22 Hearts and 44 Eyes

This is the third year that Rimmi Singh, her sister Pammi, and I have taken a group of yogi travelers, yatri, to India.  Each time the trip is to somewhat different places, and this time 22 of us had an amazing tour of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  South India is quite different from north India in terms of the food, spices, language, and landscape.  Perhaps there is a slight difference in the people too, as a whole.  In the whole of the subcontinent, there is just a mind-boggling amount of variety in everyday life as the sacred sits right next to the mundane which sits right next to riches which sits right next to poverty.  It is all mixed up in a colorful stew.  Quite often when one thinks of India, I believe it is common to first think of the third world and poverty, but what we experienced was a great depth of culture and progressive ideas.

Pondicherry

This city has a heavily French influence as it was founded in 1674 by the French East India Company.  It is home to Auroville of Sri Aurobindo fame and the famous flower market.  All of India seems to be covered in flower petals; they seem to always be blossoming and are ever fragrant, and the flower market here begins early in the morning to avoid the midday heat.  It is more like a wholesale place, where people come to buy in bulk and then sew the flowers up into beautiful garlands to wear or offer at the many temples.  It stands in the midst of fish sellers and vegetable sellers and there is an amazing amount of activity even before 7am.

Sri Aurobindo is a famous guru at the turn of the 20th century who had a great influence on Indian and even American culture based on his teachings and the books that he wrote.  The Mother was also quite prevalent as she was his spiritual equal who helped found the Auroville ashram.  About Auroville:

Auroville (City of Dawn) is an ‘experimental’ township in Viluppuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India near Puducherry in South India. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Richard (since her definitive settling in India called ‘[The] Mother’) and designed by architect Roger Anger. Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.

Some words from the Mother:

Be courageous, enduring, and vigilant and above all, be sincere, with perfect honesty. Then you will be able to face all difficulties.

The Ganesha Temple in Pondi was our first elephant sighting, the first of several more.  Here I am receiving a blessing from Lakshmi.

Our hotel was right on the Bay of Bengal and I swear people were up all night long walking the promenade, feeding the cows and dogs, and chanting by the sea.

Chidambaram

I visited here with Douglas Brooks just a few weeks previous, and this is my third time to this temple.  It is the Nataraja Temple, Shiva in his form as Lord of the Dance.  Each time I arrive here, it feels like home.  Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the temple, so memories will have to do, but I will say that this temple, like many in south India, is arranged in such a way so that when you step inside its walls, it is as though you are stepping into your own Self.  The concentric circles of walls lead you through the layers, koshas, of your own mind until you get to the inner sanctum, where Nataraja resides, and where your innermost Self resides.

At most temples, there is a “flagpole” outside of the main sanctum, sometimes it is brass or wood, sometimes it is covered in gold.  There is no flag on top, but the pole itself is often ornately carved.  It rises higher than the roof or if indoors, usually goes through the ceiling.  This post represents your spine and the spiritual energy, kundalini shakti, held within it.  To me, just gazing at the pole brings a sense of power.  It is taller than the ceiling to represent the fact that the kundalini energy or power rises up from the base of the spine to the crown of your head, which leads the yogi into a more expansive state of awareness.

We experienced a sacred abishekam ritual with the crystal lingam, “the formless form of Shiva,” in which the priests known as dikshitars would pour many substances like milk, yogurt, ghee, sandalwood paste, rice, honey, sometimes even flower petals, over the lingam, washing it clean after each substance.  It is a strange practice, but when you observe it, it is quite evocative, you cannot help but feel something inside.  This ritual is concluded with an aarti, the waving of light from a candle flame, around a ruby Nataraja statue.  This little statue I’m guessing is about a foot high, and it is pure ruby, so when they shine the light behind it, it glows a brilliant red and takes my breath away.

As my friend Bharati, who assisted us at the temple, said:  there are three main parts to Tamil culture, wearing a sari is sacred for women, also the bindi placed on the third eye, and jasmine flowers strung in one’s hair.  There is nothing like the smell of jasmine in your hair in south India.

Tanjore

We had a brief stay at Svatma Hotel.  This place is a must stay because it is a converted Brahmin home that is so elegant and completely welcoming.  The staff meets your every need, and one may experience yogic rituals like morning chanting and yoga, even dance performances in the evenings.  My good friends Michael and Karen Levin treated me to a sound immersion — in the spa, there is an entire room dedicated to creating different sounds and tones so that one might bathe in the vibrations of gongs, chimes, a thunder-making instrument, a table that has harp strings underneath the bed that one lies upon while someone plucks the strings and the vibrations move through your entire being.  It is a complete vibrational experience that left me feeling refreshed and cleansed.

We saw a fascinating and beautiful traditional Indian dancer perform too.

Madurai

In Madurai we visited the Meenakshi Temple.  This little lady’s claim to fame is that she was born with three breasts.  As a princess, her father the king was so very proud of her, and there was an oracle that said when she met her match, her mate for life, that the third breast would disappear.  As luck would have it, the only match for her was the great lord himself, Shiva.  This temple and the Chidambaram temple have some ethereal connection for this reason.  A god is never far from a goddess.

As with many south Indian temples, this one owns an elephant.  She greets pilgrims and offers blessings, and each morning, her keepers take her out for a walk around the town.  Tamil people love their elephants, and for six weeks out of the year she goes on “vacation” to an elephant preserve.  We all have to blow off a little stress once in a while.

At any temple, there is a daily schedule.  The priests wake the gods in the morning, they bathe them, they clothe and feed them, and in the evening, they get put to bed.  A few of us took part in this night ceremony.  First, only Hindus are allowed in the main inner sanctum, so Bela was the only one of our small group to enter there to receive darshan.  But when she emerged from the sight of Meenakshi, she was so radiant, we received her darshan by osmosis.  As she rejoined us then we walked over to the Shiva shrine where the night ceremony begins.  The priests take out a Shivalingam from this sanctum and carry it over to the opening of Meenakshi’s sanctum, where her shoes are brought out as a symbol of her whole self.  The lingam and the shoes mingle side by side for a few moments as the priests chant, and then the lingam and shoes are put to bed.  Again, such an odd thing to do, but at the same time there is a visceral sense that something deeper is happening.  Inner spiritual structure is reorganizing somehow.  As Douglas Brooks puts it, either grown men are playing with dolls here or something visceral and deep is going on.  In reality, it is both.

Thekkady, Periyar National Park

Spice Village is a progressive property that does not allow any plastic on the premises.  The hotel is a series of cottages spread out over many acres on a mountain in the Western Ghat range.  Did I mention most of this trip has been in the 90-100° range?  This was the coolest portion of our trip.

Naturalists provide nature and bird walks, they filter their own water and make paper here.  The bags to hold receipts or souvenirs from the store are made of newsprint being reused.  They compost in several different ways and have a beautiful garden from which they use the food in their restaurants.  It is so close to nature, there are guinea fowl that roam freely on the property and only occasionally get eaten by the monkeys.  And so many birds!  After the busy-ness of the cities in Tamil Nadu, this was a great time to unwind.

Upon leaving Spice Village, we stopped at a tea plantation school.  This may have been one of the most moving parts of our trip as the elementary age children were overjoyed to see us.  We brought pencils, notepads, erasers, pens, stickers, and candy to the kids and everyone wanted to get their pictures taken.  We sang songs together and treated the kids to ice cream dessert after lunch that day.  It was truly precious.  Being around the kids brought thoughts of my sister in North Carolina, who daily works with children facing great challenges regarding their ability to learn,  homelife, and poverty.  These children at least have homes, food, and schooling, but poverty is there, and they have unique challenges due to culture and climate too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Kumarakom, Vembanad Lake

Here we stayed at the largest lake in Kerala, known as Vembanad and famous for its houseboats.  Seeing these things on the water made me think of some creature from the 80s television program Fraggle Rock.  We had a whole day tour on a house boat which was really wonderful.  The crew fed us lunch and after lunch our guide, Raj, set up his playlist, which of course was American golden oldies type music and the main deck of the houseboat became a dance floor.  His comment to me was unforgettable, “this is the true yoga, when people are happy and laughing and dancing.”

Kay, tour guide Raj, and Liz setting off on a three hour tour

We stayed at Coconut Lagoon, which is another CGH Earth property like Spice Village, so no plastic anywhere.  I haven’t mentioned the food yet — I will never tire of dosa or idly and sambar.  Delicious.  You have to take a boat to get to the property, and there are canals throughout the property to help manage the landscape, which is filled with flowers and fruit trees and butterflies.  The canals gave me a strong memory of growing up with my grandparents in the summers in South Bethany Beach Delaware the way the canals were in the backyards of the beach houses and you could boat around and see people’s intimate backyard lives or head to the bay to enjoy nature.  And waterskiing.  These memories are some that seemed long gone and therefore gave me a greater sense of integration with my life, connecting past to present.

There is an Ayurvedic spa here with two doctors on hand to treat your every need based on your ayurvedic constitution and life habits.  And plenty of swings for relaxing and watching the sunset over the lake.  The meditation teacher here, Naveed, seemed to be trained in the Shivananda style, I never asked him but his practices leaned that way.  Morning yoga and evening meditation daily was a real treat.

 

Cochin

Finally, we landed at the Taj Malabar resort in Cochin or Kochi, two names for the same place.  We were right on the water across from a huge port.  Again, a memory of childhood and family, in particular my brother who I am so proud of as he is now Chief Engineer for the Virginia Port Authority and works at a location just like this one.  Seeing the whale of a huge ship entering the inland waterway and docking at the port and watching the cranes add to or remove cargo was like a connection across the planet to family.

Some of our group attended a Kathakali Dance performance.  This ancient technique involves only men, and lots of make-up.  One of the dancers demonstrated the different emotions used in Indian cultural dances; the subtle control of his facial muscles is like I’ve never seen.  Kathakali uses mudras, hand or even body gestures, to tell a story, in the same way Classical Indian Dance does, but it certainly has its unique south-Indian flavor.

Chinese fishing nets are an amazing sight at the waterside.  Made of wood and hand-tied ropes, this ancient fishing practice stands side-by-side to modern buildings and technology of the city.  Case in point: the Cochin airport is the first in the world to be 100% solar powered.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Twenty two intrepid yoga yatri, travelers.  Twenty two hearts and forty four eyes from which to experience this vast and rich culture and country.  And each moment leads me back to my new family of these travelers, my lifetime family at home, and my own Self.

Rimmi, Kathy, and me
Ganesh’s brother
At Taj Madurai
Love me some elephant
Working lady
Our tour guide Raj
Brihadeshwara Temple
Lady Police

Chidambaram musicians

Yes, we did do yoga

Eyes Open Meditation, Part V

By mid-morning, we had returned to the temple grounds for the culminating event of the festival, darshan. Shiva Nataraja was waiting in the Raja Sabha, and even though we arrived early for this ritual, there were many already assembled there. It was clear that it would be difficult to get up close to Nataraja without pushing. We gathered with the dikshitar families in front of the homa platform to progress as a group into the courtyard and then the King’s Hall, hopeful to get up close to Nataraja in all of his grandeur after the morning bath. We paraded through the crowds with our guides acting as bodyguards to keep us somewhat together and to get up close. The nearer we came to the hall, the more difficult it became. We made it to the doors, and even through them, but it was a total mosh pit. There were big people and little people, everyone sweating in the south Indian summer heat, I had to hold tight to my pallu or else my sari, one single, extremely long wrap of silk, could be pulled off even. The largest of the sweaty Indian men would laugh as they lurched from side to side, directing the flow of humanity, generating new waves of motion just to stir up the energy in the room. It was tight in there, and Indian children would sometimes cry when they got squished between bodies. At one point an elderly woman was next to me and we exchanged a look of resigned amusement, knowing that we could not move forward or back, and so we just settled into the space we were holding. Turns out, the elderly woman was Vasu’s mother and he was very worried for her being stuck in the crowd and perhaps a bit fragile. So within moments Vasu had navigated the thick crowd and plucked her out from the center into the safety of the sidelines. How he was able to move himself and her out of the crowd is still mind-boggling to me. I was stuck in the middle of bodies of all shapes and sizes, knowing I couldn’t go anywhere, doing my best to blend in to the current.

When the curtains were finally drawn and Nataraja was visible, wave upon wave of emotion passed over the crowd, people whooped and swooned. There was nothing else to do but soak it up, and hold on to my sari. Since I could not see very well at the middle of the mosh pit Raja Sabha surrounded by taller people, I settled again into the space I was occupying and just moved with the current for still longer. Darshan lasted quite a while it seemed, and then when the curtains were drawn, the crowd energy was palpably saddened. The dikshitars yelled to create a pathway down the center for the procession to move back through the courtyard to the Inner Sanctum. It was time for Nataraja to go home.

Miraculously the crowds parted down the center of the hall and I, along with some dikshitars’ families in front of me and my intrepid group behind, were pushed into the parting to lead the procession back to the Inner Sanctum. I held my pallu tight, kept my head low, and followed the ones in front of me. I didn’t want to get lost or lose my place in the procession either. We walked down the long courtyard and back into the main temple grounds to the 1000 Pillared Hall. At some point in the 1000 Pillared Hall it occurred to me that there was no way I would actually get lost because by now I knew my way around the temple, and even the town, and so I should stop worrying and actually look up and enjoy the procession. There wasn’t even a need to maintain my place in the procession really, so I should just relax. This thought went through my head and I immediately looked up and gazed around.

The carved faces on the columns blended with the faces of the crowds which covered every square centimeter of space inside the hall. All of the colors of eyes and clothing and skin and hair were moving together. Singing together. At once, each of those faces became the cells of one body, my body. We were one huge organism breathing as one. Swaying and dancing and loving as one. Each individual was a unique awareness that had chosen to be here at this moment to experience This Moment. And it was complete harmony. Complete balance as the currents of human culture and excitement pulsed through our veins and our hearts together. All of the external movement supported a greater internal truth. Eyes closed or eyes wide open, we were one giant being together, supporting each other, loving each other, by the grace of Nataraja. A kula in the highest sense of the word.
The bells of the temple began to ring. Nataraja returned to his resting place, and Shivakamasundari to hers. All was in order, ready to rest and then begin anew.

2011 is not over yet. There is still time to learn to ride the ocean waves. But for now, I am content riding the waves of grace.

Go back to Part IV.

 

Next: I Dream of Water

Eyes Open Meditation, Part IV

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.

Go to Part V.

Go back to Part III.

 

Eyes Open Meditation, Part III

Later that day when the parade began, the streets surrounding the temple had become the temple itself. Shiva Nataraja was at large in the outside world, with Shivakamasundari following closely behind him. The dikshitars had carried the large murtis up five flights of stairs in an outdoor loading dock built specifically for the purpose of loading the deities onto the carts that would carry them through the town. The carts were a beautiful sculpture of wood and stone; they were about six stories high, with god and goddess on the top floor. The wheels were taller than I, and the whole thing was decorated in tapestries and fine cloth. Of course Shiva and company were decked out in their finest bling as well.

There were long, thick ropes, as thick as the palanquin logs, that were used to pull the carts through the streets. And since the streets had become the temple, many people were not wearing shoes. Massive amounts of humans were laughing and pulling and stepping on each others toes to provide seva, service to Shiva, by carrying him through the town. You could not not laugh at the entire spectacle. Who would think to celebrate in such a way? Women were drawing beautifulmandalas in the streets with rice flour as a sort of red carpet for these statues. And all just to honor Consciousness, life, the full spectrum of being. The culture of south India is all about ananda, bliss, on this day.

As the hours passed, the throngs of people in the streets got bigger, more crowded. Everywhere we went, the westerners in saris and lungis were a definite attraction. Indian people have perfected the stare, but it always felt very benevolent, loving even, as though they were proud to share their culture. We took turns pulling the carts and walking beside them and sometimes our group stayed together and sometimes we broke up into smaller groups. You had to really pay attention to stick together in the large bustling crowds. At one point in the afternoon I decided that I just wanted to be immersed in the joy of the crowd on my own, so I let my friends in front of me get further ahead until I was absorbed in laughing, dark brown skin. The mass of humanity was like a current of consciousness moving through the streets, with others on the sides shoring up the banks of the river. I settled into a space on a bank in order to watch the immense carts travel by. Indian ladies and children near me smiled and laughed and asked if I was enjoying myself. A bull was walking through the center of the street against the tide. Nobody was about to stop him.

After a short while, a friend from our group appeared a few metres away in the crowd. “Are you alone?” she mouthed. “We’re going this way.” And she pointed behind the street to an alley where we could catch up with the others and take our place at the loading dock to watch Shiva and Shivakamasundari disembark after a long days’ journey. We raced through the alleyway, over motorcycles and gullies, around little children, being careful not to step in cow dung, and finally climbed the same five flights of stairs on which the dikshitars had carried the heavy palanquins earlier that day and a lifetime ago. I was so thankful to have a seat after all that time.

Sitting there, I was not prepared for the wave of emotion to overtake me when the two main carts rounded a corner in the distance and began inching closer. There was a fine haze in the air, as there often is in dusty, hot south India in the late afternoon. Through the haze the immense carts looked so regal and I began to feel a distinct connection to every other festival in Chidambaram that had taken place just so. Historians date these celebrations to approximately 1000 C.E., and I began wondering, how many lifetimes had I spent in that very spot? It was eerie and deeply calming at the same time. The colorful carts, the drummers, dancers, and horn players, the street vendors selling sweets, the women drawing decorations in the streets, the men, women, and children who were so animated and joyous to participate, all swirled into one massive wave of humanity that reflected the ananda that is our true nature.

I thought of my teachers, past and present, I thought of my family and friends, I thought of my experiences, all of which have supported me and led me up to that very day, that very moment. The joy and love all around me was inside me and I could not contain it as tears came to my opened eyes.

Go to Part IV.

Go back to Part II.

Eyes Open Meditation, Part II


Photo by M.arjon

The morning of the ninth day was the preparation to parade Shiva Nataraja and his consort, Shivakamasundari, in the streets. We were up at 2am to be at the temple within an hour. Everyone was in their finest dress. We made it to the temple and were able to squeeze in to the corridor of the Inner Sanctum only by the grace of Vasu, our dikshitar’s younger brother and our host. He instructed us to stand near a particular doorway and once we got a view of Shiva Nataraja leaving his resting place in the Inner Sanctum, we were to quickly move into the 1,000 Pillared Hall and find a viewing place for the parade and procession. The mass of people who were gathering did not stop, devotees continued to push and cajole their way through the doorway to get as close as possible. It was hot, sweaty, cramped, and 3 o’clock in the morning. Still, I was running on adrenaline and the high of simply being in this crazy place with all of these devotees, 750,000 of them, who were nuts with love for Infinite Consciousness.

Finally, Nataraja emerged in all his finery. He had been dressed in his best clothing and malas and gold beads. When he appeared, everyone’s attention was immediately drawn to his abhaya hand, the one with palm open and face forward, the one that reassures the devotee to “have no fear,” the one dressed in a Michael Jacksonesque silver bejeweled glove. Really, you couldn’t miss that sight. When I saw that hand and felt the shakti wash over me, I melted into the moment. Then the excited crowd was pushing me into the next hall where the procession would circumambulate. Most of the people in our group found a particular corner near the musicians, we stood on a raised platform which delineated the corridors where Nataraja would pass through. The musicians stood in a circle playing big drums and little drums, tingsha bells and double horns, while one ecstatic dikshitar danced in the center, his movements so graceful and fluid it was clear that he was floating in ecstasy.

I was not so pleased with my vantage point, so I moved into the corridor itself and climbed up the outside of one of the pillars, yes, in my sari. All of the pillars were sculpted with rows and rows of human shapes, animals, and deities, and the pillars on the outermost rows had huge banana fronds tied to them in decoration. These fronds were much taller than mere mortals, the base was tied to the pillar and the top, pregnant with bunches of bananas and a large red banana-shaped tip, arced out over the corridors. A renewable resource that would biodegrade, the decorations were very festive and eco-friendly, oh yeah, and very phallic. I wrapped an arm around the base of my banana frond and stood a good metre above the crowds who would soon be moving through in the procession.

It was time, the circle of drummers and dancers led the way as Shiva Nataraja entered the 1,000 Pillared Hall. He was on a palanquin of 40 foot logs carried by too many dikshitars to count, and a few from our group were out in front. Throngs of people were moving before, behind and on all sides of Nataraja as he was paraded above the fray and around the entire hall so all could see. It was literally a current of humanity and if you did not move along swiftly, you might drown. From my spot up on the pillar, I could look down on the crowd and see everything, and then the big, sweaty men carrying the Master of the Universe came right up to where I was standing. It was a real operation to get Nataraja turned just so in order to move him out of the hall and into the courtyard. He was going to turn right in front of me. They marched Nataraja to my right and then everyone on my left had to part because they needed to back up around my corner. It was a precarious process, the logs and Shiva himself are very heavy. It rocked and swayed from its own weight and from the mass of people pushing and clamoring to get close. As Shiva backed around the corner, he came within an arm’s length of me at eye-level. The moment was filled with emotion, like an internal assessment of a lifetime of experience, time standing still in order for me to absorb the shakti of his abhaya hand, the hand with the damaru beating life into existence, and the hand with the fire dissolving that energy to create anew. In the massive throngs of people, there was a deep inner silence, and a tangible connection to consciousness itself.

My eyes were wide open, and the sight of Nataraja re-organized my consciousness to align with a deep knowing that is expansive and ever-present. I left that morning with a smile on my face that transcended words.

 Go to Part III.

Go back to Part I.

Eyes Open Meditation, Part I

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.

Part I

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.

Go to Part II.

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