I love Indian festivals. I enjoy the chaos, the confections and the celebrations. But most of all I love the myths that surround the festivities.
Today I had the privilege of guiding a group of visitors on ‘The Colours of India- festivals and their celebration’ at the ACM, Singapore.
In a frenzy, I researched a lot of the stories I’d heard as a child, as I wanted to incorporate them into my tour. And re-reading them was like unearthing small hidden treasures. Little gemstones that had slipped into the riverbed of consciousness.
Deepavali, the Festival of Lights is almost upon us. Why do we light lamps I wondered. The story is that Rama returned to Ayodhya with Sita, in the night. The people of Ayodhya, overjoyed at his return after a 14 year long exile, didn’t want to wait for the morning to celebrate. They lit hundreds upon thousands of little oil lamps and turned the night into day!
Another enchanting story I found was that on Shivratri. Suswara was a hunter and spent his days in the forest doing his dharma, hunting. One long and arduous day, having found no game to take back home to his hungry family, Suswara turned to return home, dejected. Suddenly he realized that he was being stalked, by a tiger no less. The panicked man rapidly climbed the first tree he saw and resolved to spend the night there. As time went by, he felt sleepier and sleepier. Realizing that if he fell asleep, he would fall into the open jaws of the tiger waiting patiently below, Suswara plucked leaves from the Bilwa tree he was on, and dropped them one by one to the forest floor in a bid to keep awake.
Unknown to him, there was a Shiv Linga below the tree and Ishwara himself was watching the tableau taking place. He then sent his ‘vahana’ Nandi to keep Suswara from harm. Nandi kept the tiger at bay and Suswara, survived the night. In ‘Follow the Hindu Moon‘ by Soumya Sitaraman the author writes that she discovered a temple in Thirukattupalli, Tanjavur, where the Nandi faces away from the sanctum. And this supposedly is where Nandi kept Suswara safe, pawing and stomping on the ground to keep Yama from taking Suswara’s soul.
Another story I love is the story of the ‘Ucchi Pillayar ‘ temple on the Rock Fort at Trichy. Rama returns to Ayodhya victorious. In his battle against Ravana, he is assisted by Vibheeshana, Ravana’s own brother. Vibheeshana requests Rama for the Ranganathaswamy idol sacred to Rama. Rama cannot refuse the request, but is reluctant for the idol to leave India. So he gives it to Vibheeshana on the condition that he (Vibheeshana) cannot put the idol down until he reaches Sri Lanka.
As Vibheeshana travels back to Lanka, he passes Trichy and the Kaveri. Tired he looks around, to see a little boy following after him. Unknown to Vibheeshana, this is Ganesha, asked by the Devas to intercept the idol and prevent it being taken out of India.
Vibheeshana asks Ganesha to hold the idol while he goes into the Kaveri for his bath and prayers. And Ganesha seizing his opportunity loses no time in putting the idol down on the banks of the Kaveri.
Vibheeshana is justly furious and chases the little boy up the river bank and onto the huge monad knock . Reaching the summit, Ganesha has nowhere else to go, and Vibheeshana, huffing and puffing, finally catches up with him. He raises his fist and raps the boy on his head, in frustration, only to find the boy turn into Ganesha. Horrified and contrite, Vibheeshana falls to the ground asking for forgiveness and Ganesha readily forgives him. Vibheeshana then builds the tiny, utterly charming temple to Ganesha on the summit of the rock. And there it stands to this day, overlooking the flowing Kaveri and the sprawling town of Trichy.
And what became of the Ranganathaswamy idol? It is the deity you visit at the Srirangam temple.
Digging away into more history, I found that this deity had huge
diamonds for his eyes. The story goes that a French deserter in the Carnatic Wars, stole into the temple one dark night and made away with these stones.
One of the stones surfaces again in history and is now know as the Orlov diamond, safely housed in the Kremlin!