Amazing Things About South India: Part 5

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 5: Elephants, Peacocks, and Snakes, Oh My!

There is a “no photos” policy inside the temples that is strictly enforced. At the Chidambaram Temple, when I stood in front of the black Ganesha, big, fat, phat (am I dating myself?), and completely composed, I stood and stared to commit his image to memory. There is something so steady, so weighty, so grounded in his presence. And then, to my pleasant surprise, Babu and Bharati brought us a case of coconuts. Really it was a big bag, but I mean it was a *big* bag. We got to take turns smashing coconuts on the steps of Ganesha’s shrine. The symbolism behind this is wonderful. The coconut is your head, your brain. When you smash it open, you are breaking through to a new, deeper level of conscious awareness. It is an offering to the gods, to Ganesha particularly, the Guardian of Thresholds, the Remover of Obstacles. You offer yourself, your mind humbly and he is there for you. When you feel smashed in little pieces by events, relationships, life, he is there, hiding in plain sight, supporting you.

As the group of us were smashing coconuts, there were local people there to pick up the pieces. Nothing is wasted. That coconut meat probably made a great chutney later that day.

By the way, it is not necessarily easy to smash open a coconut. You have to aim it just right to hit the corner of the step and you have to put some muscle into it. It felt cathartic to generate that much effort to break it open, and if you think of how it feels when a firecracker goes off, how the air is displaced in order to make that loud boom, that is something of the feeling of the coconut smashing open, there is an internal displacement that awakens you to something more. And there is always more, like an iceberg with its tip above the water, three-quarters of it is still hidden below.

Ganesha is the ultimate elephant. The son of Shiva and Parvati he is often found sitting in thresholds, the obstacle himself — elephants are rather large — and the one who removes the obstacles. He is the first one you greet walking into a temple or even into someone’s home. Images of him often show him holding Indian sweets, modaka, and he is offering them to you, to everyone, in an invitation to enjoy the sweetness of life.

Upon arrival in India, I had this desire to see peacocks in real life. As we were preparing to leave the hotel one morning early on in the trip, I asked Douglas if we would see any peacocks that day, knowing that the peacock is the vahana, the vehicle of Murugan, and that we would be going to a Murugan temple that day. His response, “now we will.” I just love this idea of planting the seed and then allowing things to take their course. That day in that temple, there were many images on the walls of peacocks. It is the Mazaradi of deity transport. In contrast, Ganesha rides a moussaka, a mouse, which is a testament to Ganesha’s lightness of foot and of heart. Durga has her tiger, Sarasvati has her swan, Lakshmi her elephant or sometimes a peacock too, she is the goddess of abundance after all. Vishnu has his eagle. The vahana seems an extension of the quality that deity offers or reflects within.

A few days later we did see real, living peacocks in Tiruchendur. The peacock is so majestic with its feathers on display. Seeking a mate it puts its best face forward. Our group in our colorful saris felt a little like peacocks to me, and it was interesting when Douglas once mentioned that the reason we follow the tradition of wearing a sari is because it is sacred. We play the part “as if” we are Hindus and belong there because we do belong there. There are no rules to participation in these rituals of the self, the universal. Show up and act “as if.” Not only is it sacred to dress the part, it is a part of the culture that is being lost. Many younger women no longer embrace the wearing of a sari, I dunno, maybe because it is a little fussy, maybe because it can take a long time to get dressed, you often need someone else’s help, and getting the pleats just right is a real skill that needs to be practiced. We dressed in so many fanciful colors to honor the tradition and just maybe in some small way, to rekindle the love of the sacred.

Naga in Sanskrit, images of snakes are abundant. Snakes are wrapped around Shiva’s arms and waist while he dances his ecstatic dance, snakes are wrapped around many deities, and they are wrapped around each other. Snakes represent spiritual power, one’s true potential, and fertility, which is really the passing along of one’s power. There is a relief image on a wall here of Murugan riding his peacock with a snake coming out of his mouth, and his father Shiva and brother Ganesha beside him. They say that spiritual energy, kundalini, is a coiled serpent lying at the base of the spine, and through meditation she awakens and rises, piercing the chakras so that the aspirant awakens to deeper levels of existence, deeper levels of humanity. It is a metaphor, a way to describe the indescribable. Awakening.

At the Kalahasti Temple in Srikalahasti Andra Pradesh in particular, there is a great naga forest just outside the gates. Many many images of snakes wrapped around each other, piled on top of each other, where young couples go to pray for children. It was an amazing and fecund sight. Kalahasti is the Shiva temple that is connected to the wind element. This naga forest had an overwhelming sense of earthiness, and a great sense of hope, potential, power, and fertility, again. It was real and palpable.

Snakes represent power. This is a difference with the goddess cult so prevalent in southern India, compared to say the Kashmir Shaivite tradition of northern India. Kashmir Shaivism philosophy is a bondage to liberation model. When one is born into a body in this life on earth, one is shrouded in darkness and must practice yoga in order to return to the light; this is the rising of the kundalini energy from base to crown chakra. According to this philosophy, the yogi should do anything to get out — relief from the suffering — of this world. In the goddess cult, one lives with kundalini energy in the world. The idea is not to leave the world through liberation or emancipation, but to remain in the world and feast on its spiritual fruits. Generally in northern India, Shiva is represented as a lingam, a formless form, which you do also find in temples in the south, but you also find images of Shiva’s family much more prevalent in the south. Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Murugan, and rarely the bastard son Ayappa [see Part 3 of this series for more on him]. A family represents a full expression of love in its many forms.

And forests represent the place of human existence. They say there are three places that you can find Shiva, on the mountaintop, in the cremation ground, or in the forest. If you are on a mountaintop, the sun shines brightly and you may see vast expanses of lands. In the cremation ground it is dark and scary and there are goblins there, gravesites are often associated with the night. However, in the forest, it is the combination of these two, the sun shines brightly through the leaves of the trees, so in the forest there is light and darkness intertwined. Dappled light — which is the human experience, sometimes we are in the light and sometimes darkness reigns. It is up to each one of us individually to find our own pathway, to navigate the places of light and the places of darkness. Yoga gives us tools to navigate, and through practice we become skillful. As Douglas’ teacher Appa once said, “yoga is virtuosity in being yourself.” The Bhagavad Gita states, “yoga is skill in action.” A peaceful warrior. Impeccable and awake.

Amazing Things About South India: Part 4

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.


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.

Amazing Things About South India: Part 2

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 2: The Poonai
Poonai means cats in Tamil. As in, our tour guides feel like they are “herding cats” to get us on the bus, get us off the bus, into the temple, out of the temple, checked in to the hotel, checked out of the hotel, and make sure everyone gets their bio break when the need it. Oh, and, of course, to make sure everyone has their chai. Over the years the trip has become more and more sophisticated in that our guides now know that shopping must take place in the beginning to make sure we have the best saris (and dhotis) for our travels; they know when to make a pit stop as well as where and how; even during our picnic lunch in a banana field, we had everything one could ask, hot delicious sambar, tamarind rice, and curry complete with straw mats to sit on so we weren’t on the hard ground.

Inside MC Poonai

Of course the Poonai come mostly from the US with a few other countries represented, Sweden and Thailand, but I believe we all are a little South Indian at heart. How else could we get up so early to have someone else help us dress — I tried diligently to tie my sari myself, and came relatively close, but my sari-tying never lived up to our guide Bharati’s standards — and not to mention, eating with our fingers. You have to want to be in South India to be in South India.

Bus Chuck

Sometimes the challenges were real, being so far away from comforts of home, but daily, the people on the bus, my friends new and long-time were continually nurturing, supportive, curious, welcoming, open, and maintaining a positive attitude. It was hot and the roads were sometimes bumpy, and the ground on which we walked barefoot was often less than clean. Over the years, the Poonai have developed some rituals and nicknames. Once, there was a guy named Chuck (which may or may not be his real name) who tended to wander and who accidentally got left behind. Of course this was discovered relatively quickly and they went back for him right away and all was well, but now, after every temple and every re-boarding of the bus, we do a “Chuck check.” You have to make sure that your roommate is there. I ended up with two Chucks, my bus-mate whom I would sit with, my “Bus Chuck,” and my roommate in the hotels, my “Chuck Chuck.” These ladies were so wonderful.

Chuck Chuck

My Bus Chuck, Harriet, is a head-strong activist resisting the corruption in government that we are seeing so much of lately and standing up for women’s rights in so many ways. My Chuck Chuck, Shannon, is a brave soul who is stellarly living her truth and being a positive influence in the world. The conversations that we had really helped me figure some things out in my own life and to get in touch with places and events that I may have rejected, ignored, or wished away. This past year has been emotional for many of us, as the American “Id” has risen into power and the #MeToo movement has swept social media. Figuring out not just ways to cope and to deal, but ways to make positive change is truly priceless. Having a non-judgmental sounding board is really the best therapy. 🙂

We may not have all known each other at the beginning of our trip, but we all came for similar reasons, to “see and be seen,” darshan. Please check out Douglas’s post regarding darshan. “The practice of darshan arrests the mind into singular focus, places the body in often uncomfortable positions (spoon up, lean in…), and it compels the heart to race into a kind of fury, chaos, and wonder that is difficult to explain but from doing it, and doing it, as it were, “properly.” Think of it this way: our whole cognitive and somatic being allocates our attentions, regulates and assigns meaning to our environments, in terms of both inside and outside awareness.”

Speaking of spooning up, at most of the temples, there were long lines to see the inner sanctum deity. We had to hurry up, rush rush, and then wait, and then the moment when he or she is revealed. Quite often we had to squish really close in order for everyone to have a chance to see. In that moment we were “Spoonai”… and when the new folks needed to get up front in order to have the best view, they were “Newnai.” Joyful, child-like enthusiasm at every turn.  And at the same time, we were immersed in one of the most sophisticated philosophies on the planet.  The rituals, habits, and mantras reveal a rare depth of humanity.

One temple, the Tillai Kali temple in Chidambaram, is especially breathtaking.  The images of Shakti, the goddess, are striking and they can and will meet you at every level of your awareness.  We visited twice, once at the beginning of our trip and again at the end.  On a particular occasion, as I was standing in the back courtyard area, somewhat dazed and just absorbing the experience of being there, Mariah walked up to me and whispered the 66 syllable Durga mantra into my ear.  I was caught by surprise because at first I thought she was offering the mantra that I was familiar with, Om Dum Durge Bhagavati Namasthite, but then it became clear that she kept going.  More syllables that spun into an amazing mantra that represents the churning of the milky ocean of consciousness.  Shakti, the feminine form of infinite consciousness who manifests in the world, is continuously churning, making more, giving the value added experience, the “plus one.”  As Mariah, unprovoked, spoke this mantra to me, I felt it a gift to help me recognize that churning within and all around, and in the next few days myself had committed those 66 syllables to memory.

By the end of our travels, we were functioning as a unified whole. A group of individuals with our own unique desires, needs, and habits that existed completely in support of each other as well. Friends, Poonai, for life.

Amazing Things About South India: Part 1

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 1: The South Indian People

These folks win the prize for resilience. It is their “winter” season and the temps were in the 80s and close to 90 everyday. A “three shower day” I call it. It is a harsh climate, especially without air conditioning. And if you have air conditioning, you are not always guaranteed that the electrical grid will hold up throughout the day. It is challenging, and yet, I saw so many smiles on people’s faces.

Their homes come in many shapes and styles, but we visited one village, where our tour guide Babu has a small farm. We first stopped at a traditional potter’s home. He was spinning pots on his porch, where the roof made of bamboo and thatch hung low. So low in fact that one of our travelers hit her head on the bamboo post sticking out. It was bloody. Everyday they have to duck to get into their home. It is low for a reason though — to keep the sun out.

At this same village we visited a small outdoor temple. Douglas advised that most of the goddess deities we saw here are related to the monsoon and even small pox, the things one has to deal with in this climate in order to survive. Even in this small village, it is clear the villagers take pride in their place, the artwork and attention to detail is amazing.

We visited Babu’s farm after that. He also allows his home to be used as a school for the village children. He told us that when the children first started meeting visitors like us they were so shy, if they said anything they might ask your name, but now they are friendly and open and asking how we are doing. We offered the girls bindis, nail polish, and hair ties. The boys were all about the pens.

In Babu’s home some villagers served us a traditional South Indian lunch. Thali meal. This consists of rice placed in the center of a large banana leaf (yes, literally a banana leaf) with a variety of curries spread around the rice. You mix the curry into the rice with your hands and eat with your fingers. There is no silverware anywhere. The tamarind curry is truly dee-lish.

Our group wanted to be respectful of the culture and so we would wear saris — it took the ladies hours to get ready in the morning. Guys get to wear dhotis, which is basically a big sheet wrapped around your private area. 15 minutes tops to get ready for them. It was so worth it to dress the part. When South Indians would see us in traditional dress, they would be so happy and want to talk and take our photographs. It was interesting to me how, seeing Westerners dressed in traditional South Indian fashion, they weren’t repulsed by cultural appropriation, on the contrary, they were so happy that we were trying to “fit in” as it were that they printed a photo in the newspaper. It was a Tamil language newspaper that Babu and Douglas translated to say basically, ‘look at these Westerners going to temple in traditional Indian clothing, doing their best to follow the tradition and temple rituals, they might help inspire our young people to do the same.’ I am paraphrasing, for sure.

One temple that I really loved was the Murugan Temple in Tiruchendur. This is right on the Bay of Bengal. I think perhaps the laid back beach vibe might be a universal experience. Many people would go to the temple, have darshan, which means to see the deity and be seen by the deity, and then walk outside and take a dip in the sea. The people we met here seemed especially joyful and happy to see us. There were Shakti pilgrims dressed in red saris, and Ayappa pilgrims in black dhotis. Once, after some of our group had darshan, a few of us were waiting in the hallway for the rest of our group. We were standing in front of other shrines where a continuous stream of people were rolling by. One of the Ayappa pilgrims spoke to one of our male travelers within my earshot. As I was listening, he was saying that they are so pleased to see us at the Murugan Temple. It was not just his words but the whole gestalt of smelling the incense burning, the heat of the day, the darkness inside the temple, the sacred air we were breathing… as this pilgrim was speaking, my heart was bursting. It felt as though some hard outer shell was crumbling and an even greater love was beginning to shine through my own chest. It felt like a deeper connection to my own soul. It felt like a merging of different layers of my awareness so that I became more complete as myself. I wanted to hug everyone, but in that moment I just kept breathing deeply and feeling even more deeply. It was enough to just be there.

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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