issue 184 - June 1988
The gift of the god
On any normal day Rangaswami was a member of one
of the lowest classes in Indian society. But on the day of
the festival, he was literally transformed into a god.
RANGASWAMI Peak is not the highest of the Nilgiri Hills. But when I gazed down the seven thousand foot drop to the dry plains below, I thought that the Irula people could hardly have chosen a more dramatic setting for their sacred temple.
The Irula pujart (priest) who had led me up the long, steep path spread out his arms towards the villages and towns spread out below: 'Tomorrow people from every one of those places will climb that path to attend our festival and worship our god,' he said proudly. And when I joined the two or three thousand who thronged round the temple next morning - bearing offerings of coconuts, bananas, tulsi leaves and incense - I understood what made him so proud.
This was the one day in the year when the Irulas' sacred mountain also became the focus of attention of sophisticated caste Hindus from miles around. On that day my friend, the pujari, became someone other than a simple tea estate labourer. Named Rangaswami, after the mountain deity, he became the personification of the god whom everyone came to worship. Although dressed only in a lungi (cotton skirt), he was transformed. He walked differently, talked differently, using much more formal language than normal. And no-one dared address him in the familiar or derogatory terms normally adopted when talking to low-status tribal people. Instead they used terms of extreme respect normally reserved for elders and superiors.
As so often happens to a foreigner in India, I had been appropriated by a loud group of young professionals dressed in Western clothes. Irritated though I was by their arrogant manner, I couldn't help admiring the fact that they had taken three buses, walked 10 miles and camped overnight in the forest so as to attend the festival.
Though they talked mostly about their business affairs, about Western pop music and international cricket teams, they were reverent when discussing religion. Rangaswami was an incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu, they told me, and this temple was especially sacred because of its association with both the mountain and the forest. Tribal people were dirty, primitive and simple-minded, they said. Yet there was no doubt in their minds that the god Rangaswami had chosen to inhabit just such a primitive Irula man on that day. And when they came to ask favours of the god, it was to the Irula pujari that they would address themselves.
One had come to thank Rangaswami for answering his prayer for a son; another was concerned about his wife's illness the other two were begging assistance in their business ventures. They pushed arrogantly and impatiently to the front of the queue of worshippers, then - overcome with humility - fell at Rangaswami's feet. For that moment the lungi-clad tribal man triumphed over the prostrate Western-dressed businessmen.
The festival went on all day. The mountain air was filled with incense and thousands of coconuts were broken open. At any one time groups of people of different castes went into a temporary state of frenzy - some shouting obscenities or impersonating deities and spirits, others overcome while dancing. Several whipped themselves, burned camphor on their tongues, then rolled violently on the jagged mountain rocks - all sure signs of possession. But, throughout, Rangaswami remained a calm and tranquil influence, touching people reassuringly on the head or speaking gently to them in a far more palpable and immediate communication with God than is usually offered in the West.
As evening approached most of the pilgrims left and the deity left Rangaswami, who began to count up the temple donations under the watchful eyes of several Badagas, members of the locally dominant caste which owns most of the land. A squabble broke out and eventually he was left with a tiny fraction of the takings which he was ordered to use carefully on the upkeep of the temple. A man who had fallen at Rangaswami's feet in homage only half an hour earlier was now berating him like a schoolboy. It was as if midnight had struck and Cinderella's coach had turned back into a pumpkin.
Later, as we made our way back down the steep winding path, it began to pour with torrential rain. One of my businessmen friends took Rangaswami's umbrella from him without asking, leaving him to be drenched to the skin. But, for all the expression he showed, Rangaswami might still have been possessed by his god, so oblivious was he to the abuses heaped upon him.
Neil Thin is an anthropologist who lived for three years in Tamil Nadu in South India.