The Saga of Savitri Brata

I was on the usual everyday call with my Mom. But something was different today. The awkwardness in our conversation was just too obvious. Both of us were consciously staying away from ‘that topic’.

“It’s high time to do away with all this!”, I would have repeated umpteen number of times, persuading her to stop participating in Savitri Brata. Each time she had the same response, “I’ve been doing this right from the time I got married, can’t stop now.” This would be followed by give-away pretentions of blaming my grandmother (her mother-in-law) for initiating her into practicing the same. Nothing is ever enforced in our family, so we both knew how lame her accusations were. The feminist in me would sometimes struggle to understand her sentiments.

Savitri Brata is a religious event consisting of Puja rituals where women pray for the well-being and long lives of their husbands. I have been witnessing this annual tradition right from my childhood till the time I left home, a good decade-and-a-half ago. Prevalent in the East Indian states of Bihar, Bengal, Assam, and Orissa, this festival is celebrated mostly by the Bengalis, Maithilis, and Odiyas. It’s essentially a counterpart of the North Indian festival of Karva Chauth minus the fanfare and extravagance of dressing up as brides, adorning mehndi, and seeing your husbands through sieves against the backdrop of the Moon. Savitri Brata is relatively a quieter affair of getting together and participating in Puja rituals with the accompaniment of some harmless chatter and heartfelt laughter.

Usually Savitri Brata happens around the end of May or early June, the dates depend on the lunar calendar. This year it’s happening now. My mother used to actively participate in the annual festival and has been doing so for the last 40+ years. With my father’s demise, the very purpose of this festival doesn’t exist for her anymore. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for her!

The description of the rituals I provide in this post is based on how I have seen the festival celebrated in my home and in the neighbourhood. Hence, this is an account of the manner in which this festival is observed by the Bengalis living in Assam, Meghalaya and other states of North East India. The rituals and traditions in other states could be different, I have no idea.

Savitri Brata is spread over three days. Women wear new clothes and partially fast, living on a diet of fruits for the whole of the first two days and half of the third day. Preparations begin 2-3 days in advance. The sacred grass Durva (Bermuda grass) is collected from the garden, cleaned, and sorted. They are bundled into neat packs of 108 along with flowers. During the Puja, each woman dedicates a bundle to their respective husbands.

Long ago, when my grandparents were around, the puja was done exclusively by a priest at our home and was attended not only by women in the family, but those in the neighbourhood too. As the years passed by, the elaborateness of the puja coupled with reduced manpower made it challenging for my Mom and Aunts to continue conducting the puja at home. Now, the puja is conducted at a centralized location where everyone assembles (except for the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021).

Many a times, we have urged Mom and Aunts to quit the puja. My Dad and Uncles also persuaded to the best of their abilities. They disliked the additional task of making the necessary arrangements and ensuring that everything was in place. Moreover, carrying the psychological guilt of not doing something similar for their wives didn’t make them feel any better. But the women, in a world of their own, were relentless. In fact, they would enjoy those three days of merry making in the form of prayers, get-togethers, laughter, incessant chatter, new clothes, and not to mention the special attention. Logic, blackmail, humble cajoles, we tried it all. Finally, we just gave up!

However, like many other traditions and rituals, Savitri Brata will soon be gone without a trace. I don’t know a single woman of my generation who observes this festival. In just a few years, it will become a forgotten thing of the past.

Many may condemn this as a regressive affair reflecting our inherent patriarchal mindsets. Probably they are right, but over the years a new realization has dawned upon me. I see nothing wrong in following rituals or traditions, especially when they do no harm to others. Rather, they bring forth few moments of joy and happiness. If offering a prayer for your husband/partner puts a smile on your face, there cannot be anything wrong with that. It’s all about individual choices.

Legend of Savitri Brata

(Source: Wikipedia)

The brata was named after Savitri, the beautiful daughter of King Aswapati of Madra Desa. She selected Satyavan, a prince in exile who was living in the forest with his blind father Dyumatsen, as her life partner. She left the palace and lived with her husband and in-laws in the forest. As a devoted wife and daughter-in-law, she went to great lengths to take care of them. One day while cutting wood in the jungle, Satyavan's head reeled and he fell down from a tree. Yamraj, the God of Death, appeared to take away Satyavan's soul. Deeply hurt, Savitri pleaded to Yamraj not to be separated from her husband. If anything, he would have to take her along too. Yamraj, moved by the devotion of Savitri, returned the life of her husband. Soon Satyavan regained his lost kingdom too. 

Click here to read more.

Lepakshi – Nandi and Jatayu

Nandi is looking towards the Nagalinga”, my sister stated standing right behind me, while I was busy staring at the colossal structure. Thinking that she was trying to be funny, I turned back with a chuckle. But, in all seriousness, she was reading from the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) description board that was located just next to us. I joined her and in turn read aloud the part that stated – The head is held at an angle higher than usual. Consequently, the typical expression of submission before Lord Shiva is conspicuous by its absence here.

I have seen many other Nandi idols or statues in South India but had never noticed the expression of submission. Well, made a mental note to do so next time.

Pic 1: The massive monolithic Nandi statue.

Nandi is the sacred bull, the vehicle and gate keeper of Lord Shiva. It’s no wonder that the giant monolithic Nandi is located just a stone throw away (about 500 m.) from Lepakshi Temple, dedicated to Veerabhadra, a form of Lord Shiva. Possibly, the Nandi would have been part of the temple complex in the olden days. We had just left the temple, after having spent a little more than 2 hours admiring the 16th century architectural splendour.

The monolithic Nandi, carved out of a single granite rock, is 20 feet in height and 30 feet in length. The details of the carvings, including the necklace and the bells are truly praiseworthy.

Pic 2: The Jatayu Theme Park

Now that we had a close inspection of the giant Nandi, we were all set to go to Jatayu Theme Park and take a closer look at Jatayu. The park was just across the road, hardly a walk of 5-6 min. The giant bird, perched on a huge rock, was clearly visible from here.

Jatayu is a mythological character from the epic Ramayana. No less than a demigod, Jatayu is the form of a large eagle. Jatayu had tried to rescue Lord Rama’s wife, Sita, from being kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. In the fight that ensued, the demon king had chopped off one of Jatayu’s wings. It is believed that the bird had fallen on this rock and remained alive to narrate the incident to Lord Rama. Le-pakshi – meaning rise O’ bird – is what Lord Rama had told the dying bird, blessing him to attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death).

I remember having read of another huge rock in Kollam district of Kerala that claims to be the rock where Jatayu had fallen (Read Here). So, when my sister narrated this tale from her ‘Google-Guide’, I protested that she was reading about the wrong rock. However, a description at the park corroborated her findings. Well, nobody will ever know which of these claims is more accurate than the other.

Pic 3: Jatayu statue atop the largest boulder
Pic 4: A foot impression in a boulder just below Jatayu statue, no description provided.

The manicured park is dotted with large and small boulders. On the largest boulder sits the big statue of Jatayu. We climbed up through iron stairs build in the space between the boulders. The park was artificial, so was Jatayu but the boulders and the view from the top were as natural as could be. We found a nice spot up in the boulders and sat there for a while enjoying the cool soothing breeze, which certainly wasn’t artificial.

Temple Tales From Lepakshi

There it was – the hanging pillar – our main reason of visiting this ancient temple that dates back to the 16th century. We stood there for a while along with other bystanders watching someone slide a scarf, someone else a paper underneath the pillar to ascertain that it didn’t touch the ground. It was mind-boggling to imagine the kind of design that enables this wafer-thin gap between the pillar’s bottom and the stone floor. And, to think that our modern era of hi-tech technological advancement is unable to unravel the mystery of this architectural riddle.

This pillar is just another testimony to the engineering genius of ancient India. It is said that the pillar is slightly dislodged from its original position. This is attributed to the British Era when a British engineer made an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the secret of the pillar’s support.

Pic 1: The mysterious Hanging Pillar at Lepakshi. Notice the thin gap between the pillar’s bottom and the surface of the stone floor.

We were at Lepakshi Temple, located in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Also known as Veerabhadraswamy temple, this Vijayanagar style temple is just about 120 Km. away from Bangalore. Hence, it’s a favourite destination for daytrips from Bangalore. I was always intrigued by the mysterious hanging pillar of Lepakshi but with my preference for places of nature superseding I hadn’t landed up here before. Lepakshi, however, turned out to be so much more than just the hanging pillar.

Pic 2: At the center are pillars in the Assembly Hall of the main temple, just outside the sanctum sanctorum. Among these stand the Hanging Pillar. Left and Right are close-ups of the ornate sculptures on two pillars.

Dedicated to Veerabhadra, a fierce form of Lord Shiva, Veerabhadraswamy temple was our first stop at Lepakshi. As we stepped into the temple, the first thing we noticed was that it felt extraordinarily cool. It’s always hot in this part of the country and this day was no different. The design of the temple certainly has something to do with it. Apart from Veerabhadra, the sanctum sanctorum has idols of Bhadrakali, Vishnu, Lakshmi, and Parvati.

The brilliant  mural paintings in the temple represent some of the finest artwork of the Vijayanagar dynasty. The fresco of Veerabhadra on the ceiling before the main sanctum sanctorum is supposedly the largest in India. The strikingly contrasting colours of black, brown, orange, green, white, black, and shades of ochre-gold are simply astounding. (Unfortunately, I realised that I have no pictures, possibly was lost admiring the artwork.)

Pic 3: Just outside the main temple. The main temple is the pillared structure on the right.
Pic 4: A Shiva Lingam just outside the main temple complex.

Having seen the hanging pillar and the sanctum sanctorum, we moved around exploring other parts of the temple. The temple houses 70 pillars, each uniquely engraved with gods, goddesses, mythical animals, dancers, saints, and the like. The place was quite crowded with a lot of tourists on that day. It was early January, 2021 – a time when we had happily forgotten that we were in the middle of a pandemic. Not many people wore masks and there was no social distancing at all. The marvelous architecture kept us engaged and we had little time to worry about the pandemic. We remained masked though, taking them off only when clicking pictures.

Pic 5: The incomplete Kalyana Mantapam or Marriage Hall
Pic 6: A close look at the sculpture of one of the pillars at Kalyana Mantapam.

Moving on to the temple’s outer enclosure, we were now in the Kalyana Mantapam or the marriage hall, meant for the marriage of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. There were intricately carved pillars, each representing a God or Goddess supposedly attending the marriage ceremony.

This was an incomplete structure with no roof and has a gruesome story associated with it. The temple was constructed by two brothers, Viranna and Virupanna. While the king was away, Viranna used up the royal treasury to fund the increased cost of construction. On his return, the King was furious and ordered that Viranna’s eyes be gouged out. Upset with the King’s sentence, Viranna gouged his own eyes and rubbed it on the temple wall. The two red blotches on the western wall of the temple is said to be blood marks of Viranna’s eyes.

Pic 7: The unique monolithic Ganesha. Spot the snake coiled around it’s rounded belly.

A little away from the marriage hall is the monolithic Ganesha, a unique one at that with a snake coiled around it’s belly.

Next, we found ourselves standing before the impressively massive Nagalinga with seven hoods and three coils that shelters a black granite Shivalingam. It is believed that the Nagalinga was carved from a single block of stone while the sculptors were waiting for their mother to cook lunch for them.

Pic 8: The astounding gigantic seven hooded Nagalinga. The associated belief that it was carved out by the sculptors while their mother prepared lunch makes it even more fascinating.

We walked around the temple courtyard, admiring the archaeological and artistic splendour. The courtyard was characterised by pillared hallways and several tiny chambers. We found an empty spot and sat there for a while. We should have hired a guide we thought, as we watched others enjoying a guided tour. My sister thought Google could be our guide for now.

Pic 9: The temple courtyard characterised by ornate pillars and small chambers.
Pic 10: The sisters managed to request someone to click a picture for them – precious memories!

As she googled, we learnt several fascinating tales of the temple, including the legends of the incomplete Marriage Hall and the Nagalinga. She also read about Sita’s footprint, which we discovered on our way out. It’s the impression of a huge foot on the stone floor that has a perennial flow of water. Apparently, the source of the water or where it drains out to is unknown.

Pic 11: An enormous foot impression, which is believed to be of Sita Mata.

After spending close to two hours at Lepakshi Temple complex, we stepped out and headed towards the Jatyayu Park. Read more in my next post.

Pic 12: The sublime flowering Frangipani tree on the way out. It reminded me of a similar tree that had captured our imagination at Virupaksha Temple, Hampi.

Temple Tales from Nandi Town

Nandi Hills is perhaps the most visited place in and around Bangalore. Bangaloreans literally flock to Nandi Hills, especially to view the amazing sunrise from the hilltop. Also known as Nandidurg or Nandi Betta, it is located in the small town of Nandi about 60 Km. away from Bangalore in the Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka. I have no count of the number of times I’ve been to Nandi Hills.

Pic 1: At Nandi Hills in 2010. The place looks a lot different now. It’s no longer open as you see here. There are guard rails all around, which does affect the experience to a large extent

This post is however not about Nandi Hills, though I guess I should write one. This post is about Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple – an ancient temple located close to Nandi Hills. We happened to visit this temple quite accidentally when we were on our way to another place. A friend casually recommended that we could stop by this temple as it’s on the way. And, what a miss it would have been had we not take his recommendation seriously!

Pic 2: Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple entrance. Note the stone wheels on the right.

Dedicated to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, this is supposedly the oldest temple in Karnataka. It was built in 9th century by the native Kannada Nolamba dynasty. It is now a protected monument, maintained by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The heritage temple has a unique aesthetic charm, accentuated by stone carvings of Gods and Goddesses that adorn the walls and the pillars. It is believed that the temples of Belur and Halebidu were inspired by this temple.

The first thing that caught our attention even before entering the temple was the base of a giant chariot. This chariot would have probably been used during temple festivals but now it did a good job of taking us on a flight of imagination. The stone wheels of the chariot were also neatly arranged just outside the temple entrance.

Pic 3: The chariot lying under a tree just before the entrance.

On entering the temple complex, we discovered that there were three shrines housed in three separate temples that were adjacent to each other. Uma Maheshwara is at the center flanked by Arunachaleshwara in the North and Bhoga Nandeeshwara in the South. Arunachaleshwara depicts Lord Shiva’s childhood while Bhoga Nandeeshwara, depicts Lord Shiva in his youth. The temple of Uma Maheshwara or Goddess Parvati has a Kalyana Mantapa or a marriage alter. The exquisitely carved black stone pillars of the Mantapa is gorgeous. Sadly enough, photography is prohibited in this area of the temple.

Pic 4: Bhoga Nandeeshwara temple on the South, dedicated to the youthful form of Lord Shiva .

The temple also has a lovely pond, which is locally known as ‘Kalyani’. A series of steps encircle the pond. It would have been amazing to walk down and dip our feet in the waters, but the entry to the pond was closed on that particular day.

Pic 5: The ‘Kalyani’ or the temple pond. During special festivals about 100,000 lamps are lit here.

The Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple is a magnificent piece of Dravidian Architecture. It preserves the architectural legacies of the five dynasties that ruled this region. The temple was constructed by the Bana Queen Ratnavali, it was then expanded successively by the Ganga dynasty, Cholas, Hoysalas, Pallavas and finally the Vijayanagara Kings. As a result, the temple can be a real treat to history buffs, conservationists, and architectural analysts.

Pic 6: There are several such corridors in the temple.

As I walked around the temple, I thought to myself how did I miss visiting this marvelous structure in stone before. Especially when I have been to Nandi Hills so many times. Rather, I didn’t even know about its existence. I wondered why my friends, some of whom who were locals from Bangalore, never mentioned this temple. Perhaps they had no clue, or they weren’t interested.

Pic 7: Carvings of Gods and Goddesses on the temple wall.
SIDE NOTE
As Covid-19 surges in India and the pandemic takes an ugly turn in its second wave, I feel somewhat frivolous writing this post. Nothing seems to matter anymore. The situation is extremely distressing, and everyone is affected in one way or the other. Even though the virus hasn’t caught my near and dear ones yet, it feels like it’s just a matter of time. It’s difficult to digest the visuals of how much people are suffering. And, the feeling of helplessness is killing. Well, nobody ever promised that all our experiences would be pleasurable. Trying to keep myself and those around me positive. Sending healing prayers for everyone. May the Divine give me the strength to accept the bad just as I easily accept the good.

Temple Tales from Somnathpur

It took us a while to get into the temple premises. The temple is a protected monument and maintained by Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Tickets for entry to such places now require scanning an ASI QR code. Our phone network happened to be unusually slow causing some unnecessary delay, testing our patience, and sufficiently frustrating us.

As I entered through the doorway after reading the description displayed at the entryway, my jaws literally dropped. The magnificence of the temple caught me off-guard. I knew about this temple but hadn’t expected such stunning architectural brilliance. “How did I never happen to come here before!”, I couldn’t help wondering, having stayed in Bangalore for more than a decade now. This reaction was triggered off just at the very first glance. As we walked around exploring the temple, every corner only left us even more astonished.

Pic 1: The mantapa on entering through the doorway adorned with lathe turned pillars, which happens to be a typical feature of Hoysala architecture.

The 13th century Keshava Temple, also known as Chennakesava Temple, is located in a small town called Somnathpur in the Mandya district of Karnataka. It is at a distance of about 140 Km. from Bangalore and just about 35 Km. away from Mysore. Situated in the banks of River Cauvery, the temple was built by Somanatha, a celebrated army commander of the Hoysala Dynasty. He established the town of Somnathpur, which he named after himself.

The temples built during the rule of the Hoysalas are unique in their intricate sculptures and great story telling. The temples of Belur and Halebidu are said to be the best ambassadors of Hoysala architecture. I haven’t been there yet but have heard a lot about their spectacular grandeur. I had no idea that Somnathpur Temple belonged to the same league and was another masterpiece of Hoysala architecture.

Pic 2: The Western and Southern Shikharas. Notice the star-shaped elevated platform on which stands the temple.

The temple is carved from soapstone and is dedicated to Lord Krishna in the three forms of Keshava, Janardhana, and Venugopala. The main temple is at the center of a courtyard, built on an elevated star-shaped platform which, I learnt is one of the unique aspects of Hoysala temples. Surrounding the courtyard is a pillared corridor that has several chambers all along. Perhaps they would have housed deities at that time, they are empty now.

Pic 3: The pillared corridor that surrounds the courtyard.
Pic 4: The pillared corridor from another angle. Notice the chambers all along.

The temple wall on the exterior has intricate carvings and sculptures depicting stories from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, and also Bhagavata Purana. The exquisite attention to detail that has clearly gone into these carvings was mystifying to say the least. The dancing Goddess Lakshmi, the angry Lord Ganesha, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the four headed Lord Brahma, the intricate Mahisashura Mardini – just to name a few. The meticulous carvings also depict battles, folklore, music, dance, and much more. The stories in carvings are in a clockwise direction, thoughtfully designed as it is the same as the direction of a pradakshina or circumambulation.

Pic 5: The fascinating and exquisitely detailed sculptures on the exterior wall.
Pic 6: The magnificence of these sculptures are a delight to the eyes.

After spending a decent amount of time walking around the temple admiring the detailed carvings, we stepped inside. The inside of the temple is just as fascinating. The magnificent ceiling with all the intricate ornate carvings and miniature sculptures is simply amazing. A guide, who was with another group, explained that the ceiling constitutes of 16 finely carved symmetrical squares, some of which are depictions of the Lotus flower at different stages of development. The main idol of Keshava is situated on the sanctum sanctorum while Janardhana and Venugopala  are on either side. According to ASI, the original Keshava idol went missing and has been replaced. The idols of Janardhana and Venugopala are damaged.

The temple is not functional and is not used as a place of worship anymore, the idols being broken and desecrated by invaders of that age and time. It stands as a monument today bearing testimony to the superior craftmanship of the artists and sculptors of the bygone Hoysala era.

Pic 7: The extraordinary craftsmanship is like a poetry unfolding.
Pic 8: One can spend hours examining the details that have gone into these carvings.

I am a nature person and usually get disengaged very easily with things that are lifeless. Museums and places of architectural significance as not quite for me. That explains why I overlooked visiting this place earlier. However, when it comes to such intricate artwork it’s a different story altogether. My mind weaves stories thinking about the artisans, their unparalleled creativity, the lives of people at that time – the royalty, the commoners, their festivals, their triumphs and hardships, and so on and so forth. It’s mind-boggling and fascinating.

Now, I can’t wait to explore the Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebidu. Had it not been for the pandemic, I would have long been on my way. Smitten by Somnathpur Keshava Temple, I was curious to know about the other Hoysala temples in the state of Karnataka. I learnt that there are 137 Hoysala temples of significant value in the state. Quite a number that is, isn’t it!

Padmanabhapuram Palace

The Most Charming Palace I have Seen so far….

“Seems like some kind of natural air-conditioning in here!”, exclaimed my sister. It indeed felt cool inside. Surely, it’s got something to do with the way this place was constructed ages ago.

We were at Padmanabhapuram Palace, located about 30 Km. away from Kanyakumari at a place, known as Thuckalay. Built in the 16th century, this palace is situated in the state of Tamil Nadu, however, it remains under the administration of the Government of Kerala. The wooden palace, in its typical Kerala architectural style, is a masterpiece that left us completely spellbound. Once again, all thanks to fellow blogger Sugan for having recommended this place.

The pillared entrance with intricate wooden carvings.
The main entrance leads to the reception area. Notice the marvelous wooden carvings and terracotta tiled roof.

The unusualness of the palace is what charmed us the most. It was very different from all the palaces I have seen so far. It lacked the glam and glitter that one would expect of a palace but was majestic in its simplicity and intricacies. Some highlights from the palace are, elaborately detailed rosewood and teak wood carvings, exquisitely carved wooden columns, huge earthen urns, jackfruit tree columns, multi-colored windowpanes of various patterns, spacious hallways, ornately carved wooden ceilings, and so on.

There were different artistic representations of the Lotus flower, the favourite flower of the royalty (and also of Lord Padmanabhaswamy). The floors of the palace wore a unique look. It was glossy, smooth and of shining black colour. This is apparently the result of a unique combination of egg shells, lime, coconut, charcoal, river sand, and jaggery that was used in the raw material.

The Mantrasala – Here the King held important meetings with his ministers. Notice the elaborately designed ceiling.

Padmanabhapuram was the capital city of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, the rulers of which were dedicated to Lord Padmanabhaswamy (another name of Lord Vishnu) and considered themselves to be servants of the Lord.

The Covid protocols were very strict here. We had to buy gloves from the shops outside, which were selling only woolen gloves. That was no fun on a hot and sultry afternoon, with a temperature of nearly 30 degree centigrade. The palace was crowded with tourists, but all were locals. We stood out in how we looked and the clothes we wore, leading to us being mobbed by a gang of local people. The gang of 20-25 people followed us everywhere and wanted pictures with us every now and then. They meant no harm and we did indulge them initially but after a point their intrusion managed to irritate us enough and more.

Here’s a visual tour of some sections of the palace.

Ottupura (Dining Hall) – A description board here says that over 2000 people were served free meals in this grand dining hall on a daily basis.
These are huge Chinese jars that were used to store pickles for the daily feasts.
The Dance Hall. Notice the shining black flooring, which is the result of a combination of egg shells, lime, coconut, charcoal, river sand, and jaggery.
The palace temple. It was closed at that time so we couldn’t enter.
Curved shuttered wooden windows
Left: The Royal Bed, made of 67 different medicinal wood. Right: One of the Royal Toilets.
Here’s a picture of the people who followed us everywhere wanting to click pictures with us every now and then. And, here are only some of those from the large gang. The gang even made one of my sisters pull her mask down for a proper photo.

Ambling Around Kanyakumari

It was Christmas time of the special year of 2020 when a whimsical decision took us to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian mainland. We were all set to explore the coastal part of Karnataka but landed in Tamil Nadu instead. This was my third visit to Kanyakumari – first time as a 9-year old with my father, second time with a friend 8 years ago, and this time with my sisters. I had never thought I would be visiting Kanyakumari again, but it happened.  

Kanyakumari, known as Cape Comorin during British rule in India, is an ancient city that finds mention in accounts of Marco Polo and Ptolemy. It is the meeting point of Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Indian Ocean.

Pic 1: Sunrise at Kanyakumari. Vivekananda Rock Memorial & Thiruvalluvar Statue seen in the distance

Kanyakumari for me has been synonymous with two things – first, the tranquility at Vivekananda Memorial Rock; second, the deep ocean waters that sometimes appeared blue, sometimes green, and sometimes a combination of both. Oh yes, I mustn’t forget the amazing sunrises and sunsets. However, there’s much more to Kanyakumari, which I discovered this time.  And, the credit goes to fellow blogger Sugan, for all the recommendation and guidance.

Pic 2: Sunset at Kanyakumari. This picture was clicked in 2012.

Vattakottai Fort

Built in 18th century during the reign of Travancore kingdom, Vattakottai is a coastal fort. Vattakottai fort, which translates as circular fort is a protected site, maintained by Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Built for coastal defense, the fort is constructed of granite blocks. The walls are carved with motifs of fish, that is said to be characteristic of the Pandya Kingdom.

Pic 3: The unassumingly simple architecture of granite stones at Vattakottai Fort

The most alluring aspect of Vattakottai Fort is its perfect scenic location, with the sea on one side and the hills of western ghats on the other. This coupled with the black sands of the sea beach overlooking the fort makes it extremely attractive. A part of the fort extends into the sea and that reminded me of Diu Fort, which I had visited 2 years back. The latter however is much bigger and is much more fascinating.

Pic 4: Nothing beats the scenic location of Vattakottai Fort.

Bhagavathy Amman Temple

Kanyakumari derives its name from Goddess Kanya Kumari. The virgin goddess, also known as Kumari Amman is believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Durga. Bhagavathy Amman Temple, dedicated to the Devi, is a 3000-year-old temple that finds mention in the epics of Ramanyana and Mahabharata.

Pic 5: A glimpse into the hallway of the 3000 year old Temple. Photography of the idol is not allowed.

Intrigued, after having read about the interesting myths and legends of the Devi in a book – from her love for Lord Shiva to the marriage that did not happen, her nose ring that had confused sailors leading to shipwrecks – I had always wanted to visit the temple. (You can read the legend in detail here ).

The glittering diamond nose ring is the most fascinating aspect of the idol. The sparkle of this nose ring had been mistaken as a lighthouse causing ships to crash on the rocky coast. As a result, the door facing east has been permanently shut and is opened only on special occasions.

Temple of Mayi Amma

It’s a very tiny nondescript temple on the beach, hardly noticeable unless you know about it. We happened to chance upon it. Again, I had read about Mayi Amma in a book. She was a saint, who would literally walk on the surface of the ocean waters and meditate on a rock for hours together completely oblivious to the hot sun. Her disciples constituted a pack of dogs. She hardly ever spoke to anyone but was revered by the locals. The temple has a couple of her black and white photographs. She is said to have taken samadhi in 1993.

Pic 6: A throwback picture with my sister and friend at Kanyakumari in 2012.

Vivekananda Rock Memorial and Thiruvalluvar Statue

Situated around 500 meters away from the shore, Vivekananda Rock Memorial is a mammoth rock where Swami Vivekananda had meditated and attained enlightenment. This rock memorial constitutes the main attraction at Kanyakumari. People all over the world visit Kanyakumari mainly to see Vivekananda Rock Memorial

Vivekananda Mandapam and Sripada Mandapam are the two main structures at the memorial. The latter is said to be a place where Goddess Kanya Kumari had meditated for Lord Shiva. This is ratified by the presence of a foot mark on the rock, which supposedly belongs to the Devi. Consequently, the rock where the memorial stands is known as Sripada Parai (Sripada means Devi’s feet in Sanskrit and Parai means rock in Tamil).

Pic 7: Vivekananda Mandapam, which also has a meditation hall.
Pic 8: At Sripada Mandapam

Thiruvalluvar Statue or Valluvar Statue is located on another rock just a little away from Vivekananda Rock Memorial. It is the 41-metre-tall stone statue of Tamil poet and philosopher, Valluvar. Entry to this statue was closed at that time and hence we could not go up to the statue. However, the view from Vivekananda Rock Memorial was good enough.

Pic 9: Thiruvalluvar Statue as seen from Vivekananda Rock Memorial. This picture was clicked in 2012.

Besides these places, we also visited Padmanabhapuram Palace located 30 Km. away from Kanyakumari. I have written about that in my next post.

Do visit my previous post on Manapad beach, which is another place we visited during our Kanyakumari Trip.

Kanyakumari, I will be back again! So what if I have already visited you three times! There are places that I couldn’t cover this time and so I must go again.

‘Kola-bou’ – The Banana Bride

The red benarasi sari was quite heavy because of the zari embellishments and I had to wrap my arms around it to make sure I had a tight grip. Kola-bou was just dismantled and someone had handed over the sari to me. I stood there with a heavy heart watching our Durga idol being immersed into the stream, a portion of which was temporarily stagnated for the purpose. The intoxicating divine fragrance emanating from the sari was impossible to ignore. Not surprising, this sari was draped around Kola-bou who was worshipped for the past four days. I thought I could quite literally smell the Goddess.

This Durga Puja I was home after 15 long years. Quite surprising, given that this is the most important festival for Bengalis. A few of these years I spent in Kolkata, a few in Bangalore, and the rest I traveled and trekked. I hadn’t realized that so many years passed by and I did not visit our Shillong home during this time of the year. This wasn’t by chance, though. Rather a choice attributed to certain personal reasons. This year circumstances forced me to be here, and I attended our family puja after a very long time. As a result, my Durga Puja celebration turned out to be quite good, while most people had no celebrations at all. Thanks to the pandemic.

Pic 1: Ma Durga with her children. Sons – Ganesha and Kartikeya; Daughters – Laxmi and Saraswati.

Durga Puja is a 5-day event entailing a host of rituals and celebrations. Ma Durga is the most powerful and fearless Goddess, who slays the buffalo demon Mahishasura to protect the earth. She is the supreme power created by combining the powers of all other Gods. The Mother of the Universe, she ensures creation and preservation. The Destroyer of Evil, Ma Durga’s mythology revolves around victory of good over evil. The word ‘Durga’ literally means impassable and inaccessible. It is believed that earth is the maternal home of the Goddess and she comes here every year with her children – Ganesha, Kartikeya, Laxmi, and Saraswati. People celebrate the Mother Goddess, characterized by her ten arms carrying various lethal weapons with the lion as her vehicle.

There are many fascinating aspects of Durga Puja. One of these is the Kola-bou, which is a young banana tree dressed like a Bengali bride. Kola-bou is also known as Nabapatrika – ‘Naba’ meaning nine and ‘Patrika’ meaning plant. It consists of nine plants that are symbolic representations of the nine forms of Ma Durga.

  • Banana plant – represents Goddess Brahmani
  • Colocasia plant– represents Goddess Kalika
  • Turmeric plant – represents Goddess Durga
  • Jayanti (Jubilee) plant – represents Goddess Kartiki
  • Wood apple leaves – represents Lord Shiva
  • Pomegranate leaves – represents Goddess Raktadantika
  • Asoka (Saraca) leaves – represents Goddess Shokarahita
  • Arum plant – represents Goddess Chamunda
  • Rice paddy – represents Goddess Lakshmi

In olden times, Kola-bou was a symbol of Mother Nature herself and worshipped by farmers for a good harvest. As Durga Puja gained popularity, Kola-bou or Nabapatrika got inducted into the ceremony.

Pic 2: Kola-bou or Nabapatrika is always placed on the right side of Lord Ganesha and worshipped as Ma Durga.

The ritual of Kola-bou in our family puja constitutes the sanctification of all nine plants on Mahasashti, which are then carefully kept aside. The next day, on Mahasaptami, these plants are tied together using yellow threads and twigs of Aparajita (Clitoria) plant. Kola-bou is then draped in a benarasi sari and orna, (dupatta) and dressed like a bride. There is another ritual of ceremonial bathing of Kola-bou in River Ganges, which is not followed in our family puja.

Kola-bou is then placed on the right side of Lord Ganesha and worshipped as Ma Durga. The position of Kola-bou could be associated with Lord Ganesh being considered as the creator of the eighteen medicinal plants, for which he is also known as Astadasausadhisrsti. Maybe, that’s why some people consider Kola-bou as Lord Ganesha’s wife.

On the last day of Puja, Dashami, Kola-bou is dismantled and immersed through chanting of mantras. The dismantling of Kola-bou needs to be done in seclusion. The Immersion Ghat remains crowded with people. Hence, a large cloth is used to form a barrier that covers Kola-bou from all sides while the priest and head of the family perform the ritual of dismantling. This is interesting as Kola-bou is Ma Durga herself and her untying and uncovering needs to be done respectfully. The idol is immersed in the water only after Kola-bou immersion is completed.

Monoliths of Jaintia Hills

Meghalaya is home to monoliths and megaliths that are spread across the state. They are quite literally scattered everywhere. And, if you take a drive in the countryside, you can’t miss them at all. Whenever I see them, I can’t help but wonder how they would have landed into such positions. Some are certainly manually placed, especially the ones in the city of Shillong. But, what about the others? Those that I see randomly placed in the meadows and hills?

Monolith is a geological feature that constitutes a single massive stone or rock. Megalith, on the other hand, is a structure made of large stones interlocking them in a way that does not require the use of mortar or cement.

Cherrapunji, in East Khasi Hills, has a monolith park. I would have most certainly seen the monoliths during my childhood, when going to Cherrapunji happened at the drop of a hat. I do not recall an organized park though. Guess, it would have been created recently to cater to tourists. Cherrapunji remains overcrowded with tourists, which significantly drowns the yesteryear romanticism of clouds, mist, and rains.

Pic 1: Random monoliths clicked somewhere during a long drive in the countryside.

There is another monolith park in Jowai, the capital of Jaintia Hills. This one had aroused my interest sufficiently because of its historical significance and because it has the biggest collection of monolithic stones in one single area. It also boasts of housing the tallest monolith in the state.

So, when cousin and I visited the temple at Nartiang recently it was quite obvious that we would visit the monolith park too. (Read Here) The park is located just a kilometer away from the Nartiang Durga Temple. We were running late after having spent a good amount of time at the village. Cousin was almost about to drop the plan of visiting the park promising to come back another day. I would have none of it, especially after going all the way from Shillong, and who has seen tomorrow! She agreed after I promised that we wouldn’t spend a lot of time there.

Pic 2: Entry gate to Jaintia Hills

It being the pandemic times, there was nobody around when we arrived at the park. The gates of the park were thankfully open. A prominent plaque and a Meghalaya Tourism signboard at the entrance provided a glimpse into certain historical facts. Most importantly, the monoliths were erected between 1500-1800 AD during the reign of the Jaintia Kings. The menhirs, or the single standing erect monoliths, are locally known as Moo Shynrang (meaning men). The dolmens, or horizontally placed flat monoliths, are locally known as Moo Kynthai (meaning women). The menhirs and dolmens are placed rather haphazardly in the park. Locals believe that each monolith marks a specific event or an individual.

The tallest menhir is about 8 meters high and 18 inches thick. It was supposedly erected by U Marphalangki, a trusted lieutenant in the Jaintia Kingdom, to commemorate his victory in a battle. There’s an interesting legend associated with this menhir. It is believed that Mars were giant sized men with exceptional capabilities. They could perform extraordinary feats and were patronized by the Royal Court of Jaintia Kingdom to defeat the enemies at the battlefield. Some say Mars would have probably been a rank in the Royal Army.

Pic 3: No stepping out without the mask whether alone or with others, a grim reminder of the times we’re in.

Legend Associated with the tallest Menhir

Marphalangki decided to seek God’s intervention after several failed attempts to erect the monolith. He performed Oomancy or egg divination (methods of using eggs for predicting future). Based on that he interpreted that a human sacrifice is needed to appease the Gods for the stone to stand tall. It being a market day, people had gathered to watch Marphalangki’s display of strength in erecting the stone. An idea struck Marphalangki and he pretended to accidentally drop the lime and tobacco gold container (locally known as dabi or dabia). When a spectator bent down to collect the container, Marphalangki dropped the huge stone over him. That incident is believed to be the beginning of human sacrifice among the Jaintia Pnar community. A practice that was later banned and ceased to exist altogether. (Story courtesy HH Mohrmen)

Legend Associated with the Dolmens and Menhirs

A Jaintia King by the name of Luh Lyngshkor was at a village called Raliang when it started raining. He requested an old woman to give him the traditional bamboo umbrella (locally known as knup). The woman refused saying that the king was a well-built man and could use the giant stone slab at the market to shelter himself. The king went to Raliang market, lifted the stone slab and used it as an umbrella to protect himself from the rain. He carried the stone umbrella, and reached Nartiang (Nartiang was the summer capital of the Jaintia kings). After that incident, Raliang market was shifted to Nartaing and that market continues to remain at Nartiang.

Nartiang’s Intriguing Heritage

I had heard about this place a million times but never had the opportunity to be here. While my cousin parked the car, I walked ahead and found myself standing right before the red-white unassuming structure. So, this was that temple! The corrugated tin-roofed temple looked extraordinarily simple and plain. No ornate carvings, no elaborate dome, no decorative entrance. If not for the brass bells, I would have thought it was somebody’s house. While I admired the unusual simplicity of the temple, my cousin walked up nonchalantly, and we went inside. She’s been here several times.

Pic 1: The Nartiang Durga Temple

It was a late but comfortably warm autumn morning. We had driven 65 Km. from Shillong and arrived at Nartiang Village. The village is located in West Jaintia Hills. (Meghalaya comprises of Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills, and Garo Hills). Rich in coal reserves, Jaintia Hills is exquisitely beautiful and scenic. Our destination on this day was the 600-year old temple, located at Nartiang Village that was part of the Jaintia Kingdom. Dedicated to Jainteswari or Jayanti Devi, an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, the temple has interesting legends associated with it.

Jaintias or Pnars are the indigenous tribes of Jaintia Hills and their traditional tribal religion, known as Niamtre, is largely influenced by Hinduism. Nartiang Village is dominated by the Niamtres. In this village, the traditional Niamtre religion blends with Hinduism and the Hindu deities of Durga and Shiva are worshipped in tandem with tribal deities.

Pic 2: The temple deity – Jainteswari Devi, an incarnation of Goddess Durga.

Inside the temple, we sat on the clean marble floor as the priest conducted a puja for us. The marble floor did appear a little out of place though and was clearly done only recently. Originally the temple was constructed like a typical local house of those days having a central wooden pillar (locally known as dieng Blai) and a thatched roof. It was reconstructed by Ramakrishna Mission in 1987. The shrine inside the temple was again simple and unexceptional. The priest informed it was made of Ashtadhatu (also known as octo-alloy, it is a combination of gold, silver, copper, zinc, lead, tin, iron, and mercury).

My cousin pointed out to a pit in the floor that leads to an underground tunnel, which in turn is connected to Myntang River down below. During the time of the Jaintia Kings, human sacrifices were conducted in this temple to appease the goddess. Through this pit, the severed head would roll down to the swift flowing waters of the river. An open window lay just above the pit. I looked out at the lush green hills dazzling in the bright sun, the air was crisp, and the sky clear. I could feel strong positive vibes all around. It was difficult to comprehend the rituals that would have transpired within the walls of this temple centuries ago.

Pic 5: Mynteng River flows silently through the village.

We walked through the village towards the Shiva temple, which is located in another hillock not very far from the Devi Temple. The houses in the village wore a pretty look and we were told that most of them were painted anew due to Durga Puja, which is just two weeks from now.

Pic 6: A pretty little village home. Grains of paddy rice spread out to dry in the sun.

The Shiva temple was nondescript but had a mysterious charm of its own. There were several small Ashtadhatu idols placed in a single row inside. Only one was that of Lord Shiva. The rest were that of Devi in various forms. Interestingly just behind the idols, lay a row of ancient cannons that belonged to the Jaintia Kings. The right place of which should have been a museum.

Pic 7: The nondescript Shiva Temple

There is a prominent pillar in both the temples. These pillars are supposed to be energy centers that are consecrated once in a few years. The pillar in the Devi temple had some inscriptions, not all of it is legible but it did have a date mentioned.

Interesting Stories Associated with the Temple

  • This temple is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas of Hindu mythology, Devi’s left thigh had supposedly fallen here.
  • King Dhan Manik of the Jaintia Kingdom had built this temple. It is said that the goddess had appeared in his dream informing him about the significance of this place and instructing him to build the temple. Nartiang used to be the summer capital of the Jaintia Kingdom.
  • The royal priests of the temple were brought by the Jaintia chieftains all the way from Maharashtra centuries ago. Apparently, priests in and around the region were not ready to conduct the ritual of human sacrifice. Three brahmins from the Deshmukh clan agreed to the ritual, probably because of their upbringing in kshatriya tradition. The temple is still run by the direct descendants of the Maharashtrian Deshmukh Brahmins.
  • Symbolic human sacrifice (locally known as blang synniaw) continues to this day in the form of a strange custom. At midnight of the second day of Durga Puja or Asthami, a spotless black goat is dressed as a human with a dhoti, turban, and earrings. A white mask with a human face is placed on the goat’s head and it is then beheaded. (See the mask in Pic-2 above). The head of the goat rolls down the old tunnel into Myntang River.
Pic 10: Nartiang Village as seen from the Shiva temple