Yoga Begins Outside Your Mat

Three Yoga Myths Debunked

Yoga is a way of life. I enjoyed (well, most of the times) practicing my Yoga Asanas and have been regular for three days a week for the past 5 years. The novice in me thought Yoga and Yoga Asanas was synonymous. I never paused to differentiate between Yoga in its entirety and Asanas being just a part of the whole. Today, I am kind of embarrassed to think that I never bothered to find out how Raja Yoga was different from Hatha Yoga, or what does Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga even mean. My understanding was very limited and often times I would blindly use these terminologies with no accurate knowledge whatsoever. Why did I not read up more or how could I not be curious enough to know more, are some of the disappointing questions that nag my mind today.

That Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga is synonymous with Maharishi Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. That Yoga Asanas and Pranayamas are just a means to the end, being two parts of Ashtanga Yoga. That the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are considered to be the basic text for Yoga. And, so much more. All such information is open source content and freely available, yet I never thought of doing any detailed reading. Today I feel ashamed to say this, especially after being a yoga proponent to friends and acquaintances for all these years.

Pic 1: We start off with the residential part of the program.

I can only thank my lucky stars and express my deepest gratitude to the universe for all that I have learned at the Yoga Teacher Training Program I completed at Bharat Yoga Vidya Kenda (BYVK). My eyes have opened up, though I just got to taste a drop from the mighty ocean of our ancient knowledge.

Read more on my experience of the Teacher Training HERE.

The program also busted many myths about Yoga that I was harbouring all through these years. And, it wasn’t just me, everyone in the class had their own sets of misconceptions.

Here are my personal top three Yoga Asana myths debunked:

Myth #1: I am not flexible enough even after practicing Yoga Asanas for 5 years now. Why do I struggle to get into that Asana, which seems like a breeze for others?

The Truth: Flexibility has nothing to do with Yoga Asanas and it is certainly not a pre-requisite to start practicing. While flexibility will build over time, there will still be Asanas that one may not be able to do. Every individual has a different body structure, even the right and left sides of our bodies are not exactly the same. Some may get into an Asana very easily while others may struggle. Focus on yourself instead of looking at others. Make sure your alignment for every Asana is correct. Make sure you know the purpose of the Asana. Do not blindly copy others or get carried away with those perfect social media posts. Never be violent with your body.
Myth #2:I pack in as many Asanas as I can in my regular hour-long practice sessions. I incorporate the warm-ups in between the asanas and that gives me a good break too.(I never paid much attention to the warm-ups, they would just remind me of the "useless" P.T. classes at school.)

The Truth: Holding an Asana is more important than doing more. It’s quality over quantity. Warm ups are critical that needs to be done in a systematic manner and in a particular series. The “Yogic Sukhsma Vyayama” has a different concept altogether and the benefits are immense. It has a very different effect on the body as compared to “Sthula Vyayama” (the PT classes in school).
Myth #3:I make it a point to practice Yoga three times a week. Often times I force myself to get onto that mat. Afterall, it’s for my body and overall wellness.

The Truth:Yoga Asanas make you feel energetic. You get onto your mat not because you should but because you want to. If that doesn’t happen and you’re having to force yourself, something is going wrong somewhere. Also, it’s common practice to say something like “I do Yoga” instead of “I do Yoga Asanas”. You don’t do Yoga, it’s a way of life. You do Yoga Asanas or Pranayamas.

Pic 2: Engrossed in our in-depth training sessions.

Yoga Asanas is just one aspect of Yoga. Making a conscious attempt to live by the principles of Yoga is what really matters. Hence, it’s rightly said that Yoga begins when you step out of your mat. The practice of Yoga influences your mind and perspectives enabling real changes in how you carry yourself through life.

I’ll end this post by stating a generic misconception – Yoga is a practice of the Hindu religion. The fact is Yoga does not belong to any religion. It did emerge from the Hindu philosophy but it’s incorrect to associate Yoga with the Hindu religion. There is no God associated with Yoga, it’s all about being aware of ourselves and connecting with ourselves. Yoga means union – the union of that which we identify as body, mind, and senses with that real self which is free from all worldly limitations. By calming down the mind, Yoga aims to awaken the real self.

Yoga – Unearthing its True Essence

Yoga is a holistic way to health and well-being – a phrase that we keep hearing and using randomly but do we really comprehend its true meaning? I didn’t. Yet I never shied away from using the phrase liberally here and there and everywhere. Afterall, I have been practicing yoga (or, I thought I was) for 5 years now. I certainly knew what I was saying!

Last month I participated in a Yoga Teacher Training Course, just on a whim. My impulsive nature always catches me off-guard even though I have been deliberately trying to be more calculative. I NEVER harboured any ideas of being a Yoga teacher, yet I landed up with this course. I might have secretly wished, I guess, but I am really not sure. It could have been one of those fleeting thoughts that get no importance in one’s life. The entire experience feels surreal today. I just happened to chance upon the program the night before the course was starting. I have no idea why the thought of participating got planted in my mind. There was no time to research or even think about it. I had to take a decision that very moment.

Pic 1: A random picture from the ashram complex.

Doing a Yoga Teacher Training Course wasn’t something even remotely present in my mind. I had some time to spare and was toying with the idea of going on a trek to the Himalayas, something I haven’t done since the pandemic. While I debated between Sikkim or Nepal, I found myself at Bharat Yoga Vidya Kenda (BYVK) instead. Now, as a certified Yoga Instructor, I can say this has been one of the best impulsive decisions of my life. And, I can only express my gratitude to the power of the Universe that’s beyond the understanding of our limited human minds.

BYVK is an initiative of The Satsang Foundation and was founded by Sri M. It is recognized by the Government of India and Ministry of AYUSH. The 200-hour long course, which spans across one month, has been immensely fulfilling and enriching. So much knowledge gained and so many myths broken. [You can read about the myths I had HERE.] The curriculum is based on ancient yogic texts, like, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. The course design follows the blended methodology of learning – 15 days virtual and 15 days residential. The crux of the experience naturally lies in the residential segment.

Pic 2: The Yogashala, also called as Patanjali Temple. This is was our classroom.

The residential segment was held at The Satsang Foundation ashram at Madanapalle, a small town in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. (Madanapalle is a distinctive town for many reasons. One of them is that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore had translated his Bengali poem ‘Jana Gana Mana’ into English as ‘Morning Song of India’ while he stayed at this place during his tour of South India. The tune of our National Anthem was also conceived here.) The calm and peaceful ashram ambience was a huge contributing factor towards all the knowledge we imbibed in the short span of time.

Pic 3: Graffiti at the ashram goshala (cowshed).

We had a packed schedule with our day starting at 5 AM and ending only between 9.30 and 10.00 PM. Asana classes that included pranayama and meditation techniques, theory classes, mantra chanting, silent walks, Karma Yoga, are some of the sessions spread through the day. We remained physically and mentally occupied all day long. The program design left no room for idling both in body and mind, which I think was done on purpose. A lot of content had to be covered in that short span of time. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single iota of exhaustion. We were always in a cheerful and joyful state of being. Mindfulness and being present at all times was a natural state of the mind. Having trekked in the Himalayas multiple times, I was quick to draw parallels and equate the state of mind in both the situations.

In between the tight schedule, we had to carve out slots for personal study as well. We had two exams to appear at the end of the course. One internal, conducted by BYVK. The other external, conducted by Yoga Certification Board belonging to Ministry of Ayush (Govt. of India).

Pic 4: A picture from our first silent walk. PC: thesatsangfoundationofficial (Instagram handle)

As I already mentioned, I have been practicing Yoga asanas for 5 years now. More than half of this time, was in a studio which was my first training ground. But while practicing the same asanas in the training, I realized that I was doing many of them incorrectly. Since this was a teacher training course, a lot of time was spent on every asana leading to perfection in alignment and also in understanding the benefits and contraindications of each asana.

To add to the experience, I was blessed to be in the company of ten wonderful people, who were my classmates. Being bound by a common purpose, every one of us felt a great connection with each other. There was great team energy and the positivity was palpable. I need to mention the teachers too, who were not only knowledgeable but very kind and patient too.

Pic 5: All smiles on successful completion of the course.

This program has been a life-changing opportunity for me and I don’t want to take this for granted even once. It’s a blessing in the truest sense. Our ancient wisdom is so profound and insightful. It’s a pity that many of us know nothing of it and here I have just scratched the surface. The invaluable knowledge that I have gained is something I will carry for the rest of my life – the theoretical as well as the practical aspects of the Science of Yoga. I can now say with full understanding that Yoga is a holistic way to health and well-being.

Most importantly I learned that our bodies and minds are what we make them to be, and all it takes is the consciousness of our breath. Not only can we hold complex asanas for long durations or sit still with complete focus, we can reign in our emotions and show humility and respect towards fellow human beings or other beings that co-exist with us on this planet.

Pic 6: A picture from the goshala (cowshed), where the cows also appeared to be meditative. Her name is Hemavati.
Pic 7: As part of our Karma Yoga, we had to clean up the goshala, bathe the cows, feed them, make dung cakes. This activity was the best of all the Karma Yogas we had to do, which also included, campus cleaning, Yogashala cleaning, kitchen cleaning.

This experience has been so deep and intense that even the best of my travels doesn’t match up. I would highly recommend trying something like this at least once in your lifetime. Not to be a Yoga Teacher but for your self-development. It’s worthwhile to invest your time and energy in yourself by turning inwards rather than outwards. Self-reflection enables a harmonious balance between ourselves and the outside world, which then translates as wellbeing and happiness in everyday life.

Pic 8: I cannot end this post without mentioning the healthy and nutritious, yet mouth-watering ashram food. Just a little of this food and our mind and tummies would be completely satisfied. Our food intake was always comparatively less even after being so active for the whole day, which is another thing that amazed us. It surely has to do with the overall calm, peace, and contentment we experienced during those days.

Bold and Beautiful Balcony Beauties

“Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly, “one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”

Hans Christian Anderson

I had been noticing the plant for a couple of days that lay abandoned in the common passage area outside my flat. The soil in the flowering pot was hard and dry, devoid of any signs of moisture content. I wondered if it was left behind by the tenant of my neighbouring flat, who had vacated a few days ago. The plant had a strange appearance. There were hardly any leaves, perhaps just 4 or 5. It had a thick stem of about 30 cm. arising from a bulbous and twisted base. I had no clue what plant this was but it’s unusual look attracted me.

This was before the pandemic, more than 2 years back. I got it inside my home, replanted it in a different pot and found a place for it in my balcony. Soon enough the very few leaves of the plant withered away and the stems wore a bare look. I wondered if the plant was about to die. A few days passed and it remained the same, even though I watered it regularly. The thick stem and its bulbous base seemed alive, but I was certain that its days were numbered. I let it be without bothering to give any special care.

More flowers than leaves!

A few weeks passed and one day the leaves reappeared, just three or four. Needless to say, I was very happy. A few months down the line, the plant threw up a huge surprise for me. I noticed tiny buds appearing and there were several of them. Extremely excited and intrigued beyond words, I spent the next few days in patient eagerness. I had no idea this was a flowering plant! I have always had only green plants and succulents in my balcony, which was quite by choice. I always maintained that flowering plants need more maintenance and they look good only when the flowers bloom. Ornamental greens on the other hand are evergreen. An opinion that was about to change.

The first thing I did every morning was observing the buds as they grew and changed every single day. One morning radiant bright pink flowers bloomed in my small plant. And there wasn’t just one, but multiple. Luscious and ravishingly attractive. My elation knew no bounds. Each flower lasted several days, before withering away. The blooming continued profusely for few weeks adding colour to my balcony and joy to my heart. I learnt this was Desert Rose or Adenium obesum.

Right now, my Desert Rose plant has bloomed once again. The resplendent, pink, trumpet-shaped flowers are adding exuberance and profound joy to the monotone called life!

The bud flowers!
Random Tit-Bits About Desert Rose or Adenium obesum
  • It’s not a Rose and has no similarity to the Rose Plant in any way.
  • It is an evergreen xerophytic succulent shrub, native to Africa, the Middle East, and Madagascar.
  • It’s a good candidate for bonsai plants, given the thick succulent trunk, thin and delicate leaves.
  • It typically blooms for several weeks throughout spring and summer.
  • Its flowers may be red, pink, or white. Pink being the most common.
  • Its sap is toxic and if ingested can be lethal but has medicinal properties too.
  • It is a sun-lover and thrives in bright sunshine.
  • The pink flowers symbolize rejuvenation and is associated with peace, happiness, and prosperity.

Temple Tales From Halebidu

We didn’t realise how hungry we were until we sat down for lunch that afternoon. It was well past lunch hours by all standards, and we were famished but nobody was complaining. The extraordinary Belur Temple had captured our senses and we had lost all sense of time. After a hearty South-Indian meal, we proceeded towards Halebidu, our next destination for the day. Visiting these magnificent temples was part of our impromptu road-trip to Hassan district of Karnataka.

Click here to read about Belur
Click here to read about the road-trip
Pic 1: The Dwarapalas or the guardians of the temple flanking the doorway.
Pic 2: A view of the outer wall built on a star-shaped platform, typical of Hoysala Temples.

Halebidu (also spelt as Halebeedu) is a short drive away from Belur, located at just 16 Km. The drive though short was lovely as it passed through villages with green fields lined with coconut trees. The well-paved road was perfect for our post-lunch drive. We were headed to Hoysaleswara Temple, which is the most important place to visit at Halebidu. Hoysala Palace and Kedareswara temple are the other places of significance at Halebidu, which we would not be able to cover as we were already running late.

In ancient times, Halebidu was known as Dwarasamudra, which is also the name of the huge man-made lake situated beside the temple. King Vishnuvardhana of the Hoysala Dynasty had established Dwarasamudra as the capital city of Hoysala Dynasty. Before that Belur used to be the capital.

Pic 3: The profusely carved outer wall showcasing Gods and Goddesses, warriors, musicians, mythical animals, and so on.
Pic 4: A closer look into some of the splendid intricate carvings on the outer wall

Hoysaleswara Temple was built during the reign of King Vishnuvardhana in the 12th century, over a period of 30 years. It was built before Belur Temple. Built of soapstone and without the use of any binding material, the architecture of both the temples is similar. The truly ornate and rich sculptural details both on the outside as well as inside is beyond imagination. Both the temples are beyond comparison and each one better than the other.

Both the temples are functional. While Belur Temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Hoysaleswara Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It has two Shiva Lingas – Hoysaleswara and Santaleswara. The former is dedicated to King Vishnuvardhana and the latter to his Queen, Shantala Devi. The soothing calmness of the temple interior was elevating, and I found myself transfixed for a while staring at the Shiva Linga right in front of me.

Pic 5: One of the two deities, the Shiva Lingas. This one is Santaleswara. Photography of the more grand Hoysaleswara is not allowed.
Pic 6: One of the many sculptures on the outer wall of Lord Shiva with his consort Goddess Parvati.

The intricately detailed outer façade of the temple is spectacular, with unique sculptures that run all along the outer wall. Imagery from the epics of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita adorn the outer walls with highly ornate temple doorways. The Gods, Goddesses, sages, musicians, animals and birds tell tales depicting the life of Hoysala times.

It’s baffling to think about the diligence and patience of the artisans and sculptors of the bygone era. Today it’s unfathomable to imagine the creation of such exquisite architectural marvel, that too working through 30 long years dedicating one’s entire life to a single piece of art.

There are several sculptures of Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati on the outer wall, each one different from the other. A large dancing image of Lord Ganesha is situated at one of the two temple entrances. Two Nandimantapas, each with a huge Nandi richly decorated with carved out stone ornaments are positioned right opposite the two Shiva Lingas.

Pic 7: One of the two Nandimantapas housing Nandi, Lord Shiva’s sacred bull.

I’ve mentioned this before and will not hesitate to say once again that the magnificence of Hoysala temples is something to be felt and experienced. It appeals to the senses and words fall short to describe their grandeur.

Click here to read about Somnathpur Temple (one of the three famous Hoysala Temples)

Long Drive, Vibrant Nature, and Chatty People

This is nature’s special prize of encouragement for waking up this early on a cold foggy morning. That’s what I told my friend who was reluctant to get out of bed and whose eyes now sparkled with amazement observing the activities of our common object of interest – the confident little green spider.

It warmed our hearts to watch the tiny spider busily clean her web with such dedicated patience and loving care. Dew drops scattered all over the silver strands was an immediate threat to her proud artistic home. She walked delicately, strand to strand, through her lacework home, meticulously picking up every single dew drop with her mouth and spiting that out. We had never seen something like this before. It was phenomenal and will certainly count as one of the best things we’ve seen in our lives.

Pic 1: An elegant lacework home designed with artistic precision.
Pic 2: Spider webs were everywhere, some of them right on our path and barely visible in the morning light. We had to be extra cautious so as to not walk through them. These pictures were clicked only after the sun came out.

My friend and I had sneaked out at dawn to take a walk right through the coffee plantation. We were at Sakleshpur and had put up at this coffee estate for the night. My cousin sister and brother-in-law, who were with us too, were still asleep. They were visiting me in Bangalore, and we had set out for an impromptu roadtrip along the countryside. We chose Sakleshpur to halt for the night.

Pic 3: Coffee beans being dried in the sun (L) and fresh on the plant (R).

Tucked away in the Hassan district of Karnataka, Sakleshpur is a small hill station whose slopes remain covered with tea, coffee, and spice plantations. Just 220 Km. from Bangalore Sakleshpur, with its rolling green hills coupled with its peace and quiet, provides the perfect balm to a tired mind. There are several resorts and hiking trails making it quite a sought-after weekend destination from Bangalore. Most resorts are isolated surrounded by sprawling coffee estates. As a result, the place doesn’t feel crowded at all. The best part for us was that we were the only guests at our resort. Among the various hiking trails of Sakleshpur, the Railway Trek is most famous. However, during this trip we hadn’t planned for hikes and treks.

Pic 4: Somewhere in the highway.

It was a bright and sunny December morning as we comfortably drove through the smooth roads of NH 75 highway. We had some amazing Mangalorean breakfast at a roadside pitstop, stopped for clicking pictures wherever we felt like, and just enjoyed the drive. As we left the highway and passed through villages, it was the charming traditional houses with Mangalore tiled roofs that stole our hearts and engaged us all through.

On the way, we spent some time at the ruins of the famous Shettilhali Rosary Church, located in a village by the same name – Shettilhali. The church was built by French missionaries in the 1860s and was abandoned in the 1960s after a dam was built on the Hemavati River. Known as the Floating Church, it is a stunning example of Gothic-style architecture. As the water level rises in the dam, the church gets submerged underwater and once again emerges when the water recedes post monsoon. That’s the speciality of this dilapidated church, one that gives it an eerie charm.

It was winters, a time when the church supposedly stands on land. However, we got lucky. Due to heavy rains this year, the church was partially submerged in water. It was almost noon and the blue waters surrounding the church glittered and sparkled. It looked hauntingly beautiful!

Pic 6: The abandoned Shettilhali Rosary Church on the blue waters of Hemavati River.
Pic 7: The partially submerged Shettilhali Rosary Church up close.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at our resort after having roamed around the quaint little market area of Sakleshpur. Soon it was evening, the sun had started moving towards the horizon. We walked up to a particular spot in the resort, which the resort owner claimed as the best place to watch the setting sun. Once we were up there my friend spotted a sprawling green grassy meadow somewhere in the distant. He insisted that would be a better sunset spot. So off we went! My sister and brother-in-law decided to stay back. We gladly left them behind, hoping that they could enjoy some uninterrupted romantic sunset moments.

The meadow was stunningly beautiful. Tall grasses swayed in the mild wind while the sky got busy unfolding its own drama with all shades of yellows, reds, and oranges. Overlooking the meadow lay a deep valley, beyond which soared a tree covered hill that was as broad as it was tall. It was only shades of green as far as the eyes could see. It was the perfect setting for a quiet peaceful evening.

Sadly, I don't have any pictures of the beautiful meadow. My friend's phone broke down, which had all the pictures.
Pic 8: A not-so-great picture of the beautiful sunset.

Darkness had fallen by the time we left the meadow and walked back to the resort. We spent the rest of the evening talking, laughing, and sharing our life stories around a bonfire that kept us warm with our favourite music playing in the background. Dinner was quite filling with several items laid out on the table. Our conversations continued well beyond dinner and before we realized it was already late. About time we retired for the night. We needed a few hours of rest. An exciting day, packed with other plans awaited us.

Pic 8: One for my precious people – the energetic and fun loving group.

The next day, we visited the ancient exquisitely sculptured temples of Belur and Heleebidu. On the way, we also stopped by the star-shaped Manjarabad Fort that was built by Tipu Sultan, which is also located in Sakleshpur. The fort can be accessed after a climb of 150 steps. As we were pressed for time, my friend and I rushed up and hurriedly checked out the fort. My sister and brother-thought they’d rather skip the fort than rush through it. Moreover, dashing up through the steps wasn’t something they wanted to try.

I sure have to visit Sakleshpur once again with more time in hand with the hikes and the treks waiting to be explored.

The Spiritual City of Tiruvannamalai

It was nearly 9.00 PM when we arrived. After asking a passerby for direction, the driver of our car took a turn, and we entered a narrow lane. I felt an instant sense of calm. Thinking that my mind was being unnecessarily dramatic, I ignored the feeling. I could have been under some cognitive bias, but the feeling was intense. I had to blurt it out to my sister, sitting right next to me. It surprised me quite a bit when she acknowledged my feeling stating that she felt the same.

Through the car window, we could see a hill reaching out to the night sky. It appeared really close, as if we could stretch our hands and touch it. That has to be the sacred Arunachala, we thought. And, so it was!

Pic 1: Arunachala Hill

We had just reached Tiruvannamalai, located in the state of Tamil Nadu, after covering a distance of about 215 Km. from Bangalore. It was the last day of the year 2020 and this wasn’t a planned trip, though Tiruvannamalai has been in our travel list for a while now. Our only intention of wanting to visit this place was Sri Ramana Maharish’s Ashram. The ancient temple town, however, gave us much more.

Here are some highlights of our Tiruvannamalai trip on the weekend that ushered the year 2022.

Girivalam around Arunachala Hill

The holy city of Tiruvannamalai is located at the foothills of Arunachala Hill. Considered to be sacred and revered by Hindus in South India, the hill is also known as Annamalai, Arunagiri, Arunachalam, Arunai, Sonagiri, and Sonachalam. At a height of about 3000ft., located in Eastern Ghats, the hill with five peaks is believed to be the living manifestation of Lord Shiva.

Girivalam or circumambulation around the hill barefoot for a 14 Km. distance is common practice by devotees. We had no idea about this ritual but decided to participate when we learnt about it (you can read the details here).

Pic 2: Girivalam on the paved road around Arunachala Hill.

Recently, I also learnt about Karthigai Deepam, a special festival performed on the tenth day of the month of Kartik (November–December). On this day an enormous pot filled with gallons of ghee mixed with camphor is placed on the highest of Arunachala’s five peaks. Devotees light a fire precisely at 6.00 PM creating a giant flame, the glow of which is visible from miles around.

Hurried Visit to Arunachaleswar Temple

Early morning at 4.30 AM on New Year we found ourselves at Arunachaleswar Temple, also known as Annamalaiyar Temple. Thinking that the temple would be crowded, we had kept it as an optional visit. Our purpose was Girivalam, the starting point of which was the temple. Also, we did not know the significance of this age-old temple at that point of time.

The temple appeared quite empty and so we decided to pay our obeisance. Once inside, it was quite the opposite and we found ourselves stuck in a queue that took up a little more than two hours. The bigger concern, however, was that most people were not wearing masks.

Pic 3: A part of the large water tank at the temple.
Pic 4: Some hurriedly clicked pictures inside the temple.

Dating back to 9th century, the temple spreads across an area of 25 acres. It was built by the Chola Dynasty and expanded during the Vijayanagar period. The presiding deity is Lord Shiva, known as Arunachaleswar or Annamalaiyar and Goddess Parvati, known as Unnamalai Amman. The temple has several other deities as well.

There are four Gopurams (towered gateways, typical of temples in South India), the eastern one or Raja Gopuram being the tallest at a height of 217 ft. with 11 stories. Several pillared halls and a large tank are the other highlights of the temple. However, with our time constraint, we couldn’t explore much.

Pic 5: Raja Gopuram, the largest of the four gopurams located in the East.
Peace at Sri Ramanashram

Having read about Ramana Maharishi in several spiritual books, we were very keen to visit his ashram, and that was our primary objective of visiting Tiruvannamalai. Known as Sri Ramanasramam, this is where the saint had lived for more than three decades. The ashram is situated at the foot of Arunachala Hill and it houses his samadhi as well. We spent a couple of hours at the ashram on both the days, meditating in peace, soaking in the hymns and chants, and visiting the ashram bookstore.

Pic 6: Entrance gate of Sri Ramanashram
Pic 7: The main complex at Ramanashram.
Pic 6: A section of Ramanashram.

We were also very keen to hike up Arunachala Hill to visit Virupaksha cave and Skandasramam, where Ramana Maharishi had spent a significant time meditating. Somewhere up the hill one can also get a great view of the huge Arunachaleswarar Temple complex in its entirety. A misinformation led us to think that both these places were temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Hiking up the hill would have most certainly been the highlight of my trip, but we missed. I just have to go again!

Pic 7: Pictures from inside Ramanashram
Pic 8: A Peacock happily lives in the ashram complex.
Special Mentions

There are several other ashrams and temples at Tiruvannamalai. Besides Sri Ramanasramam, we visited Yogi Ramsuratkumar Ashram and Sri Seshadri Swamigal Ashram.

This post on Tiruvannamalai will, however, remain incomplete without mentioning our lunch at Prasad’s Home Kitchen. It constitutes pure satvik vegetarian food cooked in Mr. Prasad’s home. There is no menu, and you eat what he cooks on a given day. You sit on the marbled floor and place the plate on a plastic stool. There are no table, no chairs, no frills, no fancy, minimalism at its very best.  At Rs. 120.00 per plate, I can easily say it’s the best vegetarian food I have had in a long, long time. Being a regular traveler, I can vouch for that! Oh yes, after the meal you wash and clean your own plates too. If you’re at Tiruvannamalai, you wouldn’t want to miss this experience.

Pic 9: The heavenly vegetarian and homely food at Prasad’s Home Kitchen.

The Grace of ‘Girivalam’

The first day of 2022…

“Are you planning Girivalam on the first day of 2022?”, enquired my friend when I told him that my sister and I were considering a visit to Tiruvannamalai on the New Year weekend. I had never heard about Girivalam before. Not surprising as I come from East India, so what if I have lived in Bangalore for more than a decade now. I am not aware of all the traditions and customs of South India. And, though I am deeply spiritual, I am not as much religious. My sister and I were just thinking of visiting Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram or Ramanashram, which we have been wanting to do for a while now.

Pic 1: There were several ponds along the Girivalam path, this is one of those.

Tiruvannamalai is an ancient temple town in Tamil Nadu situated at the foot of Arunachala Hill, a low rocky hill rising to a height of about 3000 feet. Believed to be the living manifestation of Lord Shiva, Arunachala has been mentioned in several ancient texts including the Puranas. Besides Arunachala, the temple town is famous for Annamalaiyar Temple and Ramanashram. There are several other ashrams and temples as well.

When we set out for Tiruvannamalai, our main interest was Ramanashram. However, now that I have completed Girivalam, it feels as significant as my experience at the ashram.

Pic 2: A huge Banyan Tree somewhere along the Girivalam route.

Girivalam (for the uninitiated, like me) is the age-old practice of circumambulation around the sacred Arunachala. In Tamil, ‘giri’ means mountain and ‘valam’ means to circle. It involves a walk of about 14 Km. around the sacred hill. A visit to Tiruvannamalai is considered incomplete without Girivalam. My sister and I decided to go for it. I enjoy walking anyway. The usual practice is to perform Girivalam on full moon nights, but it can be done anytime. Practically, the hot weather conditions of Tamil Nadu would make it quite difficult to perform Girivalam during the day. Ideally the walk is done barefoot.

It was Winter Season and first day of the year 2022. We embarked upon Girivalam around 6.30 AM, after paying our obeisance at the Annamalaiyar Temple, also known as Arunachalesvara Temple. The cool January day was even cooler with a light breeze and sporadic light showers. The weather was clearly on our side, a blessing from Arunachala.  

Pic 3: The tree-lined Girivalam Road. There’s a broad sidewalk too but in most places it remains occupied by Sadhus leaving people to walk on the road itself.

We started walking on the asphalt road that surrounds the hill, like most people do. There’s a way through the wilderness too at the base of the hill, but it cannot be done unless you’re with someone who knows the way. A large part of the road is through tree-lined roads with forests on either side. A part of it passes through the highway too. Some sections of the road is also flanked by surrounding villages. All through the road vehicles ply continuously, which isn’t a pleasant experience, but you don’t need to be worried about being run down as the drivers are cognizant of all the Girivalam walkers.

A large section of the path does have a broad paved sidewalk, which makes it easier to walk. Dozens of temples line the route. The most prominent of them are the eight lingams or asthalingams, that pilgrims stop by on the way. Each lingam signifies different directions of the earth. They are as Indralingam, Agnilingam, Yamalingam, Niruthilingam, Varunalingam, Vayulingam, Kuberlingam and Esanyalingam.

Pic 4: A visual map of the Girivalam route, present at regular intervals, provides guidance to the devotees and walkers.

There were several people walking that day, but it wasn’t crowded. Nevertheless, we made sure we had our N-95 masks on all through the way. I believe the crowd would swell on full moon nights or during specific festivals. Walking barefoot wasn’t an easy task, given that we aren’t used to it. The gravel and other particles on the road prick your soles and your feet invariably starts paining. After a certain distance, the pain in my sister’s feet heightened and she was unable to take another step. We bought a pair of thick socks from a shop that was just opening its shutters. The socks provided much needed relief and she was able to continue with the walk.

Pic 5: The sacred Arunachala partially hidden in the clouds.

The majestic and divine view of Arunachala from various angles kept us going. We walked at our own pace, slow and steady. After a while, the pain in the feet didn’t bother us anymore and we started to enjoy the walk. We stopped once at a temple where a local family was offering food to the pilgrims. It was fresh and hot home cooked food. Nothing could have been a better breakfast than this. The second time we paused was halfway through, craving for a cup of tea to recharge and refresh. After walking for 4.5 hours, we were back at the temple entrance, where we had started walking, completing our circumambulation around Arunachala.

Pic 6: Several such colourful temples and ashrams can be seen all through the Girivalam route.

Arunachala is captivating to say the least and it grows on you. Back at Bangalore, the visuals of the hill from the various angles keep flashing in my memory. I am certain that I will go back. And, in case I decide to perform Girivalam again, I’ll make sure it’s on a full moon night. Some experiences are extraordinary that have no logical explanation and Girivalam is certainly one of those.

Someone at Tiruvannamalai told us that Arunachala is like a magnet. If you come here once, you come here several times. Guess he was right!

Reminiscing 2021

The Year That Was

It’s difficult to believe that we are at the last day of 2021 and here I am writing my usual year end post. It feels like we blinked, and all the 365 days of this year got over. Though I must admit that this is exactly how it feels every single year.

The first thing that comes to mind as I reflect upon the year that’s gone by is that my writing and blogging effort has been below average. That doesn’t make me feel good at all. Well, let me take a pause and focus on things that makes me feel good instead.

  1. The year 2021 had started off with an unplanned trip to Horsley Hills, which happened on the very first day of the year.  Horsley Hills is located in Andhra Pradesh and is a great place for a day trip or a short weekend trip.
  2. Amidst all the things that kept me busy, I maintained my focus on health and well-being. Thankfully there hasn’t been any lag on that front. I continued with my routine yoga, meditation, and jogging sessions. In fact, I believe that I have gained greater focus and concentration during my daily meditations. I have also doubled my meditation time.
  3. The highlight of this year, however, has to be my trip to Varanasi and Lucknow. It has been a memorable trip for reasons more than one. Most importantly, I took my father’s remains to Varanasi to immerse in River Ganga. He always wanted to visit the holy city, but it eluded him and he could never make it. Hence, we decided to immerse his ashes there. A very special friend accompanied me, making it a very special trip. The entire event, right from planning to execution, happened in a way like it was pre-ordained. We spent 5 beautiful days in Varanasi. We also visited Lucknow, where we stayed for 3 days.
  4. I did three local hikes exploring ruined forts in and around Bangalore – Hutridurga, Gudibande, and Gummanayaka. No Himalayas this year, which I do miss. Sometimes in the corner of my heart I feel there may not be many more Himalayan treks for me, but I’ll let time decide on that.
  5. Circumstances led to my cousin and brother-in-law visiting me twice this year in Bangalore. They happen to be my favourite relatives. Both the visits were related to medical reasons, but we did end up having a lot of fun too. We even made a short family trip to Mysore. I cannot be grateful enough for having spent such quality family time.
  6. I have always wanted to drive around in the outskirts of Bangalore but neither do I own a car nor do I know how to drive. So, I always land up hiring a chauffeur-driven car. This time my long-standing wish was fulfilled when we went on a on a roadtrip to Sakleshpur with my brother-in-law and my friend taking turns behind the wheels. During this trip, we also visited the famous Belur and Halebidu Temples.
  7. This year has blessed me with the opportunity to teach a few underprivileged kids, something I have wanted to do for a very long time. The four kids have enriched my life in ways more than one. I look forward to my time with them and it’s a lot of fun.

That’s quite a list and it does make me feel quite elated right now. However, life is not just roses and here are a few things that haven’t been so pleasant this year.

  1. I could not visit my Shillong home this year and neither could I attend my father’s first year death anniversary. All thanks to how non-tribals (especially Bengalis) are alienated in Meghalaya and made to feel like outsiders in their own home. I will not go into the details as I don’t want to, and the rest of my countrymen cannot relate to it. But all of this has seriously injured the immense love I had for my hometown, the city of my birth, and where I spent all my growing up years.
  2. The beginning of this year found me seriously ill, all because of a wrong treatment that I can easily attribute to the pandemic. I became well eventually but landed up with a permanent damage on two of my front teeth.
  3. My WordPress activity has come down drastically and I need to make amends sooner than later. I can blame this on nothing but myself. Blogging has given me so much, most importantly connected me to such wonderful people, and I don’t want to take that for granted ever.

Though New Year is just another day like every other day but let’s hold on the belief that we’re ushering in something new, which gives us hope and something to look forward to. A warm hug and goodbye to 2021. As I step into 2022, I pray to the Almighty is to guide my steps to be able to comprehend myself a little better so that I can make those positive changes towards becoming a better a version of myself.

Temple Tales From Belur

I used to hear people rave about the marvelous architecture of the Hoysala Temples of Somnathpur, Belur, and Halebidu. The nature-lover in me didn’t pay much heed to all that until I visited Somnathpur last year. The stunning architectural brilliance of the Chennakesava Temple was beyond all my imagination. My mind was all set to explore the Belur and Halebidu temples. It was last week that I could finally visit these two places.

Pic 1: Exquisite carvings of Gods and Goddesses on the temple exterior.

My cousin sister and brother-in-law were visiting me in Bangalore when we went on an impromptu road-trip to Sakleshpur. On the way back we planned to visit the twin towns of Belur and Halebidu, as all these places are within a few kilometers of each other. Located in the Hassan district of Karnataka, the twin towns are nestled on the banks of River Yagachi. Famous for their 12th century temples, Belur and Halebidu are approximately 200 Km away from Bangalore making them perfect destinations for day trips from the city.

Pic 2: This sculpture, one on either side of the main doorway depicts Sala, the founder of Hoysala dynasty, slaying a tiger.

It’s a common experience that a place loses its appeal when a lot is talked about it. The hype created around it falls flat when you actually experience it for yourself. I would have kept my expectations low had I not seen the Somnathpur Temple. I was certain though that Belur and Halebidu Temples wouldn’t disappoint. And, so it was! They stood up to their reputation and exceeded my expectations by several measures. I wouldn’t hesitate to claim that these are among the most impressive temples in India.

I will restrict this post to Belur and write about Halebidu separately.

Pic 3: Notice the three rows of elephants, lions and horses at the base. There are 642 elephants and no two elephants are the same.

Often referred to as Belur Temple, the actual name of the temple is Chennakeshava Temple. ‘Chennakesava’, literally means ‘handsome Kesava’, Kesava being another name for Lord Vishnu. Built in 1117 A.D., it took 103 years and over three generations to complete the temple. The temple is well-preserved and is considered to be the best of the 92 Hoysala temples in Karnataka. It is a functional temple with the main deity being Lord Vijayanarayana, one of the many avatars of Lord Vishnu.

Pic 4: A carving of Narasimha, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who was the family God of Hoysala Dynasty.

The elegant sculptures on the temple walls and ceilings are a true testimony to the unimaginable ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Hoysala Dynasty. Such creativity is unthinkable in today’s era. One almost starts questioning the pride and arrogance we display over our technological advancements and the human progress we believe we have made. Each and every stone has stories weaved through the detailed and intricate carvings. Words can never do justice to the sheer mastery of the artisans who transformed these ordinary stones into architectural marvels.

The artwork at Belur Temple is divided into two sections. The first half is social while the second half is religious or spiritual. It’s important to avail the services of a Guide to understand the details of the various artwork and we did that for a fee of Rs.450.

Pic 5: The temple Gopuram in the background, which was constructed later.

Typical of the Hoysala architecture, the temple is hoisted on a star-shaped platform. Built of soapstone, no binding material has been used to construct the temple and the stones are sort of assembled and locked into one another.

The outer walls are lined with sculptures depicting stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Upanishads. The base is carved into a row of 642 elephants. No two elephants are the same and each carving is perfect to the smallest detail. Elephants symbolize stability. Above this is a row of lions and then a row of horses. The former symbolizes courage and the latter strength. (Pic 3 and Pic 6).

Pic 6: The intricate detailing on every slab of stone is mindboggling.

There are 40 carvings of celestial nymphs or Madanikas in the exterior, each displaying various Bharatnatyam postures. These carvings are supposedly inspired by Shantala Devi, the Queen of Vishnuvardhana, who was an exemplary Bharatnatyam dancer. The unfathomable imagination of the artisans who created these Madanikas are sure to take your breath away and each one is associated with a unique story of its own. The elaborate artworks of these Madanikas makes you feel like they can just pop into life at any moment. An interesting feature that stands out is that certain sculptors have left behind their signatures engraved in the stone.

Pic 7: Some of the Madanikas. The one at the center is the most famous and is known as ‘Darpana Sundari’
Pic 8: The Madanikas again from a different angle. There are 40 of them.

Overlooking the various entrances of the temple are ornamental horizontal works of art, one where Lord Vishnu is depicted as Narasimha, another where Lord Vishnu is with his consort Goddess Lakshmi. Inside the temple are 48 pillars, each one is unique in its carvings and design. The Narasimha Pillar is worth mentioning and can be easily spotted with the vermillion marks all over it. Back in the years, this pillar could be rotated due to the presence of ball bearings on the top.

Pic 9: The pillars inside the temple. There are 48 of them, each with a unique design. On the extreme right is Narasimha Pillar, which used to rotate earlier. This pillar is also treated as a deity.

In the temple courtyard is the Mahasthamba or the Gravity Pillar. This is a 42 feet pillar, built out of a single stone and stands without a base being held in place just by the force of gravity. Also, in the temple courtyard is a big tank known as Vishnu Samudra, the water of which is perhaps used for temple rituals. Small turtles and fishes swim around happily live in this tank. Sadly, I do not have pictures of the tank and Gravity Pillar. I just didn’t click. [Most of these pics are not clicked by me, credit to my bro-in-law]

It’s impossible to capture the details of the temple through the limitations of words and vocabulary. This architectural marvel appeals to the senses, something that and can only be experienced.

Pic 10: One of the other temple entrances that remain closed now.
How did we get here?
We rented a self-drive car and drove from Bangalore to Sakleshpur. On the way back from Sakleshpur, we followed Google Maps to direct us to Belur.

The Residency – A Surprise Find at Lucknow

I quite enjoy cycle rickshaw rides as opposed to my friend and travel companion, who thinks it’s not right to let a frail man (most of the rickshaw pullers are frail) lug our combined weight. We’re contributing to his livelihood, is what I think. The slow pace of a cycle rickshaw is a great way to get a feel of the busy streets of any Indian City.

We were in Lucknow and just strolling around in the Hazratganj Market area, with no particular agenda in mind. A random conversation with a shopkeeper when he mentioned some park by Gomti River that we should visit. He meant Gomti Riverfront Park, which we realized much later. But, at that time we misunderstood and conveyed something to our rickshaw puller, who dropped us at Shaheed Smarak Park.

Pic 1: The Shaheed Smarak, built as a tribute to soldiers who lost their lives in the First War of Independence against the East India Company in 1857.

When we made the payment, the rickshaw puller told us that instead of this place, we might want to walk a few meters in the road opposite and go to another park. He claimed we would really like it. And that’s how we landed up at The Residency. Maintained by ASI (Archeological Survey of India), it is also known as the British Residency and constitutes a cluster of ruined buildings in one enclosure.

Pic 2: A brief about The Residency at the entrance.

The Residency is associated with Seige of Lucknow that had happened in the 1857 rebellion, The Sepoy Mutiny or The First War of Independence against the British Empire. It’s ironical though that the Residency was built by Nawab Asaf Ud-Daulah in the 1700s to house the British Resident General, who was a representative in his court. Spread across an area of 33 acre, it was the largest inhabited British colony in the Awadh region and several British officials lived here.

Pic 3: The Baillie Guard Gate, which still serves as the main entry gate to the complex.
Pic 4: The Main Building, used to be three-storeyed, was the residence of Sir Henry Lawrence. Atop now flutters the Tricolour. Notice the marks of canon balls that is clearer in the featured photo.

The shattered walls bearing gaping holes of cannon shots inside this residential complex are tell-tale signs of the siege. There are detailed descriptions outside most of the structures that give a sneak peek into what had happened during that time. One of the buildings is converted into museum that includes items like, inscriptions, old photographs, paintings, actual letters, guns, swords, cannons, and a model of the Residency.

Pic 5: The Memorial Museum with two large cannons in front.

Apart from the museum, here are some of the other ruined structures that we saw:

Baillie Guard Gate: Constructed by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan to give the First Resident, Colonel John Baillie a special Guard of Honour.

The Treasury: Severely damaged two-storyed structure that was used to manufacture and store cartridges.

Pic 6: The Treasury

Bhojshala or Banquet Hall: Built by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan to welcome British expatriates and distinguished guests, its grandeur with high ceilings, elaborate hallways, and intricate carvings will draw your attention instantly. At the entrance stood a fountain on a grand marble floor, a clear indication of the opulent gatherings of those times.

Pic 7: The Bhojshala or Banquet Hall. I have no idea why I didn’t click pictures of the inside, including the fountain and the kitchen!

Doctor Fayrer’s House: Dr. Fayrer was the chief surgeon of The Residency. This structure was used as a hospital to treat the injured and also a safe house to shield the women and children during the siege. (I couldn’t find a picture of this one, looks like I didn’t click one.)

The Main Building: A three-storeyed structure that served as the residence of Sir Henry Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of Awadh. On top of this building now flutters the tricolor Indian flag. In front of this building is the huge memorial cross, dedicated to Sir Henry Lawrence.

Pic 8: The huge memorial cross, dedicated to Sir Henry Lawrence.

Beyond the above, there are several other structures in the complex that we could not visit due to lack of time. The complex closes at 5 PM and we were asked to leave. The place can easily take up half a day if you want to explore it well.

Back at the hotel that night, we did a little more research to learn about the structures we had missed. Among them, three of them stood out. Begum Kothi, Mosque and Imambara, and the Church and Cemetery. Begum Kothi belonged to Vilayati Begum, a foreigner married to Nawab Naseeruddin Haider. After the death of Vilayati Begum, the Mosque and Imambara were built by her sister as a memory. The ruined church was used as a food-storage house during the siege. The surrounding graveyard is said to have graves of 2000 men, women and children, including that of Sir Henry Lawrence.

Thankful to our rickshaw puller. Had it not been for him, we wouldn’t have known about The Residency.