Jatra to Roots
I had the pleasure of visiting my mother’s home town area on the border of Tamilnadu and Kerala sometime back, the reason being that my mother’s family was refurbishing and renovating their family temple dedicated to the powerful, beautiful lord Shasta in stone which is an old temple.
The temple town is called Ettayapuram; on the border of a bigger city called KovilPatti in the Madurai district of Tamilnadu. Kerala border is approximately 100 kilometres away and the place is wondrous.. This is an extremely spiritual place in India, people simple and mostly agrarians have lived for ages in peaceful surroundings of the plateau praying and living a simple life.
Jatra to roots is always an introspective affair. There is nothing grand about this. There is a soul searching which remains incomplete till a destination inwardly has reached. There is love which must be felt and reconnected.
The Shasta temple was originally perhaps a very old and central temple to the grand quaint town of Ettayapuram. The temple perhaps belonged to Devi and maybe post several invasions – the main entity got replaced by the beautiful Shasta. This is my guess based on the inference that the main tantric – Anand who was also presiding as the priest for the occasion had said earlier to my relatives based on the Tantric deployment of Choi. (Of seeing signs more carefully and inferring than a normal man ever could in his lifetime).
The Jatra began at Madurai – once a beautiful thriving city in Tamil kingdom, now a semi – religious bustling town of sorts. I took a cab from the airport and made a move to kovilpatti admiring the beautiful Tamil country side on the way, stopped on the way for lunch at a highway dhaba and was served on the leaf (after such a long time) and the food tasted good, like home food perhaps even though it was average restaurant food – the food made in the rice bowl of the country tastes beautiful; natural and yes satvic to some extent.
The Tamil kingdom in its days was perhaps the grandest of the whole world; the kind of empire the chola and pandya kings made was and still is unimaginable. There seems to be a lingering in my heart forever since seeing these places to be a part of them, a relic like the temples and structures of lore are all around – all mingling with garbage and putrid of the modern man.
But the heart of tamil nation still remains rooted in Shiva and Shakti worship. It’s beautiful indeed – where every nook and corner holds an old ruined temple and the kind of simple people who want to make their daily bread and pray before going to bed. This is the type of life I imagine, the kind of life one can take peacefully to the bed and the smashan as well.
I reach Kovilpatti and settle in the normal-ish hotel for the little town, don’t mind me – the town is again very ancient and has a beautiful temple – but the kind of modernization one expects to see in this day and age is still not there, these are tier 2 cities and that by Indian standards isn’t saying much. I meet my close relatives and chit chat and wait for the other near dear ones to drop in. I rest for a while and then we decide to drive around 30 km to go to a close by temple – again an old temple dedicated to the beautiful lord Murugan (The Hill god, tribal in nature). The place is called kalaga malai – a beautiful round hillock some 50meters in the air (surrounded by no such hills though) atop which 2 vultures (Kalaga) come together every day at mid noon to feast for time immemorial – such legend goes to supposedly show the presence of holy power of lord Murugan – He is a hill and cave dwelling god – and a small yet beautifully crafted temple on the base of the hill has been made to honour him. The temple is indeed small and inside an original cave – which has been increased in size to accommodate the masses over time. The architecture is brilliant with some of the best most interesting and beautiful architecture of the world being associated with the artisans from this area. Its indeed mesmerizing for one who has not seen these temples strewn across the Tamil nation. Its indeed life changing for some (like myself) to be part of the ancient past – not because it was glorious, but because it was beautiful – almost utopic in approach or atleast depicted such in stone.
I climbed the hill to the top, and a beautiful view presented before me, on the way many old jain architecture cut out on this rock also are there – which have been closed off by the archaeological team so that they won’t be desecrated – no jains come here to worship anymore and hence they have become ruined and not worship worthy. The place indeed has a beautiful old charm and powerful aura associated, something I could fathom from the earlier trips to such sites in different parts of this ancient land.
We stayed till the evening arthi and then headed back to our hotel rooms to get a early night ahead (We were to start the next day very early for the pooja to be conducted in the Shasta temple).
I got up earlier than most, almost at 4 AM; and saw that no one was awake, which was kind of strange because I genuinely cannot get up early morning. But I had come to be a part of celebration. I saw that everyone else had not gotten up and then after freshening up – got a moments rest and smoke before I set out.
I remember the place – the temple on the outskirts of the small city Ettayapuram; when I had been here about a decade back; the temple was surrounded by nothing, but now small concrete homes had come about everywhere around. It was too early for folks to be bustling about, but as I got to the temple – saw that a huge crowd was already congregated, these were locals – probably called to celebrate and then partake in the early morning breakfast and lunch sponsored mostly by my family members.
The tantric and his troupe had begun their preparations – there was a yagna which is a tribute and prayer towards fire essentially. The priest was busy praying and providing oblations to fire – with my relative who is also versed with same contributing. The temple was half complete in terms of the infrastructure – the ground still filled with pebbles and stones and essentially painful for someone who has never traversed without footwear for long. Loads of people sitting on either corners – and two huge statues made on either side of the temple entrance – one for the mighty god Shasta – Also known locally as Kalki – riding his totem animal – Horse (with the front legs of horse in air). A leap of victory of kinds, and on the other side; the god of elementals known as Bhoota natha, who is traditionally shown as the commander of lord shiva’s spirits and ghoul army. He is also known as the violent and powerful shiva and many folks in India pray to him as he is the one who spreads the news to his master shiva (who remains most time in deep trance)
The main temple contains the god Shasta with his two wives – Purna and pushpakala, he is sitting in the middle (with his one foot up, this is a warrior position in iconography), the temple has the energy of Goddess as well, and hence a new idol made in 5 elements (Pancha bhuta) is made towards the left side behind the main sanctum and on the other side there is an idol of God Ganapati also put up. There is a lot of difference since the last time in past I have seen this place (I had come here when I was a child and the temple then was in the middle of nowhere with only the main small dome with the idol present and nothing else).
The main idol of Shasta had its left arm which is extending outwards broken (no one knew how or why) and this had been replaced by a silver arm, this truly looked beautiful and enchanting. I went inside and prayed and bowed down (with my shirt off – traditional method in which gods extend their power into the chest of humans).
I spent some time in peaceful meditation in between the loud chanting of the priest and the louder gossip of village folk all around – all human notions but with good intentions. The rest of my relatives followed through in a while and we finished the yagna and started with the kalash pooja – where around 49 kalash / pots with energies bestowed were kept in a rectangular fashion and then prayed to, the pot contained water which was subsequently used to wash the idol.
These methods help in clearing energy from the idol and bestowing new energy to the consecrated idol according to my understanding. The temple already had its netra puja 41 days before (This is the day where the idol’s eyes are opened and traditionally the day energy enters the idol post which a special paste is put on the idol and the base which takes these many days to concrete itself) But I am convinced – that the 40 odd day period is the time which is required for the soul to transmigrate into new body – for meditation towards infinite to take fruition like in the case of Mohammad and Jesus. And so it is for the idol which is treated as a real thing – living and breathing entity which has come to its senses of power within the 40 day mark.
Post the puja and breakfast, we went to the local king’s residence who had also come for attending the same. At the time I could not realize that it was the king and queen along with their daughter (They had come to pray for the daughter’s marriage which I realized subsequently).
The residence was on a sprawling acre and it was most probably a very well to do kingdom in the past. Now only a ruin at best, the house was broken down – and kept with minimal care only. The king and queen showed the photos of their lineage before to us and spent a bit of time in reminiscence, I learnt the king recently cut his moustache something he and all other patriarchal royalties are so concerned about. He showed local cut outs of paper photos – of himself with the moustache and then we surfaced that their daughter was not getting married and hence they had come to pray to Lord Shasta for same to happen (Shasta here is in his happy domestic mood – with his two wives on either side flanking him to happiness).
We came back to the hotel room by mid-afternoon and had a light lunch, post which all of my family left. They had only come to conduct the pooja and nothing else, and as I had come to see the place after so many years, I was leaving after a whole day. This being guru purnima – the most important day in any Hindu’s life for it symbolizes the day of reverence towards the spiritual master – I thought it would be wise to take a small nap and then make a move back to my native town.
I returned by twilight via local bus to see two old temples present in ettayapuram – one Shiva and the other Vishnu. Side by side – was interesting to see that the son of these two -> Shasta in the same location.
I would assume that in the olden days – a king was accustomed to either praying to one of the various multitudes of gods; Shiva or Vishnu or goddess etc. But this place has both of the temples in a side by side setup. It was beautiful to see, I came back by bus and the full moon of Guru Purnima showing brightly and exited the bus earlier than usual to get out near the main temple of Kovilpatti – The shanbaganalli mother goddess, with the old Shiva temple close by -> The temple had a beautiful aura and was filled with local religious folks who were there praying fervently to the idols. The temple was of lore – as sage agastya of the Aryan dynasty came down south in one of the myths and he was rampaging the entire place in his deep meditation and comes to this temple and prays to the Shiva lingam over here. The temple had such beautiful vibes that I continued to meditate and praise the lord’s compassionate name in the process. I wanted to stay in such a place forever, at the end of it when I was leaving – I received a beautiful garland from the neck of the dancing lord Natarajan. I felt blessed, especially as the lord here is called ‘poovanatha’ – the lord of flowers – as he was praised by agastya muni by flowers during his travel. I went back to the room and slept peacefully.
I got up in the morning and travelled back to Madurai city via a taxi, reached before noon and went to one of the six major Murugan temples of worship (I had already visited Swamimalai and Palani in the past) – Thiruparaikundram (The first step of six – which is the way the six temples of Murugan are traditionally referred to ).
The temple is extremely old – older than most Dravidian worship sects also and has been attributed as an old Shiva and Shakti centre of worship, the hillock (all Murugan temples are made on hillocks) an old rounded rock is extremely beautiful and a fakir’s grave is now atop it, legend has it that there are numerous caves within this hillock where worship by ancient saints have taken place over time. The temple had a very beautiful old feel to it – made over 1500 years back, some of the carvings in the granite was pristine – showing faces of Narsimha, Shiva, Murugan and other gods and goddesses.
The temple is where Murugan destroys one cruel asura dude and then marries Indra’s daughter in turn. (Deviayani). Murugan is traditionally a tribal god and is shown with two wives – one is the heavenly deviani and the other is valli (tribal goddess). So here he is in marriage mode and is extremely happy – he is not only victorious but also happy as he gets the hand of a hot woman.
I prayed and as I exited they closed the temple hastily, everyone wanting their afternoon siesta. I reached the airport and waited for the plane back to the horrid city, Hyderabad.
I had a good time after a long time; there is something about rural tamilnadu which still exudes mystery and serenity at the same while. The beautiful sculptures and temples, the lakes and alleyways near these huge structures. It has a sense of home in a world where I have never had any. A wonderful peaceful place to rest and meditate.
Peace and Joy