Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Chapter 7


It was on a Sunday, in early September, 2002, that I visited Sri Bala Peetam housed in a small village called Nemili, on the outskirts of Madras. My mother and sister came as well. Once we reached the sleepy little village of Nemili, it wasn’t hard to find the place. However, I was in for a surprise.
Instead of the usual temple structure, we found an ordinary, nondescript house! We were reassured this was the temple of Bala. Rather hesitantly, my mother, sister and I walked inside. We removed our slippers, in the dark, narrow , hallway. Above this entrance was a picture of a goddess, depicted as a very young girl, wearing a green skirt - paavadai - and blouse, holding a book in one hand and a string of beads in the other.

We took a few steps over this threshold and came inside a very large hall. On the far side of this large room was a dais, and on this was quite an elaborate mandapam. I was straining my eyes to observe the main deity, but could not really see her!

As we were pondering about this, an elderly gentleman came out of one of the rooms on the side of this hall. He motioned for us to sit in front of the dais and then, pulling up a chair, proceeded to give us the background information about the deity and how the house had become sanctified. Apparently, over 150 years ago, a very small idol of this goddess, called Bala, had been found by one of this gentleman’s ancestors, a devout Brahmin called Subramanya Iyer. This idol is very tiny, about the size of a thumbnail, and was discovered in the river bed following a dream in which goddess appeared to Subramanyam and told him that Bala ( an incarnation of Raja Rajeshwari) would come to his house to rest and bless those who visit her. The young girl proceeded to give precise instructions about how she would be found in the nearby river.After a relentless search for three days, this tiny bronze idol seemed to float into the cupped hands of a delighted and grateful Subramanyam.

The tiny figurine of Bala was then placed in a special small, throne in the puja room, just below the idol of her mother, Raja Rajeshwari and prayers were offered. An elaborate tradition of worship has been carried on by successive generations of this family. Slowly, people from neighbouring towns and villages started to come and worship the image of this tiny child-goddess. There were some miracles - and, as some devout believers spread the word, more people came to see “Bala” and get her blessings.
It seemed that Bala, the child- Goddess could alleviate most of the problems faced by her sincere devotees. Marriages that keep getting postponed or delayed soon get arranged with Bala’s help. Women unable to beget children soon become mothers, children struggling with their studies are able to complete higher education and get gainful employment. What Bala “gives” her sincere believers is endless!
Every possible life-situation or problem is envisaged and remedies are provided in the form of melodious songs. All a person has to do is recite these songs with faith and Bala seems to do the rest.
Any unfavourable event is soon reversed, be it lack of education, ill health, financial problems, and so on.

The elderly priest who was narrating this story took pains to emphasise the fact that people who wanted their wishes fulufilled didn’t necessarily bargain with the goddess—i.e. give donations or contributions either in cash or kind, as is so often
the case at many temples, if their sorrows vanished or desires were fulfilled. Instead, at this temple, pilgrims enter and get her blessings. Goddess Baala is aware of the problems afflicting her devotees and quite simply takes care of them. Now, this might
seem far-fetched to most rational human beings, struggling to cope with the many disasters life deals to them. However, the statement that the elderly priest made was very simple and it could only appeal to those who had immense faith in the many aspects of saguna bhakthi.

I felt an enormous sense of calm sitting in front of this little shrine. I closed my eyes and savoured the feeling of perfect serenity that seemed to envelope the whole room. Very rarely, have I felt that divine presence so much, as I did that day, sitting in the front hall of this small house that was also a temple. I have experienced the same feeling in just one other temple- that was at Skandashramam, in Salem, when I was similarly seated, with my eyes closed , at the feet of Swamigal.

I had taken with me, on this occasion, copies of the six black and white Devi pictures I had drawn—( the third set of paintings). I had initially wanted Swamigal to bless them, but as he had passed on, I requested the elderly priest at this Bala temple to bless them
instead. Later, as we did our namaskarams and were about to leave, the priest came up to me and said he really liked my paintings and would it be possible for him to have in particular, my drawing of the “Bala”, as she appeared in my dream.

Now, the six pictures that had just been blessed had been a gift from me to my mother for her birthday, so I informed this man, I couldn’t really give him that particular copy on that day.

On the way back to Madras, I felt a bit guilty I hadn’t acceded to the man’s request and mentioned this to my mother. Her reaction was surprising - she had been standing right next to me as we took leave of the priest. “I don’t really recall him asking for any of your
pictures,” she said, “ it must be your imagination”. I decided not to dwell on this issue and we left it at that.

However, the sequence of events that followed were rather surprising. It just so happened that my children were going to visit their aunt and uncle in Poona for a few days. I wanted to send a gift for my sister-in-law, and decided to give her a selection of prints from my drawings. I chose a few prints and gave them to a nearby art gallery to be framed. I requested they do a rush job on it as my children were leaving early next morning. The people at the art gallery promised to deliver the framed pictures on time. As things turned out, they didn’t live up to their promise and the framed pictures reached me too late. So, I decided to give a few to my uncle in Madras and after
he made his selection, there was only one framed print left - this was of course, the picture of Bala.

Even at this point, I didn’t think too much about either this remaining picture, or the priest’s request. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to visit this temple again. After all,
Nemili was quite a distance from Madras and I was pre- occupied with other matters at that time. However, I was destined to visit this temple not just one more time but twice!.

One day, my sister- in-law, who runs a school for Down’s Syndrome children, decided to take her entire school on an outing to this particular temple, so they could be blessed. After all, the deity here was a child- goddess, and like the priest there told us, she loved
children, and in particular loads of sweets. So, armed with a lot of offerings, particularly biscuits and sweets, I went along with my sister-in-law’s school and the staff for the second visit to this lovely house. Just as we were embarking on the trip, I took the framed print that was left behind and, remembering the priest’s request, I decided to give this to him when we reached Nemili.

This little half-day outing was greatly enjoyed by all the children at this very special school. They sat in perfect silence during the small puja performed by the priest and were delighted when they received their prasadams - sweets. All this time, I sat at the back of the hall and placed my picture out of sight behind a pillar. My intention was to give the priest the picture after the short ceremony was over.

Finally, as the children were trooping slowly out of the hall, I got up to retrieve my picture. Just then, the priest’s wife came from a room at the back of the hall and said “ Oh, is that a picture of our Bala? She looks just as if she is seated on a swing”. Apparently, that is the manner in which this child goddess often appears in the visions to her devotees - seated on a swing! I said I wished to give this picture to the temple, if they wanted it. Of course, they were delighted and the priest said to me “ You know, the other day when you came here with all the six pictures of Devi, I really wanted to have this particular picture, but I didn’t ask you as you seemed intent on taking them back. See how Bala herself has brought it back for me!”. I was astounded. I had heard his mental thoughts as clearly as light of day!

My children returned home to London after a few weeks in Madras and I decided to stay on longer in order to spend some more time with my mother, and also to fully recuperate from my back problems.

During this period, I had a few visions. It was always the same goddess who kept appearing, very briefly, just before I was fully awake in the mornings. The distinguishing feature of this very dark-hued goddess was the golden crown she wore - represented by the hood of a cobra! I was puzzled by this and decided to visit the temple of
Karumarriamman at a place called Thiruverkadu, near Madras. The deity here has a serpent’s hood on her head, as a crown.

Later, I had a very strong mental suggestion to draw the picture of this deity, Karumarriamman. This time, I decided to draw a bigger sized image of the goddess. My intention was to paint the deity using colours, rather than the stark black and white images I had previously done. Within one week, I managed to finish the picture of the deity and I was very happy, especially with the expression on her face. There was a serenity and calmness that was indeed divine. I decided to paint this picture in glowing colours and set about buying my painting materials.

Whilst I was engaged in this task, I experienced another powerful vision. This was in September 2002. I was in a temple along with a few members of my family. There was a crowd of people standing in front of the shrine, in this (unknown) temple. Directly in front of me stood a young boy. All I was aware of was that something was wrong with this boy. He appeared to be afflicted with a mental ailment. I moved forward and placed my hand on the boy’s neck. My hands stroked the back of his head. All of a sudden there was this surge of light emanating from my hand . There was a very bright flash of light. I knew that whatever had bothered him or troubled him was over.

He seemed perfectly calm and normal. The people around me surged forward to embrace him. “ He’s Alright now”, they cried. No one noticed me. The bright flash of light that came out of my hands seemed to have back fired. I was lying on the ground, in pain. No one seemed to care. At last, one young person helped me up to my feet. I remember crying out the name of my Goddess Bhuvaneswari .
“Amma, please help me”, I wept, as I ran around the precincts of this temple. Finally, I came to a short flight of steps on one side of the temple. This seemed to lead up to a small shrine. No one was about. I crept up and made my way to the door of this little room. It was ajar. Slowly, I ventured inside to get a glimpse of the deity. To my surprise it was a small image of the Goddess enthroned on a snake.
The wide hood of the serpent rose majestically above this diminutive goddess, as if protecting her.

While I was staring at this fascinating sight, I heard the rustle of people coming towards this shrine. There was a large procession of people making their way
towards the shrine, but one figure at the head of the group caught my eye. This was His Holiness Shanthananda Swamigal. He was coming towards me with a gold crown on the top of his head that was a snake’s hood. Smiling very gently when he saw me, he said
“Why Uma , you have come here before I could”. Then, he turned towards a priest and said “ Give her a nice, big garland of roses”.

I shall never forget this incident. While I do not understand what it meant, I was happy just to receive the blessings of my Guru before I finished my painting. From that small start, I have carried on to execute many more paintings to date.

However, due to a sudden turn of events, I decided to cut short my stay in Madras and return to London. I thought I should make an effort to visit that temple in Nemili one final time before I left.

This time, my aunt and uncle accompanied me. Usually, it is the custom to place a phone call to the house at Nemili before departure from Madras, just to ensure that the priest is at home. After all it is run as a normal household and he might well not be there when we
reached. I tried ringing the number but was unable to get through. After several attempts, I decided to just take a chance and drive on. I prayed that Bala would give me this last opportunity to visit her. I remembered what the priest said “You cannot come here until she wants you to visit her”.

The three of us set off one afternoon, a couple of days before I was due to return to London. When we reached the house in Nemili, the front door was locked and there seemed to be no one about. Our car driver went to the side of the house and
tried to peer through the windows, but could not spot anyone. I was disappointed!

However, just as we were leaving, I decided to take a last chance. We went up to the front door and saw through a small crack in the door that there were some slippers inside. Someone must be inside the house. We called out loudly. After what seemed like a long time I heard the shuffle of footsteps and the door was opened by a young man. Apparently, his father, the priest was taking his afternoon nap. He requested us to come inside the hall and

After a short while the priest appeared and to our great delight performed a puja and gave us blessings. He told me as we were leaving that I had tremendous faith and this would always protect me. My aunt and uncle were particularly happy as they too felt the divine presence here and were touched by the simplicity and courteousness of the people who lived in this house. That last visit I still cherish very much indeed.

I packed the unfinished portrait of Karumariamman, in my suitcase, intending to finish it when I returned to London.

It was mid- September when I arrived. I decided to paint the picture of Amman during the Navarathri period that was to follow shortly.This nine day period of worship for Durga is perhaps one of the most important festivals in the Hindu calendar. It was during this period that the Goddess, assuming the forms of Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswathi, successfully fought and destroyed the terrible demons and asuras who were harassing the Devas.

The esoteric significance, of course, is that as humans, we should constantly be on guard and fight against those negative qualities like anger, greed, lust and laziness, all of which prevent us from ever understanding our true nature.

Foes within us are the dark qualities, while the enemies outside are those whom we alienate due to some reason or the other. I started the painting on the first day of Navarathri. As was my usual custom, I prayed to Lord Vigneswara, the remover of all obstacles and then recited the Lalitha Sahasranama. Nine glorious days were spent adorning and decorating the picture I had drawn. My concentration
was at all times only on Devi, as I idealised her, in numerous forms. Mentally, I was chanting Lalitha Sahasrama incessantly, along with other hymns and slokas on Durga. Whenever, I found my mind veering off even a little, from thoughts of the Divine, I recited the mantra mentally or listened to my Vedanta tapes. In fact, by now my daily routine was so well established that the entire chunk of 8 or 9 hours
during the day were spent in constant meditation or contemplation of a particular deity, follwed by Vedanta.

I finished my first large colourful portrait of Devi Karumari Amman on the final day of Navarathri. I framed the picture myself and hung it above the fake fireplace in our living room. This was the very first painting to be hung in the flat. More would continue over the next year.

I was quite pleased with this portrait of the goddess and wanted to take a photograph so I could send it to my mother. The Goddess looked grand seated on her golden throne, carrying in her many hands, both weapons of destruction as well as symbols of prosperity
and happiness. I had decorated her with many beautiful, coloured stones and the whole effect of this finished picture was, in my mind, quite breathtaking.

In fact, she seemed very alive and seemed to energise me whenever I gazed on her in deep contemplation. I wanted my mother to share this sense of happiness, albeit through the medium of a photograph. However, I was mistaken. I spent an entire roll
of film taking various shots of the portrait from different angles and using various light settings. When the pictures were developed I had a huge shock. Not one single photo had been developed properly. In fact, all I saw was a sea of black, with a few non identifiable
patches. At the same time, I felt deep down in my heart that I was being sent a message—“ Don’t develop my pictures, or send them to anyone”, the Devi seemed to say.

I decided not to take any more photos just then. In any case, I soon found myself busy with drawing my next picture. It had always been my desire to visit the famous Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, especially since I knew that this ancient place had been a source of inspiration to Swamigal.

Indeed, I read in his biography, that he had spent a lot of time as a youth meditating before Goddess Meenakshi. So, I decided to paint her, as a lovely maiden, dressed in a
green sari, holding the customary parrot in one of her hands. It was during the painting of this deity that I started to listen to the chanting of Rudram, Namakam and Chamakam. I studied these ancient slokas very carefully and marvelled at both the structure and content of these powerful verses. Lord Shiva is extolled as the very essence of all things in the universe. The inventory of this great universe occupies the central portion of this great vedic chant! As a work of poetry, in language, style and content, all aspects of this heartfelt prayer to Lord shiva to bless humanity are powerful, and the vibrations set off by the precise chanting of these verses helped me to achieve a great deal of concentration.

It took nearly an entire month for me to finish my work of art. I used a lot of colourful crystals to embellish the picture and was very happy that by the divine grace of God, I could produce such a beautiful image of the deity. I framed this picture by myself and requested my husband to hang it in the living room.

Now, I must explain here that while my husband did not impede in any way either my spiritual progress or my interest in art, he remained largely indifferent to it and was terribly ignorant of the deep philosophical truths expounded by our religion. However, he did promise to hang up the painting, as it was very heavy and difficult for me to accomplish the task by myself.

One weekend, while I was busy in the kitchen, he decided to undertake this task. He informed me he was going to hang the new painting over the mantelpiece, in the same place we had first placed my painting of Karumarriamman. I hesitated, almost involuntarily. It was as if a sudden premonition crossed my mind. I said, “ Please don’t take down that Karumarriamman painting, I don’t think she wants to be moved”.

My husband however, only laughed—“ It’s only a painting--- she’s not going to mind, surely!” I didn’t reply and instead went about my normal chores in the kitchen.
For a while there was silence.

Then, without warning, I heard a loud crash and the very certain sound of splintered glass. My only thought was “Amma, how can you allow your portrait to be broken - the painting I had done with no other thought except pure love for you”.
I ran to the living room and found broken glass scattered in all directions. My husband’s hands were bleeding and he was standing in the middle of the room, totally speechless.
He had taken down the painting of Karumarriamman and placed it on the ground. However, the portrait of Meenakshi Amman he had tried to hang in its place had crashed down within seconds. A closer inspection revealed that only the frame had broken. My painting of the Goddess had survived intact and not a single stone I had embellished the picture with had even budged.

My husband was totally stupefied, and without me having to utter a word, quietly restored the Karumarriamman to her original place. In fact he made the comment “ That’s the last time I touch this painting, unless she wants me to move her, I will not!”.

As a fitting end to this little episode, my husband was able to get a free , new, glass frame from the shop, again, by sheer generosity of the owner!

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