A pilgrimage to Lord Shiva

This was a trip to remember, a trip i have made across to shrines of Lord Shiva. The first stop i drove down to was Thiruvannamallai. The place for the agni linga, the place where the ashtadikpala lingas surround the main hill. The place where i first found peace. The place where i met my Guru.

Thiruvannamallai speaks for itself. The hill is collared by a road leading into forests hosting a lot of shrines. The road, girivalam, hosts promises to all who live along its path. Sanyasas dot its various parts, around the miniature shrines that surround the main hill. I went around with a handycam, with a hope to catch a glimpse of the lord himself in his aniconic symbol.

This was remarkable, but contradicting. I managed to get a few shots of seven shiva lingas. the 8th was simply not possible. This was interesting because i wondered what was wrong with shooting the garbha griha. Why is it not allowed? There are mixed opinions on it. Some priests are not game since they think its disrespecting the idol, other just love to throw rules around the place to assert them selves, a play of ego may i call it. Still others were completely open to it and infact performed doubly well since they were being photographed.

The reverence with which one comes to temples, to connect with the deity and to gain some peace in their lives is simply getting killed in the process. I was very disappointed with the levels of corruption i saw across the temples. It almost made me cry. But do i say that i was plain lucky when i realized that i had managed to shoot at least twenty odd lingas out 25 that i have visited in my life.

I had climbed the main hill of Tiruvannamallai, twice in my life. The view from up there is simply breath taking. Not to miss the feeling of accomplishment for having reached the top, for the hill is so forbidding, its a revelation if one makes it up there. The first part is to climb a smaller hill, whose steep sides give no hint of the mammoth hill standing behind. And just when you stand exhausted you figure out you have covered only one third of the entire height. The climb is a little dangerous as there are no steps made to just walk up. In fact one just manages to go up the beaten track and not lose their way. Once on top, the breeze and the view is completely worth it. I climbed to the farthest point where at the tip of the rock were the feet of the Lord himself carved into the rock. The say lord Arunachala leaped from one hill to the other, leaving a foot print here behind. Well that is anybody's guess but it just felt good for having made it to the top of the hill.

Descending down took another hour and an half. The slopes getting even steeper as i could feel my weight in my knees. Coming down was tough but when i reached the ground, it felt good to be back on earth. The hill itself is Lord Shiva some say, othere say it is the next Kailasa. What ever it is, there is a mixed opinion that nobody should climb it. There used to be the presence of Sidhdhas along the Girivalam road. When i walked around the hill the first time, i was one among few who did get to have an introduction to these celestial beings.

Yes i know it sounds wierd but trust me its true. When i walked the first time, i tasted vibhuti in my mouth, as i crossed the Goddess's shrine. Oh she is a piece to marvel, just a head with fantastic eyes and power just rolling out of her very form. Another companion smelt jasmine flowers. These were incidents that happened among us in the middle of the night as we walked around the hill.

The main hill too hosted a whole range of herbal plants on itself as one got near the peak. The air i remember was fresh and smelt of all sorts of herbs though the second trip up the hill didnt prove as fruitful. Tiruvannamallai is dying, with the increased wishlist of the people in the Kaliyuga. This is what you get to hear from the Sadhus when you ask them about the possiblities of meeting a Sidhdha in the spirit world. Sidhdhas dont inhabit the place anymore. Change for the worst is underway and the slow death of Thiruvannamallai is very visible.

It will take a
devotee persistence, sincerity, and love to see the true grace of the Lord.

The gatekeeper - dvarapalas in temple architecture

Going back into history, we can take this ancient tradition of temple gatekeepers to village guardians in ancient indian times which goes straight to the Yaksha cult. They have been through a couple of political cult changes along the way both buddhist as well as shaivite before they entered into a phase where they were finally defined as "Dvarapalas" in temple architecture.

The earliest creative examples of a decent dvarapala as we know it were carved by Baladeva, a chalukyan sculptor who belonged to a guild or artists who indulged in temple architecture around Aihole Badami and Pattadakkal. These artists did various things, for example, one sculptor was responsible for just the jali windows that adorn closed mandapas in temples. Another sculptor just carved ceiling panels for the great rulers depending on which cult the temple was to be dedicated. Yet another carved only lintels and assisted in planning on how all this was going to be put together and hoisted up to form the final structure - a temple in dravida or nagara style.

Lets take Baladeva. He specialised in dvarapalas, making them lean on the pillar and hold a club during his time. So if he were to dedicate a dvarapala to a shaivite temple he would give the dvarapala the same pose, but add a club to his hand and a third eye to his forehead. During his time, dvarapalas were incidentally human size and normal, soldier like. What happened with his contemporaries in the south was a little different. The pallavas also made them, some fierce, some gentle holding lotuses in their hands and inviting you home, for a cup of tea maybe. They were slender in true Pallava style.

Now came the big imperial guys, the Cholas who wanted to really show they are BIG. Their dwarapalas were giant size, snarled down at you making you feel real small when you entered the Brihadeshwara temple for example, or even larger and fierce when you tried to enter Gangaikondacholapuram temple. The are true giants, massive with fangs towering up and leaning on the walls leading up to already high cielings showing true Chola imperialism in their art. They also had a yali accompanying them at the bottom.

Back again during the late chola early vijayanagara time they became shade smaller, but more ornate, didnt lean on anything but stood kinda cross legged, this time with sharp fangs. Now they were demons for all practical purposes with a "dare not enter" look to their faces. The nayakas had learnt the art of chiseling stone very well and got the dvarapalas their muscles in better shape with more ornate jewellery to suit their rich exterior.

Finally, Marunthiswar Shiva temple at Thiruvanmiyur, brought about a drastic shift in the thought process of the generation of people who learnt temple architecture in their time. The same dvarapala, never shall die, the same pose, the same club, the same fangs but without any sign of the lost Chola imperialism in their form. They cover all of 10 by 10 inches of the gateway that leads into this temple. Crisp sculpture i should say, just so small that you have almost missed the dvarapala in the act of guarding the temple gate.

So much for a dying practise of guarding the diety. The dying of not just the dvarapala himself, but the very idea with which he even took birth in the Indian architects mind. He will always remain there, just ignored, unwanted, and forgotten...


Kumkum - the great indian bindi

A lot of foreigners think its style and a lot of Indian women don't know why they wear this Bindi. It is an age old tradition prevalent among Indian women to wear a red dot between their eyebrows. Of course with the passing of time, this has taken various forms and shapes and somewhere in this evolution, it has lost its original meaning or function.

Well I myself have experimented a lot, painting tiny stick figures on my forehead, occasionally of a mythological story representing Shiva Nataraja or Tripurantaka for that matter. Its interesting how much that little sketch on my forehead can convey. Yes all this with a backdrop of red smeared on my forehead.

This is kumkum, the original red powder made from turmeric, religiously everytime and taken to temples to dress the Goddess within its walls. It is first offered to the Mother Goddess, covering her sacred feet with mantras, it also dresses her forehead before it is given out to us, who take every particle of dust on her feet as sacred (Soundarya Lahari).

But what is this kumkum all about. Its not about the color red alone. Well infact the sticker bindis have gone way off the mark. Its not for beauty and vanity either. It was meant to ward off any evil intending soul who could hypnotise the woman, that is if she was all that vulnerable. The red dot made of kumkum, worn by both men and women, is powerful and keeps maleficent forces at bay.

But there is more to this. The purity of women could be seen in their eyes, pure love for the Gods they worshiped and the power of their worship glistened in their eyes. Very few got to really see the power in these eyes, and those who did experienced something totally different. This was when they looked up to her face without a kumkum. When she wore it, it brought power between her eyes, to ward off all evil lookers so that they would just bow to her in humility.

This power does not let any man stare her in the eyes for too long with wrong intentions in his mind. That is the power in her eyes, enhanced by the presence of vermillion between her brow. It doesn't let a man stare at her too long for she radiates the Goddess herself in all purity.

So much in so less, a red dot can carry such power and now it has been reduced to a mere sticker. Such is the power of kumkum, that needs to be understood by every woman and not be reduced to mere convenience.


Jagannathpur temple - Ranchi - anything but Juggernaut.

This is a fortified temple built on a hill in the 17th century, hosting Krishna, Balabhadra and Subhadra as the main shrines. It is a miniature version of Jagannath temple are Puri. A lot has changed in this temple since I last saw it. It was gorgeous when I was a young girl, in school, fascinated with anything that remotely looked like a fort with chambers and gardens, and temples with idols and flags.

We used to regularly visit this temple, every Sunday, without fail. For me it was an outing, always fresh in the mind, always beautiful and full of surprises, much as i always knew what to expect of this temple. We used to drive down every morning, around 9.30 to the temple and park the car way down near a Hanuman shrine at the bottom of the hill.

Climbing this hill was more exciting than tough. Coming to think of it, the hill was pretty small, but the climb was worth all the fun. A mud road led up to a part of the main hill which is rocky and has two kinds of staircases leading up to the main fort. Walking up the mud road was easy, and one always got to see the same old beggars lined up every morning with hope for a meal that morning from a devotee passing by. Most of them were really beggars, with leprosy and all the worlds deseases known to mankind. Apart from the road dotted with these guys, there always stood one very ancient car, the Rath of the Gods.

Painted green, I always wondered whether there was any life left in it. It definitely was not the juggernaut one would expect to see. It permanently stood inclined along its own axis, trying to maintain its center of gravity well within its frame, for it titled so badly, that I really wondered, how the pujari even dared to sit on it while they pulled it up the same hill during the mela (the only time we never visited the temple). This was a task to pull the Rath, in one piece hoping it would not fall apart like a pack of cards, leave alone moving and crushing anything on its way. It gave me no hope that it would withstand the passing of time, the pull of the ropes during the mela, forcing it to climb the inclination of the hill a few feet forward, and of course its own misplaced weight which fell on wheels that inclined a good 45 degrees, making it purely miraculous that the Rath, still stands for another mela, surely making it up the hill once again next year.

We always climbed by the rocky way, thought there was a good staircase in cement on the other side. Rocks always looked more appealing. The climb was always 10 minutes up when one came upto a courtyard, with the wind in the trees, and a stairway leading up to the main gate(picture above). This opened into a courtyard that hosted a small temple, with the shrines inside it. Cant remember too much but I remember having seen, Hanuman inside on one of the niches, and I think Garuda was the vahana outside. Brick walled and whitewashed, the interiors were bare, and dark as one walked into the main shrine lit up in lamp lights revealing the big eyes of the Gods smiling broadly at us every time. Later of course, the main temple tower got the wrath of the Gods, no it was not a canon ball that blew the roof off, but lightening that destroyed the main temple vimana, leaving a smaller one to replace it(below).

Whats interesting about this fort is the subshrines within each of the towers that protrude out of the main fort wall. These housed shrines of Hanuman, Kali and other deities all smeared with vermillion, withstanding the test of time, lightning or otherwise. This temple was worth it all, my introduction to architecture, introduction to fortification, and a remote location that just dreams can bring alive. It had everything, gods, forts, the view of the plains from the rocky hillside to see the oncoming armies march up to the hill and the main tower with the red flag for ever victorious, for ever flying... truly breathtaking!


Cult of Yakshas and Yakshis

When you look up a reference book, they call it the Yaksha cult. A very cold blooded approach to emotions that rule faith so strong. As per art historical text, yakshas were fertility gods as well as village guardians. They played a very strong role in Grama shilpa, and didnt get much attention from the ruling kings. their female counter parts are yakshis associated with the fertility cult and mother goddess worship.


They largely take up demi god status. They are not human, not Super gods but somewhere in between.They join others of a similar nature who would be the likes of gandharvas, apsaras, mithuna couples, ganas, siddhas?, kinnaras, river goddesses, and maybe nagas if i am thinking right.

But who are these guys and why did they interest the local audience so much?

Well lets get started with their name. Why call them Yaksha? It seems that Brahma uttered a phrase for them which calls them "Yakshamam" or those who protect. Hence Kubera being the Guardian of the northern quadrant is not surprizing. Yakshas can be divided into those who attained God status and those who didnt make it to the top. Those who didnt make it to the top ended up being the attendants of Kubera Yaksha, the protector of wealth, not necessarily gold and precious stones, but all minerals of the earth. But those who did were the likes of Ganesha, Lakshmi, Hanuman, Kali and kubera himself apart from the sapta Matrika.

So tomorrow if you go to a temple and see the seven mothers flanked by two men it would largely be ganesha and Kubera indicating yaksha cult origins. Of course there are some places in northwest india where they also include Buddha. Caves at Ellora and aurangabad display such sculptures to empahsize the same. It is interesting though to note that the greater Gods needed to be flanked or "protected" by the lesser gods.

So whats with them? Yakshas are mortals in terms of the fact that they are full of passion and do not escape the cycle of birth and death. But they are magical beings enough to change form and take on any threat with their supernatural powers. They are largely the good guys and inoffencive, hence they are refered to as "punyajanas".

They are known to ask too many riddles, the wrong answers for which might land you in trouble. The right answer of course gets you their favour. For eg. Yudhistira is known to have lost all his brothers when the Yaksha asked them questions. But his right answer got them all back to life. For anyone who is curious, the so called riddle was "What is the greatest wonder of life?" and the right answer was "That every man must one day die, yet every man lives as if they were immortal."

Those men must have been really evolved if they called a question like that a "riddle".

But there are bad guys too, not all Yakhas are good guys. They are semi demon too. Anyway coming back to the point, they have been taken over by various religions to join their respective pantheons. Not that they really belonged there, but the need was high enough to get the attention of the masses. Lets say each religion Buddhist, Jaina or Brahmanical had to add to their CUG (closed user groups) and an increase in community figures mattered. Hence the Yakhas most common to the masses than the kings were brought in as either being replaced by a buddha in a similar pose (i always wondered why the laughing buddha of feng shui was a short stout guy, with a belly, so unlike the Buddha we know), or as protectors of thirtankaras or guardians for villages or as fertility images or flanking the sapta matrikas.

Interesting guys none the less, but very much to the background. So tomorrow when you see a Buddha looking really short and fat with plump legs, he might just have been a Yaksha some centuries ago.

So much for faith. I wonder sometimes whether we were any better than the church when it came to preservation and marketing of religion. It seems so political. Such is life.