The 1982 Indian Odyssey and the all-island tour of Sri Lanka that followed had no precedent in history. No one, not even S. Shanmuga sundaram, the liason officer for the Church in Sri Lanka who had done the groundwork for the journey, had an inkling of the overall magnitude of the receptions that awaited Gurudeva there. It was unprecedented precisely because religious followings in Asia remain exclusive, and the followers of one teacher or guru do not attend the lectures of another. When a Ramakrishna swami travels, for example, his audience is, for the most part, Ramakrishna Mission members, plus a few uncommitted seekers. But here was a rare soul, a guru, not from India, but from the Wild West, from America, who had no local following and posed no threat to any movement. After all, he would soon return to his land and not draw devotees away from the local ashrams. Everyone was, therefore, free to attend his talks, and they did in numbers that had not been seen since the legendary saints of yore walked these same lanes to speak similar thoughts to devotees centuries before. In this remote part of the world, the village was still the center of life; and when Gurudeva rode through a village, by car or carriage, it came alive. Thousands of Saivites lined the lanes of Alaveddy, Kopay, Karainagar, Batticaloa, Hatton, Kokuvil and elsewhere to honor and revere the satguru and affectionately greet the Saiva pilgrims from the West. A holiday was declared in Kilinochchi so all the school children of the district could join in the parade, which wound a full sixteen miles through the region and took an entire day. From 9am to 5pm Gurudeva was seated on a tall chariot made for the occasion, drawn through the crowded streets by hundreds of men pulling two long, stout ropes. At the gate to each family compound, typically just off the road, nearly every household had set up an elaborately decorated greeting altar, with brass oil lamps called kuttuvilakku and a kumbha. Standing around the altar, the entire family (often three generations) would greet the tall, white-haired, orange-robed, rudraksha-bedecked satguru with flowers, rosewater, holy ash and arati. For most, he simply passed by and they rushed forward to throw their garland into his hands. Now and again, the procession halted, and Gurudeva got down, approached the family's altar and allowed them to pass the lighted lamp before him, to pour water on his dusty feet, place the red pottu on his forehead and garland him. He looked like Siva Himself, they whispered to one another, so divine, so full of light and love. For these families, stories would echo for generations.
Processions continued for miles and miles in the hot sun, village after village. As he approached the outskirts of a village, you could hear the distant, welcoming roar of hundreds of voices intoning "Aum Namasivaya" with heartfelt fervor. Kids set off firecrackers and lit sparklers. Those with more ingenuity had set nets of flowers high in the trees, and as Gurudeva walked beneath, they tugged on ropes to release showers of blossoms. Each procession had its destination, a temple usually, for this is the common gathering place for Saivites and saints, but sometimes it was a hall or a schoolyard. The last few hundred meters, sometimes the last mile, men would scurry in front of him, in teams of eight, to place on the ground newly woven white veshti cloth in ten-meter lengths so the satguru's feet, bare as he approached the temple, would not have to touch the Earth. Walking before the satguru, there was always a team of nagasvara and tavil musicians and a flock of young girls in white dresses tossing rose petals beneath his feet. Arriving, Gurudeva was escorted to the Deity's shrine for a brief puja, then to the stage for the obligatory oratory by local politicians and village elders, which, if allowed, would eclipse the real purpose of the day. Toward the end Gurudeva decreed that his talk would be first and the introductions would follow. Amazingly, it worked; and his connection with the audience came to life, absent the hour-long soporific speechifying by others.
19 Responses to “Marching Through Sri Lanka and South India”
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