"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

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 8 - Somnath and Nageshwar

1 year ago, on this day, at this time, I was standing in Tibet on the shores of the lake Manas Sarovar. After the Swamijis had performed the morning yagna - worship ritual facing Kailash, the cloud cover had lifted and we had our first darshan - viewing of Mount Kailash, my Shiva's home on earth. 

Today, we left Rajkot after breakfast at 6:30 am, and headed to Veraval. Being in the car with Sarveshanandaji and Anantanandaji was an immense blessing. And I knew Ashverya felt equally blessed – she was in a car with the other two children and her favorite auntys – Natana and Ratna, both of whom radiate warmth and affection. I already knew Madhukarji but this car trip was my first chance to get to know Rameshji, the most saintly non-saint I have ever met - down-to-earth and simple and virtuous. My practical worldly persona saluted the purity of his spirit. There are many things in life that I characterize as experiments or experiences that I am sure everyone went through as they grew up in the same years as I did, but it was wonderful to find someone untouched by temptation. 

Saintly non-saint
Passing through the streets of Rajkot, a town filled with my childhood memories from more than thirty years ago, I tried to find a familiar sight. But other than being able to read the signboards in Gujarati, there was not much I could identify with. The one sign that we all loved was the one before each bridge – counter-intuitive but very scientific - Attention. The Bridge is Weak. Drive Slowly. It is a Single Lane Road. The question arises - why is every bridge weak? 

Drive Slowly, The Bridge is Weak
I longed to eat a Kathiawadi thali - a meal of the local cuisine, or at least stop at a chai place that serves it so I could smell the flavors of my childhood and take pictures. But this was not part of the plan. Another trip, another time, Shiva's will... 

I dozed off and when I woke up, we had already passed the town of Virpur. So I missed seeing one more thing on my list of things to look out for - a passing glimpse of the Jalaram Bapa temple, that feeds the entire village and visitors three meals every day. Since 2001, the temple has stopped accepting donations because the temple trust is flush with funds. Jalaram Bapa was born in 1799 in Gujarat, and though he was married off at a very early age, his vocation in life was to serve society. He refused to join the family business, and instead started a sadavrata – a free eating place with his wife, that ran on private charity. That effort has grown into the current temple trust. One of the things I love about this village is the maintenance of concrete tanks for animals to drink water from. It is common in India to find free drinking water for people in public locations, paid for by private donations. But this is the only place I have seen a free fresh water supply for animals.
The driver was driving exactly at the speed limit, and many times, Anantanandaji asked him if he should take the wheel so we could reach Somnath sooner. It turned out that the car in front of us was driven by the person who owned all the taxis we had rented. And none of the drivers were allowed to overtake him, they were to follow him. Basically, he decided the route, the stops and the speed. And much to our amusement, as the Swamijis incited him to overtake his boss, the driver stayed mindful of his job and maintained his speed and position.
Driving from Rajikot to Somnath, the road became beautiful as we got closer to the coast. On the left, is Mount Girnar, one more thing I missed because I dozed off. The forest of Sasan Gir around this mountain is unique as the only place in the world where the indigenous population of lions is growing, a tribute to the hard-working people in the forest service, like Madhukarji's dad who dedicated their lives to protecting the natural environment. As we got closer to the town of Veraval, there were beautiful cocounut palm plantations. The sight of palm trees always fills the heart with joy because of the associated memories of sun and surf. Prabhas Patan was now very close.

The temple of Somnath is in Prabhas Patan, now also known as Somnath Patan, now a part of the town of Veraval, but described in ancient scriptures as a town in its own right. Krishna was often in Prabhas, and ultimately left his mortal body at a spot now known as Bhalka, a mile away from the temple of Somnath. There is a beautiful temple in Bhalka with lifesize statues to depict the scene of the hunter Jara, mistaking Krishna for a deer and shooting his foot. Bhalka is located at the confluence of three rivers - Hiranya, Saraswati and Kapila, and the banks at the confluence are known as Triveni ghat - bank, a popular site for pitaratarpan - offerings to ancestors. It is usual to see people taking a dip here. Dehotsarg at the Triveni ghats is believed to be the place Krishna's mortal remains were cremated, five thousand years ago. The nearby Geeta Mandir is a beautiful small temple in marble with the Bhagwad Geeta in its entirety carved on the temple walls. Also close by, is Dauji-ki-gufa - Brother's Cave, where Krishna's elder brother Balram was last seen leaving for the banks of the Saraswati. Adjacent to it is a Shiva temple. The compound that hosts these various temples takes all of half an hour to visit, but again this was not a part of our schedule on this trip. Another trip, another time, Shiva's will...

Terrorist threats from Islamist extremists to the very existence of the temple of Somnath has resulted in a cordon of police security, and devotees having to park cars a long distance away and walking to the temple. Once the cars stopped at a parking lot, Swamiji asked us to leave our footwear in the car. This soon turned into kathor tapas - severe penance, because the road was unbearably hot in the summer. Sometimes I wonder how my has more resilience to the heat in India than I do. The heat, the burning pain on the soles of my swollen feet, and walking barefoot through pebbles tested my endurance severely.

As I walked towards the temple, the chant of Aum Namaha Shivaaya in my head, I wished we had reached earlier to perform the abhishek - annointment of the lingam at Somnath. To me, Shiva resides as a strong benevolent presence at Somnath, and every moment spent in the temple premises is a celebration. As we walked into the temple, we heard the beating of drums and clanging of bells and the chanting - it was time for the noon aarti - worship ritual with lamps. Could we get any luckier? The temple at Somnath has three times for the aarti of the deity - early morning, noon and late evening. When we entered the temple, the lingam had already been decorated, and we got to see the last portion of the worship. After the worship in the sanctum sanctorum, the priest walked around the temple with the lamps, four security guards following him closely. Four years ago, when I had visited Somnath within a week of the bomb blasts in Ahmedabad, security at the temple had been extremely tight. It was humiliating and physically painful to see armed military men in uniform surrounding the priest as he performed the worship ceremony. There is not only a standing threat to the existence of this temple but also mortal threats to the priests. I knew the security people wore shoes because they needed to be combat-ready at all times. And yet, then and at any time that I have thought about it, it brings tears to my eyes.  

The temple of Somnath has stood the ravages of time. The legend goes that Chandra, the Moon, favored one of his twenty-seven wives, who were all sisters. Their father, Daksha Prajapati warned Chandra to treat all his daughters equally. Chandra continued to favor Rohini, and the enraged father cursed the moon to lose his vitality. Chandra then prayed to Shiva who appeared to him, pleased by his devotion and partially reverted the curse. The Moon thus loses its vitality over two weeks, and regains it over two weeks. The grateful Chandra built the temple in Shiva's glory, Somanath - the lord of the Moon.

In more recent times, the temple was built in the seventh century by the Vallabhi kings of Gujarat. This was destroyed by the Arab governor of Sindh in the eighth century, and then the third temple was built by Nagabhatt, of the Pratihara dynasty in Gujarat. This was destroyed in the eleventh century by the invader Mahmud Ghazni from Afghanistan. The fourth temple was built by the kings of Gujarat that was destroyed by the Turk-Afghan Allaudin Khilji in the thirteenth century, who killed thousands and maimed thousands more, and enslaved thousands. The temple was again rebuilt by the kings of Gujarat, but later the kingdom of Gujarat itself fell into the hands of Muslim invaders who became rulers and raided the temple for its riches in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries - the temple had a dome of gold, encrusted with rubies and gems. Somnath was rebuilt each time by the Hindu populace. In the early eighteenth century, it was destroyed by the Mughal king Aurangzeb who had destroyed hundreds of Hindu temples all over India, and converted them to mosques and mausoleums. But in the late eighteenth century, the queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore rebuilt the temple, and also built another Somnath temple where I had performed abhishek - annointment four years ago. 

In the mid-ninteenth century, the British army in Afghanistan uprooted the gates of the tomb of the invader Mahmud Ghazni, because they were rumored to be the original gates of the Somnath temple. When brought back to India and examined by experts, they were found to be replicas and were placed in Agra Fort in the southern part of the Khas Mahal, where they can be seen to this day. The Sikh army who had fought with Ghazni when he was returning to Afghanistan with his spoils via Punjab, had got the sacred temple gates back. There is a controversy why the priests at Somnath did not take them back - either the temple was in ruins already, or because they did not want temple gates that Muslim invaders had kept in their possession. Either way, the ruling family of Punjab installed them in the Golden Temple at Amritsar, another place I will visit one day.   

After India became independent in 1947 from colonial British rule, Vallabhbhai Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister of newly independent India, visited Somnath, and was apalled at the state of this glorious temple. Along with a few others, he got the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi to get the temple renovated. A private trust was set up, and President Rajendra Prasad, an ardent devotee as well, performed the installation ceremony of the temple in May 1951. This created a serious conflict with the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who took this as a gesture of Hindu revivalism, a trait that seems to be inherited by the branch of the Nehru family that does not seem to be able to let go Indian politics. The history of the renovation of the temple in the twentieth century has been captured in photographs that can be seen in a little museum in an alcove to the right as one enters the temple. Behind the temple of Somnath lies in ruins the temple of Parvati, Shiva's consort. The state of those ruins bring to mind what the state of Somnath must have been, before the renovation.

The temple of Somnath is on the shore of the Arabian sea, the only sea shore I knew in childhood. There is no land mass between the temple and the South Pole, and there is a marker by the temple that shows the direction of the South Pole. After three parikramas - circumambulations around the exquisitely carved temple, the chant of Aum Namaha Shivaaya in my head, we sat down as a group on the temple steps. One of the new things I noticed this time was a display that describes the 12 jyotirlinga temples. My camera was left behind in the car, it would not pass the security check at the gates of the temple compound. Every sight had to be allowed to sink in and memorized for posterity. 

Anantanandaji walked out of the temple, "walking like a car" as Ashverya describes his walking speed. Along with a few others, we hobbled behind him as fast as we could, yelling at every burning sensation as we walked over the heated concrete. Behind the Shiva temple built by Ahilyabai Holkar that we would visit next, there was a store selling cold drinks - cardamom-flavored and saffron-flavored milk shakes, perfect in the hot summer. We waited for the rest of the group to follow, but we could see them getting group pictures in the temple complex. The security arrangements at Hindu temples have given rise to a new job, the official temple photographer, who is the only person roaming the premises with photography equipment and making a load of money taking digital pictures and printing color copies.

A little boy came by, selling grains to feed the pigeons, which was when I noticed hundred of pigeons pecking away on the ground. Vinayakji, one of the gentlest souls I have ever met, took Ashverya with him to feed the pigeons. She has been learning the ways of India - early morning, people stop on the streets to buy cattlefeed from vendors on bicycles, to feed the cattle. And for many people, it is a ritual to feed the birds every morning. By now, the entire group had gathered and we had our fair share of cold drinks to cool us down. Next, we visited the Ahilyabai Holkar temple, where we could touch our heads to the lingam.      

Now we began our long walk to the car. I could have sworn the soles of my swollen feet had burns, and now we were walking through burning hot sands and then burning hot concrete. At some point, the body was sending so many 911 messages that the brain refused to take in any more input on pain. It is strange how easy it is to chant Aum Namaha Shivaaya in comfort, but with the sensation of burning flesh, the mind had to struggle desperately to cling to Shiva's name. As I was about to sit, the driver said - No, No, No. And like a flash, without a thought, I said - Don't fry my brain, let me sit. Even as I said it, I knew I should not be saying it with such vehemence. Just a moment later, the weight off my burned swollen feet, I turned to ask him what he wanted. He wanted me to wait for Madhukarji and Rameshji to reach the car because they needed to climb to the back of the car. My flash of irritation had died as soon as it had risen, but it had risen and been expressed, and that needed to be taken care of. I got out of the car, and after we had all settled in our seats, we were off for lunch.

We drove about fifteen minutes away to a place that I am sure could have served great traditional Kathiawadi fare, but we were served the same generic meal that Dheeraj has ordered at every place, the menu of least resistance that satisfies all palates. I had my rice and plain yogurt again. Anantanandaji asked the restaurant to warm some oil so I could massage the soles of my feet. As I applied the oil, I realized that there was no sensation in some spots, and there were some bumps, I actually had blisters on my feet. 

I dozed off in the car again, and only woke up when the car stopped. We were at the shore, all the cars had stopped. I waded into the Arabian Sea after more than thirty years. Almost immediately, it was time to leave, this had been an unscheduled stop. I took some pictures, and we trooped back into the car. I did not see Ashverya, she must have been sleeping soundly in her car. Like me, my child catches all the sleep she can, without a worry in the world.

Arabian Sea, on way to Dwarka from Somnath

Arabian Sea

After a chance view of the ocean, I was wide awake on the road to Dwarka. We wanted to stop for chai, but there was nothing on the way, it is a long road. I cannot be sufficiently grateful for being in the car with Swamijis who live every moment. There is not a single dull moment. Sarveshanandaji acts miffed that I would not put my feet up, but my legs could be close to being amputated and I would still not think of putting them up in front of the Swamijis.

Finally, close to Dwarka, the cars turned into a dhaba - eating place, for much needed chai and coffee and restrooms.

It was past sunset when we reached Nageshwar - two jyotirlinga in one day, the day could not get any better.

Outside the temple, there was a gigantic statue of Shiva, glowing complexion and golden hair. Closer scrutiny revealed that there were many peacocks stting on the statue. This was installed by the music producer Gulshan Kumar who created a business of devotional music and gave an opportunity to hundreds of struggling singers to create music records.

Nageshwar (Jyotirlinga #9)
When we entered the temple, the priests were gearing up for the evening aarti - worship ceremony with lamps. There was a huge display of things for purchase as we moved towards the sanctum sanctorum, and that delayed our group quite a bit because we have not had time to shop on this trip - not just for themselves, but even to get momentos to carry back. On this trip, I appreciated this lack of time because I have a propensity to collect things, and the more time I am given, the more likely I am to buy things that I may not look at again, after bringing them home. Vinayakji asked the children to picks life. a souvenir they liked, and he would pay for them. Ashverya picked a little turtle in stone - it is such a blessing to have a child in one's life, there are all these awwww.... moments.

The temple of Nageshwar is very modern. Either I am very tired, or just not tuned in, but it did not feel that I was standing in a powerful Shiva temple. We sat in a circle, and Swami Anantanandaji started chanting. The vigorous rhythm of chanting always creates purifying vibrations. Soon the clanging of the bells, and the beating of cymbals and drums and the chanting and the singing and the circular motion of the lamps created the familiar atmosphere - invoking Shiva, but somehow, somewhere, there was something missing for me at this temple. After the aarti - the worship with lamps, we were allowed to go into the sanctum sanctorum in groups of five, I think, and touch the lingam. I had thought, at last I would experience Shiva's potent presence, but I did not experience anything more than my own devotion for any place linked to Shiva. Perhaps another time, another trip, Shiva's will... 

The jyotirlinga of Nageshwar is described as "...darukavane Nageshwar..." - Nageshwar in the Daruka forest. This could easily be misinterpreted as Dwarka forest, but neither there is a forest at Dwarka, nor do the scriptures mention any powerful shrine near Dwarka. The temple of Nageshwar itself was a revelation to me a year ago, when a friend of mine mentioned it. There is the temple of Jageshwar in Almora in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where deodar trees (pronounced deva-daar in Hindi) are abundant, and there is a possibly that a deodar forest is referred to. Jageshwar is now on my list of temples to visit to worship Shiva, and every spot he sanctified on earth.

We performed the parikrama - circumambulation of the temple. It was a very clean and quiet place. On another day, I could sit here for hours but for now, we had to drive to mainland Dwarka, about an hour away. From there, one can take a ferry to Bet Dwarka, the island town, a tiny remnant of the huge island kingdom built by Krishna, the king-maker. We would not be going to Bet Dwarka. Another trip, another time, Krishna's will...

We reached Dwarka around 9 at night. It was a very small hotel, not at all the luxury places we were used to finding on this trip. It is amazing to me that Vishnu's poorna avatara - the complete incarnation, Krishna did not bless his city with eternal prosperity. Dwarka remains a small town, dependent on earnings from visitors who are mainly Krishna devotees. Some of us would have rooms here, the others would have rooms in another hotel. For now, we quickly ate in the small restaurant space. I got my usual plain rice and plain yogurt. When our rooms were assigned, it was a relief that the sparse and cheap furnishing aside, the room was clean and cooled down quickly.  

After the rooms had been assigned and bags sent to rooms, I went for a walk with Anantanandaji on the streets of Dwarka, and I would have loved to walk till the ocean, and sit on the rocks. For once, he spoke to me about the Vishnu tattwa - the element for earthly success. So far, he had been telling me about the Shiva tattwa - the element for spiritual growth. We had a travel schedule to follow, so the walk had to be cut short on that market street. But now I understand the ashram system, and why children were sent to live with the guru and learn for the first twenty-five years of their life. There is so much to be absorbed and imbibed from a guru that can only be received by complete surrender. We are so used to time-constrained sessions in lecture halls with formatted presentations and a question hour, that it is refreshing to keep the mind open and alert, and listen to Anantanandaji for as much time as he gives me.    

Tomorrow, 7am visit to the temple at Dwarka, therefore 6:00 am breakfast, therefore 5:00 am morning alarm!!

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!

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