Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Spiritual Diary: Chapter 25

On the fourth day of our pilgrimage, we started off by taking a quick car drive around the famous Mahaa Maham Tank near the Adhi Kumbeshwara Temple in Kumbakonam. Taking a dip in the holy waters of this tank is supposed to be very auspicious especially during the Kumbh Mela which occurs once every 11- 12 years during the full moon in the monthof Thai( January/ Februray).

Sadly, we did not visit any of the famous temples in the city of Kumbakonam itself due to paucity of time and instead proceeded directly to a famous Vishnu temple nearby called Naachiyaar Koil.

Lord Srinivasa and his consort Vanjulavalli ( Mahalakshmi) bless pilgrims in their Thirumana Kolam ( married divine state) at a temple called Nachiar Koil, located in a hamlet called Thirunaraiyur on the outskirts of Kumbakonam.

This ancient and elegant temple is said to be one of the 108 Divya Desams of the Lord Vishnu and it is also a Mukthi Stala ( where one can attain liberation).

The legend goes that there was a sacred spot here on the banks of the river Mani Mutharu, where a sage by the name Medhavi and his wife lived in an ashram.

Sage Medhavi prayed earnestly that he might be blessed with a daughter no less than the great Goddess Mahalakshmi herself. His prayers were soon answered when he found a little child one day under the boughs of a Vanjula tree. Overjoyed, Medhavi named the little girl Vanjulavalli and brought her up with great love and care.

The years sped by and one day Lord Vishnu came seeking for his consort Mahalakshmi. Garudan, his divine mount is said to have spotted the location of Thaayar and brought Vishnu to sage Medhavi’s Ashram.

Lord Vishnu/ Srinivasa married Vanjulavalli and at the request of his father-in-law, stayed on in the sacred place where a temple later came into existence.

The temple itself is massive with sprawling corridors and beautifully decorated towers. In the main sanctum a huge stone statue of Lord Srinivasa resplendent with his wedding ornaments greeted us. Next to him is the smaller statue of his shy bride. The Divine couple serem to positively fill the atmosphere with their blessings surrounded by a host of accompanying deities , Devas and Lord Brahma.

Directly next to the sanctum is the shrine of the Kal Garudan.

The Garudan is made of Saligrama stone and it is an unique feature of this temple that the mount of Vishnu does not face him directly as at most other Vaishnavaite shrines. Instead, here at Nachiyar Koil, the Kal Garudan sits right next to his Lord.

There are nine snakes carved in stone on the body of Kal Garudan; on his arms, around his shoulder, etc and it is widely believed that worshipping Garudan here is equivalent to worshippng all the Navahgrahas and will get rid of the harmful effects of these planets.

Another interesting feature of this temple, we were informed, occurs during Garuda Seva when Lord Srinivasa and his consort are taken out in procession around the temple.

When the Kal Garudan is lifted out of the main sanctum only 4 people are required to carry him out. However as the procession descends the steps of the temple, Kal Garudan becomes increasingly heavier to carry and almost in geometric progression, it takes 8 people, followed by 16, 32, etc to carry out the Garuda Seva. Finally, when the procession reaches the temple entrance, 64 people are required to bear the weight of KalGarudan with Lord Srinivasa and Vanjulavalli perched on top!

There is also a shrine for Chakrathalwar here with the special feature that it is found entwined with the image of Yoga Narasimhar. The story goes that Sage Medhavi found this idol while bathing in the river and was asked to install and worship it in the temple. The worship of the Chakra ( discus) of Lord Vishnu is a special feature at all Vishnu temples and usually this image of the Chakra has a sculpture of Lord Narasimha at the back of it. At Nachiyar temple, Chakrathalwar is singularly different and powerful.

We left Nachiyar Koil and proceeded on to another Perumal Koil at a place called Tirucherai.

Lord Saranathan as Vishnu is named here, stands regally in the main sanctum at Tirucherai surrounded by Pancha Lakshmis- Sri Devi, Bhoo Devi, Neela Devi, Maha Lakshmi and Saranayagi Thaayar.

The story goes that Lord Vishnu was worshipped here by both Sage Markandeya as well as Kaveri Amman ( River Kaveri).

Kaveri prayed to Lord Vishnu that she should be given a status similar to Goddess Ganga. Lord Vishnu pleased by her penance blessed Kaveri with a divine darshan along with his five consorts.

There is also another story that during the great pralaya or deluge, a pot of clay was fashioned to preserve the Vedas. However, none of the pots made by Brahma would last and he was directed by Lord Vishnu to come to Tirucherai and make a pot out of the clay in the banks of the river Kaveri. Thus, the Lord made sure that the river Kaveri was made to feel important!

In the inner samnctum, River Kaveri has been personified as a mother holding a child on her lap.! The importance given to forces of nature – i.e. the sun, moon, planets, stars, and every aspect of the universe like , rivers, trees, etc in our religion is indeed remarkable. Every temple honours the stala vruksham- a tree, a mount--- e.g. Garudan or Nandi ( i.e. an animal); and at Tirucherai we can see the river Kaveri in her maternal status as a life- giver.

The temple at Tirucherai is ancient and the huge, imposing statue of Lord Saranathar is truly memorable.

We rounded off our visit to Tirucherai by going to a Shiva temple also located in the same village.

The legend goes that Lord Shiva as Saranathan/ senneriappan/ Gnana Parameswaran was worshipped by both river Kaveri as well as by the saint Markandeya.

There is a shrine to Amritaghateshwatrar said to have been worshipped by Markandeya . The Ambal sannidhi faces east and the deity is Gnanavalli.

We were informed by the temple priest that the worship of Lord Shiva at this temple would be sure to rid a person of all debts incurred during his or her life time whether the payment overdue was financial/ material or indeed spiritual, like the immense debt a disciple has towards the Guru for putting him on the path of self- realisation!

The next leg of our pilgrimage on the fourth day was to visit three temples honouring Lord Muruga.- Sikkal, Ettukudi and Ennkann.

These three temples form a trio as the image of Lord Subramanya in each was created by the same sculptor. The story goes that an ardent devotee of the Lord, received instructions in a dream to fashion the first image of Muruga at Sikkal.

The finished idol was so exquisite that the ruling Chola king did not wish the sculptor to make another one similar to it. So, he ordered that the sculptor’s right thumb to be cut off.

However, through theLord’s divine grace and command, the sculptor went on to create another beautiful statue of Karthikeya with six faces , astride his peacock for the temple at Ettukudi. The king was furious and ordered the scuptor’s eyes to be blinded.

Despite this handicap, the sculptor did create one last image of Muruga – this time for the temple at Ennkann, by giving precise instructions to a girl who helped him carry out the task. However, just as he finished the marvellous image of Skanda with six faces seated on his peacock, the artist’s chisel fell on the toes of the peacock and blood spurted out. The droplets of blood fell on the sculptor’s eyes and cured him instantly. Hence the first words of the sculptor were “ Ennkann”- My Eyes! Oh Lord You gave me back my eyes!

All the three images of Karthikeya are similar in style and represent Shanmugha seated on the peacock with his two consorts by his side. However, the last sculpture at Ennkann is breathtakingly beautiful and the young warrior god seems almost jubilant astride his mount. The sculpture is also a masterpiece of workmanship as the entire image seems to rest on the two slender legs of the peacock!

There is a shrine to Lord Shiva at each of these three temples. At Ennkann , Shiva resides as Brahmapureeswarar ( as Lord Brahma is said to have worshipped him here); at Sikkal, Shiva blesses his devotees as Vennaiperuman/ Navaneetheswaran( Sage Vasishta is supposed to have prayed to Shiva to recover the celestial cow, Kamadhenu whose flow of milk had frozen into butter. He fashioned a lingam out of butter- “Vennai” but found he could not move it as it had stuck – “sikkal” Hence , the Lord’s name at Sikkal is Vennaiperuman! At Ettukudi Shiva is worshipped as Sundareswarar.

There are some additional interesting facts associated with each temple. For example, the samadhi of the sculptor ( actually a Siddha) is found in Ennkann.

At Sikkal, Lord Muruga as Singaravelar is supposed to have been blessed with a spear by Parvathi and during the period that is currently celebrated as Skanda Sashti, it is observed that the stone idol of Singaravelar “ breaks out in sweat”!

By the time we had finshed visiting these three temples the afternoon was already well advanced. After a short break for lunch and some rest, we decided to move on to the famous temple town of Tiruvarur.

The famous Thiagaraja Temple at Tiruvar is perhaps one of the most ancient temples in the South and its antiquity predates the Pallava Period. This is a massive temple complex with over 7 prakarams or concentric circles containing innumerable shrines.

The architecture, sculpture and inscriptions found in the temple record the contribution and role of the Pallavas, Cholas, rulers of the Vijayanagar dynasty, Nayakas and Maratta rulers of Tanjore.

We arrived at the temple by 4.30 p.m. It was our intention to spend just over an hour here before proceeding onto visit another temple at Tiruvaiyyar enroute to our final destination , Trichy.

However, the Lord had decided otherwise!

The inner sanctum, we were informed , would not be open until 6 o clock. There is a daily “Nitya” pradosham at this temple- i.e. a special twilight puja for Lord Shiva, and this, the temple priest told us quite brusqely, would begin only around 6.30 p.m.

Well, we decided to make best use of our time and wandered leisurely around the vast fortress like temple precincts soaking up the atmosphere and learning more about some of the colorful legends associated with this powerful temple.

Tiruvarur Thiagaraja is one of the foremost among the 7 Vitanka Stalams ( already mentioned earlier associated with the legend of Muchukunda Cholan).

The story goes that Lord Vishnu was desperate for a son and worshipped Shiva, who, pleased by his ardent devotion granted Vishnu his request. However, Parvathi was slighted as Lord Vishnu had ignored her. So, she cursed the child with instant death. The heart- broken Lord Narayana had Vishwakarma, the craftsman of the Gods to fashion an image of the Divine family- i.e. Lord Shiva and his consort seated with their son, Skanda betwixt them. Lord Vishnu prayed to this idol and repented for his mistake in overlooking the importance of Shakthi / Parvathi in association with Shiva.

This image of Somaskanda as it came to be called was bestowed with enormous powers and it came to be used as a source of valuable support in defending the Heavens against the onslaught from Asuras/ demons.

On one such occasion, Lord Indra requested the assistance of Muchukunda Cholan in vanquishing an Asura warrior. In return for his help, the Chola king requested the Soma Skanda image.

With permission from Vishnu, Muchukunda received the original image plus 6 other similar icons which have been installed at various temples constituting the Sapta Vitanka Stalams.

However, since the original Soma Skanda image worshipped by Lord Vishnu resides at Tiruvarur, this temple is enormously significant . In fact, the rise and fall of Vishnu’s chest as he meditated on the image is evoked in the Ajapanatanam- a special dance that is performed when the main deity is taken out in procession.

The 63 Shaivaite Saints have sung the glory of Tiruvarur and numerous famous poets and musicians, especially the Trinity of famous composers, Tiagaraja, Syama Sastry and Muthuswami Deekshitar have sung praises to the presiding deities Thiagaraja and Kamalambikkai.

We learned that the shrine of Kamalambal, in the outermost precinct , is considered to be a tantric focus of Spritual power. In fact, Muthuswami Deekshitar, a Sri Vidya upasaka composed his famous Navavarana Kirtanas extolling some of the most occult powers of the Shri Chakra, while living at Tiruvarur.

We made a circumambulation of all the precincts and got back to the main sanctum. It was still closed.

I sat in front of a shrine to Lord Muruga just adjacent to the main sanctum and decided to meditate.

There was an inexplicable and yet tangible force or aura surrounding this temple. I closed my eyes and very quickly lost track of time. While thoughts and endless questions flashed in my mind, yet one part of it seemed unperturbed, almost as if held in a mystical trance.

A shaivaite devotee singing hymns loudly made me come back to reality and Tiruvarur. The evening puja was about to begin. There was already a small crowd of people at the temple door and I hastened to join the queue.

As I stepped inside this vast, ancient inner hall of the main sanctum, the elderly priest who had been singing those beautiful hymns stopped suddenly and beckoned to me. As I stepped up closer to him and looked at him questioningly, he said “ Welcome, welcome to this temple. The Lord is waiting to give you his blessings. You have erased all your sins by just coming here today”

Then, the evening pradosha puja began! This was a mesmerising sight. The priest performing the puja swayed from side to side making graceful movements with his arms as he placed roses and sweet smelling jasmine on the main idol. In fact, most of this icon is hidden behind masses of flowers, deliberately, so that the powerful and potent vibrations are contained within a small space. With this icon also resides the Sri Chakra- representing the unity between the micro and macrocosim in this universe- the union of Shiva and his Shakthi.

Also, nestled inside a silver casket near the Soma Skanda image and rarely visible to the public, is a Swayambu Lingam made of emerald which possesses unique powers. This swayambu linga is called “Vitanka”.

Following the conclusion of the twilight puja , we hastened to pay our respects at the shrine of Goddess Kamalamba.

The Goddess at Tiruvarur is seated regally on her throne in a yogic pose with her left leg draped over the right leg. Decorated with sweet smelling flowers and surrounded by myriads of oil-lit lamps, her face glowed brightly and exuded an aura of utter calm and tranquility on that warm evening.

The entire time we had spent at Tiruvarur seemed almost surreal and magical and we departed reluctantly as night was swiftly approaching and we had a long way to go before reaching our destination for that night at Trichy.

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