Wednesday, August 8, 2007

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!

No comments: