Justice Katju: A slice of Tamil history on the occasion of Pongal

Justice Markandey Katju

Justice Katju-

(Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own)

In Tamil Nadu, from about December 15 to January 14 is known as the month of Maargazhi (called Maagh in north India). It ends on Pongal on January 14, which is called Makar Sankranti in north India.

I reached Chennai on November 30, 2004 to take over as Chief Justice of Madras High Court, and soon thereafter Maargazhi began.

Throughout this month, a song called Thiruppavai, a devotional song in praise of Lord Krishna, is sung early morning, more often by women (though also by some men). 

This song was written many centuries ago (maybe even a thousand years ago) by the poet saint Andal, a young woman originally named Goda who lived in the town of Srivilliputhur (which I later visited). It is sung throughout Maargazhi not only in Tamil Nadu but also wherever Tamilians reside, even in the United States and Canada. In Toronto, which I visited recently, I found it was sung by many Sri Lankan Tamil women.

Andal (or Godadevi), was the only female Alvar among the twelve Hindu poet-saints of South India. She was posthumously considered an avatar of the goddess Bhudevi. As with the Alvar saints, she was affiliated to the Sri Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism.

She is credited with two great Tamil works, Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Tirumoḻi, and is a prominent figure for women in South India and has inspired several women’s groups such as Goda Mandali.

Since I became the head of the judiciary of Tamil Nadu, I decided to learn something of the culture of its people. I therefore got a copy of Thiruppavai (in English translation), and read it carefully.

What struck me most was the accurate description of the Mathura countryside, though that was far away in north India (about 2490 km) from Tamil Nadu.

There is an accurate depiction of herds of cattle with tinkling bells, musical sound of butter churning, conch sounds from temples, chirping of birds, girls bathing in ponds, and other minute details of the ambience of Mathura region, which I have visited several times, and I can vouch for the accuracy of these details.

Those days, there were no modern methods of transport, so obviously Andal (Goda) could not have travelled far from Srivilliputhur. How could she describe in such detail the ambience of the Mathura region, which is 2490 km away in north India with such accuracy?

This is still a mystery to me, and requires research.

I send my best wishes for a Happy Pongal to all Tamilians and other south Indians.

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