Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Spiritual Diary: Chapter 24

Certain work- related matters brought me back to Chennai quite suddenly, during the third week of September, 2006. However, the work related issues were quickly resolved and I suddenly found a lot of time on my hands. As luck would have it , almost immediately upon arrival I connected with an old friend I hadn’t met for a long while. She was on vacation as well and since I was there just in time for Navarathri, we decided to embark on a pilgrimage.

The itinery we planned was to include some famous as well as some of the less well known temples in the districts of Tanjore, Kumbakonam and Trichy.

We were to spend a week touring over 40 to 50 temples !

The natural starting point was of course Bala Peetam at Nemili.

We set off in the early hours of a damp and drizzly morning on September 27th, 2006. By the time we reached Nemili, the rain had cleared up. We walked inside just as the auspicious Rudram was being chanted . The abhishekam or routine bathing of this tiny idol was taking place. The atnosphere seemed charged with a mysterious force. During the break, when the mandap and idol were being re decorated, the small crowd that had gathered in the front hall started to sing bhajans and songs .

I sat with my eyes closed and ardently prayed to Baala that my temple tour should proceed smoothly. After the final arathi, I took leave of the head priest and we started our temple tour in earnest.

Next on the itinery were the famous temples at Kancheepuram. Known as the city of Gold, Kancheepuram is supposed to house over a 100 temples. It was the most important city during the Pallava and Chola periods and the temples reflect the art and architecture of an era where artisans and scultptors reigned supreme.

The oldest temple is the Kailasanathar temple deicated to Lord Shiva, Built over 1000 years ago, this temple reflects the Dravidian style at work in the frescoes and statues.

An interesting and not often mentioned secret at this temple is that it is possible to carry out a pradakshina of the inner sanctum which is said to be the equivalent of doing a circumambulation of the holy Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiva!

The priest at the Kailasanathar temple showed us what appeared to be a small opening or gap in the rock just to the left hand side of the inner sanctum. This is called the Garbha ( womb) entrance.

In order to enter this little cave- like space I had to make the body extremely compact and literally double it up , almost similar to the position a child inside the womb might adopt. On the other side of the opening, one had to exit by manipulating with the feet first , followed by the body and hands and then jump down on to the ground. The whole process of entering and passing through this small opening symbolically indicates the difficulty of child birth as well as descent of the human into the vast ocean of samsara.

After walking around the inner sanctum, the way out is through another small creviche in the rocky wall called the Moksha Vayil or gate of liberation. This is located to the right hand side of the main shrine. Here, the rocky path slopes upward and it is only possible to exit by lying flat on the stomach and slowly squirming and moving the body , inching it up the incline towards the exit hole.

The symbolism here is that it is very difficult to obtain final salvation!

The Ekambareshwarar temple that we visited next is also dedicated to Shiva and is famous for having the tallest temple tower in South India. Built during the Pallava period this temple is one of the five major abodes of Shiva, each representing a natural element. Here, the element represented is Earth. ( Others include Chidambaram- Space; Sri Kala Hasti- Air; Tiruvanaikaval- Water and Tiruvannamalai- fire). The hall of a thousand pillars is a stunning feature at this temple as are the array of 1,008 lingams decorating the inner walls. The Sthala Vriksham or tree is a 3,500 old mango tree whose branches are said to yield four different types of mangoes ( these represent the four Vedas).

While we did not visit the famous Kamakshi Amman temple on this particular trip, it must be mentioned that this temple represents the very centre of the whole universe. In fact, the seat of the powerful Goddess Kamakshi represents the Bindhu or epicentre of the powerful Sri Chakra, which in turn is a depiction of the unity between the microcosm and macrocosm in the universe.

Since I had visited this temple fairly recently and due to time constraints, we did not venture inside.

The Varadaraja Perumal Koil that we visited next is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Built by the Cholas in 1053 A.D., this temple is breathtakingly beautiful with myriads of beautiful sculptures, a hundred pillar hall , as well as frescoes. There is also a marriage hall where the celestial wedding of Lord Vishnu and his consort took place. Hence worshipping the Lord here is supposed to bring good luck, wealth and fortune!

A special note worthy feature at this temple are frescoes of lizards; particularly those carved on the very top of the temple tower and plated in gold and silver. Touching these lizards is believed to cure people of the evil effects that might ensue if one accidentally falls on them!

After a quick lunch in Kancheepuram, we headed off in the direction of Pondicherry.

Enroute we visited a famous Kali Temple called Vakkara Kali Temple.

Situated in a village called Thiruvakkarai, this is actually a Shiva temple built in the 12th Century and the stunning frescoes reflect the art of both the Chola as well as Pallava period. There are also some sculptures inside this temple that indicate more antiquity and perhaps Indo- Greek influences.

The main deity is Sri Chandrasekarar and his consort is the beautifully formed mother- Vadivambigai.

However, the centre of attraction in this temple is the shrine of a very powerful potent Kali. This is a marvelous sculpture of an angry goddess with 8 arms, standing in a curiously tilted posture. The legend goes that Kali or Parvathi vanquished a demon by the name Vakkrasura and hence the title Vakkara Kali.

The staue of KALI is adorned with a crown with a skull mounted on the top of it, surrounded by an arc of flames. In her right ear, she sports a Pretha Kundalam or ear ornmament of a dead body and in her 4 right arms carries weapons like a rope, knife, sword and wheel. In the 4 left hands are a shield, a drum, and a human skull. One of the hands is stretched downwards with the index finger pointing to the ground.

Worn like a sacredd thread on her left shoulder is a garland of vanquished human skulls.

The awe inspiring image of Vakkara Kali is one I shall remember for a long time.

It is common belief that people who worship her here get significant relief from mental worries and stress!

We were soon on our way to Pondicherry . This elegant city has a unique charm , a remnant of the 300 year old French rule over this Union Territory. While the Aurobindo Ashram is the most important tourist stop in this city, we headed first to a temple housing Lord Ganesh called Manakula Vinayaka Temple.

Built over 300 years ago, this temple is small and attractive with lots of interesting sculptures and paintings on the inner temple walls depicting the various forms of Lord Ganesha as well as stories and legends associated with him. The stone sculpture of Lord Vinayaka in the main sanctum was adorned with fragrant flowers and garlands and just as we walked in there was a truly memorable spectacle of the evening arathi taking place.

Having prayed whole heartedly to the elephant- headed God, we headed to a nearby hotel to take a well deserved rest.

Early on the morning of the following day, we set off for the famous Shiva temple at Chidambaram.

This temple is perhaps one of the largest and grandest temple complexes I have ever seen. Sprawling over 40 acres and boasting four immense gopurams or intricately carved towers located in the respective cardinal directions, Chidambaram is the most celebrated and ancient temple in South India.

The temple itself dates back to the early 500 A.D. However, the development and growth of various portions of the temple have been attributed to the rulers of the Chola. Pandya and Vijayanagaram dynasty, all of whom contributed benevolently. The result is seen and enjoyed in the outpouring of sheer poetry/ art/ skill as exhibited in the frescoes and sculptures adorning the many terraces , soaring towers, pillars and inner chambers.

Here, in Chidambaram Lord Shiva reminds us of his existence in three different forms. In the inner sanctum He performs his great cosmic dance of bliss ( Ananda Tandavam), with his consort Sivakami at his side. He is clearly personified and with an enchanting Form.

He is also worshipped in the adjacent hall in the form of a Spatika ( crystal) Linga, i.e. in a phallic form; as well as Ratna Sababathy- a ruby Linga. These lingas are extremely old and it is generally accepted that they have been gifted to the temple by Aadi Shankara.

Finally, directly to the right of the dancing Lord in the inner sanctum is an empty space in front of which is suspended a curtain of golden bilva leaves. This depicts the famous Chidambara Rashasyam, i.e. God exists in empty Space or in nothingness. Therefore, here HE resides in his Formless- Form.

The hall where the main sanctum is housed is called the Chit Sabha; the adjoining hall where pujas are conducted is named the Kanaka Sabha. The whole structure housing these two sabhas is slightly raised and is made entirely of wood. The roof is made up of 17, 500 small, interlocking gold tiles and representing the number of breaths an average human being takes each day!

The other halls ( sabhas) in Chidambaram are: the Nritta Sabha- richly sculptured and in the form of a chariot; the Deva Sabha- which houses the festival images of the main Murthis; and the famous the Raja Sabha- featuring the 1,000 pillared hall.

We walked around the temple for several hours soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the fabulous architecture. In the Nritta Sabha images seemed to compete with each other to gain space on the many intricately carved pillars. Here Shiva can be seen in his Urdhva Tandava pose- i.e. where he raises his leg straight up into the air , above his head. Apparently, there was a dance competition between Lord Shiva and Parvathi ( Kali) in this dancing hall and the latter had to ultimately accept defeat after Shiva performed his Urdhva Tandava. A Kali temple, located on the outskirts of Chidambaram marks the spot where she retreated after the defeat in the dance competition.

Our tour around the temple was made more interesting by a temple priest who seemed to be a fount of knowledge. Entertained by his insightful rendering of temple lore, we paid our respects to the massive statue of Lord Ganesh and Subramania. In the outermost prakara ( precinct) of the temple is the shrine dedicated to AMMAN. Here, dancers and musicians frozen in stone seemed to welcome us inside. I marveled at the friezes on the ceiling, dating back to the Nayaka period, depicting the legends and stories associated with the temple .

Definitely, Chidambaram weaves a magic spell on the visitors. Not only is there so much that is visually fascinating, but there is an intangible , mystical element that fulfils the innermost needs of the senses!

After all, it was in Chidambaram that all the four Shaivite Saints- Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manikkavachagar have sung their famous hymns ; here, a great saint, Nanadanar attained salvation; also, it was in Chidambaram that Lord Adi Sesha ( serpent lord), came down to earth in the form of the saint- Patanjali to witness the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva. Another great saint Vyagrapadha , the one who was granted tiger –like feet by Lord Shiva so he could climb trees and pluck rare and beautiful flowers for His worship, also accompanied Patanjali to glimpse this wonderful dance spectacle! Lord Vishnu was also present to witness this Cosmic dance and continues to bless devotees, reclining on his serpent bed even today.

The Vishnu sanctum faces east and Lord Nataraja in the main shrine is south- facing.

Consequently, there is a certain spot in the temple where one can stand and simultaneously get a darshan of both Lord Nataraja in his sanctum as well as Lord Vishnu .

As we reluctantly left Chidamnbaram, and bade farewell to the priest who had helped us, he turned around to me and said something that immediately struck me as very strange. The priest said “ I am assuming you are on your way to see Abirami Amman at Tirukkadaiyur?”.

Now, until that moment neither my friend nor I had discussed our specific itinery for the day or where we were headed to next. Since our car driver seemed incredibly efficient we had actually allowed him to take charge of taking us to some of the important temples in the area. In fact, since I had already made a journey to the Abirami temple earlier in the year with my daughter, I was not really planning on making a repeat visit on this trip. Instead, I figured there were many other ancient temples in the area that were worthy of a visit.

So, the priest’s words to me that morning, standing inside the sanctum of Lord Shiva, seemed strangely like a command invitation.

We said our farewell and as we walked towards the car my friend, also remarked about the sudden and abrupt nature with which that order had been made.

I was still not sure whether we would have time to visit Tirukkadaiyur, so we left the topic and moved on.

We departed from Chidambaram following a visit to the Thillai Kali temple situated nearby.

As it was the festival season of Navarathri, the temple was very crowded, but we were able see the powerful Kali. Dressed all in white and with blood- red kumkum splashed all over her, this deity looked fierce with her spear in hand! For a moment, I recalled the verses in Devi Mahatmyam which propitiate her as the vanquisher of the demon Mahishasura!

Located in the same temple, but facing the direction opposite to that of Kali is another Durga, but she is in her peaceful disposition here.

We proceeded swiftly onwards to our next temple- stop, Sirgazhi.

By the time we reached the temple, it was already coming on to midday and this meant that the temple would be closing soon. My friend and I walked fast on the hot stone pavement surrounding the temple courtyard so we could get inside the main sanctum on time. That was when we encountered a very strange man!

As we rushed past the temple tank, I was hailed by a very loud voice . An old man dressed in the fashion of a Siva Thondar ( devotee of Siva), wearing colossal rudraksha beads around his neck, called out loudly “ Why are you running? The temple hasn’t closed as yet. You look like the Goddess Parvathi herself; please come here I have to tell you something”.

My friend and I looked at each other. Apart from the obvious flattery, we did think this man might be a bit mad; but then to ignore him might be considered rude. So we went up towards him.

The old man put up his hands to shield his eyes from the midday sun. Then , looking directly at me, said “ Did you think I was mad? No, indeed—There, do you see that little dent on the wall of the temple? That was where the saint Thirugnana Sambandar’s father flung the cup containing the milk of wisdom in anger, without realising that it was indeed Goddess Parvati who came down to feed the wailing, young child- saint. “

I glanced at the spot he indicated. There in the wall was an indentation, the size of a large cup.

The man continued “ You have finished doing all the pariharams that have caused you suffering in this life thus far. Your life will definitely take a turn for the better from now on—you will see. You had the problem of anger- control in your last birth. This will get over in this birth. Carry on with your journey with good fortune. “

I was stunned hearing these words from a perfect stranger.

He had illustrated his point with the perfect example as well!

The father of the child- saint Sambandar had flung the cup in anger! The story goes that the father , a devout worshipper of Lord Shiva had been doing his morning rituals when his little son who was seated nearby started crying out in hunger. Since the father was busy, GODDESS Parvathi herself came down to offer the Milk of Wisdom to the child who later became the most famous of Shaivaite saints- Thiru Gnana Sambandar.

As I still reeled in amazement, the old man turned towards my friend and told her certain past events which happened to be true. He also suggested certain remedies ( pariharams), to rectify these obstacles which were causing her a great deal of current problems.

As we were departing, the old man said as an after thought directly to me “ Don’t forget to go to Abirami Amman Koil at thirukkadaiyur”.

That command again! I thought to myself as we hurried inside.

Lord Shiva is worshipped at Sirgazhi in three different forms and under three different names.

The legend goes that during the great deluge or pralaya when the whole world was submerged under water, Lord Shiva and his consort Parvathi assumed human form and sailed on a raft ( Thoni), carrying with them all the important vedas and knowledge pertaining to the 64 arts and sciences. Here, at Sirgazhi, the waters abated their anger and the raft floated peacefully into this serene abode.

The temple itself is built on three levels. At the lower level, Lord Shiva is his form as a linga worshipped by lord Brahma. He is called Brahmapureeshwarar.

On the second level reached by climbing a short flight of stairs inside the temple, there is the second form of Shiva in a human form as the Lord Thoniappar or Lord Periyanayakar along with his consort Periyanayaki. The idols of Shiva and Parvathi are immense and amazingly life- like.

After paying our respects to this second image of Shiva, we climbed yet another steeper flight of stairs to reach the third and highest level of the temple. Here, Lord Shiva is resplendent in his Sangamam Moortham or form as Sattainathar or Bhairavar.

The story goes that Lord Shiva assumed this form to quell the arrogance of Vishnu after the latter’s incarnation as Trivikrama or ruler of the three worlds. Lord Shiva defeats the “ego” of Vishnu and wears his flesh as a “ Sattai” or shirt!

Much as I was fascinated by the history and legend surrounding this temple, we had to move on swiftly to see another great Shiva temple nearby- Vaitheeswaran Koil. We were hoping that the temple would not be closed for lunch time.

As it turned out, the temple had extended its afternoon hours that day and we were indeed lucky to get a good darshan here as well.

LORD Shiva is worshipped as the Divine Physician at Vaitheeswaran Koil. It is said that Lord Angaraka ( one of the Navagrahas- Mars) got cured of his ailment after praying to Shiva at this temple. The consort of Lord Shiva at this temple is Baala or Thaiyalnayaki.

We first proceeded to the temple tank whose water’s are said to have curative powers. After dutifully sipping a few drops of this water, we proceeded to visit the main sanctum followed by the shrines of Lord Muruga known here as Selva Muthukumaraswamy. The sculpture of Lord Muruga is indeed a beautiful work of art and awe inspiring. The sandal paste smeared on his feet are also said to treat and cure diseases.

It was at Vaitheeswaram that Lord Muruga received his Vel from his mother.

We visited various other shrines in the temple complex, especially that of the navagrahas, particularly Lord Angarakan.

The importance of this temple stems from not only the legends and stories associated with it but also the fact that it is a heritage site and represents one of the masterpieces of temple architecture.

By the time we had finished our rather hasty tour of this temple it was time for a late lunch stop at Mayavaram.

We decided that after a short rest, we could perhaps see a few more ancient temples en route to our night destination of a hotel near Swamimalai.

We requested our extremely knowledgeable chauffeur to plot the journey while we took a short break for lunch.

Having refreshed ourselves a bit, we started off around 4 p.m. The driver informed us that he would take us first to Tirukkadaiyur.

I looked at him perplexed. “ I had not really intended visiting this temple”, I said. “I have already been there before. Perhaps we can see some other temple on the way, instead?”. However, the driver insisted that Tirukkadaiyur was directly on the way to our final destination. The choice was mine. I thought about the directives I had received at two different temples that morning by total strangers asking me to see Goddess Abirami. And here again, for no apparent reason, the driver is insisting on us visiting the same temple .

“All right”, I said “Let’s go to Thirukkadaiyur”.

Within a short time we were speeding off towards the temple. In the car, I explained to my friend the events that had happened on my last trip and the bad news we received while travelling there. Immediately she looked at me and said that she now understood why I had to go there again.

I looked at her questioningly. Apparently, since I had entered the temple after having received news of a death, the palan ( or fruit) of the visit would not accrue to me. So, I was being summoned here again!

It was late afternoon when we reached Tirukkadaiyur. We went into the main sanctum to pay our respects to Lord Shiva as Amritagateeshwarar as well as Kala Samharamurthy.

Just as the arathi was being shown to the awesome figure Lord Shiva crushing the Lord of Death under his left foot, there was a distinct and ominous roar of thunder!

Promptly, we moved on to the shrine of Abirami that is located just to the right hand side of the main sanctum.

The moment my friend and I stepped inside Goddess Abirami’s shrine, there was a power failure and all the electric lights in the temple went out.

I stood there in the gloom. There was utter silence inside the sanctum. Contrary to my earlier visit that year when I was jostled by teeming crowds, there was absolutely no one except us and the Goddess.

She glowed inside the inner sanctum lit by just the old oil lamps. I felt immediately transported to another time and age!

Slowly we walked up to the sanctum and made our way as close as possible. Today, it seemed to me that the Goddess was giving me a special darshan. There was an ethereal and indescribable look of beauty in her face and a smile on her lips. For a long time I stood there, eyes closed, thinking of nothing—just savouring the moment.

Finally, and reluctantly weleft the sanctum, still under the spell of this most powerful and potent Goddess.

We emerged into the late afternoon daylight. However, just as we stepped into the car and were about to set off, the heavens opened and it started to pour with rain. It was almost as if the Goddess had decided to rain down her blessings to us on cue!

Following this amazing experience we drove through the sheeting rain towards a town called Ananthamangalam to visit a famous Anjaneyar Temple there.

An ancient temple dating back thousands of years, Lord Anjaneya is depicted here as “ Thri Nethra Dasa Bhuja Veera Anjaneyar”.

The legend goes that Lord Rama and his wife Sita were returning to Ayodhya after the victory over Ravana. While they were passing this particular spot, Naradha Muni informs Rama of impending danger in the form of two demons who were from Ravana’s family and had not been killed in the great battle. These two asuras had undergone severe penance and were seeking revenge for the killing of their family by Rama.

Immediately, Lord Anjaneya offers to fight these asuras in order to allow Lord Rama carry on his journey un interrupted. Considering the fact that his brother Bharathan would commit suicide if Rama did not make himself present at the given time in Ayodhya, Lord Rama reluctantly agrees to allow Anjaneya to fight the battle with the demons and gives Anjaneya his bow, arrows and a weapon (Navaneetham) to help him in his fight.

Similarly, other Gods give various weapons/ powers to enable Anjaneya to vanquish the two demons.

Lord Shiva gives his third eye and Trishul; Lord Vishnu gives his conch and chakra as well as a weapon called Mattaksham; Brahma donates his Ankusha; Parvathi, her whip; Lakshmi her lotus and Garudan, his wings.

Armed with all his weapons in his ten hands and the third eye resplendent on his forehead, Anjaneya leaps forward with a quiverful of arrows strapped on his back.

This is the powerful image we could perceive in this ancient temple. The power and presence of Lord Anjaneya is unmistakable.

We carried on our journey despite the heavy downpour towards a famous Navagraha temple nearby. The temple at Tirunallar dates back to the Chola period, about 12th Century A.D . Here, both Lord Shiva as well as Saturn, Lord Sani are worshipped. It is generally brelieved that those who are experiencing difficulties and obstacles in life due to the malefic glance of Lord Sani will obtain relief by propitiating Saturn at this temple and by taking a dip in the temple tank called Nala Tirtham.

According to the legend, King Nala, who was undergoing trials and ordeals in life due to the unfavourable aspect of Sani, found relief by worshipping the Lord here.

At Tirunallar, Lord Shiva is called Darbaranyeshwarar/ Adi Pureeswarar/ Naleeswarar.

Darba refers to a special variety of grass used for most hindu rituals. The Shiva Lingam was found as a self- made or Swayambu Lingam in the middle of a dense forest of darba grass; hence the Lord’s name here is Darbaranyeshwarar.

This ancient temple is also famous as one of the Sapta Vitanka Stalams generally associated with the king Mutchukunda Chola who propitiated Lord Shiva in the form of an unique idol called Thiagarajar.

The story goes that Lord Vishnu worshipped Shiva and then gave this distinctive idol to Indra. This was called a Somaskanda Image and has images of the divine couple, Lord shiva,his consort Parvathi, with little Skanda or Murugan, their son, seated betwixt them. Indra had 6 other images made exactly like the original. The image at Tiruvarur temple is the foremost of the SomaSkanda icons. However, it was here , at Tiruvarur, that Lord Indra wished to test the King Mucukunda Cholan by asking him to pick the original from the duplicate copies. When the King did indeed pick out the correct image, Indra was pleased and gave him all the seven as a gift.

The temples where these Somaskanda images called Thiagarajar , are installed came to be called the Sapta Vitanka Stalams.

At Thirunallar, there are two separate sanctums for Lord Shiva both in his form as the lingam, and also as Lord Thiagarajar along with his consort Pranambigai.

Of course, it is Lord Saneeswara who is the main attraction for hordes of pilgrims coming in to Tirunallar.

Lord Sani influences a person’s financial status and is therefore considered extremely important. Here, at Tirunallar, Lord Saturn is in a very mellow and benevolent mood and raises his hand in a gesture of protection to his devotees.

Surrounded by thousands of ghee or oil lit lamps, Lord Saneeswara seemed to send his silent blessings to us on that rain- swept day!

The last temple we visited that evening was the Lalithambigai Temple at Tirumeeyachur.

The evening was well advanced by the time we reached this ancient temple dating back to the Chola period. It was still raining, incesantly and the thunder clouds appeared dense and thick in the sky.

We hurried inside the main sanctum to worship Lord Shiva appropriately named, as Meghanathar. The stor goes that Surya worshipped Shiva as Gajaruda i.e. seated on an elephant , among dense clouds, hence the name.

The Shrine of Lord Shiva’s consort Lalithambikai is a separate one to the right of the main temple. Beautiful sculptures and frescoes from the Chola period provide a feast to the eyes.

However, when we entered the inner sanctum of the Goddess, there was almost no one there except for a solitary singer. We were greeted by some of the most soul- stirring verses of the Abirami Andhadi. It was as if the goddess was welcoming me back again and again!

Lalthambigai gives darshan to her devotees at this temple seated regally on her throne, right leg folded over and the left leg dangling down gently. An immense Sri Chakra is at her feet.

The priest at the temple told us an interesting story about the manifestation of the Goddess’s power in recent times.

Apparently, Lalithambikkai appeared in the dream of one of her ardent devotees, a young lady in Bangalore and requested a pair of anklets to be placed on her staue in this temple.

However, the priests at the temple said this would not be possible as there was no provision in the sculpture to accommodate a pair of anklets.

However, the lady from Bangalore persisted and upon close inspection a tiny hole was found in the left leg near the ankle that would permit this ornament to be fastened on.

Standing there in the gathering night, eyes closed and listening to the melliflous rendering of the Goddess’s hymns , I was quickly transported into a totally different world where huge circles of light seemed to glow brightly in rapid succession and disappear into a vortex of blinding flames.

It was with great difficulty that I came back to reality. We left this most beautiful temple and made our way to the hotel where we were to take rest that night.

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