Monday, September 27, 2010

Dargah Sharif of Ajmer

… Jo Bhi tere dar aaya, Jhukne jo sar aaya;
Mastiya piye sabko, Jhoomta nazar aaya,
Pyaas leke aaya tha, Dariya who bhar laya;
Noor ki baarish mein, Bheegta sa tar aaya...

These famous lines of a popular Hindi film reverberate with the trust and conviction of thousands of people thronging the Dargah Sharif of Ajmer to offer their prayers…

    Situated about 11 kms from Pushkar and 145 kms from Jaipur, The Dargah Sharif is the final resting place of the great Sufi saint - Hazrat Khwaja Syed Muhammad Muinuddin Chishti.

    Also known as Gharib Nawaz, or 'Benefactor of the Poor', the Khwaja was one of the greatest saintly liberators of human sufferings, a vast oasis of peace and harmony, moral strength and divine enlightenment. He still is, in spirit, through His blessings and love which one can sense when one is here. No wonder then, it is believed that no one returns empty handed from His divine abode.

    Going back in time, the great Mughal Emperor Akbar once came to the Dargah Sharif in the 16th century to offer prayers for an heir and later his prayer was answered. It was his belief that had brought him there. And even today, it’s this belief that brings not only the common man but also popular personalities, of all faiths and from all fields, to this living cenotaph all round the year to pay homage to the great saint. During the Urs, which is held in honor of the death anniversary of the Saint, it is said that, this Muslim mosque is totally a different place swarmed with lakhs of pilgrims from all over the world.

    You will have to leave your cars a good distance away from the main shrine as after this point, entry of vehicles are restricted (I had left my camera too as our driver told us that electronic gadgets are not allowed inside the dargah). Walking on foot, this is the time when you will be able to see the different colors of Ajmer. The narrow lanes are lively, bustling with colorful bazaars selling a variety of stuff from chaddars and scarves to clothes and food. I walk past beggars asking for alms, other pilgrims hurrying past and shopkeepers who urge you to remove footwear in their shops and buy something instead. Soon, the smell of fresh rose and jasmine flowers, sandalwood paste, perfumes and incense sticks floating in the air indicate that I am just about to reach. In a moment, I spot the huge gates. Remove your footwear, cover your head, two things must be done before entering.

    I entered the main dargah, where the saint lies buried. Every corner inside is done up in gold which furnishes the whole aura in grandeur and divinity. Tried to get near his crypt but it was getting too difficult to stand in the place filled to the brim, with everybody trying to do the same. It is surrounded by a silver railing with a cleric sitting besides it. He takes the offerings, puts them on the tomb and taps your head with a feather fan before directing you towards the exit gate. I wish I could have spent some more time here.

[ The resting place of the saint, Khwaja Syed Muhammad Muinuddin Chishti 

    Outside, in the premises, there is a humble baoli or water reservoir whose waters are said to cure all diseases. There are people roaming around here carrying water-filled sacks who will insist you buy one of this. This essentially means that, you will then get to empty the water from the sack in the pond which, in turn, is said to bring good luck and prosperity.

    Just a little ahead are two enormous cauldrons filled with rice, lentils, dry fruits and condiments donated by the pilgrims. This is daily cooked and distributed free among the poor.

    As I headed towards the exit, I spotted the professional singers called 'qawwals' sitting in groups, singing qawwallis (Sufi hymns) in the praises of the saint in a distinguishing voice penetrating not only through the walls but also your soul. Every time I have heard Sufi songs live, especially in dargahs, be it at the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai or here, the experience has truly been a magical one… the magic of the music merging with the soul… It was a wonderful feeling that stayed on with me as I made my way towards the city!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Goodbye Ganesha... Ganesh Visarjan

Love without attachment is light - Norman O Brown
After meeting Him in the numerous pandals, its time to bid Goodbye to Ganeshji…

Day 11, Anant Chaturdashi

Life in the city throbs, even more so today, today being Ganpati Visarjan (immersion), the last day of the Ganesh Chaturthi Festival. Lacs of idols will be immersed in sea, artificial lakes and ponds as HE returns to His Heavenly abode. He is given a grand farewell… amid sounds of music, drums and prayers, begins His final journey to the sea…

He is taken in cars, trucks and carts or carried in hands for the visarjan.
Ganesh idol being taken for visarjan, Mumbai

Devotees dance and sing as He is taken towards the waterfront.

He is surrounded for the final prayers as devotees
seek His blessings before bidding adieu.
Performing aarti Ganesh Visarjan

He stands in line, waiting for His turn.
Ganesha idols waiting in line for Ganesh Visarjan

All religious paraphernalia are removed before immersion.

He is handed over to the youngsters around the lake. And slowly they carry the idols into the lake for visarjan.

Devotees watch the visarjan from the lake-side.

Finally He departs to His Heavenly abode...
Ganpati Visarjan in artificial lake Mumbai

Chants of Ganpati Bappa Morya, Pudhchya Varshi Lavkarya fill the atmosphere. Slowly, the idol  dissolves out reminding us of the perishable nature of things in life. In a way, the festival inspires us to not get attached to material things in life. It also reiterates the fact that though the form dissolves, blessings remain. Though the mood is somber but the energy is uplifting. It also seems to seep inside and warms the hearts from within.

Ganpati Visarjan in artificial lake Mumbai

With moist eyes we have let You go; 
But keep Your promise, O Lord –
‘Do come back early next year!’

Friday, September 17, 2010

Festive colors of Ganesh Chaturthi (Mumbai Pandals)

O Lord Vinayaka! The remover of all obstacles, the son of Lord Shiva, with a form which is very short, with mouse as Thy vehicle, with sweet pudding in hand, with wide ears and long hanging trunk, I prostrate at Thy lotus-like Feet!

Finding Ganesha… Not difficult at this time of the year…

    Life in the city is pulsating with the chants of ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya’. Yes, the annual 11 day festival of Ganesh Chaturthi - the birthday of the pot bellied and elephant headed, cute and gentle, Lord Ganesha – is underway and is being celebrated with much gusto and fervor throughout the country. And here, in Mumbai, it’s celebrated in style!!

    Imagine 12000 pandals (temporary canopied set-ups spread out in various localities), lacs of societies and innumerable homes, all elaborately decked up – brightly and colorfully decorated with festoons, flowers, ornaments – to welcome the city’s most endearing deity!
Preparations for all of this begin well in advance. Finally , amid sounds of drumbeats and nagaras and melodious chanting of hymns, the ‘God of knowledge and wisdom’ arrives… painting the entire town in the festive colors of joy, ecstasy and devotion. My blog gets sprayed too, hence this mini break from our Rajasthan trip.

The next 11 days revolve around Him… He’s the birthday boy after all!!

He blissfully sits in the various pandals and homes, amidst His devotees, ensuring that His grace and blessings reaches all. Big temples and shrines do not make the cut for Him. All He looks for is a pure heart, true devotion and some plenty of modaks, His favorite sweet!

    The two most famous pandals in Mumbai are Lalbaughcha Raja and the GSB mandal but they are far too crowded for my liking, hence I give them a miss and instead visit some pandals in and around my locality.

And this year, it’s special… because I am not alone…
What, with all of you joining me:) So let’s go!!

    His big ears symbolize that your woes will never go unheard and true to one of his names Vignaharta - ‘Remover of all obstacles’, He removes them too. 
Before stepping in, in these pandals, I mentally make a list of my troubles and complaints for Him. But when I actually ‘meet’ Him, I tend to forget all about them and instead find myself completely immersed in the beauty...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Other Temples in Pushkar

Apart from the Lord Brahma Temple, there are some other important temples in Pushkar. I could visit only the Rangji Temple, while the rest of them were given a miss due to lack of time. I am describing some of the important ones below.

Rangji/ Ramavaikunth Temple

Dedicated to Lord Vishnu and built in the 1920’s, it is one of the biggest temples in Pushkar and is situated very close to the main ghats of Pushkar Lake. The grand entrance gives you the glimpse of the splendor inside. Beautifully crafted and intricately sculpted in South Indian style, it is one of the main temples of Pushkar. It has a high rising Gopuram typical of southern India. It is said that special persons from southern India were summoned to build this temple.

Entrance to the Rangji Temple - Pushkar
[ Entrance to the Rangji Temple ]

Wonderfully crafted Rangji Temple - Pushkar
[ Wonderfully crafted Rangji Temple ]

Intricateley carved upper part of the Rangji Temple - Pushkar
[ Intricately carved upper part of the Temple ]

Savitri Temple

Located on a hilltop, it is dedicated to the wife of Lord Brahma, Goddess Savitri. One has to climb a series of steps to reach there. It approximately takes an hour to get to the top and the views of Pushkar from there are said to be amazing.

Temple of Goddess Savitri on the hill, as seen from the Pushkar Lake
[ Temple of Goddess Savitri on the hill, 
as seen from the Pushkar Lake ]

Varah Temple

The temple was originally built in the 12th century and houses a life size idol of Lord Varah, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The original temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb and rebuilt by Raja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 1727.

Mahadeva Temple

Built in the 19th century, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is constructed in white marble. The idol is five faced and the temple is especially known for the ornaments with which the idol is decorated.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pushkar Lake

    Next morning, we walked down to the Varah ghat which is one of the main ghats at the Pushkar Lake (the other two being Brahma ghat and Gau ghat). The narrow lanes leading upto the ghat from the Brahma Temple are full of shops selling a range of goods like bangles, brassware, and clothes; though I find them a tad overpriced for the budget Indian pocket.

Monkeys on Rooftops - Pushkar lanes
[ Monkeys on Rooftops ]

Along the way, you will come across guides offering a piece of history, Pandas (Brahmin priests) trying hard to vie for your attention and monkeys sitting pretty on rooftops probably gazing down on the scenes below.

    The picturesque Pushkar Lake is surrounded by 52 ghats, all done in pristine white color and in Rajputana style architecture, built over the years by various Kings and nobles. The lake was formed by Lord Brahma at this place where a lotus had fallen down from His hands (Read the whole story here). During the month of Kartik (Oct-Nov), at the time of the 5 day Pushkar fair, it is said that all the Gods and Goddesses are present here to bestow their blessings. Lacs of pilgrims from far and wide come to attend the fair, take a holy dip, perform various religious activities and pay obeisance to the Brahma Temple.

Top View of the dried Pushkar Lake
[ Top View of the dried Pushkar Lake ]

    The lake was devoid of water (when I had visited in May) as it was being cleaned to prepare it for the Pushkar fair. But small kunds (pools) were made at the ghats so that the devotees could carry out their religious activities. Photography is not allowed at the ghats; but since the lake was dry, the rule was relaxed and hence people were happily clicking away.

Devotees performing rites and rituals at the Ghats of Pushkar
Devotees performing rites and rituals at the Ghats of Pushkar
[ Devotees performing various activities at the Ghats ]

    The ghats resonate with the sights and smells of thousands of pilgrims who gather everyday to perform various religious practices. Some are seen taking the customary holy dip and offering prayers to the sun god, some lighting oil lamps (Deep daan) and incense sticks and some meditating with their eyes closed, some others can also be seen performing profound rites of passage like Pind daan and Tarpan which require the help of a priest; but almost all of them seem to be absorbed in intense thoughts of salvation fully convinced that the sacred waters of the lake will wash all their sins away and cleanse their soul (To know more about these rites and rituals click here).

A lady performing Deep Daan - Pushkar
[ A lady performing Deep Daan ]

Offering water to the Sun God at the Pushkar Lake
[ A woman offering water to the Sun God ]

A group of pilgrims performing a puja assisted by a Panda at the Pushkar Lake
[ A group of pilgrims performing a puja 
assisted by a priest at the Pushkar Lake ]

Be it the locals or the tourists, everyone here forms an individual bond with the water, held together tightly by that intangible thread called ‘Faith’. The water of the lake is also said to have healing properties and skin diseases are believed to be cured by taking a bath here.

    After sprinkling a few drops onto myself, I descended a few steps of the ghat until my feet felt the cool waters. I lit a diya and spent a few quiet moments in prayer…I climbed back up and strolled around for a while. Just besides the lake, the pigeons quietly picked the grains fed to them by the pilgrims. Some cows had made their way in too!

Pigeons having their grains at the Pushkar Lake
[ Besides the lake, beneath the skies, 
fluttering and dancing in the breeze… the pigeons ]

Cow at the Varah Ghat, Pushkar
[ A cow surrounded by the pigeons… Together making for a pretty picture ]

    No rowing boats, no monumental princely mansions around, no ritualistic evening Aarti and no Holy river Ganga… still I could not help but flash on the similar set of stairs I had descended a few months back in the City of Light – Varanasi… What differs is the name, the place and the legacy… the activities, the atmosphere, the aura remains the same!!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Lord Brahma Temple , Pushkar

    Wading through the crowded lanes and going through the now ever present security checks (mobiles, electronic gadgets, bags are not allowed in the temple, they can be deposited outside in the shops), I began my climb of the 30 odd stairs leading to the Temple courtyard.

Crowded lane leading to the Brahma Temple - Pushkar
[ Crowded lane leading to the Brahma Temple ]

The history of this sacred place is illustrated in the Holy Hindu Scripture Padma Purana

    Lord Brahma killed the demon Vajranabh by throwing on him His weapon ‘The Lotus Flower’. In the process of killing him, the petals of the Lotus fell at three places (in Pushkar itself) where beautiful lakes sprang up from the impact. Thus, Lord Brahma named this place as ‘Pushkar’ (‘Pushpa’ meaning flower had fallen from ‘Kar’meaning hand).

    He then decided to perform a Yagna (fire-sacrifice) at the main Pushkar Lake. The completion of this Yagna required the presence of His wife, Goddess Savitri. As the auspicious time was running out and Goddess Savitri was nowhere to be seen, Lord Brahma married Gayatri and completed the Yagna with Her by the side. When Goddess Savitri arrived and saw Gayatri sitting in place of Her, she became so annoyed with Lord Brahma that she cursed Him and later went to reside on the nearby Ratangiri hills. It is believed that it’s the result of that curse that today, Lord Brahma is worshipped only at this place in the whole world.

    The Lord Brahma Temple (Jagat Pita Brahma Mandir), close to the Pushkar lake and believed to be over 2500 years old, stands on a lofty plinth with marble steps leading up to a beautifully arched entrance gateway which is adorned with a distinct motif of a swan, the vehicle of Lord Brahma.

[ The steps leading up to the Lord Brahma Temple ]

    This gateway led me into the intricately carved pillared outdoor hall. The pillars are a medley of bright blue, green and golden colors complemented perfectly by the bright red shikhar (spire). The whole temple looked stunning, almost radiating light from the various different colors! In addition to this, the chessboard marble flooring done in black and white marbles, the small silver turtle sitting pretty on the floor facing the sanctum and the silver coins engraved with the names of devotees inlaid in the walls and the flooring of the temple…all of these added a unique distinctness to the temple!!

    Finally, I moved towards the central sanctum sanctorum…Having read and heard so much about it in history, the only Brahma temple I have ever been to… here I was, standing in front of the four faced (chau murti) life size idol of Lord Brahma… eyes closed and head bent… my moment of spiritual bliss… Flanked by Goddess Gayatri to his left and Goddess Savitri to his right, He was draped in silk cloth and covered with fresh flowers and colorful garlands.

    As I circumambulated the temple, I visited the other smaller temples of Lord Indra, Lord Kubera and Lord Shiva (which is located underground in a small cave) which are present inside the temple complex before resting for a few minutes in the courtyard.

    I could not help but wonder that in a religious country like India where hundreds of thousands of shrines are found dedicated to various Gods and Goddesses and even Saints, Lord Brahma has remained conspicuous by His absence. Whatever the reason, I believe that it has only added to the value, beauty, charm and mystic of the place called Pushkar…