Of temples, Tamil Nadu, and the interconnectedness of things - Hindustan Times

Of temples, Tamil Nadu, and the interconnectedness of things

ByDevanshi Mody
Jun 21, 2024 03:41 PM IST

For the believer, a temple is the locus of mystique and might with the southern state’s ancient places of worship being particularly powerful. The author writes that, as she visited numerous temples there, she came to accept the Upanishadic insight that nothing ever happens by chance

The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad proclaims that nothing in the universe is aleatory. The mystical pronouncement justifies this bewildering preamble… I am still at school, living abroad, holidaying in India. My mother’s friend insistently punctuates our sightseeing expedition to tarry at temples in Vrndavan. In exasperation, the brat that I am, I announce with chutzpa, “I’m here to see the Taj Mahal, Red Fort and Fatehpur Sikhri. I’m not here on pilgrimage.” Those fateful words pronounced, instantaneously a bizarre concatenation of events befall us. The car grumbles, stumbles, retards the journey to Fatehpur Sikri. The site reached, our driver vanishes, with the car. This is pre-mobile era. Chaos descends. Until the driver rocks up casually… In furore we resume the odyssey only to hiccup into a tyre puncture. There’s no jack and aeons elapses before help comes. We reach Agra, the sun is dipping, I am in frenzy, but at the security checkpoint we are stalled endlessly, the car’s paperwork scrutinised with heedless scrupulousness, which gorges another hour. Then there’s an inexplicable road block. It’s nearing 6pm, when The Mahal shuts. I am shrieking histrionically. The road opens minutes before 6pm. A sympathetic guardian permits 10 minutes to visit The Taj. The Red Fort is denied us. My mother’s friend asks wryly, “What were you saying? ‘I’m here to see the Taj Mahal and Red Fort, I’m not here on pilgrimage’?”

The Airavatesvara Temple in Kumbakonam. (Srinivasan.Clicks/Shutterstock)
The Airavatesvara Temple in Kumbakonam. (Srinivasan.Clicks/Shutterstock)

I should have realised that something out there is listening and that in temples inhere a mystique and might. Notwithstanding, when we move from The UK to Chennai in 2011, and Parveen Travels sends us on temple tours including the Navagraha Temples, I find myself bleating, “Temples of historic and architectural significance alone interest me. I’m not on pilgrimage.”

Little do I then suspect that Destiny will deviate me on a near-obsessive decade-long pilgrimage to the temples of Tamil Nadu.

The Brihadisvara Temple in Gangaikondacholapuram, Tamil Nadu. (Reality Images/Shutterstock)
The Brihadisvara Temple in Gangaikondacholapuram, Tamil Nadu. (Reality Images/Shutterstock)

What commences as staggering awe at the architectural splendour of legendary temples, rock-hewn and sculpted intricately, will translate into an insatiable urge to tap into their energies and the occult power beyond stone. Or the mystical divinity therein.

And stone, from the lofty viewpoint of the Upanishads, which declare the Oneness of all existence, isn’t an inanimate clump of matter, but a manifestation of Brahman, the Supreme Being, and therefore endowed with a degree, however infinitesimal, of Consciousness. “All living creatures there are that move or do not move are impelled by Consciousness.” (Aitareya Upanishad III.i.3). Is stone living? Otherwise how come certain Shiva lingams are declared jyothirlingams, repositories of palpable energy, and others are svayambhu lingams wielding their own power? We hear of cows consecrating with cascades of milk from their udders a particular spot which eventually coughs up a svayambhu lingam. Such an episode occurred recently in Tamil Nadu which jostles with 38,615 temples. Officially. There might well be as many unregistered temples.

Most of these temples swirl in energy constellations around Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu’s spiritual epicentre and to them gravitate hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually, as if drawn by an irresistible, ineluctable force.

A force which eludes me when I first stand bewitched by poetry in stone at the grandest of all temples, Raja Raja Chola’s Brhdeswarar “Big” temple, in Thanjavur. This UNESCO-stamped marvel, emblazoning the majesty of the Cholas, doesn’t quite excite religious fervour, fetching more tourists than pilgrims. Why is this august temple spiritually stunted? It is, after all, 1000 years old. I shall discover a millennium is nothing in TN where temples are over 2000 years old! I’ll also learn alignments are imperative and the Big Temple’s lingam isn’t aligned right…

NRIs, however, throng to pay annual homage to the Navagraha with placatory poojas as armament against planetary malevolences. This ingenuous faith I deride, “I don’t worship planets.” But my life’s circumstances seem tightly-scripted by that ineffable Power to impress the Science of Spirit and the mystical interplay of energies, be they from planets, stones, or the alignment thereof in the temples of Tamil Nadu!

The Adi Kumbeswarar Temple in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. (travel sojourns/Shutterstock)
The Adi Kumbeswarar Temple in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. (travel sojourns/Shutterstock)

When my father dies of brain cancer, I find myself back in Kumbakonam. Now, not to gawp at temple architecture. But to decrypt that labyrinthine architecture of the Universe with its inscrutable interconnectedness of things.

At Shaktivinoth’s Bohar Nadi Astrological Centre, Sivamurugan who reads predictions of ancient sages inscribed on leaves, initiates the elucidation.

Nadi astrology is practiced around Vaitheeswaran Koil, the Navagraha Mars Temple which I saunter into. The evening aarti is unfurling, but today the sanctum glows. Every wall glitters with the bobbing dance of fiery tongues in cupped lamps. I am entranced. My mind, like scattered marbles of helter-skelter thoughts, is suddenly brought under the impelling converging forcefield of an ineluctable magnetism. As if I am ordained to divine something. And I do. It strikes that today is EXACTLY a month since my father passed. In that moment of exaltation I feel he communed with me. This occasions momentous transfiguration in my approach to temples.

Those who’ve remarked the cataclysmic upheavals in life that planetary play effects will understand why I repair back to Sivamurugan to understand if none can escape the clutches of the grahas, which in Sanskrit means “seizing,” reflecting how the planets clench us and don’t extract their scorpion claws until they have sucked their dues. Sivamurugan pronounces enigmatically that Navagraha Temples are Shiva temples. “Above grahas reigns Shiva, Supreme.”

Here, you supplicate Shiva and propitiate the energies the planets emanate that pursue and persecute you inexorably, like harpies. They are the Universe’s retributive powers, one’s karmic consequences from countless lifetimes which Cosmic Forces resolve so that planets align seemingly for your singular torment and Karma boomerangs on you as punctually as a Shinkansen.

Strangely, Shiva I’ve always been oblivious of at the Buddhan Temple where I spend hours at a Buddhan abhishekam, but leave without vaguely suspecting the main Shiva temple exists.

At the Kethu Temple, seconds before I reach, the priest smashes shut the gates. I entreat, it isn’t closing time, I’ve travelled long to this far-flung temple. The priest is unyielding. Again I seek Sivamurugan and am proffered another cryptic utterance, “You have to be invited to visit a temple.”

The converse holds too- whenever I’ve vowed to pilgrimage and, the boon granted, have conveniently not, thinking God can wait, life won’t, life stops, machinating circumstances which invariably recall to mind my omission, impelling vow-fulfilment!

The Shani Temple, where hordes prostrate whenever the formidable slow tread of Shani catches up with them, leaves me indifferent. Sivamurugan avers, “When the time is right a temple resonates with you. The same temple won’t be relevant at every phase in life.”

Over a nadi reading translator Veeramani is cast my way.

Veeramani runs a travel company presenting esoteric temples. He opens deeper realms into the mystical as I plummet down resistless into what seems a tunnel of gushing light.

Veeramani has us discover 40 temples including Adi Kumbeswarar. Glorified in hymn by Doyen of Carnatic Music Purandaradasa, it once left me unmoved, but now has me in thrall. It will infuriate my mother that I stand an hour in each temple, hands joined, eyes shut, mind away. Echoing my reaction to her friend in Vrandavan decades ago, she strides out of Adi Kumbeswarar temple in exasperation. And pain – she CANNOT stand an hour in each temple. This is INSANE! Maybe. But I feel transfiguration.

This ninth century Chola temple, Veeramani reveals, gave Kumbakonam its name for legend has it that Brahma’s mythical pot, kumbh, containing the seed of living beings, swivelled off during Pralaya and halted where Kumbakonam now stands. The temple is both a Paadal Petra Sthalam (amongst 276 temples of the Saiva canon revered by 7th-Cent Shaivite saint-poet Appar in Tevaram) and also a Shakti Peettha where energy associated with Parvati finds intense concentration.

Veeramani presents temples classed amongst the 108 Divya Desham temples (Vishnu temples eulogised in Nalariya Divya Prabandham by Alwar poet-saints) but professes a preference for Shiva temples, “They are more peaceful. People go to Vishnu for money. And to Shiva for moksha!”

The path to moksha, as chartered in the Taittiriya Upanishad, is personified by the 1800-year-old early-Chola Pancha Bhoota “Water” Temple whose five fortressing walls evoke Taittiriya Upanishad’s five koshas sheathing the soul.

Veeramani next unveils a curious enshrined deity conceived by a clairvoyant, untutored 12-year-old boy who recites the Vedas. Considered a Siddha incarnation, he opines that my mind is “like a monkey jumping from tree to tree” and diagnoses that my meditative efforts flounder for I have “one foot on land and one in water” -- meaning, irresolute, I vainly straddle spiritual and terrestrial paths.

If hitherto I’ve jollied away on January 1 after a New Year’s Eve bash, I now take to pilgrimaging. We return to Heritage Madurai not for their year-end gala but to pray for mental direction at the great Meenakshi Temple where we almost lose life and limb in the savage onslaught of pilgrims.

Covid strikes. We spend much of the pandemic at Svatma, Thanjavur. In July 2021 the Shani temple is revisited, academically, to assess its impact given that Saturn is in retrogression, wreaking havoc. It now exudes hypnotic serenity that transfixes me before Shiva. An hour elapses, much to Mum’s chagrin. When I stop at the Shani shrine, my mother and brother strut out haughtily. “We don’t bow before planets.” Then Mum explodes, “What’s this NONSENSE getting stuck in every temple for hours?!” I reflect on her imprudence, fear reprisals. Unsurprisingly, domestics will plague us yearlong, driving Mum to distraction (Saturn governs the “domestics” department).

The pillared hall in the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram in Tamil Nadu. One of great living Chola temples, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Rahul D’Silva/Shutterstock)
The pillared hall in the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram in Tamil Nadu. One of great living Chola temples, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Rahul D’Silva/Shutterstock)

After Mum’s tantrum subsides, I menace to cancel the temple visits so Mum can luxuriate in the hotel. But driver Mani, allocated to us at Svatma, quietly winds us to Mukteeswarar Temple where Ram performed tarpanam for Dasharat. Brahmins boys chant the Vedas and the incantations like a snake charmer who beguiles snakes into submission with his music and assuage the Mind’s serpents that puffed their hoods outside the Shani Temple. Adjoining Mukteeswarar Temple is the Naramukha Ganesha shrine, one of only two in India with a human-faced Ganesh.

At Paapanasham, Rama worshipped Shiva after vanquishing Ravana. As we weave through the array of 108 lingams, the vibrations are palpable. The crescent moon traditionally depicted ensconced in Shiva’s locks seems to have amplified in the cosmos into a disc so big and blinding bright I can barely behold it. Standing in the tumble of silver light I suddenly realise it’s auspicious Guru Purnima.

31 Dec 2021, we return to Svatma. The driver gets lost, we reach 10 hours later. I am shrieking like a banshee, but boyish new GM Vaibhav Pai eases the tautest nerves.

01 Jan 2022, I wonder if Mum can brook the journey to Pancha Bhoota Arunachaleswarar Fire temple in Thiruvannamali after yesterday’s disaster. Mum is resolute. Having said we are going to the temple, we must. So we drive six hours to the largest Shiva temple on planet Earth. A temple whose nascence predates Navagraha worship (although now incorporating a Navagraha grid).

The Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur is a UNESCO world heritage site. (AJP/Shutterstock)
The Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur is a UNESCO world heritage site. (AJP/Shutterstock)

We are early, this will be quick. But we are in Tamil Nadu, at a capital temple, on 01 January, and the miracle of finishing swiftly doesn’t happen. In the mad crush and heave of people we are billowed on and on as devotees, blithely maskless during Omicron, trying to infiltrate a monolith of mankind between whom air hasn’t space to circulate. Hours later, we attain the sanctum enshrining a lingam that emanates energies such that temperatures within the sanctum exceed those outside. The lingam glitters in the sway of lights snaked brilliantly out of lamps. We are permitted mere seconds before this piece of rock that has the power, they say, to cleanse the filthiest sin. The bedazzlement of those seconds impresses my mind’s eye in “Darshan” which isn’t physically perceiving the deity but mentally attuning to the temple’s vibrations, envisioning formless Divinity.

The temple’s exit differs from the entrance. Mani doesn’t know where we are. Our slippers are elsewhere. I erupt. My brother says with sanctimony, “You have just had darshan and should be calm. But you are not.” I shan’t repeat the expletives that cross my mind.

On the way back, a six-hour journey, I ask Mani which temple is more powerful, The Fire Temple or Srikalahasti, the Pancha Bhoota Wind Temple near Tirupati, a ravishing 2000-year-old Chola temple in present-day Andhra that dispenses absolution from Rahu-Ketu curses. Ancient Tamil sources call it “Kailasa of the South” and the river above whose banks it towers tall and white the ‘Ganges of the South.’ The immaculate Ganges gushing from Shiva’s head represents the awakened mind. But the temple’s spirituality is eclipsed by its power to alleviate Sarpadosha on a terrestrial plane, which Mani scorns, “Srikalahasti is Rahu-Ketu Kshetram, for people who want to escape suffering in life. But The Fire Temple is for freedom from life. At Thiruvannamalai siddhas attained moksham.”

It’s the Tamil month of Marghazi (15 Dec-15 Jan) devoted to piety and the Soolini temple beckons. Veeramani prescribed it in January 2019, but the temple was unaccountably shut whenever we went. It eventually granted me audience but not Mum. Mani, otherwise an authority on temples, hasn’t heard of it. Surely, the famous Kali temple? Ah, that he knows. Mani whisks us to a 1000-year-old temple whose inception harks to Mahabharata times. But this isn’t the Soolini Temple. Still, we queue up to cram hours later into a minuscule shrine with a most ferocious form of Kali before whom we haven’t time to bow as a corpulent priest viciously smacks Mum’s head and hurls her out. I realise this is the “black magic” Prathiangiradevi Temple, which the late Jayalalitha patronised. The temple exit, again, differs from the entrance where our chappals are. My brother has to chappal-hunt. He is peeved. I asseverate, “You have just had darshan and you should be calm, but you are not…”

The Arunachaleshwarar temple towers in Thiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu. (Rajeswari Sundaresan/Shutterstock)
The Arunachaleshwarar temple towers in Thiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu. (Rajeswari Sundaresan/Shutterstock)

When we reach the stunning Lalitambigai Temple the sun has slid into slumber and dusk obfuscates the divinely sculpted Shiva embracing Parvati. When I genuflect before Durga a lotus cascades off her finely chiselled head onto my crown, as if symbolising the Sahasrara Chakra opening. Over the hour lavished at the temple, I see divine grace. My mother and brother see time wasted.

The legend-imbued Markandeya Temple, the Puranas say, is where gods descended to imbibe amrtam from the Samudra Manthan but in their zeal forgot to invoke Ganesha, mandatory before any grand enterprise, so Ganesha retaliated by purloining the amrtam and caching it at the temple site where he created a Shiva lingam, consecrated with the amrtam. Thus, the lingam is known as Amrtam Ghat Eshwarar and to it sage Markandeya famously clung when Yama appeared, noose-bearing, to entrain his soul at his predestined death: Markandeya’s 16th birthday. Defying Shiva’s command to spare Markandeya Yama proudly insisted on Death’s punctuality. So Shiva abolished Death. But Bhumi Devi couldn’t nourish an exponential immortal population. So Death was resurrected. For longevity, at this temple people pray.

The fabled ninth-century Thiagaraja temple is matchless in Ganesha shrines and lingams speckling the sprawling complex. After circumambulating this temple for two hours, bowing at every shrine and lingam, exploding into raptures at the architectural feats, we are about to leave, Mum is wearied, when something impels me into a hall, seemingly a flower repository, but actually the Parvati shrine. If this is the main Devi shrine then those we took for Shiva and Shakti sancta must be incidental. Some divine inspiration guides me to the actual temple. If, over multiple visits to the Buddhan Temple, I remained oblivious to the primary Shiva temple, Shiva today summons me to Him. In ecstasy, I make Mum empty her purse towards this early Chola temple’s sustenance.

We finally ferret out the secretive Soolini temple, so long denied Mum. Finally, she is received. The colossus of a Kali in a unique embrace of eight terrific Bhairavas exhales awful power. Mum feels healed.

When Omicron intensifies, landing Mum’s coevals in ICU, she remains unscathed. She nevertheless wants a Covid test. I prohibit it. That would be impugning the shielding powers of those stupendous temples we visited!

For Adi (15 July-15 Aug), another spiritual Tamil month, we return to Svatma. GM Vaibhav crafts a temple trail, seeing us off matutinally as Mum would me to school, there to receive us on return – like Mum!

At the Shani temple, which last year incited tantrums, some benign soul draws me to the sanctum where I feel my being quicken. I am about to bypass an incidental shrine but Mum suddenly stops and we witness an abhishekam. We are exiting the temple when the same soul who accosted me at entry leads me to a glorious evening Aarti. We reach the Shani shrine and the Shani abhishekam happens! This time my mother and brother stay put. Now I understand Sivamurugan’s revelation five years ago, “You have to be invited to a temple” and “The same temple will respond to you differently through different phases of life”!

If Rina Vimochana Lingeswarar is the “debt-clearance” temple that abolishes purva janma karma, then you appease Shiva at the Brahmahatha Dosha Mahalingaswami temple as did a Chola prince pursued by the spirit of a Brahmin he slew. The jyothirmayalingam, which sprung from a flame before sages, including Agastya, is 2000-odd years old. This Pancha Linga Stalam, endowed with five lingams, is amongst the largest of Tamil Nadu’s temples. Such were its treasures that the Cholas had to appoint an army for its protection!

Mum will NOT brook more temples. But Sri Vilvaneswarar beckons. The Vedas, realising that everything, including the Vedas, would be annihilated during Pralaya, sought Shiva who counselled them to do tapas as vilvam trees here. The first thing that strikes is the Nandi facing east rather than regarding Shiva. This temple, where Maha Shivaratri initiated, has four Nandis facing east to combat Yama’s aggressive incursions. Worshipping the Svayambhu lingam circumvents untimely death.

The temple towers at Vaitheeswaran Koil (trichyashok/Shutterstock)
The temple towers at Vaitheeswaran Koil (trichyashok/Shutterstock)

That these temples have “vibrations” I have felt. How each temple is endowed with powers to alleviate specific afflictions I know not but I do know that collaborations between shrewd astrologers and temples is big business dispatching woebegone mankind for extravagant rituals to temples bearing particular curative powers. However, by mere rituals sins aren’t abolished for every ritual requires mental tapas. As Yājñavalkya declares in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, if a single priest falters during a homam the yajamana is considered the worst of sinners for the mysterious interconnectedness of things ensures that your sins generate circumstances that damningly land a bungling priest at your homam!

As if to reiterate the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad philosophy of the fathomless interconnectedness of things, I receive a “random” call from Sankar, someone I met five years before at Chennai’s Anantapadmanabhanswamy Temple where five years before meeting me, Sankar had worshipped and “fortuitously” fell into a tourism management degree. He “suddenly” remembers I am a travel writer. He calls to say he runs a travel company, TraevlDia, which curates temple tours and asks if I am visiting Tamil Nadu. It’s Adi 2023 and “coincidentally” I am JUST embarking to Chennai.

A black stone Nandi bull sits on Chamundi Hill on the way to the Chamudi temple in Mysore, Karnataka. (AnilD/Shutterstock)
A black stone Nandi bull sits on Chamundi Hill on the way to the Chamudi temple in Mysore, Karnataka. (AnilD/Shutterstock)

Sankar furnishes a car to Kumbakonam. “Strange” circumstances contrive to land me at INDECO Swamimalai, from where I ventured my first tour of TN’s temples 12 years ago. Somehow Veeramani, GM Vaibhav and driver Mani from Svatma get involved on the trip. Veeramani recommends the Pralaya Ghata Ganesha temple where the Cholas worshipped before proceeding to rule for 400 years. En route to the temple Mani explains Adi is dedicated to Amman worship. Just as I enter the temple, a Durga abhishekam begins. That evening I witness a Parvati abhishekam at Lalitambigai, “coincidentally.”

At the Shani temple, in the whirling vortex of pilgrims (there’s a Shani transit), I’d never have reached the Shani shrine but feel catapulted bang before Shani. None other than Krishnamachary Srikkanth, who was at the temple “coincidentally,” propelled me forth.

The recondite temples we’ve visited have occasioned a journey to the immaterial thresholds of the formless Supreme Being.

I cannot fathom the abstruse minutiae behind the science of temple architecture and its alignments but it is this intriguing interconnectedness of things that translates mental tapas into perceivable impact on ourselves. Then, beyond the tumult of temple drums and bugles you hear the rhythm of the Universe refined into an endless OM. Darshan is when an awakened eye perceives rock vanish in an arcane interplay of energies, forces, powers -- quite like in Quantum Mechanics or the Mass-Energy equation of Relativity. These are energies, forces, powers with the capacity to melt a mind as solid as rock.

I do know that the temples of Tamil Nadu have transformed an irremediable brat like me. Mum doesn’t agree.

After reading physics, French and philosophy at Oxford, Devanshi Mody gadded about the globe until her parents wearied of funding her errancy. And so, she stumbled quite fortuitously into travel writing.

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