Seeing groups of kavadiyas out on the roads in Asadh brings back the tirtha yatra undertaken in the eight century by Padmapada, one of Adi Sankara’s four chief disciples. The story goes that Padmapada yearned to go on pilgrimage and begged very hard for permission.
Sankara tried at first to dissuade him by saying that the most sacred place was near one’s guru and Padmapada was already established there. Out of concern for Padmapada’s well-being, he warned him of the difficulties likely to befall a traveller, remarkable in their universality and modern relevance, for he reportedly said that travel can be stressful without a guarantee of shelter, food and daily needs; that if one fell sick there would be nobody to take care of one in unknown lands and that it was unwise to trust strangers in case they stole one’s work or belongings (an intriguing point there about intellectual or artistic property being at risk, not just worldly goods).
But since the disciple’s heart was set on journeying, the guru sent him off with his blessings and a quantity of practical advice that still holds for anyone who sets forth on adventure, for instance, avoiding “jungles and the abodes of robbers” (meaning all places likely or known to be dangerous) and to accept hospitality only from kindred spirits, in this case, the spiritually inclined. After visiting various tirthas and kshetras in the north, it is said that Padmapada turned south and visited great shivalas like Kalahasti, Ekambareswar at Kanchipuram, Nataraja’s ‘kanaka sabha’ (golden hall) at Chidambaram and Ramsetu.
En route to Ramsetu, Padmapada caught up with relatives at Srirangam who asked him to stay a few days and give them the benefit of spiritual discourse. Among other things Padmapada spoke of the merit to be obtained by householders who supported travellers. The act of sincere hospitality to all wayfarers, especially pilgrims, was immensely valuable, he said, for while pilgrimage required physical and mental endurance, the householder could make his own home a tirtha with his hospitality.
The halt was not without incident: Padmapada left a treatise he had written in his uncle’s care until his return from Ramsetu, but his uncle disliked it because it argued against ritualistic practices and contrived to burn it.
Thinking of Padmapada all those years ago, it is hard to look without a sudden flash of sympathy at the noisy, neon-lit halts that have sprouted on our roads this month for the kavadiyas’ refreshment.
— Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture