Chennai: The small temple town of Kumbakonam in the heart of the Cauvery delta must be now taking a deep breath of relief after having peacefully hosted a spectacular ‘Mahamaham-2016’, South's own ‘Kumbh’ that is once-in-a-12-year-wonder, a place revered in traditional narratives as ‘Bhaskara Kshetram (Sun God's abode)’.
As the ‘Theerthavari Utsav’ unfolded at the appointed hour on February 22 in two parallel scenarios, - one for the principal deities of the 12 major Shiva shrines at the ‘Mahamaham’ tank and another for the deities of the five main Vishnu temples on the banks of the Cauvery-, they were witnessed by several lakh people who waited for the celestial bathing to get over before they could have a dip in the waters.
But few may have sensed that the grand finale to the 10-day festival was also a self-discovering moment that the ‘utsav’ simultaneously dwelt a hammer blow to sectarian divisions within Hinduism.
The ‘Theerthavari’ to both the Shaivite and Vaishnavite deities, more technically to their symbolic representations, may be seen as a true ‘Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi moment’. For in modern times, it was the late pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, who subtly critiqued the sectarian divisions within Hinduism. The ‘Paramacharya’ was the first to convincingly call for ‘joint recitations’ of the 'Thiruppavai' and ‘Thiruvempavai’ (traditionally confined to Vishnu and Shiva temples respectively), to drive home that rigid sectarian walls take us nowhere.
The late Kanchi seer also used to, often in his lectures, draw attention to this ‘variety of religious experiences’ that make the fabric of the Hindu faith, and not something that can be reduced to a singular doctrine or identity. Once again, it is this catholicity of his insight that stood vindicated at ‘Mahamaham-2016’. Even the ‘Agamic’ rituals invoked at such auspicious hours are never the same, and yet they allude to an unspeakable, broader, underlying collective destiny of mankind.
Thus, it was more than a life-giving mythos that explains the spirit of the ‘Mahamaham’ that was at play. During the festival, the magnetic pull of Kumbakonam,- as believed to be the original spot where the huge pot that miraculously survived the ‘great deluge’ and carrying the re-creative potential in it had shakily rested-, may even have some scientific parallels today. One reason why it is known as ‘Bhaskara Kshetram’, a sun-spot averting a total black hole?
But the fact that it brought together people of diverse faiths,- including a Muslim family from Krishnagiri this time and also a group of Italian tourists for all the ire that the foundational saffron groups turn on Sonia Gandhi-, ‘Mahamaham’ yet again brought to the fore how Tamil Nadu continues to be an exemplar of religious harmony and that it will not fall a prey to divisive forces.
This is really, the big picture that ‘Mahamaham-2016’ held aloft. It showed that the strength of a culture,- religion being its most visible face-, is the hope people have in its role as mitigating human suffering, and not merely showcasing numbers.