Review: Shiva Trilogy

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This trilogy by Amish Tripathi (@amisht) was a fascinating read. I bought the first book out of curiosity. I had seen a video of Amish’s talk in the India today Conclave. I was impressed. He seemed a very well-read person. He was quoting the Upanishads, the Vedas, several mythological texts. I chugged through the first book on 2 rail journeys, both of which I did not sleep a wink. I could not put the book down. I came back from the trip and ordered the other two right away, and finished them the following weekend.

My reviews (of restaurants, books, products) are typically my random thoughts bulleted down in no particular order, and this shall be no different.

  • The familiarity with the character names made me relate to the plot. Shiva, and Brihaspathi, and Sati, and Nandi. All very well known characters in Hindu mythology.
  • The settings was also well done. He comes down from Tibet and down the Gangetic plains. Some well known landmarks like Varanasi etc make it very realistic.
  • The overall plot is the good-vs-evil rivalry. However, one particular thing that strikes out is when he learns about what the previous Rudra used to say – “What we call evil, may just be that, they are different from the good guys.” And maybe even the Asuras were just different. And since we can never stand people different from us, we call them evil. And we try to convert them to our ways, or, in other words, make them “good”.
  • I liked the way he describes the contrasts between the way of life between the rigid Suryavanshis and the carefree Chandravanshis.
  • The portrayal of Nagas as being gory to look at, but golden at heart – seemed a bit cliche. But it was well fitted into the plot.
  • Several stories are nicely borrowed from Hindu mythology (such as Parasurama beheading his mother).
  • I liked the segue between the books. Not abrupt. Not too TV-serial-like. You could very well finish a book and read the next book a month later. (I dare you to, though!).
  • Some of the stuff is based on actual archeological research findings like the existence of an underwater water stream source in the path of the Saraswati river.
  • The action fight sequences are the right level of gore – not too gory, but not flitting either.
  • I would have liked it if the war sequences were described more in detail – I loved LOTR for this.
  • Some of the scenes are just beautifully described – like Shiva sitting on a ledge in the High himalayas and gazing at the never ending scenery in front of him.
  • There are some folk who have objected to Shiva smoking a Chillum, but hey, this is fiction. And there is nothing wrong in making him a cool God.
  • In the interest of not spoiling the ending for those who have not read the book, let me just say that, I did not expect this ending. (Which perhaps was Amish’s intention anyway).
  • Overall, this is my first Indian Mythological fiction. I loved it. I think I will read some more (when I get the time, that is).

(Image courtesy: hinduism.about.com)

 

Kumbakonam temples (part deux)

After all the near-by Kumbakonam temples, I spent an evening and an early morning visiting 6 local temples. (My other posts on the Kumbakonam visit are here, here, here, and here.

1. Kasi Viswanathar temple

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The temple is getting ready for Kumbabishekam. So mural on the rajagopuram freshly repainted.

Bang next to the Mahamaham kolam (tank), this temple has two pieces of interesting information attached to it. The nine great rivers of India went to Lord Shiva in Kasi and said –

“Everyone takes a dip in our waters to get rid of their sins. Where do we go to get rid of all those sins?”

Lord Shiva said, the waters of the Mahamaham tank are so pure, you can wash off your sins there. After their bath here, Lord Shiva is said to have given dharshan as Kasi Viswanathar here.

There is also a main Shiva lingam in the outer praharam under the Sthala vriksham. This is said to have been worshipped by Lord Rama and Hanuman on the way back from Lanka, where he begged forgiveness for any sins committed during the war.

The temple is a nice small temple. The Shiva lingam can be beautifully seen right from the road through the raja gopuram. There is some confusion about whether this was Kudandhai Kaaronam (one of the padal petra sthalangal). But I get to hear from reliable sources that this is fake data, and was conjured up to get some moneys from the endowment board. (This is what happens when you bring temples under Government control).

2. Kumbeshwarar

This is one of the main temples of Kumbakonam – from where the town gets its name. It is said this lingam was made of Lord Shiva himself mixing the immortality nectar and sand. Since the lingam is of sand, no abhishekams are performed.

I went in at sunset time. And they were doing Saaya Raksha (evening rituals) to Soma Skandar. Very nice program for about 20 minutes. Soothing and Relaxing.

And then ofcourse, when I was going around the outer praharam, the amateur photographer in me, took over.

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3. Ramaswami temple

This is a great temple. I have already written about this temple here. This time I noticed that they had spruced up the Ramayana murals on the inner walls of the temple. They look fantastic. Take a look yourself.

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4. Nageswarar temple

Again, I had written briefly about this earlier here. Adding a few more photographs here. Also, in my more recent quest for Tevara Sthalangal, this is one. This used to be called Thirukudandhai Keezhkottam.

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5. Someshwarar temple

I had briefly written about this earlier as well here. Visited again because, this is another thevara sthalam. This is the original Kudandhai Kaaronam.

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6. Sarangapani temple

Ofcourse, no visit to Someshwarar is complete without visiting his neighbor – Sarangapani (pictures here). Beautiful majestic Vishnu in lying down pose.

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(Looks beautiful in Black and white – doesnt it?)

So that is the end of my Kumbakonam Weekend travelogue of 18-21 April. I might do a couple of more this summer. Will update.

My count of Thevara sthalangal is now 6. Yaay.

Thirukadayur

From Thirukolakka, we headed off south on NH45A (Chennai Nagapatinam highway) – towards Tharangambadi. Thirukadaiyur is right on this road. When you come closer you will start seeing a lot of Hotel Sadabishekam advertisements.

After the peaceful encounter with the Lord at Thirukolakka, Thirukadaiyur was a shock. It was a Saturday, and apparently a Muhurtham (Auspicious for weddings) day. Bad day for a visit to this temple. One of the stories behind this temple is of Markandeyar. See Sthala puranam below for detailed story. By this story, Markandeyar defeated death here. Hence folks come here to perform their 60th and 80th birthday celebrations – so that they can live forever. I am not sure which part of this ritual that I find amusing – the myth that only if you worship the Lord here will you be able to defeat death (Lord is everywhere!) -or- why someone would want to defeat death.

We came here for a different reason. The wife wanted to visit the Abhirami Sannidhi. She has been reciting Abhirami Andhadhi for a while now, but had never been to this shrine. So she wanted to come. We did see Amruthakateswarar and Kala Samhara Moorthi as well.

No pictures taken here. Since it looks like a market place now. Too much crowd and commercialization.

Sthala puranam

When the Devas and Asuras churned the ocean and got the nectar, they forgot to worship Lord Ganesha. Lord Ganesha was upset about this, and stole the pot (ghata) of nectar and hid it here in Thirukadaiyur. He created a Shiva Lingam to worship his parents and did abhishekam with the nectar. It is because of this (and the Markandeyar story) that, folks believe that if they come here, they are blessed with long years of life.

Before Markandeyar was born, his father Sage Mrukandu was given a choice – a wise boy who will not cross 16 years, or a mediocre boy who will live longer. His parents chose the first option. On the 16th year, when Lord Yama came for Markandeyar, Markandeyar hugged the Shiva Lingam. Lord Yama unleashed the death leash and it surrounded the Shiva Lingam as well. Lord Shiva became very cross and kicked Lord Yama and gave Markandeyar immortality and Moksha.

The other story is about Abhirami Battar. There was a person by named Subramaniam, who used to be considered mad, since he considered every living woman as the Supreme Goddess herself. He used to often sit in front of Goddess Abhirami and immerse himself in his thoughts. He was in such a state, when King Saraboji walked into the temple. He was very irritated that the man did not acknowledge his arrival. He asked what day was it that day. In a trance, Subramanian said it was the full moon day, since all he was seeing was the bright round face of the Goddess. It was the no-moon day and the king got even more irritated. The king ordered Subramaniam to be executed if the moon did not show up at dusk. When he came out of his trance, Subramaniam realized the trouble he was in. And he started singing Abhirami Andhadhi. In the 79th stanza, the Goddess, in true filmy fashion, just as it was about to be dusk, is said to have thrown her nose ring, and it formed the moon. The king realized the greatness of Subramaniam. And he also came to be known as Abhirama Battar.

 

Thirukolakka

This qaint little village is about a kilometer from Sirkazhi. You should ask for directions. And not too many will know the name Kolakka. You should ask for Osai Nayaki Temple. They will give you directions to get to a road (depending on where you ask), and then tell you, just follow the road until you hit the temple. Just do that. You need to follow the winding road for about a km, and this little temple pops out of nowhere. There is no big Raja gopuram – so do not use that as a landmark to search for.


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This beautiful little temple, which is the 15th in the Paadal Petra Sthalam list,  is one of the cleanest temples I have seen. Very nicely maintained. When we entered, there was a young man (barely in his early twenties), who was the Sivacharyaar. He was going around to the various sannidhis and doing Neivedhyam with one small brass vessel. From the old ages, this has been the practice. The Sivacharyaar brings the food to be given to the God from his own house. And in a lot of not-so-well-to-do Sivachaaryar families/temples, that is their food for the day/meal.

The temple itself looks super old. At the minimum proof, we know it is atleast 1300 years old (since Sambandar lived in the 7th Century). The temple existed at that time. So it should be older than that. Unfortunately, the age is showing. It looks like the temple has not had a kumbabhishekam in a while. Paint is peeling off. There are parts of some walls that are in rubbles.

The Shivan is of course majestic. Big lingam. Ambal is even more majestic. Draped in beautiful 9 yard saree, She just looked amazing. There are other sannidhis around the temple. There is Somaskandar (Muruga in kid form between Shiva-Parvathy), Saneeswarar, Suryan, and Mahalakshmi.

Sthala Varalaaru (Story of the place)

This is the first paadal petra sthalam for Gnana sambandhar, our child saint. He walked with this father to this shrine from Sirkazhi. On reaching here, he started singing on the Lord (who was then called Sapthapureeswarar). The Lord, feeling sorry for the little child (on a big mission) clapping his hands and singing, gave him a pair of Gold Cymbals (Jaalra). Gold cymbals do not produce much of a sound (due to its malleable nature). The Goddess interjected and gave it divine sound. It is due to this, the Lord became known as Thaalapureeswarar. And the Goddess as Osai Kodutha Nayaki (or Osai Nayaki, as the locals have shortened it).

The other mythological story for this temple is about Mahalakshmi. She is believed to have done tapas here to get reunited with MahaVishnu. And when that happened, the God and Goddess gave all devotees here dharhsan in Thirumana kolam (Marriage form). Hence the name of the temple as Kolakka.

Some photos:

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To be continued —

Coming up – Thirukadayur, Thirukudandai Keezkottam (Nageswara Swamy Kovil – Kumbakonam – #27), Kudandai Kaaronam (Someswara Swamy Kovil – Kumbakonam – #28).

More information about Kolakka can be found here.

 

Sirkazhi

This is part 2 of the Kumbakonam April 18-22 travelogue. Part 1 is here.

We started off bright and early at 6:30AM for our first pilgrimage. The original plan was just Thirukadayur with the whole family. The wife had been reading Abhirami Andhadi for a while, but had never really been Thirukadayur and seen the Goddess Abhirami. I was going to slug out Sirkazhi and Thirukolakka solo. But then, it looked like a better plan to do these two together. The latter two temples are 21km from Thirukadayur. And it helped that I had told the awesome sthala varalaru (literal translation: story of significance of the shrine) to her, and she was hooked too.

So back to the journey. We had hired an Indigo. We hit Sirkazhi first. The route from Kumbakonam is pretty straight forward. Take the Mayavaram road. You will pass Thirubuvanam (famous for silk sarees), Thiruvidaimaruthur (famous for the Brimhahathi gopuram – Mahalinga swami temple), Govindapuram (famous for the Vittal Krishnar temple), Adhuthurai, Madhirimangalam, Kutthalam,and you hit Mayavaram. This stretch is about 32km. The road quality is decent. But it is the typical Tanjore delta roads, where the roads meander as much as the Kaveri itself.


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When you get into Mayavaram, just go straight. Pass the railway station. Pass the bus station. Until you hit a T-junction. Look to the right, and you will see the third building on the left — Kaliyakudi. How can you get to Mayavaram and not have food at this place. It is a third generation run hotel. Now modernized with A/c. Food is decent as well. Just dont get there too early (like us – we were there at 7:15AM). The dosa kal (literal translation: dosa stone) was not hot enough, and hence no dosa was available. So a hearty breakfast was had.

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Once done with breakfast, take a U-turn, and head the other way down Pattamangalam Theru. This road leads to the  Chidambaram road if you dont take any turns. Just keep following the main road. You will reach Sirkazhi in about 22 km. You will pass Vaitheeswaran Kovil on the way. So in case, you want to make a quick stop you can. We did not, in this trip.


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Before we get into the sthala puranam, I will give you two tips to soak into the local culture.

  1. Somehow get someone local to say the name Sirkazhi. Anyone local to the Tanjore/Mayavaram/Kumbakonam area should be fine. They will always say it as “Seeezzhazhii”. The ‘ra’ and the ‘ka’ are conspicuously absent.
  2. When asking for directions, or for help, address the person as ‘ayya’. You will get a much better treatment. Thats how the locals call each other. (Kinda like using ‘boss’ or ‘guru’ in Bangalore ; and ‘anne’ in Chennai).

Sirkazhi Sthala Puranam (or alteast parts of it)

In general Sirkazhi has a very rich historical lineage. It is said to be that Brahma came and worshipped in this temple. So the city at one point in time used to be called Brahmapuram. In fact the main deity is also called Brahmapureeswarar. The city is also referred to as Kaazhi in a lot of the tamil scriptures.

Back to the Periya puranam story, Sirkazhi is the birth place of one of the Naalvar – Thiru Gnana Sambandhar – the child saint. The sprightly young lad of 3 years, followed his father – Sivapada Hrudayar to the temple tank. It is also significant to note that, before conceiving Sambandhar, Sivapada Hrudayar and his wife prayed to Lord Shiva to be endowed with a son, whose sole aim in life would be to spread Shaivism and make it win over other competing principles at that time. Jainism and Buddhism was dominant at that time, and had political patronage. There were some religious fanatics of these two religions who went to great length to destroy Shaivism and prevail over. It was not too different a time than now.

So Sambandhar went to the tank with this father. While the father immersed himself in the temple tank, the child felt lonely and started crying. It is said that, on the request of Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvathi fed the child with her own mothers milk, extracted in a silver cup .The father came out of the tank, and saw the child with milk on his lips, and silver cup in his hand, and got pretty cross. On questioning the child, the child pointed to the Gopuram of the temple and alluded to the fact that, it was the Lord himself. It is my understanding this is the Sattainathar Sannidhi that we need to walk up a flight of stairs to see even today.

When the father did not believe him, the child who had barely started speaking a few words (he was 3 at that time), sang is first pathikam (decad). The father was shocked and realized instantly, that his wish had been fulfilled.

In the next 15 years, Sambandhar travelled to 100s of shrines and sang beautiful decads on Lord Shiva. It is also of note, that in almost all of his decads, there would be a venomous sarcasm against the Jains and the Buddhists of the time, in the 10th stanza of every decad he sang.

I did not take too many pictures of Sirkazhi. You can get tons of pictures on Google Image search.

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The Brahma Theertham – where Gnana Sambandar got Gnana Paal (Literal translation: Knowledge milk).

Note: As I had said in an earlier paragraph, most of the literature that I read on the web, does indicate to the fact, that it was not the Buddhist religion or Jainism that was the culprit, but a subset of religious fanatics, who misinterpreted a large portion of the religion to their advantage. Or, so, I would like to keep my opinion.

 

Kumbakonam Weekend (April 19-21 2013) – Part 1

I had been looking forward to this trip for a while. The wife and kid typically go to their home town (Kumbakonam) for a few weeks for the summer vacation. We had taken the Mayiladuthurai express. This is a very elusive train – the one train, the Mysore Mayiladuthurai Express that connects the Bangalore to Trichy, Tanjore, Kumbakonam, and Mayavaram (this is how the local refer to Mayiladhuturai). And it does so happen, that there are a large number of techies who are from this area. So there are only two ways of getting into that train:

  1. Book 4 months in advance (and book all the tentative dates that you want a booking) – cancel the unwanted ones later.
  2. Book even a waiting list ticket, and pray to your isht devata (Literal translation: God of your pleasing) that one of the tickets I cancel in step (1) gets allocated to you.

Of course, if you have an isht devata for whom you are his/her favourite devotee, and you enjoy special status of being granted boons by the God, then you can try tatkal as well.

So we headed off to the Majestic Railway station on a warm thursday evening. The train arrived half an hour late (it comes in from Mysore). Having lugged in our luggage into the train, we started off. The train journey was large uneventful.

Morning welcomed us with this:

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Woohoo. The sweet smell of the Tanjore delta. My paternal roots are in this district, and hence I get a big kick whenever I visit this region. For some reason, I get this warm fuzzy unexplainable home feeling. And am I glad, my wife is from Kumbakonam, and I can visit here fairly regularly.

I had an agenda this time though. More recently, I have started reading the Periya Puranam (and also listening to some tapes of lectures on this by Shri RBVS Manian). Needless to say, that I have been captivated by this single piece of Tamil literature. Couple of reasons (actually three) stand out for me liking this scripture so much:

  1. The scripture is in beautiful Tamil. I did not study Tamil in school, and I cannot make out very complicated classical Tamil. But it just sounds so sweet. It really is.
  2. It has proof of a very rich cultural heritage in the Southern parts of Tamil Nadu.
  3. And of course, the main reason has got to be that, most of the tales and historical anecdotes happen in this beautiful Tanjore region.

So, with this new found interest of mine, I had decided to seek out as many temples as I can, that are referenced in Periya Puranam, in this area. These are also called “Paadal Petra Sthalangal”. Literal translation: Places where songs had been sung. Songs sung by the great moovar (the three apostles of Tamil Literature) – Appar, Sundarar, and Gnanasambandhar. Manikkavachagar does not figure in the Periya Puranam Compilation, though he has given us some fantastic works. Sometimes, they are also collectively referred to as the Naalvar (the great four).

Of course, Kumbakonam, being the temple city, I will visit other incidental temples, and document my visits to those as well. One more observation to make is that, being a Smartha (neutral towards Shaivites (Shiva worshippers) and Vaishnavites (Vishnu worshippers), I have a greater variety on my plate to go discover.

This post is the first of many, which will document my visits to several of the temples in this historically significant area. I will try and provide as much data about how to get there, and as much historical/mythological data that I can garner.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – for the temple visits to actually start, where I visit Sirkazhi, Thirukolakka, and Thirukadayur.

Who was Vidhura ~ Part 3 ~

This is part 2 of a three part series on Who was Vidhura.

Part 1 is here Part 2 is here.

In which Vidhura is born

Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Hastinapura, Bheeshma had taken an oath of celibacy and to ensure the succession of the empire in able hands. He had ensured a good marriage to Amba and Ambalika and was eagerly awaiting that they give birth to good sons, who can rule the kingdom justly.

As fate would have it, both Amba and Ambalika lost their husbands in quick succession right after their marriages concluded. It was a practice in those days, that in, exceptional circumstances (like this), they could bring in a surrogate father (or a sperm donor as it is called in these days) to bring in to this world successors to royal kingdoms.

Bheeshma had requested the great sage Vyasa to be the donor. High quality sperm was the need of the day then as well. Vyasa was well versed in warcraft and very learned in the Vedas, and in general a person with great wisdom. A good choice. But then, artificial insemination was not quite present at those times, and hence natural copulation was the only way. Both Amba and Ambalika balked at the thought of having to spend the night with the old wizened sage.

Amba had closed her eyes the entire time, she was with Vyasa, and hence bore the child who was Drithrashtra (who was born blind). Ambalika’s skin turned white in shock and horror at the thought of Sage Vyasa, and hence bore the son who was Pandu (extremely pale white skin).

In those days, there were 14 lakshanas (a check list of qualities) that need to be fulfilled if you were to be crowned king. Both Pandu and Drithrashtra did not qualify because of their congentical disabilities.

Now Bheeshma, in a fix, pleaded with Vyasa to give it one more shot with Ambalika. Sage Vyasa, after a lot of persuasion agreed. On the appointed night, when darkness had fallen, and at the time chosen, Ambalika, who could still not convince herself to mate with the old sage, pushed in one of her royal maidens into the chamber.

The son born out of the royal maiden was Vidhura. And Lord Yama’s curse had happened. Vidhura. the half brother of Dhritrashtra advised him on a variety of matters, and was considered the expert in Dharma in the Kaurava side.

Acknowledgement: I am recounting this from a lecture recording called Vidhura Needhi by Shri R.B.V.S.Manian,  The lecture was hosted in Kumbakonam a few years back.

 

Who was Vidhura ~ Part 2 ~

This is part 2 of a three part series on Vidhura. You can read Part 1 here.

In which Mandavya Maharishi questions Yama

Several days passed. Mandavya Maharishi had gone back to his ashram. Life was beginning to roll back to normalcy, when one day, he thought – “Why me?”. Yes, Sages were human after all. Like all human beings, he thought – “Why me?”.

The sage had been meditating on the Lord. He had committed no crime, atleast not in this janma. Why had he been punished so harshly? The king had done his duty. So he forgave the king. But there must be a reason.

With all his powers, he summoned Lord Yama, the lord of death. And the dark one appeared. On his buffalo. And his long black whip coiled and in his hand. He got down from the buffalo and prostrated before the Rishi.

“Oh wise one, for what reason did you summon me? Please let me serve you by fulfiling your wish.”

The sage was upset, he could tell.

“I need a reason why I had to go through such a harsh punishment. I did not commit any heinous crime, atleast in this janma. And I would like to know from your records, if I did anything in my previous janma, and if it was my prarabda karma. “

The Lord of death summoned Chitragupta,the official karma recorder, and asked him to provide the required details. Chitragupta went through the records, and said that the Muni had indeed committed a wrong by playing with a spider when he was young, and tormenting it by pulling off his legs. This event had occured when he was 12 years old.

The sage was furious. In his mind, the child of 12 does not know reason. He has not matured. He roared at Yama asking him to mend his laws, that – “No act of a child less than 14 years of age, would be recorded and evaluated in the karma register.” It was not Dharma that someone be punished because of an act committed by a doer, who does not realize it was a mistake.

It is worthy of note here, that, even to this date, the Human Rights world considers 14 as the age boundary for determining child labour laws.

Lord Yama saw reason in the Sage’s amendment, and made the appropriate changes immediately. The sages’ anger had not subsided still. He cursed the God of death to be born in the earth as a lowly mortal who would be born in the palace, but not to the royal family, but to an attendant of the royal family.

Acknowledgement: I am recounting this from a lecture recording called Vidhura Needhi by Shri R.B.V.S.Manian,  The lecture was hosted in Kumbakonam a few years back.