Travels

Contextualising Yoga Day

June 22, 2023

The International Day of Yoga is now a part of our collective psyche.  As I prepped for my session for Suta this past weekend, I thought about how this came to be – how this practice which is our parampara came to be celebrated all over the world.  

Yoga has become omnipotent and so laying claim to it seems almost presumptuous.  But we aren’t laying claim to this ancient practice based on hearsay, or because a few yoga texts are in Sanskrit.  We lay claim to it because we have evidence of yoga existing in this region (present day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan) as far back as 2350-2000 BCE.  The Pashupati Seal was found in present day Mohenjo Daro.  Today it sits in the National Museum in Delhi.

Around 1500 BC we find a reference to yoga in the form of the Sanskrit root yuj in the Rig Veda.  The shloka which uses the word describes Indra yoking his horses and drawing them together.  The horses represent the rays of the sun, and when the rays of the sun are drawn back to the source, a dawn happens.  This dawn symbolises the dawn of enlightenment and knowledge.  The Bhagavad Gita is an important yogic text from this time, which gives definitions or descriptions of yoga, such as yogah karmasu kaushalam.  This period is considered the pre-classical period of yoga history.

And after this there is a lull of about 500 years and then some time between 500-400 BC Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are published – arguably the most recognised yoga text today.  This text talks about the eight-limbed or ashtanga path of yoga and for practitioners today, drives home the point that yoga is not just asana.  This period is also called the classical period of yoga history.

After this we have what is known as the Modern Age of yoga.  T. Krishnamacharya is considered to be the Father of Modern Yoga, a befitting title as he is the teacher to stalwarts like BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar, Indra Devi, Pattabi Jois and AG Mohan.  Other notable teachers of this time are:

    • Swami Kuvalyananda – established Kaivalyadham in 1924.  
    • Swami Sivananda – established the Divine Life Society in 1936 and Sivananda Ashrams.
    • Shri Aurobindo – established Auroville near Pondicherry in 1926.
    • TKV Desikachar – established the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai.
    • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – founder of Transcendental Meditation
    • BKS Iyengar – founder of the Iyengar style of yoga.

 

The Story of the International Day of Yoga

So when Modi ji addressed the UN in Dec 2014, he came with this context.  And much in the ethos of yoga in his speech he spoke about three things:

  • He emphasised collective action.  Said developed countries must help the developing countries financially as well as technologically.  This reflects the Gita’s teaching of  yoga karmasu kaushalam which can be loosely translated as yoga is skill in action.
  • Next he spoke about India’s responsibility – that India will also participate in sharing our technologies and capabilities with the SAARC countries.  He cited examples of where India is already doing this.
  • Finally he spoke about the importance of mindful development.  He said that reckless consumption is not mandatory for development.  This is where he brought yoga in and said that if we change our lifestyle and cultivate mindfulness and consciousness, we can deal with the crisis of climate change.

A year later, on June 21, 2015, we celebrated the first International Day of Yoga. 

Yoga – An Intangible Cultural Heritage

In 2016 the Indian govt petitioned UNESCO to include yoga in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  Intangible cultural heritage are practices, expression, knowledge or skill – folklore, customs, beliefs, traditions and even languages.  This brought even more awareness to the place yoga holds in India’s culture and traditions.

The Relevance and Importance of Yoga for Us

During my MSc. a professor once spoke to us about the challenges humanity faces for survival.  Historically our biggest threats have been natural calamities such as floods, draught, famine, pandemics (cholera, Bubonic Plague, Black Death etc.) 

However, today humans are human beings’ biggest threat.  We lack of empathy & sympathy.  We criticise too much, accept too little.  There is too much conflict, too little tolerance.  Our collective mental health is at an all time low.

A resilient person is a person who has a strong mind and a strong body.  Through the practice of yoga we can become more resilient.  Yoga is a holistic solution to the issues and at the risk of sounding fanatical, I’d even say that yoga is important for us to survive as a species.

 

The amazing group who came from all corners of Bangalore to celebrate Yoga Day with us.

The amazing group who came from all corners of Bangalore to celebrate Yoga Day with us.

 

The Suta crew - who made the event seamless and fun.

The Suta crew – who made the event seamless and fun.

 

Travels

Two and a Half Days in Ho Chi Minh

May 18, 2023

Ho Chi Minh City is named after a former President of Vietnam, considered one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.  The city is the most populated city of Vietnam and has French colonial architecture everywhere.  The French buildings stand out and you can see them behind the facades of the new construction.

War Remnants Museum

Having spent some time in the US, I was aware of the Vietnam War and its importance in US history.  During this trip I understood the importance of the war for Vietnam.  Out of the three books I read in preparation for our holiday, two were about this war.  One was ‘Faith of Our Fathers‘ by John McCain and the other was ‘The Sorrow of War‘ by Bảo Nin.  So I was eager to visit this museum.  I’d recommend it to everyone.  It gives context, and gory details about the war.  There are photographs, army tanks and weaponry and even two foetuses inside a glass case (to show the impact of Agent Orange).  If you had just one day in Ho Chi Minh City – I’d suggest working this into your itinerary.

 

Memorial to Thích Quảng Đức

Thích Quảng Đức was a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire to protest the oppression of the Buddhists in South Vietnam, in 1963.  I’d read about this incident and seen the photo too, and a few days before our visit, I read that this happened in Ho Chi Minh City.  So we had to go.  This is a memorial not only to the monk, but a tribute to satya and ahimsa.  It’s not very crowded, because I think many tourists aren’t aware of this part of Saigon’s history.

A temple in honor of Thích Quảng Đức at the intersection where he self-immolated himself.

A temple in honor of Thích Quảng Đức at the intersection where he self-immolated himself.

This memorial has been constructed at the junction where the monk set himself on fire. You can walk around the statue and there is a wall that depicts the treatment of the Buddhists by the then Roman Catholic government behind this statue. There’s some incense that you can burn to pay your respects to the monk who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Majestic Hotel

I love dining at historical/legendary/iconic spaces.  I feel like you can really soak in the vibe, instead of just walking through it.  It’s like Koshy’s or the Airlines Hotel in Bangalore.  So when I heard that the Majestic Hotel was one of the oldest hotels and has the best view of the Saigon river, I decided we had to go.  The food was good, but I really liked their Saigon-themed cocktails.  I had a Happy Saigon.

Noodle soup at the Majestic Hotel.

It’s nice that you can eat largely healthy food in Ho Chi Minh City, and I love their soups! Plus because of the heat, you’re going to be drinking more than eating.

Happy Saigon.

Happy with my Happy Saigon and some friends!

Besides this we also at the 22z10 Bar, which had some great pizza.  The walking street was also fun, but very loud, so if that’s not your thing, then you can avoid it.  The egg coffee is great, but fills you up!  Ho Chi Minh City’s local market is called Ben Thanh Market, and it’s a great place to pick up souvenirs.

We’re all set to fly out from Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow afternoon.  But I’ve had a great time.  We’ve stuck to District 1, but there’s so much to do here and we didn’t feel we missed anything.

 

RIMYI Experiences

The Ultimate Surrender – Intersection of Yoga & Vedanta

May 10, 2023

The philosophy of yoga and Vedanta sometimes intersect, and I love spotting this overlap in different classes.

During the last RIMYI class I took, Raya spoke about letting go.  When we talk about letting go of something, there is an assumption that you’re holding on to something.  It’s important to analyse this something.  How are you holding on to it?  Why are you holding on to it?  Once we analyse it, can we let it go?

To make it relevant to the asana practice Raya asked us to ask ourselves what we were feeling in the asana we were holding (Uttanasana).  What were we truly feeling?  Were we feeling our hamstrings hurting, or was the back hurting, or were we holding the abdomen too tight?  When you can identify what you are holding – you can begin to let it go.  “I let go of my back, I let go of my abdomen, I let go of….”  He asked us to do the same in Sirsasana, but focus on mental conditions/conditionings. He asked: Can letting go be voluntary?  Can we actively let go?

He gave us the example of how he came across a ratty old t-shirt when he was cleaning his cupboard.  Everyone tells you to let go of this old tee that you don’t even use anymore, but you can’t.  We need to understand that it’s not the object that we can’t let go – it’s the memories associated with it that we’re unable to let go.

What are we actually holding on to?  Can we analyse that similar to how we analysed Uttansana?  Mentioning yoga sutra 1.11 he asked us to ponder over what is the role of memory and cleansing the memory.  Can we actively identify and do something about?  Letting go of an old t-shirt is easier than letting go of memories.  Memories can be good, troublesome, traumatic, ecstatic.  How do we deal with this baggage of memories and how does it impact us?  Can we let go of attachment to the memory?  Can we actively let go of sad memories?  Going into parsva sirsasana he asked us to contemplate looking at the memory from a different angle.

अनुभूतविषयासंप्रमोषः स्मृतिः PYS 1.11

Memory is the unmodified recollection of words and experiences.

 

He spoke about two sutras that he would frequently speak to Guruji about:

सुखानुशयी रागः PYS 2.7

Pleasure leads to desire and emotional attachment.

दुःखानुशयी द्वेषः PYS 2.8

Unhappiness leads to hatred.

A person with a sense of discrimination should strive a balance between sukha and dukha instead of living a the mercy of these two.  There are so many triggers in life today – we are all used to certain manners, ways and customs.  But can we let go of getting triggered?  Raya told us that  us to actively open our drawers and pull things out and look at everything that comes out and ask ourselves if we are using it.  Have we been keeping certain memories in the cupboard, maybe even in the freezer.  And even in the freezer have they become rotten and started stinking?  Can we actively bring these memories out,  clean them up and throw them away?

How do we throw these memories away?  By turning it from klista to aklista.

 

वृत्तयः पञ्चतय्यः क्लिष्टाक्लिष्टाः PYS 1.5

The movement of consciousness are fivefold.  They may be cognizable or non-cognizable, painful (klista) or non-painful (aklista).

The fact that it happened remains, but the feeling associated with it goes.  Raya also stressed that we all want happiness, but we remember the sad things more – happiness has a shorter shelf life.  Happiness is like camphor or mercury – you can’t hold it, it evaporates.

Next in Sarvangasana, Raya asked us to finally consider what we can let of of intellectually.  He spoke of fear and how we’re all fearful of something.  But some are able to face their fear because they have practiced handling this fear.  Practice analysing your fears and insecurities – once analysed can we let them go?  After giving daanam in a temple, we pour water over our hands symbolically ‘washing away’ our attachment with what we’ve given.  We need to let go of claiming things – ‘I’ did this, ‘I’ own this etc.  The most difficult thing is to let go of this claim.  After letting go of these claims, can I let go of the ‘I’ itself?

When one moves from the grossest to the subtlest, neither the beginning is seen nor the end.

My Vedanta teacher always stresses the importance of balance in life.  It is important for us to seek pleasure, but also to accept that pleasure and pain come together.  As seekers we are encouraged to go after our dreams and desires, but we need to remember that the result of our pursuit depends on many factors.  Therefore, we can’t be swayed by victory or defeat, sukham or dukham.  We should pursue life according to dharma, and with the best of our physical, emotional and intellectual intent.  And surrender the results, fruits, fear and even happiness to a higher purpose.

What is left to surrender when I have surrendered everything?

My teacher explained the idea of surrender using verse 18.66 of the Bhagawad Gita.

सर्वधर्मान्परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज |
अहं त्वां सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुच: ||

In this shloka Lord Krishna is asking Arjuna for the ultimate surrender – the surrender of the ‘I’ or the ego.  Letting go of the ‘I’ in all the claims that I make.  Once I have surrendered everything, I surrender the ‘I’ too.  And in that way I merge with the One, the universal consciousness.

 

At the Blue Temple, Chiang Rai.

At the Blue Temple, Chiang Rai.

 

Books

Book Review: The Heart of the World

February 3, 2023
Heart of the World by Ian Baker

I read the pdf version of the book, but here’s the cover.

 

“How we view the world is a strange alchemy of cultural conditioning and personal choice.  One could cautiously avoid all geomorphic speculations or, like the Tibetans, allow the configurations of rock and water to guide one into more exalted thoughts and alternate ways of seeing.  As the Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote: “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.  Or what’s a heaven for?” – The Heart of the World by Ian Baker

 

I spent the last couple of days stealing bits of time here and there to finish reading ‘The Heart of the World’ by Ian Baker.  The book was on my radar for a while and was happy when my book club decided to read it.

‘The Heart of the World’ is really really long, but well written.  I felt the book took time to gain momentum.  It’s also challenging if you’re unfamiliar with the setting or the cultural context, because it makes it difficult to get immersed in the story.

I admit I hadn’t finished the book by the time the book club meeting happened.  But I’m glad I attended the meeting because I read the remainder of the book more intentionally.

Important Themes

Science vs Spirituality

The theme I most related to was the conflict between science and spirituality.  Baker is a highly accomplished scholar and mountaineer.  In some interviews I watched online, he speaks of the fact that his interest in Tibetan painting, Buddhism and philosophy preceded formal study on these topics.

I feel his background as a philosopher and his training as an academic is evident in the narrative where we see him trying to situate local beliefs against Westernised thought processes.  For instance, he refers to his quest sometimes as a journey and sometimes as a pilgrimage.  While he provides detailed descriptions of physical hardships, he also talks about dakinis, the anger of the Gods manifesting as turbulent weather, prayers and rituals to ensure success, not eating and drinking in houses of people thought to be dakinis so they don’t steal your soul etc.  Baker also mentions that in his meetings with the Dalai Lama he had understood how much the Dalai Lama was inspired by advances in science.  At this moment it seems that the narrator is either justifying his standpoint – perhaps to himself or perhaps to the reader.

The greatest example of this theme is towards the end of the book, when they are almost at their destination.  He takes a step back to evaluate his journey/pilgrimage.  He ruminates about whether he’s in search of the Falls or something beyond that transcends the physical.

Literature

Another important theme is literature.  Every now and then Baker inserts quotes from a wide array of books, authors, poems and philosophers.  This makes literature relevant to the journey, and also shows us that Baker’s interest in philosophy is wide ranging.  For instance when they find the Falls they need to measure the height of the water and Baker goes on a tangent about how to measure something that’s ever flowing and never still.  Thoughts like these give us insight into Ian Baker the philosopher rather than Ian Baker, explorer.  We realise his view is not narrow nor myopic – in fact it is informed by a wide range of cultures, travel, literature.  I personally felt that his references to different literature made the journey and the narrator somehow more relatable.

Sex

Another theme is sex.  There is a lot of sex interspersed in the narrative.  Baker talks about seduction, sexual revelry, his friend Hamid’s sexual exploits, sex as a challenge, sex as reward, sex as temptation and also sex as illusion.  There are anecdotes of local beliefs about sex throughout the story.  In fact, his journey is believed to be one to the innermost parts of Dorje Pagmo, the Tibetan goddess, so it’s unsurprising that sex forms an important theme in the book.

What I Liked the Most

I loved the descriptive narrative.  It could’ve been 500 pages about gnats and leeches, about injuries and hardships.  Instead we get a narrative replete with all the colors and shapes of rhododendrons, goddesses, prayer wheels and rituals, exotic animals, lush meadows, waterfalls and rivers.  The beauty in the narrative helped me understand why daredevils and explorers do what they do, and the hardships described in the story made me understand why I live in the comfort of a city.

Travels

The Divine Feminine in Belur & Halebidu

January 30, 2023
Posing around the temple.

Virbhadrasana with Garudasana arms on the jagati of the Halebidu temple.

It’s impossible to quantify or even qualify the impact of the divine feminine on our lives. The blurb for ‘In the Womb of the Goddess’ begins with: In our culture, we honour the feminine energy with music and with dance, with poetry and with song. It all started in the Womb of the Goddess.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to observe the feminine energy, symbolism and reverence depicted in the temples of Belur and Halebidu.  Those of you who follow me on Instagram might have seen a few of these highlights already.  I’m adding a lot more here.

Narasimha and the Intestines

Carvings of Narasimha are everywhere.  Many in which he’s tearing Hiranyakshipu’s intestines out.  What he does with those intestines differ depending on your source.  Some say he wore them like a garland, others (like my guidebook) say he ate them.

Poor Hiranyakshipu.

Note the attention to detail in the jewellery. It actually looks like Hiranyakshipu’s necklace is draped over Narasimha’s leg. Also the facial expressions are uncanny – it actually appears he’s dead!

 

Narasimha.

Here we see a lot more of Hiranyakshipu’s jewellery – like his waist belt and his earrings. Note the expression on his face – he’s looking at Narasimha with unadulterated fear.

 

Garuda & Narasimha.

In this carving you can see Garuda under Narasimha. Here the intestines aren’t draped around the neck – in fact there’s only one strand which seems to be going into Narasimha’s mouth. This sculpture also inspired my Garudasana arms with Virbhadra legs – you can see Garuda has his legs in Virbhadrasana.

 

Trivikramasana

Vishnu is also known as Trivikrama – He of The Three Strides.  This avatar is mentioned in a story in the Rig Veda, where Vishnu measures out the three worlds.  He took three giant strides for the Earth, the heavens and the space between them.  This sculpture shows him with his leg raised – presumably mid-stride.

Trivikramasana.

Here we see a different story. Here Vishnu is in his avatar as Vamana. Vamana comes to earth to overthrow the demon Bali – who has gained control over Earth after defeating Indra. Bali is devout and conducts lots of rituals and pujas. Vamana attends on of these and asks Bali to grant him three feet of land to conduct his own puja. Bali agrees and Vamana grows into a giant. His first step is on Earth, the other on the Heavens and his final step is on Bali – with which he pushes Bali down into the netherworld. And order is restored to Earth once again.

 

Trivikramasana - an attempt.

Symbolism in Trivikramasana – are the steps we take bringing order into to our worlds or are we busy running haywire?

 

Noteworthy Sculptures

Last year I visited the Sun Temple in Konark and was struck by the explicit carvings depicting the Kamasutra.  I spotted a few of those in the temples at Belur and Halebidu too, but this section is for carvings I found more noteworthy.

Gods in love.

Zoom in and take a look at the ornate jewellery. You can almost feel the weight of the long necklaces. Also the majestic postures – they are upright, but comfortable. Straight without being rigid. The way we’re supposed to be in our yogasanas.

 

Love.

My guidebook actually said this sculpture shows us that love is blind. The man is in love with a woman with an animal’s head. According to the author this is a depiction of young love. I think we can come up with better interpretations.

 

The Nagas.

Naga couple – divine or semi-divine beings with bodies that are half snake half human. Typical motifs in Hoysala architecture.

 

War scenes.

Kill an elephant and then dance on its head – some of the sculptures are quite gory.

 

Vishnu.

Vishnu pushing Bali into the netherworld. I love the details of the beads in the hand.

Ganesh Sculptures

Bejewelled Ganesh.

A sculpture on the outside of the Halebidu temple. It depicts Ganesh wearing ornate jewellery. I like the prayer beads in his right hand – and you can see the attention given to the fingers.

 

Ganesh.

This sculpture is at the entrance of the temple. Temple goers first get his darshan and then move on to the sanctum sanctorum.

 

Austere Ganesh.

This sculpture was in sharp contrast to the others – it seems unfinished (or perhaps chipped?). It has little or no ornamentation.

 

Ganesh.

Note the mouse under Ganesh’s feet – it appears to be having a hard time standing under the weight on him.

Scenes of War & Destruction

Wars are hugely significant in Indian mythology and provide symbolism through which many valuable teachings are exemplified.  Because of their importance, a lot of Indian art depicts war scenes.

Indra, Vishnu, Airavat and Garuda.

Indra and Vishnu at war. Indra rides Airavat – his white elephant. Vishnu rides Garuda.

 

Varaha.

Vishnu in his 10th incarnation as Varaha (boar). Note the figures he’s trampling on – his stance is Virbhadra stance. His face shows the fierceness of an angry boar.

 

Sculptures of the Female

The difference between the male and female sculptures is always interesting.  Apart from the full breasts, the female sculptures seem to have more graceful lines and fluid motions.

Fluidity in stone.

Fluidity in stone.

 

Kali - one of the most intriguing icons.

Kali – the icon I find most intriguing. Note the skull necklace and the severed head in her left hand. Look closely and you can see blood dripping from the sides of her mouth. Her helpers are emaciated with their bones visible – a contrast to her full, voluptuous figure.  She is the dark avatar of the Divine Feminine.

 

Perhaps Andal.

This might be Andal. She is depicted as one of Vishnu’s three wives and is called Ranganayaki. Here’s a carving of Andal I saw in the Perur Pateeshwara in Coimbatore.  As a manifestation of the Divine Feminine, she is a Bhakti Yogi.

 

Siddhasana.

A female figure in siddhasana – the austerity of the carving (no elaborate ornamentation) making me think that perhaps this was a female sage or teacher.  As a manifestation of the Divine Feminine she would be a jnana yogi.

 

Tribhanga dance position.

A dancer in tribhanga position – the line of beauty clearly depicted by the sculptor.

 

A female deity, perhaps Mohini.

A female deity, perhaps Mohini. However, she has a damru in one hand and a Nandi at her feet, which are markings of Shiva.

Boarding and Lodging

I can’t recommend the Hotel Mayura Velapuri Belur (A KSTDC) hotel enough.  It’s the best hotel in the area.  It’s clean, within walking distance of the temple, the staff is great and they have a restaurant which serves good food.

 

Travels

The Yogini Temple of Varanasi

December 12, 2022

“What foolish person, having reached Kashi – the very vessel in which the treasure of liberation is stored – would wish to go elsewhere in search of some trifling wealth?”

Little did I know that the Yoginis would find me in Varanasi as well.

Our next stop was the Chausanthi Ghat. We had heard about the Yogini Temple there, but had also heard that it contained only one shrine, instead of 64 (like in Hirapur and Ranipur Jhariyal).

Shiva’s Exile From Kashi

There was a time when the Earth was in tatters. There was lawlessness and disorder everywhere and the Gods simply couldn’t control the chaos. Finally, Lord Brahma decided that he would ask King Divodasa for help. In addition to being an effective ruler, he was also honest and kind. He agreed to rule from Kashi and restore order back to Earth, but he had a condition. He wanted no interference from the Gods. During his rule the Gods were to remain in their world. Lord Shiva would have to leave Kashi for the duration of his rule.

With King Divodasa on the throne, the Earth thrived. After many years Lord Shiva found that he missed his beloved Kashi. He decided to send emissaries on his behalf to plead his case with King Divodasa. Amongst the many entities he sent were the Yoginis – all 64 of them.

The Yoginis came to Kashi and soon found themselves assimilating into city life. They found work amongst the city dwellers and were soon embedded in the fabric of the city. However, they were unable to find an opportunity to plead Lord Shiva’s case with King Divodasa. Unable to face Shiva with this defeat, they decided to remain in Varanasi.

Stone signboard for the Yogini temple.

Some scholars have even liked the city of Varanasi to a goddess, saying that it is an embodiment of Shiva’s Shakti. Which is why he yearned to come back to Kashi, he was suffering like a lover separated from his beloved.

It is believed that once upon a time all 64 yoginis had temples in Varanasi, but today there exists only this one. “All of them, all that energy, is contained in this one Devi,” the priest explained. I looked at him uncertainly. The temple wasn’t hypaethral, which is what we popularly believe Yogini temples to be.

It was great that the pujari let us take a closer look at the statue of the Chausathi Yogini, and he answered all our questions.

An interesting depiction of the Devi – note the third eye and the animal crushed under the feet. My favorite detail is the ornate nose pin.

The temple has a very small courtyard, where natural light streams in. The space between the temple walls and the sanctum sanctorum (where the parikrama is done) is dark (but not damp). And, interestingly, is filled with ancient shivalingas of different sizes!

Ancient collection of Shivalingas in the temple.

An interesting collection of Shivalingas. However, it was really dark and we had to use our phones to see them.

Temple wall carving.

This was carved into the wall, and reminded me a bit of the carvings in the Yogini temples in Orissa.

The Other Devi in the Chausanthi Yogini Temple

Standing opposite the Chausanthi Devi is another devi. From the face we could tell it was Kali Ma and we asked the pujari about the history of the statue. According to him, a King from Bengal once had a dream in which he was instructed to take the Devi to Banaras and make a home for her there. He is said to have sailed the Ganges and carried the statue up the steps of the Chausanthi Ghat and placed it here. The priest was unable to give us any specifics such as dates and names, relegating the story to the stuff of legends, but the story was compelling. I’ve tried to track down references to the story in multiple sources, but was unable to find anything.

As we turned to leave the Yogini temple, I asked the punditji his name. Pointing to the Chausanthi Yogini and Kala Ma he said “I serve two mas (mothers) so I’m known as ‘Ma-Ma’.”

We boarded our boat again to head to a temple particularly revered by the South Indians – the Vishalakshmi temple.

A Note on the Vishalakshi Temple

‘Vishalakshi’ is the ‘Wide Eyed Goddess’. The Vishalakshi temple was renovated in 1971 with a large contribution from the Tamil fraternity, and it has a completely different vibe from the Yogini temple. For starters, it is jam-packed.

Inside the temple it’s dim and the smoke from the large clusters of incense makes it difficult to see. You can see the main deity as soon as you enter. It’s enveloped in hundreds of saris that devotees have offered to her. In fact, there is a stall selling saris inside the already crowded temple, and you can purchase one for the goddess if you want to. We elbowed our way through the enthusiastic devotees to get to the other side of the temple. The main deities are encased in glass boxes and the smoke and lack of light makes it difficult to see anything. There are numerous shivalingas here that you can offer your prayers to.

It’s dim inside the temple and the smoke from the large clusters of incense makes it difficult to see. You can see the main deity as soon as you enter. It’s enveloped in hundreds of saris that devotees have offered to her. In fact, there’s a stall selling saris inside the already crowded temple, and you can purchase one for the goddess if you want to. We elbowed our way through the enthusiastic devotees to get to the other side of the temple. The main deities are encased in glass boxes and the smoke and lack of light make it difficult to see anything. There are numerous shivalingas here that you can offer your prayers to.

The Vishalakshi temple finds a permanent place as one of the shakti peethas. Some say Sati’s eye fell at this location, while others say it was her earring. (For a background on this story see the “Natrajasana” chapter in my book Beyond Asanas.) This temple is also connected to two other goddesses – Kamakshi (Love-Eyed) from Assam and Meenakshi (Fish-Eyed) from Madurai.

Beautiful doorway next to the Vishalakshi temple.

No photos are allowed inside the Vishalakshi temple. This is a beautiful doorway next to it.

Picture from 'Banaras City of Light' by Diana L. Eck.

An old picture of the Chausanthi Ghat.

Hanumanasana at the Chausanthi Ghat.

Instagraming at the Chausanthi Ghat in 2022.

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

Travels

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

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

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

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.