Thursday, 15 January 2015

Visit to Kalady


When we visited Kerala by flight, I made it a point to stop en route to Munnar at Kalady, which is just a few kilometres away from Kochi airport.  

For those of you who don't know, Kalady is the birthplace of Adi Shankaracharya, the saint-philosopher of the eighth century.  He lived only for 32 years, and during that time, wrote several treatises and commentaries on major philosophical works, several hymns, founded matths across India, debated several scholars in esoteric and philosophical matters, and was instrumental in the revival of Vedic philosophical traditions across India.  

His life history is full of touching anecdotes, magical interludes, and encounters with divine personages and gods.  His encounter with Veda Vyasa resulted in the increase in his life span from only 16 years that was set by Lord Shiva himself at his birth, to 32 years.  He went on to encounter Shiva Himself at Kashi in the garb of a Chandala who had come to test him on his spiritual knowledge.  

Finally he was faced with the goddess of knowledge Herself, Saraswathi who questioned him before he could attain the Sarvagnapeetha - throne of knowledge.  In the end he disappeared when he set out on foot towards the Himalayas in Kedarnath region, perhaps back to his heavenly abode in Kailash, as he was said to be the avatar of Lord Shiva.

Thus the life which began in the South in an obscure little town, ended in the lofty regions of the Himalayas, leaving in its wake extraordinary tales, achievements, and body of work.  Shankara was the founder of the Advaita philosophy, which is one of the three philosophical pillars of Sanatana Dharma (the other two being Dwaita propounded by Madhwacharya and Vishishtadvaita propounded by Ramanujacharya).  Among the many philosophical works, the hymns, Bhaja Govindam and Kanakadhara Stotra remain the most popular even today.  

With such a background, how could one resist stopping at Kalady?  We arrived in the afternoon and immediately went to the Kanchi Kamakoti Matth area, where we were greeted by the conspicuous Keerthi Sthambha Mantapam - a tall tower-like structure with a spiral staircase inside that runs all the way to the top.  Inside one can seen murals and idols depicting the important events from Shankara's illustrious life.

Keerthi Sthambha Mantapam

Adi Shankaracharya idol in the Mantapam

The friendly man at the ticket counter even called up the main temple a little bit away to find out if it was still open for us.  I only realised the significance of this gesture a little bit later when we reached the temple, which is run by the Sringeri Sharada Peetha Matth.  From the interactions with priests I had there, I gathered that there was a bit of difference between the traditions and beliefs of the two Matths, which is a bit unfortunate as they were both dedicated to the cause of the same saint.  

We arrived at the main temple complex, which houses the Sharadamba temple, the samadhi of Aryamba - Shankara's Mother, Shankara's temple and a Krishna temple.  As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by this sign:

'Holiest place in the world' sign

The place also houses a Vedic school:

Entrance to the Rigveda School

There is a path at the back of the temple which leads to the Poorna (Periyar) river.  It was here that Shankara was held by a crocodile who would not let him go until Shankara's Mother acquiesced to his request of becoming a sanyasi.  It was exciting to see this board that marked the spot where this momentous event took place.

Board marking the spot of the crocodile ghat

Poorna river, it is said, also bent its usual course when the child Shankara requested it to, as his Mother was finding it difficult to reach the river for her daily ablutions.  It reached the edge of Shankara's feet when it changed course, giving Kalady its name (kal = feet, ady = edge).  A mural depicting this episode is painted on the outer wall of the Krishna temple  

Poorna river

Poorna river
The priests inside the temple were very friendly and spoke in Kannada, having arrived some time ago from the Sringeri Matth in Karnataka.  It was an awe inducing moment when we stood facing the samadhi stone of Aryamba.  An aged and severely bent sage walked in as we went about the temple, and somehow managed to pray and prostrate at each shrine before he slowly made his way towards the stone steps that make up the ghat leading to Poorna river.  We were inspired by his dedication and bhakti.  

Full credit goes to the temple management for maintaining a clean ghat near the Poorna river, a feat that is unmatched at other pilgrimage sites where the neighbouring holy rivers are usually highly polluted and dirty.  The atmosphere of the entire place was so serene and relaxing, that we realised with some consternation that it was time to leave as the temple was being closed for the afternoon.  

Great personage, great story, and a great place.  Truly blessed to have set foot in Kalady.