A granddaughter gets a lesson on the importance of Andal’s verses.

December and January are the best months to be in Chennai. Early mornings are cool and the days are still warm enough to sit in air conditioned halls listening to music or watching dancers from all over the country. But it is not all entertainment. December 15 to January 15, Margazhi - according to the Tamil almanac, is also a month of retrospection and prayer. The fervour of devotees, who throng in the mornings to listen to the mystical meanings of Thiruppavai and Thiruvempavai, would pose a challenge to any atheist.

“What is so great about these songs that makes all of you go into raptures?,” asked my granddaughter. “Don’t we have enough slokas, chants and prayers, all in praise of the supreme god?”

“Scholars do expound at length on how these, some cryptic mantras and some poetry, are of a very high order. In addition, they epitomise the core of our philosophy. Enjoy their poetic content if you think you cannot sit through the lectures.”

“Ha! Poetry! What is so special about it ?”

I thought for a moment before I replied to her.

“These are also records of our ancestors’ lifestyle. Where Nature was worshipped, not defaced and we did not need environmentalists to tell us how important rain, cattle and agriculture were to human sustenance. A phrase here and there in the songs brings back my childhood memories; days that began early, bathing in rivers and ponds that were part of the daily routine and waking up to the chirping of birds and the jingling of cow bells.

“Cows and buffalos were never beaten, but were well maintained and fed, to which they reciprocated by giving milk. My mother-in-law had only to ask her cow for milk and she would get it! ‘Lakshmi amma, I have some visitors today; I need some more milk.’ She would talk to her cow and Lakshmi, who understood her mistress very well, would oblige. The calves were never robbed of their shares.

“I have heard from my mother-in-law how the girls (like in Andal’s era), whose houses were in the village, would call out to each other and go in groups to the river to bathe.

“Of course they had fun and very often got chastised for dallying at the river side. The boys would also go there and enjoy scaring the girls by taking sudden dives into the river from tall trees. Eve teasing? It was only light-hearted innocent pranks as all the girls were either their sisters or cousins. If that was how it was during my mother-in-law’s time, imagine what it would have been like in Andal’s Srivilliputhur.

“Andal speaks of ‘Thayiraravam’- the curd noise. Can the children of today relate to it or understand its meaning? I remember waking up to ‘Thayiraravam’.

On ‘Thayiraravam’

“Our beds would be spread in the common room, which was called a hall, and Amma would be in the adjoining dining room churning the curd. The lilts of the buttermilk as it yielded butter, would keep beats to her chanting, sometimes singing, of Thiruppavai and other verses from Thiruvaimozhi, verses composed by the Vaishnavaite saints. That was Thayiraravam.

“Appa, after his coffee, would be stretched out on the easy chair listening to Amma. We became acquainted with the verses because of those early morning sessions. As she removed the butter and put it in a bowl of water, Appa would ask her, ‘Did you notice how Andal chose her words?’

“The pious spent hours in meditation till the temple bells, or the conch alerted them to attend to the practical rituals of the temple. Believers in non-violence and the soft spoken gather and their combined ‘Hari’ chants would make a ‘peraravam’ (bellow).

“More expositions on the verses would follow and by that time we would be up and having our coffee. Those were impromptu poetry and philosophy lessons. If waking up a kid sister in the morning proved to be task, Appa would chant in the traditional Thiruppavai style, a free-rendering in English: ‘Kumbakarnan of yore got routed in the battle, And before he left the world, left the legacy of his sleep to you.’ Sibling quarrels would be ended with quotes from Andal.

“Another time we would hear about the potent early morning hours - Chitram Chiru Kale. And, of course, every time my mother and later on I made Chakkaraip pongal, it would be tasted to see if it compared favourably with Andal’s ‘Pal Choru mooda ney peythu’- milk and rice cooked together, sporting a liberal covering of ghee. Andal’s verses thus became a core part of our lives and were both sacred and profane with its philosophical as well as literary nuances. No wonder Andal evokes a special reverence in me. That is why, while I complain of forgetting most things in my everyday life, those songs and the explanations I heard, remain with me.’

I think my granddaughter was impressed and will come back to Andal for both poetry and sweet rice!