"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

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 3 - Shrishailam

Today was Monday, and also today was Ekadashi - the eleventh day of the lunar fortnight - both days that I try to observe a fast. Ekadashi with no grain tops Mondays with one meal - so no food it is. I had set the alarm for 1, 1:15 and 1:30 a.m. Finally woke up at 1:30 for a quick shower to be downstairs at 2:30, so we could leave the hotel by 3:30 a.m.

I spent most of my time in the bus dozing off, and so did Ashverya. At first, it was too dark to take pictures, and then the morning light showed unending forest. We drove through the Nallamalai forest, till about 9 in the morning. Through incredible sadness, it was a struggle to keep the mind thoughtfree. The beautiful forest scenes and the comments from Swami Vinayakji sitting behind us in the bus, helped the mind stay in the moment.

Nallamalla forest

Dam beyond the forest
Swamijis had asked all three children in the group to sit on the last seat, that was earlier a fun idea for them, but after jumping a clear six inches off the seat at every bump, they realized what they were in for. Swami Vinayak-ji once hit his head sharply to the shelf above in the bus, he said it took him to the Ramana-Maharshi-state of "Who am I?".

Children at the back of the bus with Swamijis

Children at the back of the bus with Swamijis

In the bus to Shrishailam
As the bus turned on the curve, the Shrishailam dam was visible in a gorge over the Krishna running far below. Through many twists and turns in the Nallamalla hills, we got various views of this second largest hydroelectric plant in India that provides water to the Kurnool and Kadappa districts in Andhra.

Shrishailam dam on the Krishna
Swami Vinayak-ji, sitting in the seat behind me, pointed out Shrishailam in the distance - the white dome on the side of the sacred Shrigiri mountain in the Nallamalai hills. In another half hour, as we entered the town of Shrishailam, a captivating painted statue of Dakshinamurti and a beautiful enormous Nandi were among the first things to meet the eye.

Dakshinamurti, on way to the temple at Shrishailam

Nandi, on entering the town of Shrishailam
We drove some more and when the bus stopped, Swamiji told us to leave footwear in the bus and walk to the temple. It felt strange to walk barefoot on a street, another first-in-a-lifetime experience. At first, we had to wait till the logistics got finalized for the abhishek - annointment of the Shivalinga, with the temple authorities. The group was enthusiastic about chanting, everyone had their books ready, people waited under trees and on trees for Swami Anantananda-ji. Finally, we got the signal, and we were off to the temple.

Devoted piligrims, ready to chant the Rudram

Waiting on a tree

Waiting under a tree

Time to go to the temple
In the temple complex, we had to stand single file, and no cameras were allowed. Everything had to go into bags. I do not understand why photographs cannot be taken in the complex, I understand the restriction about the sanctum sanctorum to maintain its sanctity. But like many other well-intentioned ideas, the rule of banning photography is applied illogically and prevents the distribution of images of these ancient temples. People who cannot travel to these places would at least enjoy pictures taken by others.

Shrishailam is one of the blessed spots to have a jyotirlinga - physical manifestation of Shiva, and a Shakti Peeth - physical manifestation of Shakti, the mother goddess. There could have been no better place to surrender once and for all. The emotion-driven mind takes a long time to reconcile to any intellectual decision, and intense mental anguish brings intense physical agony in its wake. All my questions and doubts, need for clarifications - I surrendered to Shiva here, and I was free.

Shiva is worshipped here as Mallikarjuna and his consort Uma devi as Bhramaramba devi. There is some difference of opinion about whether there are 18, 51, 52 or 108 Shakti Peeth. The story goes that Sati, the consort of Shiva, was not invited to her own father's yagna - worship ritual, because he wanted to humiliate Shiva. Nevertheless, Sati went to her father's place. When she could not take the insulting remarks her father made about Shiva, she said that being the daughter of such a pathetic man, she could not return to Shiva. She self-immolated at the yagnashala - worship site, in the presence of all the sages and divine beings. When Shiva found out, he flew into a rage and carried her charred body on his shoulders, and danced in inconsolable grief. As his dance threatened to destroy the universe, Vishnu disintegrated Sati's body with the Sudarshana Chakra - the divine discus, and this stopped Shiva from performing his dance of death and destruction. The charred remains of Sati fell in different places, and each sanctified spot became a śaktipītha - site of power. Devotees of the mother believe that worship at these places gives spiritual powers. The mother goddess gives wisdom, bliss and enlightenment at Shrishailam.

Harihar Raya, king of Vijayanagar, built the Shrishailam temple in the eleventh century. There is a 20-feet-high wall around the temple, built with heavy stone. The walls and the temple are carved with scenes from ancient history. Ashverya and I followed Amma into the sanctum sanctorum. She wanted me to get the Shrichakra to touch the Shivalinga after the abhishek at each Jyotirlinga. Ashverya and I performed the abhishek - annointment (bathe the shivalinga and annoint it with milk, yogurt, ghee, sugar and honey, and then the vibhuti - ashes, and finally decorate with flower, petals and garlands, and get back the prasad - offerings). There was a lot of jostling and pushing and pulling in the sanctum sanctorum, despite all the arrangements made for the group with the priests. Besides the holiness of Ekadashi, Monday is Shiva's day of the week, and there were long lines round the block for just a viewing of the deity. After a final prostration and touching the shivalingam with the head, and getting the Shrichakra touched to the shivalingam as well, we left the sanctum sanctorum.

The large hundi - donation box, was on the way out. I put in all the money from my wallet, and surrendered to Shiva. sarve bhavantu sukhinaha - let all be happy, sarve santu niraamayaaha - let all be disease-free, sarve bhadraani pashyantu - let all see auspiciousness everywhere, ma kashchid dukhabhaagabhavet - let no one be unhappy or distressed, aum shaanti shaanti shaanti - let there be peace in the elements, peace around and peace within, aum asato ma sat gamaya - from the Unreal towards the Real, aum tamaso ma jyotirgamaya - from the darkness towards the light, aum mrutyor ma amrutam gamaya - from death towards immortality. I prayed for peace, happiness and success for the people I love.  Now it is up to Shiva to make things happen. 

We came out into the sun again, and waited on the steps of the Devi temple for the rest of the group to gather. Staying thoughtfree is the best way to keep emotions in check, and staying in the moment is the best way to stay thoughtfree.

On the compound wall of the Bhramaramba Devi temple, an image of Lopamudra, the wife of sage Agastya is carved in stone alongside the carved images of the goddesses Kali - power, Lakshmi - prosperity, and Saraswati - knowledge. The exquisitely beautiful Lopamudra was created by Agastya, with the body parts of various animals. He took the child to the court of Vidarbha, a part of the modern-day state of Maharashtra. The king brought up Lopamudra as his own daughter. Years later, Agastya returned to ask for Lopamudra's hand in marriage, and she accepted. She was a distinguished philosopher in her own right, and is accredited with spreading the fame of Lalitasahasranama - the sacred text with a thousand names of the Devi - the mother goddess, used as the principal text by Shakti worshippers.

An unexpected treat at the Shakti Peeth, a puja - worship ceremony, of the Devi, annointing her with kumkum - vermillion. And I am so grateful Ashverya and I get to perform this together. After the ceremony, we sat on the steps waiting for each group of five to complete and come back. We were deathly hungry. Anantanandaji started breaking the coconuts that we had received back from the temple after offering, and we ate pieces of the kernel. I learned from him how to crack a coconut by hitting the seam of the coconut shell on the edge of the wall, then gulping down the juice and cracking it open to eat the pieces of the kernel. I  have no survival skills, and if a dinner plate with silverware is not presented to me, I am likely to go hungry. 

As I was eating the tenth piece of coconut, Amma told me I had had enough, no more. My hands and feet were hopelessly swollen, my lower legs were so turgid that they felt like rock when I touched them. Anantanandaji started throwing coconuts on the ground to smash them and collected pieces and handed them out to people - he said it was fun to eat like monkeys, his depth of knowledge is matched by his childlike enthusiasm to completely enjoy each moment.

When Sarveshanandaji came out of the temple, there were still some people in the temple performing the puja - worship ritual. It was past 1 in the afternoon, and it was getting extremely likely that we would not make it to the airport in time. Swamiji said we needed to get to the bus, he would bring the rest. As we walked barefoot to the bus, the road had heated up. It is impossible to describe what it felt like. I have a vague memory of walking with Bhavna and Nila, trying to find a cooler spot to put my foot on. We soon discovered that we needed to walk on sand, and under the awnings of shops as much as we could. And even with all this new-found learning, my feet were scorched by the time we reached the bus.   

We drove back through the forest. Vinayakji pointed out to me snakepits in the forest, under the trees. The Nalamalai forest is full of wild creatures -  tigers, snakes, monkeys and also bears, judging by the signboards. The driver made record time. Dheeraj had told him we needed to reach the airport in 3 hours, and he managed it with no stops.
Snake pit in the Nallamalai forest
It takes the longest time to go through Indian airports. The process around tags is infuriating. And there are duplicate checks to cover any lapse in security, instead of spending that money and time in checking well the first time. And there are dozens of additional people hovering around - when far fewer could do the job.

Finally, as Ashverya and I got past the security checks and we were rushing towards the gate, we saw Anantanandaji eating idli. Characteristically, he seemed to be enjoying the moment, he said the sambhar was great, we should eat as well. I said Ashverya would eat but I was fasting, so he went off to get a plate of idli for Ashverya while I gratefully sat on a chair. When he got back, he told me once more the sambhar was great, I should try it, and again I said I was fasting. Swamiji said I needed to break the fast right then, his instructions were bigger than my fast, and he took a piece of idli from his plate, dipped it in chatni and said "Eat". It was a split-second decision on my part to not protest any further, and eat the idli. He instantly reverted to his jovial disposition again, and said, "Now that you have eaten one piece, you may as well eat a plate", so I ended up breaking my Monday fast for Shiva and my Ekadashi fast. The food was good, I had to agree, especially, when topped with the instant coffee that sells in India.

The flight to Mumbai was short. I had requested Sarveshanandaji that I would sit with him, there were some questions that I needed clarification on. He had agreed, and I exchanged seats with someone to sit with him in the plane but then I dozed off as usual. I am sure Swamiji was relieved as well, this trip is far more strenuous and tiring for the three of them than it is for the rest of us. The Swamijis do not need to make these piligrimages with people like me, and yet they organize the trips and manage the daily logistics, getting far less sleep than any of us and put up with complaints and juvenile behavior.

There was the usual air-conditioned Volvo bus to take us to the hotel. It was dark, and the driver was maneuvering through some narrow streets in Mumbai to take us to the hotel. At one place, we were stuck for almost an hour as the driver negotiated for space with cars in a street that was partly blocked. This is where I saw a Pakistani flag flying on a house, and showed it to Ashverya. This is the dose of reality on this earth, that we need to stay aware of. There was a lot of bickering and yelling, and finally our driver had to turn and take another road. Another half an hour, and finally we reached the hotel.

 I was so glad Ashverya is keeping well with all the heavy food and irregular hours and travel. She is one happy child, I am super blessed.

At dinner, the Swamijis announced that the Thomas Cook account manager for our group would be at the hotel at 7 in the morning tomorrow. Apparently, in his records, many people were still showing as not having paid the two instalments for this trip. I had received confirmations from him for both my payment installments, but now I found out that my name was on the list of those whose payment has not been received. I was a contented person today, and I could listen to this and not burst a nerve. Swamiji had chosen a representative for the group who asked me to provide proof of payment - which by the way, I had sent a month ago in an email to Thomas Cook's Account Manager and had received his response confirming that the money had been received. Anyways, I printed out and submitted the email trace to sort out the issue.

The room was bright yellow - very festive and happy. At about 1 in the morning, Ashverya and I were glad to sleep.

Tomorrow, 7am meeting with Thomas Cook would go well, the Account rep would have seen the proof of payment and a print-out of his own e-mail confirming the payment. What more would he need? And we would be off to Aurangabad to visit Grishneshwar.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!

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