LETTER FROM SATTANUR
This delightful description of village life in India comes to us from UNESCO who are publishing a series of stories “to bring readers all over the world in touch with the problems and daily life of the ordinary people of other lands, both in the East and in the West”.
The world of my village, Sattanur, is more or less timeless. When I returned there, the first thing I did, almost within eight hours of reaching home, was to remove my wrist watch and lay it aside. No one in Sattanur was interested in know-ing whether it was five or twenty-five past nine or ten or eleven.
Those who have any work in the village begin when the sun is low in the east and shadows fall thin and narrow towards the west. They knock off work in the middle of the day when their shadows cling squat and shapeless to their feet. They resume after a short while and leave off again when it is dark. Vain is the knowledge that the sun rises at a different time at different times of the year. You can tell my villager that it is not exactly midday when the shadow clings to his feet. But the man from Sattanur is not working by the clock, thank you.
Barring my watch, there are in all only three watches in the whole village and one grandfather clock, and three German alarm timepieces. The grandfather clock belongs to the mid-nineteenth century and shows the time right only twice during the day—when it is five minutes to three. The owner shows no eagerness to get it repaired. How
A familiar part of the rural landscape in India are the village women going to the well with earthen pots held in the crook of the arms, to fetch drinking water. The provision of better wells nearer centres of population is one of the urgent tasks being tackled today under India's community development projects. (Government of India Photograph).
could it be more beautiful, even it it showed the right time?
But, for all that, we in Sattanur do not really live in a timeless world. It is only that we distrust watches and clocks. We like to live by the sun, the sun on high. And the temple bell gives us the time of day.
Most of our villages, and some of our older cities are built around temples. And Sattanur is no exception. From the high arched tower of our temple the heavy bronze bell booms six times in the day. The caster who made this bell was a masterworker. His bell rings and reverberates now, hundreds of years after he cast it, and no villager escapes its haunting boom. We apportion our day's work to the temple bell's ringing.
Nowadays, even in our villages, we wake up to morning coffee which the housewife is up and about preparing as the temple bell begins ringing. But the grandfather and grandmother have long been up, have had their bath, have lighted the lamp before the household shrine and have chanted their holy chants, generally wishing the world well. Such of the villagers as go to the temple early in the morning are happy, for they see the waking God and it makes the day happier for them. During some seasons, the temple provides good food in the morning, but only at certain periods of the month. The quantity is limited, and if all the village were suddenly to turn godly, there would hardly be enough prasadam to go round!
In these more or less ungodly days, as our elders tend to call them on every possible occasion, most of the men of Sattanur, and almost all the women, manage to go to the temple at least once in the day. If you have to go to the bazaar, or the south and west streets, the shortest way is through the temple. Sometimes one of the elders will come and tell you that the flower arrangement in front of the shrine is excellent. You feel like rushing to see it. But when you do go, the flowers have been removed and the black statue is smeared with sacred ashes. This ash arrangement, too, is excellent, you have to confess. How deep the eyes darkly staring out at you, all-seeing, from the general greyness. Centuries-old Tamil poems
extol this image. Our poet-saint Manikkavachagar (8th century) sings of how he, the lowliest of the low, was raised to the right hand of God. And many like him describe the peace and bliss they found in this shrine.
Next to the temple, the river Cauveri dominates life in Sattanur. All rivers in South India are called Cauveri, as all the rivers in Bengal are called the Ganga, but my village is on the Cauveri —the true Cauveri. The Cauveri begins as a rill in Coorg, in the far mountains of the western Ghats, runs through fertile Mysore and the not so fertile Salem and Trichy districts, and when it comes to the ancient land of the Chola kings (who reigned from about the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D.)—the present district of Tanjore—it is all “delta and indecision.” The river brings fertility and riches to this land.
The first historical event associated with the Tamils has to do with the river Cauveri. Nearly two thousand three hundred years ago, the Cauveri was an erratic river flowing where it listed. The Chola king sent a punitive expedition to Lanka (Ceylon), took as many prisoners-of-war as he could, and brought them back to his land. He marked out, and allotted to every one of the prisoners three yards of the bank of the Cauveri. As soon as the prisoner had raised the bank twelve feet, he was free to go back to his land. The Cholas king provided food in plenty and comfortable ships to return home. He was a civilised king. The ten-foot-high bank of the Cauveri where you stand now is sacred ground: one man at least owes his freedom to it.
No one could imagine life in Sattanur without the river. The villagers carefully watch its moods and interpret them jealously. On the river depend their lives and happiness. Next to the temple God, they worship the river Goddess in every season. The Tamil epic Silappadhikaram (written in the early centuries of the Christian era) extols the Cauveri in memorable verse: “Sister, Goddess of our homes, flow sweet and long. We look to you for our happiness. Bring us our wealth.”
For eight months in the year the river flows; for nearly half of this period it overflows its banks. Brahmin and non-Brahmin, each have their hour and their day with the river: when the river is full, all the village, men, women and children, come for a dip. They would be considered sick both of mind and body if they did not come to the river to bathe in season. When the river runs dry, the intellectuals and the dissatisfied youth sit on the dry sands of an evening and thrash out many a problem.
The vegetable crier, the betel leaf seller, the man or woman who comes morning and evening to milk the cows, the harijan who calls from one end of the street to take your cow and calf grazing, the handsome bamboo worker who splits the strong bamboos into strips to make articles of use and beauty, the peasant who brings you a large pumpkin as a present and hopes that, out of your kindness, you will let him off his overdue rent, the village barber with his tinbox under his arm, the village vaid (doctor), cousin to the barber with a box that is a cousin to the barber's own but is of stainless steel, a stray monkey and its young piercing the blue sky from the housetops—all are part of the village scene of the day. Even the variety of beggars, singing and chanting wellworn verses, accompanied often by monkeys or snakes or a bull, seldom annoy but deepen the peacefulness of this village scene.
Now let me describe a few of the major annoyances of village life. I would like to begin with the morning newspaper. The papers of the day reach even Sattanur early in the morning, and morning to night, the discussion of current problems proceeds with endless variations. But the serious life of the village is in no way affected by any of the statements in the papers.
The greatest of our general nuisances in Sattanur is the man of affairs. No one likes him but he gets at every one. He is always happy recounting other people's misfortunes. One fellow has
broken a leg; another has failed in his exam; the girl in the corner house is not at all what she seems to be; she is learning songs and English in secret. The man of affairs thrives on these stories and shakes his head with dim forebodings scarcely whispered. He defrauds the Elephant God of our street of its annual dues of oil, ghee, clothes and coconuts. All of us know all about it and say that he will suffer for it one day. But for fifty years now, the fellow has been going on like that and the Elephant God does not seem to mind.
Slushy roads in winter, mosquitoes all through the year, a house that is often not the best of places to live in on suffocating or cold days, the scorpions, the snakes and the other living brood of biting and stinging animals and insects are some of the minor nuisances of life in Sattanur. There is a lack of privacy that is hard on a man from the city.
At village marriages and funerals, rubbing shoulders with many whom I have never seen before, I have come to understand how perhaps, in some not very distant future, the whole world might live as one family. My grandmother fell ill and we were sure that it was her deathbed. For ten or eleven days, a stream of visitors has been coming to our house. And not all of them are relatives. Men and women of all stations from all the neighbouring streets and villages come to ask and talk to me as if it were their grandmother instead of mine who was lying ill.
Not so long ago, there was another event in the village. Down the street came walking a naked holy man, the avadhutha. All the women and children came out of their houses and prostrated themselves at his feet in the dust of the street. The men stood with palms joined looking on. The avadhutha passed with his right arm raised in blessing. That day he walked straight on to another village. But some days, I was told, he elects to stay. The whole village considers the host of such a spiritual one blessed among mortals.
This letter has become too long, like the shadow of the evening, but I have yet one more thing to add. Our lone cow is lowing, and would you believe it, she is lowing pure poetry. It is past milking time now and perhaps the cowherd, in the general round of duties, has forgotten the cow. But no, he is coming now. In the village rounds, men get forgotten sometimes, but never the domestic animals.
Sattanur works a miracle in human hearts. To appreciate it you only have to unlearn a few of the things you have learned in the cities. You can take a railway ticket to any of the villages in South India. From Madras to Sattanur is a short two hundred miles. You pay four rupees twelve annas for a third-class ticket and you are there in ten hours. (UNESCO).