Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Ashta Vinayak Yatra-Pilgrimage To The Eight Effigies Of Lord Ganesh

Life takes us through numerous, winding roads. We come across many people on the way. Some walk along, while others decide to change their course, leaving us behind. At times, circumstances mislead us and we get trapped in the maze of conflicting directions. But if we are lucky, we do return to our original chosen path. How do we know that the selected road is the right one and we haven’t trotted on the path of destruction? This ambiguity becomes clearer once we reach to the end of the road.

My journey through life got me in touch with a group of twenty-five strangers who shared the common goal to visit the eight different effigies of Lord Ganesh.

Ashta (Meaning Eight) Vinayak (One of the 108 names of Lord Ganesh) temples are scattered all over the state of Maharasthra in the western region of India. There are many ways to visit these places. If you are the adventurous type who likes to discover unbeaten paths and enjoy the scenic beauty of the Sahyadri mountain ranges, then a selection of a four-wheel-drive car is mandatory. Along with this, you will need a command of the local language, Marathi and tons of patience. The treacherous terrains cannot be conquered with speed or by overtaking bullock-carts. But if you are like me who believes safety in numbers, then booking a seat with the tour operators from Mumbai (Bombay) is a good decision. Their package includes all the meals and accommodation.

Chanting “Ganapati Bappa Morya, Mangal Murti Morya,” (Hail to the Lord Ganesh, whose form is benevolent) I began my long-awaited Darshan. People often wonder why are there eight diverse idols with different names of the same Deity? The answer lies in the devotion and beliefs of the worshippers who through their hard penances have pleased Lord Vinayak to incarnate at various locations over the Yugas (Era). The temples do not have idols. These effigies have been formed by nature and later temples have been built around them and maintained by Trusts. There are many thought-provoking stories behind each of these manifestations.

The first stop was at Lenyadri, 145 miles from Mumbai. The form here is called ‘Girijatmaka’. The legend states that Goddess Parvati was curious about her husband’s regular penances. She thought that Lord Shiva was the god of the gods (Devadhidev Mahadev) so why there was a need for penances and whose penance was he doing? Shiva clarified her doubts and said that Omkar (Lord Ganesh) was more powerful than Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and himself.This was a driving force for Goddess Parvati to perform rigorous austerities as she wanted Ganesh to be her son. She performed these hardships in the caves of Lenyadri and finally after twelve long years, Lord Ganesh was pleased. She made a clay idol of the Lord and worshipped Him and on Bhadrapada Shudh Chaturthi (Hindu month August-September). The idol came to life and Parvati’s penance bore the desired fruit. On the eleventh day, she named him Ganesh which means the one who has under His control the three material qualities of Sattva (Goodness), Rajas (Passion) and Tamas (Ignorance). Shiva blessed Him saying that anyone who thinks and remembers Ganesh in the commencement of any task, will always be successful in completing it.
Lord Ganesh spent His childhood here. (Various sources indicate that He lived here till the age of 12, while others state till the age of 14 or 15). He is the protector of the gods and the destroyer of cruel demons. He proved this time and again when many demons disguised themselves in the form of mouse, cat, camel and horse approached to kill Him. But in the end, they all perished. Similarly demon king Sindhu knew that he would die in the hands of our Lord and sent his aids like Krur, Balasura, Vyomasura, Kshemma, Kushal etc. to kill Him. But young Lord Ganesh destroyed them all.When Lord Ganesh was six years old, Vishwakarma worshipped Him and gave Him the divine weapons of Pasha, Parasu, Ankush and Kamal. Gautama Muni (Sage) performed His thread ceremony here. It is said that Lord Ganesh completed His incarnation here and went back to His abode, Ganesh Lok. This day is marked as Anant Chaturdashi. He promised to return every year on Bhadrapada Shuddha Chaturthi (August-September) to meet His devotees.

I bought a garland of red hibiscus flower and a coconut and made my way to the eighth cave of the seventeen Buddhist’s caves. My hours of working out at the gym paid rich dividends when I was faced to climb 310 large, rocky steps in the blazing, afternoon sun. This important landmark is maintained by the Archaeological Department of India. The cool, dark, serenity inside the cave took away all the hardships of the climb as I bowed my head and passed my offerings to the priest. By the time, the rest of the group managed their way up; I sat in a corner, enjoying my solitude with God. After a quick lunch at the base of the mountain, I headed to Ozhar which is 85 km from Pune, to pay my respects to Shri Vighnahar or Vighnaharta-the destroyer of obstacles. The mythology behind this form is that King Abhinandan, the ruler of Hemavat nagar had a burning desire to rule Indra Pad, the kingdom of Indra. To succeed in his plan, King Abhinandan started performing Yagyas / Yadnya (Offerings make to the sacrificial fire). When Indra heard of his intentions, he felt threatened. So he created a demon called Vighnasur (Vighna-obstacles / hindrances) to destroy all the rituals and Yagyas. The vicious demon succeeded but in that process he also started destroying all the sacrifices of other sages and saints. Dharma (Path of righteousness) was in jeopardy and slowly all the Vedic rites came to a standstill. All that prevailed was Adharma (Unrighteousness) cruelty and negativity.

The distressed and bewildered sages resorted to seek the guidance of Lord Ganesh. The Lord reincarnated as the son of Sage Parshva and his wife Deepavatsala. Lord Shiva along with other gods approached Sage Parshva and requested him to allow their son to fight the demon. The reluctant father didn’t want to let go of his son but Lord Ganesh convinced him and proceeded to put an end to the atrocities of Vighnasura. He used His Ankush to catch him and brought him in front of the gods. But the crafty demon created Maya (Illusions) and escaped. He took the forms of cyclones, floods, fire etc. But Lord Ganesh dispelled all these tricks. Then the demon realised the magnitude of the Lord’s power and surrendered at His feet. The demon begged for his life and requested Lord Ganesh to call himself Vighneshwar, Vighnaharta, Vighnahar or Vighnaraj. His plea was accepted and Lord Ganesh made him a part of His Gana Samuday (Celestial clan). Thereafter whoever invokes Vighneshwar before commencing any ritual is protected and free from impediments. Everyone rejoiced. Righteousness and all the Vedic practices commenced again bringing peace and harmony everywhere.

The shops lined outside this temple sold offerings at a nominal price. This consists of a plate of assorted fresh flowers or a garland of hibiscus, a bundle of three-blade grass (Durva), a coconut; few incense sticks and a packet of Lord Ganesh’s favourite sweetmeat- the Modaka/ Modak- made of gram flour, clarified butter (Ghee) and sugar.
As the evening sky changed its color and embraced the rising moon, the bus zoomed through sugarcane fields and made its way to Ranjangoan, 50 km from Pune where resides Shri Mahaganapati. The large courtyard outside the temple is intricately designed with detailed carvings on marble. The main attraction as you enter the nave of the temple is the life-sized Dwarpals (Doormen, Guards) Jay and Vijay, looking intently at the worshippers. On the either side of Mahaganapati are His two consorts Shri Riddhi and Shri Siddhi. I was just in time for the evening prayers (Aarti). All the devotees clapped and sang hymns in the glory of Lord Ganesh. Another interesting feature of this temple is an art section where large canvases depict step- by-step description of how our Lord was evoked and the battles He won against demons.Two hours from Ranjangoan was Pimpri where a soft, comfortable bed and warm buffet dinner awaited me.

The following morning, I boarded the bus at 7 am and headed to Theur, 25 km from Pune to offer my homage to Shri Chintamani. The word ‘Chinta’ means worry. This form of the Lord wipes away all the stress and worries of his devotees. According to the legend once there lived a king named Abhijeet with his queen Gunavati. They were distressed as they did not have any heir to the throne. On the advice of Sage Vaishampayan, they performed penances and finally their hardships paid off in the form of a son called Gunn/Gana/ Ganaraja.One day, the Prince along with his troops went to the forest for hunting. After long hours of laying in wait for a kill, Gunn was exhausted and approached a nearby hermitage. Sage Kapila lived there and welcomed the crowned Prince along with his soldiers.The king of the gods, Indra had given Sage Kapila a jewel called Chintamani. When the sage invoked the magical gem, it instantly prepared a lavish meal with five different delicacies. Gunn was impressed and wanted the jewel. When his demand was refused, he took it forcibly.Sage Kapila was unhappy and sought the refuge of Goddess Durga. She advised him to seek the guidance of Lord Ganesh. Sage Kapila then worshipped Lord Ganesh and asked him for a boon-to get jewel back. A battle ensued where Lord Ganesh defeated Gunn and the gem was returned. Sage Kapila revered the Lord in gratitude and called Him Chintamani Vinayaka. These events took place under a Kadamba tree (Adina Cordifolia, its leaves are heart- shaped) and the village around it is called Kadamba Thirtha.

There is another interesting legend relating to Chintamani Vinayaka. Lord Indra was attracted to Anilya, the stunning wife of Sage Gautama. When the sage left the hermitage to bathe in the river, Lord Indra took his form and returned home. Anilya did not notice the difference and engaged in intimacy.When the real Sage returned, with his Divya Shakti (Powers that he had derived from his years of sincere penances), he understood the events that took place in his absence. Enraged, he cursed Lord Indra that he would have thousand holes in his body. Lord Indra pleaded for mercy. Sage Gautama told him that he would be relieved from this curse if he worshipped Lord Ganesh. At Kadambnagar, Lord Indra started his penance and was released from the grip of the curse. He bathed in a lake which is known as Chintamani Sarovar.Apart from the main arena, there are small temples of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Hanuman within the compound.

My fifth destination was to Siddhatek to get the blessings of Shri Siddhivinayak. The story behind is that in the Treta Yuga, Lord Brahma wanted to create the Universe and did ceaseless reiteration of the single word mantra-Om. Lord Ganesh was immensely pleased and fulfilled his boon. Lord Brahma created the moon from his heart, the sun from his eyes, heaven from his head, air and life from his ears and the earth from his legs. While Brahma was engrossed in his creations, Lord Vishnu was enjoying Yognidra (Divine sleep, rest). After a while, two demons Madhu and Kaitabha were created from the wax of Vishnu’s ear. The demons started harassing Brahma so he requested Nidra Devi (Goddess of sleep) to depart so that Vishnu could be awakened. Lord Vishnu woke up to fight the demons and persistently fought them for five thousand years but he was defeated. In the disguise of a Gandharva, Lord Vishnu sang melodious songs with his Veena (Stringed instrument). This pleased Lord Shiva and he asked Lord Vishnu what he would like as a boon. Lord Vishnu explained the nuisance created by the demons and requested him to find a solution. Lord Shiva explained that his defeat was because he had not invoked Lord Ganesh before commencing his battle. He gave Lord Vishnu the six letter Ganesh mantra and told him to go to Siddhi Kshetra and contemplate on these powerful words. It is said that it was at Siddhi Kshetra that Lord Vishnu had found the Swayumbhu of the right trunk of Lord Ganesh and he placed here. This idol was known as Siddhivinayak.

While another version states that Lord Vishnu had built a large temple and sanctified Lord Ganesh’s idol from the stone of the Gandaki river. Lord Vishnu attained his Siddhi (Enlightment, Divine Illumination) here and so Lord Ganesh is called Siddhivinayak. Lord Ganesh was delighted with Lord Vishnu’s worship and provided him with power and strength to destroy the demons. This Siddhi Kshetra later was known as Siddhatek and is located 78 km from Pune-Daund road, on the banks of the river Bhima. It is bordered with forests on all sides. The small temple was decorated with ornate wooden frames and the miniature Dwarpals (Door men, guards) were embossed in the paneling, armed with an assortment of weapons. I humbly offered my prayers.

The last destination for the day was at Morgaon, to acquire the divine grace from Shri Mayureshwar, 64 km from Pune. Seeing the large group of city folks, an old priest invited us to sit around him in the temple hall and narrated the story behind Shri Mayureshwar and the large Nandi (The big bull, Lord Shiva’s vahana or vehicle) who resided at the steps of the shrine.He narrated the legend that many centuries ago, there lived a sage by the name of Kashyap. He had two wives, Kadru and Vinita. Kadru’s sons were born as snakes who had imprisoned Vinita’s three sons – Shyen, Sampati and Jatayu. Few years later, Vinita was blessed again with a son. But when her son was still in the egg stage, young Ganesh broke the egg and a peacock emerged.The newly born bird and Lord Ganesh had a fight. Vinita interfered and the peacock agreed to be the vahan (Vehicle) of Lord Ganesh. But he laid down a condition that his name should be added with the Lord’s name. This was readily agreed and Lord Ganesh named Himself, Mayuresh. Vinita with the help of his new son, peacock, rescued her other sons from captivity.
Once there was a king called Chakrapani who ruled the kingdom of Mithila. His wife, queen Ugra was Mahapativrata (Extremely faithful and devoted). But they were unhappy as they had no children. They both prayed earnestly to the Sun God and with his blessing queen Ugra, finally conceived.

The embryo was immensely bright that she could not bear its brilliance. So she released the embryo into the sea. A puissant boy was born from the embryo. The sea disguised as a Brahmin (A man belonging to a high caste. According to the Varna system, people are classified as Brahmins – Priests/ Learned and well versed in scriptures and rituals., Kshatriyas – Warrior, Vaishyas – Merchant/ Trader, Shudras – Worker) handed the son to Chakrapani. The King named him “Sindhu” as he was born in the sea. Sindhu’s guru, Shukrarcharya advised him to worship the Sun God. The obedient student performed penance for two thousand years. The Sun God was immensely pleased and asked him for a boon. Sindhu asked to be immortal.

The Sun God gave him the ambrosia of immortality and told him that as long as this liquid remained in his stomach, near his naval, he would not die. This boon also bestowed him with intelligence and power. The old king Chakrapani thought that this was the right time to hand over the kingdom to his son. King Sindhu started his quest to conquer the universe. His unbeatable power, valor and strength surpassed Lord Indra, Lord Vishnu and other gods. He defeated the gods and goddesses in every battle and imprisoned them. He then turned his attention to Lord Shiva. The helpless gods and goddesses worshipped their protector, Lord Ganesh. Our Lord was pleased with the way they venerated Him and said that He would be reborn as the son of Goddess Parvati to kill Sindhu.

Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati left their abode Mount Kailash and lived in Mount Meru. There, Goddess Parvati performed penance for twelve years, chanting “OM” Lord Ganesh appeared and blessed her and said that He would be born to her on Bhadrapad Shuddha Chaturthi (Hindu Month). She made an idol of Lord Ganesh with clay and started worshipping Him. The idol turned into a live child.

Growing up, Lord Ganesh killed many demons. Brahmadeva / Vishwakarma gave Lord Ganesh weapons like Pasha (Noose), Ankusha (Goad), Parashu (Hatchet) and Kamal (Lotus). Lord Ganesh gathered all the attendants of Lord Shiva and together attacked King Sindhu’s kingdom. He defeated Sindhu who ran away from the battlefield. His two sons were killed in this fierce battle.

The old king Chakrapani advised his son to release all the imprisoned gods and goddesses and surrender. But the arrogant King refused. Lord Ganesh attacked Sindhu with His hatchet and released the ambrosia of immortality from his navel. Instantly, Siddhu collapsed and died. Lord Ganesh rode on a peacock during this battle and so He was called Mayureshwar. The Panch Devata (Five Gods – Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, God Surya and Goddess Shakti) requested Lord Ganesh to live in Morgaon for His devotees. Lord Ganesh blessed them and accepted their request.The vibrations of the temple bells resonating with the evening prayers and the chirping birds returning to their nests, created a blissful ambience. This feeling can be best understood when experienced first hand.

“I’m truly blessed,” I thought, smiling.

Elated with my realization, I walked around the temple completing my Pradakshina. Adorning the boundary wall, there were various miniature idols of Lord Ganesh with his consorts. The most striking feature of this temple is the presence of Nandi at the entrance. Nandi, the bull is the vehicle of Lord Shiva. There is an intriguing story which solves the mystery of Nandi’s presence.

In the vicinity of this temple, there was a temple of Lord Shiva. This idol of Nandi was constructed for it. As the statue was being transported, the cart carrying it broke down in front of Mayureshwar’s temple. A second cart was built to shift the black-stoned Nandi but that cart too collapsed. This happened several times and in the end, the devotees decided to reduce the size of this idol. They began to rub the surface of the statue and to their surprise blood began to ooze out.

Suddenly, a voice from heaven told them not to do so but to let him remain at Mayureshwar’s doorstep. The devotees followed the advice of the heavenly voice and since then Nandi continues to reside here.

Another most significant aspect of this temple is the trees of Shami (Silk- Cotton tree) Mandar (Coral Tree) and Tarati or the Kalpavriksha (Wish-fulfilling tree). This is the place where Shri Morya Gosavi, a famous devotee of the fourteenth century, sat under the Kalpavrishka and performed severe austerities in his desire to see the Lord. Lord Ganesh was pleased with his devotion and manifested. Since then the devotees chant “Ganapati Bappa Morya” to commemorate his sincere penance.Nagna Bhairava (He is looked upon as the guardian of Lord Mayureshwar) resides here too. Originally the main temple of Nagna Bhairava’s temple was located a mile from the east of Morgaon. It is said that one cannot complete Moreshwar’s pilgrimage without first bowing and seeking the permission of this divine attendant. For the convenience of the devotees, another temple was constructed at the entrance where the visitors first seek the blessings of Nagna Bhairva and then enter the main temple.

The tour guide made sure that everyone stayed together and followed him to the bus, since there were no street lights. Footsteps crunched on the dirt track and we managed to reach the bus through a maze of twisting lanes.Two temples remained for the next day. The first destination was to Madh/ Mahad, 80 km from Pune, to take the blessings of Lord Varadavinayak.

Long ago there lived a King by the name of Bhima who ruled Koudinyapur. He was a good ruler but was unhappy because he had no children. Seeing the plight of the King, Sage Vishwamitra gave him Ekashara Mantra (Ek- one, Ashara – word) and told him to reiterate this ceaselessly. King Bhima was blessed with a handsome son called Rukhamangad.One day, Rukhamangad went to the forest to hunt. Soon, he was thirsty and tired. He approached a hermitage where Rishi Vachaknavi lived with his wife, Mukunda. Mesmerized by the prince’s handsome features, Mukunda offered herself. Rukhamangad was a man of good character who flatly refused to get involved and left.Mukunda was yearning for a union and seeing her plight; Lord Indra disguised himself as Rukhamangad and satisfied her desires. Soon a son was born and she named him Gritsamada. When Gritsamada came to know about his mother’s adultery, he cursed her to become a thorny plant.Mukunda in turn cursed her son that when he would have a child, he would be born as a cruel demon. At that moment, a voice from heaven declared that Gritsamada was Lord Indra’s son. This news shocked both of them. Mukunda turned into a thorny plant and Gritsamada went to the forest of Pushpak in grief. He wanted to wipe away this dishonour and single-mindedly performed penance of Lord Vinayaka. He stood on a tree and ate only dried leaves. The Lord was pleased with his austerity and told him to ask for boons. Gritsamada humbly asked that the Lord should remain in this forest and absolve everyone’s sins and fulfill their desires.

Gritsamada built a temple here and installed the deity of Lord Varadavinayaka. The forest is now known as Bhadraka. During the Maghi Chaturthi, if one receives a coconut as Prasad (Sanctified food) then he is blessed with a son.This small yet neatly maintained temple looks like a tiled house from the outside. Behind the main structure, there are other smaller shrines of Shri Dattatreya, Lord Shani, Rahu, Ketu along with Lord Hanuman. This place is an excellent haunt for buying souvenirs. Although similar stalls are present outside every temple, here there are wider ranges to choose from. The idols of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses are made from various materials like marble, glazed porcelain, wood pulp and are available in all sizes. Some statues are made from dry coconut shells and while others are chipped and painted on beetle nuts. These make unique gifts for all occasions.

The final stop was at Pali. The mythology behind this form of our Lord is that in the Krita Yuga, there was a business man named Kalyan Sheth who had a beautiful wife, Indumati and a son, Ballal. They lived in a village called Pali. Ballal and his friends were great devotees of Lord Ganesh and spent their time worshipping Him. The parents of these children complained to Kalyan that Ballal was an unhealthy influence. Kalyan too wasn’t happy with his son’s behaviour of constant adulation and veneration; instead he wanted Ballal to become a businessman.

One day, Ballal and his friends went to the forest to play where they made an idol of Lord Ganesh and began their worship. They were so engrossed in it that they had lost track of time and soon it was dark. The angry parents, along with Kalyan went around looking for them. When they saw what they had been up to, the parents scattered the items of worship. Kalyan lost his temper and threw away the Lord’s idol. He beat up his son mercilessly. Then he tied his bloody body to a tree. Kalyan said that he would like to see how Lord Ganesh would rescue him. He went home, leaving his son withering in pain alone in the dark forest.

Ballal fervently started praying to his Lord and Lord Ganesh disguised as a Brahmin came and touched him. Instantly, his pain and wounds vanished. His thirst and hunger disappeared and he felt a surge of energy within his limp body. Ballal knew that this was his Lord and prostrated before the Brahmin. Lord Ganesh blessed him with a long life and said that Ballal would be a great spiritual leader who would promote His teachings and understanding.

Lord Ganesh asked him what boon would he like. Ballal said that he wanted to possess unshaken devotion towards Him and that He should remain in Pali and help the people to overcome their miseries. The Lord agreed. He said that He would take Ballal’s name before his and would be known as “Ballal Vinayaka.” Then He embraced his devotee and vanished into a nearby rock. This rock is the idol of Ballaleshwar. And the idol that Kalyan threw away is placed in a nearby temple called Dhundi Vinayaka. He is worshipped before devotees offer their prayers to Ballaleshwar.This concluded my Darshan.

The bus driver picked up speed, passing the fields of sunflower and marigold. Soon the wheels would roll over the smooth, concrete surface of the expressway and bring me back to the concrete jungle of Mumbai city. I am glad that I got an opportunity in this lifetime to be a part of the Ashtavinayak Darshan and I hope that my experiences have created a desire in you to do the same.

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