Browsing Category

Travels & Other Escapades

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?

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.

 

Enquiries Into Yogic Philosophy Travels & Other Escapades

Swimming With the Sharks (A Maldivian Honeymoon)

March 19, 2022

I learned how to swim pretty late in life (early 30s) thanks to a Mrs. Vardhan who was generous with her patience and with her time.  I wanted to learn because it’s a wonderful workout, and therapeutic at that.  Little did I know that one day I’d be swimming with sharks in the expanse of the great Indian Ocean.

All set to snorkel near our water villa. Sea life differs from area to area and we looked forward to seeing the variety of fish surrounding the island.

My first experience of snorkelling was years ago during a school trip to the Andamans.  My memories of that experience aren’t particularly fun, so I wasn’t overjoyed about snorkelling in the Maldives (at the Sun Island Resort).  But Animesh was super excited, and so off we went.  It wasn’t until I got into the choppy waters with the snorkelling gear jammed tightly over my face did I recognise that the discomfort I was feeling was actually a sense of fear.  I was out of my territory – I’ve spent years training myself to breathe deeply through my nose.  Breathing through the snorkel with my mouth felt strange, unnatural and very very uncomfortable.

BKS Iyengar famously said, “Your nose is for breathing and your mouth is for eating.  If you breathe through your mouth I will put food in your nose.”  Under the water, with tiny (and not so tiny) fish flitting all around me, I strained to inhale and exhale through my mouth.  And then it dawned on me that a truly flexible human isn’t one who is able to breathe rhythmically when on a yoga mat with the intention  of doing so.  True flexibility is being able to breathe in whatever way the situation demands.  So, as I struggled to get comfortable in the depths of the Indian Ocean, I forced myself to calm down.  I started to engage my lungs to breathe deeply and rhythmically through my mouth.

A lazy tree pose on deck. Happy to see the sharks and other fish up close.

Recently I lectured my students about the importance of cultivating a self-practice. When there is no self-practice, yoga is merely an activity confined to our mats and we remain limited to and by our physical boundaries.  Our physical boundaries are a fraction of what we are as humans.  The expanse of the human mind is more vast than the Indian Ocean, and just as interesting.  When we practice by ourselves, devoid of the expectation of cues and the ‘experience’, we can begin (and hope) to tap into this space.  In this space lies the ability to breathe better when needed, to calm down and detach, to relate to others more intelligently, to listen to the wisdom our inner voice and to marvel at the plethora of life in the universe,

Once I worked this out in my mind, swimming in the ocean seemed like an extension of my practice.  I observed more, moved my arms and legs in different ways, swam in place or in circles, didn’t panic at the sight of sharks or a little water in my face mask, and most importantly, was able to explore more of the deep blue sea

 

 

Travels & Other Escapades

A Dip in Sacred Waters….

March 7, 2022

A beautiful mural of 7 siddhas. In the temple in front of the Adi Yogi temple at the Isha Yoga Centre.

A dip in sacred waters is a mainstay of Indian civilisation, and it’s common to see people taking a dip in one of the numerous rivers in the country.  I never thought I’d actually do it myself one day…

Isha Yoga Center

Sowmya and I arrived at Isha Yoga centre early one morning, hoping to beat the usual crowds.  But the day we chose was only 4 days ahead of Maha Shivratri and the devout were up and they were about.  Hordes of selfies were being taken in front of the Adi Yogi.  It was only 8 am, but the places was bustling with activity.  A large stage was being constructed and barricades were being erected to keep the imminent crowds in check.  Announcements were blaring from the speakers.

The Adi Yogi statue is built of steel and placed on a raised platform and is visible as you enter the Isha Yoga centre.

In front of the Adi Yogi statue is a temple where daily homas are done.  We reached the temple as special morning prayers on account of Mahashivaratri were were being conducted.  We had a chance to sit around the fire listening to the chanting.  There is a metal lingam in the centre of this temple (several people were doing parikramas around it).  Coiled around the lingam are 5 metal serpents of various heights.  Behind is a beautiful mural of 7 siddhas.  Several people were doing the sashtanga namaskars in front of these statues and the lingam.

After about 10 minutes we got up and decided to walk further into the ashram.  Before entering into the grounds of the main ashram, we were asked to deposit our phones and other valuables (except our wallets) at the security.  We were also allowed to take our towels into the ashram, for which we were given a bag at the security.

Purification by Kunda

The Isha Yoga Centre has two kundas – water tanks for men and women to bathe in and thereby purify themselves.  The Surya kunda is for men and Chandra kunda is for the women.

To bathe in the kunda, you’ll be given ochre robes by the centre.  You will need to take a shower first.  I was hoping no one would notice that my hair was dry, but they did, and I was promptly sent back to the showers to rinse my hair.

The kunda is artfully designed.  As we descended the large stone steps, I was reminded of the Kamakhya temple.  Unlike the Kamakhya temple, the Chandra kunda is man-made and designed to be rustic yet elegant.  It is carefully cultivated class – a 5 star temple water tank – as Sowmya puts it.  Silence is mandatory here, and it seems to reverberate within the tastefully designed stone dome of the kunda, adding to the somber mood.  There is a small waterfall on one side and as I descended the metal stairs on one end, I felt the weight of the heavy silence closing in on me.  The kunda is windowless, and the cold water is about 4 feet deep.  There is a huge shivalingam in the centre – made of a stone base and a metal dome jutting out of the water.  We circumambulated the lingam in the water, savouring the resistance of the water on our relaxed limbs, the splashing sound soothing to the ears too.

 

Bhairavi Temple

Once we exited the Chandra kunda we decided to visit the Bhairavi Temple.  This too has a cave-like structure and early in the morning the sounds of the aarti and accompanying chanting were steadily reaching a crescendo.  The devotees were engrossed in their devotional practices, and there was no social distancing.  Not too keen to be a part of the melee we decided to exit.

 

Dhyana Lingam

We continued practicing our silence as we entered a doorway to get to the famed Dhyana Lingam.  On either side of the hallway leading to the Dhyana Lingam there are stone murals depicting various scenes from mythology about devotion.  Sowmya and I were happy to see a huge statue of Sage Patanjali.  The Dhyana Lingam is housed inside a huge dome shaped hall specially made for meditation.  The shivalingam stands tall and imposing in the center of this hall and is decorated with flowers.  There are squares compartments cut into the walls to sit and meditate in.  There is no artificial light here, and the style is similar to the Chandra kunda – stone, understated, elegant.  For a fee you can also light a lamp and offer rudraksha of various prices to the Dhyana lingam.

Sowmya and I found a square each and enjoyed some of the serenity for half an hour.

Tamarind Tree & The Nandi Bull

After a bit of shopping at the gift shop (I picked up their famous sambramani) and some breakfast (steaming hot idlis and some pongal), we decided to walk past the famous tamarind tree and the nandi in front of it.  The Nandi is five times the size of a real one, and made entirely of black stone.  The tamarind tree is covered with threads and other pieces of cloth (mostly fuchsia, red or black).  Those who complete the challenging Shivanga sadhana gain the privilege of tying these cloths/threads on this tamarind tree.  The Shivanga sadhana is a special 42 day sadhana that only the most devout can complete.  It is believed that our sweat contains our samskaras and when these are absorbed (along with our sweat) into the clothes we wear.  By tying these clothes around the branches of the tamarind tree, we rid ourselves of our samskaras.

 

The experience of the rituals and worship at Isha yoga differed so much from our experience at the Perur temple, just a few kilometres away.  It is said that there are as many beliefs as there are people in India.  Experiences like this one certainly gives us insight into just how complex, intricate  beliefs, culture and traditions can be.

 

 

 

 

Travels & Other Escapades

An Unexpectedly Remarkable Mahashivaratri Experience

March 2, 2022

Off duty priests.

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 were many such carved murals of Shaiva siddhas at the Perur Pateeshwara temple. At first glance the large ears made me think about the Bahubali statue in Shravanabelagola, which also has large ears.

 

Shiva depicted during his tandav – the inspiration for this temple.

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.

The detailed inscriptions on the temple walls. These are in old Tamil script.

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.

One of the dwarkapalakas. The pose reminds me of standing Marichiyasana, using his gadhayudha (mace) as a prop.

 

The 108 mudras of the tandav. These were mounted on the walls of the hall.

I’ve always been fascinated by the similarities between Indian classical dance and yogasanas, and spent quite a bit of time observing these postures.

 

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.

Possibly the poetess saint Andal.

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

Not a yogasana, but we found this mural very interesting. The expression on the face reminded us of Santa Claus.

All in all a fortuitous visit, specially with Mahashivaratri just around the corner

Travels & Other Escapades

Beyond the Gomateshwara in Shravanabelagola

February 23, 2022

On the way back from our recent vacation in Coorg, we decided to take the road less travelled.

Our First Stop – The Maṭha Temple at Shravanabelagola

The road was scenic, bucolic and mostly under construction.  We crossed a flower market and picked up some jasmine for our hair.  And finally, looking at the map we decided to take a small detour to Shravanabelagola.  Shravanabelagola is one of the most important Jain pilgrimage sites in the world.  It is marked by the presence of a 58-feet tall statue of Bahubali.  I’ve been to Shravanabelagola before and trekked all the way up to the deity.  This time we were hard pressed for time and couldn’t do that, but there was another delightful surprise in store for us.

The Jain maṭha that maintains the temples in Shravanabelagola (including the Gomateshwara) also has its own temple, which we visited.  I saw some incredible murals on the wall.  I hope the maṭha restores them in the future.  For now, they’ve put up barricades to discourage the poking of curious fingers.

Some of the murals:

National Institute of Prakrit Study and Research (NIPSAR)

It is no coincidence that NIPSAR is in Shravanabelagola and is also a major attraction for Jains and scholars of Jainism.  Most ancient Jain literature is in Prakrit, and this institute was established for the study of Prakrit.  It houses many manuscripts, most of which are more than 500 years old.  I was very interested in seeing these manuscripts as I had only seen pictures of original texts but had never actually seen one in person.

We were well received at the institute by a few of their scholars, who proceeded to give us a tour of the institute and show us the original manuscript of the ‘Gurudev Charite’, which was from the 10th century.  Along with this they showed us the restoration and translation work that is currently underway of the ‘Trishashti Lakshana Mahakatha’ – a collection of talks about the Jain tirthankaras.  The ‘Trishashti Lakshana Mahakatha’ is also known as the Chavundaraya Purana and was written by Chamundaraya.  Chamundaraya was a military commander, a poet, an architect and a statesman, who lived from 940 CE to 989 CE.  He commissioned the building of the statue of Bahubali found in Shravanabelagola.  The Trishashti Lakshana Mahakatha is the second oldest existing work in prose in Kannada.  Chamundaraya meant for this work to be read by the masses and therefore wrote it in Prakrit and ensured it was easy to read by the masses.  It relates the legends of a total of 63 important figures in Jain history.

An original manuscript in Nadugannada or Medieval Kannada.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a card catalogue!!!

Reams and reams of texts – a library such as I have never seen before!

NIPSAR also works on restoration of other artefacts. These are made on parchment made of coconut bark, using natural dyes.

Importance of Sanskrit/Prakrit for Yoga Seekers

Although I’ve always been interested in yoga philosophy and texts, its only recently that I’ve started to contextualise it.  This was partly due to the exposure I got during my master’s at SVYASA (studying the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Patanjali Yoga Sutras in a cultural context).  Hence, my interest in not only yogasana but also in everything (peripheral) about yoga.  I found that the more closely I look at the society and culture surrounding the practice of yoga, the more insight I gain into the subject.

When I started studying Vedanta, I realised that the Sanskrit I learned  at SVYASA came in handy.  Although numerous English translations and interpretations of yogic texts are available, to be able to read the original script forges a connection that is highly empowering.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to hold such ancient literature in your hands.  It’s not only what you’re holding, but the fact that this is intimately connected to something you’ve been immersed in for a decade.  Which was another reason why I was so keen to visit NIPSAR.

So do you need to learn Sanskrit/Prakrit if you’re interested in yoga?  In my opinion no, but if you do then you’ll be privy to a whole new dimension of the subject.

What a beauty.

Travels & Other Escapades

Onwards to New Adventures

January 22, 2022

I grew up on a steady stream of Nancy Drews. I was an obsessed reader – steadily going through the entire collection in my school library. And then moving on to the local library. I would sometimes read an entire novel in a single day! I wanted to be a detective when I grew up, complete with the red hair and the red convertible. I didn’t become a detective and my hair has never been red (although it’s been a lovely shade of fuchsia). Perhaps the closest I’ve come to being like my childhood idol is my red car (although I’ve never had a convertible).

I bought my first car after a brief stint in the UK with Infosys. I was feeling very much like a woman of the world and pictured myself in my own car, cruising across the city doing very important things. I wanted something with character and an old world charm and I looked everywhere for a red Maruti 800, and found to my disappointment that they were no longer in production. So I bought the car closest to the red 800, a firebrick red Alto LXI. My Alto added a zing to an otherwise dull corporate life – my friends and I rode to work in style, not having to worry about catching the company bus on time. We no longer depended on Meru cabs to ferry us to social commitments, we had the trusted Alto. The Alto saw me driving to job interviews and eventually to a new workplace. It saw me quitting my job to follow my passion – and it metaphorically drove me to it.

I recently watched a poignant episode of ‘Modern Love’ centred around a car, and when I recently sold my Alto, I realised that our vehicles give us freedom and independence. They teach us responsibility and confidence. From tentative trips to the grocery store (always nervous about the parking), to negotiating the hairpin bends en route Coonoor. From driving myself to yoga classes, to driving across the city for teaching gigs. My Alto took me to Vipassana twice, parked in the dusty parking lot for all 10 days, both times. In 2011, I took it to SVYASA to complete my month long YIC, and in 2019, I drove it back to SVYASA to register for the MSc.

I’d started using it a lot less recently because of the lockdown. The radio didn’t work as well anymore, and the tyres have been changed several times. Yet it still that feel of a giant blazing fireplace on a cold winter’s day. We drove the Alto to Coles Road to register our wedding – it was small enough to fit into tiny parking spaces on teeming Indian roads.

Life has changed a bit now. I no longer have to drive everywhere to attend or take class. I ended up marrying a very tall man who ends up using the car more than me – and a tiny Alto is too small for him. I reluctantly decided to change my car and get a larger one, and ironically, this car also happens to be red. I guess subconsciously I’m still Nancy Drew. And just like Nancy Drew, I’m excited about future adventures in this spanking new red car.

Lakshmi and I bringing the Alto back to Pride Apartments.

Animesh and I very happy with our purchase.

Oct 24, 2010

Jan 21, 2022

Onwards to new adventures.