Notes On Culture
Three Stories for Mahashivaratri 2021
Presenting a bouquet of three stories extolling the matchless devotion towards Shiva drawn from the annals of Sanatana history and tradition to celebrate this year's Mahashivaratri
One of the criminally neglected glories in the annals of Bharatavarsha’s extensive civilisational history is its unparalleled, unbroken and flourishing maritime sway for more than two thousand years. Gold from Rome surged into all parts of Bharatavarsha especially under the vast, sweeping, and opulent empire of the Andhrakas or Satavahanas. The Roman Empire paid in gold for exquisite Indian silks, fine dyes, high-quality spices, and gems. The next major epoch in Bharatavarsha’s maritime history roughly begins with the inimitable Guptas who laid the all-encompassing foundations for almost every facet and nuance of Santana civilization and culture that has survived till this day.
The succeeding epoch after northern India was overwhelmed by Arab and Turkish Muslim barbarians arose in south India. When Rajaraja I consolidated the wrecked remains of the denuded Chola Empire and constructed a sprawling swell of maritime dominance and the opulence that flowed from and into it. From the scratch. Encompassing Sindhu Mahasagara, and the entire coast of Bay of Bengal up to Kalinga Desha. In just twenty-nine years.
In the same twenty-nine years, Rajaraja was also busy notching up virtue after virtue. Indeed, in this, he shares a common trait with all distinguished Sanatana emperors: of multifaceted accomplishments of Himalayan grandeur. His sweeping administrative reform indicates an extraordinary level of genius. The reorganization of his vast empire into administrative units called valanadus—with fine-grained level of decentralization where each village retained almost absolute autonomy—is a legacy whose hazy vestiges still exist in Tamil Nadu to a tragically diminished extent.
Rajaraja Chola was also a devout Sanatani. While the world eulogized him as Rajakesari (Lion among Kings), Mummudi Chola (the Chola Emperor who Wears Three Crowns: Chola, Pandya and Chera), and Rajaraja Chola (King of Kings), he took pride in calling himself, Shivapada Shekhara (One Who Places his Head at the Feet of Lord Shiva). He ranks as one of the greatest Shiva Bhaktas and but for him, the extraordinary corpus of Nayanars would’ve perhaps been permanently lost. His title, Tirumurai Kanda Cholan (the Chola who “Saw,” i.e. saved the Tirumurai—the compendium of divine hymns to Shiva) truly befits him like a sacred ornament. Among other things, it is such kings and saints and poets and monks and vagabond minstrels that are still the protective edifice that has allowed Sanatana culture and traditions to survive in Tamil Nadu against the century-long savage Dravidian predators and missionary moth-eaters of Hindu souls.
The other magnificent expression of Rajaraja Chola’s Shiva Bhakti is undoubtedly the epoch-making Brihadeeshwara Temple at his capital, Thanjavur. It is Shiva Bhakti that carved itself. It is spiritual architecture that awakens our immanent transcendence the moment we behold it. Its physical age is 1010 years but the divinity that let it build itself is Sanatana.
Here is an anecdote that shows just once fraction of this divinity.
After the Brihadeeshwara Temple was fully constructed and consecrated, a final step remained. The enormous temple bell had to be rung without which regular Puja etc could not begin. No matter who pulled its cord, the bell simply refused to respond. Almost the entire day passed with the same depressing outcome. After much entreaty and prayer, divinity spoke through the voice of one of the devotees thronged there: this bell will sound only if the person who has truly worked for the construction of this temple rings it. Find that person.
Quite naturally, Rajaraja Chola was himself was requested to perform the auspicious honour. He pulled the cord. Nothing. The main Archaka pulled it. Nothing. All manner of Bhaktas, saints, monks, donors, artisans, and workers were one after the one. Same result.
Evening had dissolved into early night. The trepidation began to escalate. Perhaps something had terribly gone wrong somewhere. It was time for the Mahamangalarati after which Prasadam would be distributed. Sans the Prasadam, it would be impossible to start Annadanam—coarsely speaking, dinner. And the whole chain of events hinged exactly on the ringing of the bell.
And then an old, well-worn woman walked in, touched her head to the threshold, folded her hands, walked to the bell and tugged the cord. It happened. The entire precinct of the magnificent Brihadeeshwara Temple instantly resonated with the auspicious melody of the enormous gong coming off in devout waves.
The extensive crowd of Bhaktas was transformed into one whole unit of stunned silence. It took a long time to utter the unuttered question: who is she? Not a familiar face. A face more likely to be forgotten than remembered. One among those scores of folks by the wayside. Rustic-looking. Perhaps a poor farmer’s wife. Perhaps someone who did some random work just to survive. No one knew. Yet Brihadeeshwara, the All-Encompassing Mahadeva, had identified her as the person who had truly built His temple.
Needless, she instantly became the cynosure of everyone’s devotion. Rajaraja Chola himself came forward and paid her his respects. In true Sanatana tradition, everyone present there wanted to find out what she had exactly contributed to the temple’s construction so they could perhaps take some lessons from her, emulate her.
This is the other pulse that has sustained Sanatana Dharma in this land: of random strangers trying to find out the reason—however inconsequential or absurd—for why a person was bestowed with some blessing from the Devatas. The other practical, daily-life manifestation of this principle is visible even today: of enquiring whether any ancient or famous temples exist when people set out even for a jolly holiday. Read this extraordinarily evocative account of Shivapicchai Mudaliar for an elevating experience of this Sanatana practice.
The poor old woman was frightened at this kind of sudden, overwhelming public attention. But she truthfully had no answer. Like every Bhakta, she had customarily rung the bell ignorant of what had transpired throughout the day. They began a detailed enquiry…where do you live? What’s your background? What do you do? Nothing in her answers gave a satisfactory explanation for why she had accomplished nothing short of a miracle.
The Shikhara (dome) of the Brihadeeshwara Temple weighs 25 tons and rests on a massive, single block of granite that in turn weighs 80 tons. These weights are tiny fractions but enough to give an idea of the scale, size, and extent of the entire temple, and taken with its elaborate complex, covers nearly 45 acres of land. A mini village. So far removed from that era, it is almost impossible for us to even imagine how it was built in a pre-mechanised age…how all those countless boulders were transported from faraway distances, carved, joined with error-free precision, erected…what quality made it endure for more than a millennium. The Brihadeeshwara Temple was built over a period of fifteen years.
After much head-banging and more probing questions, the explanation for the old woman’s seeming miracle was found. She indeed hailed from a nondescript and humble background. The reason she had truly built the Brihadeeshwara Temple was as simple as her simple life. Each day over these fifteen years, she would stand by the highway in the brutal afternoon sun next to a trough of water. The cart drivers who transported those enormous boulders would unfailingly halt by her for a while. Then they would untie their oxen. The old woman would repeatedly fill the trough till the oxen had quenched their thirst and relaxed for a while before proceeding forward, their mute service to Brihadeeshwara. He had waited for her to ring the first bell.
This among uncountable others qualifies for what is dismissed as local legend and fable. And it is precisely because the contemporary mind dismisses such anecdotes that it is has become spiritual wasteland where nothing of lasting value grows. But then we live in an age where artificial intelligence is pursued with a fanatical zeal to replace the mind itself. The eventual, self-inflicted destruction of changeless spirituality, which lies in a higher realm within us, is perhaps entirely, justifiably deserved.
(I am profoundly indebted to Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh who first narrated this to me several years ago.)
Of the countless invaluable cultural heritage that Santana Bharata has lost irretrievably, perhaps nothing is more profoundly tragic than the stories that our own people, real people, told about themselves and their ancestors. Indeed, worship of ancestors, Pitrs, is a distinctively unique cultural trait of Sanatana civilization not found in any other culture. The mad rush to blindly embrace what is known as “scientific” history has proven to be a fatal death-kiss as far as these stories are concerned. Arguably, the greatest beneficiaries of this “scientific” history have been our Marxist cultists who are now scientifically “proving” that Algebra is oppressive.
Sanatana history preserved in what is dismissively known as “oral legends” and “folklore” is almost dead. At least until the mid-1970s, India still had old men and women who remarkably preserved the memories of their ancestors on their tongue-tips. To them, these were not legends or fables or fiction but the continuation of lived, real lives brimming with the immutable value that only centuries of tradition can bring. Time has taken away tens of thousands of such old men and women and they have taken their stories with them. Not even a fraction has remained. And what has remained is unknown in a public discourse that is alien to itself.
No amount of Oral History Projects can rescue this pathetic state of affairs because the keyword here is “project,” not “life.” The Sanatana conception of Itihasa (history) is a continuum, not a mere record of a dead past. To put this in Nietzsche’s words, if you stare at a historical document, it simply stares back at you. Which is why our people emphasized on telling stories of real people—their lives, loves, fears, heroism, passion, compassion, intensity, magnanimity, loyalty, devotion, and truthfulness in a brutally frank manner. Majority of these stories reveal the same trait: Hindus as a civilizational people were the most heroic and the most evolved because their Vedantic sculpture of life enabled them not to fear death but to welcome it, embrace it. If a perverse tribute was needed, it is available in the voluminous annals of Muslim and other alien histories who were baffled by this absolute fearlessness in face of death.
This heroic DNA operated even in the realm of Gods. The same Purohitas, Archakas, Yogis, Sadhus, Sanyasins, and Babas who have now become easy targets for casual humiliation and mockery by Hindus themselves once commanded reverence from the entire society because they toyed with and even commanded our Devatas. And the Devatas obeyed them. The aforementioned legends and folklore abound with such stories of such real people.
Here is a sample from the prolific Kannada novelist, T.R. Subba Rao’s acclaimed Hamsageethe (Swan Song). The following is an abridged retelling of the essence of a slice of the novel.
The story is set in the regime of the indomitable Madakari Nayaka, the last Palegar of Chitradurga. It narrates the exalted life of Veeranna, the Archaka of the Hidambeshwara Temple situated in the sweeping precincts of the majestic hill-fort of Chitradurga. Like his ancestors, Veeranna was a spotless devotee of Shiva whose Puja he performed twice a day in the temple. As part of daily routine, the Palegar would visit all the temples in the fort in the morning and evening for Darshan, take the Prasadam and then return to his palace. The bugle would sound from the top of the fort announcing the departure of the Palegar. This was an indication for all the Archakas to get ready. The routine was set in stone and functioned like clockwork.
Veeranna had a small weakness in the form of a concubine who he was greatly attached to. Akin to a second wife, their relationship dated back to several years. After the evening Mahamangalarati, he took flowers and fruits and some offerings to her. Life went on in this manner until that fateful night.
Veeranna had made all the preparations for the Mahamangalarati and patiently waited for the Palegar’s arrival. The bugle didn’t sound at the usual hour but he waited. Perhaps the Palegar was busy. Perhaps he was indisposed. He waited. Then the midnight bell sounded from the Kotwal’s quarters. The Palegar had still not arrived. Finally, Veeranna performed the Mahamangalarati, waited some more time and finally left for his concubine’s home. As usual, he carried fruits, flowers, milk and other items and reached her home. He decked her with flowers, had some dinner and prepared to sleep.
The bugle sounded.
Veeranna shuddered a little. He had violated the law: that all the Archakas had to stay in the temple till the Palegar took his last Darshan and Mahamangalarati of the day. He also knew the Palegar well: that he could be as merciless as he was generous and compassionate. From the depths of his heart, he regarded Archakas and other holy men as Devatas who walked on this earth and sanctified it. And they had to conduct themselves accordingly. Even a slight lapse in their conduct would mean instant beheading.
Frightened out of his wits, Veeranna took the flowers he had decked his concubine with, put them in a bag and rushed back to the Hidambeshwara Temple. He redecorated the Deity with the flowers, readied the Mahamangalarati and waited.
The Palegar arrived with family and retinue. Veeranna performed the usual Puja, Archana and gave him the Tirtha and Arati. The Palegar took the flowers and was about to touch it to his eyes, he noticed a long, clear strand of hair and paused. He neatly separated the hair, held it up for everyone to see. It was unmistakably a woman’s hair. His expression became grim and his tone was like a hammer when he spoke:
“This flower is part of the Prasadam you have given. Where did this hair come from?”
Veeranna shivered but didn’t show his fear. He said in a tone of defiance:
“It is from the Deity’s matted locks.”
“Really? Which Deity?”
“Who else? Hidambeshwara.”
“Since when did the Exalted Archaka learn to speak untruth?”
“If this tongue has spoken untruth, may it be slashed and fed to dogs. This body has eaten the food Hidambeshwara has provided. This life is His. It doesn’t know how to lie.”
“Indeed. His Eminence doesn’t know untruth yet by some miracle, Hidambeshwara has suddenly grown hair.”
“I have told you once Your Highness, and I’ll tell you again. Lying is not something I have learnt.”
“In that case, this stone Lingam has matted locks.”
“To your sight, it is a stone Lingam. Not to mine.”
“In which case, can We see the matted locks?”
When the Palegar uttered these words, anger was palpable in his voice.
Realizing the dangerous extent to which this exchange might escalate, one of the Palegar’s close advisors said,
“Your Highness, one must not undertake such kinds of investigations related to the Devatas. Perhaps Your Highness is unable to see what the Archaka can clearly see. We can leave this matter at this.”
But the Palegar was adamant.
“If We can see a strand of Hidambeshwara’s hair we can surely see the full lushness of His matted locks. Right? If the Exalted Archaka has indeed lied to me, it is perfectly fine but is it fine if he lies in the Deity’s matter as well? He could have claimed it was an oversight or that the flower had fallen somewhere and this hair had gotten mixed up as a result…there are a hundred such possibilities. But why is he so obstinate to insist on this kind of thing?”
Veeranna’s stubbornness had now become like a rock. He said:
“Indeed, I insist. It is up to His Highness to believe or no.”
“In which case, let the investigation begin. I’ll see it with my own eyes.”
“As His Highness pleases.”
“And if the matted locks of Ishwara are not found on the Lingam…”
“The King can gladly chop my head.”
The Palegar looked at Veeranna’s face. There was no trace of hesitation let alone fear. His expression was resolute, decisive. Everyone present in the confines of this cave temple were frozen. At last, the same advisor broke the icy silence:
“I beseech both of you again. This sort of investigation of the Divine doesn’t augur well for anyone. The Mother of the Universe, Kali herself appeared before Kalidasa each time he wrote poetry. Saraswati danced before our great singers. This doesn’t bode well.”
But the locked battle-horns wouldn’t budge. But because it was already late, and the Palegar had to visit other temples, the time for the investigation was fixed for the following morning. Besides, the present audience largely consisted of the royal family and high-ranking people. The divine investigation would have meaning if it was conducted in the presence of the common people of the kingdom.
After the retinue left, Veeranna headed for the pond in the fort, immersed himself in the water and stood knee-deep for a while and in wet clothes headed straight for the Hidambeshwara Temple. He sat before the Deity, his gaze straight and unswerving. Then he closed his eyes and addressed Hidambeshwara:
“You made me utter those words. You must keep them. You must keep your own honour. You know that from the beginning I have reposed my everything in you. You know that there has been no lapse in my devotion to you. If you let go of my hand today, let my head fall.”
He didn’t know how long he had kept his eyes closed. When he opened them, there was a bizarre sort of contented satisfaction on his face. He took out a dagger, did Archana with Kumkum to it, showed it to Hidambeshwara and said, “Show me your matted locks or take my head.” Then he closed his eyes again and began meditating. He opened them when he heard the sound of the early morning bugle.
And then he saw something else right before him. Atop the Hidambeshwara Lingam, a snake had appeared, its hood fully open. It swatted a flower down and slithered away. An auspicious omen.
Veeranna got up, went home, had his bath and completed other morning rituals at home and returned to the temple.
The Palegar arrived as usual for the morning Puja and Arati. By now, news of last night’s challenge had spread like wildfire in the city below. A huge crowd had collected outside the Hidambeshwara Temple.
The Palegar asked him pointedly:
“Can we please have our Darshan?”
“May it please His Highness. Certainly.”
Then there was the question of whether the Palegar could enter the Sanctum Sanctorum. Veeranna himself said:
“His Highness has already expressed his wish to test. Please step inside.”
But the Palegar hesitated:
“Are you sure? Wouldn’t we dilute the sanctity by stepping in?”
“May it please His Highness. The sanctity was defiled the moment His Highness expressed doubt.”
The Palegar felt as if someone had delivered an open-handed slap. He turned to another Purohit standing nearby and said:
“Can’t you step in and check?”
The Purohit said gently: “The eyes that expressed suspicion must also clarify it. Please forgive me Your Highness.”
There was no turning back now. The Palegar lifted his jittery legs and entered the Sanctum Sanctorum. Veeranna stared at Hidambeshwara once, prostrated before Him and said a silent prayer: “Hidambeshwara, show me your matted locks.” Then he stood up, parted the flower garlands atop the Lingam and signaled to the Palegar. With trembling hands, the Palegar touched the top of the Lingam. Hair. Yards of them. Miles of them. The infinite tresses that in one stroke had imprisoned Ganga herself.
The Palegar immediately withdrew his hand as if a serpent had lethally bitten him. Veeranna said:
“Please check Your Highness. Who knows, I might have pasted artificial hair. Please check again, please, please please…” his voice rose in passionate devotion as he walked towards the Lingam, held a fistful of hair in his hand and yanked it violently. A massive clump of those lush tresses broke loose as he held it up in the air for everyone to see.
Blood spurted out from atop the Lingam and flowed copiously. Hidambeshwara had performed an Abhishekam of blood to himself.
Veeranna shrieked, “Swami!” and then looked at the Palegar and said, “Hope His Highness is satisfied now.” And then he fainted before Hidambeshwara, his unstoppable tears wetting the floor, merging in Hidambeshwara’s blood.
The stunned crowd exclaimed in unison: “Shiva! Shiva!” The trembling Palegar prostrated before the Deity and one of the Purohits said, “His Highness may please leave. There won’t be any Puja today.”
Expectedly, it took a long time to disperse the crowd, which had witnessed this divine miracle.
Veeranna regained consciousness after a few hours. He felt fresh. Liberated. He stood up and locked the Sanctum Sanctorum behind him. Then he took some Vibhuti, spread it across his forehead, and looked straight at Hidambeshwara face and spoke, weeping like a small child:
“Swami, you battered your head to save mine. How can I even serve you from now on? You bled for my untruth. This life has become filthy because of the vilest kind of lie. You have protected my head by showing yours. Here, I give it back to you.”
Veeranna took the dagger that he had sanctified the previous night, prostrated again and sliced his neck off. In minutes, the Sanctum Sanctorum had transformed into a tiny pool of his blood.
When the worried people forcibly opened the door much later, they were immediately greeted by the overpowering fragrance of the Ketaki flower.
The repentant Palegar installed a stone sculpture of a Veeranna holding his severed head in one hand and a dagger in the other. He left a grant to conduct annual Puja to him.
The story ends here.
The Hidambeshwara Temple still stands in the fort of Chitradurga. The last time I visited, regular Puja was still being performed. I don’t know what the present condition is. It is left to our wisdom whether we wish to visit it as tourists or pilgrims.
If this is not history, I have no use for what passes off as history. This adds lustre to life and provides succour to the soul. Dates and hairsplitting over peripheral matters fall in a separate realm and they have their own importance. Our fond hope is that such peripheries should not devour even the remnants of such real stories.
Maravarman Sundara Pandyan I holds the credit for singlehandedly reviving the shattered Pandyan power by wresting it from Kulothunga Chola III, who had been the Pandyan overlord for a long period. Sundara Pandya had not forgotten how Kulothunga’s unhinged armies had sacked the capital Madurai and burned down its famous coronation hall. When his time for revenge came, Sundara Pandya decimated the prosperous Chola strongholds of Thanjavur and Uraiyur and drove the old Chola monarch to exile. Next, Sundara Pandya raided Pon Amaravati (near modern-day Pudukottai) and occupied it. His crowning moment came when he took control of the ancient sacred temple town of Chidambaram. Inside the grand Chidambaram Temple where Nataraja had himself performed his Cosmic Tillai, Sundara Pandya got a Tulabharam done to commemorate his serial victories. All sorts of majestic titles followed. He was Kaliyugaraman (Sri Rama of the Kaliyuga), Adisayapandiyadevan (The Exceedingly Valorous Pandya Warrior), and Sonadugondan (Conqueror of the Chola Country).
Maravarman Sundara Pandya I was also a pious Shiva devotee and took enormous pride in the fact. He declared that his Kingly duties were his worship at the feet of Sundareshwara, husband of Meenakshi Devi, the Deity of Madurai. For centuries, the magnificent Meenakshi Temple was ferociously protected and generously endowed by such devout kings. They were devotees, not rulers of the Temple. In “independent” India, IAS officers and venal government officials operate with the gumption that they are “ruling” over Meenakshi Devi herself. The consequences are all too obvious, all too visible.
The other facet of Sundara Pandya’s Shiva Bhakti was his generosity. Every Monday, the auspicious day for performing Puja to Shiva, he would bestow gifts and special endowments to the temple and the devotees who were assembled there would get a firsthand taste of his profound magnanimity.
On one occasion, Sundara Pandya decided to perform a Mahapooja at the Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple. It was a spectacular celebration akin to any great Hindu festival. The feast or Annadanam at the end of the Puja went on for days. Almost an endless supply of food flowed. Thousands of devotees ate the sanctified meal. Every man, woman, and child received a gift after the meal as part of the Tamboolam. Maravarman Sundara Pandya’s fame soared. He was extolled as the Karna of that era.
The fame went to his head. Sundara Pandya thought that he was the ideal Shiva Bhakta. He was disabused of that pride that very night. By Sundareshwara himself who appeared in his dream: “You fool! You really think you are my greatest devotee? What real devotion have you shown me so far? Tell me!”
Sundara Pandya was taken aback: “Swamin! As far as I know, I haven’t consciously done injustice to anybody. I have worshipped you with genuine devotion, you know that!”
“That is all fine. But you want to know what real Puja is? Go and meet my greatest devotee. He lives in the outskirts of your city. Learn from him.”
“Swamin, who is he? What does he do?”
“He is a woodcutter. He lives alone in a hut at the edge of the river. Go, seek him.”
Sundara Pandya woke up. His sleep was completely ruined. At dawn, he wore a disguise and noiselessly crept out of his palace. After walking for about half an hour, he reached the woodcutter’s modest hut and knocked. A minute later, the woodcutter opened the door. Sundara Pandya said he was travelling the whole country on a Yatra and narrated what he had heard in his dream. Then he asked him: “What special Puja do you perform? How did you become Sundareshwara’s greatest devotee? Please tell me your secret.”
The woodcutter was stunned when he heard this. In a tone of disbelief, he said: “Ayya, you must have mistaken me for someone else. I am a poor woodcutter. If you had come even half an hour later, you wouldn’t have found me at home.”
Sundara Pandya said, “That’s okay, but tell me how do you worship Shiva? At least tell me how you spend your day.”
The woodcutter said, “At daybreak, I go into the forest, chop some wood and bring it to the market when the shops open. Once everything is sold, I earn eight Annas. Of this, four Annas are enough to fill my stomach. I give one Anna to beggars and the needy. I save the remaining three Annas for the Monday Puja. On Monday, I give the three Annas to the temple and they prepare rice Payasam and offer it to Sundareshwara. This is the only worship I know. You see, even I want to, I cannot worship him the whole day because I have to earn my livelihood. And so, each time I cut the wood and do other routine work to carry on my life, I simply take his name in lieu of performing the Puja in the proper method. That is all.”
Sundara Pandya said nothing for a long time. Then he looked at the ground once, bowed down his head, did Namaskaram to the woodcutter and then prostrated before him. After this, he turned his back and left the place without a word.
All those grand titles, all that profuse praise, and his fabled generosity, his daanam....all of it suddenly felt meaningless and empty. Then the thought struck him: his favourite deity, Sundareshwara was himself a beggar who lived in a cemetery.
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