The living dead August 2011
No natural calamity has occurred, or any other major disaster. But still there are thousands of people being carried on paadais – stretchers made of bamboo and fresh coconut fronds – to the graveyard. Those on the stretchers are not dead, however. This is the scene of a re-enacted funeral procession taking place on a fine Sunday morning during the Tamil month of Panguni (late February to early March) in Valangaiman, a village in the coastal district of Tiruvarur in Tamil Nadu.
For the annual festival of Paadai Kavadi, pilgrims from near and far arrive to follow Hindu funeral rituals and then worship the goddess Maha Mariamman in a small temple in Valangaiman. Here, the goddess is known as Seethala Devi, a form of the goddess Parvati that is thought to cure fever and smallpox. Those who flock to her have typically faced a near-death experience of some kind – perhaps a devastating disease or a major accident in the family.
According to tradition, two centuries ago a couple left their infant girl in an Ayyanar temple in the nearby village of Pungancheri. The orphaned baby was lying in the temple when a couple from Valangaiman come along and decided to adopt the girl. She grew up under their loving care, but eventually came down with smallpox and died. The couple buried the girl’s body in their backyard, and erected a simple structure of bamboo sticks and coconut fronds over the samadhi. Their love for the child remained so strong, however, that they began to worship her memory at the makeshift temple. Eventually, a legend grew that worshipping Seethala Devi, as she came to be known, would bring good health and prosperity, a belief that remains strong today.
With the onset of the month of Panguni, those who plan to take part in the year’s festival typically begin a two-week fast. After the observance is finished, families and individuals from the surrounding areas begin to converge at the temple, arriving barefoot. On the dried riverbed of the Kaveri, priests await these pilgrims, instructing the devotees to bathe and then begin the death rituals.
Once the devotees are laid down on paadais, their hands and legs tied and a one-rupee coin is put on their forehead. With the beat of the parai instruments used during funeral processions in Tamil Nadu, and with their relatives forming the procession, they are taken towards the Maha Mariamman temple. There, the processions circumambulate the temple three times, expressing their gratitude to the goddess, and finally each individual is laid out in front of the temple. The priest does the puja, removes the knots on the hands and legs, and each person rises again – to begin the process of recovering from their suffering.
~ Nathan G is a freelance photographer in Chennai.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).