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  • Maattu Pongal in Ramanashram

    Maattu Pongal the third day of the Pongal or Harvest festival is the day consecrated to the cows. Everywhere, on this day, cows are bathed and decorated with flower garlands and then puja is performed to them with offerings of sweet pongal and fruits. In Ramanashram too, it has always been the tradition right from the time of Bhagavan to celebrate Cow Pongal in a graceful way. Devotees will remember that Sri Ramana was very fond of the cow Lakshmi and He used to feed sweet pongal to Lakshmi with his own hands on Cow Pongal day.

    The Maatu Pongal celebrations in the Ramanashram consist of 3 different ceremonies. First the Nandi (bull mount of Shiva)  in the Mother’s shrine is decorated in a spectacular way. He is adorned with garlands of vegetables, fruits, sugarcane, grass, flowers. Vadais and other tasty sweetmeats. Then an elaborate Aarathi puja is performed by the priests with devotees looking on with rapt admiration. The next event takes place at the Samadhi (tomb) of the cow Lakshmi which is located outside in the open courtyard beside the dining hall. A group of devotees  are assembled here and the statue of Lakshmi is bathed with milk abhishekam and then a puja is performed with the photo of Bhagavan fondling Lakshmi placed in front. The ashram ladies sing many beautiful hymns in praise of Lakshmi describing her devotion to Bhagavan and other touching episodes in her life like how she used to give birth to a calf every year right on Bhagavan’s birthday. This creates a wave of devotion among the group and many devotees are moved to tears to listen to the words about the cow Lakshmi’s unusual and rare bhakthi to her Master and how, even though she was in the body of an animal she behaved like a deeply spiritual human being .

    The third event takes place in the cow shed of the ashram, called ‘Goshalai’. Inside, it is nicely cleaned and beautifully decorated with flower garlands and sugar cane and turmeric plants. In the centre, a lovely white cow (believed to be the descendant of Lakshmi) and her calf are decorated and honoured. A puja is performed to them by the ashram priests with the same respect and energy as they would to a deity in the temple. The president  and his wife feed the white cow with sweet pongal from their own hands and the cow and calf eat it with quiet relish. It is an enchanting scene and one feels transported to times of yore when cows were considered as godly beings and people treated them with respect and devotion. Let us follow the example of Bhagavan Ramana and recognize and respect the Divine Being in every fellow creature on this earth.

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  • The Night of Tiruvaadirai

    There are two festivals dedicated to Lord Nataraja, the form of Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer. One is the Aani Tirumanjanam in June and the other which is more important takes place now, in the month of Margazhi which begins in mid December and goes upto mid January. According to the Hindu Almanac, the great cosmic dance or the RudraThaandavam happens on the full moon night of the Aarudhra or Orion constellation. Tiruvaadirai as it is called in Tamil and Malayalam, is called Aarudhra in Sanskrit. Lord Nataraja is believed to perform his cosmic dance on this night, thus upholding the five-fold activities of the universe. Aarudhra signifies the red flame and Shiva performs his dance in the circle of this red-flamed light.

    The cosmic dance of Lord Shiva represents five activities – Creation, Protection, Destruction, Embodiment and Release. In essence, it represents the continuous cycle of creation and destruction. This cosmic dance takes place in every particle and is the source of all energy. The Tiruvaadirai or the Aarudhra Darshan festival celebrates this ecstatic dance of Lord Shiva-Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer.

    This year Aarudhra Darshan in Tiruvannamalai took place on the full moon night of 8th January. Lakhs of people walked with devotion around the holy hill of Arunachala. In the big temple of Lord Arunachaleeswara, Tiruvaadirai is celebrated as a Nataraja Utsavam. The deities of Lord Nataraja and his consort Goddess Shivakami inside the main shrine are worshipped with many special pujas and rituals involving sacrificial fires and grand abhishekams and then they are taken on procession around the courtyard of the temple.

    It is interesting to note that this night is also special for Ramana devotees because it marks the preceding night of Sri Ramana’s birth which happens the next day, on the Punarvasu constellation. For Aarudhra, the Nataraja deity in the Mother’s temple of Ramanashramam received a beautiful abhishekam at 4 o clock in the morning and many devotees braved the biting cold of this early hour to come and witness the holy ceremony.

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  • Ramana Jayanti

    The birth anniversary of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi is celebrated as Ramana Jayanthi in the Ramanashramam every year. The date is calculated according to the Hindu almanac and thus takes place on the Punarvasu star day in the month of Maargali or Dhanur (Dec-Jan). This year it took place on Monday 9th January. The main puja of the day is the Maha Ekadasa Rudhrabhishekam and it is performed on a grand scale in the shrine of Sri Ramana’s Samadhi. Apart from this,  the ashram had a number of other special events like bhakthi chantings, music concerts and spiritual discourses on the life of Sri Ramana.

    The highlights of this year’s Jayanthi celebrations were the splendid floral decorations over the samadhi shrine and in front of Ramana’s statue in the new hall. They were made with real flowers and had been arranged very beautifully, thus drawing the eye of every devotee who entered the hall. It must have taken a lot of painstaking work for many hours and one cannot but exclaim in praise of the wondrous beauty of these flower festoons and kolams which transformed the plain hall into a place of splendid celebration.

    The music concert in the evening was held in the fantastic new auditorium and this was yet another pleasant surprise for devotees. Built in the style of a roman amphitheatre, this auditorium is cool and airy, has great accoustics and seems well equipped in lighting and sound systems. So it was really enjoyable to sit inside and listen to the lovely, melodious songs in praise of Ramana rendered by the troupe from the Ramana Maharshi centre for Learning in Bangalore. Thank you Ramanashram for this wonderful Jayanti and  thank you Ramana for lighting the light of Truth in all our hearts !

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  • Maargazhi or Dhanur Maasam

    Yet another auspicious hindu month follows closely on the heels of the Karthigai month. Called Maargazhi in tamil and Dhanur in sanskrit, this month holds many interesting traditions and festivals. The Paavai nombu is a religious custom that takes place daily at dawn. Womenfolk wake up early in the morning, take a head bath and draw beautiful kolams in front of the house and place a pumpkin flower in the centre. After this, they go to Vishnu temples and chant the Tiruppavai ,a collection of devotional hymns to Lord Vishnu composed by the Alwars, the Vaishnavaite saints of ancient tamilnadu.

    In Ramanashramam, the Dhanur Maasam chanting practice is observed faithfully every day starting at 4 o clock in the morning. Brahmin priests and devotees chant the Vishnu Sahasra Naamam, the 1008 names in praise of Lord Vishnu and sing hymns from the Tiruppavai. At the end of it, hot pongal prasad is distributed to everyone.

    Then there is the Tiruvaadirai festival which takes place during the Orion constellation of this month. This celebrates the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva in the form of Nataraja, the Dancing god. The Pancha Sabhais of Nataraja are Chidambaram, Tiruvaalangadu, Madurai, Kutraalam and Tiruvannamalai. Millions of people come to do giripradakshina on this night which is known as Aarudhra Darshan and the big temple performs a grand abhishekam to the deity of Lord Nataraja inside the main sanctorum.

    Strangely enough, the Maargazhi month is consecrated strictly to religious and spiritual practices and it is not auspicious to conduct any worldly celebrations during this month. Therefore there are no marriages or householder functions taking place now and affianced young couples have to wait till the next month before they can get married !

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  • A quote from Sri Ramana Maharshi

    Correcting oneself is correcting the whole world.
    The Sun is simply bright. It does not correct anyone.
    Because it shines, the whole world is full of light.
    Transforming yourself is a means of giving light to the whole world.

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  • The Tour of the Great Chariot

    The eight day of the Karthigai festival is the day of the Maha Ratham or the Great Chariot. On this day, the great wooden chariot which is the largest temple chariot in Asia, is taken on procession around the four streets of the temple. The main great chariot carries the stately figures of Lord Arunachaleswara and his consort Goddess Unnamulai whereas the smaller chariots which follow in retinue carry the deities of Lord Muruga, Lord Ganesha and Goddes Durga respectively.

    Early in the morning, thousands of men and women flock the venue of departure in front of the Raja Gopuram, eager to pull the chains of the chariot and thus have the honour of drawing their Lord’s vehicle. The method in which the chariot is drawn goes back to ancient times. Two long chains made of iron links are connected to the chariot. Carpenters use wooden wedges as brakes to check the speed on the downward slopes as well as to stop the ratham. The signal is given to lift the chain and the devotees pick up the chain. The men hold one side of the chain and women the other. When the wedges are removed and the lever is applied at the back of the huge wheel to give the initial momentum, the second signal is given from the chariot. At once, men and women with great enthusiasm and cheering in unison “Hail to Annamalaiyar” draw the chariot with all their might. Slowly, inch by inch, the great chariot moves and as the pull increases, it gains momentum and moves faster.

    It is indeed impressive to see the gigantesque, enormous wooden chariot move forth slowly and majestically, drawn entirely by man power. The chariot is made of rose wood and has beautiful carvings of divinities on its sides.  The top is decorated  attractively with silk canopies, banana and coconut fronds and flower garlands. The Temple Sivacharyas in royal attire are seated on either side like footmen to the Gods and they wave lovely peacock feathered fans to keep the Gods cool and refreshed during their procession.

    And thus the great chariot winds its way down the temple streets. By the time it has reached the western street, it is evening and the sun has started to set. The golden rays of the sinking sun shine through the peaks of the Hill. With the Hill view, the golden sunset, the soaring temple towers and the Lord majestically riding on his great chariot in the centre, it is indeed a spectacular sight and one feels the presence of the Lord Himself witnessing the scene in quiet enjoyment !

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  • The Maha Karthigai Deepam

    The Maha Deepam of Karthigai was lit amidst an awesome wave of  devotion on Thursday, 8th December and thus the festival reached its culmination. Devotees will know that on this day the holy beacon is lit on the summit of  Arunachala hill. The prelude to the Lighting of the Great Flame started inside the big temple at 2 o clock in the morning. At this time, a Yagna or sacred fire Homa is kindled in the Mahamantapam while the Abhishekam to Lord Arunachaleswara is performed in the inner sanctum.

    After the ceremony, Arathi is performed by the priests through the lighting a huge chunk of camphor on a golden plate and waving the flame around the Lord. The temple bells start clanging and the musicians beat on their drums. Amidst all these sounds, the temple walls resound with loud cries of devotion. The Arathi is brought outside and shown to the five lamps lit on earthen plates for which the Yagna has been going on. This is Bharani Deepam, the prelude to Karthigai Deepam. Its significance is that the universal Lord manifests as the five elements during the day and in the evening He again becomes the One Absolute Being and shines as Tejolinga when the Deepam is lit on the Hill. (Bharani is one of the 27 stellar constellations through which the moon is believed to pass through successively each day and according to the hindu almanac, Bharani precedes Krithika which is the constellation of Karthigai Deepam).

    The earthenware lamps of Bharani Deepam are taken in procession around the temple. A fire torch is lit from these lamps and taken to the Hill top. Here on the summit, there is a huge copper cauldron filled with ghee (poured in by devotees) and a wick made from many metres of cotton cloth rubbed with camphor after being steeped in the ghee. Millions of people have already arrived since morning and start walking giripradakshina around the Hill. The roads are packed with an ocean of people still increasing as the day goes by.

    Around sunset, at 6 p.m. to be exact, the deity of Lord Ardhanaareeswara is brought out ceremoniously and installed in the DeepaMantapam in the big temple, facing the Hill. After Arathi is shown to the Lord, a thundering blast of fire crackers gives the signal to the men on the summit of the Hill to light the Flame. It is a Full Moon night and as the sun sets in the western sky and the beautiful full moon rises in the east, the flames of the Maha Karthigai Deepam spring forth into the sky on top of Arunachala, creating a wave of ecstatic devotion among all the people. A tremendously loud roar of “Annaamalaiyurukku Haro Haraa” is heard from all directions. The Deepam burns brightly and fills our hearts with the powerful and vibrant presence of the Lord. Everyone stands awe-stricken in front of this splendid sight and thousands fall down on their hands and knees paying obeisance to the Great Lord. And thus the glorious festival of Deepam is completed. However, true Completion happens when it is not only outside with the Lighting of the Flame but also inside when the Flame of Jnana is lit correspondingly in the heart of each being.

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  • The birth of Ardhanareeswara

    The festival of Karthigai Deepam is the one of the oldest living festivals in India. It takes place in the Tamil month of Karthigai when the star Kirthiga is on the ascendant and usually occurs on or before a full moon day. In ancient tamil literature, the oldest available work Tolkappiyam which dates back to 2500 B.C. carries a marked reference to this festival. In another ancient Tamil classic, the Kalavazhi Naarpadu, dating back to the third Sangam period (around 1000 B.C.), the poet writes, “In the battle, the blood oozing out from the dead soldiers’ bodies is like the red coloured flame of the light lit on Karthigai Deepam”. Another song in Sambandar’s Thevaram says that the Lord is verily the Deepam (lit during the Karthigai festival).

    Everyone knows that Karthigam Deepam is the lighting of the flame on the summit of Arunachala on Karthigai day but not many people know about the exact reason this festival is celebrated. Readers may remember the legend of the Navaratri festival in earlier posts about how Goddess Parvathi having incurred the wrath of her husband, Lord Shiva, came to the holy hill of Arunachala to do Tapas and regain the favour of her Lord. And so, after a long period of arduous Tapas which the Goddess Parvathi performed with great devotion and strength, Lord Shiva’s wrath was appeased and He came down to Arunachala to take her back. When He arrived, Lord Shiva was so moved by the strength and force which emanated from the Goddess as a result of her Tapas that he decided that She was his equal in every way. Therefore he granted her half his body so that the Two would become totally united in One form. This was the birth of Ardhanareeswara. Physically It signifies the Divine Union of Shiva and Parvathi. Spiritually it signifies the absolute union of Advaita. Not two but One. Shiva and Parvathi are not two but One. Man and God are not two but One.

    This momentous event is believed to have happened in the month of Karthigai on the day of Kirthiga Nakshatra and that is why till today the flame is lit on the summit of Arunachala in memory and honour of this wonderful Union which unite Man and God. Moreover Shiva is believed to have manifested as an infinite column of fire at this time and this phenomenon is also linked to the lighting of the flame.

    When Sri Muruganar asked Bhagavan Ramana about the significance of the Karthigai Deepam festival, Bhagavan composed a stanza of four lines in which He says, “The true significance of the Karthigai Deepam festival is to turn the intellect inwards and have it fixed in the Heart, thereby merging it with the indweller of the Heart

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  • Skandha Sashti

    The sixth day of the lunar cycle in the tamil month of Karthigai is celebrated as Skanda Sashti, a festival dedicated to Lord Muruga, the younger son of Lord Shiva. This festival commemorates the great event Soorasumhaaram or the slaying of the demon Soorapadman by Muruga in the form of Skanda, slayer of demons and vanquisher of evil.

    In Tiruvannamalai, the big temple of Arunachaleswara celebrates this festival in a very popular and dramatic manner. The battle of  Soorasamharam (destruction of Sooran) takes place at nightfall on the day of Skanda Sashti. Now Skandha  in the form of Arumugam or Shanmukham with six heads and twelve arms goes out in an impressive procession from the big temple after having, earlier, received the sacred weapon (a bow and arrow) from his mother, the Goddess Unnamulaiyamman. First he makes a festive a tour of the four streets around the temple collecting a crowd of devotees everywhere. He then wields his way in the northern direction preceded by the temple elephant and accompanied by his retinue of priests, musicians and devotees.

    The procession passes the Durga temple and then stops in front of the Vada Subramanya temple a few metres before the town bus depot. At this place, Lord Muruga is assailed by the demon coming from the North (like all asuras). This is enacted in the form of a giant wooden doll placed on a cart with wheels which comes whizzing down the slope pushed by men from behind. The asura Sooran thus attacks Lord Muruga three times and Skanda wields his bow and lets fly an arrow to strike him each time. After each hit, the head of the Asura changes significantly.

    The last head is the Maamarasura, with the head of a mango tree. At the end, the Asura undergoes a change of heart, repents his misdeeds and to signify this, his head is altered into a peacock and a rooster head, being the two mounts of Lord Muruga. The Asura Sooran then pays obeisance to the Lord and thus the festival ends but not without a grand display of fireworks to the delight and cheer of the audience.

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  • The Tamil month of Karthigai

    The auspicious and celebrated Karthigai Maasam begins this year on November 17th and ends on December 16th. It is the eight month in the tamil year and derives its name from the Nakshatram or constellation of Krithika or Pleiades. Lord Shiva is the presiding deity of this month and Shiva temples all over India are crowded with devotees practicing vows and oblations to honour and propitiate Him. In Tamil Nadu, there is an ancient religious custom which is still followed, that of waking up before dawn and serenading the Lord with melodious chants from the Tiruvempavai, a collection of devotional hymns praising Lord Shiva and bidding him to awaken and glorify the universe with his Light. Moreover, Ayyappa devotees start the 41-day Ayyappa Deeksha Vrittam and make the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala during this month.

    In Tiruvannamalai, giri pradakshina is performed by many devotees early in the morning during this whole month. Mondays are specially dedicated to Shiva and the Karthigai Somavara Vritham is observed by many traditional devotees where-in they fast and do giri pradakshina and then offer special pujas to the Lord. Karthikai Maasam is also known for the deepams or lamps that are lit in every household and even in shops and business concerns at sunset every day. It is a lovely sight to walk down the streets after dark and see the numerous fire lamps glowing bravely at the entrance of every abode. Another special event of this month is the Mahabharani which is observed in all Shiva temples by lighting bonfires. It just precedes the Karthigai Deepam.

    The Karthigai month is also highly auspicious for Lord Muruga as the month is named after the six Krithika stars. Son of Lord Shiva, Muruga was born as 6 different babies and was looked after by the Six Krithika stars. Later Goddess Parvati joined the six babies to give birth to one form with six heads and thus Shanmukha or the 6 headed god was born. He is also called Karthikeya, Subramanya or Muruga. The famous Skanda Sashti festival dedicated to Lord Muruga in commemoration of his victorious battle against the demon Sooran also takes place this month.

    The most important festival of the month is the Karthikai Maha Deepam and readers probably know that this festival is of utmost significance in Tiruvannamalai and it is even called the Annamalai Deepam. It is believed that Lord Shiva gave darshan to the universe in the form of an infinite pillar of fire on this day. We will be seeing detailed descriptions about this festival in the coming posts. This year the Karthigai Amavasai or New Moon day is on November 25th and the Karthigai Pournami or full moon day falls on December 10th.

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