Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lighten the load

In the days when mechanised transport was the stuff of science fiction, animal power was used for transporting goods. But for the bullock-cart to be used, there had to be some threshold level of goods that needed to be moved. Small loads were left to the coolies - the headloadsmen who would carry more than their own weight on their backs or heads. A break in their travel from point to point would be painful if they had to bend over to lower and lift their loads each time.

Along the roads, therefore, were rough granite structures - two uprights with a crossbar at shoulder height - where the coolies could ease off their loads for a bit. These structures were funded by rich families and were typically erected as memorials for women who had died during pregnancy or childbirth. The word for such a structure - sumaithangi - is simple enough, meaning 'bearer of the load', but has become imbued with so much of emotion that it is used as high praise, or with a sense of deep gratitude.

Combine that with a deity, and you have a winner. Maybe the temple came up close to a sumaithangi, for the labourers to give thanks after having delivered their load safely at George Town. Maybe the temple was always there, and there was a sumaithangi placed near it. Whatever the cause of the name, the Sumaithangi Sriramar temple on Mint Street continues to assure devotees that their burden would be lightened!

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