Shakti Vel!

Batu Malai (Batu Caves) in Malaysia is an abode of Lord Murugan, and many Hindu visitors to the country generally make it a point to climb the steep 272 steps to the upper limestone cavern to pay obeisance to their Lord at his shrine. A few years ago, some relatives of ours from Sri Lanka, a young couple with a year-old baby, visited my parents in Malaysia, and of course, the Batu Caves was first on their list of places to visit. My parents planned to leave early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day, at least in one direction of the journey. Forgetting about the ritual aspect of the journey, my father brought home packets of nasi lemak (a typical Malaysian meal made with anchovies) for breakfast before setting off. They all paused upon my mother’s concern about eating non-vegetarian food before a pilgrimage but, then went ahead and enjoyed the treat before proceeding to the sacred caves.

​The visitors ascended to the shrine but my parents, who were unable to make the strenuous climb, stayed below. As they waited at the foot of the stairs, my mother chanted the nerisai venpas (closing verses) of the “Thirumuruhaattup-padai” – a hymn, to the glory of Lord Murugan, composed by the poet Nakkirar. The third stanza of the nerisai venpas is a veneration of the sacred weapon of Lord Murugan, his Vel. ‘Sakti Vel’ is the ‘spear of power’ that was bestowed upon Murugan by his mother Parasakti (highest female power). ‘Vel’ is the name, and form, by which the personification of Lord Murugan is abstracted. 

Nakkirar had been the thousandth prisoner to be held in a cave by the Demoness Karkimukhi, with the intention of feasting upon the reaching this number of victims. In desperate prayer to Lord Murugan, Nakkirar composed and sang the verses of the Thirumuruhaattup-padai. When he finished, a miracle occured! The sealed mouth of the cave opened wide and all the prisoners flowed out, escaping with their lives. From that day on, the Thirumruhaattup-padai has been a prayer of great power. It is believed that reciting these verses will instantly bring the Lord’s grace in the form of relief from the sufferings experienced in life.

​When the visitors came down from the caves, the party had a vegetarian meal at the base of the caves and began the drive home. In the midst of heavy afternoon traffic, and under the blazing mid-day sun, my father’s car came to a stop. The engine has stalled and it just refused to start up again. Without the air-conditioner, the interior rapidly became unbearably hot. With the baby crying and with my old parents rapidly weakening in the heat, they all began to panic.

​Lo and Behold! Before the day could take its toll on the vulnerable company, a young man rode up on a motorbike. Stopping on the driver’s side of the car, he asked what the problem was. He happened to be a motor mechanic. First he pushed the car to the side of the road, allowing the impatient Kuala Lumpur drivers to pass. He then got to work under the bonnet and very soon the engine was running and, to great relief, the air-conditioner was on again. As he set off, refusing remuneration of any kind, my father thanked him and asked his name. He replied casually, “Sakti Vel”!  

It was clear to all of them, in that moment at least, that the Lord had just appeared! Having admonished them for knowingly breaking a taboo, He had showed his grace by sending his “Sakti Vel” to their aid! The Thirumuruhaattup padai has worked its miracle!  

“MURUGANUKKU AROHARAH” – Praise be to Murugan!

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Koboi Balik Kampung (2013)

Koboi Balik Kampung, Readymade Rockmount Western Shirt, 2013. Permanent Collection of the National Visual Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. (The image above is from an installation and performance at the National Visual Art Gallery in 2018).

The Koboi Balik Kampung (2013) Readymade from the permanent collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL is currently on display at the gallery. This item was a residual artifact from a performance at the Aliran Semasa symposium held at the gallery in 2013. This performance marked my Malaysian homecoming after ten years away in Western Canada.

I appeared at the event wearing a brand-new Rockmount Western shirt with tags intact. As the symposium began, my mother the late Sathiavathy Deva Rajah was invited on stage, to give me a traditional Indian/ Hindu blessing by placing chanthanam (sandalwood paste) and kunggumum (red turmeric powder) on my forehead. Then, facing the audience, I remove the shirt, draped it on a pre-installed hanger at the back of the stage and my mother consecrated it with the same chanthanam and kunggumum. The shirt was left hanging for the duration of the symposium and then presented to the gallery.

A version of the Performance was repeated in an intervention when the item was on show for the first time as a selection from the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in 2018. My Mother and I were stopped from renewing the markings on the shirt by a curator and a conservator from the gallery. We debated notions of completion of an art work, ownership of an artwork, the artist’s rights to modify an artwork, the extensive conservational bureaucracy that encompases a work of art in a National collection and the effects of all of these on the state of an art work (is it active or is it inert, alive or dead!). Mother and I proceed with the portion of our ritual that did not interfere with what is now the property of the gallery. The image above was captured by my daughter Durga Rajah during this performance.