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The Legend of Deepavali

Today we celebrate Deepavali – the joyous festival of lights.

Deepavali or Naraka Chaturdashi is celebrated on the 14th day of the waning moon of the seventh month in the Hindu calendar. This month is known by the names Aippasi / Ashvayuja / Ashwin.

This festival is one of the most ancient festivals celebrated all over Bharat (India) with no distinction whatsoever. Taking bath with hot water with oil smeared on one’s head early in the morning, yummy sweets, savouries and delicacies, new clothes, prayers to the goddess of wealth, fireworks, feasts and meeting friends and family are all the beautiful images one conjures up at the mention of the name “Deepavali”.

However, along with the slight cultural differences in the above rituals, in the South of the country, the victory of Krishna over Narakasura is celebrated as Deepavali while in the North the celebration is for Lord Rama returning from Sri Lanka after successfully vanquishing Ravana.

Whatever the legend be, the core is, celebration of victory of Dharma over Adharma, or good over evil.

While the Ramayana is very popular, the story of Narakasura’s defeat by Lord Krishna is not so popular and hence this attempt to know the story. This story is narrated in Srimad Bhagavatam.

Naraka, it is said was born to Bhoomi Devi (Mother Earth) from a drop of sweat which fell from the brow of Lord Varaha (Sri Mahavishnu in his earlier incarnation), as he retrieved the earth from the clutches of Hiranyaksha.

Naraka grew up to be a very arrogant and powerful demonic king (hence Naraka Asura) and ruled over Pragjyotishapura. He had done many penances and obtained boons to become invincible. And as the saying goes “Power corrupts”, this inexhaustible power he had obtained through boons, corrupted his mind so much that he started harassing the gods in their realm. He snatched the ear rings of the mother of the Gods, Adithi and imprisoned thousands of young women in his palace. He had also snatched the umbrella, which was a part of the insignia of Lord Varuna. He had looted and plundered so many things from Indra’s capital Amaravathi.

Indra, the king of gods was no longer able to bear this harassment and complained to Lord Krishna to put an end to this nonsense and Krishna agreed. He flew with his wife Satyabhama on his royal mount, the Garuda and reached Pragjyotishapura.

Now, this city was protected by so many layers by Naraka. Firstly, the city was surrounded by tall mountains which were practically un-scalable. The city was also covered by a thick net of Pashas (sturdy ropes), after which one had to cross barriers of water and fire. Further Naraka had appointed the demon Mura to guard his city.

Lord Krishna flying on the Garuda the invincible bird, broke the mountains with his club and entered the city. He used his discus, the Sudarsan Chakra to destroy the layers of water and fire and with his sword he cut open the net of ropes and suddenly Mura who was relaxing heard the deafening sound of the Panchajanya, Lord Krishna’s conch. He was taken by surprise as he had never imagined anyone could even attempt to attack this impregnable city.

Mura was also a terrible demon with five heads and ten arms and possessed fearsome weapons like the trident and mace. Krishna soon proved that he was more than an equal to Mura and finally when Mura ran towards Krishna with upraised arms to take him on, Krishna’s discus killed Mura and hence the name Murari for Krishna.

Now, Mura had seven sons and all of them came out, enraged at this action of Krishna, along with Pita, the commander in chief of Narakasura. But very soon, they also joined their father.

Now Naraka had to come out and he came with his impressive army of noble elephants resembling Indra’s elephant Airavata and it was a sight to behold!

Naraka fought with all his might and courage but was not able to withstand the might of Krishna and his mount, Garuda, and soon his army of elephants were either wounded or killed. The death of Narakasura followed, carried out by the Sudarsan Chakra on Lord Krishna’s command.

There was great jubilation and on the request of Naraka’s mother, Bhoomi Devi, Bhagadatta, the son of Naraka was crowned king. All the stolen things were placed at the feet of Lord Krishna which were returned by the Lord to the respective owners.

This day when the shroud of darkness over Pragjyotishapura was destroyed by the arrival and subsequent victory of Lord Krishna over Naraka or Bhoumasura as he was called, and good prevailed over evil, is celebrated as Deepavali.

This is the legend of Deepavali in the Southern part of Bharat.

Lingodbhava

Hello Readers, I am penning this story after a long gap today to celebrate the eighth anniversary of Storibuzz.in today.

Thank you all for reading the stories and giving me your valuable comments which I cherish. It feels so nice to know that the blog is being useful to many and serving the purpose with which I started it.

Mahashivaratri is around the corner and I am offering this story of Lord Shiva today as an offering to Him.

All of us would have seen the murti of ‘Lingodbhava’ in almost all Shiva temples. He is usually stationed right behind the sanctum sanctorum of Lord Shiva, on the outer wall exactly behind where the Linga is on the inside.

Lingodbhava is Linga Udhbhava which means, emergence of a Linga.

Now, what is this story or from where did this Linga emerge? This is the legend we shall see today.

Once upon a time, in heaven, there was a dispute between Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu on who was superior. They could not arrive at a conclusion and decided to ask Shambhu (Another name for Lord Shiva) and so they went to Him.

As they mentioned about their disagreement, Lord Shiva disappeared and a huge column of fire appeared. It looked like a huge Lingam and was so huge that there did not seem to be an end to it nor could anyone fathom the beginning. The voice of Lord Shiva was heard, asking Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma to find the beginning or end of the column of fire. Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu knew that this fire in a Linga form, was Lord Shiva.

Lord Brahma said to Lord Vishnu, “I will search the end of this Linga of Fire” and he assumed the form of a swan and started flying upward.

Lord Vishnu had no option but to find the beginning or origin of the Linga. The Linga was going beneath the ground on the earth and no one knew from where it had begun. So Lord Vishnu chose to assume the form of a wild boar and with its horns, the boar dug the earth furiously around the Linga and went down little by little hoping to find the beginning of the Linga.

As he went down further and further it was of no avail. He was extremely tired and he was nowhere near the beginning.

Lord Brahma on the other hand also could not find the end of the fire column and he was also getting tired. But he was too egoistic to go and admit to Lord Vishnu that he had been unsuccessful. He thought that if Lord Vishnu had managed to find the beginning of the Linga, Lord Vishnu would be considered supreme.

He was pondering as to what to do when he suddenly saw a Ketaki flower falling from up. Ketaki flower is called as “Thazampoo” in Tamizh. Brahma stopped the Ketaki flower and demanded where it was coming from. The flower replied that it was falling from the head of Lord Shiva.

“Aha!” thought Lord Brahma to himself. “This is an opportunity for me to establish my supremacy. Let me try.” Thinking so he told the flower about his challenge with Lord Vishnu and tried to convince the flower to be his partner in crime.

“You come with me to Lord Vishnu and tell him that you are a witness to my finding the end of the Lingam. Lord Vishnu will believe you since you adorn Lord Shiva’s locks” said he, knowing fully well that it was wrong to cheat like that.

The Ketaki flower was reluctant at first, but agreed to do as Lord Brahma said, and it descended along the column of fire along with Lord Brahma. When they reached the ground Lord Vishnu was puzzled as he saw the Ketaki flower with Lord Brahma.

Lord Brahma uttered a lie to Lord Vishnu without any shame. “Lord Vishnu, I have seen the end of this Lingam, which is Lord Shiva’s head” said he with a proud smile. Pointing to the Ketaki flower, he said, “I have obtained this flower from the ‘Shiras’ (head) of Lord Shiva”. The flower nodded in agreement.

Lord Vishnu, who did not even imagine that Lord Brahma would try to cheat, immediately folded his hands in obeisance to Lord Brahma. “I accept your supremacy Lord Brahma” he said with utmost humility and was about to bow his head when a booming voice emerged from the huge Lingam.

“Stop!!” said the voice.

As Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma looked around bewildered, Lord Shiva emerged from the fiery Lingam, his eyes red with anger.

He was enraged as Lord Brahma had uttered a lie and was trying to cheat Lord Vishnu.

Looking at Lord Brahma Lord Shiva said in a thundering voice, “You, Brahma! You have cheated! How dare you tell a lie? You could not find the end of the Lingam but you lied to Lord Vishnu? I curse you that you will never be worshipped in temples by the people of the world. This is a punishment for your conceit!”

Turning to the Ketaki flower which was trembling with fear, Lord Shiva said, “And you, Ketaki! You also agreed to the words of Brahma and jointly cheated Vishnu? I am disgusted with your behavior! I curse you that hence forth you shall not be used for worshipping me! You don’t deserve to be in my company!”

Then, he turned to Lord Vishnu with a smile and held his hands and said lovingly, “Hari, you will be loved and worshipped by mankind as they worship me!”

From then, there are no temples for Lord Brahma and the Ketaki flower is not used in the worship of Lord Shiva. Lord Vishnu, on the other hand is equally loved and worshipped as Lord Shiva is, in this world!

This is the story depicted by the ‘Lingodbhava’ murti in Shiva temples. Do not forget to observe Him when you go to a Shiva temple this Shivaratri.

Laaye Sanjeevan Lakhan Jiyaye

Pleasure to narrate the tale of Hanuman who brought the ‘Sanjeevani’ herb also called ‘Mritasanjeevi’ along with the ‘Oushadi Parvata’ (mountain) to bring Lakshmana back to life in the battle with Ravana.

In the words of Goswami Tulsidas in his Hanuman Chaleesa, “Laaye Sanjeevan Lakhan Jiyaye”

The way in which this pandemic is putting people down, we surely need Hanumanji’s grace to revive us as he revived the scores of the Vanaras who had succumbed in the war and Lakshmana, without whom Rama could not have ever completed his life’s mission.

It is very interesting to observe here that in Ramayana, the ‘Vayu Putra Hanuman’ has been the ‘Prana’ of the epic, as he saved the lives of Sita Mata, Lakshmana and Bharata!

When Hanuman found Sita Mata in the Ashok Vatika, contemplating suicide as she was steeped in agony having lost hope of finding Rama, Hanuman was there just in time and saved her life. Similarly when Rama and Lakshmana fainted in the battlefield and once again when Lakshmana was wounded and lost consciousness, Hanuman brought the ‘Sanjeevani’ and saved them. Again, when there was delay in Rama reaching Nandigram and Bharata had already prepared to give up his life, there came Hanuman and saved his life.

Did you know that the ‘Oushadi Parvata’ with ‘Sanjeevani’ herb was brought by Hanuman not once but twice from the Himalayas? We shall see how that happened.

When the mighty Kumbhakarna was killed by the Vanara army who did not know to even wield a sword, Ravana was devastated. He could not, but believe that these mortals were not mere mortals. He fainted with shock and pain as his valiant sons and mighty brother had been wiped out so easily.

When he woke up from his faint, with teary eyes, Indrajit, Mandodari’s son, not able to see his father broken, consoled him with soothing words.

“Do not be distressed beloved King, my father!” he said. “There is no need to be despondent while I am alive. I will go immediately and fight with the enemy and put those mortals to eternal sleep.”

Saying thus, he immediately went and performed fire oblations as was his practice each time he went out for battle. He then invoked the ‘Brahmastra’ to his possession, kept it in his chariot and worshipped the chariot along with the bows and arrows. He then got on to his chariot and flew in the sky with the chariot, inciting the Vanaras to fight him. The Vanaras fought valiantly but Indrajit rained deadly arrows on them injuring almost everyone including Sugriva and Angada. He then proceeded to where Rama and Lakshmana were and hid himself in the sky and started pouring arrows on them both.

Rama realized that it was the might of the ‘Brahmastra’ and advised Lakshmana to bear the onslaught so that Indrajit would leave the place and soon both the brothers submitted themselves to the weapon and fell down in a death-like faint which made Indrajit think that they had been felled and he returned to the city shouting in glee.

The only persons who were not affected at all were Hanuman and Vibhishana. They were so depressed at the turn of events and went around the field searching for the warriors who had survived the ‘Brahmastra’. That was when they found Jambavan injured and lying on the ground. Jambavan was relieved to hear that Hanuman was unharmed and told Hanuman of the ‘Oushadiparvata’ which was situated between the Kailasa peak and Rishaba hill in the Himalayas.

“You are the only one” said he, “who can go and get the herbs ‘Mritasanjeevi’ (to bring back to life), ‘Vishalyakarani’ (to heal the wounds), ‘Santanakarani’ (to heal fractures) and ‘Savarnyakarani’ (to restore the skin). These grow on the ‘Oushadiparvata’. Please go immediately”

Hanuman immediately assumed a gigantic form as he had done while coming to Lanka for the first time. Off he took to the skies, flying with great speed towards the northern direction. It was as if a massive mountain was flying. Soon he found the ‘Oushadiparvata’ but as the herbs seemed to be concealing themselves, in a fit of anger, Hanuman uprooted the ‘parvata’ in its entirety and carrying it in one hand, flew back to the battlefield in Lanka.

The moment he placed the mountain on the battlefield, the medicinal smell of all the herbs wafted across and all who had fallen in a death-like faint including Rama and Lakshmana woke up as if, from a trance. All the Vanaras awoke and all the traces of wounds of all had disappeared.

Interestingly, since Ravana had ordered all the dead Rakshasas to be thrown into the ocean (to save his reputation), no Rakshasa came back to life. Hanuman lifted the mountain once again like a child’s play and went back and kept it in its place in the Himalayas and came back to Lanka.

This was the Mission I Sanjeevani.

Now for the Mission II Sanjeevani.  

After this, it was the turn of Kumbhakarna’s valiant sons Kumbha and Nikhumba to fight to death and meet Yama in the hands of Sugriva and Hanuman respectively. 

 Now, Indrajit, who this time again decided to fool the army by deceit brought in his chariot the ‘Maya Sita’ (Sita like person created by Maya). He was accosted by Hanuman who believed that it was indeed Sita Mata and was shocked. After raining arrows and hurting the Vanara army, Indrajit, proclaiming the lady in his chariot to be Sita slashed her chest and killed her. Hanuman was devastated and walked away from the battle, despondent that the very reason for whom the battle was on, was killed.

Indrajit was happy to have diverted the attention of the enemy camp as he had planned a secret ritual at a place called Nikhumbila, on the completion of which, he would become invincible. He proceeded with his followers to Nikhumbila to start and finish the ritual as early as possible.

When Hanuman came and told Rama of ‘Sita’s’ demise Rama could not take it and fainted. The army tried to revive him while Lakshmana was comforting him and telling him that he would avenge this act. It was then, that Vibhishana arrived and on hearing the account from Hanuman, told them that it would have been a ‘Maya Sita’. He then told them about Indrajit’s ritual which had to be stopped before its completion and urged them to go to Nikhumbila. Lakshmana and Hanuman along with the army went with Vibhishana to Nikhumbila and interrupted the ritual much to the ire of Indrajit and a fierce battle ensued between Lakshmana who fought riding on the shoulders of Hanuman, and Indrajit. Using the Aindra Astra, Lakshmana killed Indrajit.

Benumbed with great shock at the death of his invincible son, Ravana fell into a death-like faint. Slowly recovering from the shock, he then sent his personal army to surround Rama’s army and attack them. They were also extinguished in no time and then Ravana came with the last three warriors Mahaparshva, Mahodhara and Virupaksha and started battle with Rama. The three warriors were killed and Ravana was greatly enraged to see his brother Vibhishana being protected by Lakshmana and hurled a weapon by name Shakthi at Lakshmana. This weapon never missed its victim.

Fortunately before it hit Lakshmana, Rama uttered “May the Shakti lose its potency and leave my brother unharmed”. The weapon, though lost its potency entered the chest of Lakshmana and he fell senseless on the ground bleeding profusely.

Rama, though deeply hurt, was wild with anger at Ravana. Entrusting Lakshmana to Hanuman and Sugriva fought with so much fury that Ravana decided leave the field for the day.

Rama’s grief poured out, now that Ravana had left. He was sobbing openly. “Without Lakshmana I neither desire to rescue Sita nor live myself” said he.

Sushena, the physician, then examined Lakshmana and diagnosed that he was not dead. This was when Hanuman was again requested for the ‘Vishalyakarani’ leaves from the ‘Oushadiparvata’.

“Hanuman” said Sushena. “You have to bring the Oushadi…”

The ever-ready Hanuman, was air borne even before Sushena had completed his sentence. Within moments he reached the Himalayas and impatient as he was, lifted the whole mountain once again in one hand, and was back in Lanka within minutes. Hanuman had assumed such a huge form that the big mountain in his hand looked like a small block of soil. The moment Hanuman landed and kept the ‘parvata’, Sushena climbed the mountain and took the ‘Vishalyakarani’ leaves and crushed them and held them under the nostrils of Lakshmana and he woke up as if from a trance. He was completely cured and was his normal self. All the other injured Vanaras also were rejuvenated.

Rama was overjoyed at Lakshmana’s revival. The rest is history. Ravana was killed subsequently and Rama’s mission accomplished.

This is how Hanuman saved the warriors by bringing the ‘Sanjeevani’ not once but twice!

Jai Hanuman!!

Vikram and Vetaal – 2

This is another story from Vikram and Vetaal. For people who are new to Vikram and Vetaal stories, it is recommended to read the introductory story here.

The Vetaal (who had possessed the corpse) flew back to the banyan tree and hung upside down. “Hooo hooo hooo”, it laughed eerily.

Now, out of experience, Vikram knew he had to deal firmly with the Vetaal since it would easily escape from him. So in the very first instance, he climbed the tree and gripped the corpse tightly and shoved it on to his back, clutching its legs firmly.

He began to walk back to the sorcerer with the Vetaal clinging to his back. The Vetaal started talking again.

“You have managed to capture me again to take me to the sorcerer” said the Vetaal. “But the path is quite long and so I have decided to tell you another story. The story will have a question at the end. I know that you are extremely intelligent and so, if you know the correct answer and yet keep quiet, your head will break into a thousand pieces. On the other hand, if you tell me the correct answer, I will fly back to the tree.”

Vikram had no choice but to agree to this condition, and the Vetaal started the story.

Once there was a king by name Chandrakant who ruled over a kingdom. He was a very intelligent and impartial king who ruled well. In his reign, all his subjects were happy.

One day, one of his gate-keepers came to him and said, ‘Your Majesty, there will be an attack on our kingdom by some enemies in a few days. It is better if our armed forces are alerted so that they will be prepared.’

The king was surprised, and asked him how he knew this information beforehand, since he was only the gate-keeper and not a spy. The gate-keeper did not give a satisfactory reply.

However, just as the gate-keeper had predicted, in a few days there was an attack on the kingdom by some enemies.

Chandrakant, being an intelligent king, had always kept his army trained and ready and therefore, this attack did not cause them much loss. The enemies were driven away easily by the army of King Chandrakant.

That night, King Chandrakant was wondering how the words of the gate-keeper had come true and mentally decided that he would reward the gate-keeper for his timely information.

So, the next day, he called for him. When the gate-keeper came, King Chandrakant handed to him a bag containing a thousand gold coins as a reward and said, ‘I appreciate your timely information on the attack by the enemies. But tell me now, how did you know this would happen?’

The gate-keeper, in his enthusiasm after having received the gold coins said, ‘Your Majesty! Whatever I see in my dreams when I am asleep comes true. That night, when I was on duty here, I got this dream of the enemies coming and attacking our kingdom. Immediately in the morning I came and informed you’

King Chandrakant thought for a moment and looked at the gatekeeper sternly. ‘Thank you for the information. You are hereby dismissed from service’ he said.

All the people present were shocked on hearing the king’s words. They wondered why the king had given a punishment to one who had done well for the kingdom. No one was bold enough to ask the king.

The gate-keeper also looked stunned for a moment but did not even question the king. He seemed to have understood the reason for his dismissal and said ‘Yes. I deserve this punishment’ and left quietly.”

The Vetaal stopped his story. He asked King Vikram, “Tell me O King, why did King Chandrakant dismiss the gate-keeper from service and why did the gate-keeper accept it? If you know the correct answer and yet keep quiet, your head will break into a thousand pieces. On the other hand, if you tell me the correct answer, I will fly back to the tree.”

King Vikram, without a moment of hesitation replied, “The gate-keeper on duty was supposed to be awake and guard the gates of the palace. If he had dreams at night, it meant he was sleeping and not doing his duty and he also understood that this was the reason for his dismissal.”

The next moment, King Vikram heard an eerie cackle and Vetaal had slipped out of his hold. “Vikram” it said. “I told you that I will go back if you told the right answer! And here I go, hohoho…….”

The story of Kanakadhara Stotram

Adi shankara taking alms of a dried gooseberry from the poor lady

Today is Adi Shankara Jayanthi, the birth anniversary of Guru Adi Shankara and as a tribute to the Guru, I am going to narrate the story behind his composition of the Kanakadhara Stotram on Goddess Mahalakshmi. This Stotram or hymn is considered to be very powerful in propitiating Goddess Mahalakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth.

Shankara, who later on became known as Adi Shankara, was born in Kaladi in Kerala in 509 BCE. His parents were Sivaguru and Aryamba and they were blessed by Lord Shiva to have such an excellent child who was the epitome of intelligence and divinity.

After his father passed away when he was four years of age, Shankara started his studies at a Gurukul. It was the practice in ancient India for the students in a Gurukul to go and seek alms every day from strangers for their food. They would bring back what was collected and share it with the other students and the teacher and eat. They would have to go far and wide for this purpose. This practice of seeking alms from strangers brought in the attitude of humility in the students, since they had to give up their ego while begging for food.

Shankara, one day, as usual went for collecting alms and went to a hut. He stood in front of the hut when he saw that there was a lady there. He said in a melodious voice “Bhavati Biksham Dehi!” which translates into “Mother, give me alms!”

The lady was wearing tattered clothes and had a pale and haggard appearance. She was apparently very poor. However, Shankara did not choose to move away, since anyway, after calling out three times, if there was no response, the practice was to move away and go to the next place. The lady noticed Shankara and acknowledged his presence with a smile. Then she seemed to be frantically searching for something.

The fact was, that she was terribly poverty-stricken and there was not a grain in the house. But the virtue of hospitality was so abundant in India in those days and now also to a certain extent, that one deemed it a privilege to feed strangers and wholeheartedly served strangers with the best of what they had.

Such being the case, this lady was frantically searching in her hut inside the pots and pans for some rice and dal, but alas! There was none. Her face wore a worried look. Here, there was this young innocent child who was face shone with intelligence,waiting at the doorstep for food. . He was looking like the Sun God in the form of a child.

The lady felt she had to give him something. It was the day of Dwadashi (twelfth day from waning or waxing of moon) and generally people who observed the Ekadashi fast would break the fast on Dwadashi by consuming a gooseberry fruit (amla). She remembered that there was a gooseberry left and searched on the upper shelf in the kitchen and found the one which she had kept for herself. The fruit had dried up and was in the size of a pea.

She took that and brought it with great trepidation to Shankara, who was waiting outside. She was not sure whether a dried gooseberry could be given as alms, or whether Shankara would even accept the same. With great hesitation she came to Shankara and placed it in his begging bowl. She could not control her tears and told him that it was the only thing available in her house which she could offer him and requested him earnestly to accept this offering.

Shankara was moved by the woman’s selflessness. Here was a woman who did not have anything for herself but unhesitatingly gave away the only thing she had, so as to not send back Shankara empty- handed. This feeling in him poured out as a beautiful Hymn in praise of Goddess Lakshmi. In this spontaneous outburst, he prayed and pleaded with the Goddess of Wealth Devi Mahalakshmi to cast her grace on this poor lady. The words of the hymn which contains twenty one stanzas were very lyrical and divine.

Goddess Mahalakshmi was moved by the beautiful hymn of the little Shankara (who was all of five years old then), and appeared in the skies, and suddenly, there was a downpour of gooseberry fruits made of gold on the hut of the poor lady, who was taken by surprise and could not believe her eyes. But it was true. It just rained and rained of golden gooseberries.

This hymn which Shankara sang, came to be known as Kanakadhara Stotram (Kanaka – Gold; Dhara – continuous pour).

The lady’s hut where this happened in the village Punnorkode came to be known as ‘Swarnathu Mana’ (Gold House). Punnorkode is in Ernakulam district of Kerala.

It is pertinent to mention that in as recent as 2001, the land where the house stood was acquired from the previous owners, and a beautiful Mahalakshmi temple has been constructed in the very same place where the incident happened. This temple was consecrated in 2018.

This is the story behind the Kanakadhara Stotram.

Adi Shankara lived for a very brief period of thirty-two years on this earth and has authored innumerable sacred hymns and texts.

I shall come back with the full story of Adi Shankara sometime later.

Gods in quarantine

As the infection due to Corona virus is spreading in India also, there is lot of talk and practice of social distancing and quarantine, being alone in isolation. Even today, we are all under self-imposed curfew on this 22nd of March 2020.

Surprisingly, being in quarantine and isolation when sick is not restricted to human beings. There is an age old practice of “Anavasara” practiced in Puri, at the Jagannath temple, where the gods are ‘quarantined’ for fourteen days to help them recover from illness.

I thought it relevant to write about this now and so am just giving a brief write up on that today and not a full-fledged story.

Lord Jagannath’s Rath Yatra happens every year during the months of June- July and you can read more about it in my story Purushottam and Padmavathy by clicking here.

Eighteen days before the Rath Yatra, the full moon day of the Hindu month of Jyeshta is believed to be the birthday of Lord Jagannath.  On this day, there is a ritual called ‘Snan Yatra’, where the Murtis of the  Gods Balabadhra (Balarama), Jagannath (Krishna) and Subhadra (sister of Krishna and Balarama)  are brought from the sanctum sanctorum, in a grand procession with the accompaniment of cymbals, drums, bells and bugles to the ‘Snanabedi’ or bathing place within the temple premises near the Sithala temple.

There, these Murtis are bathed with 108 pitchers of cool scented water with the accompaniment of chants and music. Thousands of devotees come to witness this, as they believe their sins would be washed off by having a glimpse of the Gods bathing. This day is also known as ‘Deva Snana Poornima’ (Full moon day when the Gods bathe).

After the ritual bath, the Gods are initially dressed in the normal fashion. Later in the evening they are dressed in a grand manner resembling Ganesha and it is called ‘Gajabesha’. The huge crowd witnesses all the rituals. That day, the food for the Gods are also offered to them in full public view and after all this fun, at night, when it is time for them to go back to the sanctum sanctorum, the Gods are diagnosed to be sick, with a cold and fever!! Too much of cold water bathing in the hot and humid climate has done them harm, people believe.

The Gods cannot go back to their place in the temple!!

So Balabhadra, Jagannatha and Subhadra are taken to their private apartment, a place called “Anavasara Pindi” within the temple. This place is the ‘quarantine house’ for the Gods for the next fourteen days. No devotee is allowed to see the Gods. Only the ‘Raj Vaidya’ (the doctor) is allowed to see the Gods and ‘treat’ them for their illness. There are special servants (Daitapatis) akin to the nurses of today who ‘treat’ the Gods with special oils which are steeped with herbal extracts. These oils help in protecting the Murtis from insects since the Murtis are made of wood. They are also given a new coat of paint.

Interestingly, the Gods are offered only fruits, nuts and seeds in contrast with the ‘Chappan Bhog’ – the 56 types of food items offered to them on other days.

A representative picture (Pata Chitra) of the Gods is kept in the temple for people to worship. They are still there for the devotees even though physically not there. (Gods working from home??)

At the end of the fourteenth day of isolation, after all Ayurvedic treatments are over, the Murtis are believed to have gained “Naba Jouvana” or ‘new youthful vigour’ and they get ready for the Rath Yatra the next day.

This firmly drives in the fact that all activities need rest in between. Distancing and isolation is essential for returning back with renewed vigour!

Let us pray that this world overcomes this crisis and comes back with renewed vigour, by the grace of Lord Jagannath!

Narahari Sonar – The saint-poet

This is the lunar month of Kartik. This Hindu month is of immense importance to the devotees of both Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva and both these Gods are worshipped with equal fervour in this month.

 Kartik month is also known as ‘Damodar Maas’ since, it is in this month that Lord Krishna who, as a child, was tied to a grinding stone by his mother as a punishment for his mischief. He thereby got the name Damodar. While crawling with the grinding stone tied to his waist, he granted salvation to two celestial beings who were cursed to be trees and hence this month is special for Lord Vishnu (Hari).

Similarly, Lord Shiva (Hara) at Somnath granted release to the Moon (Chandra) from a curse on the full moon day of the month of Kartik (Kartik Poornima). He is also believed to have vanquished the Asuras and destroyed their three cities as Tripurantaka on Kartik Poornima. Hence, this month is special for Lord Shiva.

This month being dear to both Hari and Hara, I want to share a story with you which tells us that Hari and Hara are one and the same.

In Pandarpur, there lived a goldsmith by name Narahari. He was called Narahari Sonar (meaning goldsmith). Theirs was a family of goldsmiths and Narahari was also following the family’s profession. He was an excellent and honest goldsmith who was known for his prowess in making the best jewelry. In those days there were no machines to make jewelry. All jewelry was hand- made.

Narahari was a staunch Shaivite.  Shaivites are worshippers of Lord Shiva. He was a fanatic Shaivite that he would not even look at the Gopura (Temple tower) of Lord Vithoba’s temple which was near his house.

 Pandarpur is the abode of Lord Vithoba (Vishnu) and Goddess Rukmini (Lakshmi) and one always associates Pandarpur with Vithoba and Rukmini. The shrine of Lord Vithoba is very famous and draws crowds from all over the world even now.

In those days also, there would always be thousands of visitors to Vithoba Rukmini temple at Pandarpur.

Narahari, however, always prayed to Lord Shiva at the Mallikarjuna (a form of Shiva) temple situated nearby Vithoba Rukmini temple but would be careful enough not even to look at the Vithoba temple. During temple festivals of the Vithoba Rukmini temple he would move to some other village nearby as he did not want to even hear Vithoba’s names and songs. Such was the extent of his extreme devotion to Lord Shiva.

One day, a rich landlord from a neighbouring village came to his shop.

“I heard that you are the best goldsmith in Pandarpur. I want to get a waistband made in gold embedded with precious stones. Can you make it?” he asked Narahari.

“Sure, why not?” said Narahari. Tell me for whose size it is to be made. Have you brought the person so that I can take the measurement?”

The landlord smiled. “No…no… I cannot bring the person here” He paused for a while as Narahari looked puzzled. “It is for Vithoba”, he said.

Narahari became furious as if the landlord had uttered something unpalatable.

“For that God? No. I will not be able to make it. You can go to anyone else”, he said rudely, showing the way out to the landlord.

The landlord was not the person who would budge. He did not even get up but started talking calmly to Narahari.

“Look here Narahari, I have been married for ten years and did not have a child till now. After praying to Vithoba, my wife and I have been blessed with a child. I had decided that, to express my gratitude to my God, I would adorn him with the best gold waistband made specially for Him. Therefore I came to you knowing that you are the best Sonar available. Your job is to make the jewel, whether it is for a human being or a God and I think it is wrong for you to treat a customer like this. After all, I am only asking you to make a jewel, not to pray to the God for whom you are making the jewel. Please therefore think again before you tell me to go”

Something in the voice of the landlord made Narahari to be a bit patient and think.

“What you say is correct” said Narahari. “But I will need the measurement to make this jewel and I will NOT come to the temple of this God how much ever you coax me to. It is left to you to decide what to do”.

The landlord thought for a while. “Okay” said he. “I will go and take the measurement of Vithoba’s waist with a thread and give it to you and you make the waistband. Is it OK?”

Narahari had no excuse and had to agree. The landlord gave Narahari few bars of gold and some precious rubies and emeralds to be embedded in the waistband which he was going to make.

The landlord then went to the temple and with the help of a thick thread, took the measurement of Lord Vithoba’s waist and returned. He gave the thread to Narahari and told him to make the jewel for the measurement given, as early as possible. Narahari agreed to keep it ready in a week’s time.

The landlord returned after a week to find the beautiful jewel ready. It was so exquisitely made and the gems embedded on it made it look so ornate and the landlord could not wait to see it adorn his beloved Vithoba. He thanked Narahari profusely for having put in his heart and soul into making this wonderful jewel and paid him the fees promised. He then hurried to the temple with his wife, child and family.

After doing Puja and other rituals, the landlord requested the temple priest to adorn Vithoba with the waistband. The priest tried to tie the band around the waist of Lord Vithoba and fasten the hook, but it was a tad too short that the ends of the waistband could not be hooked and therefore Vithoba could not be adorned with the waistband. The priest told the landlord to go back to the goldsmith and add a link to the waistband so that it would be a little longer and would fit the waist of Vithoba.

The landlord, though disappointed, could not help it and went back to Narahari and told him that the band was tight. Narahari was also puzzled since he had made it exactly as per the measurement given to him.

“How come there has been a flaw in my work” he thought to himself. However, he apologized to the landlord and told him to come the next day so that he could add a link to one side of the waistband to make it a little longer.

The landlord came the next day and checked if the link was added and satisfying himself took the waistband to the temple. “It will surely fit my Vithoba” he thought to himself.

This time also the landlord was in for a surprise. The waistband which was only  a wee bit short the day before, had become extremely long and loose and was sliding down the thighs of the ‘Murti’ of Vithoba.

Both the priest and the landlord and his family were shocked this time too.

The landlord could not help but exclaim his surprise aloud. “Oh Vithoba! How can this be? Yesterday it was only little bit short….”

The priest felt bad for the landlord and said to him, “I think the measurement was not taken properly. Do not worry. Go back to the goldsmith and bring him in person to take the measurement”. He did not know that Narahari had made the jewel.

The landlord was feeling very sad and silently walked back from the temple once again to Narahari’s place.

“What happened now?” asked Narahari in an irritated tone. The landlord sadly told what had happened and requested Narahari to come personally to take the measurement of Vithoba.

You can imagine how furious Narahari was. “I CANNOT AND WILL NOT COME TO THAT TEMPLE” he yelled angrily.

The landlord was not the one to give up so easily. He calmly pleaded, then argued, quarreled with Narahari and finally made him accept to come to the temple of Vithoba to take the measurement himself.

“But one condition” said Narahari wanting to have the last word. “I will only come blindfolded to the temple and you will have to lead me to your God to enable me take the measurement. I do not want to see your God even by accident. Are you agreeable to this?”

The landlord was waiting for this moment and gladly agreed to the condition.

So Narahari took a thick black cloth and made the landlord blindfold him by tying the cloth tightly across his eyes. He held the hand of the landlord and proceeded to the temple of Vithoba walking slowly. Finally they reached the ‘garbagriha’ (sanctum) of Vithobha, with Narahari standing exactly facing Vithoba ready to measure him.

Since he had no idea of the ‘Murti’ of Vithoba, he was groping about the ‘Murti’ trying to locate the waist of Vithoba. But he thought he felt a tiger skin. He moved his hands a little further up and he felt something like a “Rudraksha”. “Am I imagining?” thought Narahari. Tiger skin and Rudraksha belonged to his Lord Shiva and he thought he was measuring Vithoba. He paused for a moment and again felt the upper part of the ‘Murti’ and what was that? He felt a slimy thing like a snake and also felt water droplets fall on his hands. Wasn’t that Ganga from the matted locks of his beloved Shiva??

He was overcome with curiosity and without a thought removed his blindfold and there was Vithoba smiling at him.

Narahari immediately shut his eyes tight.

“Wrong, wrong, forgive me Lord Shiva” he mumbled hurriedly and put on his blindfold once again.

“Tighten the blindfold further” he said in an angry tone to the landlord as the landlord obeyed not knowing what was happening to Narahari.

Narahari once again tried to measure the waist, now that he had seen a glimpse of the “Murti” but once again, he felt a snake like a belt and a deer skin. He thought he heard the strains of the Damru (Shiva’s drum) “dum dum dum dum” along with the rhythmic jingle of anklets.

Getting goosebumps, he immediately removed the blindfold and there was Vithoba smiling at him once again, just as a dad would play Peekaboo with his kid. Narahari did not close his eyes this time, as he could not resist looking at the endearing smile of Vithoba and the longer he stared at Vithoba, he could not decipher if it was Shiva or Vithoba he was seeing,  as the ‘Murti’ appeared to him both as Shiva and Vithoba.

That was his moment of realisation!

Realisation that Vithoba and Shiva were one and the same. Narahari felt so ashamed of himself.

 “What an idiot I have been!” he lamented. “Oh! Vithoba, not knowing you are the same as my Shiva, how many years I have missed seeing your beautiful face! What an ill-fated destiny I have had, not to see your lotus feet whilst living so near to your abode! Forgive me O’ Lord!”

Saying thus he fell flat at the feet of Vithoba who was still smiling sweetly as if amused. Tears were streaming from the eyes of Narahari. His heart was throbbing with bliss and out of the bliss poured out beautiful lines of poetry. All the people who were witnessing this were awestruck as Narahari Sonar described his experience through a beautiful song.

Narahari became “Sant Narahari” and his life changed drastically after this event. He composed many devotional hymns on Vithoba and became his staunch devotee.

It is said that Sant Narahari bid goodbye to this world in 1311 but his songs live on. Narahari’s story is found in the Marathi text “Bhakta Vijaya” written by Mahipati, in the 18th century. This text contains the biographies of poet saints who lived between the 13th and 17th century.

Shami Tree and Vijayadashami

Today is Vijayadasami, the tenth day following the ‘Nine Nights’ or ‘Navaratri’. This was the day when Goddess Mahishasura Mardhini gained victory over the evil Asura clan, and also Rama’s victory over Ravana. The day is also considered auspicious to start new ventures and for learning.

On this day, in most parts of our country ‘Ayudha Pooja’ is done for tools of work and war, and musical instruments. They are cleaned and decorated with flowers, sandal and ‘kumkum’, and are worshipped. The Shami tree and Goddess Durga are worshipped as well, and the leaves of this tree exchanged among people.

Today’s story relates to this practice of worshipping the tools of work and the worship of the Shami tree on Vijayadashami day.

 In the Mahabharatha, as a result of the Game of Dice played between the cousins Pandavas and Kauravas, the losing side – the Pandavas – were punished to a twelve year exile in the forests, followed by one year of ‘Agyaata Vaasam’ which means living in disguise incognito. A further condition was that if any one of them were to be recognized in public during this one year, they would have to go in exile again for a period of thirteen years.

The Pandavas had to agree to this condition and they, along with Draupadi were roaming in the forests from place to place like nomads for most part of their exile. Some of their hardship was eased when they acquired the ‘Akshaya Patra’ from Lord Surya, which gave them abundant food.

Arjuna spent most of these twelve years acquiring divine weapons like the Paasupata in preparation for the Great War. But he already possessed the great bow ‘Gandeeva’, acquired from Lord Agni. It is said that even the twang of the Gandeeva when the arrows were shot was deadly. The other brothers also had weapons in which they specialized in. Yudhishtira, in addition to his bow ‘Mahendra’, was well versed in fighting with his spear. Bhima’s favourite weapon was his lethal mace and both Nakula and Sahadeva were practiced archers. Their weapons were so well known that even if the Pandavas were in disguise, they could be recognized by the weapons they held.

Now, this was a problem. According to the condition of the Game of Dice, in the thirteenth year of the Pandavas’ exile, if they were recognized, they would have to go back in exile for twelve years. So they had to plan to keep the weapons safely in some place for a year after which they could retrieve them.

Duryodhana had his spies working overtime to find out the plans of the Pandavas and was hell-bent on finding them out when they were in disguise, so that he could send them back for another round of exile into the forest.

The Pandavas had decided that they would enter the Kingdom of Matsyadesha ruled by Virata in different disguises and seek employment with the king there, but the weapons were a problem. They prayed to Lord Krishna, their friend and guide, and there he was.

“What is your worry, dear Yudhishtira?” said the Lord.

“We have decided where to go incognito, but we don’t know what to do with the weapons, dear Krishna” replied Yudhishtira.

Krishna thought for a while and advised him suitably. The Pandavas thanked him and proceeded. On their way to the kingdom of Virata, there was a forest and a burial ground which looked very eerie. There was a Shami tree near the burial ground which had thick foliage. The Shami tree is known as ‘Vanni maram’ in Tamil, ‘Banni’ in Kannada, ‘Jammi’ in Telugu and Shami in other parts of India. This tree is a very versatile tree which has many medicinal properties and serves as fuel (firewood), and the leaves, as nutritious food for livestock. Perhaps because it has so much energy, it is called ‘Vanni’. ‘Vahni’ in Sanskrit means fire.

 The Pandavas took all their weapons and bundled them up in a cloth. Arjuna then took the bundle to the top of the tree and tied it securely to the sturdy branches, which had thick foliage. The parcel resembled a corpse and looked dreadful. Being near a thick forest, there were snakes slithering up and down the tree which made it look all the more fearsome.

Yudhishtira then prayed to Goddess Durga to bless them with success during the ‘Agyaata Vaasam’ and to keep their armaments safe. He sang verses in praise of the Goddess, which has come to be known as ‘Yudhishtira Krutha Durga Stuthi’. It starts with the verse ‘Yashodha Garba Sambhootam, Narayana Vara Priyaam, Nanda Gopa Kule Jaatham, Mangalya Kula Vardhaneem’.

So ardent was his prayer, that the Goddess Durga appeared before him and answered him. She assured him that victory would be theirs and that they would not be recognized while in the kingdom of Virata. Having blessed the Pandavas thus, the Devi disappeared.

The Pandavas then disguised themselves. Yudhishtira disguised himself as Kanka, an expert in administration and in the game of dice and joined the King Virata’s court. Bhima disguised himself as Ballava and joined the king’s royal kitchen as a chef. Arjuna used a curse he had earlier begotten (but could use at his will), and transformed himself into Brihannala, the eunuch and went to teach music and dance to the ladies in the palace. Nakula, disguised as Granthika, joined as a caretaker of horses in the King’s stables. Sahadeva disguised himself as Tantipala and joined as a caretaker of the cows in the palace, and Draupadi, disguised as Sairandhri, took up a job as maid to queen Sudeshna, King Virata’s wife.

The Pandavas lived up to the disguise successfully through the year, although towards the end, Duryodhana suspected that they might be living in Virata’s kingdom since Virata’s brother in law Keechaka, was killed mysteriously. Duryodhana knew that it would take the might of a person like Bheema to kill Keechaka. The prosperity of the Virata kingdom had also increased in recent times due to the effort of Sahadeva, who was tending to cows in the palace.

 In those days the quality and quantity of the livestock, especially the cows, used to determine the prosperity of a kingdom. This was because cattle was the backbone of the economy. Agriculture was the main occupation and cow dung, cow urine and buttermilk were natural pesticides and fertilizers. Bulls were the only animals used for ploughing the land and cows were the source of milk, curd, butter and ghee apart from giving natural manure. So, whenever a kingdom was attacked, the first objective would be to drive away the cattle to the aggressor’s kingdom.

The period of ‘Agyaat Vaasam’ was coming to an end and there were only two to three weeks left for the exile to come to an end. Duryodhana was desperate to expose the disguise of the Pandavas. So after careful planning, Susharman – a king who had been constantly attacked by Keechaka – was roped in by Duryodhana to attack Virata, considering that Keechaka was dead and gone. Susharman, went with his army and started driving away herds of cattle from Virata’s kingdom to his, and this was reported to Virata. Virata immediately went to war and also took Kanka (Yudhishtra) and Ballava (Bhima) with him. Susharman attacked Virata very fiercely and almost captured him, but on the advice of Yudhishtra, Bhima (Ballava) came to the forefront and captured Susharman alive instead.

While this was going on, Duryodhana came to know that Virata was not in his palace, and went personally to attack the palace. Virata’s son Uttarakumar was there, but he had never faced war in his life and was frightened. Brihannala (Arjuna) was furious and told Uttara Kumar that he would come as his charioteer to fight Duryodhana.

Arjuna then rushed to the Shami tree and to his great relief, the parcel of weapons was intact on the branch. He paid his obeisance to the tree which had borne the weapons for a year, and retrieved his weapons, taking them back to the palace. This was the day of Dashami, after Navaratri. Uttarakumar mounted the chariot with Arjuna as his charioteer, and went out to fight with Duryodhana, but the fighting was mostly by Arjuna! When he took out the Gandeeva, Duryodhana recognized Arjuna and was momentarily ecstatic, but to his dismay, he found that the thirteen years were over one day before. He retreated hastily and the war was thus won.

 The Pandavas felt that the Shami tree had bestowed energy on the weapons and thereby they were victorious. It is said that Arjuna took a vow to worship the Shami tree every year on this day. Therefore the Shami tree is worshipped on this day and so also, all tools of work and weaponry.

There is also a belief that since ‘Vijaya’ (Arjuna was also known as Vijaya) retrieved his weapons on this Dashami day and attained ‘Vijaya’ (Victory), the day is known as Vijaya Dashami.

In some states of our country, people gift Shami leaves to each other on this day, as they believe the leaves are worth their value in gold and will bring prosperity. This practice is prevalent in Maharashtra and Karnataka, in particular.

The kings of Mysore used to take their Royal Sword in a grand procession on this day to the Shami tree which they call ‘Banni’ tree and pray to the Shami tree and the Goddess Chamundeswari (Durga). This practice is continued even now and the Dussehra procession culminates in the Banni Mantapa.

Even as I am writing this, I am witnessing the Mysuru Dusshera procession on TV!

Ganesha and the Moon

Greetings to my readers on Ganesha Chaturthi!

Today is Ganesha’s birthday and it is celebrated on the Chaturthi (Fourth) day of the waxing moon in the month of Bhadrapada.

If you have observed, the moon is very prominent on this day and many are prompted to see the moon even if they do not want to.

But why would they not want to see the moon on Chaturthi? Let us see the story behind this.

Ganesha is the cherubic young son of Shiva and Parvati and he is extremely fond of goodies like Modak, Vada, Laddus and fruits like Jamun, Guava, Wood-apple and Sugarcane, to name a few items.

Once, on His birthday, Ganesha had visited the houses of people who had invited him and had a whole lot of sweets and fruits till his tummy was full or rather over full.

He was, with great difficulty trying to walk back to his place and His gait and expressions were funny since He was plump. As he trudged along, He tripped on a small stone and fell headlong. The sudden impact made His body roll for some distance. As He hurriedly picked Himself up, there was the loud sound of scornful laughter from the sky.

A startled Ganesha looked up to see who was laughing at Him and he saw Chandra, the handsome Moon laughing loudly at him. Chandra always had the arrogance of being very handsome. Ganesha was short and rotund and his belly was so round and big (Lambodhara) and He was moving so very clumsily and slowly and when He tripped and fell, Chandra could not contain his laughter.

Ganesha wanted to teach Chandra a lesson for the haughtiness he had exhibited.  

He looked at him and pronounced a curse.

“You who are blinded by the pride of your beauty shall lose your sheen and be as dark as the night sky!” he said.

Only then Chandra realized the gravity of the mistake he had committed. And by then he had started to lose his brightness. Ganesha had started to move on.

“Please, please, O Lord, please do not curse me thus! I did not realise I was making fun of you. Please forgive me and remove your curse”

Ganesha just did not hear and moved on.

Chandra did not leave Him and kept on pleading with Him. He really repented his mistake and was genuinely praying to Ganesha.

 Now, there was very little light as Chandra was losing his brightness.

The celestial beings were alarmed. There was going to be total darkness henceforth on all nights. This had to be reversed. They also joined with Chandra and pleaded on his behalf.

Ganesha’s heart melted at the sight of all the beings pleading with Him. After all, the sole purpose of punishment was to arrest Chandra’s conceit. And now, it seemed Chandra had realized his folly.

Ganesha stopped. “Okay, I forgive you Chandra” he said. “The curse however cannot be removed fully.”

Chandra was alarmed and looked pleadingly to Ganesha.

“You shall wane for fifteen days and wax for fifteen days!” pronounced Ganesha. “And anyone who looks at you on the day of Bhadrapada Chaturthi would be subject to mental torture arising out of false allegations. They will get my blessings if they pray to me though”

So saying Ganesha walked away and the moon has been waxing and waning since then. People shudder to look at the moon on Chaturthi days especially in the month of Bhadrapad.

 It is said that even Lord Krishna was not spared of this. He was falsely accused of stealing the Syamantaka Gem and after a lot of suffering, prayed to Ganesha to get back His mental peace.

Chithirai Festival- Kallazhagar comes to Madurai

Tomorrow, 19/4/2019 is Chitra Poornima. And I am naturally reminded of the “Azhagar Festival”.

This festival happens every year on the Poornima day of Chitrai (or Chaitra) month two days after  the wedding of Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai to Lord Somasundara (the handsome one wearing the Crescent moon) which is  witnessed by thousands of people at Madurai and all over the world.

Earlier in my site, I have written this story under the title “Legend of Madurai”. The “Azhagar Festival” where the Lord Azhagar comes and steps into the River Vaigai is also an integral part of the “Chithirai festival”.

Now I am going to narrate the story of “Why Kallazhagar steps into Vaigai River?”

Azhagar Kovil is a quaint village with a hill situated about 20 kilometres from Madurai. The hill was in the form of a bull and was called Vrishabadri. Legend has it that the Lord of Death, Yama once was enchanted by the beauty of this place and meditated upon Sri Narayana here. When Sri Narayana appeared before him, Yama requested him to stay in that place forever. Lord Vishnu obliged Yama and stayed on as Soundararaja Perumal or Azhagar (both meaning ‘the beautiful one’). The place is also known by the name “Thirumaliruncholai” literally translating to ‘the garden where Thirumal or Narayana lives’

The place is very beautiful, lush with vegetation with the River Silambaar flowing by. Silambaar is also known by the name “Noopura Gangai”. It is believed that when Lord Vishnu took the form of Trivikrama and raised his foot to measure the earth, Lord Brahma poured water from his ‘kamandala’ to wash the Lord’s feet and few drops of the water washing the Lord’s anklet fell at this place and this river was born. Hence the name ‘Noopura Gangai’ or “Silambaar”. “Noopur” in Sanskrit means anklet and “Silambu” in Tamil means the same.

Now, one sage by name Suthapas, lived in this beautiful place propitiating the lord there. Suthapas could withhold his breath and stay under water for long and in order not to be disturbed while praying, he used to go deep under the waters of Silambaar and withhold his breath and meditate.

One day, as he was meditating, sage Durvasa was passing by the river with a group of Rishis. Durvasa, with his yogic powers knew that a sage was inside the river and as was his temperament expected the sage to come out and pay obeisance to him, he being so senior.

Suthapas, on the other hand was so deeply engrossed in his prayer that he failed to notice the presence of Durvasa and the other sages on the banks of the river.

Durvasa mistook this as arrogance and cursed the sage.

‘So arrogant you are, to remain under water, you are not fit to be a human being, may you become the frog that you are! Mandooko Bhava (Become a frog)!” cursed the sage in an angry voice.

The voice shook Suthapas and before he could realise what was happening, he noticed that his body was turning to become amphibian.

He rushed to the surface of the river and fell at the feet of the sage. “Pardon me O Great sage! I was deeply meditating on the Lord that I did not realized your presence. Please pardon me for I never intended to disrespect anyone” he pleaded.

The ring of truth in Suthapas’ voice brought Durvasa to his senses. He realized that he had indeed cursed a person without reason. However, it could not be undone immediately. Durvasa prayed for a moment to Sri Narayana and said to Suthapas, “O Suthapas, you will be known as Mandooka Maharishi and you will go to the banks of the Vaigai River and continue your prayer to Sri Narayana. This Azhagar will come to Madurai and relieve you from the curse” So saying he blessed Suthapas and went his way.

Suthapas, now Mandooka slowly moved to a village by name Thenur, near Madurai, by the banks of the Vaigai River and continued his meditation there. After many years, Soundararaja Perumal (Azhagar) came to Madurai. Since he had to pass through forests, he dressed like a bandit it is said and therefore the name “Kallazhagar”. Another view that since he resided in the remote hill, he was the deity of the ‘kallars’ (thieves) and therefore the name “Kallazhagar”. Yet another view is that he steals the hearts of his devotees with his beauty and therefore the name!

Whatever be the reason behind his name, the Lord came to Madurai with his entourage and blessed Mandooka and relieved him of his curse. He blessed the sage with visions of his ten ‘avatars’.

This festival of Azhagar coming to Thenur was being performed for many years by the Vaishnavites as a separate festival where Kallazhagar used to go from Azhagar Kovil to Thenur and back.

The Chitrai festival with Goddess Meenakshi’s wedding used to be celebrated by the Shaivites at Madurai. Credit goes to the great ruler Tirumalai Nayak for combining this Azhagar festival with the Chitrai festival. Nayak not only wanted to create bonhomie between the Shaivites and Vaishnavites, but wanted all communities to participate and prosper by this festival by inviting Azhagar to Madurai during the celestial wedding of Goddess Meenakshi.

He planned this in a beautiful manner. Let’s see the lore created for this purpose…

Goddess Meenakshi invites her brother Kallazhagar to attend her wedding with Lord Sundaresa. Kallazhagar promises to attend and starts from Azhagar Kovil well in advance. But he has the tendency to stay at every place his devotees ask him to stay and bless them and so by the time he reaches the banks of Vaigai, the wedding is over. Goddess Meenakshi and Sundareswara, along with another incarnation of Vishnu by name “Koodalazhagar”, come to meet and welcome Kallazhagar.

 Kallazhagar is very much angry and disappointed that the wedding has been performed without his presence and turns to go back but is overwhelmed by the affection of the people who revere him and agrees to go to Vandiyur with them to relieve the curse of the sage Mandooka.

Here, it is understood that Tirumalai Nayak shifted the venue of this ritual in 1653 AD from Thenur to Vandiyur probably because Vandiyur was nearer to Madurai. He built a ‘Mandap’ at Vandiyur by name “Thenur Mandapam” where the Lord Kallazhagar could be worshipped and the ritual of granting relief to Mandooka Maharishi could take place.

After blessing the Maharishi, Azhagar goes back to Madurai and blesses his devotees with the visions of the ten ‘avatars’ (He is decorated in the forms of the ten avatars one by one) through the night and stays for one more day at Madurai. The next day in a floral decorated palanquin, Azhagar leaves for his abode Azhagar Kovil.

This event is celebrated year after year with fervor and being a person born and brought up at Madurai, the mention of the Chitrai Tiruvizha and Azhagar brings lots of nostalgia and joy to my mind.

There are a lot of interesting things about this event “Azhagar Aatril Irangudhal” (Azhagar stepping into the river).

From the start till reaching Madurai, Azhagar visits all the communities who welcome Him to their hall or ‘mandap’. There are hundreds of these halts and everywhere food and drink is distributed in abundance. All the communities have the only goal of welcoming Azhagar and work in close coordination. He also visits the Muslim area to the place of ‘Tulukka Nachiyar’ a Muslim devotee and the Muslims of that area take part in the festival. Tirumalai Nayak was indeed great in achieving peaceful coexistence and inculcating camaraderie amongst all religions and communities through this festival.

The moment Azhagar reaches Madurai, he is welcomed with flower showers, crackers and music – the traditional Nadaswaram and Thavil (drum). Ladies welcome the Lord with Maavilakku (Ghee lamp lighted in a vessel made of rice flour and jaggery) and Mulappari (sprouts). It is a sight of great religious fervor and joy and the “Ethir sevai” (welcoming) marks the grand entry of Azhagar into the city. Lots of folk dancers perform dance and music wearing their traditional costumes with their musical instruments in the respective folk styles.

In those days since the festival was in peak summer, maybe to quell the heat and to settle the dust due to huge crowds, there was this practice of spraying water with a leather pouch with tubes attached. This has become like a vow now and people pray for the wellbeing of their families and do this ritual in return. The male devotees offering this vow wear a colourful special dress made of velvet called ‘salladam’. The “Pudumandapam” which was built by Tirumalai Nayak now hosts numerous tailors stitching these clothing and special caps for this vow. Even on this day tailors make good profit in the festival by stitching these special costumes.

Also it is the strong belief that the colour of the silk worn by Azhagar prior to the entry into the river Vaigai indicates how the year would be for the people. When Azhagar comes from his abode he comes dressed as a bandit in bandit costume (to escape from the bandits in the forest route!) Prior to stepping into the river he changes costume.  A number of silk sarees are kept in a wooden box and the priest blindfolded picks out a silk from the box. If the colour is green, it is believed that the year would prove prosperous. If red, it indicated famine and drought, if white or blue, it would be not too good nor too bad and if yellow, it symbolizes lot of auspicious happenings. So the people who are gathered in lakhs to see Azhagar step into the river wait with bated breath to see the colour of his silk!

On the whole, the Chitrai festival in its entirety brought gaiety and prosperity to all as everyone took part in the activities and the city of Madurai wears a festive look buzzing with fairs and melas bringing people from all walks of life together to carry home beautiful memories.

That’s what festivals of our great land Bharat were intended for!

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