It was a lazy afternoon sometime in the early 1970s. Looking back, most afternoons appeared lazy and somehow not so unbearably hot then. Not that we had an AC . Those were gadgets that only the ultra-rich possessed. In the rezhi of our ancestral house in Mylapore, grandmother was lying down but not sleeping. An important qualification, for while reclining for a while was permissible for someone of advanced years, sleeping in the afternoon was not. This was perhaps the reason my mother took to siestas with a vengeance, something that riled grandmother quite a bit.
Anyway, this resting time was also story-telling time. And she was quite a storyteller. In a trice she would be the weeping Dasaratha, next moment an arrogant Kaikeyi and sometime later a ferocious Ravana. There would be songs aplenty and quite a few shlokas. All this for an audience of one – me. For by then every other cousin had grown up and gone away.
“Have I ever told you about Vriddhachalam?” asked Patti. No she had not I said and so we embarked on the tale of the temple. “I was there several years ago when your grandfather was in the railways. Those were the times. What state we travelled in! A full saloon to ourselves. Cooks, guards, assistants, everyone at my beck and call…(They were all nominally Thatha’s but had evidently recognised who the de facto Chief was). Compare that with your father. The GM of a bank he calls himself. Not even a peon at home to run errands…
Anyway, we then visited Vrddhachalam – the old hill. It is on the banks of the Manimuthar…”
“Is it a hill?” I asked
“No hardly. But it is at a slight elevation with a very old temple for Shiva – Vrddhagiriswara (Lord of the Old Hill). But unusually, it has two Goddesses – Vrddhambal (Old Goddess) and Balambal (Young Goddess). So one old lady like me and another a young woman.”
This had me hooked. I never knew Shiva had such tendencies.
“Guru Namasivayar came to this temple and was hungry. He sang a verse to the old Goddess whereupon she said that only a young woman can offer food. Then he sang of her as Bala and the Goddess ensured he got his meal. This Balambal is in a sub-shrine beside Vrddhagiriswarar.” Grandmother then sang the verse and so the afternoon wore on.
Several years later, much after Grandmother had taken her final bow (rather dramatically announcing her end, blessing all of us and departing after a day of singing), I was in Neyveli when someone said Vrddhachalam was close by. A flood of memories came back and so off I went. The river was bone dry. The temple was really impressive. It was the month of Adi and Goddess Vrddhambal was being brought out in procession. The palanquin was a work of art. I also saw Vrddhagiriswarar and the young consort by his side. Of course, Vrddhambal is the presiding Goddess and this one is very much a sub deity.
The temple has several Ganesa sanctums. One is a subterranean one. The Subrahmanya, with Valli and Devasena is between the Shiva and Goddess sanctums and hold your breath, is on a tower, accessed by a flight of steps. The temple abounds in sculpture, one of which must have been the Ardhanariswara icon that was so craftily secreted away to Australia and replaced by a changeling that only a sharp-eyed net blogger could detect.
Yesterday, after reading A Srivathsan’s account in The Hindu of this theft, I was reminded of all this. Vrddhachalam is a place worthy of several visits. These days they even do a girivalam there I am told.