Chidambaram & Thiruvanamalai from Bangalore

14 Feb

I have been on the temple circuit since Dec 2016. Varanasi – Sarnath , then Kancheepuram and now in Feb 2017 a wonderful trip to Chidambaram & Thiruvanamalai.

The Thillai Nataraja temple at Chidambaram has been on my bucket list for long. Its an ancient temple – with many mystical stories around its history & architecture. This is the only temple that depicts Lord Shiva in the Nataraja pose performing the Ananda Tandava (“Dance of Delight”) as the supreme being who performs all cosmic activities.

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Chidambaram is one of the five Pancha Bootha Sthalams, the holiest Shiva temples each representing one of the five classical elements; Chidambaram represents akasha (aether) –  I have been to 3 others – Kalahasti – Air, Thiruvanamalai – Fire, Kancheepuram – Earth, which leaves the 5th one representing water – the Jambukeshwar temple which is in Tiruvanaika near Tiruchi. The Shiva Linga here signifies the element water.

For more details on the Chidambaram Temple read this link http://www.chidambaramnataraja.org/about_temple.html

Getting to Chidambaram  

We left Bangalore at 6 AM and reached our hotel in time for lunch at 1.45. (375 Kms) Two stops – one at 8 AM for breakfast and gas just before the NH  bifurcates to Chennai & Salem and the second stop at around 11 AM about 80 kms after Salem. The road is good and barring two small stretches where we were struck for 20 min we were zipping all along. My friends Mahindra XUV is an excellent road warrior – stable and safe and it was even better than my Innova.

We stayed at the Lakshmi Vilas Heritage – a beautiful property with 16 rooms in a village about 15 Kms south of Chidambaram. A large property with lots of greenery, a nice pond and a 150 year old temple in its compound – and very affordable too (4 K / Night for double occupancy inclusive of Breakfast and Wi Fi). Food is good – simple and homely and they serve both Indian and a few continental dishes. Its managed by a few good people – so don’t expect 5 Star finesse. Rooms are nice – more than basic with AC , TV , Nice big Bathroom , Hot Water 24 by 7.  You don’t need anything more. The good thing is – the hotel is away from the crowded streets of Chidambaram and is located only 45 Kms from Kumbakonam. So its easy to cover the temples to the South of Chidambaram from here.

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The Main Nataraja Temple at Chidamabaram 

A large temple it was built by king Paranthaka Chola in 5th century BC and constantly renovated by future Chola and Pallava kings. It is said that to worship Nataraja in this temple Adishesha took rebirth as Patanjali. In addition to the main Nataraja statue the temple also has a Shiva linga in Crystal stone and one in Ruby. The Sanctum Sanctorum has a golden roof with 21600 leaves that denotes the no of breaths we take every day. The 72,000 golden nails stand for the “Nadis’ or nerve junction points in our body,

Unique aspect of this temple is that it is managed by 300 Priests and their families. There is no Trust / No Govt Interference / No Mutt – over thousands of years the ancestors of the Priests and their families have been managing the temple. These priests are dedicated wholly for the temple and do not perform any other activities. The temple is  neat, well organised , there are no VIP Q and special tickets like Tirupathi. But if you want a good Dharshan close to the Sanctum Sanctorum it helps to know one of the 300 Priest Families.

We were lucky to be introduced to Natarjamani Deekshitar by a friend – and that really helped us to get an excellent Darshan – once in the evening at 4 PM  and later at 6 AM in the morning when the temple opens. You can also reach out to them if you need help ( Phone – 04144 – 2276544, Mobile – 9487313933 , Their house is located right next to the temple at 107/A East Car street, Near Rich Rich Shop behind Sowju Textiles)  The priests do not demand any fees – but they manage their families with the donations we make.

We were extremely happy with both our visits and had an excellent Darshan and temple tour. the morning visit at 6 AM when they open the temple is highly recommended. The ringing of bells , Dumroos, the procession , all of this with the opening of the Sanctum Sanctorum is a high energy event.

The temple is large but you can complete the darshan and the tour in 1 hr easily ( We were lucky to be there on a week day when the crowd was very light) – don’t miss the Prasadam – its extremely tasty and available for a very reasonable price. There are no dress codes – so you can be comfortable in Pant / Shirt or Dhoti Kurta. While entering the Sanctum Sanctorum you need to remove your shirt. Recommended that you stick to Indian Wear.

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We finished our Darshan and temple tour by 6.30 PM and walked around the temple before we landed up at Sri Krishna Vilas for Dinner. the food is outstanding and the rates are very very reasonable. We kept coming for most of our meals during our stay here. This is also on East Car street right next to the Priests house

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We finished day – 1 by 830 PM and headed back to the hotel. day – 2 was to be a busy day.

Day – 2 we started early. We left our hotel by 6.30 AM. Our first stop was the Gangai Konda Cholapuram temple. A Grand temple built by Rajendra Chola I, the son and successor of Rajaraja Chola, the great Chola who conquered a large area in South India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Sumatra, Kadaram (Kedah in Malaysia), Cambodia and others at the beginning of the 11th century A.D. It occupies an important place in the history of India. As the capital of the Cholas from about 1025 A.D. for about 250 years, the city controlled the affairs of entire southern India, from the Tungabhadra in the north to Ceylon in the south and other south east Asian countries. The architecture of this temple is comparable to that of the Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjore.

Located South of Chidambaram about 20 km from our Hotel on the way to Kumbakonam – budget 45 min at this beautiful and grand temple. More famous for its architecture than its divinity.

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Our next stop was a jewel in the crown. A small temple tucked in the middle of a village. It took us 45 minutes to reach here thru narrow by lanes of villages.  Melakadambur is a village located 31 kilometres (19 mi) from Chidambaram.  The Arulmigu Amirthakateshwarar Thirukkoil was constructed by Kulothunga Chola and is more than 1000 years old. This Sivalinga is Self-manifested or Swayambhu Linga. The temple is small , was totally empty and is buzzing with energy. We loved it. Don’t miss this temple if you go to Chidambaram.

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It took us about 40 minutes to get back to Chidambaram for Breakfast and by 9.45 AM we were heading towards Sirkazhi to visit the Brahma Parameshwar temple. The town also has a famous Perumal temple but we skipped that and headed to the Vaitheeswaran temple close by. The temple is open till 1.30 and we made it there by 12.30. A big crowded temple – you can feel the energy of the temple if you sit in a corner quietly for some time.  This temple is famous for curing ailments and outside it you will find many ” Nadi Astrologers” who will predict your past very accurately – we stayed away from them , as it sounded a tad bogus.

After a long morning we headed back to our hotel and reached by 1.30 in time for a sumptuous meal. All that you see in the photo comes for Rs 200/- .

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After a few hours of rest we headed out at 4 PM to another spectacular temple the Sri Mushnam temple which is dedicated to Lord Vishnu in his Avatar as a Boar. A Massive temple – no crowds – and we were able to complete our darshan in less than 20 minutes.

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From here we headed to another ancient temple – the Perumal temple at Kattu Mannar. A 30 min drive from the Boar temple. Again an ancient temple with a lot of mythology associated with it – but the temple has seen better days. Our hotel was 8 Kms from here and we reached by 7.45 PM. It was a long day and we had covered a lot of ground – 6 temples and over 200 kms of driving. A simple dinner of Phulka Rotis , Dal , Sabji , Curd , Rice – and we sat outside in the Charpoy admiring the full moon before heading to bed by 9.30 PM.

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Day – 3 we start early and reach the Priests house by 5.45 AM for the morning Puja at the Thillai Nataraja Temple. This is a must visit. The Sanctum Sanctorum opens by 6.30 AM for public viewing and a grand ceremony is held every morning. The Puja gets over by 6.45 AM.

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Our next stop was the Thillai Kali temple – the Consort of Thillai Nataraja , located just 850 M from the Main Nataraja Temple . A small temple it houses Kali as Amman and Rudra Kali in her angry form. The temple was decked with lemons and I asked the Priest the significance of lemons and Devi temples – he had no answer – so thats some homework for me to research.

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After breakfast we headed towards Kumbakonam. From Chidambaram the Darasuram Temple – a UNESCO world Heritage site was about 60 Km ( from our hotel 45 Km) – and it took us 90 minutes to get there. Lovely architecture and exquisite sculpture is the hallmark of this massive Shiva temple.

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Kumbakonam is full of temples and I have covered most of them in my visit a few years back. But to give my friend a flavour of the city we drove around the town to the Uppaliappan temple – a large Vishnu Temple in the outskirts of the city. After a darshan here we reached Swamimalai for lunch at the beautiful Indecco hotel – another Heritage property. We had stayed here when we had travelled to Kumbakonam some years back – if you are travelling to Kumbakonam do stay here. (https://vak1969.com/2012/02/17/kumbakonam-tanjore-3-day-trip/)

It was tempting to travel another 45 Km South to the Brihadeswara temple at Tanjore but we decided to keep that for a future visit with Tiruchi and headed back to our hotel to reach by 3.30 in time for a nice cup of tea. A few hrs of rest and then we walked around the property visiting the 150 year old temple in its premises and strolled by the village market. Dinner by 8 PM and we were off to sleep by 9 PM – the next day we were heading to Thiruvanamalai and needed an early start.

Day – 4 We head to Thiruvanamalai 

We left at 6.15 AM and reached Thiruvanamalai at 9 AM – the 120 KM distance has good roads ( single lane) and being a Sunday morning the roads were empty. There are many eating joints opposite the Ramana Ashram and after a quick breakfast we reached the Ashram. Its a beautiful place – full of soothing energy. A Temple dedicated to Arunachala, Ramana Maharishi’s Samadhi , a Meditation Hall and a lovely Library form the main complex. They also have a room where he breathed his last and a nice cowshed. The Ashram has many peacocks and birds and was buzzing with people – mostly foreigners. This is a place of self discovery – so there is no routine / workshop / sessions that are held to engage the visitors or those staying here. They have rooms to stay – but getting a room is difficult especially between Nov & Feb. We knew one of the Trustees at the temple and he promised to help us get a room at the Ashram during our next visit. Mani uncle walked us thru the campus and took us to the point from where we started a 40 minute trek to the Skanda Ashram & Virupaksha Cave. Its a easy trek – rocky and takes you to two caves where Ramana Maharishi meditated for almost 20 years. The caves are beautiful and full of energy. In 5 Minutes I could sense the the energy equivalent of what I had after 6 days or 60 hrs of my Vipassna meditation – thats the power of these caves.

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You can come back to the Ashram or walk along and reach the Arunachala Temple. This is the Shiva Temple dedicated to Fire. Its massive and very well maintained. Being. Sunday it was very crowded so we decided to come back in the evening – temple is open from 5 AM to 9.30 PM.

We stayed at the Sparsa hotel – a beautiful property full of greenery and with excellent rooms. If you don’t get a room in the Ashram stay here – its as peaceful and serene as the Ashram. Rates are very reasonable (Rs 5500 / night for double occupancy inclusive of breakfast) – after lunch and a few hrs of rest we headed back to the Ashram at 4 PM. A Drive around the Hills                “Girivaram” – normally people walk these 18 Kms – considered very auspicious.

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Between 4.30 and 6.30 PM  we stayed at the Ashram – there were talks and Vedic Chantings going on and after a hr of meditation we headed to the Temple reaching there by 7.30 PM. Everything is close Sparsa to Ashram is a 5 min drive and Ashram to Temple is another 5 min drive. Mornings and late evenings are the best time to go to a temple – its cool and relatively empty. By 7.30 the temple crowd had reduced and we got excellent Dharshan in less than 20 minutes. They have a normal Q and a 20 Rs Q.

View of the temple from the trek to the Virupaksha Cave – admire its size and symmetry.

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Happy and satisfied we headed back to the hotel and reached by 9 PM after a simple dinner.

Day – 5 We head back to Bangalore. We left at 5.15 AM and reached E City at 8.30 AM. Be careful of the road you take – the shorter route as shown by Google Maps is a bad road full of potholes. After you reach Singarpet take a right and come via the Tirupattaur outer to Bardur and Krishnagiri where you  meet the Chennai Bangalore 6 lane expressway. We reached the Expressway at 7 AM and were at E City by 8.30. Thats good timing given that this is a 180 Km distance.

 Thu to Monday we had travelled 1200 Kms – a low cost trip the per person expense was less than Rs 15,000/-  thats 3K / day. (All my previous holidays were almost 20 K / day). Everything worked like clockwork – Roads were Good , Google Maps was perfect, food was good, the Rooms were nice , there was hardly any crowd wherever we went , the weather was excellent, the people we met were nice and friendly from the waiter at Lakshmi Niwas to the French Sita at the Q in Thiruvanamalai – and by divine grace we got the contacts to the Priests at the Chidambaram temple as we were driving, we had made no attempts to get the details. Mani Mama at Ramana Ashram helped us with the right directions to Bangalore else we would have been stuck in a pothole road taking a few extra hrs to reach Bangalore.

Many of the temples we visited had just completed their Kumbhabhishekam – and its very auspicious to visit a temple within 40 days of the Kumbhabhishekam. All in all a very satisfying trip. I had wonderful company and that made the trip even more delightful – with two people sharing the driving load and the costs it becomes so much more easier to do these trips in a. cost efficient manner.

Kumbhabhishekham is a  temple ritual that is believed to homogenize, synergize and unite the mystic powers of the deity. Kumbha means the Head and denotes the Shikhara or Crown of the Temple (usually in the Gopuram) and Abhisekham is ritual bathing. On the appointed day and at an auspicious time, the Kumbha is bathed with the charged and sanctified holy waters in the sacrificial pot and, by a mystic process, these pranic powers trickle down a silver wire and enter the deity installed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. The deity, which was until then only a granite sculptured stone image, is believed to transform into a vibrant and vivid living representation of the deva with innate beatitude, grace and grandeur, conferring divine blessings on all devotees.

Few Tips

  • Travel during the weekdays – its a lot easier – lesser crowds , easier to get rooms.
  • Nov – Feb is the best time to travel – Summer can be extremely hot 45 Degrees +
  • Visit Temples early Morning or Late Evening.
  • And lastly if your room mate snores like crazy carry ear plugs or some cotton – it works and helps you have a peaceful sleep

 

 

 

 

Insights from my 10 day Vipassana Session at Bangalore

30 Jan

It was an intense and powerful program and by the 10th day I could clearly see the benefits. And this they say is just the beginning. A program conducted with deep commitment and compassion that touches you. A program conducted purely by volunteers for which there is no charge. A unique program that all should explore.

Vipassana is a powerful technique of Strengthening & Purifying the mind. Its the original pure technique that Gautama Buddha shared with his followers after his enlightenment. The intent of this Blog is to help first timers attending a Vipassana session to get a fair understanding of how the jigsaw puzzle falls into place over the ten days. My first Vipassna session at Bodh Gaya was about 3 years back and I left on the 5th day. Now after having completed the course I realise that I made a mistake and was looking at it piecemeal day by day. I hope first timers after reading this blog will not make the mistake of leaving in the middle.

Disclaimer – There is no substitute to attending this program – the learnings , benefits , awareness that one will get from attending the program cannot be documented in a blog.

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What most people say when you tell them ” I am attending a Vipassana session” 

When I told friends that I was attending a Vipassana Course the initial reaction was – “Its very Tough , you hardly get to eat anything , you have to wake up at 4 and meditate for 10 hrs every day , you can’t talk for ten 10 days… ” – all of this is true. But this was easy for me . I am used to waking up at 4 , and with no physical activity and talk the healthy vegetarian food they provide was enough – never felt hungry. Staying quiet for ten days was a pleasure – away from noise and pollution in a serene and peaceful ambience.

So what makes it Challenging 

Its a mind game. A wild elephant does not want to get tamed. Similarly the mind does not want to be controlled. This is the battle across the ten days. Your mind feels like a paper boat on a stormy ocean being tossed up and down. The mind is so strong and free willed – its been roaming freely for so many years – suddenly trying to control it is a challenge.

Lets step back and define the problem – Why Vipassana , what is the problem that we are trying to solve. 

2500 years back Buddha saw Misery not just in his life but across all his previous births. That stands true today – rich or poor , old or young there is a lot of misery in the Human Mind.

The root cause for Misery is Craving and Aversion. Every seer and enlightened person has said this but nobody has been able to give a solution. Vipassana is a simple, proven technique that when practised regular help us solve for this problem .

 

So whats the solution 

Two skills you need to develop – 1. Be Aware 2. Be Equanimous. These are like the two wings of a bird that helps you soar and overcome the challenges of misery.

Every time there is a Craving or an Aversion you sow a seed in your mind which grows and multiples. By being equanimous you do not sow the seed and over a period the old seeds die.

Vipassana helps you to purify the mind of the old seeds that have been sowed and stop new seeds being planted. So over time you mind becomes pure.

Sounds easy but whats the methodology  

You follow a 3 step process

You need to take a vow and follow the foundation of the practice sīla — moral conduct. Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi — concentration of mind, which is the second step, and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā — the wisdom of insight to observe things as it is. This is the third step.

  1. The key percepts of sīla are – Maintain Noble Silence (Silence of body , speech & mind – even eye contact is not allowed). Other rules – No Stealing, No Lies , No Killing ( Not even a mosquito) , No sexual misconduct , No Liquor /Intoxicants and total segregation of male and female meditators.

2. samādhi is about taming the mind and using it in an incisive manner to purify the mind.

3. And finally paññā is about observing things as is – observing the Truth within you with equanimity – neither like or dislike.

A fundamental principle behind Vipassana is that everything is constantly changing – nothing is permanent. The minutest cell in the human body  the smallest subatomic particles that are in constant transition – generating and regenerating itself almost a trillion times every second. In effect the body is nothing but wavelets.

So whats the Viapssana Technique that you practise for ten Days 

There are two Techniques that you Practise.

Anapana Sati – a simple technique to control your mind by observing your breath and then observing the sensations in your body. A sensation is nothing but a Electrochemical reaction and the body is full of sensations – our gross mind is unable to observe them. But when you sit in meditation for ten hours a day concentrating on a specific part of the body you are able to observe the sensations on the 2nd or 3rd day. Anapana Sati is a technique to sharpen the mind.

On the 4th Day evening you are initiated to Vipassana. You now move the mind from the head to Toe and Toe to head observig the sensations all across the body. Sensations may be gross or subtle , some you may like , some you may have an aversion to. The training is to observe the sensations with equanimity and move on. You will also see that every sensation dies after certain time following the rule of impermanence.

As you continue this process observing pain, itching , heat , perspiration , tingling, and many more sensations Gross & Subtle …. in an equanimous manner you are purifying the mind of impurities and they emerge as old hidden thought , as tears , some get gassy , multiple things happen and each experience is unique to an individual. You can sense changes happening within and thats what causes the upheaval of the mind. Thoughts flow in abundance – I remembered my class 8 Newtons Laws and all the Trigonometry formulas from Class 11 / 12. Minute details from 30 – 40 years suddenly come in front of you. Sweet memories make you smile and the bad ones bring tears. Fantasies and dreams float by. And you observe and observe quietly.

How intense can the sensations be

They can be very intense – in one of the Dhamma Talks Goenka Ji talks about a Scientist from US who came to his teachers meditation centre in Burma and his body was literally jumping up and down while in meditation. His sensations were intense – this was not a flying Sadhu who was experiencing weightlessness but a person full of impurities that would require a lot of cleansing.

Sounds simple – so can we cleanse ourselves in ten days by doing this 

This is just the beginning. You will definitely feel a lot better after ten days as you would have started cleaning the store impurities of so many years – but you need to continue this for a long time. The recommendation is to practise for at least 2 hrs a day after the ten Day program and also to attend a Ten Day session once every year.

And its not just the practise you follow the principles of Sīla or morality in your day to day life. Experienced Vipassana practitioners then move on to 15 , 20 , 30 and even 45 day programs.

Which are the most Challenging Days 

Day 2 and day 6 are the most challenging days after learning the Technique and practising them for a day the mind gets boiling and frenetic. There are terabytes of thought that flood your mind, you go up and down. Old memories from childhood, from work , from old friends , acquaintances , good memories , bad memories, they all come gushing out. You are quiet – there is no other outlet to distract you , so you have no option but to reflect.

I had attended an earlier program at Bodh Gaya and exited on day 5 – so I was aware of the 1st 4 days and actually enjoyed it. The routine was quiet , the peace and quiet and serenity was enjoyable. I have been doing Aana Pana for the last 3 years so the technique was not new to me. On Day 3 I went into deep meditation and did not hear the 11 AM Gong for lunch and the friendly attendant had to shake me awake. Maybe If he had not I would stayed in deep meditation for days and got enlighted !

But Day 6 was very challenging. At 5 PM after tea as I was sitting quietly by a corner under a tree reflecting on the burst dam of thoughts a mosquito comes and sits on my nose. I instinctively try to clap and crush it – but remember that I can’t kill it. He is a smart mosquito – he comes back after 6 PM inside the meditation hall during the “Addithanaa” session – this is a 1 hr session where you try to develop strong determination by not changing position , moving legs or opening your eyes. I can sense him sitting on my face. I twitch my face but he hangs on. I can feel the piercing of my skin as he draws blood and I remember the instruction – ” feel the sensation – this will also pass” – and it does pass. The guy sensed easy blood and came back the next day – but this time I was prepared with a. liberal dose of Odomos and had the last laugh.

On different days aI saw different symbols that expressed the state of my mind. On day 3 there was a eagle soaring in the sky – gliding up , coming down sharply and then being static mid air. On Day 6 there were multiple monkeys in a Tree in the campus. Jumping up and down – and thats exactly how the mind was. And on day 9 the same tree was full of parrots chirping happily.

Things start getting better by day 7, and 8. You also tell yourself that 70% done , 80 Done and the end is near – that helps.

By day 9 & 10 the mind is so focused and strong that you feel its like a beam of lazor. On day 9 I tried focusing my mind at the eyebrow centre – and boom there was a flash of light and I could immediately sense a strong pulsating sensation at the Pineal gland in the back of the head. Normally this takes 5 – 15 minutes of focused attention during my Yoga sessions and even then I feel a warm sensation and not throbbing. I then tried focusing my attention in all the energy Centres and there was instantaneous reactions there also. ( The practise does not encourage focusing on any specific spots and concepts like Chakras are not talked about in Vipassana – this was my own experimentation)

So what is unique about this Program 

Its an experiential program. There is nothing theoretical about it. Your experience is basis how you implement the teachings. Goenkaji explains this very well with an example. When you visit a Restaurant you see the menu and feel hungry , you then see the person next table relishing the food , that makes you more hungry – but finally you taste the food and relish it. Attending lectures and hearing about the experiences of others is good – but there is no substitute to experiencing the eternal trust as is by yourself.

Its different from other meditation where you chant a mantra or “Om” or Focus on a god or goddess. That helps to calm the mind at the surface level – but does not get deep to cleanse the mind. Been mantras like Om create a high level of Vibration – but these are externally created vibrations – In Vipassana nothing is created from outside , all you do is observe whats happening inside.

Who is the Teacher and how is the course conducted

The principal Teacher is Sri S.N.Goenka ( Late). All the sessions are his Audio / Video recordings. Goenkaji or Guruji was a successful businessman in Rangoon and learnt this technique in 1955 from his teacher U Ba Khin. He worked with him for 14 years and came to India in 1969. The technique that is taught is the pure and pristine form of Vipassana that Gautama Buddha had shared 2500 years back. It had got lost in India and Goenka Ji brought this back to the country. He is a great orator full of compassion and logic. There is no mumbo jumbo of this program – it will appeal to the analytical mind. There was a prophecy that 2500 after Buddhas death the knowledge of his teachings would come back to India and then spread across the world. 1969 was the 2500th year – that was the year Goenka Ji came to India – so maybe the prophecy is coming true.

At the session there are Assistant teachers who facilitate the program and can help you with any questions you may have on the technique.

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So is this Buddhism

Goenka Ji emphasises again and again that this is universal and people from all religion attend the Vipassana program. It is a program that help in conversion from Misery to happiness. There are no mantras, Talismans , Images, etc referenced anywhere in the program. these are the original pristine teachings of Buddha on how to develop on the path to enlightenment.

However during the program you are told not to practise any other rites or rituals.

Where are the centres located and how do I enrol

There are multiple centres in the Country. You can register online at https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/vipassana. I attended the session at the Bangalore centre in Tumkur. Most sessions get completely enrolled 2 – 3 months in advance. The HQ are at Igatpuri – Nasik and the centre there looks like heaven.

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Will I get to stay in a single room – How is the food – Whats the schedule …. 

Depends on the centre. The Bangalore Centre has 40 Single rooms and also Dormitories. Old Meditators are given preference for single rooms and then its allotted on first come basis. Rooms are simple but clean and functional with hot water, fan , western toilets etc.

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The schedule is taxing you start at 4 and and at 9 PM. Food is simple and nutritious. A good sumptuous lunch , and a decent breakfast are the primary meals. Tea and a very light snack are served at 5 PM.

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Food is simple veg – we had Upma , Poha, Pongal , Idli for breakfast  on different days and Rice , Roti , Vegetables , Sambar , Rasam, Raita , Salad, Buter Milk for lunch. Its self service and you clean your own plates after use. You can help yourself to additional servings if you are hungry.

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Whats the Charge , who are the attendees 

There is no charge – everything is provided free of cost. On the last day you are free to donate whatever you feel like.  Anybody is welcome to attend- there is no class or sect bar.

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Any other benefits ? 

Yes its a great detox program – the soulitude , simple food, No talk calms your mind and also helps you to lose weight. I lost 4 kgs of body weight – but I can’t measure the head weight I have lost.

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Thank You – India Railways and Mysore Police

18 Jan

I have heard great things about the Indian Railways and its improved efficiency ever since Suresh Prabhu has taken over. The trains are cleaner, the platforms and the bathrooms are sparkling clean (At least in South India), Trains are punctual.

A few days back I had a great experience – in the Chennai Mysore Shatabadi. On Sun 15th Jan we boarded the Chennai – Mysore Shatabdi at 6 AM headed to Bangalore. We were a group of 6 with 5 suitcases and many small bags and accessories.

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After a very comfortable journey in a very neat coach we got off at Bangalore Majestic. I always take count of the suitcases before we leave – but this day there was some miscommunication , and I was not as alert as usual. We came back home and realised that we had left a suitcase in the Train. It was my dad’s suitcase and had his medicines and a few other important items.

I had no clue what to do and there was a sense of panic at home. Searched the web for the station numbers at Majestic and Mysore – but the numbers that popped up were obsolete and not out of service. I then tried contacting some business associates at Mysore who could send someone to the station and pick up the Suitcase from Coach C5. But being a Sunday at 12 Noon – nobody was reachable.

At my wits end I called my friend seeking advice. He asked me to call 139 Railway Enquiry. After a few options I finally reached a friendly call centre advocate who politely told me that she could not help and I would need to contact the Railway Police Mysore for Lost & Found – she was not able to help with the number.

After multiple Google attempts I finally reached this site http://202.138.101.165/railwaypolice/Railway%20Police%20Contact.html. 

Fortunately it had a Mobile Number listed for Mysore (9480802122) – which I immediately dialled. And thats when the efficient miracle started.

The phone was picked up on the second ring and a confident no nonsense efficient voice answered me. I explained the situation – he responded by saying that Shatabadi was just entering the platform and he would send one of his team to C5 to locate the suitcase and call me back.

I waited patiently invoking the universal energy – my mother was very confident that we would get the suitcase back. Expecting a call back from a Govt official was rare. But this man was different – within 10 minutes I got a call back saying he had traced the Suitcase and he would be sending it back with Pappu Khan the pantry boy in C5 Coach and I could pick it up at 420 PM when the train reached Bangalore Majestic.  He gave me Pappu Khan’s number – I called him and established contact.

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We were there at the station at 4 PM and promptly at 4.20 the train chugged in Platform no 7. As we waited anxiously Pappu Khan was at the gate with our suitcase. We thanked him profusely.

For me a miracle had happened – I had never expected a lost suitcase in the train would be got back so easily. And it all happened because of  Mr S Krishnamoorthy – Sup Inspector Police at Mysore Railway Station.  Thanks a lot Mr Krishnamoorthy – people like you instil confidence that in todays world there are still good people. It was your attitude and efficient approach that made things happen. You are a role model. Thank You Sir – May God Bless you and your Family. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://202.138.101.165/railwaypolice/Railway%20Police%20Contact.html

 

Best of Kanchipuram in 10 hrs

2 Jan

Kanchipuram – The golden city of 1000 temples (Currently about 125 are in good shape),  is just 71 kms from Chennai. Its an irony that I have been travelling to Chennai  multiple times every year for the last 20 years but have never been to Kanchipuram. Most tourists go to Mahabalipuram not realising that the Pallavas Capital – Kanchipuram is equally close.

Its a sheer coincidence that within 10 days of visiting Varanasi (Kashi) I was at Kanchipuram. Many regard Kancipuram to be the second holiest city in India after Varanasi. Its in the list of 7 sacred cities of India (the Mokshapuri cities – it is believed by living or death in these cities you get liberation from the cycle of birth and death). The similarity between Kashi and Kanchipuram is not just in the piousness and the temples but also in the world famous silk sarees that they make.

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Kanchipuram was under Pallava rule from 6th – 8th century , followed by the Cholas and then the Vijaynagar kings. Many of the amazing temples were built by the Pallava in the 6th and 7th century and still stand majestically in great shape. While most Hindu Temples in South India are Shaivite or Vaishnavite bastions , Kanchipuram has divided itself into Vishnu Kanchi surrounded by the Vardarajan Perumal Temple and Shiva Kanchi surrounded by the Ekambaranath temple while the Kamakshi Amman temple stands in between as a place of Shakti worship.

Kanchipuram has over a 1000 temples and you can spend weeks visiting them – but then there are a few that definitely merit a visit.

We left Chennai at 530 AM and reached our first stop – The food Temple – Saravana Bhawan, on the Chennai Bangalore Highways just before Kanchipuram by 7 AM.(Lakshmi Narayani Complex, NH-4,Banglore Highway | Near Meenakshi Medical College). Lots of parking , spacious , clean toilets – and the standard high quality veg breakfast of piping hot idli , Wada and Pongal – was a good start to a great day.

1st Stop –  Ekambareshwar Temple ( Budget 45 min on a week day not crowded)

6AM – 1230 PM & 4 PM – 8.30 PM 

Most famous Shiva temple of Kanchipuram – considered to be one of the oldest in the country. Here Shiva is worshipped in the form of an Earth Linga. One of the rare temples where no Abhishekam is done on the lingam.  One of the tallest temples in S India the Gopuram soars to a height of 192 feet. The temple is spread over 20 acres. As per Legend Shiva was enraged with Parvathi and sent her packing to earth. She prayed at this temple spot under a mango tree for many years by making a Shiva Linga out of the sand of the Kamba River. Finally Shiva came to earth and stayed with her at this Temple. To this day people worship the mango tree. The 3500 mango tree is believed to produce 4 types of mangoes from 4 branches that stand for the 4 vedas.

The temple compound also has a Vishnu Shrine – Nilathunda Perumal – which is revered as one of the 108 Divya Desams. The temple also has two large tanks. The temple was originally built by the Pallava king and later enlarged by the Chola and Vijaynagar kings. Well maintained – neat and clean it was empty on a weekday we visited – and we could cover it well in 45 minutes.

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2nd Stop – Kailasanathar Temple ( Budget 30 – 45 Minutes) 

9.30AM – 1230 PM & 4 PM – 6 PM

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This temple was built by the Pallava king Rayasimhan in the 8th century. It is perhaps the largest surviving sandstone temple in the world and is considered the oldest structure of Kanchipuram. Looks very similar to the shore temple – but the distinguishing feature are the panels on the walls depicting the life of Shiva.

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The temple is unique in its architecture and is viewed more as an architectural beauty than a holy place. When we reached at 920 the temple was closed and the priest was expected only by 930. Legend has it that “Poosalar Nayannar”  a Shiva devotee decided to build a temple – but due to lack of means he built it in his dreams. The day of the consecration of the Kailasanatha temple clashed with that of Poosalar’s imaginary temple. Shiva came to the King and his dreams and asked him to change the date of the Consecration as he would be first visiting Poosalar’s temple given the devotion and passion with which he has built his temple of dreams.

3rd Stop – Kanchi Kudil (Budget 15 – 30 Minutes)

Opens at 930 AM

Its a traditional Mudaliar house that has been preserved like a museum. They also serve a traditional Lunch if you order in advance ( Veg & Non Veg) at 350/ plate – Contact A Udhayakumar – 9941138703

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4th Stop – Kanchi Kamakshi Temple (Budget 60 Minutes)

5.30AM – 1230 PM & 4 PM – 8.30 PM

India has 3 main cities where the Goddess Shakti is worshipped – Kanchipuram holds the most important rank amongst the three. The 3 powerful goddesses are Kanchi Kamakshi , Madurai Meenakshi and Kashi Vishalakshi.

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The Kamakshi temple is an ancient one and was built in its current state by the Cholas in the 14th century. Spread across 5 acres the sanctum is gold plated. While the goddess Parvati is seen standing in most temples she is found sitting here in a yogis posture – Padmasana  and is referred to as Parabrahma Swarupini. She has four arms and is seen holding a bow, a lotus, a parrot and a sugarcane.

It is believed that Kamakshi was originally a Ugra Swaroopini and Adi Shankara on establishing the Sri Chakra personified her as Shanti Swaroopini. The temple structure is complicated and when we visited in Dec 2016 – it was undergoing renovation.

You can reach very close to the sanctum sanctorum and get an excellent Darshan of the powerful deity. Fortunately the day we visited it was not crowded.

 

5th Stop – Vardaraja Perumal temple  also known as Devraja Temple (Budget 45 – 60 Minutes)

7AM – 12 PM & 3.30 PM – 8 PM

Dedicated to Lord Vishnu this temple is located in Vishnu Kanchi a short drive from the Kanchi Kamakshi temple. The main temple here is Lord Varadaraja who is seen standing and facing west. It is considered a very holy site for Vaishnavites. It was built immediately after the Kailasanatha temple by Paramaeshwaravarman Pallava in the 7th century. The majestic Gopuram with its intricate carvings is a sight to behold.

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The 100 pillared hall is the unmistakable legacy of the Vijaynagara rulers. The unique features of this temple are the lizards carved above the sanctum that are plated in gold. A large temple spread over 20 acres. Very well maintained.

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5th Stop – Vardaraja Perumal temple also known as Devraja Temple (Budget 45 – 60 Minutes)

6th Stop – Shankaracharya Mutt (Budget 30  Minutes)

One of the Mutts established by Adi Shankara – for the religious Tamil Brahmin its a rare honour to visit the Mutt which is home to the Shankaracharya of Kanchi. We stopped by for 30 min – steeped in rituals and tradition it may be very religious but sadly it lacked spirituality.

 

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7th Stop – Lunch at another Saravana Bhawan – in the Main Kanchipuram city

We were lucky as the temples were almost empty we reached the Saravana Bhawan at Gandhi Road for lunch. We had made good time and we reached by 12 noon. The City is clean and well maintained. None of the temple we were hounded by priests for extra money neither were there VIP Q’s .

For the ambitious post lunch you can travel to Mahabalipuram. Chennai – Kanchipuram – Mahabalipuram form a Triangle. But we decided to head back. Our timing was great and we were back home by 3.30 in the afternoon well before the traffic rush.

Kanchipuram can get very hot in the summers – best time to visit is between Nov – Feb. 

If you have the time and energy here are a few other temples you could visit

  1. Ulahalanda Perumal temple
  2. Kumara Kottam Subramaniam Swami temple
  3. Kacchapeswarar temple
  4. Chitragupta Swami temple

And visit some stores for the Original Kancheepuram silk sarees

The driver we engaged was excellent – Raju owns a well maintained clean Innova. You can contact him at + 91 9941404541 or +91 8939756776. He is efficient and professional.

For those travelling from Bangalore its best to plan an overnight trip. Leave Bangalore by 10 AM and reach Kancheepuram by 2.30 3. Check into the GRT hotel – freshen up and start your temple tour by 4 PM when the temples open for the evening Darshan. Complete a set in the evening and do the rest the next day morning 6.30 – 9.30 AM. Have Breakfast – check out and leave by 1030 AM to Reach Bangalore by 230 – 3.

Regency Kanchipuram by GRT Hotels

Address: 487, Gandhi Road, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu 631502.

Contact No: 044-27225250

E-mail: reservationskanchi@grtregency.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Axis Bank – ” Dear Madam Shikha – Your letter is not Re -assuring”

19 Dec

Dear Shikha Sharma ;

I logged in my mail and saw your letter after visiting an Axis Bank branch this morning. I have been a Axis Privilege Customer for the last 11 years. Initially I recommended a lot of my friends and family to your bank – but recently I am thinking on whether I should continue or not.

Its not just about the fraud and the crisis that happened with demonetisation – but over the years there has been a steep decline in Customer Service , Approach , Technology Robustness and of course as we see Governance and Controls.

This morning it took 30 minutes for the Teller at the 80 feet road Koramangla branch to serve me . he apologised ” Sir – The systems are slow” – and this is not the first time that we have seen your systems behave badly with a huge crowd waiting to be serviced. The poor hassled teller was at his wits end as the crowd that has been waiting since 845 AM started getting angry. (A similar transaction at Citibank last week took me less than 5 minutes). Later in the afternoon when I visited the Branch at 4th Block near Forum – I saw no Q and the security informed me that the system had stopped working totally. You are one of the top private banks in the Country and your system are down for hours – there is no apology / no SMS from the Bank saying sorry our systems are down.

The branches are dirty and unswept at 930 AM – it feels like I am walking into a Government building. The Vinyl posters are torn an tattered. The walls are plastered with papers most of them peeling off. The staff are lackadaisical and lost in their own world. Not just lost some are nasty.

Last week ( Thursday 15th) I was in the Q to withdraw money ( Again at the Branch near Forum) – I was sanding from 845AM . The Teller started his operations at 955 AM – bank opening was supposedly 930. There was a Q of over 75 people spilling into the streets – and there was money – as the support staff rolled in the trucks with the cash to the teller counter by 9.40. In a busy branch only 1 Teller was operational and he started his day at 9.55. The second Telleer counter  was empty.

As I was standing in the Q – a staff got a call ( she was from the Forex team) and she started shouting at the customer. ” Stop calling me – you can check your account and you will get a SMS once the credit happens” – post the call she tells her supervisor sitting next to her ” This customer is a Psycho – he is a mad guy” all of this within earshot of the customers standing in the Q – If thats the attitude with which you treat your customers – I am really worried.

The branch manager is invisible – his room is always empty. 10 years back the Branch Manager would be visible, greeting his customer by name , there was leadership displayed, he would run the bank. Today I don’t even know who your Branch Manager is – he prefers to hide rather than come in the front and solve issues.

Even before demonetisations your ATM’s were dry most of the time. Your sales people were interested in selling Insurance Linked products… . The people in your branch look lost and confused – and its amazing that in this confusion there are still a few sincere hard working people who stand out. Many of the good people I have interacted with at your branches over the years have moved on …..

Maybe its time for me to move on to. Maybe the Fraud and the negative publicity is an opportunity for you to fix the mess in your Bank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_______________________________________________________________________

Dear Customer,
On behalf of my colleagues’ at Axis Bank, I write to thank you for your support and understanding since the demonetisation initiative began. It has been a challenging time and we have tried our level best to make it easier for you.
During this period we have been overwhelmed by the care and understanding customers such as you have shown us, from bringing food for our branch staff to the instant appreciation for a job well done. We have made every effort to ease the transition by making special arrangements for senior citizens and differently abled people at our branches, using micro-ATMS to deliver cash to BSF personnel, ensuring salary disbursement to government and corporate employees across the length and breadth of our country.
Hence the recent media reports around the conduct of a few of our employees have left me embarrassed and upset. We have fallen short of your expectations because a handful of people did not follow our fully compliant and robust processes. We have taken the toughest action against such employees and we will do so in every case of divergence from our Code of Conduct. I regret that the misdeeds of a few people have eroded the hard work of 55000+ employees, who have been at the front end beyond working hours, displaying extraordinary patience and commitment to their responsibilities.
I would like to reassure you that the bank has always been committed to the highest standards of operational control and continues to fully cooperate with the authorities. We have been tracking sudden surges in account activity and have proactively identified potentially suspicious accounts. This proactive identification has been one of the inputs in investigation by the regulatory authorities, who are visiting some of our branches to seek out information. Further, we have hired KPMG to conduct a forensic audit for enhanced due diligence and building more safeguards.
I assure you that the fundamentals of the bank, built painstakingly over the last 22 years, focused on serving its retail and corporate customers is on a solid footing. The Banker, a publication by the Financial Times, UK has ranked us amongst the safest banks in the world and we rank second in India. CRISIL the premier rating agency of the country has on December 2, 2016 reaffirmed its ratings on the banks’s existing debt instruments at ‘CRISIL AAA/Stable/CRISIL A1+”. The ratings reflect Axis Bank’s robust capitalisation, healthy resource profile and comfortable earnings.
If there is more information you seek at this time, do click here to visit this link. Also, our branch managers and relationship managers are always available to help in case of any assistance that you may require.
In closing, I am grateful for your support all through these years. We will always safeguard your interests because your trust matters the most. I look forward to your continued confidence in making us a safe, strong bank that is always focused on you.
Thanking you,
Warm regards,
Shikha Sharma
MD & CEO Axis Bank

Benares & Sarnath in 48 Hrs

13 Dec

Kashi & Sarnath in 48 Hours

It competes with Jerusalem for the tag of the oldest city – but clearly no city can compare with it for its mix of Mythology, Religion, History, Art and Culture. It’s the summer home of Lord Shiva – throw a stone you will hit an ancient temple and walk a furlong you will find an Ashram.

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From Baba’s & Aghoris, Saints & Sufi Mystics, Silk Weaving to Shehnai, Pan, Desi Ghee sweets, Good tasty affordable food and lots more – it’s all packed in the 8 km stretch across 84 Ghats and in the narrow by – lanes of this ancient city.

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Sarnath is a stone’s throw away – a mere 15 kms. While Varansi the hub of Hindu Religion is steeped in ritual and tradition – Sarnath symbolizes Buddha with its peace and tranquil atmosphere. This is where Buddha after his enlightenment gave his first sermon to his 5 disciples. This is where the first Ashok Chakra was built with the Sarnath Stupa. This is where the 11th Jain Tirthankara was born. Sushruta, the great surgeon and author of the Sushruta Samhita, the Sanskrit text of surgery, lived in Varanasi and practised medicine and surgery sometime during the 5th century BC. Tulsidas wrote his epic poem on Rama’s life called Ram Charit Manas in Varanasi. Several other major figures of the Bhakti movement were born in Varanasi, including Kabir and Ravidas. Guru Nanak Dev visited Varanasi for Shivratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism.

From Shiva to Buddha, the Jain Tirthankara’s, Kabir, Lahiri Mahasaya, Dr Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pt Ravi Shankar, Shehnai Maeestro Bismillah Khan , Pt Madan Mohan Malviya (Founder of IT BHU) and many more – the city definitely has contributed a lot. And all of that comes from the rare energy that the city possesses.

Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev explains this beautifully in his video on Varanasi –  Benares is not a city it’s a Yantra. There is a science by which the temples were built in a certain pattern to accentuate the energy. On the banks of the holy Ganga the city was designed in such a manner that anyone who came here never wanted to go back. He even says that it’s a celestial city that sits on Mahadevs Trishul – in a different plane from most cities.

But sadly a lot of that is lost. The beautiful architecture of the rock temples is covered with gaudy layers of paints, the city chokes in its crowded by lanes and you really need to dive deep past this muck to get a breath of fresh air and feel the energy of the ancient Varanasi. But this energy is so powerful that there are places where it still does touch you and that’s what attracts tourists and pilgrims in droves.

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Can you cover all of this in 48 hrs – yes you can and here is a plan to get going.

Indigo has a direct flight from Bangalore to Varanasi. Departs at 11.15 AM reaching at 1.45 – our flight was delayed by 30 min. Our guide Manoj was at the airport to receive us ( and he was a godsend – we owe the success of covering so much ground to him) – the journey from the airport to our hotel near Assi Ghat in Varanasi was a mess. About 30 kms it took us almost 90 min. (Hopefully 2017 should get better as Modi Ji is getting a expressway constructed that should let you zip in less than 30 minutes). Typical E – UP town, small shops, dusty, crowded roads – it’s like how the Durgapur – Calcutta Grand Truck road used to be in the 80’s. it’s a sore sight and I did get a tad worried on what the next 2 days had in store for us.

We reached our hotel – a small boutique property “De Bouginvilla” located in a nice residential area very close to Assi Ghat. It’s a new property less than 1 month old – small and efficient – Rs 3500/- night, inclusive of breakfast & Wi Fi. (P 3/6, Lane no. 15, Ravindrapuri, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221005).  Suited us perfectly. http://debougainvilla.com. (Other options you could consider as recommended by our Guide – Alka Guest House, Ganapati Guest House & Benares Haveli – all properties with room rates within 5K)

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Day – 1 : We started around 4 PM

A quick cup of tea and we were ready to leave. In Dec the sun sets at 5 PM and we were starting out at 3.45. It was cold and in Varanasi you walk – so get yourself a good pair of walking shoes. You share the narrow alleys with Cows, Dogs, Bikers and fellow pedestrians. There will be garbage and dung – so look around as you walk. The city has over 23,000 temples but there are a few that you cannot miss – The Kashi Vishwanath Temple, The Kedareshwar temple , and the Kal Bhairav Temple – these form the 3 Main Temple Complexes. Mythology says that these 3 temples are perched on the 3 points Shivas Trishul.

We spent a few hrs walking around the by lanes of the old city and immersing ourselves. Stopping by a chai shop for a warm cup, looking at temples as they popped out in every nook and corner. We walked past the Vedshala – where the young kids were being trained in Yoga and Vedic Sciences and general studies. Right next to it was the ancient Kedareshwar temple and we stopped by for Lord Shiva’s blessings for a successful trip. As per mythology praying at the Kedar temple in Kashi is 7 times more effective than the main temple at Kedarnath.

(http://varanasi-temples.com/category/shiva-temples/main-shiva-temples/kedareshwar/)

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From here we headed to Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening Ganga Arti. This is also called the Rajendra Prasad Ghat. The arti starts around 6 PM and continues for about 30 minutes. Fire, Drums, Bells clanging, large crowds – it’s definitely a must watch. No tickets. But come early for a prime spot – you won’t be as lucky as PM Modi and Abe to have a decorated area cordoned off for you.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Shinzo Abe witnessing the Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat, in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh on December 12, 2015.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Shinzo Abe witnessing the Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat, in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh on December 12, 2015.

After the arti we walked along and visited the ancient Brihaspati temple (http://varanasi-temples.com/category/shiva-temples/other-shiva-temples-a-d/brihaspateeshwar/) and headed for dinner to “Keshari” near Gadoria Chowk. A sumptuous meal (After our breakfast at home – all we had was an Upma in the Indigo flight and a few cups of tea and we were famished) – and we headed back to the hotel – day 2 was to be a long one starting at 5 AM.

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Day – 2 : We start at 5 AM

We were up by 4 AM – had a nice bath and took off on a cold foggy day at 5 AM with Manoj. We had an option of going to Assi Ghat and seeing the morning Arti – which is very different from the evening Arti (Mantras / Music / Yoga etc) or to start with the temple tours. We preferred to start the day with a trip to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple. One of the 12 Jyotirlingas ( The second one I was visiting within a month after the recent trip to Jageshwar , I missed the Jyotirlinga near Ellora a few months back). This temple has been destroyed a few times by invaders including once by Aurangzeb but has been rebuilt.

Past multiple narrow by lanes we finally reached the temple (you need to leave your bags, belt, cell phone) before you enter the temple. We were lucky – there was no crowd and got a great Darshan of the Swayambu and were able to sit quietly near the sanctum sanctorum for a long time. ( Visual is a Google Image – we were not allowed to take our Phones inside)

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The temples in Benares are not large like the S Indian ones. They are small and located in the heart of the city – no open gardens / courtyards. If the temple could have spoken it would have screamed like an American “Give me Space”.  Its jammed in the midst of houses, shops, lanes. There have been endowments from Maharaja Ranjit Singh so parts of the architecture have a Sikh design and the main temple pyramid is covered with 900 kg of Gold (Wonder if the ascetic god Shiva would have appreciated that). Fortunately, nobody bugged us – no tickets for special darshan, no Q’s for Prasad – that was a pleasant surprise in all the temples we visited. All the Temple premises are clean and well maintained.

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Immediately after this we visited the Annapurna Temple nearby and then as we were heading to Manikarna Ghat we stopped by a beautiful Nepali Temple (Almost all temples in Varanasi are dedicated to Shiva or Devi barring the Sankat Mochan temple which is dedicated to Hanuman). The Nepali temple was originally made of wood with intricate carvings but has now been restored and is a mix of Red Bricks and the original black wood. It’s a beautiful temple with a great view of the Ganges and the rising sun.

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A five-minute walk to Manikarna Ghat (This and the Harishchandra Ghats are the only two Ghats where cremation services can be done). Its messy and not a nice site so see the dead bodies burning. For people who work here its business as usual. Right next to the Manikarna Ghat is a Kund and a small Shiva temple which is almost submerged. This temple is supposed to be older than the Kashi Vishwanath temple – but few come here. (Note that women are not allowed to visit the burning ghats).

We took a boat and crossed over to the other side of the Ganges. Our Guide was worried – hardly anyone does this trip. But I wanted to visit a Aghori – and there were a few camping on the other bank of the Ganges.  The Aghoris path to enlightenment can sound gruesome. They worship the Devi, follow Tantric Rites, conduct their prayers at midnight and eat even dead bodies. The Aghori we met was from Tiruchi and he was training a few more – he seemed down to earth and spoke well. The tent was full of skulls and as we were speaking one of the disciples dropped something in the fire – the Aghori explained that was the heart of a Pig which they had sacrificed yesterday and this would form their next meal with rice soaked in the blood of the pig. Each one has his own way to get to Nirvana – clearly this is not my way and I walked out educated and aware of the Aghoris.

The morning was still foggy and it was admirable on how the boatman could get us to Panch Ganga Ghat. The water of the Ganges was surprisingly warm and clean and our guide asked us to cleanse ourselves with the holy water before we headed to the next set of temples.

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It’s a steep climb from the Panch Ganga Ghat and we headed to the Kal Bhairav temple.

This is one of the oldest Shiva temples in Varanasi, India. Situated in Bharonath, this temple has great historical and cultural importance in Hinduism. The temple is dedicated to one of the fiercest forms of Lord Shiva and wears a garland of skulls and carries a club of peacock feathers. The word “Kaal” means both “death” and “fate”. It is believed that even death is afraid of “Kaal Bhairava”.

A quick darshan here – again it was empty and nice. By now we were famished and thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast of Hot Jalebis and Kachoris freshly made. (Madhu Jalpan , Keshyam Kanhaiya Chitra Madndali Bas Phatak)

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By now it was almost 945 AM and we took a Battery Auto to our hotel for a 15 min rest and to pick up the address for our next destination – the revered Sage – Lahiri Mahasya house. He was the saint who was initiated by Babaji to Kriya Yoga in 1861 at Dunagiri and his family still maintains that tradition. ( 31/158 Madanura Lane, Garudeshwar Mohalla,  Chowsatti Ghat)

Lahiri Mahasaya’s house is quiet and empty and is a great place to sit quietly and meditate. Lots of energy here.

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Right next to this is a small guest house – Shivakashi Guest House. Very affordable.

Morning was dedicated to visiting Ashrams so from here we headed to the Kabir Mutt ( en -route picking up some Bhang from an authorized Bhang Shop) – a calm and quiet place.

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Next stop was the Silk Weavers market or Muslin Market. A great place to understand how the famous Benarasi Silk sarees are made and also to get some great deals.

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By now it was noon and we headed to Annapoorna for lunch (J12/16A, Ram Katora) . We had covered a lot of ground since 5 AM – but we still had a few more things to cover which was planned for the last phase.

A trip to the famous BHU – that was on the other side of the city and took us a good 1 hr to get there by Auto. The university is beautiful, green and clean – very well maintained. Right in the heart of the campus is a lovely Birla Temple. We had chai and tried out a very sweet local dish called “Lavang Lata” – it was really sweet.

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We could have walked the 3.5 Km from here to the Main Gate or Lanka – but we preferred to take an Auto and headed to the famous Sankat Mochan Temple. Famous recently for the bomb blast from 2011 – because of which there is more security and you need to leave your cell phone / bags etc at the entrance) – This is a Hanuman Temple – the only Non Shiva / Non Devi temple we visited.

And then on the way back to the Hotel the last stop was at the Adi Shakti Durga temple.

We reached our room by 5 PM – and as we summarized with Manoj what we had covered there was a sense of joy that we accomplished a lot in almost 24 hrs.

All this would have not been possible without Manoj. You cannot do Varanasi without a Guide and if you are planning a trip give a call to Manoj Yadav at + 91 9935956290. He was a godsend. I had initially booked Varanasi Tours – they were charging Rs 1600/- person for a 3 hr walking tour. We would have paid double and not covered even half of what Manoj showed us with the Varanasi tours. I am so glad that they cancelled in the last minute and I was able to connect with Manoj by pure luck.

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A nice warm shower and then we strolled out to ” Kshir Sagar” the most famous sweet shop of Benares to sample a few . On the way back stopped by a local Pan shop and picked up a few ” Original Benarasi pan” and headed back to the hotel for a simple dinner. We slept like a log that night.

Day – 3 : We start at 630 AM

The last day was dedicated to Sarnath. About 20 km from our hotel. The driver was there promptly by 6 and we headed out on a very foggy morning with visibility less than 20 feet. On the way stopping by for a simple meal of Kachuri & Jalebi ( Cost us Rs 75 for 3 people). We are at Sarnath before 745 AM.

Sarnath is a Village – its green and quiet. No hustle & bustle of Varanasi. This is where the enlightened Gautama gave his 1st sermon to his 5 disciples. There is a main temple built by the royal family of Ceylon at this spot. The place also has a pipal tree similar to the one at Bodh Gaya.

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Right adjacent to this is the Sarnath Stupa – a massive structure of solid bricks and rock with a lot of carving. This was built by Ashoka and this complex was excavate in the early 1900’s and renovated by ASI. Its in excellent shape – large gardens , very calm and quiet , very well maintained. The same complex also had the Ashoka Chakra which is now housed in a. well maintained museum next door.

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Sit down in a. corner and go back 2500 years to visualise the splendour of this place. This is not Mythology this is History.

The Thai’s, Japans, Nepalese, Burmese , Sri Lankan Governments have also built a few beautiful temples in Sarnath and they are worth a visit. Especially the Thai and Japanese ones and the Bajra Vidya temple. The Thai temple has a 180 feet Buddha statue – the tallest in India.

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And the Japanese temple which is made of wood

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Next to the Sarnath Stupa and the main temple is a Digambara Jain temple dedicated to the 11th Jain Tirthankara and thats definitely worth a visit.

You can complete all this and the Museum comfortable by 11AM and head back to the Airport. Most people stay at Varanasi and drive to Sarnath as its so close. We were back in Benares by 12 noon for a rushed lunch at the Taj Vivanta at Cantonment (All the big hotels Taj / Radisson etc are located in the Cantonment area which is a good 7 – 8 kms from the Ghats) and made it to the airport just in time at 115 to catch our 2.15 PM back to Bangalore.

We reached at 2.45 on Saturday  and the return flight was on time – in 47 hrs we had covered a lot of ground and there was a sense of satisfaction – Mission Accomplished. It was great to have my Brother In law for company and I hope we can do more of these in the years to come.

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Other Points to Note 

  • Best time to travel is Nov or Feb / March ( Dec / Jan can be very foggy and cold, and summers can be very hot, during the rains the river swells up massively)
  • At the Kashi Vishwanath temple there is a 630 PM Saptarishi Arti – which is supposedly great – try attending it, we couldn’t
  • We hunted for some classical program, Quawali / Mehfil etc – unfortunately none of that exists. So beyond temple hopping , street food and walking – entertainment options are limited
  •  Its a friendly and warm city and the people are nice – though the dialect is rough and tough. We found the place safe.
  • Trivia – how did the name Varanasi emerge from Kashi & BenaresTraditional etymology links “Varanasi” to the names of two Ganges tributaries forming the city’s borders: Varuna, still flowing in northern Varanasi, and Assi, today a small stream in the southern part of the city, near Assi Ghat. The old city is located on the north shores of the Ganges, bounded by Varuna and Assi.In the Rigveda, an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, the city is referred to as Kāśī (Kashi) from the Sanskrit verbal root kaś- “to shine”, making Varanasi known as “City of Light”,[6] the “luminous city as an eminent seat of learning”.[7] The name was also used by pilgrims dating from Buddha’s days.

 

Kumaon Nov 2016 – Part 2 (Mystical Dunagiri – Full of energy)

26 Nov

Dunagiri – Mystical, Rustic , Charming  & Energizing

Tucked deep in the Kumaon – Dunagiri is a small hamlet far far away.  Its picture perfect – and thankfully not exploited by Tourism. It took me 3 1/2 hrs  to reach Dunagiri from Binsar. (Dunagiri to Kathgodam is 4 1/2 – 5 hr drive 125 km). The roads are winding , empty, with great panoramic views. Its lonely and nice.

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If I recollect right I first heard about Dunagiri from the book “Apprentice to a Himalayan Master”  by Sri M and later in “Autobiography of a Yogi” By Paramhans Yogananda. For some strange reason the name stuck and I have been interested in visiting.

This is where Mahaavatar Babaji had initiated Lahiri Mahasaya to Kriya Yoga almost 150 years back. And a lot of Babaji followers came to Dunagiri to visit the caves.

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But there is more to Dunagiri than the Babaji Caves. There is a lot of Mythology associated with the place. According to the local tradition the town has been regularly visited by sages who established their ashrams here in the midst of nature. The Ashram of Garg Muni (Brother of Dronacharya)  was at Dunagiri. After his samadhi he became an underground river “Gagas” which is the source of many rivers in that area. Dronacharya is also supposed to have meditated for many years here.

Sukhdev Muni’s (Son of Ved Vyasa) was born enlightened . The “Sukha Devi Temple” is built at the site of his original ashram . Bharata the son of Shakuntala was supposedly born at this ashram. Hanumans quest for the Sanjeevini brought him to Dunagiri and the hills here are supposedly full of herbs and plants with magical healing powers. The Panadavas also spent a part of their time here in Agyatwas at a place called “Pandava Kholi”.

Dunagiri is home to an ancient Durga temple. The priest and an Old Naga baba I met at this temple told me that this temple is from the Treta Yuga and has phenomenal energy. This is the seat of Durga Ma. Like Vaishno Devi there are two “Pindis” that are “Swayambu’s” and the neighbouring forests are full of Leopards – the Devi’s vehicle. It is believed that the Divine mother has 9 forms – some for knowledge, wealth , health etc – but the Dunagiri Devi is considered to be the Godess of the Yogis.

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Folklore says that over 1000’s of years many have come to Dunagiri to visit the Durga Devi Temple and meditate. The Naga baba said that he has experienced Hanuman , Kripacharya, Ashwatamma and many more immortal souls visit the temple – he says “ you can’t identify them but their energy can be experienced”.  Even Shankaracharya visited the temple. The Naga baba also mischievously smiled and said that below the goddess was hidden “Amrit” and he was trying to figure out how to lay his hands on it. The temple is very clean and well managed – maybe I was lucky it was almost empty.

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At the temple I was lucky to get Darshan of  “Baba Dhanvantari Giri or “Bhatkoti Baba”. A solider from the Indo Pak war – he left it all to become a Naga Sadhu. And the brief interaction I had with him was very powerful. I wish I could have spent more time with him.

How does this translate to a common man. Whats the experience you get.

I am a layman – but I could experience the vibrations and energy at Dunagiri – there is so much energy that it is difficult to meditate. For some strange reason I was waking up at 3 AM every day without an alarm – and the Resort owner told me that was common.You need less sleep and food. The rarefied air at 8000 feet , the positive energy of so many great souls , the flora and fauna – it feels like you are the door step of heaven.

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Two other must visit places are the “Babaji Caves” and “Pandav Kholi”. Babaji Caves is a nice 45 min trek while “Pandava Kholi” is a steeper 90 min trek (Both one way). The trek is thru dense forests – totally empty and desolate –  in spite of being a Capricorn mountain goat I struggled.

Babaji Caves is deep – the driver cum guide told me that his grandfather had walked 2 ½ kilometres deep inside the cave. But currently its closed at the tip and you see less than 25 feet of the cave. The place is serene and I was lucky to have it to myself for an hr.

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Legend has it that “Pandav Kholi” is the place where the Pandavas spent some time during their Agyatwas period. Its located at 8800 feet. The car drops you at a point nearly 6200 feet and then you start the steep 3 km trek. When you reach the top – you are treated to some amazing views and a simple lunch at the Ashram. This is the ashram of “ Balwant Giri Maharaj “of the Juna Akhada – who attained Samadhi many years back – but his “Dhuni” is still kept active.  “Bhatkoti Baba” who I met at the temple was his disciple.

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The 3rd place to visit is “ Manasa Devi “ Temple . This is a day trek – I could not make it – but was told that the views enroute are beautiful.

The 4th place is “Sukh Muni Ashram “ and the  “Sukha Devi” temple. This is the place where Sukh Dev Muni had meditated. This is a short 1 km trek from the resort where I was staying

I stayed at the Dunagiri Retreat. It’s very rustic and spartan. Think of it as an high end Ashram.

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Basic rooms, hot water, simple veg food. Nothing fancy – but functional – it works. The rooms are designed with local architecture – thick walls with mud that keeps the room warm. The bathrooms are large, wood flooring , bright and spacious. Western style toilet and 24 hrs water supply. In all 14 rooms spread across a vast expanse. The Retreat also has a Pyramid for Yoga and meditation – and it accentuates the already strong energy at Dunagiri.

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The landscape is wild and when you first reach you may be disappointed on how unkempt and disorganized the place is. I felt that if “Monika from Friends”  was here she would have got really busy.

This is like an Ashram – lot of time for self discovery – there is no room service, no TV, patchy Internet at the main building, 3 G in some places. But somehow time moves on quickly – I never felt bored across the 3 nights I spent here.

There is reliable electricity supply – but when the current goes occasionally – its blackout – No generators. No water lines – so everything is conserved from rain water – so use water sparingly.

Dunagiri Retreat is unique. I have been to many places – but none like this.  It does attract a certain audience. It’s the base for many Retreats thru the year that include….Chi Gong by Pragata  (http://pragata.org – Coming up in April 2017), Yoga Camps by Claire Kerrigan & Jane Craggs and even a Sufi retreat by Nirupam Ryan. Followers of Babaji and those wanting to visit the Devi temple.

Its not a family holiday with a fire place and music. Its a spiritual enclave. Its a taste of heaven.

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The food served is simple, nutrition and very tasty. Fresh and juicy “Muli’s” , Spinach , potatoes  plucked from the kitchen garden and served piping hot. Its so tasty – and filling. Even the water packed with minerals is rejuvenating. Milk is so sweet you don’t need to add sugar to your tea and coffee.

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The owner Piyush Kumar is a semi mystic – a MNR Allahabad (REC) engineer from 1986, who went to the US and worked at the World Bank. Came back set up his own Software firm in India and then left it all to settle down in this hills. His partner Kate is a Phd in Vedic Astrology. She is spot on with the stars and her predictions. She can be contacted at http://www.Drkatyjane.com or katy@drkatyjane.com.

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It’s a large property – spread across 25 + acres and is in the midst of the forest.Wild animals frequently visit the jungles nearby and at times even the property. Every morning I opened the door – peeping out quietly hoping that leopard would be siting there.

As in the hills the flora and fauna is full of medicinal herbs. There are amazing views you can get of the Sunrise and the Sunset. There is peace and quiet , tranquility and a strange sense of affection develops to this place. I liked it.

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Piyush the semi mystic owner told me that this is the only place in the world where the “Ashta Vargha” a group of 8 rare herbs grow together. The locals believe that the power of the mythical Sanjeevini is still grounded here. Many cancer patients have had miraculous recoveries just by living here for some time. If you are a believer in energy and its healing power then this is the place to be.

I asked them whats the common thread that connects the people who come to Dunagiri.  Its people looking to connecting the dots, people on different phases of their spiritual journey. Anyone who visits here finds direction , finds tremendous inner peace. 

And yes in 3 days I was feeling lighter and at peace. I wonder what ten days would have done.

And as I drove down and reached Delhi & Bangalore over the next 24 years – I felt that its us who have created Hell out of this beautiful planet. Nature has bestowed us with fresh air , rivers , mountains  – that is Heaven , and we have created a hell called “Metro cities” out of them. All across the hamlet of Dunagiri I did not spot a doctor or clinic – life is tough , winters are cold , but Mother Nature takes care of you. The locals are happy and contended.

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I pray that this heaven on earth stays as it is and I get an opportunity to come back again and again.

http://www.dunagiri.com

Piyush Contact :  + 91 98102 67719

Driver Madhusdan : +91 97569 30090