Temple Bull, Plough Ox – Sundara Ramaswamy

Tamil Title : கோவில் காளையும் உழவு மாடும் (Kovil Kaalayum Uzhavu Maadum)

Author : Sundara Ramaswamy

Translator : Vasantha Surya (From the translated volume Place to Live (2005), Edited by Dilip Kumar, Penguin Books India)


Alms-bells were jingling pleasantly. Bells heard at that time of day meant that Vairavan Pandaaram[1] had finished his day’s labours and was on his way back to the temple of Maadan, walking swiftly along the path. Even in the darkness, his feet knew the ups and downs of the single track. Snatches of villupaattu, the bowstring folk songs, broke from his lips and flew out, acquiring little lives of their own.

The path led straight to the door of the temple of Maadan. It was quite an old shrine. Maadan’s past glories were many, but now only a single oil lamp burned there, and that too, thanks to Vairavan Pandaaram’s spirit of pious self-denial. Its walls had collapsed and crumbled back into the mud, like a man who has regressed to an ape-like condition. To the right, a pillar which had stood upright for years now lay on the ground and took its ease. Growing in wild profusion on all sides of the shrine were prickly yercum shrubs and grassy weeds. A naked foot stepping on that ground would at once be plastered with nerunji thorns. Maadan was even now an omnipotent God, for His roof still stood. He did not roast in the sun, or soak in the rain. It was out of a fervent desire for this minimum comfort that Vairavan Pandaaram hung on Maadan’s neck.

Both of them were orphans. And both were powerful beings. Facing Maadan’s sanctum was an upright pole about two feet tall, with a wooden box sitting on top of it. In it was a provident fund-Maadan’s property, the sole use and enjoyment of which accrued to Vairavan Pandaaram. On the stone steps of the temple, a female dog lay in a dreamy daze.

Suddenly it stood up and barked. In the starlit doorway appeared the silhouette of Vairavan Pandaaram. Ah, solemn presence! Kingly visage, glowing skin, flowing beard, that mark of all Great Ones. Forehead, chest and shoulders striped with sacred ash. Between the brows, a large dot of sandalwood-over it, one of vermilion. An ochre upper cloth is swathed tightly above the veshti. Slung between the shoulders like an evenly-balanced pair of scales, swaying gently, is a decorated arch of bamboo-the kaavadi. Festooned with alms-bells, it is a display of his exalted mendicancy.

With consummate case, Pandaaram lifted the front door, stepped inside and placed it back in a slanting position. He briskly set to work. Since these were routine chores for him and because everything he needed was at hand, they went without a hitch as though a screw had been turned on a machine. He lit the fire. Soon the cooking was well under way.

Having cooked the rice, he drained it and set it down. The sambar was put on to boil; it bubbled rhythmically, without missing a beat. The dog got up and gave a grotesque stretch, curving its spine and yawning. Then it sat down in the alert pose of the dog in the old `His Master’s Voice’ ads, deeply appreciating the aroma of the sambar. Pandaaram scooped up some gravy with the coconut-shell spoon, blew on it and poured a few drops upon his tongue. Eyes closed, he dispatched the taste to his brain. Then he dropped a couple of crystals of salt into the pot and gave it another stir.

The dog stood up, faced the door and began to bark. Pandaaram turned his head. Someone could be seen standing in the doorway. `Who is it?’ he demanded.

Unaware of the door’s special magic spell, the newcomer gave it a push. It fell with a loud crash. Pandaaram looked closely at the aged figure who stepped inside, spade in hand.

His body resembled a sun-dried salted fish. Of his substance, which had been offered up as tribute to the Goddess of Profit, this was the squeezed-out residue. Veins stood out in knotted clumps along his legs. The hair on his head had grown wild as a jungle. Around his waist was a dirty towel. He was surely somewhat hard of hearing. That kind of lost look was on his face.

`I have come from a long distance, just by walking. Must put my head down for the night.’

`He’s come barging in, the wretch!’ muttered Pandaaram to himself. The old man was gazing at the cookpot on the flames, a red glow spreading over his face.

`Where’re you from?’


`Going where?’

`My name…?’

`I’m asking where you’re going…’

`Me? Where I’m going? Who knows? I’m just moving along…’

He pointed upwards. `Everything is clear only to Him…’ he said, with a smile. The kind of smile that comes in place of tears.

That night when the meal was ready, Pandaaram gave the old man some food. The newcomer finished off every last grain.

The dog loudly made known its disappointment. `Chhee! Go!’ Pandaaram thrust out his leg and kicked the creature in its belly. It yelped in unbearable pain.

`Don’t kick it in the belly. It’s carrying young ones,’ said the old man.

`Old rascal!’ muttered the other.

He took out a cheroot from the lamp alcove and lit it. Smokie issued in clouds from his mouth. The old man patted down the floor to settle the dust and laid himself down. Next moment he slept off.

When Pandaaram awoke at dawn, the old man was not yet up. `Tired, is he? The old stick!’  Pandaaram said to himse.f

Morning was always his busiest time. Well before darkness had lifted, he would go and plunge into a poind nearby. Coming back, he would comb out the tangles in his hair and smooth it down, then grind up some sandalwood paste  and rub it on himself. His `make-up’ took at least an hour. It could be sunrise by the time he finished shining up the alms-bowl and the bells on the kaavadi and set out for the Muslim hotel at the turning.  After a cup of strong tea, he would be off on his rounds.

With that the day’s business would begin!

That day he returned before it got dark. He had had a good collection. Approaching the temple, he stood stock-still with amazement. The grass and weeds around it had been cleared. Everything was tidy! The old man sat picking his teeth with a stalk, looking as though he didn’t know a thing about it. Not a word out of him. Though Pandaaaram would have liked to feign disinterest, he couldn’t hold his tongue.

`What, your hands and feet are just itching, is it? Poking around asking what’s there to do?’

The old man smiled. `Well, how long can a fellow laze about, tell me! I was just wasting away, I felt so weak! So I walked around a bit here and there, and then I started to get busy. You see my spade? It’s an old one. Worn down with age. Or I’d do an even cleaner job.’


People say Saturday is the day for Pandaarams to take their weekly oil bath. Vairavan Pandaaram did not go out that day. Clad only in a loincloth, he rubbed himself all over with oil. Again and again he stroked and massaged his body. He poured oil on his nape and swiveled his neck, slapped his thighs and kneaded the loose flesh of his calves.

The old man picked up a handful of earth, blew on it till only fine sand was left, poured the sand on a stone step and began to sharpen a knife on it. He talked on without looking at Pandaaram’s face.

`All of us-my appa, his appa, his appa before him-we’ve always been toddypalm climbers. Take a look at this hand. Poke it with a knife, and it won’t go in. Ask anyone! Just mention this ayya’s name anywhere and find out for yourself. The toddypalm talks to me!

`Used to start climbing at dawn. Climb up, climb down, all day long. Never got tired of it. Until I fell sick, you see. I took to my bed last year. The Mandaikkaadu Festival was on and ayya’s lying in bed!

`I’m much better now, but I’ve lost the spirit to climb the palm. My strength has dried up. Still, on level ground, even today, ayya can do good work. But who’ll hire me?’

Gently running a finger along the edge of the knife, the old man tested it for sharpness. Having poured oil into his navel, Pandaaram was now digging in it.

`I’ve had children and grandchildren. Grown to be a family man. Lived like a king, in comfort! Always had an eight anna piece jingling in my veshti. We cooked fresh rice everyday. And my wife-a great woman! She was gold. Worth her weight in gold! I’m not saying it for nothing. A man just had to think of that blessed woman and he’d get a good meal, day or night. When I fell sick during that unlucky time, she nursed me just like a baby. And if anything had ever happened to her, I wouldn’t have stood for it…All of a sudden one day she fell down. Dead!’

For a while the old man kept silent. Then he burst out, his voice seething with emotion, `Evil wretch! Leaving me all alone to struggle like this! You wanted me to suffer, didn’t you? You know what I’m going through? Even God wouldn’t stand it!’ Tears stood in his eyes.

Pandaaram was oblivious. Mouth agape, he was watching a cock and hen joined pleasurably together some distance away.

The old man pursed his mouth and tested the blade’s edge on his lip. `Our sons were all good-for-nothing. One boy fell from a palm tree. Died…! The other fellow thinks he’s a great lord or something. Keeps an immoral woman. Just thinking of him makes me burn… When that mother of his died, the fellow turned up from somewhere. She had heavy gold earnings on, you see! We couldn’t get them off her ears, they had got awkwardly stuck. That back-stabbing boy of hers, he must have been born to some low-born scoundrel, to some dog of a…No, I’m not going to say it, I shouldn’t say it in this place, in front of God…

`To cut them off her ears-that was his grand plan! When I got to know about it, Moodevi, the evil one, herself got into me! With my sickle swinging in my hand, I went to him. “Lei!” I said to him, “You touch her ears, and by God, I swear I will cut you piece by piece! Don’t die for nothing.” He got so frightened that next day he nicely slipped away.’

Pandaaram made commiserating noises and prepared to leave for his bath.

`Look, I am without any support. Nobody to help me. For twenty years, I climbed Panaivilai Perianaadaar’s palms. Climbed up, climbed down…And when he finds out there is no more strength in me, he doesn’t give me a second look. I even wept and wept in front of him—I never wept like that before. But he just told me that on no “kandisan” would he give even one quarter anna!’

Pandaaram went off to take his bath. The old man took up his spade and said, `I’ll just go roam about a bit.’ Pandaaaram bought a notebook, summoned a schoolboy in the bazaar street and made him write out a notice:

The Maadan Festival is coming around once again.

As always, this year’s celebration must be a grand one.

All important people must help!

He returned to the temple at night with a bundle of goods-provisions, decorations, a veshti, a towel…Dinner that night was a very special affair. He put biriyani on to cook on one fireplace. Since it was a long while since he had last eaten fish, he had bought an excellent saalai. The fragrance of masala rose in swirls from the simmering mutton-and-rice.

The old man came back late that night.

`What took you so long?’

`There’s a reason.’

Pandaaram turned to look at him. He was wringing out his wet towel. `What! You had a bath only now-halfway into the night?’

`For me, this is the only convenient time, you know! No veshti to change into. So, if I have my bath in the darkness I can sit down on the pond steps, comfortably dry out the veshti, then wrap it round myself and come back.’

Pandaaram ate in high spirits, complimenting himself on his cooking. `This fish is excellent! Ah…h! Just wonderful!’

The old man also ate and appeased his hunger. Once again the dog was disappointed.

Pandaaram asked, `And where did you go today, carrying that spade of yours?’

`Today? Well, today I turned myself round and headed north. You know that path going south towards the hill from that mango orchard of ours? Well, ayya’s got himself some work to do over there!’

`And what work has ayya started, if I may ask?’

`There are cart-tracks on that path, you see. Sprung-carts and load-carts. Cycle-carts, too. Looked like whole families walk that way. And true enough, on the next hillside, men and women and children-little tiny children-there they are, all breaking stones…What, are you listening?’


`I looked around. Thought and thought about it. All right, I said to myself, and then I began the work. Near the second milestone, where a banyan tree has thrown a branch out and taken root. Right there.’

`Tell what work it is, without spinning tales.’

`That’s a fine thing to say! I’m spinning takes? You think I’m not being serious? Look, in that area, for two miles roundabout, there’s not one well. A waterless desert of a hill! All the womenfolk working there have to fetch water from two miles off. When you see it, you really pity them. Today a woman was telling her child, “You’ve gone and drunk up all the water, you sinful boy!” And she went on beating him so badly, you know! My heart got broken to pieces. Now you tell me! Can anybody get along for even a little time, without water?’

Pandaaram took out his cheroot and smoked it.

Poking around in the earth, the old fellow had found an ancient shell and begun to scratch his leg with it. White lines appeared on the skin.

`Must dig a well there…somehoe. Yes.’

`Oho!’ said Pandaaram mockingly.

Next morning, Pandaaram wrapped the newly purchased veshti around himself. The old man received his old one. Hesitantly he asked Pandaaram for two annas, went and got himself a shave.

`Ei, old man! Got value for that money, didn’t you? You have gone and got your whole head shaved bald!’

`Well, now for another couple of months I don’t have to worry about it,’ replied the other, stroking his bare crown.

`You look just like a lovesick monkey!’ scoffed Pandaaram.

Everyday without fail he went off to work. It was hard labour, all day long in the sun, with the one meal at night. Now he had only one thought: come what may, he must dig that well. He thought of nothing else, spoke of nothing else, did nothing else.

`You know, today I dug almost a foot deep! Right on top, the earth’s  always dry and loose. As you go down, it gets firmer and firmer, the layers are close together. Down there it is hard black soil. Yet this ayya will dig it all up. If there’s life in me, I’ll see water!’

`Haven’t you got anything better to do? Instead of lying back and taking it easy in your old age…you really think you can dig a well? Ada, you mad old fool!’

`Be patient, be patient. You’ll see, by and by.’


Does time ever stop for anybody?

Every day, the old man repaired his spade and talked about his self-chosen work. `You know, nowadays this spade doesn’t cut into the earth so well. Some kind of red soil’s showing up, and it’s just throwing the spade back at me!’

`Throw it back at you? Well, that’s what it’ll do, won’t it? When there’s no strength in your arm!’

`Pandaaram, look here. This sort of too-clever talk-just don’t give me any of it. Any talk which has that kind of “powder” in it, I just don’t like. This body is diamond, da! Old and strong like the earth, I’m telling you!’ With his right hand the old man struck his left shoulder, wrestler-fashion.

Pandaaaram got bored with the old fellow’s talk. On and on he talked about the well, his lips never tiring of it.

One morning it rained heavily. Pandaaram lay asleep. He had untied his veshti and covered himself up to the top of his head with it. The old man was up as usual and cleaning his teeth with a pinch of brickdust. The rain poured ceaselessly down.

`If the pit fills up with water, the work’ll come to a stop,’ he muttered restlessly. He kept poking his head outside to look at the sky, talking to himself.

The rain slackened a little. Pandaaram opened his eyes slightly and looked around. The old man was not to be seen. `Old fool’s gone mad. Digging a well, he says! The rain’s pouring down, and instead of comfortably covering himself up and going to sleep, he picks up his spade and runs off! Such creatures just aren’t born into the world to enjoy anything…To hell with him! What do I care, anyway?’

At night, the old man came back and began to talk excitedly, `I swear by my own eyes, I was very afraid. So I went to take a look. The hole was brimming with water. Because it was raining the quarry women were all going back. They stod watching the fun-and then they started to help me empty out the water. And in just one moment the work was over!’


`You know, those girls were full of jokes. Went on teasing me and saying, “You won’t see water till you dig another five or six feet! Look at you taking on such a job!” They’re laughing like that, those young girls…!’


`Seems they’ve never heard of any man as old as I am ever digging a well all by himself. One old woman, she says, “What, you’ve dug this? You’re quite a man!”

`And what I’m saying is, in your old age, can’t you just relax and leave it all to Shiva!’

`Now you look here, you keep saying the same thing over and over again. I’m a man who has toiled forty hears without growing tired. Not a day have I spent just squatting and eating. How can I start doing it now, tell me? I’m just not in the habit of it.’

One night the old man did not return till late. Pandaaram did not know when it was that he finally came and lay down.

`You know, last night there was a fine moon out. So I just went on working. Forgot myself! As I went on, you know, it did become very difficult. Had to take each basket of mud, climb up and dump it, then go down again. Then again another basket. Climb up, dump it, go down—it has to be done so many times! If there was one other person to pass the basket, it would be easier. But this old man is not going to stop. Ayya is going to give it a good try till the very end.’

Some days later, he was busy twisting a rope, looping one end of it on his big toe.

`What’s that for?’

The old fellow gave a little smile. `Need a rope to get down now,’ he said.

`Really? Would you have dug four feet by now?’

`Four feet? If I stand in the hole, people walking by can’t see my head, vei!’



The old man was coming along the track. His beard had grown . So had the grass and the yercum shrubs around the temple. There was rubbish everywhere. Not far away, the bitch had delivered three puppies and was nursing them.

He was not even half his former size. Even his gait had become wobbly. As soon as he went into the temple, he lowered the bundle on his shoulder and set it down before Pandaaram.

`What is this?’

The other grinned.

`Ada, what’s all this? Have you brought something to cook? Pandaaram felt the bundle. `What is it? Flaked rice? But it’s become wet!’

Thunderous guffaws.

Pandaaram opened the bundle and looked at it in the lamplight. `Ada, you old man, you’ve gone and scooped up a lot of mud and carried it here! Is there some sort of a crazy feeling coming over you now that the sun is growing hotter and hotter?’

`No, thambi, no sort of feeling is coming or going! Just take a little in your hand and look at it, saar! See if it’s wet, saar!’

Pandaaram understood.

`It’s wet, isn’t it? The spring is within sight! A wonderful spring! Like the milk of a fine Karachi cow that’s just given birth to a calf…In two days the water will come rushing in! Shurrr…right up to the top!….But we must dig deep. Even if any other well in this area dries up, the well dug by this ayya must never dry up. And Vairavan Pandaaram must run up with a pot and fetch himself some water! Those womenfolk who made fun of me that day should scoop it up, they should drink and drink! That’s what!’

He returned every day , full of zest and completely soaked. When one night Pandaaram said, `I’m thinking of coming and seeing your work,’ he was delighted.

`Come, come. We’ll both go together. You must see it. This old gent has done the work of a genie!’

When Pandaaram went up to the well, he stood as though turned into a pillar, astonished. Cartloads of earth in many colours lay about in huge mounds. All that mud had been dug up by that one old man, carried up in baskets all by himself and thrown down upon the ground. He could not believe it. He could not even imagine it.

`Ada! You poor devil! You’ve done this, at this doddering old age? Why, it’s a raakshasa’s labour! Not a human’s! Amma…di!’

Darkness was spreading. `Now listen,’ said the old man, throwing a stone into the well.


`Did you hear that sound…? Did you hear it?’

`I heard it! There’s a lot of water down there!’

Next day the old man had a bad cough. He lay down at night without eating anything.

Before he set out the next morning, Pandaaaram told him, `You don’t have to go out today. Just lie quiet. That cough has caught hold of you.’ But when he got back that night, the old man was not there. `He can’t help going to that place,’ Pandaaram murmured to himself. The day after that the old man had a high fever. There wasn’t life enough in him even to stand up. Pandaaram put his hand on his forehead. It felt fiery.

Pandaaram felt a fear deep within him.

`Shall I bring a doctor?’

`No. For generations we haven’t drunk doctor-medicine. My wife wouldn’t touch it to save her life. So what do I want with it?’

He blabbered all night long.

`A little deeper I should have dug it…but it’s not too late…the water won’t dry up so soon, but still…’

`Lie still without blabbering.’

The following day the fever had not subsided. Pandaaram stayed back, sitting beside the old man. As the sun rose higher and higher, the fever also rose. At two in the afternoon, he opened his eyes and said clearly, `Vairavan Pandaaram.’ Pandaaram drew near.

`Pandaaram, you’re a really good man. You know, all this time you have fed me for nothing! It was a real comfort to me. And this work that I began at the end of my life, well, it’s also finished. It’s come out fine! You were a real support to me. I’m going to ask you something. Will you do it?’

`I’ll do it.’

`Can you get a pot of water from that well?’

Pandaaram took the temple water pot and a rope and rushed out. He returned in the evening with the water.

`Give me some water,’ said the old man.

`When you’ve got a fever?’

`That’s the medicine for my fever.’

Pandaaram poured some water into the old man’s mouth.

`The water’s good! Not brackish at all! Give me some more. You drink some too and see.’ Watching Pandaaram drink, he asked, `What is it like?’

`So good, so good!’


`Like nectar,’ Pandaaram replied. Smearing some sacred ash on the old man’s forehead, he said, `I went to get water, isn’t it? Well, when I reached there a wedding party had stopped their carts under the banyan tree and were having their meal of packed rice. The moment I drew up some water, the whole lot of them-men and women and children-they just surrounded me. They’d all been suffering terribly from thirst. One light girl ran up and drank the water so happily, and kept on saying, “Oh, it’s so good, so good!”


`Then the head of the family came up. He said two years ago they travelled along the same way, but there was no well. How is it there’s a well now, he asked. I told him the story. He was so happy! “An old man digging it al by himself!” they were amazed! That gentleman has promised to put up a stone wall and a rope and pulley at his own expense.’



`Is it really true? If it is, it’s a good thing. But these big people, they have a lot of things on their minds. It’s for you to nicely remind them and see that the work gets done. Will you do it?’

`I’ll do it.’

`Tell him to make the wall somewhat high. Little children go that way to work on the hillside.’

`All right.’

The old man closed his eyes.

The following night Pandaaram cooked rice as usual. But he could not eat. A feeling of having lost something of great value squeezed his heart. All at once he leaned his head on the fallen stone pillar and wept.

That night the dog was not disappointed.


[1] A non-Brahmin priest. Vairavan is a corruption of Bhairavan, one of Siva’s manifestations as a hermit and seeker-out of lonely places, especially cremation grounds.

(Originally published in Shanti,1955; Thanks to K.Bala for his help in publishing this translation)

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