Suchindrum, (Nagercoil district) a temple town, just 12 kms. before you touch our Land’s end, Kanyakumari. After many long years of having worked in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with practically no vacations, my younger sister, recently retired school principal, agreed to accompany me to our native place – where my paternal grandparents had settled, built their home and raised their family. Their children, my father and his siblings, had long shifted to greener pastures in Mumbai (Bombay, then), Delhi and other cities. All we knew about Suchindrum was what we had heard from Appa. He never tired of talking about his simple, childhood days in this town, our huge, long house overlooking the pond (teppakulam), in the middle of which stood the ‘teppam’ (a small mandapam, which was decorated and lighted during the bi-annual ‘ther’ festival (‘rath yatra’), the majestic ‘gopuram’ which could be viewed from our verandah where most leisure hours and after dinner chats were enjoyed at a time when electricity was too futuristic a possibility!
He immortalised this view for us with a song: (He had a song for every person, occasion and even the names of his children)
“Teppa kulam kandein, chutri ther odum veedhiyai kandein”. (Thyagaraja Bagavathar? Not sure, I have to check up with Google sir), but since he credited most of his Carnatic classical songs to Thyagaraja Bagavathar, I think, yes. Purists, scholars, please excuse and correct.
(Translation: I saw the ‘ther’ and the street around, where the ‘rath’ was taken in a procession).
Appa also had lots of stories about people in this town, his school, teachers, family antecedents and histories with which he regaled us. Every single person in his narrative was simply singular and unique, one of their kind – the teacher who would request his students to get a few brinjals or plantains or whatever grew in their fields or backyard, the multiple-attempted, never cleared SSLC neighbourhood boy, who claimed to be a master in history and offered to teach anyone willing to learn from him, the young freedom fighters of his school, burning foreign goods, the ‘rasa vada’ vakils, barefoot doctors – all this happened only in Suchindrum!
Flashback over. My siblings and I had no great attachment to this place, except that, feeling somewhat rootless growing up in various suburbs of Mumbai and then Ahmedabad, we, by default, fixed our roots in Appa’s town, and visited from time to time, as tourists, pilgrims whatever. In those days, it was an ageless, sleepy, rather slumbering, little town, where time never moved.
My sister, however, had roots a little deeper than mine, because she had lived and studied here for a couple of years (may be 4th and 5th standards) when our Amma and younger siblings re-located here because of financial setbacks in our Thane (Mumbai) times. So had my paternal cousins whose mother and father were from this same village. Their maternal grandparents lived here all their lives. Their grandfather was a much-revered school teacher. But we found pastures elsewhere. Now, my sister was here after 50 years. We stayed at a hotel in Kanyakumari and took a rickshaw for the 12-km. ride to Suchindrum.
The rickshaws in these areas are huge 6-seaters. No meters. The drivers quote anything from 400-250 rupees. One has to bargain. There are State buses also. In fact, all the buses that go from KK towards the nearest city, Nagercoil, halt at Suchindrum. It took us about 20 min. to reach. The route is very beautiful with greenery on either side, small streams and temples. In fact, the entire stretch in Nagercoil district and around is very green as it borders Kerala.
The houses in this part of Suchindrum (Teppakulam street) surround the square bank of a big pond. A huge carved, colourful gateway welcomes tourists at the entrance to the town. This road leads directly to the ‘Sthanumalayan’ (another name for Lord Shiva) temple. This image represents 3 deities – Shiva (Sthanu), Shiva (maala), Brahma (Ayan). Perfunctorily, every family had one son named after this deity. In earlier times, the temple with its labyrinth-like, mysterious corridors did not attract so many outsiders, except for temple-hopping pilgrims. The devotees were locals and only during ‘aarti’ times there used to be small groups of people. Young women and girls did not go there without escort.
The main attraction of the temple is a gigantic statue of Hanuman. On Saturdays, when some or the other family fulfilled their vow of adorning the statue with a garland of coconuts or ‘vadas’ (made of dals and similar to ‘medu vadas’ with a hole in the middle through which strings were drawn), all the children would collect for ‘prasad’.
Some legends also have it that this was where Lord Shiva, on his way to wed for the second time, was halted by Narada’s crowing like a cock, on the instructions of Parvati. Shiva had to marry secretly before dawn. The ditched maiden waits in all her bridal finery, 12 kms. away, on the banks of the Indian Ocean. She is Kanya Kumari. The temple and seaside town are dedicated to her.
Half a century later, much had changed in Suchindrum. Mobiles, social groups on whatsapp, internet had made their advent. The street around the ‘Theppakulam’ (the pond with the mandapam in the middle), is narrower than it used to be. There is a Juice centre at the corner of the road, where once used to be a small Madrasi eatery run by our Telegu tenant.
The temple attracts lot of tourists. Though it retains its old-world charm, it is now crowded at all times of day. On the outside are vendors of flowers, incense, lamps. There is a footwear stand – quite a change, because earlier most people in this town walked barefoot everywhere and those who had footwear, left them home when they visited the temple. The walk around the pond is less than half a kilometre. We go to our ancestral house which has changed hands two times after Appa sold it. Some rooms are modernised, there is a western toilet and bathroom inside the house. (Earlier, there was just a four-walled structure with a hole in the middle at the rear end of the long house. Most families did not even have such structures; the backyard was the open toilet). Most houses have been renovated and re-constructed with modern facilities and are 1 or 2-storeyed, but our structure and a few others remain the same with brown, sloping tiled roofs. But one feature remains – the houses are long, one room behind the other. If you looked from the entrance, you could look through all the doors right upto the backyard.
Some things had not changed. When we made contact with some old residents who could connect with our ancestors, a small crowd followed us everywhere, taking photographs, telling us about other old people who might know us. We belonged, and yet we did not. Appa would have observed that hardly any Brahmin families were left in this once exclusively Brahmin stronghold. Behind the ‘teppakulam street’ is the ‘rettai theruvu’ (double street) which gets its name because there are houses on either side of the street.
Beyond that is a place called Ashram, named after Sati Anasuya who is supposed to have welcomed Lord Rama there, when he was on his way to Lanka. As an honour and respect to this saintly woman, every third daughter in this town, used to be invariably named Anasuya (the older two having got their grandmothers’ names according to tradition.
My sister’s school, Government Upper Primary school, stood exactly where it had always stood, outside the gateway, to the right. Appa, his brother, nephew had all studied in this same school. Very little had changed here, except that the children had uniforms and footwear. After interacting with the head mistress and some students we returned to Kanyakumari with mixed feelings – rooted or rootless? I cannot say.