From the hilltop, I see the city stretching on like the whole world in front of me. I stand on a coarse rock that overlooks the edge. Closing one eye, I hold out my hand. If I were a giant, I would pluck out the gopuram that stands on the cusp of the horizon. From here, it is nothing but a miniscule triangle jutting out taller than everything else - like an eagerly raised hand of a child. Momentarily, a large gold-veined patch of cloud hiding the sun swims away. Hurried off perhaps by the sudden breath of wind that chills and prickles my skin. A shadow follows the cloud quietly, skimming the earth like a blotch of wetness leaving no trace behind. Squinting my eye, I position my thumb and index finger in front of my face as if clutching the gopuram like a toffee, and imagine uprooting it as I pinch the air.
My guide is a young boy whom I met on the village streets below. He is a stranger I had simply approached for directions at the foothills. Instead of merely pointing left or right, he offered to guide me himself for an amount of thirty rupees. I had been sceptical at first - half afraid that I might get swindled or robbed en route if I accepted - but I relented hesitantly afterwards.
Standing a few feet behind him now, I ask him about the curious-looking iron rod that is hammered into one of the rocks closer to the steep precipice. It has a rusty bowl-like disc attached on the top, and the disc is burned black, showing that it has held fire.
"It's for when we have processions. We bring fire and light it here, the boy points to the disc. Sometimes it's used for pujas during festivals."
"These hills have lost and wandering spirits," he continues, "the temple priests light fire here on the disc to cast spells. They chase the spirits away. The fire burns throughout the night.
You can hear them late at night, the spirits. A few times, I have heard lost ones calling out and walking the streets back and forth. Sometimes they call out in the voices of people you know. But you should not open the door. Otherwise, you will fall into a trance, and blindly start to follow them."
He tells me more about his village at the foothills. I listen eagerly as he talks about the Mayana Kollai festival; its annual celebrations held in and around the hilly outskirts.
He tells me how this hill has been the locus of the religious festival's fanfare and ceremony for years. Effigies of Goddess Angalaamman, adorned in garish finery and flower garlands, are taken on processions and parades throughout the city starting from here. Not only is the hill notorious for lost spirits, it is also the omphalos for nightly revelry and religious rites among devotees of the guardian deity. Chickens and goats are sacrificed to appease the goddess, men and women flail and dance fervently to folk ballads – their faces and bodies smeared with turmeric or kumkuma. But more importantly, the merrymakers and devotees return late at night to the cemetery where vows are fulfilled to the gods, and traditions performed.