Of course, Bala, is a remarkable, mischievous, child- Goddess. Her schemes for me had started a long time ago, in 2002 or even earlier than that!
She had endowed me with the “gift” of being able to paint many deities. She saw to it that I was involved in executing each painting, filled with nothing but love for the respective deity. She made sure I had no inkling of what I was going to do with all these paintings.
In fact, I had written a letter to the Bala Peetam from London, way back in November 2005, when my daughter was ill, seeking Her blessings for a quick recovery. I remember attaching another small request at the end of this letter. “ I don’t really know why I’m doing all these paintings. I only wish that these paintings and my writings can be of some use to humanity. I wish to be of service to you and your family”.
Bala had heard my request and in her own inscrutable manner, She had made sure that my paintings reached her.
Even as I write this diary, I as yet have little idea of why I have this urge to keep a record of all the events that have happened in my life. Sri Ezhilmani asked me to narrate the story of how my daughter’s wedding got fixed and was performed by Bala. I am merely carrying out his instructions. The rest is up to Bala!
In the same manner, it was Bala who ensured that I did the two large portraits of her for the Peetam a year ago. She had engineered every episode of my life and and that of my family’s, just in order for all my paintings to reach her abode during Navarathri 2007.
Sri Ezhilmani put across his opinion, which summed up the whole episode.
He said, “If Bala had commanded you to draw 103 portraits of various deities, you would never have been able to finish that work. The sheer mental pressure that the project should be perfect, and finished on time, would have ensured the opposite result.
However, over the past few years, Bala has made sure that you had no clue about what you were going to do with your paintings. You did each painting meditating and concentrating only on that particular deity. You were wholly immersed in your work and let no other thought, or any imagined pressure that you had to complete this project on time, bother you.
Now, that the task is over, Bala has collected back from you what she wanted, in a manner that didn’t make you feel sad, or in any case, deprived, for giving these paintings away. That is the beauty, that is the Glory, that is the play of the mischievous Bala for you!”
He laughed resoundingly as I stood open- mouthed, in awe.
During the Navarathri period of 2007, I decided to visit a few temples in Tamilnadu. I should rather say that Bala arranged this trip for me. Fortunately, I found a traveling companion and set off on a pilgrimage for a few days, although the first starting point was the Bala Peetam at Nemili, on October 15th.
How did Bala “arrange” this pilgrimage?
After giving away all my paintings to the Nemili Peetam, I returned home and placed a small photograph of Nemili Bala that Sri Ezhilmani had given me in my Puja room. Although I had given away most of my paintings, there was just one left. This was the massive portrait of my Guru, Sri Santhananda Swamigal. I had done this portrait whilst in London several years ago. I placed it in my puja room, against the side wall. I positioned another photograph, of Maha Periyava of Kanchi, on the opposite wall.
The tiny picture of Baala was flanked by these two most revered sages.
I sat down in front of Bala to meditate. However, a small inner voice kept cropping up preventing my peace of mind. This voice was saying: “ Remove the portraits of both these Gurus. Didn’t I ask you to place just my photo in your Puja room?”
I had heard this “inner voice” on several occasions. This was the same voice that gave me instructions and commands. By now, I had learned to distinguish this divine voice from the random thoughts and fantasies of my own mind. This time, however, I pretended not to hear it . After all, I reasoned to myself, what harm can the portraits of two holy men do, that too in my puja room?
I tried as hard as I could to concentrate my mind on Bala for the next half-hour, but found it almost impossible since the inner voice kept repeating the same message.
Finally, I got up and moved both portraits into the next room, closing the door. The Puja room now housed Bala alone.
Once again, I sat down to meditate. This time I could hear Bala very clearly.
“I can be the only person to sit inside this room. You are all alone in this house and I will see to it that no harm comes to you.
You can give away the painting of your Guru to the Bhuvaneswari Peetam in Pudukkottai. He was only a guide in your spiritual path and has brought you to me. From now on, I shall be your friend, family, Guru and Guide. You need no one else”.
All this was said very quickly, almost before I could comprehend what was happening.
It had been my intention to donate my Guru’s painting to the temple he built, at Skandashramam in Tambaram.
However, here was Bala, clearly asking me to take it to Pudukkottai, near Trichy!
The next day, I made arrangements for this portrait to be packed and shipped to Pudukkottai, to coincide with my arrival a few days later.
Since I had no choice but to follow Her instructions, and since my trip involved visiting Trichy, I thought I could add visits to a few more holy places to my journey, thus completing a pilgrimage during this holy period.
I began my pilgrimage by visiting Nemili on Monday, October 15th. Navarathri celebrations at the Peetam were in full swing and I sat for a while absorbing the peaceful atmosphere. I prayed to Bala that she should always be with me, guiding me on my spiritual path. I prayed that my temple tour should proceed smoothly and that I should obtain a good darshan at all the temples I intended to visit.
Bala’s quick reply came: ‘ You will get a very good darshan at all temples, because I will be with you. In each temple I will make you stand directly in front of the main sanctum, almost as if no one else can intervene in the space between the Supreme Deity and yourself. However, you cannot talk about this to anyone, until the end of this trip”.
And, just as I took leave of Sri Ezhilmani and his wife, a lightning instruction was passed on “ Do a portrait of me, just as you see me in the peetam; a tiny thumb sized idol hiding in the huge circular skirt (pavadai)”.
My immediate reaction was: “ How will I have time to do another painting? I have still so much work to do in getting the house organized; I have not even started wedding arrangements. Here I am, embarking on a pilgrimage because Bala instructed me to go to Pudukkottai. That tour itself is going to take a week to complete. As it is, my mother cannot not understand why I keep “running off” to Nemili so frequently and is really concerned about my state of mind!”
These thoughts were uppermost in my mind. However, I had the full belief that Bala would never forsake me. Somehow, She would make sure that I could accomplish what she wanted me to.
I proceeded on my journey revisiting many of the temples I had gone to the previous year.
Thiruvakkarai, abode of the mesmerizing and powerful Kali was my first stop. Here, as Bala had just said, the inner sanctum was completely empty. I thought it was quite strange to find the temple so completely deserted, that too on a holy day. Nevertheless, I went inside and the priest took special care to perform a small puja for this powerful deity. He instructed me to walk around the sanctum five times, both in an anti clockwise as well as in a clockwise manner, and tied a red thread on my wrist. “Pray sincerely to this Kali. She will surely help you”.
I did as I was told. I prayed to Kali to give me the mental and physical strength to do a portrait of her child Bala.
In fact, at all subsequent temples I visited, this was my prayer. I beseeched each deity to help me paint a lovely portrait of the tiny Bala, smiling enigmatically while perched amidst the vast folds of an enormous skirt!
Following a visit to the famous Manakula Vinayaka temple in Pondicherry, I rested there for the first night.
The next morning found my companion and I speeding on our way to the famous Shiva temple at Tirupaadripuliyur, near Cuddalore. I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit here last year, and cherished the opportunity to sit once again in meditation at the holy spot where Goddess Parvathi once performed penance, as Arun Thava Naayaki.
We visited the holy abode of Lord Nataraja at Chidambaram next, and the Lord of Dance gave us a magnificent Darshan. We paid our respects to the powerful Kali at the outskirts (Ellai) of Chidambaram before proceeding on to Sirgazhi and Tirukkadaiyur in quick succession. At all these temples, there appeared to be hardly any crowds and I found myself walking straight up to the inner sanctum in a matter of minutes to obtain a superb darshan of the deity!
At Sirgazhi, I climbed up the steep steps to the very top of the temple tower to receive the blessings of Lord Shiva and Parvathi, in their very accessible, human form.
I sat in meditation before the sanctum of the famous Ashta Bhairavars, and then journeyed on to receive the grace of Abhiraami Amman at Tirukkadaiyur.
Many were the temples I was able to visit on this special temple trip, all with Bala’s blessings.
At Kadiramangalam, the Goddess of the forests ( Vana Durgai) stands tall and imposing with a sword by her side to vanquish all enemies. At Ayyavadi, a small village , six kilometers from Kumbakonam, Mahaa Prathyangira appears ferocious with her lion’s face and eight arms loaded with weapons banishing fear from the hearts of her devotees.
Lord Murugan, the warrior God presents a novel image at the Swarnapureeswarar temple in Azhagaputhur, by carrying a conch and chakra in his two hands, symbols of Lord Vishnu. The story goes that Lord Vishnu gave his two weapons ( the conch and discus) to Lord Muruga during his battle with the demon, or Soora Samharam. Lord Shiva resides here as Padikkasu Nathar. It is believed that monetary problems get swift relief when two coins are placed on the step, “Padi”, and then returned to the giver.
At Naachiyaar Koil, we saw Lord Vishnu in his form as Tirunaraiyur Nambi marrying his bride, Vanchulavalli Thaayaar, as the famous Kal Garudan, his mount, looks on.
Koothanoor, the only temple for the Goddess of arts and Knowledge, Saraswathi, sits by the Arasalar river. It was at this holy spot, where all the three holy waters from the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswathi mingle, that a devout but mute devotee by the name of Ottakoothar gained poetic ability through the grace of the Goddess.
When we visited the temple during this auspicious Navarathri period, the Goddess was decked fully with fruits, as Goddess Sakambari. This signifies the Goddess making sure that no one on earth suffers from lack of nourishment!.
We revisited Tiruvarur, the holiest of all Shaivaite temples in Tamil Naadu. Associated with the rich musical and spiritual tradition of dynasties past, this temple town was where the Carnatic music trinity, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Tyagaraja and Syama Sastri were all born.
One of the most important Sapta Vitanka Stalams associated with Lord Indra, Vishnu and the King Muchukunda Cholan, I came by the opportunity to savour the splendour of the evening puja and revisit the famous Kamalalayam tank. I was also able to get darshan of Goddess Kamalamba , made famous in the Navavarna krithis of Dikshitar.
Over the next few days, our journey covered many more interesting temples. Aadi Kumbeshwarar temple, in the heart of Kumbakonam, is over 1,300 years old and bears the unmistakable impressions from successive rulers of the Pallava, Chola , Pandya and Nayak reigns.
It was while I was standing in front of Lord Shiva in this massive sanctum at the Kumbeshwarar temple that I had another interesting experience. The sanctum was completely empty. In fact, my companion and I had arrived very early that morning and were the first devotees to walk inside.
All of a sudden a man entered the sanctum and without hesitation walked right up to my side. “ You must proceed to Thirupaamburam temple”, he said , and went on: “ You see , at this temple, both Rahu and Kethu are worshipped in a single form and worship here is very beneficial for those suffering from the malevolence of these two planets”.
I was very surprised as it certainly looked as if I was being asked to go there!
We enquired as to the wherabouts of this temple and the stranger insisted we should follow him as he was going in that direction on his scooter. He also instructed me to visit yet another Kali temple nearby, at Ambakathur.
According to legend, it was at Tirupamburam that the inflated and puffed up ego of the Snake God was quelled. This legend has it that Lord Ganapathi worshipped Shiva and bowed low in respect to him. Yet the snake worn by Shiva as an ornament on his head became angry that Ganesha did not bow to him deferentially as well.
So, in order to remove the serpent’s ego, Lord Shiva cursed the snake- king and ordered him to be deprived of all poison and venom. The only antidote to this curse could be obtained if the Snake- king came to Tirupamburam and worshipped Lord Shiva. It is said that in this village, even today, many snakes roam freely about and are regarded almost as pets. They don’t bite anyone!
Amban and Ambakasuran were two vain asuras who were vanquished by Kali at a place called Ambakathur. There is an imposing image of a very fierce Kali in the sanctum here. Once again, I was able to stand right in front of the main sanctum and obtain a wonderful darshan. I stood with my eyes closed, praying to the powerful goddess to help me carry out my painting of Bala without any disturbances after my pilgrimage was over. An instant message flashed into my mind.
“Visit the temple the priest is about to mention”.
I opened my eyes, the temple priest gave me prasadam and remarked to my companion. “ If you come to see Ambkathur Kali, you should also visit her son, Lord Skanda , who stands at Kandakudi temple, nearby”.
Soon, we were off to this temple. Asking for directions along the way, we soon reached Kandakudi. There was a slight drizzle of rain as we approachd the main gates of the temple. However, the temple gates seemed shut. I was about to turn away in disappointment when we spotted an old priest shuffling along the dusty road towards the entrance.
He was the only priest at this rather old, small temple.
Soon, I was standing in front of a superb bronze image of Lord Skanda seated on his peacock, with Valli and Devasena on either side.
Here, Devasena ( daughter of Lord Indra) did penance to marry Murugan , and Karthikeya stands valiantly at this spot ready to help his mother, Amakathur Kali, while she fights the two demons.
The sculpture of Lord Skanda at this temple is, quite simply, stunning. I had never seen a more handsome face sculpted to depict this warrior god in all the Murugan temples I had visited so far.
Just as we took leave, I drew the old priest aside and told him about the message I received from Ambakathur Kali. He smiled at me and said: “Why, everyone knows you can’t visit her without coming here as well. She told you herself because you were not aware of this”.
Tirumeeyachur is my favourite temple. On my visit this time, we entered just as the arathi was being shown to the Goddess, seated majestically on her throne, the temple reverberating with the chants of Sri Lalitha Sahasranamam.
After worshipping Lord Saneeswara at the famous temple at Tirunallar nearby, we traveled on towards Trichy, visiting more temples enroute.
I couldn’t resist another glimpse of Lord Skanda at Swamimalai, or the great Goddess Durga at Patteeswaram. At Nallur, I was able to revisit both the impressive sanctum for the Kali as well as to observe the Shiva Lingam that changes its colours every couple of hours throughout the day.
Ganapathy Agraharam, on the road to Tiruvaiyaru, is one of the oldest shrines to Lord Ganesha. Legend goes that the idol here was installed by Sage Agasthiyar. It is generally believed that most Brahmins originate from this area.
Tiruvaiyaru is a vast temple complex spanning over 15 acres, with five prakarams. Most of the temple does look dilapidated, but the shrines of Lord Shiva as Panchanadeeshwarar and that of his consort, Dharma Samvardhini, seemed vibrant and alive with a powerful mystical force. True to its traditions as a seat of Music and dance, a couple of concerts were going on in the temple precincts while we were there.
A fitting end to a day, as the dusk was swiftly falling on this ancient temple situated by the banks of the river Kaveri.
Saint Tyagaraja’s Samadhi is at the temple in Tiruvaiyaru, and it is believed that Lord Shiva obtained the name “ Pancha Nadeeshwarar” owing to the fact that five rivers including Kaveri converge at this sacred spot!
It was late afternoon on a Thursday when I reached Pudukkottai. The Bhuvaneswari Peetam was decorated beautifully since it was Navarathri, and a Chandi Homam was in progress as we walked in. I noticed that my painting of Sri Shanthananda Swamigal had reached the peetam earlier in the morning of the same day. However, the wooden packing it had come in had not yet been removed. Also the current Peetathibadhi, Omkarananda Swamigal, was at the Peetam and the administrator informed us that we might have to wait for a couple of hours to see him .
Consequently, we decided to visit the nearby town of Pillayarpatti during this time to obtain the darshan of the famous Pillayaar here. I was certainly visiting more temples than I had intended to!
Lord Ganesha was waiting for us adorned and bedecked in his Golden armor (Kavacham). Again, and much to my companion’s amazement, we were able to receive a superb darshan of this mighty lord, the remover of all obstacles.
We drove back to Pudukkottai just as the late evening puja was in progress. My painting had been uncovered and Swami Omkarananda gave me his blessings.
I felt a sense of relief that I had carried out Bala’s instructions. By coincidence, it was Thursday (Guru’s day).
We saw a few more temples in the vicinity of Trichy before returning to Chennai.
Thiruvellarai, a Vaishnavaite shrine and an important temple among the 108 Divya desams is about 30 odd kilometers from Trichy.
This ancient temple was in existence before Sri Rangam and is held extremely sacred by Vaishnavaites. The Lord is imposing as Pundarikakshan and stands alongside his consorts, Shenbagavalli and Pankayachelvi. There are two entrances in this temple, each reached by climbing 18 steps. The “Uttarayanam” entrance is opened from the months of Thai until Aadi and the “Dakshinayanam” entrance is opened during the other half of the year. Just outside the temple is an interesting temple pond in the shape of a Swastika, designed deliberately for privacy, so that bathers at each end of the pond cannot get a glimpse of the other side!
Tirupattur, another important Shaivaite shrine near Trichy has an imposing image of Lord Brahma. Apparently Brahma lost one of his five heads at the hands of an irate Shiva. At Tirupattoor, he did penance and regained both his lost head as well as his job of creating the universe.
I also revisited Tiruvaanaikaval and the famous Akhilandeshwari shrine as well as the Kula Deivam temple for Shiva at Tiruvaasi and, finally, the powerful Mariamman at Samayapuram.
On the journey back, my traveling companion remarked on the fact that we had obtained a really good darshan at each temple during this normally busy season. Even at Samayapuram, I was lucky enough to get a very clear and uninterrupted view of this great Goddess. In fact, I managed to stand on the step just inside the main sanctum , oblivious of the surging crowds behind me!
I thanked Bala from the depths of my heart and then told my friend about how this child goddess had arranged all these great darshans at each temple!
Back in Chennai, I realized I would have to start on the new painting immediately.