Footsteps approach. The priest is before me with the plate of holy fire. I touch the fire and touch my eyes in obeisance and make an offering of some money. For the briefest moment the priest’s eyes glitter. Maybe it’s the reflection of the fire. He goes back to the idol, selects a string of flowers and comes and puts it on my neck. It’s an unexpected honour and I notice that other devotees are watching me with some envy. I bow my head again and the priest pats my head with a crown of engraved copper. It symbolises the Lord’s blessing.
When are the Sankranthi celebrations going to be held?
“Come at 5.30 or 6”, the priest says. “The villagers will gather here and we offer nice prasad for everyone.” Prasad is food blessed by the gods. I ask him permission to photograph Ranganathaswamy. He hesitates; photography is normally not allowed in temples. “All right, but do it quickly.”
Moments later another priest points to a smaller idol of Ranganathaswamy that stands to one side. “This idol we take out in a procession in the evening”, he says and without warning begins the aarti. I am obliged to fork out more money. Yet another priest sidles up to me and says that I shouldn’t miss Ranganayika, consort of Ranganathaswamy. Without waiting for my response, he trips off and I have to follow him. One more aarti, one more donation. I am a trifle annoyed but a voice inside my head placates me: this is how priests earn some money and perhaps all these gods would be pleased and end the nightmare in my head.
Outside, the woman who’s been minding my shoes points to the village. “Yes, yes, they are preparing their cattle for the fire jumping ceremony”, she says in answer to my question. I walk around the temple and into a narrow lane flanked by little houses and huts. Elderly men and women laze on verandas. Some teenagers standing around a motorcycle stop chatting and watch me. I smile at them and they respond with bigger smiles.
Where are the cows and bulls? I ask. A lanky boy stops combing his hair and points to where I should go. It’s the village square and to one side two bulls are tethered to short stakes in the ground. The horns are freshly painted in bright blue. A boy ties coloured tassels around one animal’s neck and a girl in a new green skirt stands by, watching. In her hand is a bunch of balloons.
A swarthy man comes running from one of the houses. “My children, Madhu and Sumantha”, he says after I introduce myself. “They are helping me decorate our cattle.” The fire jumping ritual will be held after sunset in an open ground a kilometer away. About 100 cattle are expected to gather for the event. “On Sankranthi day we show our gratitude to these animals for doing so much for us for the whole year”, the man explains. “The fire jumping ritual is symbolic of the cattle crossing all unforeseen obstacles.” I ask the girl when she will tie the balloons to the animal’s horns. “Just before they jump the fire”, she says with a fulsome grin.
I walk into a lane that goes up steeply. More huts and houses, a few shops, and then a small clearing. I smell dung but other aromas waft in the air, the smells of something cooking, something burning. I peer at each one of the houses and spot the place of activity—a narrow lane beside a house. Little boys and girls are avidly watching a teenager swirl a ladle in a huge aluminum vessel on a fire. They are cooking pongal. Ghansiddaih, a large man with a face that Norman Rockwell missed, says that the entire village has contributed to making this pongal. It would be distributed to everyone after the fire jumping ceremony. “And some prizes for the strongest best dressed bulls”, his son adds. The prizes are functional – milk cans – 4.5 litre can for the first winner, 3.5 litre can for the second and a 2 litre can for the third winner.
Ramesh continues his revelation on the spirit of this Indian summer festival in the March issue of LivingNow – Ed
Ramesh Avadhani lives in Bangalore and writes for a few magazines in Australia, USA, and Europe. He loves wild life and long walks
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