Enlightenment: serpent stellae in south India

Gingee fort, enroute Thiruvannamallai:

I happened to stop by at Gingee fort, before i drove on to Thriuvannamallai. This time i chose not to climb the hill, but walk around the ruins lying scattered between the three hills. Gingee fort holds a lot of secrets, from the Vijayanagar period down to the Nayakas and later.

It is a fabulous place which was brimming with life at some point it time, having a solid fort that guards all the monuments within its walls, while one can see watch towers and mandapas along the boulder laiden hillside. I drove on along a muddy road, towards what they called Anjaneyar(hanuman) temple. The beauty of the place is just amazing, I still wondered why people in office just laughed out when i said i wanted to see this fort. They all swore that it was not a great place, at least not to spend a weekend, and now i feel, i really feel they missed out plenty.

The main fort is a days attraction, saps your energy and you are really not enthusiastic enough to explore the ruins below it. But what lies around it is an amazing piece of nature, yet untouched by mankind. I stopped the car, near the "Kaliamman" (goddess kali) temple. Whats starts to look like 3 temples deviod of shrines inside, hosts a pond behind it, the water still fresh and clean urging any passerby to take a dive. The pond, is along the road on one side, on the other it washes huge boulders that stand along its sides. The view is simply spectacular. The main fort is along a hill with very steep cliffs on one side, and the other is a pile of gigantic boulders with a fort wall running along it very abruptly. Below this stands an oasis with a lot of trees which give the sudden burst of greenery around the pond. I parked and walked along the mud road leading around the pond. It took me straight to Kaliamman temple.

I removed my slippers, and walked up to see the entrance lined up with stallae, and lots of them. The priest later told me, that the snakes indicate various functions. Most often these serpents are depicted as a pair, entwined to house a greater deity or remain plain facing each other. Often they are depicted with multiple hoods. Deities typically housed within them are, Krishna, Muruga, Shiva, Naga kanni as far as I can remember. Those snakes that house Krishna, Muruga and Naga Kanni are Nagas, who protect and guard these deities. The plain snakes looking at each other are stellae that guard the main Mother Goddess, in this case its Kaliamman. Interestingly these snakes stand as a seperate stellae next to the main Goddess Herself. Snakes surrounding Naga Kannis would probably be six individual snakes around her, while she is depicted with human head and torso, and snake body.

The most interesting to my eyes, of course were the snakes surrounding Shiva. No they are not plain snakes to guard him. The are Rahu and Ketu holding him in the center and facing each other. Now of course this representation quite beats my logic of Kundalini which i have discussed in "Coiled serpents on a wayside stelae", so i would leave that logic, to Multiple hooded snakes covering the Shiva Linga like an unbrella. There again is another story. Shiva is supposed to have blessed the Naga Kingdom and gifted them with more importance than the mortal world. Hence in reverence, they are always depicted as covering his Linga. The depiction of course continues to be that of two and a half coiled serpents, i might just be right about kindalini.

The whole picture of course looks out of the world. With these stellae lined up, one with krishna, one with Shiva, one with rahu and ketu surrounding shiva, a linga and a few other guardian rocks, under a tree hosting a world of flowers, bees, and monkeys, it also held 4 to 5 trishuls in the ground below it, each decorated with flowers and bangles. And when you look up, its the rocks and boulders of the fort above and when you look back its the pond and the trees with rocky hills in the background with scattered mandapas - vijayanagar style. It almost looks like a mini Hampi.

A truely amazing site.


Ashwamedha Yagnya - Indian Horse sacrifice.

I remember the first time I heard of this ritual. It was a glorified act of a Great king flaunting his superiority by letting loose a well bred horse which was free to go where ever it wanted. When it enetered the territory of another ruling king, the king there either challenged the Great king which resulted in war or submitted and paid tribute to him. This defined the Great kings superiority and if in the condition he had performed the Ashwamedha yagnya more than 10 times, he was as good as Indra. It is believed that Indra jealously guarded his position and kept an eye on all those Kings who performed this grand ritual.

Sounds fantastic, leaves a feeling of deep respect in the mind of the reader wondering how great those days might have been. Moving on, the next occasion i came across the Ashwamedha yagnya, was when i was in college, going through a book on manuscript painting, and to my shock i found a whole new twist to this ritual. The manuscript painting clearly indicated an act of possible copulation of the Head Queen with the sacrificial horse after it returned. This was to be performed in the presence of priests and other royal members of the family.

Shaken with the posibility that there could be more than this, the imagery of the manuscript painting stayed etched in my mind. It didnt go, purely on the grounds of disbelief. How could someone do something like that?@?@?

Well, if that was not all, last night i was reading about the sakta cult and the worship of the Mother Goddess when i came upon yet another reference of the ashwamedha yagnya. By this time it was bordering on barbarousness. This is what it was all about!!

There were clear rules to the ritualistic performance of the ashwamedha yagnya. Human sacrifice was a must in those sacrifices that involved the worship of the Mother Goddess, largely being Durga, Kali, Varahi, Chamunda, Chandi or the like. The initial offering included flowers, bark and sandal wood paste with recitation of mantras during the performance of the ritual. further to this the worshipper brought in the victim of the sacrifice. The victim cannot be a priest or a slave, hence he had to be from the kshatriya or the vaishya class (trader or warrior clan).

The worshipper recites the relevant mantra, places the victim on the sacrificial altar head facing east, worshipper standing north and recites a mantra which would state that the victim has been granted this birth to be the sacrificial meat for the goddess and with the performance of this sacrifice this shall not be taken as murder. After reciting the mantra, the worshipper tosses a flower over the victim and holds a sword up into the air which has already been concecrated and....... chop!

Its very possible that the victims were prisoners of war. Its also possible that the tradition of human sacrifice was converted to ritual and might essentially been a barbarous act in the initial stages of civilization. Or maybe all this is faith. Killing one self as a sacrifice to the divine Mother is one thing, taking someone else's life is another. How much of this is tradition, how much of it is primitive practise, and how much of it is faith... is well anybody's guess. End of the day ashwamedha yagnya included, the horse sacrifice which does not explicitly indicate that the horse was killed at the end of it, a copulation act with the head queen if that were ever possible and a human sacrifice which looks more digestable though ugly.

The only point it brings home is that our ancestors were a completely different breed from what we are today. And as my friend put it buddhism did our ancestors a lot of good with the introduction of ahimsa - live and let live.


Rahu Ketu - Party time folks.

Rahu and Ketu appear to be the most unwanted souls in anyones life. They are neither here nor there, neither alive nor dead or maybe they are both alive and dead at the same time(complicated, i know). Rahu represents the living head and ketu represents the dead body. Rahu appears to be the problem area while ketu, doesnt seem to have a choice at all. Another soul in this realm so not figured out is Shani or saturn who shows up in our lives in a cyclic pattern.

I do not know much about these guys/energies/whatever, but i do know that they have been causing havoc in my life. So while i go through hell, they have fun, partying at my expense, taking every pleasure of mine while i writhe in worry. I tell you they are a handful. Infact while i used to recite prayers (sanskrit shlokas), i often used to wonder, who is it that these prayers go to?

Today in a rather offbeat conversation i stumbled upon a startling discovery. Of course it needed a few inputs from a very close friend of mine, but what he unwittingly put down were a few pearls of wisdom. It was a collective realization later on for both of us. We come from a non astrological background, hence trying to understand the stars and planets is of great effort to us. He just said that it is believed that all 9 planets, rahu, ketu, sun and moon included, surround us all the time. This means that they are always there in a form we as mortals will never percieve. They decide what we will say and what we wont, what we do, what ever. In short they rule us. Trust me that doesnt feel good.

Interestingly the position of these guys is diagrammatically represented as jadagams or kundali or horoscopes in grids of 12, keeping the human being in the center. I would love to believe i am thinking right, i might be miserably wrong. Now, i am not questioning the process of learning these charts and predicting future based on it. I am just visualizing me walking down the road with 12 celestial bodies around me, arguing around me deciding how i will behave by the hour, with respect to anything else that governs my movements.

Now does that feel like chaos! a bunch of guys tearing each other apart and I get to have a miserable life as the result. Feels so good. Now the recitation of the mantra, deliberately and with complete devotion can counter what these guys decide for me, or appease them. So the result is that shit will happen, but not half as painful as expected.

End result, some jackass will scratch my car, and scribble all over it, hurting me right in my heart, but I will just about be happy they didnt break the glass, or take the brakes off which is a nightmare.

Coming back to the fact that there is a so called imaginary grid around me each square ruled by a celestial being with certain attributes makes me feel like i am a walking talking yantra, completely unaware of my capabilities. With this i hope i destroyed any sense of Maya around me, for the bottom lying truth is I am something of value and i myself dont know it.

Hell.. it took me 30 years to know it, now it will take another 30 to understand it, another 30 to realize it if i am lucky and another 30 to live with it in ecstacy... i would be dead by then!

What a life!


Dayakattai - Shakuni at work

Lakshmi and I had a serious conversation today. It was about the game of dice and the state our mind is in when we play the game. This is not all about strategy or luck, this is about destiny. Lakshmi is a person who does not take to random theory very easily but knowing the game and having played it, we had this errie feeling that there was more to the game than just playing it.

So we sat down to analyze. Why is it that some guys always win, why is it that some guys always get dayam, why is it that some guys just never ever get it. The probability of getting dayam is reasonably high given that in 30 rounds of trial each with a few extra rounds thrown in there is a good chance. But this not resulting in a dayam even to the middle of the game leaving the person a dummy and starting to play yet, was a little too much to believe. End of the day there are only 7 numbers to play with, yet the number One never comes.

So we broke it down further, bordering on something way beyond our existing logical thinking. The diagram of the dayakattai, looks like a yantra with a lot of squares or "kattams". The four offshoots from the epicenter are in the four cardinal directions. Coins used here in the game are largely dry fruits or edible stuff. The players have a role to play as well, their nature has an impact on the game. The sticks (brass, steel or iron) also have a role to play in the destiny of the game, including even the choice of partners.

The dayakattai board didnt look any different from the horoscope charts they scribble on back home. Each kattam seems to have a value named after some star or force, houses some sort of energy and the probability of winning the game is high if a person knows how to play it right. Now taking the most renound player history has ever known, Shakuni, was very aware of how to play the game, maybe which direction to sit, the kind of coins to pick and the very dice to roll to win. He had it all very figured out, there was no room for error, the kauravas would never have lost the game.

As for the pandavas, they seemed to be the most willing goats to fall into the trap. Dayakattai is not just a game, it is a science I would begin to believe and to get it right would probably be a break through all that western science has tried to prove. I seriously think this game is quite something else.


Sembiyan Mahadevi goofed! Shiva is incomplete without Parvati.

Tanjore, Tamil Nadu:

Sembiyan Mahadevi: A chola queen, widowed but enterprising, wanted to make the temple a prime center in everyone's life even with the rising pro-brahmin drift in the society. The chola period witnessed a vast change in temple architecture, for the good or bad is still debatable. But the change indeed was brought about for political reasons and by that time, the dilution in cult principles had already set in.

The two earlier temples were built purely for Shiva, with no hint of the mother goddess except for her presence in outer niches. She was not depicted on her own, but always in the presence of Shiva as Ardhanarishwara. Through this period, the shiva cult was flaunted with building the Brihadeshwara temple at Tanjore and Gangai konda cholapuram. It also witnessed the initial move towards building the Chidambaram temple where the focus shifted.

The flaw at chidambaram

For the first time in the Shiva cult history, Chidambaram temple witnessed the construction of a seperate shrine for the Mother Goddess. This was to give the Mother Goddess worshippers a fair share of the pie, and perform their rituals within the temple, therefore keeping the attention centered around the temple.

In which case the arguement can run that they could have housed all the deities of other cults in the temple, to make it a single place of worship; this doesnt seem to have happened. This shows that there was definitely a rift between vaishnavites and shaivites. Politics has played a role in india, not in kingdoms alone but in religion as well. Vishnu never found a place of honour in Shiva temples. This seems to be evident from the Pallava period itself. The shore temple in Mahabalipuram itself shows that a Vishnu shrine had already existed, with a Shiva temple built around it. With this we conclude that there was enough diplomacy between the two cults to retain the reclining Vishnu in the shore temple.

Where the focus should have remained

Lets leave Vishnu out of this for now. The root concept of Shiva, that he is incomplete without Parvati (Mother goddess) seems to have escaped everyone's eyes. The Shiva linga itself is composed of the linga pitha which is the yoni housed in every Shiva temple establishes the presence of the female form in Shiva temples well within the garbha griha. The building of the Mother goddess shrine in big temples should not have been encouraged in the first place as she is already part of the Shiva temple. Although this move may have been feministic on Sembiyan Mahadevi's part, it was also to keep the focus on the temple.

Male egoism?

Well, that makes us think of another thing. Obviously, Sembiyan Mahadevi didn't go about building temples without the advice of the court astrologers and architects who followed the shastras to every word. Which would mean that in the entire ritual, for the worship of Lord Shiva, the shlokas recited worship Ganesha(Lord of the Ganas) first and then Lord Shiva. The Shiva mantras are very Shiva centric with no reference to the Yoni, which is a depiction of the Mother Goddess.

Why has it been eliminated? Why build a temple for Parvati next to shiva? What then, is the true meaning of Ardhanrishwara? We have forgotten the potent female form which has always accompanied shiva everywhere.

Why has the Mother goddess cult been supressed through the centuries? For that matter why have women been supressed through the ages? I do not plan to end this post in the feminist tone stating that women are superior or otherwise. I will stick to the temple.

The temple seems to have been the seat of all learning, community activities and ritual. Yet, the main point that Shiva is incomplete without Parvati was lost somewhere along the way. The temples added to the dillution by eliminating Parvati from the mantra recitals as well as from the niches of the main temple. Later, She was brought back as a seperate identity, with a niche exclusively for Her apart from Ganesha, Karthikeya and Lingodhbhava. This is not consistent.

In staunch shiva temples, the niches are occupied by Dakshinamurti, someone who looks perhaps like Trimurti or Brahma among other Shiva forms. Shiva in his various forms might be flaunted around, but the elimination of the Mother Goddess from prime worship in the garbha griha is a serious offence to the root principles of Shaivism.

Courtesy: Original photos©2002 Michael D. Gunther.


Vilvam and I

Thiruvannamallai, 3 hours from Chennai:

Its a bright sunny morning, the air fresh as ever as i walked up the stairs to a wayside Shiva shrine along Girivalam. My thoughts entertain me as i ascend up the steps looking at all the other people going about their business. A deep breath, wondering what the gods have in store for me today, still choosing to believe that i am the One, God's favourite child the world around me just does not seem to see it.

This is a small temple located on the Girivalam road dotted with saffron clad sanyasas. a pretty picture actually, bringing in a feeling that there is more to life than what really meets our eye. this temple hosts a Shiva linga, well decorated and silent, with oil lamps lighting up the little room it is placed in. i walked up the steps into the small chamber before the main sanctum sanctorum and closed my eyes while the priest recited the pearls of sanskrit words falling out with his well modulated breath, the sound reverberating within the inner walls of the room enhancing the ambience, his voice still ringing in my mind well after his prayers are through.

I opened my eyes to see the beauty of the linga as the flames danced in front of it revealing every aspect of its beauty in the light. He walked out and showed us the brass plate as we received the holy flames and took the holy ash, a blessing of Lord Shiva. I sat at the temple a good while, observing the puja in action, the decorations and all the little things scattered on the linga pitha.

Rudraksha beads lay scattered along the rim of the linga pitha, while sets of rudhrakha necklaces crown the linga, alternating with jasmine flowers and vilvam leaves. The vertical center of the linga is decorated with vermillion and turmeric paste enhancing itself in a silver plated background. Straight down in front of it lay few fruits all looking pretty similar. I asked in curiosity, to know that lord Shiva is associated strictly with Vilvam. After a long discussion on Shiva, temples, pujas, philosophy, life, faith, truth, action, karma, he finally gave me a Vilvam fruit as part and parcel of a larger paraphernalia to keep with me.

There on started my journey, to know Vilvam. It just didnt stop with being a fruit. it took on a position far superior that i tended to respect its very presence in my life. A support of sorts, that took away all the "dristy" or evil eyes from me. I sat every day watching it, wondering when it would get spoilt, if it ever would. I assumed it to be like any other fruit, a life, short life...before it got rotten. But strangely as he had rightly said, Vilvam never got spoilt.

Day after day, i watched, prayed and watched Vilvam, it turnes shades. It was a bright green when it showed up, looking fresh as ever. Now it had taken on a faint brown overcoat, yet not spoilt. It changes color, color that indicated how my life had gone by, it felt like i was surrounded by evil eyes all the time. It cleansed me, of all the gore in my life, as it turned brown every minute. My heart began to melt, watching it take on the load, that i had put myself through so thoughtlessly. Slowly i began to notice a thin coat of fungus form along its head. In desperation i gave it a coat of turmeric thinking Vilvam would not survive the attack. Interestingly Vilvam stayed on strong, brown with all my sins, but rid off the fungus that had managed to take root on its surface.

I still look at it every day, admiring the vermillion on its brow as i dress it, collared in fresh jasmine flowers. I walked to the shop to buy fresh flowers asking the flower seller which flowers were the best for Shiva puja. She was so confident "Shivan ku mallipuu than poduva, Vilvam venuma" (they put only jasmine flowers for Lord Shiva, would you like some Vilvam). I stopped to think. this lady is illiterate to the best of my knowledge, yet she knows a lot more than i do living in the same place. I chose not to take my faith for granted, infact question it and find out. What good use is my education if i am not taught every aspect of my life, religion and ritual included.

Maybe Vilvam is there for me in more ways than one. I just dont know it...