A Brush with the Past

Things stand so different when one actually explores them. Printed words, facts, fiction, myths, stories, legends and you name them, etal, makes up our past. I used to hear about them when my mother related to me with the power of conviction. I, on my part, would speculate how much of what she said really made sense. My learning of the past through fictions proceeded to a higher level when it assumed a more scientific and a rationale approach-obviously giving a godly stature to facts and only facts.

This kind of approach had already seeped in the Western soil in the 16th century with the advent of the Renaissance movement. On the other hand an average Indian, if I can take the liberty of calling them that was far from this maddening world of science. He or she were still plunged in weaving legends and tales as meticulously as they weave fine silk that it was hard to erase it from the memories of the people for generations to come. This became more adorned with the frills and fancies, when they added spice with sugary lullabies that were woven into folk songs and stories. It is against this backdrop that cities and towns grew up withstanding rough weathers over the century and perching themselves between traditionalism and modernism. Madurai seemed to me juxtaposed between these two ‘isms” when I visited in May 2007.

“Believe it or not” as Ripley would have me say when I came face to face with folklores embedded in the ruins of old Madurai. My knowledgeable relative, Johnny Mama spoke with unquestionable conviction when he related to me about the innumerable folk tales which became more mystifying when I was actually made to see some of the “factual” displays to make it sound more authentic. I, a rationale being, was transfixed and I began to question to myself, “is it?” “Was it”? “Can it be”? “Is that possible”? Finally I settled for the Middle Path – it is for you to believe or not.

I decided to leave behind all scientific historic nutrition fed into my mind through the writings of E.H. Carr, ‘What is History,’ to the remotest corner.

As a child I first heard of Madurai not through History or Geography books but through my visits to the many stores of South India. These were the shops that traded in silk and that is where I discovered the ‘Madurai Silk’, ‘Madurai cotton’. Then began the usual queries about the place and the rest was all history. But till my visit I felt my knowledge about the place quite negligible. For me Madurai was synonymous with the beautiful Meenakshi temple. It is only when I visited, that I discovered that it was not just an abode of a Goddess but it influenced a man who was on the brink of making History. Yes I was surprised to see the Gandhi museum and more so how Madurai had influenced the frail man in giving up the comforts of good clothing. I was told that when Gandhi had visited Madurai in 1920 he was appalled to see the abject poverty to the extent of viewing human beings deprived of bare minimum necessities. It was at that point that he thought of discarding his attire for a piece of loin cloth that even made the Britiishers small. Well it takes only a Gandhi to think and act likes this.

One day as I was admiring the city surrounded by hills, my Uncle, woke me up from my reverie. The conversation that followed was really an eyeopener.The reverence for the holy cows amongst the Indians is as old as the Vedic age. That reverence was reflected in the mindset of the people of Madurai when I found my relative describing one of the mountains or ( ‘malai’ as it is known in Tamil ) as ‘Pasu Malai’ or mountain in the shape of a ‘pasu’ or calf.

But I was awestruck when he went on to describe another over viewing Mountain as ‘Yaana Malai’ or ‘Elephant Mountain’ so to speak. The nomenclature, I discovered, had a past. As per the legend the formidable trios in South India in the later medieval period comprised of the Pandyas, Cholas and the Cheras. Once the Cholas marched in Madurai and was on a plundering spree. Madurai known for its peace and tranquility had produced many seers thanks to the patronage of the Pandyan rulers. One such Pandyan scholar could not digest that his city was being rummaged by the Chola army to satiate the materialistic thirst of the Chola ruler. So his anger rose to volcanic heights leading to the worst curses the people of Madurai witnessed or still witness as ‘Yaana Malai’. Yes the curse fell upon the elephant battalion of the Chola army who ‘believe it or not’ were transformed into one monolithic rock in the shape of a sitting elephant… The ‘Yana’ was not visible but yes the rock was very much visible. You can take a look yourself when you stand in the balcony of my Uncles’ house for it is a far off view facing the balcony.

As I heard the story I rearranged my retina trying my best to imagine the rock as an elephant and trying to imagine the state of the people at the outcome of the curse. I battled hard not to be swayed by these imaginary stories and settled for a more geological approach to reason out for the shape of the hill. I settled for the fact that the shape must be due to the tectonic movement of the earth over the years, as my knowledge of Geography had it ingrained in my mind. But then I was also drawn to the mystifying legend and asked myself whether it was the result of the curse of the Pandyan scholar… Well I brushed them all aside and enjoyed listening to these legends and I happily agreed with the truth behind the Yana Malai.
Well folks Madurai abounds in such interesting tell tale legends. So how about a brush with the past in the near future in Madurai?

Shobha Sundharam