It’s been so long since I’ve heard the sounds of night. Crickets and tree frogs, each with their particular rub and peep, dry seeds shaking, scratches on parchment, brush strokes on silver.
The village loud speakers are finally silent.
With the last of rains of the month of Karthikai, a large number of the men in our village enter local temples to take vows, place malas of jungle nuts around their necks, and don colorful veshtis with matching thundus. Thus they transformed themselves into samis, temporary ascetics preparing for pilgrimage.
The Ayappa samis wear orange or black. The Palani samis put on green while the devotees of the goddess Sakthi wear red. All the samis go about their daily lives walking barefoot, whether laborers or bank managers. Many grow thick beards. They smear holy ash over their foreheads and place large dots of sandalwood paste and ochre between their eyebrows. Some collect fresh cow urine to sprinkle on the doorsteps of their homes each day to keep evil influences away.
The rules: no drinking, no smoking, no eating meat or mushrooms, no cheating or doing bad things, no sex, if a beautiful woman walks by you must turn your head away.
For us, the onset of color sami season meant that LOUDSPEAKERS began to blast LOUDLY from EVERY VILLAGE, BATTLING each other for DOMINANCE from 4:00 A.M. till MIDNIGHT. They were broadcasting Sanskrit chants, upbeat Tamil devotional bhajans, the latest cinema songs, and the newly acquired north Indian temple bell/drum machine: Clang Clang dingadingadingading Clang Clang dingadingadingading Clang Clang dingadingadingading.
The Ayappa samis travel to Sabarimalai in the mountains of Kerala. The duration of their vow depends on the mandalam they choose: 41, 55, or 60 days. Ayappa samis are supposed to fast on Wednesdays and Saturdays and chant each evening with their fellow samis.
Sami… Sami… Sami… Sami Saranam Ayappao! Sami…Sami…Sami….Sami Saranam Ayyappao!
Tone-deaf pre-adolescent boys often take turns leading in the chanting of the 108 saranams, each verse followed by ‘Sami Saranam Ayyappao!’ Each boy starts on whatever note he feels like and they all go up and down in unison.
They sing about the joy of bathing in the Pampa River where good King Rajasekaran found the divine baby Ayyappa, a tiny golden bell around his little neck. They sing about the glory of the twelve-year-old Ayyappa who traveled to the jungle to obtain the milk of a wild tigress to save his mother’s life. The tigress bowed to him and gave him a ride home to his adoptive parents’ palace. The men sing about the massive battle between Ayyappa and the omnipotent demon Mahishi who was destroying the world, a battle all the gods came down from heaven to watch.
In another corner of the village, the men in green go MURUGAA MURUGAA, murugaa murugaa, MURUGAA MURUGAA, murugaa murugaa. They are devotees of Murugan and their period of self- discipline is 45 days with fasting on Mondays. They sing about Siva’s son Murugan who raced around the earth on the back of a peacock. He carried a powerful spear with which he killed the unstoppable demon that was enveloping the world in violence and darkness. His mother Parvathi called him ‘Little Fruit’. ‘Pazham nee’. Palani– one of Murugan’s most holy temple towns built around two sacred temple hills.
The third group of samis in our village are Om Shakthi samis and they wear scarlet. Unlike the other two groups, most devotees of the goddess Aadhi Parashakthi are women. They fast on Tuesdays and Fridays.
One evening as the egg yolk sun slipped into the Cardamom Hills, the men had just washed off the day’s dust by the cow shed. I joined them under the vagai tree where they park their cycles.
“So Sami,” I said to Green Sami. “When are you going to Palani?”
“We leave in three days, Sami, after the big send-off party in our village.” Samis are very polite and call each other and everybody else Sami during sami season.
“Are you going to walk or ride, Sami?”
“Walk, of course. Some samis even walk all the way from Chennai. That’s over 500 km. We will take it slow and make the trip in five days. Our temple committee sends a tractor ahead with food to set up each camp. First night is Theerthathotti temple.”
“That’s the one where a spring bubbles out of a rock,” Red Samy said. “It comes straight from the center of the earth.” He was bald and squat and loved oily pooris with potato masala.
Green Sami continued. “Next night is Theni Alinagaram, then Devadanapatti, Vathalagundu, Oddanchatram. We reach Palani the afternoon of the sixth day.”
“Where do you sleep?”
“Sometimes the temples give them shelter under their pavilions,” Orange Sami said. “Or they sleep under a tree.” He smiled and touched his chest. “We Ayyappa samis don’t waste time walking. We ride straight to the basecamp and hike 70 kilometers up Sabari mountain.”
“You Ayyappa samis are all a waste,” Green Sami said. “You just sit with your buddies in garland-decorated vans and enjoy a sight-seeing vacation. Some of us Palani samis fullfill our vows by carrying a kavadi on our shoulders all the way to Palani. Others walk with spears piercing their cheeks and hooks in their backs.”
“Yes,” Red Sami said. “The Palani samis are really tough, and they walk at least 600 km!” Red Sami was not the brightest sami of them all.
“Podah,” Raja the tractor driver said. “it’s not anywhere near that far.” He had been hauling composted cow manure that day. “I drove the supply tractor three years ago for them. It’s 130 km one way. And talk about lazy. You Om Shakthi samis hardly take vows for a week before hopping in your mini bus with a bunch of women.”
“Well that’s better than you, not doing a pilgrimage at all.”
Raja tractor driver was the only one wearing a normal shirt and a faded plaid lungi.
“Why aren’t you a sami this year?” I asked him.
“I don’t believe in all that business. Look at them. They do all this for what? To ask their god for a wife or a house or children.” Raja climbed into his driver’s seat and stomped on the clutch. “I’ve never gone on a single patha yathra and I have a wife and house and kids. God gives these things to you, or he doesn’t. All this sami stuff is a waste of time and money. A great way for temples to make millions.”
“You never know what horrible things might happen in your life,” Orange Sami said. “I go to ask God to bless my wife and kids and keep us all safe.”
Raja tractor driver looked away and rubbed the back of his head. “Whatever. Who am I to tell you what to do? If you believe in all this and want to be samis, then go ahead. Leave me out of it.” He started the heavy motor. “Who wants a ride home?”
Over the next week, each Sami set off on their pilgrimage after receiving a rousing send-off and gifts from their family members. One by one, they slowly trickled back to work, exhausted but glowing with the high of their experience. Orange Sami had cut off his sami beard and now had a cold. Green Sami had shaved his head which was now smeared with peeling sandalwood paste. He seemed embarrassed to be bald and covered his stubble with a head wrap.
Red Sami looked exactly the same, except he was no longer as red.
“Which temples did you visit along the way?” I asked him. We were standing in front of the chicken house as senior rooster chased junior rooster over the dung heap.
“I have no idea. There were so many.”
Orange Sami pointed at him with his hand. “This lazy fellow just sits in the bus and goes where the ladies tell him.”
“So what if I do?”
“How was Sabari Mountain?” Orange Sami tossed a pebble at senior rooster.
“You wouldn’t believe the crowds. Once we finally made it up to the temple, there was standing room only. We had to wait in line for 15 hours before ascending the last 18 golden steps to have darshan with Lord Ayyappa.”
“Where do you go pee?”
“The temple authorities have made temporary toilets. Or you just hold it.”
“No stampedes like a few years ago when 100 people died?”
He shook his head. “There’s always one or two who try to push ahead, but most of the samis were very orderly.”
“I went to Sabari mountain this past December,” Green Sami Carpenter said. “I brought you a photo I took with my friends, dressed like tribals who used to smear themselves with black when they worshipped Ayyappasami.”
“So you were both a black sami and a green sami this year.”
“I often do both pilgrimages. Double the results.”
I turned to the other Green Sami. “How are your feet? Blisters? Didn’t get hit by cars or buses along the highway?”
He laughed and showed me his right sole. “See. In perfect shape. Sami protects you from injuries if you have faith.”
“How about the crowds in Palani?”
“They were so thick that if you got separated from your friend, you wouldn’t be able to find each other again. Sometimes you couldn’t walk forward or backwards and just had to wait. Luckily our temple committee arranged rooms for us in the ashram near the base of the sacred hill. They got us passes for darshan in the inner sanctum using a back stairway, but still we had to climb the hundreds of hot stone steps and stand in a long line under the sun.”
“Did you feel anything when you finally had darshan?”
He looked up for a few moments. “You only get a few seconds to worship before the authorities push you along to make room for the next person.” He grabbed Red Sami’s elbow and shoved and pulled. “Like that.”
“Leave me alone!” Red Sami said.
Orange Sami released him and continued. “The god’s statue was pure gold and beautifully decorated with special silk clothing and flowers. I didn’t feel any specific power, but I did get a sense of peace and blessing.”
“Yes,” Green Sami said. “It’s difficult to worship because of the masses of people, but I did feel a surge of power.”
“What was it like?”
“Hard to describe,” He brushed his arm with his finger tips. ”Like when all your little hairs stand up if you’re cold? Something like that.”
“Was is worth it all?” I asked. “I mean, you all must be totally worn out.”
“I brought home holy vibuthi and prasad for my family,” Orange Sami said. “They were really happy to get these blessings straight from Sabari Mountain.”
“I brought my mother panchamirtham,” Green Sami said. “Have you tasted it, sahr? Thick sweet black syrup of hill bananas, jaggery, ghee, hill honey, and one more thing… yes, dates. They also add a little cardamom and rose water.”
“What about next year?”
“Definitely,” Orange Sami said. “I’m up for it.”
“I’m not sure,” Green Sami said. “I’ll see how I feel when next year comes around.”
“Me, I’m going to skip,” Red Sami said. “Too much work.”
“What you are really saying,” Green Sami said, “is that you don’t want to give up your Chicken 65 or your mutton curry.”
“Yennada sami, I saw you at the TASMAC bar last night with your drinking buddies. You had just bought a quarter of rum. Or was it brandy?”
The samis are regular men again. Their colors are gone. It’s over now, this year’s season of pilgrimage. No loud speakers. No send off parties. Just the quiet cool of night, the drone of the motor that pumps water from the earth, the tired horn of the last RMTC bus plying between Thevaram and Bodi.
The oblong moon is strong behind the lingering fringe of post-monsoon clouds.
My bare feet carry me up the worn cobble stone steps and I lay myself down to sleep.
Eyes close breath blends hush of fan tired aching place of rest.
What happened today, happened. What didn’t, won’t.
This day’s pilgrimage is done.