I am standing at what can be qualified as among the filthiest spots on earth. And yet, just about a month previously, if you believe in mythology, the Ganga had come here to cleanse herself of her sins. Perhaps Varanasi is even dirtier, or maybe, this place is fouled up because the Ganga left behind all her accumulated dirt. Whatever be the reason, the place is dirty and a shame.
This is the hallowed Tula Ghattam or Tula Snana Paditturai, a ghat on the river Cauvery, in the heart of Mayiladuthurai town. The spot, also known as Vrshabha Teertham is now referred to as Lagadam (a corruption of Tula Ghattam). To access it, you go down the Mahadana Street from the Mayuranathaswami Temple. Several markets obscure what must have once been a direct route to the water. Most shopkeepers assure you that there is nothing to see at Lagadam and sure enough, at first sight, the place is disappointing in the extreme. A concrete ramp leads to the water and the town appears to consider the place an appropriate receptacle for all its rubbish. And then some of the beauties of the place become visible. The ghat is accessed by a picturesque 16-pillared mandapam that is blocked with all odds and ends from the market. Beyond that is a beautiful pavilion fronting the river. The multi-coloured paint notwithstanding, its architecture – forty-eight pillars and cusped arches, topped with a wagon roof, is something to be admired.
A road runs parallel to the river and is accessed from Mahadana Street through the pavilion. So the pillars are ever at risk with two-wheelers turning at indiscriminate speeds. The echo caused by the continuous hooting of these vehicles is deafening. Carefully threading my way through, I see two small shrines, at either ends of the pavilion. The one on the right is for Bhairava and the one of the left is dedicated to Dundi Ganesa. These are identical to each other, fronted by small two-pillared stone mandapams inside which are the alcove-like shrines. To see the idols and hazily at that, you need to climb up the mandapams and peer into the doors blocked with wire-netting.
As I look in, it suddenly occurs to me that I am gazing at THE Dundi Ganesa, the one on whom Muttuswami Dikshitar sang his Karikalabhamukham (raga Saveri). And the lovely recording of GN Balasubramaniam singing it in his last Music Academy concert (December 1964) comes to mind. This small temple is on the banks of the Cauvery exactly as Dikshitar wrote of it – Kaveri Tata Stitham. Scholars have attributed the song to Mayuram (now Mayiladuthurai) and the line Nilagrivakumaram is considered a pun for Nilagriva refers to Shiva, the blue-throated God as well a peacock, for it is in that form that the Lord came to this town to marry the Goddess who had taken the form of a peahen to worship him. The locals assure me that there is no Dundi/Dundi Ganesa anywhere else in Mayiladuthurai. And given that no work on Dikshitar gives the exact location of the shrine beyond mentioning that it is in this town, this temple is perhaps the place. I am however not able to reconcile such a grand song with such a non-descript shrine. But then, none but Dikshitar can tell us as to what caught his fancy. Perhaps Lagadam was a lovely scenic spot in his time.
Karikalabhamukham, though perfect in prosody and alliteration, thereby bearing the hallmarks of a genuine Dikshitar kriti, inexplicably does not find mention in the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini, the compilation of his grand-nephew Subbarama Dikshitar. Neither does another song – Vadanyeswaram (Devagandhari), composed at Vallalarkoil which is close to Mayiladuturai. At least three of Muttuswami Dikshitar’s disciples – Vallalarkoil Ammani, Koorainadu Ramaswami Pillai and Therezhundur Bilvavanam came from the Mayiladuthurai region. It is quite likely that the great composer came to the town and spent some time here, visiting the shrines around the area and creating songs on them.
Lagadam comes to life once a year when in the month of Aippasi (October/November), Tula Snanam is observed all along the Cauveri. The first day of the month is particularly sacred and thousands flock to the ghat to take a dip in the river. Lord Mayuranathaswami comes every day of the month to the ghat and then it is possible to see some vestiges of its past grandeur. During this festival, the area undergoes a facelift of sorts. For the rest of year, squalor takes over.
The Dundi Ganesa, and its twin, the Bhairava shrine, presents a picture of neglect. It is perhaps only the granite out of which they have been built that has saved them thus far. It is indeed a pity that a sanctum sanctified by Dikshitar is so shoddily maintained.