I’ve just returned home from a very inspirational pilgrimage to southern India. I had the great fortune of being with kind hearted devotees who were taking me and who had organised the entire trip. I had nothing to do but to keep myself in Krishna consciousness – and that’s relatively easy when you’re having the most wonderful darshans of beautiful images of God in ancient temples.
My travelling companions, Gail, Peter and Moira, gave me such an uplifting sabbatical-holiday that I will always be grateful to them. Although they’d planned the trip before my illness, it turned out to be just the right period of recuperation for me at just the right time. May Krishna shower them with blessings for their generosity and timely care.
We journeyed down from Bombay on an overnight sleeper train to Udipi, just south of Goa. It’s a mediaeval Vaishnava town and the place where Madhvacarya, (1238-1318) a great teacher and saint, established the worship of Krishna. Still small and unspoiled by tourism the town functions today as it did 800 years ago. The temples are in the heart of the town and two or three times each week, there’s a Rathayatra festival when Krishna is taken for a ride on a grandly decorated wooden, silver or gold chariot. There’s an elephant to trumpet before Him, traditional musicians, fireworks and dancing puppets, and many devotees straining at the ropes. And if you sponsor such an event, as we did, there’s a feast of delicious prasadam served up on a large banana leaf afterwards.
Udipi is near the coast in the state of Karnataka. Further south we reached Cochin in Kerala, and then spent a day and a night cruising the peaceful backwaters on a houseboat, and a few days at the seaside resort of Varkala. Although not as touristy as Kovalam to the south, it was quite full of spiritually-minded young people who had come to the many yoga or Ayurvedic centres in the town.
One of the highlights for us all on this side of India was our early morning visit to the Adi Keshava temple in Tiruvattur. This is the temple where, on his visit here in 1511, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu discovered the manuscript of Brahma Samhita. (The Govindam Prayers) If I thought that Udipi was unchanged through eight centuries, this temple, dating back over thousands of years, seemed to transport us back in time as we walked its sculptured colonnades that morning. With just the distant singing of birds and the echoing of our own footsteps, we followed our quiet and kindly Brahman guide towards the sanctum. Many kings had contributed to the glory of this temple, surely one of the undiscovered wonders of sacred architecture.
At the heart of it all, amidst the most detailed wood carving I’ve ever seen, lay the reclining deity of Vishnu, so large we had to take our darshan through three separate windows. His black form, covered in yellow cloth and silver ornaments became slowly visible as our eyes became accustomed to the dim light within the chamber. A priest lit camphor and the flame shot up, glowing brightly and illuminating the Lord’s fine features.We chanted the Brahma Samhita prayers in their entirety, only inches from the spot where Sri Chaitanya had sat all those years before, gazing with devotion at His Lord.
A brief visit to Kanya Kumari, the Lands End of India, where the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea meet, was followed by a visit to Sri Rangam, the seat of Ramanujacarya (1017-1137) and the biggest temple in India with the tallest gate tower in all of south-east Asia. This seven-walled town of 155 acres has at its heart Lord Ranganath Swami, a Vishnu deity that was presented as a gift by Lord Ramachandra to Vibhisana, the brother of Ravana. When he set the Lord down in this spot he could not move Him again and so here He has stayed for thousands of years. Although the fortunes of the temple have changed over the centuries – at one point the jungle reclaimed the altar and the one remaining priest was afraid to serve the Deity because of tigers – there is now a thriving community here and a town full of brahmanas.
As in Udipi, not all the brahmanas are connected with the main temple. There are many other subsidiary shrines and I was very lucky to find a small Narasimhadeva temple where an abhishek – a grand bathing of the deity with numerous liquids – was to be conducted that afternoon. I sponsored it and did so asking for blessings to be given to the doctor whose intervention had made it possible for me to be there at all, as well as devotees who have helped me. And there was enough time for prayer and reflection. The deity looked resplendent in blazing copper colour, Narasimha with Lakshmi seated upon His left thigh, being offered a head to toe bath of milk, yoghurt, coconut juice straight from the nut, scented water, fruit salad, honey and a shower of warm water from a container with 108 holes.
Afterwards, the young brahmana, Sudarsana Bhattar, 25, showed me the state of disrepair of the temple, the holes where the rain came in during the monsoon. He asked if I and my friends in England could help him make the repairs. The son of a brahmana, he had given up a lucrative job in Bangalore when his father, the priest at this temple, had needed him. I went to his 12th century house for hot milk and he told me that he was the latest in a line of brahmanas coming in a family line from the son of the first disciple of Ramanujacarya, one Koorathazhwan, whose body is buried in samadhi inside the temple. Sudarsana explained to me that he’d been initiated at age 12 and that his own grandfather was his guru. You can see something about this samadhi and temple at: http://www.azhwan.com
Another great attraction of this town on an island in the Kaveri River is that Sri Chaitanya stayed here throughout the four months of the monsoon season in 1510. He stayed at the home of Vyenkatta Bhatta whose baby son Gopala crawled over and sucked the Lords toe. Later, that boy would become Gopala Bhatta Goswami of the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan. Because of his feelings of separation from Jaganatha, Lord Chaitanya personally carved small deities of Jaganatha, Baladeva and Subhadra and they are still worshipped there to this day. Because it is a shrine mainly visited by followers of Srila Prabhupada, the pujari plays a tape of Prabhupada singing during our darshan.
The succession of great Vaishnava saints who lived before Ramanuja are known as the Alwars and they each sang the glories of different deities. Altogether they composed 4000 songs about 108 deities who reside in their ‘divya-deshams’. While two of those deshams are the eternal Vaikuntha and Swetadwipa, and while the majority of songs relate to Sri Rangam, there are 40 divya-deshams in Kumbhakonam, our next port of call.
We choose to visit only the largest of these temples one evening just as the sun was going down. The Chakrapani temple was built by a Chola king and, once again, it is a marvel of finely sculptured granite. A song in stone. It is once more a magnificent experience to see the shrine and a beautiful Sri Narayana lying there. We are presented not only with darshan but literally bunches of Tulasi leaves as our prasadam.
Our trip is completed in our final destination: Madras, now known by its old name of Chennai, where we do some shopping and prepare to return from 90 F temperatures to the much more temperate climate of Britain. On the flight back, as I watch the sun rise over the mountain horizon of Afghanistan, I give thanks to Krishna for kindly allowing me all the sacred sights, sounds and tastes I have experienced over the past three weeks. I pray that it is His special gift to prepare me for even more devotional service in the coming years.
For more text and pictures please go the ‘India’ page