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The night of Ten Thousand Lights

By Diana McLeod

      In March, 2009, we visited the town of Tiruvannamalai, India, to catch the festival of Shiva Ratri at a major South Indian Shiva temple. The festival honors the birthday of the God Shiva, arguably the greatest of the Hindu trinity. He is the destroyer and the regenerator of the universe. He, along with Brahma (the Creator) and Vishnu (the Preserver) are the most important of all the gods.

      Tiruvannamalai’'s significance comes directly from Hindu scripture. The story goes as follows: The gods Brahma and Vishnu desired to see the beginning and the end of Shiva'’s power. The god Brahma transformed himself into a swan, and the god Vishnu transformed himself into a wild boar. The two gods began their journey “around” Shiva.

      Shiva caught wind of their plans to humble him by seeking his limits. He jumped onto a mountain and transformed himself into a pillar of fire, in order to snub their vanity. Fire doesn'’t have a clear beginning or ending. The mountain where Shiva supposedly transformed himself is actually a hill right outside of town. The sacred “mountain” brings thousands of pilgrims to Tiruvannamalai every year.

      There are many festivals in Tiruvannamalai. The most famous of these is the sacred fire festival of Karthikai Deepam. Unfortunately, this festival is not held at a time of year when we can go. I wish I could see it! They duplicate Shiva'’s “pillar of fire” by lighting a gigantic oil lamp on top of the hill. The multi-story high flame is visible for miles around.

      On other months, pilgrims still walk around the sacred mountain, each month, on the full moon day, and on Shivaratri (“the great night of Shiva”). Thousands of people also come to the big Shiva temple downtown in Tiruvannamalai to pay their respects to Shiva. Dave and I decided to join this celebration.

      The temple was very impressive. Our first vision of it was of gigantic white towers, stretching about twelve stories into the air. The wedding-cake towers marked the ceremonial entrances to the temple. They were layered with thousands of stone carvings depicting the Gods. At the main entrance of this famous temple, they had also built a grand stone portico. This had become, over the years, a center of commerce. Little market stalls were set up, all over the place, overflowing with religious goods for sale. As we walked, we browsed though cascades of malla bead rosaries, and cartoon-like pictures of Hindu Gods. The modern electric ones were especially garish, with holographic decorations and pulsating colored lights.

      Once through the main gate, (and past the modern security check and metal detector,) we were on holy ground. We were in the presence of the Sacred Flame. A large torch had been placed in the courtyard, and it burned with the same perpetual holy fire that would eventually reignite the gigantic torch on the mountain. Each worshipper approached the flame, and passed his or her hands above the fire in an act of self- purification. The sacred flame was also used to light the wicks of thousands of little oil lamps. Each lamp was made from a simple saucer of terra cotta clay, with a piece of wick sticking out of it. The lamps were filled with butter (ghee).

      People were busy arranging their lamps into patterns on the flat cobblestones of the temple courtyard. Designs were drawn in colored chalk, and the lamps were set all along the chalk patterns. Other people were decorating the temple grounds with pictures made with brightly dyed salt. The pictures depicted Shiva.

      As we progressed into the temple grounds, we saw elephants. The elephants were there to give blessings to the worshippers. Each family approached the elephant with coins in their hands. The elephant would extend its trunk, and delicately grab the coin from each outstretched hand. Then, the elephant would give the person its blessing, by gently brushing the top of each bowed head with its trunk. It was charming to watch the elephant caress the littlest children as their beaming mothers held them. Proud fathers held up cellphones and digital cameras to record each precious moment.

      As for me, I was busy musing how each elephant could grab one single rupee, when it already had twenty other rupees tucked up in its trunk. Then, it would have to fold that rupee into the stash, so it could grab the next one. Those trunks were far more skillful than I had ever expected! Eventually, the giant pachyderm would turn to its trainer, and dump the whole pile of coins into his cloth bag.

      Some worshippers also brought gifts for the elephants. Bananas were a favorite, but the elephants were also fed everything from milk sweets to gummy bears. It was enough to give even an elephant a tummyache!

      The afternoon light was beginning to fade, and the little oil lamps, so carefully arranged into elegant patterns along the courtyard'’s border, now numbered in the thousands. Their peaceful light cast a lovely glow on peoples'’ faces as they strolled around the temple grounds. Families met with their friends and neighbors, shared food from baskets brought from home, and listened to religious music (played by several groups of musicians and singers).

      By this time, we had walked though one gigantic courtyard, through a second set of inner gates, complete with another huge tower entrance, and into the most sacred courtyard of the temple complex. Inside this area was the huge temple itself. The temple had an outer pillared hall and an inner sanctum, built into the center of the larger hall. People entered, turned to the left, and strolled in a clockwise fashion around the outer ring of the temple, stopping at various shrines, which were set in niches along the outer wall. After at least one perambulation, families lined up at the entrance to the holy of holies. Most worshippers held flowers, incense and money, to donate to the temple. We also got in line, but we were only able to get a glimpse of the scene inside the cramped inner chapels. As non-Hindus, we were not allowed inside.

      I did get to see a view of the flower covered Murtis (statues of the Gods). Interestingly, in this area of India, the actual temple Murtis are very dark, almost black in color. Perhaps it is the natural color of the stone or wood, or exposure to years of thick smoke. The real Murtis are also surprisingly crudely carved, unlike the elaborate stonework I saw on the temple towers. Or, maybe, the original carvings are so heavily encrusted with soot and puja powder that their features merely appear to be crudely carved. I never got close enough to tell. The Murtis were “dressed” in fine silks, draped with garlands of marigolds, and given jewelry to wear. They were surrounded by offering bowls, and clouds of incense smoke. Brahmin priests accepted all the offerings, on behalf of the Gods. Each supplicant received the blessing of the temple and a dot of red puja powder on their forehead.

      Dave soon wanted to return to the outdoors, so that he could get more pictures. (Photos were strictly banned inside the temple. We noticed that this strict ban did not seem to extend to Hindus with cellphones, however). We made our way out, and we caught the fleeting colors of sunset, behind the soaring white towers. The sky went from orange to pink to twilight blue as the night came on, and the thousands of tiny lamps made it look as though we were walking on carpets of flame.

      We wandered around the temple grounds, and came across the most spectacular view of all, down at the temple'’s sacred water tank. The temple tank was quite large –- maybe a hundred feet long, by fifty feet square, and there were steps leading down to the water’'s edge on all sides. Each of those steps was covered in lines of thousands of little lamps. The effect was absolutely stunning. The still water picked up the reflections and magnified them. It looked as though the water itself was full of dancing flames.

      Dave and I were absolutely enchanted. He was soon snapping pictures as fast as he could. As for me, I just sat quietly, trying to take it in. The stars were beginning to come out, and they sparkled like the tiny flames that were trying to emulate them. The sky was now the deepest midnight blue that was just a whisper away from black. The flames were mirrored in the still water. It was like a scene in a fairy tale. Earth, water, Fire and Air; all of the elements were doing puja. And the blessed quiet…!

      I sat up. It was quiet - really too quiet. There was nobody around, and, in India, that was unnatural. Something was happening, somewhere else in the temple. We needed to hurry up and find it, whatever it was, before we missed it. I ran up to Dave, and urged him to pull down the tripod, and pack up his camera gear.

We hustled back to the sacred inner courtyard. Sure enough, it was packed with people. Brahmin priests were decorating two brightly painted wooden horse statues. Other priests were carrying the sacred Murtis out of the inner sanctum. It looked like the God Shiva (and his wife Parvati) were going to go “horseback riding.”

      Soon everything was ready. The wooden horses were lifted on racks of bamboo, hoisted on the shoulders of crowds of exuberant young men, and the Gods took a ride. A band played exciting music, (mostly drums and cymbals) and the statues circled the temple as the crowd cheered and prayed. People surged forward, following the Gods, as they marched along. This was obviously the climax of the temple festival.

      After the “parade”, the crowd surged for the exits. The little lights were winking out, all around us, and it was time to go home.

      Thanks for reading! Diana

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