Tharangambadi, a few miles from Pondicherry.
We were childhood friends, Raghupathi and I. We first met in the fifth standard, when I moved from Madras to Pondi. Frankly, I hated the place - but he was the reason why I learned to live there, and probably, later love it.
He was the son of the priest of the temple by the seashore at Tharangambadi. For generations, his family had tended to Lord Janardhana, the presiding deity. Their lives, from their lowest desires to their greatest ambitions, were defined by that temple. Not many people knew its existence now, and those who did, did not bother to visit it anymore, but that was immaterial to them.
Raghupathi, however, was different.
We parted ways after high school. A childhood love for history gave him the courage to pay little heed to family tradition, and he joined an undergraduate course in it at the local college. I moved to Singapore to study Economics. Soon, I was working in a multi-national bank. I heard that he was continuing his torrid love affair with History, with the Archaeological Survey of India. Life was hectic. We hardly wrote to each other. We scarcely thought about each other even. At least, I know I didn't.
Then, nearly a decade later, about seven months back, I received an air-mail from him. He was inviting me to Lakshmi's wedding- his sister. It was in December, in Tharangambadi. I missed India, so even though I was a little hesitant, I called him up and told him I would come. I was diffident, because I really did not know what we could talk about any more.
He was still living in the same two-room house that he used to as a kid. Memories came flooding back.
"How is Appa?", I ventured.
"Don't ask. My refusal to carry on with priesthood broke him. He died soon after I joined college."
Not a good start.
The dawn before the wedding, Raghupathi and I were walking by the calm sea.
"I want to ask you something....", he began. I looked at him, half expecting what he was going to say.
"I need some...The groom's side is demanding some money. I didn't know who to ask...".
"And so, you thought of me...", I smiled. I stopped, realizing that it sounded a little cruel. I knew how difficult it was for him to bring this up. "I'm sorry. Sure, you can have it."
The smile on his face was something that I would remember for a long time. "Thanks! Its..Its just that I have a cash crunch now. I'll definitely transfer the money to you by..."
"Sure, sure. Don't worry about it!"
Damn! I shouldn't have embarassed him. I wanted to change the conversation quickly....
"Wow, the beach sure seems to have grown in the last ten years. I remember, we used to race from the steps of the temple to the water's edge. It always seemed such a small distance- so small, that you always won before I could catch up! Now look at it! The sea seems so distant now!"
He looked up from his troubled thoughts. "Yeah! You know what?! You are absolutely right. Strange..".
I smiled. "How about a race now? The last one to the water is a loser!!". And before he could say anything, I was off. Running into the wind. Into the sea.
A ray from the rising sun momentarily blinded me. My leg caught something and I fell headlong into the salty sand.
Age was not too kind to Raghu. He was lumbering some distance behind me. "Are you all right?!!", he managed to whisper, between great gasps of breath.
"Hello, what is this?". He was staring intently at a small, triangular piece of green rock jutting out of the sand. Scowling with pain, I got up and peered over his shoulder.
"Looks like a small, triangular piece of green rock!", I said irritatedly, stating the obvious.
"No, No! wait a minute..."...He was frantically digging, clawing at the sand. I looked at him transfixed. Had he suddenly gone bonkers?
After watching him amazedly for a couple of minutes, some strange realization dawned on me. "What IS that piece of rock?".
"This, my good friend", said he between excited gasps, "is no piece of rock. Possibly 14th century bronze."
That's all it took. I joined him, digging like a crazed bounty-hunter.
The bronze statue was 3 feet tall. Mahavishnu. Majestic. Classic features. A mysterious little smile. Four hands. The right hand held the chakra- the discus. The left held the shankh- the conch. Another held the mace. The final hand was the strangest- palm outstretched and brought near the mouth. Now that was something that one wouldn't normally see.
"As if sipping water from the palm of one's hand"... Those words from distant childhood echoed within me.
Carved with an eye for exquisite detail- even an untrained novice such as I could see that we had in front of us the work of a true master. A rare antique of inestimable value made deeply mysterious and infinitely unique by that strange hand gesture.
Raghu was breathing heavily. "I think this is the Utsava-Murthy, the processional deity of our temple, believed to have been lost for ages!
Sometime in the 14th century, the Delhi Sultanate advanced to South India, and they began unleashing a terrible campaign to destroy the Hindu faith by defacing our temples. Malik Kafur completely pillaged the Hoysala temple at the place that we know today as Halebidu. He almost reached Srirangam. The idols there were secretly transported to Tirupati for protection.
Seeing the imminent threat to our temple by the invaders, my forefathers decided that they had to take urgent steps to save these idols, at least for the sake of posterity. The plan was to bury the idols somewhere in the seashore here at Tharangambadi. In the middle of the night, the main idol was secreted away and hidden beneath the sands just outside the temple. The Utsava-Murthy was buried further down the beach. They placed flags to mark the spots where they had buried the statues. But for all their care, they made one crucial mistake. It was low tide and the dead of the night- the place where they buried the Utsava-Murthy was too far into the sea. When the day broke and the tide came in, the flag marking this spot was swept away by the rough sea.
The danger soon passed and the invaders retreated back to the North, and my family was easily able to find the main idol outside the temple, but the Utsava-Murthy was assumed to be lost forever, until..... until today. I think what you have discovered today could be that same, ancient statue.
But one thing still puzzles me- there's something not right with the fourth hand of Vishnu.
Why is Vishnu doing an Achamanam?
In the main idol reinstated back into the temple, the hand is not near the mouth....Even the paintings of Vishnu from that period don't show this mudra. So either this must be a different statue, which appears highly unlikely, or...or.. I dont know. There's surely some significance to it.
My father must have mentioned it, for I have a vague feeling that he did, but I was never too interested in mythology to pay attention...".
His eyes were glazed, lost in deep thought. "Ahh! I give up!", he grunted good-humoredly after a while.
" Raghu....How much will this be worth today?" I asked in a low tone, bringing him straight down to earth.
Sensing the sudden intensity in my tone, he looked scandalized. "Look, just what exactly are you suggesting?? This is a national treasure for heavens' sake!!! Stop thinking what you are thinking...." He was clearly faltering.
I decided to take my chance. "Raghu, how much do you earn?"
"That has nothing to do with this! My family has been worshipping Lord Janardhana for the last 700 years. How can you even suggest..."
"All right, if I refuse to lend you the money, how do you intend to pay Lakshmi's prospective
in-laws, huh? And hello, even if I do pay, it doesn't stop at the wedding expenses...Oh No...You'll have to give them gifts at every bloody function, right?! How do you suppose you are going to afford all this?? And, and.." I drove home relentlessly. "What about you? How are you going to support your wife when you marry? Don't tell me the Archaeological Survey of India is going to declare you a national monument and protect you. Because that's what you are- A bleeding antique!!".
I could see that he was hurt. But he could see the bitter truth behind my cruel words. "All right. All right...We'll hide the statue at the house during the wedding. But please, I need your help to sell this statue abroad. If this is seen in India, I'll be destroyed."
And so it was agreed. I would go to his house and get my car. We'd hide it in his house. And I would find a buyer for it in Singapore. Our lives would change forever.
"Stay right here and guard the statue. Don't move!", I ordered and started jogging back to his house.
!" he called out. I turned around.
The beach was absolutely deserted. The morning sun was just rising over the solitary figure of Raghupathi, throwing his outline in sharp relief. I knew it was a trick of light- The statue's long shadow seemed to dwarf him.
"We are not doing something evil, right
?", he asked tremulously. Clearly, I was not the only one disturbed.
I pretended not to to have heard him at first. A pause later,"Don't worry! Everything will turn out OK!".
The first wave of the killer tsunami hit Tharangambadi that morning. Janardhana was ready, sipping the waters of the great Pralayam.