Thrilling reminders of sacred geography
Photo | Wikimedia commons

Thrilling reminders of sacred geography

Looking at pilgrims in Ayodhya in beautiful regional dress from different parts, hearing their ardent cries, seeing tears and glowing expressions of happiness was a moving experience, far removed from strident modern-day politics.

Last week, I was in Ayodhya for the darshan of Ram Lalla on Ram Navami—the first such celebration in the Janmasthan since 1528. After a blissful, easily accomplished darshan, I was taken to a remote corner of Ayodhya, away from the crowds, for a visit to the Sarayu river. It was a tricky walk down the broken, stone-littered steps of the ghat to the pale, ashy ‘beach’ below. I spent some time looking at the river, overwhelmed by the thought that Sri Rama took jal samadhi in it at the end of his avatar. What poignant memories did the Sarayu brim with, as did the Yamuna and Ganga. I carried away a strong sense of sacred geography. This got a strong, new impetus on the drive to Ayodhya airport when I suddenly spotted an overhead sign for Naimisharanya.

I was familiar with this name through the Srimad Bhagavatam, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But I had never seen the name outside holy books. To suddenly see it marked as a real place was an unexpected thrill. I took to recalling whatever I had read about Naimisharanya and dived into its history when I got home.

Naimisharanya is located by the River Gomti in Sitapur district, 94 km from Lucknow. ‘Naimisha’ is taken by some to mean ‘of a minute’ since one story goes that a chakra given by Lord Brahma was thrown by a rishi and instantly sanctified this spot in that region. It finds mention as a dense forest in several ancient scriptures, including the Mahabharata. I read that Naimisharanya, meaning the Forest of Naimisha, or Neemsar as it’s called today, is a place connected with Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu, Sati Devi and Lord Shiva. One ancient belief is it is where Lord Vishnu cut up Sati Devi’s body into pieces. Her heart is said to have fallen at Naimisharanya, so it is a powerful Shakti Peeth. Many scriptures are said to have been shared here by Rishis.

During the Vedic period, it was an important centre of education, apparently drawing 88,000 sages. Epic heroes are said to have visited there. It is said in the Valmiki Ramayana that Sri Rama performed the ‘Ashwamedha Yagya’ on the banks of the Gomti, that Lakshmana was appointed to protect the sacrificial horse while Rama left with his army for Naimisharanya. Yudhisthira and Arjuna visited this place in the Mahabharata.

In today’s Naimisharanya, it seems a paved street encircling the town connects the important shrines, and visitors can cover the circuit in a couple of hours. There is an ongoing belief that if one performs penance for 12 years at this place, one transcends to Brahmaloka.

I felt quite wistful after seeing that signboard that I had to carry on to the airport instead of impulsively taking the turn to Naimisharanya. For those who mistakenly say that North India and South India are unconnected, let it be known that the Naimishnath Vishnu temple there, or Ramanuja Kot, is counted as one of the Divya Desha or 108 Vishnu temples across India that are revered in the Naal Aayira Divya Prabandham by the Aalvaar. These are 12 Vaishnava saints said to have lived between the sixth and ninth centuries in the Tamil region. The only woman among them is girl-saint Andal, pronounced ‘Aandaal’.

‘Aalvaar’, usually spelt Alvar or Alwar, means those who are immersed in the love of Lord Vishnu. Here I feel impelled to interpolate that Sanskrit, Hindi and Indian languages in general do not have a ‘w’ sound. They have a simple ‘v’ sound. So, I don’t know why ‘w’ was ever used to spell Indian names when, as far as I know, it is phonetically alien. I am minded to strongly urge that we update our software on this and start replacing ‘w’ with ‘v’ in the future names of Indians yet unborn. Luckily, most people spell ‘Bhagavad Gita’ with a ‘v’ and it is usually ‘Srimad Bhagavatam’.

Anyhow, to get back to the Aalvaar, they wandered from temple to temple singing hymns of adoration for Lord Vishnu. The 20th century poet-translator A K Ramanujan called his 1981 translation of poems by leading Aalvaar saint Nammaalvaar Hymns for the Drowning. Aalvaar compositions are apparently among the earliest hymns composed for Lord Vishnu in an Indian language. They number 4,000 poems, hence the name ‘Naal Aayira’ which means ‘four thousand’ in Tamil. Their work and that of 63 Tamil Shaiva saints of that period called Naayanmaar, usually spelt Nayanmar, are said to have revitalised Sanatana Dharma in the Tamil region.

In the course of reading about Naimisharanya, I spent a happy hour listening to songs by the Aalvaar on YouTube. These songs are called ‘Paasuram’. One of my favourites is the composition Pachhai Mamalai Pol Meini by Thondaradipodi Aalvaar in the eighth century. There is a haunting version by renowned Carnatic singer Bombay Jayashri on YouTube with the English translation, if you would like to hear it. Such songs radiate an intense love for God all the way down the centuries.

I saw firsthand what an immense emotion that love is, not only in saint-poets but among many regular people even in present times. Looking at pilgrims in Ayodhya in beautiful regional dress from different parts, hearing their ardent cries, seeing tears and glowing expressions of happiness was a moving experience, far removed from strident modern-day politics. This was an ancient emotion that drew pilgrims from far and near with its own pure dynamic, rooted in the lore of the land.

So, it was not surprising, after all, that Naimisharanya, which has powerful beliefs attached to it, figured in the sacred geography drawn by the Aalvaars in the deep South centuries ago. Someday, if my luck holds, I will make it to Naimisharanya.

(Views are personal)

(shebaba09@gmail.com)

Renuka Narayanan

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