Tuesday, December 19, 2017

In India...In God's Own Land - Part IV (Ahobilam)

    It has been my mother's ten year long wish to visit this prodigious residence of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha. During my week long stay at Hyderabad with my parents, when the topic of Ahobilam came up in casual conversation, I looked at my mother, and said let's go day-after-tomorrow. Amma looked at me with both eagerness and apprehension. She has been told that she would not be able to do this on her leg (three surgeries on one leg in the recent years), and my father is also too old to do this. Nevertheless, we decided that it was now-or-never. Coincidentally, the day of our visit coincided with swati nakshatram (the birth star of Lord Narasimha) and Ekadasi.
    We boarded a train from Secunderabad to Kurnool at 730 AM. The train reached Kurnool at 1 PM. We hired a taxi to take us to Ahobilam (We paid 3000 Rs. that included the return journey. I strongly suspect we overpaid atleast 500 Rs.), and reached the temple town at 430 PM. This delay was mainly due to the difficulty in negotiating with taxi-cab rentals. The ideal way would have been to make the 400 km long journey from Hyderabad to Ahobilam by car, or take a bus from Hyderabad to Allagedda, and another one from Allagedda to cover the last 30 kms to Ahobilam. We are not a particularly bus-loving family, so we chose the more time-consuming way to travel. We also experienced a brief, and joyful delay due to a herd of cows heading back home along the road. Having been completely brought up in a city, I have never see so many cows (over 300) at one time, all calm and gentle.
    We stayed at the Malolan guest house, which is conveniently located adjacent to the Prahlada Varadha Narasmihaswamy temple. The manager, Mr. Badrinarayanan appears to make all the big decisions in the town related to where people stay, what they eat, and how much they pay autos/ jeeps to travel within the town. We also partook all of our meals at the Ahobila Mutt adjoining the guest house. The meals were very simple fare, but was extremely tasty, and felt like home food. The room that we stayed in also was very simple. Nothing extraordinary, but it was clean, and the window overlooked the gopuram of the Prahlada Varadha temple. So, we were quite satisfied with the stay. We paid Rs.800 for 28 hours of stay in the room. The meals are part of voluntary donation towards the annadanam scheme of the Ahobila Mutt. Most people in Ahobilam are conversant with both tamil and telugu.
    The main temples in Ahobilam all close by 5-530 PM, making us too late to visit any of the principal deities among the "Nava-Narasimha" temples. The Prahlada Varadha temple is, however, open until 830 PM. After quickly refreshing ourselves, we walked to have a glorious darshan of the Lord Narasimhaswamy and Amrithavalli. Here we found out that there would be a viswaroopa darshanam the following morning at 5 AM (on the day of swati nakshatra), followed by an abhisekham and tirumanjanam. We paid Rs. 500 to take part in this service (only two people are allowed per ticket), and returned to the guest house to retire early for the night.
    The next morning, we attended the viswaroopa darshanam as planned, and returned to the guest house by 7 AM. At that time, the breakfast (hot pongal and sambar) was served at the mutt, and we departed with an assigned guide by 8 AM. Only my father expressed a mild disappointment that we did not get chakkara pongal as prasadam after the abishekam. We took an auto to a parking point that is 250 steps below the Ahobila Narasimha temple. We started climbing this first flight of stairs at 840 AM. After a wonderful darshan of the Ugra Narasimha (the presider over Guru/Jupiter) who resides in a cave, we were called back by the temple sevaks who were bringing out a hot pot of prasadam. (Anyone's guess what it was? Steaming hot chakkara pongal). This brought a 1000 W smile to my father's face, and any apprehension he had until then about being able to make the upcoming strenuous climb vanished from his mind. The real climbing test only starts at this point.

    We began an arduous trek through the hills, through rivulets and boulders. While some people were pious and strong-hearted enough to do this barefoot, we wore shoes. I silently asked Adisesha to forgive my transgression. (The hills are believed to be the manifestation of Adisesha. Srisailam is supposed to be at his tail, Ahobilam at his stomach, and Tirumala at his hood.). I was thankful for the guide who hand-held my father and saved him from a couple of slips on the rocks from turning into anything disastrous. Three kms and several steps later, we found ourselves at the Jwala Narasimha temple. This is the location where Narasimha swamy held the demon Hiranyakashipu on his lap, and killed him with his claws. The temple has three idols of the God in an ugra (angry) form. The first one shows him breaking out of a pillar. The second shows him fighting with Hiranyakashipu, and the third shows him tearing out his stomach. The idol shows him holding the hands and legs of the asura on his lap with two of his hands, tearing him open with two other hands, wearing a garland of his entrails with two more hands, and holding his signature conch (sanghu), and the wheel (chakra) in his last two hands. This idol is the controller of Mars (or sevvai) among the navagrahas, and worshipping him is said to remove doshas (or imbalances) pertaining to that graha. A pond of fresh water adjacent to the temple  is known as rakta kunda, where Narasimha washed himself after slaying the demon Hiranyakashipu. Due to the eminence of Swati nakshatram, there was a larger crowd than usual at these temples, but nothing that a city person does not see on a festival day at a local neighborhood temple. We finished our darshan by 10 AM, and started heading downwards. 
    After descending from Jwala Narasimha, we started the ascent towards Malola Narasimha Swamy. Here, the God is in a calm posture, while embracing Goddess Lakshmi ("ma"). This deity controls Shukran or the planet Venus. We reached Malola at 11 AM, and it was smooth descending from this point on. On our way back, we also had the darshan of Varaha Narasimha temple, where he is in the form of Varaha (boar), with his snout embracing Bhoomi devi (Lakshmi). Here, he controls the Rahu graha.
Ugra Stambam
     We reached the parking lot by 1145 AM. From here, we hired another Auto to take us to Karanja Narasimha (Chandran/ Moon), Chatravata Narasimha (Ketu graha) and Yogananda Narasimha (controller of Sani/ Saturn) temples. At Karanja, He is believed to have given darshan to Anjaneya Swamy. Lord Hanuman didnot recognize Narasimha Swamy, until he gave a darshan with a bow and arrow, three eyes, and a serpent hood. The symbolism educates that he is no different from Rama or Shiva. At Chatravata, he is smiling, and seems to be enjoying some music. Lastly, at Yogananda, the God is in a yogic posture. This is where he taught Prahlada (his foremost devotee, and the son and heir to Hiranyakashipu) the science of Yoga. Having successfully visited seven of the "nava-Narasimha" temples in the morning, we returned to the Mutt at 1 PM.
    While climbing the hills in the morning, I constantly reassured my parents that only this part of the journey would be difficult, and it would be smooth sailing henceforth. All  further deities could be visited with vehicles taking us to the temple doorstep. How wrong I was! While it was true that the walking was minimal since the return from Varaha Narasimha temple, the afternoon was no less challenging! After a quick lunch, we hired a jeep, shared with three others (A total of eight people including the driver) to take us to Pavana Narasimha (presider over Mercury/ Budhan) and Bhargava Narasimha (Sun/ Suryan) temples. 
    This journey was in many ways more arduous than climbing the hills. Pavana Narasimha is located deep within a forest which has no roads to speak of. The jeeps are in a terrible condition (I imagine even a brand new jeep will only last three trips into the forest before reaching such a state), and the path into the forest is full of boulders, trees scratching the sides, and paths that tilt the jeep 60-70 degrees on each side with alarming frequency. As there were some old ladies in our group, my father and I made the mistake of taking the back seat in the jeep. The ride to the temple takes one and a half hours, with over an hour inside the forest. Every joint in my body was aching, with multiple hits to my head. I can't even imagine what my poor father went through. I was much more vocal with my complaining. The forest department check-post midway through the forest does not allow visitors after 330 PM. After our darshan here, and expiating sins of all our prior janmams, we were ready to head back out of the forest. It was on our return journey, that my father's seat in the jeep suddenly broke. As there were no handles to hold on to in that treacherous road, he was holding on tightly to the bottom of the seat. This resulted in him injuring his finger. We arrested the profuse bleeding temporarily with some cloth, but it did not look good. There was no doctor between the forest and Ahobilam, without passing through the Bhargava temple as well. We visited the last of the nine temples, and headed back to Ahobilam and a doctor, who gave proper care to his finger. The cut was deep enough to expose his veins. The jeep driver completely absolved himself of any moral responsibility. The lesson here is to completely avoid the back seat in this jeep, and carry a first-aid kit. Sit in the middle or in the front if you must. I sat in the middle seat for a while on our return, and there is no doubt that the journey was infinitely more tolerable. I should add: infinitely more safe.
    After a successful completion of darshan of the nine deities on the day of Swati nakshatram, we took a bus to Allagedda from Ahobilam at 815 PM. We reached Allagedda at 9 PM, and boarded a volvo bus to Hyderabad at 11 PM. We reached Hyderabad at 5 AM the next morning with no further incidents.
    The difficulty in accessing majority of these temples has kept the number of visitors at a manageable level. It is because of this, the nature around this place is also well-preserved, and offers a serene and divine setting to this wonderful place of pilgrimage. Despite our minor mishap at Pavana, I hope that they do not develop the roads too much, which will only destroy the forests completely.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Time to Stand and Stare

I was trying to work in my office this evening when I decided to take a walk in the campus. I tried to clear all the million thoughts in my head, and focus only on the trees, grass, and flowers. I was caressing the flowers as I walked by them, and feeling the dew on the leaves as I walked by. The experience was immensely uplifting and relaxing, to say the least, and I have decided to do this more often.While walking I was reminded of this poem by William Henry Davies (obviously I was not completely free of thoughts !)..

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

These are a few of My Favorite Things

The smell of summer’s first rain
The waft of wind across jasmine plants
The sound of a gushing waterfall
The dew of a mountainside
The stars in a desert sky
These are a few of my favorite things

Monday, December 31, 2012

In India..In God's Own Land - Part III (Valley of Flowers)

This was the trip I had wanted to make for a few years, the hike that I knew would be the best one yet, the one trip that always needed more time than I had to spare. And having made the trip I can assert that it is true, you haven't really seen mountains until you are in the Himalayas. In my opinion, this is because it is extremely difficult to obtain any sense of height or space in these mountains. There is no "top of the world" view, and that is humbling and oddly exhilarating. If Kerala and Kumbakonam (Part I and Part II of my blog) merit being known as God's own lands, Uttarakhand is equally deserving of the title. There is a divine quality to nature here.
 I quit my job this May, and decided to take a two month break before I started my next academic adventure. I emailed my friend a one liner the same day, "Do you want to trek the Himalayas this summer?" She called me back and said "Lets do this!", and the planning began.
We did not want to take part in any tourist packages for  they always seemed to include places which were not on our agenda, and hence took longer than we had time, and demanded more money than we cared to spend. I have been on quite a few hiking trips in the US, but they have always been very easy to plan because of the multitude of information on websites, online booking for hotels, car rentals, etc. Planning this trip was like locating a book in an uncatalogued library. All the information and tips the two of us finally zeroed in on was consistent information we found on other travel blogs without which we could not have made this trip. I hope my blog is just as useful to anyone else who wishes to make a trip to the Valley of Flowers National Park.
Valley of Flowers is only open during the months of July through September which also coincides with the monsoons and the season of landslides. The valley really begins to bloom only after mid July, and the first half of August is perhaps the best time to visit it. 

Day 1: Delhi to Haridwar: We left on an afternoon train from Hazrat Nizammudin and reached Haridwar around 8 PM. It takes 6-7 hours, and one may also take buses, and taxis to get to Haridwar. But, we had decided that this being the first stage of our journey, and the only predicatable part of it, we would rather get through this without any hiccups and opted to travel by train. We had also made a reservation at Garwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) hotel for that night. The hotel is a 3 minute walk from the Haridwar railway station. The buses to Joshimath also depart from across the road at GMVN. We paid Rs.600 for the room, and were quite satisfied with it.
I recommend reserving bus tickets as soon as arriving in Haridwar. It is also a good idea to book tickets on the first bus out of Haridwar, which is typically at 4:00 AM. The last bus is scheduled to depart at 7 AM, and there are usually 3/4 buses that run that route everyday. While the final destination of this bus is Badrinath, you need to get off at Govindghat. The summer months being the peak pilgrimage season, it is likely that you may not find tickets on this bus. We managed to get tickets to Joshimath on a bus that was scheduled to leave at 6 AM. We paid Rs.400, but I suspect 300 or 350 would have been the right fare.We made no advance reservations for any part of our journey henceforth because we were open to the possibility that we may not be able to obtain bus tickets for that morning, and that we may get delayed by more than a day on the road in the event of landslides or poor driving conditions. We had heard of people who were stuck on the road for up to 4 days. Also, make sure you withdraw plenty of cash at Haridwar.

Day 2: Haridwar to Joshimath : As common with public buses, we did not leave at 6 AM. It was in fact closer to 8 AM by the time the driver had decided that he had enough passengers to warrant the long journey. We bought a couple of ponchos at the bus stop, which turned out to be a great idea, as these get far more expensive the farther into the mountains you go.  It takes 10-12 hours to get to Joshimath depending on the condition of the road (there is only one road), and the number of stops the driver makes. The bus journey of a lifetime began by the time we were driving through Rishikesh.
The only other time I had seen Ganga was in Bengal where she was mellow and murky, and yet somehow beautiful before flowing into the sea. Here was Ganga from the books of yore. She was a tonic to the eyes, music to the years, and her gay laughter made you smile. NH 58 is a narrow road that connects Haridwar to Badrinath with steep, and rocky hills on one side, and the Ganges on the other. That pretty much remained the view (and background music) for the next five days, but we never tired of it. As we climbed higher, the river just got more feisty  and at times the gushing sound was loud enough to drown all other noises. We would think every couple of hours that this was how beautiful Ganga was supposed to be, but she constantly surpassed herself all the way up into the Pushpawati valley.
While the bus did not stop at any of the sights, we still had a good view of the Lakshman Jhoola, the distinct confluences of Mandakini and Alakananda at Rudra Prayag, of Alakananda and Bhagirathi at Dev prayag, of Alakananda and Nandakini at Nadaprayag, and Alakananda and Pindar at Karnaprayag. The river simply looked amazing by the time we got to Karnaprayag in the Chamoli district. Until this point, the road is in reasonably good condition, but from this point on to Joshimath, it is positively treacherous. The roads get worse, the river looks more like a waterfall, and the mountains can finally be seen for what they are, as lofty and as endless as the skies.
We reached Joshimath about 630 PM. I had heard of a Math in Joshimath that was a wonderful and serene place to stay, but we could not immediately locate it. We ended up staying at a GMVN hotel again, but this room cost almost twice as much as the one in Haridwar and left a lot to desire for. Yatri Nivas seemed like a much nicer place to stay, but they were completely booked. After freshening up, we decided to visit the Narsingh temple. It is an ancient temple with Lord Narsingh as the presiding deity, and the home of Badrinath during the winters when the road to the temple is closed. The temple and its surroundings were serene and beautiful. We managed to get there just in time for the evening aarti. We walked the town a couple of times, but found no pleasant eating options, and ended up eating a mediocre (and mostly dark) dinner at the GMVN hotel. There is often no electricity in this region, and I recommend charging your phones anytime you have the luxury of power. On inquiry from the locals, we learnt that we would be able to ride share taxis to Govindghat as early as 6 AM.

Day 3: Joshimath - Govindghat - Ghangaria : As planned, we left Joshimath at 6 AM and walked to the taxi stand. It was quite bright by then, and there was a fair amount of activity on the streets. We bargained the taxi driver to take us down to Govindghat for Rs.120 (for two people). It was roughly a 40 minute drive, and we passed Vishnu prayag on our way. Govindghat is a much busier town than Joshimath, and it seemed like it would have also been a much better place to stay the previous night. The place was mostly over run by Sikh pilgrims on their way to Hemkund Sahib. We stocked up on drinks and biscuits here for our forward journey, and hired a porter to carry our bags. There is a porter hiring station run by policemen with fixed rates although there will be men trying to get you to hire them from the time you get off the taxi. My friend and I each had one backpack, and we paid a porter a total of Rs.600 to carry our bags to Ghangaria, and food for the day's journey. It was close to 8 AM by the time we actually started the hike. Some pilgrims we talked to later during our hike told us that they had left a good amount of their luggage at the Gurudwara (it is a free service), and only carried what was essential to Ghangaria. It was a clear and beautiful day, a great start to the long hike. The hike from Govindghat to Ghangaria is 14 km, but the roads below, and above have been expanded over time, and the mile markers are not really accurate. One can also ride a helicopter from Govindghat to Ghangaria, and cover the journey in less than half and hour for Rs.2000 per head, or one can ride horses for a sum close to Rs.1000. However, considering the rocky terrain, and the narrow paths, riding the horses looked distinctly uncomfortable ( a view later confirmed by some people who chose to abandon the horse ride after a few kilometers and continue on foot). 

The first 2-3 kilometers of the trek is crowded, a little messy with horse dung and not as scenic as the rest of the trek. This is the portion of the trek where one cannot really see the river. After the first few kilometers, Ganges is always by your side, and she is a delight to watch. The routes are fairly well maintained and the credit entirely goes to the Garwal Tourism department. While I am an impatient hiker, and like to keep a medium steady pace and not stop unless I was tired or there was a great reason to do so, my friend preferred to soak in the beauty. I am glad she did so, for she would then point out some of the birds, insects and flowers that I had almost missed on my way up. I especially remember a particular wood pecker that seemed oblivious to the buzz of activity below it and was intent only on craving its niche in the tree. 

By the time we had hiked about 7 km, the river was accessible by foot, and looked very inviting. We spent a good 45 minutes playing in the water, washing our hands and feet, and refilling our water bottles from the same flowing water. Bottled water along this route costs Rs.40 per bottle but they were also labeled as "pure mountain water". The water from Ganges was ice cold and tasted exquisitely refreshing. There were snow capped peaks in the distance,and an occasional view of the Narparvat through the clouds. We made a couple of more stops along the way by the river to refresh ourselves. To me, these stops were the most memorable parts of the trek, and I would think the journey completely pointless if one was to bypass this experience. There are plenty of food stalls throughout the route where they serve hot parathas, maggi, chowmein, etc. You can also grab a hot cup of chai or juices at some of these stalls. A restaurant near the 10 km mark has seats by the river. We noted it on our way up, and stopped here for breakfast on our way down.

The last stretch of 2-3 kms was easily the toughest leg of this day's trek. We shared little conversation and were intent on conserving our energy for the monstrous and slippery climb. One reason why the trek was harder than it should have been is the terrain. There is no crushed gravel acting as a cushion, it's all hard and uneven rocks and stones that eventually start to tell on your foot muscles. We were lucky that it was not raining that day, or the whole journey could have been more miserable and dangerous.

However, we did eventually reach the outskirts of Ghangaria, and spent a relaxed hour near the helipad enjoying the views of the surrounding mountains and the flat valley and amused to see Sun rays trying to find gaps within  the mountains, and find their way into the valley. We were still half a kilometer away from the village of Ghangaria. We slowly made our way up the last stretch, and began looking at rooms to stay. There was a Gurudwara at Ghangaria as well where a lot of Sikh pilgrims stayed. We however gave up trying to walk through the village and stayed at a hotel which we thought was clean and respectable. We paid Rs.400 for the room with a double bed for each night. There is power in Ghangaria only for a few hours each morning. It being the monsoon season, everything was damp (including the beds, and the walls), so I suggest keeping a dry bed sheet in your bag( I would not have been able to sleep without that), and plenty of spare clothes. If you trek in rain, your clothes will mostly likely never dry until you get back to Govindghat or Haridwar. The hotels supply hot water for Rs.10/ bucket. There are no telephone lines that run up to Ghangaria (people only stay here during the summer and migrate down the hill for the rest of  the year), and no likelihood of obtaining cell phone signals. There are however satellite phones that charge Rs.20/ minute. We used those to let our families know that we were alive and well.

After rest and refreshments, we watched a very informative and interesting documentary on the Valley of Flowers. We then tried to locate a Mr. Rajneesh Chauhan, a renowned guide in the area. When we expressed our interest in hiring him for the next day, we learnt that he was already hired by two South African botanists. However, the ladies found us agreeable and were willing to let us tag along. We paid him Rs.1200 for the day, and he was worth every paise we paid him. We agreed to meet him at his store at 7 AM the next day, stopped at a nearby hotel to order parathas to-go for the next day's lunch, and finally retired for the day.

Day 4: Ghangaria - Valley of Flowers - Ghangaria : We woke up the next day to pouring rain and dark skies. There seemed no hope for sunlight that day,  and in a slightly dismal mood set out to meet the rest of our group. We were also joined by an Irishman who had spent a month in India vacationing, and seemed to be having the time of his life. We trekked all day wearing our ponchos and unwilling to bring out our cameras. We had the most wonderful guide however, and it was very difficult to sulk at the weather. He pointed out all the rare plants and flowers( and the botanical names for the botanists), their medicinal properties, and their unique characteristics. He found us wild strawberries, blue berries and the strongest smelling Tulsi ever. I stole a few leaves of Tulsi back home to Hyderabad, and we enjoyed some of the best tea of our lives. He also put leaves of some plant (whose name I cannot remember) in our water bottles, and told us that they were a natural energy drink. And by God, was he right! On retrospection, the rain did not ruin our sighting of the flowers, but it did spoil the overall scenery. The clouds were so low that we could see the surrounding mountains only occasionally. Neither of us were wearing water-proof shoes and were soon hiking in squishy wet shoes. In-spite of this, the valley was beautiful. At the very heart of the valley, it is hard to imagine that we were up at an elevation of over 14000 ft, and yet, we were surrounded by so much greenery, so much color, and 40,000 ft tall mountains. Our guide also told us how and when some of these flowers would change colors, and how some of these flowers have become rarer over the years. The valley is known to appear a different color every week, and from his own vast collection of photos, I could believe that. 

Bhojpatra -Bark of which was used in ancient manuscripts

Blue Poppy

At the valley

Other Side of  the  valley

At 1 PM, it had not stopped raining, and our guide suggested that we turn back before the rain starts triggering landslides. We were very disappointed, for we would have liked to have gone on further, but we agreed with the wisdom of his decision. We did however convince him to go another half a km into the valley to the river Pushpawati. This water was melting right from the glaciers above, and I lost the feeling in my fingers for a good half an hour  after touching this water, but I can never forget her taste. It was cold and slightly sweet at the same time. I brought back a bottle of this water back home for all my family. The valley is known to house some of the most medicinal herbs in the world, and Pushpawati was bringing down some of those herbs in her water to us. The foreigners were slightly apprehensive as my friend and I were greedily drinking this water, until we convinced them to give it a try as well. They did not regret it. Locals believe that this water by itself is known to cure some diseases. 
After this point we turned back, and started our journey back to Ghangaria. It was 4 PM by the time we reached the village, and the skies had finally cleared. The others in our party  had planned on staying a couple of more days. Some others also planned to trek to Hemkund Sahib from Ghangaria ( 6 kms each way, and a lot steeper). Unfortunately, we had to head back down the next day. The trek to the valley from Ghangaria is 3.5 kms, and we walked another 2 kms into the valley before heading out. One can walk as many as 6 kms into the valley before turning back. On our return Rajnesshji treated us to some great herbal tea in his store made from different herbs he had stocked up over different times of the year.

Day 5 : Ghangaria to Govindghat - Badrinath : We started our downward trek to Govindghat the next morning at 7 AM. The same porter we had hired on our way up had made another trip the previous day, and was willing to take our bags down for another sum of Rs. 600. The previous day's rains had made the path much more slippery, and I was glad for the hiking stick that I had borrowed from Rajneeshji the previous evening. We once again stopped at our favorite spots along the river, and did not really hurry ourselves down. My friend had made an interesting observation that there were no women to be found at Ghangaria or in any of the stalls anywhere along the 14 km hike(apart from tourists). On our return hike however, we saw a lonely woman sitting all by herself and selling rhododendron juice. She told us that the men move up to Ghangaria during the pilgrimage season while the women stay in Bhundyar village (a few kms uphill from Govindghat), and thats where she had lived all her life. We asked her about climate and life at Bhundyar, and she  gave us a smile and said we could also look it up on  the internet! That was a welcome change from some of the men who thought we were foreigners just because we were wearing jeans!Once at  Govindghat, we had a nice lunch at the Gurudwara, made a few rotis as seva and made our way towards the bus stop. It was close to 2 PM by then, and there would be no buses heading downhill at this time. To  head back to Haridwar, we would need to catch a bus early next morning. Badrinath being only two hours further uphill, we decided to flag down a bus that was heading that way.
After more than an hour's wait, we finally managed to get seats for Rs.35 each on a bus that was heading to Badrinath. The route from Chamoli to Joshimath paled in comparison to the route from Govindghat to Badrinath. I spent most of my two hours trying not to look outside the window and praying to God to keep me alive beyond  that day. A middle aged lady traveling with her family struck a conversation with us, and gave us some wrong information that almost ruined our schedule. She claimed to have been to Badrinath before, and told us that the temple closes at 5 PM, and that the priests demand a lot of money to open up darshan to each person. She further misled us into believing that we would be unable to leave before 7 AM the following morning, and to book our return bus tickets only after darshan. I strongly advise people to book their return bus tickets as soon as they reach Badrinath. We did not do that, and spent a lot of time talking to locals, and confirming that the temple would be open until well past 8 PM. We then found ourselves a very comfortable room in an ashram right across the bus stop for Rs.300. We had by then decided to book our tickets on the first bus out before heading to the temple. Each ticket to Haridwar cost Rs.350, but because we had delayed, we ended up with the last seats in the bus at its very back. Of course, this proved to be extremely uncomfortable. 
We grabbed some spare clothes and headed to the the temple. The temple is situated on the banks of a gushing Alakananda, encompassed between snow capped peaks of Nar and Narayan parvat. A trip to Badrinath can never be complete without a dip in the hot springs. As per legend, Adi Shankaracharya charmed the water in the springs to always remain hot for his guru who was staying in Badrinath for a few months performing penance. In any case, it is a miracle  that in such extremely cold surroundings, the water from the springs was steaming hot. It was too hot to touch for more than a coupe of seconds at a time. Rooms have been built around the springs to provide privacy for women. It was one of the most enjoyable baths I had ever had. This was followed by a very wonderful and relaxed darshan of the lord (no bribe paid to anyone), a quiet dinner and a very tired walk back to the ashram. By then, the clouds had descended right up to our eye level.


Day 6:  Badrinath to Haridwar: The bus from Badrinath left on time at 4:30. It was fairly uneventful, and we were too tired to even speak much to each other. We did however grumble a lot about having to eat parathas one more day, and were looking forward to Dosa Palace at Haridwar. We reached Haridwar at 6 PM and found lodgings at a nearby hotel (GMVN was booked). We could have caught a bus to Delhi the same night, but even our train tickets for the next afternoon had not left us much flexibility in our schedule. 

Day 7: Haridwar to Delhi  : I woke up at 6 AM the next morning, and caught a rikshaw to Har ki Pauri. The city was already busy and noisy. I did not want to leave Haridwar without a dip in the Ganges, but I was actually very surprised at how good it felt! Afterwards, we made our way to Manasa Devi temple, but the cable car was closed for the day, and we had no strength to walk up to the temple. Instead, we rode the cable car to Chandi Devi temple, and were once again stuck in heavy rains while shopping on our way back. With difficulty, and relief, we found ourselves sitting on the train back to Delhi, not able to believe that luck stayed with us until the very end!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

In India..In God's Own Land - Part II

Two years after In India..In God's Own Land, I was back in the same parts of the country. This time in beautiful Alappuzha, a surprisingly not-so-crowded tourist destination. After a memorable time on the clean and secluded beach with my cousins, my family headed towards Kumbakonam, another paradise for temple lovers. We visited 21 temples in a span of two days, each of them unique, and the youngest of them being at least 500 years old. Each of these temples also have very interesting stories(Sthala puranas). For the temples that I already did not know the stories for, I requested the head priest to enlighten us.
The trip started with our customary visit to our family deity at the Vaitheeswaran Kovil, a massive temple over 1000 years old, and dedicated to Lord Shiva as "the God of healing". Among other numerous deities, it is also known for its unique deity of the planet Mars (Angaraka). We reached the temple  town Mayavaram that morning at 5, and were ready to leave by 11 AM. There are numerous buses that one may ride from here to Kumbakonam, or there are free lance vans willing to drive you there. We were a party of five and paid 2000 Rs for the four hour drive to Kumbakonam. While this may seem excessive, Rs.400 per head to ride comfortably in Indian summer (first week of June) seemed acceptable. Along with this was the driver's added consideration that he might have to drive back alone if he did not find another customer.
Once we reached Kumbakonam and refreshed ourselves, we set out to explore the temples in the main city itself. While there is literally a famous temple at every street, and the city by itself deserves a four-day stay, we contended ourselves with picking a handful of the most illustrious temples to visit that evening. We bargained with a driver of one of the more spacious auto rikshaws to drive the five of us to seven temples around the city for Rs.300.
2. The first of our stops was at the Nageshwaraswamy temple, dedicated to Shiva as the serpent king. It was build by the Cholas in the 12th century AD.
3. Our next stop was at the Adi Kumbeshwarar temple, the 1400 year old temple from which the city derives its name. Built by the Cholas in the 7th century AD, this temple in the heart of the city is spread over 4 acres, and houses a massive water tank. One aspect that stood out  in my mind however was the deity of Goddess Durga. The tall and imposing form was also starkly feminine. Unlike other deities of Durga, her long flowing hair that reached below her hips were braided in traditional South Indian style and adorned with jasmine flowers. That is one sight I cannot forget.
4. We next visited the Sarangapani temple. The central shrine of this temple is in the form of a chariot driven by elephants and horses. The carving on the chariot, Lord Ranganatha in his reclining pose and the divine deity of Mahalakshmi are all equally unforgettable.
5. Our next stop was at the Chakrapani temple. The temple is noteworthy for its massive pillars. The other unique feature is the deity of Lord Vishnu which is in the form of a Chakra.
Chakra Ayudha Purusha(Courtesy :Wikipedia)
6. We then visited the Vyayan Someshwarar temple. Shiva is the principal deity as the lord of "Soma". Goddess Durga was equally scintillating in the form of Padaivetti Mariyaman.
7. Our next stop was at the Ramaswamy temple. This is a relatively new temple, constructed in the 16th century, and dedicated to Lord Rama. The temple pictorially depicts the Ramayana, but it is the principal deity that left its imprint on my mind. The central shrine depicts Rama on his coronation day at the end of his exile. He and Sita are surrounded by life size deities of his three brothers in various postures; Shathrugna is holding a fan, Bharatha an umbrealla, while Lakshmana is holding a bow and arrow. Hanuman is on his knees and reading Sundarakanda. This is the only temple which has deities of all four brothers with Sita.
8. Our last stop for the evening was the Kasi Vishwanath temple. The name is derived from the fact that Lord Shiva at Kashi (Benaras) directed nine rivers to wash their sins at the Mahamagam tank at Kumbakonam. This temple encompasses this wondrous and massive tank, and I believe it is also the only temple where we can see life size deities of nine rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Narmada, Tungabhadra and Sarayu). The tank itself merits a visit to this temple.

We were satisfied with our coverage on the first day, and were making plans for day two over dinner. While, there is no dearth of temples to visit in the area (Kumbakonam being in the heart of Tanjore district), we kept in mind the fact that our return train journey was booked from Tanjore. On hindsight, it would have been more prudent to have booked it from Kumbakonam itself. The train starts at Tanjore and passes through Kumbakonam on to Chennai, but we could not risk losing our seats on account of our absence from the train. Thus, our planning for the next day involved choosing temples on the road from Kumbakonam to Tanjore. We rented the same car that we came in from Mayavaram for the next day.

9. Our first stop the next morning was at the Thirunageshwarar temple, one of the famous navagraha shrines. Shiva is the presiding deity, and Goddess Parvathi is in a deep penance posture as "Giri Gujambigai". The deity of Rahu has a serpent over its head, and people offer milk to the deity to appease the effects of Rahu in their lives.
10. The next stop was at the nearby Uppiliyappan temple. The deity of Vishnu is imposing, and the sthala puranas interesting, but a note to devotees, that the prasad from this temple is cooked without salt. Lord Vishnu in the story had sworn to eat only food offered to him without salt. Nevertheless, the prasad is very tasty. One can also seek blessings from the temple elephant.
11. Our next halt was at ThiruBhuvanam, a town famous for silks. The temple is spread over acres, as typical of Chola temples. The presiding deity is Shiva, but there is a separate shrine for Lord Sarabheshwara, a fusion of man, eagle and lion. It is believed that regular offerings to this lord will relieve people of chronic diseases.
12. We next made our way to Thiruvidaimaruthur, a temple with Shiva as the presiding deity. The memorable feature of this temple is the tale of Brahmahathi. The tale is of a sin that followed a king wherever he went, but he could not enter the temple and waited at the gates. the king was relieved of his sin when he enters the temple by the main entrance and exits through another. Thus, all devotees are advised to take the circumlocutory path to avoid Brahmahathi that is waiting to latch on to you once you exit. The temple also has deities for the 27 stars in Indian mythology.
13. The next temple on our list was Thirumanancheri. This was not strictly in the vicinity, and was a bit of a drive, but we wanted to visit it nevertheless. The temple is believed to have been the venue where Lord Shiva (Kalyanasundereswar), and goddess Parvati (Kokilambigai) had an earthly wedding. Devotees believe that praying here will ensure that men and women who want to get married will soon find the right consort.
14. The next temple Kanchanoor, is another famous navagraha temple. This one is dedicated to Shukra or Venus. It is very fascinating  to see the knowledge our ancestors seemed to have of planets and their positions with respect to the Earth and the Sun. This is evident from the navagrahas in every South Indian temple, but more so in the the next temple on our list.
15. The last temple that we visited that morning was Suryanaar, a temple dedicated to Surya, or the Sun God, and the navagrhas. The main deity is Surya, dressed in glowing red. The path around the central shrine is occupied by the other deities of navagrahas in their characteristic clothing and positions. It may well have been coincidental, but I wondered about the irony later on. It was close to noon when we visited the temple, and we struggled to walk barefoot in this temple. While other temple premises were also very hot, Surya seemed more unforgiving with his heat.

We returned to Kumbakonam for lunch and a few hours of rest. The temples usually close around noon, and do not reopen until 4:30 or 5:00 PM. At this time, we also checked out of our rooms, and intended to make our way towards Tanjore to board our train at 10 PM.

16. Our first stop of the evening was Swamimalai. It is a temple devoted to Lord Muruga, and is one of the arupadaiveedu. The temple pillar, dome and the deities armor are all adorned with gold. To reach the presiding deity, one has to climb a stretch of steps on a hill. The deity is 6 feet tall, and is as beautiful as any deity I have seen. One interesting memory of mine at this temple relates to my sister in law. She had a dark mole-like object on her face for a few months, and she could never get rid of it no matter how hard she tried. Just as she finished praying to Muruga, the mole fell off, leaving absolutely no mark on her face. Needless to say, she had a glowing and excited smile on her face!
17. The next temple was unplanned, and not on our list, but even a wayside temple in Tanjore district will be a thousand years old, and have an interesting story to tell. The presiding deity at this temple is Thiruvalanchuzhi pilayar. The story goes that the gods forgot to worship Lord Ganesha before the historical churning of the ocean. As they realized their mistake, they  made this deity of the foam that was forming from the churning. Hence, this deity is white in color, and there is no "abhishekam" for this Ganesha as it is formed out of foam.
It is known as "valam suzhi" as the trunk of Ganesha is twisted to the right instead of the traditional left.
18. Our next stop was at Patteeswaram. I had heard so much about this temple, and felt blessed that I was actually privileged to have the opportunity to visit such a holy place. This temple has several sthala puranas associated with it. One of the legends is that Lord Rama had performed three sins when he killed Ravana. While Rama was God incarnate, he was an avatara purusha, and the purpose of his incarnation was to show people the right way to live, and the need to adhere to Dharma even in the most conflicting and hard situations in life. He led by example. The killing of Ravana had brought upon him three sins: Brahmahathi, the killing of a Brahmin; Veerahathi, the killing of a warrior; and Chayyahathi, the killing of a great artist( Ravana was a wonderful player of the Veena). To expiate his sins, Rama installed ramalingams at Rameshwaram, Vedaranyam, and Patteeswaram.  Patteeswaram is also the place where Patti , one of the four daughters of Kamadhenu (the divine cow) was believed to have worshipped Lord Shiva.  
Another interesting aspect of the temple is the deity of Nandi. As we all know, Nandi, Lord Shiva's bull always sits right in front of the Lord making it impossible for devotees to see the God unless they cross the bull. However, at Patteeswaram, Nandi is shifted to the right side of the Lord enabling devotees to Darshan even from the main road. The story behind this is that when Thiru Gnana Sambandhar, a great devotee of Shiva was approaching Patteeswaram from a neighboring town singing hymns, the Lord was impatient to see his devotee and asks Nandi to move aside and not obstruct his view. I thought it was a beautiful story that taught that God  himself comes to the true devotee.
19. The next temple we visited was Thiru Shakthi Mutram. The unique feature of this temple was that the  deity of Shiva is hugged by Parvathi. An offering to this deity is also believed to bring marriage to unmarried people.
20. The next temple was once again a longer drive of about 40 minutes, but Goddess Parvati (Garbarakshambigai) at this temple is supposed to be very powerful, and we were determined to pay her a visit. This was the temple of Thirukarugavur. Repeating the story we heard at the temple in words from Wikipedia : Legend has it that a sage by name Nithruvar once resided in the place with his pregnant wife Vethigai. Once when Nithruvar was out, another sage Orthuvapathar visited the hermitage. He requested for food, but due to her tiredness, Vethigai did not respond in time. This resulted in Orthuvapathar getting angry and cursed Vethigai to have a child with handicap. Vethigai begged the deity in the temple and as a result got a healthy infant. When Vethigai narrated this to her husband Nithruvar, he was surprised. He prayed to the deity in the temple to save all the pregnant ladies who worship in this temple. The temple is hence famed for saving pregnant women to smooth delivery.The worship of the deity is believed to provide cure to all pregnancy related issues. The deity here is termed Garbharakshambigai, meaning saviour or pregnant woman. This place has been referred to in thevaram written by Saint Poet (7th Century AD) Thirugnana Sambanthar and Sundarar.
21. The last temple we visited was the famed Ramalingaswamy temple at Papanasam. This is the only temple where there are 108 Siva Lingas inside a single temple. They are believed to have been installed by Lord Rama. The overwhelming feeling of walking among rows and rows of Lingas cannot simply be put into words, but is an experience by itself. The main deity is Ramalinga, and the 108th linga known as Hanumath linga is separately installed in a shrine outside the temple. The story is that Hanuman went to Kailash to bring a linga for Rama's worship, but before he returned, Rama had already made 107 lingas. When Hanuman was disappointed, Rama gave his linga from Kailash a separate spot away from the rest to be worshiped by all who visited the temple. The other interesting aspect is that Kamadhenu, the divine cow has an equal spot along with Nandi.

We were running out of time to visit Brihadeeshwara temple, and unfortunately could not fit it into our schedule. I was fortunate however to have visited that temple a few years ago.(My ode to the temple). It is noteworthy that every single temple built by the Cholas are built on multiple acres of land, with huge pillars and amazing sculptures. However, it is also disheartening to see that temple patrons are dwindling, and it is increasingly difficult for the temple authorities to maintain all these huge temples, and the surrounding lands. While the more famous ones are likely to survive a few more decades, I really hate to think how long the other ones will last. I found it very hard to walk away from any of the temples that I visited without making some amount of a donation. They are not just places of worship, but glorious  threads of our history and culture.

This was a very memorable trip, and even recounting all the stories seem to bring back the strange inward joy that I had experienced then. Tanjore is a very wonderful place to visit, and a pilgrimage in South India can never be complete without a trip to Kumbakonam.