Archive for the ‘Puja’ Category

Om gung Ganapataye namaha

Celebrated as Ganesha’s birthday, Ganesha “Chaturthi” (which literally means the fourth) refers to the fourth day after the new moon of the lunar month Bahdrapada, which usually falls around August-September. For me, this is a day to celebrate the grounding, strengthening qualities of this sweet divine energy, also known as Ganapati or Vinayaka.

The elephant-headed Ganesha is most well-known as that force that removes obstructions in our path. His commitment and steadiness make him the perfect ally in facing the challenges and fears that arise through the course of life. Associated with mula dhara, the root chakra, Ganesha helps build a strong foundation and is traditionally invoked at the beginning of any undertaking. He provides a sense of security and groundedness, yet with a spontaneity that comes of being well-rooted in one’s beliefs and responding to life from that clarity.

In India, it is customary to celebrate this day by taking a clay idol of Ganesha and, with prayers and mantras, cast it into a river. This morning, I went out to Town Lake and held my own Ganesha puja. I prayed for clarity, perseverance, and courage as I continue to find my way to be of service to the great teachings of Ayurveda and Yoga.

May the obstacles in all of our lives vanish as we connect firmly to our root beliefs.

Om ekadantam mahakayam lambodaram gajananam

Vighnanashakaram devam herambam pranamyaham.

“O single-tusked, great-bodied, big-bellied, elephant-faced

Remover of all obstacles and difficulties, I bow to thee.”

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Ft. Kochi at sunset - until next time...

When our week in Fort Kochi was up, Emily and I reluctantly took the ferry back across the waterway to the train station and bid our sweet community goodbye. We had begun to feel like regulars in town, with people recognizing us on the street after seeing us in a store. We had found the most magnificent restaurant (called Oceanos, in case you find yourself in the neighborhood), and ended up going there almost every night (try the kerala red beans with pumpkin, or the okra coconut curry). Likewise, we found a sweet café a few doors down from our hotel and got to know the owner, Biju, after spending several mornings eating his wife’s and mother-in-law’s masala dosas while watching the pick-up cricket game in the field across the street. I expect we’ll be back someday.

Our next stop was Thrissur, about two hours north of Fort Kochi by train, and the hometown (or “native,” as they call it around here) of our dear teacher, Dr. Ramdas. His wife Lima met us at the train station and welcomed us into the house where Dr. Ramdas grew up and where his mother still lives – in fact, where he and Lima and their two children lived until three or four years ago when they came to Vaidyagrama. Their 2-year-old daughter, Rtu-parna, and 15-year-old son, Rithwick, are an integral part of the fabric of Vaidyagrama now.

Rithwick, his cousins, and Lima at a special birthday celebration dinner

Ostensibly we came to Thrissur for Pooram, an annual temple festival famous across India for its elaborate elephant procession; however, it was a joy for us just to be at Dr. Ramdas and Lima’s home in the midst of their family, which was gathering because of Pooram. Dr. Ramdas’s sister Radika and her husband were at the house, as were his niece and nephew from a different sister who couldn’t come. The nephew lives there full-time with Dr. Ramdas’s mother, which all adds up to a full house – and lots of incredible food. Radika and Lima are stupendous, mind-blowing chefs. It seemed we never stopped eating the whole time we were there – one meal would end and it would soon be time for another.

Pooram itself is a day long festival in which two temples hold a friendly competition. Each sends an emissary of about twenty decorated elephants to the square in front of the town’s main temple. Each elephant wears elaborate head ornaments and has three men mounted on top: one carries fans made of peacock feathers, another swings batons with plumes of white fur, and the third holds a brightly colored umbrella high above the elephant’s back.

At the climax of the festival, the two lines of elephants face off across a huge field packed with over 100,000 people, and to the sound of mad drumming, the umbrellas from one line of elephants are taken down and replaced with umbrellas of a different pattern or color. The crowd cheers and then it’s the other side’s turn to show off a new set of umbrellas. This goes on for hours: umbrellas exchanged for new ones, drums pounding and people cheering. I am not sure if there is ever an official winner, but everyone plays the judge of which temple had the better umbrellas. (I am certain it was the devi temple.)

Our guidebooks warned that Thrissur Pooram has become an enormous affair which some men might use as an excuse to “get intoxicated and grope women in the crowd.” The crowd did take on a certain feverish pitch, with the trance-inducing drums and the surges of cheers. I just love the fact that two temples competing on the basis of elephant fashion, one could say, inspires such reckless abandon and drunken revelry. What a wonderful reason for a display of passion. Only in India.

Auspiciously perhaps, that same day we went with Dr. Ramdas to pick up the new car he and Lima recently purchased (a Chevrolet Spirit from “Gee-yem Motors,” as the dealership sign read). We made a motley crew: Dr. Ramdas with his brother-in-law, his 2 year old daughter, and two white girls from New Mexico. After the final papers had been signed, the salesman escorted us outside and arranged us all for a photograph in front of the car. Then, according to custom, he placed a lemon in front of each tire and we rolled over them on our way out of the lot. No one knew the reason or origin of the custom, but it seems meant to ensure an auspicious future for the vehicle.

ShreeLakshmi, Rtu, Emily, me and Lima in our finest

The next morning we drove the car to the Guruvayur Temple, an important and enormous Krishna temple about an hour away, to hold a puja for the car. We awoke at 4 am in order to arrive at the temple by our 6 am appointment, and we all dressed up (Lima dressed Emily and me in her saris for the occasion). We stood outside the temple at sunrise as a priest conducted the ritual: he lit incense and chanted sacred words to invite safe and smooth travels, placed a garland of flowers across the car’s hood, dotted each window with sandalwood paste – and placed a lemon in front of each tire.

The Dhanvantari temple

From there, we drove on to one of only two Dhanvantari temples in southern India. When Dr. Ramdas completed his training as an Ayurvedic doctor twenty years ago, he and one of his classmates came to this temple and slept there for 21 days, paying homage to the god of healing to whom they were devoting their life’s work, eating only the prasad that visitors to the temple brought. Although usually only Hindus are permitted inside, Dr. Ramdas intervened on our behalf and we were welcomed in. It was a powerful experience. A relatively small temple, it holds a quiet calm that is reassuring and comforting. The Dhanvantari idol enclosed in the center shrine is completely covered in butter, the traditional sacrificial offering at this temple. We made offerings of our own and pictured Dr. Ramdas’s 21-day pilgrimage. To imagine we were walking in his footsteps for even a few minutes was an inspiration. We felt initiated.

The last day we were in Thrissur, we went to Lima’s parents’ home, about an hour away. We were excited in particular to see her mother, whom we had treated during our training a few months ago. She taught us how to make a traditional kerala dish, kind of a sandwich of sweet coconut meat in rice flour steamed in banana leaves. They live about two kilometers from the beach but apparently don’t go very often, so in our honor, we all piled in their small mini-van (along with some neighbor-relatives) and went. It was a beautiful beach, and Emily inspired Rithwick to go in up to his chest. The rest of us stayed at knee’s height and watched a beautiful sunset.

We were sad to leave Thrissur’s warmth – and Lima’s incredible cooking – but after five days, it was time for yoga. We boarded the train and headed south to Trivandrum and took up residence at the Shivananda Yoga Ashram. Perched on a hilltop with enormous trees bearing brilliant red blossoms and dropping ripe mangoes (well, not the same trees), we felt like we had arrived in heaven. As a fellow yogi commented, “This place is like yoga Disneyland.” It really was. The rigorous schedule of meditation, yoga, and seva (mopping the floor, in my case) was a welcome dive into Spirit and heart, a good transition in advance of pancha karma. I stayed for ten days before heading back to Vaidyagrama on my own, with Emily to follow a week later.

This bathing suit is all the rage in south India.

On one of my last days there, the ashram planned a day trip to Kanyakumari, the very southern most tip of India – the place where the India Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal come together. I had not expected to make it there this trip, so it was a true surprise treat to get to take a dip in those waters. We then waited several hours to get on a ferry out to the rock where Swami Vivekananda meditated for two days straight before deciding to come to Chicago for the world’s fair in 1893, at which he gave a riveting speech that effectively introduced yoga to the West. From the rock, I looked north towards this vast and complex country and counted my blessings once again.


Someone had to remind me that this past weekend was Memorial Day in the States. Being so far away myself, I think of all the soldiers and civilians who have died far from their homes under our flag. I remember too the Army officer I met on the first leg of my flight to India (he got off in Atlanta). He said he was always embarrassed when people thanked him for his service, because he loves his job – “It’s the best job in the world.” I’m not sure which aspects he loves. I think of all those who have died in wars, and I hope that they have found peace. I am grateful for peace wherever we find it, and perhaps especially wherever we make it.

Upon reflection today, I realized that’s really why I’m in India, why I am studying Ayurveda – to learn to create peace.

Sarve bhavantu sukinah

Sarve santu niramayah

Sarve bhadrani pashyantu

Ma kashchid dukha bhagbhavet

May all be happy;

May all be free from disease;

May all see only the good in others;

May none suffer from sorrow.

~from Vaidyagrama’s daily prayers

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The Way Things Work Around Here

I surprised a snake this morning as I was walking back to my room. The sun had just risen, and there was a hazy quality to the air. As I stepped onto a rock, there was a sudden swish about two feet away from me, and a three-foot-long dark colored snake (the only description my mind could accomplish at that speed) suddenly materialized out of the vague underbrush. Before I could focus it had skidded soundlessly to the side, almost flying against the ground. I followed it with my eyes as it disappeared and reappeared in the debris nearby, passing under a small log and over a basket remnant, until it was out of sight.

Dr. Ramdas, Dr. Om and Dr. Vasant

“So, Dr. Ramdas, are there many snakes around here?”

“Snakes? Um… yes.”

“Are any of them poisonous?”

“Ah… you could say. Yes.”

“What kinds of poisonous snakes?”

“Well, cobra…”

“There are cobras here?”

“Yes, cobra. That is why it is best not to go walking in the sand from 5:30 to 8 in the evening, that is their hunting hour.”

“Their hunting hour??!”

“But do not worry. I am one hundred percent certain nothing bad will happen with snakes here. We do pujas for snakes. So that is not a problem.”

To have such confidence in your relationship with nature is astounding. The staff here know they are following the rules of harmony in the world. They have set their intentions and solidified them with ritual, and in return they depend on that compliance to protect them.

And they are right. There have been no problems with snakes on their property.

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Happy Pongal!

Last weekend was Pongal, the annual harvest festival. It is similar to our Thanksgiving – they give thanks for the harvest and for the generosity of the earth. It also marks the transition between early winter and late winter (they recognize six discrete seasons here). It is the only Hindu festival that is observed on a fixed date on the Gregorian calendar – most Hindu festivals are determined by the lunar calendar, so the actual date changes every year, but Pongal is always celebrated around Jan. 14. Some theorize that back when Pongal was first celebrated however many millennia ago, it was a winter solstice celebration and now, due to the tilt of the earth’s axis, the solstice has gradually migrated a few weeks earlier. So Pongal is like Thanksgiving and winter solstice wrapped up in one. The Pongal celebrations span about four or five days – we heard music and drums wafting over the trees from the nearby village for several mornings.

Different pujas or ceremonies are conducted on each day of Pongal to honor different aspects of the harvest. On Saturday morning, several of the staff conducted a small puja at the entrance to the building complex. They built a fire under a tripod of sugar canes and heated milk in a new clay pot that was tied with the leaves and roots of a turmeric plant. The intention is to boil the milk until it runs over the edge of the pot (a recurring theme, we’ve learned) and then cook a sweet rice pudding.

One of the male doctors (Dr. Om – that’s really his name!) created a line drawing on the ground using white rice flour, and he explained that usually the women and girls do these designs, but for some reason, today there were only men setting up the puja. After the milk had been on the fire for quite some time and was decidedly not boiling, they got Indu, one of the women, to come attend to the fire. Someone got the idea to use the offering platter as a lid, so they removed all the offerings, put the platter on the pot, and indeed, the milk boiled over. Quickly they put the offerings back on the platter and raised it in the air and everyone cheered, “Pongala Pongal!” and that was that.

The next day, we had another puja specifically to honor the cows. The cows were decorated with colors and are not worked that day, given a vacation in honor of all they provide us. Again, we had a fire with the sugar cane tripod, but the big difference, of course, was the cows. They brought two of them up on to the tile pathway, climbing up four steps to get them by the fire. At the direction of the priest, the two head physicians, Dr. Ramdas and Dr. Ramkumar, each honored one of the cows by chanting and placing flowers on them. Then each person in turn passed by the cow and threw flowers, and some of us even got to feed them a banana treat. They eat them peels and all.

I was struck by the realization that in all my years of drinking milk and eating yogurt, I had never touched a cow. I had never actually said thank you to a cow, face to face. Their hair is stiff and oily and warm, and their eyes are deep and sweet. Standing next to these particular cows, such well-loved members of this community, you could feel how such celebrations come about – it just makes perfect sense to honor the cow.

That evening, our group of three grew to four – but in an unexpected way. After Lynn and Ras and I arrived at Vaidyagrama last week, we learned that a woman whom none of us knew was joining us. Meera had inquired about studying at the Institute in October, but it was too late to join the first year class. Somehow she heard that a small group of us was going to India to study so she got in touch with Vaidyagrama. Originally from Canada but with family roots in India, Meera had studied Ayurveda for some time and felt she was up to the task of jumping in and catching up as we went along. So we have lost one and gained one before we even started classes.

The next day, Monday, an hour in to our first class, our dear friend Emily arrived straight from the airport after flying for over 30 hours to get here from Brazil after two months of traveling there. Now our group is nearly complete, but our last member has been delayed. Ursula, our classmate from Switzerland, has had a last minute passport issue and is not going to be able to join us until Feb. 9.

Now our first week of classes is drawing to a close, and our time with Dr. Ramdas has been illuminating in so many senses of the word. More details will have to wait – my bed is calling me.

Pongala pongal!

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