Yesterday our friends Satheesh and Bade sent us to visit V.K. Munusamy, an artist who makes traditional terracotta statues and sculpture, including traditional Tamil village horses and guardians. These statues are a familiar sight to those who have visited rural Tamil villages, and the making of them is a very old tradition. In Munusamy’s family, it’s a tradition that goes back 22 generations.
Munusamy lives in Villianur, about 7 kilometers from Pondicherry. It’s a pleasant village that is also home to a large and interesting Shiva temple, where we stopped for a quick visit along the way.
Munusamy learned the art and craft of terracotta sculpture from his parents from his childhood. Today, he has several workshops and employs a number of local women to execute traditional designs, such as small statues of Ganesha playing musical instruments or dispensing blessings, village horses, Buddha heads, and more. It was fun to watch these craftswomen at work.
Munusamy himself showed us how he crafts small Ganeshas from simple shapes. I was fascinated to see how quickly his skilled hands transformed a few cones of clay into a sweet-faced or mischievous-seeming Ganapati. The video below is pretty brief, because I suddenly ran out of storage on my phone, but it gives you some idea.
Munusamy’s work is well known far beyond Villianur. His workshops export to countries all over the world, and he’s also known for creating the tallest versions of a village horse and temple guardian. He’s also crafted tiny versions of traditional sculptures, just half an inch high. Munusamy explained to us it’s because of the specific minerals in the local clay that he can create sculptures of any size.
Apart from the traditional sculptures, Munusamy has also received commissions for highly realistic sculptures. He showed us the statue his workshop is making now, a likeness of Paul Harris, the founder of Rotary International. I was impressed with the statue’s face; it was highly realistic, so much so that I felt I could see the character of the person, even though Munusamy was working from photos, not from life. You can see the sculpture below. Paul Harris stands between Alan and me on one side, and Munusamy and an MFA student from Bangalore on the other side.
Unlike his artisan ancestors, Munusamy is working to spread his knowledge far beyond his family or professional assistants. He’s trained thousands of people, from Tamil villagers to visiting students. The MFA student from Bangalore picture above told us he was studying with Munusamy because his work is so well known. “I am a contemporary sculptor,” he told us. “I try to learn what he does, but I cannot do it like he does. All of us contemporary artists, we know his work and we give him respect.”
The workshop itself was a nice place to visit. The ladies were working in peaceful concentration as we watched Munusamy make Ganapati statues, and talked with him. Several of the ladies had their children with them for the day, and the kids sat near their mothers, studying or snacking. Despite the quiet hum of productive activity, it felt more like the home of a large extended family than a workplace.
Ganapatis made in the workshop sit in the workshop shrine.
This little girl was visiting her mother, who works with Munasamy.
Two of the ladies who work in Munasamy’s workshop.
As Munusamy finished demonstrating his technique to us, we told him how impressed we were with how he quickly turned a lump of clay into a lovable Ganapati. “I am slow,” he said. “They are the quick ones,” and he gestured to the ladies sitting in a circle around the workshop. “They are the real designers.”
Gokarna is famous for having five beaches that spread southward from the largest of them, Gokarna Beach. Each is very different in character; we have visited four of them, not quite making it to the fifth. (You might want to read this overview post about Gokarna, which also has a bit about the temples.)
Gokarna Beach is easily five kilometers long from headland to headland. We’ve walked most of it, stopping at Namaste Garden a couple of times for breakfast or tea. This is one of many guest houses along the beach, and seems to be one of the nicest ones. It’s owned by Krishna Gouda, who started the place back in 1996 with his brothers. Today, he runs the place with his family, including his son, a young man who looks just like his father in the 20-year-old photos Krishna showed me of himself and his brothers, when Namaste Garden was just a small thatch-sided and thatch-roofed shed. Today Krishna has a large commercial kitchen, a dining area facing onto the sea, and a common area for family and guests. There are 11 rooms for guests, each with its own bathroom. I looked at the rooms; they are compact, neat and clean, with a long veranda for reading, chatting or just resting. The garden is beautiful, and the entire place is run on solar power, Krishna told me.
Gokarna is where you’ll see lots of pilgrims bathing in the ocean before heading up to the temples to make offerings and pray. It’s also where you’ll see lots of tourists of all nationalities, including a large group of Tibetan monks and laypeople we saw one day. Like most other visitors, these were busy taking selfies and group pictures.
The next beach south is Kudle (pronounced “KOOD-lee”), and it’s the largest after Gokarna Beach. You can get there either by rickshaw or by walking up to the yellow-domed temple on the headland at the south end of Gokarna Beach, and from there, continuing over the broad, grass-covered headland to a steep path that descends to the beach. This is a beautiful way to go. If you take it slowly, it’s 45 minutes from Gokarna town to the northern end of Kudle. And you want to take it slow, at least the first time. If you walk to the little peaks and bare rocks at the edge of the headland, you can look up and down the Karnataka coastline, its beaches protected by rocky outcroppings. It all reminded me of the Oregon coast, but on a smaller scale and with tropical plants instead of evergreens.
Where Gokarna Beach is full of Indians on pilgrimage and on holiday, plus a wide assortment of other visitors, Kudle seems to be favored by younger tourists, including young families with small children, both Indian and foreign. We also see a lot of yoga tourists there, practicing their asanas and stretches on the sand.
Local Indians selling necklaces, anklets, scarves and lungis wander up and down the beach, hoping to sell something. Cafes and lodges line the beach much more densely than at Gokarna Beach.
On our first visit here, we found the surf at Kudle much more gentle than at Gokarna Beach. But the next day, the surf was wilder, due to a cyclone moving its way north from the Kerala coast. Still, swimming in a warm sea was a real pleasure, something that’s been rare for me. I grew up in southern California, but always found the Pacific a little cold for swimming. The Karnataka coast is much more like Hawaii, with warm, welcoming water, even right now in December. Drifting in the waves, or swimming beyond the breakers to an easy patch of rising and falling ocean, looking at the rocky palm-fringed headlands, is incredibly relaxing.
Culturally, Kudle is very much a tourist beach. The guest houses and restaurants are much more tightly packed here than on Gokarna Beach, and there’s little sense of a town life that’s independent of the beach scene.
The next beach south of Kudle is Om Beach, so called because it’s shaped like the Sanskrit symbol for Om, the universal sound. You can see that shape really well only if you walk to the southern edge of Om Beach and climb up to the headland there. Just a 20-minute walk from the southern edge of Kudle, Om Beach feels quite different from the other two. It is less well suited to swimming, as the beach is much narrower, with a sharper drop to the sea, leaving less room for the badminton, volleyball and Frisbee games people play at Kudle or Gokarna. But Om Beach’s dramatic rocks are fun to scramble across and explore, though very sharp in places – you have to be careful not to graze an ankle or foot.
We made it as far as Half Moon Beach, and nearly to Paradise Beach. From the center of Gokarna, it took us three hours to get to the top of the headland for Paradise Beach, which is where we decided to turn back, mainly because it had grown hot and sunny by the time we got there, and the path down to the beach looked too steep and slippery to deal with at that point. I’m sure Paradise Beach is beautiful, but from what we could see from the headland, it didn’t seem too different from Half Moon Beach.
From Om Beach, the path to Half Moon Beach is pretty wild and tangled. You can see the pathways (there are a few), but they were pretty overgrown. We kept saying, “Someone needs to come through here with a machete.” That makes the walking a bit slower, but what really slowed us down was the steepness of some of the downward paths. We had to hang on to branches to make sure we didn’t slide.
We did the last part of the hike onto Half Moon Beach right at the edge of the sea, scrambling over lava rocks. It was slow, but a lot of fun. I loved the almost greasy look of the black stone, and the way the surf broke over the ragged rock edges.
The Rough Guide we have says there are no facilities on Half Moon Beach, but that’s no longer true. There are a couple of restaurants that also offer rooms for rent. I noticed that one of the businesses has solar panels located in the small patchwork of agricultural fields behind the restaurant, so clearly there are plenty of deliveries coming in by boat. I didn’t see how far the road is from Half Moon Beach, but I think carrying supplies in would be a real challenge if people aren’t making good use of their machetes.
If you’re coming here in the winter, which is the high season, you should try to reserve a room in advance if you want to stay in a place that offers a western-hotel standard of comfort. One is the Hotel International near the KSRTC bus stand. It’s next to the Hotel Om, and it’s very new. We had to stay there the first night, when it turned out our reservation hadn’t gone through. The room was clean and beautiful, and the breakfast (included) was excellent.
We like the older hotels and guest houses, and there are plenty of these both in town and on the beaches. As you go north from Car Street along the road that runs parallel to the sea, you’ll find a succession of guest houses. You can also see them from the beach itself, as most of them have a cafe facing onto the beach. Few of these guesthouses have any kind of web presence, so it’s best to just carry your backpack or take a rickshaw, and just go from guest house to guest house until you find one that has room for you, and whose rooms you like.
Each guest house has its own character, and I think all of them are family-run. One we really liked was Namaste Garden. We had a couple of nice breakfasts there, and liked both the family that runs it and the other guests. We think we’ll stay there next time we come to Gokarna.
Kudle Beach offers a lot of guest houses at prices more suited to short-term vacationers than to long-term travellers, but that are nonetheless reasonable by European or American standards. You can find these on Trip Advisor and other travel sites.
The restaurant we ate at most often in Gokarna was Prema, on Car Street right by the beach. Their traditional South Indian menu items are always fresh and deliciously prepared. They also offer things Westerners like, such as fruit drinks, toast with various spreads, sweet pancakes, sandwiches and so on. I love their huge bowl of fresh green salad – a most unusual find in India. The family who runs this place is friendly and warm. They keep the place clean, open and welcoming, so as you can imagine, it’s usually full. But business turns pretty fast, and you might even get to sit with someone you don’t know, and make friends.
Other restaurants we enjoyed were the Pai Restaurant (there are several), which offers good thalis (full meals) and banana buns (a morning or afternoon treat) and the Sri Shakti in the eastern part of Car Street.
By the way, Car Street is a common name for streets in temple towns, indicating where the temple car (or cars) are stored. Below you can see a photo of the temple car at Gokarna. It was undergoing repairs while we were in town, so rather than being housed in its garage next to the temple, it was out on the street. During the days we were in town, the car received new axles and wheels. We didn’t get to see these being put on, which would have been interesting, as these cars weigh literally tons. (Continue to read reading below the photo to learn a little about temple cars.)
The temple car is used during big festivals. An image of the god is placed in the car, and devotees drag the car around town as part of the festival. It’s considered a great privilege to help drag the car, and so lots of people want to do it. This is fortunate, as the cars are so heavy.
Even when it’s not festival time, gods are often taken out for a procession around the temple, or around town. Usually they’re placed in a litter, which several people carry on their shoulders. We saw this happen every morning and evening in Bhadrachalam, and the procession was accompanied by loud music of wind instruments, drum and bells.
The cyclone that hit Kerala days ago, roiling the surf here at Gokarna, has finally arrived. We sit in the Prema restaurant, enjoying a cup of tea while we wait for our lunch to arrive. Wind drives rain against the small shops and tall coconut palms, and in sheets across the street. Deep puddles grow deeper, and even the vagrant cows huddle together under shop awnings, reluctant to emerge in such conditions. We drink tea, we eat slowly, we order more tea, as we wait for a moment when the rain pauses. Back in our hotel room, the rain resumes, heavier than ever. The tops of the palms outside our window resound with raindrops, so loud I am surprised Alan can nap through it.
What makes this so interesting is that Gokarna is not only a beach town, but a holy town. The Sri Mahabaleshwar temple was built almost 1700 years ago. About 500 years ago, several Brahmin families migrated from the Goa area, fearful they’d be forced by the Portuguese to convert to Christianity. Today, the central part of town surrounding the Mahabaleshwar temple, Maha Ganapati temple and other temples is still dominated by these Brahmin families, which have enlarged over successive generations.
At least 30 temples are scattered across the town, from the beach itself inland and up and down the coastline. They range in size from tiny mid-street shrines to full buildings. Even the largest of them is not large at all by Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh standards; they are all of modest height, perhaps because of prudent attention to cyclones, and none spread more than 100 metres in any dimension.
We enjoy rambling the narrow streets of Gokarna, where motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, dogs, groups of schoolchildren, vegetable sellers, swamis and tourists all vie for space on busy weekend days. But it’s just temporary. On a weekday, and especially during the three- to four-hour lull from lunch to late afternoon, the streets empty out. Shop shutters roll down, dogs curl up in a bit of shade, cows sink to the pavement to chew their cuds, and humans retreat onto verandahs or indoor beds. We know this because, unlike in the west, the front doors of private homes remain open all day. As we walk down the street, I peer unashamedly into houses, seeing families chatting, eating, reading or watching television in the wide halls that are the first indoor space, after the verandah. Beyond the hall, I can see a darker hallway leading to a bright square of light that is the family’s inner courtyard. There, I see women sweeping, or squatting and scrubbing cooking pots, or sorting rice or dal. Between courtyard and front hall, figures move back and forth between various hidden rooms.
The glimpses I gain remind me of just how communal and familial life is in India, especially in villages. And make no mistake, the center of Gokarna – what I think of as the Brahmin district – is a village. Everyone knows everyone else; everyone is related somehow to everyone else.
I think of our street in Portland, where we lived for 29 years, watching families come and go. Some neighbors we knew well, especially when our children were little and played with the other children who lived within two or three blocks of our house. Others we barely knew, either because they rarely emerged from their houses, or because they socialized only within their church, or because we never took the trouble to know them. And of course, people move a lot in America – across town, across the state, across the country. Here in India, and especially in small-town India, one family owns a house for many generations. There is very little upheaval of entire families unless something forces the issue: a disastrous tsunami, or famine, or communal violence, or war. Or for the past two or three generations, children being educated at universities far away, and settling in the cities of India, America and Europe, visiting the family home just once a year, or for weddings or funerals.
The temples of Gokarna
As I said, there are a lot of temples here. Many are forbidden to foreigners; painted notices beside entries baldly state this is so. But not all are off limits, and so one morning I enter the Maha Ganapati temple to make an offering to one of my favorite gods, the ever-cheerful son of Shiva with an elephant’s head. I like him best in his dancing posture, but wherever I find him, he makes my heart lighter. This morning I bring him flowers, which I have just purchased from one of the bare-shouldered flower ladies outside the temple. I ring the brass bell overhead, put my flowers in the offering basket, and circumambulate Ganapati’s shrine. I ask him, the remover of obstacles, to help me remove the blockages from my heart and my mind. I am thinking specifically of the blockage I’ve been suffering from lately – a stall in my blogging activity that began because I was working on paid writing, but that has continued long enough to make me really uncomfortable. There are other blockages, too, that I know need to dissolve, and I ask my cheerful fat-bellied god for his help.
I emerge from the darkness of ancient stones close around me into the daylight, where Alan patiently waits. We continue on and into the largest temple here, the Sri Mahabaleshwara temple, which houses a lingam said to be the atmalingam, or Shiva’s original lingam. This temple is forbidden to foreigners, but we are allowed into the outer precinct that surrounds the temple itself. This outer ring houses the donation office, the temple cows, a small temple undergoing repair, and, as we learn on our second or third day, a lovely Parvathi temple. Small and peaceful, this temple lies behind an entry wall flanked by four golden goddesses. Inside, we bow to the goddess and settle down with the other worshippers to rest for a quiet moment in Parvathi’s presence. Then we circumambulate her home, and I encounter a series of goddess portraits.
Other temples we’ve visited are high on the hills above Gokarna Beach. One has a deep tank in front of the temple with two natural springs piped into the walls. The tank is not blocked to fill up, but drains continually, so people use the piped spring water to bathe in before prayer – or to refresh themselves after a swim over at Kudle Beach.
Another hill temple is dedicated to Shiva, and has detailed images of Shiva and Shakti with cobra tails. I couldn’t get a position to take a good image of Shiva with his cobra tail, but here’s Shakti, plus a joint portrait.
One of our favorite temples was the cobra temple, buried deep in the Brahmin quarter, a short walk from the sacred Koti Teertha (“teertha” means tank, or a deep man-made pond meant for bathing before prayer, and for bathing images of the gods). A couple of long outside walls hold rows of niches, each with a stone bas-relief of a cobra (or more than one) or a god. Each is dated. I asked our landlord about them, and he told us these are placed by families praying for a baby boy. So many tablets were placed in 1990, I figured there are a lot of 26- and 27-year-old men in the community.
We love visiting Indian temples, whether living or historical (and sometimes, as at Pattadakal in Karnataka, it’s a bit of both). So we were looking forward to spending some time at the Sri Sita Ramachandran Swamy temple in Bhadrachalam – but we had no idea just how much time we’d end up spending there.
Shortly after our arrival, we decided the town itself was so pleasant and relaxing (and our hotel was so good), we would stay on for a total of 11 days. Because the hotel is just literally steps from the temple, we woke up around 4:30 every morning to the sound of drums, cymbals and bhajans, as the temple priests started their daily puja schedule. Some mornings we actually made our way over to the temple shortly after 4:30. We’d walk to one of the tea shops surrounding the temple, imbibe a tiny (3-ounce) glass of tea each, and then enter the temple by either the front or back stairs.
Each time we arrived at the temple, we’d offer an initial pranam (a bow or prostration) to the deities at the front entrance, then walk around the inside of the temple’s perimeter walls, offering more prayers at the different shrines. As we walked, we quickly discovered a series of large color illustrations ranged high around the perimeter walls. Underneath each picture was text in both English and Telegu, telling the story of the temple. We walked around and around, reading these episodes day after day, until we felt we had some idea of the temple’s story, which is really a series of several stories.
We finally discovered an English-language book about Gopanna (a.k.a. Ramadas), the builder of the temple, at the temple shop, and that gave us more information. We’ve been very careful about buying things on our trip (we already have too much stuff!), but this book was one of only 1,000 printed, and the only one available in English, so we knew we’d never find it anywhere else. And it’s a good read.
We were lucky to receive another book as a gift from one of the priests at the temple. This priest is the brother-in-law of the man who owns the Srinidhi Residency, the hotel where we stayed while in Bhadrachalam. The priest had obviously taken note of our daily presence at the temple, and our deep interest in its history and rituals.
The book contains the same illustrations we were perusing every day, plus more that aren’t displayed on the perimeter walls. The book’s text is Telegu with no English translations, so we can’t actually read it. But because we spent so much time learning the story from the English captions around the perimeter walls, and we had our English-language book about Gopanna/Ramadas, the illustrations are a real help. I’ve photographed some of the illustrations in the book for this blog post.
I am fascinated by the intertwining stories of the temple at Bhadrachalam. There’s the story of Rama and Sita, and their relationship to this place. There’s the story of Dammakka, a woman whose devotion to Rama and Sita inspired the building of the temple. There’s the story of Gopanna, also known as Ramadas (servant of Rama), who got the temple built (and suffered for his efforts). And finally, underpinning all the other stories, is the story of Bhadra – a man who was once a mountain, and who desired to become a mountain again to express his devotion in the most fundamental way possible: by bearing the weight of the god he adored.
Rama, Sita and the Bhadra
If you’ve read the Ramayana, or seen its stories acted out in theater or film, you know that Rama, a prince of Ayodhya, is married to Sita, and has a younger brother called Lakshman, who is the epitome of brotherly devotion. Rama’s father’s second wife demands that Rama’s father banish him so that her own son can gain political ascendancy. So Rama, Sita and Lakshman leave their palace home, and go into hiding in the forests of southern India to stay safe from harm.
It’s helpful to know that in Hindu tradition, Rama is an avatar, or emanation, of the god Vishnu. Vishnu is one of three main gods, and is the preserver. (The other two are Siva the destroyer and Brahma the creator.) So he is both a mythological figure and a god, in the way that so many Indian gods are. The stories about the gods in human form make them much easier to relate to.
Anyway, to get on with the Bhadrachalam story: During their forest exile, Rama and Sita find a rock that offers them rest and comfort. As they relax on the surface of the rock, they get not just a rest, but also “that divine vaikuntha feeling,” as the English text in the temple reads.
“Vaikuntha” is a place of bliss, purity and goodness, a kind of heaven whose residents feel such love for Vishnu, and such total satisfaction in serving him, that there is no need for anything else. So in resting on the rock in the forest, Rama and Sita are filled with a divine feeling of bliss.
That’s because they are resting on no ordinary rock, as it turns out, but on Bhadra – a devotee of Vishnu in his emanation as Rama. Bhadra’s love for Rama is so great that he desires nothing more than to provide a place for Rama to rest himself, or to step with his divine feet.
Here’s where the story gets really interesting, and a bit circular. Bhadra is both a person and a rock (in fact, “Bhadra” means stone or rock in Telegu, the language of Bhadrachalam and its state, Andhra Pradesh). He is a rock whose devotion to Rama is so intense, he is promised a human rebirth; and he is a person whose devotion to Rama is so intense, he is granted existence as a rock, so he may forever be a locus for Rama-worship.
Now we come to the story of how Bhadra is born as a human. Meru and his wife, Menaka – a divine couple – pray to Vishnu to give them a son. Actually, Meru is a holy mountain, but in this story, he is in his human form, and so is Menaka.
Vishnu grants Meru and Menaka their wish, and their son is born. Bhadra is an unusual child; while other children play normally, little Bhadra sits in meditation.
Narada, a celestial sage, sees Bhadra and comes to tell his parents that their son has a great mission to fulfill. Now Bhadra begins to get instruction from Narada on the qualities of Rama.
Bhadra’s desire to be united with Rama intensifies, and he begs his parents to let him go into the forest to do tapas, or spiritual practice, in the forest. He persists even as apsaras (fairies) try to distract him, and as others try to dissuade him. (I’ve forgotten the name of the being with the sword in the right-hand picture.)
Eventually, Bhadra’s penances become so intense, the gods beg Vishnu to intervene.
Vishnu, taking the form of Rama with Sita and Lakshman accompanying him, hurries to Bhadra to grant his desire to see Rama in physical form.
Bhadra finally gets his wish: to see Rama in physical form. He then begs Rama to put his sri pada – his holy footprint – on Bhadra’s head, so that he may be forever united with Rama. Rama grants Bhadra his desire, and Bhadra at last becomes what he was, and what he desired to be once again: a holy mountain where Rama, Sita and Lakshman will reside forever. The idols that manifest from the mountain top – Bhadra’s head – are said to be the same ones that are worshipped in the inner sanctum at Bhadrachalam.
Dammakka: her vision and devotion
About 350 years ago, Bhadrachalam wasn’t a town. It was just a hill by the Godavari, surrounded by forest and small villages. The area was ruled by the kingdom of Golkonda (present-day Hyderabad).
Dammakka was a devotee of Rama living in a village called Bhadrareddypalem. Her devotion was intense, and one night she dreamed of Rama, who told her there was a representation of himself, Sita and Lakshman on the top of the hill near her. Dammakka was determined to find this idol, so she searched for it until she spotted it, hidden inside an anthill. She fetched water and washed the idol until it emerged from the anthill, and she began to worship it daily.
Eventually, Gopanna, a tehsildar (land tax official) serving the Golkonda ruler Abul Hassan Tani Shah, came to visit Bhadrachalam in his official capacity, and Dammakka pleaded with him to build a temple for the idol she worshipped. Gopanna was, at that time, enforcing a tax on Hindus that was apparently intended to get them to convert to Islam. The Hindu subjects of the kingdom were, of course, angry about this tax, so Gopanna decided to use part of the taxes he was collecting to build a temple around the self-manifested idol of Rama, Sita and Lakshman that Dammakka had discovered. He also used some of these funds to make beautiful jewels for adorning the deities. Essentially, Gopanna became an embezzler in order to build a temple for Rama.
Gopanna becomes Ramadas
Eventually, of course, Abul Hassan Tani Shah discovered that Gopanna had used the wealth he collected as taxes to build the temple on the hill at Bhadrachalam. He imprisoned Gopanna, and told him he had 12 years to return the money, or he would be killed. Gopanna couldn’t return it, of course, so he remained in prison (at Golconda, near Hyderabad), and endured whippings while in prison.
Gopanna was a serious Rama devotee, and composed many hymns while in prison. He is remembered today not only for building the Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, but also for his devotional compositions.
Rama and Lakshman saw that Gopanna was suffering in prison, and that he was indeed in danger of being killed. So they took on the form of soldiers or warriors, and appeared to Abul Hassan Tani Shah with the wealth that was owed to his government. I’ve read different amounts, but it seems it was about nine lakhs of rupees, or 900,000 rupees – an incredible fortune. Rama and Lakshman produced the wealth in the form of real gold coins, which stunned Abul Hassan Tani Shah into not only immediately releasing Gopanna from prison, but also re-appointing him to his official position.
Once Gopanna was freed, it seems that all was sweetness and light. Abul Hassan Tani Shah accepted Gopanna/Ramadas’ elevated status as a devotee of Rama; the temple and its religious rituals flourished; families of Brahmins were appointed to be priests to the temple; and even the Muslims acknowledged the holiness of the place and the devotion of Ramadas.
Our experience of the Sri Sita Ramachandran Swamy temple
The Sri Sita Ramachandran Swamy temple is situated high on the hill, with steps leading up to both the front and back entrances. The main part of the temple is contained by high walls. The insides of these walls hold a variety of small shrines, a small museum, some storage areas, and at one end, a raised stage-like area where the deity is worshipped daily. There is a long covered porch forming an L with the stage, with stepped seating so you can watch the puja. Alternatively, you can sit with the priests on the ground, directly in front of the stage. Inside the perimeter walls, and off-center, is a small temple housing the principal deity of Bhadrachalam – the self-manifested trio of Rama, Sita and Lakshman.
Early mornings in the temple have their own flavor. There aren’t nearly as many worshippers as there are later on, say around 8:00 or 9:00 AM, after people have had time to eat, bathe in the river and make their offerings. When you go early, you see a few priests and temple helpers cleaning the various shrines around the temple of yesterday’s flowers and offerings, anointing the idols with fresh scented water, decorating them with flowers, and ornamenting them with vermilion and turmeric. I wish I could share photos with you of all this activity, but neither cameras nor mobile phones are allowed inside the temple.
Our early morning visits were fairly brief – perhaps 30 minutes. We’d often see the deity taken out of the central temple, processed around the temple, and then put back for a day of darshan (visits from devotees). In the evenings, we’d return to the temple for longer visits. As in the morning, we’d enter and make a pranam, visit the bhadra stone, and then circumambulate the inside of the perimeter wall, reading the illustration captions (again) and talking through the stories between us, while visiting the shrines around the perimeter. Then we’d settle on the steps by the “stage” area and see what there was to be seen. Some evenings, there were long bhajan sessions, with the priests taking it in turns to sing beautiful solos to the accompaniment of drums, harmonium and wind instruments.
One evening, there were two groups of dancers, all women, and all visiting from the same locality, I think. One group was dressed in gleaming green-patterned saris, while the other wore purple-and-gold saris. The women danced in two separate circles, using sticks to beat out a rhythm and leaning in and out of the circle in rhythm with their beat, slowly circling. There was one priest who danced inside the circle of purple-and-gold dancers, jumping and singing with a look of great joy on his face. This particular priest also sang bhajans during some of the evenings we were there; he had a beautiful voice.
The evenings when there was a lot of activity were long; we’d often stay over an hour, just sitting and listening and watching. Other evenings, there was just the normal nightly worship of the deity, and then the return of the deity to the inner temple where it lives. This transfer of the deity is accomplished by transporting it on a litter borne by priests, to the accompaniment of loud music played by more priests.
I mentioned the bhadra stone earlier. It’s a piece of the rocky hill on which the temple is built, and two of the minor shrines were built either side of it. Pilgrims entering the temple make an offering at the first shrine, then lay their hands and heads on the bhadra stone. I did the same every day. I hesitate a little to say this – I don’t want to sound credulous, nor to seem as if I’m appropriating Hinduism. But when I pressed my hands to the stone, and leant my head against it, I could feel a kind of vibration. Whether the stone seems so alive because of the Bhadra himself, or because of all the devotion of so many people, it affected me every time I visited. On the two separate days we were gone all day for visits to Parnashala and the Papikondulu Hills, I needed to visit the temple at night before we went to bed, to touch the bhadra stone and press my head against it. This made each day complete.
Curious to read more? Here are some resources
I’m most indebted to the book Maha Vaggeyakara: Sri Bhadrachala Ramadas, by Dr. Nookala Chinna Satyanarayana. Maha Vaggeyakara means “great composer” or “great lyricist.” Gopanna, or Ramadas, is remembered not only for building the temple at Bhadrachalam, but also for the many hymns he composed. These hymns are the primary subject of Dr. Satyanarayana’s book, but it also retells the story of how the temple at Bhadrachalam came to be, with a lot of interesting historical context around the rulers of Golkonda, whom Gopanna served in his official capacity as tax collector.
As I said earlier, just 1,000 copies of this book were printed, so the chances of finding it aren’t great, unless you visit Bhadrachalam and go into the bookstore at the south end of the temple’s grounds. So here some other resources I consulted to understand the Bhadrachalam stories better.
I learned something interesting along the way: Bhadra had a brother, Ratnakara, who also manifested intense devotion to Vishnu, this time in the form of Sri Veera Venkata Satyanarayana (rather than in the form of Rama, the manifestation Bhadra worshipped so intensely). Ratnakara also desired to become a mountain and perpetually worship god, so there’s a temple in Andhra Pradesh on top of Ratnagiri, the mountain that Ratnakara became. The Sri Satyanarayana Swamy temple has a similar story behind it of a devotee dreaming that there was a hidden idol on the hill at the village of Annavaram. The temple standing there now was constructed in 1933 and 1934, and restored in 2011 and 2012. If you want to learn more, go to http://annavaramdevasthanam.nic.in. As for me, I now have a new destination for our next visit to Andhra Pradesh.
It took just one day in Bhadrachalam to make us decide we needed to stay longer than the three nights we originally booked. It’s a lovely small town, located upriver from Rajahmundry on the same side of the Godavari, offering plenty of temples, a couple of nice short walks along the river, and the chance to take a one- or two-day river trip among the scenic Papikondulu Hills. So we asked Mr. Ramachandran, the owner of the hotel where we stayed, if we could stay another eight nights.
While the town is famous for its 350-year-old temple featuring a unique representation of Rama, it isn’t featured in any of the India guides aimed at foreign travelers – at least, not that we’ve seen. That’s probably why we haven’t seen any other non-Indians while we’ve been here. It’s also probably why people are constantly asking to take selfies with us – we’re a very unusual sight. We don’t mind, as these selfie sessions sometimes end up as interesting conversations, though often limited by the lack of a common language. People here speak Telegu, not Tamil (I have a little Tamil), and our Hindi is also pretty limited. But still, humans do manage to communicate well across language barriers, and it’s a lot of fun to push the envelope.
Swamis by the Rama temple, early AM
Lady making a rangoli in front of her house, early AM
These ladies of this family greeted us every day as we walked to the river.
This lovely woman sweeps up around town in the mornings. us all about her devotion to Jesus.
I’ve seen quite a few fun t-shirts in India. This one was particularly good, and its wearer very obliging.
We visited the temple twice a day, morning and evening, and every visit felt different and distinct. You can certainly feel the devotion of the people who come to visit from all over India, mostly the south. Devotees arrive in family groups, or with groups of friends, and offer fruit, flowers, incense, and other sacred substances. People sit around the temple on stone steps or in corners, reading sacred texts alone, or sometimes to each other. There are pujas throughout the day, and in the evening, after aarti (an offering of fire), priests sing beautiful bhajans. One evening there was dancing. Two groups of women, one clad in green checked saris, the other in purple saris embellished with gold, danced in circles, beating sticks in rhythm, as musicians played and sang. A tall, thin priest at the temple, whom we heard singing bhajans most evenings, danced in the center of the purple-sari circle; he was lithe, graceful and very light on his feet, with a joyous expression on his face as he danced and sang. I wish I could share video or even photos of all this, but cameras aren’t allowed in the temple.
Visiting the temple became the anchor for our days in Bhadrachalam, other than the two days we took trips: one by bus to Parnashala, where two small temples mark important parts of Rama and Sita’s story, and the other by boat to Parentallipali and the Papikondulu Hills. We enjoyed walking the long riverside promenade, which winds along the curve of the Godavari from the Ayyappa temple at one end to the far end of town at the other.
Sculpture on the riverside walk. at Bhadrachalam.
Sculpture on the riverside walk at Bhadrachalam.
We got to know the small neighborhoods of Bhadrachalam, just walking around mornings and evenings. I liked the smaller temples around town, each with its own distinctive art and small shrines.
Offerings at the entrance to the big Rama temple.
Intertwined cobras nestled in tree roots. One of the small shrines around Bhadrachalam.
We spent most of our early evenings by the Godavari, watching people worship and then spread out their clothing to dry after their ritual dips in the river. Small motorboats offer rides out the exposed sandbars, where you can make your offerings right in the middle of the river. There’s a distinctive chant that goes out over the loudspeakers at intervals: “Sita Rama motorboat shikar.” It’s basically a marketing chant, but it became stuck in our heads like a mantra. (Turn up the sound!)
It was fun shopping for vegetables and fruit in the small market street, wandering the residential areas of town and climbing the small hill above the temple. Alan got his hair cut near the Hanuman temple in Car Street.
The big event of the week was the visit of a famous Telegu movie actor to the Sri Sita Ramachandra temple. We never saw him, but the streets around the temple were packed with people eagerly awaiting a glimpse. Yes, it’s all very small-town – and that’s a big part of Bhadrachalam’s charm.
There are lots of hotels, sadans and dharamsalas (pilgrim accommodation) available in Bhadrachalam. I’m sure these fill up quickly during major festivals and holidays, but when we were there, you really had your pick of places to stay. You can walk up the hill from Temple Street to look at the sadans and dharamsalas perched above the temple, and there are quite a few more on the street that runs from the south side of the temple towards the town, away from the river. These sadans and dharamsalas range in price from Rs. 300 or less per day to about Rs. 800 per day, so they’re in the budget range for Bhadrachalam.
Hotels cost a lot more – anywhere from Rs. 1000 to a couple of thousand per night. We stayed in a particularly nice hotel called the Srinidhi Residency. It’s literally a one-minute walk from the hotel to the Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, which is why we chose it – plus the reviews on TripAdvisor.com were very good, and deservedly so. The Srinidhi is clean, well-kept and offers spacious rooms, plenty of hot water, mostly-working wifi and a very nice staff. The owner was kind and friendly, and we felt welcome and comfortable during our 11-day stay.
Bhadrachalam is a small town, and the food options for visitors are pretty limited. There’s a pure-veg sit-down restaurant called the Sri Anjenaya at the bottom of the hill close to the temple (look for the Sri Sudharsana Residency; the restaurant is just opposite). The staff are nice, and their midday “meals” (set meal of rice, curried vegetables, dal, sambar, curd, rasam and pickle) are both unlimited – all you can eat – and economical at Rs. 70 per person. Like most South India restaurants, the Anjenaya offers specific options at specific times. In the morning you can get bonda, idly, dosa and pessaratu; evenings, you can get chapatti, dosa, bonda. That’s it.
The other options in easy reach of the hotel are all dhabas, or food stands, often operated by local families on the front porches of their homes. We became very fond of one dhaba at the back of the temple. We call it the Locker Room, because there’s a business by that name right next door, renting lockers to pilgrims who want to secure their bags for the day. The dhaba serves the most delicious food we ate in Bhadrachalam. Its pesseratu is a real standout: large, crispy, filled with uppma that’s deliciously flavored with sweet spices, and served with sambar, plus excellent coconut chutney and a second chutney that changes from day to day. The tomato chutney is good, but I prefer Locker Room’s mint chutney – it’s spicy, fresh, tangy and delicious. Locker Room’s chili bhajis and crunchy vada, served in the afternoons and evenings, are equally good, too. Their tea is nothing to sneeze at, either.
Here’s a clip of the Locker Room cooks making pesseratu (on the left side of the tawa) and dosa (on the right).
Then there’s Pesseratu Bhadram, a small sit-down restaurant on Temple Road that’s one step up from a dhaba. Located in a humble small building, and family-run, Pesseratu Bhadram is famous – so famous that there are large photos of the owner with a well-known Telegu actor on the walls inside.
Busy morning at Pesseratu Bhadram.
Outside of Pesseratu Bhadram.
The food is good here, and the tea is outstanding, just the way I like it: strong, not too much milk, and with moderate sugar (it’s hard to avoid very sweet tea in South India). Pesseratu Bhadram’s version of pesseratu is smaller and softer than the ones made at the Locker Room, and they’re tasty.
To get to Pesseratu Bhadram, walk up Temple Road away from the temple and river, towards town. When you get to the Hanuman temple in the middle of the road, take the right-hand fork and after 7 to 10 houses, look for Pessaratu Bhadram on your right. It’s below street level, so you walk a few steps down to the front door. It’s open from 6:30 to 10 AM, and serves only breakfast food (idly, dosa and vada in addition to pesseratu).
If you want a bit more variety, you can walk or take a rickshaw to the main road where the TSRTC (Telangana State Road Transportation Corporation) bus stand is located. There are a number of restaurants here, mostly across from the bus stand, and we tried three of them. The standout, in our experience, is the Shree Kalki Hotel. This humble-looking place serves excellent sambar, crispy fresh dosas, fluffy idly, unusually good coconut chutney, and satisfying midday meals. Their version of meals includes nicely cooked vegetables, thick curd and good dal. Their tea also makes my list, because it’s strong and they were happy to make it for me with little or even no sugar. We also really enjoyed the waiter who served us there: He was friendly, helpful and fun to joke around with, even with the language limitations.
As usual, we dealt with the lack of variety in the food by eating one meal a day in our room. We normally buy a half-kilo of tomatoes, a lemon, a chili, a bunch of cilantro, one or two red onions (they are small), and whatever else we can find (sometimes we got lucky and found a cucumber or a green bell pepper). We chop up all the vegetables, add the juice of the lemon and some salt, and enjoy this improvised salad. We also buy fruit to supplement our diet, and occasionally some groundnuts (peanuts). Tender green coconuts are also a nice snack that adds to the variety, and sometimes we buy a couple of 100-gram packets of curd, which we pour into our steel tumblers.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, having a basic set of dishes makes traveling in India a lot easier. We brought two forks and spoons from home, plus a very sharp pocket knife for slicing vegetables and fruit. In Tiruvannamalai, we bought two steel plates and two tumblers. Equipped with these, plus a green scrubber for vegetables and one for dishes, we’ve been able to supplement our diet quite successfully, and stay healthy and happy.
During our time here in Rajahmundry, we’ve remarked on just how many men we see dressed in black. We know these are people going through the 41-day period of fasting and abstinence that pilgrims undertake before traveling to Sabrimala in Kerala, a temple dedicated to Ayyappa, or Ayyappan, as he’s also called.
I knew about these pilgrimages when I lived in India during the early 1980s, but I really didn’t know anything about Ayyappa. Today we learned a lot about this god when we stopped off in the early morning at the Sri Ayappa Swamy temple beside the Godavari River.
You may know that a lot of Indian gods are married and have children. For example, Ganesha, one of the most beloved gods across India, is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Ayappa is unusual because he’s the son of Shiva and Mohini, who is the female emanation of Vishnu. He’s also a celibate yogi and a warrior, regarded as an expression of ethical living, and he’s also famous for conquering a terrible female demon. Ayyappan reaches across religious lines; he is said to have been friends with a Muslim saint, and Indian Buddhists regard him as an incarnation of the Buddha.
We passed the Ayyappa temple several on our morning walks before deciding to go in yesterday. It intrigued us, as it’s always crowded with black-clad swamis, often arriving and departing on motorcycles. It’s almost like a motorcycle gang whose members wear orange-bordered lungis and upper cloths, instead of leather chaps and vests.
All the Ayyappa devotees are swamis during their preparation and pilgrimages, and they all call each other “swami,” or append it to their names. We could hear this in conversations as we entered the temple, and very quickly, a swami in his 30s gestured to us to follow him into the hall on the ground floor. He was just like the other swamis, clad in his black lungi and nothing else, but with a welcoming smile and a focused determination in his eyes.
Swami Prasad (we learned his name when we were chatting later) walked us through the rituals of saluting each god, repeating the Sanskrit prayers for us to follow. Then he took us up a flight of stairs to join a crowd of other pilgrims on the upper floor of the temple. It was open to the sky, with a beautiful view of the Godavari from a balcony as wide as the temple. We also had a great view of the dharamsala next door, where many of the swamis were staying. The balconies there were covered with drying black lungis (from morning dips in the river), and men toweling their hair.
Swami Prasad took us carefully through another set of rituals and prayers at a series of small shrines on the upper floor. We took blessed milk from the lingam puja and drank it, took sacred ash to smear on our foreheads, and we each received a dab of black powder as the final touch on the forehead. (In other temples, we’ve received a dab of vermilion as the final touch.)
It’s hard to explain how all this felt. I am not a Hindu, and while I understand the meanings of some of the Sanskrit prayers (from reading about them), I wasn’t brought up with these prayers. So they don’t evoke for me the deep religious feeling that they can evoke for people who’ve grown up with these rituals and prayers. Children get their early apprehension of a larger presence, of the comfort of God, at the same time they are learning the rituals and prayers their families do every day, so these things are joined. At least, that’s my observation of how it is for most people. So it seems natural that the rituals and prayers don’t act on me the same way they do for Hindus.
That said, something does happen. There is so much power in the gathering of all these devoted, energetic people, and I can feel it running through my body like a low-level electrical current. Worshippers at the Ayyappan temple are mostly male, especially early in the morning, before people set off for work, and probably also because it’s coming up to the pilgrimage season. All that male energy, focused on each god in turn, moving from one to the next in an orderly fashion, I experienced as a current that I entered like a river, and just flowed along with it.
Once all the rituals were done, it was time to relax and chat amid the waving palm fronds and the river beyond. A few swamis came up to us, mostly in pairs, eager to hear where we’re from, practice their English, and have their photos taken with us.
Swami Prasad is second from the left.
Swami Prasad on the left, Alan in the middle, and another swami on the right.
I liked this photo of us that one of the swamis took with Alan’s camera.
After a while, Swami Prasad shepherded us downstairs, where breakfast was being served by a group of swamis. You buy a ticket for whichever of the usual items you want – idly, pongal, dosa, pesarattu – and you get a nice breakfast for very little money. The only missing item was tea: Part of the fast, it seems, is not taking stimulants.
After eating, we chatted for a while longer with Swami Prasad. He told us he works at a paper mill and is also a dancer. This was something I’d read about, but hadn’t met anyone like this until now. There are people who perform traditional dance during the festival season (autumn and winter), but work regular jobs during the rest of the year. I wasn’t surprised once he’d told us this; Swami Prasad has a compact physical presence and moves with a grace that’s noticeable even in this environment, where many people are physically graceful.
The Ayyappa temple has some very impressive dioramas of scenes from Ayyappa’s life. They are composed of nearly life-sized dolls, beautifully painted and dressed, all behind glass. I was able to photograph a few of them without too many reflections on the glass.
Ayappa as a boy with a sage in the forest.
Ayyappa as a baby with his parents.
Ayyappa riding a tiger.
Durga quelling a demon.
Aarti at Pushkar Ghat
A few of the swamis mentioned to us that we shouldn’t miss the aarti at Pushkar Ghat. This ghat is further north than the walks we usually take, so we planned to set off at 5:00 and be there for the start of it at 6:00, when it’s getting dark.
Aarti, if you don’t know, is a puja in which fire is offered to the deity. People buy wicks impregnated with ghee, or put ghee in a little clay dish, along with a wick, and light that. Aarti can be very dramatic when it’s performed by priests at a temple, with a large metal frame holding a number of flaming wicks. And lots of people worshipping by the river buy little “boats” of banana-stem fiber, load them up with flowers and a wick, then light the wick and set the boat on the surface of the water to float down river.
The aarti at Pushkar Ghat is really quite a show. There’s a boat out in the river, with seating for several priests all lined up, facing the shore. Their assistants light large lamps shaped in various forms associated with Shiva, and wave these around in a highly choreographed way.
Priests on the boat, performing aarti.
One of the priests and his assistant.
I’m including one video below. It’s as much as I can stand to upload at regular data speeds.
What I really enjoyed was all the groups of family and friends gathering on the ghats to spend a pleasurable evening sending out small boats of fire, praying, sharing snacks and relaxing in the cool breeze coming off the water. If you’re ever in Rajahmundry, make sure you get yourself to Pushkar Ghat one evening, and enjoy the show.
We spent the day we arrived in the charming city of Rajahmundry just walking around and absorbing the atmosphere, then decided we wanted to get on a bus the next day to Kakinada, to see a bit of the Godavari delta region. We like to have a focus for our excursions, so we chose the ancient temple of Sri Bhavananarayana Swamy. It’s located six kilometers away from the center of Kakinade, so after getting a late breakfast of idly, sambar and chutney near the Kakinada bus station, we grabbed a rickshaw and headed out to the temple.
It turns out the temple is located in what amounts to a suburban area. You can still see how rural it once was, and there are still tilled fields, water buffalo and low-slung palm-thatched buildings. But there are also streets lined with tall houses and shops, and rickshaws, motorbikes, motor scooters and cars honk their way down the road.
The temple itself, dedicated to Vishnu, is both ancient and newly restored. You can read about the legends and history of the temple on this web page, which states that the temple is 1,500 years old. I’ve also seen assertions that it’s 500 years old, 1,100 years old, and 1,600 years old. The locals I spoke with there (including a primary school teacher working in the little school next door) all shrugged, smiled and said, “It’s old.” But you can tell from the texture of the black-red rock of its walls, and the erosion of sculptures and carved pillars facing the elements, that the temple has been standing for hundreds of years.
I mentioned the restorations earlier. On top of the original stone is finely wrought plasterwork sculpture, painted a chaste creamy white. Some of the gopurams have been gilded, and gleam in the sunlight. The cream and gold seem like they’d clash with the rough original stone walls, but it all blends together and is quite beautiful.
Main gopuram and a gilded smaller gopuram viewed from outside temple walls.
Main gopuram viewed from inside temple walls.
When we first entered the temple about 10:30 AM, there were very few visitors. We took our time, first entering the main temple and walking around the primary shrine, enjoying the quiet atmosphere, the stone carving and the unusual, colorful designs painted here and there on the floor. It was so quiet that little chipmunks chased each other across one of the stone walls, ignoring the visiting humans.
People began to arrive, and as they made their offerings, the priests chanted in several parts of the temple, bells rung, and thick clouds of incense were released into the air.
I walked around the temple grounds, still inside the walls that separate the temple compound from the surrounding village and major road just outside. Two young women coming the opposite way, accompanied by a little girl, stopped me for some conversation. This has been happening quite a bit since we came to Rajahmundry. I get the feeling that few foreigners come here, and the combination of people’s natural friendliness, and their curiosity, has led to some nice conversations.
This one was especially fun. The two young ladies asked me lots of questions about my profession, the purpose of my travel in India, was that foreign man my husband, do we have children, and so on. I returned the favor, and discovered the two girls are sisters, about 18 and 19 years old. They both study computer science, and after taking their three-year degrees, they both plan to complete graduate studies, though one of the sisters also said she really wants to be an airline attendant. The little girl with them is their niece, and in exchange for the girls teaching me how to say “How are you?” (literally, “Are you safe?”) and “I am fine” in Telegu, I taught them “niece” for “sister’s child,” and “nephew” just for good measure. Soon I was being pulled along by the hand, and introduced to two brothers, two sisters, the girls’ father and a brother-in-law.
All the family members were so warm and friendly, even with their limited or non-existent English. I am kind of bowled over by how much friendliness we meet with in this region. It’s not like Tamil people aren’t friendly; we had plenty of delightful conversations during our six weeks in Tiruvannamalai. But people there are accustomed to foreigners, and whether they’ve had good experiences with foreigners, negative experiences or both, they do have ideas and opinions about foreigners. The people we are meeting seem to have rarely, if ever, met anyone from outside this region. So we seem to elicit curiosity and friendliness, and in some cases, real excitement. I get the feeling some people we’ve met go home and say, “Today I met some people from the USA, and I talked with them!” It makes me smile.
The girls actually did me quite a nice favor, too. I knew soon I’d need to find a place to answer the body’s needs, and I hadn’t yet been able to spot anything that looked like a ladies’ toilet. The girls asked if I needed anything, and I asked if they knew where I could use what they called “the washroom.” No, they said, they didn’t know, and looked disturbed. Well, it wasn’t urgent, so I sent them on their way – it was time for them to have lunch with their family, I knew – so I went and sat with Alan, who was getting ready to settle for a nap in the shade of a small canopied plinth.
Suddenly the sisters emerged again. “Come,” they said, took me by the hand, and led me out of the temple. I realized they’d found the washroom. They led me to the gate of a school right next to the temple, and introduced me to one of the teachers. I think she was the head teacher: her English was excellent, and she was beautifully dressed in a green and gold silk sari. We had a short and interesting conversation about the temple (about how old it is, who it’s dedicated to), and the school (just 35 students, all primary age – lucky kids!), then she invited me to use the washroom.
When I came out again, the teacher asked me, as everyone does, why we are in India, and why in Kakinada. I told her we are visiting South India, and spending time particularly in temples. The teacher said something I think others feel too: “We are so proud of our India, and proud to have you visiting us.”
We left the temple after a while, and wandered across the road to the huge tank. You can’t really tell from the photo, but a main road runs between the big gopuram and the tank. Yesterday, there were a lot of black-clad devotees bathing in the tank. The black clothing, whether lungis and upper cloths or jeans and shirts, indicate that the wearer is an Ayyappa devotee fulfilling his 40-day period of fasting and abstinence before making a pilgrimage to Sabarimala in Kerala.
Speaking of abstinence, we were surprised to spot some erotic sculpture as we focused our cameras to get the details of decorations on the large gopuram.
We walked down a small lane beside the temple, and surveyed it from a short distance, enjoying the contrast between green field, dark old stone and cream and gilded gopurams. A lady standing in front of her house wandered over to talk with us. Sita didn’t have much English, and I have now about 10 words of Telegu, but she seemed to understand a bit of Tamil (or else some words are the same in Telegu and Tamil). She showed us that her house stands on quite a bit of land, and she has three water buffalos she keeps for their milk. I think she was telling us she sells their milk.
Here’s Sita’s house, with the water buffalo standing to the left, and the view of the temple she enjoys from her front door.
And just for fun, here’s the silly selfie we took together.
To get to Kakinada from Rajahmundry, we went to the APSRTC bus station. Unlike Tamil Nadu, where you often buy your ticket on the bus, here you buy the ticket from an office.
The trip to Kakinada took about 90 minutes, and we drove through some extraordinarily pretty country. We even saw a bit of the Andhra backwaters (canals used for transportation) that the state government is promoting as a tourism feature, like the Kerala backwaters. Some of these canals were full of lotuses, blooming in white, electric purpley blue (like an artichoke thistle), and here and there, deep red. The fact that there was also a fair amount of garbage in some of these canals, it seemed to give point to the symbolism of the lotus: exquisite beauty, rooted in the mud.
Once we got to Kakinada, it was easy to get a rickshaw to the temple. And just as easy to walk to the road three hours later and hire another one to take us back to the bus stand.
All in all, it made a good day trip, but left little time to do anything other than visit the temple.
Being here in Tiruvannamalai for a few weeks has given me the chance to do something I wanted to do for a long time: volunteer at the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary and Rescue Shelter, or the dog ashram, as I call it. It’s a place I first discovered when I came to India in 2009 (my first visit back since 1982), and briefly, its mission is caring for street dogs and other animals that are sick or injured, wild animals included. It’s a no-kill shelter: Every animal who can’t be returned to his or her territory, or who doesn’t get adopted by a human family, is allowed to live at Arunachala Animal Sanctuary for the rest of his or her natural life.
Leslie loves dogs, and when he heard about the planned cull, he reached out to political leaders across India to stop it. Once he and other animal welfare advocates succeeded in halting the cull, Leslie decided the only way to protect local dogs was to take care of them. Using his own money, and eventually donated funds, Leslie established Arunachala Animal Sanctuary and Rescue Shelter, hiring a small staff and a full-time veterinarian, Dr. Rajasekar. With the help of Vishwa, who’s extremely skilled at rescuing injured animals, the sanctuary began taking in and caring for injured and sick animals.
Today, the shelter has grown to the point where many of the dogs around Tiruvannamalai – both street dogs and owned dogs – have received inoculations and other medical treatment at the dog ashram, and been spayed or neutered there. And something remarkable has happened along the way: The sanctuary has transformed the attitudes of people in Tiruvannamalai towards street dogs, to the advantage of both the dogs and the people.
If you’ve traveled around India at all, you’ve seen street dogs. They live in a sorry state: often starving, often suffering from skin diseases, they eat garbage, get into fights with other dogs over territory, and are frequently injured by rickshaws, trucks and cars.
Compounding these problems is the fact that people generally don’t like street dogs. Sure, a family might feed scraps to a dog that’s hanging about the front of the house, because a dog you feed becomes loyal and will protect your home. People usually do this with dogs that look healthy and strong. But I’ve actually seen people threaten dogs with sticks or stones, even throw things at dogs to drive them away.
It’s even worse for dogs with skin disease: They are unsightly, and people are afraid of catching these diseases. And of course, people are always afraid of contracting rabies from a dog bite, even though a number of municipalities and other organizations inoculate dogs.
In Tiruvannamalai, it’s a completely different picture. I’ve seen shop owners feeding dogs, and even putting bowls of water out for them. Dogs in general look healthier here, with fewer looking utterly starved, and I see fewer with advanced skin disease (though I still see some). Many dogs here have the notched ear that shows they’ve been spayed or neutered, which also means they’ve been inoculated against rabies.
So people here in Tiruvannamalai don’t fear dogs as they are feared elsewhere in India. As a Tiruvannamalai official told me, “The dogs behave differently here. They’re not crazy; they don’t run after you.” That’s because the dogs who are taken into the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary get more than medical treatment: They get to socialize with humans and with other dogs.
Love makes the difference at the dog ashram
Every person who works at the dog ashram cares for animals, and expresses that caring with gentle touch, stroking and kind words. Dogs are given names, and their progress is noticed and appreciated – like when a dog who came in with really bad skin begins to grow hair. Or when a dog who arrived in a frightened state, cowering from other dogs and humans, begins to accept attention from humans, and gets friendly with other dogs. Or when a dog who arrived paralyzed and incapable of eating begins to take nourishment, and even begins to toddle around. All these victories are noticed and celebrated.
After learning in 2009 about Arunachala Animal Shelter and how it was founded, and then interviewing animal welfare officials in Tiruvannamalai and Chennai, I went back to Portland feeling that great work was being done here. What I saw at the sanctuary deepened the feelings I’ve always had about animals and animal welfare. But I never did anything hands-on for animals, other than caring for our own cats.
When I returned to Tiruvannamalai a few weeks ago, I went to the dog ashram, petted some dogs and met Elaine, an English veterinary nurse who’s been volunteering at the shelter for the past couple of years. I asked her how I could help out. “Just doing what you are doing right now: giving the dogs some love,” she said. “They need that as much as they need treatment and food.”
So for the past several weeks, I’ve been walking up to the dog ashram every few days. As I go through the gate, a rush of dogs greets me, barking, wagging, jumping up on me and begging to be stroked. Over the din and across the eager ones, I greet the humans in English and my very limited Tamil, as appropriate. (Fortunately, the dogs are ambilingual.) I settle myself down somewhere, and at first, just try to stroke every dog who’s vying for touch and affection. After a while, when they start to settle, I’ll notice one dog who’s shy, or who’s being crowded out by the bouncier ones. I’ll stroke and talk to that one for a while. Or I’ll sit with one of the disabled dogs in their special area, petting and massaging. Elaine has told me that the paralyzed ones need to have their limbs gently moved and exercised, to help prevent their muscles from atrophying, so I do that, too.offi
Now it’s time for a confession: I am kind of a finicky person. Even though we had a dog when I was a kid – and I have always loved cats – I have always found certain things about animals less than pleasant. I didn’t much mind cleaning the litterbox, or cleaning up after our dog’s puppies. Cleaning wounds didn’t bother me, and I have always actually enjoyed flea-combing (including the perverse satisfaction of drowning captured fleas in a bowl of water. It’s like with mosquitos: No mercy.)
But there’s something about the oiliness of dog fur I’ve never liked, even when touching dogs I really love. And though I do love cats in general, stroking any cat other than my own has always made me want to wash my hands right away. When we had a houseful, I didn’t let myself think too much about the cleanliness status of any cat allowed to sleep on (or actually in) our bed. I particularly wouldn’t allow myself to think about where those paws had recently been.
So, coming into an environment where there are lots of dogs with oily fur, and where those dogs jump on you all at once, and where someone is always eliminating (even though the sanctuary staff members are pretty fast about cleaning it up), wasn’t the easiest. It’s not a mental thing; it’s a physical response, an inward recoil, and it’s something I can’t control. But I really wanted to get involved physically, to help with the care of these animals. So I just dived in.
Over the few visits I’ve made these past weeks, I’ve crossed the line from finicky recoil to a different place. Now I readily pick up a tiny, cowering dog who’s afraid to come near me (even if his paws are wet with you-know-what), and I hold him firmly, stroking and talking to him, until his little body begins to let go. He buries his nose in the crook of my elbow, and when he lets out a big sigh, I know he has fully relaxed. After some time, the little dog raises his head, and looks up at me. There is a moment of stillness as we look into each other’s eyes. I stroke his nose with one fingertip, and after a bit, he settles himself back in my arms again, with another deep sigh. I know he’s finally had his fill of cuddling when, after about half an hour, he raises his head, gets interested in another dog, and makes a move to get off my lap. As he trots off, happy, I reach for another dog.
People at the dog ashram
It’s not just the dogs who draw me to Arunachala Animal Sanctuary; I also love spending time with the staff.
There’s Elaine, who tells me the stories of the animals: how long they’ve been resident, the state they arrived in, the improvements they’ve made. She admits, sadly, that the sanctuary can’t save everyone. Despite all the care they get – surgery if needed; wound care; painkillers if needed; being hand-fed with milk, or even ice cream, whatever it takes to get them eating – some dogs are just too sick or injured to live long. But whatever their state, and however long they do live, “They all just want love, really,” Elaine says. She pats Sunny, the dog she rescued in Mamallapuram when he was completely bald from skin disease. Or she’ll pick up and cuddle Masala Chai, a dog who arrived at the shelter completely paralyzed. (His name pays tribute to the first food he would accept: milky tea. The dogs love it.)
I spent a chunk of one morning sitting with Shoba as she removed ear mites from a batch of puppies. One by one, she took each puppy into her lap, wrapped its little body in a towel, and stroked its head gently for a few minutes, to reassure the puppy. Then, after asking me to hold the puppy’s head firmly against her leg, she would use her fingers or a tweezers, whichever worked best, to remove ear mites one by one. In between removing the mites, Shoba would talk softly to the puppy and stroke it soothingly. I got absorbed in watching just how carefully and delicately she worked with each puppy, and how she cuddled each one before putting it back down on the ground to run around again, free of those annoying ear mites.
Chennamal has a loving and sure touch with the tiniest puppies, the ones who are just two or three weeks old. She brings a tiny puppy out from its nest, wrapped in a cotton towel, cuddles the puppy for a few minutes, then hand-feeds it with milk from the kind of medicine dropper you use for human babies.
The look on Chennamal’s face as she tends to each puppy is tender and loving. She hands me a puppy who’s been fed, showing me where it’s wounded so I can avoid that spot, and gestures for me to cuddle the tiny pup. These little ones are so young, it’s amazing they are even alive. They have been rescued from the street; their mother was injured by a car, truck or rickshaw, badly enough that she died. This kind of thing happens again and again, so the shelter staff have hand-reared a lot of puppies. And these shelter pups can never be returned to the street: They would never survive among the more experienced and highly territorial dogs already living on the street. So these puppies will remain in residence until they are adopted – if that ever happens.
Vishwa, the chief animal rescuer at the dog ashram, spends quite a bit of his time these days traveling around the local villages, looking for people who’d like to adopt a puppy. A family that can provide a good home gets a healthy, vaccinated pup, one that will be neutered for free at the appropriate age.
Vishwa tries especially hard to place female puppies. Most people, it seems, prefer male dogs. Perhaps they think a male will do a better job of protecting the house. Whatever the reason, the dog ashram has a surplus of healthy, adoptable female pups, so Vishwa has plenty of work ahead of him.
Vishwa also rescues injured wild animals when they’re reported to the dog ashram. He’s been bitten quite a few times. It’s no simple task to rescue a wounded, bewildered monkey or eagle that’s in pain and terrified. The ashram is treating and housing quite a few monkeys at the moment, including some who’ve lost a hand or leg to electrocution (they like to hang from electrical wires).
The clinic at Arunachala Animal Sanctuary & Rescue Shelter
Because word has spread about the great care dogs get at the sanctuary, plenty of people bring in their pet dogs to be examined and treated by Dr. Rajasekar and the rest of the clinic staff. The Arunachala clinic treats street dogs and wildlife for free, but there’s a fee structure for owned dogs. Affluent pet owners, and owners of purebred dogs, pay full price for services (though full price at Arunachala is lower than most animal clinics). Low-income people who can’t afford treatment for their dogs do not have to pay.
As a side note, I have been surprised to see just how many people now keep a pet here in Tiruvannamalai. I did notice this eight years ago, but now pet ownership is even more widespread. I see dogs being walked on leashes, and there are well-fed, well-brushed dogs behind the gates of quite a few houses we pass on our walks. One or two of the grocery stores near the Ramana ashram stock pet food, and I’ve seen leashes and collars for sale, too.
Arunachala Animal Sanctuary is now remodeling an old building on its premises to serve as a new, expanded clinic. This will provide an entrance for owners to bring their pets in, and other people to bring in rescued street dogs, separated from area for resident dogs. Right now there are so many residents, they spill into the clinic entry area. The new clinic will return that space to the resident dogs, giving them a lot more room to run around, or sprawl for naps.
Other animals at the dog ashram
The loving care at Arunachala Animal Sanctuary extends way beyond dogs. In addition to the small group of monkeys, two baby monkeys are being cared for. They are not yet old enough and strong enough to be released, but when they are, they will first be placed with the other monkeys, so they can all get used to each other. Once all the monkeys are ready, Vishwa will release them into the forest as a group, so they can function as a little tribe and look after each other. A few birds are undergoing treatment right now, plus one of the large langur monkeys, and a cat. Every one of these animals gets some loving human attention every day; it’s an important part of their healing, and the staff members clearly enjoy this part of their job.
An ashram for the voiceless ones
I call the shelter an ashram because it really feels like that to me. (Curious about what an ashram really is? There’s a blog post for that.) Just as at any ashram, there are photos of spiritual teachers here and there, and these receive flower offerings every day, plus special decorations for holidays. Devotional songs waft from a CD player, providing a gentle, soothing background. Fans and air conditioners are kept running to keep the disabled dogs, injured dogs and smallest puppies cool in the Tamil Nadu heat. Blanket-covered mattresses are placed here and there, and dogs who can’t walk are rotated on and off these so they don’t get bedsores, or lie too long on a wet blanket. There’s an atmosphere of quiet cooperation and friendliness among the staff; they chat, joke around and help each other.
Love for the voiceless ones, as Leslie calls them, that is the big difference I noticed between the dog ashram and the Blue Cross shelter in Chennai, which I visited in 2009 after seeing the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary. The Blue Cross shelter is huge and well funded, with plenty of staff to look after the animals. There are expansive areas and cages for all the different kinds of animals who are brought there: dogs, cows, donkeys, cats, birds – whoever needs treatment. I could see that the animals were properly cared for and fed, but I could also see that no one on staff at Blue Cross behaved anything like the staff at the Tiruvannamalai dog ashram. They simply fed the animals, watered them and cleaned their cages and areas. There was no extra touching, no hugging, patting or stroking.
It’s very different from seeing Saguna open the door of the container where the two baby monkeys live, take them into her arms and walk around for a while, cuddling and caressing them. The other day, when it was time for me to leave and I couldn’t find Chenammal to put the tiny puppy I was holding back in its nest with the others, I asked Raja (another staff member) if he could do that for me.
Another scene I glimpsed: Dr. Rajasekar bending over a dog on a table, cleaning its wound. Standing up straight for a moment — perhaps to rest his back — he placed a gentle hand on the dog’s head, and another on its hip, just taking a moment for simple warmth and loving contact.
Learn more about the work at Arunachala Animal Sanctuary and Rescue Shelter
Want to volunteer at the sanctuary? You will be welcomed. If you have questions about volunteering, contact Leslie Robinson via the contact form on the sanctuary’s website. And if you want to ask me any questions, feel free to do that in the comments section below. Or you can write to me via the contact form on this site (linked in the navigation bar). I will write back.
From the viewing rock on the way to Skandashram, we kept noticing a small temple to the east of the big Annamalaiyar temple in town. It’s located on top of a subhill on the southeast flank of Annamalai, and any approaches to it are mysteriously shrouded in dense foliage.
We decided to set out for that temple, and see if we could find a way up. No use trying to find it from the main road, so we walked through the dense residential neighborhoods south of the mountain, wending our way from one small street to the next, doing our best to avoid the main road completely (which is incredibly noisy, by the way. Have I mentioned yet that every commercial vehicle says “sound horn” on the back of it — and they all do?).
We very much enjoyed our meandering wander through all the little streets on our way to the temple site. As always, people were friendly and happy to greet us, and as we got closer, to keep directing us to the temple. We began to feel a little embarrassed because we were walking through lanes so narrow that we felt we were walking through people’s front or back yards. But we just kept greeting people in a friendly way (it’s amazing the smiles you get when you say “vanakkam” with hands folded, and people kindly directed us.
At last we got to an uphill street that dead-ended at a steep slope. There was a path laid, fortunately, with stone steps. The steps were rough, and covered in various kinds of building debris, but they worked nonetheless.
As we walked around to the front, we realized that this is a newly remodeled temple on the site of a much older one. Sure enough, once we got to the front, there was a placard on one wall noting that the temple, dedicated to Sri Arthanarisvarar, was remodeled by the Sri Ramanasramam in (I think) 2004.
It’s a pretty temple, with the same kind of restrained decoration that’s characteristic of the Ramana ashram (sculptures of gods and other beings on the tower aren’t painted in bright colors, just a cream-colored paint). We arrived as a Brahmin priest was making offerings. It was pleasant to stand and watch him, a breeze drying the sweat that had collected under our shirts (did I mention we are at about 88 percent humidity and it’s about 34ºC?).
We exited the temple grounds via the official entrance, heading down stone stairs that wound around. There is a beautiful view from a rock platform, with the eastern and western gopurams of the Annamalaiyar temple rising above the rest of the town.
I was admiring the view, and the huge old tree in front of us, when I suddenly spotted a small owl. Really small, at least compared to the size I expect an owl to be; maybe a little smaller than the pigeons we have in the Pacific Northwest. Using the zoom on Alan’s camera, I was finally able to get an image that wasn’t blurry. Thank you, owl, for not moving too much, or flying away too quickly.
There was still more to see as we continued to wind our way down the long steep hill. We spotted a tiny old brick temple on top of a huge boulder. We see these around a bit, including one in the neighborhood where we’re living. They tend to be perched on such steep and difficult-to-climb boulders, that we wonder how anyone managed to haul the bricks up to build them. This little temple has an additional wrinkle. Yes, there are steps carved into the huge boulder, but you have to crawl through a tunnel built right in front of the boulder to reach those steps. I considered it, but then thought about snakes and reconsidered.
Tiny temple on top of a huge boulder. Photo by Alan.
To get to the tiny temple, you have to crawl through the tunnel in the white building.
There are more surprises as you continue to descend.
Nandi bull, representing Shiva. Photo by Alan.
Stairs down to the street, covered in painted kolams.
Now we know how to reach the temple from the main road, but I’m not sure we’d do it that way. It was more fun going the unofficial route.
We headed back towards the temple, enjoyed a snack and walked back to the Ramana ashram and then home. All in all, we spent about four hours wandering around. It never seems like that long, but there’s so much to look at and enjoy, and so many people to stop and (try to) chat with.
We decided that today we’d try walking up to Skandashram barefoot. That’s the traditional way to ascend to this holy spot, and many (even most) people do it that way. Alan had walked up barefoot many times in the 1970s, but on this visit, we’ve been wearing sandals or shoes everywhere except in the ashram or in temples. So this was going to be an interesting experiment.
Skandashram and the ascent to it
There are two main caves on Annamalai (or Arunachala) where Ramana lived during the years after he left the precincts of Annamalaiyar temple. He lived in Virupaksha cave, located just below Skandashram, for the longest period, about 17 years (1899 to 1916). Then, as his mother and others joined him, attracted by the power of his meditation and wisdom, Ramana and the small group around him moved up the hill to a cave where there was a good water supply.
As T.M.P. Mahadevan notes in his book, The Sage of Arunachala, the move to the larger cave (and the creation of Skandashram) was really the beginning of a Ramana ashram. The small group of devotees around Ramana lived on food offered by visitors and others devoted to Ramana. As the group grew, the need to cook regularly for devotees and visitors drove the need for more water and more space for a kitchen. The devotees built a small building around the Skandashram cave, with a separate room for Ramana’s mother, to accommodate these human needs (and also, by the way, to share food with the animals who were also companions to Ramana and the early ashramites).
Walking up the hill to Skandashram (and then down a short stretch to Virupaksha cave) is one of the holy activities that ashram visitors engage in. It’s a short walk of just 1.4 kilometers, or eight-tenths of a mile, but it’s quite steep in places. The path is laid closely with stones, and the route has been carefully reforested (along with the rest of the mountain) for the past several decades. So what used to be a hot, unshaded walk up a rather bare mountain is now a lushly forested walk, filled with birdsong, butterflies flittering past, and plenty of other interesting insect life. Dogs trot up and down, monkeys appear regularly, and various people also plant themselves along the way. There’s a one-armed man who regularly sweeps the path, then asks for alms; others who simply ask for alms; an older lady who sells bananas and water; a man near the top who sells lime soda (lime juice mixed with soda water and your choice of salt, sugar or both); and several stone carvers selling beautiful little statues and pendants.
The one-armed man who sweeps the path. He is there every day.
During our walks up to Skandashram, I haven’t taken any photos of the actual ashram building itself, so I’ve included at the top of this post a photo from Living in the Embrace of Arunachala, a lovely blog by Richard Clarke. You might want to read his post on walking to Skandashram, which includes photos he took every step of the way. It’s interesting to note that photos of this walk, which took place nine years ago, show much less dense growth than we experience now. It’s amazing how well the plants have grown, even though Tamil Nadu has experienced some drought during these years. This year, however, the drought broke with a vengeance, filling all the tanks and reservoirs in Tiruvannamalai and its environs (and there’s flooding in other regions of South India). Below you can see full irrigation lakes in this view of the Annamalaiyar temple and surrounding town. This shot was taken from a wide rock you reach just before you get to Skandashram. Everyone stops there, including the monkeys.
Our barefoot walk
We started early, about 7:30 AM, following our usual hour of meditation in the old hall at the ashram, followed by a quick breakfast. Normally the walk up takes us about 45 minutes. It’s steep, and we enjoy stopping to look at all the views. Today, it took an hour.
I noticed a few things immediately. First, we didn’t talk, because we were both concentrating on stepping from stone to stone to avoid the more painful grit between the stones. And we each began to set our own individual pace, more so than when our feet are shod.
The not-talking let me hear many things. I always enjoy the layered sounds of birds, insects and wind, but this morning was quite different. I realized that my sandals, lightweight as they are, add a layer of sound. The sandals make quite a lot of sound, actually – the brushing of grit across stone, and now and then the soft thunk of a sandal sole on stone. Today my feet, stepping carefully from stone to stone, made no sound at all. The silence of my feet seemed miraculous in itself, and all the other sounds seemed to expand, layer by layer, until I was immersed in an ever-changing sea of sound.
The other change was in the rhythm of my walk. I tend to vary my pace a lot, going slowly downhill, medium on the flat and then accelerating on the uphill, leaning forward into the incline. Today I took the uphill at the same pace as the flat: careful and deliberate. Step to step, stone to stone; I entered a kind of visual tunnel. And with the sea of sound surrounding me, I experienced the walk in an entirely different way.
I hear many of the walkers on this path reciting mantra under their breath as they go. My new walking pace seemed to generate a mantra of its own.
How our feet felt
In a word – good. Both of us felt our feet benefited from the extra flexing and exercise that barefoot walking provided. We were fortunate (or maybe just careful) not to get stabbed by thorns or any stray bits of glass near the beginning of the path. The finer grit that is normally so bothersome was not too bad. We agreed we’ll do this again in a day or two.