Chattampi Swamikal and My Father
My father Kannakath Kunju Nair was a blessed soul to have been a constant companion of Chattampi Swamikal and to look after him in his final days. Father, who stayed with me in Thiruvananthapuram, passed away on 25th October 2000 in his hundredth year. His memory had not dimmed even a little until three months before the end. My parents used to take me to Panmana ashram from the time I was a little child. Initially father used to hold me up high and make me ring the huge bell in front of the temple. I used to take part along with many other children in father’s hymn chanting and bhajan singing in the antechamber of the ashram. After my primary classes I studied for six years in the Sanskrit school just behind the ashram. Often I used to run to the school after handing the lotus flowers in the home pond that were plucked the previous day and kept in lotus leaves, to the ashram temple. I attended all the festivals and Kathakali performances that took place there. In short I can say that a good chunk of my childhood and adolescence was spent in the ashram environment.
I had jotted down information that I gathered from father on occasions upon my requesting or even otherwise. Here I am presenting a selected few from those:
Father first met Chattampi Swamikal during the Meenam month of Malayalam calendar year 1098 (CE 1923). He had gone along with Kumbalath Sanku Pillai to meet the Swamikal at the Samadhi of his disciple Neelakanta Theerthapada Swamikal in Thazhathottam, Karunagappally. At the time my father was 22 and Kumbalath was 25 years of age. Before long Swamikal set out from Thazhathottam and arrived at Kumbalath house in Panmana. He stayed there for more than a month. Father was Swamikal’s constant companion and caregiver at that time. Later Swamikal left for Thiruvananthapuram, saying, ‘Let me bid bye to everybody.’
Swamikal who returned in Meenam of 1099 (1924) first rested at Thottuvayalil house in Prakkulam for a few days. He reached Panmana on Medam 1st.
Father referred to Kumbalam as ‘adhyam’ short for ‘adheham’. Swamikal used to call him ‘karanavar’. What was the reason?
‘From a very young age he was adept in resolving fights and skirmishes in the locality through his intervention. Plus he was also the elder person of Kumbalath ancestral house.’ Mother used to say that father had practiced singing at Kollaka Vadakkedathu Parameswaran Pillai Bhagavathar’s for some time. Perhaps that is why Swamikal called father ‘Bhagavathar’?
‘Not exactly. Someone must have told Swamikal about my training in singing. Once Kochupillai Asari from Neendakara who had come to Kumbalath house to build a cot, built a ganchira and presented it to Swamikal. He presented the ganchira along with rock candy and dry grapes together in a leaf. Swamikal first took the ganchira in his hand. I was at some distance outside. He summoned me through a person and asked me to sing. I sang some bhajans. Swamikal liked it. On another occasion, learning that Swamikal had come to Prakkulam, ‘adhyam’ sent me there to enquire as to when he is reaching Panmana. I went there one morning. Swamikal offered me an idli and asked me if I had sung in plays. Apparently someone had informed him about it. I replied that I had played the role of Nallathankal and sung in the eponymous play. Upon this he asked me to repeat the act for him. I started singing Nallathankal’s song ‘Prananatha…premamillayo…parthal’. I followed it with songs of all the characters in the play.
The Musical Wisdom of Swamikal
Father once cited an instance of the enormous range of Swamikal’s knowledge in music. “Swamikal had great wisdom. His sense of rhythm and harmony were amazing. One time two musicians by names of Vadakkedath Parameswaran Pillai Bhagawathar and Ramaswamy came to meet him. The Bhagawathar could sing varna in six kaalam; Ramaswamy was a thavil maestro. Swamikal expressed his wish to hear ‘some choukkam in tripuda.’ Then he took his own ganchira and handed it to Ramaswamy. Bhagawathar sang and Ramaswamy played the ganchira. But the latter could not make the right pauses in the ganchira to synchronize with the song. Swamikal, while still reposing, took the ganchira and demonstrated the pauses. Ramaswamy fell prostrate before Swamikal. He paid obeisance saying, ‘You are Murugan. Velayudhan.’ I still remember Ramaswamy with his arms in salutation receiving in his towel dhoti the ganchira offered by Swamikal. “
Swamikal had taught father some Tamil hymns that he had himself written and set to music. Father taught me a few as well. Sree Narayana Guru visited Swamikal while he was living in Thottuvayalil house in Prakkulam. At that time I had been to Panmana for some reason. Therefore I am not in the group photo that was taken then. However I was the one who went to fetch that photo. The photo with Chattampi Swamikal in the middle and Sree Narayana Guru Swamikal and Theerthapada Paramahamsa Swamikal on either side was taken by Kollam native Ratnaswamy Pillai. Pillai told me that some people had made an attempt to pay money and collect the negative before I reached the studio. But since he did not fall for that, we could preserve the photo.
Father’s account over many occasions of Swamikal’s daily habits goes like this: While staying in Panmana in 1098, he used to sleep at night in Kumbalath house. After a breakfast of rice gruel he would set out for the sacred grove on the western side of the paddy field. There he would rest on a cane cot in the shade of the creepers. At noon some rice and curries in singed banana leaf will be brought wrapped from Kumbalath house. He was insistent that I bring this. Pappadam for the lunch had to be broken and separately wrapped in leaf. He would begin eating only after distributing this to all around like a prasadam. Swamikal could not stand the sun at all. He would go on a stroll with me during evening after the sun mellowed in intensity. This evening walk is somewhat aimless. Several youth looked with envy at me who accompanied him holding an umbrella.
Mother had told me that she first saw father as the person who stood by Swamikal, distributing dry grapes and rock candy to the children. Father had this to say about it: The girls’ primary school was a little to the south of the sacred grove where Swamikal rested. The schoolchildren used to come regularly to meet Swamikal. He would seat them beside him and make them sing songs. Saying ‘Now that you have blessed me, let me bless you’ he would give them the dry grapes and rock candy stored there. My job it was to distribute to them all.
It was one such girl who sang before the Swamikal and received dry grapes and rock candy from him that father married after she turned fifteen. Those days Swamikal did not have any publicly displayed puja or meditation. He was anyway above such practices. Occasionally he rubbed his head with pure ghee warmed by adding cumin. Milk was compulsory every day. Many a patient came to him to seek their well being. He would often narrate their past lifetime history to them and console them. He is said to have healed quite a number of people.
Swamikal’s Samadhi Spot
‘Did Swamikal decide his samadhi spot beforehand?’ I once asked.
One would assume so. Once Kumbalath Sanku Pillai, Pannisseril Nanu Pillai, Karingattil Pappu Pillai Shastri, Madathil Shanku Pillai Munshi and I accompanied Swamikal on his visit to another large sacred grove nearby. After making a full round of the place, Swamikal remarked, ‘This is ideal for me to sit.’ We realized that he was hinting about Samadhi. It was certain that Swamikal sensed that his time was nearing. The journey to Thiruvananthapuram was to be on the next day. When everybody informed him of their sorrow at parting with him, he consoled us saying, ‘This old man will come right here when it is time for him to die!’ Tears welled up in everybody’s eyes.
Swamikal took me along on his Thiruvananthapuram trip too. Not as a helper, but to lend me help instead. In other words, it was to find a suitable guru for the disciple with a flair for music. Swamikal had the famous musician T. Lakshmanan Pillai in mind. Pillai was Swamikal’s humble disciple. Swamikal used to joke that no sooner had he started speaking the first syllable of the sentence, ‘Start with pa, Lakshmana…’ than Lakshmanan would start singing. But luck was not on my side. Lakshmanan Pillai who was immersed in the activities of a charity society had gone travelling for organizational work. Dejected, I stayed there a few days more and returned on Swamikal’s instruction.
I once asked him the reason for Swamikal returning to Panmana. ‘Ailments of the stomach began to taunt Swamikal in Thiruvananthapuram. But he did not care to take medication. K.G. Gopala Pillai, the Principal of Ayurveda College tried some medicines on him. It was of no avail. The desire to return to Panmana also intensified.” The stomach ailments continued to bother him even while living in Thottuvayal house in Prakkulam. Many came visiting with medicinal decoctions they had made. His question to them was, ‘Why do I need medicines now?’ One the way back from visiting him in Thottuvayal, Sree Narayana Guru also purchased and sent ‘Siddhamakaradhwajam’. That too met with the same query.
Swamikal’s disciples decided that he should be seated in Samadhi in the place that he himself had identified. But the land where the sacred grove stood belonged to another man. The owner of the land refused to part it. ‘Now you may decide only after seeing the samadhi’ was how ‘adhyam’ reacted to it.
Swamikal reached Panmana even though his disciples insisted that he stay at Thiruvananthapuram. Then some disciples tried to take him to Kollam. They also made Paramahamsa Swamikal to recommend it. When the pressure mounted, he sent them back asking to come back after three days. And on the third day he entered Samadhi.
Swamikal was taken to Panmana C. Padmanabha Pillai memorial library. Thus I once again got the opportunity to look after Swamikal, in his final days. All the disciples like Theerthapada Paramahamsar, Pannissery, P.K. Narayanan Unnithan, Padmanabha Panicker had arrived as they sensed that the time for heavenly ascension was at hand.
At 4 o clock in the morning on the third day, Swamikal ordered that he be helped to sit down. We obeyed. He sat in padmasana for 4 or 5 minutes. That divine soul attained the feet of Brahma. We stood motionless all around, unable to even weep.
‘Karanavar’ sent for the owner of the sacred grove and asked him to go meet the Samadhi-bound soul. He saw the Samadhi and paid obeisance. He came out and immediately agreed to give up the land. Chattampi Swamikal was seated in Samadhi in that sacred grove itself. A temple was later built there. I was fortunate to get to light the lamp there for a month. Once I asked father if he had any unforgettable experience to share from the days he spent with Swamikal.
Yes. I once committed an act of disobedience. Swamikal was staying in the C. Padmanabha Pillai memorial library. He summoned me from outside and asked me to sit beside him on the cot and give a body massage. This was because the heat of the inner palm was found to provide a little relief. But I was bewildered. Me sitting in Swamikal’s cot beside him! Even a close disciple like Paramahamsar would only be at his feet uttering, ‘adiyan’, etc. That being so, how can I go and sit with him? I went out. Sometime later when Paramahamsar came and insisted and took me by the hand I went in. I hesitatingly sat on the cot and massaged him. Swamikal did not say anything, just looked at me.
Chattampi Swamikal saw the reformation of the Hindu people as a crying need. The biggest peril was the caste discrimination. The damage to society brought about by castes, sub-castes and the animosity between them was intolerable. Swamikal had declared his stance against these through this own lifestyle quite early on.
In the days when he studied at Raman Pillai asan’s school, Chattampi (monitor) Kunjan’s food and sleep were in some Ezhava homes in Pettah. Some classmates reported this to asan. When asan summoned Kunjan and asked him about it, his reply literally shut him up: ‘So what asan, don’t I eat from asan’s home too?’