• Girivalam shrines – Vediyappan kovil

    Vediyappan or the Lord of the Forest is an ancient dravidian deity, said to be a manifestation of Lord Shiva and worshipped under this title by tribals and jungle dwellers. He is a guardian deity and his temples are usually found in the woods and other forest areas. He is often worshipped inside a natural glen of trees surrounded by rocks and all around him are stone sculptures of many wild animals who form his faithful band of followers. And of course, as is the tradition for guardian dieties, one or two stone horses are kept close by in readiness for him to mount and ride like the wind on any rescue mission for his devotees when they need his protection.

    A really authentic Vediyappan shrine can be found if one takes a little forest trail right opposite the Seenuvasa school on the outer girivalam. Here in the midst of  a lovely green forest enclave, stands a very ancient and imposing deity of Vediyappan surrounded by his coterie of wild animals and other woodland creatures like sprites and driads. And there are also three magnificent horses with their guards ready to take the god on their backs and flee to the help of any devotee in trouble. It is very impressive to just walk up this seemingly innocuous path and then suddenly stumble upon these surprising horses with their brilliant colours, forming a stark contrast to the surrounding landscape.

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  • Girivalam shrines – Thalaithiruga Dhanam Tharum Vinayagar

    This is a very old shrine to Lord Ganesh and can be found on the right side of the outer girivalam road, a few metres after the Surya theertham. It had fallen into disuse for some years and has now been renovated by a kind Sadhu who performs the daily puja at his own expense. The name itself is quite intriguing and ‘Thalaithiruga dhanam tharum’ a tamil term literally means ‘he who bestows riches on head being twisted’. Ouch! how painful that this poor Ganesh had to have his head twisted each time a devotee approached him with a desire for riches! Mercifully this practice has been stopped due to the twistable head of the deity itself having been removed by some Raja in his greed for wealth. Apparently he met with a sorry end after this act. Another example of killing the goose which laid golden eggs?

    Today the deity presents itself as a full-fledged Ganesh (with figure intact and firm non-twistable head) carved on the front surface of a fairly long natural rock formation. The rock itself is so long that the two ends can be seen extending outside of the concrete structure housing the shrine. The Sadhu priest is earnest to show us the place on the rock where the earlier twisting-removable head used to be. This is now a depression in the rock on the top surface and is covered with vibhuthi. and a little glass prism. The priest also explains the legendary practice where-in the head used to be removed and a few brass coins placed in the hole underneath and the next day if the head was again unscrewed and removed, the hole underneath used to be full of gold and silver coins ! The devotee who placed the brass coins would then recover the gold and silver coins after giving one or two back as offering to the priest.

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  • Girivalam shrines – Sri Raghavendra Swamy Brindavanam

    Sri Raghavendra Swami was one of the great proponents of the Madhva philosophy (Dvaita or Duality believing that God and Man are different entities and that Man should approach God through devoted worship). He lived in South India during the 16th century. For nearly 50 years, he was the revered head of one of the great peethams (hindu religious authority). He excelled in many fields such as logistics, Mimamsa, music, yoga, dharmashastra and all the 64 vedic arts. He was believed to be an avatar of Prahlada, a famous child devotee of Lord Vishnu and so he chose his Brindavanam or divine abode (Mantralaya) on the banks of the river Tungabadhra, where Prahlada had performed his yajna in Krita yuga. It is said that the stone used for the Brindavan was sanctified by the touch of Sri Rama and Sita in the Treta yuga.

    The Raghavendra Swamigal shrine can be found on the outer girivalam road right beside the Hanuman or Anjaneya temple. It is situated on a large courtyard with the backdrop of Arunachala. The shrine consists of a stone statue of Sri Raghavendra depicted against a stone scultpure of Kamadhenu, the celestial wish fulfilling cow. The maintenance and running of the temple are funded by a local private group of Raghavendra devotees who come daily in the evening to participate in the pujas. There is also a daily feeding of Sadhus at this time. On festival days this temple is often a venue for carnatic music concerts with the participation of good musicians from Chennai. And so this has become a regular halt for traditional music lovers in the area.

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  • Girivalam shrines – around Sona theertham

    Sona Theertham is a sacred tank of water situated on the outer girivalam path. It is located in a very pictoresque spot on the border of the innerpath forest and thus has an abundance of lovely old trees all around. The theertham has two Nandi statues flagging the entrance steps which lead down to it and also a cute little Ganesh shrine with a smiling sadhu priest who looks like a sweet chimpanzee. This seems to be quite an idyllic  place and often romantic couples come to sit here and enjoy the view.

    On the opposite side there is a shrine to the Divine Mother under the title of Muthu Mariamman, a tamil name for goddess Parvathi. Of recent years this little shrine has become quite popular and on Sundays there is quite a crowd of devotees here especially vehicle owners who like to get their cars and trucks blessed with a little puja involving lemons and camphor flame.

    A few metres after Sona Theertham on the same side is another pond called Krishna theertham due to the little Krishna shrine which is found just in front of it. This pond has fallen into a state of disuse and needs to be cleaned up ideally, which would make it another good clean natural source of water for the animals and birds which flock here to drink the water and enjoy the cool shade from the trees.

    The remarkable feature about this spot is that even on a hot summer day it is always especially cool around here, probably due to the trees and also due to the plentiful water sources which are in concentration here. When one drives in here from elsewhere, one can feel the perceptible drop in temperature as soon as one enters the vicinity and due to this, often passersby stop here and relax to get relief from the summer heat.

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  • Girivalam shrines – Vallalar Mantapam and Kovil

    Vallalar was a saint who lived in Vadalur near Chidambaram during the early half of the 19th century. This is the legend of his life and teaching: “Vallalar is believed to have realized the supreme and universal Divine integrally and his body became transformed and filled with Light so much so that it did not cast its shadow on the ground. He eventually attained a transformed and divine golden physical body, deathless and ever indestructible, shadowless and sleepless, and full of Light, Amrita and blissful energies and with a potential power to resurrect the dead into the body. He preached deathlessness of the body and said that it was by an error that people were consenting to death.  After about a year or two of attaining the Deathless body, he sacrificed it by dematerialization in 1874 in the very concrete Presence of the Divine at his place in order to make the God of Vast Grace – Light manifest so as to stay on and directly rule the earth and to enable him to enter into all the physical bodies universally”.

    The shrine to Saint Vallalar can be found on the right side on the outer girivalam road about a hundred metres after the Nirudhi Lingam. It is set in a modern concrete structure with enclosed rooms and open areas.  One of the rooms  houses a shrine to the saint and also a small shrine to a Shiva Lingam and Nandi. There are also some statues of the saint in the open areas where one can sit and meditate, facing the hill. Within the courtyard, inside another room which is fully tiled with polished granite, there are shrines to the Ashtalingams, and the Navasakthi goddesses. On the walls of this room are gaudy modern cement sculptures of many gods and goddesses from the hindu pantheon. The arrangement of the deities seems to have no rhyme or reason and just seem to be placed here and there with no adherence to vedic rules regarding the placement of deities in a temple nor to any taste of interior decor. Beside the entrance, under a neem tree, is a cement sculpture of a huge 5 headed serpent on which a female goddess figure is portrayed. There seems to be a sad lack of local flavor and devotion and the whole place looks sterile and devoid of energy. However on Sundays and full moon days, this shrine is jam-packed with people because of the huge amount of free food which is cooked and distributed there to one and all !

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  • Ashta Lingams – South – Yama Lingam

    Yama is the hindu god of Death. He is the son of Surya and Sanjana. According to the Vedas, Yama was the first man who died. He presides over the resting place of the Dead. Due to his unswerving dedication to maintaining order and justice and his adherence to harmony, Yama is known as Dharma. Believed to be wisest of the Devas, Yama is revered as the teacher in Katha Upanishad. He is also supposed to be the one of the most ancient beings of the world. However even Yama is subordinate to Shiva and this is brought out in many hindu legends. Whereas Yama is called Kala or Death, Shiva is called Maha Kala or Great Death.

    Yama is the deity governing the southern direction and the Ashta Lingam of the South is of course the Yama Lingam. The shrine of Yama Lingam is located appropriately beside the cremation grounds and cemetery on Chengam road about 2 kilometres after Ramanashramam. Every time there is a death, the mourners offer an Abhishekam to the Yama Lingam after cremating the corpse. This is a usual practice. Apart from funerals and the full moon crowds, this Lingam does not seem to have any regular devotees and presents quite a deserted appearance at other times.

    The Yama Theertham is a large pond of water situated behind the shrine and is set in a very beautiful scenic place with an abundance of flora and fauna all around. The waters of the Theertham are perennial due to the efforts of the ARS (Annamalai Reforestation Society) in having desilted and unblocked the water channels from the Hill which flow into the Theertham and having constructed culverts under the Chengam road to enable the water to flow in freely.

    During our next giripradakshina, while we pay our homage at the shrine of Arunachala-Yama Lingam, may we all learn to embrace Death fully in the way Ramana taught and remember that “True Death is Eternal Life” !

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  • Ashta Lingams – Isanya Lingam – North-East

    The word Isanyam in tamil means North-East. The Lord of Isanyam is one of the 7 seven Rudras of Shiva. He is described in the puranas as being covered with ashes and surrounded by ghosts, he has matted locks and fierce eyes and is seated on a tiger skin. He holds the crescent moon and the river Ganga in his locks. His body is adorned by coiled serpents. In his hands he holds the mortal drum and the trident of Shiva.

    The shrine of Isanya lingam is situated on the old girivalam road to town, beside the  main cremation grounds. It is one of the most popular Ashtalingams and apart from the general pilgrims, it has its own group of regular, local devotees who come daily morning and evening to participate in the pujas and make offerings of flowers and fruits to the deity.

    In spite of its sinister location, that of being right beside the crematorium, people are not put off in anyway, and so young and old alike come eagerly at all times to take darshan of Lord Isanya Shiva. The inner sanctum is an underground chamber and after entering the temple one needs to descend a flight of steps which lead to the inner sanctum. This seems to be a special feature of this shrine and it is quite thrilling to stand on the threshold and bend your head really low in order to take a glimpse of the deity shining brilliantly deep down inside.

    The Lingam itself is huge and very ancient and the alamkaram or the decoration of the Lingam is surpassingly beautiful and takes hours and hours of work by the priests who do it daily twice, morning and evening with great devotion and taste. One can stand for hours just gazing at the Lingam and not want to move away, such is the power and beauty of the Lord here! The Isanya lingam by virtue of its location and external aspects stands as a reminder to all of us of who we are in reality and how this body which we falsely deem to be ourselves is nothing but dust and ashes.

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  • Girivalam – Anjaneyar temple

    Anjaneya is the tamil name for Hanuman, the monkey God of power, especially venerated by princes and warriors to gain prowess and victory. Tuesday is his sacred day of worship and his birth anniversary is celebrated as Hanuman Jayanthi. Hanuman or Anjaneya is the son of Vayu, the lord of the Wind and his consort Anjana. In the puranas, he is described as having a short thick neck, a round monkey-face as red as a ruby, yellow skin glowing like molten gold, sharp white fangs, a mane like flowers, a tail like a banner of interminable length, and the ability to expand until he is as large as a mountain or to contract until he is as small as a fly. He has a roar like thunder, leaps into the air and flies among the clouds with a rushing noise. This is what the Ramayana says about him: “The Chief of the monkeys is a perfect being. No one can equal him in learning of Shastras and in comprehending the meaning and sense of scriptures. In all sciences and in the rules of austerity, he rivals the preceptor of the gods.” Hanuman is the ninth author of grammar. Hanuman remained celibate his entire life and is known as the greatest devotee of the god Rama, who loved him the best. His devotion to Rama and Sita was so great that once he tore open his chest with his sharp talons to show that images of Rama and his wife were engraved upon his beating heart. He is famous for helping Rama destroy Ravana, the ten-headed demon king, and for organizing the building of the monkey bridge from India to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) to facilitate the crossing over of Rama and his warriors.

    There are many interesting myths surrounding this god. When quite young, he saw the rising sun and thought it was a ripe fruit. He therefore jumped up to it and put the sun in his mouth. The other gods and goddesses feared that the world would perish without the sun and prevailed upon him to spit it out. When Hanuman was only ten years old he could lift huge hills and throw these about as if they were stones. On another occasion, when Hanuman was riding under the mid day sun, his shadow fell on the sea. It was seized by a female sea monster named Surasa, a near relative of the demon-king Ravana, who, in a pre-emptive effort to save her cousin from harm, used it to drag Hanuman down into the waves and swallowed his body whole. Trying to escape, Hanuman increased his monkey shape to enormous proportions; the demoness responded by immediately stretching her mouth until it was a hundred leagues wide. Suddenly Hanuman reduced himself to a tiny size. While the monster hesitated in surprise, Hanuman cunningly slipped out of her right ear and made his escape. Hanuman was the greatest and most faithful helper of Lord Rama in the battle with Ravana, the demon king of Sri Lanka and assisted Rama in finally winning back Seetha from the clutches of Ravana.

    The Anjaneya temple on the Girivalam can be found on the outer path, a few metres after the Tiru Ner Annamalai shrine. Not much is known as to why a shrine to Hanuman was placed here. The common story is that Hanuman once came to pay obeisance to Arunachala, the Master of All and is believed to have venerated the Hill at this spot. On Saturdays the temple is fairly crowded with Rama and Hanuman devotees and prasad is often prepared and offered to the sadhus there. The outer walls of the temple are covered with frescoes of Hanuman performing different feats and look quite interesting.

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  • Girivalam shrines – RajaRajeswari temple

    Goddess Shakti is the manifestation of Energy. It is believed that Shakti is the power and energy with which the Universe is created, preserved, destroyed and recreated (by the trinity of  Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). Shakti is worshipped in several forms. As Rajarajeswari or Kamakshi, she is the Universal mother. As Uma or Parvati, she is the gentle consort of Shiva. As Meenakshi – she is the queen of Shiva. As Durga, she rides the tiger, and bears weapons. In the angry and terrifying form of Kali, she destroys and devours all forms of evil. As Kali, she is also the personification of time, her dark form being symbolic of the unknowable future.

    The Shakti of the Impersonal Absolute is referred to as Durga in the Narayana Upanishad and is qualified as being worthy of worship for the acquisition of material gain in this world and spiritual advancement in the next. She is both the Energy which is life itself and the Source into whose depths all living things return. At the time of Kali Yuga, or cosmic dissolution, it is believed that the physically manifested universe will once again withdraw itself into the formless depths of the Goddess, until a new gestation period commences and the cyclic rhythm of creation is once again set into motion.

    On the outer Girivalam path, right opposite the Nityananda ashram, there is a relatively new shrine dedicated to Goddess Rajarajeswari, a most powerful form of Shakthi. This temple, albeit new, is drawing huge crowds of devotees almost everyday. Pujas to the Divine mother are performed elaborately every day and on New Moon nights the chantings and rituals go well up till 2 o clock at night. A beautiful Sri Chakra Mehru resting on the back of a silver tortoise is a special feature. The deity of the Goddess is in a standing posture and covered with a silver kavasam. Prasad is prepared daily and distributed to all the devotees after the evening puja ritual. According to the priest, the reason for locating the shrine for the Goddess at this spot is because, from this point there is no view of the Karthigai Deepam flame and hence the Shakthi power is supposed to be greater here! Hmmm…

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  • Ashtalingams – Agnilingam – South-East

    Agni is the hindu god of fire and is revered as the acceptor of sacrifices. He thus serves as the envoy from and to the other gods and as well as the envoy from humans to the gods. Because the fires of agni are lit everyday, he is ever rejuvenated and thus remains ever youthful and immortal.

    Even though Agni is the god of fire who presides over the earth, he still has a strong foothold in the hindu realm of gods. Along with Vayu and Indra who rule over the air and sky, he is one of the supreme gods in the Rig Veda. Serving as the link between heaven and earth, he plays a primary role in all Homas and Havans (vedic sacrificial worship with fire in order to gain special benefits from the gods).

    Among the Ashta lingams, Agni lingam governs the south-eastern direction. The shrine of Agni lingam can be found while walking on the outer girivalam on Seshadri street which is a few metres before Seshadri ashram. There is huge theertham called Agni theertham which can be seen from the Chengam road itself and this usually overflows during the monsoon making the road into a lake.

    Today, the Agnilingam shrine presents a derelict appearance and attracts very few devotees on regular days. A sad-faced priest does puja in a subdued manner probably because he has not much audience. The special benefits that Agni lingam worship is believed to confer on devotees are protection from evil and reduction of harmful effects from past karmas.

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