Michael Hutchinson made a pilgrimage to India’s Deep South, accompanied by Philip Clarke
Out of nowhere last Christmas, I kept thinking about visiting the ancient tamarind tree under which Sri Krishnamacharya received the Yoga Rahasya from his ancestor Sri Nathamuni. If you don’t know the story, according to Sri Desikachar, in about 1903 at the age of 16 his father walked over 300 miles from his home near Mysore to the small town of Alvar Tirungari, near the southern tip of India. There he was instructed to bathe in the river and enter a mango grove, where he fell into a trance. When he awoke, he reported receiving the lost Yoga Rahasya from Sri Nathamuni himself. Where does the tamarind tree fit in? It is where Nathamuni himself had received the Yoga Rahasya, in a vision from an earlier great Tamil teacher, Nammālvār. The full story is related in Sri Desikachar’s introduction to his translation of the Yoga Rahasya.
I phoned Gill Lloyd, my mentor, about my impulse to visit Alvar Tirungari and found her to be very enthusiastic. My idea was to fit this trip into the middle weekend of two weeks study at the KYM, organised by Andy and Helen. My journey was not to be so physically demanding as that of the young Krishnamacharya, but it was still too much of a struggle to book tickets on the Indian railways! Fortunately, my hotel in Chennai, the Raj Palace, was able to make the travel arrangements. This was after recruiting Philip Clarke, a student of Liz Murtha, who was going to be with us at the KYM, to my crazy pilgrimage. In the meantime, I booked the Apple Tree hotel in Tirunelveli, recommended by Gill, for our Saturday night stay.
Philip and I gave our apologies for skipping class on the Friday afternoon, took a rickshaw to Egmore station and boarded the 4pm sleeper to the deep south of Tamil Nadu. We sat nervously wondering if we were in the right place, or even on the right train, but we were soon reassured by the ticket inspector. At the next stop two local men joined us in our first-class compartment – and ordered chai for us and later a masala dosa each – messy but tasty. After being so helpful and generous, they left the train near Madurai, leaving us to turn in for the night. Snuggling down as the train rattled along felt like such an adventure!
My phone woke us at 5:45 to wash and pack and jump off the train at Tirunelveli. A car and driver from the Apple Tree hotel appeared as arranged. After a coffee and a chai, we were off to see temples! The first was a very quiet place, really a warm-up for our second, the actual Nammālvār temple at Alvar Tirunagari. This once important small town is situated about half way towards the coast along the river. Arun dropped us at the temple entrance in the quiet morning air.
Once inside the temple, we bought some herbal garlands – these were not for us to wear! We were shown up some steps clad in polished ornate brass to a small platform with an iron fence, almost inside the tree. I showed my copy of the Yoga Rahasya and a little photo of Krishnamacharya as credentials, which seemed to make a good impression. The Brahmin priest showed us how, over thousands of years, the tree had split into 5 widely spaced trunks, but in front of us were two central ones with a small sandy space between them. The leaves of this ancient tree are still very fresh and green, fed by living bark on the outward side of each trunk.
The priest kindly let us though a gate to sit between these nearest trunks. As soon as I’d composed myself became overwhelmed with the presence of the place and for a time was unable to speak for the tears. Meanwhile small knots of pilgrims or locals came to the railing to take puja from the priest. Who knows what they thought of this weeping visitor? My companion, Philip, sat behind me on a low wall, like a sort of guardian.
In time I felt calmer and was able to recite prayers to Sris Patañjali, Nathamuni, Krishnamacharya and Desikachar. At a quiet point, we stepped out of this space, giving profuse thanks to the priest. He then took our fresh garlands and put them over the trunk of the tree most connected with Nammālvār. We were then specially escorted to all the shrines in the temple to gods and ālvārs (Tamil saintly poets), including that to Nammālvār himself.
Finally, Philip and I were taken to meet ‘the Nathamuni’, a resident holy man who as far as we can make out is considered a local oracle. He showed us a pair of tingshas, as badge of his authenticity; who knows how long these have been handed down?! Let me pause to say a few words about Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya. This text is so valuable to us because it provides unique practical advice on Yoga, on the role of the teacher, on prāṇāyāma, for the stages of life, for women and for living in disturbed times like ours.
Still very moved by our experience, we left the temple and our driver took us to a small diner on the edge of town for breakfast, a masala dosa on a banana leaf. This was more training for me in scooping food into my mouth just with four fingers! For ourselves and our driver, this meal cost 25 rupees each, less than 30p. There followed a small glass of South Indian coffee or chai, from a stall across the road, 10 rupees each!
We then continued towards the coast, with our calm and helpful driver Arun stopping on the way for us to look at small temples, women planting rice, a tree full of fruit bats, or at one point to receive a blessing from an itinerant temple elephant! This beast can tuck several small banknotes into a crease in his trunk, still giving blessings, before passing them up to his driver! Compared to Alvar Tirunagari, our destination, Tiruchendur on the coast, was heaving with traffic and people. The draw was the massive Sri Murugan temple on the sea front and we’d passed many pilgrims walking to it barefoot along the road.
Practically, the temple interior was inaccessible. It was both the pilgrimage season and an extension of the annual Pongal holiday festival the previous Wednesday to Friday. Thousands of pilgrims were queuing four deep around the sides of the temple and being sustained by water, fruit and snacks from street sellers. Philip and I found some slices of pineapple very welcome in the growing heat. Hundreds of people were also gathered in a thick line along the beach, waiting for an opportunity to bathe in the sea. We decided to leave the temple to the pilgrims and find some lunch. This was a pile of rice and vegetables on a freshly washed banana leaf, more practice for my fingers. An authentic South Indian lunch, all we could eat, not too hotly spiced, for just 100 rupees each (about £1.10).
Our journey back to Tirunelveli was relatively quiet. The highlight was a small diversion across the river to another temple. This was closed for the early afternoon, but nearby was a juggernaut. This word, properly written ‘Jagannath’, has been taken over by us to denote a large commercial vehicle. However, it originally denoted a massive chariot, used at the festival of Puri, to haul an image of a god through the streets, behind one or more elephants. The original wooden wheels and chassis of this relatively small Jagannath had been replaced by steel, each wheel still taller than Philip! The ornate wooden superstructure had been coated with pitch, giving it a very aged appearance.
At this point, we’d lost sight of Arun and our car (in which I’d left my phone!), but decided to calmly walk round the block in search of refreshment. We were guided down a neat, clean street of traditional houses to a corner stall where we bought coffee and chai at five rupees each! We retuned to where Arun had dropped us off and there he was! Although Arun was willing to show us more temples, we only stopped at one more before asking him to take us back to the Apple Tree for a shower, rest and refreshment.
The following day (Sunday), we visited the linked Siva and Parvati temples in Tirunelveli, but for me these lacked the presence of place either in the Nammālvār temple the previous day or in the Parthasarathy Temple in Chennai. I’d visited this with Alison Dyke and Hilary Booth the previous Wednesday (Pongal) and by chance we’d walked in on one of its major annual festivals. Also, the train ride back to Madurai that afternoon to catch an evening flight back to Chennai was uneventful and rather slow. And air travel these days seems to be more a chore than an adventure!
But we did fit one crazy thing into the Sunday, which was to find a river temple on the outskirts of Tirunelveli where we could dip our feet in the holy Tamraparani. After a very bumpy rickshaw ride through narrow streets full of motorbikes and goats, we rode across a causeway to a small island only to find the temple had just closed! But were able to paddle in the clear water and receive a blessing from two holy men sitting in the porch. At this hot time of day, there were local people who seemed to simply be enjoying a dip in the cooling water. And Philip continued to just go along with it all; it was great to have such a solid travelling companion who is no stranger to pilgrimages.
I’ve forgotten to mention that at Alvar Tirunagari the priest kindly gave me not only some dry bean pods from the Tamarind tree but also a piece of a small branch, one inch in diameter and three and half inches long. This feels like a great privilege and special connection, something they can grant to only a very few visitors or pilgrims. So this symbol of a connection to Krishnamacharya and his ancestor is now safely on my little shrine at home, at the feet of a statue of Patanjali.
So, is the tree really over five thousand years old, as the priest claimed? This would make it one of the world’s oldest living things, preserved by the Tamils because its leaves, unlike those of other tamarinds, do not close at night. This unique feature does show it was once a single tree. Of course, since it split into five, well before even the time of Nammālvār over a thousand years ago, all the ancient heartwood, the biological record, will have been lost. But looking at it, it’s certainly credible that it’s developed over thousand of years into its present state.
The Yoga Rahasya is a key sourcebook for our tradition and receiving it could have been a major inspiration for Krishnamacharya to devote his life to teaching us yoga. But can people really receive a lost text, in a trance, from a distant ancestor? For that we’d need to accept that there is a realm beyond physical time and space through which connections can be made in spirit across centuries. All I can confirm is that my personal response to this place was quite unexpected and overwhelming, which tells me that some special healing power does still reside under that tree.
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