"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 6 - Omkareshwar

I got up at 5 in the morning to pack and prep to be in the lobby by 7. The little god woke up an hour later and packed. The flight to Indore was an hour and a half long, and we landed by noon.

At the Indore airport, there was no Volvo bus that we had become so used to. Instead we had Innovas - cars that would take five passengers besides the driver. Great choice of hotel, it was very gratifying to spend in comfort the one hour that we spent in our rooms in wake state, or the couple of hours in dream state. It kept the children in a good mood, and adults as well.

We went straight to lunch, and then we had an hour to freshen up before leaving for Omkareshwar, about 50 miles away. The lunch at the hotel was everything Indore is famous for - food that is pleasing to the eyes and the palate, and surpassing anything we had seen so far in volume and variety. I could tell I was going to sleep on my way to Omkareshwar. I broke my rice-and-yogurt rule and actually took a spoonful here and there of the many things in the buffet.

We had slightly more than an hour to shower and change. My little god's time management skills are amazing, and even as a teenager, she has no demands nor does she throw tantrums at the irregular schedule and having to wake up at crazy hours for a piligrimage, there is much for me to learn here.

The story goes that the Vindhya mountain had started a severe penance to please Shiva, and be granted the wish to be taller than Meru. Shiva appeared and granted the wish but asked Vindhya not to create problems for Shiva's devotees. Shiva let the lingam be shared between Omkareshwar and Mamaleshwar across the Narmada. Once granted the wish, Vindhya did not contain itself and continued to grow. The great sage Agastya then asked the mountain to lower itself so he could visit the southern part of the country, and asked the mountain to stay low till he came back. Agastya settled in Shrishailam, the Kashi of the south, and did not return, thus keeping Vindhya from further increasing its height.

Another story has it that king Mandhata appeased Shiva who appeared to him, which is why the mountain is known as Mandhata in his honor. The holy water of the lingam is believed to have joined the Narmada which flows underground at Omkareshwar.

Bridge across the river Narmada

Interesting temple complex on way to Omkareshwar
The visit to this Jyotirlinga is complete only after worshipping at both temples - Omkareshwar on an island in the Narmada, and at Mamaleshwar across the river. The current temple of Omkareshwar was inaugurated by Chimaji Appa Peshwa, brother of Peshwa Bajirao I in 1738. It is believed that Annapurna, Chimaji Appa’s wife, had committed Sati here after his death in 1741. Till 1971, a cremation ground existed near the temple. The Maratha Era style of the temple is now mixed with more modern architectural influences. The temple dome is five-layered and made from soft white soapstone, with carvings of various deities. The temple was renovated by Peshwa Bajirao II, and later extensively renovated by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar, including the building of the ghats - the steps on the river bank. Omkareshwar was used by revolutionaries like Tilak and Savarkar to hold meetings during the freedom movement in India.

Ghats of the Narmada, as we walk on the bridge towards Omkareshwar
The darshan - viewing of the deity, at Omkareshwar was somewhat anti-climactic. There was no crowd, yet there was an artificial hurry by the temple attendants to keep us moving in line. It is not possible to prostrate and touch the lingam with one's head, the lingam is behind a metal tube fence 3 feet high. There is a large front hall in the temple to which we returned from viewing the sanctum sanctorum. 

Anantanandaji asked the group to sit down, ostensibly for bhajans - devotional songs, or chanting. A group of the temple priests and their attendants sat down as well, and started chanting. I am a beginner at chanting, but I have heard impeccable chanting at Chinmaya Mission. To me, the chanting of the priests at Omkareshwar seemed chaotic at first. Not all of them were chanting to the same rhythm, but after a few minutes, the collective chanting with some leading and lagging the group created the perfect atmosphere for oneness with Shiva. Despite the inaccuracies and a few voices falling out of rhythm from time to time, the chanting grew in volume and intensity to become an extremely powerful hum in which one could meditate in complete silence. Sitting cross-legged with my eyes closed and a constant chant of Aum Namah Shivaaya in my head, I am grateful to the energetic chanters at Omkareshwar for my experience of divinity in the temple. 

After the chanting was completed, the priests did the customary tilak - mark on the forehead, and gave sacred water to each one of us, and received individual donations. To the critics of temple attendants, who think they try to make money at each step, I would like to point out that the same person could sell liquor and make far more money. Yet, he spends his time in the temple, and shows us around and helps us perform worship ceremonies and conducts chanting sessions, and yet people who generously pay for liquor think twice about the intention of the receiver when making a donation to the temple. 
Mamaleshwar on the left, Omkareshwar on the right of the river Narmada

Happy devotees

Happy devotees

Happy devotees
We walked to Mamaleshwar, across the Narmada.



Mamaleshwar compound


Outside the Mamaleshwar compound
Some of the priests had followed us and would have started their chanting again and get more money out of us, but the Swamijis told them they need not do so. The group would do its own chanting. We sat as a group there, surrounded by some relics from the temple that lies in disrepair. There were many pieces of sculpture lying on the ground, no idea why and no idea how they are kept secure.

We drove back to the hotel now. The ride back to the hotel was very pleasant, there was the excitement of seeing Mahakaleshwar the next day. The driver insisted it was less than an hour to Ujjain, so we could start at 3. But we had to reach the temple at 3 to get in line, and I told him we needed to leave by 2, just in case anything happened on the way and we got delayed. So we had to be in the lobby by 1:30 in the morning. It was about 9 at night when we reached the hotel.

The dinner had been arranged on one of the front lawns of the hotel. I do not like walking on soft grass at night, I am sure it disturbs the grass as it sleeps. The hotel had a grand buffet for dinner, so there was quite a bit of traipsing on the lawns - not just our group, but by other hotel reisdents as well.

I was not going to sleep that night because sleeping for three hours would have only served to make me tired and groggy when we went to the temple. Ashverya wanted to spend the time in the fitness room because she could feel the physical effects of not exercising for a week. The fitness room was not open, but the business office was, so she spent some time on the computer before returning to the room.

I spent some time in re-packing while Ashverya took a short nap. Soon, it was time for both of us to shower and change and go downstairs to the lobby.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!! 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 5 - 1 - Trayambakeshwar

I woke up at 2:30 in the morning, and woke up the sleeping god at 3. I needed to shower, she had showered three hours ago and needed to pack. Our group left the hotel by 4:30 in the morning and reached Trayambakeshwara at 5. Waking up before dawn sounds hectic, but there was always so much excitement to take the next step that sleeping very few hours in any of these luxurious hotels, was not a bother at all. 

Ready to leave Nashik

Ready to leave Nashik
Swamiji had announced the previous day that men had to wear traditional clothes - be barechested and only wear dhoti - a wrap-around lower garment, and decidedly no underwear. The dhoti was to be the one single garment. As women were not allowed in the sanctum sanctorum, there was no dress code for them. I could only imagine what a dress code for women would have entailed, coming from the fertile imagination of minds who had come up with the unusual dress code for men. Twenty years ago or maybe even ten, I would not have set foot in a temple that had gender-based rules. Now, it did not matter. I also noticed with relief that my daughter does not take umbrage as easily as I did till I was considerably older than she is. I gave the Shrichakra to Swamiji so he could touch it to the shivalinga.

Trayambakeshwar (Jyotirlinga #4)

The shrine of Trayambakeshwar seen on the TV monitor
The temple of Trayambakeshwar at the base of the Brahmagiri mountain, about 20 miles from Nashik, was built by Peshwa Nanasaheb. The diamond that adorned the deity was taken away by the British and has gone through many owners. The temple has a decent-sized hall where we could all sit and receive the sacred water and tika - mark on the forehead, from the priests, after the men had worshipped there. We were also able to sit and watch the worship ceremony being performed by the male members in the group. The main deity here has three faces that are believed to be Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra, - the Creator, Caretaker and Destroyer aspects of the Almighty. The lingam is kept covered by a silver crown, or a golden crown on major events. It sits in a depression, and the water of the Ganga Godavari constantly flows on it, and has eroded it over time. 

The story goes that the sage Gautama killed a cow while trying to drive it away from grazing in a paddy field. To atone for his sin, he prayed on the peak of the Brahmagiri mountain and invoked the Ganga to appear. Shiva himself appeared, willing the Ganga to flow there, and Gautama was absolved of his sins. But not so easily - at first the Ganga refused to come, and when she did come with Shiva, she flowed with great gusto and energy so that the sage could not bathe in her. He then threw kusha - dry blades of grass, around her to contain the flow. The water collected in what is now known as Kushavarta Kund. The sources of the Godavari are in the Brahmagiri mountain, and the river is known as the Ganga Godavari to the locals. We had worshipped at the Ganga Godavari temple in Panchavati last night.

Trayambakeshwar temple

Trayambakeshwar temple

The most hilarious thing at Trayambakeshwar was the guards manually checking the men entering the sanctum sanctorum to ensure there was no underwear inside the dhoti. I still do not understand why women are not allowed in the temple. Such stupid rules can only originate from the minds of little men. Why is this temple in the hands of little men? The way I see it, it is a loss for the temple and for the priests who live on the offerings of devotees. Some day, when better sense prevails, I would like to come back and worship at the sanctum sanctorum. Another time, another trip, Shiva's will...

After the worship at the temple, we visited Kushavarta kund - pond. 

Exquisitely carved temples on the banks of the Kushavarta Kund

Love the cows

As we moved through the small temple town, we came across a rare sight among the brown, black and white cows - a splotched black and white cow - much thinner than we are used to, but nevertheless a cow as we see in America. 

Kushavarta kund, Vinayakji pointing out the peak of Brahmagiri, I think

Wide-eyed after dipping feet in the Kushavarta kund

We were fortunate that the temple was not as crowded when we came in, as when we left. And we were fortunate that it was not raining when we came in as it was when we left. It was drizzling all the while as we stood at Kushavarta Kund. Many people were dipping in the waters, but the green color and the slippery steps would deter the less ritualistic like me. The Swamijis told us to sprinkle the water on ourselves. Ashverya and I went a couple of steps into the water to dip our feet, and sprinkled some water on our already rain-drenched heads, and we were done with receiving the sacred Godavari Ganga water.

Two sweeties at a Shiva temple on the banks of Kushavarta Kund
The priest caught up with the group at this point, and offered us chai and coffee and a place to change. We were a little drenched, but we had no change of clothes. The male members of the group in dhotis only, were certainly carrying a set of clothes to change into. A very grateful group followed the priest through the narrow streets to a building with many rooms, where tea and coffee was available.
After visiting Trayambakeshwar and Kushavarta Kund

After visiting Trayambakeshwar and Kushavarta Kund
Finally, the caffeine entered my blood and the brain in my cold, drenched body started functioning - I noticed some people had beautiful detailed tilak - marks, on their foreheads. And I realized the old man by Kushavarta Kund who had put a tilak on my forehead had done this fantastic job. When I had paid him, I did not have anything less than a hundred rupees which seemed a lot for a couple of tilaks, but that is all I had. I was aware of the thought that I was paying him more than I wanted to. Now, I realized that he had deserved that and more, and there was a reason I had not been able to give him any less. 

We left the priest's guesthouse, much refreshed. It had started raining hard. We were walking through narrow streets in pouring rain under umbrellas and in ponchos that did not keep us dry. Halfway down the street, we realized that seven or eight of us were on our own, and did not know which way to turn. Fortunately, Vinayakji was with us. The Swamijis take on the role of being overall guides, not just spiritual masters on the yatra - piligrimages. We looked up to them for everything, including finding the way to the bus. He could not see the bus either, but he led us to stand under the awning of a shop. After standing there for a while, I saw that the outer walls of the shop were almost completely covered by flies, so much so that the entire white-washed wall looked black. They were sitting there too, to protect themselves from the rain. There are so many ways in which it comes home to us that in the end, we are all different life-forms that share the universe.   

A few more people from the group joined us, and then one person was sent out as a scout in the pouring rain to see where the bus was. Ultimately, another person had to be sent out as a scout to find the first scout and the bus. A while later, they came back to tell us that we needed to start walking towards the bus. The rain had now subsided somewhat, the tea and coffee from half an hour ago was a distant memory already. Cold and wet, we trooped into the bus and I don't know about the others, but Ashverya and I drifted into sleep.

We were awakened by the slowing down of the bus and the general talking of people - somebody was asking Dheeraj to stop for lunch. Air-dried in the air-conditioning of the bus and now having taken a nap, we were really hungry when the bus stopped. Dheeraj told the restaurant person the order for the group, and within 20 minutes, food was served. Of the twenty minutes of wait time, we spent 10 minutes in exercise to get the blood flowing again. I don't think blood shall flow again ever in my lower limbs, but no harm in trying. 

Trying to get the blood flowing, lunch stop on way to Bhimashankar

Trying to get the blood flowing, lunch stop on way to Bhimashankar
We spent time in exploring the surroundings before coming back to the restaurant. There was a pleasant breeze, it was a beautiful countryside with some mountains in the distance, and there were not many people around - a very comforting feel to sit away from the noise of urban chaos, waiting for warm food. 

Lunch stop on way to Bhimashankar

Lunch stop on way to Bhimashankar

Unbelievably beautiful road to Bhimashankar
Dog eating essentially the same food we are eating on tables
I am glad we stopped to eat at the restaurant. It was not just us and the restaurant workers, but the local life had something to eat because of us as well, all children of the same God.

The food was excellent, prepared fresh and served hot. It warms the heart to see the honest, hard-working people in the Indian heartland. It is this work culture that sustains the core of the country. In less than half an hour, they had prepared rotis, two vegetable curries, dal and rice, served with salad, yogurt and ice-cream.

The next destination this afternoon was the jyotirlinga at Bhimashankar.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 5 - 2 - Bhimashankara

Bhimashankar (jyotirlinga #5) is located in the Sahyadri hills, in the village of Bhorgiri, about 80 miles from Pune. After killing Tripurasura, Shiva danced in a rage, and caused the river Bhima to appear on earth, hence the name Bhimashankara.

The ancient temple was built around the swayambhu shivalinga - naturally formed shivalingam. The modest temple that stands there is of more recent origin, around the eighteenth century. Nana Phadnavis had made an endowment to build the gopuram - dome, of the Bhimashankara temple. The Maratha ruler, Shivaji, is also believed to have given money for the upkeep of this temple.
Beautiful landscape as we travel towards the Sahyadri mountains

It was about 300 steps mostly downhill to the temple from the parking place. It is an easy walk, the steps are convenient and there is a small wall on the edge where monkeys would be sitting. As I was walking down chanting Aum Namaha Shivaaya, I suddenly heard a  shriek and then lots of giggling. It appeared that Ashverya had tried to get close to a monkey, and he tried to grab her camera. The little god stayed to herself after that, taking pictures of the monkeys but was not at all tempted to get closer.

It was late afternoon, and the abhishek - annointment, in a shivalaya - home of Shiva is usually completed by noon. We would not be able to do the abhishek - annointment, of the lingam at Bhimashankara. There were very few people, and the temple staff was not interested in making money, unlike many other places. They told us in a matter-of-fact manner that we could enter the sanctum sanctorum and worship on our own. We got in line to get darshan - viewing, of the deity, and touch our heads to the shivalingam. After the parikrama - circumambulation of the temple, and fifteen minutes of looking around at the natural beauty, it was time to climb the stairs to get back to the bus. 
Bhimashankar, source: www.whereincity.com/photo-gallery/230/747.htm

Bhimashankar is set in scenic beauty with many paths on the mountainside for trekking, and one can easily spend the whole day here. The Bhimashankar wildlife sanctuary is near by, and it has a large population of leopards, monkeys, deer and the like. But all we saw on the way were a few harmless monkeys. It was drizzling slightly when we reached the temple, and by the time we started back, it was a regular downpour, not too heavy but definitely needing an umbrella or a poncho, that most of us had left behind in the bus. We kept climbing through the rain. 

50 steps up from the temple of Bhimashankar, is the temple of Kamalaja - or Parvati, who aided Shiva in his battle against the demon Tripurasura. The temple floor was extremely slippery with everyone walking in barefoot from the pouring rain. Ashverya and I applied the vermillion from the Devi temple and continued the climb up. It tired me, and made me wonder how I had ever hoped to climb Kedarnath on foot. Anyway, we had a helicopter trip planned for that temple, so this was needless analysis.

We had now completed our visit to 5 jyotirlingam, and we look forward to one of my very favorite temples of Shiva - Mahakaleshwar. Swamiji announced in the bus that there was a change of plan. Instead of driving to Indore and driving another hour to reach Mahakaleshwar in Ujjain, and visiting Omkareshwar the next day, we would visit Omkareshwar tomorrow afternoon and visit Mahakaleshwar the next morning. This would allow us to see Mahakaleshwar's unique bhasmarti - worship with ashes, that is performed every morning at 4 in the morning. 

Bhasmarti at Mahakal, my secret wish fulfilled!!! Ever since I had seen the itinerary in Dallas more than a month ago, I had been hoping against hope for this.

Pune is 80 miles away, a distance of three hours or more depending on road conditions and stops along the way. I sat with Anantanandaji in the bus, a brilliant opportunity to understand a few things that I had asked him so far in chance conversations here and there, and he answered patiently despite the long and tiring day. I listened and tried to grasp some of the new ideas, but with the motion of the bus and the droning noise and my bodyache and swollen legs, I started drifting into sleep. He asked me if I needed to put my feet up, that I could rest my feet on the armrests of the seats in front of me. Even my sleep-addled mind knew that would not be happening. There is no way I was going to put my feet up in his presence. Then he asked if he should massage my feet to get the circulation going, and that actually woke me up briefly - No, No, No, Swamiji. I would rather have my legs sawed off. And then he went on to educate me further but I was drifting off to sleep. I remember hearing Swamiji say - don't sleep, listen to what I am saying, I am not going to repeat this. And I nodded for a while, and finally nodded off.  
I woke up when we reached Pune tired and hungry, and the fantastic hotel and the great dinner put us in a good mood already.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 4 - Grishneshwar

We had to get on an early morning flight to Aurangabad, a town about 250 miles from Mumbai, that I had visited 25 years ago. I woke up at 5 am and woke the little god at 6, so we could go upstairs to the meeting with the Thomas Cook person at 7 a.m.

The meeting started with a description of how "hours late at night and early in the morning" had been spent sorting through every piece of evidence of payment that people had provided. This is the most defensive start I have seen to any meeting, and then there was the punchline - it was neither our fault nor Thomas Cook's fault that most people did not show full payment. 

What do you say to the person telling you it is not your fault? Thank you? Thank you that it is not my fault that I have paid $10K and received confirmation of payment that I have printed at midnight the day before and provided to you, and yet the matter has not been cleared? There were many excuses - it was not clear who the intended trip member was for a payment received, a person with a different last name from that of the traveler has paid and it is difficult to reconcile, people from India have paid for people from the US and it is difficult to reconcile. None of this applied to Ashverya or me, and yet our names were among the people whose payment was in doubt. Interesting to me, apparently Thomas Cook had received payments that they could not reconcile with customer names. If there is no shortfall, why was our time being wasted? And if there was a shortfall, who was not getting the money? Thomas Cook. Ergo, who should be spending time tracking it? 

When I showed the Thomas Cook account rep the additional copy of the print-out I had sent to him a month ago and had also submitted last night - he appeared to see it for the first time. I asked our assigned group representative for sorting issues out. I was told that they did not have time to look through all the papers. Instantly, they lost credibility with me. Clearly no effort had been made to resolve this issue for me, and I don't know what effort was made for anyone else. I could have slept an extra hour that morning, an hour of my life had been wasted in drama.  

This was not the first time Thomas Cook has planned a trip or received payments or received a wire transfer or received money from other countries to India. The half-baked instructions sent out for payment had not worked, there was incomplete information. The total money they had received was around Rs.65 lakhs, about $150K. How could their Accounting people not provide clarity? This was unreal. The Swamijis told the Thomas Cook person to sort out the mess, take the print-out I had given him, and ask Accounting to trace it. 

The hotel apparently believed in serving fresh breakfast but they could not handle the volume. Almost every serving bowl on the buffet table - idli or sambhar or chatni or vada or fritters or chai or coffee was empty, and people were lined up in front of each so that the moment a bowl was refilled, it would get empty again. As soon as people had somewhat appeased their hunger, we were off to the airport.

The flight time from Hyderabad to Aurangabad is an hour and a half. On landing, I saw that not much had changed from what I remembered of the airport at Aurangabad - walking from the plane till the terminal that looked like a living room, collecting bags from the single flight that had just landed, and coming out of the airport. Our air-conditioned bus was waiting.

As we drove from Aurangabad towards Nashik, some of the Ellora caves could be seen from the bus. If we had the time, a visit to these ancient caves would have been a perfect prelude to the visit to Grishneshwar. Also, I would have loved Ashverya to see these wonderfully preserved specimens of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist art. Another time, another trip, Shiva’s will... Whereas the 39 caves that are collectively called the Ellora caves were carved in the 6th to 11th century AD, the nearby Ajanta caves that are exclusively Buddhist, were carved anywhere between 3rd century BC to the 6th century AD. The unique feature of these caves is that they were hand-carved into the hillside with hammer and chisel. There is no natural light in the caves, and not much can be seen without a flashlight. On my last visit here with my parents and my brother, we had a HotShot camera that was new in the market in the 80s in India, and all I have from that trip are grainy printed pictures, with only objects within 8 feet of the camera being clearly visible. I have clearer images from memory, and I especially remember the Kailash temple in Ellora, that I will visit again when Shiva calls.

Another monument I would have loved for Ashverya to see in Aurangabad, though not on this trip, is the Bibi-ka-maqbara, the mausoleum of Dilras Banu Begam, one of the Mughal king Aurangzeb's wives. This was built as an imitation of the Taj Mahal. Neither the stone nor the quality of sculptural work nor the upkeep of the place match that of the Taj Mahal. But a photograph taken in the faint light of late evening, would make it appear a ghostly replica of the Taj. Unlike most of the mosques and mausoleums built by his father Aurangzeb after destroying and looting Hindu temples, this historical monument was built from scratch by prince Azam Shah, the son of Aurangzeb and Dilras Banu Begam. 

We drove for an hour to reach Grishneshwar. It is a small temple. Having visited Somnath, Mahakaleshwar and Kedarnath before, and now Rameshwaram and Shrishailam on this trip, my impression of jyotirlinga temples was of grandeur. But the small temple, the informal and down-to-earth attitude of the temple administrators, the simple processing of fees for darshan – viewing of the deity, created for me an impression of an ancient monument, not necessarily a powerful Shiva temple. Photography would not be allowed inside the temple, I could only take a picture from outside before leaving my camera in the bus.
Grishneshwar, as seen from the bus
We washed our hands and feet and sat in a circle in the temple courtyard, and chanted the Rudram, and then some bhajan - devotional songs. The priests asked us to come in groups of five to perform the abhishek – annointment of the shivalingam. Ashverya and I went with Amma and made sure the Shrichakra touched the shivalingam after the abhishek. After prostrating and touching our heads to the shivalingam, we left the sanctum sanctorum. I had not yet experienced the joy of having met Shiva. Maybe something was missing in me on this trip, that day after day I did not get to be one with him. So be it, better luck next trip. Other groups of five were now going in. The last group was the Swamijis.

As we sat outside the temple waiting for everyone to complete their puja - worship, some people were planning to go shopping. Ashverya went to do some shopping with her Param aunty - "she is so cute, mom, can I go with her?" This in itself was a pleasant change - my teenage child was making friends with adults, and with people I could implicitly trust. I set off to do the parikrama - three circumambulations of the temple. As I walked, I became aware of music, clanging of bells, other instruments being played, something appeared to be happening somewhere. 

I went three times around the temple chanting Aum Namah Shivaaya, and then instead of returning to the group outside, something made me enter the temple once more for a darshan - viewing of the deity. I would usually not do this after a temple parikrama. There were some people sitting with folded hands, looking towards the sanctum sanctorum, and I stood at the side to avoid blocking their view, unable to see the shivalinga myself. The man guarding the entry to the sanctum sanctorum pointed to a spot in the center of the temple, and told me to go there for a better view. I have always had this feeling that Shiva shows up as people who have guided me at the right time in my life. I stood in the center of the temple. People on both sides of me adjusted to give me sufficient sitting space, which by itself is unusual in temples where everyone is trying to get the best view of the deity. Then the man said - aaraam se baith jaaiye - sit down comfortably. 

Shiva works in mysterious ways. Suddenly I had private box seating to the shivalingam. I saw the Swamijis performing abhishek. Whether it was the music and the rhythmic clapping of people around me, or the sight of worship being performed by advanced spiritual seekers, I do not know, but it was spellbinding. I sat rooted to the spot for half an hour or more till the worship was completed, completely immersed in Shiva. Finally on this trip, I had that familiar and comfortable feeling again of closeness to Shiva.

There was a glow on the faces of Swamijis and the others who came out of the sanctum sanctorum after the worship, or maybe I imagined it.

This dwadashajyotirlinga yatra was an involved trip - the major reason I was on this trip was to follow the Swamijis. What little I could learn, absorb and imbibe from their company was worth every moment of fatigue and pain. The visits to the shivalayas - homes of Shiva, is an added bonus.

After the visit to Grishneshwar (Jyotirlinga #3), despite the early morning start, everyone in the bus was in an extremely good mood. The laid-back feel of Grishneshwara, the unhurried darshan - viewing and pooja - worship at the sanctum sanctorum had brought peace. But Ashverya was in a state of turmoil. As I was getting into the bus, I had bought some ear-studs from a man who was pestering me to buy something from him, and it turned out that my darling daughter had bought exactly the same thing for five times as much. I gave her my spiel of taking the emotion out of the experience, and taking the learning. Finally the little god and I agreed that she will be able to clear her name in Gujarat where she can speak the local language (my language-in-law, Gujarati) almost fluently, and would be able to bargain well.

We had a 120-mile bus trip ahead to Nashik, a good 4 hours with stops for lunch, chai and rest rooms. Peaceful and blissful and also hungry, we were very happy when Dheeraj announced the bus would stop for lunch. For every meal, Dheeraj's menu for us was naan, a paneer dish, a vegetable dish, dal, chawal, dahi or raita, gulab jamun - which met most people's tastes including mine - a cup of chawal and a cup of dahi, no salt or seasonings. Dheeraj, as our travel agent from Thomas Cook on this trip was definitely a blessing - he had blended well with the group, no hassles, no drama. He was a young down-to-earth man, and the Swamijis teased him no end, that he took in good humor.  

Nashik means, simply, the nose. It is the location of the episode from the epic Ramayana. It was here that the young prince Lakshmana cut off the demon Shurpankha’s nose and ears, when she attacked his brother Rama's wife Sita in a jealous rage, after Rama refused her own proposal of marriage. Vishnu's avatar - incarnation, born as prince of Ayodhya (now a part of the state of Uttar Pradesh), Rama walked the earth at this spot, where I now reach by a luxury Volvo bus. Panchavati, where Rama stayed during his exile, is close by. There is a grove of pancha vata - five banyan trees, believed to be the grove for which that place is named. To the followers of Rama, Panchavati should bring to mind the parnakuti - cottage of leaves. 
Hotel swimming pool from the balcony

Hotel balcony
The beauty and grandeur of the hotel at Nashik is to be seen to be believed - a grand entrance, spacious lobby, luxurious marble floors with huge balconies overlooking the pool, carved furnishings and fixtures - it looked like a well-maintained building from another era. We had reached here late in the evening and we needed to rush out early in the morning tomorrow, so the luxury and comforts of the hotel were very welcome. If we had some additional time, this place would have been the perfect retreat.

Hotel lobby

Spacious hotel room at Nashik
View of the fron garden
The rooms were beautiful, and the view from the window to the gardens was spectacular, that we enjoyed for exactly half an hour, and then showered in a big hurry to get ready to visit Panchavati to see the temple of Kalaramji.

Blessed are the Children
I thank Shiva constantly for calling me on this trip with my child. There are two other children on this trip, and whereas they spent their time in silly merriment, enjoying each other's company, their innocent happy presence on this trip enriched the experience for us all. Psalm 128 - "Blessed are the children who walk in the Lord. Blessings and joy shall be theirs. Theirs is the bounty. Theirs is the joy of God's care."

Ready to go visit Kalaramji

Ready to go visit Kalaramji

Ready to go to Kalaramji

Ready to go to Kalaramji
The one thing to note on this trip was that every single person was a diehard consummate enjoyer of life. Whether it was 2 in the morning or afternoon, everyone was enthusiastic about the next place to be visited. Many people had swollen feet including yours truly, and aching body parts by now. A few people in the group had had fever and nausea, and stomach upsets as well, but the group was always on to the next thing. The Swamijis led the group - always in a good mood, despite physical ailments.

Ready to go visit Kalaramji

Gathering the troops
Sarveshanandaji and Anantanandaji gathered us all into the bus. At Panchavati, some of the senior people in the group got into rickshaws while the rest of us walked to the pond called Ramkund, on the river Ganga Godavari. Ramkund is the site of the Kumbha mela - fair, held every twelve years, in Panchavati.
Ramkund, Panchavati near Nashik
It is believed that a few drops of nectar fell into the water at Ramkund, during the churning of the ocean for nectar, by the devas and the asuras - the divine and unholy beings respectively. This sanctified water can now be consumed through cowhead faucets on a pillar, in front of the Ganga Godavari temple.

Taking in the nectar
Temple of the mother goddess, the Ganga Godavari river
We made a short visit to the temple of Ganga Godavari Devi - the river goddess, before heading off to the Kalaram temple. It constantly amazes me how millions of educated people from India will readily worship a river as the mother goddess. To me, it is overwhelming and humbling that society has not lost its sense of gratitude to nature, and that we see the Almighty in his creation.

The temple of Kalaramji is slightly uphill, a walk of about a mile from Ramkund.  As we walked through the narrow streets, again I had the sense of visiting a monument, but not a temple. The zigzag streets with some honking cars and motorcyclists, a few bicycles weaving their way through, a pondering cow here or there, and sweet street dogs staring at us, hungry for affection and food - all this is so common in every town and city in India that I had to ask myself if it was my own lack of devotion that made me feel more like a tourist than a piligrim.

In the dark, we missed seeing the architectural beauty of this temple with the gold-plated dome. The name Kalaramji - black Rama, comes from the black rock from which the temple and the deities have been carved. Sardar Odhekar of Peshwar, built this temple in the eighteenth century. The temple had taken 12 years to build. Within the temple complex, is a temple to Hanuman that we visited first. Everything seemed mundane, till I looked into the eyes of Hanuman - these were real eyes, mesmerizing, communicating in silence, and especially for me, firmly determining his presence in the temple. Kudos to the architect and the sculptors from whom we have inherited this work of art.

After paying respects to Hanuman, we went to the main temple, the temple of Kalaramji.The temple is so built that the first ray of the sun hits the sacred spot where the deities are installed. It had the usual depiction of Rama durbar - court, a scene that I see as historic and inspiring, and evokes immense devotion in millions upon millions of Indians. Rama's court scene shows him with his wife Sita, his brother Lakshmana and his loyal soldier Hanumana. Rama symbolizes dharma - righteousness, Sita symbolizes sattwa - purity, Lakshmana symbolizes shraddha - faith, and Hanumana symbolizes bhakti - devotion. 

Anantanandaji sat down on the floor at the back of the temple, and started singing bhajans - devotional songs for Rama. Rama is known as purushottama - ideal among men. He went to the forest at a tender age to protect sages and their worship ritual against hostile and cannibalistic tribes. He abdicated his status as crown prince in favor of his step-brother to please his step-mother. As an exile, Rama took help from an army of apes to free his abducted wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. Back in the palace after fourteen years, when he was crowned king, he asked his beloved wife Sita to live in the forest when he heard someone in his kingdom raise suspicion at Sita's chastity while being in Ravana's captivity. Vishnu's avatar - incarnation, Rama, led by example. Because of his sense of fairness, his kingdom is believed to have had the ideal rule. It is a common form of expression to talk of looking forward to establishing a Rama rajya - Rama's rule, where everyone would live in peace, harmony and prosperity. 

The bhajan for Rama are typically deeply devotional in singing the praises of the way he lived his life on earth, and that we may be motivated to emulate him. The timbre of Anantanandaji's voice and his hold on the musical notes evoked a deep bhava - emotion. The thing I like least about the devotional path is singing, and it always makes me sleepy. But on this trip, with Anantanandaji's and Natana's singing, I think I finally experienced how singing can bring about oneness with the Almighty.

Our entire group sat cross-legged on the floor, facing the sanctum sanctorum. After a long day in the bus and on foot, absorbing the words and notes floating in the air in the dim fluorescent lighting in the temple while darkness had fallen in the temple courtyard, looking at the deity thinking of Rama's life, while Anantanandaji transitioned from one bhajan to another, brought a sense of immense peace. Trying to keep the mind thoughtfree was not an effort any more. The sadness of the past two days was behind me, for now.

If there is a reason I have started worshipping Hanumanji, it is because of Swami Sarveshanandaji's faith in him, and my faith in Sarveshanandaji. Hanumana, born to the Shiva devotee ape-woman Anjani, became a devoted companion and loyal soldier of Rama. He is the only forest-dwelling ape from history who has been given the status of a deity in temples. Not only is he always shown in Rama temples, but there are temples in every town and village in India where Hanumana is the main deity.

Anantanandaji sang a bhajan for Hanuman, after a series of Ram bhajan. And from among the townsfolk who had also sat down in the temple with us, a child, about two or three years old, came and stood in front of us and smiled. He was chubby, his eyes twinkled, he looked like he was contemplating something naughty, he seemed very happy. I was expecting that he would rush bashfully back to his parents like children usually do. But he stood there smiling. And then it struck me, that only the tail was missing. My scientific thinking has always scoffed at the belief that Hanuman shows up wherever Rama is praised. But what if it is true? And what if this is happening right in front of me, and I cannot see it because I am blinded by my own ego? The child stayed there for the duration of the Hanuman bhajan, and when Anantanandaji went on to sing other songs, the child returned to his mother's lap. Photography was not allowed inside the temple, but the image of that child is imprinted in my memory.

Leaving the Kalaramji temple
We walked about a mile back to the bus. When we reached the hotel, the dinner was served - the same menu that we are used to, and I had the same staple meal that I was sticking to. Ashverya and I went to bed early that day.

Tomorrow, we had an early start. It would be the busiest day of the trip when we would visit two Jyotirlinga temples - Trayambakeshwar and Omkareshwar.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!