Another story about a princess …

bishn temple 1 detail 2

I have to say that I am not particularly fond of princesses, either the real ones or the metaphorically-speaking ones, yet I found another story that is worth telling. So after the twist of fate of Princess Wencheng on her way to Tibet that I told some weeks back, here we have to go to India to learn about this one. The person that wrote about this story is Mr Richard H. Davis, a scholar that dedicated many studies to the indian icons and their meaning, worshipping and so on (his book “Lives of Indian Images can be still found fairly easily). The princess in question has no name, which makes her a bit more easy to like, and she is the daughter of a Sultan in Delhi, that too has no name in the legend.  Yet the story takes place in Southern India, in Trichy or Tiruchirappalli, better in its vicinity in Srirangam in the Ranganathanswamy Temple, we talked about briefly here, or alternatively in Melkote in Karnataka according to another version.

I will now try to summarise the folk traditions, that Davis recounts and explains in the essay above. The story begins when on one military campaign from Delhi Sultan, the turkic army managed to loot the temple and “kidnap” the Vishnu icon, alias the “Handsome Bridegroom”. The army brought it to Delhi together with other riches leaving the temples leaving in despair the faithful community of Srirangam or Melkote that decides to leave and rescue the Handsome Bridegroom. They set off to Delhi and demand an audience to the Sultan that not only concedes it (kings of those time were more inclined to listen) but also he is totally amazed at the performance of dancers and singers that come along that decide to grant any wish to the delegation. Of course the delegation asks back the statue of Vishnu, our Handsome Bridegroom but the Sultan and the delegation cannot find it anywhere when they go to the loot storage. That is because, the sultan’s daugter has found it and fell in love with it: she brought it to her room and spent the day playing with it, until at night Handsome Bridegroom would come to life and play in turn (nobody knows what kind of games).
Yet Vishnu invoked by the delegation charms the princess to sleep and walks to delegation. The Sultan can only let him go with the Southeners. Then the version of what happens to the princess is different according to the temple, yet I will pick the one from Melkote because it is more interesting and less Bollywood-like.
The princess is in despair and the father agrees to let her go to the South with Handsome Bridegroom and during the trip, the icon disappears and appears in the princess’s palanquin and the princess disappear in union with the statue. She therefore becomes a “saint” , the Tulukka Nacciyar, worthy of a shrine in the Srirangam temple.

According to Davis, the English sneered at this demises of Indian saints, but we can understand that this is just the physical realisation of a mystical union.For the Hindu such a union is all the more important, because it signs the end of the cycle of rebirths.

Something strange in the story? Well, the princess never converted to Hinduism but her love, and a lover’s love for the deity granted her the ultimate grace, that of becoming one thing with the god.
Now this is a very particular feature of bhakti, the revolutionary faith movement that rocked indian world, that gave birth to poets and saints and both. I also touched it here in describing the Indian temple beginnings and development.

Bhakti was revolutionary because love primed over everything , caste and even religion in this case. So a Muslim Princess could become Vishnu’s bride and have her own shrine inside the Srirangam Temple. The message would be that true love wins everything, even religion separations.

There are many more versions and parallels of this or similar tales and you can read (and do read them) many of them in the original essay by Richard H. Davis.

Davis goes beyond relating the story of this princess to the Bhakti movement and opens up a new trail of discussion: was this story a piece of evidence of a space for Muslims to worship inside the Hindu temple?

Davis points out that the shrine has the typical Muslim resting divan in front of it , a depiction of a covered princess. Like custom is in Southern India, the statue of the gods are moved for different functions and one of the ritual function of Vishnu is to go and visit his bride: when the portable image does so, Vishnu is dressed in ludgi, or the non Hindu garment that is worn in Southern India by non-Hindus, and he is offered the northerner meal in remembrance of his days in Delhi.

Srirangam and Melkote would not be the only places where one religion would include the other, Davis mentions a Hindu festival from Chindambaram where the procession of the god would stop to visit a Sufi shrine, where Vishnu would be welcomed by recitations from the Quran and eventually Hindus and Muslims together would enjoy the end of the night, celebration and fireworks, each group sharing the best performance in their cultural repertoire.

Why would there be the need of having a common place for Hindus and Muslims in Southern India? Davis argues that it was necessary for the kings, all the more when the ruler was Muslim, to have legitimacy in the south, especially from the large Hindu majority. On the other hand, the Brahmins, the holders of Hindu religious power, needed in turn to acknoweledge the presence of the Islamic reigns all over India and include them in Vishnu’s cosmic sway. And yet there is even something more that is transparent from this: that the two groups were not two clashing communities but “ethnic group with its own cultural practices, which could nevertheless be incorporated within the encompassing dominion of Vishnu” (Davis).

Southern Medieval India emerges like an effervescent places with exchange of singers, philosophers, poets and saints and yet there is a saddening conclusion to all this. According to Davis one reads:

“The situation nowadays is much different, of course. The British defetead Tipu Sultan in 1799 and supplanted the Walajahs in the early nineteenth center. In 19th and 20th century India, religious idenitites of Hindu and Muslim were solidified, in part through British administrative practices . Indigenous reform movements as well aimed to purify Hinduism and Islam of “extraneous” elements… At the Srirangam temple, a new dress code policy several years ago prohibited temple entry by presons wearing ludgis, the male lower garment worn publicly in Tamil Nadu mainly by non-Hindus. Vishnu may wear a ludgi when he visits the Tulukka Nacciyar (the Princess), but no ludgi- wearing non-Hindu male will get near the princess shrine.” 

Exclusion seems so much the trend nowadays: I think of the repulsive arguments made these days in Europe against immigration, where every excuse is good to shut the door on somebody else.At the end, at least in part to me, this is again a story of displacement, of beings unrooted, moved or moving under different pressures and trying to making a living somewhere. It is about longing for home and for love. It is about being somebody that tries to live his or her own identity in another place from where that identity was forged, or also it could be about being somebody defining his or her identity, making his or her choices to say who they are.

Just few days back I was mentioning the uniqueness of the West Bengal temples born as a fusion of Hindus and Muslim techniques and inspirations: so much art and innovations is born from the curiosity that a foreign element stirs in a tranquil conformity.

Recently, in another quest for authenticity but on a much lighter level, a lot of discussion has been going on since in Penang, a law currently forbids foreign cooks to have a license for a food stall. Penang boasts a culinary richness (or at least used to until this law) basically born out of immigrants or immigrants married to the local Malay community decades back. It is funny to think that now somebody decided to stop history: it is as if saying that borders are closed now, all that came in is very good and must stay in this shape for the next years. I wonder whether we would have that fantastic food, that today deserves the label of heritage there if those borders had been closed some decades back.

Again a Princess introduced us into the realm of migrants, identities, finding a space, sharing that space. Their stories took place a long ago but their still talk about things many people go through and have always gone through. I wonder what is their legacy with the people living in Srirangam today. So I leave these questions for the random traveller or inhabitant , hoping that they bring news of people rekindling hospitality and inclusiveness.

Have you recently been to Srirangam ? Is the Tulukka Nacciyar shrine still visited by a ludgi dressed Vishnu statue? And can ludgi dressed people now enter the temple precinct? 

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