January 12: Travelling to Madurai
This morning I overslept and was 20 minutes late for our departure at 7.00. We had a long journey ahead of us – some seven hours – so we had decided to start out early. As it happened the journey would only take five hours. Shortly after leaving Nagercoil with the mountains on our left hand side, we noticed that the wind sprung up quite suddenly. We are trying to avoid turning on the air-conditioning because we all have coughs and sore throats and the constant change of tempreature may have something to do with it. So we have the bus front windows open and it gets really blowy. It is strange to all of a sudden see trees outside blowing as if in a gale, peoples’ hair blowing, and bits of paper flying around. What was going on?
Here are two wind generators – we saw literally thousands along a 5-mile stretch of road
Half a mile later we saw that the wind must be a feature of life in this district because we saw a large white wind generator. Then another on the other side of the road. Then five more, ten, twenty. To our astonishment we were now driving through a forest of white wind generators, all revolving wildly like aeroplane propellers. This went on for miles – maybe more than five miles – and then suddenly it was all over – no wind, no propellers. There must have been a lot of them. It is a good thing to harness all this free energy.
We arrive at the Hotel Supreme in Madurai. The rooms are nice but the food is not: undercooked, overspiced – and overpriced!
A high view of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai – note the number of towers
We go with a temple guide organised by our driver and he shows us Madurai temple. It is a truly amazing place for sculptures. The gopurams, or gate towers, which mark the directions on the perimete of the temple grounds, are covered in them in a riot of rich colours. We spend so much of our time looking upwards! The east tower was built between 1216-1238 and is 153 feet high. It is covered in 1,011 sculptures and has nine stories.
Goddess Meenakshi – she whose eyes are shaped like fish – is given in marriage to Shiva
Inside the temple it is quite dark but noisy with the sound of pilgrims and piped chanting of Vedic mantras. We offer coins to a huge elephant and get blessed or ‘dobbed’ as Gail calls it. Our guide shows us one pillar which, when struck, plays all the musical notes. Another pillar and he asks us to place our ear to one arm of the sculptured granite figure while he taps the other one. You can hear a musical note ringing through the stone. And then we are in the hall of a thousand pillars. We asked the obvious question – it was 985. There is a large bronze form of Nataraja (Shiva) at the end of the hall, and many Chola bronzes on display. This was to be the closest we got to having darshan.
Despite our polite reasoning with the official we were not allowed any further than the other tourists. When I asked what he wanted as proof we were actually Hindus he replied that the minimum was a signed document from the head of our organisation saying that we had ‘converted’ and also proof that we’d changed our names. Also, he wanted a document from our previous Christian minister saying that he or she had officially released us from baptism. I imagine that both Sivaya Subraniya Swami (a western convert to Hinduism who had devised those particular details of Hindu conversion) and the Shankaracarya had a lot to do with these notions. Nevertheless it was a good visit.
January 13: To Trichy
This morning is a long trip to Trichy from Madurai. Althought the countryside is green and it is coming to harvest time, the state of Tamil Nadu, through which we now drive, seems to have begun an ambitious road-widening scheme – but in sections all over the state.So one minute you could be on a wide, smooth tarmac road and the next on a bumpy track.
But after several hours we get here and decide to stay at the best hotel in town – well almost. It is the one for middle-aged tourists – and I guess that means me too! It is very clean, with lots of polite staff, a good veg restaurant, a laundry service, swimming pool and even themed evenings.
The pleasures, however, are not enough to keep us and we decide to visit the Rock Fort Ganesh temple. It is 432 steps up a large rock with the temple perched at the very top. It doesn’t sound too much but the steps are steep, and I’m sweating as I climb the granite steps, holding on to the handrail when I catch a glimpse of how far up I am – and how far down it is! There are other temples on the way up but I press on. The final hundred steps are frightening as there’s nothing but the handrail between me and a drop – and its getting windy! The view from the top is great and the sun is slowly turning the sky pink over the city of Trichy. In the distance I can see the Kaveri River and, further still on the other side, the towering 257 feet-high gopuram of the Sri Rangam temple.
On the way down I suggest we visit the Shiva temple. I had read that Lord Shiva himself became a midwife and helped deliver a queen’s baby. I thought it would be nice to pray for Tulasi to become a midwife here. All of Lord Shiva’s family is on separate altars cut into the rock. It is quite a cavernous lamp lit place with many black corners. But they are nice to us and the Lord is taken for a palanquin ride to the sound of drums. At the bottom of the stairs who should I meet but an Indian family from north London who have attended their cousin’s wedding – which I conducted!
Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, carries the deity of Ranganatha while Lord Brahma looks on. I spent a rewarding day in the town of Ranganatha recently, and what follows is an extract from my ‘India Diary’ written earlier this year:
January 14th – A Full day in Sri Rangam
Yes, this was a very full day – from before dawn until after dusk. The town of Sri Rangam, which lies just over the Kaveri river from Tiruchirapalli, is very significant in the history of Vaishnavism. Of all the 4000 hymns of the Divyaprabandha, the ‘Tamil Veda,’ the Lord of Sri Rangam has the most hymns dedicated to Him.
It is considered the most sacred place of all the 108 temples sung about by the Alwars. The Alwars, or ‘those who were immersed,’ lived from thousands of years ago up to 900 AD. They are the first section of the disciplic succession of Lakshmi Devi, known as the Sri Sampradaya. Although most of them, due to the dates they appeared in the world, did not know each other, their teachings and hymns were consistently in praise of the power, grace, wisdom, beauty and compassion of Lord Vishnu and His consort Lakshmi.
They would also sing of the Lord as being the presiding deity of one particular place rather than being far away in the spiritual realm of Vaikuntha. Thus He is addressed as ‘The Lord of the Seven Hills,’ for instance, after appearing in that place. Srila Prabhupada also did this when he named the deity of Lord Krishna as ‘The Lord of London’ or Londonishvara.
After the Alwars came an acarya named Sri Nathamuni who collected all the Alwars’ songs and disseminated them widely. Although Sanskrit was the language for scripture and philosophical discussion, this was an additional tradition being created; one which the local non-Sanskrit speakers could access. The Divyaprabandha became popular and is the basis of dance, drama, and poetics in the souther part of India.
And then came Sri Ramanujacarya (1017-1137) who lived in Sri Rangam from around 1070 until he died. He travelled extensively, revitalised the tradition even further; restored and systematised the ceremonial worship in the temples sung about by the Alwars, and wrote nine philosophical works giving an enhanced theological foundation for this devotional tradition.
The temple of Sri Rangam is a magnificent creation with the tallest gate towers in Asia (257 feet) and seven concentric walls enclosing 155 acres of sacred space. It was attacked by Moguls in 1310 and 1323 and many brahmans were killed. Although the soldiers tried to smash the altar they were fooled by Vedanta Deshika who created a false one, walling in the actual deities.
Lord Ranganatha is Vishnu, who is also known as Narayana. He is depicted reclining on the serpent bed of Ananta Shesha, who is none other than Sankarshan or Balarama (whose full-moon appearance day it is today). The black deity was given as a gift to Vibhisana, the brother of Ravana, by Lord Rama. Ever since those days He has been worshipped here. Gradually the temple was built by successive kings and grew to have seven walls as each king made an architectural contribution.
There was a time, many hundreds of years ago, when the daily worship diminished and the jungle grew in towards the small existing temple, causing the pujaris to fear for tigers. Then the spirit of bhakti was rekindled and the wealth and support was found to develop the temple once again.
Lord Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu stayed here in 1510 for the four months of the rainy season. He stayed with one brahmana known as Vyenkatta Bhatta who had a son named Gopala. This young boy went on to become one of the famous Six Goswamis of Vrindavan: Gopala Bhatta Goswami. Lord Chaitanya felt such separation from Jagannatha that he carved his own set of Jagannatha deities and they are still there today, not far from the original home of the Bhatta family.
The tomb, or samadhi, of Ramanujacarya is also in a good sized shrine within the Sri Rangam temple compound, except that Ramanuja is not actually buried. He went into a trance in 1137 while sitting in the lotus position, and his preserved body is still sitting upright within a covering. It is still visible to all the pilgrims.
Ramanuja’s disciple and secretary, Koorathalwar, was always found at his master’s side. His samadhi is just outside the temple. I entered this temple and paid my respects. There are two black granite Narasimhas and a magnificent utsava-murti (festival deity) in bronze. The day I visited just happened to be a monthly time for abhisheka, the ritual bathing of the deity, so I sponsored it and watched as juices and milk were poured over the half-man, half-lion form. Afterwards I was given curd rice by the pujari who took me to his simple house nearby – built in the 1100s – and explained the difficulties he was having with the state of repair of the mediaeval temple. (Anyone who would like to help repair this temple please drop me a line)
Visiting Sri Rangam gave me some insight into the essential factors for developing and sustaining Vaishnava culture in any part of the world: Spiritual purity, knowledge from and devotion to the predecessor acaryas; determination; scholarship and intellectual strength; production of literature; dissemination and popularisation of the tradition; systematising and sustaining of temple worship and religious culture; support from leaders and thinkers; and protection from enemies.