Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Sweeping Healers of the Agni Theertham in Rameshwaram!

The grimy filthiness beneath my feet bothered me.

Instinctively, my toes curled up in crankiness even as I sneaked my way through the sacred shores of one of the most prominent pilgrimage centres in India of the Hindus. I heaved a sigh of huge relief when I was instructed to ‘just sprinkle a few drops onto yourself’ (and not bathe!) as the gushing waters of the sea (Bay of Bengal) didn't look very clean and hygienic and there was a strange nauseating stench floating in the environs owing to the blatant disposal of untreated sewage from the nearby areas.

Ironically enough, I was partaking in the mandatory sacramental ritual of cleansing my body at Agni Theertham, one of the most visited Theertham (sacred holy water body) of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu before proceeding to pay my respects at the Ramanathaswamy temple.

A Kaleidoscope of faith at Agni Teertham in Rameshwaram

Blessed were the magnificent sands on which I was walking, I was very well aware. Various references to the place could be traced back to the sacred Hindu Texts or Puranas like Skanda Purana illustrating its infinite powers of absolving all sins and purifying the heart. Countless number of believers had walked on it before, including the celestial Demi-God Agni or Fire – washing their sins away - cementing this hallowed waterfront with their faith, belief, conviction and devotion.

And yet, no matter how hard I tried to evade... this murky feeling of dirtiness that creeped within this city-bred girl’s senses as she made her way past the cacophonous edge of the beach through to the glorious temple corridors of 17th century Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameshwaram... just refused to subside.

The grimy filthiness beneath their feet
never seemed to bother them.

Women Cleaners at the Rameshwaram Agni Teertham

I ambled aimlessly on the same hallowed seashore later that day and also towards the evening, after my coveted temple darshan earlier in the morning. That’s when they caught my attention. They kept to themselves, totally engrossed in what they were doing, unmindful of the frenzied world that guzzled around them. Unmindful of me.

On this bright, balmy and auspicious day of Diwali in the month of November, the shores of Agni Teertham at Rameshwaram wore a festive look. People, belonging to different age groups, having travelled from different parts of the world, merged and mingled in a colorful rendezvous by performing reverential acts showcasing their steadfast faith towards the divine water body. They asked for a child and they pleaded for deliverance of their ancestors... joyously, they bathed, chanted mantras, mumbled prayers, performed poojas and floated flower/leaf diyas with a conviction that their prayers shall be heard and they shall be blessed.

In this culturally nuanced kaleidoscope, my gaze was arrested by two women, clad in shirts worn over their saree. Between them, they were carrying a basketful of 'kachra' (trash).

My eyes met theirs,
and they lowered their eyes...
to the world, perhaps they didn't want to exist.

Women cleaners at job at Rameshwaram Agni Teertham

But to me, they did.
And, I continued to follow them,
I was hooked.

I continued to walk, pausing at one point this time, for a long time… albeit from a distance and zoomed my vision on the clothing, garbage and debris heaped at the edge of the shore. Standing right in the middle of this garbage heap, was an old man, in a grey shirt coupled with a lungi half-folded and tucked in to his waist, continually sweeping his digging fork to and fro, sifting and collecting the garbage at one single place. 'Wasn't it smelling awful for him?' I wondered, feeling a bit nauseous myself at the same time. The sight was awful. The same grimy filthiness slowly creeped in the senses of this city-bred girl again. But this time, not with a silent contemplation...

Hadn't I wallowed myself in pitiful misery
over the trite adversity of filth and dirtiness
as opposed to the overwhelming feeling of faith and devotion
today morning itself?

And why just today?
how many times in life had I cribbed about where I was
and what I was doing?

A man cleans the Rameshwaram Agni Teertham

The more I thought about it,
the lower I drowned in my self-built well of shame.

I also felt the pain of the sea in those moments of perceptive contemplation. I felt her wounds - how the mindless disposal of waste and litter gashed her being - she was wounded deep, bruised by the adulterations she could no longer swallow, she was not well, and she needed help. The unshed tears in her existence cut my heart too.

Like a patient in an operation theatre, she needed treatment from a doctor, willing to get his hands, literally, dirty. A doctor who had the strength not only to bear the stench once the wound is cut open but also the gift to clean it with a beatific smile.

The sweepers or the 'bhangi' for the world,
there! they were her doctors of the Teertham,
the healers of the sea.

A team of cleaners around at Rameshwaram sea, Agni Teertham

Engrossed in doing their stressful arduous work of healing the sea.

What a relief it must be for the sea! I thought and exclaimed 'Bahut Achha' in a tone audible enough to reach the ears of the old man from the group whose attention I had managed to catch during my introspective reverie. In response, the man threw me a surprised look and a string of words in Tamil which I couldn't comprehend. Disappointed at my failed attempt to successfully communicate my earnest appreciation but not losing hope just yet, I decided to try one more time, conveying the same in a different manner this time. More universal. Sign language! No sooner did I flash an excellent thumbs up sign with my fingers than the old man’s wrinkly face beamed in an ecstatic smile. I panned my camera on him suggesting that I wanted to click his picture. Excited, he motioned to one of the women of the team to see and face the camera along with him and together, they just turned, moving slightly closer, and in those moments... the world around us disappeared.

And... she blushed.

The Rameshwaram sea cleaners at Agni Teertham

No fame, hardly any money and a job that’s looked down upon
by a major chunk in the society...
So what it was that drove them - from within?

The glee sparkling in their eyes told me of the massive riches they had nurtured in their hearts, the pride and peaceful content for the highly significant job that they were doing… As Martin Luther King had once famously remarked -

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper,
sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures,
sweep streets like Beethoven composed music,
sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera.
Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry.
(And if I were to add - sweep streets like Lionel Messi plays football.)

A sweeper posing at the Rameshwaram sea, Agni Teertham

Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say:
Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.

And indeed! Their reliable, self-driven work preventing the pollution of the holy Theertham ensured a greener, cleaner and more sustainable environment for me and countless more, before and after me - weren't they the pioneering leaders of Narendra Modi's 'Swachh Bharat Abhiyan'?

I vowed to not just crib and get cranky about the grimy filthiness
that bothered me that day.
But, to make an active contribution towards the work,
in the best of my capacity,
as a pilgrim, as a blogger,
... and ... above all,
as a human with a heart.

Ramanathaswamy  temple and Agni Teertham in Rameshwaram during sunset

Today ... I have long left the shores of Agni Theertham but the luminous wave of immense blessedness continues to revolutionize the sullied shores of my heart. And every time that happens, I am reminded of the incredible joy and the infinite privilege that was... to have encountered, conversed and been positively touched by the sheer dedication and passion of these great men by the sacred shores of Rameshwaram - the sweeping healers of the sea!

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