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!

Murugan and Rajinikanth 5

In my 2016 exhibit for the Singapore biennale I performed a ritual offering to lord Murugan. I recited the third stanza of the nerisai venpas  (closing verses) of the “Thirumuruhaattup-padai” – a hymn, to the glory of Lord Murugan, composed by the poet Nakkirar. This verse is a veneration of the sacred weapon of Lord Murugan, his Vel.

Heroic  Vel
Radiant Vel
Valiant Vel that set free imprisoned celestial beings
Vel of the glorious one’s Sacred Hand
Vel that plunged the oceans deep
Regal Vel
Vel that pierced Suran’s breast and hill
Our extant Refuge 

Murugan and Rajinikanth 2

Installing an antique terracotta icon at the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Biennale 2016. 

The terracotta pictured above, was installed at the Singapore Art Museum as a part of my work for the Singapore Biennale 2016/17. This icon represents the Puranic myth in which Lord Ganesha wins a miraculous mango in a competition with his brother Lord Murugan by recognizing that his parents Lord Shiva and Mother Parvathy were not just a part of his universe but that in fact they were the whole of it. In my work, this terracotta opens up a highly liminal space between sacred icon, museum artifact and contemporary art work.

In this, the 2nd of a series of posts at the nexus of ‘Murugan’ and ‘Rajinikanth’ I share a very particular version of the Mango of Enlightenment (Nyana Pazham) myth, which is mine by matrilineal descent …. Once, as Lord Shiva, Mother Parvathy and their children Ganesha and Muruga were enjoying a moment of family bliss in their heavenly abode, the Sage Narada paid them a visit. Holding a mango in his hand, Naradha said, “Lord this mango is sweeter than amirtham (divine elixir) it is for you, but it must be not be divided.” Shiva decided to offer it to just one of his sons by way of a challenge, “The mango goes to the one who is the first to circumnavigate the world.”​​​

Knowing that he that must win this challenge, the sprightly Murugan bestrode his glorious peacock and set off around the world. Contemplating his own ponderous gait and his most modest vehicle, the mouse, Ganesha posed his father and mother a question, “Ammai, Appan, is it not true that parents are, for a child, the world?” “Yes”, his glowing parents replied in unison. Ganesha continued, “Is it not also true that the whole universe (Prakriti) is but a manifestation of your Lordly selves (Shiva/Shakti)?” “Well, yes of course!” – the only possible reply! Ganesha slowly circumambulated Shiva and Parvathy, his father and mother, his world – the world, and sure enough, he won the mango.

When Murugan came flying back, expecting to win, he saw Ganesha with the prize. Stunned and feeling cheated, he became enraged. He pierced his brothers generous belly with his Vel (this part of the story seems to be a particularity of my grandmother’s version) and abandoned his Heavenly abode. Discarding all his celestial accoutrements, he journeyed South, to stand alone on Mount Palani in a meager loin cloth.​​ To this day, he stands there and is hailed as Palani Aandi (Mendicant of Palani), a form of the Lord that is dear to the hearts of the Shivites of South India and the diaspora.

Mango Performance

At the heart of the Koboi Performances at Singapore Biennale 2016,  was the offering of a mango to Lords Murugan and Ganesha while reciting a prayer addressed metonymically to Lord Murugan’s Vel (spear) –


veera vel
thaarai vel
vinnohr siraimeetta theera vel
sev vel
thirukkai vel
vaari kullittha vel
soor marpum kunrum thullaittha vel
onreh thunai

வீர   வேல்
தாரை   வேல்
விண்ணோர்   சிறைமீட்ட   தீர   வேல்
செவ்   வேல்
திருக்கை  வேல்
வாரி குளித்த  வேல்
சூர்   மார்பும்   குண்றும்   துளைத்த  வேல்
ஒன்றே  துணை

The mango was then offered to the image of Thalaivar Rajinikanth and a small portion was served to one member of the audience.