My son Rueben and I went on a trip to India recently, to the village where my father was born. He passed away in May last year, and some Hindus believe that prayers said at the ancestral temple (kuladeivam) by one’s descendants after one’s death would provide easy passage to the soul.
So, Rueben and I set out to pray for my late father at our kuladeivam.
Along the way, we prayed at ancient temples and churches, saw wild peacocks in padi fields, stayed in 100-year-old hotels, met old relatives and tucked into excellent South Indian cuisine. The trip exceeded all our expectations.
Our journey started in the holy town of Velankanni in the Nagapattinum district of Tamil Nadu, where the Virgin Mary is said to have made an appearance. I was awed by the droves of people who had gathered to pray and seek blessings at the famous 400-year-old Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health.
I witnessed the faith of many pilgrims as they performed penance by walking on their knees on the 1.5km hot sandy path leading to the church; many had bloodied knees at the end of their journey.
The next part of our journey took us to the 2,500-year-old temple city of Madurai. We stayed at the Heritage Madurai Hotel; this 6.9ha resort is a 100 years old.
At the reception area is the Peacock Door, which guarded the entrance to the Mayur Palace Fort in the 1700s.
Every morning, guests are treated to a sumptuous, complimentary South Indian breakfast which included idli, thosai, vadai and uttappam, accompanied by sambar and chutney.
At night we said our prayers at the splendid Meenakshi Amman Temple (originally built in the 6th century BCE), dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi and her consort Lord Shiva. Among the architectural wonders found within this temple is the beautiful “thousand pillared hall”, supported by 985 carved pillars.
The following day, we visited St Joseph’s School for the Blind, a residential school run by the Servite Sisters. Besides basic living skills, this charity teaches blind children from the surrounding areas reading, typing and computer literacy using Braille. It was inspiring to see several blind teachers, hard at work training the children.
Our final destination was Karaikudi, in the heart of Chettinad. It’s the home of the Nattukottai Chettiars, a prosperous banking and business community. Chettinad is also known for its local cuisine (Chicken Chettinad is well known to many Malaysians), architecture and temples.
So as not to trouble my relatives, we stayed at the Saratha Villas, a beautiful old Chettiar mansion returned to its former glory by its current French owner. This mansion has a link to Malaysia as its original owner had made his fortune in Melaka. Guest rooms surround an open air central courtyard where guests are served aromatic Indian coffee in the mornings.
I made it a point to get up before dawn to perform my yoga exercises and then set out for a walk in the countryside, just as the sun was coming up. Villagers were bathing and washing their clothes in the large ponds in front of the old temples.
One beautiful old temple in the village stood out from the rest, as it cast its perfectly symmetrical reflection in a pond in front of it. The other great find was wild peacocks strutting around and feeding in the surrounding padi fields.
After my morning walk, I had a sumptuous Chettinad breakfast waiting for me at the hotel. We were spoilt by waiters who would linger while we devoured our crispy hot thosai and then served us piping hot appam with fresh coconut milk, sweet paal paniyaram, and then fresh yogurt with honey. Breakfast would end with more Indian coffee with cow’s milk and fresh local fruits, including deseeded pomegranates.
The next day, we drove to the village where my father was born, R. S. Mangalam, about 70 km south of Karaikudi. Along the way we chanced upon another beautiful old temple – the Adhi Ratneswarar temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. It’s one of 14 temples dedicated to Shiva, mentioned in ancient hymns by the Tamil poet Sambanthar.
The splendid ancient Dravidian architecture and the cool quiet ambience of the temple invoked a great sense of peace as we sat and prayed. A group of devotees was performing the Kummi Adi dance, an ancient village dance where women dance in a circle, clap rhythmically and sing songs.
We finally reached the small temple where my ancestors had prayed, our kuladeivam. I was told that it is a duty for every Hindu to to find and pray at the kuladeivam at least once in his/her lifetime.
We also found the house where my father had been born 94 years ago; it was a emotional moment for me.
The house was well preserved and only some minor renovations had been done.
Returning to Karaikudi, we stopped by Devipattinam, a humble coastal village, to pray at the Navagraha Temple.
The temple, dedicated to the nine celestial planets, is unique because it is completely submerged in the sea. It is also said to be an auspicious place to say prayers for departed ancestors.
At Karaikudi, my cousin’s wife prepared a fabulous Chettinad briyani dinner feast for about 120 relatives, whom I had not seen for 50 years.
We returned home two days later – physically, emotionally and spiritually satisfied.
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