The science of Sankranti.

Dawn on Sankranti. Note the sun's position at the southern end of the horizon.

Dawn on Sankranti. Note the sun’s position at the southern end of the horizon.

What exactly is Sankranti?

Many of our religious festivals originate from ancient Indian astronomy. These festivals commemorate important astronomical events.

Actually, there is a Sankranti every month of the year. The term ‘Sankranti’ is not religious, but an astronomical one. It is used to denote the apparent movement of the Sun from one constellation to another.

The Sun, of course, does not really move with respect to the Earth. Its lateral movement across the skies is an illusion caused by the tilt in the Earth’s axis.

The Earth, as you know, rotates around its own axis, making one circuit every twenty four hours. It rotates at an astonishing speed of about 1600 km/hour. That’s much higher than the speed of sound.

The cycle of day and night is due to the Earth’s rotation. But that doesn’t explain why we have so many seasons in a year. If the Earth’s rotational axis were vertical, then each side of the planet would have the same temperature, during the day or night. And we would have only one season throughout the year.

The Earth’s axis of rotation isn’t vertical, but slightly titled at an angle of 23.5 degrees. That results in a phenomenon called precession and causes varying temperatures across the globe, and the creation of different seasons in a year.

Indian astronomers knew about the precession of the Earth’s axis. They even had a mathematical formula to precisely calculate precession and they had an official term
for it – Ayanamsa.1200px-Earth-lighting-winter-solstice_EN (1)

In addition to creating seasons in a year, the Earth’s precession also results in the apparent lateral movement of the Sun, with respect to the horizon. Ancient Indian astrologers would track this movement by using stellar constellations as reference points. Thus, the Sun would apparently move from one constellation to another during the year. This transition was referred to as ‘Sankranti’ or ‘Sankramana’.

With respect to the horizon, the Sun apparently moves to the north or south, during the year. You can observe this movement at sunrise. Over a period of months, the Sun will appear to move to the north or south, as it rises.

So, if there’s a Sankranti every month, what’s the big deal about Makara Sankranti?

Well, in Indian astrology, Makara Sankranti is given great significance because this particular Sankranti marks the beginning of the Sun’s movement to the north. From this Sankranti onwards, the Sun enters the constellation of Capricorn (known as Makara in Sanksrit). And moves into the northern hemisphere.

This northern transition of the Sun is called Uttarayana. From today, for the next six months, the Sun will continue its northerly movement. And six months later, the Sun will begin its apparent movement to the south, called Dakshinayana. This Sankranti is known as Karka Sankranti, and falls between July 14 and July 18.

Makara Sankranti marks the end of winter, and the start of the harvest season. It also marks the end of an inauspicious period.

In the Mahabharata, this is the day on which Bheeshma chose to release himself from his body – after he was assured that the kingdom of Hastinapura was in the safe
hands of Yudhistira and his brothers. Before he left the Earth, Bhishma imparted the secret of the Vishnusahasranama to Yudhistira. Vishusahasranama, or the Thousand
Names of Vishnu, is considered one of the most powerful incantations in Sanatana Dharma.

Makara Sankranti, therefore, is considered a sacred day, a day on which the rays of the rising Sun bring enlightenment to human beings.

On this day, the Sun is worshipped throughout India. Til, or sesame seed, is used across India as part of the rituals. In Maharashtra and Karnataka, people distribute laddoos made of til and jaggery. In many parts of west and north India, people mark the festival by flying kites of all shapes and sizes.

So, til-gul ghyaa, god god bola. And go fly a kite.

Happy Makara Sankranti, everyone.

Srini.

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Dhanavantari … and his leech.

Dhanvanatari, at Art of Living ashram in Bangalore. Note the leech in his lower right hand.

Dhanvanatari, at Art of Living ashram in Bangalore. Note the leech in his lower right hand.

Today, October 21, 2014, is Dhanvantari Jayanti, the birth anniversary of Dhanavantari, patron-god of Ayurveda and the healing sciences.

Bhagvat Purana tell us that Dhanvantari emerged during Samudra Manthan, the churning of the ocean.

Dhanvantari’s anniversary falls on the thirteenth day of the dark half of Ashvina, two days before Deepavali. Hence, it is called Dhantrayodashi. This day also honors the goddess of wealth, and is also called Dhanteras.

Ayurveda is the world’s first organised system of medicine. Acharya Charaka’s Samhita is the first written compendium of Ayurveda and dates back to 800 BCE.  Acharya Susruta, the world’s first surgeon, compiled his Samhita during 600 BCE. But the actual practice of Ayurveda goes back much further.

Dhanvantari is accepted as an incarnation of Vishnu and is usually portrayed with four arms. In his upper arms, he holds Vishnu’s Shanku-chakra (Conch and Discus). In his lower left hand, he holds a kamandal (copper pot) containing amrita and more important, in his lower right hand, he holds a leech.

That’s right. A leech.

Known as ‘jalouka’ in Ayurveda, leeches have been used in India since Vedic times. Susruta describes twelve species of leeches, of which six were used by him for various ailments.

Over time, leech therapy spread across the world. Leeches are still used in modern medicine. What is significant is that leeches are still used for the same ailments that Susruta used them for, two thousand years ago.

Leeches are used in reconstructive surgery, varicose veins, psoriasis, thrombophlebitis, arthritis and gangrene. Leech saliva has several proteins with medicinal properties, notably anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, vasodilation and anticlotting.

There are just a few temples in India specifically devoted to Dhanvantari, most of which are in Kerala. However, in almost any major Vishnu temple, like the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam for example, you will find a Dhanvantari shrine.

And he will invariably have a leech in his lower right hand.

Many ‘modern’ discoveries that the West lays claim to, originate from India. Leech therapy is a typical example.

Om Dhanavantaraye namaha!

Cheers … Srini.

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Diwali … get your fundas right!

lamp-1I’ve always wondered … why do most of our festivals celebrate somebody’s brutal death?

It’s usually about some demon who obtains special powers or advanced weaponry by propitiating various Gods. He then goes on a global killing and looting spree, thereby becoming a major nuisance to the general public and incurring the wrath of the same Gods who gave him all those powers in the first place. Invariably, a mighty battle follows between said demon and said Gods, and our unfortunate demon is decapitated, eviscerated and/or dismembered, as a stern example to other demons with divine ambitions.

And we mortals rejoice, abandon our work, release malodorous fireworks into the atmosphere, eat and drink lustily, literally burn a lot of money, and generally celebrate the triumph of ‘good’ over ‘evil’.

Yet, most people won’t even know the name of the demon whose death they celebrate.

So it is with Deepavali.  When asked, most of my friends give me a vague reply.  Something to do with Lakshmi puja or Lord Rama or something, they tell me, before rushing off to Hosur to buy firecrackers at cheap rates – and stocking up on good booze.

If you wish to celebrate a festival, then do it right.

Herewith then, some Diwali fundas …

Diwali is always celebrated during the last four days of  Ashvina and the first day of Kartika, these two being the sixth and seventh months in the Hindu calendar. This corresponds to end-October/early November.

The Hindu calendar is based on the waxing and waning of the moon. There is one full moon day every month as you probably know. Therefore, each month has two halves – the earth moon phasefortnight before a full moon and the fortnight after it. The fortnight before the full moon, i.e. the waxing period is called Shukla paksha – the bright half, Shukla meaning white in Sanskrit. The fortnight after the full moon is called Krishna paksha – the dark half, Krishna meaning black.

Diwali is perhaps the oldest of the Indian festivals. In some form or the other, India has celebrated Diwali since the past five thousand years at least.

Diwali is not one festival.  It commemorates five separate events from Vedic history.  Over the ages, these five festivals merged into one major festival.

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Dhanvantari, at Art of Living Ashram, Bangalore. If you look carefully, you can a leech in his right hand.

– The 13th day of the dark half of Ashvina, i.e. Krishnapaksha Trayo-dashi, is the birthday of Dhanvanatri, the celestial physician who appeared during Sagaramanthan, the churning of the ocean. Hence it is called Dhantrayodashi.

People up North also believe that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth,  is in a benevolent mood on this particular day. People light lamps through the night, in the hope that Lakshmi pays them a visit. For this reason, this day is also called Dhanteras.

This year, Dhanteras falls on October 21, Tuesday.

Medical professionals who consider Dhanvantari as their patron god may perform a Dhanvantari puja on this day.

Some others prefer to gamble on this day, in the belief that if they win on Dhanteras they keep winning through the year. They usually lose – heavily.

– The 14th day of Ashvina-Krishnapaksha, i.e. Chatur-dashi, commemorates the death of Narakasura. As described above, this demon procured some special boons and became a really nasty warlord. He had to be slain by Krishna, or in some versions of the legend, by his wife Satyabhama. Apparently, just before he died, Narakasura requested Krishna and Satyabhama that his death should not be mourned by his subjects, but celebrated in a colorful manner.krishna_and_narakasura_ack99

And since he was slain just before sunrise, Naraka Chaturdashi is celebrated with bright lights and a lot of noise, in the wee hours of the day – unfortunately.

Narakachaturdashi, or Choti Diwali as it is called up North, falls on October 22, Wednesday. 

There is a belief that anyone who has a bath-cum-oil massage (or Abhyangsnana) before sunrise on Narakachaturdashi will avoid going to hell. Now you know why your grandma would haul you out of bed at an ungodly hour and dunk your head in water.

Well, if you so believe, the correct time for avoiding hell is 04.39 to 06:19, on October 22.

– The 15th day, i.e. No moon day or Ashvina Amavasya, marks the day on which Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya with Sita and Lakshmana. Rama slew Ravana on Vijayadashami. After handing over Lanka to Vibhishana, he returned to Ayodhya eighteen days after Vijayadashami. Since it was Amavasya, the darkest night of the month, the residents of Ayodhya lit up the whole city with oil-lamps.

That of course, is why it is called Deepavali.

On this day, the goddess Lakshmi is worshipped, specifically during the evening hours, or Pradosh kaal.

Diwali and Lakshmi puja this year are on Thursday, October 23. For those of you who are serious about Lakshmi puja, the correct time is between 19:10 to 20:15.

– The next day is the first day of the bright half of Kartika, i.e. Prathami-Shukla paksha. This day is celebrated as Govardhana Puja, to commemorate Krishna’s feat of lifting the entire Govardhan mountain on his finger, to protect his villagers from Indra’s wrath.

In North and West India, this day is also celebrated as Bali Padyami, believed to be the day on which Raja Bali returns from the depths of the underworld and visits his kingdom on earth. In Kerala however, this day is celebrated during the festival of Onam. That’s why Diwali is not a major festival in Kerala.

Usually, the Gujarati new year also falls on this day.

– The second day of Kartika, i.e. Kartika Dvitiya is celebrated as Bhau Bheej or Bhaya bhaubeejDuj. According to our scriptures, Yama, god of death, visited his sister Yami on this particular day. Brother and sister were very happy with the visit, and Yama assured his sister that any brother who visits his sister on this day will be blessed with long life.

Hence this day is also called Yama Dvitiya.

For those brothers who are unable to visit their sisters (as am I), prayers offered to Yama by the concerned sisters will suffice.

This then is the five-day festival of Diwali, and why you need to celebrate it.

Note however, that nowhere and nowhere in the scriptures, does it specify that Diwali must be celebrated by intense air and noise pollution, extreme drunkenness, rowdy behavior and by a vulgar exhibition of wealth.

Have a happy Diwali everyone. And let me have a peaceful Diwali – for a change.

Cheers … Srini.

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Dasha Hara … like never before!

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From the golu display of the Ravindranath family, Basavanagudi, Bangalore.

In the Indian scriptures, the nine nights of Navaratri, correctly called Maha Navaratri, are dedicated to Shakti, the fundamental force that drives all of Creation. In the scriptures, Shakti is given the form of a woman, The Cosmic Mother.

At the beginning of Time, She created Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, the three divine entities that are responsible for maintaining Creation. Hence, She is also called Adi Shakti, the Primary Force.

The nine nights of Navaratri are dedicated to Navadurga, the goddess Shakti manifested as Durga, in nine different forms.

According to the Puranas, Durga was created to slay Mahishasura, a powerful asura who had a boon from Brahma that he could not be slain by a man or an asura or a God. He thought that women were too weak to fight him anyway, and omitted to add women to that list.

Mahishasura was the original MCP! And he paid a big price for his arrogance. Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh put their energies together and brought forth Durga, a woman of immense power.

It took Her nine nights and ten days, but at the end of a fearsome battle, Durga slew Mahishasura. Mahanavaratri is celebrated to commemorate this mighty battle between good and evil.

Mahanavaratri is so called because there are four other Navaratris during the year. Mahanavaratri or Sharad Navaratri is considered the most important of them all, and is held during the first nine days of the bright half (Shukla paksha) of the month of Ashwin. The festival marks the end of the monsoon season and the beginning of winter. From Navaratri onwards, we can expect clear blue skies.

On the ninth day of  Mahanavaratri, Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, is worshipped. In the Gurukulas of ancient India, students began their studies on this day. Music classes start on this day, and we worship our books and other sources of knowledge – that would include laptops and iPads nowadays!

On the ninth day, some people also hold Ayudha Puja, and worship their weapons, implements and tools of trade. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna reveals his identity to Prince Uttarakumar on this day and collect his weapons that he had hidden in a tree, before doing battle with the Kauravas.

The tenth day, Vijayadashami, is the day on which Durga slew Mahishasura and became known as Mahishasuramardini.

Vijayadashami also commemorates the death of Raavana at the hands of Rama. In the Ramayana, Rama worships Durga on this day, and seeks her blessing to slay the ten-headed Ravana.

This is why the festival is also called Dasha Hara, the cutting of Ravana’s ten heads, or Dusshera.

Mahisha’s capital was Mahishasura Uru, now known as Maisuru or Mysore. Durga is known as Chamundeswari in this part of India and is the reigning diety of Mysore. The Chamundeswari temple at Mysore is almost a thousand years old. Dusshera is a really big festival in Mysore. Traditionally, the Chamundeshwari idol from the temple would come out in a grand procession. But of late, the festival has been spoilt by gross commercialism. We who live in Bangalore, know that this is the one day that we should not go to Mysore!

For those of us who hail from Bombay, Navaratri is all about Garba and Dandiya Raas. Garba derives its name from ‘garbha’ meaning pregnant. It symbolises the cycle of life. Traditional Garba is performed only by women and does not use any sticks. Dandiyaa, on the other hand, is based on the events of Krishna’s early life in Brindavan. Somewhere in the past, these two dance forms converged.

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From the golu display of the Ravindranath family.

For me, Dusshera is about traditional golu, a stepped display of dolls and miniatures. My mother’s collection of earthen dolls is fifty years old. My sister and her friends in Shantiniketan would make cute little landscapes and other decorations for golu.

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The Ravindranath family, Basavanagudi, Bangalore.

This year, I found myself at the home of the Ravindranath family at Basavanagudi, Bangalore. Since two decades, this unique family has been putting up a remarkable Golu display in their home.

Open to the public at no charge whatsoever, this amazing exhibition comprises well over FOUR THOUSAND dolls and miniatures.

dasara-1-6The golu display here is built upon a particular theme each year. This time, it was based on the Ramayana. Sixty individual tableaux have been meticulously assembled, to portray key events from the Ramayana.

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Kumbhkarana, wake up!

I’ve seen some impressive Golu collections in my time, but this one is in a different class. Piece by piece, doll by doll, each of which was made to order by master craftsmen across south India, this amazing collection has taken over two decades to put together. And, it has cost this modest, middle-class family a small fortune. Some of the larger dolls cost Rs. 20,000/- each.

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Vishswaroopam. Vishnu in his cosmic form.

This display is open to the public at no charge whatsoever. And yet, there are some unscrupulous people who charge ignorant tourists a lot of money on the pretext of taking them to see this free golu display.

Parasites like these make my blood boil. I had the same experience at Mahabalipuram, where I was fleeced by a self-styled “expert”.

Caveat emptor, people. Caveat emptor.

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Many golu displays are not open to the public. But those that are open to the public, are always free. There is no need to cough up money to a third party who poses as a cultural “expert”. Locate the place on the internet, contact the concerned family, and just go.  Some families do not permit photography and some do. It is better to ask beforehand.

You will be expected to remove your footwear and mute your cellphone. The host will be glad to explain the display to you, making it completely unnecessary to hire any “expert” from outside.

Remember to profusely thank the host. Golu displays take a lot of time and effort to assemble. The Ravindranath family takes three months to assemble their mind-boggling Golu collection.

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Theist or not, take pride in our country’s rich cultural heritage.  My atheism doesn’t come in the way of my appreciation of what our country has to offer.

Happy Dasha Hara, everyone.

Cheers … Srini.

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Mahabalipuram … NEVER again!

Shore Temple - Centerpiece of Mahabalipuram.

Shore Temple – Centerpiece of Mahabalipuram.

Once, just once in my life, I want to visit one destination in India where I won’t get ripped off, cheated, abused, intimidated and generally made to feel like concentrated crap.

Just once, I want to walk into a place, relax and listen to what it has to say to me, and walk out in one piece. Just once.

Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, is a UNESCO heritage site that has been on my bucket list since many years. When I took a day off to visit this temple town that dates back to the 7th century, I thought it would be a memorable experience. It is after all, a UNESCO site.

Memorable it certainly was, for all the wrong reasons.

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Pancha Ratha – five temples carved from a single granite boulder. Thirty eight years in the making. Dedicated to the Pandavas and Draupadi.

The instant I got off my car, a horde of hawkers and touts descended upon me. Buy this, try that, come with me and I’ll give you a good time … they just would not leave me alone. And then I made the enormous mistake of hiring a guide to take me around. And I wound up paying him Rs.750/- for no particular reason. He took me around in my own car, to monuments that were easy to locate anyway, and gave me information that I had already looked up in Wikipedia anyway. But he did ensure that the right hawkers ripped me off.

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Arjuna’s Penance – bas relief sculpture, depicts various episodes from the Mahabharata.

The arrogant moron at the ticket counter gave me a nasty shock, as he refused to issue a normal ticket to me. The fee for Indian nationals is Rs.10/- only. For foreign nationals, it is Rs.250/-. I never understood why foreign tourists must cough out at least ten times what Indians do, wherever they go. Do they get anything more for the huge amount of extra money they pay? I hardly think so.

For some absurd reason, the afore-mentioned arrogant moron at the ticket counter was convinced I was a foreign national, and demanded Rs.250/-. And then demanded to see my ID. I offered my driver’s license, and he felt it was forged. I told him I’d rather go back to Bangalore than pay Rs.250/- to that arrogant jack-ass. Finally, he relented and gave me a Rs.10 ticket.

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Krishna’s butterball – an unusual balancing rock structure.

Hawkers, hawkers, everywhere. Every nook. Every corner. Every turn. And they will not leave you alone. They go on and on. They chase you. They harass you. Until you buy something. And my friendly guide ensured that I did buy a lot of worthless artifacts, at astounding prices.

The day ended with my taxi driver ripping me off, and forcing me to pay an extra Rs.500/- for a speeding ticket that he got on the way back from Mahabalipuram.

I had it coming to me. A fool and his money, after all. Should have just stayed at home.

Why do these hawkers and touts think that tourists from another land owe them a living? What value do they provide to the places that they infest? They did not build any of the magnificent monuments that people like me travel hundreds of miles to admire. They do not maintain the place, they in fact soil it with their presence.

They abuse the law with impunity. They loot tourists blatantly. They harass, they harangue, they intimidate. And the local custodians of the law simply stand by and watch.

And then we wonder why India’s share of the world tourism market is less than ONE PERCENT. That’s right. Mera Bharat Mahaan has less than 0.72% of the global tourism market.

Bottom line: Mahabalipuram is strictly avoidable. Admire this ancient temple town in the safety of the Internet.

Mahabalipuram was certainly the experience of a lifetime. That’s because I will never go there again in my lifetime.

Ah well, I did take some good pictures. Enjoy my pictures, and be happy you didn’t get ripped off, unlike me.

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