When 2011 began, I told myself this is the year that I learn to surf. Instead, I went to India.
It’ll be a bit like falling down the rabbit hole, our intrepid guide and teacher Douglas Brooks told us as we embarked on our journey to Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. It will be a practice of meditating with your eyes open.
Chidambaram is the small city in southern India that is best known for being the home of the Dancing Shiva, a large temple complex that feels like the center of a certain universe. The caretakers of the temple, the dikshitars, hold a ten-day festival every six months, to parade Shiva Nataraja and a few of his friends in the streets. It is an auspicious time because usually the murtis are housed within the temple grounds where only the dikshitars can get up close to them, but now everyone will have a chance.
The lunar month of Aani, June-July, gives the festival its name, and this year the dikshitar of Douglasji’s lineage, Kripakaram, was the master of ceremonies, so a small group of us went to help them celebrate.
The temple complex is huge, 35 acres, and the oldest part, the Inner Sanctum dating to approximately 650 C.E., is where Nataraja actually lives. He is made of 24 karat gold and for this festival he was completely blinged out in jewels, malas, and silk. The first few days of the festival our group explored the grounds and observed the different rituals and processions that were taking place. We were invited for lunch at Kripakaram’s house, we were able to sit up close during the homa ceremony, the fire ceremony, and Douglas offered many stories and insights to help us understand better what was happening all around us.
On one particular night, it was symbolically the evening before Shiva and his consort were going to leave for Mt. Kailash, and so the homa was an offering of many foods and things they would need for their journey. They poured yogurt, mashed bananas, rice, and all kinds of different Indian sweets like modaka and laddoo just prepared that day, into the fire. The gods must be hungry before their journey.
Each day of the festival offered a different procession of deities that we could enjoy. Scores of dikshitars would hoist two 40’ logs that hold the murtis, palanquin-style, onto their shoulders. And these deities and murtis are not small, they are very heavy. Mt. Kailash in particular weighs over a ton. The dikshitars who carry the murtis were born into this life, they have been exposed to these rituals since infancy, and many have been carrying the palanquins for decades. Their misshapen shoulders as a result of this effort are very distinctive.
The festival atmosphere was present everywhere, people laughing and enjoying each others’ company, and people riveted to the rituals taking place. One day during abhisheka, the bathing of the crystal Lingam, I had a front row seat. A few from our group stood together in the corridor next to the Inner Sanctum where the bathing would take place. It was such a ceremony to even remove the crystal Lingam from its casing in order to douse it in rose water, coconut water, milk, yogurt, sandalwood paste. Each round of substance was followed by a rinsing with clear water in order to start fresh with the next round. As the liquids drained away from the bathing place, they were carried down a chute in the floor to a drain very close to where we stood. The Indian devotees all around us were so happy to see that we were wearing traditional Indian dress and enjoying the festivities, they would offer us some of the liquids from the floor to drink as an auspicious gift. They were drinking it themselves, but I just could not bring myself to drink from the floor, even if this gift was from the gods.
The culmination of this ceremony involved bringing out a ruby Nataraja murti that is not seen very often. Once the crystal Lingam was bathed and safely stored back in its ornately carved casing, they brought this Nataraja out that was small enough to be carried by hand. The dikshitars performed aarti, the passing of the light, in front of the ruby Nataraja and then behind him so that the stone lit up in such a way that it was breath-taking. I literally gasped as the breath left my body at the sight.
Stepping in to the temple is symbolically stepping in to yourself. As you explore the temple grounds, the idea is that you are getting to know yourself in deep and profound ways. The architecture of the temple is laid out just so that you move layer upon layer, hallway upon corridor into the heart of your own awareness. The Inner Sanctum is the heart of the temple, Shiva Nataraja lives there on a raised platform area enclosed in sculpted and well cared for walls with a golden roof overhead. You can walk around the Inner Sanctum and see many deities in their own corners of the walls and recognize different aspects of your own consciousness represented in these figures and their stories. Eyes open to imbibe the millennia of attention to detail about the stories and their care.
The aarti was performed at many of the different murtis, and each time that the candle flame was circled in front and around a murti it felt to me as if that light circling was taking place inside my own body. As the Upanishads say, what is outside is inside, and what is inside is outside. Aarti was a palpable experience of that concept. It seemed as though shakti was reorganizing my insides, somehow enhancing my subtle body. Eyes wide open to the experience.