From the Cushion

Amazing Things About South India: Part 3

I went to South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks, and an intrepid group of 22 other travelers.  We flew into Chennai and visited Thirupathi, Thirutani, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thiruchendur, and Madurai.  It was a whirlwind trip both geographically and internally. There were so many amazing and incredible experiences that I would like to recount, so this five part series is my attempt to do just that.

Part 3: Brahma Chamundesvari

Stupa at entrance to Thillai Kali Temple, Chidambaram

On the outskirts of Chidambaram sits a breathtaking temple known as Thillai Kali Amman. Thillai Kali herself used to be located in the Chidambaram Natarajan Temple until the 1200s when a Chola dynasty king moved her. Legend speaks of a dance contest between her and Shiva in which she was to mimic every move that Shiva made. He went too far and in order to preserve her dignity, she wouldn’t follow him in a particularly unsavory dance move, therefore she lost the contest and in her anger at him “cheating” chose to move outside the city just to prove that we humans need both Shiva and Shakti in our lives. ‘You are gonna miss me when I’m gone.’ There are other versions, as is always the case with Indian mythology, but there is no question that the story is much more involved and complicated.

Chidambaram means the space, ambaram, of consciousness, chid. It may also be translated as “clothed in consciousness.” In fact, there is a unique connection between these two temples, Thillai Kali and Nataraja, in that each one contains a piece of the other. The akasha linga, akasha meaning space as well, and linga referring to Shiva in his “formless form,” sits in the Thillai Kali temple, and there is still a place for Thillai Kali in the Nataraja temple where she is not. But the funny thing is, there is a place for this lingam, under a five faced naga, cobra, and it is completely empty. The lingam is in the ether, not in the physical, visible world.

When you first enter the temple, you notice that Ganesha is on the wrong side. Usually Ganesha is to the left when you enter a temple, and you offer him mantra, mudra, and your love at the threshold and then go about your way. His brother Murugan sits on the right. At Thillai Kali Temple, Ganesha is to the right and Murugan to the left. Which means that when you leave the Thillai Kali temple, they are in the proper position; so when you leave Thillai Kali temple you are actually entering the temple of the outside world. Everything is reversed, a reflection of Nataraja and other temples, in the same way that Shakti, the feminine divine manifestation is a reflection, reversed, of Shiva, the masculine divine consciousness. It is a brilliant way to acknowledge that in Shakti practice, the world that we live in is divine, it is the universal, it is the truth for which we have all been searching.

There are many things to capture your eye and your spirit in this temple, and on this particular trip, it was Brahma Chamundeshvari who captivated me. She is the deity in the innermost sanctum, and she is Kali, Shakti, Parvati, the divine feminine in murti form. She has four faces. The one facing out, toward you looking in, is Shakti herself. Shiva is to the left and Vishnu is to the right. And then there is the face in the back. These faces represent a little known story, told in Rajanaka lore of South India. Shiva and Shakti, Parvati, Kali, are married, but in the course of time, Shiva was attracted to the feminine form of his best buddy (and Parvati’s brother) Vishnu, called Mohini. Shiva and Mohini were in the Thillai forest to awaken some sages who had become complacent in their yoga and meditation practices. They were able to shock the sages back into reality and when that deed was done, they had a tryst with each other. This resulted in Vishnu becoming pregnant. Vishnu, being a man after all, had no way to birth this baby, so Parvati, after already being wronged by them having a tryst in the first place had to suffer the indignity of then helping her brother betrayer birth this baby through the pores of his skin. She was the midwife to the bastard child of her husband. Talk about feminine strength. Despite all of the things she must have been feeling because of her husband’s and her brother’s betrayal, she held strong and supported them through this most unusual and perhaps even life-threatening event.

Thillai Kali Temple, Chidambaram

The child’s name is Ayappa. You may recognize him in south Indian art because he is often sitting in a squat position with the yogi’s strap around his legs supporting him. In the Thillai Kali temple, he is the face of Brahma Chamundeshvari that you never see. He represents the broken piece, the missing piece, the thing that guarantees there is always something more, something else, something different, something interesting. It might be something painful, but it in contemplation, it will always bring you closer to your own Self.

We have things that are broken right? Something about ourselves that we might not want to show to the world, but that gives context, richness, fullness, story. It is something that makes one unique and perhaps even colors our decisions or actions. This is what this story is about, recognizing that the figurative bastard child is not something to be thrown out, but to be embraced, for all the heartache that he causes, he brings more love into the world. Or perhaps better stated, he brings more experience into the world. The broken piece in our own lives causes more trouble when we try to deny it or ignore it, because then it festers. If we recognize it for what it is and accept it — no matter how much we may or may not be able to forgive — still acknowledging it, then it adds a new pattern, a new detail to the fabric of life.

Brahma Chamundeshwari is the peak of strength of the Divine Feminine. She holds those things that she loves and those that have betrayed her, and she still shows her best face to the world. She may be inspiration to us all.

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  1. Linda Stevens
    February 8, 2018 at 4:37 pm #

    I love this colorful commentary.