Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Spiritual Diary: Chapter 24, continued

On the third day of our pilgrimage, we started off with a visit to the great Lord Skanda at Swamimalai.

This was , for me, the second visit to this shrine of the great Swaminatha Swami.

Perched on the top of a small hill, a steep flight of steps lead up to the Sanctum. It was in Swamimalai that lord Muruga taught his father, Shiva the meaning of the PranavaMantra OM- This temple has been gloried by a number of poets and saints , especially by Nakkirar in his work Tirumurugarrupadai.

In fact, the inner walls of the temple have been inscribed with a lot of slokas and mantras in praise of Lord Skanda.

However, nothing can prepare you for the assault on the senses of this colossal statue of Karthikeya standing in solitary splendour on the top of this hill. This is after all one of the 6 holy abodes for Muruga and it is here that he seems to take a moment’s rest before gearing up for battling with the demon asura Surapadman!

Just as we entered the inner sanctum, the abhishekam of this glorious Lord commenced. It was as though He had been awaiting our arrival.

I Sincerely thanked Baala from the depths of my heart for providing me with such a wonderful darshan in every temple I had been visiting thus far.

From Swmamimalai, we proceeded to a very interesting temple for Lord Ganesha nearby , called Thiruvalanchuzi. It is also called the Vellai Vinayakar Koil or white Ganesha. There is an interesting story regarding this little white Pillayar made out of white Foam!

During the time that Asuras and Devas were churning the oceans in order to get the immortal nectar or Ambrosia, it appeared that they had forgotten to pray to Ganapathi at the outset. Hence, the ocean started spilling out all the poison, instead. Therefore the Devas and Asuras fashioned a little figure of Lord Ganesh out of the foamy waves and this image was brought down to earth by Indra.

The small white figure of the elephant God has the trunk turned towards the right ( valamchuzi) indicating spirituality. As we walked around the main sanctum, we noticed a beautiful fret- work window carved out of stone positioned on the wall directly behind the central deity. The dexterity and skill of stone work was amazing.

There are shrines for Lord Shiva and his consort at this temple as well. Shiva is known here as Kapardeeshar and his consort- Periyanayagi Ambal.

A feeling of total and utter peace prevailed in this temple as we visited all the shrines. The land surrounding the temple is dotted with scores of coconut trees providing a serene, slyvan atmosphere. After a heart felt pray to Pillayar to remove all obstacles in my path towards self- realisation, we left the temple and proceeded on our journey.

The third temple we visited that morning was the famous DURGA temple at Patteeswaram.

The moment our car drew up at the temple and stopped, I began to feel a curious vibration all over my body. As we started walking towards the temple past the array of flower and coconut vendors, I said aloud “The shrine of Durga will be directly in front”. I had been here before!

And there She was, a majestic, towering figure of the mother goddess armed with weapons, vanquishing the demon, Mahishasura under her feet.

The feeling I had visited this temple before was indeed very strong. I felt the power of the great goddess almost immediately on that Friday morning.

I waited until the arathi was over and then went up to the temple priest. I don’t know what prompted me, but I asked him if there was any connection between this Durga and my Guru, Shri Santhananda Swamigal.

His answer proved that my instincts had been right. “Why, amma”, he said “When your Guru wanted to construct the new temple at Skandashramam in Salem and wished to install the idol of Ashta Dasa Bhuja Mahalakshmi way back in the early 1970’s, he did not get the divine command to do so. It was only after propitiating this Durga that he obtained the authority to start work on the sculpture of the 18- armed Durga at Salem”.

I realised then that it was indeed my Guru’s grace that had brought me this far on my spiritual path and made me embark on this pilgrimage. Of this there could be no doubt.

This ancient temple dates back to the Chola period. Durga was the guardian deity for the Chola kings who used to worship her before going on to the battle field. However, it is believed that one of the CHOLA kings moved the shrine for this deity from the entrance to the temple , where she was a guardian, and installed her directly inside the


It was at Patteeswaram that Goddess Paravati is supposed to have done penance to obtain the darshan of her Lord. It was here that the celestial cow, Kamadhenu’s daughter, Patti, also worshipped Shiva by pouring milk over the Linga. Hence, the SPOT WHERE THE TEMPLE IS LOCATED CAME TO CALLED Patteeswaram.

Another famous legend associated with this temple is that Lord Rama also prayed to Shiva here to get rid of his sin for killing the monkey, Vaali.

In addition, it was at Patteswaram that Lord Shiva as Dhenupureeswarar, is said to have blessed his ardent devotee Thiru Gnana Sambadar with an umbrella fashioned from pearls. He requested his Ganas to hold it aloft over the child- saint’s head when the latter came to worship Shiva at Patteeswaram on a scorching hot day.

In fact, it is believed that Lord Shiva was so eager to see the child- saint walking towards him that he ordered the bull, Nandi to move his position from right in front of him, so he could have a better view.

Patteeswaram temple reflects the beautiful art of the CHOLA PERIOD, Nayaka period and some of the paintings on the walls and ceilings of the temple also reflect the workmanship of the artists under Maratha rulers.

We soaked up the atmosphere of this ancient and very powerful temple before setting off towards Darasuram.

The famous Airawateeshwarar temple at Darasuram is a world heritage sight. It was built by the Chloa king , Raja Raja Cholan 2, with improvements and extensions carried out by the subsequent Nayaka kings.

There is a lovely, intricately carved vimana and the hall surrounding thesanctum is built at a height and shaped like a chariot with wheels on one side and elephants and carved horses on the other side.

The pillars supporting the vimana and hall contain some of the most exquisite pieces of sculpture dating back 1000 of years ago. They capture scenes from mythology as well as depict scenes or snapshots of what society was like during this by gone era.

Men, women, dancers, entertainers, acrobats, jugglers, animals and birds, all fight for space on the massive pillars!

Lord Shiva is called Airawateeshwara here since it was Indra’s elephant Airawata who had worshipped Shiva at this spot.

The consort is called Periya Nayaki.

We spent an hour despite the blazing heat of the midday sun, viewing the beautiful stone sculptures. There was just so much to see and appreciate here,. However, there was one more famous Shiva temple nearby that we wanted to visit before lunch time.

We proceeded directly to the ancient and powerful temple at Nallur.

The Shiva temple at Nalloor, is perhaps less well known in comparison to the heritage monuments like at Darasuram. Nevertheless it is an extremely potent and powerful abode of the Lord. Built during the reign of the Cholas, the main temple sits on a slightly raised mound. The towering gopuram at the entrance is richly carved and decorated with sculptural gems. We reached this temple just after mid- day and found to our surprise that it was still open.

As we approached the main shrine, we spotted a family group performing puja at one of the sanctums situated to left of it. Upon closer inspection, we found out that this was the seat of a powerful Kali or Durga , and that some family members were celebrating the 80th birthday of their father in Her presence. The 80th birthday function , called Sathabhishekam is considered auspicious in India, since the elderly parents are regarded , on this day, as the veritable incarnation of lord Shiva and Parvathi.

Having obtained the blessings of this elderly couple, we proceeded inside the main shrine.

A short flight of stairs led up to the entrance of the main sanctum. We stepped inside what seemed to be a spacious ante chamber directly in front of the sanctum sanctorum. In the inner sanctum, Lord Shiva gives his blessings in the form of Kalyanasundareshwarar along with his consort, Parvathi. These huge sculptures seem to have been carved out of the rock wall directly behind an unique lingam that is believed to manifest itself in five different colors during the day.

The priest explained to us that this temple was quite famous due to its association with several legends.

It was here that Sage Agastya was blessed with a vision of the wedding scene of Lord Shiva and Parvathi; it was here that a piece of the famous Mount Meru fell and became a swayambu Lingam.

In fact, coming to Nallur is regarded as the equivalent of making a trip to Mount Kailash. Such is the power of the Lord in this temple that he grants boons quickly to his devotees. Here, young unmarried girls pray to Shiva as Kalyana Sundarar, hoping to find a suitable husband soon.

The atmosphere in the ante- chamber seemed to be charged with a tangible force. The priest informed us that this spot was indeed a great place to do meditation, and that prayers offered here would be a 100 times more powerful than at any other temple or holy location!

The self- manifested Lingam is also said to possess rare powers as well. Made of a natural substance that has defied scientific discovery, this fascinating image seems to glow in five different hues at various times in the day. When we entered the sanctum, there was a golden glow to the Lingam. Just as we left the temple, an hour or so later, a coppery glint could be seen on the upper part of the Lingam, while the base was turning to an earthy shade of green and brown.

After a small break for lunch our temple tour on the third day , carried on in the early afternoon.

The first stop was at the massive and ancient temple dedicated to Shiva at Thiruvidaimarudur. With its lofty towers and vast corridors, this temple is a masterpiece of Chola craftsmanship. It has featured prominently in hymns sung by the famous Shaivaite saints and many colorful legends are associated with this temple.

For example a famous ruler called Varaguna Pandian’s horse accidentally crushed a brahmin and killed him. The King was afflicted with “ Brahma Hathi” dosha, or the sin accruing from killing a brahmin. The story goes that when the king entered the great temple at Thiruvidaimarudur, the Brahma Hathi could not follow him inside and was left waiting outside the south entrance to the temple, while the king exited the temple using another passage leading outside.

So, to this day pilgrims who enter the temple from the south entrance , avoid returning through the same path while exiting the tempe, lest the brahma hathi attaches himself on to them.

In this temple, the presiding deity is Mahalingeswarar and his consort is Bruhat Sundara Kuchambal.The words, Maha, Bruhat- all denote imensity in size. There is an enormous Nandi directly facing Mahalingeshwarar.

Being a Shakthi peet as well, there is a separate shrine to Parvati enshrined as goddess Mookambikai.

We wandered through this enormous temple complex admiring several architectural splendors and sculptures; of particular interest was a lovely lamp made out of brass in the form of a maiden- a Paavai villaku, dating back several centuries.

The next temple we visited was the famous Suryanar Temple. Lord Surya is considered the most powerful and exalted among all the nine planets in the zodiac. After all without the life- giving energy of the sun, life on this planet would be impossible.

Hence, this temple is dedicated to Lord Surya who blesses all his devotees with health, success and prosperity.

Built by Kulothunga Cholan in 1100 A.D., this is perhaps the only temple in the South where separate shrines also exist for all the other 8 planets as well.

Lord Shiva is also propitiated here as Kasi Viswanathar and his consort is Visalakshi Amman.

We started off our visit to this temple by first worshipping the Pillayar. Next, we paid our respects to Lord Shiva and then entered the main shrine where Lord Surya resides majestically along with his two consorts, Usha and Pratyusha.

All the remaining planets have their separate sanctums and these are situated in a circle surrounding the main shrine. We did a circumambulation and visited all these shrines.

Finally, after a repeat visit to the Pillayar and a fervent prayer that he, along with all the rulers of the planetary system should remove obstacles from the path of life, we left .

Continuing on our pilgrimage, we visited yet another monument built during the Chola period, the Kampahareswarar temple at TRIBHUVANAM.. This temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is an outstanding example of the artistry and architectural splendor of that period. Shaped like a chariot, the temple halls, pillars and courtyard abound in myriads of sculptures and panels depicting scenes from various puranas like the Ramayanam. There are innumerable dance poses from Natya Shastra, carved on the walls as well depictions of various mythical animals.

Of particular interest is a shrine dedicated to a mythical half- lion, half- bird figure called Lord Sarabeshwara. An aspect of Lord Shiva, Sarabeshwara was born from the former’s third eye inorder to quell the anger of Lord Vishnu after he had killed the demon Hiranyakasipu ( during his avatar as Lord Narasimha).

The Navagraha Stalam for Raaghu, Thirunageeswaram , was our next stop.

In hindu mythology, Rahu is a snake who devours the sun and moon thus causing the phenomena of eclipses.

The Rahu temple at Tirunageswaram dates back to te Chola period although Nayaka Kings have also contributed towards restorations and extensions.

This temple is principally famous for the shrine of Rahu and it is generally believed that a milk abhisekam to the Lord here can cure people afflicted by the negative influence of this planet.( A curious feature of this milk abhishekam is that the milk turns blue as it washes over the deity!).

However, this temple is also famous for various other reasons. It was here that Lord Shiva as Nageshwara or Naganathaswamy, was worshipped by the serpent gods- Adi Seshan, Dakshan and Karkotakan. It was at Thiru Nageshwaram that Parvathi did penance to the Lord and was blessed by the vision of Ardhanareeshwara.

We paid our respects to this Lord and carried on our pilgrimage.

The next stop was the Oppiliappan Koil very close to the Rahu Temple.

This ancient temple for Lord Vishnu is considered just as important as Tirupathi for a lot of Vaishnavaites. Here, the Lord Uppilappan or Tiruvinnagarathan as he is called is said to be the elder brother of Lord Srinivasa at Tirumala.

The story goes that Sage Markandeya worshipped Vishnu here. Such a devout bhaktha was he that Goddess Lakshmi came to be his daughter. One day, Markandeya found a baby girl under a tree and brought her up as his own daughter. The years sped by and one day Lord Vishnu came down to earth in the guise of an old man and requested Sage Markandeya for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Shocked by this request, Markandeya tried to find a plausible excuse and said that his daughter might be too young for him; might not be so well versed with carrying out household tasks like cooking and indeed might even forget to add salt in the food.

At this point, Lord Vishnu revealed his true form and vowed never to take salt ( uppu) with his food after his marriage. Hence , the name Uppiliappan. We were imnformed that the prasadams at this temple are salt- free! Another explanation for the Lord’s curious name at this temple is that it literally means there is no one equal to his stature. He is in fact “Oppillaa Appan”.

The lord stands majestically in the central shrine with Bhooma Devi at his side extending his blessings to devotees who seek refuge at his feet, while Markandeya looks on as if he is just giving his daughter away in marriage. The beautiful setting of these three images in the sanctum was truly inspiring and lingered in my mind as we headed for our next destination.

It was already quite late in the evening as we entered the Aadhistanam containing the sacred Samadhi of Bodhendrar , located in a small hamlet called Govindapuram.

I was already quite tired that evening due to the long car journey and therefore it was only reluctantly, and in order to satisfy the insistence of my friend that I stepped inside what seemed like a huge mandap. There were many pictures adorning the walls of the huge hall inside, all relating to Lord Krishna and Lord Rama.

We walked through the hall and entered a smaller, quieter room. In the middle of this room was the tomb ( jiva samadhi) of the Saint Bodhendrar.

The legend goes that Bhagavan Naama Bodhendra Swamigal was the 59th pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peettam. He propogated Raama Naama Japam as the easiest way for most people in this Kali Yuga to obtain salvation.

It is widely believed that there were three important Gurus who devoted their lives to popularising Bhajans and Nama Sankirtans among the masses. These were : Bodhendra Swamigal, Shreedhara Iyavval, a contemporary of Bodhendra and a Shaivaite; and Marudaanallur Sri Sadguru Swamigal, said to be an incarnation of Lord Raama.

It was Sri Sadguru Swamigal who is credited with having identified the location of the samadhi of Sri Bodhendra.

Tying his legs so that he should not even accidentally “stamp” the sacred spot of the Samadhi, Sri Swamigal rolled on the Cauveri river bed. At one location, he seemed to hear the soft chanting of “ Raama, Raama”. Realising through intuition that this was indeed the spot of the samadhi of Bodhendra, Sri Swamigal decided to build an ashram or Aadhistanam at the site.

However, Sri Sadguru Swamigal was a poor grihasta and lacked sufficient funds. Help was however, at hand. The ruling Maratta King Serfoji was an ardent Raama devotee and it was through his patronage that the existing Adhistanam was financed.

It is widely believed that even today, in the stillness of the night, an ardent bhaktha can hear the chanting of Rama Naama near the Samadhi.

I felt drawn like a magnet towards the simple shrine in the center of the room. Having circumambulated the sanctum 7 times, I chose a quiet corner of the room to sit down and meditate for a few moments. I was trying to understand the reason for my initial reluctance to enter this shrine and the larger purpose of pilgrimage to this spot.

I closed my eyes and mentally recited a Guru Stotram to my guru Sri Santhananda Swamigal.

After a short while, I opened my eyes and looked up.

There, right in my field of vision was a large , framed photo of my Guru’s Guru- Sri Sadasiva Brahmendrar!

I was totally surprised to see this particular photo here. It was as though my Guru had after all intended me to visit this holy and sacred spot and was reassuring me that He was there within me, constantly guiding and leading me forward on my spiritual path.

Overwhelmed and feeling slightly stupid that I should ever have doubted my guru’s intentions, I prostrated both Bodhendrar and my Guru’s Guru and a short while later we departed.

There was one more final halt that night, this time at the Panduranga Mandir near the Adistanam of Bodendhra where there is a shrine to Lord Vishnu in his form of Panduranga, along with his consort, Rukmini.

The Mandir turned out to be a large, airy hall with a breathtakingly beautiful shrine to Lord Panduranga. It looked as though he was awaiting our arrival that night, standing solemnly, hand on his hips similar to his famous counterpart at Pandharpur in Maharashtra.

The Mandir is currently being administered and run by the grandson of one of the most famous saints in the twentieth century- Sri Narayana Deekshitar, the brother of Sengalipuram Ananthrama Deekshitar. These two brothers, Anantharama Deekshitar and Narayana Deekshitar have left an indelible mark in the hearts of all true bhakthas of the 20th century by their discourses, and kirtans on Ramayana, Bhagavatam and Narayaneeyam.

This tradition is being carried on by Narayana Dikshitar’s grandson, Vittaldas Brahmashri Jayakrishna Deekshitar who is spreading Panduranga Bhakthi through Nama Samnkirthanam.

We headed bavck to our hotel, late that night feeling rejuvenated and uplifted after having visited all these wonderful and powerful places of worship.

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