A Hundred Voices, A Thousand Steps Ramesh Avadhani writes about his pilgrimage to Marudhamalai in Southern India and the incredible hike to the temple of Murugan
“One thousand and fifty,” the temple official says in answer to my question, and points behind. Some hundred yards away stands a pavilion-like structure, a tall rectangle crowned by sculpted figures from Hindu mythology. The thousand and fifty steps begin there and trail up steeply to disappear into a thicket. Beyond rises a hill, vibrantly green and gently contoured, not very high yet challenging. This is Marudhamalai, 30 kilometres outside Coimbatore in southern India, and atop the hill is a temple for Murugan. He is a popular deity in this state of Tamil Nadu, and the younger son of Shiva (the older is Ganesha). In Hindu scriptures, Shiva is the chief executive of the endless cycle of life and death, and along with Brahma and Vishnu makes up the supreme triad which in turn is a manifestation of the Formless One. The common perception is Hindus pray to thousands of deities. That’s true. But the greater truth is they are all avatars. “It will take you about an hour,” the official goes on. “How old are you?” Don’t tell him, don’t tell him, clamours a voice in my head, he may say you’re too old for the climb. “47,” I lie. It feels invigorating to knock off seven years. He stares for some moments and then reaches out to run a finger down my slightly protruding paunch. People here are like that; they don’t hesitate to touch. “But can you climb with this?” he taunts mildly. “I am fit. No ailments at all. I exercise every morning.” He rakes me up and down, this sixtyish man standing outside his cabin-like office. He is dazzling in his white shirt and white veshti, the traditional Hindu attire in southern India. His brow proclaims the ardent Shiva devotee – three horizontal lines in white chalk. I can hear what’s tossing behind them: what other physical flaws does this idiot have? “Do it slowly then,” he says, and goes back into his office because a telephone rings. I look at the pavilion. It whispers: Come, do it now! Tomorrow morning, I whisper back. I don’t have the energy because just two hours ago I went up the hill by bus and prayed before the idols, breathed in the aromas of oil lamps and joss sticks, watched a group of chanting devotees, and wandered about, taking pictures of the undulating forest all around. It was only while coming downhill, also by bus, that I noticed pilgrims clambering up like overgrown ants late for work. You should have done that, you should have done that, a voice kept telling me. Ah, to do or not to do? Another, more insistent, voice pipes up: let’s have a drink, there’s a bar nearby. The bar is loaded tables and smoky lights, spit streaked walls and sweating faces. The din is deafening. “Rum and coke,” I shout at my waiter. He shouts back. “Anything else? Chicken tikka, fish fry, mutton masala?” “No, that’s it,” I yell. He looks heavenwards, perhaps shouting in his head: Why do you send me such customers? The next morning my limbs feel like they’ve gone through a crusher and the only heat in that wintry air is behind my eyeballs. Damn. Why did I have to vow to climb those steps? This time a different voice responds, sweet and patient: once you promise something in the presence of gods, you must fulfill it. It’s my mother, almost 80 and well versed in the scriptures. An hour later I am back at Marudamalai. The temple official is nowhere, but the stalls lining the path to the 1050 steps are readying for the day’s commerce—a woman pumping a kerosene stove; a vendor of tender coconuts sharpening his machete; an astrologer hanging up mind boggling charts; a boy dusting religious curios and colourful trinkets on two large tables. A group of saffron-clad devotees rush past in long strides as if pursued by invisible demons. A few children sprint ahead, laughing and shouting. Voices explode in my head: See that, you nervous wreck! Even children are attempting the climb! Treat this like a picnic. Yes, it’s all about mental attitude, not physical capacity. But these steps are so steep! Better turn back, go home in one piece. You don’t want to get admitted in some unknown hospital here, do you? Coward! Slowly, do it slowly, just like your friends advised. I somehow climb the steep steps and stagger on. My lungs heave. My feet feel like iron. Then suddenly each flight of steps becomes shorter, the landings between them longer. The steps grin: Because we knew some people like you are prone to histrionics! Now stop all that huffing and puffing and get on with it. Another pavilion comes up. A sculpted scene of Murugan’s wedding. The boyish god is flanked by his two consorts, Devyani and Valli, and an assortment of sages. His eyes twinkle and his mouth opens: monogamy is for the birds, my friend. And don’t be fooled by my young looks. See this spear I hold, it symbolizes my power to heal, to protect. Beside him stands his devoted mount, a peacock, its feathers splayed in a resplendent fan. The stance for attracting a peahen. When my lord can have two, the bird crows, why shouldn’t I have at least one? On I walk. Two women come into view. They are stooping over a step. The older woman smears a paste of chalk on the edge, the other lights a camphor tablet. Nearby, a man watches them, watches me. They are mine, his look says. All right, the voices in my head agree, let’s seek his permission. “Of course, go ahead,” the man replies and calls out to the women, “He wants to take pictures.” The younger woman doesn’t acknowledge, the older woman gives me a frown: Pictures? What pictures? Can’t you see we are propitiating a supreme immortal? We haven’t time for stupid mortals. But I go click click anyway and the man introduces himself. Jagadish from Singapore. He has returned for holidays and this pilgrimage. “That’s my wife and my mother-in-law. They believe that lighting lamps will appease the gods.” “So, you don’t believe?” I query. He laughs and punches my arm lightly. “No need for everyone to believe, no?” Sighs erupt in my head. Ah…a non-believer amongst so many believers! Now, when did we last come across such a situation? I walk on. I have no idea how many more steps remain. I pass a scruffy man who is helping his little girl to climb. He is a stonecutter from Salem. “How many more steps?” I ask. “Half an hour more. It’s a total of 1001 steps.” “Not 1050?” “They have decreased.” “Decreased? How can that happen?” The man just shrugs and the shrug asks: Why is it necessary for me to explain? Why in any case do you need to know? What will you do with this knowledge? I point to the Tamil engravings on the bottom face of each step: “What do they mean?” Another shrug. “Just names of devotees. Devotees believed to have donated money for building these steps.” Believed to have. He is clearly unimpressed. His face says it all: that moksha has to be earned by substantial deeds and laudable demeanour, not by throwing around money that you probably have in surfeit. Moksha is breaking free from the endless cycle of deaths and births, and merging with the Formless One. It’s the ultimate goal for Hindus. After 10 minutes or so we come to a group of workers squatting on the ground and cutting granite with hammers and chisels. The Salem man disappears in their midst. And then I understand. These people are lengthening the landings by eliminating a few steps. So, man who has put Murugan on a pedestal too high is now easing the effort to reach Him. Two children overtake me, and halt, waiting for me to reach them. Or so I think. Their smooth radiant faces are irresistible. I focus my camera, but within seconds their father arrives. So they were waiting for him, not me. He is tall and swarthy, and gives me a pained smile: Who are you and what are you doing with my children? “Come on, we are late!” he calls over his sh
oulder as he strides past. The children bound off, shrieking and chasing each other. Do you remember if you were ever so happy in a religious place? I can’t. You missed some important things in life, didn’t you? I trudge on. My legs begin to wobble. After 10 minutes, a cluster of huts comes up on the left. Wood, brick, even some tin sheets stacked precariously on the incline. A swarthy man is brushing his teeth with a neem twig. “About 80 families live here,” he says. “We work at the temple, whatever labour they assign us. We have lived here all our lives.” He spills some water from a mug onto his hand and washes his face. He spits, straightens up and gives me a queer look. This too, my friend, is a life. Maybe different from yours. But a life nevertheless. “How much farther to the temple?” I ask. He leans sideways and spits again. It’s as if he’s marking his territory. “Don’t worry, only a few more steps.” Indeed, after 20 or so steps the beautiful temple reveals itself. And near the gates a bus stands, ready to go downhill. The bus seems like a vehicle sent by some minor god. As I look at it, an avalanche tumbles over and over in my head: The show is over, my friend. A show that’s a fraction of the totality of maya. Everything is an illusion. This hill, your climb, the voices in your head, this experience that you want to so urgently share with everyone. What does it matter? What does anything matter? There’s just One who matters. He remains aloof, untouched by everything. And yet he is in everything. Just ponder over it. It’s the only thing worth pondering over at 54. I am drenched in sweat. My limbs ache as if they’ve been stretched on a rack. Moments later I take a window seat and breathe hard and long. And from behind Mother murmurs: So, you think you climbed the 1050 steps all by yourself?
More information Visit www.tamilnadutourism.org for more information on Tamil Nadu and information on how to get to Coimbatore. For more information on the temple of Marudhamalai, visit murugan.org/temples/marudhamalai.htm