War God by Susheela Menon

As the priest hobbled away from the dim-lit sanctum, a glowing dot of light dashed past him with abnormal speed. He squinted at the glow worm and walked towards the temple tank for his morning ablution. He didn’t see it slip into the sanctum, its radiance falling on Murugan – the principal deity of the temple.

The Hindu God of War shifted within the jagged boulder in which his spirit dwelled, and stared at the splendid insect. The glow worm’s heat felt surprisingly menacing. The God tried to silence it with a grim glare, but it flashed wildly — the strange little horns on its head squabbling like little warriors — and flew out into the pounding rain. Murugan knew something was amiss but what?

He settled back into his stone and looked at the sheets of water that cascaded across the forest. A wave of melancholy swept through him as his thoughts stubbornly clung to the past. Murugan sat brooding over a similar night – when the skies had thrashed the earth with rain that swelled the seas – a night that changed his destiny forever.

 ***

Murugan had been an unhappy God. He stood a rung beneath other more prominent Gods of the Hindu pantheon and didn’t agree with this unfair divine hierarchy entrenched in Hinduism. Not many knew about his existence and some even mispronounced his numerous names. Like the elephant-headed Ganesh, he too was a son of the mighty Shiva. Murugan had slain Surapadman, one of the most feared asuras or anti-Gods, by ripping the demon’s body in two — carving out of it a peacock on which he flew and a rooster that became his emblem. He had led Shiva’s celestial army and was an expert in using the Vel or the lance, his weapon of choice. Why then was Ganesh revered across Hindu homes in India while his name was chanted by just a few?

Murugan had complained about this injustice to Paravani — his peacock – as they flew across the skies, her neck stooped low and claws ready to strike. Paravani was a vigilant bird. She knew Surapadman was dead but he was an asura. He could rise again. She had guarded the morose Lord as he moaned about being marginalised by a religion that took pride in being just and kind.

Unbeknownst to him, Murugan’s fate awaited him miles away in a small forest where a few peasants — stranded on a balding hill — had smeared some vermilion on a black boulder and planted it inside a cave. The region was under the spell of a very ferocious monsoon. The men spent many days worshipping the black stone and scrambled down into the dense forest surrounding the hill as soon as the sun reclaimed the sky. Grateful to be alive, they built a temple within the cave that had sheltered them from the heavy monsoon storms.

As word spread, hordes of people climbed the hill with offerings for the nameless hill God. The discovery of a lone peacock in the jungle was reason enough for some to declare that the temple belonged to Murugan, the God of War. It attracted a mammoth following.

M S Praveen

Thrilled, Murugan channelled his spirit into the stone and beamed with pride as the number of his believers swelled. He couldn’t wait to hear what Ganesh or the dark-skinned Krishna would say about the sea of devotees entering his sanctum everyday with offerings of rice, flowers, milk or fruit. The hymns they chanted reverberated in his ears all day. A temple priest materialized out of nowhere and washed the stone every morning. A garland of marigolds or jasmine hung around Murugan’s proud neck and a red mark of vermilion adorned his forehead. He radiated hope for the innumerable followers who climbed the hill and prostrated before him, their legs calloused and dusty.

As days passed, Murugan felt restless and trapped in the stuffy cave. He understood how exhausting it was to be a popular God. He agonized over the unending saga of grief humans emptied on his weary mind as wave after wave of worshippers wailed before him. Murugan lost interest in the myriad rituals that had once pleased his proud heart and wanted to shut his mind against hymns that glorified him. The squirrels and snakes that sometimes entered his sanctum found him lost in contemplation. He ignored the lone peacock’s joyful hop — its blue-green feathers trembling in the rain — and refused to bless the old priest, who looked after the temple.

It was on one such day – when Murugan’s spirits were at its lowest — that he sensed a strange vibration in the air. The temple had been heavily crowded that evening and a throng of people chanted his name while jostling each other. Worshippers clamoured for a glimpse of the holy deity and tumbled over one another, their arms raised and palms folded together. A woman fell and someone yelled at the priest.

Murugan’s nostrils flared and his eyes danced with fury. Hysteria gripped the God as he lost track of whatever it was that had distracted him. His devotees stood wide-eyed as he left his stone and possessed the breeze, which thrashed the temple bells. The sky rumbled. “Muruga, Vel Muruga,” the priest mumbled. The angry God blew over the offerings and scattered them across the cave, scaring his terrified followers. He bellowed through the sanctum and the walls echoed his anger. The flame that illuminated the cave died in seconds. A child’s frightened howl brought Murugan back to his senses. Mortified, he vowed never to leave his shrine again but the mystery of what it was that had rankled him so badly remained unresolved.

***

 

The priest’s low chant brought him back to the present moment. The rain had stopped. Murugan sat in his sanctum gazing out at the green forest. Just as he began ruminating over the little insect that had blazed around him, his mind was overrun with dreadful thoughts of Thai Pusam – a day on which his followers celebrated his victory over demon king, Tarakasuran. Thai Pusam was just a day away. Would he be able to endure the crowd, the cacophony and the utter chaos that festivals were all about? Murugan closed his eyes and meditated.

 

 The discovery of a lone peacock in the jungle was reason enough for some to declare that the temple belonged to Murugan, the God of War. It attracted a mammoth following. 

As the morning of Thai Pusam dawned, he heard a weightless quivering around the four walls of his gloomy sanctum, as if hundreds of wings were flapping at him together. His shrine glimmered with a magical aura that almost blinded him. He sensed a familiar vibration in the air. The priest had left to fetch flowers from the wet market. The old man had paused near the heavy doors of the temple and stared at the sanctum for a while before limping out, but Murugan hadn’t thought much of it. Murugan didn’t know why he sensed a wave of terror growing in him. He tried not to panic as something brushed against his stone.

You weren’t born to be confined, Muruga, it hissed. You are a born warrior.

Before Murugan could make sense of these words, the priest opened the doors to his sanctum for the thousands who had gathered to see him that day. Smouldering heaps of camphor burnt near his shrine. A pile of garlands burdened his neck. Just as he was beginning to feel dizzy, one of the devotees fell into a delirious state, her hair swirling around and her eyes widening in their sockets. Murugan watched as she sat on the ground, her upper torso moving to the beat of some silent rhythm. His mind struggled to absorb the jumble of emotions that swept through him. He looked up in exasperation to find a glow worm flashing near the ceiling. Its light tugged at his heart and injected in him a strange obsession to follow it.

Murugan told himself that Gods that deserted their shrines were considered cowards in the celestial world. He strived to erase the memory of how he had flown on Paravani, the wind blowing against his face and the cool mist touching his naked skin. His deliberations simmered in his mind as deadly lava hides deep within a seemingly passive mountainside. “Muruga, Muruga,” the priest mumbled. Murugan struggled with the crowd, the smoke, the smells and the singular emotion of being trapped in a stone when his actual place was on his peacock in the sky. His senses cautioned him but he was Murugan — the son of Shiva, the slayer of demons, the warrior God. Who could harm him? Murugan’s arrogance created in him a bonfire of recklessness, its sparks rising high. He stood up and stretched.

“Muruga, what are you up to now?” muttered the priest, who heard a peacock shriek somewhere near the hill. The flame that burnt within the shrine flickered a little. The temple bells jangled. The garlands of withered marigold flowers shivered around the jagged stone. The priest stopped his chant mid-way, basil water dripping from his fingers. The insect fled the temple as if its soul sensed a threat. One of the doors to the sanctum creaked and an unseen energy marched through it.

Murugan chased the light, which led him far away from the hill and into the forest. Somewhere deep within those dense woods, the creature burned a deep red. It stopped and turned to see the Lord gliding towards it. Its savage mouth opened into an endless chasm as it bared its fangs and yelled a deep, guttural cry. Surapadman sprang upon the stunned Lord, resurrecting an ancient battle that sent tremors down the earth’s rotating core. The asura had risen.

Caught off-guard, Murugan stared as Surapadman grew, his startling figure rising to touch the sky. The demon roared into the clouds and took a step forward. Murugan jumped aside and ran into the thick forest, stumbling on bramble and fallen trees. He needed his lance, the vel. He had left it behind at the temple. Murugan cursed himself and climbed a tree that overlooked a cliff from where he could see the temple clearly. The hill was deserted but the priest stood guard near his shrine. He hid deep within the dripping branches of the tree as the asura approached. The bulbous eyes of the demon glared at the priest, who held the vel. Crouched behind branches and leaves, Murugan began to think of a way to retrieve his lance from the old man when the asura’s eyes flashed with anger. Murugan followed the demon’s gaze and watched as the priest steadied himself, placed a foot back and threw the vel with godly grace at the baffled asura. Murugan couldn’t believe his eyes. The old man had attacked the demon with a lance!

The cliff was far away but the weapon moved with precision. Its fiery tip found its mark as it pierced Surapadman’s heart. The demon fell back and onto wet ground. Murugan climbed down, pulled his vel out from the demon’s bloodied body and looked for the priest. The old man had vanished but in his place stood Shiva, his powerful gaze holding his son’s perplexed stare. Murugan was aghast to see his father on the cliff. Where was the priest? Had it been Shiva all along?

Ashamed, Murugan bowed to his father — who stood atop the hill — his wild locks flowing in the wind. Shiva summoned Paravani and she flew from the forests to rest at Murugan’s feet. Murugan looked up to see the hill, the forest, the cave and the temple gone. Shiva had disappeared too. Murugan had sacrificed his fame and followers for freedom but he finally understood who he was and what he actually wanted.

He took off on his mount, chasing stray clouds that parted ways for the God with the vel. He regained his identity as the son of the sky and refused to be pinned down in temples or homes, his blue peacock screeching its way through the many galaxies he defended. His role in the divine hierarchy was to command Shiva’s army against the vile asuras. His job was to vanquish evil and shield the Gods. He had to be battle-ready, always on his guard. He smiled and soared higher on Paravani, his vel shooting fiery stars into the sky. Murugan was a War God, and he was happy with that

About the Author

Raised in India, Susheela Menon teaches Creative Writing in Singapore. One of her political essays appeared in Kitaab, a Singapore-based website. A recent short story of hers — Bo and Goro — was published by Eastlit Journal.

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