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The Story of the Temple

Here’s the story of the famous temple in South India where people celebrate their 60th, 70th, 75th, and 80th birthdays, and where we celebrated my dad’s 70th birthday. There once lived a sage who was a great devotee of Shiva. Every day he would joyfully offer his prayers to Shiva. One day however the sage was a little downcast when doing his daily poojas. Shiva appeared before him and asked him why he was not his usual happy self. The sage told Shiva that he had no children and that was the cause of his misery. Shiva smiled and blessed him with a baby boy. But he warned the sage that the boy would only live till the age of sixteen. The sage was ecstatic and he named the boy Markandeya. When the boy turned five, his father taught him how to do Shiva pooja. The boy prayed to Lord Shiva every day without fail. When he was going to turn sixteen, his distraught parents told him that his end was near.

On his 16th birthday, Markandeya was praying to Shiva when Yama, the god of death came for him. Yama told Markandeya that his time was up and that he had to go with him. Markandeya ignored him and continued with his pooja. Yama repeatedly called the boy but he refused to go with him. Yama, livid with rage, took his noose and threw it around the boy. Unfortunately, Yama’s noose fell over Shiva’s idol. Shiva flew into a rage and annihilated Yama.

Shiva granted Markandeya the boon of immortality, so he would stay 16 forever. Markandeya was so grateful to Shiva that he travelled from one Shiva temple to another singing 16 verses in praise of Shiva. The last temple which also happened to be the 108th temple he visited was Thirukadaiyur. “Kadaisi” means last in Tamil. The deity in this temple is Shiva accompanied by Markandeya and a vanquished Yama underfoot. Abirami, Shiva’s consort is flanked by Saraswati, the goddess of learning, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Right across from the deity is a shrine for Yama.

The story goes that after Yama was vanquished, there were no deaths on earth, but the births continued unabated. Mother Earth went running to Lord Shiva lamenting that the burden was too much for her to bear. She begged Shiva to do something. Shiva in his infinite mercy released Yama and gave him back his powers. With Yama back in his post, births and deaths were balanced out and Mother Earth heaved a sigh of relief.

The number 16 shows up in the temple quite often. They performed 16 homams for my Dad’s 70th birthday. Sixteen kalashams or pots of water were poured on my parents. The priests recited the 16 verses composed by Markandeya and we had to do 16 namaskarams or prostrations. The belief is that people who visit this temple will also be granted a long, happy, and prosperous life. And I do wish that for my parents and for my aunts and uncle who accompanied us.


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An Unforgettable Trip

My father just celebrated a milestone birthday. On March 1st he turned 70. Ten years ago I had flown down from Boston with hopes of celebrating my grandma’s 80th birthday and my Dad’s 60th birthday back to back. But that was not to be, my grandma passed away a day shy of her 80th birthday and her cake didn’t get any candles and was never cut. We couldn’t celebrate my Dad’s birthday in a big way. It was just a quiet lunch with immediate family and one close friend from his Monfort school days.

I had  planned to go home for Papa’s 70th birthday. I hadn’t been home since we moved back from India after living there for a year. Two and a half years. I was so ready to go home to my parents. I ended up going alone because the kids had school and couldn’t take off for two weeks.

I took a day off from work to go shopping for gifts. After several hours spent wandering around the mall and its menagerie of shops, I still couldn’t find one gift befitting the occasion. So I settled for several smaller gifts. Books, a t-shirt that said “Papa” and a stash of letters addressed to “My Incredible Dad.” You see he is always asking me to write letters and I can never find time to sit down and write to him except when I’m waiting at airports to board a flight.

When I landed in Chennai, the city gave me its usual stinky welcome and I was on sensory overload for the next two weeks. The food had an exotic taste to it (although I pretty much cooked the same thing back in the U.S.). The vivid colors, the crowds, the noise engulfed me and so did the love of my parents. With the kids and my brother absent, I was the sole object of their affection! And how I basked in it.

I gave my Dad one gift every day up until his birthday. I baked a chocolate cake for him, that didn’t turn out as well as I wanted it to. (Note to self: Bring high quality cocoa powder from the U.S. next time.) But it was consumed in two days and I’m guessing my parents loved it.

My dear friend N came down from Pondicherry a day before my Dad’s birthday. Since her birthday had just passed we decided to celebrate with a black forest cake. The girl loves Italian, so we walked down to “Little Italy’s” and stuffed ourselves with garlic bread, lasagna, and gnocchi. My Dad treated us to ice cream at Amadova. We ended up eating “Bournvita” flavored ice cream to counter our over indulgence but ended up too stuffed for our own good. Suffice to say the walk back home was surprisingly long and hard.

On March 1st I gave my Dad the stash of letters, an Origami card from his granddaughter, and a card and some NC chocolates from my friend at work. My Dad’s friend from his school days (the same one who came down to celebrate his 60th birthday) showed up with a humungous chocolate cake and other gifts. My mom and I made puris and potatoes (my Dad’s favorite), curd rice, grated carrots, paneer curry, fried mushrooms, and fried rice for lunch. N left for Pondicherry after lunch.

In the evening, we put two candles (7 and 0) on the cake and had my Dad cut it. We all took turns feeding him cake. His friend, ever playful, tried to put cake all over Papa’s face but only succeeded in smearing some on his cheek. His nephew came over to pick him up later that evening. I have to say that some friends are one in a million and once you find a friend like that you hold onto them for rest of your life. And Uncle V is definitely such a friend. Even my friend N, who reads people like she’s a psychic, could tell he is special.

Next day, it was my turn to be graced by a visit from my friend from school. J and I ended up giggling like school girls and then she took me out to have some Indo-Chinese fare with her lovely daughters. I stuffed myself with chop suey, gobi Manchurian, chilli mushroom and fried rice. The girls insisted on ordering fried ice cream – a desert I had heard of but had never sampled. The verdict? I loved it and would definitely order it again.

After a couple of days my aunt flew down from Mumbai. Papa and I rode the metro rail to receive her at the airport. I have to say the station and the trains were cleaner than the New York metro. It was not crowded and shined like new. The white straps hanging from the top of the train to my great surprise weren’t grimy or grey.

The next morning my aunt and uncle came down from Kerala. My parents had bought sarees for all of us and we went shopping for matching blouses that evening. Again you can spend hours in saree shops looking at all the lovely weaves, hues, and designs. But we had rush back home and pack for our big trip the next day.

After packing way too much food (which we didn’t end up eating) we left early next morning for Thirukadaiyur, a temple town famous for celebrating 60th, 70th, 75th, and 80th birthdays. Six hours and many kilometers later we reached there safely, thanks to a driver who didn’t feel the need to race against time. After resting for a bit, we proceeded to the temple for the 1st set of poojas. (Look out for my next blog post on the story behind the temple.)

My dad and mom exchanged garlands while the nadaswaram and drums played and escorted them to the place where the priests were waiting for us. Sixteen homams had to be done and some of them were done that evening. The next day we were back at the temple at 8.00 a.m. where my parents garlanded each other again to the accompaniment of the drums and nadaswaram as is the custom at Hindu weddings. After a few more poojas and homams we proceeded to pour 16 pots of water on them. My mom shivered as the cold water hit her. After they changed into dry clothes, they garlanded each other again and we all sought their blessings. The very same day we returned back to Chennai and the next day I had to return back to the U.S. My whirlwind trip had come to an end.

Now that I’m back, the whole trip is like a blur. But I remember my mom’s soft idlis and sambar, my dad rubbing tiger balm on my swollen feet, my aunt letting me sleep on her lap when we were driving back to Chennai, my other aunt stitching a blouse for my daughter, and my uncle packing idols of Ganesha for me and staying up with me when I couldn’t sleep due to jet lag. I remember the unconditional love that only parents can give you and the sweet embrace of my friends. I will cherish this trip for years to come and I hope and pray that I get to spend many such precious moments with my parents and my extended family and friends.


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Fall in Paradise

MtRainierPic (3) Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees – John Muir

A long weekend in the middle of October is a great time to do all things fall. Like a trip to the pumpkin patch and a drive up to the Cascade mountains to catch some fall colors. We headed to the pumpkin patch on a cloudy day interspersed with rain. The pumpkin patch had pumpkins in all shapes and sizes. The kids picked three pumpkins – a large, a medium and a small (for N’s pumpkinology school project). We loaded them up in a wheel barrow which N had a swell time pushing around. The farm also offered hay rides in a wagon pulled by an old tractor. We took a bumpy ride around the farm with its apple trees, pumpkin patches and dried up sunflowers from the summer. The farm also had lavender plants from which they bottled lavender oil, available for purchase at the store. There were some old-fashioned water pumps in the farm that were set up for rubber duck races. N enjoyed pumping water at the pump, with the water gushing down little horizontal chutes. Goes without saying that my kids felt they were too old for rubber duck races! Too old to stick their heads through wooden pumpkins for pictures. We were all cold and wet and hungry after our trip to the farm. So we headed off to Bamboo Garden for some Hot and Sour soup, fried rice, Mongolian chicken, Szechuan veggies and Manchurian. The warm meal lulled us into a torpor and we all dozed off when we got home. The next day was our big trip to Mount Rainier. P was to buy some snacks and veggie burgers for the trip but I was in an unusually good mood and wanted to make everything – including the snacks. I made veggie cutlets, crispy murukku, apple pie and mixed nuts for the trip. MtRainierPic (1) The next day we rose early and headed out by 7.00 a.m. The roads were free and we made it in good time. We saw a rainbow as we were driving through perfectly straight rows of evergreens that fringed the roads. The Cascade mountains showed up in the horizon – black and austere. As we neared the park entrance, Mount Rainier appeared – aloof, majestic and snowcapped. Our first stop was at Christine falls, right by the side of the road. We then drove to the Jackson visitor center in Paradise, which offered a really stunning view of Mount Rainier. The summit was seldom free of cloud cover but we did manage to get some pictures of the cloud-free peak. Armed with trail maps, we headed off to see Myrtle falls, which was a short hike through the meadows  in Paradise. The wildflowers were long gone but the meadows were dressed in different hues of red and yellow. MtRainierPic (4) Near the 72-foot Myrtle falls, is a little bridge over the Paradise River and we went under the bridge to touch the ice-cold water. The last waterfall we saw in the park was the spectacular Narada falls, named after the Hindu sage Narada. The early settlers thought the falls had a spiritual connection. It connected the earth and the heavens much like sage Narada did. MtRainierPic (8) We drove to the Reflections Lake and hiked around its perimeter with Mount Rainier in the background. The lake was surrounded by trees that were changing color. Parts of the lake were still and reflected the trees and the clouds above. Some of the pictures we took here look like picture postcards. All that walking got us hungry and we went to the Paradise Picnic area to eat veggie burgers and chips with juice and coffee – with a perfect view of the ever changing Mount Rainier. Later while watching the film on Mount Rainier at the visitor center, we realized that the engineers had built the roads and the buildings to offer the best views of the mountain. MtRainierPic (10) After lunch we headed off to see Nisqually Glacier which was a short 1.2 mile hike (or so we thought). We ended up on the wrong trail and kept going for more than an hour until my legs burned. But the trail kept going on and on. We reached the Deadhorse (believe me I felt like one!) Creek trail before we realized we were not on the right trail. It was too late to turn back so we kept going until we reached Glacier Vista (elevation 6340 feet) which offered an amazing view of the glacier, falls and the valley below. At this point I was freezing – hat, gloves, double jacket and all! N and P wanted to continue up the trail to see Mount Rainier up and close. I was dreading the walk back downhill so I stayed put with A. There was some snow off to the side of the road so A played with it. She found a tiny snowman that fell apart when she touched it. She put it back together as best she could. Meanwhile, N and P reached a snow-covered road and took some great pictures with the magnificent Mount Rainier in the background. The hike back down was steep and painful and I doubted I’d make it before my legs collapsed under me. But I made it and we enjoyed some apple pie before catching the 20-minute film at the visitor center. Boy was I surprised to hear that Mount Rainier was an active volcano with steam vents at the summit. I had told my kids it was dormant, given its snow-white and innocent demeanor. The park boasted numerous glaciers and I was glad we were able to see one of these ice rivers. There was obviously more to the park than we explored (235,625 acres to be precise). The Great Patriarch Forest with its huge ancient trees was worth exploring but considering the plight of my muscles hip-down, we put off all further exploration for later. The kids got their first-ever junior ranger badges from the park ranger. It was a big deal, with oaths and all. Almost like being knighted! Almost. We picked up some souvenirs from the gift shop and headed home. The drive home was quiet, with the kids sleeping, but the traffic we missed in the morning came back to bite us. All in all, it was a day well-spent, in the mountains, breathing in the fresh air, drinking glacial water and away from it all. When we got lost while hiking, or it started raining and we had no where to go, I knew we had to give up all control and just submit to Nature. Because up here in the mountains She was in charge. If I had collapsed during the hike downhill we didn’t even have cellphone coverage to call for help. I had to simply trust and go down one step at a time.

Where will you go this fall? Make a trip away from it all and witness the magic of wilderness.