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A Fisherman's Rise to Sainthood

The temple corridor

The Procession

Adipatti and his associates

Nagapattinam is a minor port, off the coast of Bay of Bengal, in Tamil Nadu. Known communan for harmony and peaceful coexistence, the district town is popular for the Velankanni church, the Sufi durgah at Nagore and the traditional opulence of the temples of Kayarohanaswami, Neelayadakshi and Soundaraja Perumal. 

For many years the fishermen community of Nagapattinam and the authorities of the Neelayadakshi temple together have celebrated a unique ritual. The ritual of reliving the day Adipatti Nayanmar received moksha. Adipatti is the 49th Nayanmar of the 63-shaivaite nayanmars. This year the ritual gained special significance since it was celebrated on a larger scale, for the first time in forty years.

IGNCA video-documented the ritual this year, as part of its documentation of unique rituals. The idea was mooted by Padmavibhushan Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Trustee, IGNCA Trust and an advisory member of IGNCA-SRC. The documentation team comprised Dr.Pramila Lochan, Dr.Karuna Vijendra, Manjunath, N. Ramesh and Manju.

According to the legend dating back to thousands of years, Adipatti hailed from the fishermen community of Nagarbhavi village in Nagapattinam. A virtuous devotee of Lord Shiva he was known for his unwavering bhakti. Each time he went fishing he always offered the first catch to the Lord. It so happened that during one season Lord Shiva decided to test his devotion and emptied the sea of all fishes. The fishermen were worried and tense. But Adipatti merely prayed to the Lord. The next morning Adipatti caught a beautiful fish. By practice Adipatti offered the fish to the Lord. The next morning once again, Adipatti's net caught a beautiful silver fish. Although hungry for days, Adipatti once again left the fish into the water as an offering to the Lord. The Lord, with his consort was extremely pleased with Adipatti's devotion and as a final test the Lord sent across a beautiful golden fish. When the fishermen found the fish with its incredible glittering skin they knew that by selling the fish all of them would never go hungry again. Even Adipatti knew that generations to come could live comfortably. Yet as usual, Adipatti let the fish into the waters as an offering to the Lord. Exceedingly touched by his single-minded devotion, Lord Shiva along with his consort and other Gods showered flowers on Adipatti. The Lord appeared before him and blessed him. Declaring him to be the 49th Nayanmar, released Adipatti from all worldly attachments. 

This day is celebrated each year and has gained great socio- religious significance. As a mark of respect to the saint, the entire fishermen community abstains from all fishing activity on the day of the ritual. Proud of a saint who belonged to their community, the fishermen in their own way have contributed to the beautification of the Neelayadakshi temple. They have pooled in their resources and redecorated the mandapa with marble flooring and sandblasted pillars, which appear unique with alternating gold and silver fishes placed between the column and the ceiling. The framed prints hung on the pillars narrate the life of Adipatti. 

Preparations for the evening rituals began in the morning. In the inner mandapa, the final touches to the utsav moorties (the idols that are used for processions, they are usually bronze, smaller versions of the installed idol of the temple, but are heavily decorated) were carried out by one assigned to the duty. Around 3:30 p.m. the deities were ready to leave the temple premises. Bedecked with colourful flowers, the deities began their journey from the temple through the streets of Nagapattinam to the seashore. Slowly and steadily swaying to the rhythm of footsteps of the palanquin bearers, the deities - Lord Shiva and Neelayadakshi followed the palanquin of their devotee Adipatti. People enthusiastically moved alongside the deities, chanting and bursting crackers as the chosen few blew conches heralding the arrival of the deities. The procession reached the seashore where the entire community eagerly gathered to pull the chariot together towards a makeshift bamboo platform, where it came to a halt. 

A few kilometers away, at the Mariamman temple a few fishermen were waiting to start the ritual. Each year a fisherman is chosen to impersonate Adipatti and he enacts the role along with a few followers. After a small puja to Mariamman the man acting as Adipatti left for the seashore along with his fellowmen. They walked through the village where children and women came out to cheer, burst crackers and joined the procession. The fisherman-Adipatti carried a linga in his hand while the followers carried offerings of sweets, fruits and gold and silver coated fishes. Once the group reached the sanctified spot where the Lord was, the priest conducted a puja. 

In a little while the group climbed onto a 'kattumaram'- a boat made by tying together logs. As the kattumaram, with a red flag, floated into the sea, many young fishermen took their boats and went alongside cheering and shouting with joy. 

The IGNCA SRC team, taken in with the emotional upsurge, also clambered into a boat along with a few fishermen. It was a good chance to take close up shots of the entire ritual. Balancing on a small bamboo rod for a seat was risky enough, added to which was the handling of sensitive photographic equipment. The sea was rough and the waves strong in current. Before we realized we hit a nine-foot high wave. The boat went up and down the wave while some of us were thrown into air and to our luck safely landed back into the boat. After which we managed to gain our balance and continue the shoot. Later we learnt that the nine foot wave came in only twice during 24 hours. The first wave had come in the early hours while we greeted the second wave. Perhaps the sea had its own special way of saluting Adipatti. 

The entire ritual relived in the deep waters of the sea was thrilling to watch. As soon as the golden fish was left into the water symbolically, the entire fishermen community thronged around the main boat. The remaining boats swung around manoeuvering dangerously close. 

Soon after, the fisherman-Adipatti returned to the shore and carried the 'symbolic' fish to the feet of the Lord. People touched the fish and felt blessed. The priest performed an aarti to the Lord and offered it to all. Shortly after the President of the Ramakrishna Mutt of Madurai, Poojyashri Swami Kamalathmananda, spoke to the congregation. This was followed by an emotional speech by Dr.Padma Subrahmanyam that wound up with a folk song sung by her and her nephew Kannan. A decision to start a cultural centre was made on the spot and was supported by the organizing committee. 

By then it was around 7:30 p.m. and the procession was ready to return to the temple premises. The deities slowly passed through the city and after going around once again reached the temple by 10:00 p.m. In the meanwhile, at the temple precinct, a satsang was in progress in which the greatness of Adipatti was narrated. The main deity of Adipatti was decorated with butter and looked radiant as people paid obeisance. With the utsav moorties returning to the temple, a final mangalaarti was performed after which many sat to eat the prasadam (sacred offering). 

For the fishermen community and the temple authorities it was a successful culmination of their reverence and affection for Adipatti. For the SRC team it was an unforgettable experience bound in inexplicable emotion that would last forever


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