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 4: Smoke… And Fire
If you travel to India, one of the first things you might notice is the massive amount of sensory input that bombards you from the moment you step off the plane. There are so many sights, sounds, smells and tastes that are available to you; it can be a little discombobulating. It also happens to be one of the reasons I love India. You are surrounded by sensory experience. And people. And cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, bicycles, trains, rickshaws, tuck tucks. And cows.
In the temples, there are so many sculptures, on the walls, the pillars, in little nooks and in big shrines. For me, just knowing that these works of art have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years connects me to a certain timeless quality that offers a sense of letting go of the small, petty, everyday realities that are not so important in the long term. This outer timelessness provides me a connection to the inner quality that is the underlying truth of experience, that which is changeless, formless, without any external supports, that which is radiant, peaceful and drenched in bliss.
Om Namah Shivaya Gurave Satchidananda Murtaye Nishprapanchaya Shantaya Niralambaya Tejase
In the before-mentioned Murugan Temple in Tiruchendur, there was a shrine for Murugan and the priest standing outside it was cultivating a small flame. He would pour vibhuti, white ash, on the flame and as it would smoke, he invited you to put your face directly into the smoke while he fanned it on you. The first time I did this, I was not sure what to do, looking into the small fire, trying my best to do what the priest told me to do and going through motions. The next morning when we returned to the temple, I had the chance to do it again, and this time I was ready. As I stepped up to his little flame, he began to fan the vibhuti smoke into my face and I inhaled deeply. I had the sense of the smoke penetrating nostrils, lungs, and then following the nadis, subtle nerve pathways that infuse the body with consciousness – they say there are 72,000 of them in the human form – to the furthest reaches of my awareness. It was as though the smoke clarified and purified each layer of my awareness, body, mind, heart, emotion, spirit. I can still remember that sensation if I close my eyes and inhale.
Chidambaram Nataraja Temple feels like home. When I’m outside the gates, I can feel the temple calling me inward. When I step in the gates I am open to a larger version of my own heart. When I take the 21 steps into the inner courtyard, mantra arises in my mind without me making any effort. The subtle vibration rises up from the very ground of the temple, through my feet and into my field of consciousness. When it is time to go, the ounces of my being cling to the temple, not wanting to leave.
Traveling with the Poonai, we had an extra special treat when the dikshitars, Brahmin priests of Chidambaram Nataraja temple, prepared a homa ceremony for us. A homa ceremony is a fire ritual. They decorate the place with banana leaves and other natural ornaments, we all sit around in a big circle as the priests chant their mantras, and then the dikshitar of the day offers many things into the fire – ghee, yogurt, honey, rice, sandalwood paste, milk, and more; the whole process takes several hours. There is a large silver trough that each of the substances flow down and then get poured out into the fire, to then transform into smoke that rises up to the gods. This process is fascinating… and painful to sit on the stone floor cross-legged, and quite often it is hot and uncomfortable, but it is fascinating.
There may be many ways to interpret this ritual, but one part of it is the idea of abundance. Here are all kinds of food items that someone might be able to eat, but it is being offered into the fire. The funny thing is, there is always more. At points I would want to laugh at the ever more outrageous offerings sent into the flames, at points the laughter was at the spectacle itself, but in the most joyous way, there was nothing self-serving or sarcastic about it. The child-like joy of the South Indian people is infectious. Several times throughout the trip, our guide Babu would mention that it is rare for someone to go hungry in India, that may sound a little questionable, but it is what he said. In the giving away of the food, something greater is actually retained. After the ceremony we distributed buckets of food that our group had supplied, that dikshitar wives had cooked, to other temple attendees. It was literally buckets of food, served in little banana leaf bowls.
Later, as our way of providing back a small token of what the dikshitars had offered to us, we offered sugar cane and turmeric to the dikshitars. Sugar cane is for the sweetness of life and turmeric is for good health. Piles of sugarcane and turmeric branches stacked up are the very picture of abundance itself. Having experienced these offerings first-hand, it makes me feel that I am connected to a larger whole within the universe, the part that continually offers, continually creates, continually transforms. It is the plus one factor. There is always more.
And each more forms a new memory, a new story to tell.