Reigning Deities

Images: T.R. Raghunandan

Do old vehicles have souls? That was the theme of a chat hosted by FIVA a few months back. Atheists, agnostics and believer participants alike, all concurred that they might. They also broadly concurred that when new, cars, two wheelers and three wheelers were soulless and they acquired one as they went along.

How a car is dressed up for Ayudha Puja during the Dasara celebrations in Karnataka.

As the good-natured group regaled the chat room with stories of how vehicles inexplicably stopped or doggedly braved mechanical failure to save or support their drivers and passengers, clearly, the consensus was that old vehicles with souls, acquired gradually, should be treasured; indeed, worshipped.

The poster for Tonneins Fete St. Christophe.

For residents of the Southern Indian State of Karnataka, closer to the old Royal city of Mysore, worship of vehicles is an annual ritual celebrated with zeal. In the ten-day build-up of celebration to the Dasara festival in October, one is kept aside for worship of weapons—Ayudha Puja—as it is known. The weaponry has long gone; the tools of one’s trade are worshipped, as also vehicles of all description.

Months before Ayudha Puja, vehicles are repaired, washed and serviced. On the appointed day, they are decorated with sandal and turmeric paste, though the discerning worshipper will wash off the marks quickly lest they stain the chrome and paintwork. Jasmine and marigold garlands, and a couple of young banana stalks are tied ceremoniously to the front bumpers.

St. Christopher arrives in a pick-up truck, carrying baby Christ on his shoulder.

After the puja is performed and the prayers for good luck intoned, the vehicle is driven over limes under each wheel, to ward off the evil eye. And then, one drives for a day around with the banana stalks playing havoc with the aerodynamics.

La Chapelle Nationale des Vehicules Anciens was dedicated on 15th August 2011 and every year, on that date, the Fete is celebrated.

If one fails to perform Ayudha Puja, one is warned of danger, inexplicable failure and bad luck that the unworshipped vehicle will bring. Enough doubt is sown in the minds of sceptics, who then readily conduct the puja; what harm is there anyway? The only sacrifice is of young banana stalks and plenty of limes.

However, worshipping vehicles is not some South Indian quirk. In the sunny south of France, an entire Chapel is dedicated to historic vehicle worship.

The small, sleepy town of Tonneins, an hour from Bordeaux, is the home of a chapel dedicated to St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. ‘La Chapelle Nationale des Vehicules Anciens’, was formally dedicated to its new role on 15 August 2011. Legend goes that St. Christopher carried an unknown child across a river. The child revealed himself as Christ; hence the link with conveyance, travel, reliability and steadfastness.

The tiny old Church is crowded by enthusiasts who come to Tonneins for the annual display and Concours de elegance held in August. As I watched, a pick up arrived with a statue of St. Christopher carrying the baby Christ, and it was installed in the Chapel’s nave. Inside, the sunlit yellow sandstone walls offset the collection of automobilia that speak of our passions. There are plaques of journeys and rallies and photographs of vintage vehicles lining the walls.

Rally and tour placards flank St. Christopher.

Photo-montages of past Concours events held in Tonneins draw the eye away from an abstract sculpture made from gaily painted salvaged car parts. A pre-war girder fork motorbike with no badge on it—could it be a Jawa?—shares space with a stamp collection themed on the history of France. High up on ledges, models of bikers, and Shell and Veedol oil cans gaze down on Christ and St. Christopher. Period advertisement posters from the veteran era, set off the sunshine on the walls.

An abstract sculpture and memories of previous Concours events at Tonneins.

In the crowd thronging the chapel, I have a moment to myself. Whether we own Triumphs or Jawas, Morrises or Marutis, Packards or Panhards, Fords or Ferraris, we are all the same, world-over. The little medallions that we hang inside our windscreens or rest on our dashboards; the orange plastic flying Hanuman, a crescent and moon in gold, a tiny St. Christopher with baby Christ on his shoulder, or Tibetan prayer flags strung between the handlebars, all symbolise that unsaid and unfathomable bond between human and machine.

‘Why explain faith? Enjoy it!’ I think, as I step into the sunshine.

A pre-war hand geared motorcycle dominates the foreground.

T R Raghunandan

Classic car and railway enthusiast, tireless driver, model scratch-builder, broken old machinery hoarder, teacher, raconteur, author and accountability and decentralised governance consultant.


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