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.