On a visit to Chennai this July, a couple of friends and I dropped by at the Shore Temple and the group of rock-cut temples in Mahabalipuram, some 50 km away from the city. These seventh-century structures—a Unesco heritage site since 1984—are likely the first set of what may be called ‘Hindu’ temples in the subcontinent. At a time when Buddhism and Jainism were being shown the door in the Tamil country, the Mahabalipuram complex was sponsored by the Pallava kings (who started as Jains and later ‘converted’ to Saivism). Vaishnava motives also find their way; temple art is, after all, about layers of accretion. We lingered at the Varaha Cave temple, and I explained to my hosts how Vishnu as Varaha, the anthropomorphic boar, was nuzzling the right breast of the earth, Bhudevi, with his tusked snout. Her breast-band lies fallen on her lap. Someone has placed a pink arali (oleander) flower where snout meets nipple. It is a withered flower. Simultaneously, Varaha is crushing the king of the Nagas with his right foot. Since myth and legend pass for history in the subcontinent, it has often been inferred that the Nagas are the cultured indigenous people vanquished by the marauding Aryans.
B.R. Ambedkar in his 1948 work The Untouchables: Who Were they and Why they Became Untouchables argues that the Nagas were the same as the Dasas mentioned in Vedic literature, and also insists that the Nagas and Dravidians are linked. In early Vedic religion, Ahi Vritra is an asura, a serpent dragon, who drinks up all the waters of the world. Ahi means serpent, and Vritra means the one who envelopes. Ahi Vritra is the antigod, an adversary of Indra, the Vedic god. Indra slays him. The Gonds of Central India offer a variation of this myth where the Allfather figure, Bada Deo, tames and binds Jalharin Mata, the water goddess, in order to create land. Perhaps later myths, such as that of the brahmanical Boar God, drew from such aboriginal stories. A similar telling occurs in the Nilmat Purana of Kashmir about the Nagas and the demonic Jalodbhav.
In the Varaha panel at Mahabalipuram, Vishnu as the looming boar vanquishes the Naga king and makes love to Bhudevi, the earth imagined as a demure, beautiful woman who is dwarfed by him. The sun, the moon, Brahma, and other supplicants bear witness. Violence and sex benignly coexist.
After inspecting a few more monolithic rock-cut panels, we paid a desultory visit to the Shore Temple as the midday sun blazed at 39º Celsius. The sea roared as foreigners and local fisherman surfed. On returning to our tiny car at the parking lot where ice creams were being greedily consumed and their plastic covers discarded with abandon for conservancy workers (euphemism for ‘untouchable’ scavengers) to later pick up, we saw a thirsty cow being attended to by a kindly young man. He’d opened the tap of a black polycarbonate water-tank, made a cup of his palms, and was letting the cow drink. The scene continued for a few minutes. The sight amused us. Soon, I noticed the man’s topi (cap) and said to my friend, ‘Since these BJP people see only Muslims as cow-killers and go about banning beef, this sure makes for an interesting image.’
My friend encouraged me to step out of the car and take pictures on my phone. Much to my shame, I did so, and even made a minute-plus video. One of the guys wore a fancy maroon hat; one wore nothing but a smile for the camera. On returning to the car, my friend wondered if I had got the right shot. ‘By the time you began to shoot, the man with the funny hat was slaking the cow. The point wouldn’t be made unless you got the guy in the skull cap.’ I told him, I got all the three men plying the cow with water. We had tacitly acknowledged that we needed to establish Muslim-ness to make a point. ‘Put it on YouTube, it may go viral,’ he said, nonchalantly. If you come to think of it, this is how we have come to think.
As I was shooting, I realised the young men who till then had been merely interested in quenching the cow’s thirst, began to perform for the phone-camera. I heard one of them excitedly mention that I, the one shooting, had an iPhone; and soon the voice said, ‘Internet pey daalenge!’ (He’ll put it on the Internet.) The guy in the skull cap, wearing a Los Angles Lakers t-shirt, said he had been cupping his palms for ten minutes and the cow just kept drinking. Are you from here, I asked. No, from Andhra, he said. They were tourists.
I don’t think they were aware, though, that something was being made of their being Muslim. It is like with the reports we see from Iran now, that tell us how their women paint their toenails, smoke cigarettes, wear heels, and have fun. Their humanity has to be established in images that appear reassuring to a Western paradigm.
Soon, it was all over. The cow was unaware of the politics it was surrounded by. It moved towards the mire left by the intermittent convection rains, sniffed at some plastic-laced garbage, and walked away. At some distance, a few pigs were cooling off in the slush, kissing the earth with their snouts. We had lunch at a local legend.
As the earth moves, the rain does too
It knows where to find land, and when
The sea smells of the earth it hides
The earth smells of the sea it once was
The water is dense with the light of the sun
A man cups water in his palms for a thirsty cow
He’s Muslim—so I take a picture, make a video
I want to tell the world he’s human too
As I do, I see myself losing my humanity
We eat what we love, we love what we eat
If god is a giant pig nuzzling the earth’s breast
He’s to be found in every garbage dump, I swear
This one seats the earth on his right thigh
He clasps her butt; her crossed toes tease his sex
He crushes the serpent king under his left foot
An ant walks across the page of this poem
Foraging for the right word, I shut the book
The moon’s phase is an icon on my phone
I do not have to look at the night sky
I can summon anything in my palm