"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

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!!

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