Friday, September 5, 2008


Over the past two decades, my spiritual progress has evolved primarily through the blessings and guidance of my Guru, the late Shri Shanthananda Swamigal of Pudukkottai. Until his Samadhi in May, 2002, he remained the only contact I had with Hindu religion and Goddess Bhuvaneswari. However, even after his demise he has helped me in many subtle ways, and I realize that without his grace I would never have been placed on this path of spirituality or religious art.

Sri Shanthananda Swamigal’s final words to me were, “ If you think with deep devotion about the great Goddess, She will come inside you. You will become Her and She will become you. There will be no difference between both of you”.

Surely, this was the same message that was passed on to me by Sai Baba.

Many have been the Gurus who have helped me along the way. Shri Paramarthananda, Shri Omkarananda Swamigal, “Amma”, Amritanandamayi, and Shri Haran “Aiya”, are but a few who by their words of advice, look, or grace have enabled me to find the strength to carry on in my chosen path.

In 2002, I was introduced to Sri Bala Peetam at Nemili. From that year onwards my paintings seemed to take on a deeper level of significance. I didn’t realize at that time why I had started doing these paintings.
Neither did I question the purpose of these writings.

I started to paint because I had glorious visions of deities. I started to write about my experiences after both my Guru and Amritananda Mayi (in dreams), told me to do so.

I started off my writings with the line, “I don’t know the purpose of this diary”.

Now that my writings have come to an end, I can reiterate that I still do not know the purpose of this diary. However, I now say this with confidence.

When I began to write in 2004, I wrote with the expectation of discovering a rationale for this exercise, uncovering a motivation for my writings. I expected to understand my urge to narrate my experiences at least by the time I had finished the diary.

Now that I am finished, however, I find my attitude to be quite different from that I expected. It is one of complete detachment. I realize now that I am simply a medium, who has been instructed to record and communicate my experiences independent of the desire to question, analyse, or justify my actions. The outcome is something I am no longer concerned about. As always, as it has been before, the outcome is in the hands of the child Goddess, Bala.

What I have gained over the past few years is something far more precious than material paintings or writings.

Rather, I have attained total and complete liberation and happiness at the feet of Sri Bala.
I am aware of the many ways in which this child Goddess has orchestrated the events and situations in my life. I am aware of Her presence in my life, in my thoughts and in my Heart.

Sri Ezhilmani and his family at Bala Peetam are unique and will forever remain an inseparable part of my life.

I conclude by quoting a few lines from Sri Bala’s Divine Words of Grace (Arul Vakku).

These holy sayings have proven to be extremely appropriate in all my life-experiences so far.

When you have been deserted by all around you,
When everyone says “No” and abandons you,
My tender hands will hold yours,
And, protect you until the end!

Your life consists in accepting whatever I give you.
My existence is never based or dependent on you,
Yet, this entire world is dependent on faith in me.

When You expect something from me and I refuse,
This is for your own benefit .
When you misunderstand why I don’t give what you want,
For whose gain can that be?
Whatever I do, is for your own good!

When you come to Me,
Alone, in utter despair and inconsolable grief,
When you stand in front of me,
With tears in your eyes , in deep anguish,
I will come alongside you,
Don’t ever forget this!

Bala Charanam.

Chapter 52

I set off on my pilgrimage on Thursday, May 8th with the intention of re visiting some of the famous temples near Trichy and Madurai and then proceed to Coimbatore, enroute to Guruvayoor in Kerala. I wanted to see as many of the famous temples in Kerala as possible , before the final destination of Sabarimala. Since I found no suitable traveling companion for this trip, I was to travel alone although excellent arrangements had been made at all the hotels and a network of local contacts had been arranged by my brother’s office.

I left on Thursday afternoon with the intention of reaching Trichy by late evening. However, hardly had the car left the driveway of my house, when I got a message from Bala asking me to see Her first before proceeding on the pilgrimage.
I directed the driver to proceed to Nemili, overlooking his reluctance to do so, as this detour was going to cost us 3 hours of valuable time.

Quickly, I dialed the phone number at the Peetam and informed the family of my impending visit.
This would be the last time I would see Sri Ezhilmani and his family before I departed back to London. I had booked my ticket to leave immediately after this pilgrimage was completed.

Sri Bala Peetam was completely deserted that afternoon and I was able to get the blessings of Sri Ezhilmani, his wife and son and speak to them for a while without interruptions.
I informed Sri Ezhilmani about my planned visit to Sabarimala and told him that I was not quite sure if I could make this trip as there seemed to be many obstacles to overcome. In particular, I had not paid attention to the vrathams or requirements that are essential before one undertakes this pilgrimage. Sri Ezhilmani gave me a surprising bit of news that Bala did not allow him to wear the traditional “malai” or “irumudi”, when he undertook this pilgrimage many years ago. In fact, neither had he observed any of the rules and regulations before embarking on the trip . Finally, he said to me “ It is not the custom at Bala Peetam to visit Sabarimala. However, you WILL be able to go there and get a successful darshan because when you visit any temple, you are just seeing Bala in the form of the deity installed there”.

I told him that I was planning to climb Sabarimala on May 15th. Sri Ezhilmani and his wife remarked in unision “ It is Uttirai nakshatram on that day. Did you know that Uttirai is the birth star of Ayappan and it is very auspicious to get a darshan of the Lord on this day? Also, did you know that both our birth stars are also Uttirai?”

It was slowly dawning on me that Bala was making me understand all too clearly there was indeed no difference betaeen Her and Ayyappan, or indeed any other deity. All deities reside within this amazing child- Goddess.

Sri Ezhilmani’s parting words to me were “ Bala is with you 100 percent. Believe in that.”

I reached Trichy late that night without any mishap and my pilgrimage commenced early the next morning with a visit to the famous Sri Rangam temple.

I sat in front of the shrine to Maha Lakshmi, waiting for it to open, reading the Ashta Lakshmi prayers written by Sri Ezhilmani. After a superb darshan of the Lord and his consort at Sri Rangam, I had time to revisit the Akhilandeshwari Temple at Tiruvaanaikaval. This temple is famous since it honors the element of water. Lord Shiva is represented by a Lingam that is continuously sprinkled by water from a subterranean source. However, the principal deity revered here is Parvathi, as Akhilandeshwari , adorned with the powerful Sri Chakras as her ear ornaments.

I was able to pay my respects at yet another favorite temple nearby, in Uraiyur. Vekkali Amman is an imposing form of Kali whose powerful presence can be felt by everyone visiting this sacred place. Seated in an open space, with sky as Her roof , this deity is worshipped for obtaining strength and valour in defeating or overcoming obstacles.

It seemed to me that every temple I was visiting on this last trip was being made to feel more special through Bala’s divine grace.

Our final destination for that day was Madurai and enroute, I took in two more temples. Of course, the magnificent Pillayar at Pillayaarpatti was my first stop and I was fortunate to have, once more, a superb darshan of the mighty elephant headed God wearing his golden armour!

The local contact person who met me at Pillayarpatti, insisted I accompany him to another famous temple for Bhairavar ( Lord Shiva) at Vairavanpatti, near Pillayarpatti. Since this was a temple I had not visited before, I immediately agreed.

The temple for Bairavar, an incarnation of Lord Shiva , at Vairavanpatti, is indeed one of the most beautiful ones I have visited so far. Exquisite sculptures adorn this ancient temple , and a marvelous depiction of Meenakshi Kalyanam has been sculpted from a single stone. Ceiling frescoes , murals and stunning architecture , all using stone in an ingenious manner , reveal the rich heritage of the past rulers. The idol of Bhairavar in a standing posture is truly unforgettable.

Reaching Madurai in the late evening, I was just able to have a quick darshan of Goddess Meenakshi before the temple closed after the late night prayers. The Goddess appeared regal, standing amidst the glowing oil lamps. I prayed fervently that I should never waver from my faith in Bala!

The following day, Saturday May 10th, I set off to visit Lord Muruga at his famous hill top abode on Palani Hills. It was my second visit to Palani and I cherished every minute of the short time I spent seated in front of this powerful Lord. After a few moments of quiet contemplation at the shrine of the famous Siddhar Bhogar, we descended these sacred hills and visited another temple for Lord Skanda at Tiruvaninankudi, near Palani. This temple is equally famous, and never overlooked by pilgrims.

In the afternoon, we were speeding on the highway from Palani towards Coimbatore, the gateway to Kerala. On the way, I made a stop to visit the famous Masani Amman temple near Pollachi.
I had heard a lot about the deity at this temple, especially renowned to address grievances of her devotees. People who have lost their money, property and valuables through unjust means appeal to Masani Amman. Men and women who are harassed by enemies appeal to this Goddess to give strength to vanquish their foes. In fact, this temple serves as a court of Justice, where devotees record their grievances on a piece of paper. These papers are placed by the priest on the trident carried by the Goddess and the belief is that problems will be relieved within a few months.

The main idol in the sanctum is an extremely imposing seventeen feet image of a reclining Goddess. In her four hands, Masani Amman carries a serpent, a skull, a small drum and a trident.
When I walked inside the temple, an abhishekam was about to be performed and I sat down in front of this powerful Goddess , praying to Bala and offering my gratitude to her for affording me this great darshan.

From Pollachi, the drive to Coimbatore is very scenic with the countryside appearing lush and green, nestled at the foothills of the Western Ghats. There is a famous temple to Pillayar on the outskirts of Coimbatore. The Eachanari Pillayar temple dates back thousands of years. The story goes that a massive idol of Pillayar was being brought in a chariot to be installed at the famous Shaivaite temple at Perur, near Coimbatore. However, one of the wheels of the chariot boke at Eachanari and the idol that was placed on the ground proved impossible to move later on . So, the Pillayar remained at Eachanari and the temple was built around him. After a sincere prayer to this mighty Lord to help me on my spiritual path, I proceeded to the hotel in Coimbatore for a short rest.
I was able to visit two more temples that Saturday evening. The first was the ancient and beautiful temple for Lord Shiva as Patteeswarar at Perur , and the second was Skanda’s abode at Marudhamalai.

It is said that Lord Shiva was worshipped at Perur by Patti, the daughter of the Celestial cow, Kamadhenu. Hence , the name Patteeswarar. Lord Shiva’s consort at Perur is Goddess Maragathaambikai.

The temple at Perur is a vast one abounding in exquisite sculptures and architectural splendour. The Dance Hall or Kanagasabhai Mandapam houses an ornate shrine to Lord Nataraja. The four pillars of this Mandapam have a slight tilt, as if they are leaning deferentially towards the Lord. The pillars are supposed to signify the four Vedas.

Another interesting temple I visited that evening was the famous Marudhamalai temple for Lord Muruga. Although not part of his Aru Padai Veedu, Marudhamalai is nevertheless , considered to be a very sacred spot and the hillsides abound in shrubs and bushes that possess medicinal properties. A visit to Marudhamalai is believed to remove both physical and mental afflictions. The main sanctum housing the Lord is a small, yet beautiful one and Lord Skanda appears radiant alongside his consorts.

The next day, Sunday May 11th, started off with an early morning visit to see Bannari Amman. Located close to Sathyamangalam, almost 60 odd Kilometres away from Coimbatore , this temple is situated in the midst of the dense forests bordering the neighbouring state of Karnataka. Bannari Amman is an aspect of Durga or Shakthi and has remained a powerful icon worshipped through the centuries by travelers and pilgrims praying for a safe journey.

Closer to Coimbatore I visited two temples for Lord Vishnu. The first was at “Then Tirupathi”. This is a recently built temple modeled on the lines of its famous counterpart at Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh. The temple for Lord Venkatachalapathi has been built by a wealthy industrialist in Coimbatore who was a devout worshipper of he Lord at Tirupathi. The story goes that the Lord appeared in the dream of this wealthy businessman and ordered him to build a temple replicating his abode in Tirupathi. And so, it came to be called Then Tirupathi. The Srivari temple is located on top of a hill and set amidst sylvan surroundings providing a peaceful resting place for the Lord.

The next temple on my schedule was the Ranganathar Temple at Karamadai. This is one of the oldest temples in Coimbatore and the main deity, Ranganathar is worshipped in the main sanctum in the form of a Lingam. There is an interesting story as to how this temple came into existence. Apparently, Garudan, the sacred mount of Lord Vishnu desired to have a darshan of the Lord in his wedding attire, along with his consort, Mahalakshmi. Garudan’s wish was honoured at this location and the Lord consented to stay on here to bless the local people. However, over the years, the stone statue got buried underground and a dense forest of “Kara” trees arose around it.

Many centuries later, a cowherd noticed that his cow often disappeared to a particular area in the dense undergrowth in order to shed her milk . One day, the cowherd attempted to cut the thorny bushes surrounding this place when, to his amazement, blood started to gush forth. A stone idol resembling a Lingam was discovered and consecrated as Lord Ranganathar.

Leaving Coimbatore in the early afternoon,on Sunday, we proceeded to cross the border into Kerala on our way to Guruvayoor.

Guruvayoor is, needless to say, the most famous temple in Kerala and considered by pilgrims to be the “Booloka Vaikuntam” or “ Heaven on Earth”

The enchanting idol of a young Lord Krishna at Guruvayoor is extremely sacred and is thousands of years old. This idol was supposed to have been worshipped by Lord Vishnu himself and later passed through the hands of Brahma, Sutapa, Kasyapa, Vasudeva, Krishna and Uddava.

The temple at Guruvayur is supposed to have been built by the divine architect Viswakarma and the idol has been consecrated at this holy spot by both Brahaspathi( the Guru of the Devas), as well as Vayu ( Lord of the wind). Hence, the name Guruvayur.
Although I have visited this famous temple a couple of times in the past few years, I wanted to come here again , especially for the early morning darshan, the famous Nirmalya Darshan.( when the flowers and adornments of the previous night are removed).

We were met at Guruvayur by a helpful, local contact who had made arrangements for an evening darshan on Sunday. However, when I walked to the temple entrance, there was an enormous crowd of people waiting in a long queue. Although I was able to skip this long line of devotees and join up with a shorter queue inside the temple, I was jostled and pushed by the crowd. There was nothing to do except to be carried along in the wave of the people towards the main sanctum. Here, we were allowed just a second to catch a glimpse of the Lord.

Since a visit to Guruyaur isn’t complete without obtaining the blessings of Lord Shiva and Parvathi at Mammiyur, this temple was our next stop.

At Thriprayar, there is an ancient temple dedicated to Shri Rama. We were able to visit this temple in the late evening and marvel at the splendid wooden carvings and architecture .

The next morning I was up by 2 a.m. hoping to catch a glimpse of Sri Krishna at Guruvayur as soon as the temple doors opened in the early hours of the morning.
As I walked to the canopied entrance to the temple, the crowd appeared more dense than on the previous evening. I stood in the long line for over half- hour listening to the chants of Melpathoor’s wonderful composition, Narayaneeyam.

I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be! However, just as the time neared towards the opening of the main temple doors, the Heavens opened and it started to pour with rain! Although, I got completely drenched in the downpour, I felt truly blessed to be present in front of Guruvayurappan.

Once again, I was fortunate to receive a darshan of the Lord, particularly, at this auspicious, early morning time .

Returning to the hotel, I was able to take a short rest before departing to the Kadampuzha Bhagavathy temple.

Situated in the midst of a forest, the main deity at Kadampuzha is regarded as a manifestation of Durga or Parvathi. This temple dates back to the era of Aadi Shankaracharya and it is widely believed that he founded this shrine.

I joined a long line of devotees who were each carrying a bag of coconuts. Some had two or three coconuts in their bags, while others seemed to be carrying a huge load. Upon enquiry, I was informed that each coconut represented a member of the devotees’ family or friends. When the devotee reached the inner sanctum, he or she would read out the name of the person corresponding to the coconut being handed over to the priest, along with his/ her respective birth star. The coconut would be broken in front of the deity. If the coconut split into two equal halves and proved to be a fresh one, then the verdict is that the person would soon be relieved of whatever problem ailed him and had nothing to worry.
On the other hand, if the broken coconut proves to be a rotten one, all is not lost. A fresh one is broken in front of the sanctum and the blessings of the Goddess are fervently sought!

The Durga at Kadampuzha is believed to have immense curative powers as testified by the huge crowds that congregate in the temple every day.

We were soon bound for Cochin. On the way is another interesting and very powerful Bhagavathi temple at Kogungallur. The legend goes that the Chera King, Chenguttuvan built a temple here for Kannagi, who is also regarded as a manifestation of Durga.
Yet another legend indicates that the Kali at Kodungallur was created by Lord Shiva in order to kill the demon Daaruka. In any case, this is considered to be the very first Badrakali temple in Kerala.

The imposing, six feet image in the inner sanctum is carved from a Jack Fruit tree. A mask is placed over the tree to make it resemble the female deity. There was no crowd when I visited this temple and I sat for a long time in front of this Kali, feeling waves of energy and bliss emanating from her.

The next day was a busy one as I was scheduled to visit many more famous temples.
The day started with a darshan of Lord Shiva at a triad of temples to the south of Cochin. These are the Mahadeva temples situated at Vaikom, Ettumanoor and Kaduthuruthy. A visit to all these three temples in one day is considered extremely auspicious.

The legend goes that a demon called Kharan ( slayed by Lord Rama at Triprayar), worshipped Lord Shiva at Chidambaram and obtained three Shiva Lingams. Kharan carried these precious Shiva Lingams back to Kerala, transporting two of them in his two hands and the third, in his mouth.
At Vaikom, Khara rested one of the Lingams on the ground and discovered that he could not budge it later. Hence, the famous temple for Mahadevar was established at Vaikom. The remaining Shiva Lingams were installed at two nearby places, Ettumanoor and Kaduthuruthy.

At Vaikom, Kharan entrusted the Shiva Lingam to the care of a saint, Vyagrapadhar. The town came to be called Vyagrapuri and later, Vaikom. It is believed that Lord Shiva gave Darshan to Vyagrapadhar under a tree situated on the temple premises . As one of the oldest and most famous temples in Kerala, the Vaikom temple boasts an elliptical shaped sanctum, whose roof is covered with copper plates. The sanctum dates back to the 11th century and the wooden panels and murals are from the 15th century.
An enormous, 317 feet flagstaff graces the entrance to this temple.

The offering of food is regarded as a form of worship at Vaikom and Lord Shiva is regarded here as the Lord of Food or “AnnadhaanaPrabhu”.

At Kaduthuruthy, another beautiful temple, Lord Shiva is enshrined inside the main sanctum and there are also sub shrines for Lord Shiva both as “Vaikathappan”, as well as “Ettumaoorappan”. It is said that if one cannot make a visit to all three Shiva temples on the same day, just a visit to Kaduthuruthy should suffice!

The Shiva temple at Ettumanoor ( the last in the triad), has a circular sanctum covered with a conical copper plated roof, somewhat similar in style to the Vaikom temple.
There are beautiful wood carvings in the exterior of the circular sanctum depicting legends from Ramayana and Bhagavatha Puranam.
It is believed that Khara established a shrine for Lord Krishna at this temple in the North West corner.

The MahaGanapathy temple at Malliyoor is yet another extremely ancient temple dating back to at least 10th or 11 th century. Widely referred to as “Vaishnava Ganapathy”, the image of Ganapathy in the main sanctum cradles a baby Krishna on his lap.

A visit to two more famous temples rounded off the day. These were the famous Chottanikkara Bhagawathi temple and Tripunithura Poornathrayeesa temple.

Although, I had visited the powerful Chottanikkara Devi on two previous occasions, I was quite keen to receive Her blessings again. It is here, in Chottanikkara, a powerful Shakthi Peetam, that Goddess RajaRajeshwari is worshipped in her three forms as Saraswathi in the morning, Lakshmi at noon, and as Durga in the evening.

There is an idol of Maha Vishnu on the same pedestal as the Goddess and hence she is worshipped as “AmmE Narayana”, “ Lakshmi Naryana” or “ Badre Narayana”.
The Bhagavathi at this temple is regarded as a very powerful icon who can cure mental and physical ailments of her devotees.

At Tripunithura, Lord Vishna is depicted as sitting under the shade of the five royal hoods of the divine serpent Ananthan, whose folded body serves as the Almighty Lord’s throne. Lord Vishnu is known as “ Santhaana Gopala Murthy” ( Saviour of infants).

The legend goes that this idol was presented to Arjuna by Lord Vishnu when the former sought the help of the Supreme Lord to help bring back to life the ten children of a devout Brahmin. This story is also an illustration of how Arjuna’s ego was quelled by the Lord, as Arjuna, in his arrogance promises the Brahmin that he possesses the power to perform the miracle himself.
It is believed that Arjuna, the ten revived children and the idol came back to earth at this spot. The inner sanctum at Tripunithura resembles a chariot.

The day preceding my trek up the holy hills of Sabarimala , I visited a few more temples enroute to my destination for that night, at Tiruvalla.

The first temple I visited on May 14th was Chakkulathukavu Sree Bhagavathy Temple. This is perhaps one of the few temples in Kerala which grants access to all devotees irrespective of caste or creed. The story goes that the supreme Goddess Parvathi is enshrined hre as Devi who slew the two Asuras ( demons), Sumbha and Nishumba. The famous verses of “Devi Mahatmyam” narrate the story of how the Goddess acceded to the sincere prayers of the Devas and Sages by battling the demons and vanquishing them. The temple is certainly built in an idyllic spot with two sacred rivers, the Pampa and Manimala flowing on either side.

Our next stop that morning was at Ambalapuzha. The Sree Krishna temple at Ambalapuzha is an extremely famous one and so too is the temple prasadam, “Pal Payasam” ( Milk sweet with rice).
Dating back to 800 A.D., it is said that the idol of Lord Krishna at Ambalapuzha is likened to that of Parthasarathy. ( the divine charioteer for Arjuna). Sri Krishna holds a whip in his right hand and the sacred conch in the left hand as he gives darshan and blessings to his devotees with an enchanting smile.

The story goes that a famous devotee of Lord Krishna, Sri Vilvamangalam Swamy, was cruising on a boat in the backwaters, along with the Maharajah of Travancore, when, all of a sudden, he heard the most melodious flute music. Following the direction of this divine music, Sri Vilwamangalam saw a bright light beyond the tall coconut palm trees.
Believing that he had heard none other than his favorite deity’s music, the King decided to build a temple for Sri Krishna at this spot.
There is no doubt that even today, the divine presence of Sri Krishna is manifest at this lovely temple!

Our next stop was the interesting temple for snakes at Mannarsala. The Nagaraja temple here is closely associated with Lord Parasurama ( an incarnation of Vishnu) and the creation of the state of Kerala.
The sory goes that Parasurama beseeched the Supreme Lord for forgiveness after having battled and killed many Kshatriyas. He was told that the only remedial measure for him to attain salvation was if he gave away a lot of land as donation to poor Brahmins. So, Parasurama took out his battling axe and flung it far into the sea. The waters of the ocean retreated beyond the point marked out by the axe and the drained land was called Kerala. Parasurama proceeded to give away this huge parcel of land.

However, this land proved uninhabitable and had to be desalinated if vegetation could thrive and food could grow on it. So, Parasurama commenced an austere fast and prayed to the Lord of the Snakes . Finally, the Lord of the Serpents appeared in front of Parasurama and agreed to help make the land more prospereous. Nagaraja ordered his army of serpents to emit the poison in their fangs and de salinate the entire area.
Slowly, over time, the land regained by Parasurama , grew more lush and fertile and the people living here became more prosperous.

As a token of gratitude, Parasurama built a temple at Mannarsala to honour all the snakes. Many secret rites and rituals were adhered to while setting up the temple here. The installed deity is supposed to represent the union of Lord Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Over 30,000 images of serpents and yakshis are found in the dense grove of Mandara trees that abound in this area.

It is widely believed that serpent worship alleviates fertility problems, physical and mental problems. However, the chief priest here is a woman. It is said that the High Priestess , called a Valia Amma, is the eldest female member of the family who has been taking care of this temple through several, successive generations.
The customs and rites of worship follow the strict rules established by Parasurama and there are many austerities that have to be upheld by the priestess.

I saw the room where the current priestess carries out her special poojas to the serpent king.
There is another story about the origin of snake worship at Mannarsala.

Thousands of years ago, a childless couple, Vasudeva and Sri Devi, carried out extensive rituals to appease the Snake Gods in order to have progeny. As an answer to their prayer, the Lord of Serpents was born as their eldest child in the physical form of a five-hooded serpent child. Later, Sri Devi went on to give birth to a human son as well.
It is this family that has continued the worship of Serpents at Mannarsala in the manner prescribed by the eldest ancestor, the Snake- son.

Following the visit to the highly intriguing and unique temple for snakes, we visited Haripad, famous for the shrine of Lord Subrahmanya. Worshipped by Parasurama, the imposing, four- armed idol of Lord Muruga in the sanctum is supposed to have been discovered in the nearby river.

We rounded off the morning temple tour by obtaining a darshan of Lord Vishnu as Sree Vallabha at the temple in Tiruvalla. This is one of the 108 Divya Desams for Lord Vishnu and there is an imposing, six feet idol in the main sanctum. Dating back to the pre Christian era, a remarkable feature here is a fifty feet granite pillar carved out of a single stone with an immense sculpture of Garuda at the top of it.

On the afternoon of May 14th, we were able to visit a few more important temples in the vicinity of Tiruvalla, our destination for that night. These were the last few holy places I visited before the pilgrimage to Sabarimala and my return back to London.

The Chengannur Mahadevar temple is one of the oldest and very famous temples in Kerala. Lord Shiva faces east , while his consort Parvathi faces west . However, Chengannur is more renowned as a Shakthi Peetam. It was here that the reproductive organ of Parvathi fell, after she immolated herself in the fire following Daksha’s sacrifice. It was Vishnu’s discus that shattered Sati’s body into numerous pieces and wherever the body parts fell, a Shakthi Peetam arose.
At Chengannur, it is widely believed that the Goddess goes through menstruation and a festival has been connected with this menstruation ceremony.
The sanctum here is circular, as in most Kerala temples and has a conical, copper plated roof.

The Sasthamkulangara Nrisimha temple is located close to Chengannur and houses some of the most exquisite wood carvings depicting scenes from Gajendra Moksham, Dasavatharam, AnanthaSayanam , as well as beautiful images of Siva, Parvathi, Seeta, Hanuman and Nrisimhar.
This temple is thousands of years old and is packed with delightful art treasures.

Aranmula Parthasarathy temple was our next stop. “Aranmula”, literally means in Malayalam, “ a raft of 6 bamboo poles”. The story goes that Arjuna installed this idol of Krishna as a “charioteer”, by transporting it down the river, on a home made raft , using bamboo poles. The legend is that during the epic battle of Kurukshetra, in the Mahabharatam, it was Krishna’s discus that finally brought about the demise of the valiant Bhishma, on the ninth day of the battle.
So, here at Aranmula, the lord carries the “Chakra” on his arm.

The Pancha Pandava brothers, won the Kurukshetra battle with Krishna’s help. After the war was over, the five brothers traveled through Kerala , and it is believed that each brother consecrated a temple in honor of Lord Vishnu. A visit to all five temples on the same day is considered auspicious. However, I was able to visit just four of these five sacred spots on my tour.

While the idol at Aranmula was brought in by Arjuna, the Thiruchittatu Maha Vishnu temple was consecrated by the eldest of the Pancha Pandavas, Dharmaputhirar, and the Puliyoor Mahavishnu temple was sanctified by Bhima. At Tiruvanvandur, the idol of Maha Vishnu is an imposing seven feet tall and is believed to have been established here by Nakulan.

(The fifth temple that I did not get a chance to visit is the one established by Sahadevan, Trikodithanam, Mahavishnu temple).

My temple tour on that penultimate day preceding Sabarimala pilgrimage concluded with a visit to the Thrikkaviyur Mahadevar temple, near Tiruvalla. This temple dates back to the 10th century and features exquisite and detailed wood carvings in the sanctum. Although the main deity here is Lord Shiva, the shrine for the monkey-God, Hanuman, at this temple is considered very powerful.

I departed for Sabarimala from the hotel at Tiruvalla around 4 a.m. on the morning of May 15th, 2008. I was informed that the car journey from Tiruvalla up to the sacred Pampa river would take about three hours and a local contact person would be meeting me there. Arrangements had been made for a priest to give me the “mala” and sacred “irumudi”.

I prayed sincerely to Bala to help me complete this pilgrimage without any obstacles.
During the long car journey, I listened to some melodious songs extolling the glory of Lord Ayyappan, composed by Sri Ezhilmani.

We arrived rather early, around 7 a.m., at the base of the holy hills and after a short wait, the priest showed up. I sat in front of the Pillayar temple and accepted the “mala” and “irumudi”.
We bagan the trek up the hills around 8.30 a.m. It was already beginning to get hot and I tried not to be concerned about the long walk up the hills!

My thoughts were focused on Lord Ayyappa and I willed myself to get sufficient strength to make it up the hill. There was a swarm of people climbing that day and a constant chorus of shouts “ Swamiyeeeee, Charanam Ayyappa”, reverberated in the mountainside.
Our little group set up a continuous chant “ Kallum Mullum kaalikku metthai”, literally translated from Tamil as “ sharp stones and thorns are soft mattress for our feet”; and this chant was interspersed with the refrain “ Swami Charanam Ayyappa”.

Although, I have undertaken several treks before, the climb up the Sabarimala hills is physically demanding. I was walking barefeet, on a steep path made of stones and pebbles that were getting slowly toasted under the merciless glare of the Sun.
The Irumudi I was carrying on my head kept slipping off as I tried to balance it with one hand while clinging on to the handrails up the steep path.
Finally, I removed the irumudi and gave it to the car driver, who was walking behind me. He transported this sacred bundle the rest of the way and returned it to me just as I climbed up the eighteen steps.

It took our group about two and a half hours to climb up to the summit of Sabarimala and enter the abode of Lord Ayyappan.

All along the way, I walked alone, just a bit ahead of my party, reciting Lord Ayyappa’s holy name continuously in my mind. There were a few times when I did feel exhausted, not so much because of the climb, but due to the heat and humidity. The sari I wore was sticky with perspiration and clung to my legs like a wet bag of sand.

Finally, we were there, right in front of the sanctum. The small idol of the Lord seemed to be infused with a special glow.
I was tired and exhausted, yet, the sight of this Lord seated in solitary splendour , filled me with a fresh energy. The coconuts from the Irumudi were handed over to the priest and the ghee inside them were poured over the idol. The holy ablutions were being performed and I watched as if in trance, the anointment of the Lord with ghee, coconut water, milk , honey and holy ash.

I couldn’t help but remember a similar darshan less than a week ago at the Ayyappa temple in Chennai.
It seemed that the Lord had heard my prayers and showered his blessings on me both before as well as after this holy pilgrimage.
To the deafening shout of “ Swamiyeeeee, Charanam Ayyappa”, the alankara deepam and arathi was performed in front of this mighty Lord who teaches us the value of self discipline and self- realisation.

I left Shabarimala a few hours later , bound for Madurai and caught a flight back to Chennai later that very evening.

I had accomplished what I thought was impossible! The pilgrimage to Shabarimala had been fraught with problems; yet, I had completed it and enjoyed a superb darshan of the Lord, thanks to the grace of Bala.

I thought of the message from Sai Baba that was delivered to me by my friend in the U.S. “Tell Uma she can reach me through unwavering faith in her Ishta Devatha”.

My only prayer is that I should remain completely devoted to this Child Goddess and never lose sight of Her during my life time.

Chapter 51

My plans to leave Chennai started to look uncertain the very next day. My husband called me from London and told me to postpone my arrival by a few weeks as certain renovation works were being carried out in our London flat.
I had no choice but to cancel my booking for April 15th. However, I was happy in a way, because, I could undertake one more pilgrimage. It had been my intention for quite sometime to visit Sabarimala, the holy abode of Lord Ayyappan, in Kerala.

How this trip to Sabarimala came about is another interesting story that had its origin many months ago.

During November 2007, even as I was engaged in several tasks like setting up the house, undertaking pilgrimages, and doing another painting for Bala, a very special relationship started to develop with a total stranger residing in the U.S. who had come across my website and wished to start corresponding with me through e mail.
This person ( a.k.a U.S.1 hereafter), had come on to the spiritual path after a few extraordinary incidents that had brought Sai Baba into her life. While she related in great detail some of the amazing experiences she had, I realized that her establishing contact with me was also no ordinary coincidence. In fact, there is no difference between Sai Baba, Bala or Babaji.

Over the next few months, I wrote to US1 about the events leading up to the wedding, the paintings of Bala, the glory of Sri Bala Peetam and Sri Ezhilmani’s family.

One day in January, just as I had returned from a pilgrimage to the Nava Narasimhar temples at Ahobilam, I received a call from US1, late at night. It was clear to me that US1 had undergone yet another supernatural occurrence. She started off the conversation by saying she had a message for me from Sai Baba and then went on to narrate a dream/vision she had experienced.

In this dream US1 was walking across a bridge spanning a deep gorge. The bridge was swaying from side to side , buffeted by a wind that seemed to be progressively gaining strength. All of a sudden a huge gust topples the bridge and US1 was sure that she was going to die. It was this moment, which resembled a near- death experience, that she heard Sai Baba’s voice. It was a soothing and calm voice that seemed to protect her as she “floated” up in the sky. US1 felt that she was floating up to the summit of a hill that she soon recognized as Sabarimala. When she reached the top she looked around but did not see Lord Ayyappan. She wondered out loud “if indeed these were the hallowed hills of Sabarimala “ Where was Lord Ayyappan”?

It was Sai Baba who replied “ The Lord is inside you just as I am inside you”.
And then, came the message “ You must pass on this instruction to your friend Uma. She will find me at the top of Sabarimala if she has constant and unswerving faith in her Ishta Devatha” ( favourite deity).

I couldn’t go back to sleep that night. I pondered over this message and (erroneously) concluded that perhaps I was to draw a portrait of Lord Ayyappan. Hari Hara Puthran , the blessed child of both Lord Shiva and Vishnu stands for ultimate knowledge and wisdom. I had portrayed all the favorite Hindu deities with the sole exception of Lord Ayyappa. I thought if I prayed to Lord Ayyappa and drew his portrait, I would progress further in my spiritual path.

That very evening, I bought some drawing paper and decided to visit a few Ayyappa temples in Chennai .
However, the weeks sped by and instead of sketching Lord Ayyappa, I used the paper I bought to do the portrait of Bala, instead!

Little did I realize, at that time, that devotion and faith in Bala alone is sufficient to attain ultimate liberation that most vedantins talk about!

After the extraordinary events of April 13th, I decided to undertake a trip to Sabarimala, especially since my return back to London had been suddenly put on hold.

The reaction from close friends and relatives was not positive. I was told that one cannot undertake a pilgrimage to Sabarimala without following a long list of austerities. At the very minimum, one should go on a vratham ( fast) for 40 days, eating simple, home-cooked food once a day, performing a puja every evening for Lord Ayyappa. Then, there is a garland or “mala” that has to be given to you by a priest who has been initiated into the worship of Ayyappa. An “ Iru mudi” , literally meaning, “two bundles”, have to be carried on the head during the long trek up the hills of Sabarimala.

The trip to Sabarimala and the carrying of the Irumudi are both steeped in significance. The trip symbolizes the merging of the human soul ( Jivatma), with the Universal spirit, “Paramatma”.
The Iru Mudi is basically a bag with two compartments that is carried on the head by pilgrims. It is generally filled with essential items that devotees require during the trek like food as well as puja articles. Of great significance is the coconut that is carried in one of the compartments of the Irumudi. This coconut is filled with ghee and placed on top of a mound of rice. The ghee inside the coconut signifies the soul residing inside the human body that is represented by the shell of the coconut.

After the arduous trek up the Sabarimala hills, the ghee is poured over the idol of Lord Ayyappa, signifying the merging of the human soul with the deity, while the coconut shell is tossed into the fire signifying the unimportance of the physical frame.
The entry up to the main sanctum involves a climb up the sacred “eighteen steps”. These steps represent the various sense pleasures, emotions, bad habits and ignorance that the devotee has to get rid off before he can get closer to self- realization.

Therefore, the pilgrimage up to Shabarimala is considered extremely sacred and unique and I was cautioned against embarking on such a trip in a casual manner.

A week went by as I procrastinated about embarking on this mission. One evening, as I sat in meditation, I received a lightening message asking me to visit the Lord Ayyappan temple in Chennai. Without a single moment’s hesitation, I set off . Although I had visited two important Ayyappan temples in the suburbs of Chennai, there is yet another temple built in recent times in the heart of Chennai , that I had not been to. This holy place has been built by wealthy Chettiars and modeled almost exactly along the same lines as the sacred temple for Lord Ayappan at Shabarimala.

As I neared the temple, I could see that the road leading right up to the entrance had been closed for vehicular traffic. There were a lot of people walking towards the main gates.
Upon enquiry, I was informed that it was an auspicious day as the “Maha Kumbabhishekam” of the temple was in progress. Today was the penultimate day of the rituals that are supposed to renew and enhance the power of the main deity in the Sanctum.

I realized that Bala had sent me here deliberately so, I could obtain the grace of Lord Ayyappa. The main sanctum remained closed that day as the homams were being concluded. I was informed by the priest that if I returned the following morning, on the final and culminating day of the Kumbabhishekam, I would be truly fortunate te receive the grace of this mighty Lord.

The following morning, I returned to the Ayyappan temple around 8.30 a.m. Contrary to my fear about the massive crowds, the temple didn’t seem too busy and I was able to get a superb darshan of the Lord in the main sanctum. As I was about o leave, I overheard a priest mentioning that a special Abhishekam was to follow at 9 a.m.
I could hardly believe my luck. I staked out a comfortable viewing spot right in front of the main sanctum and stood there, waiting for over an hour for the function to commence.
Although the temple was quite empty at 8.30 a.m, the crowds began to gain strength closer to the time of the Abhishekam. People milled about me and tried to nudge me from my chosen place. However, I stood rooted to the spot , right in front of the Lord, clinging on to the iron railings in front of me to prevent myself from being shoved aside forcibly.

Then, the Abhishekam began and it was an uplifting experience to witness the sacred ritual, on this, the last and most important day of the Kumbabhishekam.

I returned home that day, with my mind made up. It seemed to me that Lord Ayyappan had especially summoned me to get his blessings. With a sincere prayer of thanks to Bala, I set about planning this pilgrimage.

I decided to visit the holy abode of Ayyappa and combine it with a trip to various other temples in both TamilNadu and Kerala.
My sister in law made arrangements for a priest to give me the sacred “mala” and “irumudi” , as well as accompany me on the ascent up the hills, on May 15th, the day I chose to climb up the Sabarimala hills.

Chapter 50

During the month of March, I was destined to paint another image of Bala. This was an image of her in a standing posture, dressed in a green skirt, carrying rosary beads in one hand , and the other raised in a protective gesture.
I had been asked by Sri Ezhilmani to do this portrait .
He also gave me a small poster of Bala standing, based on a mural at the peetam, which had been the work of an artist friend, a long time ago.
I brought this picture home and started to copy this image the very next day. However, I received mental messages that asked me to use my own creativity while doing this portrait. And so I did.
The face of Bala in my painting came out totally differently from the one Sri Ezhilmani had given me. Although in both images the goddess is standing, the resemblance ends there. In my painting Bala is standing on a huge pink lotus, dressed in a sparkling green skirt and a matching blouse studded with dazzling crystals. Her dark and wavy hair comes tumbling past her shoulders and as I stepped back to take a final look, I was sure those eyes were smiling!

Drawing the eyes of this powerful goddess hadn’t been easy.

One night, when I was still working on this portrait, I retired to bed after I was convinced I had depicted those luminous eyes to my satisfaction. The next morning I found to my surprise that I could barely open my eyes. I seemed to have developed an infection . Both my eyes appeared puffy and red. I was puzzled since I’d had no indication or symptoms the previous night.

After carefully bathing my eyes with warm water, I went down to look at my painting. It was only then that I realized, it had something to do with my depiction of Bala’s eyes.
I sat down immediately and erased all the work I’d done the previous night.
I prayed to Bala for support and attempted once more, to draw in her eyes.

I remember very clearly the exact moment I finished this painting. Just as I lifted my paint brush off the canvas, after completing Bala’s eyes, I heard a crack of thunder and the heavens opened! The short and sharp downpour, once again confirmed Bala’s approval of my painting.

This painting was framed and delivered to the Peetam on the first Sunday in April, 2008.
The following week heralded the birth of the Tamil New Year. I had decided to depart Chennai for London, shortly after the New Year and told Sri Ezhilmani of my intentions. He instructed me to go ahead with my plans.

I booked my ticket to leave on the 15th of April. However, my trip was to be delayed by a whole month !

During the second week of April, I was making preparations to leave Chennai. The house had to be locked up, and several important matters had to be attended to.

On Saturday, April 12th, while I was meditating on Bala and listening to her songs, I received a message from Her. I was to paint another portrait of Her as a young child seated on a small, raised wooden platform. What was even more intriguing about this directive was that I had to complete the drawing that same day, get it framed and take it with me to Nemili the following day as a (Tamil) New Year present for Babaji.

Without pausing to question this little “inner voice”, I sat down at my dining table and started to draw. I remember sitting down at 10 a.m. and did not leave the spot unil the painting was finished at 5.30 p.m. I had instructed the framer to stop by in the evening with his tools.
Subramani, came by as promised, that evening. With a great sigh of satisfaction, I handed over the painting to him so he could carry out his task.
My thoughts had been focused entirely on Bala that day and while the painting was being framed, I sat down in my puja room reciting Bala’s Andhadi.

Just as I finished my prayers, the framed painting was brought in.
I stepped back to get a good look at it.

What I perceived was something undescribable!
The face of the child- Bala, I had so lovingly portrayed, seemed completely distorted and disproportionately large compared to the rest of her body.

I looked at my portrait with disbelief. How could I have made such a mistake?

I had managed to accomplish over a hundred paintings. This kind of basic mistake had never occurred before. More importantly, I asked myself “ Why had I not spotted this glaring error right away?

My thoughts had been revolving solely around Bala. Why did she not help me correct my mistake as she had done several times before?

All these thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there looking at that ghastly painting!

After a few moments of silence, Subramani remarked in an apologetic tone that this was not one of my best works.
I had to agree.
I paid him for his labor and told him I would contact him if I required his services.

That night, I sat in my Puja room, alone, looking at this painting of Bala.

I asked her silently why she had asked me to do a painting when she knew it wouldn’t turn out well.
After all, it was She who had given me the ability to draw. So, I could not understand why She had taken “away” this skill.

By this time it was 10 p.m. I had not partaken any food that entire day, as all mental and physical energies had been focused only on this child- Goddess.
So, I had some supper and retired for the night. My only regret was that I now had nothing to bring with me when I went to the Peetam the following day.

I traveled to Nemili, the following morning, Sunday, April 13th ( Tamil New Year’s Day), with neither the customary flowers, fruits, chocolates or sweets for Bala. I had not informed Babaji about the painting as it was meant to be a surprise gift to him. So, I decided not to mention anything about the unfortunate events of the previous day.

It was around mid morning when the car drew up at Bala’s house. I went inside and joined the throng of devotees, many of whom had come over to get Bala’s blessings on this auspicious day. Sri Ezhilmani saw me come in and made an announcement to the assembled crowd. What he said completely took my breath away.

He said “ Today, is a very special occasion. I request all of you to proceed out of this hall, and make your way across the street to the new hall that has been built on the first floor of the house directly opposite Bala Peetam. This hall now houses all of Smt. Uma Kumar’s paintings and we will carry out the ceremonies to inaugurate this hall today”!

I was totally stunned. I had absolutely no indication that this event had been planned .

Almost in a daze, I followed the crowd of friends, relatives and members of Bala Vidhya Mandir to the exhibition hall. A blue ribbon was cut by a devotee and we all filed past the three rooms, where my paintings had been arranged neatly against the walls.

The most recent painting of Bala I had given the previous week, had been placed in the far corner of the main hall. A lamp was lit, flowers were showered at Bala’s feet, and Sri Ezhilmani made another speech narrating the little story of how this hall was built through Bala’s directive and how these paintings had actually arrived here through Bala’s grace.

It was the most unforgettable day as far as I was concerned. As I took leave of Sri Ezhilmani, I did tell him about the unfortunate events of the previous day. I asked him why Bala had prevented me from doing another painting and indeed, why she had asked me to sit at the , later abandoned painting, the entire day!

Sri Ezhilmani’s response was characteristally swift and laced with humour.
“ Amma, we have no space to keep any more of your paintings. In fact, I was praying to her , only yesterday, that you should not bring us any more paintings. You see, Bala made you sit down and concentrate all your thoughts on her yesterday, because, She, in return was doing something for you. Our entire family worked very hard all throughout yesterday, shifting your stored paintings from our house into this hall, and arranging them in a neat display”.

As I left the Peetam that day, it was very clear to me that Bala had chosen that New Year’s day to make me feel once more, that She was always close to me, residing in my heart as “ Nivasathu Hridhi Bala”.

Chapter 49

Among other temples I visited in the vicinity of Chennai:
The ancient Perumal temple at Tiruvaiyavur, where Lord Narayana, in his standing posture resembles the famous Lord at Tirumala;
Tirupputkuzhi, near Kanchipuram,is yet another famous temple for Lord Vishnu. Lord Rama is supposed to have performed the funeral rites for the celestial bird, Jatayu at this spot, enabling the latter to gain Moksha.

Lord Sundara Varadar graces the beautiful temple at UttiraMerur. This ancient temple is an architectural delight and there are various sanctums for Lord Vishnu , built over three levels. Lord Sundaravaradar is on the ground level depicted in a standing posture, while on the second level, as VaikundaVaradhar, he is seen seated, along with his consorts. On the top most tier of the Temple Gopuram, one can see Lord Vishnu lying on his serpent bed as Anandasayi.

Thenangur is famous for its newly construced temple to Lord Pandurangan and his consort Raghumayi. The interior of this temple is richly decorated with many friezes and sculptures depicting stories from the life of Sri Krishna. The main sanctum houses two imposing statues of the Lord and his consort !

Just across the temple for Pandurangan is a Shakthi Peetam where there is a separate Sanctum for RajaRajeshwari known as Shodashi, here.
There is a beautiful image of a smiling, young Bala in this shrine, seated just below her Mother, surrounded by all the attendant deities. I was fortunate to witness an abhishekam at this shrine on Chitra Pournami .

Both temple complexes were founded by Gnananda Giri Swamiji whose goal was to spread divine knowledge through “ Nama Sankirtanam” ( chanting of names of the Lord).

I visited Perumal temples at Tiruneerrmalai, Tiruvidanthai and Tiruvalloor; Murugan’s abode at Kunrathur, the Shiva temple at Kalahasti and Tiruvalangadu; the sacred seat of Shakthi at Trichaanur and the powerful Kali at Mathoor.

It seemed that Bala was encouraging me to take continuous pilgrimages, as if She wanted me to think of nothing else but Her. This is true because at each and every temple, I looked at the main deity and just saw Bala. Whether it was Lord Shiva, or Lord Vishnu, Anjaneya or Murugan, in my eyes, they seemed to be extensions of this child- goddess.
There is no doubt that She accompanied me on all my temple trips.

On Friday, March 21st, 2008, it was the auspicious Full Moon day. On this day, a Bala Parayanam was held in Chennai and was organized by me. However, the story of how this event came to pass is an interesting one.

Ever since the wedding in January, I had wanted to hold a group prayer meeting with all members of the Bala Parayanam group at Chennai and I hoped Sri Ezhilmani’s family would be able to participate as well.
However, when I broached this topic to him , Sri Ezhilmani indicated that the March, pournami paryanam was fixed up already and would be held at another devotee’s house in Chennai. Needless to say, this scheduled event was cancelled and, since exams were looming for most school children at this time, the family from Nemili decided not to travel down to Chennai at all.

A few days before Pournami, I got a call from Babaji asking me if would be possible, to arrange this event after all. I was overjoyed! Luckily, I found a large hall available for rent and swiftly made arrangements with the caterers to provide breakfast and lunch on that day.
About forty members of the family were to travel down and I was able to fix up accommodation for them as well.
I am sure it was Bala who ensured that all plans fell into place so smoothly!!

It was wonderful that I got an opportunity to play host to Bala’s family.

However, almost as if Bala announced her arrival along with the family, just as I prepared to receive Sri Ezhilmani and his wife into the hall where the parayanam was to be held, it started to pour with rain!!

I couldn’t help remembering the day of my daughter’s wedding when the same thing occurred! As if reading my thoughts, Sri Ezhilmani remarked” It looks like whenever we come to attend an event hosted by you, it starts to pour”!

We went inside and soon the parayanam began. Oblivious to the downpour outside, the uplifting songs written by Babaji and sung melodiously by Sudha and Madhu, filled all our hearts with total peace and bliss.

After the hour long parayanam, Babaji , who had been sitting alongside his father and mother said something totally startling. He said “ Bala just gave me this message in a flash. She says there is an old lady present at this parayanam who has joined in singing all the songs with so much love and devotion that Bala has asked me to give this lady all her books and Cds as a gift!”. He looked directly in the direction of my elderly aunt. This was the aunt who had accompanied me to Nemili a few weeks ago. Ever since that first visit, it seemed to me she was completely enamoured by Bala.She listened to Bala’s songs every day, read many of the books published at the Peetam with great devotion, and recently, she described to me a dream in which Bala had appeared as a small child .

While my aunt was completely overwhelmed , it came as no surprise to me that Bala had actually “heard” my aunt’s prayers and sat on her lap that morning enjoying her singing!

At the finish of the Pournami parayanam, I thanked Bala fervently for giving me this opportunity to pay respects to her family and say “thank you”, once again, to her for taking care of me during those difficult days!

Chapter 48 - VALLIMALLAI


Valimalai is a small range of rocky hills near Vellore, Tamilnadu. For many years I had been intrigued by the stories and myths that surrounded this hill- top temple for Lord Muruga and his consort Valli Amma. Legend says that these hills formed the play ground for young Valli, the daughter of the Vedda tribespeople who lived in these hills, and her playmate, Bala Murugan. It is believed that young Valli, a mere twelve year old girl, loved to romp amidst the trees and rock strewn outcrop forming these hills, playing pranks and games in the company of her soul-mate, the young and handsome Lord Skanda.

In fact, Valli Malai is regarded as a Shakthi Peetam as it exudes the vibrant, boundless energy of a young , playful, Goddess. There is an Ashram and temple on the top of the small hill . I had read all relevant details regarding the stunning natural beauty of the surroundings, on a website, many years ago even as I was involved in researching the worship and symbolism of Lord Skanda whilst doing a painting of Tiruchendur Murugan.

So, many years later, in Chennai, one steamy, hot, May afternoon, when I was assailed by persistent thoughts about Valli Malai, I decided to act upon it immediately. Having the luxury of a car and driver at my disposal, I left Chennai around 2.30 p.m and was soon speeding away on the Chennai to Bangalore highway, listening to Murugan Sahasranamam.
The journey took us just over two hours and as Vallimalai is not really signposted on the highway, we had to make several enquiries along the way to finally reach our destination.
Like I mentioned previously, it was a very hot and humid day. There was no breeze and the heat was stifling as I got out of the cool comfort of the air conditioned car.

Vallimalai loomed ahead of us. I gazed up trying to see if I could spot the hill-top temple but all I could see were huge rocks and boulders. What seemed like rock hewn steps snaked their way upwards in quite a steep incline.
At the base of the hill there was yet another temple enshrining Lord Muruga and his two consorts, Valli and Deivayanai. However, I decided to visit this temple at the base of the hill later, after having the darshan of Valli and Skanda’s abode atop the hill.

I proceeded a few steps forward to the bottom of the steep flight of stone steps. An old friend of mine had accompanied me on this trip and there were three of us, including the car driver who then proceeded to climb the 444 steps up the hill. There were not too many pilgrims about; just a few monkeys prancing about. Perhaps, it was the blazing heat and the daunting nature of the trek that kept devotees away. Perhaps, I was mad to undertake this physical exercise on such a hot day! I prayed fervently to Lord Muruga to help me complete this pilgrimage!

As it is customary to remove shoes or slippers before treading on a sacred precinct, I bent down to remove my slippers. The first contact of my bare feet on the hot, stone step was sheer agony. My confidence seemed to disappear. I wasn’t too sure if I could indeed do this ascent at all! My friend kept insisting that we should not really keep our slippers on; it would not be respectful to the Lord.
I stood frozen for a moment, totally perplexed. A sudden shout broke my reverie.

“Akka, (sister), please don’t remove your slippers. Your feet will develop blisters treading over the hot, stone steps. Keep your slippers on, and I will tell you when and where to remove them!”
I turned in the direction of the voice. A young boy emerged from the overgrown bushes bordering the side of the steps. He was probably thirteen or fourteen years of age, of medium height, slightly built, wearing a faded shirt and trousers with a tattered scarf tossed jauntily across his neck. This young man looked at me straight in my eyes not in an insolent manner, but instead, with the attitude of someone who knew me well and could take the liberty of giving me guidance.

Keeping my slippers on and persuading my friend to do so as well, I started to climb the steps, at quite a fast pace.
I did not really turn back to see if this young lad was following. I just wanted to climb this hill in silence with my thoughts focused on the Lord and was quite apprehensive that this young boy might attach himself to me, pester our group with unwanted information and then demand money!

For a short while I climbed up the steps, steadily, mentally chanting the name “Skanda, Muruga”, as I made the ascent. The heat and humidity made the going tough and my friend was trailing behind. I paused for a moment to get my breath back and take in the view. The young boy had been walking behind me, chatting with our car driver and came bounding towards me as soon as saw me stop. He seemed completely unaffected either by the heat or the steep climb.

“Akka, I know these hills really well. You know, you could get lost very easily if you proceed alone, because there are many paths in this mountain.”
I looked at him and asked “Do you live in this hill?”
The boy was swift with his response “I have known nothing except this hill ever since I was born. This hill is my home. I simply love it and know every inch of this place. I know all the secret caves where the Siddhas live; all the animals that live here; and all the stories and legends associated with Muruga. There is an old man who lives in a cave on the top of the hill. He taught me all the stories about Muruga and Valli. I am a very fast learner. Within a year I knew all these stories by heart!”
He looked at me proudly.
It was only then that I took a proper look at his face. Huge eyes, innocent, yet at the same time wise. Angular features, and that sudden flashing smile that lit up his entire face and made his eyes glow brightly!

“ Where do your parents live?” I asked the lad as we resumed climbing the hill.
“ Oh, I don’t really have any parents. I think they died when I was very young. The people living in this hill regard me as their child and love me. I grew up here and everyone who lives in this village, I look upon as my family”.

We came to what looked like a resting place, half way up the hill. The boy called out to us “ Remove your slippers here. “ We did so, and the boy continued “ You see this huge stone slab? Well, it is under this stone platform that many siddhaas still live, doing yogic penance. Whatever you wish for here, will come true”.
The boy told us to kneel on this little stone platform, pay our respects, and pray.

We carried on our ascent. The young boy, by now, had completely “attached” himself to all three of us. Also, as there were indeed many twists and turns in the path ahead, we thought it might be prudent to use this boy as our guide.
“ Where are you taking us first?”, I queried.
The boy replied “ First, I take you to the temple for Pongi Amma ( Valli) and Murugan.
Then, I shall lead you further up the mountain to where the Ashram is located and show you the Samadhi of the Swamiji who established the ashram. There are several interesting rock formations along the way and I will point these out to you as we make our way. There is also a small idol of Valli Amma that was worshiped by the Swamiji. It is located on the rock where the Swami first got a glimpse of the lovely, young damsel Valli. I will show you this as well. But you have to walk fast as the sun will set soon and there are no electric lights on the mountain”.

We hastened our pace and went to the hill top temple. On the way the young boy showed us several caves on the mountainside where he claimed Siddhas still lived and come out after night fall. “ No one climbs this hill after sunset. There are no lights and it is dangerous as there are lots of animals and snakes in these bushes. Of course, I have no fear. I can recognize the sound and smell of each animal and am not afraid of peacocks or snakes”. “Look”, he suddenly stopped and gestured “ This is the spot where the peacocks come to dance”.

Chatting to this interesting lad made all of us forget the heat and exertion from the climb and very soon we reached the hill top abode of Skanda.
The boy remained outside in the still, intense sunlight, while we made our way inside the dark, gloomy, rock cave housing the shrine of Lord Skanda and his consorts.

To the left of the main entrance there is a sculpture of Goddess Valli, a very fluid piece of art capturing the sense of movement and rhythm. Inside the inner sanctum, and up a few more steps is the main deity, Lord Karthikeya, seated on his peacock with Valli and Deivayanai at his side. An old priest lit the customary camphor and waved it in front of the idol. It was very hot inside the cave and stifling due to the lack of air. Two old men were seated cross legged in front of the sanctum, absorbed in deep meditation. As we were leaving, the old priest shuffled up to us and, with the camphor still aglow, pointed out a small opening to the right hand side of the cave. There was a small ledge jutting out of the rock directly below this opening , enabling us to stand and get a better view of the inside of this interesting cave. While the mouth of this opening was very narrow, I could see a few steps sloping down and with the help of the lamp, I could just discern the cave widening into a passage!
The old man explained that this was a tunnel linking Valli Malai with Tiruttani, yet another famous hill top abode of Skanda. The story goes that Muruga eloped with Valli, from this very cave, traveled down the tunnel to Tiruttani, where he then married her.

We came out of the cave, into the faltering sunlight. It was close to half-past five in the late afternoon and we probably had an hour left before sunset to see all the other interesting places in this hill.
Our “guide” was waiting patiently outside. We started to climb up the hillside again. This time, there were no proper stone steps. Instead we had to clamber up smooth, slippery stones using our hands for support. We saw the rock where Valli ground turmeric for her use in her bath. Yellowish- orange streaks seemed to cover the entire crevice in the hillside and stood out in sharp contrast to the brown and sandy- colored rocks elsewhere around us.
Soon, we made our way past the interesting rock shaped in the form of Lord Ganesha and finally caught a glimpse of little “Valli” or “Pongi” as she is called.
The word “Pongi”, in Tamil literally means exuberant or overflowing. The story goes that this is indeed the spirit of this mountain; filled with love and joy that is constantly brimming and flowing over into the hearts of all those who visit Valli in her home!

Satchidananda Swamigal, who first established this temple for Murugan is supposed to have witnessed Valli, as a young girl of twelve, singing songs happily, seated on a rock. Today, on that very rock is an image of her, as young girl filled with love and mischief.
I looked at Her and saw Bala in my mind!
We visited the Samadhi of this saint, who had made Murugan’s Tirupugazh songs famous, and then started our descent down the hillside, past the romantic spot where Valli and Murugan had their daily rendezvous, sang and danced away down the slopes of this beautiful hillock!

I was hurrying down the steep stone steps, as the light was beginning to fade quite rapidly. The young boy was helping each of us descend carefully, telling us where to place our feet lest we slipped. Suddenly, it struck me that none of us had actually enquired what his name was!
Just as I was about to ask him this, a couple of lads came rushing up the hill. These boys seemed to know our guide really well. They laughed and greeted each other and carried on their way to the ashram. I asked our guide “ What is your name. You never really told us your name and we have been with you for quite a long time”.
The boy laughed “ Oh, you know, I really don’t have a name. People call me by different names. Some call me Murugan; others call me Korangu (monkey), because I can imitate the voice of a monkey really well. I can talk to the animals, you know. I am also called Yama ( name for the Lord of Death), because I can really put an end to a lot of unnecessary pranks that some people can get up to”.

For the first time that evening, this reply unnerved me completely. I looked at this boy again. He was a total natural. Completely innocent, extremely happy in demeanor and had gone out of his way to help us find our way in the mountainside.
Murugan continued” Those boys are my friends. You see, they go to school and study. But, I don’t. Yet, I know everything. I can tell you when it is going to rain, where it is going to rain. I know the habits of animals and people. I do not really need to study”.

By this time we had reached the bottom of the hill. Murugan had led us down using a different route that he explained was shorter. Just on cue, as we reached the bottom of the hill safely, the sun set and dusk fell swiftly. Five minutes later, we would have been stumbling on the hillside in the dark.
All three of us thanked Murugan profusely. He insisted that we should visit the temple at the base of the hill as well quickly. As we walked to this temple, Murugan came to my side and said “ Akka, I want to show you something. You see, I like to draw very much and I have painted some Gods. I want you to see them!”
Somewhere at the back of my mind, I realized this was no ordinary conversation. I told him to get his pictures. He ran away quickly as we entered the temple.
About ten minutes later after we had a darshan of the Lord , and, as we were heading towards the car, Murugan came rushing towards us at top speed carrying a book in his hand.
Very proudly, he showed us the deities he had drawn. Ganesha, Ambal, Murugan and Karumariamman.
As we prepared to leave, I gave him Rs. 500 just by way of thanking him for his help. He took the money in his hand and said “ How much is this Akka.?”.
The simplicity and innocence moved all of us who were present. My driver told him to be careful with the money as he would get a lot of food to eat using it”.
My friend asked him” You seem such a bright, energetic boy. Since you don’t have parents why don’t you come to the big city with us. We can take care of you and give you work, food and shelter.”
Murugan laughed “ No Akka, not for any amount of money will I leave this hill. This is my home. I was born here and I will always be here. Money is not important for me. The people in this village take good care of me. They are here for me and they are my family. I can’t really leave them”.

We said good bye to this boy and started our journey homewards. All three of us had the same thought in our minds. This was no ordinary boy. This was indeed a divine child, the Lord Murugan himself who had walked with us, laughed with us, guided us, and given advice to us”.

To us, He was the spirit of the mountains, the same Bala Murugan who danced with Valli on the hillside and continues to dance in our hearts today.

Om Sharavana Bhavaya Namah

Chapter 47

During the third week of February, 2008, Sri Ezhilmani’s 70th birthday was celebrated once more. This time, it was on the day his birth star coincided. An abhishekam was to be done at the shrine of Thillai Kaali, in Chidambaram, as well as at the Goddess Raja Rajeshwari shrine at Tirumeeyachur. Visits to the famous Abhiraami Amman at Tirukkadayur as well Goddess Saraswathi at Koothanur were also scheduled.

Since the main event was being held at the Abhirami temple in Tirukkadaiyur, I decided to meet up with the family from Nemili there, on Saturday, February23rd.

I also thought I could squeeze in a visit to a few more temples in the vicinity, on this trip.

In particular, I thought I could visit the national heritage Chola temple at Gangai Konda Cholapuram; pray to the Garbarakshaambikkai Amman at Tirukarukaavur, see the splendour of Lord Shiva in his wedding attire as he weds Parvathi at Tirumananjeri; and perhaps, a few more important pilgrim sites in the surrounding areas of Tanjavur and Kumbakonam.

Little did I know that Bala’s plans for me were completely different.

I caught up with Sri Ezhilmani’s family at Chidambaram, the first stop.

Forty odd family members descended from a huge bus at around 8 a.m. and went inside a nearby restaurant to eat breakfast. I didn’t go up to meet them. Instead, I thought I could get a head start by obtaining a darshan of Lord Nataraja. The main sanctum appeared quite deserted at this time and I was able to stand up close to the Lord while the morning puja was being conducted. Later, I wandered around the many shrines inside this vast temple complex and finally came upon the family group from Nemili just as the 10 a.m. puja was about to start. Since I had already witnessed one such puja earlier, I took leave of them and said I would meet with them , later that evening, at Tirukkadaiyur. This was their final destination for the evening, following an abhishekam for Thillai Kaali.

I departed in my car for the temple of Thillai Kaali. I heard a small voice telling me that I should really be visiting these temples along with the family instead of doing my own tour and meeting up with them when it was convenient to me. Also, my hotel for that night had been booked at Kumbakonam, quite a distance from Tirukkadaiyur where the other members of the party were staying. I got the uneasy feeling this was not going to be all right.

However, I shook off these thoughts and went ahead.

I did get a darshan of Thillai Kaali. It was perhaps not the very best, because when I walked in arrangements were being made to perform the abhishekam a bit later, and I did not get to see this powerful goddess in all her decorated glory.

My next intended stop was the ancient Chola monument at Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Built by the son of the Raja Raja Cholan, this temple, although smaller than the Big Temple at Tanjore, is nonetheless considered to be a national heritage site.

However, we lost valuable time trying to locate the exact route to take and when we did find the road, there was a huge blockade by protesting villagers. As it was already mid-afternoon, I abandoned the idea of visiting this temple and proceeded onwards to my hotel at Kumbakonam. It had been my intention to use Kumbakonam as a base to explore the region. I had rejected the idea of staying at Tirukkadaiyur (with the Nemili family), because I didn’t think the hotels in that village were comfortable. However, the hotel I had picked out in Kumbakonam, Le Garden, did not really live up to my expectations. However, due to lack of any alternative accomodation, I decided to stay there for the scheduled two nights.

After some lunch and a short rest, I departed for Thirukkadaiyur since I had agreed to meet the family at the temple by six p.m. En route, I intended to visit Tirukarukaavur to obtain darshan of Goddess Garbarakshambikkai ( the Goddess who protects the womb and blesses childless couples). However, we soon discovered that visiting this temple involved a considerable detour and decided to see it the following morning instead.

On the way to Tirukkadaiyur, we did manage to pass quickly by Thirumananjeri. The temple here attracts a lot of pilgrims since the legend goes that unmarried men and women whose marriages are getting postponed will soon find their life partners, if they pray at this sacred spot where Lord Shiva married Parvathi!

That evening, this temple was thronged with young boys, girls and their families. The temple shop was doing a brisk business selling baskets filled with puja materials. I watched, fascinated, as a slow moving line of youngsters purchased these kits and then went to sit in a cordoned off area. The priests soon appeared and carried out a mass puja, screaming out the names, birth stars and gothrams of each of these young hopefuls waiting to get married.
I craned my neck to get a good view of the main sanctum.

The idol of Lord Shiva standing near a rather shy Parvati, as bride, is a rare and beautiful sculpture. I left hurriedly, just as a priest pressed me to buy a basket of puja materials, so I could take my place in the queue!

I reached Tirukkadaiyur just before six o clock. We drove by the hotel where the family from Nemili were put up and after paying my respects to Sri Ezhilmani and his wife,I proceeded to the temple directly, hoping (once again), to have a darshan before their group arrived.

Again, that “little voice” repeated I should wait for them. But I did not listen to it!
As I got down from the car at the temple, four buses drew up and to my dismay, hordes of school girls descended!
There was no point trying to go inside the sanctum now as I would definitely be jostled by this crowd.
I sat in the prakaram outside the main sannidhi waiting for the chattering girls to file past.
Half an hour must have elapsed before I was able to step inside the temple and just as I prepared to go inside, Sri Ezhilmani and his family arrived.

It was obvious to me by now that I should not have made any plans to just take off and visit temples on my own. This visit was in honour of Sri Ezhilmani. Bala was bringing her favorite son to all the temples to bless him on his birthday. That explained why I had been unable to proceed too far with my own plans.

I had foolishly planned to leave Tirukkadaiyur within half an hour of my arrival that evening in order to get a glimpse of Goddess Saraswathi at Koothanur, nearby.

However, this plan too had to be abandoned. It was eight in the evening before I was able to leave Trukkadaiyur. Bala parayanam members , including myself, sat in the temple precincts and sang a new song written by Babaji. This song was a vote of “thanks” to Bala for her unseen hand guiding us through a myriad of difficulties in life.
Babaji distributed a small pamphlet with the words of the song printed in it.

As I turned the book over, on the back cover, right at the bottom, I spotted the words
“ With thanks from Uma Shiv Kumar”.
Somehow, it seemed to indicate that I had perhaps not exhibited sufficient gratitude to Bala.

I discarded all my pre arranged plans for the next day. Instead, I enquired about the schedule for the Nemili family. I decided to meet them at Tirumeeyachur the following morning.

It was a long drive back to Kumbakonam for the night. I could not really get a good night’s sleep and we had an early start next morning.
The next morning, I just wanted to go to Tirumeeyachur. However, my driver pointed out that Tirukarukavur was on the way, so suggested we visit this temple first!

I should have known better about Bala!!
The bridge across the river, leading to the temple of Garbarakshambikai was in a state of disrepair. Villagers nearby told us we could walk up easily and that it was a short distance.
Well, it took us longer than expected to reach the temple. When we arrived, the gates were shut. After a long wait, a priest came in and we walked into the sanctum of the goddess.
Diversion to this temple had cost us valuable time and I hoped we would be able to reach Tirumeeyachur on time
I prayed sincerely to Bala and asked her forgiveness. I hadn’t understood the reason for all the delays and thwarted plans! Surely, I had done nothing wrong?
The answer was simple. “Sri Ezhilmani appears as a simple, humble person. However his true capabilities and powers are concealed cleverly by Bala, so that even he is unaware of his own divinity. Travelling with him is an unique opportunity. You do not realize the true significance of this rare chance”.

This was proved very true!

Walking with Sri Ezhilmani inside the temple at Tirumeeyachur seemed more magical compared with previous trips I had taken by myself. The whole atmosphere was charged with an unseen force.
Witnessing the Abhishekam of the supreme goddess, Raja Rajeshwari, singing Bala’s songs in the sanctum and just participating in this temple event along with the family was truly uplifting!
I shall never forget that experience!

We visited Koothanur that morning as well, to pay homage to the Goddess of learning. It was very crowded inside the temple, in sharp contrast to my earlier visit last year. However, I was able to stand on a bench by the entrance and get a good darshan.
The group proceeded then proceeded to yet another temple nearby enshrining the very first, or “Aadhi Vinayakar”.

Situated in a sleepy village called Thilatharpanapuri, this temple houses the rare image of Vinayaka with a human head!
Nearby, is a larger temple for Lord Shiva as Muktheeswarar. In the prakaram of this temple is an interesting sculpture showing Lord Rama doing puja for a Shiva Lingam. The legend says that on his way back from Sri Lanka, Lord Rama stopped at this place to perform rites for the soul of his departed father.

Following a wonderful darshan at this temple, I took leave of Sri Ezhilmani and his family. They were returning home, while I pressed on to visit a few more sacred temples.

The Healing Mother at Velankanni Church ( near Nagapattinam), had always been on my wish list of temples to visit. Although a centre of Christian worship, the main deity here, a form of Virgin Mary bearing the infant Jesus in her arms, is, in my opinion, no different from the many forms of Shakthi in Hindu worship.

Vedaranyam, my next stop, houses a very important Shaivaite temple. One of the SaptaVitanka Shetrams, this famous temple has been visited by innumerable saints and glorified in sacred hymns.

It was from this spot, near the sea, that Lord Rama initially wished to build the bridge across to Sri Lanka prior to his battle with the demon Ravana.
However, Lord Shiva instructed Lord Rama to, instead, construct the bridge from Rameshwaram ( further south, along the sea coast).
It is believed that Lord Rama worshipped Shiva at this spot on his return to Ayodhya.

The drive from Vedaranyam down to Cape Calimere or Koddikkarai opens up a splendid vista of the low lying coastal area, famous for its mangrove swamps, wetlands and evergreen forests.
Point Calimere is renowned for its scenic beauty and is a sanctuary for migratory birds.
Deeply associated with legends from the Ramayana, there is a raised overlook point where Lord Rama is supposed to have stood , gazing at Sri Lanka, about 40 kilometres away. ‘Rama’s Feet or “Padam”, have been preserved on this hill top shrine.

The famous temple of Lord Krishna as Rajagopalaswami, at Mannargudi was yet another sacred spot I was fortunate to see on this trip.

After visiting the famous temples in the city of Kumbakonam, Lord Ramaswamy temple and Chakrapani temple, I ended my temple tour by visiting the magnificent remains of the Chola legacy at Gangai Konda Cholapuram.

I couldn’t help remembering all the foiled attempts to visit this and other temples during the past two days. In sharp contrast, I received a good darshan, now that Sri Ezhilmani’s birthday had been celebrated and the family had departed!

During the next three months I had a splendid opportunity to visit many, many, more temples in the states of Andhra, TamilNadu and Kerala.
The Kanakadurga temple in Andhra Pradesh is a popular and powerful Shakthi Peetam. Here, the great Goddess stands defiantly with weapons in all her eight arms, trampling underfoot, the demon Mahishasuran, piercing him with her sharp trident!

I revisited the holy abode of the Lord of Tirumala several time during this period . And there were some repeat visits to Darasuram ( near Kumbakonam), to receive the blessings of Lord Sarabeswara ,Anthamangalam , famous for its powerful Anjaneya and Tirunallaru to obtain the darshan of Lord Saturn.

Closer to Chennai I made frequent day trips covering a lot of famous temples nearby. Among these:
The Golden temple at Vellore, is an opulent temple set amidst hundred acres of beautifully landscaped gardens. Yet, I found this peaceful and tranquil abode of Mahalakshmi, completely devoid of spirituality. The temple seemed liked something out of an expensive studio set and the shops and restaurants nearby gave it the appearance of a theme park.

The Rathnagiri BalaMurugan temple, is set on the top of a hillock near Vellore.
The temple is an imposing structure built several decades ago. The resident Sage at this temple is a silent man called “Bala Murugan Adimai” who was responsible for founding this temple complex for his favorite Lord Skanda.

Bala Murugan Adimai has not spoken for nearly thirty years. People come to him with their problems and he writes down answers for a small fee!

Vallimalai is another lovely hill-top shrine for Lord Muruga.
I had an especially wonderful experience during this visit which I am happy to share with everyone.

Chapter 46

The first reason was that there was a tiny, bronze image of Bala that I had to return to the Peetam. The second was Bala’s summons to see an elderly aunt of mine.

The story behind the small bronze image of Bala is as follows. Just before the wedding, I received a gift from one of my mother’s cousins. Apparently this lady was a devotee of Bala Tripurasundari, (but not connected with Nemili Bala peetam). When she saw the image of Bala printed on my daughter’s wedding invitation, she decided to gift me a small statue of Bala that she had in her house. Apparently, this lady had placed an order at a local brassware shop for one small idol of Bala to keep and worship in her puja room. However, the shopkeeper made two of them. So, she decided to keep one and gift me the other. She sent the image to my home in Chennai, as she was unable to attend the wedding.

I received this idol with great delight. Here was Bala seated on her lotus pedestal, a young girl with smiling eyes and a long braid of hair thrown over her left shoulder.
I took the small statue into my Puja room and placed it near the portrait of Bala. Almost instantaneously, I received a directive. “Take this figure of mine to the Peetam. Don’t keep it in your Puja room”.

I was puzzled. However, I took this image away from the Puja room and left it on an undisturbed corner of the kitchen counter, meaning to take it in to the peetam on my next trip.

This episode occurred in November, 2007. Since then, I made innumerable visits to Nemili. However, every single time, I kept forgetting to take this statue with me.

On the Thursday of the third week in Thai, as I did my usual prayers to Bala, I received strong mental suggestions to pick up the phone and call my aunt. Now, this lady is extremely pious and had in fact called me up after the wedding was over, requesting me to take her to Nemili on one of my visits. Somehow, I had been unable to do so.

Today, I picked up the phone and dialed her number. As soon as she came on the line, I knew something was wrong. Her mood and tone indicated sadness. There were many problems in her household. Her grandson’s wedding wasn’t getting fixed despite many efforts over the past year. Also, there were some health problems faced by members of her family.
Hearing her dejected voice, I said “Why don’t you come with me to Nemili tomorrow?”
I’m going there anyway because I have been translating some of Babaji’s writings into English and I have to give him the documents. Do come with me!”

My Aunt agreed without a moment’s hesitation to accompany me.

The following afternoon, I set off with my aunt, armed with the copies of the translated work for Babaji. I got inside the car, ready to leave, when I just remembered there was no water bottle inside. I quickly dashed into the Kitchen and then saw the little idol of Bala sitting patiently by the Kitchen Sink, waiting to be taken to Nemili!

Soon, my aunt and I reached Sri Bala Peetam. It was around 5 p.m. on that Friday, the third and most important ‘Thai Velli”.
I introduced my aunt to Sri Ezhilmani and his wife. We listened to a few songs of Bala, seated by the peetam. Sri Ezhilmani gave his usual speech that he reserves for newcomers.
When he said the usual bit about how “all Kumba Raasi people must come to the peetam”, my aunt burst into tears. Apparently, she belonged to this minority!
It was obvious that my aunt was completely overwhelmed. She sat there in front of Bala, weeping like a small child. Fortunately, there were absolutely no visitors on that day and she had a free audience with Sri Ezhilmani. She related her problems to him and asked him to bless her.
Sri Ezhilmani gave her prasadam and told her in a reassuring manner that her grandson’s wedding would be fixed very quickly, that people suffering from ill health in her family would make a speedy recovery, and that the patter of tiny feet would be soon heard for those in the family who were childless.

Before leaving the peetam, I bought a few CDs for my aunt. I thought she might enjoy listening to Bala’s songs. I also got her a Bala parayanam book.

I almost forgot, again, that little idol of Bala I had hastily stuffed into my handbag. I brought it out hesitantly and told Sri Ezhilmani its little story and how I had been instructed to bring it to the peetam.
There was huge smile on Sri Ezhilmani’s face. Before he could say anything, Baby Amma walked in, saw the tiny idol, and exclaimed, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to have a small Utsava Murthy for Bala.” Sri Ezhilmani remarked that this was the best gift for his birthday!
Both of them repeated that it was an auspicious day to bring this image in.

Once again, I continued to stand in awe, a mere onlooker , witnessing the many miracles performed by this supreme Goddess, within whom all Gods reside!

Returning home, I prayed to Bala that my aunt’s family should find relief from their problems.

Hardly a week passed before I received the news that my aunt’s grandson’s wedding had been fixed. Also, from the relief I could hear in her voice, I knew that most of her problems were on the mend.
I thanked Bala sincerely, from the bottom of my heart.

Following this visit, I made two more trips to Nemili taking a few of my cousins to receive Bala’s grace. One cousin was desperate to get her daughter’s wedding fixed. Sri Ezhilmani’s reply was characteristic. “Fix up your wedding mandapam. Bala will find you a suitable groom”.
Within two months of this visit, I am happy to write that this child’s marriage has also been fixed!

There was yet another incident where my husband’s aunt had come in from Kolkata to Chennai for an eye operation. I went to meet her before the operation and found her very tense. Reaching into my handbag, I took out a small photo of Bala and gave it to her along with kumkum prasadam. I told her I would pray to Bala for her , on the day of the operation.

A few days later, this aunt called me and said that it was surely Bala who had helped her and given her the confidence to go through a tricky surgery.!

Sri Ezhilmani always says” Bala will treat you with just the same amount of love and affection you show to her”.
This is so true.

My life has been taken over completely by Bala. I don’t think there can be a moment when I’m not either thinking of her or remembering her family, or going over all those extraordinary experiences. If I write these lines today, they are at Her command.
Last night I thought to myself “ Who is going to read this blog-diary?”

I don’t know the answer. Perhaps Bala does.

However, I can state this firmly. Regardless of how many, or how few people have read these writings, I’m happy, because I have fulfilled what this divine child has asked me to do.

Chapter 45

The nine Nrisimhas ( half lion- half-man ,incarnation of Lord Vishnu) of Ahobilam, are part of the holy 108 Divya Desams, or Divine abodes, of Lord Vishnu and is the seat of the Ahobilam Mutt.
There are many legends associated with Lord Nrisimha’s incarnation and the nine forms he has manifested here, in the heart of the Vedatri mountains.
The Ugra Stambam ( literally meaning, fierce pillar), is a giant column of rock at the very summit of this mountain. According to legend, Lord Vishnu burst forth from this pillar, in answer to his devotee Prahlada’s prayers and killed the latter’s demon father, Hiranyakasipu.

In fact, the entire mountain range is considered to have constituted the palace of the demon king. There are many caves situated in these mountains that contain self- manifested idols of Lord Vishnu as Narasimha. It is considered very auspicious if a devotee manages to obtain a darshan of all nine shrines to Lord Nrisimha in the same day.

This is quite a feat of physical stamina, as many of the shrines are inside inaccessible caves, and reaching them involves a fair bit of trekking and climbing through remote areas of the Nallamala forest range.
The hills forming the mountain range are considered very auspicious as well. They personify Lord Vishnu’s serpent, Adisesha, whose head constitutes the sacred seven hills of Tirumala; the middle , these hills at Ahobilam and whose tail portion form the physical landscape at SriSailam( another consecrated spot).

I was fortunate to visit all the nine sacred shrines for Lord Nrisimha in just one day!

The first shrine visited was that of Kroda Nrisimhar. This “angry” form of the Lord is situated inside a tiny cave. Here he is seen in his “boar” incarnation, rescuing mother earth, personified as a goddess , on his protruding tusks.

“Jwala” means fire, and the shrine for Jwala Narasimhar sees the Lord at the height of his fury, tearing the flesh of his enemy, the demon, Hiranya.

As Malola Narasimhar, the Lord is more peaceful and is seen alongside his beloved consort Lakshmi, in sharp contrast to his “Ugra” or fierce form in the sanctum at Upper Ahobilam. It is said that this temple for Ahobilam Narasimhar, is the earliest of all the nine temples. Set inside a cave at the foot of the sacred hills, Lord Narasimha is seated with the demon, Hiranya, on his lap.
Legend goes that Aadi Shankara, the founder of Advaita, sang his famous “ Lakshmi Karavalamba Stotram” at this spot after his hand that had been cut off by demons was cured miraculously. It was also here that Garuda, the eagle mount of Lord Vishnu, obtained a darshan of the lord in his terrifying form of Lord Nrisimha.

The shrine for Karanja Narasimha is famous since it was here that Hanuman did penance to get a glimpse of his Lord Rama. So, Lord Narasimha at this shrine carries a bow and arrow in his hand to symbolize the presence of Rama and is seen under the canopy provided by his serpent, Adi Sesha. There is a shrine to the devout Hanuman here, directly facing the sanctum of the Lord.

Pavana Nrisimhar’s shrine is set deep inside the Garudatri forest lined with bamboo and teak trees. It is believed that the sight of the Lord seated with Senju Lakshmi, his consort, will dissolve all sins. “Senju” refers to the tribespeople who lived in these mountains and the story goes that Lord Vishnu married a girl from this sect in order to extend his blessings to them.

Bargava Narasimhar’s shrine is set on top of another hillock. It is said that Bhargava or Lord Parasumrama did penance here to get a sight of Lord Vishnu in his fierce form as Nrisimhar. So, the Lord gave Bargava a splendid darshan at this spot, including a vision of all his ten incarnations!

As Chatravad Nrisimhar, the Lord is seen in a happy mood enjoying the music of two divine singers, Aaha and Uuhu. With a smile on his lips, here is a peaceful Lord!

Yogananda Narasimhar is seen seated in a yogic pose. It is said that Lord Vishnu taught Yoga to his devotee Prahlada, at this spot.

The tenth temple for Lord Narasimha is located in Lower Ahobilam and here the Lord gives darshan as Lakshmi Nrisimhar, with Mother Lakshmi seated on his lap. This is a huge temple with magnificent stone sculptures and a seven tiered gopuram.

I was indeed extremely lucky to have the opportunity to do this trip. I had been a bit concerned about being able to climb over rocky terrain and manage the steep ascent upto the hill- top cave- shrines. However, just before our group started out, I prayed to Bala and read her Andadi. There is no doubt that She heard my prayers!

Upon my return to Chennai, I got the painting of Bala framed and it was on the second auspicious Friday, in the month of “Thai” ( January 25th), that this was delivered to Sri Bala Peetam at Nemili. I had intended to take it on February 3rd for Sri Ezhilmani’s birthday. However, as always, Bala’s plans were different!.

I was destined to make one more trip to Nemili, the very next week, on a Friday as well. There seemed to be two reasons for this, which I realized much later, of course.