At the age of 70, Arun dropped out. He sold his house, gave away his money and his possessions, traded in his long trousers for a loin cloth, and set out on a new career as a sadhu or holy man, travelling between the temples of South India in the search of enlightenment and alms.
Despite his new ascetic life, Arun was an erudite and worldly fellow with an Anglophile bent. After Shiva, he worshipped Shakespeare. His archaic English was full of antiquated colonial colloquialisms. Coming from a bearded sadhu, the phrase “jolly good” had a surreal flavour. So too did his sense of chronology, as if he had already entered some timeless plane, too busy chatting to the gods to notice the passage of decades and centuries. He spoke with great concern about the 1666 Great Fire of London as if we were still picking through the embers. He hoped I had not been too disappointed when Churchill lost the 1945 election.
I met Arun in the Temple of Arunachaleswarar at Tiruvannamalai, where he was perched on a wall among a flock of saffron-robed sadhus. Some were smeared with ash as a sign of their abandonment of the material world. Others had confined themselves to elaborate tilaka marks on their foreheads. Arun had a bald polished head, a white beard, a small bag that contained all his remaining possessions and the kind of giggly sense of humour that seems obligatory for Indians of a philosophical bent. He told me about the god Shiva.
“Have you seen his phallus?” Arun asked.
This was Shiva’s night and his lingam was hard to avoid. Beneath a full moon, all South India seemed to be converging on Tiruvannamalai to worship Shiva’s phallus. In countless shrines through the temple it appeared in the form of a short stone pillar. On the mountain behind the temple, it was represented by a pillar of flame penetrating the dark sky. As we spoke, women were queuing at a nearby shrine to smear the divine phallus with sandalwood oil.
“The symbol of renewal, of regeneration,” Arun said. “Very exciting for the pilgrims.”
I had joined the throngs of pilgrims heading for the temple through lanes of gaudy stalls selling charms and offerings for the gods: garlands of flowers, coconuts, bags of camphor, fruit, tilaka powder, sandalwood. Beneath the vast pyramidal gopuram (tower) of the temple, with its giddy tiers of demons and gods, a huge fire burned as if we had arrived at the gates of Hell. Tripping over prostrate devotees, I pushed my way inside on a rising tide of pilgrims through apocalyptic clouds of smoke.
On this auspicious night, pilgrims all arrived with the hope of blessing. Queues of people, each holding the offering they had purchased in the forecourt, snaked around the halls from the numerous shrines. In each shrine a god was enthroned, garish and neon-lit, in the middle of a designer’s nightmare of tinsel and plastic flowers, coloured lights and cheap figurines. Bare-chested Brahmin priests received the offerings. In return they dispensed blessings, the favour of Shiva, by pouring holy water into upturned palms or by smearing tilaka marks on proffered foreheads. While the pilgrims departed with their hopes buoyed, their offerings were probably sold back to the stallholders outside.
In the dark halls, among the smoke and the fires, their collective longing was palpable. Each pilgrim wanted to connect their lives to the great forces of fortune and fate, to Shiva and his wife Parvati and to their many manifestations. Each arrived here with some desire. They wanted a new job, a new house, a new husband, or possibly just a remake of the one they had. They wanted support with ill health, with loved ones. They wanted luck, they wanted success, they wanted love. The wanting felt like a rising clamour about me. I almost felt I could hear it, that if I cocked my head and listened hard, I might hear these collective desires like a harsh wind. I was saddened by them. I wanted a spiritual world that had less to do with personal desire and more to do with understanding.
Arun wanted nothing. In the chaos of the temple, he was a point of stillness and of peace. He had decided to become a sadhu, he explained, when his wife had died. “I had so wanted her to live,” he said. “But she was unable to do so. She had cancer.”
“Death is the great fact of life,” he went on. “With death close, as it is to us all, I have shed desire.”
Confronted with death, he suddenly found his sedentary middle-class existence rather meaningless, his possessions encumbrances, his routines superficial. And so he joined the ranks of itinerant holy men at an age when most chaps were putting their feet up to do the morning crossword. “Now I am waiting to die,” he said merrily. “And I am hoping it will be in a temple, among the gods. Already I am counting the days.” He sounded like a schoolboy eagerly anticipating the end of term.
A cacophony of drummers and whining flutes arose, and Arun shooed me towards the excitement in the Hall of a Thousand Pillars. A cavernous and crumbling edifice, it was like an ancient Egyptian temple had suddenly come to life. Between ranks of ruinous columns, crowds of pilgrims surged into a long central aisle. In the wavering light of oil lamps, the walls swarmed with reliefs of dancing girls, rearing horsemen, teeth-gnashing guardians and rampant lions with rampant penises.
The musicians acted as an escort for a statue of Parvati. Garlanded with flowers and jewellery, she was carried aloft by four priests, stripped to their flabby waists, towards the statue of Shiva, waiting for her with his own coterie of priests at the far end of the temple. It was the hour of their union, and a note of hysteria ran through the pilgrims, all keen to perform puja, or worship, at this propitious moment. Priests fought them back as best they could while pouring spoonfuls of Ganges water into their outstretched hands. In their ardour, 1,000 individuals sharing the same focus were suddenly as one.
Arun’s benign face appeared at my elbow.
“Shiva is the god of destruction,” he smiled. “So necessary for renewal. He is the destroyer of the ego and the desires that enslave us.”
The following morning Arun and I set off for the centre of the universe in an old Morris Oxford. I too was touring the temples of South India and I had offered the old man a lift. Arun sat in the front seat with his danda (staff) between his knees. Something about the car, the old man and our religious destinations reminded me of my grandfather and Sunday mornings.
There is the lingering idea that South India is more distinctly Indian than the north. Less affected by conquerors and foreign influences, this is the Hindu heartland, where the earth is redder, the monsoon wetter, the vegetation thicker, the names more unpronounceable and the temples more outlandish. The great sprawling religious complexes of the south can make many northern temples look like Methodist chapels.
We drove south through the country of the Cauvery Delta, sailing down long roads beneath the ribbed columns and Gothic arches of the banyan trees. Country buses, their roofs piled high with excess passengers, swerved past paddy fields patrolled by elegant herons. Trucks with musical horns and mermaids on their door panels careened through crowds of auto rickshaws. The sweet stench of India was at the open window. Among the cane fields, the bright stands of sunflowers and the deep gloom of the palm groves, where lines of school boys with satchels and red scarves trailed homeward, were the shrines and graves of previous generations that Arun was now so keen to join.
At the 11th-century temple of Gangaikondacholapuram, a priest opened the doors of the main shrine, allowing a shaft of sunlight to illuminate Shiva’s lingam, surrounded by thousands of flowers from the previous day’s festival. At Dharasuram, pilgrims were adorning the long stone friezes of carved figures with garlands of flowers and silk scarves. At the Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjavur, swarms of black-clad men, their shaven heads smeared with yellow sandalwood paste, circled the statue of the great Nandi Bull, while women attended the 250 lingams enshrined in recesses around the walls.
At Chidambaram, reportedly the centre of the universe where the axis connecting the heavens, the Earth and the underworld is said to pass, Arun said, “The temples are like harbours in rough seas. They offer shelter from the storms of life.”
Our religious trail ended in the city of Madurai. The Sri Meenakshi Temple is one of the largest and most splendid temples of South India, almost a town in itself, covering some 15 acres within concentric walls. You do not simply visit the Sri Meenakshi; they say you are swallowed by it. Its passageways, courts, arcades and countless shrines seem like some physical manifestation of Hinduism: vast, labyrinthine, outlandish, richly decorative, infinite.
At twilight Arun and I sat by the bathing pool where a number of emaciated old sadhus were lowering themselves gingerly into water that no one had bothered to change since the death of Methuselah. Arun was happy to have reached Madurai, one of his favourite “harbours”. He would stay here now for some days, before setting off again on his endless wandering, perhaps heading to the coast and Mahabalipuram.
I asked him if he wanted to perform puja at one of the shrines. He said he was content. And the word impressed itself upon me. Like the pilgrims, I was a jumble of hopes and desires. And in that moment, there with my new liberated friend, they did not feel like a road to contentment. They felt like a barrier.
“I have graduated to the final stage of life,” Arun said. “I am happy just to be in the presence of the eternal. I have no desires. It is wanting that makes us so unhappy. I am lucky. I want nothing now. I am free. At last.”
He giggled into his beard. “Through all our lives, desire pursues us like ‘fell and cruel hounds’,” he quoted.
“A quote from the Ramayana?” I asked, referring to the great Hindu epic.
“Shakespeare,” he said. “Twelfth Night.”
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