Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Visa to Vaikuntam

Visiting Divya Desams is a dream which many Vaishnavites who worship any form of Lord Vishnu nurture, thanks to the huge awareness created through television by Shri Velukkudi Krishnan, a corporate honcho turned preacher. So much so that lakhs of Tamil speaking households and housewives start their day only after watching his programme on TV every morning; leading to a popular comedian quipping “In my home `Kappikudi (drinking morning coffee) happens only after listening to `Velukkudi!”.

I was free, having retired at the age of 65, and so my wife expressed a desire to visit the 106 of 108 Divya Desams, also known as 108 Tirupathys- temples for Narayana (Vishnu) located across the length and breadth of the country (and Nepal as well). Narayana or Vishnu is worshipped in different forms in these temples, but the significant feature is that there are special devotional songs composed by one of the 12 Alwars, the Vaishnavite Saints, on the specific deity and their consort, located in every one of these 106 temples.

The breakup of the locations of these temples is as follows:

Tamilnadu-82, Kerala-13, Andhra Pradesh-2, Gujarath-1, Uttarkhand-3, UP-4, Nepal-1.

Among the very famous temples included in this list are: Ranganathan temple in Srirangam, Balaji temple in Tirupathy, Anantha Padmanabha temple in Trivandrum, Parthasarathy temple in Chennai, Badrinath (one of the Char-dhams) in Uttarkhand & Mukthinath in Nepal, the last two located on the Himalayas.

Out of the 82 temples located in Tamilnadu, 36 are located in and around Kumbakonam and 22 in Kanchipuram. While we could cover the 22 temples in Kanchipuram in one day, we visited the 36 temples around Kumbakonam in 3 days using a knowledgeable local taxi driver, who not only knew the specific locations and timings of the temples but also had the mobile numbers. of every pujari! Invariably he would fore-warn the pujari about our visit to the temple which ensured that it was kept open when we visited the same.

It is not that easy for the less privileged people. Since many of the temples are located in remote villages, a common man can reach them only by using public transport upto a certain point and then has to walk the remaining distance; and even then very often to find the temples closed as the Pujaris would have gone home locking the temples after performing the mandatory Puja in the morning. (Thanks to Ms Jayalalitha’s initiative, who during her earlier stint as the Chief Minister of TN, had the government sanction a special budget for such Poojas in these temples.)

Compared to the huge crowd that many of the famous temples mentioned earlier attract, most of the other temples, some of them over 2000 years old, attract hardly any visitors. Many of them are in very dilapidated condition. However, in recent times the TVS Group in the South has been spending a lot of money on renovating the temples and also providing amenities to devotees visiting these temples. What they have done at `Nava Tirupathy` in Tirunelveli and Sholingur are examples of their efforts.

Visiting some of these temples involves hazardous journeys and some test your endurance limits!
Visiting the nine temples in Ahobhilam in Andhra is both hazarardous and an endurance test. You have to walk 6 kms through Naxal and wild animal infested, dense forests on a mountain to reach one of the temples for Narasimha (Pavana Narasimha), and another involves walking on pebbles and stones for more than an hour and crossing a flowing mountain stream (which could pose a danger during rainy seasons) and then walk up the 400 steps on a mountain to reach Jwala Narasimha. A real adventure indeed!

Travelling to Mukthinath located at 13500 ft in the Himalayas in Nepal is an experience by itself. The journey can be undertaken by both road and air upto Pokhra, which is the second largest town in Nepal. From Pokhra to Jumsum everyone has to take a short 20 minute ride on the 22 seater propeller driven twin engine Dornier aircrafts, which operate like Mofussil buses! They look like flying contraptions which can come apart anytime- especially the ones operated by Tara Airways, a local airline. Everyone gets into these jalopies, climbing one at a time on a portable short steel ladder which is held in position by the sole airhostess! No security checks, no queues! As soon as the deplaning passengers get down, the waiting passengers rush to get in. And you are airborne in no time and ready to land even before you had the opportunity to savour the spectacular view of the Himalayas which you pass through with fear in your mind and prayer in your hearts.

From Jumpsom it is a 45 minute, bone rattling ride in a local jeep, to Rani Powa at the foot of the mountain on top of which the temple is located. Until two years ago helicopters used to fly devotees right next to the temple. Since this service has been discontinued due to operational reasons, people either take a two hour walk up the mountain or the two wheeler service operated by the local Nepali boys. Sitting on the pillion of the vehicle and holding on to the rider for dear life, devotees reach the temple premise in 20 minutes praying all the way through the narrow winding mountain path. Invariably you can hear the boys screaming to their squirming passengers not to shake, because any untoward movement can send the vehicle for a toss! It is also a sight to see the efforts required to make the old, fat and infirm people get on to the vehicle. My wife Prabha had a problem at that height due to the intense cold and lack of oxygen, causing some anxious moments for me.

Though the journey to Badrinath is not physically taxing it is hazardous to the extent that the acts of God and nature may put impediments, in the form of landslides and unexpected road blocks; sometimes leaving your vehicle stranded among serpentine queues for hours on end. On the positive side; on your way, you can enjoy a dip in the holy Ganges at Hardwar and witness the famous evening arathis on the banks of the river; later visit Rishikesh, and then move on to the see the confluence of Alaknanda and Bagirathi at Devaprayag before they combine to become the Ganges; or upstream watch the Alaknanda merging with Manadakini river at Rudraprayag.

Once you reach Badrinath, located at 11,000 ft and after finishing your darshan of Lord Narasimha, you can visit Manna village, considered to be the last Indian village on the mountains, which is just three kilometers away from Badrinath. Here you are treated to the spectacular sight of river Saraswathy gushing with all its fury from a nearby hill, the only place you can see the river because mythology tells us that due to a curse from Vyasa she goes underground all through her journey, to Triveni Sangam at Allahabadd where she merges with Ganga and Yamuna.

Another tough location was the Narasimha temple located at Sholingur, near Vellore in TN, where you have to walk up 1500 steep steps, with a walking stick, tackling hundreds of monkeys all the way! During our trip a determined monkey tried to snatch my wife’s handbag who was also equally determined not to part with it. The fisticuff between them was free entertainment for the other devotees passing by but terror stricken moments for my wife!

It is amazing that a person like me who finds it difficult to climb two stories to my office, could undertake all these difficult journeys without much trouble. That is what implicit faith in the Lord does to you. The feeling of achievement and fulfillment that both Prabha and I felt after visiting the 106 temples is worth all the troubles that we had to undergo during the three years that it took us to complete the project.

In the beginning of this article I mentioned about visiting 106 out of the 108 Divya Deshams on this earth. The balance two are located in `Vaikundam` and `Thiruparkadal, the original abode of the Lord Vishnu in heaven. As a Vaishnavite I can now proudly say that by visiting the 106 temples on this earth I have got my Visa for a Darshan of the Lord in the Heaven. I just have to wait patiently for the ticket and the departure call! Having fulfilled all my worldly duties and lived a full life, I am ready to face my creator any time he wants to meet me! Jai Narasimha!


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