Once I realised that deeper study of yoga needs a closer look at it in its cultural and traditional context, I started to consciously seek out yoga stories and connections in daily life in India. In retrospect, I’ve been doing this ever since I started researching for my book ‘Beyond Asanas’. Perhaps if I hadn’t been on this quest, I wouldn’t have had the unexpectedly special Mahashivaratri experience I had this past weekend…
Always Make Time for the Temples…
Sowmya and I reached the Perur Pateeshwara temple at 6 am. This temple was built in the 2nd century and is one of oldest temples in the state of Tamil Nadu. We assumed we’d be able to beat the crowds early in the morning, and were surprised at the number of buses on the road. It finally dawned on us that these were the days leading up to Mahashivaratri and these crowds were probably headed to the Isha Yoga centre.
There is sufficient parking space outside the temple and you can park for Rs. 20/-. We left our shoes in the car and took a bit of loose change with us for dakshina.
The temple has a huge towering entryway. Once you enter you’ll see ancient pillars on either side of the hallway, with carvings on them. These pillars are likely 500-700 years old.
There is also a small Ganesh shrine in this area called the Patti Vinayagar. The sanctum sanctorum of this temple contains a Shivalingam which is ‘swayambhu‘, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “self-manifested”, “self-existing”, or “that is created by its own accord”. The shivalingam here was adorned with a white dhoti and bedecked with shiny stones which might be diamonds. We did a quick darshan here and were handed the vibhuti. The interesting thing about most of the temples I’ve visited in South India is that the priest will hand you the vibhuti and you apply it to your forehead yourself. Perhaps the priests aren’t supposed to touch the temple visitors.
We managed to get a word with the chief priest in the sanctum sanctorum. He told us about the legend of Kamadhenu grazing in this area and found the swayambhu Shiva. It was decided by the kings of the time that this area should be made into gowshala. That’s why the temple is called the Pateeshwara temple – Patee is the Tamil word for gowshala. Happy that I could communicate with him in English, I asked him about the age of the temple and whether the entire temple complex was built at the same time. He told us the sanctum sanctorum was oldest part of the temple and various kings had built other parts of the temple through the ages. He also told us to watch out for the inscriptions on the temple walls – which record the details of the temple’s history.
There are also statues of Shaiva siddhas along the walls made of black stone. An interesting detail is the row of lingas following the siddhas statues, which ended with a statue of the Jnana Bhairavi. There is also a shrine to Karthikeyan, the son of Shiva and Parvathi, and god of war. Kartikeyan, or Murugan, is a popular deity in Tamil literature.
The Hall with the 108 Dance Mudras
Next we entered the hall where it is believed Shiva did his ananda tandav. We looked for the peepul tree under which he supposedly danced, but were unable to find it. This part was only about 500-700 years old and has 8 life sized statues of various deities in front of the sanctum sanctorum. A priest was singing odes to Shiva and a microphone was carrying his soothing voice to all parts of the hall. The ceiling has amazing painted murals, depicting different stories from Shiva mythology. There were life-sized statues of Dwarpalakas guarding the sanctum sanctorum.
A Literary Connection
There is also a shrine dedicated to the divine feminine (devi), called Pachainayaki. This is located in a hall with the usual carved pillars and also many paintings of female deities mounted on the walls. Here the priest anointed us with a red tilak and didn’t seem to have a reticence in touching us.
Once we were done, we decided to take a moment to sit and soak it all in. We’d been in the temple for 2 hours now, examining the architecture and the finer details and studying the yoga connections.
Yogasanas on the Temple Walls
All in all a fortuitous visit, specially with Mahashivaratri just around the corner