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  • Saturday, 3 October 2009


    Click here to read this in .pdf

    It was a cold morning. Shankara woke up, felt the cold and shivered. It was the third day of incessant rains. He had read in the papers that there was a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal and it was causing these unseasonal rains. Thinking about it, he forgot about the difficult task of having a ritual bath before he started the Puja. He had to start early, go to the temple, do all the cleaning, decorations and preparations for the Puja and carry out the Puja at the auspicious time. Before that, he had to have a bath. That was going to be tough today.

    He covered himself with a shawl, checked his hand bag to see if he had all that he would need. Even though he could pack the bag without thinking about it, being careful by nature, he checked. He opened the umbrella and started off. The rain was falling straight down and that was a blessing. The umbrella would protect his head and also the clothes he wore. He had worn his dhoti high at his knees and even the border of the dhoti would not get wet today.

    He reached the temple, opened the big lock in the door with the huge key that was in the bag and went in. Before he had the ritual bath with the water drawn from the well, he remembered that he had to clean the yoni that led from the garbha gudi sanctorum to the praakaara of the temple. He had cleaned it once long ago. He remembered it because it was such a rare event. He kept the bag near the well. Took off his shawl and the khadi shirt that he had worn underneath, folded them neatly and kept them in a corner, where the rain would not wet them.
    He stooped to the yoni and started cleaning in it. As he peered into it he realised that there was an obstruction in the passage from the garbhagudi to the outside, through the thick wall. He leaned closer and froze. The hair on the nape of his neck stood straight. He had goose flesh. He shivered, but, not because of the cold and the drizzle on his bare back. When he took his face near the tip of the yoni, his ears were filled with vedaghosha - chanting of the ancient hymns. This could not be true!

    Shankara was studying in second year BA, when his father, the previous priest at the temple, passed away suddenly. He had to give up his studies and start earning. He had been good at Mathematics and deeply interested in Physics. He had done well enough until then to study further after BA. He had had vague dreams about it and then teaching Physics. Even do research. Going abroad was not an option, tradition forbade it. He knew that he was no Ramanujam and that no goddess would appear in his mother's dream and generously ask her to permit him to cross the seas. He had idly wondered if going to France by land and crossing over to England would be alright. The English Channel was not really a sea, was it? The Namboodiris must be crossing the sea, in the form of back waters, several times a day?

    Even though he was a devout man, having been brought up in a priest’s home, he was wary of believing in miracles. Some of his friends in college had been rationalists and had influenced a little. Now here was something that shook him. How can vedaghosha emanate from the yoni from which nothing more than holy water normally issued. He looked around. There was nobody else in the temple. He moved away from the yoni. Silence.

    He walked hurriedly to the garbhagudi, opened the small lock there with the key that was tied to his yajnopaveetha. Peaceful silence of the early morning reigned inside. Now, that is strange. He came out again and took his ear near the yoni and there it was again. Just a little away, nothing. So he was not going mad after all. But then, what was he supposed to do? He decided not talk about it to anyone, for the pre sent. He knew that if the news spilled out, there will be all kinds of problems. This peaceful small temple would become a tamasha. He will talk to someone later and decide what to do.

    He suddenly realised that his routine had gone completely awry. He had gone into the temple and come back to the yoni so many times that he had lost track of time. Now he hurried and had a quick bath. He wore the dhoti he had washed and spread out for drying the previous evening in the small corridor that ran around the temple. He did the cleaning and other preparations in a hurry and at what he hoped was the right time, started the puja.

    What he had missed was that a stranger had come in to the temple soon after its door was opened in the morning. He had some time to spend before he could get the first bus out of town in the morning. As he was walking to the bus stand he had seen Shankara open the door and had come in to watch the puja before the bus. He had watched the strange behaviour of Shankara that morning. As Shankara started his puja, curiosity finally overcame his lethargy and he quietly walked to the yoni and craned his neck near it. Then it hit him. He could clearly hear the chanting of the veda. He quietly slipped out of the temple and told about the miracle to the tea shop owner who was just then spilling his first glass of tea and water on the street in front of the shop, a tradition followed by millions of tea shop owners all over India.

    Then there was no stopping the news of the miracle. By the time Shankara finished his puja and had hung the bronze utensil from its chain on top of the Linga so that water from the utensil would fall in drops on the Linga for an hour, the temple had acquired a milling crowd. While still doing the puja Shankara was aware of the steadily increasing commotion outside. He wondered how the news had got out and was never to find out. He was pained because his beloved temple had now become a tamasha.

    However, relief was at hand. By eight in the morning the sounds of chanting stopped. The people who came after eight were disappointed and wondered if the story was really true. Shankara was relieved. He had wondered if he could even go home for lunch. Now he could, locking up the temple for a few hours as usual. However, throughout the day people streamed in and went straight to the yoni and listened hard. No more veda.

    When he came to the temple, early next morning, there were already a few curious people waiting with flowers and puja paraphernalia. He sighed, a sigh of resignation, and opened the door. There it was, the veda, again when one listened with the ear in the right place. It again stopped at about eight.

    That afternoon, after his lunch, Shankara wrote a long letter to his college classmate, Srinivasan, who was now a lecturer of Physics in a college in Bangalore. He described the whole story and sought his friend's help to solve the mystery. He did not miss the irony of asking an Iyengar to come into a temple of Shiva. It is said that an Iyengar is forbidden from entering a temple of Shiva, even to seek refuge from a mad, rampaging elephant! Of course, it did not matter to a self avowed atheist like Srinivasan. While Shankara waited for Srinivasan's reply the tamasha at the temple increased by the day. Shankara was getting desperate. He did not know how lucky he was. The television was just a story yet and the scoop hungry media crews were decades away!

    One day, as Shankara approached the temple early in the morning, he saw Srinivasan and a few others sitting on the jagali of the temple. An old car parked nearby told him the story. His friend had travelled the fifty odd miles from Bangalore in answer to his call, so early in the morning! He was overjoyed. He almost ran to him. As they spoke, he unlocked the door to the temple. He tried to shoo away the gathering crowd. Srinivasan introduced his friends to him. It was an assorted group. Two academics, an accountant, a lawyer and an engineer. They had common interests - science, rational thought and music!

    Without shooing away the crowds, they also jostled for place at the yoni and listened to confirm that the sound indeed sounded like the chanting of the vedas and not some indistinct sound that one can hear with a conch. It sounded distinctly like the chanting of the veda. With the distinct rise and fall of the notes. It consisted chiefly of three notes. Niii sa ri sa niii saaa riii niii sa ri sa saaa .. and so on.

    Without hurrying, they inspected the temple and its surroundings. They found that the garbhagudi itself had a small door and two very small windows. All were open. One member of the group went and listened at the yoni and another closed and opened the door and the shutters of the window while the others relayed it to the listener. Yes, it made a difference to the sound volume and the distinctness of the sounds. Unfortunately the door had grill work that would not let the garbhagudi be isolated completely.

    Tradition forbade the closing of the door of the garbhagudi until the temple was closed for the afternoon. Shankara had been distressed but consoled himself that the rituals for the day had not started and it was alright. When his friend’s team was investigating, he had to start the rituals for the day. When they wanted to close the main door, he had to ask them not to.

    The accountant decided to listen to the chant for some length to see if he could discern any pattern or some tell-tale sign. He did, and the chanting suddenly stopped. It was only seven in the morning. He was perplexed since the chanting was supposed to go on until about 8. He continued to listen anyway. Nothing for about a minute. Then it started again. It stopped again. After about fifteen seconds it resumed, hesitantly. Hesitantly? He did not understand what could be hesitant about that? It stopped again. A shart time later it started again.

    His mind involuntarily took him back to his childhood. His extremely traditional father had decided that he learn some Samskrita. If not resisting and kicking, he had gone sullenly. He, along with a motley crowd of boys and young men, was taught to recite from the Amarakosha. When the group recited well, it continued. When there were errors or a sleepy boy just moved his lips without producing any sounds, the keen eyed and eared old master would stop the group, chide the recalcitrant one and the chant would start again. I see! This is a veda paathashaala of some sort. He left his position at the yoni and hurried to Srinivasan and told him of his hunch and the basis for it. He recounted the experiences of his childhood. Srinivasan was convinced that this could be at the centre of the explanation for this strange phenomenon. He wanted to ask Shankara if there was a vedic school nearby or a scholar who taught the vedas. But Shankara was in the midst of his puja and Srinivasan decided to at watch it.

    The group from Bangalore sat with him, expectantly, in front of the garbhagudi and listened to Shankara's sonorous voiced chant of the mantras and watched the proceedings. The crowd outside continued to jostle to listen to the chant at the yoni. Shankara himself was curious but continued the rituals uninterrupted. He hoped that he had not committed any errors, distracted by the curiosity. Perhaps not, years of doing these things get into you and become a part of you. Is it called muscle memory or some such thing - he wondered.

    When the puja was done and the group had dutifully taken the mangalaarati and teertha - no one prostrated - Shankara came and sat cross legged in front of the group. He did not have to ask. He looked like a question mark! Srinivasan told him that they were near a solution and asked Shankara if there was a vedic or Samskrita school nearby. Before answering, Shankara saw a friend of his son come in to the temple. He asked the boy to go to his house and tell his wife that there would be six people for lunch. The protests of the group was ignored and the boy left.

    Then Shankara told them that there were no such things nearby. The others were now perplexed. However... However what? A kilometre or so away lived a scholar and he taught Samskrita to interested students, Shankara told them. One kilometre away?

    By then, it was already eight and the crowd started dispersing. They decided to go and check the lead. Where exactly did this scholar live? He lived in a small house on the second floor of a house at the end of the temple street, which lay straight ahead of the temple door. The Bangalore group was apprehensive now. How could anything a kilometre away do this? They decided to check it any way. They walked along the temple street which was getting busy.

    When they reached the house and went up the stairs, they found a house with the door open. It opened into a large room and an impressive looking old man was in it, reading a thick book. He looked up, his face impassive. It looked as if he was used to strangers walking into his house. He was. He waved them to sit on the old threadbare carpet on the floor. Srinivasan saw that the man was sitting just below a window for light. As one stood in front of the man one could see the temple tower through the window.

    Srinivasan and the others sat down and told the man why they were there. Strangely, the old man had not heard the story. It was not so strange because he was a reclusive scholar who valued his time. He made short shrift of the silly and the shallow and over time only the serious visited him. So no one had told him about the "miracle" at the temple.

    He had not spoken a word. But it looked as if he wanted all the details and Srinivasan told him the story from as it was told to him by Shankara in his letter. He also told the old scholar about what investigations the team had carried out. When he had heard the story fully, he closed his eyes for a while and looked as if in deep thought. A sardonic smile played on his lips under the bushy white moustache and it looked as if the mystery was not a mystery at all to him.

    He now spoke in a deep, steady and calm voice, "I teach veda to two groups of six students each, every morning, from six to eight. They sit in a semi-circle in front of me and chant. The first batch is more advanced. I mostly listen to them chant and the second one needs constant corrections.” He nodded at the accountant and continued, “That is why you heard the breaks.” Without looking up he said, “If you look out of the window you will see the temple. there are some more two storied buildings along the way to the temple. These belong to businessmen and have shops on the ground floor and living quarters above. When the students chant the sound can bounce off those houses and reach the temple. I know that the chant is barely audible right below this window, on the street. I have had visitors looking for my house and going around without hearing the chants. Sound often behaves strangely. When the sound reaches the temple, it is perhaps diffused in the garbhagudi and is not audible at all. However, somehow, it circulates inside come out of the yoni. If you want me to stop this miracle nonsense, I can sit at a different window or against the opposite wall or close the shutters of the window. That might put all this to rest. Poor Shankara must be upset. There are more real wonders in this world than these mere freakish accidents and sadly, all that people are interested in are miracles. Ha!"

    Notes: The essentials of this incident occurred perhaps 60 years ago, in Bangalore, India. I have constructed the story around it but, moved it to another place. My father, J R Lakshmana Rao was one of the people who helped solve the mystery, but is not in the story. Instead, I imagined his dear friend Prof. K Srinivasan as the 'leader' of the group.
    Linga, shown in the first picture is the quintessential Phallic symbol and literally means the phallus. It is seated in what is called a Yoni. I have used the same term for what interconnects the outside of the garbhagudi to the inside for the liquid abhisheka to come out. I think it is correct. If there is a different term for it, please let me know.