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Dev Deepawali – A Well Kept Secret

December 15, 2023

The bridges across the Ganges are also decked up for Dev Deepawali.

I wrote quite a few blogs about my trip to Varanasi last year.  I mention sailing the Ganges to look at the ghats, the Yogini temple, the magnificent Ganga aarti etc.  Last year I heard about Dev Deepawali – a local festival celebrated on a grand scale fifteen days after Diwali is celebrated across the country.  At the time I remember thinking I’d love to see that, and hopefully next year.

I forgot all about that until my sister in law asked me about my plans over dinner one night.  Within two days I had roped in another friend who roped in another … and soon the four of us were off to the oldest city in the world.

The Celebrations

Dev Deepawali can literally be translated as the ‘Diwali of the Gods’.  Although now Dev Deepawali has started gaining traction -it’s basically a local festival, celebrated only in Varanasi.  Women dress up in beautiful saris, apply henna on their hands and wear the prettiest jewellery.  The high point of the event is the lighting of the ghats with a million (not an exaggeration) diyas.  In addition to this, there is a magnificent sound and light show depicting the story of Dev Deepawali, that you can watch.  This year diplomats from 70 countries attended the celebrations.

The best way to experience Dev Deepawali is from a boat on the Ganges.  The Government of UP organises special cruises on the Ganges and tickets for these are exorbitant.  So exorbitant in fact that we didn’t bother checking the prices and decided to get a smaller row boat and split the cost between us.  We were 10 people and we split the Rs. 20000/- between us.  It’s a good idea to work out a deal with a boatman in advance because the boats sell out fast.

The Boat Ride

Once you’re on the boat you’re required to wear a lifejacket.  Police petrol the waters to make sure everyone is safe and that there are no accidents.  The ride is basically sailing from the first ghat to the last and observing the different decorations.  The entire Ganges had a festive vibe, and it’s truly unique – you won’t see the Ganges like that any other time of the year.  We spent about two hours on the boat, and there was never a dull moment.  It’s worth planning a trip tp Varanasi just to experience this festival.  Also, don’t miss the fireworks.

The Man Singh Observatory

Another place that had a superb sound and light show is the Man Singh Observatory on the Man Singh Ghat.  The observatory was constructed by Raja Man Singh of Rajasthan and contains various types of compasses to measure the position of the planets and stars.  These measurements were used to tell time and to make the lunar and solar calendars.  Today these compasses make for interesting photo ops.

The Observatory was also a palace, and its first floor is now a museum cum exhibition space.  There are interactive exhibits about different aspects of Varanasi, such as the art, the folk dances, the weaving and the architecture.  Certainly makes for an interesting afternoon.

The main hall on the first floor (which is humongous), has been converted into the sound and light show theatre.  The show is only about 15 minutes long and shows how the Ganges came to Varanasi.  However, it’s only in Hindi, so difficult to understand for non-Hindi speakers.  But I would still recommend it for it’s amazing picture quality.

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple

No trip to Varanasi is complete without a darshan of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.  This historic (and controversial) temple draws thousands of pilgrims every year and it’s particularly crowded on the Dev Deepawali weekend.  The temple is significant because it’s one of the twelve jyotirlingas, places where it is believed Shiva appeared as a long fiery pillar of light.  This legend makes the jyotirlingas special, and contributes to the energy that is palpable here.  There are long lines for the darshan, but a ticket can be booked online, and this might reduce the wait time.  If you go early morning, you’re less likely to run into the surging crowds.

A Walking Tour

The ghats of Varanasi can be explored on foot and lately many people have started offering walking tours.  This is a fabulous way to explore the ghat area, and if you find a good and knowledgeable guide, you can learn a lot about the history and legends associated with the oldest city in the world.  Our tour took us through the ghats, on a boat to the Alamgiri Mosque to the bylanes of Varanasi and finally to a great lassi and malayyo stall.

Alamgiri Mosque


A Fortuitous Meeting with the Hugging Amma

October 28, 2023


Amritapuri Ashram

A view of Amritapuri Ashram from the 9th floor of the residential building. You can see the Kali temple on the left and the ocean in the horizon.

Over a long brunch last Sunday my friend Sowmya told me she was heading to Trivandrum to meet her guru.  “Who’s your guru?” I asked her.  “Amritanandi Maa,” she said, as though to have the world famous Hugging Amma as your guru is the most natural thing possible.

Decades ago I read a fun and entertaining book called Holy Cow, where I first came across the Hugging Amma.  I didn’t think then that one day I’d actually get a chance to meet the saint.  I rescheduled/cancelled a bunch of classes and on a sunny Wednesday afternoon Sowmya and I were on our way to Amritapuri.  The countryside was lush and the glimpses of the ocean made the journey enjoyable.

Amritapuri Ashram – What to Expect

The Amritapuri Ashram is built at the birthplace of Amritanandi Maa.  When she had the means she decided that her ashram should be near the backwaters where she spent her childhood.  She also wanted to use her increasing popularity to uplift the people of her hometown.

The Ashram has several gates – all very easy to miss when you’re driving.  The best way to find the ashram is to ask a local – almost every local knows where it is.  Once you find parking head over to the reception.  You’ll be given detailed forms to fill.  As with all other ashrams in India, these forms are shared with the police for security reasons.  As an Indian I didn’t need any passport and visa details, but foreigners have to list out all their previous trips to India along with a bunch of other details.

Once you submit your form you’ll be allotted a room.  We went back and forth a few times until we found ourselves in a clean room with a much needed and appreciated AC.  There are two or three canteens on the premises as well, but they run on specific timings.  Sowmya and I drove to a small local joint next to the ashram for some dosas, appams and Malabar parottas.

We were there only for a night, but during that time we saw:

  1. The Kali temple – a huge temple in the centre of the ashram.  We could can see the spires of this temple rising up and out of the trees from our room on the 15th floor of the residential building.
  2. The gowshala.
  3. The beach – the ashram has it’s own stretch of the beach.  However, the entire beach is a rocky beach and you’re not allowed to go into the water.
  4. The daily evening program.

No photography is allowed in the ashram.

The Daily Evening Program

We were lucky that Amritanandi Maa was in the ashram the day we visited.  Because of her various philanthropic activities she spends a lot of time in different states in India and considerable time abroad.  Luckily because of her close association with Amritanandi Maa, Sowmya knew she would be in residence.

I had done a bit of research prior to the trip.  Amritanandi Maa believes in selfless love and compassion towards all and gives hugs to spread this love.  It’s believed she has hugged more than 32 million people around the world, and that’s why she’s known as the Hugging Amma.

Every evening the ashram has the same routine – a sermon by a devotee, followed by bhajans and kirtans.  This can go on for half an hour or into the wee hours of the morning, depending on Amma’s mood.  After this all the attendees eligible for a hug get in line for a hugging token.  If you live in the ashram you’re eligible only once a month or so.  Visitors are eligible only once during their entire stay.  We were lucky to get one of the first few tokens and were pushed ahead in the line.  It took us less than twenty minutes to meet Amma.

Meeting the Hugging Amma

There is a quality of peace around Amritanandi Maa.  Although she’s constantly surrounded by devotees and helpers she is unruffled as she focuses on the person who has come for darshan.  We were told that she doesn’t speak English or Hindi very well, so if there was something we wanted to convey one of the helpers would do so.  “Amma doesn’t like pregnant women kneeling down on the floor,” one of the helpers told me, “So you’ll be sitting on a stool.”

As we got closer to Amma I observed the deep reverence everyone has for her.  People had come from far and wide and were looking up at her with expressions of pure love, trust and belief.  With so many devotees waiting for their turn on stage and so many more in the audience, there was no frenzy in the whole process.  I felt a strange sense of blankness.

What do you say to a saint revered for her powers and healing abilities?  If you’re only meeting her once in your lifetime – what do you ask or say to her?

I didn’t have to be so worried.  The moment I sat in front of her and said ‘Namaste’, she wrapped me in her arms and started rocking me back and forth, saying something three times in Malayalam in my ear.  Unlike the brief, fleeting, barely-there hugs I had read about, mine was long and I remember gradually relaxing into her embrace.  When she let me go she looked at me with her open and friendly smile and passed her hand over my belly.

I have come to the conclusion that when you meet a saint of this stature it’s important to live the moment, instead of becoming anxious about what to ask for.  When she released me from the embrace I had a strange sense of peace and stillness.

The prasad consisted of a packet of chocolate chip biscuits, a small 5-star chocolate and a candy.


At the Lalith Kala Akademi of Art in Trivandrum.

While in Trivandrum we had the opportunity of looking at some art work by the renowned artists Suresh K Nair. His latest work deals with his interpretation of the yoginis. The exhibition was at the Lalith Kala Akademi of Art.

A few years ago I visited the Isha Yoga Ashram.  You can read my experience here.


Goa, Off the Beaten Track

September 23, 2023
Koti Tirth Tali

Koti Tirth Tali. There are supposed to be 108 niches carved in the walls.

I’ve been to Goa so many times I feel I should be awarded a honorary PhD on it. Goa exists in our collective psyche as the ultimate vacation destination – a coming of age for young people, an exciting place to have your bachelorette or long awaited girls’ trip and an opportunity to gaze at the vast blue sea for those of us landlocked.

Things changed a bit during the pandemic when everyone decided to work from Goa. In fact, we contemplated it too and found ourselves in Goa scouting for viable villas to move into. That’s a story for another blog. Suffice it to say that because tourism to Goa is an unprecedented high, travellers now look for activities off the beaten track. My last trip to Goa was certainly that.

We formed an assorted mix of four – my mother in law, her sister, a dear friend of her’s, and me. We were game for an adventure.

Divar & Chorão Island

The first day we decided to go to Divar Island. The Mandovi River around Goa is home to many islands, all of which have and mangrove forests, churches, temples and grand old Portuguese villas. The night before I’d looked up how to get to the island and found that we had to take the ferry to Ribandar port. Unfortunately Google directed us to a port slightly before Ribandar, and not knowing any better, we took the wrong ferry and ended up in Chorão Island. We decided to make the most of it and drove around the island for a while. The island is lush, green and largely uninhabited. However, there are several churches and chapels dotting the greenery. The most significant one I spotted was the chapel for St. Teresa of Kolkata (Mother Teresa). A surprise find was The Yoga Institute, a swanky residential yoga centre. (Something to keep in mind for my next yoga retreat.)

Divar island proved to be a bit more eventful. We spent some time at Our Lady of Piety Church (Nossa Senhora de Piedade). The church and it’s adjacent graveyard lie atop a hill. The church was under renovation, so we spent some time walking around and taking in the panoramic view of the island from that vantage point. You can see the Mandovi river and the mangrove forests around it. You can also see a Hindu temple, with its distinct Goan architecture, close to the church.

Hindu temple from the hillock of Our Lady of Piety Church. you can see the Mandovi in the distance. Note the unique temple design.

Hindu temple from the hillock of Our Lady of Piety Church. you can see the Mandovi in the distance. Note the unique temple design.

After a sumptuous lunch at the Rock Inn Restaurant, we decided to head to the Koti Tirth Tali – an ancient site that used to be a significant pilgrimage point once upon a time. It is said that this used to be the Saptakoteshwara Temple, the kul devta of the Kadamba kings. It is now protected by the ASI. It was a peaceful place and we found the ancient architecture very beautiful. Just a little further down the road from the Koti Tirth Tali is a beautiful Shiva temple. When we visited it was calm and clean, and right on the banks of the Mandovi. We spent some time gazing at the beautiful lake surrounded by mangroves, and even spotted a snake swimming in the water!

All the islands in Goa are connected by ferries and I think it would be interesting to spend a day island hopping on a future trip.

CIPA – Center for Indo Portuguese Arts

We stumbled upon CIPA during a three-week stay in Goa during the second lockdown. The place had just opened up and we spent some time browsing through the 200-year old heritage building, looking at the books, the hand painted tiles and other art. We also spoke to Orlando, the owner who told us about the Portuguese connection and his work to keep the Portuguese heritage alive in Goa. Incidentally, he has learned the traditional art of tile painting in Portugal and can customise tiles on order.


On the way to CIPA.

We met Orlando again and just as we were about to leave he told us about the Serenate concert they were having in the evening. We ended up returning to CIPA that evening for an eventful night of music and homemade Portuguese snacks. Serenading was very common in Fontainhas, where a boy would attempt to woo a girl by singing outside her balcony in the night. If she appreciated the gesture him and his entourage might be invited inside for some snacks. The night was full of revelry as the musicians asked the audience to join in the music and even asked for requests from the crowd. This was the cultural aspect of Goa, and I feel this should be on everyone’s itinerary.

Mario de'Miranda

An illustration of serenading in Fontainhas by celebrated Goan artist Mario de’Miranda.

Below are a few images from our wonderful vacation.

Ferry to Chorao.

On the ferry to Chorao island – turned out to be the wrong ferry!

Ice cream therapy.

After a hot day of walking around – ice cream was indeed therapy.

Koti Tirth Tali

The ancient site of Koti Tirth Tali was too beautiful not to take a few yoga shots.


I realise I’ve written another ‘Off the Beaten Track’ blog before.  It’s about Coonoor and you can find it here.


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.



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.



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!



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.



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.


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.



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 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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.]


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.


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.]


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.