I am English and grew up in Suffolk. My parents were neither churchgoers nor in the slightest bit interested in any aspect of religion. They did, however, adhere to the premise that God was an Englishman - a concept that seemed to absolve them from any further involovelement in the matter. In any case, their generation considered that religion, like money and politics, was never to be discussed. Devoid of any outside stimulus that might arouse interest or curiosity, I should, I suppose, have adopted their attitude and followed their example. Ironically, things began to change in 1970 when I chanced upon a diary chronicling my soldier-great grandfather’s participation in the 1857 march from Calcutta to Lucknow, and his experiences in the subsequent fighting.
Of course, though the diary never mentioned religion in general or Hinduism in particular, its effect was subtly subversive, for by arousing my curiosity, it inspired me to make my first visit to India to retrace the journey it described. Years later, an Indian friend observed that my place of birth had been a postal mistake: “You were addressed to India,” he said, “but wrongly delivered to England.” The diary ensured that I was redirected. Yet though it certainly started my relationship with India, it was my second visit that led me to something deeper and more personal — a relationship with Kerala.
Kerala reached right inside me and rearranged how I looked at life, forcing me to form my own opinion of the divine, the soul, the spirit and the very nature of God. In many ways I was like a traveller who only discovers the depths of his thirst when he arrives at a well. I drank deep and experienced profound satisfaction.
The real miracle was Kerala’s willingness to allow me access to her sacred spaces: her temples. Once I was officially permitted to enter Kerala’s temples, a right I received in 1981, I was absorbed into a world that never ceased to amaze and satisfy me. It is fitting (in the context of my book on Guruvayur) that the first picture I took in Kerala was of the temple’s legendary elephant, the great tusker Guruvayur Kesavan (right). But when I began work on this book in 2001, I was terrified. On my first day, I did nothing but sit on the steps of the koothambalam, the temple’s theatre, convinced I could not do this. Then, someone smiled at me in a way that made me feel enveloped and comforted. I’m not alone here, I thought.
When all is said and done, everything that happened to me — all the support, encouragement and help that I received — was always channelled through Lord Guruvayurappan, given by his servants and devotees. Such emotions are difficult to put into words but one day when I was talking to a former Head Priest, I said, “Guruvayurappan is everything.” There was a slight pause before he smiled and said, “He is everything. That’s it.”
Extracted from Heaven on Earth: The Universe of Kerala’s Guruvayur Temple (Niyogi Books, 2008)