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The hotel stood high on a hill above the Tamil temple town of Madurai. It was a former planter’s house — all shady verandas, wooden balconies and teak floors — and from the terrace you had a fine view over the tops of the eucalyptus and casuarina trees to the wooded slopes of the estate.

Beyond, lay the four towering gopura gateways that guarded the entrances to the temple of Meenakshi at the centre of the town. At dawn, the gopuras had stood out in the first light, rising defiantly above the mist swirling in from the river. But now, only two hours later, the sky had darkened, casting the towers into shadow; a storm was brewing, and thunderheads were rising rapidly over the paddy to the south. By the time Araiyar Srinivasan arrived for breakfast, the palmyra palms were rattling in the wind, and the first drops of rain were falling fast.

Srinivasan arrived under an umbrella, hurrying through the puddles that had already begun to form on the pathway. He was dressed in a long blue shirt, which bulged slightly over the parabola of his rice paunch, and around his waist he had wrapped a white cotton veshti. His thinning hair was cut in the Brahminical fashion, with a tuft left to grow long at the back, and his forehead was smeared with turmeric and sandalwood paste, the vertical red and white stripes denoting his allegiance to Lord Vishnu. This was the man I had travelled to southern India to see.

By day, Srinivasan was an accountant, working as an auditor in a Madurai trucking company. By night, however, he was something extraordinary. For Srinivasan was one of the last hereditary bards keeping alive a millennia-old tradition of sacred Tamil verse stretching back to the classical golden age of south Indian civilisation.

Hereditary bard Araiyar Srinivasan

In the seventh century AD, India was still dominated by Jains and Buddhists, the legacy of the Emperor Ashoka, who had made Buddhism his state religion about 800 years earlier. The great revival of Hinduism between AD600-900 began in south India, and at the forefront of the movement were 12 itinerant bhakti poet-preachers, or Alvars, “those who dive deep [into the divine]”, submerged in their love for Lord Vishnu. They moved from village to village, town to town, singing their intense devotional verses about their longing for Rama, Krishna and the other incarnations of their Lord, whom they approached variously as a child, friend, slave or lover.

These Alvars sung in Tamil rather than the Sanskrit of the Brahmin priests. Their songs transmuted their deep yearning for the divine into the language of the human lover, eternally suspended between union and separation, songs so full of pain and unfulfilled longing that they spoke to anyone who has ever pined for another.

The greatest verses were eventually collected in a volume called the Nalayira Divya Prabandham, The Divine Collection of Four Thousand, which soon gained a canonical status of its own, hugely beloved of hundreds of thousands of south Indian devotees who thronged to wherever these words were sung or recited. In time, specialist bards, or Araiyars, took on the task of learning by heart the entire corpus of Alvar hymns, and it became their job to perform them during temple festivals, using both recitation and dance to act out the stories and clarify their deeper meanings.

“Since AD823, for more than 100 generations, my ancestors have passed on and performed the poetry of the Alvar poets,” said Srinivasan, shaking out his umbrella and calling for some south Indian coffee. “Every Vishnu temple in the south used to have a dynasty of Araiyar singers. Now, only three temples retain the tradition. I have not been blessed with children, and our whole tradition — 1,200 years old — now rests on the shoulders of my nephew.”

He paused while the waiter set his coffee in front of him in a gleaming brass cup and saucer. “To be frank with you, my nephew is very slow learner,” he said after a pause. “A dunce; grasping capacity he lacks. Every night I worry.”

Over an expansive south Indian breakfast of idli sambar, Srinivasan explained that each of the three surviving families of Araiyars celebrated a slightly different version of the tradition. His own family, based in the temple of Alvar Tirunagari, a village near the southern tip of India, were focused on the great mystic poet Nammalvar, who had found inspiration while meditating under a tamarind tree around AD880. The Araiyars of the temple of Srivilliputhur celebrated the only woman among the Alvar poets, “long-eyed” Kotai, “she of the fragrant tresses”, also known as Andal. As a girl in the early ninth century, Andal fell in love with Lord Vishnu and wrote verse of such bold sensuality and startlingly savage longing, hunger and inquiry that even now her most erotic verses are rarely performed in public. In one verse she dispenses with metaphor and simply imagines herself in the arms of Krishna, making love to her Lord:

“My life will be spared / Only if he will come / To stay for me for one night / If he will enter me, / So as to leave / the imprint of his saffron paste / upon my breasts / Mixing, churning, maddening me inside, / Gathering my swollen ripeness / Spilling nectar, / As my body and blood / Bursts into flower.”

Andal’s journey of desire took her to the third of the temples with a living Araiyar tradition. This was the largest sacred complex in all south India and the main centre of Tamil Vaishnavism: the temple of Srirangam, which sits on an island in the river Cauvery, on the edge of the modern city of Tiruchirappalli. It is a site that in scale and grandeur rivals the largest temple complexes of ancient Egypt.

Here, at the end of her pilgrimage, Andal is said to have come, intent on marrying Ranganatha, the form of Vishnu venerated there. Dressed in full bridal regalia, she stepped out of her curtained palanquin, strode into the temple and, ignoring the protestations of the Brahmin priests, walked into the sanctum sanctorum and mounted the superb image of Vishnu that still reclines there under a hood of cobras.

Then, so it is said, she disappeared into the deity. It was for that reason that Kotai was given the name by which she is now known: Andal means “she who ruled”, for she had won her beloved’s heart like no other devotee has before or since.

As we finished our dosas, a plan began to take form. The following morning, I would drive with Srinivasan to his home temple and hear in situ how he had preserved his tradition. From there, I would follow in the footsteps of Andal to Srivilliputhur and hence to the place where she had conquered the heart of Vishnu, the inner sanctum of the great temple of Srirangam.

Umbrella in hand, Araiyar Srinivasan was ready and waiting outside his house in the glimmer just before dawn.

Together we headed across the arid flatlands to the south of Madurai. As the sun rose, the light at first revealed only an endless plain of dry, scrappy sand beds stretching towards the coast. But as we approached the Tambraparni river, the landscape slowly returned to life, until along its banks we found ourselves driving through plantations heavy with bananas, mangoes and jackfruits. With this rich vegetal life came a succession of prosperous agricultural villages, each built around a temple complex the size of a small English cathedral, whose towers dwarfed the tiny, one-storey wooden village houses clustering around them.

Eventually the great temple walls of Alvar Tirunagari rose before us and Srinivasan, who had slept through the drive, woke up and beamed with pleasure at the sight of his home village. “My family have been in this place since the beginning,” he said. “For over 100 generations we have done service here.”

Just before we reached the red and white striped walls of the temple, Srinivasan pointed at the doorway and indicated that we should pull in. He re-emerged a few minutes later, half-naked, his Brahmin’s thread hung over his shoulder and a silk cummerbund wound around the top of his dhoti. A new layer of sandalwood paste had been applied to his forehead.

Just inside the first courtyard, a huge temple elephant was being washed by his mahout. We headed past long lines of columns, many intricately carved into prancing lions or mythic heroes from the Mahabharat, lit by the flickering camphor flames within the different sanctuaries lining either side of the arcades. As we passed we could see the silked-wrapped bronzes of the different incarnations of Vishnu, as well as images of the different Alvar poets who sang their praises, all silhouetted against the flames.

Temple of Srirangam, which is 236ft high

Finally, we arrived through the gloom into the blazing light of the Thousand Pillared Hall. It stood to the north of the central Vishnu shrine, open on one side to a sunlit cloister. This was the place where for centuries Srinivasan’s family had performed their art, the Araiyar Sevai or Service of Kings.

“You should see it at festival time,” Srinivasan said. “In the month of Margali [mid-December to mid-January] crowds fill all these halls — tens of thousands come from all over. Everyone in the south who has faith in our Lord Vishnu. They come to us, and we sing and dance for them for 30 hours . . . ”

He paced up and down the hall. “This place has so many memories,” he said. “As a child, I played right here in this hall. Later, as a teenager, I watched my father and grandfather recite the poems.” He paused, looking for the right words. “Each poem has a different flavour: one is like a milk sweet, another like ghee. The lines are recited by the father, and the son will repeat it three times. This is done every morning and every evening, for an hour, twice each day. May I recite?”

Srinivasan gathered himself, brought his hands together and sang a couplet from one of the Alvar poems. The Araiyar had a surprisingly high, pliant voice. The sound was oddly akin to Gregorian plainchant, each note held and extended. Then gently and delicately he moved up a minor scale, filling the hall with a sound that exuded a deep, melancholic yearning.

“Our Lord is here,” he sang in early medieval Tamil. “He lives within me. / And we’re done with / growing and perishing / waxing and waning like the moon / Done with knowing and unknowing / like sunshine and nightdark.”

Srinivasan gave his first recital here in 1969, at the age of 18. “My father clothed me in the robes of the Araiyars, and placed the peaked hat on my head,” he told me. “Then it was up to me.

“You must have been terrified.”

“No. Is the fish afraid to swim?” He smiled. “This is my family tradition. It is in my blood.”

I left Srinivasan in the temple, and headed on to the Andal temple at Srivilliputhur. As soon as I entered the inner enclosure, I heard a deep and resonant woman’s voice reciting verses. Surrounded by a small crowd of followers, an old woman was sitting on a pallet in the shade of the cloister garth, singing into a microphone. Sriranga Nachiar was a feisty old lady, fine-boned and full-lipped, immaculately dressed in a fine Kanchipuram silk sari.

“I am 73 completed, 74 running,” she told me when she had finished her recitation. “My husband died 15 years ago. This was a boon from Andal. Before I was cooking, cooking, cooking. Now I can talk, talk, talk, sing, sing, sing. So I am blessed. No more cooking, no more quarrelling. Marriage is like slavery. In our country ladies don’t have freedom, but now I am free.”

She smiled, cupping her hands as if to suggest her openness to divine bounty. “Now I take orders only from her.” She pointed to the Andal shrine.

Her friend Vedham, a fragile, birdlike woman who said she had once been a classical Bharatanatyam dancer, nodded in agreement.

It turned out that the two women were also heading to Srirangam the following day, so I offered to give them a lift. They talked the whole way, frequently bursting into song. It was as if they were going to a wedding, sitting in their best saris, breathless with excitement at seeing their Andal’s favourite shrine, the home of her bridegroom and the venue for her union with him. As we drew near, passing the rock temple of Trichinopoly, they began gossiping about the last time they had been there, for the winter festival, discussing the relative merits of the different Araiyar traditions and which they liked best.

A pilgrim at prayer

“When I was a girl, it was the Araiyars of Srivilliputhur. I used to see them as a child growing up there. I used to watch them dance. I loved it. It was so beautiful. But now I think that family are less expressive. Now it is the Srirangam performance: it is the more remarkable. The Araiyars there are very good indeed.”

Srirangam was under renovation, the day we were there. A Tamil millionaire who had made a fortune in software in Bangalore had donated a vast sum for the entire complex to be restored and repaired, and the great gopuras were covered in bamboo scaffolding as painters and masons worked away trying to finish the restoration before the festival season began. Although it was low season, the complex was still swarming with pilgrims, each carrying a thali tray overflowing with offerings for their Lord: coconuts and marigolds and handfuls of unwinnowed rice husks.

We passed through several courtyards, one of which contained four life-size portrait statues of 17th-century Araiyars, all of whom wore the same peaked cap and robes as Srinivasan, though these Araiyars seemed rather more heavily hung with jewellery. This reminded me of a remark Srinivasan had made: that the rajas of old had been generous patrons of the Araiyars, giving them vast tracts of land. Since independence, the Indian state had failed to fill the patronage gap left by the decline of the rajas, and many of the brightest children of the Araiyars were now leaving the temples and choosing instead careers in finance and business.

Beyond, we passed from the light into the shadows, through a succession of ever darker enclosures. We were now approaching the main shrine, brightly lit ahead of us, standing out vividly from the womb-like darkness. The crowds of pilgrims were being funnelled into a narrow walkway. Everyone was excited, but none more so than my two companions. “I keep thinking of Andal coming here,” whispered Vedham.

Eventually we arrived at the front of the queue and, leaving the other devotees behind us, were ushered briefly into the image chamber. The ancient black image of Lord Vishnu in his primal form as Ranganatha, asleep under his hood of cobras, stretched out so as to fill the entire image chamber. It glistened brightly in the light of the camphor lamps the Brahmins were waving in front of him.

“She walked up to him,” said Sriranga Nachiar, “and put her hands on those feet. Then sat on them, and she was gone.”

“In a second she was nowhere,” said Vedham. “She mingled with him.”

The two old women fell silent and raised their hands in veneration. The head Brahmin waved a lamp in front of the recumbent figure and brought it forward to the women. One by one, they spread their hands over the flame, then cupped their hands to their foreheads.

“We went through so many births to reach this point,” said Vedham. “For us to walk this land and meet the eyes of our Lord,” said her friend. “Really, it is as if we are in the heavens already.”

Details

William Dalrymple was a guest of Cazenove+loyd, which offers a week’s privately guided trip taking in the temples described from £1,400 per person, including transfers and domestic flights from Chennai (return flights from London to Chennai would add about £600)

Photographs: William Dalrymple; Alamy; Corbis

Letter in response to this letter

Poet-saint’s songs still sung at Tamil weddings / From R Vijayaraghavan

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