Our pilgrimage to India was filled with surprises which were blessings in disguise. I must say I was reluctant at first to go however it was the best decision I could make. The trip taught me more about our religion and our motherland. With my notebook handy, I hastily jotted down notes throughout the trip trying to remember every detail. We learned about largest religious gathering in the world, Kumbh Mela, and the sacred locations of the Shakti Peethas. We visited such holy sites as the Ganges, Panchavati, Kurukshetra and Varanasi. Our travels from Mumbai to Delhi had numerous stops in between including four Jyotir Lingams and Akshardham, which is considered by many to be the eighth wonder of the world. Our first blessing in disguise, however, was the snowstorm.
In order to avoid the snowstorm, the first day of the pilgrimage was unexpectedly made a day early and by the grace of God everyone was able to get a seat on the plane. The first day in Mumbai was spent at Juhu beach and Maha Laxmi Mandir. We even got a glimpse of Amitabh Bachan’s bungalow as we rode on the bus. The next day, Maha Shivratri, we travelled about 5 hours to Nasik, which was a holy land for much of the Ramayana. In Nasik, we spent time in Panchavati, the location where Mother Sita was abducted by Ravan. It was also the place where Mother Sita performed Agni-Pariksha and burned herself in order to prove her purity during the time she was captured. At the time Sita Ma decided to return back to Mother Earth, five trees were created, hence the name Panchavati.
After Panchavati, we visited our first Jyotir Lingam for this trip, Triambakeshwar which had lines that seemed to be never-ending since it was one of the most holy days for Lord Shiva, Shivratri. The lines were about 2-3 hours long displaying the immense devotion that lies in India. Luckily our tour guide, Alok, found a shortcut and we were able offer our prasadam. After we offered our prayers to the lingam, we sat in a circle outside the temple, sang bhajans to Lord Shiva and offered more prayers. The singing and chanting was calming through all the chaos.
The next day, Saturday the 13th was very productive. As we traveled in the bus we made a stop to a village and saw the living conditions of the impoverished. Each home was very clean, had an altar and was about the size of a small living room. They were welcoming and looked content and truly appreciative of our gifts. Later, we offered our prasadam to the Grishneshwar Lingam in Aurangabad, our second Jyotir lingam of the trip. It is also the location of the tree that witnessed Lord Bramha’s lie when he said he traveled to the end of the lingam as part of a race against Lord Vishnu to see who was superior.
The beginning of our Sunday was spent at the Ellora Caves. Built in the 5th century the caves have temples and carvings representing Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The rock carvings are extravagant and are astonishingly intricate for the limited tools that were available during the time period. Not far from the Ellora Caves we visit the Shivalay, the lake that Lord Shiva created with his trishul because Mother Parvati was thirsty. The rest of the day was spent on the bus taking in the stunning scenery of the countryside.
Our journey continues to our 3rd Jyotir Lingam, Bhimashankar Lingam. What I liked about the trip is that along the bus rides Alokji and Guruji told the stories behind the locations we were going to. For Bhimashankar, Bhima wanted to avenge the death of his father Kumkaran. He prayed with immense devotion to Lord Bramha and was granted great power. With his power, Bhima took over the three worlds, defeated Lord Indra and captured a devotee of Lord Shiva, Kamrupeshwar, unsuccessfully forcing him to stop praying to Lord Shiva. Angered by Kamrupeshwar’s stout determination to stay true to Lord Shiva, Bhima began to strike Lord Shiva Lingam, but Lord Shiva appeared in a “bhima” (large) form and destroyed Bhima with his third eye. Lord Shiva’s sweat from the battle became the Bhimarathi River alongside the lingam. Hence, Bhimashankar has two meanings; first the destruction of Bhima, second the form Lord Shiva took for the battle. It is said that anyone who prays to the lingam will destroy the bad in themselves because everyone has a good and bad side. As for the Bhimashankar lingam itself, it is covered in silver to prevent the erosion of milk and other items being poured on it daily. Bhimshankar is unique in that the lingam is only open in the morning for humans, while at night animals are welcome to take part.
On February 18th we traveled to Varanasi, the city of temples as well as one of the oldest cities in the world. Varanasi gets its name from the surrounding rivers; to the north is Varuna and to the south is Assi, while the Ganges flows in between. As we head into Kashi, another name for Varanasi, we visit Kal Bhairav Temple early in the morning at 5 o’clock to gain permission from the Lord for entrance into Kashi. A half an hour later we ride on a boat in the Ganges just in time for the sunrise. Riding along the Ganges, we put lit diyas in the water and offer daar to Surya Narayan. It’s serene and peaceful floating on the sacred water; passing the numerous ghats and watching children perform Surya Namaskar. About an hour later, boat shops drift our way with little trinkets and souvenirs. Before we know it there’s four boats, two on each side, holding onto our boat trying to sell us items. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but its India and its all part of the experience.
After the boat ride on the Ganges we walk to our final Jyotir Lingam, Kashi Vishwanath also known as the Golden Temple. It is one of the most sacred temples in India and has the most security of all the temples we’ve been to thus far. Even though it’s Thursday morning, there is a line to get in the temple. We offer our prayers and Guruji was able to offer some Ganga jal brought from the Ganges. Right next to the lingam we bow to a temple dedicated to Annapurna, avatar of Durga Ma.
Our next stop on Saturday, February 20th, was Kurukshetra, the divine location of the battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas. With murtis of Lord Krishna, Arjuna, and many others in the surroundings, we perform havan. There are many school buses around with children rushing to the water to get blessings. It is a wonderful sight to see them wholeheartedly take part in bowing at the murtis and splashing water on their faces on their own. Nearby is a small temple with an even smaller door, which we learn, is so devotees automatically bow as they enter the temple.
As we ride on the bus to our next holy site, Guruji tells us about the Shakti Peethas (places of strength). We all know the familiar story of how Sathi Ma married Lord Shiva against her father’s approval. To retaliate, Sathi’s father, Daksha, arranged a yagna inviting all devatas except Lord Shiva and Sathi. The distraught Sathi attended the yagna and burned herself in the havan kund as she couldn’t bear the humiliation and disrespect given to Lord Shiva by her father. What I didn’t know was that upon hearing of Sathi Ma’s immolation, Lord Shiva angrily took her charred body and began Tandava Nritya, the dance of destruction. Seeing the dangers the dance was bringing to the world, Lord Vishnu used his Sudarshan chakra to cut Sathi Ma’s body into 52 pieces, which have become known as the Shakti Peethas. The 52 pieces were spread across the kingdom of Bharatvarsa which is modern day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. We were blessed to visit the Sathi Ma’s right ankle at a temple in Kurukshetra. Over hundreds of years women have gone to Shakti Peetha temples to heal the body part that cause them pain.
The Museum for Math and Science in Kurukshetra had some brain teasers and illusions on the first floor but what stood out was the vast circular room on the second floor. A magnificent panoramic painting of the battle in the Mahabaratha was the main viewing point of the museum. It had pivotal scenes from the Bhagwat Gita with beautiful artistry and descriptions of each. Our day in Kurukshetra opened my eyes to how sacred it is based on the placement of Shakti Peetha and the battle that defined our morals. The journey only continued to open my eyes as we left Kurukshetra and headed toward Haridwar, the site of Kumbh Mela.
The origin of Kumbh Mela was told in the Bhagavat Purana. All the devatas were cursed by Rishi Durvasa for thinking themselves invincible and therefore lost their powers. In order to gain it back the devatas planned to churn the ocean of milk to extract amrit, the nectar of immortality. However, the devatas weren’t strong enough to churn the ocean alone so they propose to offer half of the amrit to the demons to boost their force. By placing a mountain in the ocean, Vasuki, the respected snake, wrapped himself around the mountain as the devatas held his tail and the demons held his hood to churn the ocean. The constant churning made the mountain sink into the ocean, which is when Lord Vishnu took the form of his second avatar, Kurma the turtle, to hold up the mountain so the churning could continue.
As the churning proceeded, items began to produce, the first being a pot of poison, Halahala, which was strong enough cause mass destruction. Lord Shiva was called upon to drink the poison and through his compassion saved the world and enabled the devatas and demons to persist in churning. Fourteen items, or ratnas, were produced from the churning of the ocean, known as Samudra Manthan: the cow Kamadhenu, the flying horse Ucchaihshravas, the elephant Airavat, the gem called Kaustubha, the divine flower Parijata, Apsaras, Mother Lakshmi, Varuni, Chandra Ma, the auspicious tree Kalpavriksha, a bow Sharanga, a shank. The physician and originator of Ayurveda, Dhanvantri was last to come out with the pot (kumbh) of amrit, which both the devatas and demons wanted. A battle for the amrit took place and lasted 12 days and 12 nights, equivalent to 12 human years. Lord Vishnu intervened and disguised himself as the enchanted Mohini to trick the demons into giving the kumbh to her. Mohini then gave the kumbh to Jayant, Lord Indra’s son, who turned into the form of a bird to fly away with the amrit. However some of the amrit spilt while flying landed in four very sacred places: Prayag, Ujjain, Nasik and Haridwar. Kumbh Mela is observed at these locations four times every twelve years. Those who bathe in the Ganges during Kumbh Mela and pray with sincerity will gain moksha. As mentioned earlier, it is known as the largest religious gathering in the world; millions of devotees take part in the pilgrimage on the auspicious days.
Our arrival in Haridwar takes us to the fierce waters of the Ganges for evening aarti. Security is heightened for Kumbh Mela and there are many signs on the road advertising it, one such stating, “Kumbh Mela 2010: Campaign for World Peace”. At the aarti, there are miniature booths where one could do a short puja but mostly we sit on the steps and raise our hands above our heads whenever a pandit says a mantra or says “Jai.” Later those lucky enough to be near Ganga Ma as she is carried on a dholi, bow to her while we light our diyas to float on the water. The evening at the Ganges is exhilarating while the early morning is revitalizing. The next morning at 5 o’clock we take a dip in the freezing water at the Ganges; its rapid currents are strong but we are able to offer daar and pray. Afterward, before Surya Narayan rises, we perform puja in front of a large Ganga Ma murti that rests in the middle of the river. It’s a stunning sight to see the rising sun between Ganga Ma Murti and Lord Shiva Murti.
On our way to Geeta Bhavan in Rishikesh, soon after, we stop to look for a Rudrasksh tree and unexpectedly arrive at Sathi Kund, the site where Sathi Ma burned herself because her father Daksha, showed no respect for her husband Lord Shiva. As soon as we enter the site, there is a large murti of Lord Shiva angrily holding Sathi Ma’s charred body showing the setting of how the Shakti Peethas came to be. It was overwhelming to realize that this was the location where all the devatas were and the location of the story I’ve heard since I was a child. We reach our destination to Geeta Bhavan with a good mindset from Sathi Kund and just in time for the havan. I am grateful to my mother for making the arrangements to perform havan on my birthday as well as my Nannie, Mousie, Guruma and Guruji for partaking in it. After the havan there was a wonderful aarti with beautiful music and singing. When the aarti was completed we were invited to a lecture by Swami Chidanand Saraswati.
At first he didn’t say anything; it seemed he was analyzing the attendees to determine what would be suitable for the whole group. In the meantime, Guruji spoke about our pilgrimage and mentioned it was my birthday. To my surprise a mala was brought and Swamiji garlanded me for the occasion which instantly became the highlight of the trip. The lecture begins and is on journeys. Swamiji, in a soft voice that commands the room, emphasizes that we should not expect, we should accept. Instead of always wanting, appreciate what we have. Life is about bettering yourself every day. We should live in the now and not in the past because everything we do now will affect our future. We should live for others. He spoke about how he and Sai Baba were discussing that it’s better to be a fish than selfish because even fish clean water. It was a pleasant lecture and enjoyable day.
The next day we rode on a cable car to get to the top of a mountain in Haridwar where Mansa Devi temple is. We offer prayers to Durga Ma and it is said that if you put a bindi on the wall of the temple with a sincere wish, the wish will come true. Thousands of bindis are scattered on the wall. After offering prayers we go to the lookout and see a magnificent view of Haridwar and the Ganges. The rest of the day was spent shopping in Rishikesh, but since shopping was of little interest to Vishalji and Ajayji, they bought 25 bananas for 50 rupees (about a US dollar) and started feeding many cows that walked around.
As our journey comes to an end, we visit Akshardham, considered to be the 8th wonder of the world. No cameras are allowed on the premises for security purposes, but perhaps it was for the best since I was able to look at the finer details of the temple and definitely paid more attention. The design was astonishing with the theme of elephants surrounding the temple. The carvings represent how significant elephants are to Hinduism. There was, however, a carving that I would have liked to have captured on camera; the churning of the ocean carving. It was beautiful and included a description of all the ratnas focusing on the elephant Airavat.
In only 20 days, there was a great amount about our religion and about India that seeped into my brain on this pilgrimage. I learned about the connections between stories in how Lord Shiva drinking the poison and Lord Vishnu’s avatar Kurma are related to Kumbh Mela. I learned about the Shakti Peethas and the ratnas of the Samudra manthan. I learned about how the Jyotir Lingams were created. Everything has significance and symbolism in India and is absolutely lovely. It’s the place where the Lord chose to reside and make decisions that have determined the way we live. From the battle at Kurukshetra, the narration of the Bhagwat Geeta, to Nasik, the location where Lord Rama, Seeta Ma and Latchman stayed during their exile written in the Ramayan, India is without a doubt one of the most sacred lands in the world.