Divine Love in the Hills

Divine Love in the Hills.

Partha Desikan

The apparently still, permanently snow clad Himalayan peaks seem to signify the ultimate in silence and peace. Mount Kailas could indeed personify the profound, saintly presence of Shiva, Shukla, Dakshinamurti. But equally will every Himalayan peak signify raw energy, Shiva’s Shakti, in the majesty of her dynamic and continuous, if gradual, change all the time. This mountain range is not allowed to forget that it is still very young geologically speaking. Or that it is still rising, a few inches every few years. Itinerant pilgrims to Kedarnath or Amarnath or Gangotri will recall how it had been touch and go every now and then.

They had learnt of the collapse of a bridge, just in time. Or they had just passed a spot before an avalanche struck. Right among the snow-covered tracks to the shrines, they know of springs of boiling hot water. Shakti is asleep, or in penance, but perhaps shakes her tresses or sighs warmly, or shifts her position ever so slightly.

Penance, ah, yes! One must read Mahakavi Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava at least in translation to understand the dignity and depth of Love of the divine kind. In answer to the prayers of the Devas, who were tormented by the demon Taraka, Shakti, who had been doing penance for several years to rejoin Shiva, took avatar as Uma, the daughter of Himavan. She became a beautiful maiden soon after, but the long wait for Kumara, her son to be born through the Grace of the mighty Shiva, was hardly over. Shiva was in penance himself and Uma patiently waited on him and for him to take notice of her. The rest of the story is a well known kavya, but Kalidasa’s message had been delivered when he talked of the loving pair in the height of their Love, each doing penance to measure up to the other. The poet was no stranger to depicting sringara rasa. In his play Malavikagnimitra, he had to deal with the machinations of the courtiers of a king, supported by queen number one, to bypass the objections of queen number two and get Malavika to be wedded to the King as number three. In Sakuntala, he had to talk about a much married king falling deeply in love with a hermit’s daughter and forgetting about it soon (ostensibly because of another sage’s curse). The poet must have felt a sublime fulfillment when talking of the enduring, eternal totally mutual Love of jagatah pitarou, whom he describes elsewhere as having the sacred compatibility of a good word and its meaning.

 

Indian poets and pauraniks through the ages had very early discovered the complimentary shaktis of the Trimurtis, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, but could not remain content. They needed others to Love the divine as well, and in turn to be loved. The jivanadis of the sub-Himalayan plains qualified and romantic interactions of the spirits of these devatas with manifestations of the infinite could be visualized and sung about.

 

All good devotees qualified as well. Their gender did not seem to matter. They were all brides of the divine. The Nayaki bhava comes out very strongly in the devotional poetry of several Azhvars and Nayanmars and most of them were male. This did not make them pour out their hearts to their Krishna or Nataraja any less than any love-sick maiden in great longing for reunion. When the intense devotion is from a female devotee, no great efforts are required to guess the outcome. This country will not forget, in centuries to come, the love songs of Goda for Krishna/Sriranganatha or of Meera for Giridhar Gopal, or the stories told about their lives which are believed to have ended happily with their merging with the deities reigning in their hearts. Striking parallels exist in Kahmiri Sufi lore and in Catholic Christian lore.

 

But I would like to get back to the hills, and this time without snow aiding in the love process. I would like to talk of Sri Mallikarjuna (Shiva) at Srisailam and Sri Ahobilesa (Vishnu in the Narasimha form) at Ahobilam , both parts of the Nallamala range of hills running almost North-South between the rivers Krishna and Pennar through three or four modern districts of Andhra Pradesh.

 

Srisailam on the Rishabha hill slope of Nallamalai range in Kurnool district has an ancient temple of Shiva, worshipped as Mallikarjuna, a hunter deity. There is a legend concerning the origin of this temple. It is fairly well known that the Chenchus (tribals) have been living in these hills for a long time. The story goes that long long ago Lord Shiva came to Srisailam on a hunt and fell in love with a beautiful Chenchu girl. He married her and she accompanied him in his hunting expeditions to the neighboring forests. Hence he is also known as Chenchu Malliah. This story is corroborated by beautiful bas-reliefs on the prakara of the temple – for instance one showing a tiger being killed by Lord Siva with his trident. He is followed by Parvati dressed as a forest woman (or the Chenchu consort) with a quiver full of arrows and four dogs. Chenchus are allowed admission into any part of the temple even today. The garbha griha enshrines a linga. The tribal people drag the car – ratha during the festival of the temple and perform various services within the temple.

 

The love story of Lord Narasimha, who is believed to have ruled over Ahobilam for a while as king Ahobilesa and a Chenchu tribal girl known variously as Vasantika and Chenchulakshmi has been immortalized in an old style play in Sanskrit and Prakrit by the seventh jeer of the Srivaishnavaite order known as Ahobila Matha. The present Acharya of the matha is the 45th. The 15th century play is called Vasantika Parinayam. I have had the privilege of translating it into English and can vouch for the story not lacking in sringara rasa in spite of its orientation being somewhat religious. It is significant that there is a sannidhi (sanctum) for Chenchulakshmi Thayar (Mother) in the Ahobilam shrine and that even today Chenchu tribal people have great participatory functions and duties in the annual Brahmotsava. The play elevates the status of the tribal girl to a divine one right at the time of her wedding, but several local legends describe her as having lived long on earth with her Lord without changing her tribal status, while of course going to the higher world with him when he finished his reign and returned to Vaikuntha.

 

I would like to take a deep pause and allow my readers to have a peek at the present condition of the Chenchus in the Nallamala hills. A reasonable view is afforded from a very recent news-report in The Hindu ( April 22, 2009) about a slight improvement in voting facilities for them. Please read on:

Chenchus set to vote
Chenchus set to vote.

For decades, democracy remained a distant dream for the aboriginal Chenchu tribes in the Nallamala hill ranges of Andhra Pradesh. They hardly had a chance to vote freely, caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and the police.

Every time an election was round the corner, it sent a shiver down the spine of these backward tribals who still eke out a livelihood picking gum, honey, berries and roots from the forests.

They dreaded elections because the Greyhounds, the special anti-naxalite force of the Andhra Pradesh police, would start hounding the Chenchus out of their conical bamboo huts deep inside the forests.

Often, they would be dumped on the plains miles away and left to fend for themselves.

The police had looked upon the Chenchus with suspicion, because of the belief that the Maoists relied on them for food and shelter.

First time

But now, for the first time in several elections, they look forward to voting on April 23, without fear of the police – and the naxalites.

Relentless police operations over the last three years have forced the Maoists to shift their base from the Nallamala hill ranges to forests in Chattisgarh and Orissa.

And, unlike in the past when they had to trek long distances to vote, polling booths have been set up close to their pentas (clusters of habitations).

“Yes I feel happy about voting in the booth near my home. I need not walk down to Chintala 12 km away as was the case earlier,” said Gangaiah of Chinna Arutla, a habitation just off the hilltop shrine of Srisailam, from where the Maoists emerged from their 20-year-old underground struggle to participate in talks with the government in October 2004.

Voting rights

Chenchu voting rights might have been restored, but that does not mean an end to their problems. Trekking through their habitations from Srisailam to Rollapenta one can see the poverty, squalor and pathetic living conditions. They trek 20 km to 40 km to collect forest produce and sell them, often only to be cheated by middlemen. A separate Integrated Tribal Development Agency for this Primitive Tribal Group has helped, but not to a great extent.

An annual budget of Rs. 15 crore, though modest for a Chenchu population of about 40,000, should have made a perceptible change in their living standards. But it has not; with no monitoring worth the name, there is a lot of corruption and leakages in the schemes.

The result is a mere five per cent literacy, despite having schools and buildings; malnutrition, infant mortality, scabies, gastroenteritis and malaria and now HIV afflict them, adding to the concern about their already dwindling numbers.

The fear from Maoist violence and suffering because of Police reprisals having died down, there is scope for careful rethinking on the parts of all concerned in regard to matching the real requirements of the people fully with help actually provided, no doubt most of the time with good intentions. What has been achieved so far cannot be considered adequate, because their living conditions continue to be extremely miserable.

It has been the experience of some non-governmental help agencies, that the Chenchus do not want to learn new trades, but keep to their age old practices of soft hunting (they use bows and arrows and some have learnt the use of guns) and gathering of forest produce such as honey, berries and rare roots of medicinal and other applications. There are tentative literacy programmes and attempts to get them to learn commercially viable crafts. The advantage is that the Chenchus have been speaking Telugu, the mother tongue of the mainstream Andhras rather than a language of their own. They share eating habits with some neighbouring Andhra nonvegetarians in relishing forest animal meat but not beef. The disadvantage is their discinclination to leave the forests or learn to do different things from what they have traditionally been doing.

The poignant fact to remember is that this tribe, chosen and loved by the infinite, both as Shiva and as Vishnu, is truly endangered. Incidence of malnutrition and diseases such as AIDS brought on by contact with wrong representatives of the mainstream should be checked periodically and curbed. Confidence and good health need to be brought back to these warm children of Nallamala, the Good Hill Range. There is no need to hurry and change their way of life, while literacy and facilities of relatively comfortable residences can and should be brought to them in good measure. They are known to be disinclined to formal agriculture, but can be enabled to have a fairer bargaining ability for the forest produce they are able to collect. If a few get to the mainstream, they should be welcomed with open arms. Here again, the mainstream has to learn the lessons of its own history and avoid hurtful discriminations when absorbing them. The Chenchus deserve to be preserved the way they have been for long, while being strengthened for better survival and empowered for voluntary, optional, gradual changes. It is known that like the traditional Indian castes and also like Indian Zoroastrians, they are averse to marrying outside their fold. However, there are some ten or so different lines, and it is forbidden to marry within one’s own line. This rule would still permit marriage of cousins leading to a certain level of consanguinity, once again as in much of the Andhra mainstream. Nothing much can be done about this very fast. Education and awareness can enable the changes desired over a period of time.

Shiva and Vishnu love the Chenchus. We should love them too, a little more than we do now.

 

 

 

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