London-born Pepita Seth is at home in the temple universe of Guruvayur. The author lovingly records everything, and not with the clinical eye of an academic

An Indian friend of Pepita Seth once described the place of her birth as a postal error. “You were addressed to India, but wrongly delivered to England,” he said.

What re-directed the London-born to the right address in the Seventies was the dusty diary of her great-grandfather, who had served in the colonial army. Curiosity led her to retrace his journey in India, and the country eventually became her enduring passion.

India, Kerala in particular, is more or less her permanent address now. Pepita has extensively researched, written and photographed the traditions of Malayalees, a people “passionate about everything from rituals to politics.” Despite her halting Malayalam, she has turned quite a Malayalee herself.

Not love at first sight

Her most recent work, “Heaven on Earth: The Universe of Kerala's Guruvayur Temple”, a meticulous documentation of all the elements that make up the pilgrim centre swarmed by thousands every day, was released at Basava Ambara in Bangalore recently. The book goes into every detail of what is quite literally a self-contained universe: the twists and turns of its history through the ebb and flow of dynasties, myths, oral traditions, rituals, arts, priests, servants, elephants…

Pepita's fascination for the abode of Guruvayurappan was not quite love at first sight, though. The first time she saw the temple, reconstructed after a fire in 1970, it struck her as a clumsy PWD construction with “no known standards of architectural excellence.” But as she began to look beyond the outer shell and into the heart of this universe, she turned a devotee herself.

This explains why the author is not looking at the world of the temple with the clinical eye of an academic, but as a believer lovingly recording everything through photographs and text. For instance, the story of how the original deity of Guruvayur, Bhagavati, made way for Guruvayurappan does not spur a sociological analysis of the change from a matriarchal system of worship into a patriarchal, Brahminical one. Instead, Pepita writes that the deity “chose to move aside for a gentler power” and records every minute detail of the Bhagavati rituals to make the point that the original deity still holds her own despite the shift in power centre.

Non-academic approach has not, however, meant any compromise on rigour in the book, which took her seven years to finish. The chapters on the temple rituals, which have been followed without variation for centuries, are testimony to that. When she took the first draft of the chapter to the head priest after working on it for two years, he said it was “not wrong, but superficial.” Pepita took it right back and put in two more years reworking them.

Pepita says that what made access to the strictly hierarchical and ritual-bound world of Guruvayur possible was, in fact, her non-academic approach. All people associated with the temple – from the head priest to the carpenter – saw that she did not have an “agenda” and allowed her to look inside their worlds.

Pepita sees the Guruvayur book as a collaborate effort between her and every person associated with the temple. “I am embarrassed to see just my name on the cover!” she says.

Pepita's formal education ended when she was 15, and she had for long regretted not having university education. “But I have felt no regret for the last ten years!” she smiles. Recently, a reticent Theyyam artiste, on whose tradition she is currently working, had a one-line explanation for why he was letting her document his work: “Because you are not doing a Ph.D.”

Over time Guruvayur has virtually adopted her and claims almost a proprietorial right over her. The temple authorities allowed her an exclusive two minutes window, holding the serpentine queue, to allow Pepita to dedicate her book to Guruvayurappan – a matchless honour indeed! What Pepita loves about India is what she calls its “elasticity”, an ability to make anything its own.

Soon, Pepita's photograph of the legendary temple elephant, Guruvayur Kesavan, will be on a postal stamp. The final proof, perhaps, of her having arrived at the right address.

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