The morning of the tenth day of the festival began at 1:30am. My roommate at the hotel and I had missed the wake-up call to be at the temple, and we had to rush to get dressed to be there in time. If you did not grow up dressing yourself in a sari, it is impossible to do it by yourself, it takes a community effort for sure. On this morning, we had our saris on in seven minutes, record-time if you ask me.
We had to be awake so early in order to get a space up front for the final abhiseka ceremony. This one was for Shiva and Shivakumasundari together, the grand bathing that leads up to darshan, a viewing of Nataraja, and the culmination of the festival.
When we arrived at the temple, Vasu led us around the side of the open air courtyard in front of the Raja Sabha, the king’s hall. Some dikshitars were chanting the Vedas as a fire ceremony was taking place. With the estimated three-quarters of a million people attending the festival, and most of them already at the temple so early, it was a little difficult to find a space for our whole group plus the families of the attending dikshitars. There was some confusion when we were trying to squeeze into a space that got smaller and smaller as the crowds gathered behind us. Some of our group were right in front of the long tables where Shiva and Shivakamasundari stood, I ended up to Shiva’s right with others of our group, perfectly behind a large column that was blocking our view. But, we had to count our blessings because we were still within a few meters of all of the activity rather than out in the courtyard where you would need binoculars and x-ray vision to actually see.
The deities’ jewels and finery had been removed and they were in simple bathing robes. The dikshitars had formed a make-shift fire line to pass the different substances in which they would be bathing from the supply area to their perch. Kripakaram stood on the table with Shiva and his consort as other dikshitars began passing buckets of rose water to the front to pour over their heads, an offering of love and sweet smells and beauty. They were completely doused with each substance and then rinsed clean with clear water before the next substance was applied. I tried to get a good vantage point as the ceremony began, but it was difficult due to the massive amounts of people crowded into the small space and that big pillar, so I chose to sit down behind the pillar where there was more space and some fresh air. I sat in lotus posture and closed my eyes, attempting to visualize what was going on before me in my mind’s eye. I’m sure with my eyes closed I was not getting every detail of the ritual, but my imagination was pretty vivid that morning, I could see clearly the joyous abandon that was directing the dikshitars in their work. I could feel the rhythmic waves of consciousness directing the energy of the place, and I was immersed in that flow of infinite awareness that had coalesced as physicality, sensuality, in Chidambaram on that morning. And the chanting of the Vedas was as resonant throughout the entire temple grounds as they were thick in my ears and head and body.
After soaking up this internal reflection of the outer experience for some time, I really wanted to actually see what was happening, so I opened my eyes and tried to squeeze in to the crowd to watch. I was just in time for the honey bath. The golden, sticky liquid formed a thick coating around the gold of the murtis, glistening in the light of the temple. Shiva and Shivakamasundari were radiant. The honey clung to their forms in a rich, viscous, sensuous embrace. Their golden faces gleamed as their half open eyes gazed out among the crowds.
As the round of honey came to a close, the deities were rinsed clean with water and the next round began. So many substances in buckets were passed hand to hand and poured over their heads, hour after hour. Finally, just before dawn, Kripakaram began the last round of abhiseka, flower petals. Buckets and more buckets of fuschia and white flower petals, with tiny green leaves mixed in for the beauty of it. Bucket after bucket was emptied over their heads, and one dikshitar kept patting down the pile so that we could continue to see their faces. It was not impossible to think that Shiva and Shivakamasundari were totally smiling back at the crowds from underneath all of those delicate petals. All of that attention, all of that love was directed at the masters of the universe, here at the center of the universe; consciousness was sucked in to the heart of the celebration.
When all of the white and pink petals had been poured, when the Vedas had been chanted, the ceremony drew to a close. Dikshitars and local police pulled the curtains around the tables on the main stage and a fence was closed to the other side of us. Many in the crowd rushed the chain-link fence and tried to reach their hands through, to grab a few of the petals made in offering to the gods. I was in between the curtain and the gate, with easy access to petals and hands, so I helped make that connection in a sweet gesture of loving offering that was definitely prompted from a grace beyond my own self.
The sun was just beginning to rise over the temple walls, the tide of love and energetic excitement was receding momentarily, and it was time for chai.