Tuesday, January 4, 2011

temple town

The other night, Swami Saradananda and I went to the temple on the other side of the mountain. Arunachaleswarar temple in Tiruvannamalai is one of the oldest temples in all of India. It is located at the base of Mount Arunachala, on the opposite side of the mountain from the Ramana ashram. Mount Arunachala, as I've written in earlier posts, is the sacred hill thought to be the earthly manifestation of the Lord Shiva. Swami Saradananda arranged for a priest to show us around the temple (she really does have connections). There were very few other Westerners there. Of the HUNDREDS of people there, I think I saw 3 or 4 Westerners, but many, many people on pilgrimage. Families sitting inside the temple grounds eating, children playing, and, oh yes, monkeys climbing atop the tall towers above the temple squares.

The temple is unbelievably huge - 24 acres! It is a Shiva temple (being at the base of the sacred mountain, this only makes sense), but before we went into the center section of the temple, it is a series of concentric squares, we made an offering to Lord Ganesha of flowers and coconuts (Ganesha is present at every temple, he is the remover of obstacles and the son of Shiva). The coconuts are smashed as a symbol of smashing one's ego before God! and the coconut water inside is poured over the shrine. Oil lamps illuminate the shrines and the priests rub burnt sandalwood ashes on your forehead and ground hibiscus on your third eye. And this was only a smaller outer shrine!


The priest then took us inside the main center temple, a extremely rare opportunity for Westerners (Westerners have a history of disrespecting others' traditions; not dressing appropriately, taking pictures of sacred things, etc... I've also been told that there is the recent concern of terrorists entering the temples). He led us past the very long lines of people waiting to "see" the God, opened the gate of the inner sanctum itself and allowed us inside (unheard of!).

The indescribable beauty, the intense energy, and the heat inside the sanctum is unimaginable. There, we offered flowers to Lord Shiva, ate prasad (prasad is food that has been offered to the gods and blessed, their nutrients are not needed by the Gods, so they are given back to the people), had blessed coconut water dribbled over our heads, and had garlands of flowers laid around our necks!
Then, as if that wasn't enough, we were brought to the separate shrine of Shiva's wife Parvati - a smaller, but equally impressive ancient stone shrine inside the same temple, just beyond Shiva's large center shrine. There, we were also brought into the inner sanctum past hoards of pilgrims and worshipers.

The priest was telling us how the old traditions are being lost to the new ways of the west - that young Indians are leaving their traditions to go to Europe and America for opportunity. He said it was a joy to be able to show these traditions to Westerners who were interested in the old, sacred traditions of India.

I am aware of what a rare and special experience I am having here, and I know how truly blessed I am.


Then the priest said, "It is not for you to decide when to go to see God, but rather when God decides it is the right time for you to see."

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