Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Spiritual Diary: Chapter 26

October 1st, 2006 was Saraswathi Puja and provided an extremely auspicious start on the fifth day of our pilgrimage.

We started off with a visit to an ancient and little- known Navagraha temple in the village of Pallur, on the outskirts of Trichy . The unique and rare feature of this temple is that the nine planets, Navagrahas, appear on their mounts , with their respective consorts seated beside them and it is considered extremely auspicious to worship the navagrahas in this form or aspect.

The temple itself is a short detour from the main road leading out of Trichy in the direction of yet another famous shrine for Lord Vishnu at Gunaseelam.

Set amidst rice and sugarcane fields, Pallur Navagraha temple is an extremely old temple. When we visited it that morning, the temple was quiet and tranquil. An elderly priest had just come in to perform the morning rituals. We observed the abhishekam to all nine planets and prayed fervently that they should continue to bless us with good luck and spiritual strength.

Soon, we were off on our way to the Prasanna Venkatachalapathi temple at a place called Gunaseelam.

Sanctified by the Vaishnavaite saints called Nammazhwars in their hymns, the ancient temple at Gunaseelam is linked with a sage by the same name. Gunaseelar was an ardent bhaktha of Lord Venkatachalapathi and desired fervently to receive his darshan. It was here, at Gunaseelam that the Lord appeared in the form of a self-made or Swayambu Murthy called Prasanna Venkatachalapathi.

Gunaseelam is called the “Then” or South Tirupathi and those who cannot make a pilgrimage to the sacred seven hills of Tirumala, offer their prayers to this lord at Gunaseelam who is quick to grant boons.

The lord is seen in the inner sanctum in a standing pose similar to his famous counterpart at Tirupathi, decked with ornaments and with Sri Lakshmi residing in His chest. In his right hand, the Lord holds a sceptre which is supposed to drive away all kinds of mental afflictions and mental depression from people who pray devoutly to Him.

The influence of the Chola period is unmistakably present in this temple dating back over 5,000 years. The story goes that after the Sage Gunaseelar’s lifetime, the temple fell to ruin and was covered by termite mounds. King Gnana Verma, a Chola ruler was instructed by the Lord in a dream to reconstruct the temple at its present site.

We paid our respects to Lord Vishnu at this holy spot and carried on our journey.

The next stop was at Tiruvaasi, to re visit our family deity, Balambikkai.

It had been over four years since my first visit to this temple following the very powerful and vivid dream. As we walked into this ancient shrine on the penultimate day of Navaratri, I could not fail but to succumb to its mysterious charm. The resident priest of this Shiva Stala accompanied us to all the shrines within the temple complex starting with Lord Ganesha.

It was the first visit here for my friend and together both of us paid our respects to Lord Shiva in both his forms as a linga as well as the dancing Natarajar. Slowly we made our way to the powerful shrine of Balambigai.

The stone statue inside the inner sanctum seemed somehow a lot bigger than I remembered. I looked at Her for a long time and remembered the dream that had started me off in this spiritual quest in earnest in 2002.

I sat down for a while just in front of the inner sanctum, my eyes closed in meditation . As I got up to leave and neared the outer doorway of the Ambal sannidhi, I could not but help overhear the conversation between the priest and the man who had been our chaperone and tour guide for the trip so far. The priest was saying “ Oh, you do realise that this Goddess is very powerful. Why, so many of our patrons have requested us for a photograph of the main deity or at least a drawing or painting, but this lady is very stubborn. She has not given “uttiravu”- permission to any artist or photographer to take photos or make any portraits”.

The priest was just saying the last sentence when I happened to come near him. Instinctively, without thinking I said “ Oh, that’s a very curious feature. I like to paint religious deities. Do you think that this Amman would give me the permission to portray her in my art?”.

The priest seemed surprised and appeared a little reluctant. Perhaps he did not wish to offend me by giving a negative rresponse. So, instead I quickly filled him in on the details of my first visit and the events that had preceded it, i.e. my dream, and the fact that the left hand of the Goddeess had proven quite significant since it resembled that of an” old woman”.

The priest thought for a moment and then said “ Come inside. I will ask her permission if you can capture her in a painting”. So, once again I made my way to the inner sanctum directly in front of the goddess. The priest shuffled two scrunched up pieces of paper and threw them on the ground. He told me that one packet was filled with kumkum and the other- vibhuthi or holy ash. If I picked the one containing kumkum, then this was an indication that I was “given” permission.

I closed my eyes and prayed to my Guru. An instinct told me “ Pick up the packet near the left hand”.

I leaned over and picked up the paper packet lying near MY left hand – this was a mistake as the packet contained vibhoothi. The priest said I should try again since this must be a mistake. He shuffled the packets really well and threw them down. I thought to myself- “ Surely, the goddess could not have given me the wrong command”. Suddenly, the answer flashed across my mind—Of course, She had said- Pick the packet near Her left hand ( the significant hand of my vision), and NOT- as I had misconstrued, near MY left hand.

I leaned over again and this time picked up the packet that had fallen down in front of the gnarled, old, left hand of the Goddes.

There was kumkum inside this packet. The priest agreed that the Goddess had given permission.

As we left the temple that morning, I was both a bit exhilarated at the prospect of drawing Baala again , as well as a bit cautious. After all, I tried to reason to myself, there was always a 50%- 50% chance when you pick one event out of a total of two chances—

My friend was not so convinced by my mathematical explanation of probability,.

“ If you really didn’t get Her permission, you will never be able to draw her”.

Taking leave of this ancient temple we carried on our pilgrimage that morning with a visit to Uttamar Koil.

The Thirukkadambanaur Bhikshandar temple a.k.a Uthamar koil is of enormous significance as it is perhaps the only temple in India which houses the Trinity- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

The story goes that Lord Brahma worshipped Vishnu at this place. Pleased by his devotion, Vishnu decided to test his faith further by appearing in the form of a Kadamba tree. Although Brahma knew the real nature of the tree through divine insight, he carried on worshipping the tree and watered it. Vishnu was greatly delighted and decided to stay on in the same location alongside Brahma and his consort, Saraswathi or Gnana Saraswathi as she is called here.

Our visit to the shrine of this Goddess of Wisdom could not have occurred on a more appropriate day.

As it was Saraswathi puja on the day we visited this temple, the shrines for Dakshinamurthy as well as Saraswathi were thronged with students. However, we did manage to get a good darshan.

Lord Vishnu is called Purushottaman at this temple and his consort, Poornavalli Thaayar.

There is also another interesting story that explains Shiva’s presence at this temple.

Legend has it that Lord Shiva became jealous of Brahma and plucked off one of his heads in a fit of rage. However, the sin of killing a brahmin immediately attached itself to him and Lord Brahma’s head or kabalam, became attached to Shiva’s hand .

Lord Vishnu despairing at the sight of Shiva, requested his consort, Mahaalakshmi to help him .

Lakshmi gave biksha or alms to Shiva at this holy spot and when the Kabalam was filled with the Biksha, the curse on Shiva was lifted.

Hence, Shiva is worshipped as Bhikshandar at this temple and his consort is the appropriately named, beautiful, Soundarya Parvathi.

It was mid morning by the time we were finished at this temple and we swiftly proceeded on to the famous Akhilaandeshwari Temple in Trichy .

We realised that given the fact it was a public holiday and an auspicious day, the temple would be very crowded. It was!. But we were able to observe some of the most unique rituals at this temple as well as relish the interesting legends peculiar to this ancient place.

This temple owes its origin to a famous Chola King- ThiruChengann. Built over 3,000 years ago, the fascinating architectural splendour, massive pillars, airy courtyard, sculptures and friezes, all denote the power and glory of a by gone era when art ruled supreme-

This temple is regarded as one of the important places for worship of Shiva representing the natural element of water- Appu Stalam. Indeed, in the main sanctum where the linga is housed a subterranean current of water keeps the holy spot perennially damp.

Being a shakthi peetam as well, the power of the goddess is extremely potent and Adi Shankara is generally attributed to establishing two Sri chakras in the form of earrings inorder to reduce the “ugra” or fierce power of the Goddess.

The story of the temple at Tiruannaikaa—is a curious one.

Apparently thousands of years ago an elephant worshipped Lord Shiva in the midst of a grove of “Jambu”- rose-apple trees. Everyday the devout animal would bring in water from the nearby stream in its trunk and perform abhishekam; flowers and fruits would be plucked from nearby plants and trees and offered to the Lord.

While this was going on, a spider also competed to win the favour of the Lord. It built a vast web over the Linga to prevent leaves and dust falling on top of it.

The elephant angered by the presence of the spider tore up the web , while the spider intending to teach the elephant a lesson clambered into the trunk and scuttled all the way inside the elephant’s brain and bit it. The elephant died instantly and so did the spider caught up inextricably inside the body of the elephant.

However, since they both died in the service of the lord, both were rewarded. The elephant attained liberation and the spider was reborn as a famous Chola King who built over 60 temples for Shiva during his lifetime, including the massive structure at Tiruannaika.

A note worthy feature of the temples built by TiruChengann as the Chola ruler was called is that many of the temples were built on a mound and the doors of the temple were deliberately narrow so that no elephant could gain access.

In fact, I came to understand that the ancient Shiva temple at Nalloor ( with the five-color LINGA) was also the work of the same ruler. The temple at Nalloor is also built at a height and there are internal staircases and narrow doors leading into the sanctum inorder to prevent elephants from gaining entry.

When we arrived at the temple it was noon and time for the “Ucchi” kaala puja. A priest dressed in a saree darted out to perform puja to the cow waiting patiently outside. After this ritual was over, the priest hastened inside the main sanctum to perform the midday worship for the Lord Jambukeshwarar. The legend goes that Parvathi herself performs puja or worship to Lord Shiva at this holy spot and this tradition is meticulously maintained to the present day.

The main shrine for Ambal/ Akhilandeshwari was extremely crowded. However, we were able to wade through the sea of people and caught a quick glimpse of this most beautiful and benign goddess.

There is no doubt that the Akhilandeshwari temple is an outstanding example of art and architecture and it is also for the spritual energy that it exudes.

It was well past midday by the time we finished our visit to the Tiruannaika temple and proceeded to make a quick stop at the nearby Vekkali Amman temple.

There is a peculiar feature at this temple that is not seen anywhere else. The main deity, Vekkali is seated in a central sanctum that has no roof covering. The story goes that the place where the temple is situated (Woraiyur) was once a prominent city during the reign of the cholas which nearly got ruined due to a downpour of sand and dust. It was Kali or Durga in the form of Vekkali that protected the townfolk who had lost their houses during the sandstorm. So, until today, in memory of those who had lost the shelter over their heads, Vekkali seems to prefer sitting in a spot that is left open at the top.

We stepped inside the temple just as it was closing for midday. However, I did manage to get a good look at this very powerful and potent goddess.

It is widely believed that letters written to the deity and placed on her spear or at her feet will beget an immediate response!

After some lunch and a short rest, we decided to round off our temple visit for that day by going to two Murugan temples within a short distance from Trichy.

The first was a visit to the temple at Vayalur. Vayal means a field in tamil. The temple sits in magnificent splendour amidst the coconut groves and fields that surround Vayalur.

Dating back to the 9th century A.D.. this temple is a grand illustration of Chola artistry at work. Lord Muruga resides in the inner sanctum seated astride his peacock with his two consorts, Valli and Devayanai beside him. Lord Shiva was worshipped by Agni at this sytalam, hence his name is Agneeshwara. Parvati is the Aadi Nayaki or the original force!

At Viralimalai, Muruga is seated on the top of a hill. He has six faces as Shanmuganatha , twelve hands, eager to protect the world from Demons and his two consorts are standing near Him.

There was a bit of a stiff climb up the hill to reach this abode of Skanda, but it was well worth the effort.

The image of Skandan in the inner sanctum simply takes your breath away. Here lives and breathes the most handsome, youthful warrior God who awaits to bless His devotees.

We arrived in the gathering dusk just as the evening arathi was taking place. The three glorious faces of Skanda lit up with a jubilant smile as the flames from the camphor were shown in front of him; and yet again, they glowed, as the priest moved behind the image and showed the flame, lighting up the three faces at the back of this magnificent stone image! We could see the three faces at the back reflected in a huge mirror positioned directly behind the Moolavar.

A curious feature at this temple is the offering of cigars as Naivedyam to the Lord.

Apparently, Skanda appeared in the dream of one of the local rulers- Ramachandra Thondaiman of Pudukkottai and requested cigars as an offering. The king was believed to have been cured of his afflictions after this was carried out.

Yet another story details that an ardent Murugan devotee – Karuppu Muthu Piilai, used to visit Viralimalai every Friday. On one occasion, he was unable to complete this pilgrimage due to severe rain. Now, it so happened that this bhaktha was a chain- smoker as well. As Pillai was about to return, dejected from not being able to have a sight of his Lord, Skanda appeared before him and personally escorted the devotee to the temple where he received an unique darshan and also gave him the prasadam of a cigar!

We left this temple after savouring the vision of this beautiful Lord and basking in the glow of his bountiful blessings!

The following day was Vijayadasami- auspicious for all new ventures and beginnings.

We were to begin our pilgrimage with a visit to the Bhuvaneswari Temple at Pudukkottai established by my Guru- Santhananda Swamigal.

As we were driving up in the car, I was listening to the melodious chants of Durga SapthaSathi parayanam and hoping in my heart to be blessed with the grace of a Guru.

My Guru had passed on four years ago and I felt rather sad that He was no longer a living guide who could help me along my spiritual path!

We entered the temple and had a quick darshan of all the shrines. I sat down to meditate in front of the samadhi of Judge Swamigal ( my Guru’s parameshti Guru) and silently requested His blessings.

When I opened my eyes a short while later, a temple priest came up to me and said “ Would you like to meet the Peetadipathi Shri Omkarananda Swamigal?”

I was quite taken aback, since I had no idea that the current head of this Peetam was in residence at the temple that day!

It was as if my prayers had been answered. A Guru had been provided for me so I could obtain his blessings on this auspicious day.

I went inside the small room where Swamigal was seated and prostrated myself.

Swami Omkaranada remembered vividly his visit to my London home and we had a brief conversation. As I was about to leave, I requested him to bless me in my latest venture- the new painting of Balambigai I was given “ permission” to undertake.

Before leaving the temple, I sat down in front of the Sannidhi of Goddess Bhuvaneshwari, took out a small sheet of notepaper and did a very simple, sketch of her. I wanted to start off the day with the blessings of my Guru at His favorite temple and it seemed appropriate that the very first drawing my hand should execute was the mother herself!

Soon we were off again, this time heading in the direction of the famous Pillayarpatti Temple for Lord Ganesha! Enroute, however we had an opportunity to marvel at another temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu at a place called TiruMaiyam.

Nestling under the folds of huge rocky outcrop on which an impressive fortress sits, are two cave temples – one dedicated to Lord Vishnu as Satya Girinathar and another one dedicated to Lord Shiva as SatyaGireeshwarar.

We had time just to visit the Vishnu Temple. Built by the Pallava Kings, Mahendravarnan and Narasimha varman , this magnificent cave- temple features some of the most outstanding works of art.

In the main sanctum, Lord Vishnu is seen in a reclining posture. Cut directly from the rocky hillside, this stone image of the reclining Lord is immense in size- probably the largest in Tamil Nadu.

Lord Vishnu is flanked by a host of clestial deities like Garuda, ChitraGupta, the sage Markandeya, Brahma, Devas and rishis.

The legend goes that Asuras or demons tried to steal the image of Vishnu from this temple. Therefore, we see in the rock- cut scene in front of us, the mighty serpent, Adi Seshan chasing away the demons by spewing out fire and poison from his fangs!

The Thaayar here is Uyyavanda Naachiyar and there are also separate shrines for Andal. Krishna and Lakshmi Nrisimha.

After a hurried visit to this temple we proceeded directly to Pillayarpatti reaching there just before midday.

The huge image of Lord Ganesha was decked out in his Gold Kavacham on this holy day. It seemed to me He was waiting for us to come and receive His blessings!

We returned to the hotel in Trichy for a late lunch and after a short rest headed out to the huge temple complex at SriRangam.

Boasting the tallest temple tower in the whole of India, the Ranganathar Temple in Sri Rangam is the foremost of the 108 sacred shrines for Lord Vishnu glorified by the Vaishnavaite Saints.

The origins of the main deity in the Sanctum remain shrouded in myth. The legend goes that the actual shrine- Sri Ranga Vimana sprung from the depths of the ocean- parkadal- as a result of Brahma’s penance. The Sri Ranga Vimana arose from the ocean borne aloft by Garuda with Adi Sesha spreading his hood over the idol and was taken to Ayodhya where it was worshipped by the dynasty of Surya Vamsa ( Ikshvaakus). As the story unravels, after the coronation of Lord Rama following his victory over the demon Ravana, Vibhisana was given this magnificent image of Lord Vishnu by Rama.

Vibhishana intended to take the idol back to Sri Lanka. However, on his way, he stopped at Sri Rangam and placed the idol on the ground where it remained stuck!

The disconsolate Vibhisana is supposed to travel every day and offer his prayers to the Lord in Sri Rangam, at mid-night!

It is said that Lord Vishnu assured Vibishana that he would assume the yoga- nidra posture at Sri Rangam and lie facing south—towards, Sri Lanka.

The temple clearly dates back thousands of years and parts of the temple complex were constructed during the early Chola period . Following the Muslim rule in India when the temple was sacked, the Vijayanagaram rulers ( 10th- 12th century) were responsible for a lot of restoration work while the Nayaka rulers of the 16th- 17th century made the temple certainly more prosperous.

We marveled at this huge temple complex that is enormous in size. There are 7 prakaras / enclosures or Thiruveedhis as they are called encompasing 156 acres. The enclosures are formed by thick and massive stone walls pierced in 4 cardinal directions by towering gate ways or Gopurams.

Sri Rangam is architecturally unique and the sculptures found here are the finest examples of artistry and workmanship of the period.

The thousand pillared hall, the Horse Court, Garuda Mantapa with the enormous image of the sacred mount, the Seshadri Mandapa housing scupltures of the Dasavataras, etc are all singularly unique and memorable for the vast array of the most exquisite stone sculptures and frescoes they contain.

In the main sanctum, Lord Ranganatha is lying down on his serpent bed facing South. The sculpture itself is extremely beautiful and radiates a powerful energy!

There are many interesting shrines dotted around the temple complex for other deities like Andal, Krishna, Rama,Chakrathalwar, etc, . However, I found the Sannidhi of the Saint Ramanuja to be the most soul- stirring.

Saint Ramanuja is the founder of Vaishnavaite philosophy of Visishta Dvaita and was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. It is believed he lived before the 10th century and his remains have been interred in a separate shrine within the temple complex itself.

Entering this shrine, one is confronted with an almost life- like image of this famous saint positioned just above the Samadhi.

The explanation given by the priest was that nearly a thousand years ago, the body of the Saint who had been buried in the tomb, rose of its own volition above the Samadhi and this image has been preserved ever since that time by applications of Camphor, etc.

In fact, as the arathi was being done and the flame was shown in front of the Saint’s eyes, an inexplicable tremour went down my spine. Those eyes were almost alive!

In fact one can see body hairs on the skin as well as nails on the fingers of this miraculous image!

Sri Rangam temple’s outer three enclosures almost contain an entire town replete with streets, houses and shops while the 4 inner enclosures are religious zones and house the various shrines.

Given the time constraints, we had to satisfy ourselves with just a quick tour of the main points of interest since we had another temple to visit that evening.

The Samayapuram temple of Mariamman is a very famous temple on the outskirts of Trichy and this is where we headed next.

Dedicated to Shakthi in her very potent form, this temple is indeed a magnet of attraction for hordes of pilgrims throughout the year who come to beseech the Great Mother to grant them a prosperous and healthy life!

Worship of Mariamman / Karumarriamman is very popular among those seeking to alleviate ailments and the Goddess here is considered to be extremely powerful!

There was a huge swarm of devotees near the main sanctum. However, we were able to catch a quick glimpse of the deity. The priest informed us that the Moolavar or main deity was fashioned out of clay; hence all abhisekhams were performed only to the idol placed directly in front of it.

The evening puja was nearly over and we were fortunate to get a good darshan as the camphor was lit and gently swirled in front of the Goddess. She seemed to smile benevolently and just as I finished my fervent prayer that Her presence should always continue within me, a small flower garland dropped from her left hand!

The following day, we departed from Trichy and finally headed back to Chennai. The pilgrimage was over and I said a small prayer of thanks to Nemili Bala for having provided me with such uplifting experiences in every temple we had visited and sought her blessings for the next painting I had been “ commissioned” to do!

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