If you have ever been to any of the grand Shiva temples of Tamilnadu you couldn’t have missed the statue of a fat bald fellow, with arms folded in reverence adorning one of the pillars. If you had been taken by curiosity and asked anyone around about the man, you might have heard that that was the statue of a Chettiar.
Chettiars or Nattukottai Nagarathars as they are called are an ancient community with a written history dating back to more than 2000 years. They have traditionally been bankers and financiers who spread across most South East Asian countries for their work.
You might ask why I am writing about Chettiars in response to this.
First is that this post is about Vibhuti; or more commonly known as “Thiru Neeru” roughly translated as the Holy Ash. Vibhuti is a Shaivite symbol and Chettiars have been staunch Shaivites, worshippers of Lord Shiva. If you had clicked on Wikipedia link few lines ago, you would have seen the picture of a dark young man with white lines on his arms, chest and forehead. That is the picture of a Chettiar, wearing the Holy Ash all over his body.
Lord Shiva is a unique God; “Lord of Death – Shiva” declares George Clooney in the movie Michael Clayron. He (Shiva, not George Clooney) is known to reside in cremation grounds. He wears ashes all over his body, symbolizing mortality and his devotees wear it, at the minimum on their foreheads and if you are an extreme devotee, like the Naga Sadhu in the picture below, you would wear only that!
Alright. Now coming back to Chettiars, they were no Naga Sadhus but were very serious devotees of Shiva.
I was born in this traditionally rich, spiritual community. That is my second reason for all this rant.
Vibhuti was not just a religious symbol; it was part of life. We were taught to wear it on our foreheads the moment you woke up and brushed your teeth. Once we freshened up, we had to walk up to the altar and pick up the Vibhuti with our fingers, recite the verse below and rub it on our foreheads.
Uchiyile sadai irukka
Ullangaiyil Vel irukka
Netriyile neer irukka
Ninaivu thara vendumaiyya
(Translation: The Supreme One with matted hair and lance on hand, please remind me to wear Vibhuti on my forehead)
Every visit to my grandparents’ ended with one of them lovingly rubbing some Vibhuti on our foreheads, their way of blessing their children and grand children. The best part of that ritual was that my grandmother would always put a pinch of Vibhuti in her mouth and we would copy her. Although Vibhuti symbolizes ash from cremation grounds, in reality it is made by burning herbs in a sacred fire. So it is quite safe and tastes pretty good; a bit chalk like with a metallic after taste.
Until my grandparents’ generation people always carried Vibhuti on them, packed neatly in a foldable cloth bag specially made for that purpose.
Thus Vibhuti was such a synonym to blessings that I firmly believed that I would miss my school bus if I left home without it. I wore it without fail. In school, we girls would have lengthy discussions on the right way to wear it – the appropriate width and length of the white streak that would go well with the rest of the attire.
As I grew older and my rebellious self reexamined my religious and spiritual orientations and as I learnt about other religions and tried to be a World citizen, I stopped wearing Vibhuti, for a while. I was not sure how to explain to people that what I had on my forehead was not make-up gone wrong, but something I put on intentionally. It also felt a little rude to showcase your religious orientation.
it felt a little odd not to wear it. I even wished my God chose something that I could wear around my neck to represent Him, like the cross the Christians wear, instead of something on my face. (There is something Shaivites do wear on their necks, the Rudraksha, but that was not as ingrained in me as the Vibhuti).
In addition, I married into a family that were Vaishnavites and had no place for Vibhuti in their altar. But then I carried my own stash of Vibhuti in. While I was not wearing it publicly, it still held a special place in my heart.
Over the years, my experimentation with Sprituality continued and my fascination with Shiva only increased with the years sans Vibhuti (at least publicly).
The white line made its appearance on my forehead again quite recently; part of one those miracles when you turn 40 and stop caring so much about what others think of you and focus on being authentic. It just became natural to put it on. It is part of me. What is there to hide?!
There you go, a complete circle – in the form of a white line.