I usually don’t find death to be poetic.
Thangavel, the caretaker.
When my favourite aunt died, I was 8. September mornings used to brighten Bangalore back then. My father picked me up from school during Hindi class, telling me that we’re travelling to Kerala. I don’t remember asking why. I remember smiling.
Of course I smiled. Kerala is where vacation happens. Nothing bad could ever happen there.
We travelled by car in the daytime. The passing trees and fleeting hills distracted me from my mother sobbing in the back-seat. My sister covered her mouth with a handkerchief and wept. I thought she had motion sickness. And my father stared ahead like he does.
I slept through the rest.
I remember waking up to the sound of a thousand wails. The car stopped at the end of a muddy path. My family and I walked to the house where we spent a million vacations. In the dark, it stood lit in white fluorescence,the yard enveloped in blue tarpaulin. I walked past the milling crowd in it.
I entered the house to see my grandmother seated on the floor. She cried in agony as she saw my mother, her youngest. And my mother ran to her arms. Right next to them, on the floor, a white shroud of what was once my mother’s sister. I moved closer and stared at her face. I stood there staring, not crying, just staring. I still don’t remember how she looked.
But I’m sure there was nothing poetic about it.
About 12 years later, I’m headed to the temple town of Thuraiyur, somewhere in the borders of Trichy, Tamil Nadu. The month is September, but I’m told that it’s raining like July back in Bangalore. In Thuraiyur though,the evening sun hits warm and yellow through the local bus window. I switched between sleeping and looking out many times before I reached the temple.
Thai Kovil (literally translated as ‘Mother Temple’, or ‘Temple of Mother’) is hard to miss. For a few miles on both directions of the road, there is nothing much else to see. A little to its right, behind an old statue of a meditating Shiva, is a vast stretch of grass and stone.
“It’s a graveyard,” Thangavel, the caretaker at the Kovil tells me.“Before this temple was built, people avoided coming here. They feared the dead. Or they feared death. It’s hard to tell which.”
I greet him and let him carry on watering the plants at the front garden. Inside the temple, across the red-tiled ground, you’d see a stupa. On its peak, sits a statue of an old woman. Behind It, facing the pillar is another statue, golden and glaring in the evening sun.A view of the Stupa
Before I walk towards, a large hall on the right catches my attention. I move towards it and look through the window. Portraits—a long hall with portraits of several kind of the same woman from the statue. And they're not all traditionally painted. One looked to be made just out of matchsticks, one simply out of broken bangles and another woven with threads. I couldn’t see much through the window. I tried the door.
“You’re not allowed in there!” shouts Thangavel, the caretaker. He comes rushing, leaving the hose pipe to watering the plants on its own.
“It’s the Gnana Mandapam,” he tells me. I suppose it meant The Hall of Wisdom or something similar. “It’s only for the sake of the mother.”
“I don’t understand” I did not. The hall seemed to be completely unused.
“The mother” Thangavel points at the pillar and the golden statue. I look at it and look back at the hall. I didn’t notice before, but there is a white, wide bed placed inside.
“Oh” I say. I think of Egyptian Pyramids and pharoahs. “I’m sorry. I did not know.”
Thangavel accepts my apology. “You can look through the window. Take pictures with your camera too, if you’d like. There are 64 different portraits of the mother inside. And the pillar over there, 64 ft tall. And behind that, the golden statue. 64 ft under the statue, the ashes of the mother was buried.”
I asked the obvious question. “Why sixty-four?”
Thangavel’s eyes glinted. “That’s how old she was when she died.” I nodded. Meaning in numbers. A feet to comprehend each year that she lived.There is something about measuring that eases pain.
“What was her name?” I walk with Thangavel. He’s an old, thin man. He wore a ragged white shirt and kept his grey beard flowing. His hair is unkempt .
Thangavel, the caretaker.
“Dhanapakkiam. She gave birth to four sons. The youngest, Suresh, could not move past his mother’s death. He loved her beyond anything. He still does. He built this place in her memory.”
I said, “This would have cost a lot.”
“It did.” he said. “Suresh Kumar is a businessman. And he is quite well off and successful. When he wanted to do something for his mother, he didn’t want to start a place of charity or anything of the sort. This memorial is only about the love of a mother and the life that she gives. Her life is renewed here. When mourners come to bury their loved ones at the graveyard nearby, this temple becomes their solace. We let them freshen up here after the rites. Thai Kovil reconciles life and death”
“But it looks more like a park or a museum than a temple.”
“That’s because it is a park and a museum.” retorts Thangavel. “Kids and parents come here in the evenings to play. Tourists like yourself come visit the place and take pictures in awe, just as you would at a museum. But why can’t it also be a temple? It’s where pure love is worshipped. In a place like this, you forget fear. Death wouldn’t scare you. It will only embolden you.”
He left me with my thoughts and went back to his work. I walk to the golden statue. The evening sun lit the statue bright red. She did seem divine then. Is it a temple though? There are no priests here. I heard no bells ringing as I entered through its tall arch. No incense fluttered its aroma in the air. Yet, as I stood there, looking at the memorial pillar, a remembrance from a son to his mother, I understood for a second what sanctum sanctorum meant.
I couldn’t help but be poetic about it.