A Walk Down Memory Lane, A Random Walk Through History

As an adult, have you ever taken a trip to the place where your parents grew up and had them tell you the story of  their life and times, in their own way, as you visited the haunts of their youth and did the things they did? If not, don’t miss doing so. I have done so with both my parents and have come out the richer for it.

I got to know more about my parents themselves, their family and extended family, their circumstances and choices, the places they went and the things they did, all in the background of the community and society of their times. The one good thing about growing older is that we achieve some perspective that allows us to evaluate things better. And studying the lives of older people is a quick way to get this perspective relatively young. That way we still have time to get more things right in our own lives.

This post is about my time spent in and round Madurai with my dad.

My dad grew up in Thirumangalam, a satellite town just outside of Madurai. Today, the place is like a suburb of Madurai and you can easily drive or take a bus ride to this place. Then as now, most people from Thirumangalam, go to Madurai for almost anything ranging from visiting the Meenakshi Amman Temple, to go to college, to go to the wholesale markets, to go shopping,etc. In my dad’s time, he and his brothers used to even go to town to buy fodder for their cow.

So why is Thirumangalam called so? Madurai is an ancient city whose patron goddess is Meenakshi Amman. It is believed that her mangalyam was designed and made here, hence the name: Tirumangalam. And the place where my grandfather built his house? Today it is called simply Pudu Nagar, New Town, to distinguish it from the older unplanned part. At one time the place was called Jawahar Nagar. Its layout dates from before the Chinese Aggression, when Jawaharlal was still universally popular.

My dad graduated from the local PKN High School, but started at Pasumalai School, in Madurai. At the time my grand father was not the cotton broker he was to become later. He was then employed in the mill across the street from the school. Its quite something to imagine one’s parent, aunt and uncles, all of whom seem so old, as little school children, dashing from school to their father’s workplace, and banging on a big, wooden door, that still stands today and shouting for their ‘Appa’.Seeing where my grandfather once worked, helped me understand why my dad has such  sympathy for the labour movement and at one time considered Karl Marx the best of philosophers. It also helped me understand how he could be friends with labour leaders from the Left and Right and even have patience with the ideas of the Naxalites whom he later on went to fight during his time in the SRPF.

Maravankulam, once a village near Thirumangalam, situated on the road to Madurai, today shows little sign of any Marava settlement nor the tank after which the place is named. In my grandfather’s time the place belonged to a feuding Nayakar family. Apparently the landlord of the place had two wives and the two branches of the family were hell bent on suing each other till they both went broke. My grandfather bought a small piece of land from this family, found a tenant farmer, arranged for water from a nearby well, and started growing rice which he and my grandmother parboiled at home. With a cow and rice from their own field, they considered themselves pretty well off. Today there are no fields in Maravankulam. The fields have been converted into plots and a middle class housing colony is coming up in its place. Across the road we can still see the bunds of the old tank, but no water. The tank bed now houses a new medical college building. The old tamarind trees still stand, but its hard to imagine this place, with a busy highway running past, as being desolatate.As children my dad and his siblings believed that ghosts haunted the place and they would fearfully dash past the tamarind trees to their field from home and back.

The Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple, even today stands as it largely stood in my father’s time. In fact Madurai grew round this temple. And some form of this temple has existed for millennia and was seen even by the ancient Greeks and then the Romans to visit the Ancient Pandya kingdom. The current day structures largely date to the Nayak and Maratha period. Blue-blooded Marathas visiting the temple can see some of their ancestors’ images carved into the walls. And in a time when its fashionable to catalogue the damages done to Hindu temples in India by Muslim invaders, we can still see the way in which Malik Kafur’s invading army damaged the carvings on the walls of this temple.

Interestingly, this is a temple where the principal deity Meenakshi is female and her consort, Lord Shiva is portrayed as Sundareshwarar, The Beautiful God. If you are of the opinion that women can do most things better than men, unless it involves the physical strength, you must see the sculptures showing the dance competition between Meenakshi and her Lord in this temple. Up till the end, for every pose Lord Shiva struck, Meenakshi executed the same with greater elegance. In desperation, the Lord then decided to strike the urdhva tandav pose, with his leg raised close to his ear and it is then that the Devi accepted defeat. And its traditional to offer butter to her angry image here to help her cool down. And if you read this old post of mine, link, its easy to see that in the case of physical feats too,Meenakshi wasn’t and women needn’t be slouches.

BTW did you know that my dad named my Angayarkanni? Meenakshi is the newer, sanskritized name for the Goddess. Angayarkanni is the ancient Tamil version. According to ancient Tamil beliefs,a fish fed its young ones by merely looking into their eyes. Similarily, merely looking into the eyes of the Goddess Angayarkanni, was to have all one’s wishes fulfilled. What a pretty comment on a baby’s eyes! And it is true that in many ways my dad raised me to be his son as was the case with the Goddess.

Outside the temple are the usual souvenir shops and guest houses for pilgrims. A particularly interesting feature is the covered temple market. Want Brass Utensils? Ornaments for dancers? Coconuts? Souvenirs? Pooja Stuff? Clothes?…….You’d probably find it here along with medieval sculptures of the Devi and her Husband. Whether you choose to buy anything or not, its well worth walking through this medieval “mall”, if only to get an idea of what it must have been like to be a merchant or traveller a couple of centuries ago.

Also, in the periphery is a guest house for Nadars ,maintained by the Nadar Mahajana Sangam. There is quite a legend attached to it. Nadars claim decent from the ancient Pandyas. Madurai was their capital and founded by them. As the ancient period gave way to the medieval one, Madurai came under the control of the  Muslims, then the Vijayanagar kingdom and their governors the Nayaks. To secure the city, Nadars were banished from it. Hence, the development of satellite towns of Nadars round Madurai. A visa system of a sort was in operation to allow their caravans into the city and its markets.The temple door through which they customarily entered the Meenakshi Amman Temple was closed. And Nadars of the time refused to change their customary form of worship and till the Temple Entry Movement of the last century, Nadars did not worship at the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. The guest house is meant to be a reminder of this history.

The streets round the Temple are named as the geographic direction and the calendar months. Temple festivals corresponding to these months take place in these streets. And many of them are little changed from millennia. It is by walking through these roads and participating in these festivals, that we can really feel that we are experiencing living history. For me a further connection to these streets are the shops of my relatives, many of them dating well over a century and the story of my dad’s arrest as he led the students of his college in a procession demanding the creation of Tamil Nadu and against the imposition of Hindi.

If you  are walking through these streets in summer don’t forget to sample a Jiggar Thanda or two. You will be instantly cooled down and experience the Muslim influence in the city. If you happen to be passing through in winter or are looking for a warming drink, try a Parthi Pal, made of cotton seed. Its supposed to keep colds at bay and will remind you of the cotton grown in the surrounding areas. The most famous crop of all is probably the jasmine grown locally, it’s even exported abroad. Why not a string or two for your or your lady’s hair?

Lastly, on to my favourite place in Madurai, the Thiagarajar College campus and the Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam, across the road. They are about 2 km from the Meenakshi Amman Temple. I love the ornate gates of the college with the elephant motifs preferred by the founder in all his properties. If you can get entrance to the college campus, its well worth wandering about in its shady lanes. Its got some beautiful architecture. I had the added advantage of having an “Old Student” with me and so the place came alive, populated with the students and teachers of his time. The college was active in the Dravidian Movement of the time and it was fun having my dad describe his Tamil professor and his turban and mode of dress and speech and championing of all things Tamil. I have never had a teacher who was active in politics, so it was doubly interesting to hear of how this gentleman drew his students into active politics and mentored them, seeing this as a way of advancing the cause of Tamils.If my dad and other students who defied prohibitory orders to take out a protest march, only to be arrested, escaped without hurt or a police record to damage their careers, the credit must go to his teachers, not the least to his Tamil professor. Its a pity not all colleges have such staff. If students can vote, why not train them to actively operate in a democracy?

One story my dad narrated was of all the boys in his hostel being sent home because of the flooding Vaigai whose waters had entered their hostel building. So off we went to see the Vaigai from a place in the campus from where it could be seen from at an advantage, at least in my dad’s times. It was quite a shock to see that in the intervening 50 years,the river had disappeared. There was no sign of even a puddle. The Vaigai river had been dammed so much as to perhaps affect the very culture of the place. The Teppakulam opposite the college too was devoid of any water.This tank, with its Ganesh Mandir at the middle is apparently filled with water only for the Thaipoosam festival, just as water for the Meenakshi Amman Temple Tank is rationed. If we connect this disappearing water with the absent Maravankulam, the dried up flood plains through which the roads out of Madurai pass, in fact the very short cuts the auto drivers in the city  take is often across the dry Vaigai river bed and the few days a week municipal water supply,a painful story emerges.

The Pandyas were a people comfortable with water. The emblem of their king was the fish. Their patron Goddess had fish eyes. They were merchants who traded across oceans. The current Madurai city is believed to have been built inland after successive Pandian capitals were submerged under the sea. Todays roads run parallel to old waterways. Todays tanks are dry and detract from the beauty of the city. Water scarcity has led to people giving up agriculture and the desertification has led to the spread of acacia trees in arable land.I suppose the current impoverished state of the cultural centre of the Tamils is a good reflection of the less than flourishing state of the Tamils. For how can culture flourish when the people are struggling?

Having, written this post, I think it would be a good idea to have as many people as possible to read it and/or get them to go explore the haunts of their parent’s youth, simply to get a better idea of how we humans are shaping our world. So I am participating  in Kotak Mahindra Bank’s  #KonaKonaKotak Campaign, to reach a wider audience.I would also love to read your stories and learn from them.








About Keerthika Singaravel

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