Ready for Maha Sivaratri?

We’ve got three choices for our Maha Sivaratri celebration on Sunday night.

  1. We could head up through Malibu to the Malibu Hindu Temple, which has an array of activities happening — including what sounds like very traditional, South Indian ceremonies.
  2. We could stick a bit closer to home and go to the Marina del Rey Sivananda Center.
  3. We can perform puja, chanting and other devotional activities at home.

We’ll likely make a last-minute decision.

Via Deccan Chronicle

If you’re wondering what the big deal is, here’s one nice resource:

Shivaratri is great festival of convergence of Shiva and Shakti. Chaturdashi Tithi during Krishna Paksha in month of Magha is known as Maha Shivaratri according to South Indian calendar. However according to North Indian calendar Masik Shivaratri in month of Phalguna is known as Maha Shivaratri. In both calendars it is naming convention of lunar month which differs. However both, North Indians and South Indians, celebrate Maha Shivaratri on same day.

In South India, the devotees are already gathering.

Posted by Steve


Here’s the Ramayana you ought to be reading

At one point a little less than half-way through our Indian yatra, our leader and guide Robert Moses passed a book back to me as we bumped our way along the Indian roads.

It was one part of the Ramayana. And actually a pretty good part: Hanuman’s leap to Lanka.

I read, I flip through some other pages, as our bus continued careening along. At one point, Robert made some comment about birds of a feather (or something similar): Right across the aisle from me, one of our Swamijis was absorbed in his own book.

Of course, he was reading Sanskrit. But the book I had included the Sanskrit as well as the translation.

It was the Clay Sanskrit Library version of the Ramayana. And while having the Sanskrit more or less corresponding to the translation — it’s pretty much page by page, so you can track the Sanskrit fairly well — is great, it was the translation itself that really caught my eye.

We’re fans of Ramesh Menon’s translations, no doubt. They tend to read that contemporary fantasy novels, which is the point. The Clay Sanskrit Library books try to capture the feel and style of the original, which means a lot of repetition — Rama’s the “tiger among men,” and you read that a lot — but also a certain flow and ebb to the story-telling that is, decidedly, not modern.

There are still two volumes (and three books total) yet to be published of this version of the Ramayana. But that shouldn’t stop you from taking a look at the ones that are out — or the other 50 or so books they have translated and published.

Posted by Steve


Sorry, my hair may be in your soy sauce or pizza

I didn’t put my locks there on purpose. It just sort of happened, maybe.

Post shave
Post shave

A short piece in the latest Colors magazine got passed our way. The theme of the mag, which has been around since 1991, is “Going to Market.”

One of those to market stories is from the Lord Venkateswara temple at Tirumala. And what heads to market is the shorn hair of the devotees who, like I did, go through the tonsuring room. And then?

Once the hair hits the floor, however, it enters the world of business. The strands are collected by attendants, packed into large steel bins, washed, and sorted according to length and quality. Twice a year, the stored hair is auctioned off and exported, mainly to the USA, UK and China, where it is used to make hair extensions and wigs. Long, untreated Indian hair is in high demand; the temple’s longest hair sells for RS20,000 (US$375) a kilogram.

According to the magazine, via a new online sales process, in 2011 the temple sold 561 tons of hair for a hair under $37 million. (Rim shot!)

So who is buying up the hair? Folks in the U.S., U.K. and China, mainly. Much of it goes for hair extensions or wigs. (That’s what I heard.)

But hair has other uses. According to Colors, clothing made from hair is hot. Better than fur, I guess.

That’s not where it ends, though. Soy sauce is another product that can be made from hair, specifically the protein in hair. It can be more easily gathered than soy beans.

And there’s L-cysteine, an amino acid used as a dough conditioner, Colors reports. Duck feathers and, yes, human hair are sources. Straight Chinese hair apparently is the easiest to process.


Posted by Steve

Sadhu says: Coffee drinking is OK!

A New York Times photo of my potential guru, Maheshanand Giri, who says coffee is OK.

Over the weekend, Bobbie highlighted the more substantive side of the Kumbh Mela. The pictures and video she linked to capture this awe-inspiring event about as well as can be.

Although, really, nothing would replace being there.

After her more serious look, I’m here to wrap things up with the really important stuff. That being this lesson: Your coffee addiction is OK!

So says a sadhu the New York Times found in Allahabad. A sadhu who may be my new guru.

Before getting to the coffee, though, here are some of the things that Maheshanand Giri urges you not to be attached to:

Do your duty, but stop worrying so much about parents, wife and children.

That was the message of the 60-year-old Hindu mystic Maheshanand Giri from the Shri Panchayati Mahanirvani Akhara as he sat outside of a yellow and red tent set up on the vast grounds of the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad this weekend.

Attachments bring sadness, he said.

“Getting rid of attachments is the first step to salvation,” he said, sitting beside a small wood fire. “If your family is sick, if your father dies, then you will feel sadness.”

The Times story then drops into a history of the sadhus who attend the every four years Kumbh Mela, with the emphasis on the fact that they aren’t “peace-loving monks.” I so love these next few sentences from the Times I have to quote the story again:

Hindu sadhus generally revere Lord Shiva, who could lift mountains with one finger and was known to sever heads. At the Kumbh, the sadhus brandished ceremonial tridents, swords and spears. Some waved around baseball bats, and their celebrations during the procession to the Ganges were decidedly warlike.

After learning that we should stop having sex with our wife once we have children, and that when it comes to those children you should “do your duty” but draw a line (and then a right turn into the evils of online pornography) we get to the good stuff:

But a fondness for coffee is allowed, he said, even though some may call it an unhealthy addiction.

“Drinking coffee is your choice. It’s not an attachment,” he said. “It’s O.K. to drink coffee.”

I say this whole issue can now be put to rest.

Posted by Steve

This Kumbh Mela: The world’s biggest meeting ever of your fellow mortals

A little over two weeks into our yatra, we arrived in Nasik. The pilgrims had rested and we were ready to begin a new round of temple visits. I, however, was fighting off a cold when we arrived. I was worried it would get worse if I overtired myself by going out to dip in the Godavari River after the long bus ride from the ISKON eco-village outside Mumbai. I stayed behind in our lovely hotel with the hot shower and sent Steve ahead with the group.

What an idiot.

Steve came back glowing and excited. He did puja to the River Godavari, Ma Ganga! It was amazing! he said. And, it’s one of the sites of the great Kumbh Mela–the great bathing ritual that washes away all sins. He was like new.

Robert Moses. Puja to the Godavari.
Robert Moses. Puja to the Godavari.

Being washed free of sin will have to wait for your next trip to India, I thought. But today is the most auspicious day for bathing at the confluence of the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, the most popular of the four holy rivers of the kumbh mela. And to add to that, this particular Kumbh Mela is said to be the biggest gathering of people ever in the history of history. It only comes once every 12 years, and today marks one of special import–a moment that comes only once in 144 years.

Video from Al Jazeera:

We know a few pilgrims who are at this kumbh mela. They are there for the chance to start their karmic journey all over again, free of sin. Our friend, Radhakundadas, is there with 8,000 others in his camp. The numbers have the same effect of looking up at the stars in the sky: They make you feel small, and amaze.

If you’re not yet convinced you should be there, check out these images from The Daily Mail.

Posted by Bobbie

Our neverending yatra, as seen through Brahma, Vishnu and Siva

Over the weekend, I was telling yet another family member about our Indian yatra, showing of pictures, describing things, answering questions, etc.

Afterward, it occurred to me that our trip could be broken down into three different aspects. And then, it further occurred to me that those aspects might just correspond to Hinduism’s Trimurti. So, indulge me… this may or may not work.


Our largely unworshipped lord of creation (and we did walk on the rock remains of Siva’s shaft of light that caused Brahma this trouble) came into play twice: At the beginning (of course) as we gathered at a beach resort outside of Chennai and about halfway through when we took a needed break at the ISKCON-support Govardhan Eco Village. Both provided us a few days of rejuvenation / creation. They gave us the energy needed for the rest of our very intense trip. In keeping with Brahma’s diminished role among the Trimurti, these days were the fewest of our trip.


The great preserver corresponds to the days when were in one city and, more or less, one main temple. Both Tiruvannamalai and Chidambaram, as well as our final few days in Mumbai, fit this.

Chidambaram, via wikipedia

These “stays” involved a bit of a deeper experience of the individual temples. We returned numerous times to each, and in Chidambaram especially we were able to walk from our hotel to the temple — which we did at all hours of the day (including about 3 a.m.). It allows for a bit of familiarity, of comfort perhaps.

Keep in mind, while we were in one place, we were anything but static. There were few hours “wasted.” We were out at temples, visiting ashrams, speaking with swamis.  The repeated experiences of the temples created a deeper connection (to overuse the word “deeper”) that, I think, plays to the heart — to the sense I (at least) have of Vishnu and his avatars. We all have a personal pujari at Chidambaram, for instance.


Our pilgrimage, if it hasn’t been clear from earlier posts, focused mostly on Siva temples. Its fitting, then, that Siva should dominate my recollection of the trip — even in this way of looking at things. While we were by a beach for a day or two, and up in the hills for a couple of other days, and in single cities for a few nights here and there, really there was little lying around, hanging out, chillin’. Mostly we were moving, we were dancing, we were pushing ourselves to the point of destruction.

Metaphorically speaking. We were on buses, we were bumping along the Indian roads (a kind of dance, I guess), we were getting on and off, going into temples, up mountains, through small cities. It may not sound like it, but these days were exhausting.

We had days of travel from one stop to another and other days where we visited multiple temples (the Ashtavinayaka Ganesha temples, for instance). These typically lasted 12 to 14 hours. We probably visited about four temples on any given one of these days, and a few times extra temples got added on the fly. Most of our travel to one place from another included a few temple visits along the way.

People were drained in the end. But lest you think different, it was a good drained. The same kind of drained you are after an intense asana practice. The kind of stretching thin feeling that softens or opens you up for the experience at hand. The intensity of the travel, I’m convinced, helped keep us finely tuned.

The neverending yatra

As I continue to reflect on the trip and try to understand it — including exercises, failed or successful, like this one — what I’m having the most difficulty conveying to people is just how Indian it seemed to be. Part of that difficulty is because saying that sounds trite. But in the cities we stayed in, and all the temples we visited, we were almost the only non-Indians we saw. And our interactions with people were mostly in temples and on the streets; they weren’t with rickshaw drivers or people in restaurants and hotels. It was about as peer-to-peer as I can imagine it being. All we were exchanging were greetings, and a sense of faith in where we were.

There were a lot of these exchanges: with smiling children practicing their English; with shy men and women asking us where we were from; with bolder people taking their pictures with us; with priests and pujaris, swamis and teachers.

It was, as the word yatra implies, a pilgrimage. One that continues.

Posted by Steve

The time I got my head shaved at the world’s busiest holy site

In the hills above Tirupati, in Andhra Pradesh, is the Tirumala Venkateswara temple, which is a city almost itself. For good reason: It is the most visited holy site in the world. According to various sources, 50,000 to 100,000 people per day visit here; that number can swell during holy festivals to 500,000.

The temple, nestled on the serpent of the world.
The temple, nestled on the serpent of the world.

It also is one of the richer holy sites, also for good reason. Lord Venkateswara — a form of Vishnu — had to borrow money from Lord Kubera to cover the cost of his wedding to Padmavati. Followers are still helping him pay the loan back — it was one heck of a wedding.

During our yatra, this temple was the most crowded we visited — there was one Siva temple where we waited longer — and it was the only one where we had to go through a check-point of sorts, as foreigners, before we entered the inner sanctums of the temple. This involved our going through the “passport line,” which cut off hours of waiting. It also involved our having to, as a group, cut into that line, a squeeze and push of epic proportions. Those of us in the back ended up using rugby techniques to help keep us together.

Perhaps it’s worth backing up a second. (That was nearly impossible to do in that crowd.) If you’re not fully familiar with visiting a Hindu temple — and we weren’t before our trip — the word “line” might strike you as curious. While there are spaces to sit quietly, areas where kirtan might be happening and secondary temples to different gods (Ganesh, Hanuman, the Devi), the main thrust of the visit is taking Darshan, where you see and are seen by the temple’s main murti. (You can take Darshan with the other murtis, too, but the main one is the draw, so to speak.)

And taking Darshan means waiting for Darshan, and that means waiting in lines. And when I write, “lines,” I mean lines as you’d find at Disneyland: snaking, corded off lines marked off by ropes or fences.

The line here, with people waiting hours and hours, with its crossing over streets, going up and down steps, narrowing from five people wide to two, was intense. The squeeze when we joined was one of the most physical moments of the journey, along with the chariot pull in Chidambaram. But it wasn’t nasty, aggressive or scary. It wasn’t as bad as a Black Friday shopping line. (Remember that guy? “Calm the f%#k down! Push one of my kids and I will stab one of you motherf%@kers!”) In fact, right after the squeeze from five across to two, someone led a long, consistent chant of “Govinda!”

There was a lot of love.

The Darshan also was good here. (We were lucky throughout our trip on getting good Darshan.) I was tall enough to be able to see Lord Venkateswara, resplendent in his jewels, from far off and as we closed in on it. It was both long and then intense Darshan.

Tirumala also is famous for its best-in-the-world Laddu. We were told that the same people can use the same ingredients down the mountain and the Laddu won’t come out as tasty.

So, to recap: Busiest holy site in the world. Intense but loving wait for Darshan. Good Darshan. Yummy Laddu.

Why the recap? To give some context for this:

Post shave
Post shave

On our itinerary, the phrase “tonsure, if desired,” sat alongside the visit to Tirumala. Tonsure, for those unfamiliar, is the ritual shaving of the head.

Let me rephrase the above: On our itinerary, the phrase “tonsure, if desired,” sat alongside the visit to Tirumala like a challenge.

I won’t lie and say I had a lot to lose here; 15 years ago, when my hair was at my mid-back, I did. It felt more like a baby step, one of many on the trip: First temple visit; first Darshan; pull a chariot; sit where Ramana Maharishi did; climb the earthen form of Siva’s shaft of fire. Lose your hair.

Still, there was something symbolic about the gesture, and despite having most of two weeks for my hair to grow back, I wouldn’t be returning to the routine world without some mark of where we’d been.

So I didn’t know if I would do it. And as our visit to the temple went on, I didn’t know if I’d have to make the choice. There was no mention, there was no sign of some tonsure torture area. We got our Darshan, we got our Laddu. It seemed we were ready to get going.

Not so fast.

I wish I could remember more precisely hearing tonsure come up. We all were walking along; there was a low building behind us. And then I felt questioned, not by anyone in particular, but a general, surrounding question:

Are you going to do it?

I doubt I would have gone alone. Of the six men — I don’t count our leaders, Robert Moses or Radhakunda Das — on our trip, there was one who was game. And if I wouldn’t go alone, I couldn’t expect him to do so.

In we went, with a helpful guide from the local ISKCON temple (those temples, by the way, are an exception to the standing in line experience). There was another long passage/line, ala Disneyland. Only this one had no one, so we walked, back and forth, up a ramp, back around, until we reached the ticket stand.

Yes, I’m serious. The ticket stand. Here you received a ticket and a little packet; I looked in and saw there was a Gillette razor blade inside. The ticket had a number that, once we had walked farther on to the tonsure room, corresponded to one of the 20 or so barbers seated inside.

I didn’t actually go to my proper line; it was so uncrowded — I guess everyone was still in line for Darshan — that I just was plopped down next to my fellow yatri.

The barbers sit on a concrete ledge that runs along the wall of the room, down both sides. Next to them is the shaving water; in front of it, water for rinsing. You sit on a lower, squared off concrete seat that also runs the length of the room, which is probably 40 feet by 60 feet, all white; in front of you is a lot of water and a lot of hair. In between you and the barber is a pool of sorts, defined by the high ledge he is on and the lower one on which you sit.

It make two, six-inch-deep, wall-long trenches on either side, basically.

My barber had a very kind face, and he seemed amused by our appearance; there was probably a lot of amusement, but I was too lost in the moment, trying to make sure I was doing the right thing, to notice. We had to take off our shirts and money pouches; I had to give my glasses to our guide.

And we started.

My barber dosed me with water from the bucket of shaving water two times, then basically massaged my head to get it wet. There was no soap or anything. He then told me to pray to Govinda, put my blade into his razor and methodically got to work.

I sat crossed-legged in front of him, leaning forward so my hair and the water fell between us. He moved my head forcefully but not harshly as he shaved. I prayed to Govinda before moving on to the Hanuman Chalisa, which I remembered more clearly than ever before.

And it was over. I was soaked. It felt as though my barber rubbed a little antiseptic all over my head; I watched as my fellow yatri get the same stuff in just one little spot. Either my barber was being nice or I had a lot of nicks and cuts.

From the tonsure room we moved on to the wash area — there was one for women, too, I saw, and I think a separate tonsure area for them. In the wash area, a helpful fellow tonsure-ee explained that we should go into the different rooms where there were spigots and buckets. (If we haven’t made it clear from posts about India, we encountered nice people after nice people. He was among them.) Some men were washing themselves completely; I just dosed my head a few times. As we walked from there, we both ended up having sandalwood paste rubbed on our heads. My fellow yatri might have paid some Rupies for that.

When we finally made it back to the group, they were surrounded by dozens of Indians, who I later learned had been taking their pictures, talking to them — pretty much reacting to the sight of Westerners at this hilltop temple. Our addition, two yellow-headed guys a bit dazed by what had just happened, seemed to be the icing on their Laddu. There were lots more pictures, lots of laughter.

But not much hair.

It was a turning point, among many, of the trip. A step a little deeper into the experience, into letting go, into trying to let whatever we encountered in.

Posted by Steve