Was lack of Constructive Feedback a factor in Shishupala’s death?

feedbackThe mythological story goes thus – A relatively minor character in the Mahabharata, Shishupala was born with three eyes and four arms and an accompanying heavenly prophesy foretelling that he would lose his additional arms & eyes when placed on the lap of his future slayer. His parents invited all kings of the world to Chedi and placed the child on their laps, but nothing happened. Finally, Shishupala’s cousins, Krishna and his brother Balarama came to visit. Shishupala’s extra arms and eyes fell off as soon as he was placed on Krishna’s lap. Realizing that her son would be killed by his own cousin brother, the terrified mother secured a boon from Krishna that he would pardon a 100 offences of Shishupala even when he deserved to be killed. Shishupala’s parents, in an attempt to provide him security, then placed him under the care of Krishna’s sworn enemy, the powerful Jarasandha. As he grew up Shishupala found a way to commit a 100 offences, the last one being at Yudhistra’s Rajasuya yagna and finally Krishna killed him.

All very well! But, was constructive feedback ever given to Shishupala?

On the one hand he had his well-wishers – his parents, his mentor Jarasandha and his close friend, Rukmi, the brother of Rukmini who hated Krishna and on the other end of the spectrum were his perceived enemies – Krishna and Balarama. His parents tried to protect him by pushing him into the arms of a person with his own personal agenda against Krishna and who naturally groomed him with similar views. His friends kept telling him that he was on the right track whenever he committed an offense in the eyes of Krishna. And Krishna too, just let him off after each offence, without taking the effort to make Shishupala understand what was wrong and what he could have done better. This was very much contrary to the amount of time and effort he had invested in Arjuna in the great war to shape his thought process. So, appears like a combination of lop-sided feedback – all positive from friends and all negative from adversaries contributed to Shishupala’s death.
This is very much the corporate scenario today. Well-meaning feedback mechanisms have been instituted by organizations to help employees improve their performance and eventually contribute to the organization’s holistic growth. But, it often translates into a forum skewed by bias extremities leading to either flowery comments or petty personal attacks and eventually provides little opportunity for growth and education in their roles as against the original objective of the whole process. Hence, it’s very important that feedback needs to be constructive and corrective rather than simply positive or negative. Every person in the system has a responsibility towards the other in ensuring that he has a clear picture of his performance from the inside out, to help create a culture of positive reinforcement. Finally, it’s essential that that this process should be consistent, continuous and actionable.

So, probably Shishupala would have lived longer and been an effective king, had he received timely Constructive Feedback.

Kumaoni Trails – Enchanting Binsar

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A stunning view of the snow covered Himalayan peaks, lush forests abundant in flora and fauna, dramatic sunrises and sunsets and the promise of uninterrupted solitude – is what made Binsar simply enchanting.

We reached the KMVN Tourist Rest House around 7 in the evening and after a quick wash and dinner, awaited the lights to go off – there is no power in the rest house for the entire day excepting for 2 hours in the night sourced from a diesel generator. So, post 9 pm when the lights went off, we felt transported into a world unsullied by modern technology.

As we stepped out of our rooms and on to the terrace, we were greeted  by the mesmerising sight of a moonless night sky densely speckled with thousand of stars shining like micro diamonds. All of us, including the children immediately set about trying to identify the familiar constellations and planets. Tip: Carry a chart of the night sky to have more fun. 

Going back down, the single candle lit long corridor where we settled down for a nice adda (chat session), formed the ideal setting for ghost stories! The five kids, aged 7 – 11, were very much enthralled by some very realistic ghost stories told by the elders. Tip: Stock up on games and books to soak in the ambience better. 

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We woke up at 5 in the morning to the call of  the birds and got ready to go to to the deck again to get the first glimpse of the Himalayan peaks and sunrise. What we experienced is best described through the series of photos:

First, we got the majestic view of the snow covered Himalayan peaks dominated by Nanda Devi (the highest peak in India), flanked by her sentinels Trishul and Nanda Kot and the Chaukhamba and Panchachuli ranges. The sight was simply spellbinding. 

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Next, came the sunrise and this was the best I had seen so far. The sun first appeared as a red fleck between 2 peaks of the Panchachuli range. And then as it came out in full view, first slowly and then very quickly, gave impression of an impishly cute child peeping out first with a corner of it’s eye and then rushing forward to eagerly to greet it’s audience. To  the yoga enthusiasts and sun worshippers, this presented an ideal opportunity for the Surya Namaskars!

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After breakfast, we took a  short 2 km trek to Zero Point, the highest vantage point in Binsar, giving an even more spectacular view of the Himalayan peaks. The walk took us through the wilderness of the sanctuary, lush with deep red rhododendron trees, hundred year old oaks and pines, the silence broken only by the sounds of many invisible birds, the continuous Zee-Zee sounds of buzzing insects and some adventurous animals like the black faced langoor monkeys. If you are lucky you may spot some of the more elusive animals and birds which abound in Binsar.

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The Zero Point watch tower drawn by our 7 year old member, Pipli

Those keen on capturing the sunset or staying in an even more isolated spot, could go to the old Forest Rest House which is a km  away from the KMVN. This offers only a few rooms and one would have to get their own provisions and do the cooking themselves. This place offers a sweeping view of the valleys and needless to say is perfect for a Back-to-Nature experience.

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Happy Holidaying in Binsar!

A special thanks to my friend, Sujata Nanda for the awesome photos.

A Tale of 2 Rakshaks


Deelipa_BlogFirst, the mythological tale of King Dilīpa, the ancestor of Rama. Dilīpa was childless for a long time due to the curse of the divine cow, Kamadhenu. Sage Vasistha advised him to worship and protect Nandini, the daughter of Kamadhenu and earn her blessings for progeny. The king and his wife served Nandini faithfully. They personally cleaned the cow shed, bathed Nandini, took her out to graze and ensured that she was safe and well fed.  One day, a ferocious lion appeared and attacked Nandini. The king tried to protect the cow, but the lion argued that as a king he was duty bound to protect the interests of the lion as well, since he too was his subject. If the lion was not allowed to consume his prey and natural food he would die of hunger and would hold the king responsible for his death. As a solution, the king offered himself as food in lieu of the cow. Pleased with the king’s sacrifice and fairness, Nandini revealed that the lion was a just illusion created to test him and blessed him. In due course, the king begat a son, Raghu, the grandfather of Rama and thus began the Raghuvamsa.

The year 2017 saw the rise of another mythological king – Dileep Raja, President of MaGoMa Rakshak Enterprises. A reporter from a leading daily managed to get an interview after a long wait. In his palatial office, he is told that Rajaji would meet him on the ground where he was personally supervising operations. Forehead streaked with vermillion, designer sunglasses, traditional turban and parked on a Harley Davidson, Dileep Raja is a modern GenNext entrepreneur. He is humility personified in welcoming the reporter and making him comfortable. The interview begins –

Q. You have set up a huge and successful enterprise in such a short time, who do you credit your success to?

A. I owe all this to the grace and blessings of Gomata, I am after all a humble servant and just fulfilling my natural duty by protecting her. We are the pioneers in this domain. You can call us an NGO due to our selfless facilitation of the GoRakshak initiative. And think of it, we have solved the unemployment problem by recruiting youths in large numbers. We are proud that we are a successful example of the DesiBanao Abhigyan.

Q. Please describe your operations.

A. In just a span of 2 years, we have scaled up our operations in 22 states and penetrate right down to the Tehsil level. Though termed unorganized, we have a strong network of volunteers who ensure smooth operations. Just like an MNC, we have high level Strategy, Information Cell, finance and Operation teams which work closely together to ensure success. We manage with the voluntary contributions made by the people caught for slaughter or smuggling and that is small compensation for the physical and mental effort we have to put in to ensure that we meet our daily targets of cow protection.

Q. But there have been accusations that you have only been paying lip service to cow protection by targeting certain sections of the society and do not really care for cow welfare.

A. All rubbish and this is a campaign promoted by the anti-nationalists. They do not want our country to progress by adopting our sacred dharma. What do you mean by saying we are not concerned about cow protection? We have been promoting GoShalas everywhere. We ensure maximum utilization of space in the goshala’s keeping in mind the space crunch in the nation. And for the non-milk cow, we have thrown open the streets. They are free to roam about anywhere they want and eat anything. Haven’t you read the WhatsUp and Facebook messages, where we have explained how the miraculous cows can digest anything including plastic? In fact, we have also opened a plastic department for solving the problem of plastic disposal in the nation.

Q. But, what about the causalities? Some people have been seriously injured and even lost their lives?

A. Have you not heard the story of Mother Earth, where she appeared as a Cow to Lord Vishnu and prayed to be saved from the torture meted by the unruly Kshatriya Kings? Lord Vishnu took birth on earth as Lord Krishna and was a major player in the Mahabharata war, which ended with the death of most Kshatriyas. It is natural that lives will be lost for a just cause. But, people can avoid trouble if they use their brains. The Mahabharata war was the doom of only the Kshatriyas, but other classes were sparred. So, people can avoid trouble by converting. Anyways, we have to end the interview now, as my team members have spotted a major incident and being a hands-on person, I need to be there personally.

But, before we part do make note of our Vision statement which is inspired by the Father of Our Nation – “I would not kill a human being for protection a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious. Cow slaughter can never be stopped by law. Knowledge, education, and the spirit of kindliness towards her alone can put an end to it. It will not be possible to save those animals that are a burden on the land or, perhaps, even man if he is a burden.”

The Chess Players (Premchand & Ray) & the Upper Gangetic Players (1857 & 2017)

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The Chess Players or ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ as it was originally named by Premchand was penned as a short story in 1924. It was a satire reflecting on the decadent lives of the Lucknow aristocrats at a time when the Gangetic heartland was witnessing immense political turmoil. Premchand focussed on the lives of two main characters, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, with the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and the eventual annexation by the British playing in the background. The story portrayed how the obsession of the eponymous characters with the game of chess rendered them impotent in disposal of their duties towards society and family. Premchand is brilliant in his characterizations of Mirza & Mir, their blinkered existence in pursuit of an endless chess  game with no stakes other than their egos. He leaves it to the readers to draw  their conclusions on how the indifference and decadent lifestyles of the aristocrats contributed to the collapse of the Nawabs reign.

So, when Satyajit Ray decided to foray into Hindi movies, his choice of Premchand’s short story as the base script was quite interesting. While showcasing the lives of the two friends pretty much in line with the original story, he also adds his individual touch by bringing to the fore the political machinations of the British in their attempt to usurp the kingdom of Awadh. Instead of taking the common route of large scale sets to glamorise the opulence of the Nawabs, he creates the necessary impact by focussing on smaller, but more detailed frames. The actors are extremely elegant, dialogues are witty and  perfectly cued, costumes and sets are well researched and detailed, so that the lifestyle of that era is superbly encapsulated in the three epigrammatic tracks of – the 2 chess players, the scenes in the British residents office and finally the palace scenes showing the king at play and in contemplation of the imminent threat. Ray in his characteristic style is detached from the proceedings and seems quite amused at the king’s posturing. Probably it is this lack of Ray’s passionate involvement which dilutes the film’s impact. Everyone in Lucknow, be it the king or the chess players seem to be resigned to their fate and give in without a real fight. There is a lengthy scene, where the king mouths his indignation against the unscrupulous British for wanting to take over Oudh inspite of him being so loyal and co-operative in the past and appears poised to fight for his rights, but eventually when coming face to face with the British resident, lamely hands over the crown without a whimper!Ray also tinkers with the ending where the 2 friends instead of killing each other over the game, simply get hurt and decide to befriend each other again realizing that there is nothing else to look forward to except their daily game of chess! This film won him the Filmfare award for best director in 1978 and was the Indian entry for Best Foreign Language movie at 51st Academy Awards.

The British annexation if Oudh was followed by the Indian rebellion in 1857. Starting with the Sepoy Mutiny in Meerut, the uprising quickly spread to other areas of the upper Gangetic plain and Central India till it was subdued in an year and half by the British. The rebellion was marked by gruesome violence and butchering of civilians by both warring sides.

Fast forward 160 years, chess game strategies have been replaced by social media politics with supporters of varied political players pushing through their propoganda on various online networking platforms. If the 1857 political scene was marked by the apathetic attitude of the upper class gentry, it  was quite the opposite in the Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2017. The ultra conscious upper middle class waged their own wars, with a marked division of opinion, which though harmless and bloodless on paper was quite effective in destroying friendships and pushing the agenda of their chosen leaders.

Without getting into comparisons of who in 2017 are akin to the 1857 players, would like to draw some similarities amongst the winners and losers of the two separate periods:

1. Nationalist vs a Regional view (going by what was portrayed) – While opinion is divided over whether the 1857 uprising should be categorized as the 1st Indian war of Independence, I am inclined to favour the view that it was not so. None of the primary players on the Indian side – the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah  Zafar, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Nana Sahib & Tantia Tope as Maratha representatives or the sepoys had a largely nationalist Outlook. They were more keen on protecting their territories from British annexation. The British on the other hand were very focused on bringing the entire nation under their control and ruling over it. Cut to 2017, the BJP showcased themselves as a National party in contrast to others who were seen more as regional players.

2. Religion at the core: it was the tallow (derived from beef and pork) greased cartridges which the Sepoys were required to bite off before using that triggered the revolt and saw Hindus and Muslims share common ground to protect their religious beliefs. In 2017, while caste and religion played an important role in ticket distribution, the winning party while proclaiming an agenda of “with everyone and for everyone’s development” did seem to have a strong religious affiniation going by the immediate decisions in the aftermath of the win.

3. Strategy and organizational strength – the British were undoubtedly master strategists who bounced back strongly after the initial setbacks. Other than their military strength, they also bought over the support of other regional players like the Sikhs and ensured that the rebels we’re isolated in their cause. In 2017, the BJP displayed superiority in both – muscle and  brain power. Through the support of RSS, they had a very well oiled organizational base and were able to penetrate the very basic caste equations.

4. Superior resources – the British had better rifles and monetary resources, thanks to the support of the other Indian princely states, in 2017 the winners had Demonetization on their side!

5. Superior leadership of winners with a will to win: in both eras the winners were definitely more on track in their plans ( whether by hook or crook is another matter). The losers while not lacking in leaders, did have some who like Ray scripted in his movie, liked the crown on their head but were not really keen on ruling. As Nawab Wajid Ali Shah desperately cries out in Ray’s movie – ” what else can a king do if not rule” which pretty much summarizes the inner feeling of some of the key losers.

As history shows, the cycle of birth, growth, degeneration and decline of political dynasties is likely to continue and it is just matter of time before a new thought and perspective replaces existing polarizations and puts in place a new social order.

Supreme Court rules against abortion of 26 week old foetus with Down Syndrome – But, should the judgement end here?

download (1)Recently, I came across the news of the Supreme Court rejecting the plea of a couple to abort a 26 week old foetus with Down Syndrome. A seemingly routine rule book decision and probably one which I like most others would have normally overlooked. Except that in this case, it brought back extremely painful memories – It was 7 years back and I was expecting my child. Being a complicated pregnancy I was subject to multiple tests and medication right from the beginning and just when we had started breathing easy, a test in the 16th week indicated a very high probability of our child being born with Downs Syndrome. We were told by the consulting doctor in a matter of fact tone that our child is likely to be born with physical and intellectual disability and suggested another test for confirming the same, the results for which would be available in 5 days. And those 5 days were the most miserable ones of our life! I recall going through those days in a zombie like manner, too numb to think of what to do next once we get the results.

How did we feel and think – what did we do to deserve this? Is this due to some past negative Karma? Do we keep the child or abort it? If we abort, then how can we live with the guilt of having killed a child? And if decide to go ahead with the pregnancy, will we be able to accept it just like a normal child? And most important, who would take care of it once we are dead and gone?

By God’s grace and serendipity, the second test results were negative and eventually we were blessed with a normal & healthy child. And we moved on, only too glad to bury those dark days in the recesses of our memories. Till this headline made me think deeper about the judgement.

What is Downs Syndrome – It is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21. It is typically associated with physical growth delays, characteristic facial features and mild to moderate intellectual disability. As adults, their mental abilities are typically similar to those of an 8- or 9-year-old. They also typically have poor immune function and generally reach developmental milestones at a later age. They have an increased risk of a number of other health problems, including congenital heart defect, epilepsy, leukemia, thyroid diseases, and mental disorders, among others.

What is the current support offered by the government?

  • The ‘Niramaya Health Insurance Plan’for the welfare of persons with autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities.
  • Each state government in India gives a maintenance allowance for disabled individuals gives Rs. 500 per month.
  • Indian Railways offers a concession of 75% for a disabled person’s travelwith an escort. Bus concessions are given for travel between place of stay and School/Disability Center/Day Care
  • There are special provisions in the Income Tax Actfor persons with disability, that is also applicable to parents/legal guardians of persons with disability.
  • The National Trust Act passed in 1999, gives the right to “parents or relatives or registered organizations to ask for the appointment of guardian for the person with disabilities even after they are 18 years of age.”

But these measures are woefully inadequate – There is a huge requirement in our society for local support groups for parents and children of this condition, and most such groups in India have been formed by the parents themselves. The process has to start from the gynecologists and pediatricians themselves, who need to show more sensitivity and responsibility in helping the parents face the situation and accept their special children. Parents need counselling to help overcome the initial shock and disappointment, regain their emotional balance and accept the situation. The public needs to be made aware and sensitized about the characteristics and needs of such individuals so that the children are not viewed as freaks in public places. Inclusion within society is a must to help parents face the situation and improve the quality of life for their children, more so for those from the less affluent and socially backward classes. For a society which is still grappling with female foeticide and wellbeing of girl children, it is very essential that all kinds of emotional and psychological support is extended to these families to help them love their children abundantly and see them grow as normally as possible.

And the good news is that there are many success stories (like the case of Dr. Rekha Ramachandran’s daughter Babli), where both children with DS and their parents have fought against the odds to become educated and live normal lives. Rather, the families consider themselves blessed and feel themselves warmer, closer and more harmonious with better marital ties gained from the positive experience of the “Down Syndrome Advantage”.

Then, is the current anti-abortion judgement a right one? As per current law, abortion of foetus is permissible only  when the mothers life is at risk and that too upto 20 weeks of pregnancy only. But, in these special circumstances, it is imperative that the law is not constrained to enforcement of the rule, but rather it should also create an environment conducive to support of the families and inclusion of such children in society. Please do not get me  wrong here. I am a firm supporter of the right of life to all. But probably in this cases, the parents should also have a choice to present their case and be counselled sensitively rather than be forced to follow the law  blindly.

It is International Downs Syndrome day on March 21st. As we are anyways given to celebrating so many nonsensical days, it would be good if we could give thought and extend support in any manner possible for this cause!

“Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful.” – Annette Funicello

 

“A Date with the God on the Hills” – Part 2: Experiencing Vaikuntham (Mythological Abode of Lord Vishnu)

Continuing from Part 1, after freshening up, we started to find our way into the temple. At the point of entry of the queue, we found following signboards directing pilgrims towards their designated entry points:

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  1. Special Entry or Seeghra (Quick) Darshan – For those who have paid INR 300  for an entry ticket
  2. Divya (Divine) Darshan for Footpath pilgrimsFor those who walked up the hill
  3. Sarva or Free DarshanFor those who neither walk up nor are willing to shell out money, but are willing to queue the longest
  4. Senior Citizens or Differently Abled Persons – The definition is self explanatory

Into the Divya Darshan line we were led into a large room, for depositing our slippers, camera, mobiles etc. to be collected later at the exit point. On to the 1st level security check, we were stopped by the security personal who for some reason got the impression that my friend’s Fitbit is a major security threat and we had to convince them that it was harmless, so better not to carry such devices in future to avoid unnecessary inconvenience. From here, we entered the Vaikuntam complex at 1 pm.

Confined in Vaikuntham (the Mythological abode of Lord Vishnu)

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The Semicircular Vaikuntham Queue Complex in the Foreground

Our first impression of the complex was that it felt like a prison. As rushed forward in a semi-circular corridor, on our right we saw large rooms secured by iron grills right up-to the ceiling and full of people who kind of looked accusingly at us for rushing past them, while we were also mentally counting our lucky stars to be breezing past them. But alas, our glee was not to last. It was not long before we too were herded into a similar room and the doors slammed shut.

Once inside, it took us a minute to take in the fact that it was already crowded with people and we had to find ourselves a place to sit. The room was pie shaped with raised seating and we tried to position ourselves in a place that would not be too far from the door when we are let out. At the back of the room were rest rooms and in front of us, beyond the iron bars we could glimpse some greenery.

Taking in the sights around us, we observed around 400-450 people in the room in various states of activity – sitting and chatting amongst themselves, reading some book, looking at the giant TV screen beaming religious festivities, laying down and sleeping or simply staring keenly at the door expecting it to open any moment. Many, across gender and age groups had freshly tonsured heads.  This was the traditional ritual symbolizing sacrifice of attachment to physical beauty and effacing of ego. Most had their foreheads inked with the traditional three pronged Tilak, which was a yellow/red line representing Lakshmi (the consort of Vishnu) in the middle of a white U/Y representing the feet of Vishnu. All (men, women and children) were in traditional attire (Men: dhoti/pyjamas with upper cloth/kurta/angavastram, Women: sari/half-sari/salwar kameez with dupatta) as mandated by the temple authorities. We were sandwiched between 2 similar people filled rooms on either side, which made us reflect on the question – Why is the Tirupati Balaji so famous and attracts such a huge crowd?

Legend/Myth: Once, following a tiff with Vishnu, his consort Lakshmi, left her heavenly abode and came down to earth as Padmavathi. To appease her, Vishnu took the human form of “Srinivasa Balaji” and took residence on the seven hills. There he fell in love with Padmavathi, and approached her father , the Chola king Akasu Raja for her hand in marriage. The king agreed to his marriage proposal provided he paid a hefty dowry. Srinivasa obtained a loan from Kubera, the treasurer of the Gods, on the promise that he would remain on earth till the debt was fully repaid with interest. After the marriage, the husband and wife took up separate residences, with Vishnu living on the Tirumala hill top and the princess bride, locally known as Alamelu Manga, having her own temple at the bottom of the hill in Tirupati. It is also said that Lord Srinivasa turned into a stone idol at the spot where the temple now stands with Lakshmi & Padmavati on his chest to help in the emancipation of mankind from the perpetual troubles of Kali Yuga. So, devotees flock to Balaji’s temple to have a glimpse of the Lord incarnate, make huge offerings of wealth to help him repay his debt and in anticipation of receiving his grace in return.

Locational advantage and patronage of the rich South Indian rulers have also helped in building the temple hypeWhile the origin of the temple is traced back to 300 AD, it was majorly patronized by the Pallavas (9th century), Cholas (10th Century) and finally the Vijayanagara rulers (14th & 15th century AD), under whom the temple gained most of its current wealth and size. The tradition of donation of gold and jewels was continued by successive rulers of Mysore, Gadwal and the Marathas. As in most other cases, public also followed the example of their rulers and flocked to the temple with huge donations. Besides, Tirumala enjoyed the locational advantage of being in the middle of the dense forest covered Seshachalam hill range and was thus protected from the marauding hordes of the Sultanate rulers, primarily Malik Kafur in the 14th century who had the dubious distinction of rampaging and destroying South Indian temples. This would have further enhanced the myth of the Lord of the hills with an aura of invincibility.

After an hour in the room, we started feeling tired and bored and tried to catch a nap – first in the sitting posture and then laying down curled up in a fetal position trying to avoid hitting someone’s tonsured head with our feet. Another hour went by thus, and there still was no hope of being let out. It was then that we started really value the virtues of freedom and empathize with a prisoner’s feeling in confinement with limited resources of entertainment. But then, maybe this was God’s way of helping us realize and reflect on the Supreme Being – being in a room where there was no distinction or advantage of caste/creed/education/social or economic class and without the frivolous distractions of modern day technology. This was a time to be at ease with one’s own thoughts and God, something we seldom get to do on a daily basis.

Tip: Do carry packed snacks and books in preparation for a long haul.

Every time some guard would pass by the corner, we would rise excitedly hoping to be let out, and finally when we did get a release from the room it was 4.30 pm. We had spent 3.5 hours in the room!

Queueing up again

Once out of the room, we went along the corridor again one level down and this time we tried to stick to the side facing the facing the garden, mentally praying that we not be led into a room again. Now standing in the queue again, we had a good view of the Vaikuntham complex. It was a 3 level semi-circular building with 19 rooms at each level and opened out into a garden. As we waited in the slow moving queue, the heavenly smell of ghee smeared laddoos filled wafted into our noses and all our thoughts were in tasting it.

The corridors of the Vaikuntham complex were connected to the temple through an overhead bridge, descending from which we entered the temple through the main Gopuram. On the way, we saw several age old inscriptions engraved on the walls, some which were irrecoverably damaged by continuous human touch. Before entering the Gopuram, we encountered another level of security check, where I was asked to discard the flower garland in my hair much to my consternation. But, later by the time we were out, I was thankful for having done that.

Into the temple: Be Warned – this part of the date is not for the weak hearted and I mean it literally!

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As we entered the 50 feet five storied Gopuram, the single line transformed into a lineless, monstrous crowd with five people standing in leg-space meant for 2. With people breathing, pushing and pulling us from all directions, our major focus was to somehow ensure that we do not get squeezed or stamped on! This stretch is just not safe for the elderly, pregnant women and children and it is strongly advised that they choose alternate options.

Just beyond the main Gopuram and on our left, we got a fleeting glance of the raised Ranganayakula Mandapam. This had housed the idol of Lord Ranganathan from Srirangam for the period 1320 – 1369 AD for safekeeping against muslim invasions.  Crossing the Vendivakili (Silver Entrance), we came to the third Bangaruvakili(Golden Entrance) leading to the Garbagriha or the Sanctum sanctorum, where the presiding deity Lord Venkateswara resides. There were two tall copper images of the Dvarapalakas, Jaya & Vijaya on either side of this door and the thick wooden door was covered with gold gilt plates depicting the Dasavathaaram of Vishnu.

Coming face to face with our Date

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Finally, into the Garbagriha we were but 20 feet away from our Date, but here too, we had to follow a serpentine 4 layered queue. When we were a few feet away from sighting HIM, we prepared to keep our eyes wide open, since we knew it would be a blink and you miss it situation.

And when we finally face to face at a distance of ~10 feet, we ceased to sense any push or pull around us. All our senses were fixated on our date – the four handed standing deity (one arm placed on the thigh, one in the yogic varada posture and the other two holding a Sankha and  Sudarshan Chakra), the Goddesses Lakshmi & Padmavathi on his chest and beautifully adorned with precious ornaments. And for those precious few seconds, we felt a rush of achievement and enlightenment. Reflecting later on whether it is the glorious idol that signifies God on earth, I felt that you may have as well replaced it with a plain stone or even nothing for that matter, and we would have felt just the same. It is the collective positivity of all devotees which creates the ambience of heaven and this can be achieved in any place on the earth!

The Darshan did not signal the end of the day and exiting the temple was another fight, as the same gate was used for both entry and exit. It had all the ingredients for a potential stampede and we avoided joining the line to the big Hundi as we just did not feel up to the fight to make a donation. By the time we were out after collecting our Laddoo prasads, the sun had carved a right angular path in the sky and was well below the horizon!

We ended our day with some shopping and just strolled about the place to soak in the vibrant ambience, key attractions being the DeepaAlankara Seva held to the Utsava Moorthi in the open grounds, the cultural programs and various vendorspeddling colorful stuff. Later in the night, as we enjoyed our Prasad – the famous Tirupati Laddoos, we realized that we still owed a debt to the Lord (having skipped making any monetary contribution) and had all the reason to make another trip. Most likely we would do it on a day in the middle of the week, thus avoiding the massive weekend and other auspicious day crowds, as the Lord is likely to remain just as special & powerful on all days!

A Date with the GOD on the Hills – Part 1

We were very excited and quite naturally so. After all, we had a date with none less than the richest and most famous God on earth, who though not elusive, definitely plays hard to get. Well, we were definitely going all out to impress him – climbing up 3,550 steps covering a distance of 9 km and that’s just one half of the story. Come, join us on our date and share our experience!

Part 1: The Trek up the Hills

alipiri_footroute_3It was 4 am in the morning when we got down the bus in the Tirupati bus stand and caught an auto to Alipiri. Located at the foothills of the Seshachalam hills, Alipiri means ‘Resting Place’ and so served pilgrims in earlier days when they had no option, but to trek up the hills to see the Lord. Alipiri was abuzz with activity as we headed straight to the luggage counter for depositing our bag. This would be transported up the hills by road to be eventually collected by us once we reach the top. Going through a subway and on to the steps, we saw many people begin their journey by the traditional ritual of breaking a coconut and lighting some camphor.

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Climbing up a few steps, the seven storied RajaGopuram came into view. This is the first of the four Gopurams (ornate towers usually found at South Indian temple entrances), marking various stages of the trek. Sad that the beautiful structure was defaced by someone’s declaration of undying love (not for the Lord of the hills though)!

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Knowing that the initial stretch of 2083 steps are a steep climb, we started walking up quietly at a steady pace. Most of the path was covered with a concrete roof, and as it was still dark for the 1st hour of the climb, nothing much could be sighted outside the lighted stairway. But, this gave us a good opportunity to observe our fellow travelers.  There were people of all ages and socio-economic strata and it was quite a sight to see kids hoisted on their parent’s backs/shoulders, young/old couples, groups of college kids, families, senior citizens all making their way up steadily. Some went the extra mile to please the Lord – by applying vermilion and turmeric on the steps or lighting each step with camphor as they walked up. Some sat down to take a breather and yet others decided – the walk can wait, sleep comes first and laid down to restJ.

98 – 99% were walking barefoot and we formed the select minority who choose to walk with our slippers on. But hey, we were counting on our Date to ignore these omissions :). Chants of “Govinda Govinda” resounded through the air, energizing and motivating the devotees and the early morning “Venkateshwara Suprabhatam” blaring from the mikes was music to the ears. “Govinda” is another name of the Lord Venkateswara and apparently this name used to be chanted whenever people donated money or gold to the temple. Quite funnily these days, South Indians, when losing something valuable, exclaim it went “Govinda Govinda”, implying that it is lost unrecoverably to the Lord!

At a point where the roof cover was absent, we looked back to see the shimmering night lights of Tirupati city merging with the stars in the sky against the background of the forest covered hills. At this point and in fact for most part of the trek, there are plenty of shops providing refreshments along with washrooms to make the journey easy.

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At step#2083, we reached another major landmark on the trekking route, the Gali Gopuram. Built in the 15th century, it has a large “Namam” (the Tilak symbol of Iyengars/Vaishnavs) in the middle, a “Chakra” (Wheel) on the right and a “Shankh” (conch) fixed on the left. These when lighted in the night are visible for miles around on the foothills. Here, we had our biometrics done guaranteeing a special “Divya Darshan” at the top. A light breakfast at one of the multiple refreshment shops there and we were ready to move again.

From here on and for the next 6-7 kms, the hill slopes were flatter and it was quite an easy and relaxing walk. On the way, we paused to gaze at the 30 foot idol of Prasanna Anjaneya (Hanuman) and the deer park. Then, the path opened up to merge with the roadways and we had a wonderful view of the undulating terrain with forest covered peaks and valleys. Our destination was nestled within the 7 peaked Seshachalam hills (named Seshadri, Vedadri, Garudadri, Anjanadri, Vrishabhadri, Narayanadri and Venkatadri) so named as they appear as a seven headed coiled serpent when viewed aerially. The Tirumala hills are part of the Venkateswara National Park and Biosphere reserve and are home to a variety of flora & fauna. Unfortunately, we couldn’t sight any animals or birds other than monkeys and cuckoos.

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img_20170218_072055Step#2850 marked the Sri Lakshmi Narasimhaswamy temple and point for getting our Divya Darshan tickets stamped (guess this is to ensure that pilgrims do not cheat by hiking a ride up after getting the darshan tickets). Finally, at step#2910, we came to the Mokallimitta (‘knee-breaker’) GaliGopuram which marked the final and steepest stretch of the journey. Here, we were amazed to see many people arduously climbing up the stairs on their knees. Apparently, this is an attempt to replicate the feat of the Vaishnav saint, Sri Ramanujacharya, who in his visit to the temple in c.1050 AD had been most challenged by this section of the journey and had to crawl up the hill on his knees.

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We finally reached the top of Tirumala hills 5 hours after the start of our journey and found people ending the trek the way they had begun – lighting camphor on the penultimate step. Collecting our bag from the luggage counter, we headed to find our lodgings for the day.

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Coming up – Part 2: Queuing up to meet our Date

Best Friends Ever

The perils of “I cannot displease my Best Friend” syndrome has recently been illustrated by the indictment of a chief minister and her so called soul-sister. Assuming a hypothetical situation where we give the deceased chief minister (CM) the benefit of doubt of having no personal greed for ill-gotten wealth, the story could be presented thus – Past the prime of her movie career, a lonely personal life following the death of her mother and failed love affairs and facing political oblivion post her mentor’s death, she found emotional, mental and probably muscle-power support in her friend. Once in power, she felt obliged to payback her crafty bestie, who then goes on to amass unimaginable wealth and exert incredible authority over craven ministers. And in spite of repeated fallouts, their friendship survived till death did them apart.  Eventually as the Supreme Court judgment convicted both women in the disproportionate assets case, the only saving grace for the ex-chief minister was that she did not live to hear the judgment and would have probably defended herself in the grave saying – “All this ignominy for not being able to say “NO” to my best friend.”

But is this an isolated incident or something which can be traced to child psychology in craving for a best friend, where in some cases, one child is submissive to the other. A special childhood friend has been a constant motif in children’s literature and movies (Bolly/Holly etc). All those who have experienced the delightful world of “Swami & Friends” by R K Narayan, would well recall the protagonist’s equation with his two best friends. In this tale, Swami, an absolutely lovable character is dominated by his 2 best friends – Mani & Rajam. Completely in awe of them, he finds it difficult to counter or go against their wishes and this often lands him in trouble.

And do we need best friends?

Humans, and children in particular, naturally find themselves forming special friendships. My daughter’s school has the practice of putting her in a different section with a new set of children every year. Though initially she would miss her Best Friend of the previous year, she would quickly bond with her new classmates. So, probably this practice encourages her to have “lots of good friends” and helps avoid overly possessive relationships and upsetting fall-outs.

The alternative view as presented by philosopher Mark Vernon is that “friendship is an issue in a culture of democratization”. Humans are not wired to be democratic in their relationships and instinctively seek intimate relationships. By putting the spotlight on the negative aspects of close friendships, there is a possibility of emotionally stunting children and their experiences. Children or for that matter even adults may fall out with their best friends or get jilted/cheated, but somewhere they also learn to cope and survive socially.

And as parents, we watch and live through the tumult our children experience as their friendships become more complex, layered and emotionally fraught varying from extraordinary intimacy and bewildering cruelty.

RadhaMa – A Case Study in “Ordinary to Godly”

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The perception of Guru is an ancient one in India, with a lot of emphasis on the tradition of reverence and consideration of the Guru as indispensable to the acquisition of knowledge and spiritual development.

In modern times, the word “Godman” is often used as a colloquial for the word Guru, who are seen as charismatic personalities, attracting attention and support from large sections of the society. Many establish religious, social or educational institutions with a view to propagating their legacy.  They come cloaked in an aura of divinity, mystery and associated controversies. But the public struggles to identify with them as normal people who have had their share of challenges and failures before attaining the positions they are in today. This often happens because of limited awareness of the Guru’s lives as normal people and invariably leads to two very skewed perceptions – the rightists or so-called ‘devotees’ who put the Gurus on a pedestal and blindly follow their tenets and justify all their deeds, and the leftists on the other end of the spectrum, who are distrustful of all Gurus and denounce them as fakes with a highly personal agenda.

This story is about trying to strike a balance in our perception of Godmen/women!

I was fairly excited to be visiting my maternal uncle (Sethu Mama) after a gap of 6 years and a lot had changed in this period. As I reached his home on a typically hot Friday afternoon in Chennai, my Mama and Mami (aunt – Sethu mama’s wife) greeted me. After freshening up, I joined my uncle at the table for lunch, which Mami served while attending to her mischievous grandson simultaneously. Post lunch and an afternoon siesta, I woke up to be served the traditional south Indian filter coffee by Mami. She then got busy plucking flowers from the jasmine plant in the garden and asked me if I would be interested in joining her and Sethu mama in visiting the temple in the evening. I readily agreed and it was around 5.30 pm in the evening when we reached the Navashakthi Kamakshi Amman Temple in Madipakkam, armed with the traditional offerings of fruits and flowers.

The temple, consecrated in June, 2009 stretched lengthwise right on the banks of the Madipakkam lake. Entering the main temple, I was awestruck by the majestic 9 foot tall deity of the Kamakshi Amman (a form of the Goddess Parvathi), seated in the yogic Padmasana posture. The Goddess held a sugarcane bow and flowers with a parrot perched on top in her lower arms and a pasha (lasso) and ankusha (goad) in her upper two arms. The inner shrine was surrounded by deities of other forms of the Goddess and was flanked by idols Ganesha and Murugan on the sides.

We saw a group of around 35 ladies seated in front of the Goddess reciting shlokas, while some others stood in front of the deity, praying and awaiting the priest to accept their offerings and give them the Prasad. We squeezed ourselves in front of the group of women and sat at the head of the line, while Sethu Mama made his way to the temple office room. My Mami too started to chant aloud the prayers. Friday being considered an auspicious day for praying to the Goddess, the crowd gradually swelled as the evening wore till the entire sanctum was crowded.

Post prayers and the traditional aarthi, people started queuing up to receive the Prasad and Kumkum offerings from my Mami. I watched with amazement as many, even those older in age prostrated before her while receiving the offerings. Some spoke to her about their personal problems or aspirations as they sought her blessings, while yet others spoke about how they had benefitted from their prayers.

It was 9 pm by the time we returned home after performing all the closing rituals in the temple. Once home, my aunt went back to the household duties of serving dinner, tidying up the kitchen and playing with her grandson. Post dinner, I settled down for a chat with my uncle and the conversation ran thus:

Mama, my memories of Radha Mami is that of being a shy and slightly timid, typically focused on managing her household and dependent on you for all external affairs. Then, how did this transformation take place?

To be very honest, this is a wonder to me too till date. Like most Tamil ladies, Radha was also engaged in regular prayers and temple visits. In early 2005, she undertook recital of the Lalitha Sahasaranamam (a prayer dedicated to the Goddess Durga) for 48 days, which was accompanied by stringent fasting. It was during this period that she started feeling a strong spiritual connect.  Her focus shifted from her homely duties and she started behaving strangely and her personality was totally transformed. People started flocking to our house to see her and offer homage. Now whether it was due to some divine intervention or an impact of her own austerities, we really do not know. It was around this time that, she single-handedly took up cudgels against the priest of another temple, who was suspected of indulging in mal-practices and mobilized the public against him. In another incident, when the holy seer, the Sankaracharya of Kancheepuram was in our neighborhood, she went to him and accused him of not paying her respect and visiting her home. Now, this was quite unthinkable of had she been in a normal condition.

So, what inspired you to construct a temple? Was it an easy thing to do?

Well again, I would attribute this to the insistence of Radha. She was like a woman on a mission and wanted to build a temple for Kamakshi Amman. Initially, I had laughed it off and tried my best to discourage her, keeping in mind the associated financial implications and responsibilities. However, your Mami was adamant and approached the local panchayat directly for support. On repeated follow-ups and support of the local councilors, she was offered a spot which was 5-6 feet below ground level near the Madipakkam lake. We managed to level the ground and set up a makeshift hut, wherein people started offering prayers to a picture of the Goddess. Then, there was a change in the local governing party and the new party started to oppose the temple construction and even initiated demolition of the structure. Radha opposed the move strongly and mobilized local support in her favor and forced them to retract. Coming to finances, most of it was self-sponsored and I had to dig into my personal savings. Gradually, as the public too started supporting the initiative, we had a team for garnering contributions and sponsorships. There were several other challenges during actual temple construction and deity installation, but thanks to the grace of the Goddess, we were able to overcome them successfully.

How do you manage the temple now? What are the key activities?

For the initial 4 years, apart from Mami spending time in the temple, I had hired a person for managing it and would also pitch in post office hours and on the weekends. However, I gradually started sensing that it was not being managed very well. So in 2013, when both my children had grown up and were working, I opted for voluntary retirement to dedicate my time completely to the temple. Today, both I and Radha are completely focused on managing the temple. We are continuously thinking of improvising on the services we provide. For example, other than the customary prayers and rituals we periodically arrange social welfare programs like child scholarships, feeding the poor, managing goshalas etc. The Annadanam program we conduct every year on 26th January is the largest in the area and this year we managed to distribute food to 10,000 people.

Does Radha Mami have any specific message?

She does not preach to people. We help people in offering their prayers to the Goddess and get a feeling of satisfaction when they are answered. People identify with her as a person of God, who is as normal as they themselves are, easily approachable and probably a facilitator of solutions to their problems. Other than that we conduct various programs which help in community building and spread a social message.

But, if it is social work that you want to do, why do you need to build a temple for that? Are there not already too many temples where people can go to pray?

Like I had already said, if someone had told me 10 years back that we would build a temple, I would have laughed my head off. We had never planned to build a temple or establish ourselves as Godmen. It just happened and now that we are involved in this, it is our responsibility to ensure we manage it to the best of our abilities. And think of it, people have only benefitted from the temple. It’s not only the devout, but also children and aged people who come here regularly and they do go back with peace in their minds. This effectively functions as a community gathering place. We did what we felt inspired to do and hope that we keep up to the expectations of people.

As we retired for the night, I felt the crux of the matter is that while religious Gurus may be exceptional or enlightened spiritual leaders, they are also normal people with lives like anyone of us. So good to understand and be inspired by their success stories, but not put them on a pedestal blindly, which only does harm to all in the long run.