Counting the roadside idols on Pillayar Chathurthi (PC) day … night, rather, has always been a favourite pastime of mine. Driving around town and stopping by every few yards for a window darshan and a hurried salute is truly an exhilarating experience.
I would not go into the legends for they are inexhaustible and in any case quite well known. I still beg a couple of indulgences. For one, and this evokes my professional interest, Pillayar is the earliest recorded stenographer; he wrote the entire Mahabaratha with a broken tusk as Sage Vyasa, in an exalted state of mind, dictated. And to the Great Dictator’s surprise and satisfaction, this steno missed nothing. Lucky Vyasa, for today, there’s many a miss between thought and typing even if the same person is doing both. And then, there’s the story of the way he tricked his sibling out of the wisdom fruit. What would a smarter modern Pillayar do now? Will he take the trouble of circumnavigating his parents, the personification of the wide world? Well, he would just click the mouse at his feet, bring the world wide web to his fingertips and the fruit would be ‘virtually’ his!
Pillayar represents the quintessence of Hinduism and Bharat. His form, is, well, uniform, but lends itself to the greatest variety of depictions. He does not come disguised a la Vamana or mohini, owing to his inability to hide or tuck away that ubiquitous trunk, a permanent give away. Not just craftsmen but cartoonists too can delight in him with just a few line sketches. He can walk, talk, run, dance, tumble, somersault, play, multiply and in short, literally at that, strike any pose quite easily with his dimunitive, but stocky, frame. Such liberties cannot be taken with any other God, though Krishna and Hanuman too offer some scope. With Pillayar, it is perennial playtime. Has anyone ever come across an angry, tense or pensive Pillayar?
But besides his benign and joyful demeanour, there are a host of reasons for his overriding popularity in the Hindu pantheon. He is highly user -friendly, er, devotee-friendly. Though there are elaborate rituals and hymns for him too, he does not insist on hard and fast observance. He can be invoked through a fistful of clay and propitiated easily by a strand of grass. At the worst, a rap on the sides of your head with the knuckles followed by a few sit-ups will do. His omnipresence is not just abstract, but also physical and you can find him everywhere in this far flung land: temples, street corners, under trees, on culverts and even mid-street. He breaks sectarian shackles and is found in both Vaishnavite and Saivite shrines: Of course, the lines on his forehead may be vertical or horizontal depending on his locus.
He is perfectly egalitarian and accessible to all. As the remover of obstacles, he is the most preferred deity of the high and mighty as well as those in abject poverty: After all who doesn’t face roadblocks in life’s journey? A prayer to him is the opening statement in any venture for multitudes. The Pillayar Suzhi is a guarantor for smooth operations thereafter. And there is a Pillayar for every wish and whim. There’s one to help out students, one to quell disease, one for securing loans and one for success in courts. There’s also a Passport Pillayar and a Lost and Found Pillayar.
On the flip side, Pillayar has his share of controversies, apart from the still raging debate over the morality of his modus operandi in outwitting his touchy brother in the fruit issue eons ago. And then some years back we had him guzzling milk by the litres all over India. Be it miracle or mischief, milk did vanish and Pillayar was in the news for quite a few days, till his thirst was quenched or all cows went dry, whichever happened earlier. Pillayar Chaturthis have also raised the hackles of civic activists and environmentalists. As a result official clearance has become mandatory for location of idols and clay is staging a comeback as the ideal material for immersion instead of toxic synthetics.
But what refuses to be immersed but keeps surfacing is the Pillayar politics. P.Chaturthis are no longer just religious festivals but have huge political overtones with Pillayar emerging as the most potent tool of Hindu assertion. Pillayar’s spiritual sojourns to the sea are often accompanied by dire threats from the other side of the communal divide who for their part claim unwarranted provocation. Little wonder, Pillayar is the most protected God.
But the one eating humble Kozhukattai in the grave must be Periyar, who called for the breaking of every Pillayar idol. For it’s quite obvious who won the Pillayar Vs Periyar battle. Doubters can take a drive around town and count.
(This is an edited reprise of an earlier column that was first published in 2008)
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