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.
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.
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.