Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Divine Vision of Lord Badrinarayana

Very unexpectedly, we had an sudden opportunity to visit the shrine of Badrinath on the opening day of May 18th, 2010. What we did not know then, was the significance of having Lord Badrinarayana's vision on the opening day. So let me share with you what was really a divinely exhilarating experience!

The shrine of Badrinath is nestled on the banks of the gurgling Alakananda river in the valley of the Nar and Narayan mountains. It is seated on the slopes of the Narayan mountain. The beginning of Guru-Shisya parampara is supposed to have blossomed from here. This is symbolised by the Nar-Narayan mountains – Nar range being the individual soul - Jeevatma and Narayan range being  the supreme reality - Paramatma. Lord Narayana is supposed to have given the Ashtakshara mantra to Nar at this place. The belief is that even today, Narada is chanting this Ashtakshara mantra here. 

The significance & background of Badrinath Dham
In each of the 4 yugas Lord Narayan showed himself to his devotees in various forms. In the Satyayuga, he himself resided in Badrivan and devotees could see Him whenever they wished. Hence this place was also called as Muktiprada.  In the Tretayuga, The Lord showed himself only to those devotees who had done great penance. Since devotees gained mukti only through yoga and penance, the place then came to be known as Yogasiddhith. In the Dwaparayuga, this place was frequented by many devotees as its fame spread. Since the Lord gave his vision to a large number of devotees, the place came to be known as BadariVishala. Finally, in this Kaliyuga, the place had an abundance of Badari trees and hence is known as Badarikashram. 

In Kaliyuga, there was a wide spread development of Buddhism. This religion believed in non-violence but had 2 distinct sects- The Heenyans who were against idol worship and the Mahayaans. In those days, Buddhist pilgrims passed through Badarikashram on route to a pilgrimage to Tibet. Unlike the Heenyaans, the Mahayaans looked upon the Lord's idol here as another form of Buddha and worshipped him with reverence. The Heenyaans however, soon began to disturb the peace of the Badarikashram. It reached a point when the ascetics who were doing penance there, felt that it may become difficult to protect the Lord's idols.  

In the fervent hope that soon, some day, they would be able to rediscover the Lord, they put the idols into the nearby Naradkund. The Lord who had been first installed by Brahma, lay submerged in the cold waters for a long time. When the Buddhist receded, the ascetics, went back to Naradkund to retrieve the Lord's idols. But to their shock, they couldn't find Him. Deep in sorrow, they prayed to Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva, assured them that he would be born in this land, to re-establish Vedic traditions and the lost significance of pilgrim centres including Badrikashram. So was born the great preceptor, Sankaracharya at Kerala.

At the age of 11, when Sankaracharya came to Badarikashram with his disciples, he felt inspired to spontaneously recite the Ashtapadi. He then began looking for the divine idols along the southern part of the Alaknanda river. As he moved along the left bank, he reached the point of Naradkund and was suddenly certain that the idols must be here. He delved into the chill waters twice, and found 2 idols one after the other. He put them back into the waters since the idols did not have any distinctive features.. The 3rd time also he was about to put the idol back, when a voice said, " I am Badrinath and have been consecrated by Brahma before. Give me back my rightful place by reinstating Me". Thus about 2500 years ago, the current idol was consecrated and worshipped by Adi Snakaracharya. He laid out the current practices of the Badrinath temple. Even today, the main priest of the Badrinath temple is a Brahmachari Namboodri from Kerala. As a mark of respect, he is called Ravalji, by the local people.

The Opening Day at Badrinath

As we reached Badrinath after a long enjoyable bus ride on the evening of May 17th, the cold weather enticed us to go for an immediate dip in the Tupt kund - a sulphur based, hot water spring. Nature's bounty is so amazing - Were it not for this blessing of boiling hot water, sustaining life on a day to day basis in these cold hostile peaks would be so tough for all.  After a refreshingly piping hot water bath, we met up with our tour operator eager to get into action. 

We were briefed to expect a large crowd, since the shrine was to open after a 6-month sojourn at 8.05 am the next morning. Our curiosity got the better of us and we cornered our tour operator to explain the significance of the whole event. What he shared with us made us restless to see this beautiful lord the next morning! Here is what we experienced ....

The Badrinath experience..
The temple as it stands today is beautiful - it is even more eye-catching on the opening day because of the beautiful flower and festoon decorations that are done by the Indian Army and local population. Its a marathon job, since civilians are allowed  come to Badrinath (by the army) only a day before the opening. All repairs, maintenance and decorations happen in the span of that 24-30 hrs before opening, and there is frenzy everywhere! The army who is stationed here year- around, hosts free meals and unlimited cups of tea to all who wish to partake,  through a langar kitchen- they provide this both during the opening period (the day before and  the opening day) and closing period (the day before and the closing day). This is because the whole town vacates the badrinath village and goes to the lower slopes as it snows very heavily during winter. Even the temple gets completely covered. Only the Indian Army remains on watch - the Indian-Tibet border is just 40 kms from here.

The temple remains closed every year from October to April. The opening day is 3 days after Akshaya thrithi in April and closing day is in the month of Karthikai (October) on the day of Karthikai nakshatram. These are predetermined by the Hindu Calendar and Panchang. 

The Lord Badarinarayana

The sanctum here houses Lord BadariNarayan. He is flanked on His left by Kuber   (God of wealth), and to His right by the Utsava murthy who is called Udhavar. This is in honour of Sri Krishna's dearest friend by the same name who came here to Badrikashram after Krishna went back to Vaikuntam. Further right are the combined figures of Nar & Narayan. Narayan is sitting in a posture of delivering advice to his sishya, Nar; Nar is standing ready for action bowing slightly to listen to his Guru's advice. Under Narayan's statue is Urvashi. She is supposed to have been brought out by Narayan from his thighs when Indra tired to disturb the Lord's penance. Just below Udhavar's statue is a small one of Narada Rishi. He is supposed to have  asked the Lord to come down on earth and show the way to meditate and pray. Between Kubera and the Lord, is a tall, thin, finely engraved silver statue of Garuda standing with folded hands. 

Now the Lord himself is called  Badri Narayan (also called as Badri Vishal). He is armed with Conch (Shankh) and Chakra in two arms in a lifted posture and two more arms rested on the lap in Yogamudra. The image is of black saligrama, not very large and represents Vishnu seated in meditative pose. His hair is matted and flowing. Incidentally, all the idols inside the sanctum sanctorum except  for Garuda,  are made of black stone.

The Goddess Mahalaxmi called Arvindavalli has a separate sanctum sanctorum outside the temple.  However, you can also see her inside the sanctum sanctorum, as the badari tree standing over the Lord, providing him shade and shelter. Hence the  Lord is named Badrinarayana. The  temple also houses idols of Anjaneya, Adi Sankara, Swami Desikan and Shri Ramanujar.

The miracle of Badrinarayana - The Vision of The Lord!

On the closing day, the Namboodri pujari, does abhishekam for the Lord and then dresses him up for the onset of the cold biting winter. He puts a thin cotton muslin dress first and then covers up the lord with Ghee to keep him warm. Then the Lord is given a woollen vest to wear on top of which another cotton muslin dress is put. Now He is bedecked in the finest silks and jewellery and orange flowers.  A huge lamp is lit with  ghee and a wick with the thickness of a finger.  Goddess Mahalakshmiis taken into the Lord's chambers and Udhavar is moved out to the lower reaches of the Himalayas to the hamlet of Pandukeshwar,  a good 24 kms from Badrinath. Now the main door of the Sanctum Sanctorum are closed. Then the 3 doors to the main hall are closed and finally the doors to the temple. The whole town vacates and goes away except for the Indian Army which takes solace in inhuman cold weather from the boiling hot waters of the Tupt Kund. In the ensuing months, the temple gets completely covered by heavy snowfall with no possible room for air to get into the temple.

On the opening day, Ravalji along with all the dharma karthas of the temple bring Udhavar from his winter sojourn to the Mata Murthi Mandir, a temple dedicated to the mother of Shri Badrinath. Udhavar proceeds to the main temple only after taking the blessings of his mother. The long retinue of the Ravalji, dharma karthas, villagers from nearby villages, other devotees, trek the entire route from Pandukeshwar to Matamurti mandir and then onwards to the Badrinath temple on foot carrying the Udhavar idol. 

The Badrinath temple is opened at the auspicious moment and the miracle is visible for all to see!! .........The lamp is burning still with same size of wick and same amount of ghee as if we had just lit it! The lord has shed all the orange flower decorations that was put for him!! Instead he is adorned with rare delicate flowers which are available only in the inaccessible higher reaches of the Himalayas!! What beats all logic is this - How did the lamp stay lit for 6 months when there is no source of oxygen inside; The temple is completely snowed out and doors are all locked. Also where did the new flowers come from? Who threw the old ones away? The answers to these questions lie only in our faith. The belief here is that Narada rishi does puja for the lord for the 6 months when we humans are unable to. This is the miracle that thousands of believers come to see on the opening day. Narada's decorations for the Lord are kept for all to see till about 1.30 pm on the opening day. 

Eager to see the Lord in this form, we joined what was already a 3 km long queue at 5.30 am. However, we missed seeing this miracle as we got darshan of the Lord only at 2.30pm. The 9 hrs wait was physically exhausting as our shelter offered little protection from the blasting rains, blizzard like winds and some snow. However, all pain and exhaustion was forgotten as we had our first vision of the Lord - We captured His image while he was having his first temple abhishekam after 6 months, and was covered with sandalwood paste. Every part of his body was - Oh, so clearly visible!

Since we wanted to go back and feast on his vision some more, we offered to do abhishekam for Him the next morning. As ordered by out Tour operator, we reached the temple foyer, after a hot dip at Tupt kund, at 3.30 am. We  somehow managed to get our way in to what seemed like an exclusive darshan! And whats more we got the ring side view literally with my getting a place to sit right in the middle of the hall and Varad & Raynu akka standing in front of the main pillar with an uninterrupted view of the Lord! What a blessing!

The Lord's Abhishekam

Firstly, the big surprise was that unlike in temples down south, all the abhishekams, sevas alankarams, bhog- everything that is done for the Lord, is done in full view of the devotees. Also during the Abhishekam, we can see the Lord's image in full, as he does not have any cloth or jewelry adorning Him. In fact neither do any of the other idols in the sanctum sanctorum. Ravalji himself does all the sevas during the abhishekam and is assisted by a young priest. Just outside the sanctum sanctorum, to the left, a frail, old priest with flowing white beard is seated who gives a running description of what is happening inside, in a voice that is very soft yet clearly audible. To the right are 2 pujaris again, who chant the Vishnu Sahasranama and Srimad Bhagavatam non-stop through the day, while the temple is open.

The Abhishekam begins with the bearded saint requesting all the 50-60 of us to remain calm and quiet and drink in the vision of the Lord as he is being given his Ritualistic Bath. Ravalji begins the Abhishekam with gentle pouring of the hot waters of Tupt kund on Lord Badrinath, followed by Udhavar, Nar-Narayan, Kuber, Garuda, and then Narada Muni in that order. This order was followed for all the steps during the abhishekam.

After pouring water, Ravalji next pours milk followed by hot Tupt kund water. Ravalji is careful to pour the water or milk gently and place his hand in between, as if to protect the lord from the scalding heat of the water or to ensure that he doesn't get breathless. Watching Ravalji going about his seva with such dedication and focus, I almost felt that the Lord was sitting right there in front of my eyes and felt the heat or cold of the offerings being poured on Him! His concern for the Lord's comfort was palpable! After this, Ravalji gently anoints the Lord with scented oil. I could feel the fragrance of the oil where I sat a good 15 feet away!. It was heavenly! Then Ravalji gently rubbed the oil off, from the Lord's body into a bowl of the oil he already had. This bowl was then given to all of us to generously dip our fingers into and rub ourselves with the holy oil! The feeling of warmth and overpowering fragrance was nothing compared to the joyous feeling of being touched by the Lord Himself! As I stayed with this joy, I saw Ravalji pour scented water with healing herbs with same gentleness and care. The water was obviously warm - Ravalji took care to ensure that the water flowed and touched every line of the Lord's body. Where the water wouldn't flow, he took the water in his hand, and applied it! This done, the assistant handed over a large bowl of sandal paste freshly ground by the assistant. As the bearded saint drew our attention to each part of the Lord's body, Ravalji began gently applying the paste. He began with stomach of the Lord around the navel. This was because the belief was that since the Lord was in meditation, this would ease any discomfort or heat due to his penance and fasting. One could see the contours of a stomach held in due to fasting,  below the rib cage! Ravalji then moved to the feet and legs of the Lord. We could clearly see that they were in the Padmasana position. Ravalji was careful to draw out the contours for us to see as he kept applying the paste. After anointing both legs, he proceeded to apply the paste from above the stomach to the chest, broad shoulders and then the Lord's right arm, followed by His left arm. Once Ravalji is done with both arms, it is quite clearly visible to the naked eye that the right arm is slightly longer and the right shoulder slightly bent down compared to its left side. The bearded pujari tells us that when the original idol was put in the Narad kund, it got slightly disfigured and that is how Sankaracharya found Him and identified Him to be the Lord.  Ravalji now proceeds to anoint the long slender neck of the Lord and then his beautiful matted locks. The thickness and the lines of the hair are so clearly visible, as Ravalji draws lines in the crevices of the hair and helps us to see the Lord clearly. He then slowly anoints the face tracing out the eyes, eyebrows, nose, earlobes, mouth. Its a very surreal experience to watch the distinct features of the Lord  emerge in front of you like that. The Lord is now decorated with what is a wild Tulasi garland. (This Tulasi is not like what we get here- it has a much more stronger pungent smell and is quite bitter to taste). Then the other idols are also anointed just as gently with sandal paste and given a tulasi garland. The same beauty emerges in the images of Nar and Narayan as well as Narada ( a very small idol) too! Now Ravalji shows sambrani smoke on hot coals to the Lord to prevent him from getting cold due to the sandal paste . Then Ravalji slowly removes the sandalwood paste from the lords body and from other idols into a large bowl. this bowl is then circulated amongst all of us sitting there . We all dipped our fingers in to feel the smooth liquid flowing into our palm, which we then applied all over us and felt its soothing coolness & the warmth of the Lord's touch!. The shanka and chakra of the Lord were not clearly visible, they say probably because the Lord had come here to meditate.

Ravalji now poured hot water from Tupt Kund again. The he took a soft white cloth and gently sponged off the water and any trace of wetness particularly on the Lord's head. It was as if he was afraid that the matted locks of the Lord would retain the wetness! He then applied  some scented powder seemingly to draw out any moisture. Then a soft white dress was placed on the body of the Lord. Then he was decked up in the finest silks and jewelry. Every time, Ravalji would show us the jewelry before adorning the Lord with it.  Then like the high point of a concert, Ravalji brought out a huge oval single diamond tiara, showed it to us devotees thronging there and then gently applied it to the Lords head, with a base of thick sandal paste, to keep it from falling. It stood out against the dark face of the Lord and lit it up. Ravalji now adorned all the other idols with silks, jewellery and orange flowers . The Lord was adorned with multiple garlands. Finally, a huge crown of silk cloth, diamonds and precious stones was gingerly placed on the Lord's head. It was held erect with a rope from top so that its weight wouldn't bear down on the Lord. 

Just as we were seeing Him, it was like the beauty of the Lord was slowly but surely being hidden underneath all the decorations -  to protect Him supposedly!! 

The abhishekam done, we all walked in a single file to reach the sanctum and stood just about 2 feet away from the Lord! The calmness and peace on His face sank into my very bones and I came out of the temple with a mind that couldn't stop feeling exhilarated with this experience yet felt a strange sense of quiet and peace within. What a state to be in!

Jai Badari Vishal!!

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