STORIBUZZ

A collection of Indian tales of wit, wisdom, humour, bravery, devotion and lots more...

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.

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.

From the Panchatantra – Four Friends

Dear Readers, A very Happy New Year to all who are celebrating New Year today all over India!

Today, I am narrating a story from Panchatantra, from the chapter Mitralabha or ‘Gaining of friends’.

There are already a few stories from Panchatantra in this website which you can locate and read using the ‘Search’ tool on the right or down below if reading from mobile.

A small introduction to Panchatantra is available in the background guide for new readers.  Click here to see the background guide.

Long, long ago in the forests of Central India, there lived four friends, Hiranyaka the mouse, Mandaraka the tortoise, Laghupatanaka the crow and Chitranga the deer. The mouse, tortoise and crow were friends for a long time, while Chitranga had joined their group recently after escaping from a hunter. However, they enjoyed the company of each other and would meet regularly near a lake in the forest to share their thoughts.

One day, when the friends were meeting at the lakeside, Chitranga did not come. Hiranyaka, Laghupatanaka and Mandaraka waited and waited but there was no sign of the deer.

The friends got worried. They thought that Chitranga might have been trapped or killed by some hunter or would have fallen into a pit made by the hunters to catch elephants.

“What do we do now?” asked Hiranyaka, the mouse.

Mandaraka, the tortoise who was the oldest of them all looked at the crow and said, “Look here Laghupatanaka, neither Hiranyaka nor I can run fast in this jungle. You, on the other hand can fly high and see things which are far away. Why don’t you fly around and see if you can spot Chitranga?”

“You are right” said Laghupatanaka. “I will fly and see and tell you.”

Saying so, he flew over a short distance looking for Chitranga. Not very far away from the lakeside, there was a clearing and there he saw Chitranga lying down, trapped in a hunter’s net. The hunter who had laid the trap did not seem to be anywhere nearby. Laghupatanaka flew down to Chitranga. Chitranga was so relieved to see his friend but was feeling so helpless that tears were flowing from his eyes.

“Friend, what happened?” asked Laghupatanaka.

“What should I say?” sobbed the deer. “Death is chasing me and I am happy that I could at least see you before I die.”

“Don’t lose heart my friend” said the crow. “I will go immediately and bring Hiranyaka here. His sharp teeth will cut the net in no time.” He immediately flew fast to the lakeside and told Hiranyaka and Mandaraka of the plight of Chitranga.

“Come on Hiranyaka” he said to the mouse. Climb on to my back and I will take you there fast. The hunter will come any moment and we will have to free Chitranga soon”.

“You are correct” said the mouse as he climbed on to Laghupatanaka’s back. “We, as friends should do our best to free him. Otherwise what is the point of friendship?”

The moment they landed near Chitranga, the deer felt very happy. He was so glad that he had such good friends. He realized how important it was to have good friends, and how troubles could be easily overcome with the help of good friends.

Hiranyaka asked the deer, “How is it that a clever and swift being like you got caught like this?”

Chitranga said, “Friend let us not talk about it now. Cut the net fast so that I may get out. The hunter will be here any moment. Quick” There was fear in his eyes.

“Don’t you worry my dear”, said the mouse. “My sharp teeth will do the job in a jiffy. But do tell me how this happened.”

Chitranga said, “What to say, my friend, when luck forsakes you and when death comes for you, you lose your thinking ability and that is what happened to me.”

As they were talking, with the crow perched on a nearby tree, they noticed that Mandaraka was slowly sauntering and was reaching the clearing.

The crow said to Chitranga and Hiranyaka, “Look, who is coming. Who told Mandaraka to come here? It is such a foolish act. Now if the hunter comes, both of you can run away and I will fly away and it is he who will be caught. Hmm… Such stupidity! Now how do we save Mandaraka from the hunter?”

As they were debating on how to hide Mandaraka since there were no bushes around, the hunter appeared on the scene.

Hiranyaka was cutting the last string of the hunter’s net and in a flash, Chitranga got up and ran for his life. Hiranyaka scampered up the tree nearby. The hunter was stunned for a second but the next moment when he saw Mandaraka plodding his way to safety, there was a wicked smile on his face.

“Aha!” he exclaimed, “I will not go home empty handed after all haha…” he chuckled as he picked up Mandaraka and tied him to his bow and slung him on his back and started walking away.

Hiranyaka felt very bad for the tortoise.

“Everything in this world seems short-lived” he thought to himself. “And when troubles come, they keep coming in waves affecting the same persons again and again. The only solace during troubles is the sweet thing called friendship, but again now we are losing a good friend…” He was feeling very sad.

Meanwhile the deer and the crow came back and the crow said, “There is no way we can save Mandaraka if we sit here brooding. We have to act fast. Come on, let’s plan.”

He thought for a while and again spoke. “The hunter will have to cross the big pond which is a mile away from here. Chitranga, you run fast through the bushes and go near the pond and lie down as if dead. Hiranyaka, I will carry you and reach there. I will sit on Chitranga, cawing and pretending to peck his eyes while you hide in some bush. The hunter will surely prefer the deer over the tortoise and he will put down Mandaraka near the pond and come to lift Chitranga. Hiranyaka, you have to swiftly cut the strings from Mandaraka’s legs so that he can disappear into the pond. Then when I caw loudly once, Chitranga can get up and run away. Okay?”

“Right” said Hiranyaka and climbed on to Laghupatanaka’s back. Chitranga swiftly reached the farther end of the pond and lay down as if dead. The crow and the mouse soon reached the place and Laghupatanaka sat on the deer and pretended to peck his eyes cawing all the while.

In a short while the hunter reached the pond and was distracted by the cawing and saw that there was a dead deer at the farther end of the pond. He paused for a while and then put the tortoise down and approached the deer slowly.

Hiranyaka darted from the bush behind which he was hiding and started to gnaw at the bow string. Mandaraka’s legs were only tied and so in an instant, he was free. “Slide into the pond, quick” whispered Hiranyaka to the tortoise, and Mandaraka plodded as fast as he could and with a ‘whoosh’ went inside the water.

At the same time when the hunter came very near the crow gave a loud caw and flew away. The next moment, Chitranga got up and darted into the dark bushes and the hunter was so shocked that he had been cheated. Resigned to his fate he turned around to come back and take the tortoise but got another shock that the tortoise was nowhere to be seen. He was aghast and went home feeling betrayed and bitter.

After he had gone away far, the four friends reunited and celebrated.

“This is a lesson to mankind” said Hiranyaka, “that friends who are faithful to each other can never be defeated!”

The four lived a long life thereafter as the thickest of friends.  

Bhadrachala Ramadasu

Greetings to all on the auspicious Ram Navami which was celebrated few days back!!

Ram Navami is the birthday of Lord Sri Ramachandra of Ayodhya and I am narrating the story of one of Sri Rama’s devotees Bhadrachala Ramadasu.

Bhadrachala Ramadasu was a 17th century devotee who was born as Kancharla Gopanna (or Goparaju). He was born in 1620 CE at Nelakondapalli which is in Khammam district of present day Telengana. His parents Linganna and Kamamba were affluent brahmins, and his two uncles Madanna and Akkanna were ministers in the court of Qutb Shahi Sultan Abul Hassan Tana Shah, also known as Tani Shah.

Tani Shah was the eighth and last ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty of Golkonda till 1687, when he was defeated and captured by Aurangazeb as his relations with the Mughals had become strained.

Gopanna was devoted to Lord Sri Rama since his childhood and had unwavering faith in Him. After he finished his education, he was appointed as the Tehsildar (tax collector) of Palvancha Taluk by his uncle Akkanna, who was working under Tani Shah.

It is said that Gopanna was a very sincere person with the highest level of integrity and did his job of collecting revenue of Palvancha Taluk in a splendid manner, but at the same time not giving up his worship of his Ishta Devata Sri Rama by always chanting the ‘Rama Nama’ and feeding the poor.

Once, Gopanna had to visit a village fair in the nearby Bhadrachalam. There was an old temple of Lord Sri Rama at Bhadrachalam. It was in a very dilapidated state.

When Gopanna saw the state of the temple, he was very mentally disturbed. The temple was ancient, and it was said that Sri Rama had visited Bhadrachalam on his way to Kishkintha. This temple was also said to be the place where Sri Rama had given directions to another great poet Pothana to translate the Bhagavatham into Telugu.

Such a historically significant temple lying in ruins was something which Gopanna could not digest.

The idols of Rama and Seetha were dressed in dirty oily clothes with no ornaments whatsoever and the scene filled Ramadasu with tears. “He is the one who provides everything for all the beings in this universe. And here He is not being taken care of…” the very thought left Ramadasu distraught.

“It is Rama who has made me visit this place, as I am destined to restore this temple to its original glory” he said to himself.

He enquired with the people there.

“We do not have the resources to renovate the temple Sir” they said.

“True” thought Gopanna. “To renovate the temple earnestly and restore its grandeur, it will cost a lot”

Thinking thus, he told the people, “Do not worry, we will all join and renovate this temple. Please contribute whatever you can”

The people were very willing to contribute whatever they could by way of money and jewels and Gopanna pooled in his resources and in the process emptied all his savings also.

The temple was coming up very well but Gopanna was not satisfied as he wanted to give the very best only to his beloved Sri Rama. He made so many ornaments with gold and pearls, like the Chintaku Padakam, Patchala Padakam and other ornaments to decorate his beloved Rama and Seetha. His unending love and devotion to Rama and Seetha made him feel that whatever was done was not enough at all. So the renovation went on and on with magnificent structures being continuously added.

There was no more money left and when the villagers came to know of this, they suggested to him that he should use the revenue collections for the remaining amount and they (villagers) would replenish the amount after the harvest.

Gopanna, being an honest and upright person, thought for a while, but his love for Rama was so much that he did not think it was a wrong idea after all…

So, he used up the revenue collections as and when he collected and completed the truly magnificent temple for Sri Rama. The total amount of revenue collections used by him was six lakhs rupyas – without the permission of Tani Shah.

Historically, the silver coins were called ‘Rupyakam’ or ‘Rupya’. Interestingly the word ‘Rupee’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Rupyakam’ meaning silver coin.

After the completion of the temple, Gopanna was pondering on fixing a Sudarshan Chakra on the pinnacle of the Gopura of the main temple. That night, Lord Rama appeared in his dream and asked him to go and take a bath in the Godavari which flows near Bhadrachalam. When Gopanna went and did as the Lord instructed, he found a perfect Sudarshan Chakra in the river bed and took it as the Lord’s blessings and installed that on the Gopura.

The temple was consecrated with a very grand celebration and people from far and near came for the function. They were amazed by the sheer grandeur of the temple and the ornaments worn by the deities – all of which was given by Gopanna, who had by this time earned the name of Ramadasu – servant of Rama.

Word spread about the wonderful temple and very soon the news reached the ears of the King Tani Shah.  

Tani Shah, knowing the integrity of Gopanna, was perplexed on why this activity was not informed to him by Gopanna. It was strange that he got to know of a magnificent temple in a land ruled by him by someone, and not through Gopanna who was employed under him.

As he was enquiring about the cost of the temple and other details, some enemies of Gopanna who somehow got to know that Gopanna had used the revenue collections, used this opportunity and told Tani Shah that there was something fishy in this matter.

“You must investigate thoroughly, your Majesty!” they said, chuckling at the thought that Gopanna would soon be behind bars.

Tani Shah ordered an enquiry immediately. Gopanna admitted that he had spent all the revenue collections amounting to six lakhs rupyas.

“Yes. I have spent the money for the temple” he said without any remorse. “I have spent it for my Rama and all the villagers will help me in replenishing the money. I will deposit the money once I collect from them”

Tani Shah was furious. “Such audacity! Hmmm… Throw him in the dungeons till we receive six lakhs rupyas” he thundered. “No mercy for embezzlement and arrogance!”

The next moment Ramadasu was dragged by the burly soldiers of Tani Shah and thrown into a dungeon-like prison. It had no ventilation whatsoever, except for a hole at the top through which food would be thrown in.

The prison cell was ghastly. It was a terrible place to be in. Still, Ramadasu never believed that what he had done was wrong. He bore the heat and the cold and the darkness and loneliness by chanting the ‘Rama Nama’.

He wrote thousands of songs on Rama during this time, even scolding Rama in some of them! For instance in one song he sang, “Who made jewels for you, your uncle Janaka or your father Dasaratha? Your father made you leave all the ornaments in the palace and sent you to the jungle dressed in bark.” In another song he asked Seetha to represent his case to Rama. In yet another song he teases Rama and says, “Why don’t you open your mouth and say something? Is your mouth filled with pearls that will fall out if you open your mouth??”

Ramadasu languished in the dungeon for twelve long years and nothing happened. Then…

On a dark night when Tani Shah was blissfully asleep in his heavily guarded chamber, he heard the sound of someone calling out to him by name. “Tani Shah!” the deep majestic voice called. “Get up”.

Startled, Tani Shah got up to see in the dimmed oil lamp, the figures of two handsome lustrous youth beside his bed.

Shocked that someone had come into his chamber getting through the heavy security and stunned beyond words at the radiant glow emanating from the faces of the youth, he got up and stuttered “Wh.. who… are… you?”

The elder youth said, “I am Ramoji and this is my brother Lakshmoji. Here is the money which Ramadasu spent on building the temple. Take this.” And short of flinging he dropped a bundle of coins which landed with a jingle on Tani Shah’s bed. “Count it” said the younger lad, “Hmm… go on, count it and give us a receipt and the order for release of Ramadasu”. The voice was so powerful and mesmerizing that Tani Shah could not but obey it. He counted and counted and there were exactly six lakh coins- not silver rupya but Swarna rupya (gold coins) with the name Ram engraved on them. (The coins are still at the Bhadrachala Temple museum).

Tanisha picked up a feather used for writing and wrote with the dye a receipt for the money and the order for release of Ramadasu. In those days palm leaf was used as a writing sheet. The brothers took the receipt and left before Tanisha could collect himself and reconcile to what was happening.

It took some time for Tani Shah to come to his senses and upon realisation that he had seen Sri Ramachandra in person, he rushed to the dungeon where Ramadasu was languishing to see him released by the jailor who had been given the order by Ramoji and Lakshmoji. Tani Shah then described to Ramadasu what had happened and sincerely sought his forgiveness. He pledged to send pearls to the Bhadrachalam temple every Ram Navami, which is continued to this day by the Telengana government. (The government sends silk clothes and ‘Muthyala Thalambralu’ – Plates of pearls on every Ram Navami to the Bhadrachalam temple).

Ramadasu, instead of being happy to be released was more depressed that Sri Rama chose to give darshan to Tani Shah, who was a non-follower instead of to himself, who was singing Sri Rama’s praise day and night all these years. Following his release he went home. The only thought in his mind was on why Sri Rama did not appear to him in person and chose Tani Shah.

That night, he had a dream. Sri Rama appeared in the dream and told him of Tani Shah’s earlier birth where he had propitiated Shiva to a great extent but one day, in a fit of anger that Lord Shiva was not appearing before him, broke the Shiva Linga with the milk pot used for bathing the Shiva Linga.

His darshan to Tani Shah was the effect of Tani Shah’s propitiating Lord Shiva, said Sri Rama.

“But what about me? “asked Ramadasu. “What did I do to deserve the hell of a twelve year prison sentence?”

Sri Rama smiled. “You had caged a parrot for twelve days in your earlier birth. Every action of all beings have reactions. Now you are free. I will call you to me when the time comes”

Saying thus Sri Rama disappeared.

Ramadasu then lived up to the age of sixty, singing the praises of Lord Sri Rama, and died in 1680 CE.

Ironically, Tani Shah when defeated by Aurangazeb, when he captured Golkonda in 1687, was imprisoned for twelve years at Daulatabad before he died in 1699.

The compositions of Ramadasu well known to Carnatic musicians and he has also composed a collection of one hundred poems by name ‘Dasharathi Shatakam’.

Saint Thyagaraja, who was another ardent devotee of Rama, who lived in the next century has sung of Rama’s grace in ending Ramadasu’s misery, in his song “Ksheera Sagara Sayana” where he says,

dhIruDau rAma dAsuni bandhamu tIrcinadi vinnAnurA”

Meaning – I also heard (vinnAnurA) about Your bringing to an end (tIrcinadi) the incarceration (bandhamu) of the brave (dhIruDau) rAma dAsu (dAsuni)

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!

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!”

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