This incident shook me out of my smugness as a documentarian

Even as I feel relieved that the Prime Minister is all for photographing monuments, I’m aware that there is a conflicting view. I have my differences with the latter, but I have learnt the hard way to respect and not dismiss it.

“Try what you will; You won’t be able to capture our God in your camera”, used to be an occasional, unsolicited stricture thrown at me as I went around documenting the rich diversity of Tamil Nadu.

Those were the days when camera mobile phones did not exist and SLR (Single-lens reflex) cameras were few and far between. As a young heritage enthusiast, keen on documentation, I never photographed without the consent of concerned authorities and hence refused to be deterred by some strangers’ warning. Annoyed, they would often move away with a parting shot, “Our God is so powerful, the image will just not register.” I respected their beliefs, but felt just as strongly about the need to document rituals and interesting aspects of our culture for the sake of future generations.

Brusque response

I thought Padma Akka, thin and frail, was just another of these difficult people when she brusquely told me that I can’t photograph her God. How wrong I was. However Padma Akka’s ‘no’ was something I was unwilling to accept. For Padma Akka’s temple was a rarity. It was a Tamil Jain temple. More used to equating Jains with Marwaris, I was surprised, when I first came to know of the existence of the Tamil Jain community. Surprise turned into fascination when I learnt that their history dates back to more than two millennia.

Ever since I became aware of the significant Jain contribution to ancient Tamil literature, I was eager to meet them and visit their Pallis or Jinalayas.

In those days (early 1990s) when Google did not exist, after considerable effort, I figured out that there was a Jain temple in Kanchipuram. I decided to check it out with a friend during an assignment.

Not many in Kanchipuram in those days were aware of the ancient Tamil Jain temple; at least the people with whom we enquired had no clue. Finally, to our delight, a textile trader said: “Ah, you are referring to the temple that Jacqueline Kennedy visited”. That was news to us. Did she visit the temple? We had no idea, but it whetted our curiosity further, and we were more determined to see it.

Following the trader’s directions, we landed at Thiruparuthikundram, a sleepy village on the outskirts of Kanchipuram. A signboard confirmed that it was indeed the Jain temple.

It was a little past noon, and seeing the temple closed, we decided to find out how to have it opened. That’s how I first met Padma Akka, who lived in a tile-roofed house right opposite the temple.

She came, bringing the temple key, and cursed the driver for bringing people after worship time. Nevertheless, she opened the huge wooden doors for us. We gingerly stepped in, curious to see what a Tamil Jain temple looked like. It had the same Dravidian architectural style as other temples in the State. The mandapam had fading paintings dating back to the Vijayanagar period. Even as we craned our necks to view the paintings on the ceiling, Padma Akka moved further inside and opened another door, leading to yet another hall. In the light seeping through the door, we could make out that the granite pillars belonged to an earlier era.

As we were wondering what was so different about a Tamil Jain temple, Padma Akka switched on the light, and right in front of our eyes there appeared out of the darkness a stunning image of a golden-hued Jaina Tirthankara with a beatific smile, radiating peace.

It was a surreal moment, with the golden hue being accentuated by the yellow incandescent light above. It was a magical moment I was completely unprepared for. I was seeing a deity of Mahavira for the first time, and what a mesmerising sight it was!

It is moments like these that inspire in a photographer the desire to capture and freeze them forever. But Padma Akka’s face took on a stern look of disapproval as I pulled out my camera. No amount of pleading would convince her to let me photograph the deity. I could do nothing other than leave, disappointed, hoping I might get lucky the next time. There were many more next times. However, the ever-vigilant Padma Akka was unrelenting.

Permission letter

After years of futile pleading with Padma Akka, I found myself lucky, being part of a government project that required photographing some of the Jain monuments in the State. With the permission letter in hand, I triumphantly walked into the Thrilokya Nathar temple at Kanchipuram. Akka was watching the restoration work being done on the paintings. She quickly went through the permission papers, and, after a few agonising moments and arguments, it dawned on her that she could not stop me any more. She reluctantly waved me in but turned her face away.

After photographing the temple to my heart’s content, I walked back to Padma Akka to bid her goodbye. I was surprised to see that during the more than half an hour I had spent photographing her Gods, she had not moved an inch from the spot from where she had waved me in. Her eyes looked distant and vague, and she herself appeared distraught, as if the world around her had crumbled all of a sudden.

I still remember her parting words when I thanked her — rather, her lament. She said very feebly, and with deep anguish, “I have carefully safeguarded these Gods for so long. Now that you have taken their (Tirthankaras) photos (and will publish it), how will I protect them henceforth?”

I was stunned. This idea of considering obscurity as safety for her Gods was something that had never occurred to me. Was she worried about the idols being stolen? But then the Tirthankara in the sanctum, Mahavira, was made of terracotta. Or was it the bitter memories of the bloody religious wars the Tamil country was witness to more than a millennium ago? I did not ask her for her reasons. It hit me that my idea of documentation of monuments, so that the world knows about them may not always be right.

P.S: Later, I came to know that, in Jain cosmology, Padmavathy is the attendant deity of Parshvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara. Coincidence?

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