Sacred geography seems to work as a interior landscape as well, as rich and real as the physical. For instance, Vraja or Brajbhumi was ‘taken away’ by Shankara Deva in the 10th century to Assam from its roughly 3,800 sq km around the Yamuna. Vraja is ‘real’ in the sub-continent in regions as far apart as Manipur and Malabar. Yatra or pilgrimage to the spot simply affirms the interior journey already made, so that the pilgrim has a physical sense of ‘progress’.
As to which, it’s hard to forget how, some years ago, Ammanur Madhava Chakyar, the great Kudiyattam actor who passed away at Irinjala-kuda last July, valiantly climbed a slope in Himachal Pradesh in his 80’s: just for a glimpse of the ‘velli pani malai’ (silver snow mountains) that he had spent a lifetime evoking through his art in Kerala. He was happy to make the effort, besting younger people in the climb and was also profoundly moved by Chamunda Devi’s temple at Chamba. I gave him a postcard image of the Devi and was deeply touched when he said he would keep it in his puja room back home.
But net-net, though Chakyar gamely traveled from the land of palm to the land of pine, it didn’t matter. The thrilling concept of the Himalayas had been alive to him anyway sight unseen, for it lived in the words, in the sahitya. That’s the secret of Hinduism, something for Hindus themselves to understand and internalise about what makes them ‘Hindu’. It was never just about emptying pots of water on the shivling.
Hinduism really lives in its words. It took a Resul Pookutty to state it bang on when he declared at the Oscars that home was the land of Om. The early Muslim invaders, clearly being not so bright despite their guns, broke the temples and statues, the playthings of Hinduism. They didn’t quite get it, that Sanatana Dharma really lived in its codes, words and ideas. But someone else did. A certain Mr Macaulay. And so the British struck. It’s good they did, our wretchedly feudal society needed a big stir. But now, in today’s India we need neither the dismal intellectual bastardy of the Left nor the pig-ignorant revivalism of the extreme Right. We can make our personal yatra through their ideological boulders and blizzards to our own equation with what religion and culture are about.
Basically, we own the words. And when we own the words, we need neither a greasy fatcat politician in a saffron breechclout nor a herd of holier-than-thou naifs flapping Cyrillic or Mandarin-printed jholas who tried to tell us how to think while Bengal went under to sickle-cell disease.
We could think instead of songs like ‘Jambupate’ by the medieval composer Muthu-swami Dikshitar. He lived for many years in Varanasi and took many Hindustani ragas back south. In this Sanskrit song, set aptly in the northern raga ‘Yamuna Kalyani’, he describes Shiva dazzlingly as the element of water. The kshetra or temple focused on is Thiruvanaikoil, where Shiva is personified as water (neer). But in creating the song, he ‘liberates’ Shiva from the merely physical and reaffirms his ‘Om-hood’. Such songs are why it feels like while the effort of yatra is truly admirable, the real journey is within.