Thursday, March 27, 2014

Maha Shivratri महा शिवरात्रि

February 27, 2014

     The sun dips low into evening as we round the narrow road built on the bank of Begur lake, sharing the small space with oncoming traffic.  Sanjeev breaks the stream of pure Hindi spoken between himself and Akhilesh to comment in English about the number of cars conglomerating on the other side of the lake.  I lean forward in the space between the front seats and see for myself.  I keep my disappointment about the unexpected crowd to myself, knowing that I would be the only one to complain.  Normally, our favorite mandir maintains quiet evening pujas sparsely populated with devotees due to its tucked away location in rural Bangalore.  But today is one of the most sacred of all Hindu festivals celebrated in honor of the Supreme God Shiva.  Hindus across India and the entire world celebrate Maha Shivratri (The Great Night of Shiva) in a personal and spiritual manner through a fast that lasts for a full 24 hours, extensive prayer, and the recital of sacred mantras.  According to the Hindu calendar, from which the day of Maha Shivratri is determined, the planetary alignments of this day make the recital of sacred mantras particularly powerful, with the practice of yoga and meditation also providing an enhancement in spiritual energy. 

Today, in attempt to honor Lord Shiva and receive his divine blessings, thousands of Hindus will visit Naganatheshwara temple (Sanskrit meaning "the god of the snakes") – a mandir dedicated purely to his worship.  Locals of Begur attest that Naganatheshwara temple is the origin from which the city of Bangalore sprouted, and that Rama himself prayed there – which if correct –would date the temple to be as ancient as 5,000 years.  Now designated as a national heritage site, the Naganatheshwara temple is actively being preserved, its grounds undergoing a painstaking process of restoration. 

The car kicks up a small sandstorm as pull into the area serving as the parking lot.  I slip my sandals off and leave them under the front seat along with my purse, taking the time to neatly fold and tuck away the 300 rupees in various denominations I will use for monetary offerings. Walking across the sandy lot, still warm from the sun’s heat, we stop at phool walle, (flower lady) her various flowers and puja necessities arranged carefully on a blue tarp.  Sanjeev and the lady discuss the price in Kannada, quickly exchanging 120 rupees for two plastic bags, each filled with a coconut, roses, jasmine garlands, and marigold flowers, agrabati (incense sticks), and small bags of vermillion and turmeric powder.  Puja necessities obtained, we walk toward the crowd at the back entrance of the temple. 

Sanjeev and Akhilesh leave their sandals at the gate entrance amongst countless similar pairs of black and brown chuppals.  We join the crowd kept in order by a passageway made out of carved wooden poles and thick rough rope, walking single file in the line into the temple’s courtyard.  I stand on my tiptoes to see that the ropes zigzag around the temple’s grounds, in and out of the various antarylas (temple chambers) like lines at an amusement park.  Hundreds of people crowd in its confines – black hair and varying shades of brown everywhere.  Despite that I can’t quite seem to stop reaching up to cross my arms, I ignore the uncomfortable sensations of being in the crowd.  Long braids of hair brush across my arms, feeling coarse next to the soft swish of fabric across my skin.  I stand feet close together to avoid being stepped on, and to also avoid committing the taboo myself. 

The Dakshin Dwaar (photo taken during the monsoons)
     We slowly file to our first checkpoint – the breaking of the coconut.  (Symbolizing the opening of our minds for enlightenment).  Normally devotees perform the act themselves, but two adolescent boys have been enlisted for the job to keep the line moving.  They stand barefoot on the elevated and narrow rain-smoothed concrete block, dressed in dirty jeans and button down shirts.  One-by-one, they smack the coconuts on the raised edge in the middle of the block, cracking noises accompanying endless coconut water that flows over the edges and soaks into Earth.  I flick my hand at the flies surrounding the sticky sweetness, and watch as the boy who cracks our coconut looks at Sanjeev in a half remorseful way and tells him in Kannada that its bad.  Akhilesh gives us the other half of his coconut and I try not to laugh when one of the boys splashes the white shirt of the man in front of me with a mix of coconut water and bits of husk– the man engaged in conversation and unaware, or just uncaring of the mess. 

(The Dakshin Dwaar Restored - taken from Sanjeev's phone)
We move incredibly slow, advancing only inches per minutes. Akhilesh tells me a story about how someone once stole his chuppals (sandals) while he was inside a temple, an issue that he solved simply by stealing someone else’s.  Facing west, I admire the temple’s Dakshin dwaar (the south facing entrance), its newly painted gold color framing a scene with the setting sun and coconut trees in a way that has me wishing I had my camera.  As the crowd gets thicker, Sanjeev stands behind me to protect me from “accidental” groping in the line.

(The first Antaryla with Nandi, taken on a previous trip to the temple)

               I carefully climb the three stairs to the antaryla (temple chamber) that leads to the first garbhgruha (the literal translation from Sanskrit meaning the “the womb house” – the room that houses the idol representations of deities).  Each of the temple’s five womb houses contains a Shivalinga (a phallic statue symbolizing the union of Shiv and Shakti – the male and female creative energies).  To the right, people crowd around a statue of Shiva’s animal familiar and protector Nandi the bull.  To the left, devotees cram into a narrow entrance into the antaryla.  A man stands at the entrance constantly alternating between yelling banni (please come) to the people exiting and nillisalu (stop) to the people entering.  I somehow manage to keep my balance as I duck down and squeeze through the gate, careful to step over the threshold.  Inside, it is like a cave, air heavy in its heat and moisture.  Amongst fewer people, I easily make my way up to the even smaller space that houses the Shivalinga.  I peak past the pujari (temple priest) sitting at its entrance to see the black stone linga draped in jasmine, marigold, and red rose garlands – the floor covered in more flowers, coconuts, and bananas.  The pujari holds out a golden aarti plate with a single diya (ghee lamp) and a bowl of vibhuti (sacred ash).  I place ten rupees on the plate, and pause to wave my hands over the diya and place them over my eyes.  I hold out my cupped hands, the pujari dropping a pinch of sacred ash into my palms.  Switching the ash from my right to my left hand, I use my right finger to make a tilak on my forehead, carefully cradling the remainder of the ash in my palms as if it is a piece of Shiva himself.  I move to the right of the room – back toward the yelling escort, and somehow avoid bumping my head on any of the stone pillars or the low ceiling. 

Back outside, we move slowly down the stairs and onwards to the right almost immediately reaching a standstill against the outer wall of the main temple.  I focus on small things to fight discomfort of the 20 minutes stretched long for not moving.  I fiddle with a bulb from the blue strings of lights draping down the temples walls, then touch the wall’s faded sea green paint, made smooth with time, and find myself wondering about its age.  I catch curious glances from the group of women I am stuck around, and a young Kannadiga standing behind Sanjeev is brave enough to be the first ask him where we are from.  He asks it in English, and is surprised when Sanjeev makes his reply in Kannada.  At his sudden switch to the local language, several women around me quite unabashedly turn around to listen to their conversation.  I keep my head down and eyes averted, feeling uncomfortable at their gazes, finally distracting myself by watching a few small children play in the space between the crowd lines.  They happily run back and forth, stopping to look up at the setting sun through yellow colored plastic sheets cleverly extracted from incense packs.

The temperature slowly increases as we move toward the entrance of the second house of a Shivalinga – Akhilesh long since separated from us.  While I wait to reach the corner, I balance on my tiptoes to see clear above the crowd and watch a small group of young girls performing Bharatanatyam in the crowded courtyard away from the lines. This time, people are let past the steel gate and into the antaryla about ten at a time before a young man acting as a bouncer blocks the crowd.  Sanjeev and I manage to stay together in the squeeze through the gate, again performing the monetary offering and darshan (the viewing of the God) before quickly exiting.

(The Temple's Main Entrance)
Outside, I relish in few deep breaths of cooling evening air before I am again stuffed into the crowd that leads to the main house of the temple.  In the additional 20 minutes of our excruciating voyage, patience is running short in the crowd.  A steady push from behind eggs us around a corner serving as offering area.  Armfuls of flowers, bananas and coconuts litter the ground. Heavily burning diyas spout thick black smoke above their wicks, sending the scents of burning oil or ghee into the open air to mingle with heady flower scented wisps of burning incense.  Pressed tightly against the women in front of me, I struggle to keep my balance while I attempt to climb the few stairs to the entrance.  At a painfully slow pace, I squeeze through the gate, and am quickly rewarded with an unbelievably heavy and moist heat, its source a small shelf housing more incense and diyas lit by devotees.  Movement slows to a crawl, the crowd so thick that women’s backsides press into my front.  An elderly pujari dressed in a pale yellow dhoti, (traditional waist wrap) appears next to me and yells across the room in Kannada for us “to move or we will be stuck here forever!”   His voice booms through my ears, and I can’t resist analyzing his presence.  Several puja malas (prayer garlands) made of rudrakshas (sacred seeds believed the be the tear of Lord Shiva) hang heavily from his neck.  His forehead, shoulders, and chest are covered in clay markings – the three horizontal lines worn by Shivites (followers of Shiva). When we finally move forward, we are forced to crouch to avoid the low ceiling, standing awkwardly in line.  I place a single marigold flower on Nandi’s head as I slowly pass him – the statue deep black and smooth from being touched.  I wait for another man to clear my entrance through the small rectangle chamber, slowly making my to the aarti tray, beyond which the linga sits.  Laying my last hundred out on the plate, I again wave my hands over the flame, pausing to observe the adorned linga and to ask for enlightenment before I rush to exit the room.  

Back in the main temple room, I am suddenly aware of the dampness of my clothes, my dupatta and kurti clinging tightly to my skin.  I am about to make a beeline for the temple’s exit where the evening will have a cool breeze waiting, but Sanjeev apparently hasn’t felt enough punishment despite that he is sweating bullets and requests that we visit the final linga.  I resist the urge to whine and instead move forward with the crowd, watching pujaris deliver small spoons sacred water known as charna amrut (“the nectar from the feet of the gods”) into the palms of devotees who then sip it.  I vie for space through the room’s chamber, irritated when several women cut in front of me.  Inside the room, Sanjeev searches every crevice of his empty wallet for a single rupee to serve as monetary offering at the last aarti tray, all to no avail.  I move quickly through the darshan, squeeze my way through one last gate, before I am outside and trying not to visibly show the relief I feel at being out of the crowd.  My patience and energy spent, I join Sanjeev at the area serving as the puja offerings, hastily lighting an incense stick in the diya fire before stabbing it in a banana to hold it upright.  Sanjeev whispers his prayers, while I stand in the middle of the courtyard watching women and girls on the stage recite a mantra in unison, the girls’ voices ear splittingly sharp through the speakers.  When he joins me, we quickly head to exit through the gap in the courtyard’s walls. We walk across the sandy lot, pebbles and rocks jabbing into my feet as I try to keep up with Sanjeev’s pace to the car.  Once there, I hurriedly climb in, sprawling out against the back seat in my exhaustion.  Sanjeev swifly starts the car and exits the lot, the temple disappearing into dust and darkness as we join evening traffic on Manipal road.  On the way home, I hardly notice the jerking movements of road’s potholes, content in my moment of quiet in a maddening world.   

Om Namah Shivaya.

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