Photo by Elancharan Gunasekaran

Indian Summer and Faith

Elancharan Gunasekaran

The birth of the (east) Indian new year coincides with the auspicious month of April when the full moon is in sight. Also known as Panguni, the festival is celebrated amongst the Hindu diaspora mainly in countries such as India, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka but not limited to the rest of the world where many Indians and Hindus reside either as migrant workers, refugees or naturalized citizens. Panguni has been loosely documented by many and that too in the city areas of Hindu and Indian populated regions. The story that I am about to tell is that of one of many villages in South India and its celebration of Panguni. 

This village is called Paravakottai, 14km northeast of Aranthangi in the Pudhukottai district of Tamil Nadu. When the world opened up and travel opportunities presented itself, I told myself, “Why not?” My wife’s ancestry can be traced back to the region of Aranthangi and Pudhukottai. I made arrangements from Singapore with the help of my wife who contacted relations in Paravakottai and before you know it, I was on the flight from Singapore to Coimbatore. From Coimbatore, I made trips to various places and towns such as Pazhani, Kodaikanal and Dindugal, shooting the street life with my Fujifilm X100F, whenever I got the chance. After four and a half days of travel I arrived in Paravakottai late in the evening close to 7pm. This was the night before Panguni. I was greeted by my wife’s parents and relatives, all of whom were waiting for my arrival. I was welcomed, at the same time, I almost felt alien, out of place, a born and bred city man, lost in the openness of the village. 

The Tamil language that the villagers spoke was a slang that I could manage and reply to, even their vulgarities sounded familiar but with a more primal twist. It was a good half a kilometer walk to the arch gateway and another kilometer to the temple. Along the way, my father-in-law explained that festivities had started eight days in advance leading up to Panguni and that tonight would be Lord Murugan’s procession for the Thevar community in the village. The main deity of the village temple was Lord Murugan and Panguni is celebrated to win the god’s grace. Devotees carry kavadis and milk pots decorated with yellow cloth and peacock feathers. Shaved heads and faces are a common sight, where devotees remove both the hair on head along with facial hair. This removal of hair is not limited to men but women are allowed to as well. Others perform austere feats of penances such as tongue and bodily piercings during the event and even enter a state of trance where it would require 2-4 men to subdue a single person. 

As we approached the arch gateway, I stopped at the sound of an explosion. My father-in-law simply laughed and said: it has begun. I could see the fireworks lighting up the sky and further down the arch, the sound of war drums and neon lights lit the sandy road. The procession was heading towards us, into the village and would go on for two or more hours before heading back to the temple. As the procession approached us, the sight of the majestic bulls drew me in. Horns dangerously curved and white bodies generously endowed with muscles. These animals were the perfect transport back in the days of past and ancient. I was shooting from that moment on. Upon bullock cart drawn by the bulls, the tamer and priests coaxed the beasts down the village road. Young men and women followed the procession. They stopped every few houses to dance and celebrate. Lighting fireworks, as shadows ran off into the darkness afraid of the fire that may fall from the heavens. I was mesmerized by the entire act. In the occasional firework glow, I thought I saw the god smile, enjoying every moment of this night. 

The next day began early, with the sounds of excitement and chatter in the house. Villagers were already at work, harvesting the jackfruit and coconuts from the respective plantations. I prepared myself and the camera for the day ahead. The air was warm and it was about to get hotter, it was the Indian summer after all. I walked the kilometer and a half to the temple along with a family friend who insisted I should take the car. Not only bulls get to be stubborn on this day. We walked under the Sun, watching the villagers rush between village and temple carrying various items. Outside the temple compounds, food and drink stalls were set up. Toys and balloons were on display for the little ones. The temple had its very own ghat or a temple pond, a plateau of steps sloping down that collected both rainwater and water from a nearby river or water source. Devotees were cleansing themselves in the temple pond while I circled around as the eagle above trying to capture the scenes around and before me. Many of the devotees had gathered under the alamaram or banyan tree. This tree has held significant spiritual and atvaisic history of Hindus. The banyan tree is also known for its ability to provide a tremendous area of shade, cooling all who stand under it. The tree being an important symbol is now the gathering point for devotees far and wide to deliver their prayers. As the day went on, the area around the banyan tree grew hotter, the air was dry and the shade alone did not provide relief. I found myself at the drink stall buying a cup of lemon soda. As I passed around the hotter side of the temple, I found myself stepping on thorns and dried grass. The earth below cracked and my feet were swallowed by the heat. These city feet were soft compared to the rough calluses on the villagers feet. The heat did not bother them as much as it did to me. They said that this heat was alright, and they’ve been through worse. Perhaps there was a lesson here for this stubborn bull. 

Just before noon, announcements were made and all devotees had gathered under the banyan tree. The festival procession was about to begin. A bespectacled old man, began singing and the chatter died. A song in praise of and dedicated to Lord Murugan. Some joined in, others listened. Some swayed, some giggled. But there was an air of holiness and solemness as the song went on. More bodies began to sway. And soon there were screams and shouts. Villagers rushed forth, holding on to those who had gone into a trance. Ash was smeared and thrown upon faces and bodies. Men, women, young and old, gave in to the lord’s embrace, inviting the gods into their bodies. They spoke in tongues, they ran circles, bodies jumped and lunged. They were humans and gods at the same time. Piercings were made while some were in trance, while others wide awake, accepted the steel and iron. In all this chaos, miraculously, not a single blood was spilled. The village was a seemingly strange place to this city bull, but now the villagers seemed more stranger. The procession began and the villagers driven by some primal higher power moved forward, step after step. Three rounds they circled around the temple before entering the temple and offering their penances. Milk was poured, garlands donated, prayers were offered in yellow cloth. The transactions between man and the divine were never ending. More people gathered and more processions were carried out beyond noon. 

Vegetarian food was served under a makeshift zinc shelter. Banana leaves were laid, dishes were served in steel pots. The spirit part has been fulfilled but the stomach has yet to be. Making a quick work of my meal, I got out into the noon sun, observing the burning landscape. I caught sight of an old lady in her 70s or 80s guiding two black bulls. It was like they were leading the way for the old lady who had little or no interest in the ways of the old gods. A few minutes later, the last procession for the day entered into my view. This was sparse compared to the previous ones. The procession trailed and I caught sight of an odd couple with a branch and cloth cradle. It was only then did I realize that I had seen a child with special needs beneath the banyan tree with a couple. This couple carried the child in the cloth cradle and were making their rounds. Such is the devotion and simplicity of the villagers. It was there and then did I realize the value of spirituality — it is belief that gives hope to the human being. It is faith that brings together people and communities. And it is as my grandmother said, that I was meant to be here, in this very moment. To be.

Photos by Elancharan Gunasekaran

Elancharan Gunasekaran is inspired by Dadaist movements, butoh and anarchism. He believes that humans are capable of governing themselves without the need of political systems. His art often involves experimenting with visual and literary forms on the raw aspects of the human condition, climate change and man-made/ natural phenomena.