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Pragya Bhatt

Travels & Other Escapades

A Day in Varanasi – The Ghats & Death

November 22, 2022
Assi Ghat on Chhath Puja.

Boats anchored at Assi Ghat. We were there on the day of Chhath Puja, and all the ghats were festive.

“Oh Agastya, One should not be amazed at the notion that this Ganges is really Power, for is she not the Supreme Shakti or the Eternal Shiva, taken the form of water?”

The Ghats of Varanasi are legendary.  Originally all the ghats were clay, but today many of them have been rebuilt with concrete steps.  The ghats here that infuse the city with a certain air of romance.  Walking along any of the ghats (which remain largely unchanged for the last 3000 years), it’s possible to imagine the wooden ferries transporting goods from other kingdoms to Kashi.  Yogis, brahmins, travellers, kings, servants, artists, philosophers…all came to Varanasi on these ferries.  And like visitors today, they were also on a quest…

And the most poignant quest for a living being is a peaceful death.  Drifting along the Ganges, the bustling life at Assi ghat contrasts strikingly with the burning pyres at Manikarnika Ghat.  There is a saying that goes ‘Kashyam maranam muktih‘ which means ‘Death in Kashi is Liberation’.  It is believed that if you die here, you’re sure to attain moksha.  According to legend, this is because Yama has no power in Kashi, and it’s Shiva that presides over your death.  So this city finds itself the receptacle of the old and the sick.

Subah-e-Banaras at Assi Ghat.

The Ganga aarti, a part of the Subah-e-Banaras program at Assi Ghat.

A boat ride on the Ganges is a mandatory part of any itinerary.  Watch my video about Varanasi (including boat rides) here.  Our boatman led us to the Hanuman Ghat, from where we were to board our boat.  It’s unclear why or how this ghat gets its name.  A large number of South Indians inhabit this ghat today, including Mr. K. Venkat Raman.  The next ghat is the Chausathi Yogini Ghat – which was our first destination for the day.

Chausathi Ghat

The Chausathi Ghat – You can still see the domes of the old building and a new board in English is placed right under the old one written in Hindi and painted on the wall of the buildling.

It is said that once upon a time Holi used to be celebrated on this Ghat in honour of the 64 yoginis.  Legend goes that when Shiva wanted to come back to Kashi, he sent many emissaries to King Divodasa.  Amongst these were the 64 yoginis…

Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple

The Leaning Temple of Varanasi. It tilts at an angle of 9 degrees!

Rickshaw ride near the ghats.

On a rickshaw after ages! Near the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

Travels & Other Escapades

A Day in Varanasi – A Meeting With Mr. K. Venkat Raman (Ghanapathi)

November 9, 2022
Sowmya and Ramana ji with my book.

Sowmya and Ramana ji with my book. Always good to see smiling faces holding my book.

When Sowmya told me about her uncle’s nephew whose family had been in Varanasi for five generations, she didn’t mention that he was also a Ghanapati.  ‘Ghanapati’ is the highest (and rarest) title awarded to scholars of Vedic studies.  “He can tell us more about the yoginis and help us find more of their peethams in Varanasi,” was all she said.  Turns out that Ramana ji is a Vedic pandit and organises specific rites and rituals for people coming from Allahabad, Gaya and the southern states.

The next day we made our way through the maze of alleyways in search of Mr. K. Venkat Raman (Ghanapathi)’s house.  His house is somewhere inside the web of passageways near the ghats in Varanasi.  As we entered the narrow lanes, the noise from the traffic on the main roads receded. We walked unhindered as the hour was early and the lanes were uncrowded. Here and there some cows were ambling along with a few priests and the devout –  choosing the calm of the alleys to the bustle of the more well-known temples.

Ramanaji’s house was built 100 years ago by his grandfather.  I noted the small door characteristic of houses built a century ago. The house is traditional, with a central courtyard surrounded by rooms.  The courtyard is open to the sky, and allows for an abundance of natural light.

Ramana ji himself exudes a certain warmth. Passion for his work and service gives him happiness. “I connect to the spiritual energy of Varanasi. It’s the spiritual capital of India and India is the land of knowledge and wisdom,” he told me. It is undoubtedly this love for Varanasi and India that made the Government of UP appoint him as a Trustee of the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

Archana, Ramana ji’s gregarious wife walked in as we were having coffee. “My family is my backbone and I count on their support,” he told me. “Archana, Aishwariya and Arvind (my children) keep me grounded and my grandparents and parents have always been there for me.” Ramana ji enjoys his large family – he has 10 sisters and 4 brothers. His late father, Mr. V. Krishnamurthy Ghanapathi, was awarded the President’s Award for the work he rendered.

Ramana ji has spent his entire life in Varanasi and knows the temples intimately. I took the opportunity to ask him about the yoginis. Unsurprisingly, Ramana ji recited the names of the 64 yoginis and said he would share a few references with us.

By now the day was getting on and soon it would be too hot outside. Understanding this Ramana ji sent for his special boatman and we followed him out to the ghats where a boat awaited…

A picture in the well-lit courtyard of Ramana ji's 100 year old house. Daily puja and rituals of various kinds happen here.

A picture in the well-lit courtyard of Ramana ji’s 100 year old house. Daily puja and rituals of various kinds happen here.

 

[This blog is the second part of a series of blogs about my time in Varanasi.  Click here for the first one.]

Travels & Other Escapades

A Day in Varanasi – Called by the Yoginis

November 6, 2022
My pride and joy.

Ever since the publication of my second book, I’ve been compulsively taking photos of both books. This picture was taken during a particularly leisurely breakfast during Diwali week.

Those who’ve ever been to Varanasi know that any amount of blogs/books/videos fall short in describing its unique vibe.  There’s so much the city has to offer that one trip isn’t enough.  Whether it’s food, textiles, history, yoga, architecture, culture or spirituality – there is something for everyone.  In writing about my time in Varanasi I wasn’t sure how to encapsulate my experience in a single blog.  So this time I’m going to try something different.  Instead of encapsulating, I’m going to see if I can recreate a special day for you.

During her first visit to Varanasi, my friend Sowmya discovered the Chousathi Yogini temple there.  Her account intrigued me.  The temple she described was architecturally different form the ones we had seen in Ranipur Jhariyal.  What’s more, there was only one yogini idol in the temple.  Yet, the priest insisted this was the temple.

This city is fabled to be as old as time, an ancient city whose narrow winding web of lanes are fragrant with the smell of devotion, where faith is palpable even in seemingly forgotten crevices.  A city whose power can be felt in the crowds that still throng there in search of salvation.  A city where you can casually enjoy a glass of lassi at the Blue Lassi Shop and hear people chant ‘Ram naam satya hai‘ as they carry their dead to the Manikarnika Ghat…

 

Shopping from Pilgrim's Bookstore.

I’d recommend reading ‘Banaras City of Light’ before you visit Varanasi. But I’m having a good time reading it even after my trip. ‘Benaras’ was recommended to me by the guy manning Pilgrim’s bookstore the day I visited. I’d recommend a visit – they have interesting books, postcards and bookmarks.

I love researching a place before I visit, and there is so much on Varanasi.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to read up, so I decided to listen to a few podcasts.  I came across a reference to the 64 yoginis in one of them.  Sitting in my comfortable seat in the Vande Bharat Express train, I had an uncanny feeling that the Yoginis had called me.  And I must track them down.

The question is, in a city teeming with temples, how do you find information on an elusive (and perhaps even forgotten) cult?  Turns out, I didn’t have to look too far.  Stay tuned for the day that unfolded….

The first thing I saw when I de-boarded the train at Varanasi.

When I saw this sight in the crowded railway station, I couldn’t really connect to it. Not sure if I love Varanasi now, but I certainly long to return.

Travels & Other Escapades

The OG Yoginis of Raipur Jhariyal : A Confluence of Beliefs

September 9, 2022

I don’t quite remember when I came across the cult of the 64 yoginis.  It was probably during my ongoing search for the reason for the absence of a strong feminine presence in the history of yoga.  It’s a paradox – today women practitioners outnumber men, however, there’s a marked absence of them in history.

That’s when I came across the 1986 book titled ‘Yogini Cult and Temples – A Tantric Tradition‘ by Vidya Dehejia.  Inspired by that book, I landed at the Swami Vivekananda Airport in Raipur with a motley of friends.  Sowmya, who was as intrigued by the yoginis as I was; Mamatha, interested in textiles; and Animesh, who has signed up to accompany me on all the adventures of Life.

 

Definition from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary.

Definition from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary.

The Yoginis

Today the word yogini means a female practitioner of yoga.  But the yoginis of the 64 yogini temples don’t depict yoga as we know it today, which is largely asana.  Instead, these yoginis are symbols fertility, vegetation, illness, death, yoga and magic.  In a land comprised of dense forests and often isolated tribes – it is no wonder that the cult of the 64 yoginis is supported by local lore and beliefs.  Many believe these yoginis to be the female counterparts of male gods – such as Ganeshani and Narasimhi.

Ganeshani or Vinayaki.

The 64 Yogini temple still draws many a devotee. This statue is unmistakably Ganeshani, aka Vinayaki.

 

The Yogini Temple at Ranipur Jhariyal

The Yogini temple at Ranipur Jhariyal was built in the 9th – 10th century, during the era of the Som Dynasty.  Some scholars believe that the yogini temples are linked to the legend of six strong and independent queens who are fabled to have ruled Odisha.  These queens are mentioned in texts such as the Kalika Purana and the Yogini Tantra.  No archeological evidence has been found (yet) to corroborate this theory.

The first view of the temple gives you goosebumps – there’s a palpable power here.  The temple at Ranipur Jhariyal was discovered in 1853 by Major General John Campbell (a Scottish Army Officer posted to British India) and was one of the first yogini temples to be discovered.  The barrenness of the landscape is striking.  Vidya Dehejia (and Campbell) mention that this temple was remote , but in the India of today, it no longer is so.  Cultivated farm land surrounds the temple complex now, and the landscape is dotted by farmers in colorful saris.

Another thing to note is that contrary to popular conception, the temple wasn’t isolated.  I’d say the temple was very much integrated within the religious and spiritual cultures of the time.  In fact, it’s part of a huge complex that includes Shaiva, Vaishnava, Buddhist and Shakti sites.  It appears that the yoginis were neither feared nor shunned, in fact they had space to exist harmoniously with other practices of the time.

The Buddhist connection at the site.

The Buddhist connection at the site. This carving is on the doorway of the sanctum sanctorum of the Shiva temple nearby. There are Buddhist meditation chambers spread across the hill where the temple is situated.

There are 66 cells in the temple, of which 5 are empty.  The others contain a sandstone statue of a yogini.  Although it is hypaethral (without a roof), there is a sense of being enclosed by it.  The site of the temple receives many visitors – taking photos, hanging out with friends, picnicking – but once you step inside the temple, you feel you’ve entered a vacuum – voices become a bit muffled, and you automatically start to speak in low tones.  Here and there you see flowers at the feet of some of the statues – reminiscent of undying devotion.  The large Shiva statue in the centre of the circle is also red with vermillion – and indication that this place continues to be a site of active worship.

The majestic Shiva.

The majestic Shiva – believed to be the only one who can ‘control’ the Yoginis.

We found out more about the temple when we spoke to Mr. Manikchand Jain.  He heads the temple trust of the Shiva temple which is a part of the same complex.  He elaborated on the confluence of religions that the site represents, and emphasised that it was still considered a place of immense power.  According to him, tantra practitioners often come to this temple to perform rites and rituals.  However, the temple trust and the local government has outlawed these practices.  It is believed that on amavasya the yoginis leave their circular abode and congregate in the Shiva temple.  “The sounds of their celebration can be heard in all the villages close by,” he told us.

The unique Shivalinga, carved in the ground.

This is the sanctum sanctorum of the Shiva temple close to the Yogini temple.  It’s unique in The Shivalinga is carved in the ground, which is unique. Also there’s a statue of the Ardhanareshwara behind the shivalinga. We were told it’s as old as the temple, and is swayambhu.  To see the aarti here and get the blessings from the priest is a highlight of the trip.

Where To Stay

It was a five hour drive to the Banmali Palace hotel – a surprise discovery in the midst of the largely unknown and unexplored landscape of Bolangir.  I can’t recommend this hotel enough – the rooms are spacious, the staff is courteous, and on our last day the chef prepared a sumptuous Oriya dinner for us.  The hotel is actually a wedding destination, and has just resumed operations post Covid.  There’s a swimming pool, plenty of space for long walks and contemplation, and if you have children along with you – there’s lots for them to do too!  For us it was great to be in a place that understood the eccentricities of a bunch of researchers and the whims and fancies of such a group.

The entire group.

The entire group (L-R): Lambodar ji, our local contact without whom we would have been absolutely lost, Mamatha, Sowmya, me and Animesh.

Things to Remember

We were at the yogini temple on the 10th of Aug, 2022.  It was a full moon night, a night associated with the auspicious and feminine.  We were cautioned by the hotel staff not to stay at the site too late into the evening.  The members of the temple trust also told us that the local authorities have banned staying in the area after sundown.  However, we wanted to see temple bathed in moonlight.    As we watched the last of the vehicles rev away in the fading light, our driver told us he wouldn’t stay back, but that he would come at dawn to pick us up.  Unnerved we thought it better to get back to our hotel.

The reason I mention this anecdote here is because a respect for local culture and norms has become a casualty of the rampant tourism of today.  Many people have asked me why we listened to the temple trust or the hotel staff, since ‘I know’ that these are just urban legends and silly superstitions.  Didn’t we want to prove ‘them’ wrong?  Frankly, it was more important for us to respect their beliefs and culture, so when they said no, we listened.  Maybe we’ll be back there one day, with the permission of the local authorities; to observe rites and rituals, with them instead of inspite of them…

Future Study

It is largely believed that there are only 4 surviving yogini temples today.  However, I believe there are many more. An effort needs to be made to study the temples, the cult, and the divine feminine in Hinduism to cull out other sites that might also be yogini temples.  In the coming months, I plan to dig out a few more.

 

 

Travels & Other Escapades

The Yoginis in the Kangra Art Museum

July 25, 2022

The Kangra Arts Museum has a 360 view of the beautiful Himachali hills.  I’ve done a separate blog about all the fun I had in Dharamshala.

 

With a trip to study the magnificent Yogini temples in Orissa imminent, I started re-reading Vidya Dehejia’s ‘Yogini Cults and Temples: A Tantric Tradition.”  It’s a wonderful book (one of the best I’ve read on the subject) detailing her extensive research on the topic.  Dehejia starts the book with delving into who the yoginis were and the various definitions about them found in texts, literature and folklore.  As I read through this bit I was reminded of some paintings and artefacts I had seen last year on a visit to the Kangra Art Museum.  I had put these images up as Instagram stories, but I got feedback from many people that they’d like to read a bit more about them.  So below images from my visit, and a little description about each.

 

Amongst the numerous brass artefacts was this one marked ‘Yogini’. I’m not sure why it would be labeled such, but perhaps it has to do with the sharp (almost bird-like) facial features? Several of the yogini statues in the 64 Yogini Temples are noted for having animal heads instead of human heads.

 

This statue is comparatively less ornately adorned as compared to the yogini. Also, note the mark on the head – which is different from the curvier and loopy mark on the yogini’s head. The headgear also differs between the two.

 

This painting was labelled ‘A Lady charming snakes. 18th century, Guler’. Dehejia mentions in her book that a Yogini is often depicted in a forest, with the ability to control other living creatures. I would say it’s safe to assume that this lady is a yogini. Also, note that her clothes seem to merge with the foliage, and she appears to be wearing nothing but jewellery on her torso. Her seated posture (with legs crossed) is also interesting because generally the female figures are shown with legs bent at the knees and towards one side – whereas here the posture is a bit more masculine.

 

In the Tantric tradition knows as the Kaula marga, the Yogini is the woman who participates with the initiate in the secret practices of the cult, including the rite involving maithuna or copulation. This is an image of Kali sitting on Shiva. We know it’s Shiva because of the damaru in his left hand, but note the lack of Shiva’s copious dreadlocks. Also the items in Kali’s numerous hands – all required for esoteric Tantric rituals.

 

Here Kali is in a different avatar – more decorated, it might be said even more feminine. In this scene the ritual is happening in the presence of other venerated beings. And this aspect of the Yogini is performing a ritual on two male figures – one of which is Shiva. As compared to the Shiva in the previous painting this one has his dreadlocks and Chandra in place. The other figure looks younger, almost a boy. A female figure sitting on two men – one Lord Shiva himself and the other a young boy – risque.

 

Referring back to Vidya Dehejia’s book – a yogini is often depicted in the forest. Here we see Parvati in her more conventional aspect as Shiva’s consort – however, they are surrounded by animals and she’s calmly giving milk to Shiva’s snake.  Note the color and style of the dupatta – this occurs frequently in a lot of the paintings I saw.  Shiva wears the thick round earrings characteristic of the Nath panth.

 

The first thing I noticed about this painting was that Shiva once again appears dreadlock-less, in fact, he’s completely unadorned. It’s one of the most austere depictions of Shiva. And then my attention went to what Parvati was doing! She is stringing together a necklace of human heads, and it appears that Shiva has a needle in his hand to help out. Kali is often depicted as wearing such a necklace around her neck – and that convinces me that this is a painting of a yogini.  By the way, there are 13 heads in the painting – can you spot them all?

 

The form of Uma Maheshwari depicts the eternal love between Shiva and Parvati, Purusha and Prakriti, Chaitanyam and Maya – this is the married form of Shiva and Parvati.

 

More Art in the Kangra Arts Gallery

Below are some photos I took at the Kangra Arts Gallery.  If you’re visiting Dharamshala I would highly recommend visiting this place.  It’s right in the center of the main market and you can actually see meet and speak to the artists.  In fact, I got a personal tour where I learned about the themes and techniques of the dying art of Kangra style painting.  It was wonderful to interact with the artists and know about the work that KAPS (Kangra Arts Promotion Society, patronisers of the Kangra Arts Gallery) is doing to educate and spread awareness about Kangra Art.  They also conduct workshops and seminars for those interested in knowing more about the art.

In contrast to the Yogini paintings at the Museum – the paints here depict Bhakti yoga.  Women are beautiful, delicate and finely adorned.  They are depicted as handing out a glass of water, busy with worship or needlework, or playing and instrument.  Note the eyes and faces shyly downcast.  The male figure is conspicuous by its absence.

All these paintings are done with natural dyes.  You can even get a piece commissioned specially for yourself!

Needlework or composing a song/poetry?

 

The dupatta here matches the one Parvati was wearing in one of the previous paintings. I guess fashion, like the wheel of life, is also cyclical!

 

Get something commissioned for yourself!

I expect to see a lot more of such imagery and art in the coming few months, and hope to be able to draw more conclusive parallels between what I see, hear and read.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this blog, so please leave a comment!

Travels & Other Escapades

Auroville: Off the Beaten Track

July 17, 2022

After our trip to the Koti Lingeshwara temple, a bunch of us were itching to go exploring again.  We decided to go to Auroville, as  Pondicherry is (frankly) too commercial, and Auroville is still largely unexplored.  And when you’re traveling with a fashion designer, a yoga teacher, a biker and a couple of spirit junkies you’re sure to have an interesting time.

Kalarigram

Kalarigram is perhaps the best kept secret of Auroville.  Established in 2010, it is a centre for imparting traditional Kalaripayattu training.  Kalari = space for training; payattu = practice.  It’s a martial art that originated in Kerala and is over 3000 years old.  Like yoga, Kalari is taught in the guru-shishya parampara and also draws heavily from rituals and myths found in Hinduism.  Along with movement, kalari artists also learn Ayurvedic methods of healing the body.  What drew me to kalaripayattu was the similarity with yogasana.  I enjoy the dynamic movements that seem to tell a story in motion.  Kalarigram conducts regular online and offline kalari classes, and also offers Ayurveda, Yoga and meditation classes and workshops.

Beaming after an invigorating kalari session.

The institute allows people to come and watch the classes.  A class was already in session when we arrived, and we sat watching the expert students practicing in synchrony on the damp red earth.  Once the class was over, we also joined them.  It was a treat for me to practice in the traditional style; and for the rest of us, it was the best possible intro to kalari.

 

Very happy for the experience and looking forward to going back.

Mason & Co.

Mason & Co. is a chocolate brand founded by two chocolate lovers settled in Auroville.  They work directly with framers in South India to source and harvest the best quality cacao.  Their focus is on education and giving back to society, and they employ an all-women team to handcraft their delicious products.  I discovered this brand on my first trip to Auroville a couple of years ago.  Since then they’ve expanded their range of chocolates to include several unique flavors.  You can also find this brand on Amazon and Flipkart, and I highly recommended it!

Reflexology

On the way back from Kalarigram, Sowmya took us to visit a talented sidhar she had met on her previous visit.  He practices in a small tin hut next to a nondescript road in Auroville.  All of us were interested in his therapy and we arranged for him to visit our guest house.  He uses reflexology as a diagnostic tool, and then prescribes traditional herbal medicine accordingly.

Tools used to activate various points on the foot..  This reflexology massage can be excruciatingly painful, and he uses several wooden tools and oils.

Intrigued by his methodology, I asked him to tell us a little more about his healing practice.  That’s when he told us that this therapy was part of Siddha therapy.  I had studied about Siddha medicine during my Master’s, and was quite excited to meet a true-blue Siddhar in the flesh.

The Siddha system is an ancient system of healing that originated in Tamil Nadu.  It was outlawed by the Indian government for some time, but gained legitimacy again under AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, Homeopathy) – an initiative to optimally develop and propagate ancient system of Indian medicine.  Siddha healers believe that disease is caused by an imbalance in the three humours of the body – and a combination of diet, lifestyle, herbs and massage can bring equilibrium back into the body.  I would be remiss if i didn’t mention that he actually diagnosed each of the five of us accurately, which only strengthened our belief in his abilities.

He later gave me his business card!  His name is Senthil, and he speaks very limited English.  If you’re interested in alternative medicine, or would like to experience his massage and healing skills you can contact him on 8526399894.

Painful – but I got it done twice!

The Bookshop & Paper Making Factory at the Aurobindo Ashram

During my last visit to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, I breezed through the entire place, eager to get to the paper making factory down the corner.  This time however, I wanted to take a closer look at the publications.  On my recent Sringeri trip I’d had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a Kannada translator closely associated with the publishing wing of the ashram.  To my delight, there were several books on yoga and physical culture which piqued my interest.

The Paper Making Factory is closed on account of Covid, but the gift shop was open and I picked up several bookmarks, notebooks and even a visiting card holder!

 

Blessings from Lakshmi the Temple Elephant

While walking through the French Colony in Pondicherry, we were lucky to cross the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple when Lakshmi, the temple elephant, was on her evening walk.  The Vinayagar Temple is a Ganesha temple and there are several stories about its legend and power.  Getting blessed by Lakshmi is considered super auspicious – it is believed that her blessings will grant you your innermost wishes and remove any obstacles on your path.

In the lanes of the French Colony, happy after receiving all the blessings possible from Lakshmi.

 

After this trip I realise that the best trips are with the most unlikely people.  After all – Sowmya took us to Senthil and Lakshmi and Priti took us to the Hidesign outlet.  It was Ritu who would calm us down when we were cranky and hungry and Animesh who suggested relaxing at the rooftop restaurant (Bay of Buddha) post a sunset walk on the Promenade.  After all, don’t even the mundane places and experiences become special when you’re in the company of someone special?

Enquiries Into Yogic Philosophy

On Guru Purnima

July 13, 2022

To commemorate Guru Purnima, we had a special Vedanta lecture this morning, focused on the meaning and significance of the day for seekers. Subhadra ma’am started with defining the word guru: remover of the darkness of ignorance. Vedanta is the study of the Self, and the Guru is someone who reveals the glory and magnificence of our Self to us. On Guru Purnima we invoke the essence of the guru parampara. We appreciate and acknowledge the efforts of those who have walked this path before us and made it smooth and easy for us.

Subhadra ma’am then delved into the reasons why we study Vedanta. She explained that the study of Vedanta results in self transformation. Through our study, contemplation and understanding, we hope to remove the obstacles that stand between us and this transformation. These obstacles are both emotional and intellectual. She reminded us that as students we must remember that removing these obstacles is a gradual effort that requires constant sadhana and dedication. It is a time consuming process, and transformation doesn’t happen over night or even in the course of a few weeks. This process is also known as the atma katha – the story/journey of our innermost self.

With Shriram, learning kalaripayattu and Acro yoga.

Next ma’am spoke about the greatness of the Guru. The Guru is great is because he has been blessed by the shastras. A Guru’s greatness can be conditional but the shastra’s greatness is ever existent, unconditional; it is this unconditional greatness that is transferred from guru to shishya. The Guru can be likened to a celebrity promoting Brahma vidya/sukha vidya/atma vidya/ananda vidya. Which is why the teachings are always in the form of a dialogue – the seeker has questions and is given answers. In the Bhagawad Gita (the second Vedanta text we’re studying), Arjuna frequently repeats his questions, and the Lord answers him patiently. This is symbolic of how, as seekers, we might not understand an idea or a concept at the first go, but Vedanta is patient and will support our endeavours.

To commemorate Guru Purnima, we worship and pay homage to the entire guru parampara – the parampara commencing directly from Lord Narayana, Lord Dakshinamurthy and the Adigurus, so that we can learn from the shastras. We look at ourselves in the mirror of the scriptures and see the beauty that lies there. We salute the entire lineage we’ve become a part of.

Thankful to my dance guru, Honey Unnikrishnan, for teaching me more than just dance, and being there to answer all my questions with honesty, openness and humbleness.

The guru-shishya parampara pervades all Indian art forms, perhaps because art is a discovery and exploration of Self. My dance teacher, Honey Unnikrishnan took some time out today to discuss the guru shlokas we recite in the beginning of class. The Guru is someone who holds your hand (metaphorically) and leads you to the light, never letting go of your hand on this journey. So the Guru is God in disguise and we must appreciate that. Guru is equal to God, if not above Him. Both my Vedanta and Mohiniyattam teachers emphasised transformation and change and stressed the importance of saluting not only your direct guru but the entire parampara

As I listened to these talks by two of my gurus, I thought about my own transformation. About how this past weekend in Auroville, I easily prostrated myself in front of Ramesan Lakshman, the guru at Kalarigram. A decade ago I believed the practice of touching anyone’s feet was regressive, a tribute to chauvinism, a ritual that had no place in this century. But over the years I’ve searched for and found wisdom, guidance, support and (dare I say?) enlightenment from gurus of classical dance, literature, kalari and yoga. And when I bow down before a guru today, I do so with a comforting sense of surrender and trust in this age old pramapara.

To meet a student where they are is a characteristic of a good teacher. I’ve attend classes with numerous teachers and have been lucky to gain insight and inspiration from the best. @Kalarigram

Travels & Other Escapades

The Temple of One Crore (10 Million!!!) Lingas

July 5, 2022

A picture that perfectly encapsulates our biking trips – open skies, lots of nature and jazzy outfits.

After becoming owners of a majestic Triumph Tiger 900 cc recently, Animesh has been on the lookout for weekend trips from Bangalore.  Every once in a while, I also accompany him.  I’m not a fan of speed or big bikes – but I love me a short trip .  So when my friend Sowmya added us to a WhatsApp group to plan a weekend trip, we immediately jumped at the chance. We packed a small backpack for our day trip to the Kotilingeshwara Temple.

 

The Kotilingeshwara Temple

The temple is in a small town called Kammasandra in the Kolar district of Karnataka.  Kolar is about 2.5 hours from Bangalore and the route is scenic and beautiful.  Riding a bike certainly has an element of adventure, and literally gives you a different view than in a car.

Animesh and I had never heard of the temple, but a quick Google search showed us that the temple is the site of the largest shivalinga in Asia.  The linga measures about 108 ft and there’s a huge Nandi bull installed in front of it.  A 108 ft shivalinga is hard to imagine…until you’re about a kilometre away from the site and can see it looming above everything else in the vicinity.  As we approached the temple, it was clear that they were used to tourists.  They ushered us in to the ticket counter – where we purchased tickets for Rs. 20/- each.

 

 

 

 

The temple is also believed to be the site of the most number of shivalingas in the world. ‘Koti’ is the Kannada word for 1 crore.  1 crore = 10 million.  We didn’t know this when we visited the temple.  We thought the temple contained 10,000 shivalingas.  But as we walked around and saw that there were shivalingas as far as the eyes could see, we realised that there must be more.  Animesh did a quick calculation and determined that there were at least 50,000 lingas.  Now we know that there were 10 million of them, in all sizes and one was even white.

 

As usual, Sowmya and I tried to find information about the temple from any priest who would deign to talk to us.  One of them told us that the number of lingams grows every day as people make votive offerings to the temple in the form of shivalingas.  The cost of getting a shivalinga installed is Rs. 6000/-.  As we walked around we saw that many of the lingas were covered with haldi and kumkum, which means many people return to pay obeisance to the shilvalingas.

The temple itself is quite modern in its outlook.  There are neat lines to get into the main building, and the priest will ask you your name, your family name and names of anyone you want to pray for; and proceed to chant a few shlokas for your wellbeing and for your wishes to come true.  For Rs. 100/- you can do a special puja for Goddess Annapurna as well.

 

 

Something riveting about a while Shivalinga in a sea of black ones.

 

Shivalingas as far as the eye can see.

 

 

Happy Tourists

                                   

 

 

The beautiful scenery you encounter on road trips in Karnataka.

 

Here’s another blog you might enjoy, from my trip to the ancient Perur Pateeshwara temple in Coimbatore.

Travels & Other Escapades

A Temple That Keeps Time – The Vidyashankara Temple of Sringeri

June 27, 2022

Yoga yoga everywhere!

 

A couple of weeks ago I had the good luck and privilege of being a part of a group of scholars for a trip to the Vidyashankar temple in Sringeri.  The group consisted of various intellectuals involved in the study of the Indic culture.  We had writers, scholars, professors, dancers etc amongst us.  We were to be led by Mr. Viswa N Sharma, author of ‘Sringeri Vidyasankara Temple Astronomical Theater’, a book where he has chronicled his decade long study of the temple.  Of particular interest to us were the pillars of the zodiac found in the mandapam of the temple.

Lately I’ve started to appreciate the art, architecture and history enshrined in the temples of India and elsewhere.  As my yoga studies deepen, I have started to appreciate the interconnectedness between spirituality, worship, history, yoga, dance and Life.  Sometimes I catch myself wondering if this is perhaps an indication of a natural deepening of my interest in yoga – after all, from the gross we move to the subtle – from our asana practice on the mat we move towards the yoga found in our worlds.

The research center was inaugurated in the year 2000 and has over 10,000 books. It also has a vast collection of about 3000 manuscripts, and there are ongoing efforts to preserve and translate these.

The Ancient Town of Sringeri

Sringeri is a quaint temple town up nestled in the Western Ghats.  Its location ensures a moderate temperature year round, a boon to devotees coming to visit the numerous ancient and splendid temples in this place.  A boon too for scholars of Advaita Vedanta doing research at the Sri Shankara Advaita Research Center.  The center is off limits to visitors, but we were lucky enough to gain access and spend time in their library, looking at rare manuscripts and speaking to the scholars there.

This town is also popular on the pilgrim route because Adi Shankaracharya chose to establish the first of his four mathas in this location.  Legend has it that he meditated across from the site of the Vidyashankara temple, and one day as he was coming out of his meditation he saw a frog giving birth and a cobra providing it shade with his hood.  He sensed that there was something holy and peaceful about the land and decided it should be the site of the temple.

Because the temple promotes learning, knowledge, debate and supports study and scholarly pursuits, the energy on the temple premises is unique.  We were granted an audience with the current Shankaracharya and it was my first experience of its kind.  The Shankaracharya exudes an aura of learning, peace and quietude that is relatable.  The faith and belief here is not blind, on the contrary, it is based on reasoning and study.  When the temple learned that we were a group of scholars, they felicitated us with books, prasadam and saris, which made our visit even more memorable.  Many of us also found very interesting books in the bookstore – I’d highly recommend a visit if you’re at the temple.

The Sun Temple at Sringeri

The Vidyashankara Temple is a 14th century temple and depicts a time when Indian temples were also used to keep time.  This temple in particular is unique in that the navaranga (the hall inside a temple sometimes used as a dance platform or a stage) contains 12 pillars dedicated to the signs of the zodiac.  As we circumambulated the temple Mr. Sharma told us that this represents breaking free of our entanglements with the world.  We walk barefoot in temples and other places of worship to allow the sacred energy of such places to permeate our bodies.  Mr. Sharma also told us that the structure of the temple represents our movement from the gross to the subtle to reach moksha.  The act of going to a temple is symbolic of our journey from this realm to the next.

The intricate carvings on the temple walls. We spent substantial time studying the workmanship of these carvings.

 

The divine feminine – worshipped here and in all temples. This is on the outer walls of the temple.

The beautiful gopuram early in the morning. Gopura means the light of knowledge, according to Mr. Sharma.

 

The best thing about staying in the temple complex was getting to see it all lit up in the night.

 

The Yoga Connection

As usual, my attention was constantly drawn to the yoga connection, and I found a lot of carvings on the temple walls depicting yogasanas.

Look closely – arm balance with one leg behind the head.

 

Looks like a yogi with long hair/dreadlocks worshiping Shiva (Adiyogi).

 

Asanas found in dance as well as yoga.

 

Natrajasana for my dance teacher.

 

If you want to learn more about this temple, here’s an interesting paper I found about the temple: Aspects of Observational Astronomy in India: The Vidyasankara Temple at Sringeri.  Another temple I had a wonderful time at was the Perur Pateeshwara temple, check out that blog too.