Published in First City, March 2010

Most scholars agree that while the Vedic Sanskrit traditions moved south, the south had a very rich flourishing culture of its own rooted in Tamil. The early literary Tamil tradition is considered to be at least 2000 years old, taking shape around the time the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were reaching their final form in the north. It is referred to as Sangam literature and they are full of songs and stories related to love, war, governance, trade and bereavement. These allude to gods and goddesses but are not primarily religious.

But a few centuries later a poem story emerged that celebrates Muruga, the great god of the hills, the very virile warrior-god who rides a peacock, who holds a lance, whose symbol is a rooster. Known as Tirumurukarruppatai, ‘An ode to the Lord Muruga’, this Tamil work is also a love story. It describes in detail the courtship of Valli. What is interesting in this narrative is its rawness and unbridled passion, devotion mixed with eroticism, devoid of Brahmanical and monastic restraint. Love and lust are seen as two sides of the same coin and there is no shame or guilt associated with desire. It transforms God into a member of the family; not distant and celestial but very local and extremely familiar, displaying traits of human beings.

Muruga is a Tamil god, son of the wild goddess Kotravai, who later became identified with Skanda, the son of Shiva. He is described as a beautiful virile epitome of manhood. In Sanskrit texts, he was the commander of Devas, who led them to victory. Most north Indian traditions describe him as a bachelor. Sometimes, he has a wife called Devasena, meaning ‘army of the gods’, who was the daughter of Indra, king of Devas. Devasena seems more like an idea, and less like a person, but she is the first wife of Muruga. The wife who fired the imagination of the Tamil people was the second wife, Valli.

Valli’s father, Nampi, a tribal chief, wanted a girl-child as he had many sons. And to his delight, he found her in a hole that had been dug by women who were searching for wild forest yams (valli), hence her name. Who was she? She had been delivered by a doe who had been made pregnant by the amorous thoughts of a sage, or perhaps a god disguised as a sage. She was thus a child of the forest raised by tribesmen and when she came of age, she was asked to guard the millet field. And that is when Muruga was told of her, by the wily sage Narada.

He came down from the hill where he resided to see her and was smitten by her instantly. He took the form of a young hunter and spoke to her, introducing himself and asking about her. She too was smitten by him but hesitated. Their conversation was interrupted by her father and her brothers who came with food for her: honey and millets and fruits and milk. When they came, Muruga turned into a tree. When they left, he appeared again as an old man and asked to be fed. She fed him. He then asked her to be his beloved. She was not sure how to respond, a little embarrassed, a little awkward. Suddenly a wild elephant appeared (it was Ganesha, Muruga’s brother). In fear, Valli ran into the arms of the old man. Muruga showed her his true form and took Valli into the millet field where all resistance vanished and the two became one.

Valli was scared of her father and family. What will they say? she wondered. After the encounter in the millet field, she looked different. Her female companion asked her about it. And she confessed her tryst with the hill-god. Muruga demanded that the female companion help the two lovers meet, and she complied. And so days passed in the millet field with Muruga and Valli discovering their love for each other.

But then it was harvest time. Valli’s father came to fetch his daughter and take her back to her village. She returned forlorn, unable to bear her separation.  Worried by her countenance, her mother called a soothsayer women. And she said Valli showed signs of deep love. Who was the secret lover,Valli wouldn’t say.

At night, Muruga came to the village, having not found her in the millet field, and took her away to his abode. At dawn, her father and brothers, fearing she had been kidnapped, raised their weapons and beat their drums and marched to the hill, where they had been told Valli had been taken. Muruga’s rooster crowed with such force that the sound killed them all. Valli wept for her father and begged they be brought to life. Narada told Muruga that while love is divine, consent of father and family is also necessary. Muruga relented. He then revealed his divine form and approached Nampi who realized that his daughter had been chosen as the bride of the god who he had worshipped for years. He saw the love in his daughter’s eyes. How could he say no?

The couple sat on a tiger skin and everyone danced and sang to celebrate their union. Through Valli, divinity of the hill came down and entered the hearts of the tribal people. He who was once distant was now one of  the people. Muruga was the divine son-in-law.

The idea of a god as son-in-law is a recurring theme in the folk traditions of India. Many a village god or Grama-devata is actually a desi or local form of a cosmic God, a form taken to marry a local princess. For example, Khandoba, the village-god found in many parts of Maharashtra, identified with Shiva, and even parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, also known as Mallana, is married to women identified as the daughters of shepherds and weavers and farmers. His chief wife, Mhalsa, is from the Vanik or merchant community. His second wife, Banai, is from the Dhangar or herdsmen community. Mhalsa’s marriage is an arranged marriage. Banai’s a passionate love-marriage, much like Valli’s. Mhalsa cooks but is not beautiful, they say. Banai is beautiful and passionate but cannot cook. The fight between the two is one of culture and nature, civilization and the forest. Following the marriage, the village-god, Khandoba, becomes the protector of the village, often visualized as riding a horse, along with his wife, and brandishing a sword.

Sometimes the daughter of the village becomes a goddess in her own right. This is the case with Meenakshi, the warrior-princess of Madurai, born with three breasts. They say she wanted to conquer the world and that the only man who would conquer her heart would be the one who would defeat her in battle. Somasundara, a form of Shiva, did that. With defeat, she lost the extra breast and became more feminine. Their marriage is celebrated every year in Madurai presided over by Vishnu, Meenakshi’s brother.

Tirupati Balaji is said to be a local form of Vishnu. He descended on earth and decided to stay on the seven hills because it reminded him of his celestial abode, Vaikuntha. The seven hills were like the seven hoods of his serpent, Sesha, on whose coils he liked to sleep. He came to earth in search of Lakshmi, his consort, who had left the heavens after an argument. While on earth, he married the local princess Padmavati. The story of the love of Balaji and Padmavati has many similarities to the story of Muruga and Valli; how he courts her and finally wins her heart. Only here, he has to pay a very high bridal price. He borrows the money from Kubera, treasurer of the gods, and is still in debt. As son-in-law, Balaji earned the right to stay on the hills of Tirumalai. Thus Vishnu has two consorts, one divine, Lakshmi, and one earthly, Padmavati, just like Muruga who has Devasena and Valli.