Thursday, March 3, 2011

Badrinath Stories - Ghantakarna the door keeper

Ghantakarna’s statue is on the right side of the gate at Badrinarayan temple. He is the door-keeper. Ghanta means bell and karna means ear. He is also know as Ghantyaal or Ghantawala.  Ghantakarna was a ferocious devil who used to wear bells on his ears so that he does not have to hear the name of Vishnu. This guy caused death and destruction wherever he went. Although he hated Vishnu, he was a devout follower of Shiva and spent thousands of years in worshipping and meditating on him.

As is the case in these situations, the god being prayed to, in this case Lord Shiva got pleased with Ghantakarna and asked him to beg a boon, or as we say these days - make a wish. Ghantakarna turned out to be quite an experienced hand at this and instead of asking for something very trivial or worldly asked to be liberated from life, give me moksha, he said. He said something like - ‘Oh Lord of Lords, if you are happy with me, then please liberate me from life’. This is the ultimate goal of living beings in eastern religions - to get liberated from the cycle of birth so that you don’t have to go through the pleasures and miseries of life over and over again.

Now, this is a big deal, and you can’t give these kind of boons so easily, after all sages and munis spend many lifetimes striving for this ultimate goal, and here was this man eating, ferocious demon asking for this boon. More important, people who have hatred in their heart cannot be liberated, Ghantakarna loved Shiva but hated Lord Narayan. Lord Shiva tried to offer him a compromise solution - he said, ‘Son, you can ask for money, property, or anything else and I will grant it to you, but I can’t give you liberation’. And then he added a kicker, and said, ‘if you really want to be liberated, Lord Mannarayan can liberate you, go under his shelter’.

This is not the response Ghantakarna wanted, but instead of getting mad he felt remorse. He was sad, because he saw no option but failure, how could Lord Narayan, the object of his hatred ever forgive him, let alone liberate him. Thinking about this he started crying loudly, like a child. Shiva said to him, ‘Son, don’t lose hope and don’t be afraid, Lord Mannarayan loves his devotees. He will forgive all your sins if you go to him with a pure heart. He is at Dwarka now as Krishna, go there and ask for his shelter’. Ghantakarna, with tears in his eyes and chant of the lord on his lips set off for Dwarka. On reaching Dwarka he learnt that Sri Krishna had left for Kailash to pray to Lord Shiva for a son. This was quite perplexing, Shiva had asked him to come to Krishna and Krishna had gone to pray to Shiva. Anyway, instead of trying to figure out the meaning of it all, he started back for Kailash.

On his way back to Kailash, he reached Badrikashram and found many saints offering their prayer to Lord Narayan. Ghantakarna, joined them and started chanted Narayan’s name loudly. Lord Krishna was also at Badrikashram at the time, meditating (it is all about right time, right place!). When Lord Krishna heard Ghantakarna loudly chanting his name, he opened his eyes and asked him who he was and what he was doing in this place. (Sometimes you wonder why these exchanges take place, because the lord is supposed to know everything. This ploy is similar to actors in plays and movies saying out their thoughts loud, so the audience or reader gets the full picture). Ghantakarna did not know that he was talking to Krishna and gave him the whole story and also expressed his doubt about getting any favors back from Krishna. He then started meditating deeply and lost sense of his body and went into samadhi. Sri Krishna was very pleased to see such devotion and appeared to him in his divine form and told him, ‘Ghantakarna, from today you will stop all your violent activities and enjoy the luxuries of heaven’. Ghantakarna was very pleased to get the lords darshan. From that day he stayed at Badrikashram as the Lords door keeper, and after his death went to heaven.

Ghantakarna in Nepal

There is a different story of Ghantakarna in Nepal. On the14th day of waning half of Hindu month of Sravana people commemorate the death of Ghanta Karna. In Hindu mythology he caused death and destruction wherever he went, until a god in the form of a frog persuaded him to leap into a well, after which the people clubbed him to death and dragged his body to the river to be cremated.

This festival is also known as the Festival of Boys because young boys play a primary role in the celebration of Ghanta Karna's death. This day is observed in Nepal by erecting effigies at various crossroads and making passers-by pay a toll. After they've spent the day collecting tolls and preparing for the Ghanta Karna funeral, the boys tie up the effigy with a rope and throw it in the river. Sometimes the effigy is set on fire before being thrown in the water. Young girls hang tiny dolls on the effigy of Ghanta Karna to protect themselves from the monster.

Children sell iron rings on this day and use the money to buy candy. It is believed that those who have iron nails in the lintels of their homes or are wearing an iron ring will be protected from evil spirits in the coming year.

Badrinath Stories - Narad and Panchratra

Narad used to live with Lord Narayana at Badrinath most of the time, but at times he used to go out to visit other places. On one such occasion, when we came back from his trip he found that the Lord was missing. He looked all over for him, but could not find him. At one point he reached Sumeru hills, tired and thirsty. After traveling for so long, exhausted, he wanted a drink of water and located a hut in the forest inside which was a tapasvi (a person meditating) babaji. He approached the babaji and begged, “Babaji, I am very thirsty, please save me.”  (I think at this point Narad fell down and passed out, and the rest happened in his dream).
Hearing Narada’s plea, the tapasvi struck the earth and a thousand apsaras came out with a broad pot. (I have a problem with these numbers, why did a thousand apsaras have to come out with one pot? Why not just one. How big were these apsaras, I am thinking Gulliver’s travels.) The apsaras came to Narada and said, “Brahmin, please take a bath first and then have some food.” And all Narad wanted was some water, and was dying of thirst! But he had forgotten all that and was thinking, that he had left his Kamandala behind, so how was he going to take a bath. A kamandala is a multipurpose mug. The apsaras read his mind, and said, ‘Don’t worry, just step into the pot and take your bath in it.” The pot was not big enough for him to put his foot into, so he is again thinking what he should do. The apsara’s again saved him from hurting his brain and say, “Devarshi, don’t worry about it, just do it and everything will be fine”. Putting his faith in the Lord, Narad entered the pot and found himself sliding down a endless tunnel. After, what seemed like an eternity, he found himself in a beautiful city.

As is the case with these magical places, your imagination is the limit - everything is made of gold and diamonds and precious stones, all glittering in a light too beautiful to describe. This place was called Shweta Deep - white island. There are beautiful people all around and sweet music playing in the back ground. No one is tired, no one is hungry, everyone is happy. There are pools, and brooks and magical trees with red, ripe fruits on them. All the people have four arms, there is fragrance in the air. (Actually, this entire description should be left blank and the reader should be asked to visualize his ideal place.) Everyone he saw, he thought was Lord Narayana, but they were not, they pointed him in the direction of the Baikuntha Dham where the Lord lived. When he reached that place he found Lord Mannarayana.

The Lord was very happy to see Naradji, his ultimate devotee. Because of the great lengths he had gone to to seek the lord, he granted him a boon. Naradji was very happy and said, “Lord, if you are so happy with me please teach me the process by which one can acquire you.” At this, the Lord taught him the process by which Brahmins can acquire him. For others he recommended, jap and kirtan of the lords name. After the preaching was over, Narada woke up from his delirium and found himself amidst the apsaras and the Babaji. He was wonder struck, and the babaji, who was the lord Mannarayana himself, said, “I sent you to Shweta Deep to get the prayer process, and the Mannarayan you saw there was one of my forms.” 

Naradji remained at this place for five nights and hence it is called the Panchratra prayer process.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Story of Shri Badrinath

Lord Narayana lives in Vaikuntha or Paramapadam with his consort Lakshmi. In Vaikuntha, there is an ocean of milk called ksheer sagar, and in it is Sesha Nag, the thousand headed snake. Lord Vishnu reclines on Sesha naga and Lakshmiji sits near his feet and massages his feet. (If he does not move around much he would not need the massage, but the fact that his feet are being massaged could mean that at times not captured on film, he has been constantly on the move, looking after the well being of everyone on earth and comes back tired.) Narada and Saraswati are often seen along side, waiting upon the lord and Lakshmi. It is said that Narada did not like this life style that Lord Narayana was living, and he thought that this luxurious lifestyle would give the wrong idea to his devotees. Narada expressed his feelings to Lord Narayana. Hearing his concern Lord Narayana decided to do something about it. He decided to give up all these luxuries and live the life of an ascetic. He knew that Laxmi would not let him do it, so he sent her out with the Nag Kanyas and slipped out to Kedarkhand in the himalayas to do meditation. Once at Kedarkhand he surveyed the land and liked the area near Badrinath (at that time this place was not called Badrinath), it had grand mountain chains all around, the river Alaknanda flowing by, beautiful trees and fragrant flowers and a hot water spring.
There was one problem though, Lord Shiva and Parvati were already settled in Badrinath. (Even today there is a temple of Lord Aadi Kedareshwara next to Badrinath temple. I feel that this whole area was dominated by the Shaivities in the early days. Later on other people moved in and they built their own temples to their own gods.) Vishnu could have moved to some other place, but who can walk away from a challenge, especially when you are all powerful. The top gods don’t fight each other but use trickery and mischief to get their way.

Lord Vishnu took the form of a small baby and arrived at the door step of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva and Parvati were about to go to Tapt Kund to take their daily bath. In those days there were no private baths and even the gods had to use the public baths. When they opened the door they found this little baby crying at their doorstep. Parvati, being mother first and goddess second took pity on the child and gave him a big hug and picked him up. Lord Shiva, being the usual male, said ‘don’t pick the boy up, his parents will take care of him. This is the way of the world, someone is happy and someone is sad, you don’t need to worry about it’. Wrong move, you know all too well what happens when a man says something like that to his wife, especially who is independent, her determination becomes even stronger. She did not want to abandon the child there. She pleaded with Shiva, saying ‘You provide shelter to everyone, don’t you feel love for this little child, look he is so cute (what if he had not been cute, would they have shown him no sympathy,) let’s not leave him in the cold.” Lord Shiva, ofcourse was aware of the whole game and knew he was being tricked, and he said so - “This boy is not an ordinary boy, if you show him love and affection, he will take everything you have. Let’s not worry about this and move on. It is getting late for our bath.” But this made Parvati’s decision even firmer, she said, “I will not leave this child outside, no matter what happens”. (There is a very good story by Munshi Premchand named ‘Baba Bharati’ - if you get a chance read it and see what the connection is).
Lord Shiva, knew what was happening, he smiled and thought that what ever was to happen cannot be prevented. He told Parvati - “You are firm in your decision, you are the owner of your wish, and you will repent for your actions.” However, all this fell on deaf years and Parvati, took the child inside and put him to bed in her room. Now, at peace for having done the right, she went with Shiva to Tapt kund for her bath.

When they were gone, Lord Narayana locked the door from inside. When Shiva and Parvati returned they found that they had been locked out. They called a lock smith to break the door open, no they did no such thing, Lord Shiva smiled at Parvati, and said to her, “The child you took inside is Lord Narayana, you got tricked by his guile and now we have to leave this place to him and go somewhere else.” This place they went to was Kedarnath, across the valley on the west. (There is another competing story about how Shiva came to be at Kedarnath, that involves Bhima, one of the pandavas, and the bull.)

Lord Narayana set up camp at Badrinath, and started doing meditation there. In due time Narad arrived there and found him meditating. He asked the Lord, why Lord Narayan, Trilokinath, lord of the three worlds, creator, and sustainer of all creation was meditating and who was he meditating on. Then the Lord answered that the soul was essence of this universe, and that he was meditating on his own self. Hearing this Narad was very happy and decided to stay there with Lord Narayana. This is why Narad is known as the supreme devotee of this region, and his statue is next to the Shalgram Shila in the temple.

In the meantime, Laxmi came back from her sojourn with the Nag Kanyas’ and found that Lord Narayana was gone, the Shesh Shaiya was empty. She looked for him all over and finally found him in deep meditation at Kedarkhand (at that time this place was not called Badrinath). He was sitting there out in the open under the elements - rain, sun, wind. She was very sad at this and without waking him up or shouting at him for leaving home without leaving a note, she transformed herself into a badri tree to provide the Lord with protection from the nature. This is how this place came to be known as Badrivan or Badri kshetra, and the Lord is known as Badrinath.

Laxmi started to pray to the Lord to come out of his meditation, and take care of the world. The Lord listened to her prayer and agreed to do so under two conditions

1. Badrinath valley will be designated as a place of meditation and will be kept free from worldly affairs
2. The Lord will be prayed to by both gods and humans. Humans will pray to him in the shringarik form and the gods will pray to him in his meditative form. (In the temple, Laxmi is to the left of the Lord, she is a Vamangi). Accordingly, for six months the Lord is prayed to by humans and for the next six months by the gods.

A wife is also called a Vamangi in sanskrit. Our heart is on the left (vam) side, and when we get married we dedicate that side to our wife, and she becomes a man’s Vamangi. A wife always sits on the left side for all day to day activities but for any offerings, puja etc. she sits on the right side.

The priest at Badrinath, cannot be married. If he does marry, he will have to leave his post. The chief priest, also called a Rawal, happens to be a Namboodri brahman from Kerala, this tradition was started by Shri Shankaracharya. It was probably done to keep a pulse on Badrinath, the farthest of the Shankaracharya outposts, and probably with no capable resident brahmins. This tradition continues to this day!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Kedar Badri Trip

Day 7 - Oct 24th, Sunday. Hardwar to New Delhi

Day 7 - Oct 24th, Sunday. Hardwar to New Delhi

Another day of travel ahead of us. The hotel delivered our usual breakfast, puri and bhaji to the room. We were out by 8:30. It was supposed to be a easy trip back to Delhi. Crossed the Ramdev Divya Yoga Mandir complex soon after leaving Hardwar. Looks like a really big place, walled to protect itself from riffraff. Early road morning road trips in winter are really nice, the mild sun, cool air, and fresh greenery all around is invigorating. It brings back memories of picnics we used go for.

In U.P. and Uttar Khand many cars and jeeps have a police siren and red light attached. They are not official cars, you can have one installed for 500 rupees. U.P. is not a very safe place, and people don’t depend on law enforcement agencies to protect themselves but help themselves. The thinking is probably similar to the pro-gun states in the America, you want minimal government and control. Flouting your wealth is also not a good idea in these places, so even if a guy is rich he may live in a unpretentious house to not draw attention. The popular vehicles in this region are the Maxx jeep like things I had mentioned earlier. They can go on any terrain, has a rogue young driver who is racing against everyone else on the road, has a lot of luggage on top and of course full of passengers.

After about an hour of travel we came to dead stop. We asked different people and got many different answers about what was the cause of the stoppage and how long it will take to clear out. Answers varied from 30 minutes to not today. After waiting for 30 minutes our driver made a call and decided to try another road that goes along the Ganga. To get to that road, you had to cut across fields and villages with no road markings. That is not so foreign a concept in India, where there are hardly any road names. We kept asking and fine tuning our route to get to the road we wanted to. Many other buses and cars were doing the same thing, and soon enough we found ourselves in another road jam in the middle of a village where two buses were trying to go past each other on a road probably designed for bicycles, and neither would balk down. Very soon, another very Indian phenomenon happened, a guy started acting as traffic cop. Sometimes I feel that as part of basic education, they teach you how to be a traffic cop. This comes in very handy.

After about an hour we found our road, this road goes along a canal all the way from Rishikesh to Khatauli, our driver was calling it a Nahar wali road. Nahar is canal in Hindi, this nahar is an irrigational canal and it is so big you can see it on google map. The trip down this new road was mostly pleasant, not much traffic, in fairly good condition. But there is never a dull moment, so very soon we got stuck again. This time it was tractor which was pulling a carriage heaped with soil. The sides of the carriage had been doubled to make it possible to haul more dirt. Very ingenuous, only problem was this logic works on a flat road. The bridge was set below the surrounding area, so the tractor went down and could not go up on the other side and was stuck in the middle of the bridge.

People (men and kids) had lined up on both sides watching the fun. This is another characteristic Indian behavior and somehow contradictory to the constant impatience displayed in other spheres. Faced with inevitable delays people are not upset or impatient, they accept the situation, give suggestions, almost enjoy the break, if a nearby seller of food or chai is around, he will try to make a quick buck. All along the trip, I saw people who did not have much needs, and probably very low aspiration but they had adapted themselves to the situation and almost seemed happy and maybe are happier and at peace than most city dwellers. It is a simple, subsistence based life.

Soon, an earth moving machine which was scooping the silt from the canal bank came to the rescue and pulled the tractor and its load out, but just enough to clear the bridge. The rest of the trip to Khatauli and Grand Cheetal was uneventful. We had lunch at Cheetal, freshened up and were soon on our way to Delhi. On the way we crossed Meerut and Modi Nagar with all its colleges again. As soon as we hit the outskirts of Delhi, traffic became a problem, even though it was Sunday afternoon. There were heaps of singara (pani phal) on the carts along the road, we had wanted to have some in U.P but because of the accidents on the road could not. Over here the fruits did not look as fresh and the traffic discouraged us from stopping. Soon we were crossing Noida and were in Delhi proper, with the familiar malls and buildings.

Day 6 - Oct 23rd, Saturday. Rishikesh and Hardwar

Day 6 - Oct 23rd, Saturday. Rishikesh and Hardwar

Next morning, was a clear beautiful day, no trace of any clouds. The garden outside the hotel and the view of the mountains in the distance was breathtaking. We had our usual breakfast, packed up and set out towards Lakshman Jhula. Parked close to the bridge and walked down to the bridge. There is a Sai Ashram just next to the bridge. There is a large statue of Lakshman in front.

On the other side of the bridge is a statue of Shiva. One thing that surprised all of us was that two wheelers were allowed on the bridge. Motorcycles, scooters, hand carts, bicycles shared the bridge with people and an occasional cow. The river here is really wide. People were rafting down below. This area had a very high percentage of Europeans, Hare Krishna’s walked down
the road singing bhajans, hippies on motorcycles crossing the bridge, orientals. Many stores all around selling ‘genuine’ stuff - rudraksha, khadi clothes, jewelery, pearls, ayurvedic medicine. There are many yoga centers all around. There also many book stores - I think I saw Gita press near the steps.
After Lakshman jhula we went to Ram Jhula, a similar suspension bridge but longer. Instead of walking across we took a boat to cross Ganga. Ganga over here is really wide. The motorized boat can take about forty people, and crosses the river in 5 minutes. Crossing ganga on a river brings back memories from childhood, when there were no motorized boats, but oarsmen taking you across.

On the other side the first task was to go to the Chotiwala restaurant, an institution as famous as the bridges. After a nice lunch we walked around the place, went down to the river bank, took pictures and then crossed over to the other side. By this time it was afternoon. Initially we were thinking about staying in Rishikesh for the night, but then our driver suggested that it was too much of a hassle and time wasted if we did that. Next stop Hardwar.
We reached Hardwar soon. O the way we stopped to pick up some grapefruits from a thela wala. They peel it for you, but black salt on it and serve it to you. Must have been good, but I did not indulge myself in this round. I wanted to have the singara.

Just as we entered Hardwar we passed a giant statue of Shiva. Hardwar is not very clean, there is garbage all around. And it is very crowded, I cannot imagine how it would have been during the maha kumbh, which was earlier in the year. We tried to go in closer to the Har ki Pauri area and find a hotel there but the roads to that place were not open to cars and vans. So we had to settle for a hotel in the gurdwara area. The rooms were small and windowless but clean with a clean bathroom with air conditioner - in Hardwar we needed an air conditioner even in this season. I remember, even when I was here in 1979, we had a windowless room. After checking in, we tried to take a chance at visiting the Manasa temple, which is accessible by ropeway. 

We took a auto rickshaw to the base station. The roads were really dirty, and we got stuck on the way for 20 minutes where a truck was picking up garbage.After we reached the gate to the ropeway, we had to go down a steep flight of stairs and then walk for 5 minutes to go to the boarding place. We decided not to go on this ride because there was not enough time for us to come back in time and get a good seat for the Aarti. Took an auto back to the Har ki Pauri area and walked along the river bank, past the Netaji Subhash Chandra statue, past food stalls and beggars (Hardwar has a very high concentration), across the bridge to the ghat on the opposite side. 

We got a good place, but it was dirty so I went and bought some gamchas (towels) to sit on. The place filled up slowly, and by the time it was dark it was packed. There was a group sitting next to us who had come all the way from some small place in Bengal. By the way this time of the year, during Durga puja is called the Bangali season. They have their own cooks who cook the bengali delicacies, take you to all the must see places and provide decent accommodation. Bengali's are the original tourists in India, followed now by Gujratis. But gradually now this fever has caught on.

The ganga that flowed in front of us was like a trickling stream, shallow and dirty with plastic bags and other trash floating in it. The reason for this travesty is that the main ganga flows down another section and this by-pass is fed as needed by controlling a set of gates upstream and down stream. During the day this section is starved and about 30 minutes before the Aarti starts water is let in and soon it becomes full. As the steps fill up, people who come late go and sit on the lower steps but as the water rises they start pushing up and everyone gets cosy and cramped. People buy the flower boats and set them down the stream. There are organizations in blue uniform trying to collect money as donation, they may make it seem like they are selling you seats to watch the Aarti. There is an occasional cheer and the blaring of bhajans from the other side.

As it gets dark, the preparations for the Aarti begins. The place is washed with water, the idols of the deities are brought down in palanquins, loud speakers are playing devotional music and there are announcements for this and that. It becomes a happening place. The Aarti people take their stations, with the giant lamps (really giant - probably one and a half feet at the base with two feet height, with multiple layers of lamps. Devotional songs are blaring at full volume with the crowd chiming in with chants of Jai Ganga Maiya. 

The Aarti is something to experience, the 5 or more lamps are spread out at a distance of 20 feet along the ghat. The flames are huge. The pundits doing aarti hold the lamps with a wet cloth to avoid getting scalded, and every few minutes a guy standing next to the pundit pours water onto his hand to keep it cool. The Aarti lasts for about 20 minutes. The crowd disperses very quickly after that. It is better to wait for it to thin down before moving, I have heard of pick pockets working the area. We waited for another 10 minutes, still in awe after this wonderful experience.

It was now time for dinner, we walked down the second street on the left, which is the restaurant street and settled down in a dhaba. The place does brisk business, has place to sit probably 16. We had all kinds of stuff - chaat, chana batura, alu gobi etc..As usual with the dhabas the food was great. I had my limca to wash it down. After dinner, we went to a street corner jalebi store, and had some jalebi’s standing on the street, standing next to the kadai where the jalebi was being made. Next stop was supposed to be the peda store but everyone was too full. We walked down the street doing window shopping, all kinds of stores line the road. After a while we had enough and took rickshaws back to the hotel. Near the hotel, we walked around some more looking for something, I don’t remember what. There was also some celebration going on behind the hotel, and as usual the loud speaker was blaring. We went and checked it our too, had some more Limca and went back to the hotel.