Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Spiritual Diary: Chapter 36

Monday, July, 9th, 2007.

I felt I had to write about the events of today. During my routine prayers in the morning, followed by meditation, I sincerely requested my Guru to provide me with spiritual guidance in the form of a living guru.

Directly after this, I sat down at the computer to check my e-mail. The first mail that day was from Kathy Allen at the Rochester Peetam, apologising for the delay in providing me with Shri Ramesh’s phone number.

Her response was indeed too timely to be coincidental. I felt this was a strong and clear indication for me to contact Atmananda/ Ramesh.

I quickly recited the Baala Kavacham and dialled the phone number in Chennai.

Very soon, I was talking to Ramesh. It was as though I was talking to a familiar person. For his part, it appeared he had heard about me from both Kathy as well as Ezhilmani at the Baala Peetam.

I told Shri Ramesh, that I intended to visit Chennai in late September and requested permission to contact him. He went quiet for a few minutes and then said “ Actually Baala just informs me you will be coming to see me!”

Once again, this small, yet most powerful and playful Goddess has set in motion a train of events that will play out fully only at her command.

On Wednesday, July 19th, I had an opportunity to meet Amma, Amritananda Mayi. My husband's cousin in Boston was making a trip to get a special "hug" from Amma and invited me to join her.

I felt this was indeed a special calling. " Amma" was going to address the audience in her Devi Bhava and this was an event I had never witnessed before.

We reached the venue where Amma was staying in the early afternoon and waited patiently until late evening for the prayers and satsang meeting to commence. After a small puja in which the entire congregation participated, Amma began the evening's special darshan process , dressed regally as the veritable Raja Rajeshwari herself!

There was a huge crowd , and we waited patiently for our turn to come up. Finally, I was there, kneeling at her feet, being hugged and addressed as " Chella Pillai" in very loving tones. It was as if no one else existed at that point in time and all of Amma's love was being showered on me. I was made to feel very favored and special just for those few moments.

As I rose to leave, I asked the volunteers nearby if I could get a mantra from Amma that day. I had been previously informed that Mantras are given by Amma to a few followers only on the Devi Bhava days. I was taken to the side of the main dais and joined a small group of American ladies who had also requested mantra diksha from Amma.

A volunteer told me to think about my "ishta" devata or preferred deity, so I could be provided the appropriate mantra. Then, I was led up to Amma again. This time, I knelt by her right hand. I was very close to her and could see the golden belt she was wearing around her ample waist, and the little jimikkis glistening in her ears. Her thick and wavy hair cascaded over her shoulders, streaming like rivulets from the golden crown she wore on her head.

Amma was hugging people as they came in one by one. At a small pause, I was asked to lower my head and receive the mantra Diksha. A priest sitting behind Amma asked me for my favorite deity. "Bhuvaneshwari" ,I replied without thinking. The priest informed Amma about this and just as she was going to give me the mantra, a sudden message flashed across my mind. This message seemed to come from my Guru, Shri Shantananda Swamigal. " Don't ask for the Bhuvaneswari Mantra. Ask for Baala tripurasundari mantra, instead".

I looked at the priest and asked him if I could change my mind. He indicated that I could. Immediately, I requested the Baala mantra. He wrote the well known mantra on a piece of paper, in malayalam and gave it to Amma.

She cupped my right ear and inonated it loudly and clearly, three times in my ear.

That was it! I had been given the Baala Tripurasundari Mantra, at my Guru's command, by his selected medium, Amma.

I felt indeed honoured and extremely grateful

Spiritual Diary: Chapter 35

We reached London on April 16th, 2007.

I spent just over a month in London. One Friday, I think it was April, 27th, I was at my usual prayers and meditation thinking of that little but powerful goddess, Baala.

Now, it had been my intention to pay a visit to the Raja Rajeshwari temple in Rochester on my next trip to the U.S. This journey was essential if I had to hand over the painting of Baala to Haran Aiya. However, as hard as I had tried over the past 2 years, this particular expedition had somehow never materialised. My husband was not terribly interested in doing this trip. He would have to come to Boston first and then drive me down to Rochester. The car journey was over 8 hours and he simply could not devote that time on any of his previous visits to the U.S.

During my meditation on that Friday, I silently appealed to Baala for help.

All of a sudden a message flashed like a streak of lightening into my mind.

This was unmistakably from Bala. “ Pick up the phone and call my peetam. Talk to Ezhilmani”.

I was taken aback by the sheer urgency and forcefulness of this message. However, perhaps it was my own lack of self confidence that prevented me from acting immediately.

I attributed the directive to a mere thought-led suggestion and immersed myself in other activities for an hour. But this command seemed to take over my mind--- “Call him, now!”

Finally, I picked up the phone and dialled the peetam at Nemili. It was answered almost immediately by Ezhilmani. I quickly explained to him that I was calling him due to Bala’s insistence. He felt this was an opportunity provided for him to let me know that the new hall they were planning to construct would finally get under way only aftere mid- August. If I wanted to contribute any money towards this building, I could do it at that time.

I felt relieved on hearing this because I had intended to make a small financial contribution ( with Bala’s permisssion, of course).

After we had sorted out this detail, I told him about my intended visit to Rochester. Ezhilmani urged me to contact Haran Aiya without delay. I requested him to bless me so that I would be able to carry out Bala’s command.

As soon as this phone conversation was over, I called the temple at Rochester. The phone seemed to ring for a long time and when it was finally picked up, the man at the other end gave me a surprising bit of news. It turned out that Aiya was actually in London that very day ! I requested that this man should pass on the message to Aiya that I called and gave him my London phone number.

I received a call from Aiya , two days later on a Sunday. He, too, seemed surprised at the coincidental nature of my phone call, on the day he was actually in London.

Quickly I filled him in on the details of the Bala painting and the directive given to me to hand over the original painting to him. I explained that the original painting was in Boston ( unframed), and that I was looking forward to coming to the temple.

Aiya told me that he was very busy with various commitments that involved a lot of travel. However it appeared that he would be in Rochester during the Memorial Day weekend ( last week in May).

I told him I would try and make a visit at that time.

Getting off the phone, I asked my husband if he could possibly find time to make the trip to Rochester. To my surprise, he seemed quite willing. We decided to take our daughters as well and it seemed to me that something I had been trying so hard for the past two years, fell into place after a little intervention from Bala.

During the third week in May, I travelled to Boston and within a few days, my husband joined me as well.

On Friday, May, 25th, we set off towards Rochester. We arrived late in the evening, the same day and a decision was made to go to the temple as early as we could, the next morning.

My painting of Bala was left in the car as we retired to a nearby hotel to take rest for the night.

The following day, Saturday, 26th, we left bright and early in the morning for the temple. The Raja Rajeshwari Peetam turned out to be quite close to the hotel we were staying and we arrived at the temple by 9 a.m.

There were not too many people at this early hour at the Peetam. I walked inside the main sanctum with great anticipation.

There She was, the great Mother, seated in splendour on her throne right in the center of this large, airy room. Flanked by Lord Ganapathi to her right and Lord Shiva to her left, Raja Rajeshwari seemed to welcome me to her temple with a warm smile.

I sat down in front of Her in silent meditation and then requested one of the volunteers( a white- American called Kathy), if I could bring in a painting from the car and place it near the Mother.

She looked at me quizzically. I told her that I had spoken To Aiya on the phone and he had given his permission.

Kathy told me that Aiya had returned late at night the previous day from conducting a wedding in Syracuse, but that he would be down shortly.

I hastened to the car to bring my painting in.

Since I had not had the time to frame it, the painting had been merely affixed with removable tape onto a large foam board . My husband and I carefully carried this inside and placed it by the side of Raja Rajeshwari in the main shrine.

I sat down near one of the pillars in the room and closed my eyes. I seemed to drift off almost effortlessly into a tranquil and blissful state. There was no doubt about the sanctity and healing auras at this house of the powerful Goddess.

After a while I opened my eyes. I could see an elderly lady, in the distance , standing near the main altar and admiring the Bala portrait. I heard her tell my husband who was standing nearby , that Bala’s eyes were “quite alive”. She enquired who had done this painting and my husband gestured towards me. “Your wife has the goddess inside her” said the woman to my husband as she walked towards where I was seated.

This lady was wearing a saree and on her forehead, were the three distinct streaks of ash marking her out to be a Shaivaite. Around her neck, the lady wore a necklace of Rudraksha beads, indicating she was a great devotee who had received the sacred initiation or Diksha from the Guru.

In a state of great excitement which stems from the fervour of devotion, the lady began to talk to me “ I knew Bala was coming here today. Why last night she told me. “I am coming to the temple on Saturday”. And here you are. You have walked in with a beautiful painting of her. You are truly blessed”!

There was no mistaking that this lady was saying the truth. Having experienced supernatural visions and dreams myself, I immediately knew she was relating a true incident. So, I asked her “ Did Bala appear in your dream, then, last night?”

The woman’s answer stunned me. “ No, No, I didn’t see her in my dream. I actually saw her as a glowing image that came alive in my puja mandap, when I was saying my prayers. I saw Bala as a young child playing Kummi”! ( Kummi is a type of dance performed by young girls and involves complicated manoevers using two sticks held in the hands).

I fell at this lady’s feet in veneration. I could hardly believe that I was actually talking to someone who had been in direct communication with this child- deity.

As I stood there chatting with this old woman, Haran Aiya entered the room.

After paying my respects to him, he walked up to the painting of Bla and picked it up. “I will get this framed and we will keep it in the temple”, he said.

There was just one more question he asked me. This pertained to when exactly I had done the painting and how long it had remained with me before reaching the temple. I did not know the purpose of these questions. I furnished him with the relkevant details and also told him about the color photo copy I had given to the Bala Peetam at Nemili.

After this brief conversation, Aiya strode away to attend the business of the day at the temple. He, along with a few other priests were performing a homam for a few couples who had sponsored the pujas for that particular day. I was informed by Kathy that I could stay and witness this for a few hours.

There were a few other women devotees who welcomed me warmly and invited me to stay on.

So, I requested my husband and children to return for me in a few hours time.

I sat down in a large room directly opposite the main shrine where the yagna was to be conducted.

There was a brief waiting period before the commencement of the morning’s puja and during this time, I met another young Indian girl who was introduced to me , as the editor of the temple news journal. At this time, Kathy beckoned to me to sit near her computer. She wanted to show me pictures from her previous visit to Chennai and the temples she had visited.

She mentioned that she had visited the Nemili Bala Peetam with an able escort, a man called Ramesh ( a.k.a. Athmananda). This man, Kathy said is the very embodiment of the Goddess Lalita, and a great Sri Vidya Upasaka.

The photos Kathy showed me were from her Nemili trip. She was telling me “ I want you to see this beautiful painting someone has given to the peetam---“. I noticed this was the huge painting of Bala seated on the blue lotus that I had given to Ezhilmani the previous year!

Kathy was astounded to hear that I had executed that painting and overjoyed that I had brought in another original painting of Bala to the Raja Rajeshwari peetam.

As far as I was concerned, however, this was just a “play” of Bala, a game where she was imntroducing or re- uniting me with some of her favorite devotees.

The Homams and Pujas commenced shortly thereafter and I stayed at the peetam listening to the sacred hymns and chanting for several hours.

Finally after a Milk abhishekham to the goddess, the ceremonies finally finished with the customary arathi in the main sanctum.

However, as I was seated in the main shrine, directly in front of the goddess, a few women began to recite the thousand names of Goddess Lalitha ( Lalitha Sahasranamam).

I closed my eyes and relished this experience completely. As their chants faded away, Aiya, who had also been standing near the altar and chanting this hymn, suddenly strode purposefully to where I was seated and, taking some kumkum from the Goddess’s feet, applied it firmly on my forehead and at the parting in my hair.

I felt it was indeed a rare blessing from him!

Then, while the image of the goddess was being decorated behind a screen, Aiya addressed the audience. He started to narrate a story. He started off by telling us that even in the present- day Kali Yuga, miracles can happen and that he wished to tell us the story of one such miracle that happened in the life of a nine- year old boy many years ago.

The story went like this :

To a very devout and religious couple in Chennai, was born a son called Ramesh. The early years of this boy’s growing up was quite un eventful. However, when he was nine years old, Ramesh was invested with his sacred thread- Upanayanam. After this a great change came over him. He became extremely devout and one day, experienced a dream where the supreme Goddess, Rajeshwari initiated him with the supreme mantra of Sri Vidya Upasana.

Now, Ramesh was very young at this time. He carried on with his prayers and the extra sensory communications with the goddess. However, he implored her to provide him with an earth- bound Guru who could guide him. In another dream, the goddess gave the young boy directions including the address of where to find such a Guru.

Ramesh went to the address given to him and found an old, revered, Guru. This man was a scholar, held in high social esteem. Ramesh requested this man to take him on as a disciple. However, the latter seemed a bit reluctant. Nevertheless, he pointed him in the direction of his own disciple, another learned and devout man, living closeby.

In short, Ramesh seemed to have two Gurus, because he knew that the Goddess’s instructions could never be wrong.

Slowly, the parameshti Guru realised the talent and knowledge of the young boy and taught him all he knew about the secrets of the famous Sri Vidya Upasana.

The years passed by and Ramesh got married. However, his wife did not seem keen on performing Sri Chakra worship or Puja.

Aiya related to us how he “ tricked” this lady into becoming a devotee as well. One day, Geetha, Ramesh’s wife had invited Aiya home for a meal, when he was visiting Chennai.

However, Aiya informed her that if he came over for dinner, Geetha should do one small favour for him. That favour was to wear a small gold dollar inscribed with the Sri Chakra that Aiya gave her.

Surprisingly, after this episode, Ramesh’s wife also started performing pujas at home!

Aiya concluded this short story by telling us that one day Ramesh had gone to the market to buy vegetables. There, he met an old man who seemed to take an interest in him. After a few introductory phrases, it turned out that this stranger Ramesh met by chance was a repository of knowledge on Sri Vidya. This old man said he had rare books and tomes that were quite invaluable for Sri Vidya Upasakas and expressed his concern that after his demise, his children might not realise their value.

Hardly believing his luck, Ramesh accompanied the old man right away to his house and obtained a wealth of information on this most esoteric subject.

Aiya finished this narrative by re emphasising that Ramesh is perhaps the first and foremost exponent of Sri Vidya in the whole of India. He also told us that Sri Chakra puja had fallen into a bit of dis repute in places like Chennai, but that it was a very efficacious and direct link to the supreme mother!

I sat and listened to this story in silence. However, all the while, it seemed that Aiya was in fact trying to tell me something. I could not figure out what this message was.

Anyway, there was not much time to ponder about the significance of the story. The decorations to the Goddess was finished and with a flourish the curtains in front of her was opened.

Camphor was lit and the goddess smiled serenely!

As all of us were filing out of the room, Kathy came up to me, smiling “ Looks like Aiya has given you a direct message to go and meet Ramesh”. That was all she said!

I asked her “ Do you have his address or phone number?” However, Kathy seemed terribly preoccupied and busy, and apologising to me, hurried off to perform some errands. How was I going to meet this Ramesh, without a contact address? I was pondering this as I took leave of Aiya. I prostrated at his feet, along with other members of the congregation and then it was time to depart.

Just before I left the peetam, as an after thought, , I wandered up to the bookstall. In the morning, I had noticed a book with Bala’s smiling picture on it. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a book on the rituals and mantras to be followed while performing a special puja for Bala Tripurasundari. The author was ( no surprise here)

Ramesh/ Atmananda.

I purchased this book and since my husband and children seemed impatient to leave, quickly left the temple.

In the car, I opened the book. There, on the very first page was Athmananda’s address, his home telephone number as well as e-mail address.

I am now destined to meet Ramesh or Atmananda at some point in my life.

However, I shall await a clear signal from my Guru before this meeting takes place.

It is`also my belief that I have to meet Amma, Mata Amritananda Mayi, one more time. Amma appeared in a dream a few weeks ago and reminded me to visit her and to bring my mother with me.

I had forgotten all about this dream. It has been over two years since my last , momentous visit to Amma along with my husband and I thought I had moved on in my spiritual journey and her guidance, as far as I was concerned, was completed.

Apparently, I am mistaken since the link still continues.

It is no surprise that Amma is visiting Boston on July 15th, 2007. My husband’s cousin who lives in Boston called me of her own accord , one day last week and offered to take me along with her to get this holy mother’s power hug!

I felt this was a calling from Amma I cannot refuse.

This diary and the writings contained here were started only after Amma’s clear instructions.

Perhaps, I need her continued support!

Spiritual Diary: Chapter 34

The following day, April 8th, 2007, my husband flew in from London and on the very next day we set off to Madurai and then on to Tirunelveli since I had a tryst with the Bhairavar at Tirukkurungudi temple on the 10th of April.

On the evening of April 9th, we had the opportunity of visiting a small village called Cheranmahadevi, a few kilometres away from Tirunelveli. This was apparently the ancestral home of my husband’s maternal grandparents and he wanted to see the house where his grand parents once lived.

Cheranmahadevi remains an unspoilt little village with just one main streeet and a few side lanes branching off it. On one of these side streets there was a row of attached town houses and one of these, upon enquiry, turned out to be the ancestral home.

A modest two room house, with a kitchen, each room leading into the other is the lay out of most of these village houses. The bathroom is typically located right at the back of the house. After a nostalgic look at the old house and reminiscing about his child hood memories, my husband took leave of the current occupants and we carried on our journey to a Shiva temple situated on the outskirts of this village.

Located among rice fields, on the edge of the banks of the Tamraparni river is perhaps one of the oldest Shiva temples in the state of Tamil nadu. Lord Kailasanathar and his consort AvudaiNaayaki are enshrined in this ancient temple at Cheranmahadevi, and this forms part of the nine temple group constituting the Nava Kailasam or nine abodes sacred to the Lord Shiva. All these nine temples ( somewhat similar to the Nava Tirupathi temples), are located within a short driving distance around the town of Tirunelveli.

In the ancient and rather dilaphidated temple at Cheranmahadevi, the sanctum housing the Shiva Lingam is rather large and impressive. The shrine of the Goddess is located separately and what impressed me here was the beautiful image of the Ambal and the aura of power that I could tangibly feel!

Stepping outside the temple, I paused to admire the idyllic setting of this temple situated amidst the patchwork quilt-like fields with the river meandering slowly on its way towards the distant ocean.

The story here, is that a great saint called Romachha Muni, a disciple of Sage Agastya, wished to attain liberation and prayed fervently to Lord Shiva. However, Shiva wished the Muni to follow his Guru’s advice. Agastyar took nine lotuses in his hands and gently placed them in the river. He told his disciple to establish nine Shiva lingams at the places on the shore where these flowers came to rest. After carrying out these instructions, the Muni was asked to reach the spot where Tamraparni joined the ocean; he would attain Moksha or liberation, here.

Thus it came to pass that one of the lotuses released into the river by Agastyar docked near Cheranmahadevi and thus this ancient abode of Shiva came to be established at this hallowed spot!

Our last stop for the evening was at Krishnapuram, another town on the Tirunelveli to Tiruchendur route.

It was late in the evening when we reached this temple and there appeared no one about. We walked into the totally deserted temple only to come face to face with some of the most stupendous and outstanding works of art I have ever seen!

In the dusky gloom of the interior rose gigantic columns of granite. Each pillar was carved with a profusion of magnificent sculptures; there were horses, mythical beasts, warriors on horseback chasing villains; princesses being carried away by gypsies; a fortune teller reading the palm of a queen. Assorted images providing a peek into the lives of a bygone era.

Preserved as a national heritage site, this beautiful temple at Krishnapuram overwhelmed me by the poetic intensity of its sculptural treasures.

The following day, April 10th, my husband and I got up fairly early in the morning to visit the temple at Tirukkurungudi.

We reached the temple by 8 a.m. and were greeted by the priest who was going to perform the puja. Slowly, we made our way to the shrine of the Bhairavar. The small sanctum wore a festive look today. Floral wreaths had been fashioned into a skirt for the stone statue and outside the sanctum, a small flower pandalor awning, had been constructed. I sat under this flower arbor, on the doorstep of the shrine and watched as the priest gathered together all the materials for performing the puja. We had brought with us a thousand lotus buds for the archanai and the coconuts that had to function as ghee filled lamps.

The coconuts were duly broken, filled with ghee and then lit up. This was placed in a large tray and positioned at the feet of the Lord. Then, the prayers began. I sat with my eyes closed, praying fervently to the lord.

Time passed and I sat rooted to the spot for a long time. During this period, I noticed the priest had finished his puja; my husband and our escort had moved further away and were talking , seated on the steps of another nearby shrine. However, I did not move from my initial spot. Slowly, the noises around me faded into insignificance. I concentrated on the Lord and requested his help. Three hours flew by and by the time of the final arathi, I noticed that the little coconut lamps were still lit.

The priest said that this portended good news. He told me “ Bhairavar is very pleased you have sat near his shrine and prayed to him for three hours. Your desire will be fulfilled in three months time. You don’t have to do anything else to satisfy this LORD. Your devotion alone was sufficient”.

My husband and I returned to Chennai later that evening and shortly afterwards, left for London.

Spiritual Diary: Chapter 33

As soon as I returned to Chennai, I received a phone call from my eldest daughter in Boston. She had just got engaged to a wonderful boy and rang me with this delightful news. The wedding had to be fixed for 2008. I thanked Bala from the depths of my heart.

Shortly thereafter, I started to make plans for returning back to London.

However, one more surprise was in store for me. My husband informed me that he had to come again to India for just a week in early April , due to work-related matters and that we could both depart from Chennai back to London together around the middle of the month. He was arriving on April 8th into Chennai. I could hardly believe my luck. Would it be possible to make a return visit to Thirukkurungudi?

Luckily, my husband agreed to accompany me to this powerful temple to do the puja for the Bhairavar on April 10th ( the ashtami day). I made all the travel arrangements thanking the Lord most fervently for having listened to my prayers.

During this interim period, however, I was destined to visit a few more temples!

Some of them were situated in the vicinity of Chennai and I visited these on a day- trip. There was also another short three day pilgrimage to my Guru’s samadhi at Skandashramam. There is an interesting tale as to how this, second pilgrimage came about which I shall explain later.

The three temples I visited near Chennai were: Singa Perumal Koil, Chettipunyam and Tirukacchoor.

Singaperumal, literally translates as the Lord with the face of a lion and refers to the Narasimha Avatar ( Half- man, half lion incarnation) taken by Lord Vishnu to defeat the demon-king, Hiranyakasipu.

The Singaperumal temple is located in the Chengelpet district, a suburb of Chennai. The interesting feature of this place is the huge image of this half-lion, half-human form that seems to be carved inside a hillside cave!

The story here is that a great sage by the name of Jabali, did severe penance to get a glimpse of Lord Vishnu in this particular manifestation. Hence, the Lord appeared here, larger than life , and to this day continues to bless his devotees. Lord Narasimha is seen with three eyes and is believed to reside here in his fierce aspect. The third eye is hidden under the Namam on his forehead and is revealed during Arathi by the priest. The cave-temple dates back to the Pallava period, over a thousand years ago and abounds in rich sculptural details.

Chettipunyam, a little village in close proximity to the Singa Perumal Koil, houses a rare image of Yoga Hyagreevar. “Haya” means Horse in Sanskrit and “Greeva” means “ neck”.

Hyagreevar represents an incarnation of LordVishnu and this horse-faced Lord is the God of Vidya ( education and prosperity).

It is said that Vishnu took this form to save the Vedas that were stolen by an Asura of the same name. It is`also believed that it was Lord Vishnu, as Hyagreevar who revealed the Devi Bhagavatham and Lalitha Sahasranamam to Sage Agastya at Kancheepuram.

The idol of Hyagreevar at Chettipunyam is believed to have been given by the goddess Saraswathi to the Vaishnavaite saint Ramanujam in Kashmir. It was kept in this little village temple in order to save it from the Muslim invaders from the north.

The main sanctum also houses Lord Devanatha, representing the Trimurthis, Brahma, Shiva and Lord Vishnu. ( similar to the image in Tiruvahandeepuram). The temple also has an impressive shrine for Lord Rama.

Dating back several thousands of years, this temple, too, is extremely powerful and pilgrims flock here in the hope of completing their studies well and getting gainful occupation.

Tirukkachur is yet another temple in the Chingelpet vicinity for Lord Shiva. Actually, there is a smaller temple on the top of a hillock called Aushadagiri , ( literally , a hill containing rare, medicinal plants), where the presiding deity is Lord Marundeeshwarar and his consort, Irul Neeki Thayar. It is widely believed that this hill has miraculous powers and Siddhas or mystics still live here.

At the bottom of the hill, in the village is a somewhat bigger temple for Shiva as Kachabeshwarar. The consort is the beautiful Anjanaakshi.

The story here is that Lord Vishnu, in the form of a tortoise ( Kachaba) performed worship to Lord Shiva before allowing the Devas and Asuras to use his back ( as a tortoise), as a stable support to hold the Mountain Meru in place , while they both started to churn the ocean ( using the mountain as the churning rod and the snake Vasuki as the rope), in the hope of finding the nectar of immortality.

This temple has a beautiful mandap with 27 pillars for different stars in the galaxy.

Glorified by the Shaivaite saints, Sundarar and Appar, this ancient temple is noteworthy for its scuptural variety and inscriptions dating back to the Chola period.

These three temples are fairly close to each other in terms of their location and I was able to see them in just one morning’s visit from Chennai.

The second, mini- pilgrimage to Salem came about after a peculiar series of events.

Now, the huge painting of Lord Skanda that I had finished prior to my Pazhani visit was lying on the dining table in my mother’s house. One day, my sister-in-law expressed an interest in having it framed and hung in our house. So, the very next day, I summoned the local picture- framer and within two days, the painting was beautifully framed. However, this picture was enormous and seemed to dwarf the walls in most of the rooms in the house. Also, either my sister-in-law had lost interest, or was otherwise engaged, because she didn’t make the effort to hang it in the house after all. Instead, the framed painting stood neglected, alongside another massive painting I had done the previous year depicting our family tree. The latter work, too, had been requested in earnest by my brother, but on completion, remained largely overlooked. However, the painting of Skanda had enormous significance to me. I had poured my heart and soul into this work and did not wish to leave it behind in my mother’s house , gathering dust. Just as I was pondering this matter, I got an answer in the most unusual manner.

This event happened on the evening of April 3rd, 2007. I was seated in my room absorbed in meditation and thinking of my Guru. Suddenly, like a flash of thunderbolt, came a message from him. “Bring that picture of Murugan to me at Skandashramam”. Immediately, I got up and walked over to my mother’s room and informed her that I would have to go to Salem at once, taking the painting.

I think she thought I was completely mad. However, seeing that I was determined, there was nothing she could do. I rang up my cousin who lives in Salem . She is also a devotee of our Guru Santhananda Swamigal. I asked her if she was going to be in Salem over the next few days, and if so whether she would accompany me to this temple for Skanda.

She was more than happy to be my escort and promised to book accomodations for me at a hotel in Salem.

The very next day, I contacted a courier who would pack my painting and take it by truck to Skandashramam. By the evening of April 4th, the packaged painting was loaded on to a truck enroute to Salem . My mother had given me the name of the head priest at the temple and I told the truck driver to deliver it to him most carefully.

On the early morning of Thursday, April 5th, I left Chennai in a tourist taxi with an escort from my brother’s office. My mother wasn’t too happy I was travelling alone, but I reassured her I would be fine.

During the last two days, I hadn’t really questioned myself whether the flashing message I received was real. Did my Guru really mean for me to bring the painting to him?

I didn’t know for sure. However, I prayed to him fervently before embarking on the journey.

We reached Salem by lunch time on the same day. After a brief respite for Lunch and a wash, I was ready to go to the temple.

My cousin had brought with her a huge basket of fruit and flowers. Together we headed for the hills of Skandashram.

It was 4p.m. when we reached this temple on the top of Skandagiri. As I stepped from the car, I looked around in amazement. The whole temple seemed covered in scaffolding. All the statues of the deities had been removed from their respective shrines and covered with shrouds. I had been looking forward to seeing the majestic splendour of Muruga and the powerful image of his mother, Ashtaa Dasa Bhuja Mahaalakshmi Durga Devi. Instead, the inner spaces of all the sanctums were empty!

For a moment I thought I must have made a mistake. There was no message from my Guru. This whole episode started to look embarassing!

Ganapathi Raman, a disciple of our Guru and one of his most trusted Sishyas, came to greet us. His face was beaming. He said “Looks like you have brought a gift to your Swamigal exactly on time for his birthday”!

I didn’t comprehend. Ganapathi Raman carried on “ We are having the temple Kumbabhisekham on June 28th. Also, a lot of renovation work is being carried out. That is why you see all the images outside the sanctum, covered up. However, the power of these deities have been concentrated and kept in a wooden image on a separate altar. I will lead you there”.

As we moved towards this altar at the far corner of the long hall just outside the temple, I asked him “ What did you mean by a birthday present?”.

Ganapathi Raman smiled “ Why, its your Guru’s birthday today. His birth star is today. You have brought him something that he wanted you to give him. There, your painting of Skanda looks majestic. I have propped it against the wall here.”

I could see my painting decorated with flowers and the customary vermilion mark on the forehead of the image.

The priest went on “ We shall first do meditation to the Guru and then you can perform his Pada- Puja. You are indeed fortunate to perform this to your Guru on his birthday”!

I was overwhelmed. My Guru was definitely guiding me from within and tears welled up in my eys. We started the puja accompanied by a host of young boys reciting Rudram and Purusha Sooktham at the top of their voices.

The holy Padukas were washed and decorated with flowers. I arranged the roses carefully, one by one in unision with the chanting of Swamigal’s holy names.

After the puja was over, we were given a light snack and then we took leave of this kind man.

I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I had carried out the task my Guru had set for me.

Later that evening, my cousin took me to a recently built , yet powerful shrine for the goddess Santoshi Ma in the city of Salem. This little shrine was adjacent to a house and it appeared that certain strange events had led to its presence in thatspot. The members of the family who live in the house take care of the daily worship and puja and it is widely believed that prayers to this aspect o Durga are immediately answered.

I sat for a while in this quiet spot and as I was moving on, the young priest came up to me and said “You should go to Aragalur temple for Shiva. This is an ancient temple on the Salem- Ulundurpet road and it contains eight powerful forms of Lord Bhairavar”
I don’t know what prompted him to say this. However, I took it as a divine command and made a mental note of the name.

The next day, I had the opportunity to visit a few more temples in the vicinity of Salem, Tiruchengode and Bhavani. Both of these are extremely ancient temples, noted for their sculptures and beautiful architecture.

Tiruchengode temple for Ardhanareeshwara ( androgenous form of male and female, or Shiva and Parvathi) sits on top of a stony hill.

There are several stories associated with the presence of the temple here. The legend goes that Vayu ( the God of Wind), once had a fight with the serpent king, Aadi Seshan.

While the sacred serpent- mount of Lord Vishnu clung on tightly to the mountain, Meru, Vaayu used all his might to blow the snake far away. It is believed that the place where the snake fell assmed the form of the hill, Nagagiri, and the places where his blood spilled colored this hill red. Chengode ,in Tamil, means red.

There is also another story to explain the origin of this temple. The celestial cow, Kamadhenu received five hills as a gift from SHIVA and this represents one of them. It is believed that this hill contains rocks that are coloured both red as well as yellow, depicting the presence of both lord Shiva as well as Parvathi.

There is also a shrine to Tirucengottu Velavar, ( Murugan),here.

The temple sits majestically on the top of this sacred hill. Dating back in antiquity, several thousands of years, the sculptures and carvings here are exquisite.

The main sanctum enshrines the swayambu, or self- manifested image of Ardha Nareeshwara. This image is fashioned out of a non- decaying type of wood. The facial features of the deity are not very clear. However, one portion represents the characteristics of a male, while the left- hand portion resembles the anatomy of a female. This image, then is worshipped as the unision of the powerful Lord Shiva, the creator and sustainer of this universe, while Shakthi or the female aspect represents the activating power underlying all created beings in this world.

There is a story that Lord Vishnu, also enshrined in this temple as Aadi Kesava Perumal, gave Parvathi a mantram, the Kedara Gowri mantra, so she could remain united with her Lord.

The Murugan image here is also regarded as self- manifested and considered to be extremely powerful. In the surrounding enclosure, the serpent , Adi Sesha is honoured with his own shrine. In addition, a ninety feet long carving of a snake can be seen engraved into the mountainside.

Tiruchengode is a beautiful and tranquil temple- town and I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit here.

We set off from here towards et another famous temple for Lord Shiva as Sangameshwarar, in the town of Bhavani.

Sangam literally means meeting point in Tamil, and the temple of Sangameshwarar is located at the confluence of two rivers, the Bhavani and Kaveri. A third, invisible current, Amudha is also believed to join it at this point.

The temple is a very ancient one dating back to the rulers of the Kongu dynasty, who lived here over 1,000 years ago. There are interesting legends associated with this temple as well.

A british Collector , Garro was stationed at Bhavani. Garro was a devout man and although he was never admitted inside the temple, he would often catch a glimpse of the Ambaal ( consort of Shiva), through a small hole in the temple door. One stormy night he was awakened by a young girl who insisted on pulling him out of bed and taking him out of his house. A perplexed Garro followed the child outside, only to witness the house being struck by lightning a few seconds later. The child had disappeared after saving his life!

Garro was convinced that this was the deity of the temple, since he the child’s face bore a close resemblance to the image in the shrine!

In gratitude, he donated an ivory cradle to the temple. This can be seen today in the

Sannidhi of the Ambaal.

Although, primarily a Shaivaite temple, there is also a separate shrine for Perumal and Mahalakshmi at the Sangameshwarar temple.

After a short break for lunch, we returned to Salem and in the evening I had the opportunity to visit a famous temple in the city dedicated to Mariamman. Since this was a Friday, there was an enormous crowd near the main sanctum. The sanctum itself was a very small one. It was stuffy and hot and the sheer volume of people pushing and jostling all around me accompanied by the shrill screaming of the , priests gave me a severe headache.

There was just a momentary break in the queue and Iwas able to see the glowing splendour of this deity, revered by one and all as a very potent goddess of fertility!

I closed my eyes and thanked her for giving me a darshan, albeit a very hasty one!

The following day, I left Salem and headed back to Chennai. However, enroute, I made a quick stop at the village of Aragalur to visit the ancient Bhairavar temple mentioned by the priest at the Santoshi Ma temple, the previous evening.

It was not easy to find the way to this remote village. We seemed to be driving for quite a long time over dirt roads set amidst fertile and lush green fields. The scenery was breathtaking, and after stopping several times to enquire the correct directions, we finally arrived at what looked like a decrepit, old temple.

Stray dogs were running across the roads and the temple seemed extremely old and ancient. However, it was rather badly neglected and as the solitary temple priest opened the door of the main sanctum, a host of bats came flying out. Rats could be seen scurrying around in the deep recess behind the Shiva Linga and devout as I am, I hastened my steps outside.

There are eight different Bhairavars enshrined in this temple and the priest told me that worship here on Ashtami days was very popular.

As the priest and I did a circumambulation of the main sanctum , there was yet another standing statue of Lord Bhairavar. This image resembled most closely the one at Tirukkurungudi. For a long time I stood before this Lord and prayed he would take care of me. I opened my eyes and he seemed to say “ Remember our bargain”.

I got back into the car and told the tourist taxi driver to head back directly to Chennai.

I was happy with the outcome of my Salem visit and the short pilgrimage. Now, I needed to get back. I was physically tired after the long car journey and wished to go home!

However, there was one more temple- stop destined for me that day.

As we set off, I requested the driver to load the CD of Nemili Baala into the car audio system. In fact, I had spent most of the journey in the car listening to my CD’s- invariably slokas and powerful hymns to the various deities, including the audio cassettes dedicated to Nemili Bala.

The driver dutifully loaded the cd into the system and then turned towards me “Madam, is it possible for us to visit tis temple at Nemili. I have been listening to all these songs on her and I am very keen to see this powerful deity. I can’t explain the reason why I am attracted to this place. With your permission, I can drive you to Kanchipuram for lunch and from there we can proceed to Nemili”.

I felt this was a calling from the little goddess. I nodded my head in assent and then called the Bala peetam to ascertain if it was open. The voice at the other end was not familiar to me, but said that the house would be open that evening.

So, we set off. However, I did tell the driver that going to Nemili wasn’t an easy task. The child goddess loves to play games!

As if to prove the veracity of my words, we encountered a few difficulties on our way. First, there was a huge gas explosion on the main highway. Several huts were ablaze and traffic was diverted into the narrow by lanes. This detour cost us over an hour of travelling time.

It was almost 2 p.m. and we had been driving non stop since 7 a.m. I felt it was imperative for the driver to have a short break and a bite to eat. However, he insisted on taking me to Kanchipuram for lunch. We reached this temple town by 3 p.m. After a late lunch, we set off by 4.15 p.m. towards Nemili.

The route from Kancheepuram to Nemili is via the Arakonam road. A long stretch of this road hugs the railway track and at a particular railway crossing called Sendamangalam, we have to turn left from the main highway. However, when we reached this level crossing, it seemed impossible to veer left. Essential road laying works were being carried out and the road was temporarily closed. By this time, it was already 5 p.m. Without further hesitation, we drove straight on and took a slightly longer diversion to reach Nemili, passing remote villages set amidst the paddy fields.

It was close to 5.45 p.m. when we finally reached the house. I wasn.t sure if anyone would still be awaiting us. However, both Ezhilmani and his nephew were in the main hall housing the peetam, as we walked inside. Ezhilmani did not seem surprised at all to see me. His characteristic greeting was “ I think your visit here today is merely for me to obtain information from you. You see, I don’t have your telephone number either in Chennai or in London. I was just hoping to establish contact with you before you left the country and Bala must have brought you here just for that purpose”.

I jotted down my London address and phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to him. Just then, the electricity in the Peetam went out and, as Ezhilmani himself was leaving on a important errand, I took leave of him and Bala without further ado.

I reached Chennai, late at night that day, tired but extremely happy to have concluded my temple visits without major obstacles. The final, quick visit to Nemili was definitely a lucky bonus!

Spiritual Diary: Chapter 32

The following day ( day 3 of our visit), we headed off to do a pilgrimage of the nine temples for Vishnu in the area surounding Tirunelveli. Collectively called “Nava Tirupathi”, these nine temples form an important part of Lord Vishnu’s Divya Desams or Holy Abodes.

The first , and most significant temple in this group is Sri Vaikuntam. This is an ancient and extremely beautiful temple situated on the banks of the river Tambiraparani. We arrived very early in the morning and, as we were waiting for the temple priest to open the sanctum, we took a tour around the surrounding mandapams/ courtyards. The pillars abound in rich decorations. Mythical beasts, warriors, dancing damsels, animals, and birds have been crafted with great ingenuity and the temple tower with its intricately carved figures soars high, a beautiful sight viewed from afar, set amidst the lush green fields and borderd by the river.

Lord Vishnu gives his darshan here as Lord Kallapiraan, standing regally under the hood of Adi Seshan.

The story here is that a thief ( Kallan), was in the habit of donating half of his ill- gotten gains to the Lord. One day, he was caught by the King’s soldiers and as he was going to be punished, Lord Vishnu makes his presence felt to both the King as well as devotee.

The Nava Tirupathi temples are also believed to represent the power of the nine planets- Nava grahas.

Sri Vaikuntam represents the abode of Surya ( sun).

The second temple stop was at Alwar ThiruNagari.

This temple is perhaps most well known since it was the birth place of one of the foremost vaishnavaite saints, Nammazhwar.

Lord Vishnu is called Adi Naadan/ Gnana Piran/ Varaha Perumal. He is seen in a standing posture facing east along with his two consorts. It is believed that the Lord’s feet are actually below the ground at this sacred temple.

The highlight at this temple is the shrine of Nammazhwar and the tamarind tree under which he is supposed to have sat in Samadhi for sixteen years.

The story goes that a child was born to devout parents at Thirukkurugoor. However, this was an unique child since he never spoke, neither did he eat food. In desperation, his parents who were devotees of Lord Adi Natha, left him in the temple near a tree. For 16 years, the boy remained with his eyes closed in deep meditation, until one day an elderly brahmin sage came upon him. This sage was MadhuraKavi, a great bhaktha of the Lord. He was on pilgrimage to holy places when he was led by a shining star to the temple at Tirukkurugoor. To his amazement, Madhura Kavi observed the glowing light to disappear inside this holy child.

Finally, Nammazhwar came out of his trance and during his short life of 33 years, produced some of the most devotional poems in Vaishnavaite liturgy.

The tamarind tree he sat under still exists. This tree is unique because it bears no fruit and the leaves do not close even at dusk!

There is no doubt that the saint Nammazhwar was indeed an incarnation of the Lord, and even today the saint’s importance is revealed once a year as all the images of the Lord from the Nava Tirupathis come to pay their respects to Nammazhwar, mounted on their respective Garudans. This Garuda Sevai is a very important feature at Alwar Tirunagari. The temple here is synonymous with the worship of Guru or preceptor, among the Navagrahas.

The third temple on our particular tour was Thirukkollur. This is represented as Mars or Angarakan, among the nine planets.

Here, the Lord is in his Bhujanga Sayanam- reclining posture, with his head supported by his left hand. The story here is that Lord Kubera, the God of wealth (Nidhi), lost all his Nava Nidhis due to a curse and regained them only after propitiating the Lord here.

This holy spot is doubly sacred as the birth place of the saint Madhura Kavi.

Then Thirupperai was our next stop. The Lord is in a seated posture here along with consorts and is believed to bestow prosperity and good fortune to his sincere devotees. The planet Sukra is associated with this temple.

With the exception of Sri Vaikuntam and Alwar Thirunagari, the rest of the Nava Tirupathis are fairly small temples, scattered in the vicinity of the river Tambiraparani and situated mostly on the Tirunelveli to Tiruchendur route.

Periankullam was no exception. At this temple Lord Srinivasa graces his devotees in the standing posture. nHe is also known as Mayakoothan owing to the fact that he slew a demon and then danced on top of him. The planet Saturn is associated with this holy spot.

Irattai Tirupathi or the twin temples called Tirupathi were next on our itinery. These temples are located in a remote area accessible by a dirt road. However, the scenery and landscape enroute is breathtaking with lakes and marshland interspersed among fertile fields.

At these two temples consecrated to the planets, Rahu and Kethu, Lord Srinivasa as Devapiraan ( in the standing posture), and Lord Aravindalochanan ( in the seated posture) bless the pilgrims. The story here is that two devotees of the lord, Thullai( literally meaning

balancing scale) and Villi,( bow) who were under a curse were freed by the saint Atreya, resulting in the manifestation of the Lord at these respective holy sites. Thulai became a woman and Villu, a man. It is believed they regained their natural form after having been locked up as a scale and bow respectively, under a curse.

At Thirupulliangudi, a Budhan Stalam, the Lord is recling in his Bhujanga sayanam. A single stalk emerges from his navel and seems to reach up to the lotus , upon which is enthroned Lord Brahma. The holy feet of the Lord is visible through a small side- window. This holy spot is sacred for removing sins of the worshippers. Lord Indra was supposed to have propitiated the Lord here to remove the Brahma Hatya Dosham ( sin from killing a brahmin), at this temple.

Finally, at Natham, a temple enshrines Lord Varagunamangai Perumal and his consort. Widely believed to represent the deity Chandran ( moon) among the nine planets, this temple and the moolavar is believed to have come into existence after a devout brahmin called Vedavit performed austerities and penance to get a vision of the Lord.

Our tour of the Nava Tirupathis allowed a fantastic insight into the rituals and practices carried out in Vaishnavaite temples. In addition, we had been fortunate to see some of the oldest and remotest temples reknowned for their breathtaking architecture and powerful legends.

On the evening of the third day, we carried on to visit three temples in the vicinity of Tirunelveli. These were at Palamadai , Sepparai and the famous Nelliappar Temple in the city of Tirunelvelli.

Palamadai is the ancestral home of my father-in-law’s family. The village itself is rather nondescript, with just one main road flanked by a few huts. There is a small temple on the edge of this little village and this is where we headed first.

The goddess Mangala Nayaki or Mangalambikai is the principal deity, an incarnation of Parvathi and the consort of Lord Shiva. The temple priest seemed delighted to hear that my husband’s family were descendents of the esteemed family tree that stretches back to Appaya Dikshitar and his son Neelakanta Dikshitar. The latter was the chief minister to the Nayak King of Madurai. A great sanskrit scholar and poet, Neelakanta Dikshitar was a great devotee of Madurai meenakshi and the story is that the Goddess had given him a divine experience.

We paid respects at the Samadhi of Neelakanta Dikshitar and then took the priest along with us in the car as we headed to the next temple at Sepparai.

Many of the temples in the remote villages of Tirunelvelli remain closed as there is hardly any pilgrim traffic and it was fortuitous that we had called ahead and established whether the temple was indeed open for visitors.

The temple at Sepperai is quite big and is dedicated to Lord Shiva as Nataraja. There is a beautifully sculpted image here of Lord Shiva in his dance pose.

The Nelliappar Temple in Tirunelveli city is perhaps the most famous Shiva temple in this area. This was our next stop. Built thousands of years ago ( about 700 A.D.), this temple is vast with huge corridors, a thousand pillared hall, mani mandapam containing musical pillars, and of course, the famous Copper Dancing Hall of Shiva ( Tamra Sabha).

The main deity is Lord Nelliappar and his consort is the divinely beautiful Kanthimathi.

The story here is that Lord Shiva wished to test the devotion of one of his ardent followers, Vedapattar. He made the poor brahmin suffer a lord of hardships in life. One day, Vedapattar left a small amount of paddy ( his only source of food for the day) at the temple while he went to bathe in the nearby river.

At this time it started to pour with rain and the poor bhaktha rushed inside the temple in an attempt to save his food ( paddy- Nellu).

To his amazement he saw that the spot where the paddy was left remained dry as if protected in an enchanted circle , while rain continued to pour around it!

It was all a play or Lila of the Lord who henceforth became known as Nelliappar ( one who saved the paddy).

The Nelliappar temple is also famous for containing one of the five great dancing halls of Shiva, the Tamra Sabha or Hall of Copper.

This mandapam or hall is richly decorated with wood work and is said to house the idol of Lord Nataraja and his consort Sivagami during the auspicious Arudra festival in the month of Margazhi ( December).

An enormous, white Nandi made of Shell, guards the entrance to the inner sanctum.

We wandered through the vast temple complex admiring the finely sulpted stone images and frescoes.

It was rather late in the evening when we finally, and reluctantly, left this wonderful temple. We had barely set off in the car when there was a loud noise and all the lights in both the temple and the surrounding streets were completely put out!

I heaved a sigh of relief and thanked the lord sincerely for having allowed us to complete our pilgrimage without interruptions!

On the fourth day of our pilgrimage, we visited the temple of Vanamamalai at a place called Nanguneri, about 30 kilometres south of Tirunelveli.

It is perhaps with good reason that this temple is called the Bhoolokha Vaikunta of Lord Vishnu. At Nanguneri, the Lord is seated on a throne, one leg folded under him and the other leg touching the ground. He is alongside his two consorts, Bhoo Devi and Shri DEVI under a canopy of the thousand hooded serpent, Adi Seshan.

Thotaadri Naadan, as he is called here, the great Lord is believed to have manifested himself in this temple or appeared of his own accord. This temple is one of eight such “ Swayamvyaktha Kshetrams”. Some of the other places where the Lord has appeared on his own accord include the famous temples at Sri Rangam, Tirupathi, SRI Mushnam, Naimisaranyam, etc.

The story for this special appearance of the Lord at Nanguneri is as follows:

Once, Lord Brahma found himself seated on a lotus flower at the top of a very long stem. He looked all around to see how he had come into existence, but could not spot anyone . Brahma looked down below to see the origin of the lotus stem, but could not fathom how deep it went. All around him swirled the waters of the ocean. So, in his ignorance, Brahma thought He was the original creator of the universe and this made him exceedingly proud. Now, all this while, Lord Vishnu had been resting in divine slumber in the depths of the ocean on his serpent bed. When he realised that Brahma’s ego had become immense and had to be quelled, he planned to teach him a lesson. Two demons, Madhu and Kaitaba were sent to threaten Brahma and to steal his knowledge. Brahma, suddenly found himself berefit of all his powers and bowed to the Supreme Lord in submission, having realised his fault. He appealed to Vishnu for help in defeating these two demons.

It was here at Tirukkurungudi that the Lord finally vanquished the asuras after a fight lasting 5,000 years. The asuras were puffed up with pride that Maha Vishnu was unable to defeat them! The Lord, however, used their foolishness and pride to his advantage. He feigned submission and craved for a boon from them. The demons assented, their intellect dimmed by the veil of pride and ignorance. As a boon, Lord Vishnu requested the asuras that He should be the one to slay them. He asked them where they would like to die! Observing that the whole universe was submerged in water, the two demons said that Lord Vishnu could only slay them on a dry spot.

Instantly, the Lord’s size grew bigger and bigger until it obtained the Vishwa Roopam, transcending the earth and heavens above. He plucked the two demons and crushed them to death against his own thigh ( which was dry). Thus goes the legend. However, after they were killed, a few droplets of the demons’ blood fell on the ground where Bhoo Devi was performing penance. The goddess appealed to her consort to purify the spot where she had been praying and this resulted in the self- manifestation of the Lord at Nanguneri.

The main feature at the Nanguneri temple is the Thaila Kappu ( ablution with oil) that is done every day to the deity. The residue of this oil runs along a narrow gutter into a massive oil well outside the precincts. It is widely believed that the ingestion of this oil is bound to produce miraculous cures for various ailments.

I looked into the deep recesses of this oil well. All I could see were a few dead cockroaches floating on top of a thick, slimy, green mess. I shuddered in disgust, yet dutifully took a spoonful of this oil when it was offered to me by the priest. It would have appeared rude to have refused it. However, much to my surprise, I found that no foul smell emanated from the oil. I took a few drops of this viscous liquid and applied it on my head.

As we were leaving this temple , the priest who had been our tour guide , turned to me and said “ You should also make a trip to the famous town of Tirukkurungudi and visit all the five Nambis. It’s a very powerful temple. You must go”. This sounded more like an order not a request.

Despite protests from our escort that a visit here would completely wreck the itinery for the day ( we had intended to visit Nagercoil, Suchindram and Kanya Kumari), I decided firmly to proceed to Tirukkurungudi.

The Perumal in Tirukkurungudi is called “Nambi”. There are five different Perumal Sannidhis around this area, three of them within the temple and two situated nearby.

There are in general, several postures taken by the Lord in his 108 abodes.

He is called either:

Nindraan ( one who stands),

Irundhaan( one who sits),

Kidandhaan( one who is lying down),

And, Nadandhaan ( one who walks).

At Tirukkurungudi, the Lord can be seen in the three poses as, Nindran ( Vadivazhagiya Nambi); Kidandha Nambi and Irundha Nambi.

There is a small mandapam directly opposite the entrance to the temple and this is where we went first.

This was a fairly large hall supported by many pillars, each beautifully carved, depicting deities, dancing girls and animals. What struck me as extremely odd and unnatural was the fact that these sculptures appeared almost life-like. There was a smiling Manmathan ( Cupid), facing his lover ( Rathi). There were a few ferocious looking gypsies and demi- gods. All of them seemed to be observing me with real interest. I could not shake off the eerie feeling that these figures were somehow imbued with power--- the power of coming alive at will!

While I had been examining these sculptures, our escort brought in the temple priest. A very knowledgeable man, this priest proceeded to be our tour guide for the temple. I couldn’t help asking him about my fears. Was it my imagination or were these sculptures powerful?

The priest smiled and said “Why , of course, there is a story behind these sculptures. The artist who carved these images did such a good job that when he finished, many of the images started coming to life. They were demi-gods, trapped in an astral plane and when they started to make contact with normal humans, this caused a lot of mental afflictions to the people of this village. So, as a remedy, it was decided to disfigure each of these lovely images, just a tiny bit so that the power of these heavenly attendants could be contained. A finger or toe was chipped off; little details were mutilated to prevent the re occurrence of these images coming alive”. The priest concluded his amazing story.

So, my intuitive feelings had been right after all!

Without being conciously aware, it appeared that my powers of perception were being strengthened. Whenever I looked at some of the statues in the temples, they seemed to converse with me. This phenomena had been occuring slowly as I began visiting more temples. However, I had always brushed it aside, not wishing to dwell upon what I considered to be “tricks of my imagination”. More on this later!

We walked into the main sanctum. There are many colorful legends associated with this Tirukkurungudi Temple. It is said that the Lord came as a student or sishya to the famous saint, Acharya Ramanujam ( himself, an aspect of the Lord). Hence, in Ramanuja’s shrine the Lord is seen standing submissively, as Vaishnava Nambi.

It is also said that the Lord saved Ramanuja from his enemies at this temple.

In the main sanctum is a beautiful, painted statue of Vadivazhagiya Nambi, in the standing posture with his two consorts standing on either side.

The idol is beautiful and the lotus eyes of the lord seemed to be smiling and extending his blessings as we walked in. There are two other Nambis in this temple, in the seated and reclining posture.

As we circumambulated the inner courtyard, we came across a small shrine to Bhairavar( an aspect of Lord Shiva). Bhairavar is usually regarded as a guardian deity in most Shiva temples. However, this was a predominantly Vaishnavaite temple. I was a bit puzzled. Our guide explained. “You see the square, empty space just in front of the Irundha Nambi Sannidhi?. Well, there used to be a Shiva Lingam there. However, the people who were in chrge of the renovation works, decided to move the Shiva Linga to a separate shrine outside the temple. That was when things started to happen. There were several catastrophes that affected our village. There was a period of relentless rains that caused flooding and great damage to the houses. Finally, a decision was taken by the temple authorities to bring the Shiva linga back and place it inside the temple. There is a separate room where we have placed this lingam inside a mound of paddy. This is believed to contain the wrath of Shiva.”

Our guide paused. “ Now, this Bhairavar is also very upset at the sequence of events and his power has magnified several- fold , as a consequence. Do pray to him if you are looking for solutions to problems, etc. He will help you”.

I stood in front of the small shrine to Lord Bhairsvar. This was a tall statue of a naked lord wielding his weapon, the trident. A timid dog stood curled around his legs. The gloom of the small room was pierced by the glow of three small flames flickering one below the other . Suspended on a single brass chain were three small lamps. All three lamps were lit. However, I noticed that the first lamp seemed to be hanging almost in line with the nose of the figure. This flame seemed to jerk around violently in all directions as if there was a draught of air inside the room. Curiously enough the flames of the two lamps suspended directly below the first one remained still and steady without the faintest movement.

The priest explained”You see , the top flame is flickering because Bhairavar is breathing. He is alive in this shrine.” He continued “There have been many miracles and stories associated with this deity. I have had innumerable personal experiences. Just pray hard. He will reach out to you”

There was no mistaking the sincerity of the priest. He stood for a long time in front of this little shrine, just looking at the God within. Then, he fell down to prostrate the Lord, legs and hands stretched out in a manner of total Sharanaagathi or Surrender.

I looked at the face of Lord Bhairavar. Indeed, He seemed totally alive! His eyes seemed to bore into mine. I stared transfixed, unable to keep my eyes off his face. After a while, I could hear him speak. “ I am going to strike a deal with you. I know your husband has financial problems and debt. I will help him to solve these problems. However, if I help you, I expect you to do something for me as well.

Perform a puja for me on the 8th day of the waning lunar cycle and decorate my body with a dress of flowers; If you pray sincerely, I shall help you. Once your husband gets rid of all his financial problems, you should donate generously to temples and give money readily for religious causes. This is your new purpose in life”.

I realised that this conversation was not a mere figment of my imagination. So, I went up to the priest, explained what had just passed and asked him if I could perform a special puja for this Lord.

It was no great surprise for me to hear that the Thei Pirai Ashtami ( 8th day of the waning moon), was indeed sacred to this particular Lord. The shirt/ dress of flowers was important in order to appease him and it appeared that his favourite food was a special type of Vadai made in ghee.

I was also informed that at the start of the puja, a coconut would be split into halves and each hollow half was to function as a lamp by placing in a wick and filling the coconut halves with ghee. The object was to keep the flame going in these improvised lamps for a period of three hours without allowing it to die out. Success in any undertaking or project was sure to be guaranteed if this could be done.

As I was leaving the temple, I gave the particulars ( i.e. the name, gothram and birth star) for my husband and paid the money for the puja. I was told that April 10th was the Ashtami day, when the puja would be performed. The priest said that any puja would bear full fruit only if the intended beneficiary ( my husband) was present. I knew this was not going to be feasible since my husband had just gone back to London. Instead, I merely requested the priest to perform this puja for us with extra care.

Then, after a moment’s hesitation, something made me say to the priest “I am not really sure if this bargain that Bhairavar made with me is really true. I might have just imagined it all. I wish I could get some guidance or signal from him”.

I hardly finished saying these words when the temple bells suddenly broke out into a joyous peal!

The priest raised his folded palms over his head “ There’s your signal. He wants you to return”.

I left Thirukkurungudi with mixed feelings. I couldn’t help remembering the words of Bhairavar. They seemed to go through my mind in waves. I hadn’t really planned on coming to this temple today. Somehow, it seemed I had been guided here for a purpose.

Exiting the temple, we visited the shrine of PaarKadal Nambi , a few kilometres down the road. Here, the Lord’s image seemed extraordinarily beautiful, covered with a gold Kavacham, as he stood and greeted his devotees.

The fifth Nambi Temple, we were told , was on the top of a neighbouring hill. However, the road up to this place was un paved and we would need a Jeep to make the trip. As luck would have it, some pilgrims had just returned from the hill and an empty jeep and driver seemed to be waiting to take us!

The drive up the small hill seemed to jolt every bone in my body. After about half an hour of driving, we reached the abode of Thirumalai Nambi or Malai Mel Nambi, as he is called here.

A crystal clear river meandered slowly on one side of the temple. We waded in to wash our feet and the water felt icy cold and lovely on that blisteringly hot day!

The Malai Mel Nambi represented the Lord in his standing posture. We learnt that the priests who perform puja climb up this hill, arduously, each day , carrying flowers and the cooked prasadam to offer the Lord.

This showed real dedication and commitment to serve the lord!

With a sigh of satisfaction from having successfully completed our visit to all the five Nambis, we took leave of the priest and continued our journey, headed in the direction of Nagercoil, to the south.

As we pulled away, little did I dream that I would be re- visiting this place within the month, accompanied by my husband!

At Nagercoil, we had a late lunch and after a short rest, proceeded to the famous temple for the Snake King, Lord Nagarajan. The town derives its name from word Naga or snake and the temple is built on a sacred spot where a self- manifested idol of a five- hooded serpent was found. The hallowed place was also once a Jain temple, thousands of years ago. Many miracles are associated with this temple and the sand surrounding the snake-pit , in the main sanctum is expected to cure illnesses.

We jostled among the crowds to get a closer look at the main deity. The sanctum is very small, with an extremely low ceiling. Peering inside, I could see the two ruby- red eyes of the snake- king, glisten in the dim light!

We were soon off to see the imposing and lovely temple of ThanuMalAyan at Suchindram.

Another architectural delight, the soaring temple tower, and the sculptural richness of this temple is a true feast for the eyes. It seemed as though all the master craftsmen of the Chola, Chera, Pandya , Pallava and Nayak dynasties had left their indelible marks in the statues, and intricate stone carvings.

The main sanctum is dedicated to the Trimurthis, Lord Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. A single stone lingam represents THANU ( SHIVA) MAAL(VISHNU) AYAN(BRAHMA). Hence, this temple is the abode of Lord Thanumalayan! Or the holy Trinity.

The legend here is that once the great sage Atri left his ashram to go away to the Himalayas on a pilgrimage. His wife Anasuya was given the resposibility of running the ashram in his absence. Atri left his Kamandalam ( water-vessel) behind as he departed on his tour. While he was away, the three great Lords of the universe, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma wished to test the chastity and devotion of Anasuya. Disguised as sanyasis, they appeared at Anasuya’s doorstep asking for food. However, just as Anasuya was preparing to serve them, the three deities imposed a difficult task on her. They declared they had taken a vow to eat or accept food only from a person not wearing any clothes. Anasuya could not vioate the code of chastity nor deny these brahmins, food. However, utilising the power within her due to years of penance, she merely sprinkled water on the three sanyasis from the Kamandalam lef behind by her husband, ATRI.

Immediately the three great lords were converted into beautiful babies whom Anasuya gathered close to her bosom, fondled with motherly love and fed!

The babies remained at the ashram being nourished by Anasuya for a long time until the consorts of Vishnu Shiva and Brahma prayed Anasuya for their return.

The three Gods, in turn, realised the true devotion and sincerity of Anasuya and prayed to her and Atri so that they could indeed be born to them as children.

And so, it came to pass that three beautiful sons, Chandra, Dattatreya and Durvasa were born to Atri and Anasuya.

Here in Suchindram, they reside in the Trimurthi form as Sthaanumalayan.

The name Suchindram is itself interesting as it reveals another story of how Lord Indra was absolved of his sins and made pure. Suchi means Pure and Indra stands for the Lord of the Heavens. The story is that Lord Indra , in the guise of a mendicant, once entered the hermitage of the Saint Gautama. Indra was really, only seeking out the beautiful Ahalya, Gautama’s wife. So, one day, when Gautama had gone for his ritual bath in the river, Indra in the form of a sanyasi , entered the ashram and managed to seduce Ahalya. However, the pair were caught and punished by the sage on his return from the river. Ahalya was turned into a stone and told she would receive liberation only when Lord Rama blessed her. Indra was cursed with continuous sorrow and defeat at the hands of his enemies.

It was at Suchindram that Indra was finally relieved of his guilt for violating Ahalya.

We wandered around the temple relishing these stories and marvelling at the sculptures. An interesting shrine to Lord Vinayaka in his female form of Vainayaki is tucked away in this enormous temple complex.

The main attraction at Suchindram is of course, the gigantic stone image of Hanuman. Standing over 3 metres in height, this great Rama Bhaktha exudes peace and tranquility as he stands, with an attitude of total devotion in front of a small sanctum enshrining Lord Rama, and Sita.

There is yet another story associated with this interesting temple. It was from Suchindram that Lord Shiva was about to proceed to wed his consort, Parvathi, as the virgin girl, Kanya Kumari. Naradha, the great sage had fixed the mid night hour for the wedding. However, as the wedding procession was on its way, a rooster crowed, too early, by mistake. Thinking that dawn was breaking and the auspicious hour was past, Shiva returned to Suchindram leaving his bride still waiting for him at Kanyakumari. It is said that all the food that had been prepared for the wedding feast lay uneaten and over time turned into the multi colored sand and pebbles that one can still find on the rocky beach at Cape Comorin.

This is where we headed next.

The evening was already well advanced by the time we reached this powerful Shakthi Peet.

We raced inside to catch a glimpse of this beautiful goddess before the temple closed for the evening.

The atmosphere inside was definitely charged with an invisible force. I walked along slowly, with a crowd of people towards the main sanctum. Then, suddenly, the people ahead of me seemed to melt away and there she was, this glowing image of a young Baala Tripurasundari, standing right in front of me!

The black granite statue of the goddess seemed extremely alive and it seemed that I could connect almost immediately with the beautiful aura surrounding her. T he famous diamond nose ornament she wore dazzled with an unsurpassed brilliance as the camphor was lit. I left the shrine with the image of this evening arathi embedded in my mind.

I did a circumambulation of this sacred shrine and then came out into the warm night .

A light breeze was wafting from the ocean and I could see the twinkling lights of the distant Vivekananda Memorial in the middle of the sea. Cape comorin, right at the tip of the Indian continent, at the confluence of three great bodies of water, is indeed an enchanted Shakthi peetam.

We drove back , exhausted, yet happy , towards Tirunelvelli. The following morning we would catch the flight from Madurai and head back to Chennai. However, on the way to the airport in Madurai I persuaded the car driver to do a quick detour and take us to Pazhamudhir Cholai, the abode of Murugan. Although I had already been here once, I thoroughly relished this opportunity to receive Skanda’s blessing, yet again!

This trip was taken during March 21st to 26th of 2007.