The Mountain of The Sacred Eagles
For over 100 years a strange mid-day ritual
the feeding of two sacred eagles (kits) has drawn pilgrims
from all over India to this abscure place Thirukalikundrum
(the abode of the sacred kites).
You travel south from
Madras for 38 km to Covelong, a popular beach resort on the
Coromandel Coast and, from there, another 30 km puts you in
Thirukalikundrum. The road traverses salt-pans, vast tracks of water
divided into squares like a chequerboard edged with pyramid shaped
hillocks of dried salt, then cuts through Tamil villages that time
has not touched for centuries.
Soon, in the purple
distance, hills appear framed against the skyline low-slung
hazy hills rising to a peak and, on the peak, a diffused outline of a
The driver and guide in
the front seat of the car speak in Tamil and point to the hills.
Watches are checked, the accelerator depressed; it is important to
arrive with time to spare.
The area at the base of
the mountain throbs with activity crowded buses, postcard
vendors, flower stalls, soft drink stands, bead sellers stuffed
mongoose peddlers, cows, crows, chickens, dogs, goats, sadhus,
fakirs, and a spectrum of other assorted humanity acting out their
roles in a lush green, blossom-laden setting.
The path to the summit is
steep and from early morning the old ones have been
groping their way up the tiers of granite steps. Others walk,
pausing often to rest where the steps flatten out to become landings.
Some who can pay are carried up in palanquins (a little carried on
poles by two or four men). It is not a climb for the weak hearted,
especially in the summer heat.
A temple, dedicated to
Lord Shiva, squats on the summit and nearby, just below the temple,
is a partially enclosed rocky parapet with a sheer drop to the plains
below. IT is on this ledge that the ancient ritual will take place.
11.30 A.M. The
mountain-top is a cluster of multi-coloured saris and men in white.
Part of the multitude cover the rocky ledge; some stand and others
sit. The remainder carpet the temple area waiting
11.45 A.M. Two Brahmin
priests emerge from the temple. A low rumble from a thousand voices
floats on the still air. The priests move onto the rocky parapet and
begin to clear the area of humanity. The crowd spills back into the
temple area away from the ledge. Tension is high. Watches are
studied. The priests on the rock begin to pray, gazing towards the
11.50 A.M. Food and water
vessels are brought in to the enclosure by attendants and placed in
exact positions. One priests sits alongside the food. The other
continues his silent prayer to the sky. All is quiet.
12 Noon. Two moving
specks appear in the sky. The multitude becomes animated. The
specks become bigger as they descend towards the temple. The forms
of two eagles or kites hover for a moment then land on the high point
of the rock not far from the squatting priest. Feathers fluff, wings
settle, beaks are scratched on the rock. They gaze towards the
watching, whispering crowd.
Moments pass. One bird
moves slowly towards the priest and the food. It indulges itself
from the dish to the right to the priest and then heads for the water
container. Refreshed, the eagle wanders around. The second bird in
turn repeats the procedure. The first takes off and hovers overhead
as if protecting the other. Finally, they stand together at the
point of their original landing. They look at each other and begin
their ascent into a blue Indian sky. The time is 12.10 P.M.
The crowd intermingles.
The food containers are brought from the rocky enclosure into the
temple area and set down on a section of a low wall. The priests
follow and begin the distribution of the remaining sacred food
(prasad) to the pilgrims who clamour to receive a handful.
12.45 P.M. The area is
now almost deserted, quiet again, save for the chatter of the birds
and the call of hungry crows anxious to devour any remaining
scattered morsels. The granite steps echo the fading footsteps of the
last stragglers moving down the face of the mountain.
The legend of the sacred
eagles tells that centuries ago, at this spot, two Brahmin priests of
the Shiva temple blasphemed against God. As punishment, they were
transformed into eagles, and every day their eternal destiny decrees
that they fly from Varanasi, the holy city of the Hindus in the north
of India to Rameshwaram, another holy spot in the south. They rest
at the mountain, nourish themselves, then continue to their
destination returning thence to Varanasi.
Realists will state that
it is highly improbable, if not impossible that the birds fly the
great distance from Varanasi to Rameshwaram (about 2000 kilometres)
daily. It is impossible also, that the same two visitors are 1000
years old; consequently, a replacement must become necessary over the
The process by which this
takes place in such a way that continuity is not disturbed, the birds
always remaining two, challenges explanation. It is strange that
other kites flying over the mountain, scouting for food, do not land.
The species is quite common in the area. The birds have been
followed several times by a helicopter team in an endeavour to trace
their flight pattern. The kites, however, were lost each time
somewhere in the skies over the face of India.
symbolism relates birds to human souls. Those of evil doers are
incarnated in birds of prey. In general, birds in flight are symbols
of the swiftness of thought, imagination and spiritual processes.
They pertain to the element of air and if eagles, they denote
height and loftiness of spirit. High flying
birds imply spirtitual longing. The symbolic relationship between
the eagles and the two Brahmin priests who blasphemed is apparent.
This 1000 year old ritual
forms a living continuum of ancient symbolism. Is it somehow
contrived and orchestrated by the keepers of the temple? Do eagles
possess their own canny logic and behavioural patterns?
Or are the birds really
the incarnated souls of the two Brahmin priests?
known as kites or eagles, the birds are Egyptian Vultures (Neophron