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CompleteMartialArts.com - God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupati

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Manufacturer: Oxford University Press, USA
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Binding: Paperback
Dewey Decimal Number: 894.82712
EAN: 9780195182842
ISBN: 0195182847
Label: Oxford University Press, USA
Manufacturer: Oxford University Press, USA
Number Of Items: 1
Number Of Pages: 160
Publication Date: 2005-10-06
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Studio: Oxford University Press, USA

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Editorial Reviews:

The devotional poems of Annamaya (15th century) are perhaps the most accessible and universal achievement of classical Telugu literature, one of the major literatures of pre-modern India. Annamaya effectively created and popularized a new genre, the short padam song, which spread throughout the Telugu and Tamil regions and would become an important vehicle for the composition of Carnatic music - the classical music of South India. In this book, Rao and Shulman offer translations of 150 of Annamaya's poems. All of them are addressed to the god associated with the famous temple city of Tirupati-Annamaya's home-a deity who is sometimes referred to as "god on the hill" or "lord of the seven hills." The poems are couched in a simple and accessible language invented by Annamaya for this purpose. Rao and Shulman's elegant and lyrical modern translations of these beautiful and moving verses are wonderfully readable as poetry in their own right, and will be of great interest to scholars of South Indian history and culture.

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Summary: emotional
Comment: The Tirupati temple, located in southern Andhra, is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites on the planet. The translators estimate that nearly twenty million people arrive every year to pray to the god Venkatesvara, an incarnation of Vishnu, who resides in the temple atop a mountain.

The temple's vaults contain the works of the poet Annamayya, who lived at the shrine in the 15th century. The poet was said to have written a song daily for Venkatesvara. Not surprisingly then, Rao and Shulman have only selected a very small portion for the book. The surviving approximately thirteen-thousand poems were recorded upon 2,289 copper plates, in what the translators call "possibly the most expensive publish venture in the history of premodern South Asia" (104-105). The translators assign two broad themes to the poems: poems written about love, and poems which consider the metaphysical nature of life.

The poetry reveals a fascinating look at the Annamayya's relationship with Venkatesvara. Particularly interesting is how Annamayya never portrays the avatar as infallible, a point the translators make in their brief introduction. For example, Annamayya writes: "...even people in high places have to suffer their karma", going on to cite some of the trials and tribulations of Vishnu's other avatars, Krishna and Rama. He concludes: "now you're stuck up on the hill" (62), as if the god is paying penance for dabbling in earthly affairs. Annamayya articulates here how the avatar principle allows god to be closer to man. This principle allows for a relationship like that which occurs between two humans, rather than a human and an abstract god.

A belief in a fallible god has significant metaphysical implications, which Annamayya realizes when he writes: "Why tell me I'm doing something wrong? / You've snared me, god on the hill, / but you're always inside me. / Who is to blame?" (46). So, Annamayya is able to hold god partly responsible for his human shortcomings. If god were infallible, this would not be possible. Certainly, the god is privileged - Annamayya constantly, if sometimes subtlety, praises Venkatesvara's sublimity, stating, for example: "Suppose I say I've conquered birth. / Only you can make me free. / I'd bring you some gift, / god on the hill, / but you already own the world" (13). In the afterward, a portion of the biography written by Annamayya's grandson states that Annamayya was so horrified when a king asked him to write songs for the court, that he used a particularly colorful analogy to excuse himself: "Singing to anyone other than Vishnu would be as terrible as sleeping with a sister" (111).

Sometimes Annamayya's narrator is upset with Venkatesvara: "When I'm done being angry, / then I'll make love. / Right now you should be glad / I'm listening." (8). So, like Venkatesvara himself, Annamayya's veneration for the incarnation is never flawless. By nuancing his relationship with the god to include the real emotions of human existence - like lust, frustration, and jealousy, for example - the experience becomes more powerful. Again, the structure of Annamayya's belief system allows for this. The strength of the poems is in Annamayya's ability to express raw human emotion, particularly love.

Love poetry accounts for the majority of the corpus, and provides a canvas for Annamayya's discussion of other emotions. He frequently writes from the perspective of a woman who is in love with the god. Again, the love between the narrator and the god is never perfect. Rather, it is filled with the subtleties and nuances that might define any two lovers. He writes: "He loves people who fast for him. / So she was told. / Since yesterday she's stopped eating. / She learned that people who pray in the woods / are his closest friends. / Now she won't leave the garden" (29). The reader truly feels the woman's anxiety in trying to attract the attention of Venkatesvara. In another poem, Annamayya writes: "This is the magic love works on men and women. / Whatever they do ends in joy. / Even when their anger goes far, / it's still beautiful" (28). By projecting a lover's feud onto the woman and Venkatesvara, he shows that the love between man and god need not be perfect to be beautiful. Truly, who could honestly admit that their beloved is perfect? By putting god in this same framework, Annamayya sketches him in terms his readers may be able to understand and appreciate, whereas an abstract love, albeit clamed to be perfect, would be impossible to comprehend.

The book contains a very brief introduction, and a more lengthy afterward. The afterward is valuable since it explains some of the themes and various voices Annamayya uses. The afterward is lacking in historical context, however. The reader is left with little knowledge of the political or social context in which the poet lived and wrote, apart from a brief discussion about the economic importance of Venkatesvara's shrine, which apparently has been one of India's richest temples for centuries. Although the poems, for the most part, seem to ignore political and social issues, general context would aid the reader in mentally imaging the period and the writer. Instead, the reader is left only with some of the associated legends and tales which surround the writer and the god. Perfect for creating a romanticism around the poet and poems, but lacking for the student of history.

To their credit, Rao and Shulman do admit in a footnote that they are planning a monograph on the history of the temple (121), which will hopefully expand on their argument that Annamayya "created Venkatesvara, the god on the hill, as we know him today" (122). This thesis is offered in the one paragraph that is devoted to the history of the shrine - not at all satisfying to the reader, it certainly serves as a good hook for the monograph.
Annamayya's poems are beautiful because the emotions that pervade them are real and familiar. Because of this familiarity, the collection should prove accessible and meaningful to a wide audience.

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