Kanchipuram Chaos

For all that it boasts of being “one of the seven towns that grant salvation”, the Man from Madras Musings who was there recently can confidently state that the town itself is beyond salvation. Chaotic traffic, narrow streets, uncontrolled building activities and none of it in keeping with the heritage character of the town, have made the place a living nightmare. MMM wonders as to what it is about our historic towns that makes its residents want to demolish their aesthetic, tile-roofed homes and raise some of the most hideous structures possible. The hoarier the town, the uglier its buildings, that is what MMM thinks it all boils down to. And Kanchi is no different.

MMM was there to visit a couple of temples and his good lady wanted to buy a few sarees and so off they went. MMM’s first port-of-call was the famed Kamakshi temple and all that MMM can say of the visit is that it deeply saddened him to see the veritable maze that the temple has been converted into. There are iron railings, grilles, collapsible gates and several ad-hoc staircases leading to nooks and corners and contributing to the general chaos. All this apparently is to keep the crowds under control on the days when they descend in large numbers on the shrine, and this happens almost every day. The upshot of it all is that the crowds are any way not controlled and there is the usual pushing, shoving and exerting influence to get ahead of the queue. All that the vast network of grilles etc manages to do is to cut off access to some wonderful sculptures which of course may be a good thing from the sculpture’s point of view given the general attitude of the average pilgrim to such statuary. Most view these as convenient places where kumkum and sacred ash can be deposited, some feel that they must inscribe their names on the stonework as an immortal record of their visit and yet others use them as posts on which they can clean their hands of lime-paste or much worse.

Yet another excrescence is the vinyl hoarding which has made it to the temple in huge numbers. The story behind the temple is on one, the list of festivals is on another and good sayings of sages on a third. These are aesthetically most unappealing and also cover huge sections of walls that may have interesting inscriptions or carvings. MMM may be stoned when he visits Kanchipuram next or perhaps be burnt in effigy along with copies of this issue of MM within a short period of time but he is not afraid of stating that the temple needs a makeover and by that he does not mean glazed tiles, red granite and garish oil paint. It needs a thorough cleaning up and a more efficient queue system which does not necessarily mean that the pilgrim gets the feeling that he is walking into a prison of sorts.

Saree Shopping in Kanchi

Having struggled through the temple, the Man from Madras Musings joined his good lady at the shop where she had been billeted from the morning. And these are his impressions. If only the town was run with same efficiency as its saree business, we would have a model city administration in our hand. Apparently, if you have to be in the silk trade in Kanchi, you have to be a Sah, which is an old Saurashtra surname. Over the years strange combinations have occurred for how do you account for names such as Kandasami Sah? Be that as it may, these textile traders operate from shops that are unpretentious in the exterior and often completely covered with awnings that would give you the impression that they were plying trades that were better not in the open. But once you enter, you are in a world of air-conditioning, brightly lit interiors and the general impression that every woman in Madras is shopping in Kanchipuram for a saree or as is more often the case, sarees. The shops follow a system which stands the gender issue on its head. The women (wo)man the doors and once you are in the men take over. Each man is surrounded by at least six or seven women and he is often carrying on a conversation with one on general fashion trends, helping a second to choose one saree out of half-a-dozen for a wedding, welcoming a third to join the group and stand up, drape a saree over a shoulder and give a fourth woman an idea of how it will look. The towing of sarees to-and-from the interior of the warehouse to the display is all done by women and you would expect that that was man’s work. And when your good lady is done with the selection, which can take up to a few hours and after several sarees have been opened up, discarded, folded neatly and put back, you go to the billing counter where all the accounting is done by women. And then as you leave women bring your bags to the car and you are off, back into the world where men are men.

Given MMM’s tendency to let his mind wander, he soon got into the way of the men and the women and was soon asked in no uncertain manner to sit in one corner and observe the goings on. Which is what, as you can see he did.

The Mylapore Temple Festival

Each year, come March/April, the Mylapore temple celebrates its annual festival. And large crowds turn out to witness the spectacular processions. And never is there a larger turnout than on the eighth day of the festival, celebrated as Arupathu Moovar, commemorating the 63 saintly devotees of the Lord. The Man from Madras Musings never misses this festival though as he grows older he finds that is ability to withstand jostling and pushing has progressively lessened. And each year, MMM comes away with feelings of great sympathy towards the police whose thankless job it is to ensure some law and order is imposed on the general chaos. And that makes MMM feel that perhaps it is time for some counselling to be given to the public on what is expected and more importantly, not expected of them. Firstly, the temple precincts are declared out-of-bounds for vehicles on that particular day. But each vehicle-user appears to think that this means anyone other than himself or herself. Consequently MMM could see several people on scooters, bikes and in cars trying to argue with the police on why they should be let in so that they could get a closer view of the deities. Secondly, the police tried their level best to have one stream of people to go along with the procession and the stream on the opposite side was to walk against it. Those who wanted to go to the other side had to only cut across. But try teaching our people to follow such simple instructions. The one’s upstream suddenly decided to go downstream and rather than walking across to do so, simply changed direction wherever they where.

Lastly, there is the question of the famous tanneer pandals. These could be set up anywhere and all of them became bottlenecks preventing the free flow of people. MMM is all for these pandals as they display our traditional hospitality but he wonders if so many pandals are needed to distribute food when what is really needed on such hot days is plenty of water and cooling drinks. The crowds that came looked upon these pandals as sampling opportunities and tried the food at each location. Wherever they did not find the offering up to the mark, they simply dropped the food on the street and walked on. Over a period of time, the various varieties of rice, the sweetmeats and the biscuits on the ground were stamped upon by thousands of feet and formed a rich oatmeal kind of paste which had to be seen to be believed. Added to these were the plastic plates and water sachets which have by now become part of our non bio-degradable waste collection. MMM wonders if the organizers cannot use the traditional cadjan leaves.