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Triambakeshwar Temple

Triambakeshwar temple is one of the oldest temples of Shivpur, a small dusty village by the river Tunga, in the Western Ghats of India. It was a five-hundred year old temple built by the local ruler in remembrance of a brave chieftain who died fighting the kingdom's arch rival. Over time, the chieftain became a legend to the villagers. A majority of them even started considering him as Lord Shiva's incarnate as the chieftain laid down his life on Shivrathri. It was habitual of the villagers to periodically visit the temple to seek Lord's blessings. But on Shivrathri, it was an unwritten rule for every villager to pay a visit to the temple and show their respect for the Lord. For some, it was Lord Shiva and for the others it was their chieftain, whose spirit still protected the village. But as far as the atheists are concerned - well, they never really believed the existence of God; let alone His incarnation!

The temple was at least a mile away from the village but a serpentine-fashioned muddy lane with thick wild bushes on either side of it was the only way to reach the temple. A small stone-paved archway with a wooden gate led to the temple premises that had two dilapidated stone-carved monstrous gatekeepers on either side of the main entrance. The temple had a large hall with a dozen pillars each with intricately carved designs and mystic symbols representing the manifestations of the Divine Cosmos. Each pillar was interlocked with the other to form a symmetrical dodecagon to signify the subtle signs of the universe. Each side of the hall was decorated with images of various gods and goddesses and a large Hindu calendar highlighting various auspicious days of that year. The hall was connected to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple where a small Lingam was placed at its centre. A conical shaped copper pot with a perforated bottom was placed a foot above the dhoti-clad Lingam. To its right, a lamp containing an oil-soaked wick was placed over a raised platform. Seasonal changes over the last five centuries took a heavy toll on most parts of the temple. In relative terms, sanctum sanctorum was the only section of the temple that was still intact and devoid of any cracks on its supporting pillars.

 

Vishnu Sharma was the appointed priest of the temple by the village elders. There was neither an election nor eager contestants for the post of a priest at Triambakeshwar Temple as Vishnu was the only Brahmin in the village. He was a heavily built middle-aged person with broad shoulders and a large midriff; but an attractive face offset his bodily incongruity. His sparkling pair of eyes emanated brilliance and deeper understanding of life. One could always find him either offering prayers to the deity or reading a book under the banyan tree in his spare time. He had to discontinue his education in the nearby town and return to the village to take care of the temple after his father's sudden demise. It's been now almost fifteen years since he quit formal education and dedicated himself in the service of the Lord..

Like any other day, Vishnu woke up early that morning and cycled to the temple carrying a large pot and a bag containing a packet of sacred ash and a saffron dhoti. Upon reaching the temple premises, he parked his cycle under the banyan tree and left his footwear next to it. Picking up the pot and his bag, he walked towards the southern side of the temple, which had uneven but naturally set steps and a sharp slope that led to the river. Perhaps for a new comer, it would have been difficult to gauge and walk the dimly lit pavement; but for him, it was not a challenge but another exercise in his day-to-day life as the temple priest. Upon reaching the bank of the river, he carefully placed his pot and the bag on a dry piece of rock and undressed himself leaving a loin cloth on him that passed between his legs. Adjusting his holy thread that passed diagonally across his chest and bringing his palms together, he slowly moved forward into the river till the water reached almost half of his body. Closing his nostrils with his right hand, he took three dips in the river. Taking a handful of water, he chanted a hymn praising the Sun god with deep veneration. With that marking the last part of his bathing ritual, he came out of the river and wore dhoti around his wait. He took out the sacred ash from the bag and mixed it with a few drops of water to make a fine white paste. He smeared a large portion of the paste on his forehead and the rest was smeared across various parts of his body. He reached for his pot and filled it with water.

 

Carrying the pot on the right shoulder and his bag on his left, he started walking back to the temple and chanted hymns as his picked up a few flowers from the nearby plants. As he reached the temple, he lowered the pot and opened the lock of the temple with a key tied to his sacred thread. He moved slowly into the sanctum sanctorum and placed the pot next to the Lingam. He washed and cleaned the Lingam and the place surrounding it with the water. He gently placed the flowers on the deity and lit the lamp along with a few incense sticks. Raising his voice, he started chanting the mantras and with every two or three lines, he stopped for a moment to gently throw a flower on the Lingam. It almost took his two hours to finish all his morning ritual. At the end of it, he prostrated before the Lord as a mark of absolute reverence.

Coming out of the temple, Vishnu sat under the banyan tree next to his bicycle. He pushed himself on the elevated platform to recline against the tree’s trunk. Squatting his legs and rubbing his palms against his unshaven face, unaware of the morning sunlight gently warming his cheeks, he was staring at the dome of the temple and was lost in his own world of thoughts.

‘Hello? Excuse me?’ said a voice from behind one of the pillars of the temple. Hearing a human’s voice at this time of the day was a little unusual for him; more so when it was in English – a language not spoken by the locals. He got up from the raised platform and walking towards the temple he asked, ‘Who is it?’ A lanky six feet European emerged from behind the pillar who wore a simple khaki shorts and a plain white shirt. ‘Oh, I am sorry. I did not mean to intrude’ said the European with a mild apologetic tone. ‘Don’t be, please. You are welcome to visit our temple’ replied Vishnu in English with a friendly tone and walked towards the visitor.

The visitor was pleased to find a person who could understand and converse in his language. ‘I am glad to find someone who could speak English at last. I have been traveling around this place for the last four days and had to use sign-language in most places, you see. This morning, I was riding this way and found this place interesting. It caught my attention. So I stopped by and started taking pictures. Do you mind if I take photographs, Sir?’ questioned the visitor as he took out his camera from his backpack.

Vishnu gave a gentle smile and mildly shook his head. ‘You don’t have to call me sir. My name is Vishnu Sharma. You can call me Vishnu and by the way, you can take photographs.’ ‘oh, I am sorry. How rude of me! I almost forgot to introduce myself. My name is John Wright’ said the visitor extending his hand. Vishnu shook the hand and asked, ‘Are you English?’ ‘Yes, I am. How did you know?’ Vishnu chuckled a little louder this time and replied, ‘It’s the accent. It’s unmistakable, isn’t it?’ The visitor too had a good laugh and nodded his head. ‘Can I go inside the temple?’ in a whispering tone asked the visitor.

‘By all means, you can. Please remove your footwear and enter the temple’ instructed Vishnu and walked inside the temple. As instructed, the European too removed his footwear and placed them in one corner of the pillar before entering the temple’s hall. He had to lower his head as he followed Vishnu through the main-door. The visitor was awestruck to see intricate designs on each pillar. He took photographs of almost all the pillars from all possible angles and expressed his admiration for such delicate artwork at the end of every single shot. Vishnu was happy to see someone who expressed his interest in appreciating something he valued.

‘I have never been to a temple before. I never thought temples had such magnificent architecture’ expressed the visitor who really enjoyed taking such an unprecedented tour. ‘Do you mind if I ask you a question?’ asked the visitor. ‘No no. Please go ahead. What is it?’ replied Vishnu who was leaning against one of the pillars of the halls and standing diagonally opposite to the visitor. ‘How come you speak English? I thought I would never find one, especially in this part of the country’ curiously put forth his question.

Vishnu expected this question and it was just a matter of time for him to answer. ‘My father sent me to the nearby town when I was a kid and thanks to him – I received both western education and Vedic instructions. Family circumstances made me to quit university and return to my village to take care of this temple. My ancestors took care of this village and now it is my turn to show my respect and gratitude by serving the Lord’ answered without any trace of guilt or remorse in his tone. As the visitor intently listened to the priest’s words, he closed his eyes and started contemplating his words for a few moments. Vishnu sat by the pillar and waited for the visitor to ask his next question. It’s been a very long time since he spoke to anybody about his life and his sudden turn of events. There were days when he spent most of his time in meditating or silently contemplating on his life when no villager visited the temple. But today’s intrusion was more than welcome as there was a company to talk to.

The visitor opened his eyes and looking at the eyes of the priest he asked, ‘You are an educated person and as I see, there are no jobs that befit your education in this part of the country. Why didn’t you move to the town and find a comfortable life up there?’

Vishnu gently nodded his head and giving one precious little smile he looked at the deity for a minute and answered his question. ‘Educated? Hmmm… It is not just me who is educated in this village, Mr. John. Every single villager is educated. Our schools of thought might differ but the underlying concept is very much the same. Our people may not seem to be educated if looked from your point of view. But you see, we live here in the middle of this dense forest and we have defined our lives our own way. It may be foolish to gauge us as either educated or rustics if you measure by your yardstick. Each villager here knows the purpose of his life. I was not sent to town to obtain university degree and seek a comfortable life in towns. I was sent to find purpose in my life – to gain knowledge on both social and spiritual front so that I can come back to my roots and help my people.” “I agree. But that does make you a happy person? Can I have a life like yours when I go back to England?” inquisitively asked the visitor.

“I did not get a university degree but I found my purpose. As a priest, it is my duty to conduct the puja and pray for the welfare of my people. When I pray for prosperity of my villagers, I receive immunity from the Lord from being poisoned by such materialistic desires. I was taught to find happiness with whatever I have. I escaped the town before it put a price tag on my soul and thus the flowers of happiness with little thorns of privation adorn the valley of my life. John, I am neither a saint nor a man of words. Honestly, I think you’ll find your life’s purpose when you are with your people. Find your roots and lead a contended life. I shall pray for the Lord’s blessings for you.” With rapt attention the visitor was listening to every single word the priest spoke. There was neither displeasure nor happiness to his words. He occasionally nodded his head and as the priest finished his talk, the visitor quietly settled down in one corner of the hall, closed his eyes and mentally repeated the priest’s answer.

As the visitor started meditating, Vishnu got up and walked into the sanctum sanctorum and prayed for the visitor’s welfare. The End

Contributing Story Teller Avinash Iyer, works as a Research Analyst for an Energy Consulting Group in Chennai, India. Avid reader & deeply interested in religion & spirituality. avinashiyer.p@gmail.com

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