Durga Puja: Iconoclasts break puja images in Maldha District of Mamata Pradesh – Gautam Sen

22 Chakra Club Durga Puja

On the night of October 4th some unidentified miscreants severely damaged the images of the Durga pratima and other deities in the Alipur village under Kaliachak PS of Muslim majority Maldah district. This Durga Puja is 65 tears old and is popularly known as “22 Chakra Club Durga Puja.” Hindus are agitated and aggrieved. The local village panchayat is of BJP. Elected pradhan is Smt. Sampa Karmaker. There are RSS shakhas too. On October 5th morning district level police officers visited the place. But astonishingly no FIR has been registered. The club committee has decided to perform this year’s puja with a new pratima which will be brought from Malda town. — Gautam Sen

Ganapathy with broken trunk.

Broken images of Hindu deities.

Broken images of Hindu deities.

Devi with broken arms.

Broken puja images.

Broken images of Hindu deities.

 

Ayodhya: When did the Centre abandon Sri Ram? – K.N. Bhat

Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, UP

K. N. Bhat“The Sunni Wakf Board, one of the plaintiffs, raised detailed objections against the ASI’s report [on its Ayodhya excavations]. ASI officials were cross-examined to discredit the findings, but the high court by its historical judgement on September 30, 2010, held that there was a temple on which the mosque was built. … Where are those Muslim leade­rs who were ready to hand ov­er the place to the Hindus, if it was found that a Hindu temple existed beneath the mos­que? ” – K.N. Bhat

Amit ShahLast Saturday, when Amit Shah, BJP national general secretary and in-charge of Uttar Pradesh for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, told reporters, “I have prayed that we together build a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya as soon as possible and restore Lord Ram to his rightful place,” there were frenzied reactions and comments by self-appointed secularists, and this was reflected in the media as if a heinous offence had been committed.

As a lawyer of respectable vintage, I dare say that wishing for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, on the disputed site, is not an offence not legally. Recalling the recent recorded history relating to Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid tells us that the temple issue was in the past treated as a national problem and that it continues to be one.

Following the razing of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, the President of India made a reference to the Supreme Court on March 9, 1993, for its opinion on whether a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious structure existed where the Babri Masjid stood.

During the hearing of the special reference and petitions filed by the residents of Ayodhya challenging the Central Ordinance of 1993 that sought to acquire the entire disputed area, the Supreme Court asked the Central government to clarify the purpose of the special reference.

Sri RamaThe then solicitor general of India, Dipankar Gupta, made a statement in writing on behalf of the Union of India on September 14, 1994, that said: The government stands by the policy of secularism and of even-handed treatment of all religious communities.

The Ac­quisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993 as well as the presidential reference, ha­ve the objective of maintaining public order and promoting communal harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst the people of India.

The government is committed to the construction of a Ram temple and a mosque, but their actual location will be de­termined only after the Sup­reme Court renders its opinion in the presidential reference.

The government will treat the finding of the Supreme Court on the question of fact referred under Article 143 of the Constitution as a verdict, which is final and binding. In the light of the Supreme Court’s opinion and consistent with it, the government will make efforts to resolve the controversy by a process of negotiations.

Ram Temple on the Babri Masjid site after the demolition.Government is confident that the opinion of the Supreme Court will have a salutary effect on the attitudes of the communities and they will no longer take conflicting positions on the factual issue settled by the Supreme Court.

“If efforts at a negotiated settlement as aforesaid do not succeed, the government is committed to enforce a solution in the light of the Supreme Court’s opinion and consistent with it. The government’s action in this regard will be even-handed in respect of both the communities. If the question referred is answered in the affirmative, namely, that a Hindu temple/structure did exist prior to the construction of the demolished structure, the government action will be in support of the wishes of the Hindu community. If, on the other hand, the question is answered in the negative, namely, that no such Hindu temple/ structure existed at the relevant time, then government action will be in support of the wishes of the Muslim community.”

This statement was preceded by a White Paper published by the Central government that stated: “During the negotiations aimed at finding an amicable solution to the dispute, one issue which came to the fore was whether a Hindu temple had existed on the site Hari Vishnu inscription found at the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya.occupied by the disputed structure and whether it was demolished on Babar’s orders for the construction of the masjid. It was stated on behalf of the Muslim organisations, as well as by certain eminent historians, that there was no evidence in favour of either of these two assertions. It was also stated by certain Muslim leaders that if these assertions were pro­ved, the Muslims would voluntarily hand over the disputed shrine to the Hindus. Natu­rally, this became the central issue in the negotiations bet­ween the Vishwa Hindu Pari­shad and the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee.”

The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court declined to respond to the special referen­ce. Instead, it in turn revived and restored the five suits be­fore the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, each claiming title to the disputed land, thus creating ample opp­o­rtunity to find an answer to the query raised by the refere­n­ce. (The five suits had been an­nulled by the 1993 Ordinance.)

Dwarapala from Ayodhya masjid site.The high court, during the course of hearing of the pending litigations in 2003, directed that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) should conduct an excavation of the site where the Babri Masjid stood. Stra­n­gely, the Hindus seem to have opposed the move for excavation while the Muslims welcomed it.

The excavation was completed and the ASI submitted a voluminous report in 2003 itself, with photographs and sketches of the details of the revelations and discoveries. The categorical finding was that there was a Hindu temple of antiquity and on its four walls stood the Babri Masjid.

The Sunni Wakf Board, one of the plaintiffs, raised detailed objections against the ASI’s report. ASI officials were cross-examined to discredit the findings, but the high court by its historical judgement on September 30, 2010, held that there was a temple on which the mosque was built.

The high court also recorded a significant finding, stating that the place immediately below the central dome of the demolished structure was, according to the belief of the Hindus, the birthplace of Lord Rama.

Appeals against the judgement of the high court are pending before the Supreme Court, but the ASI’s findings as recorded by the high court should be sufficient to settle the dispute.

Haji MehboobThe nature of the dispute is such that it cannot be resolved through litigation; it will have to be settled amicably.

The pertinent question is, where are those Muslim leade­rs who were ready to hand ov­er the place to the Hindus, if it was found that a Hindu temple existed beneath the mos­que? The Congress governme­nt, not too long ago, made conciliatory efforts. They can do that even now, if they have the will. – Deccan Chronicle, 10 July 2013

HVHI K.N. Bhat, senior advocate,  Supreme Court of India, represented “Ram Lalla” as senior counsel in the litigation before the Allahabad High Court.

Proposed Ram Temple on Babri Masjid site.

See also

  1. Supreme Court stays Allahabad High Court verdict on Ayodhya – J. Venkatesan

  2. “The material unearthed included pillars with engravings on them and an outlet for water in the form of a crocodile mouth” – Dr. R. Nagaswamy

  3. Ayodhya: Deciding battle for the Hindu Nation – Radha Rajan

  4. Video: Dr. Koenraad Elst comments on Ayodhya history and the Ayodhya verdict 2010 – India Nationalist Post

  5. Ayodhya: Mosque can be relocated according to Islamic principles – Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

  6. Ayodhya: Triumph of Truth – Sandhya Jain

  7. Ayodhya: A Historical Watershed – Girilal Jain

  8. Faith, history, archaeology and logic support the rebuilding of the Ram temple at Ayodhya – R. Balashankar

  9. Sri Ramajanmabhumi and the Liberhan Ayodhya Commission Report – Ashok Singhal

  10. Book Review: Is Sri Rama a modern deity? – Rohit Srivastava

The Himalayas and the Sacredness of Nature – Swati Chopra

Ganga Devi

Swati-ChopraWatching the horrific devastation in Uttarakhand, I was reminded of my visit to Badrinath and Kedarnath some 25 or so years ago. There was nowhere the kind and scale of construction that seemed to have sprung up of late, and the numbers of pilgrims were in hundreds, not thousands.

An understanding of the man-made aspect of the tragedy is growing, of how rampant destruction of forests and the Himalayan ecosystem in and around the pilgrimage spots might have magnified the impact of the natural disaster.

That this should happen at sacred sites associated with a religion and a way of life that has an eco-spiritual perspective inbuilt in so many of its traditions is cause for concern. It is a warning that in following the form of ritualised religion, we might have forgotten its spirit. That we might still worship a river or a mountain with flowers and incense, but have become blind to the impact our presence there is having on those very objects of our veneration. That we might chant mantras extolling the elements, but think nothing of polluting them with waste, plastic and toxic fumes. That we might be relating with religion as another consumable material, without bothering to understand its deeper underpinnings.

Ganga's Descent: Image from "Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists" by Sister Nivedita & Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1914). Click image for book.When we lived closer to nature, and not in the urban concrete jungles of today, perhaps it was easier to evoke and feel a respectful awe for natural phenomena. A river was not just a river. She was a mega-mother, a goddess, who nurtured centuries of civilisation along her banks. She not only fed us but also received our ashes when we died, as a portal of transmigration. She was not to be messed with but propitiated. Most importantly, she was not an object to be consumed for our comfort.

In the hills of Uttarakhand, for centuries people have worshipped mountains, trees, boulders, glades and knolls as abodes of spirits, some benevolent, others malevolent. Some kinds of trees would never be cut, and if they needed to, the act would be preceded by days of pujas to ask its permission. When I see the mindless destruction of forests and nature that the age of science and reason has brought with it, I wonder if in this regard we weren’t better off with superstitions that declared some acts of natural destruction taboo. Even if it played on people’s fears of vengeful spirits, at least it helped preserve the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.

Perhaps, this monumental tragedy will inspire us to consider a re-sacralisation of our connection with nature. To consider the Ganga, the Himalayas, their flora and fauna, and our surroundings wherever we are, as sacred and alive entities, not just myths or idols to be worshipped in temples, or consumables to be exploited for our needs. Perhaps this will be the call to return to our natural selves, and re-visualise the ecological divinity that exists all around us. — The Asian Age, 28 June 2013

Shivling Mountain & Gangotri Glacier in Uttarakhand

Source of Ganga: Gangotri glacier & Shivling mountain in Garhwal, Himalayas

Mining in the Himalayas

Deforestation and mining in the Himalayas is the cause of landslides and flooding. 

Ganga in spate at Uttarkashi

The Ganga in spate at Uttarkashi, June 2013

Pilgrim offering lamp to Ganga Devi at the Kumbha Mela 2013

Pilgrim offering a lamp to Ganga at Prayag, Kumbha Mela 2013

A Sri Lankan reflects on Lord Siva – Romesh Jayaratnam

Trincomalee Shiva Temple

Journalist Icon“As a Sri Lankan, I reflect on Siva, the Lord Most High. I enumerate several of his names, allude to His grace and describe his ancient shrine in Trincomalee, East Sri Lanka. The intent is to celebrate His place in the Sri Lankan Tamil inheritance. Siva presides over our destiny amidst our turbulent history.” – Romesh Jayaratnam

Lord Shiva grinding bhang.The Names of Siva

Siva, God almighty, has many names in the Hindu tradition. The 9th century Tamil text, the Tiru-vachakam, uses several to designate him. Amongst others, Siva is called the First (Munnon), the Great One (Periyon), the Ancient One (Pazhaiyon), the Precious One (Ariyon) and the Wonderful (Athpudan). He is termed the Sage (Ayyan), the Helper (Tunai Aalane), the Giver of Every Grace (Karunai Aalane) and the Only Ruler (Aal-udai Oruva). He is referred to as the Teacher (Tesane), the Guardian (Kaakum En Kaavalan), the Great Light (Per Oli), the Only Wise (Arivane) and the Lord of the Southern Pandya Land (Ten Paandya Naataane). He is named the Warrior Strong (Por Ere) and the One (Oruvan). These names illustrate the supremacy and benevolence of Siva. He is the Infinite, Almighty Lord (Alavilaap Pemaane) who is The First and Last (Muthal Antham Aayinaan). He is infinitely kind and compassionate.

The Grace of Siva

His grace is manifold. One prayer in the Tiru-vachakam is the Tiru-chatakam or ‘the one hundred verses’. This song of triumph narrates the spiritual journey of the Tamil saint Manikka vachakar and describes Siva’s benevolence. Manikka vachakar speaks figuratively of ‘being alone’, ‘tossed by the turbulent waves’, ‘troubled by a storm mid-sea’ and ‘caught in the jaws of a monster’. In desperation, he ‘seized Siva’s raft’ and was in turn ‘shown the boundless, fertile shore’. Siva provided him ‘a royal seat’ and ‘revealed things not shown before’. The Lord caused him to ‘hear things not heard before’ and ‘dispelled his fear’. Here was a metaphor of Siva’s grace in the unsteady journey of life.

The Tiru-chatakam teaches us that a devotee has none to fear. He is no longer any one’s vassal. Siva will ‘lift him high’ and ‘take him for His own’ despite the imperfections and failings. As Manikka vachakar narrates, Siva is the remover of all ills ‘even if it be through hell’s abyss or house and home on fire’. He is the sole refuge and ‘in mercy teaches the devotee all’. He causes one ‘to know the higher path’. Siva is the ‘giver of every grace’ and is the Only Light (Tani chudare).

Its important to add that Hinduism is not a monotheistic faith. It has never been and will never be one! In Hinduism, truth is one, the paths are many. The religion upholds the unity of all being, not just the divine.

Swami Rock, TrincomaleeSacred Trincomalee

There are numerous centers of old Hindu worship that dot the Sri Lankan landscape. The ancient temple in Trincomalee is one. The word Trincomalee is derived from the Tamil ‘Tiru-kona-malai‘ which translates as ‘the sacred hill of the Lord’. Megalithic urn burials were excavated in Nilaveli a few kilometers away from this site. The archeological findings included black and red ware pottery and iron tools dated to the 3rd century BCE. Remarkable parallels exist between these urn burials and those excavated in Tamil Nadu. Both regions had evidently shared the same early iron age culture.

The Siva temple in Trincomalee is located in a region of considerable antiquity. Chapter 35 verses 40 and 41 of the Pali chronicle, the Mahavamsa indicates that King Maha Sena had destroyed three Deva temples, one of which was in Gokarna, another name for Trincomalee. He built a Buddhist vihara on the site of the earlier Deva temple in the 4th century CE. Trincomalee was called Gokarna in Sanskrit and Gokanna in Pali. Gokarna in Sanskrit translates as cow’s ear and signifies a place of Saivite Hindu worship.

The new Buddhist Vihara evidently did not last long if one were to accept the tradition of the Vayu Purana also dated to the 4th century CE where Chapter 48 verses 20 to 30 refers to a hallowed Siva temple on Tri-kuta hill on the Eastern seaboard of Lanka. Tri-kuta refers to Trincomalee. The Tamil Saivite saint, Tiru-Gnana-sambandar sang of the glories of this Siva temple in the 7th century. The Nilaveli inscription in the 10th century refers to a land grant of 1,710 acre equivalent donated for the upkeep of this same shrine.

Kachi-appar Siva-acharyar, author of the Kanda-puranam, compared the sanctity of this temple in Trincomalee with that of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. Aruna-girinathar visited this shrine in the 15th century. An unverified tradition has it that Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, of the 2nd century BCE was born in Gokarna ‘situated to the South East of India’. This uncorroborated tradition was reiterated by Tiru-mular in his 10th century Tiru-manthiram. The Yoga Sutras is the cornerstone of Yoga, a school of Hindu philosophy intended at the development of one’s mind through discipline. If this tradition is indeed correct, it would place Trincomalee in the pan-Indic intellectual arena, much as Anuradhapura already is given the latter’s role in the development of Theravada Buddhism and the Pali language.

Portuguese travelers in the 17th century described this Siva Temple of ‘a Thousand Columns’. They referred to Trincomalee as the ‘Rome of the Pagans’. In April 1622, the Portuguese General Constantino de Sa de Noronha razed the temple to the ground and used its materials to build a fort. The Sinhalese king Rajasinghe II of Kandy took immediate steps to construct a successor Siva temple in Tampalakamam 24 kilometers to the west of Trincomalee. Tampalakamam was then part of the Kandyan kingdom. This was an act of Hindu piety by a Buddhist king. The main temple was rebuilt in its original location, albeit on a smaller scale, three hundred and forty one years later in March 1963. In September 2008, the Chief Priest of the Temple – Sivasri Kuharaja Kurukkal was killed in an event not unrelated to the conflict. The shrine has had a volatile history.

Conclusion

Its time to repose our trust in the God of our forefathers who stood by us in the past, will stand by us in the present and will protect us in the days to come. The verses of the 7th century Tiru-Naavuk-arasa Naayanar assume a salience here:

We are subject to no one;
We do not fear death.
We will not be deterred by hell’s tortures, we do not tremble.
We shall exult, we do not know disease, we will not submit.
Eternal joy is our lot;
Sorrow is not for us.
We are the irredeemable slaves of Siva.

» From The Sri Lanka Guardian,  April 2013. Trincomalee photos courtesy of Kataragama-Skanda website.

Jeffrey Armstrong teaches the Hindu diaspora how to explain Dharma to hostile Americans – Asian Media USA

Jeffery Armstrong

Jeffery ArmstrongChicago IL: World Hindu Youth (WHY) association hosted a seminar on “Reframing Bharat” followed by another on a “New vocabulary to describe Vedic dharma” on Saturday, April 20, 2013, at Chinmaya Mission Badri campus located at 11S080 Kingery Hwy, Willowbrook, IL 60527. Presented by best-selling author Jeffrey Armstrong, also known as Kavindra Rishi, from Vancouver, the seminars aim to teach the younger generation how to speak confidently about Hindu dharma especially to its detractors. Vidya Naha of WHY presented Armstrong as a Vedantic seeker. He is also a poet and astrologer or “karma mechanic” as he also puts it.

Starting with a prayer to Ganesha and invocation to the Guru, Armstrong immediately presented his unique credentials, as an American convert, to teach often bewildered Hindus-by-birth. Attracted by India’s patterns of thinking and feeling, and its compassionate culture, he soon became a “why” specialist, for “all the subjects I studied (language, psychology, science, etc.) took me to India.” As an outsider, he had to think through all these alien concepts and behavior from the foundations up, unable to take anything for granted. Whereas his Christian teachers never encouraged questions, the question-answer format is at the core of Hindu transmission.

“I gave up my family, church, and culture to become a Hindu, but ended up being more alone without a community. You don’t have to study, whereas I have to because of my situation. Hindu culture is partly asleep, whereas I am awake. Everyone is asking the youth why they are Hindu, a question their elders are not able to answer in English. This is what I’m able to do. I’ve been working with Hindu youth in both the USA and India for the past 14 years.”

The Hindu diaspora is at a disadvantage when having to explain their dharma to often skeptical, if not outright hostile, Americans because the weight of the English vocabulary is pitted against them even before the discussion can get started. Youth are especially vulnerable because the parents are not equipped to translate their beliefs into language that makes sense within the worldview and language acquired here through schooling. The whiteboard already listed a wide range of inherited (English) “Words to Avoid” as opposed to (Sanskrit) “Words to Understand.”

Prof. George LakoffBecause the person who keeps asking the questions retains control, we need to disorient our interlocutor by changing the subject. When asked “why do you Hindus have so many gods?” we could start talking about the icons on his desktop and compare them to “idols” that are different from programs, yet help keeps things organized, etc., point out that invoking the name of the god is like clicking on the icon to accomplish a task through the underlying code. Armstrong resorted to many such extended, often unexpected, metaphors to bring home his lessons.

Armstrong gave many examples of how to think, question, and use words strategically instead of falling into the opponent’s trap by directly attacking him. The trick is to reframe the whole debate in unexpected ways that intrigue the listener into wanting to follow your own story and thought processes and thereby see the world differently. Piling up facts will in itself not convince a person who holds a different worldview. Participants were distributed a sheet summarizing such “Rules of Framing” adapted from the book Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff, language strategist at University of Berkeley.

The second workshop addressed the pitfalls of mapping familiar Western concepts to Hindu traditional terminology. Armstrong explained why dharma is not religion, Bhagavan is not God, yoga is not faith, devas are not gods, murthis are not idols, namah is not worship, papa is not sin, svarga is not heaven, and other such facile equivalences. The secret is to know whom you are talking to; and to ask oneself “am I a living example of what I believe in?” Most Hindus have received their tradition in bits and pieces but have not yet been initiated, which is like not installing the downloaded software and then calling tech support, i.e., the guru, to complain. Instead we “need to produce hundreds of Vivekananda’s by teaching people how to speak strategically about one’s own culture and traditions.“

Armstrong also attacked the “sameness” syndrome preached by many Hindus. All religions are not the same but more akin competing operating systems, like Microsoft Windows versus Apple, each with its own terminology and underlying philosophy. The Christian operating system is much poorer in vocabulary, as evidenced by the smaller list of words to avoid. The British purposely replaced Sanskrit with English language, thereby limiting the vocabulary for discourse about oneself. Abrahamic world view was never interested in the world and matter, unlike the elaborate treatment of prakriti (nature) in Hinduism. There are already many Sanskrit words in English, and one of the greatest gifts that Vedic culture can give the world is its richer vocabulary. Armstrong wondered why no Hindu has ever approached him to try and explain the universe in terms of the permutations of the three gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas) and defects (dosha) to outsiders, and went on to explain the notion of devas in considerable detail.

PatanjaliHe ended by decoding the sophisticated vocabulary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras of mind-stuff (citta), its modifications, (vrtti) psychic traces (vasana), our inherent nature (svarupa), etc. He opposed its scientific approach to “religion” from “re-ligare” (Latin), which is to be “bound by rules,” i.e., do as you are told with no questioning). This is the source of the “religious” conflict we see today around the world. Paramatma (Supreme Self) is the single cohesive all-pervading consciousness that holds everything together including the separate individual consciousnesses (atma). Goal of yoga is to “plug into paramatma” by first realizing your own atman (through citta-vrtti-nirodhah). “I’ve been ‘programming’ with these words,” Armstrong affirmed.

Armstrong’s examples, especially his (pseudo-) etymologies and proposed ‘kinships’ between English and Sanskrit, became funnier as the workshop progressed such that the chuckling students were sometimes uncertain whether he was (half-) joking. In truth, he was skillfully using humor to entice the audience into thinking differently and more deeply about the words and concepts we have inherited without reflecting. Questioned about this technique, he told Asian Media USA that in his previous life he was a standup comedian regularly invited by the corporate world and paid handsomely to teach them to see the ‘religious’ side of IT and laugh!

The seminars were repeated the next day on a larger scale at the Chinmaya Mission’s Yamunotri camp at Gray’s Lake. Two of his volumes were on sale during the workshops. – Asian Media USA, 24 April 2013

Sri Lanka heals from civil war – Amy Karafin

Amy Karafin“Over and over again I would see evidence of the civil war, which began in 1983 and continued until 2009. During that time, militants seeking a separate Tamil state in the north and east (an area including the largely Tamil Jaffna peninsula) were pitted against the government, which had, since independence from the British in 1948, become dominated by pro-Sinhalese policies.” – Amy Karafin

Nalloor Murugan TempleAs soon as I arrived at the temple, an old man caught my eye and directed me to the inner sanctum. It was hot outside, and the sun was strong. But it was even hotter in the temple, where hundreds of festival-goers had gathered.

Once I walked beyond the crowds and entered the dark, smoky chamber, the air was cooler, though, with scents of burning ghee and faded coconut. The Hindu god Murugan, popular among the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, was in his alcove, garlanded in flowers and lighted by dozens of tiny oil lamps. I’m not a Hindu and tend toward agnostic, but my mother was sick, and the vibes here were strong. So I prayed.

My two-week trip here last June was my second visit to the Jaffna Peninsula, a 400-square-mile expanse of Technicolor temples and arid, surreally beautiful landscapes in northern Sri Lanka that have only recently opened to tourists after a 26-year civil war. I had traveled there in 2011 to research a guidebook, but that trip had been packed with activity; this time I wanted to explore the area at my own pace. So, basing myself in a guesthouse in the capital of Jaffna on the peninsula’s southwest coast, I returned to linger in the region’s temples and visit the tiny islands offshore.

Maavittapuram Kandasamy TempleOne of the first things I did was hire a car and driver and travel 10 miles to the Maviddapuram Kandaswamy Temple, where I had received a warm welcome from the priest’s family on my previous visit. Reminders of the war were all around. As we drove through the village of Maviddapuram, we passed abandoned houses; vegetation grew in former living rooms and banyan trees spilled over walls.

The temple itself had been hit hard during the war and is still being reconstructed. Much of the 17th-century structure that once stood there is gone, though its ornate 108-foot gopuram (tower), covered in sculptured gods, has been rebuilt. Over and over again I would see evidence of the civil war, which began in 1983 and continued until 2009. During that time, militants seeking a separate Tamil state in the north and east (an area including the largely Tamil Jaffna peninsula) were pitted against the government, which had, since independence from the British in 1948, become dominated by pro-Sinhalese policies.

Because the Maviddapuram temple had been part of a “high security zone” occupied by the military, its priests, along with thousands of families, had been evicted, and the structure was bombed and looted. Now things were finally returning to normal: the priests and worshipers were returning, and a reconstructed temple was rising from the rubble.

Naguleswam Shiva TempleTwo miles down the road, Maviddapuram’s sister temple, the ancient Naguleswaram Shiva Temple, has also been renewed: its interior now gleams with a thousand colors, and its sacred Keerimalai Spring is full of bathers seeking the mineral water’s healing powers. Guidebooks from 10 years ago mention that visitors may, if they are lucky, visit the spring after military searches and with an armed escort. But now travelers can go, as I did, escort-free, and, float in the pools (there is one just for women), thinking about the Tamil princess who discovered the sacred spring in the seventh century.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, damage from the war is also obvious, including in Jaffna, the largest city in the region, with a population of around 90,000. During the war, the capital, which is the spiritual and intellectual heart of Sri Lanka’s Tamil people, was caught in the cross-fire between the separatists and the government, neither of which fully represented its aspirations. Many believe that even though the fighting has ended, the disenfranchisement of Tamils from the political process continues.

Still, the town is peaceful now, and danger to travelers is minimal. During my visits, I avoided walking Jaffna’s quiet streets alone at night, but I never felt unsafe; on the contrary, the residents I encountered were happy to see travelers returning.

Even in the few months between my visits, Jaffna seemed transformed. The market had more shops, painted in brighter colors, and soldiers no longer kept watch on every street corner.

JaffnaThe downtown scene — with shoppers haggling for vegetables, passengers rushing to catch buses — was approaching what you might call a bustle. Women in flowing saris and kids in starched white school uniforms glided by on bicycles, while teenage girls walked along the street holding parasols on sunny days.

The streets are leafy, with majestic gopurams and church steeples (a legacy of the Portuguese) rising from almost every block. Old-fashioned cafes like the Malayan, in the market area, serve “rice and curry” (rice with lentil stew and several vegetable dishes) on banana leaves, along with South Indian snacks like vadai (savory doughnuts made from gram flour, potato and spices) with hot coconut chutney.

Bullet-pocked homes in the fishing neighborhood by the lagoon are still there, but there are also new ones, painted bright pink with green trim. The public library, a symbol of the city’s ancient intellectual tradition that was burned down in 1981, has been rebuilt and is now full of studious teenagers. Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, Jaffna’s most important religious edifice, unveiled a new carved golden gopuram at its annual festival in August 2011.

Bridge over lagoon Jaffna area.Outside of town, Jaffna’s shady lanes give way to a series of rugged causeways, one-lane bridges and sandy roads that traverse a network of islands, peninsulas and bits of land in the Palk Strait. Here, salt flats and open fields are peppered with palmyra palms and magnolia trees, hardy shrubs with purple flowers, and serene cows munching the ground cover down to a pale fuzz. The water is never far away. It is a completely different country from the tropical coasts and hilly forests of Sri Lanka’s south.

The isolation and quiet of the islands (there are eight main ones and several little ones off Jaffna’s southwest coast) lend them a wild air. They’re sparsely populated, if at all, a legacy of the war, when boat crossings were restricted and electricity was cut. The island of Analaitivu, for instance, has just 1,000 residents who fish or raise livestock, or work in Jaffna.

Neduntheevu Island HorseOver the course of a week, I explored the islands, which are thick with palm groves where brilliant turquoise and lime-green birds thrive. Neduntivu, also known as Delft, is one of the larger islands at about 20 square miles. It has the most surreal landscape, with a ground of white coral rock and sand, an ancient baobab tree, palms and radiant aquamarine water. On one tranquil white-sand beach, I watched as two teenagers bathed their horses in the ocean; not far away, wild ponies (supposedly descendants of Dutch mounts) roamed alongside cows on sunny fields.

All the islands can be reached by a combination of buses, which ply causeways between some of the islands, and boats that depart from ports on Velanai and Punkudutivu, two populated islands southwest of Jaffna. And while most of the islands themselves are walkable, larger ones are best seen by auto-rickshaw or, as I did on Neduntivu, by pickup truck.

As we drove, my driver, the friendly Shiva, explained Neduntivu’s local legends: a cluster of wells that were built by the devil, a footprint-shape imprint on the ground left by the original 40-foot-tall inhabitants, and a living rock, which grows a bit every year.

Nagapooshani Amman TempleShiva also talked about living here during the war — staying home after the 6 p.m. curfew, and hearing battles at night. Neduntivu’s raw beauty is matched by the explosion of color and devotion at the Nagapooshani Amman Temple on the nearby island of Nainativu. On my last trip, a Hindu astrologer had informed me that special prayers at temples on Nainativu and Analaitivu, to the north, would heal my mother’s illness.

On this visit, the Nainativu temple was mid-festival when I arrived: gods were being paraded on elaborate palanquins and showered with flowers, while musicians played. Devotees followed, some with magnolia and bougainvillea blossoms in their hair. I joined them, asking the goddess Nagapooshani for her blessings.

The temple on Analaitivu, which I visited the next day, couldn’t have been more different. Travelers don’t tend to venture here; the island is tiny, with a single bus and a quiet beauty. A rickshaw took me down sandy roads that wind through lush greenery to Puliyantivu Nageswaram Temple, home of the serpent god Nagathambiran. The temple is set dramatically in a clearing at the southern tip of the island and faces the sea. The elderly caretakers there spoke no English, but smiled and opened the doors to the gods’ sanctums for me.

AaratiSri Lankan temples are friendly places. Priests always welcomed me, giving me small cloths to tie onto prayer trees or guiding me through prayers. Women put kumkum powder on my forehead and showed me when to take holy water and when to put 10 rupees in the tray. But I had arrived at the Puliyantivu temple at an off hour, and although it was peaceful, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the god.

Then I remembered what the priest at Maviddapuram told me when I asked how a non-Hindu should pray to Murugan for her mother. “Close your eyes and talk to the god, ask for his help, that’s all. He will help you,” he told me. So, with the sun streaming into the temple compound and the beating of the ocean in the distance, that is exactly what I did. – The New York Times, 15 March 2013

» Amy Karafin writes for Lonely Planet and has co-authored four editions of India and South IndiaGoa & MumbaiThe Asia BookWestern EuropeEurope on a ShoestringSri Lanka, and The World’s Best Street Food. She also writes for Lonely Planet MagazineBBC.com, the Boston GlobeConde Nast TravelerNational Geographic TravelerArt & Australia, and other fine publications.

Lord Brahma in Bangkok – Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt PattanaikThan Tao Mahaprom is believed to be a Brahma god full of kindness, mercy, sympathy and impartiality. Each virtue is represented in the four faces of the image, radiating serene grace. His name for most foreign visitors was too hard to remember let alone pronounce. So with time he became known as the Erawan Shrine, named after his personal vehicle, the three headed Erawan Elephant. – Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

Brahma in BangkokMost people know that Hindus do not worship the god known as Brahma even though he is created the world. The story goes (one of the less controversial ones though) that he lied about finding the tip of an endless fire pillar. The pillar represented the infinite power of Shiva. Enraged, Shiva cursed Brahma that there would be no place for him in any temple. Brahma begged for mercy and so was allowed to reside in one temple near lake Pushkar in Rajasthan. One might find small shrines of Brahma housed within the great southern temple complexes dedicated to Vishnu. But generally, Brahma is not a very popular god within the Hindu pantheon.

So imagine my surprise when I found a very revered and popular temple of Brahma in Bangkok, Thailand. It was a resplendent roadside shrine in an area called Erawan not far from the [CentralWorld shopping plaza] within the compound of the Grand Hyatt hotel. The golden idol had four heads and four hands, holding a staff, spoons, a rosary, and a book, with a pot on his lap, like a priest ready to perform a yagna. The priest’s thread could be clearly seen falling across the chest. The shrine was open so one could see the four heads from all sides. There were four piles of flowers, one before each head. Dozens of locals – some looked Thai, some Chinese – could be seen praying reverentially before each of the heads before moving on to the next. After four prayers for four heads, they washed their hands and heads with holy water kept in a large silver tub. Around the shrine burnt hundreds of lamps and incense sticks. Flowers and incense sticks were sold around the shrine. On one side, under a pavilion, sat beautiful dancers. When paid money, these girls would sing and dance to traditional music.  Dancing girls make Hindu gods happy as well as the four-headed ‘Buddha’ according to the local guide.

Erawan Brahma TempleIn the mid-1950′s Thailand had been selected to host a grand international conference. The government of the day was concerned that there was not a hotel of a standard to host the delegates. It therefore put out to tender the contract to build The Erawan Hotel, but there were no takers. The government was left with little choice than to build it for themselves. Unfortunately, every stage of the construction was delayed and it seemed as if everything was going wrong. The final straw was the loss of a shipload of Italian Marble that simply never arrived in the Port of Bangkok. The construction workers from up-country had an uncanny knack for sensing when something was wrong; they refused to work until something was done to appease the guardian spirits of the plot. The Board of Directors of Thai United Hotel and Tour Co Ltd, the company attempting to build the hotel gave Police Major General M.L. Jare Suthat the task of sorting the problem out. He sought the advice of an eminent astrologer Real Admiral Luang Suwicharnpat as to what could possibly be done to correct the situation. After detailed studying of his chart and making various calculations he discovered that the foundation stone for the hotel was not laid at an auspicious time. All was not lost, the Real Admiral had found a solution. It would be necessary to construct a shrine to the land spirit. It was built in honor of the highest ranking Brahma God – the four faced Than Tao Mahaprom (Great God) as it was the most auspicious and would counter the oversight with the foundation stone. The image was designed by Jitr Pimkowit, a handicraft technician at the Fine Arts Department. It was cast in plaster of Paris and gilded with finest quality gold. It was put in it’s home on the corner of Rajdamri and Ploenchit Roads on 9th November 1956 – the date that is regarded as the anniversary of the shrine and when thousands of faithful believers return to seek help and advice. With the shrine in place the rest of the construction of the hotel was completed without a hitch. The magic worked.

Airavata or the Erawan ElephantThan Tao Mahaprom is believed to be a Brahma god full of kindness, mercy, sympathy and impartiality. Each virtue is represented in the four faces of the image, radiating serene grace. His name for most foreign visitors was too hard to remember let alone pronounce. So with time he became known as the Erawan Shrine, named after his personal vehicle, the three-headed Erawan Elephant. This symbol of to be adopted as the logo for the hotel and today is the sub-symbol for Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok. People quickly came to realize the power of the Erawan Shrine and it soon became a custom to come to the shrine to ask for something in either your personal or business life that you desperately needed. There is not enough space to accommodate the flow of offerings and every couple of hours attendants have to clear what has been given to make space for that which will be delivered. From time to time upcountry hospitals and hotels will seek permission to have one of the large wooden elephants to grace their lobby. This is willingly granted as it known that an elephant that has come from the Erawan Shrine will be treated with great respect and have a garland of golden marigolds placed daily around its neck. Once the wish had been granted believers would return and hire two, four, six or eight dancers who will sing in praise of the shrine – a very appreciative thank you.

Erawan Temple DancersDaily busload of tourists from Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong visit the shrine as part of their tour of the capital to ask for good luck in their business. Believers pray for something they need rather than want. They will ask the spirits to show them how to improve their business or to have a new idea to solve a nagging problem. Beware that the request is not motivated by greed, asking for something that you want rather than need. There is a tale of one lady that needed some help with an important aspect of her personal life. She promised if her wish was granted, she would return and dance naked in the moonlight. She got what she wanted and duly returned. A screen was put up around the shrine and under the cover of darkness, she performed the dance, dressed as just as she had been born. Sooner after, tongues wagged. While understanding the lady’s wish to repay her debt of honor, it was felt to be lacking in respect for the God to expose oneself to him The practice was immediately discouraged.

What excited me as a mythologist about this shrine and the culture that has evolved around it is that this was a classical case of mythopoesis – transformation of customs and beliefs over history and geography.

Hinduism or rather Brahma-ism (the religion of Brahma, according to Thais), like Buddhism, reached Thailand over a thousand years ago when Indian merchants and artisans frequented South East Asia under the patronage of kings who ruled the Coromandel Coast such as the Cholas and the Gangas. This was before an embargo was placed on sea travel in medieval times (travel across the sea led to loss of caste) and the sea trade was handed over to Arabs, and eventually Europeans. Hindu gods reached Thai shores as Indian merchants and artisans settled in the golden lands (Suvarna Bhumi) across the sea. Vishnu became, and still is, the god most favored by royal families while Brahma became the favorite of the priestly class. There was Shiva too; his symbol [lingam] was worshipped by women seeking children.

IndraOver the centuries Hinduism in Thailand evolved autonomously. Some ideas which lost favor in India – as temple dancers – continued in Thailand. Gods mingled and merged. As a result, Brahma of Bangkok looked to me more like Indra of the Puranas who loved dancing girls, rode elephants, brought rain and good fortune. The two gods who are no longer part of popular Hindu lore in India thrived in the personality of Than Tao Mahaprom. Brahma in Bangkok no longer rode swans (though I did see images of Brahma on his swan in some shrines). He rode an multi-headed elephant called Erawan (from Airavat).

Many scholars debate whether the Hinduism of Thailand is Hinduism at all, or merely a local corrupt version. This stems from the assumption that there is an ‘original’ Hinduism. What is this ‘original’ Hinduism? Vedism –  the religion of the Vedas? Brahmanism – the religion that acknowledges caste? Puranism – the religion which worships Puranic gods? Bhakti – which appeals to the heart in the language of the common man? Is it the ‘idolatrous’ Hinduism practiced today in Tirupati and Vaishno Devi or is it the ‘formless’ Hinduism that led to the establishment of Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and Prarthana Samaj in the 19th century? The fact is religions, like everything, change. They respond to history and geography. They also change for and with people. Whatever the belief and custom, it is valid for those who practice it, when they practice it and where they practice it. – Devdutt, 2 May 2007

» Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik writes and lectures extensively on the relevance of mythology in matters related to leadership, entrepreneurship, branding, management and governance. He serves as Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group. To know about this role and designation click here. And is also story consultant to Star TV.

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