God smokes cigars in Viralimalai

Summer vacation is here, which means more time to read everything I didn’t have time for during this past school year! (I’ve also been spending time relaxing with friends and family, watching Modern Family, learning how to cook, getting started with my research job… but that’s not the point here.)

I hadn’t read fiction of my own choosing in quite a while, so I decided to start things off with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. The reviews on the back described it as a black comedy, but I can’t say I noticed much of the humor; I spent a good portion of the book feeling a bit sick to my stomach. That being said, I found myself drawn into the narrative very quickly, and Adiga pulls no punches in his scathingly sarcastic analysis of contemporary Indian society. I do recommend it–just don’t expect a very lighthearted read.

This past week, I returned to the familiar embrace of academic nonfiction with Davesh Soneji’s Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India. Soneji, a professor at McGill University, takes an intimate look at the devadasis of South India, women who were traditionally the center of music and dance in South India until the 20th century, when their dance was appropriated by upper-caste women and transformed into what we now know as Bharatanatyam. Devadasis, who were branded as “prostitutes” by nationalist reformers, still suffer from extreme social and economic marginalization today. I learned so much from Soneji’s book, and I’ll be posting more than a few excerpts in the near future.

For now, however, I just want to post a funny anecdote I came across in Unfinished Gestures. Soneji describes the small town of Viralimalai in the state of Tamil Nadu. Viralimalai plays an important role in the history of devadasi dance, but it’s also home to a temple with a very, very, interesting tradition:

Viralimalai town

“Although the early history of Viralimalai is unclear, the temple has traditionally been associated with the military and administrative chiefs appointed by the Nayakas [16th-18th centuries] known as pALaiyakkArar. The present temple structure evidences Nayaka-style renovations, and the pALaiyakkArar Vadi Lakkayya Nayaka was largely responsible for these renovations in the sixteenth century. It later came under the control of the Marungapuri zamindari, and then in the eighteenth century, the “little kingdom” of Pudukkottai ruled by the Tondaiman rajas…

“An acknowledgment of the definitively modern colonial-pALaiyakkArar heritage of Viralimalai survives in a number of oral narratives that circulate in the town today. In the popular imagination pALaiyakkArars are associated with the unusual custom of presenting a cigar as a food offering (naivedya) to the god. The popular story of the cigar offering, as narrated by a priest at the temple, is as follows:

The minister of a pALaiyakkArar chief named Karuppamuttu Pillai visited the Viralimalai temple every Friday. On one occasion, because of heavy rains, the river Mamundi, which separated Karuppamuttu’s home from the temple, had become impassable. Stranded on the bank, Karuppamuttu was left without food and, more importantly for him, his most beloved cigars (suruTTu kaLanji).

Murugan, seeing his devotee in such a condition, appeared to him in a human form holding a cigar and matches in his hand, and led Karuppamuttu safely to the temple. From that day onward, Karuppamuttu decreed that cigars be offered to the Lord at Viralimalai along with the food offerings (naivedyam) on a daily basis.” (Soneji 165)

A plate of offerings. You can clearly see the two cigars!

Image sources: Viralimalai town, temple picturesRavi Varma painting