Archive | Pilgrimage RSS feed for this section

History of Guruvayur

17 Nov

This blog is based on “Chapter 5. My Darshan of Guruvayurappan” – by Sri M in his recent book The Journey Continues. All the information is directly quoted from there.

Guruvuyaur  is a small coastal town in Kerala famous for the Guruvayurappan temple where the prankish heart stealer Lord Krishna is worshipped as a boy . In terms of popularity it ranks with Tirupathi. Thousands visit the temple every day mainly from Tamil Nadu & Kerala.

Legends have it that the deity is 5000 years old – although there are no historical records. The story goes that the idol , carved out of a sacred material called Pathalanjana Sila was once worshipped by the great God Maha Vishnu and handed over to Brahma. After many generations it was worshipped by Sri Krishna’s parents Vasudeva and Devaki and later installed in Dwaraka and worshipped by Krishna himself.

Before giving up his body Krishna handed over this Idol to his foremost disciple Uddhava and instructed him to hand it over to Brihaspati, Guru of the Devas so that it may be installed in a suitable place and worshipped during Kaliyuga.

Dwarka was submerged in a deluge but Brihaspati with his prime disciple Vayu the lord of the wind managed to retrieve the idol. While looking for a suitable place to instal the idol they met Parasuram who was also searching for the idol.

Parasuram led the Guru & Vayu to a lush green spot behind a beautiful lake.The Yogi God Shiva and his consort Parvati who were spending time there in contemplation permitted Guru & Vayu to install and consecrate the idol there. From then on the place came to be known as Guruvayur. Shiva & Parvati are said to have moved to the other bank and settled down at Mammiyur. The pilgrimage to Guruvayur is to this day considered incomplete without the worship at the Shiva temple at Mammiyur.

That is as far as legends go. Historically the earliest mention of Guruvayur or rather Kuruvayur comes from a Tamil work Kokkasandesam. Kuruvai means sea in Tamil hence the name Kuruvayur. The earliest temple records date back to 17th century. The temple is mentioned in the songs of the Alwars. By the end of the 16th century Guruvayur was a popular pilgrimage centre in Kerala.

In 1760 the Dutch looted Guruvayur and raided the treasures, the gold plate that covered the flagstaff and set fire to the temple. In 1766 Hyder Ali captured Calicut and then Guruvayur. On the request of Srinivas Rao the then Governor of Malabar, Hyder Ali granted a free gift – Devadaya and handed the temple back to the Hindus.

In 1788 Tipu Sultan marched to Malabar. Fearing destruction the priests hid the deity. Tipu Sultan destroyed the smaller shrines and set fire to the temple but it was saved by a sudden and heavy downpour.

Later on people like Chempakassery Namboodiri, Deshavarma Namboodri and the Ullanad Pannikars offered everything from service to property to revive the temple. Worship at the temple started again in 1900. In 1928 the Zamorin of Calicut was reinstated as the administrator of Guruvayur. In 1970 a massive fire broke out and the public irrespective of caste , creed or religion rushed to join the fire fighting. There was massive destruction but the sanctum sanctorum was protected. The temple was renovated and once again opened for worship on April 14th, 1973.

The name of two great and saintly persons who made Guruvayur famous have to be mentioned Melapathur Narayana Bhattathiri ( 1559 – 1632) was one and Poonthanam ( 1547 – 1640) was the other.

Melapathur Narayana Bhattathiri  apart from being a scholar and mathematician was the author of Narayaneeyam.

The Narayaneeyam is a devotion Sanskrit work in the form of a poem comprising 1036 verses and gives a summary of the great Bhagvatha Purana. The story goes that his Guru Achuta Pisharodi had painful arthritis. . Unable to bear his guru’s suffering Bhattathiri by his yogic power took the disease and relieved his Guru. He soon discovered that the pain was excruciating and resolved to make a pilgrimage to Guruvayur confident that Guruvayurappan would relieve him of the disease.

While entering the temple he is said to have met Thunjat Ezhuthacchan the author of Adhyatma Ramayana.

Ezhuthacchan shocked him ( an orthodox brahmin) by saying ” Mean Thottu Kottuka” ( start with the fish). On reflection , Bhattathiri realised that Ezhuthacchan was not asking him to eat fish but to start writing the Bhagavad, beginning with the story of Maha Vishnu’s incarnation as a fish, the Matsya Avatara.

He then started composing One Dasaka ( Ten stanzas) a day sitting before Sri Guruvayurappan and in a hundred days had completed the Narayaneeyam. It is said that on the last day he was blessed with a full vision of Guruvayurappan and got cured of his painful disease. Even today Narayaneeyam which is in Sanskrit is held in great esteem in Kerala and chanted with great devotion.

Poonathanam, Melapathur’s contemporary was not a great scholar but a true devotee of Sri Guruvayurappan. He is remembered for his masterpiece Jnanappana which means ” the song of wisdom” . Poonathanam was married at the age of twenty but had no children for a long time. he is said to have prayed with tears in his eyes for a child and was finally blessed with a. son. Poonathanam called for a grand celebration where everyone he knew was invited. Unfortunately and ironically an hour before the ceremony the child died suddenly. Grief stricken Poonthanam renounced all worldliness and turned to Sri Guruvayurappan. His attitude underwent a sea change and he believed that the child god Krishna Guruvayurappan was his own child. He wrote ” whilst little Krishna is dancing in our hearts , do we need little ones of our own

The Jnanapanna begins and ends with

Krishna Krishna , Mukunda Janardhana,

Krishna Govinda , Narayana Hare, 

Achutananda Govinda Madhava 

Satchitananda Narayana Hare.

“Here !  Krishna Guruvayurappan, has come to take me to Vaikuntam, sing his Parises.” said Poonthanam pointing upwards and letting go of his last breath and passed away to be forever with his beloved Krishna.

 

Tiruchi Temples in 3 Days

3 Nov

S Indian and specifically Tamil Nadu is a treasure house of Temples. Having covered Chennai, Kanchipuram , Mahabalipuram, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam and Tanjore – Tiruchi and Rameshwaram were the two prominent ancient cities in our pending list. And we finally covered Tiruchi extensively in 3 days.

A few things that made this trip very satisfying 

  • Amazing ancient temples thousands of years old – architectural & spiritual masterpieces – very well maintained
  • Good Hotel centrally Located – and great food
  • Excellent people all thru – from the drivers , porters , staff at restaurants , people at the Temple, companions in the Train – we met good human being all through our trip
  • Excellent weather ( It was pouring in Chennai as the NE Monsoon had just started – but Tiruchi 330 Km was pleasant and cloudy)
  • But the biggest WOW moment to me was discovering the Samadhi of the great Saint Patanjali who wrote the Yoga Sutras – Nobody knows about this – in an ancient temple in a small village in the suburbs of Tiruchi – more of that later.

So if you plan a trip to Tiruchi this Blog will be useful 

How to reach – where to stay

16232 Mayiladuthurai Express is the only Train from Bangalore to Tiruchi. It covers the ~ 350 KM distance in over 8 hrs reaching Tiruchi Junction at 4 AM. (return timing is more convenient – Dep Tiruchi at 8.30 PM and reaches Bangalore Cant at 5.06 AM) – It has one 2nd AC coach so book in advance.  Tiruchi has 3 Stations – Tiruchi Fort, Tiruchi Junction ( TPJ) and Srirangam – this train stops at the first two stations. We got off at TPJ and reached our hotel KVM Hotels ( WWW.kvmhotels.com) by 5 AM – a 20 min drive. Its a new hotel with good rooms , excellent food and centrally located at Amma Mandapam, Srirangam. A well maintained double occupancy room is Rs 2300/-  inclusive of a sumptuous breakfast. It has 24 hrs check in – check out.  Its a pure veg hotel.

Plan for Day – 1 

After a tasty breakfast we started our day at 9 AM and headed to the Branhmapureeswarar Temple at Tirupattur a 20 min drive. This is an ancient temple ( please note all temples here are 100o years or older) dedicated to Lord Shiva – its unique as it has a sanctum of Lord Brahma in a meditative pose – people come here to change their fate for the good. This is also the temple where you will find the Samadhi of the great Sage Patanjali.

 

If you sit quietly for a few minutes next to this Samadhi you can sense the energy of the place. I am glad that this Samadhi continues to be a secret – that protects the sanctity and energy in this zone. But it is indeed a shame that in todays era of communication – hardly anyone knows of the Samadhi of Patanjali in India.

But there was more to come in this remote corner – a km from this temple is another ancient temple The Kashi Vishwanathan temple – This temple houses the Jivasamadhi of Sri.Vyagrapada,the saint with feet of a tiger. The priest informed me that the idols here are as old as 3500 years and praying here is the equivalent of going to Kashi. (This blog gives more details on this energised temple – http://drlsravi.blogspot.in/2012/05/sri-kasi-viswanatha-temple-at.html)

On the way back we stopped at the Samayapuram Mariamma temple – By now it was 12 noon and we headed back to Tiruchi City to visit my mothers school ( she passed out in 1955 and was visiting Tiruchi after more than 60 years – This is the same school from where defence Minister Niramala Sitaraman passed out many years later) followed by lunch at Sangeeta’s and then we headed back for an afternoon nap.

We set out at 4 PM after tea and headed to another iconic temple – the Jambukesawarar and Akhilandeswari temple at Thiruvanaikaval – a short 1 km from our hotel.

This temple is significant – Its an ancient Shiva temple dedicated to the Water Element. I had Visited Kala Hasti in 1996 (Air) and over the last 20 years had visited Chidambaram (Space) , Thiruvanamalai (Fire) and Kancheepuram ( Earth) – and I was excited to complete the Pancha Bhoota circuit.

The temple is massive and the Shiva Linga has water oozing out from below. The Sanctum Sanctorum is small – do take the Rs 10 ticket that allows you enter the final enclosure. The temple architecture has evolved over 1000’s of year and it is a majestic temple.

A 10 min walk from the Shiva Shrine is the Devi Shrine of Akhilandeshwari – a very powerful goddess . This shrine closes at 5 PM and reopens at 6 PM – and we reached at 5.05 PM – so we had an hr to sit in the quiet space there and meditate ( fortunately the temple was empty with just a few people). After a very satisfying day we headed back to the hotel for dinner and rest.

Plan for Day – 2 

The morning of day 2 was reserved for the grand and impressive Ranganathaswami temple at Srirangam. A masterpiece. It is the largest functioning temple in the world with a perimeter of 4 kms, occupying an area of 156 acres. Its a temple town and there are many Agraharas ( houses and communities) within the temple town.

 

Its spotlessly clean – thanks to the late CM Jayalalitha ( who was the MLA from Srirangam) and the Chairman of TVS Venu Srinivasan who have painstakingly restored and cleaned this temple – some say they cleared 65,000 tonnes of sand , debris etc from inside the temple over a few years. Recently UNESCO awarded the temple for its restoration work.

There are over 70 shrines inside – and it can get as busy as Tirupathi on some days but were were lucky to have it almost empty. The Rs 250 special ticket took us to the main Sanctum devoid of lines and we had an excellent Darshan. There was no pushing and haggling for money , the priest asked us to stay calmly for a great darshan.

I was fortunate – this was the 3rd viewing in 1 month  of  Lord Vishnu Vishnu resting on Shesha in the sleeping position – other recent ones were at Madhya Ranga in Shivanasamudra and at the famous Padmanabhaswami temple in Trivandrum.

Nobody knows how ancient this idol is – some say even Lord Rama came and prayed here – but the temple complex was developed by multiple kingdoms starting with Cholas. A lot of restoration has happened in the last 10 years making it a sight worth visiting.

A ten minute walk leads you to the Devi Shrine – and most people will head back after this. But do make a point to visit the Ramanujar Sannidhi . You will have to ask for this. Its a shrine dedicated to sage Ramanujar and his body is mummified with saffron and Camphor in a meditative pose. A very impressive Sage – he is big and saintly.

On an empty day it took us about 2 hrs to have a nice relaxed visit of this temple post which we headed to the Samadhi of Sadhguru Sri Brahma. Sadhguru of Isha fame talks about his life as Sri Brahma in his previous life. This is a small samadhi next to the highway and you would come here only if you are an Isha Follower.

A 15  minute stop here and we headed to the city to visit a few more locations my parents had frequented 60 years back and then for lunch at Ajanta’s. ( the lunch at Sangeeta was far better)

Driving the bylaws of this ancient city we reached our next stop – the Rockfort Temple , the most iconic temple at Tiruchi. Its a 20 min climb – and fortunately the weather was pleasant at 2 in the afternoon to walk barefoot up this rocky outcrop. Enroute there are a few more temples – but they were closed in the afternoon.

 

This completed our morning circuit and we were back in the room by 2.15 PM.

At 4 PM we headed to an ancient Murugan temple at Vayalur located in a scenic village and were back by 6 PM at our hotel.

Plan for Day – 3

We headed out at 8.30 AM to the Malai Koil or Erumbeeshwarar Temple – again an ancient Shiva temple on a small hillock  with a lot of mythological significance. The Shiva Linga here is made of mud and hence not washed with milk and water.

On the way we stopped back at the Jambukesawarar and Akhilandeswari temple at Thiruvanaikaval where the 12 Noon Puja is famous.  Lunch was at an Iyengar mess run by a Brahmin family – a simple homely affair.

We had the evening free to ourselves – but the other famous sites to visit were far away ( if you have an extra day try and visit these places )

  • Viralimalai – 40 Km , famous for a Murugan temple and a Peacock sanctuary
  • Sri Kokarneshwar temple
  • Sittanavasal

Sittanavasal is a rock-cut  monastery or temple. Created by Jains,  it is called the Arivar Koil, and is a rock cut cave temple of the Arihants . It contains remnants of notable frescoes from the 7th century. The murals have been painted with vegetable and mineral dyes in black, green, yellow, orange, blue, and white. Paintings have been created by applying colours over a thin wet surface of lime plaster. Many evolved saints are said to have meditated here. Sounds beautiful – but its a full day trip. 

I went back to the Samadhi of Patanjali and Vyaghrapadar and was back by 6PM – well in time to pack up , settle our bills have an early dinner ( Note in temple towns Dinner is Tiffin) and head to the Station for our 8.30 PM Train. As we headed back it started drizzling – but the rain gods had been merciful to us.

We had an excellent driver – so reach out to him if you are travelling to Tiruchi , Ramesh – 98434 35991. It make s a lot of difference to have a local with you to navigate the town.

A big thanks to all the people who helped us plan the trip – we would have missed. a lot of things if not for their valuable inputs. We left on Mon night and were back home on Fri morning – 4 nights , 2 in the train and 3 days at Tiruchi – the total trip cost was Rs 25,000 for 3 people inclusive of 2nd AC , 2 Rooms , Car , Food  etc – that is very reasonable considering that in the recent past we spent 30K a night at the Taj Coorg.

Small towns are nice , people are simple , down to earth and trustworthy. Its just the weather – Tiruchi boils in the summer , Nov to Feb is the only time you can expect pleasant weather. the Cauvery that has flown for millions of years is on the verge of drying – the impact of the last 50 years has been severe my mother was able to see the change in her lifetime. Lets just hope that the rivers revive and Sadhguru’s Rally for Rivers is a grand success.

So that completes Tiruchi – we enjoyed it thoroughly, which gets me planning for my next trip to the historical town of Rameswaram.

 

 

 

 

 

Recharge & Connect in 48 hrs @ Isha Yoga Coimbatore

14 Jun

Some say that we are at the end of bad times (Kali Yuga) and the new cycle is on the verge of starting. I don’t know if this is true – but if you visit the Isha Yoga centre in the suburbs of Coimbatore for a few days you will start experiencing a unique feeling – it feels like you are in a world of peace and harmony , it feel like you are in Sat Yuga. 

After my Inner Engineering program in 2011 I had visited the Ashram in 2012 – that time there was a lot of ongoing construction . I visited a second time last week ( June 2017) with a few friends and did not want to come back. If I have to describe the Ashram in 3 words  it would be Energy , Peace & Nature. Sadhguru is not a normal guru and the Isha Ashram is very different from the other Ashrams I have visited.

Let me try and explain and set the contours for you to plan a visit. And please do visit – if I have a choice of going to Goa for two nights or to the Isha Yoga Ashram – I would without a second thought choose the Isha Yoga Ashram. There is a lot to see and do and  a sense of deep satisfaction at the end. And you leave knowing that you will be back very soon.

Reaching Isha Yoga 

Located in the suburbs of Coimbatore its about 380 Km from Bangalore , we left Koramangla at 5.30 AM and reached the Ashram by 1 PM after two breaks for breakfast and lunch. The road is excellent and the FastTag  helped us avoid the Q’s at the Toll gates. Choke points are in Salem and Avinashi Road Coimbatore – rest of the journey you can zip at 100 + km / hr . We stopped for breakfast at Krishnagiri and lunch at Annapoorna Gowrishanker (Avinashi Road – immediately after Le Meridian). After you cross Coimbatore city you drive for almost 40 Kms thru excellent Village roads and reach the foothills of the verdant Velangiri Hills. ( Trust Google Maps it gets you to your destination correctly)

Stay at Isha Yoga

They have excellent rooms at the Ashram – you need to book in advance. Room rates are Rs 1300/- per day that includes pure veg Lunch and Dinner at the Ashram. Excellent, nourishing, healthy food. Its a sit down meal. Lunch is served at 10 AM and Dinner at 7 PM. Book  well in advance – on any day there are well over 300 people attending the different programs at the Centre. The place is buzzing with energy. Everything is managed by volunteers and it is done with efficiency that will put the largest of corporates to shame.

In between if you want some snacks or Tea (I would say avoid if possible) you can visit the lovely Pepper Vine eatery that opens at 830 AM and serves a wide variety of snacks , juices , fruits – all at very reasonable prices. For those who want a early morning cup of coffee you need to walk to the main gate – the restaurant there opens by 6.30 AM.

How to plan your day 

You have the choice of starting your day at 4.30 AM with the soothing chants of Nirvana Shatakam and Guru Paduka Stotram. After a shower we headed to the large open platform near the SuryaKund that faces the Lily Pond , Dhyana Linga and Linga Bhairavi Temple. This is the perfect place to do your morning Yoga and Kriyas.

At 6 AM we headed to the Dhyana Linga ( it opens at 6 AM) – we were lucky to be there during the Full Moon and were amongst the first to do the Milk Abhishekam.  The best time to visit the Dhyana Linga is at 6 AM in the morning or late evening. Rest of the day it gets very crowded – avoid weekends when the crowds are bustling.

The Dhyana Linga is a highly energised space for meditation. The sole purpose of Sadhguru’s life was to create and consecrate the Dhyana Linga something he has been trying for the last few lifetimes. (For the full story on Sadhguru and his journey of building the Dhyana Linga read Sadhguru: More than a Life by Arundhati Subramaniam)

 

We were lucky not just to be the first to do the Abhishekam but also to do the ” Linga Snanam“. This activity happens at 8 PM the day before the full moon when you can volunteer to wash and clean the Dhyana Linga. Its a rare and unique opportunity and we were blessed to be able to do it.

We have all grown up knowing that the Shiva Linga as being very auspicious and only the select few are allowed to come near it. And hear was a group of volunteers and visitors who were doing what normally only select ordained brahmin priests can do.

After an hr of meditation at the Dhyana Linga we headed to the Linga Bhairavi temple. A powerful sanctum  dedicated to the Goddess. The design and aesthetics of everything in the Isha Ashram is unique and classy and you cannot but stop admiring every walkway , every wall , every stone – the eye for detail is amazing. The walk from the Linga Bhairavi is thru a beautiful green garden and you cross the Sadhana Centre, The Aum Meditation hall and the Chandra Kund before exiting the complex near the entrance of the Dhyana Linga.

 

By now it was 8.30 AM and we stopped by at the cafeteria for a cup of tea and then slowly walked by the verdant green landscape to our room for some rest before heading to the Bhiksha Hall for lunch at 10 AM. The lunch hall closes sharp at 10 AM so be there by 9.55 AM. You can always join the second group at 10.40 AM if you miss the 10 AM slot. The food served here is tasty, nourishing and filling. And after the meal you need a little rest post which we headed for the Aum Meditation.

This is conducted in a small hall near the Chandra Kund as you are walking away from the Linga Bhairavi. A 30 minute session you are initiated to the correct way of chanting AUM. Sadhguru explains in a video the reason why it needs to be chanted in a certain manner and the

benefits of the same. You are advised to do this practise for 40 days twice a day – 15 minutes each. The practise can be done anytime even on a full stomach.

Our next stop was the “Theertha Kund”. Ancient and powerful temples invariably held a sacred water body, where visitors could take a dip before entering the main energy space. This was not only for physical cleansing and freshening, but also to activate and sensitize the energy body of the visitors, to prepare them to fully receive the energies of the space. There are two theerthakunds at the Isha Yoga Center – the Chandrakund for women and Suryakund for men.

Embedded 30 feet below the ground, and approached by a descent of thirty-two massive steps, the Chandrakund is framed by gigantic granite stones and vaulted by a colorful mural depicting the Mahakumbha Mela. Measuring 55 x 15 ft., this exquisite artwork follows the traditional Kerala style of painting dating back to the 15th century, using only natural colors and vegetable dyes.

The Suryakund is larger and measures 130 by 40 feet, and is embedded 22 feet in the earth. It is surrounded on three sides by a wall of 200 massive, 50-ton granite blocks. One major feature of the Suryakund that nobody can miss is the Sun sculpture which hangs from the ceiling. Constructed in just two days, the Surya sculpture is 20 feet across and has been constructed out of brass and copper. The water is energized by the submerged Rasalinga, weighing over 660kgs. A dip in this vibrant water significantly increases spiritual receptivity and also rejuvenates the body.

The Kund is indeed magical – the cold water refreshes end energises you. Its ideal to take a dip at the Kund and then visit the Dhyana Linga but the Kund opens at 7.30 AM and the Dhyana Linga at 6 AM. (Do take a towel with you to the Kund, this is for drying yourself, they give you a towel / robe for women  to wear while entering the holy water space), you can leave your valuables in a locker.

Post our dip in the Kund we again went back to the Dhyana Linga for an hrs meditation and the on the way out stopped by the Cafeteria and Isha Shoppe. The Shoppe has a wonderful collection of items – dresses , artefacts etc – budget at least an hr to browse thru all the items at the store.

A glass of lemonade and then we headed to the grand Adiyogi statue that is a 10 min walk . Its massive and the area is so windy – the whole experience is breathtakingly beautiful. We were lucky that there was hardly any crowd and we had the place to ourselves. Its best to come here in the evenings or in the morning when its not very sunny.

As we headed back to the room we were able to witness another rare spectacle  – the Linga Bhairavi Procession that happens on every full moon night. A high energy spectacle of Drums , Dance , Fire with the procession of the Linga Bhairavi and the Aarti in the open space near the Nandi. Try and visit the Ashram doing the New Moon or Full Moon time – then you can get to see these rare ceremonies.

The day ended with an outdoor dinner near the Nalanda Cottage. Another unique experience eating a tasty piping hot meals in the darkness below the cloudy sky with the dark hills looming in the background keeping a watch.

Between the two days we also attended the evening Satsang at 5.30 PM in the Sadhana Hall. (If Sadhguru is in the Ashram he conducts it in person – with his travel schedule thats rare) and managed a short visit to the Isha Rejuvenation centre for a Massage. While here do get a pack of the Snana Powder – its a great body wash.

An important thing you will observe all through the Ashram is the connect with Snakes. They are everywhere – right from the entrance , the Lily pond, even the knobs in the room are designed like snakes.

You can even buy a copper / silver snake shaped ring. Sadhguru has a strong connect with snakes – and we all know of the connect that Shiva has with Snakes. Wonder what this means.

Isha Yoga centre is about Hatha Yoga in its pure form and meditation techniques to connect with your inner self. This is a  place of Yoga and Karma – people at the Ashram are dedicated and work hard. This is not a place where you will find lectures on Vedanta and Gita.

The two days we spent flew by and it was wonderful to have the company of two wonderful people – company does make a difference, when you visit an Ashram like this find people who are not garrulous and can absorb the energy of the place. The trip was perfect from start to end – and we owe it all to the blessing and grace of Sadhguru.

Running an Ashram like this day after day, catering to large crowds and managing everything so efficiently is remarkable and hats off to the administrators and the band of volunteers who make this happen and create this amazing experience for us.

 

Most of the Photos are from the Public Domain space and not shot by me. Photography is prohibited in most places inside the Ashram.

For more details visit the Isha Blog

http://isha.sadhguru.org/blog/lifestyle/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-isha-yoga-center-and-more/

 

 

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.

nellaippar-temple-thirunelvelli

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.

img_3102

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.

img_3110

 

img_3116

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

img_3133

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.

img_3124

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.

img_3129

 

img_3132

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/- .

img_3100

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.

img_3137

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.

img_3144

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.

img_3146

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.

img_3150

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.

img_3155

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.

img_3162

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.

img_3171

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.

img_3160

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

 

 

 

 

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.

sri-ekambaranathar-temple-kanchipuram-tamil-nadu

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.

img_2270

17419487094_c94292210d_b

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

9.30AM – 1230 PM & 4 PM – 6 PM

img_2272
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.

kailasanathar_temple_statue_1

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

img_2289

img_2295

 

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.

30b4eb0131af399f7a2703734610ad7e

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.

img_2301

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.

img_2297

 

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.

 

kanchi-kamakoti-peetam-mutt

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

img_2246

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.

img_2178

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.

img_2148

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)

img_2187

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/)

img_2086

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.

img_2112

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)

sanctum-sanctorum

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.

kashi1-x

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.

img_2121

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.

img_2127

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)

img_2199

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.

img_2167

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.

img_2181

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.

img_2217

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.

img_2184

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.

img_2247

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.

img_2209

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.

img_2201

img_2227

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.

img_2232

And the Japanese temple which is made of wood

img_2240

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.

img_2082

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.

 

Tirupathi Travel Tips

22 Jun

Please note : Change is part of the process at Tirupathi – so information shared here may change. Will try and keep updated as frequently as I can – This information updated post my Visit on July 26th , 2015.

________________________________________________________________________

I have been fortunate to visit Tirupathi multiple times. There is something with Lord Balaji that draws you to the temple again & again. In the absence of a good website, information for first time travellers is limited and sketchy. I hope this Blog can help such people.

IMG_5977

How to get booking for Tirupathi Darshan ? 

If you don’t have a VIP Connection there are 3 ways to get a Darshan

1. Buy a ticket for a confirmed slot or Seva from the TTDC Centres – prices vary depending on the Seva ( In Bangalore you can get this from Vyalikaval TTD Centre, Next to Chowdiah Memorial, or from the Jayanagar Centre – Open on all days barring Tue) – at the counter your photo is taken and you are given a ticket for a certain time slot – thats the time when you can enter the line. For details on Darshan Timing / rates / what it includes check out http://www.tirumala.org/Advancebooking.aspx.

2. You Can also book a Ticket Online and upload a Scanned Photo – the website is slow and this may not be working all the time.

3. Walk up the steps (There are two Routes – 1 Hr Walk and a 3 – 4 hr walk)  and they give you a ticket on the way up

Time Taken to Reach Tirupathi from Bangalore ? 

The roads are great – it takes about 4 1/2 Hrs. I normally leave at 4PM and reach by 830PM – with a 30 Min tea break stop. The first 120 Kms are Double Track Toll Road – post that its single Track. Near Chittoor after about 2 hrs of drive look out for a Bypass.

Restaurants En Route

Nothing great. There is a Cafe Coffee Day after Kolar – only place with a clean bathroom. All other places are very ordinary with poorly maintained bathrooms.

IMG_5937

Where to stay in Tirupathi?  

No dearth of hotels but trusted proven ones are Bhimas & Fortune Kences (ITC). There are numerous Bhima’s so be careful while booking – some are good and some are not so good. (Avoid Bhima Deluxe near the Railway Station) The recommended one is Bhima Residency (Near Railway Over Bridge, Renigunta Road – 0877 – 6455371, 6455372) – Centrally located , easy to locate, good food. Rooms are about 2K / night. The Fortune Kences is located 200 m ahead – but rates can vary from 2500 –  3500/ night. Point to Note is that Bhima Residency does not come up on Makemytrip search – the Other Bhima’s do. However food at Bhima is the best – the Bhima Residency is a 5 min walk from Fortune Kences and we went there for all our meals.

IMG_5938

How much Time does it take to reach the Temple from the hotel? 

The temple is in Tirumala – thats on top of a hill about 1000 feet. It takes about 10 min to  travel to Alipiri – the main gate to the hill, get security cheque done (Budget 30 Min+)  and then another 20 – 25 min to reach the hill top – Tirumala. The road up the hill is broad & safe and one way – cars coming down are on another track. It however has many U Pin bends (Over 20) . Regular buses also ply to the temple top – the bus stand is located opp to Fortune Kences.

Keep the receipt given to you when you enter Alipiri – this will be asked many times. When driving don’t speed – they track the time taken by you to reach – and if you go well within that you may be fined.

How do you walk up the Hill ? How much time does it take ? 

There are 2 routes – the 1st set of steps start from near Alipiri ( the place where the cars drive up) – this is a long walk 3 – 4 hrs  and covers 7 hills – hill 1 is the steepest and so is hill 7  , the rest are an easy walk. All along the walk are shops selling water & snacks. This route has a total of 4000 steps.

The second route was opened a few years back (Srivari Mettu) this is on the backside of the hill. Its a 20 Km drive from Alipiri to reach this place. The climb is shorter 60 – 70 Min at a brisk pace and is not difficult. Has about 2400 steps. Clean track – no shops , not crowded.

Both the walking route at the halfway mark there is a ticket counter – where they take your photo and give you a Ticket.  You can climb with your shoes and carry your cell phone – carry some biscuits , dry fruits , juice…. in your backpack.

IMG_5945

Can I manage to get a ticket / VIP Darshan / Special Q by paying money on the spot? 

Fortunately no – there is no black-marketing and money can’t buy you a ticket. There are no touts – no jugad in the last minute. Every ticket has you photo (earlier fingerprint) so you can’t beat the system – there are 3 levels of check. So if you have not planned – the only option is the free darshan Q.

Whats the Waiting Time and which are the best days to travel? 

Tirupathi is never empty – its crowded or very crowded. ( Low Crowd is 50K / day – peak Crowd is 5 Lacs / day) Basis multiple options I have finally discovered that the best day to travel is Thu. Choose non peak season – Clearly avoid Vaikunt Ekadasi, Navratri. Good time to travel is  immediately after school holidays, after a grand function etc. If you can travel on Diwali the crowd is light. Wait time depends on how blessed you are and can take anywhere from 60 minutes to 10 hrs. ( I have been lucky – in my 30+ trips mostly on Thu mornings the wait time has been 60 – 120 Minutes)

Are there special Q’s for the Old and Babies ?

Yes there is a time slot reserved for the Old , Disabled and for parents with new born babies – This is in the afternoon – check the TTD website for details.

Whats the central point in the Hill Top? 

There are multiple Q’s and almost all the entry points are around a place called Vaikuntam ( Old Vijaya Bank)

What is not allowed inside the temple? 

Cell Phones, Cameras, Belts not allowed. Good to leave in car. If you are carrying Cash – carry it in a cloth bag. The temple has lockers but avoidable.

How bad is the Q? 

The Q’s are chock a block – there are multiple Q’s and they all merge near the main temple. 6 – 9AM in the morning is the time for VIP Darshan , Special Tickets etc hence most Q’s operate only after 9 AM. Crowd is mainly rural.

Pointers in Q when you are pushed ? 

Be careful of the floor – steps suddenly come , there are some places where there is water leaking , be alert so that you don’t fall or twist your leg. Once you enter its almost impossible to get out of the Q as its barricaded.

How much Darshan Time do you get? 

The last leg of the Q in front of Balaji is about 25 M long. You can start seeing Balaji the minute you take this left turn. Try and stick to the right side of the Q to get a few precious seconds more of Darshan. In all you can get a darshan for a max of 1 Min – before you are pushed out. There will be ushers inside shouting “Jaracandi Jaracandi” which in telugu means move – some even push you out forcefully. After you come out you visit the Hundi – and then on the way out collect the prasad and come out.

Where do you get the famous Laddu’s? 

Normal tickets are entitled to 2 Laddu’s each. Most days you don’t get extra laddus. On some days when the crowd is less you can pay and get extra laddus by paying Extra. The laddu counter is in a separate building. During summer as you walk in the temple complex towards the Laddu Centre and Back – the ground can be scalding hot, keep a pair of socks to protect your feet.

Is the Place Clean ? 

Tirumala is very well maintained –  there are dustbins all over , the gardens are well landscaped. Given the crowd I would give them a 10/10 on cleanliness.

Any other interesting things in Tirupathi to note ? 

  • Most Special darshan tickets like Vasantutsav/ Kalyanutsav etc where you enter from the Vaikuntam entrance mandate that you wear Dhoti / Saree / Kurta . Pls check the back side of your ticket
  • There is accommodation on the Hill Top – most of these are very ordinary, however some business houses have set up 5 star guest houses. You need contacts to be able to use these.
  • Food on top is OK. Mayuri was a good choice many years back – now the quality is poor , best bet for fine dining now is Saarangi – this is a 5 min drive from the Vaikuntam entrance.

IMG_5964

  • Two other temples to visit – Padmavathy (Consort of Balaji) and the Shiva (Rahu Ketu) Temple at SriKalahasti. Former is in Tirupathi Town and the latter is a 45 min  drive. SriKalahasti is one of the 5  Pancha Bhoota Temples dedicated to Vayu – its an ancient Shiva temple and has a lot of mythology associated with it – the story of  Kannappa Nayanar and how he gouged his eyes out to stop the bleeding of the Shiva Linga is also associated with this temple.

IMG_5940

  • There is a unique natural stone arch called Silathoranam – this is located very close to the main temple – 10 min drive – the arch is 1500 million years old and is one of 3 in the world. Its located in a well maintained garden

IMG_5966