Pepita Seth shares her spiritual, emotional and often humorous experiences of writing her book on the Guruvayur temple. Pankaja Srinivasan reports
Like the English lady in Rang De Basanti, an encounter with her grandfather’s diary, recording instances of life in India in 1857, might have awakened the first stirrings of infatuation in Pepita Seth for this country. Since then, 30 years on, it has become a full blown affair with India, particularly Kerala.
At the Oxford Bookstore, to launch her book on Guruvayur, Heaven on Earth, the Universe of Kerala’s Guruvayur Temple, Pepita gently resists all attempts to tag her as ‘English’. Someone points out that major documentation on aspects of India have all been undertaken by her countrymen. But, she refuses to be drawn, and indeed, in her sari and a bright red bindi, Pepita cuts a very Indian figure. Her Indian friends say that was a postal mistake. She was addressed to India but was wrongly delivered to England! But, curiosity to learn more about India and elephants, redirected her to Kerala.
Pepita’s parents had not the slightest interest in religion. “They did, however, adhere to the premise that God was an Englishman — a concept that seemed to absolve them from any further involvement in the matter”, she writes. But, when Pepita had exhaustively photographed rituals in temples all over Kerala, someone asked her why she had not done any work on Guruvayur. And, Heaven on Earth…, came into being.
Guruvayurappan devotees at the launch urged Pepita to tell them more. How did it all come about? Did Guruvayurappan appear in her dreams? Were there any miracles as she wrote the book? “The whole experience was a miracle”, she responds, simply.
The book is a painstaking and detailed recording (with great photographs taken by Pepita) of the very complex, mystical and ritualistic universe that is the Guruvayur temple. But, Pepita refuses to take credit for it. “I am very uneasy about my name being on that book,” she says. “I am very, very conscious of the fact that it is not me who has written that book. The three pages of acknowledgements vouch for that.”
Pepita’s experiences are absorbing. Not knowing the language, she says, actually worked in her favour. “That forced me to listen, understand and make sure I got it right,” she says. From the head priest, the chendu players, the security men, every one had a role to play in the magnum opus.
There were difficulties, she admits. The fact that little about the temple was documented in any coherent form, many accounts were purely by word of mouth and often embellished and added to with each telling, complicated matters. Certain portions of the book took months to write. The chapter on daily rituals took her five years to get right. Fact and faith were often difficult to reconcile, she says. While she was writing about each of the deities around the temple, someone asked her in all seriousness, “But what about all the invisible ones!”
Pepita describes it as “An experience that changed my life. “If I had had the faintest inkling that it was going to be such an enormous undertaking, I would never have done it,” she says. She soon realised how multilayered, complex and vast the universe of Guruvayur was. “It was more complicated than a nuclear reactor,” she exclaims. But, it all fell into place, because of divine grace. There were days when she was so overcome that she could do nothing. “I did nothing but sit on the steps of the koothambalam, the temple’s theatre, convinced that there was no way I could continue”.
Familiar stories of Guruvayurappa, ones that we have heard retold a hundred times, appear in the book.
A few ladies at the book launch check out if the stories of Narayanan Bhattathiri (the composer of Narayaneeyam), Poonthanam, Kuramma and Manjula have been included. They have indeed, along with a few others they hadn’t heard before!
Is she going to be writing books on temples? “Nothing on this scale, I am quite certain,” says Pepita. But, she is doing something about the Theyyam Dancers of Kerala and, a novel. Recollecting her most moving experience, Pepita, is clearly overcome. It was the time when she went into the sanctum sanctorum to offer the first copy of her book to Lord Guruvayurappa.
Heaven on Earth,
The Universe of Kerala’s Guruvayur Temple
By Pepita Seth
Publisher Niyogi Books