Impressions from Full Moon night pradakshina around Arunachala – April 19, 2008: By Richard Clarke

Saturday night was full moon night again, this time special due to the Tamil New Year. Carol and I had not done pradakshina around Arunachala on such nights and had planned to do so this night.

We have been preparing. This is a big effort for aging Westerner bodies. From our house, Brindavanam, it is between 9 and 10 miles to circuit Arunachala. For the last two weeks we had been doing ‘half pradakshinas’ (about 5 miles from our house along the inner path to the Ramakrishna hotel, where we would stop, get breakfast – vadas and dosa, and Indian milk coffee – then take an auto-rickshaw the rest of the way home. To get ready we have been walking about 25 miles a week on Arunachala, either around it or up and down to one or another of the caves and meditation spots.

It is April now, and the summer heat is starting. Saturday at our house it was 38 C (100 F). When we left about 6:15 PM it had not cooled off much.

We walked out to Bangalore Road, west of where the pradakshina roads turn round the holy hill. The road used for pradakshina is blocked off from traffic, and traffic is rerouted for this night. When we got to Bangalore Road we saw many busses parked along the road, and thousands of people streaming towards the pradakshina route. The foot traffic was light, we found out in a few minutes – only maybe 5 or 6 abreast taking only half the road.

We joined the pradakshina crowd about 2 miles into the route many take. It is common to start at Arunachaleswara Temple, in the center of Tiruvannamalai. We joined after the route has left Tiru and is starting around Arunachala to the West of town.

Since this was a big night there was a big crowd. We heard crowd estimates of 10 – 15 lakhs (1 to 1.5 million people) – this in a city of about 100,000. When we joined the route the road was packed, maybe 10 or 12 abreast and taking up all the (recently widened) road. To get a sizing of this number of people, in the US there is each year a ‘Super Bowl’ championship of American Football. This gets many 70,000. For European football (soccer in the US) the best teams, like Manchester United gets crowds of maybe 75,000. Lesser teams get maybe 20,000. So the crowd is like 15 or 20 Super Bowls or Manchester United matches.

Visitors commonly take busses here. When they arrive they start the walk. When they are finished, they may eat by the bus then get back on the bus and sleep on the drive back home.

We saw men, women, children, lovers, families, babies asleep being carried over the shoulder and being passed from Dad to Mom along the route. There were small groups of young women walking without parental supervision and human chains of young men, each holding the shoulders of the man in front, pushing their way through the crowd, chanting Siva chants. Many people walked holding hands or in some way staying connected to the people in their group.

People walking pradakshina

Though we were walking at night, the road was mostly well lit, lit up from all the roadside shops and temple that line the route. Most of the ‘shops’ were temporary, built from poles and erected just for the one day. They supplied everything you can imagine. This included drinking water, green coconuts (for drinking), fruit juice stands, soda stands, food stands, spiritual picture stands, toys, clothes, women’s bags, jewelry (mainly the bracelets that almost all Indian women always wear and color-coordinate with their sarees or salwar suits) food staples like rice and lentils, and many more. I even noticed a motorbike display, showing the latest models. Sometimes it had a bit of the feel of a Western trade show, with all the vendor booths showing off their wares. .

Occasionally there was no light and the crowd was illumined just by the moonlight. I liked this the best.

In the crush of the crowd the walking was not easy. One could not set up a stride and keep it up. People pushed their way past you, crossed the road in front of you, and there was a surprising number of bicycles, motorbikes, and even a few cars and vans going the other way. We were almost hit by an unlighted bike crossing the road against traffic in the dark. Often the most aggressive at pushing their way past us were women.

Though the purpose of the walk is spiritual, it seemed that many making the walk were not really doing so with this approach. We passed many temples. Some walkers were going in. Many were not. Some were chanting as they walked. Most were not. Some were paying attention to Arunachala as they walked. Most were not. Most were talking with the group they came with. Many were chatting on cell phones.

Small simple altar, after Adi Annamalai

Here is a photo of a small, simple temple altar to the side of the road after we passed Adi Annamalai. All the others had many people. This just sat a bit away from the road, lit but mainly unvisited. It looked homemade.

I could track our progress by the changing face of Arunachala as we walked. From our walks on the inner path, I now pretty well know were we are by the view presented by the holy hill. We start on the west side and see the view from our house, the mountain, and to the left side, the hill called Parvati. As we walk then we pass Parvati, then the ‘knob’ (whose name I do not know) that I associate with the Adi Annamalai Temple on the backside of the hill. Then we pass the forest to the right that marks the end of the inner path. This means that we are nearing the road back into Tiruvannamalai.

Finally we walk the three miles through town, passing Arunachaleswara, then Ramanasramam. We stopped at a restaurant, Usha’s just before we came to Ramanasramam, to sit and get a bite to eat. I am so tired by now I can barely take the steps, and much of this body hurts, the lower back, hips, legs and feet all hurt, some parts more than others. To keep going I have to think of near term objectives – it is just one block to Ramanasramam, I can make it one more block – like this I was able to make the last couple of miles.

Emerging from Usha’s, now it is about 11 PM. Though late at night, it still must be 90 or 95 F, still surprisingly hot. The crowd we are with is mainly a new group, just starting out. We thought the road was crowded before, but now there seems to be almost twice as many people. The road is packed from side to side with so many people that the pace has slowed to about half of what it was before. At one point, right before Bangalore split off from the pradakshina route, the crowd actually came to a standstill, too many people to even move.

Finally we could turn off the pradakshina road and continue walking without all the crowds the last half mile back to our house. I can make it to the light, I can make it to the corner, I can see our house, I can make it past the guest house, I can make it across the field, I can make it to our gate, I can make it to our house! In the house, we will fill the shower bucket and wash off all the sweat and grime from the night. My feet are just about as dirty as I have ever seen them. We got to bed around midnight.

I got up about 4:30 this morning and went up to the rooftop to be with Arunachala and meditate. In our usually quiet country location, there was still much noise from the road. I think a lot of this noise was horns of busses, trying to make their way out, to start back home. And in the dirt road in front of our house, there were, even at 5 AM, many rickshaws (which usually we do not see at all) which were, I guess, carrying walkers too tired to go further, back to their busses.

Indian Village 13-day ceremony: By Richard Clarke

The ceremony – Shraddha

After a death in India, the body is cremated or buried usually within one day of the death. Then a few days later an elaborate ceremony is performed, called shraddha. The details of this vary by location and caste. In Tamil Nadu the number of days after the death that this is done depends on the age of the person. The idea is that the atma (soul) takes longer to free itself from the home and family the longer the person lives. During the time between the death and this ceremony, the household where the person died is considered unclean. The residents cannot cook food, etc. In part these ceremonies are seen as contributing to the merit of the deceased, but they also pacify the soul so that it will not linger in this world as a ghost but will pass through the realm of Yama, the god of death.

The ceremony marks the time when the atma is released to what comes next.

This posting shows the 13 day ceremony for a village woman who was 55 years old, widowed, with two sons and a daughter. The funeral was shown in an earlier posting.

The mother’s house – the location

The awning set up in front of Mother's house 2A house in the village

In the village street, a canopy is set up in front of Mother’s house (to the right). Another village house is shown in the picture on the right.

Village women gather and cook

Village women

Cooking area in the villageWomen cooking

Village women are gathered to cook. These will not be residents of the household of the dead mother, since these are considered as still ‘unclean,’ so cannot be involved with food preparation.

Views from the village

Arunachala from village

Here is Arunachala from the village

View from village - haystack and cowsView from village

Surrounding the village are fields where rice, coconuts and ‘groundnuts’ (peanuts) are grown, and cows and goats forage.

Puja in Mother’s house

Preparing items for puja at village templePreparing for mother's pjuaMother's pjua - casting flowers on the altarMother's puja started

Mother's puja - offering camphor to picture of motherPriest blessing the crowd

First a puja is offered for Mother inside her house. The Brahmin priest builds an altar, starting with a banana leaf, then a bed of uncooked rice. He prepares a pot by winding string around it, then placing water in it. Leave are put in the pot, then a coconut. The coconut is decorated with flowers. The first son, “Anna,” and another male relative start the puja. They will offer flowers by tossing them to the altar, and then Anna offers camphor to the altar, then to his mother.

When this is concluded the priest will take the water in the pot, which has now been consecrated by the puja and so is holy water, and ‘bless’ the people with the water.

Procession to village temple

Drum and reed getting ready to walk to village templeOldest son leading the walk to the vaillage templeWalking through the villageCarrying puja items to village templeApproaching village temple At village temple

This ceremony requires different music than the drumming of the first day. A horn and drum create different sounds and rhythms than previously. The the musicians start playing and the village men, with male relatives of Mother, go in procession to the village temple, carrying the puja items that will be used there. Anna carries young plants that will be planted at the site of Mother’s ashes.

This is a small village with no walled temple. Rather there is an outside shrine, not shown here, with the tree and platform next two it. These ceremonies are usually preformed under a tree, in a special place in Hindu temples.

This simple temple and tree-temple are hundreds of years old.

Preparing for the Tree-Temple puja

Setting up for puja at templeEldest son getting shavedSetting up for puja at temple 2Setting up for puja at temple 4

Now preparations for the puja begins. Anna is shaved of all facial hair. He has not shaved since the death of his mother. The priest and a villager work together to lay out the puja items. The specific items used depend first on whether it was a man or a woman, and if a woman, depending on whether her husband survives her, or she is a widow. This is a puja is for a widow.

Preparation of puja altar with shrines for two gods

Set up of puja altarSet up of puja altar 2Set up of puja altar 3Set up of puja altar 4

The priest builds the puja alter. As before, it starts with banana leaves and a bed of rice. Water again is put into pots, then leaves and a coconut. The ‘gods’ symbolized by coconuts are also decorated with flowers.

Preparing eldest son for puja

Working on the cloth strip for eldest sonPreparing string for eldest son

Now since these were not to top two castes (who do not wear the Sacred Thread) then the priest makes one for Anna and puts it over his right shoulder.

There are different methods of wearing the Sacred Thread at different occasions. While performing an auspicious ceremony one should be Upaviti, that is, the Sacred Thread should hang from one’s left shoulder. At the performance of some inauspicious ceremony one should be Prachnaviti, that is, the Sacred Thread should hang from the right shoulder; and at times it is called Niviti when the Sacred Thread is worn around the neck like a garland.

The Puja

Offering flowers to altarTemple puja 1Dressing the altar gods with dhotisOffering camphor to altarGods fully dressed

Now Anna performs the puja, again offering flowers and camphor. The the ‘gods’ are dressed up in dhotis.

Preparing the coconut frond

weaving coconut frond

While the puja is going on, a man takes a half of a coconut frond and starts weaving it together to make the triangular structure that will later be used to offer favorites foods to Mother.

Ashes and Booma, Earth Mother

Getting ready for cremationCremation with both sons attendingCarrying ashesCarrying ashes to tank

Then a small symbolic white cloth, set into a wooden frame, is placed on a bed of dry plant material on the ground, and burnt. This invokes Booma, Earth Mother. These ashes resulting from this burning are mixed with other holy materials, and carried by Anna to a nearby tank.

PUtting ashes into waterElsest son fully submerged

Anna then enters the tank and disperses the ashes into the water. He then submerges himself fully into the water to wash away the impurity that has been his since he lit his mother’s cremation pyre. The second son stands by.

Rice Balls – Pindas

Back from the tankPreparing rice ballsEldest son doing circle pranams Taking rice balls to the crows

The sons returned to the priest. Balls of rice and Mother’s favorite foods have been prepared. One ball represents mother. It is broken, and merged it into the ancestors. This process, known as Sapindikarana marks the end of mother’s journey. After this, the anna makes a pranam and turns in a circle (honoring the world). Both sons are led into the nearby field by a village elder, who yells “kaa kaa,” to call the crows. The rice is left in the field for the crows.

The village women join the ceremony

After the sons went into the field with the rice for the crows, the village women joined the men at the tree temple. A different ‘altar’ was set up with small inverted ceramic pots holding up a bowl. There were two pots, containing honey and milk, with sticks in them. Some men and women would dip sticks into the pots and then offer these into the bowl. When this was finished, the sons and the priest came over to the bowl for further puja. The sons sat, and the priest placed their outreached hands, with the younger son’s hand above the elder son’s, which was in turn above the bowl. The priest then poured various things, such as water, milk, turmeric, and kum kum, through their hands into the bowl.

Ceremonial meal for the deceased mother

Then it seemed like a ceremonial meal was offered to the mother. While the puja was going on, a man was weaving a coconut fronds. He formed these into a triangular structure, and put it on the ground in front of the tree-temple. Puja items were put into it, and about six banana leaf plates loaded with food were put in front of this. The sons offered camphor to it, and then they (and a few others) walked pradakshina, circling this structure three times.

Rice flour balls

Then the priest formed a roll of flour dough and cut it into six pieces. He put dabs of turmeric and kum kum on top of 3 balls, and the sons combined each of these with the other three, forming three larger balls. Then there was the final trip to the water tank. This time both sons, as well as the daughter and another woman, got into the tank and immersed themselves, and the dough balls were offered and dissolved in the water. The ‘celebrants’ climbed out the steep rock walls of the tank, and then returned to the area under the tree temple.

Gifts for the family

The last act was gift giving by the relatives and villagers. This is needed since the children are not, per custom, allowed to buy any new clothes for themselves for the next year, the period of mourning. Nor will they celebrate the normal festivals, etc. during this period. People offered gifts of clothing and money to the sons and daughter. They gave them to the priest, stating their names, and the priest in turn blessed them by dabbing them with kum kum and then giving them to the sons and daughter. While the sons and the daughter were taking off their old clothes on putting on the new, gifts were being offered in turn to other family members.

Everyone is given a special meal

After this, everyone walked back to the village and sat under the canopy and ate the meal that had been prepared all morning by the village women. It was a pretty typical South India lunch, served on a banana leaf. Rice and sambar, fritters, rasam and buttermilk, with a small serving of sour lemon pickle. Since this was a special occasion several side dishes were also given, none of which I could identify.

The men were seated and fed first. Since my wife is a westerner she was allowed to eat with me and the men. After the men finished eating, the tables were cleared of the banana leaves and the women were able to sit and eat.

Indian Village Funeral: By Richard Clarke

Last week in the village in which we live a woman died. She was the mother of a man we work with Ramesh, in the Quality of Life Trust. That afternoon we heard the drums, typical of such funerals, and Ramesh called us and asked us to join him. We walked about two hundred meters to the village and spent the next few hours there. We asked for permission to take photos, and some of these are in this article.

Coming into the village, under the awning is mother's body

As we enter the village we see people gathered under an awning. The mother’s body is in the center of the group on her bed. People are gathered around the body grieving and paying respect.

Remesh - center

Ramesh is sitting with the men. He’s in the middle.

Village drummers

Drummers are important to the funeral. Their music announces the death to the village. After the drums start, people come from up to one km away to join in the ceremonies.

Gathered around mother - women on one side, men on the other

Often the sexes are separated. Here naturally the women and men seem to select different areas to sit.

Decorating the car - building the wood frame

Much of the activity of the afternoon was in preparing the car that would take Mother to the crematorium. First a wood frame is built.

Village boys posing for a picture

The village boys seeing the camera naturally want to pose for a picture. Here they are looking tough. We’ll make some prints of this photo and give one to each boy.

Decorating the car getting started

They have started to decorate the car. Notice in the foreground bamboo sticks covered with flowers. These are bent and inserted into the frame for decoration.

Woman joined together in mourning

The woman, grieving, would approach each other and stand and beat their chest in a gesture of mourning. Then they would get into a group hug circle and sink down into a squat. They would moan and cry together, swaying back and forth. This death was particularly painful to the village women. Mother was only in her mid fifties, young to die, even for an Indian village woman. She had had a hard life – her husband died 15 years before and she had to support the kids without much help from anyone. Somehow she was able to send at least one of her boys, Ramesh, through college. Ramesh said that she was very sad though, due to her deep poverty, and especially do to the fact than none of her children were married, and she had no grandchildren.

Decorating the car - working on the back

The villagers are working on the decorations for the car. Here they are bending the flower-sticks and inserting them into the frame on the back of the car.

Decorating the car

Now they are adding the flower malas to the central frame on the car.

decorating the car - neraly done

Decorations are nearly done.

Villager dancing to the drums as people carry puja materials

As new people join the funeral the drummers escort them in, and ‘drum them’ into the group. Here a man is dancing as people bring puja items into the funeral.

Preparing the body

Now they start to prepare Mother’s body. They will clean up the body, re-dress her in a fine sari, then perform puja, before placing her body on the decorated cart.

Ramesh helping prepare his mother's body

Ramesh (second from left) is here helping prepare his mother.

Getting puja items ready, needed to prepare the body

The men are getting some puja items ready.

Pouring water to use in preparing the body

Water for the puja is being poured. This was not only sprinkled onto mother, but onto the people in the crowd. They especially sought out Mother’s three children and made sure they got pretty wet.

Mother's body fully prepared

Now Mother is fully prepared. Such loving care was taken in this preparation. And this was something that almost everyone in the village took part in. Very much this was a village ceremony, not just something done by the family.

Carrying mother to the car

Mother was then carried to the car. I took part in this. She seemed so tiny, so light. She had been ill with cancer, supposedly, and stopped eating three months ago. Ramesh and his two siblings had taken her to several doctors for cures, and, as a last resort, took her to a “miracle shrine” when the doctors didn’t improve her health.

Going to crematorium

Now the car is off to the crematorium. The drummers will lead the way, then the car and the mourners.

Mahasivaratri with Arunachala: By Richard Clarke

The night of March 6 – when there was no moon – was Mahasivaratri this year. This night honors Siva, seen in nonduality as Being-Consciousness absolute. It is the association with Siva that makes Arunachala such a holy mountain.

Instead of going into town to a temple, or doing pradakshina – walking around Arunachala – we decided to hold a Siva Puja at our house. Here are some photos.

The Altar set up near sun down

Mahasivaratri altar

The altar has a picture of Siva, a lingam, a photo of Nome, and various puja materials.

Arunachala is is the background.

Puja Materials

Puja materials

Fruit and a coconut are common offering.

For Sivaratri it is important to have Bilva leaves as an offering.

Camphor is there for later use.

Puja at midnight

Richard at Mahasivaratri Puja

Richard is offering Puja to the Sivalingam.

Coconut milk, cows milk, ghee, bilva leaves and flower petal are offered in turn.

Richard at Puja

Lingam after Puja

lingam after Puja

After the Puja here is the broken coconut.

The lingam is covered with bliva leaves and flowers.

Dawn over Arunachala after Mahasivaratri night

Arunachala Sunrise after Mahasivaratri night

Richard and Carol were up most of the night, listening to recordings of chants, and spiritual discourses from their teacher, Nome.

In quiet times we meditated. For us this is a most holy night.

Altar at dawn

Mahasivaratri altar after Pjua at dawn

Here is the altar at dawn. The lingam has been put back in its usual place, and wrapped with a flower mala.

Now we will go downstairs and go to sleep. This is along night, but spiritually fulfilling.