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The Name Game

This is yet another story from the Jataka tales.

Long long ago, around 700 BC, Takshashila was a well established university in India. It was one of the biggest with about ten thousand students. It offered studies in all disciplines, ranging from science to philosophy, though its specialization was in medicine. Many greats like Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya and Charaka are said to be products of this university. This university was located near Rawalpindi in present day Pakistan and had international students coming to study there. This university thrived for nearly ten centuries before it was damaged by some invasions in 6th century CE and thereafter abandoned.

There are mentions of this university in the Jataka tales very often. This story is one such instance.

Coming back to the story, in the University of Takshashila, there was a young scholar by name “Deena”. He was a very nice person who was very good in his studies and helpful to everyone , but he had a negative obsession about his name. ‘Deena’ means weak and miserable.

So strong was his obsession that he felt extremely bad when people called out his name. “I have got such a bad name – weak… and miserable… hmmph…” he snorted. “I wonder where my parents got this name from…” he sighed.

Just then somebody was calling him, “Deena, O Deena where are you?” Deena was so irritated hearing his name called out loud.

“I must do something about this name of mine” he said to himself.  The next day, he went to his teacher earlier than usual.

“Come Deena! What brings you here so early?” asked the Guru (teacher).

“I have a request Guruji” said Deena. “I do not like this name of mine. It hurts me a lot when people call me ‘weak’ or ‘miserable’ and so I want to change my name.” He looked crestfallen.

The teacher smiled and patted his shoulder comfortingly. “Deena, I think you are too obsessed about this” said he. “The name is only an identity, Deena. I don’t think you should be worried so much about this”

But Deena did not seem convinced. “No Guruji” he said. “I want you to please give me a new name. Kindly give me a good name. Please…”

The teacher thought for a while. “I will give you a new name, but you will have to do something before that. Will you?” , he asked.

“Sure, Guruji” said an overjoyed Deena.

“Then, do one thing. Go on a trip to the nearby city for a few days and observe any incident which happens there and also find out the names of the people involved. You can go and stay in a public guest house. Visit markets and other residential areas and observe. Then after you come back, you can decide on changing your name” said the teacher.

Deena agreed. In those days there were public guest houses run by the kings where people could go and stay for free. So it was not difficult for Deena.

The next day Deena left for the city by walk. Upon reaching the city, he saw a procession with a dead body being carried for cremation. The pall bearers were going in the front and the relatives of the dead person were walking behind.

Deena remembered his teacher’s words and slowly walked up to a relative of the dead person and asked him “What is the name of the person who has passed away?”

“Amar Babu” said the relative and walked ahead with the crowd.

“Amar Babu means ‘immortal person’” thought Deena, “but he is dead??”

He reached a choultry (public rest house) and stayed the night there and was thinking about this the whole night.

The next day morning he decided to visit a residential area, and while walking on a street, he saw a woman outside her house. She was speaking angrily to another woman who appeared to be her maid-servant.

“If you are not doing your job well, I will get someone else to work for me. Get lost from here” the woman yelled, and gave the maid-servant a beating with a cane.

The maid-servant was pleading with tears in her eyes, “I will do better tomorrow Mataji (mother). Please do not stop me from service. I have three mouths to feed at home and they will starve to death if you fire me.”

The lady’s neighbours looked on helplessly. They seemed visibly disgusted at this incident. As Deena passed by them, one of them commented to another, “See how our neighbour is beating her maid-servant Lakshmi. She is Karuna only by name, but her behavior is so cruel! Don’t know who named her thus!”

After all, Karuna means ‘mercy’ and Lakshmi means ‘wealth’.

Deena was shocked. Cruel ‘Karuna’ and poor ‘Lakshmi’. He thought he had understood the purpose of names now and thought of going back to Takshashila the next day.

As he walked towards the end of the city, he saw a man approaching him. The man asked “Are you going to Takshashila?”

“Yes” replied Deena.

“Well” said the man. “May I come with you? I am also going to Takshashila, but I do not know the way”.

“Of course yes!” said Deena.

They slowly started walking towards the wooded road which was leading to Takshashila.

Deena asked the man, “By the way, what is your name please?”

“Margadarshaka” said the man.

“Margadarshaka means ‘guide’? But you do not know the way to Takshashila and are asking me to guide you??” asked Deena.

The man got terribly upset.

“Are you joking my friend?” said he in an irritated tone. “Do you mean to say if my name is Margadarshaka, I should know all the roads and routes in this country? Are you mad or are you making fun of me huh?”

Deena felt bad. “I am extremely sorry, my friend” he said. He then narrated the tale of his travel to the city, and its purpose. The man looked at Deena and took pity on him.

“Look here Deena” he said. “The name is only an identity for a person to mark who he or she is and does not reflect the owner’s character, understand? Though your name means ‘weak’ or ‘miserable’ you are so strong in character, are you not? I hope you understand now.”

“Thank you” said Deena as he went back to the university with a clear mind.

The next day, even before his teacher could ask him, he said, “I am happy with my name Guruji. Thank you for showing me the right path.”

The teacher simply smiled in response.

Glimpses from the life history of Sri Mahaperiyava

Today is the 127th birth star of His Holiness Shri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. Hence I thought of bringing you the glimpses from His life history as a tribute to Him. I have taken inputs from various books on the Paramacharya.

Fondly known as “Mahaperiyava” (Meaning – the Great One) or “Paramacharya” to his devotees, he is also referred to as the “Nadamaadum Deivam”, (the walking God).

The name “Mahaperiyava” was to differentiate Him from the other Acharyas of the Kanchi Mutt and hence I am using that name throughout.

Mahaperiyava, was born on 20th May 1894, at Villupuram as Swaminathan to his parents Mahalakshmi Ammal and Subramanya Sastry. He was their second child. He had an elder brother, two younger brothers and a younger sister.

His father was employed as supervisor of schools in the education department and was serving at Villupuram (In today’s Tamil Nadu) when Swaminathan was born. Swaminathan was a very bright boy with remarkable grasp of anything that was taught and his father decided to educate him at home till his eighth year. In 1905, the family had to move to another city Tindivanam (also in today’s Tamil Nadu) when he was admitted to second form (today’s seventh standard) at the Arcot American Mission High School there.

Swaminathan displayed remarkable intelligence and stood first in all the subjects and got prizes including one for proficiency in the Holy Bible.

In 1906, the school was staging Shakespeare’s King John and Swaminathan was selected at the last moment to played lay the role of Prince Arthur. Earlier his teacher thought he was very young for the role but the Headmaster wanted him to take up the role. He had to get special costumes for the same and though initially his father was reluctant because of his financial condition, he could not refuse young Swaminathan’s wish and within two days, Swaminathan learnt all the dialogues by heart . Needless to say, his performance was stellar and he won accolades for the same.

Later that year, Swaminathan’s father visited with family a place called Perumukkal where the 66th Acharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam was camping. The Acharya’s gaze fell upon Swaminathan and he made detailed enquiries about Swaminathan and his family. It seemed like the Acharya had decided in his mind to select Swaminathan to succeed him as the next Acharya of the Peetam. He announced to the people present that Swaminathan would be a great person in the future. His parents thought that it was a general blessing and were very happy. Little did they know that the young one would soon leave the family permanently.

In February 1907, the family received a telegram from the Kanchi Mutt addressed to Subramanya Sastri to bring Swaminathan to Kalavai, a place near Kanchipuram where the 66th Acharya was camping. Since Subramanya Sastri was on official tour to Trichy, the neighbours arranged for Swaminathan to go with his mother Mahalakshmi Ammal and his siblings by train to Kanchipuram. They went to the Kanchi Mutt at Kanchipuram and from there a horse cart had been arranged to take Swaminathan to Kalavai alone, much to the surprise of his mother and siblings. They were asked to come in another vehicle. Swaminathan was barely 13 years then. While he was wondering why he was being taken alone, the person who had come to take him slowly revealed that he would never go back to his family as the 66th Acharya had passed away.

Those were the days when telecommunication was at a primitive stage and so one had to depend on the postal services for telegram etc. and telephones in houses were unheard of. So, while the telegram was being sent to bring Swaminathan, the 66th Acharya was suffering from small pox and wanted to appoint Swaminathan as his successor, but in his final moments, since Swaminathan had not arrived, had initiated the cousin of Swaminathan, by name Lakshmikanthan as his successor.

Lakshmikanthan was 18 years old and was well versed in Rig Veda. Unfortunately Lakshmikanthan had also contracted small pox and lived only for eight days. However before passing away he had approved of Swaminathan as his successor to the Kanchi Peetam.

This unexpected turn of events was indeed a rude shock for the little Swaminathan and for his parents.  The parents were deeply worried as the life of a Sanyasi required the highest level of self-discipline, meditation and complete disconnect with the family members. The very thought of giving up a child to live a monastic life was unbearable for them.

However, Swaminathan regained his composure very quickly and was reconciled to the reality and told them, “Why are you hesitant? I feel I have the complete blessings of my Acharyas. Please permit me whole-heartedly to become a Sanyasi and fulfil my duties ”

The parents had no other option but to let him go.    

Swaminathan was then anointed as the 68th Acharya of the Kamakoti Peetam at the age of 13. He was given the title of “Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi”.

(From now on I will be using the term “Mahaperiyava”)

During the 18th century in the time of the 62nd Acharya, the administrative headquarters of the Kanchi Mutt was shifted to Kumbakonam due to political turmoil and continued to function from there. Hence Mahaperiyava went and stayed at Kumbakonam from 1908 and learned the Vedas, Sanskrit scriptures and fine arts under the guidance of learned scholars. However, the constant stream of visitors to the Mutt was causing great disturbance to His studies and therefore the Mutt officials identified a beautiful village called Mahendramangalam, on the banks of the river Cauvery. This village was accessible only by ferry and so not many people would come.

In 1911, Mahaperiyava moved to Mahendramangalam and continued His studies.

He learnt Sanskrit grammar, logic and Vedanta , epics, history of holy places, archaeology, world history, mathematics, astronomy , astrology, in addition to English , French, Tamil grammar and literature. He was deeply interested in Tamil classics like Tirukkural, Thevaram and Tiruvachagam. Erudite scholars in these subjects came and stayed in the village and taught Him all these subjects. A Marathi scholar was specifically brought in from Maharashtra as Mahaperiyava was interested in researching Marathi books. The teacher stayed there for three years and taught him Marathi.

While at Mahendramangalam, He used to go to the middle of the Cauvery where there were sand dunes and He enjoyed the scenic beauty of Mother Nature. He was also very interested in photography and knew the intricacies of a camera and nuances of photography very well.

In 1914, within a period of six years Mahaperiyava was well versed in a whole range of subjects and languages. At the age of twenty, He took on the whole responsibility of the Kanchi Mutt. His only goal was welfare of mankind and He strove towards that through His thought, words and deeds. He had taken many initiatives keeping the welfare of all in mind. These initiatives were wide-ranged. From restoration of ponds and digging of wells, providing medical aid for the poor, encouraging students and scholars in their fields of studies, providing food for the needy, to restoring cultural heritage. Emphasis was given for protection of the cow and the Vedas which were the backbone of the Indic culture ages ago.

Mahaperiyava toured the length and breadth of India by foot, meeting so many people. He never cared for any comfort and used to stay even in cow-sheds. Though He did not care for his comfort, He was always keen that his visitors should be taken care of well. With his frail body He used to walk from place to place at such a fast pace that would stun His followers. His daily schedule included long hours of worship and meditation, meeting visitors from far and near. He ate minimal food only once a day. His complete control of the senses coupled with His real concern for the well-being of the world seems to have given Him the strength, both physical and mental to undergo such arduous journeys. He was an avid reader and would keep Himself abreast of all the happenings in India and the world.

Mahaperiyava respected all religions that believed in the existence of a God. That was the reason why scholars from all religions found themselves comfortable in His presence and would come and discuss with Him on the religions of the world. He was always of the opinion that one should stick to one’s religion at birth and continue to practice their worship to their Gods.

He was equally well versed in the matters of the state as He was in Vedanta which drew many political leaders and royal families from India and abroad to Him.

Artists and artisans of all fine arts including sculpting used to go and present their works to Him to which He would meaningfully interact and give valuable inputs.

There are a lot of incidents connected to Him which show His greatness and humility and I will be writing on them from time to time but I am just giving one incident here.

In 1933, Mahaperiyava visited Varanasi and was given a rousing welcome by the king of Kashi and all the learned scholars there. However some of the scholars were not happy that a young man in his late thirties be called a ‘Jagadguru’ (literally translating to teacher of the world)

So one of them asked Mahaperiyava in Sanskrit, “Who is this Jagadguru?”

 “I am” replied Mahaperiyava with great humility.

“Oh! So you are the Jagadguru” said the man with sarcasm in his voice.

Mahaperiyava replied, “I am not the Guru of this Jagath (world). All the living beings in this Jagath are my Guru” (jagathAm guruh na, jagathi padyamanAh sarvE mama guravah)

The man was taken aback by this explanation.

By then they had reached a hall where a scholarly debate was about to take place and Mahaperiyava then pointed to a sparrow’s nest on a ledge in the ceiling and asked the man “What is this?”

The man replied “A nest”

“Who built it?”

“Sparrows” said the man.

“The sparrow which does not have hands and legs like us can be so creative and build a nest whereas we cannot. Hence the sparrow is my Guru” He said.

That was His spirit and that is what He preached- take only the good qualities of others and learn to respect them. He always practiced what He preached.

Mahaperiyava lived a whole hundred years before he attained Siddhi on January 8, 1994. His physical body is interred in a place inside the Kanchi Mutt itself and He lives forever in the hearts of all and his divine presence is evident even to this day as experienced by His devotees.

Who is the most virtuous of them all?

This time, I am going to narrate an old folk tale from Ancient India.

Long long ago in the ancient city of Varanasi there lived a learned Pandit who ran a Patashala (school) and had many students studying scriptures under him.

This Pandit had a daughter who was as beautiful as she was virtuous. The daughter was of marriageable age.

 In the ancient days, weddings were performed at a very early age and the suitor for the child was generally chosen by the parents. Also, usually the boys got married as soon as they finished their studies in a Patashala.

The Pandit and his wife were anxious that they should find a bridegroom who was as virtuous as their daughter.

“You have got so many disciples who are finishing their studies this year, can we select any one of them for a bridegroom?” asked the wife.

The Pandit said, “If their intelligence was only the criteria for selection, I can do it within seconds” said he. “But, we need a boy who is has good values and virtues, not brain alone…” He paused for a while and said, “Well, I will give them a test by which we can find out who is the most virtuous of them all”.

The next day, he called a few of them who were completing their studies that year. They were going for a short break to their homes. He told them, “Boys, now I have a test for you. You have to obey as I say”.

The puzzled boys were wondering what the test was, when the Pandit said, “ In the coming ten days, when you are at your home, you will have to steal small but valuable trinkets from whomever you can, and come and give it to me. But the condition is that no one should see you stealing. I repeat, NO ONE should see you”.

The boys were baffled at this strange order but they had been taught that they should never disobey their teacher at any cost and so they did not dare to question him and meekly went off to their homes.

Whilst at their homes, they visited their relatives and friends and faithfully stole small trinkets here and there, bundled them up and took it with them when they went back. Back at the Patashala (school), each of them met the Pandit and gave the bundles containing the things stolen by them. The Pandit thought to himself, “I will have to keep them safely with identification, for I will be returning them shortly” But he did not display any emotion on his face.

All the boys except one, gave the things they had stolen to the Pandit. Ramu, the lone boy who did not bring anything for the Pandit was looking visibly disturbed. He was an extremely intelligent boy.

The Pandit called him in the evening and asked, “What happened Ramu? You look very disturbed…”

Ramu was hesitant. “Guruji… er… er…” he stuttered, not able to take the dialogue forward.

The Pandit persisted. “Tell me my boy. What happened?  Why are you so disturbed?  Were you able to do the job I told you to?”

The moment the Pandit talked about the ‘job’ Ramu broke down. “Panditji” he said, almost in tears, “I was not able to steal a single thing from anyone Panditji. I know I have disobeyed you but this is what it is…” He was on the verge of sobbing.

“Why Ramu?” asked the Pandit. “Why could you not get anything? Were there people around always??”

“No Panditji!” said Ramu. “There were occasions when nobody was present… but…”

“But what?” asked the Panditji. “What prevented you from stealing anything when nobody was seeing you?”

“Well” he said “I thought nobody was watching me but whenever I tried to take something, an inner voice seemed to tell me that what I was doing was wrong. It seemed that the inner being was witnessing everything right from my thoughts. Since you had told us that no one should see us while stealing, I could not steal anything as I am being watched by this inner being always. Panditji I am so sorry!”

He seemed to be sorry for not being able to follow what the teacher had said. He stood there looking forlorn.

There was so much of joy in the Pandit’s eyes. “Well done Ramu!” he exclaimed and hugged him. Ramu was at a loss to know why the teacher was so happy.

The Pandit said, “Ramu, I am not in need of any wealth. This was a test intended to find out the most virtuous student amongst you all. And I have found you!”

He then called all the other students and said, “Stealing for any cause, and on anybody’s bidding is absolutely wrong. I am not in need of any wealth as you people would have thought. I was testing your virtues and only Ramu has passed my test. I am not returning all the bundles you gave me with a request to you all to return them to where they belong”

Ramu felt happy in passing the ‘test’ of his teacher and the Panditji felt very happy at having found a suitable bridegroom for his daughter.

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.

This story is available on Spotify as an Audio story. To listen, click here.

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

Chittirai festival happens every year in the month of Chitrai (or Chaitra) at Madurai when the celestial wedding of Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai to Lord Sundareswara is celebrated. This 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”.

As a part of this festival, Lord Azhagar, who resides 20 kilometres away from Madurai, comes and steps into the River Vaigai but does not come and witness the wedding. This act of stepping into the river is celebrated as a great event.

This is the story behind this event.

Azhagar Kovil is a quaint village with a hill situated about 20 kilometres from Madurai. The place is very beautiful, lush with vegetation with the River Silambaar flowing by. Silambaar is also known by the name “Noopura Gangai”. Here Lord Vishnu is known by the name Soundararaja Perumal or Azhagar (the handsome one). 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.

Once a sage by name Suthapas, lived in this beautiful place propitiating Azhagar. 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, Azhagar came to Madurai. Since he had to pass through forests, he dressed like a bandit it is said and therefore the name “Kalla Azhagar”. The Tamil word for bandit is ‘Kallan”

Kallazhagar 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 Chittirai festival with Goddess Meenakshi’s wedding used to be celebrated by the Shaivites at Madurai. Credit goes to the great ruler Tirumalai Nayakkar for combining this Azhagar festival with the Chitrai festival. Nayakkar 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 and created a beautiful lore for this purpose…

Goddess Meenakshi invites her brother Kallazhagar for her wedding with Lord Sundareswara. 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, 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 Nayakkar 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 pomp and gaiety and for any person born and brought up at Madurai, the mention of the Chittirai festival and Azhagar brings lots of nostalgia and joy to the mind.

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 ghee lamps made of rice flour and jaggery and sprouts called Mulappari. It is a sight of great religious fervour and joy and the welcoming ritual 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 Pudu Mandapam which was built by Tirumalai Nayakkar is now the house of 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 one 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 Chittirai festival in its entirety brought enormous joy 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!

From the Panchatantra – The King Elephant and the King of mice

This time, I am narrating a story from the Panchatantra under the section “Mitralabha” which translates to ‘gaining of friends’. In the background guide, I have given some idea about the origin and details of Panchatantra.

This story is about the friendship between the King Elephant and the King of mice.

Long long ago, in the forests of Central India, there lived a herd of elephants. They were a merry lot, and were led by a King Elephant. The forests were lush and green with lots of ponds and waterholes and there was no dearth of food and water and the elephants were living happily.

As we all know, all good things come to an end, and true to the saying, in the next year, there was no rain at all. The green forest withered and all the grass and trees dried up. The sun was blazing hot and the summer was terrible. The worst thing was that the waterholes started drying up quickly.  The elephants could survive eating dry leaves but they needed water to drink and bathe, and this had now become a problem. The King Elephant who was witnessing this was worried.

“This is becoming serious”, he thought to himself. “If we do not find an alternate source of water, we will all perish”.

Just then, a sparrow which was the King Elephant’s friend flew up to him.

“What are you worrying about, my dear friend?” she asked him.

“It is the water situation” said he. “My friends, family and I are finding it very difficult without water. If we do not get water to drink in the next few days, I dread to think what will happen to us”. He was sounding really concerned and anxious.

“Don’t worry friend” said the sparrow. “Go north from here till you reach the mountain and near the mountain there is a river which is full of water.  However, it is far off and will take a whole day for you to reach the place” said the sparrow and flew away.

The King Elephant trumpeted loudly. The members of his herd came running from all directions to find out what had happened.

“We will all march north” announced the King Elephant.

He then told his herd about the river in the north near the mountain. His words brought joy to the members. “We will start now so that we reach by tomorrow!”, said the King.

“Hooray, we will go!” they cried in joy and started walking. They walked and walked for a long time and by the late evening were crossing a clearing where a lot of mice had built their homes by burrowing in the mud.

Some of the young elephants who were leading the herd, walked with great speed over the burrows and a few of the mice were trampled to death. The other elephants were coming behind.

The other mice who were inside the burrows rushed out to see what was happening as the walking of the elephants had shook their homes like an earthquake.

Looking out, they were shocked to see some of their friends dead and could see the elephants going away at a distance. They understood what had happened.

Looking back, they could see a cloud of dust at a distance with sounds of trumpeting and they knew that a larger group of elephants were on their way.

The King of the mice looked around and took a quick decision. “I will go and speak to the leader of the elephants” he said angrily. “They cannot simply trample our houses and kill us like this”.

The other mice warned him “They are elephants and we are little mice. If we go and talk to them, they may be angered and it will be disastrous”

The King of mice was firm.  “I am not changing my decision” he said.  “There is a saying that, if you do not fight for what you want, you should not cry for what you lose”

He marched off in the direction from which the elephants were coming. A few mice joined him.

Luckily for him, the King Elephant was coming in the front and the King of mice went up and stood before him in his way.

Elephants being much stronger, the King Elephant could have just kicked the mice away and moved on, but as he was a noble soul, he stopped and looked at the mice.

“What do you want?” he asked.

The King of mice spoke. “We are all living a short distance away in burrows. Just a while ago some elephants of your herd carelessly trampled our burrows killing some of our friends in the process. I request you therefore to please take your herd in a different path to the river, to which I guess, you are heading”

The King elephant was amused at the fearless attitude of the little mouse. He thought for a while and said, “Alright, I will do as you say. Please tell us the alternate way”

The King of mice was very happy.

“Thank you O King!” he said. “We will never forget your help. I will show you the alternate way. Also please do not hesitate to call me if you need any help anytime”

The King elephant was even more amused now. “A small mouse offering help to us mighty elephants!” he thought to himself. Anyway, he told his herd to go by the alternative way as told by the King of mice.

The herd followed the instruction of their king and thereby all the other mice were saved.

After walking for some more distance, the herd could hear the gentle gurgling of the river and there it was!  A lush green spot with lot of trees was at the foot of the mountain by which the river was flowing with crystal clear water.

The joyous cry of the elephants on seeing the water, could be heard from afar as they rushed into the river to quench their thirst. They were so happy as they playfully sprayed water on each other, frolicking happily in the water.

They decided to live there till the monsoons came when the drought in their earlier abode would be over.

Now, near this place, there lived a group of poachers who would catch animals and birds and make a living by selling them or killing them.  One day, they saw this herd of elephants and reported it to their leader.

“Ahaa! What good news you have brought me!” he said. “A herd of elephants means so much money. Note the habits of the elephants for a few days and lay the trap, for we shall capture them and sell them to the King”

The poachers hid in the bushes and trees for a few days and noted when the elephants were going to the river and when they went back. After planning carefully, they brought in enough ropes to capture all the elephants and laid the trap inside the river.

The elephants along with their king, unaware of the trap laid in the river walked in and started to bathe when the poachers climbed down from the trees and pulled the ropes tight so that the elephants were caught. They then tied the ropes to the trees securely.

Suddenly the elephants realized that they had been trapped. They looked at each other in dismay and cried loudly in distress but nobody was there to help them. The elephants could not move from the water.

They could see the men at a distance and the leader was instructing them loudly. “Leave them in the water for a few days. Let them be hungry and tired so that they will not have the strength to resist and we can pull them easily” The other men nodded and they all left the place.

The King elephant was horrified. The very thought of staying tied up in the cold water for days together without food and without able to protect themselves was terrible.

“Who will help us?” thought he, in despair. As he looked around, he suddenly noticed that one of the members of his herd was missing. Confused, he looked around again but could not find the youngest member. Just then, he heard a loud trumpeting and the young elephant was coming from the clearing towards the river. Clearly, he had strayed away when they came to the river and luckily escaped from being trapped.

The King Elephant waved his trunk fast signalling the young one not to come into the water. The young elephant noticed and suddenly realized that the whole of his herd except him had been trapped.

As he neared the river, the members told him how they had been trapped and were not hopeful of being freed. They were all so much in grief and the young elephant felt very sad both because they would be taken away and he would be left alone. He was pondering as to what could be done.

Suddenly he had an idea. “Hey!” he said, “why not seek the help of the King of mice?”

The King Elephant looked up in admiration and gratitude at the young elephant. “What a brilliant idea!” he said. “Go immediately and tell the King of mice that we need his help urgently”

The young elephant ran as fast as he could to the place they had met the mice. The King of mice was there. He heard out the young elephant and was upset at what he heard.

“Do not worry. I will help you with all my subjects. It is the duty of a friend to help another who is in need”

Saying thus, he called his subjects. “Come on, every one. Our friend, the King elephant and his herd are in danger. We have to help them. Come quick”

As all the mice assembled, a tiny voice squeaked, “The river is so far away. When will we get there if we start walking now?”

The King of mice looked up. “Yes, he is right. Will it not be dark by the time we get there? Will we be able to render any help at all?” he asked.

“Do not worry” said the young elephant. “All of you climb on to my back and I will take you there fast”.

All the mice clambered on to the young elephant’s back and he rushed to the river as fast as he could. Meanwhile the elephants in the river were in a state of anxiety as the evening was fast approaching.

The moment the young elephant reached there, the mice climbed down, but how could they enter the river? The King elephant who was in the front, came and thrust his trunk out near the bank and the mice jumped on to that and climbed to his back. Quickly they tried and gnawed away the ropes with all their might and just in a few minutes, The King elephant was free.

With his might, the King elephant kept pulling at the ropes which were being gnawed by the mice with their sharp teeth and one by one all the elephants were freed.

The elephants were joyous. “Thank you dear friend!” said the King Elephant to the King of mice. “You saved us from grave danger. When you told me that you would help us in need, I was wondering how a little creature like you could help me, who I thought was invincible, but now I realise that I should never under estimate the power of any one.”

“It is our pleasure to have helped you, friend” said the King of mice.

“Yes” said the King elephant, “A friend in need is a friend indeed!”

Veera Mangai Velu Nachiyar – The first woman to rise against the British rule in India.

“Entaro Mahanubhavulu, antariki vandanamu” sang the poet saint Thyagaraja meaning, “Salutations to the many great people of the world”.

So many great people have lived and gone in this beautiful country Bharat. Some of them we know about and some of them we do not know.

Amongst the many freedom fighters who fought to end the British rule in India there have been many untold stories of exceptional valour, in our history books.

It is indeed sad that these brave hearts have not been showcased in the history taught in our schools.

This time, I am attempting to narrate a story of one such brave heart, in fact, the first woman to wage a battle against the British. “Velu Nachiyar” was her name and she lived between 1730 and 1796.

Before I come to the story, a brief introduction on the political situation in those days for the benefit of the youngsters reading this story.

India was a conglomeration of many provinces and kingdoms, ruled by kings or chieftains, in those days before Independence. The area in and around the present Ramanathapuram district was ruled by the chieftains who had the title of ‘Sethupathi’.

Similarly another kingdom which was ruled by Chieftains was called Sivaganga which is now a district in Tamil Nadu. Sivaganga kingdom was founded by Sasivarna Periya Oodaya Thevar in 1730.

These Chieftains were originally working for the Nayak Kings of Madurai and when the King’s rule weakened, these Chieftains became the rulers of the provinces under their control.

Velu Nachiyar was born on January 3,  1730 to Sellamuthu Vijaya Reghunatha Sethupati (who was king of Ramnathapuram from 1747 till 1762). She was the only child of her parents.

Being born in a royal family, Velu was a natural warrior and was trained in horse riding, martial arts, archery, and in using the Valari, a dreaded weapon made of iron, which was a boomerang used widely in war. She was also taught the rules of war and various strategies used in war. Velu was also taught six languages apart from her mother tongue Tamil, namely, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, English, French and Urdu. She mastered all of them and was fluent in all.

It is really interesting to note that the female child as a heir was treated as equal to a male heir and trained in everything a male heir would have been trained in!

Growing up to be a bold young lady, Velu was married to Muthuvaduganatha Thevar, the son of the Chieftain of Sivaganga, Sasivarna Periya Oodaya Thevar at the age of sixteen. Four years after her marriage, Muthuvaduganatha Thevar became ruler of Sivaganga after his father’s demise and Velu became Rani Velu Nachiyar (Queen Velu Nachiyar).

With the able guidance of his educated wife who took a very great interest in tax reforms and development of waterways and other infrastructure, things were going on very well for the Muthuvaduganatha Thevar and the Kingdom.

Kalayar Kovil was an important town in the Sivaganga province and it had a beautiful temple and Fort.

With the British aspiring to gain more control in South India, they were teaming up with the local kings and playing them against each other and were taking advantage of the situation by grabbing the territory so won. The reasons for waging war were frivolous.

 In one such instance, in 1772, the British, led by General Joseph Smith and Colonel Abraham Bonjour colluding with the then Arcot Nawab attacked Kalaiyarkovil. Muthuvaduganathar, who was present there with his another wife Gowri Nachiyar was taken unawares and was killed treacherously in the most gruesome manner. So many civilians were massacred and the temple was ransacked and plundered. There was looting and arson everywhere and the beautiful town turned into a graveyard with hundreds of bodies strewn around in no time.

During that time, Rani Velu Nachiyar had gone to a nearby place Kollangudi with her young daughter Vellachi. As soon as she came to know of this ghastly attack, the Rani rushed to Kalayarkovil fort only to witness how inhuman this incident had been. It was heart wrenching. The King, Queen, men, women and children had been slaughtered alike without distinction. The temple had been plundered by the British and the Nawab’s soldiers. It is said that  they looted about 50000 pagodas from there. (The pagoda was the unit of currency in use in those days and was made of gold or semi gold).

Rani Velu Nachiyar was devastated at the sight of the destruction. It was sheer fate that saved her, her daughter, the Minister Thandavaraya Pillai and the Marudu brothers who were well known warriors, who served her loyally. They had all been to Kollangudi and escaped the massacre.

The Rani, though overcome with grief at the gruesome incident, had to make up her mind fast. Either she could immolate herself on the pyre of her husband as a ‘faithful wife’ or she could take revenge and wreak havoc on the British the same way they had done to her.

It is said that the Rani took the inspiration from the legendary Kannagi who brought destruction to the city of Madurai over the injustice that was meted out to her husband. She spoke her mind to the minister Thandavaraya Pillai who had been her like a father figure to her. He was her late father in law’s minister too and he concurred with her idea that the British should be taught a lesson. But the time was not ripe yet for the mission. So on his advice, the Rani sought asylum with her daughter in a place called Virupachi near Dindigul which was ruled by one Gopala Nayakkar who was also against the British. The Marudu brothers would live in the outskirts of Sivaganga, in the woods to be the Rani’s informants and to create trouble for the Nawab whenever possible.

In the meanwhile, General Joseph, who came to know about the valorous wife of the slain king wanted to make sure that she was also murdered. He went in search of her to Kollangudi and came to know from his spies that one particular young woman knew the whereabouts of the Rani Velu Nachiyar. He zeroed in on the woman and questioned her repeatedly. Despite the mental torture inflicted by the General, the woman would simply not give away the whereabouts of the Rani. As a result the lady was inhumanly cut up with a sword in the most ghastly manner by the General. 

Rani Velu heard of the incident and was deeply saddened. She performed the last rites of this valiant young woman at Virupachi. It is said that in her later days, the Rani named her army “Udaiyal Padai” in memory of this young woman.

In the safe haven of Virupachi, Rani Velu was planning her next strategy. She badly needed an ally and forces to go against the British. With the consultation of her Minister, they decided that approaching Hyder Ali, the de facto ruler of Mysore would be the best thing to do. Hyder Ali was a strong force to reckon with as he was also dead against the British rule. Secondly, allying with a Muslim king would prevent the Nawab of Arcot from offering assistance to the British.

In the meanwhile, Sivaganga had been renamed Hussain Nagar by the Arcot Nawab and his son Ameer- ul- Umara was ruling there as the Nawab’s representative.

Rani Velu initiated the correspondence to Hyder Ali seeking military assistance and a letter was sent to him. It was planned to meet Hyder Ali in person also.

Unfortunately, Rani’s minister Thandavaraya Pillai passed away and so the meeting did not materialise. However, shortly thereafter, Hyder Ali made a visit to Dindigul and Rani Velu met him and conversed with him in chaste Urdu.

It is said that Hyder Ali was greatly impressed by the tenacity of this lady and more wonderstruck in the way she spoke flawless Urdu. Both being against the British rule, they discussed the problems created by the British at length and on how to quell the British.

Hyder Ali sanctioned the Rani a princely sum to maintain herself at the Fort and raise an army. He also gave instructions to one Syed Karki to make her stay in the Dindigul Fort as comfortable as should be for a queen and treat her like a queen.

Since Rani Velu Nachiyar was a devotee of the Mother Goddess, he also facilitated her daily worship at temple of Goddess Rajarajeswari within the Fort premises.

Rani Velu Nachiyar started raising a Women Military Regiment and was the trainer herself for her recruits.

The army was given rigorous physical training and was also trained in guerrilla warfare under the careful eye of the Rani.  The army had women captains and spies as any other army in the world would have. One of the Captains was Kuyili, who was a close confidante of the Queen.

 In addition to this army, the Rani also got 5000 cavalry and 5000 infantry from Hyder Ali to assist her when she would launch the attack to restore Sivaganga.

In 1780, the army of women, along with Rani Velu Nachiyar headed towards Sivaganga in disguise.         

 The British also suspected that something was to happen in Sivaganga, but could not get to know clearly what would happen. In anticipation of any attack they had stored lot of ammunition in the arsenal near the Rajarajeswari temple within the Sivaganga Fort.

Kuyili came to know of this. The Rani was apprised of the situation and they had to decide quickly on their strategy.

It was the day before Vijayadasami (during Navaratri) in the month of October. The temple in the fort premises being that of the mother Goddess, it was the usual practice of hundreds of ladies to come for worship in the temple from far and near and were allowed freely into the fort.

The whole army, carrying baskets of fruits and flowers and oil and ghee for worship entered the fort. What the British soldiers and the Nawab’s men did not know was the baskets had weapons like the deadly Valari concealed in them. They were easily hoodwinked.

It was twilight and the sun had almost set. Kuyili went inside the temple and drenched herself with the oil and ghee. In a swift move, carrying a lighted wick, she dashed into the arsenal where the ammunition was kept, lit herself and threw her burning self on the ammunition.

The huge blast that followed, shook the entire town and the hearts of the British alike. It was unthinkable and probably the first suicide bombing in history. Kuyili had become a human bomb and sacrificed herself for her province.

In the meanwhile the cavalry and infantry had entered the town and in the panic that followed, lot of the Nawab’s men and the Britishers met the same fate in the hands of the women’s army, as Rani Velu’s people met eight years ago. The Nawab was captured alive and his flag brought down and the flag of the Rani hoisted.

The province was rid of the British and the Nawab’s men and the Rani was crowned Queen of Sivaganga.

She ruled the province for ten years thereafter with the able assistance of the Marudu Brothers and in 1790, handed over the administration to her daughter Vellachi.

It is said that as a thanksgiving gesture to Hyder Ali, Rani Velu Nachiyar built a mosque at the place called Sarugani near Sivaganga. She also maintained friendly relations with Tipu Sultan, son of Hyder Ali, after the passing away of Hyder Ali in 1782.

Rani Velu Nachiyar passed away on December 25, 1796 suffering from a heart ailment.

She is remembered in her Tamil Nadu as the “Veera Mangai”, meaning, the daring woman.  

The Government of India has honoured her by releasing a postage stamp in December 2008 and the Tamil Nadu Government has built a Memorial for her in 2014 at Sivaganga.

It is a matter of immense pride that Rani Velu Nachiyar was the first lady to rise up against the British rule in India!

Today is Rani Velu Nachiyar’s 289th birth anniversary.

Tiruvadirai Kali – An interesting legend

Yesterday was Tiruvadirai (Ardra) star of the Margazhi month. Margazhi in Tamil and Mrigasira in Sanskrit and some other languages, this is the period between Mid-December to Mid-January.  Ardra or Tiruvadirai as it is known, this star mostly coincides with the full moon and sometimes is a day before or after full moon day. This day is dear to Lord Shiva and is celebrated in the South of India as “Ardra Darisanam” (Darshan of the Lord Shiva on Ardra day).

There are a couple of legends associated with this day, but I am going to narrate the legend associated with the sweet dish made on this day as an offering to the Lord Shiva, in Tamilnadu.

In the 10th century CE, there was a woodcutter by name Senthan, who lived near Chidambaram. Senthan was illiterate, and was an ardent devotee of the Lord Shiva of Chidambaram. In Chidambaram, the Lord is in the form of Nataraja, the dancing Shiva.

Though poor, Senthan had the practice of feeding a good meal to one devotee of Shiva every day. His means were limited and he had a hand to mouth existence. His only income was from felling and selling wood. Still, unless he fed one devotee of Shiva every day Senthan would not rest.

 “Feeding a devotee of Shiva is equivalent to feeding Lord Shiva himself” he used to say to himself.

Fortunately, his family supported his good deed and he had managed to carry on this practice for years together without a break.  Senthan’s life was going on peacefully.

One day in the month of Margazhi , early in the morning, unusually, there was a heavy downpour. It was so heavy that very soon there was ankle deep water everywhere. The rain did not stop and it went on drizzling the whole day.

Senthan went out to fell wood but the trees were all so wet. In spite of the rain, Senthan managed to get some wood and brought them to the market. He was in for a shock as people refused to buy wet wood.

“Sentha, you know we cannot use the wet wood in our stoves. How can we buy from you?” they said. “Dry them up after the sun comes up and we shall buy afterwards”. They were perfectly right in not buying the wood. Who would buy wet wood?

Senthan was worried about his income that day. No sales meant no money, no rice, provisions and fresh vegetables for the guest and no feeding of devotee that day.

“Please, please buy at least some wood today” was all that he could plead with the people who were shopping for wood. He could not tell them his worry of not being able to feed a devotee. His pleas were of no avail as people went about to other shops who had stocked dry wood.

Depressed by the day’s events, Senthan went home with a heavy heart. It was nearing late afternoon and there were not many people on the road due to the continuous rain.

He sat on the verandah of his house, contemplating on how to keep up his vow. He had neither the provisions to cook for a devotee nor a devotee to feed that day. He could not, but reconcile to the situation by thinking that it was the Lord’s will indeed that his vow should be broken.

“I surrender to you O Lord” he mentally prayed. “If this is your will, so be it”. He bowed down his head as if the Lord was in front of him.

As he raised his head, he saw a person clad in saffron, wearing the Rudraksha beads, walking towards his house. The person’s face exuded saintliness and radiance. It was as if he was some divine being.

Senthan was, for a moment overjoyed, that he got a person to feed, but the very next moment, remembered that there was no rice in the house, to cook. He was in a dilemma, as to what to do. By that time, the saintly person had reached the verandah of Senthan’s house. In a deep and melodious voice he spoke, “I have been travelling all day long and I have a long way to go. Could I get something to eat?”

Senthan was trembling with joy. “Of course, Holy Sir! It is my privilege to feed you. Please, please do come in” The words had come out of his mouth involuntarily. As he gave the person water to wash his feet, Senthan’s logical mind came to the front. “What are you going to feed him Sentha?” it said. “You know very well there is not even a grain of rice at home”

As if reading Senthan’s mind, the holy person said, “I am not particular about rice, my friend. I will happily partake whatever you give me. All I want is some food”.

Nodding his head in a hurry, Senthan rushed in to see if anything was available in the kitchen. His eyes fell on the small quantity of Ragi flour kept in a corner of a shelf and some little bit of jaggery in a small vessel. Coconuts, being grown almost in all houses, used to be available in the house always.

After making his guest comfortable and giving him water to drink, Senthan quickly whipped up a sweet dish with the ragi flour, jaggery and coconut scrapings, the dish had the consistency of thick halwa and could be shaped into balls. It was called “kali” (pronunciation – ‘Ka’ as in cup and ‘Li’ as in liquid – though the exact ‘l’ sound is not available in English language)

Praying to Lord Shiva to forgive him for not feeding rice and a full meal, Senthan offered this “kali” to the guest with great hesitation. The guest was so happy consuming the dish and kept telling Senthan that the dish was extremely tasty so much so that he wanted some of it to be packed for his dinner!

“I love this tasty preparation of yours. If something is still left, can you pack it for me so that I can eat it on my way for dinner?” said he.

Senthan was overjoyed and packed the remaining “kali” in a banana leaf using a thread made of banana fibre and gave it to the saintly guest.

The guest thanked Senthan and went his way.

The next day was the star of Ardra and early in the morning, there would be special worship to Lord Shiva at Chidambaram as in all Shiva temples. As the priests opened the doors of the sanctum of Chidambaram, they were shocked to see “kali” strewn around on the floor. Bits of “kali” were also sticking to the murti’s mouth and hand and there was a contented smile on Lord Shiva’s face.

The priests were aghast at this happening. Never was “kali” considered fit to be served to the Lord and never had it been served ever in the temple. So it was a mystery to all as to how this had happened in the locked temple. The harried priests immediately informed the happening to the King Gandaraditya Chola who was also a great devotee of Lord Shiva.

Gandaraditya was the second son of Parantaka Chola I of the Chola dynasty, who succeeded his father in 950 CE. Gandaraditya was himself a great devotee of Lord Shiva of Chidambaram. So was his queen Sembian Mahadevi. In fact Gandaraditya was a very reluctant ruler and was more of a saint that he gave up his throne to his brother Arinjaya Chola within a few years of becoming King, so that he could pursue religious activities full time.

It is said that in the everyday worship of Lord Shiva at his palace, at the end of the worship, Gandaraditya used to hear a soft tinkle of the Lord Nataraja’s anklets as a mark of the Lord’s presence there. This particular day the King did not hear the sound and was quite concerned as to whether something went wrong in his worship. He went to sleep with this thought nagging in his mind.

Early that morning, Gandaraditya had a dream in which Lord Shiva had appeared and told him that He had gone to Senthan’s house to eat “kali” and therefore was not present in the palace the previous evening. The King was wondering who this Senthan was and what was the “kali” Lord Shiva was referring to.

Just then, this news of ‘kali’ strewn in the sanctum of the Lord came in. As soon as he heard the news , the King, overwhelmed, rushed to the temple. He was overjoyed at the sight of the “kali” strewn all over. Describing his dream to the priests he asked eagerly, “Where is the great Senthan? I want to see him. He has fed the Lord with his own hands”

The priests were dumbfounded at the King’s revelation but they also did not know who this Senthan was. The King sent his guards into the town to find out about Senthan and came to know that Senthan had gone to witness the procession of the chariot (Ther in Tamil) of Nataraja which was scheduled to start shortly.

The King, priests and guards rushed to the place where the chariot was ready for the procession but could not locate Senthan as there was a huge crowd. .

As they were wondering what to do next, the time for pulling the chariot was nearing and as was the custom, the King also went to hold the sturdy rope with the help of which the ‘Ther’ would be drawn. Little did he realise that Senthan was also holding the same rope behind him. Pull as they might, the chariot would not move even a millimeter, as the wheel of the chariot got stuck in the muddy ground as a result of the heavy rain the previous day.  

Suddenly, a booming voice was heard from the sky (Ashareeri). “Sentha”, the voice commanded, “sing Pallandu for me and the Ther will move”.

The voice was heard by all, loud and clear and all the people in the crowd were looking as to who this ‘Senthan’ was. Senthan himself was shocked at his name booming from the sky, but he was very sure that it was not he who was being addressed.

“I am an illiterate. So it must be some other Senthan in the crowd who is being addressed”, he thought to himself.

As if to respond to his thoughts, the voice boomed again, “You are the person Sentha! Focus on me and you will sing!”

Senthan immediately realised that it was his Shiva who was commanding him. He closed his eyes and meditated on the beautiful form of Nataraja and poetry flowed out of his mouth as a river would flow from its origin!

He, who had not even studied an alphabet, sang thirteen verses of the “Pallandu” in chaste Tamil. “Pallandu” is a song of blessing. In this song, Senthan has had the privilege to bless the Lord of the Universe thirteen times in the thirteen verses.

Gandaraditya, who had recognized Senthan by then was overcome with joy and respect and wanted to be blessed by him.

Lord Shiva, had once again showcased the devotion of an ordinary person, to the world, to reinforce the fact that to Him all are equal.  

And ‘kali’ became an offering to Lord Shiva on Ardra Darshan day!!

Tidbits

  • Gandaraditya was a composer of divine poetry himself. He has been acknowledged by Saivite scholars for his work called “Tiruvisaippa” which is a part of the Ninth Thirumurai of Saivite literature.
  • The offering of ‘kali’ is made these days with finely broken rice and jaggery. It is not known when the ingredient changed from Ragi to broken rice. Also some say that Senthan offered greens or mixed vegetables along with the sweet ‘kali’ and so a ‘koottu’ or mixed vegetable is also made and offered along with ‘kali’.

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