Matters of faith

Pepita Seth’s study of the Krishna temple at Guruvayur draws a clear line between
myth and history, says B. N. Goswamy

"To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible".

— St Thomas Aquinas

Temple functionaries carry loads of paddy sheaves brought in as offerings at Guruvayur temple, Kerala Photograph by Pepita Seth
Temple functionaries carry loads of paddy sheaves brought in as offerings at Guruvayur temple, Kerala — Photograph by Pepita Seth

I have never had the privilege of personally being present there, but once saw a short film of the great image of Shiva Nataraja being ceremonially bathed at Chidambaram. It is a stunning spectacle, for the image is not bathed simply with water but, turn by succeeding turn, in different sacred substances: in milk and turmeric, yoghurt and honey, for instance. As, to the accompaniment of chants, one substance is poured over the image by priests, and then washed off before the next one is poured, one gets the sensation of fine layers being put on and then, one by one, delicately removed: tirobhava, as the Sanskrit term has it — casting the veil of illusion — followed by anugraha, the lifting of it through divine grace, as it were. There is something very elevating in the sight.

Interestingly, I got a like feeling of layers being removed while going through a fine new study of the great Krishna temple at Guruvayur by Pepita Seth. Most people in the North might not even have heard of Guruvayur — so cut off do we remain from one another in this vast land of ours — but for countless men and women living South of the Vindhyas, the place is a veritable Heaven on Earth, the title Pepita has chosen for her book. No shrine of the proportions and the spiritual reach of Guruvayur is easy to understand, for so much remains hidden from view, so much is taken for granted by those who look after it or go through its crowded portals as devotees. But Pepita — an Englishwoman, born in London and brought up in Suffolk — set about to understand the complexities, and then to share her understanding of them with her readers through this book. It could not have been easy, even though Kerala had been her home for so many years, and even if she took close to seven years to complete her work. But what has resulted from her devoted efforts is a remarkable study: textured, filled with elegant detail, and, above all, moving. Candidly, she says in her introductory remarks, "Kerala reached right inside me and rearranged how I looked at life, forcing me to form my own opinions of the divine, the soul, the spirit and the very nature of God". One senses this clearly as one moves through the broad avenues and the winding lanes of the volume.

Everything about and around Guruvayur is steeped in history — its name, its structure, its date, its varying fortunes, its cycle of ceremonies and rituals — and some of it in myth, or contention. The place and the temple are believed by most people to be named after the Guru of the gods and the Wind god, Vayu, but in the view of others, it comes from Kuruvai, meaning the sea, which is only a short distance away. The shrine and the principal image in worship, the moolavigraha, are, in popular belief, held to be some 5000 years old, but historical records do not go back any further than the 14th century. And so on. But even as all these matters are adverted to, and briefly discussed, the line between myth and history is clearly drawn in the study. As the history of the temple is traced, we meet the Zamorin of Calicut, in whose territories the shrine lay, encounter the Dutch and the destruction they wrought in the 18th century, negotiate the troubled relationship between Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore and this flourishing centre of worship and pilgrimage, brush past the English when they assumed control over the region, and finally come to our own times in which the great shrine came under a government act and had to acquire a board without denying rights to the traditional priestly family which had been associated with the shrine for hundreds of years.

But the work moves very quickly from a narration of facts, or reconstructions, to other, and higher, things. To the structure of the temple, for instance. For all the damage it has suffered over the years, the burning down and the rebuilding, the outer appearance of the shrine has remained virtually unchanged, being like that of many other Kerala structures. But few would know that in the making of it a clear reference is made to the five sheaths or koshas of which the body, as envisioned in early texts, is made up: ‘the outer wall is the gross physical body, the circumambulatory path is the energy body, the inner wall is the mental body and the inner surrounds of the sanctum the body of knowledge, while the garbha griha, the sanctum sanctorum, housing the sacred idol, is the body of bliss’. It moves also, both in terms of words and visuals, towards capturing, in the midst of milling crowds and the countless ‘performances’ that form a part of its daily routine, the gravity and the sacredness of the place, its quiet core.

One gets to see, and know, about learned priests descended from long and distinguished lineages. One is led towards noticing how every ceremony in the temple has been carefully refined and orchestrated over centuries, how every movement of every priest and functionary is precisely choreographed, as it were. The eye is constantly invited to take in wonderful sights as caught by Pepita’s camera: the great dhvajastambha that rises nearly 80 feet towards the sky, the devotees who offer homage to Guruvayurappan by covering distances not on foot but by rolling on the floor inch by inch, the functionaries who occupy themselves ceaselessly with lighting the countless lamps with which the walls of the temple are adorned, the great processions led by looming cloud-like elephants, the hurried steps of priests carrying paddy sheaves brought in as offerings of first harvest on their heads, dancers performing the great Krishnattam dances, servants of the Lord going about their assigned tasks, musicians tuning their instruments.

As I said, it is a rich world that Pepita’s book, immersed in spirit and in respect for faith, gives us the opportunity to enter. There is opulence in it, but also quietude, despite all the noises that one can almost hear in the photographs and the descriptions. And there is much in it that is moving. The account, for instance, of the great elephant, Kesavan, the First Servant of the Lord, who, left behind once because of his old age and infirm body, broke his chains and rushed into the temple, as if insisting upon retaining, till his very end, the privilege of carrying the Lord on his back.