fascinated me.. they to me were a source of varied stories of love, betrayal, bloodshed, vengeance and anything that I needed for the plot to me lively.. And when i read a book to I read it with a mentality that this had occurred previously and these people lived in the past..! that somehow made it more thrilling and interesting..

    That was the reason why I was captivated by Buried Gods.. But here it was narrated by some one who never cared about the history but was curious enough to know it and detest it. The description of the whole place was so colorful that i could picturize it..! and the plot was twisted and turned like the abandoned and recreated history.. and loved the irony in the end..

  2. Dear KP Mashe,

    I am extremely pleased that you read this. I was beginning to wonder if anyone would read it.

    I have also been fascinated with history but often, it is like the edited abridged versions of good classics that we get to study. And of course I have had this big crib against history where only the big guys get mentioned and small fry like me don't even get any mention...:))) And I wanted to make a hero out of that small fry...but then small fry don't do enough...:))))

    Thanks a lot for reading this !!! Mean it...