Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Wanderlust: Revealing secrets and facts about Thillai Nataraja...

Wanderlust: Revealing secrets and facts about Thillai Nataraja...: A visit to this holy Shiva temple located in Chidambaram not only invokes a higher level of spirituality but also urge the visitor to ...

Revealing secrets and facts about Thillai Nataraja temple

A visit to this holy Shiva temple located in Chidambaram not only invokes a higher level of spirituality but also urge the visitor to admire the scientific factors considered to build the entire structure. Shiva exists here in the form of a cosmic dancer called Nataraja. The word Chidambaram is derived from the two words ‘Chit’ meaning ‘consciousness’ and ‘ambaram’ meaning ‘sky’ (akasha) and signifies the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate state one should attempt to attain.

Pancha Bhoota Sthalas are the five temples in South India dedicated to Lord Shiva representing the five natural elements namely earth, water, fire, air and ether (sky). The Lord is worshiped in his manifestation as Sky or Akasha in the famous Thillai Nataraja temple located in Chidambaram. Here, the deity of Shiva is in the form of Nataraja (Lord of dance) performing the Thandava, the cosmic dance form. 

The significance of the Nataraja pose can be explained as follows: the demon under the Lord's feet signifies that ignorance is destroyed, the raised hand depicts that he is savior of life, fire in the rear left hand represents destruction of evil, the raised foot represents salvation, the drum in the hand signifies birth of life and the ring behind depicts the cosmos. It is said that the center point of earth's magnetic equator lies at the foot of this Nataraja shrine.

One of the entrances

The original construction of the temple is believed to be during the early Chola period i.e during the 900 A.D.  Several renovations of the temple structure has taken place in the following years. The temple is located in the heart of the town occupying about 40 acres of land with four gopurams (towers) facing all the 4 directions. Each gopuram has seven storeys with around 50 carved sculptures. 

One of the 4 Gopurams

There are five sabhas in the temple namely - the Kanakasabha, Chit sabha, Nritya sabha, Rajya sabha and Deva sabha. The daily rituals are being performed in the kanakasabha where the deity is situated. The sacred sanctum sanctorum or the kanakasabha is adorned by gold plated roof. The Lord is represented in three forms in the kanakasabha:

1. the anthropomorphic form as the Nataraja or the Sakala tirumeni
2. the semi form i.e the semi-anthropomorphic form as the crystal Linga or the sakala nishkala thirumeni
3. the formless or the Nishkala thirumeni which is an empty space

The Chit sabha is located behind the kanakasabha and this is where the Lord is worshiped without a form. It is believed that next to the Nataraja deity, a black screen is hung and behind this priests and sages having divine vision can see two golden vilwa leaves depicting Lord Shiva and his consort Parvathi. The curtain is removed only during special rituals/poojas. By the term Chidambara rahasya it means that in-order to realize one's inner self a person should remove the curtain of 'Maya' from his mind.

The Nritya sabha or the Natya sabha is believed to be the place where Lord Shiva had danced along with Kali to prove his Supremacy. It has about 56 pillars exhibiting 108 poses of the Bharathanatyam dance form. The Rajya sabha (hall of 1000 pillars) is believed to symbolize the yogic chakra of 1000 petaled lotus and it is the venue for victory celebrations and other ceremonies. The Deva sabha houses the Pancha moorthis Ganesha, Somaskanda, Sivananda nayaki, Muruga and Chandikeswarar. 

Another specialty of the temple is that, in a nearby mandapa named Chitrakoota Lord Vishnu is also enshrined in the reclining yoga nidra pose on the serpent Adishesha. Hence if a person stands on a small lotus sculpture on the floor infront of Vishnu he can also get a view of Nataraja on the right side.

Below are the interesting scientific facts about the interior architecture:

The roof of of the Ponnambalam or Kanaka sabha has been laid with 21600 tiles with inscriptions SIVAYANAMA representing 21600 breaths of a person in a day, the roof has 64 beams denoting 64 forms of art, it held by many cross beams representing the innumerable blood vessels, the golden tiles are fixed with 72000 nails representing the number of nadis (nerves) in the human body, at the top of Chit sabha nine kalasas (sacred pots made of copper) can be found depcting the 9 forms of energy, the roof of Chit sabha is supported by 4 pillars symbolizing 4 vedas, the artha mandapam which has 6 pillars denotes the 6 sastras, and the mandapa next to it has 18 pillars denoting 18 puranas. From Kanaka sabha there are 5 steps leading to Chit sabha which signifies the Panchakshara mantra of Shiva (Na Ma Si Va Ya).

The history of Chidambaram temple starts with the arrival of Lord Shiva to the Thillai (a species of mangrove trees) forest which was spread around the temple location (currently limited to Pichavaram wetlands). Inside the temple sculptures of thillai trees can be seen. A group of saints resided in the Thillai forest believed that God can be controlled by certain rituals and prayers. Lord Shiva arrived in the forest in the form of Pitchandanar, asking for alms accompanied by his consort, Mohini (a female form of Vishnu). Shiva in this form exhibited extraordinary beauty and radiance. Soon the wives of rishis/sages were enamored by the handsome mendicant and his consort. The sages got angry on seeing this and they performed poojas to invoke serpents on Shiva. Lord Shiva lifted the serpents and donned them as ornaments on his hair, neck and waist. The enraged sages invoked a ferocious tiger from the holy fire and targeted it towards the couple. Lord Shiva skinned the tiger with his nails and wore the skin around his waist as a garment. Further the sages sent a powerful demon of arrogance and ignorance named Muyalakan. It is believed that Lord stepped on the demon to immobilize him and started performing the Ananda Thandavam (the dance of bliss) to disclose his true form. The sages surrendered themselves and admitted that Lord himself is the Supreme power.

A short history about the Ananda thandava is as follows:
Adisesha, the serpent on whom Lord Vishnu lies yearned to see the Ananda thandava. Vishnu blessed him and asked to take the form of a saint named Patanjali. Patanjali reached the Thillai forest along with another saint Vyagrapathar (Pulikaalmuni) having the feet and eyesight of a tiger. It is said that Shiva displayed his dance as Nataraja to these two saints. 

The temple is maintained by a group of Shaivaite brahmins called Dikshitars who also perform rituals. It is believed that Patanjali brought these people from Kailas to perform the daily rituals. The rituals were collated from the Vedas and established by Patanjali. 

Pichavaram Mangroves

Mangrove roots

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Jaipur to Jodhpur - The Backpacking way!

A visit to the land of palaces had always been in mind since many years. I had calculated one week time to explore Rajasthan. The plan was to take the Mumbai-Jaipur express and start off. However on the way I got down at Sawai Madhopur to visit Ranthambore national park.  From there, booked a train to Jaipur starting at around 7:00pm. The food options at Sawai Madhopur station premises was pathetic. If visiting, it is better that you carry preserved food items or enough snacks to fill your tummy. 
Jaipur city seemed to be as crowded as Mumbai. The auto walas will take you to the desired location, be ready to pay the fare they ask. The night stay was arranged at Moustache hostel (if arriving post check in time, kindly inform your hotel staff over phone, so that they keep the room blocked for you). I had to wait for sometime to check-in before going up to the roof top restaurant to have dinner. The food was tasty and satisfactory. The ambiance is good especially for solo travelers and foreigners. There is a pretty decent lounge near the reception to sit back and read/play. 

The Moustache hostel lounge
The good thing about auto walas in Rajasthan is that they offer to take you around the city the first time they meet you at the station/bus stand. I didn't deny the offer as I was a first timer there. The next day morning I started city tour in the following order - 

1. Albert Hall museum (diverse collection of exhibits, located in the heart of the city, there is a zoo nearby if you have children you may visit that too). There is a CCD and restroom facilities in the premises.

Albert Hall
Inside Albert Hall museum
I just saw Hawa mahal on the way in auto and chose not to go inside.
Battery operated rickshaws in Jaipur
Views of Pink city
2. Jaipur City Palace

You can take your cameras inside after paying the camera fee along with the entry fee. The palace is well maintained, most of its interiors is like a museum for visitors. The royal family still resides on one side of the palace. You can finish exploring the place in an hour and move onto Jantar Mantar which is situated just across the road.
City palace views
Palace courtyards

3. Jantar Mantar

It is advisable to hire a guide here in order to understand the significance of the scientific instruments/structures. There are 5 Jantar Mantars in India constructed under the leadership of Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 18th century. The world's largest stone sundial is situated in Jaipur Jantar Mantar.
Jantar Mantar
Stopped to have lunch at a small roadside hotel on the way to Amber fort.

4. Amber fort (11km from the city)

Visitng hours: 8am - 6pm

Plan your visit to Amber fort in the evening so that you don't get burnt in the sun. Ideally I would suggest not to opt for elephant ride up the hill, instead walk and enjoy the hike. Why harm the poor animals and also you can save a 1000 bucks. Inside the fort you will get guides who will charge you a 100 or 150 Rs which is worth it. My guide took me around and explained the various parts of the interiors and their historical importance. Many Bollywood films like Jodha Akbar and Bajirao Mastani has been shot in this fort. There is a temple of Kuldevata (household deity) inside the fort where the Royal family continues to pay visit. It was almost 6.30/7 pm when I finished seeing the fort. Suddenly the lights lit up and the whole place looked so amazing in the orange glow. This is another advantage if you visit the fort in the evening. I met the auto wala and proceeded towards the Bapu bazar (market) planning to do some shopping. However the shopping didn't happen as it was a Sunday, holiday for all local markets.

Amer fort view at entrance

Mahota lake and garden in front of Amer fort

Ganesh pol
our guide standing on one of the passages
infront of sheesh mahal
Mughal style garden
Lights switched on at dusk
I skipped Choki Dhani (a Rajasthani village resort) as someone suggested it is expensive and a bit far off the city. Thus, I winded up touring the Pink city.

Next day early morning, I caught the 06:00 am train to Jodhpur (approximately 4-5 hrs journey, booked tickets in advance). The train was jam packed with passengers. The only food option in the train was bread-cutlet sold by local vendors.

Jodhpur, 11:30 am: I got into an auto heading to Kesar Heritage home stay near clock tower. The room was well done in a true heritage manner and had a small balcony which had only views of next buildings.
The room at Kesar Heritage
Rooftop, Kesar Heritage
There was a rooftop restaurant with a view of the majestic Mehrangarh fort. Outside, the alleys were dirty and poorly maintained, garbage and faeces all along the way. Honestly, Jodhpur was nothing like I had imagined.

Post lunch, I decided to explore the fort. Later, realized that it was a bad decision as the fort entry closes at 5:00PM sharp. An auto guy ditched and left me half way saying that the road is under renovation and took Rs.100 from me. From there I had to catch a share auto up the hill. As I reached just in time, the entry ticket was provided but I had to hurry because the guards kept on telling it was time to close the gates. I took some photographs in a hurry and spent ten minutes on top of the fort near the temple watching the sunset. Although its named as blue city, only some portion of the city is painted blue. The Umaid bhavan palace where the Jodhpur Royal family resides, was clearly visible at a far distance from the fort.
On the way back to the homestay, I hired an auto for about Rs.200. He agreed to take me for sightseeing the next day for Rs.600. (Tip: if you are a solo female, make sure you reach back the city before dusk as the premises will be quite deserted after 6:00PM).

On day 2 morning, I decided to explore a good hotel for breakfast. Unexpectedly, during that random walk, I found this awesome theme hotel named Nirvana. The ambiance was mind blowing and the Poori bhaji was just exceptional. This hotel also have a splendid rooftop restaurant arrangement with a great view of the fort. Please check http://www.nirvana-home.com/ for route and pictures. The restaurant downstairs was designed with colorful wall paintings from Ramayana. The staff was very friendly too.

The beautiful courtyard, Nirvana hotel
Wall paintings, Nirvana hotel Jodhpur
 After breakfast I met the auto guy and started city tour in the following order:

1. Jaswant Thada (very close the fort, hardly need half an hour to finish this) - the cenotaph built by Maharaja Sardar Singh. It serves as the cremation ground for Royal family of Marwar.

Jaswant thada

2. Mandore Garden (8km from the city, takes an hour and a half to complete) - a collection of temples and memorials. There is a Ravan temple here since the place is believed to be the native place of Raavan's wife Mandodari.

Mandore garden temples
3. Umaid bhavan palace - Nothing fancy about this place, just a museum on one side of the palace and some exhibits of vintage cars. Hardly takes 1 hour to finish.
Enroute the palace

The entrance for the Royal family
Antique clock collection at Umaid bhawan palace
The polo team of Jodhpur Raja seen on the street
I don't advice you to do much shopping in Jodhpur as everything is overpriced.

You must try a Rajasthani thali during the trip which includes Bajra roti, Ghatte (chickpea flour) ki sabzi, Ker saangri (made using a desert plant), Sev tamatar sabzi , Dal baati churma, chaas (buttermilk), rice, Kadhi, etc

I continued to the next destination Udaipur in an overnight sleeper bus. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Udaipur times!

Jag niwas lake palace

We had booked an overnight sleeper bus from Jodhpur to Udaipur. The bus reached Udaipur at around 4/4.30am. After some bargaining rounds, we got into an auto for Rs.150, well there was not much compromise on this. While in Rajasthan, you have to get used to excessive auto fares. The chill November breeze pierced through the skin. The auto wala offered to show us around the city for Rs.500 a day. He convinced us well and shared his mobile number. We reached our hostel, had to wake up Mr.Dikshanth to check us in. He was quite welcoming and helpful that he immediately handed over the keys (even though the check-in time was 10:00 am).

We retired in the room and woke up at around 9:00 am for breakfast. The food on the menu was a little expensive to have on a daily basis and the options were either of these in most of the backpacker hostels - cornflakes, pancakes, bread, butter/omlette or aloo parathas. We got a suite room in the hostel, quite a spacious room with large windows facing the lake and a balcony to sit back and chill.

Bunkyard balcony

View from balcony

We rang up the auto guy by noon and started the city tour. The first on list was a boat ride on the lake. After the ride, we skipped a few small attractions on the way and stopped at Saheliyon ki Bari. As per history, this garden was designed by the king himself and he presented this garden to his queen. The Queen was accompanied by 48 maids in her marriage. This patterned garden used to be the popular relaxing spot of the royal ladies. The queen with her maids and female companions used to come here to spend their time in leisure. It will take only 10 minutes to cover this spot.

Saheliyon bi bari

We visited the Bhartiya Lok Kala Museum (handicraft museum) expecting to see a puppet show. The museum has many good exhibits relating to various tribes in Rajasthan and it helps learn more about the Rajasthani culture. The puppet show will be conducted only if there are a minimum number of visitors and we were lucky to witness it along with a small crowd. It was a memorable experience to see a live puppet show. We congratulated the artists after the show and gave some tips too.

We had our lunch at a restaurant named Green chilly, the food was quite filling and tasty. Further we explored a government aided handicraft showroom. There were plenty of interesting stuff to see, but a bit expensive as they are all either exquisite hand-made items to support village artists or traditional classic pieces from history. These showrooms were previously Havelis (mansions) of the Royal members, now given free of rent to the artists to sell their items. We visited another shop named Riyo near the city palace from where we bought some natural fibre clothes. The sales person explained the various types of natural clothing materials available such as textile made from bamboo fibres, lotus stem fibres, etc. The fabric felt very smooth on the skin unlike the artificial textiles that we usually buy.
Our next stop was the City palace of Udaipur. We bid adieu to our auto wala and entered the palace grounds. There was a wedding going on in the premises which included Baarat (procession).

Women in traditional costumes

City palace

Entertainments to welcome guests at a Lake palace hotel
We felt that the entry fee was quite expensive and they have an additional camera charge of Rs.250. This was not so favorable, so we kept the DSLR at the locker and decided to roam the palace interiors without clicking any pictures for a change! Trust me, this was a cool decision as the palace was simply splendid, better than all palaces that we saw in Rajasthan. One reason must be because the visitors could explore almost the whole palace as it is and its unlike a museum. So we could get a clear picture of the past Royal life. The wall paintings and decors were worth praising. We had a good sunset view of the lake in front of the palace.

Sunset view of lake from city palace

Before we retired for the day, we headed to Bagore ki Haveli musuem for the folk dance show at 7:00pm. After waiting for about half an hour we were seated inside the haveli style building with a huge crowd. We continued the 'No-Camera' style here also. So we just sat there to absorb the real feel of 'being in Rajasthan'. If we don't have the intention to take pictures, we would surely enjoy the little happy moments with open mind & eyes! There were plenty of foreigners present, which is why I suggest you reach early to find a good seat in the front. A guy in traditional Rajasthani costume described about the type of dances performing and the names of artists. He briefly narrated stories before each performances so that the Non-Indians also understand the importance. There were many types of folk dances by beautiful Rajasthani women, a skit based on Goddess Kali, a puppet show, fire dance (a lady danced with a fire pot on head) and finally a pot dance which is related to life in desert. The highlight of this show was the artist, a 70 year old woman. Although all of the shows were amazing, the last performance stole the audience's heart. The elderly lady kept on adding the number of pots on her head, until there were about 10 pots. She was exceptionally good at her work and was highly confident. All of us congratulated her at the end of the show, I noticed her eyes turned moist. She is one brave lady I'll never forget in life. I guess this is the best place to indulge in true Rajasthani culture.

We skipped other main attractions that our hostel guy suggested like Monsoon palace, lake palace and vintage cars museum. Our hostel was near to the Jagdish temple. This is a small nice temple, worth a visit for its marble carvings and architecture.
Jagdish temple

Marble carvings

Wedding Baarat

I suggest you can do some shopping near Hathi Pol area, where you will get good clothes for reasonable rates.
On the third day morning, we got into a bus from Udaipur bus stand heading to Ranakpur, our next stop.