Friday, October 21, 2011

Shani Shinganapur - A village with no doors or locks!

During our visit to Shirdi a few months ago, we  decided impulsively to visit Shani Shinganapur which is about  76 kms from there. Having heard a lot about how Shani Maharaj had chosen to come to Shani Shinganapur and how because of his grace, the people of Shinganapur stay fearless and do not bother to have doors in their homes, we were really excited about our trip.

So we set off at about 5 am in the morning and after a brief stop at a roadside hotel, to have delicious Puri Baaji and Poha, we reached Sonai. There is a toll gate a few kilometres away from the temple. When our vehicle slowed down at the toll plaza, we were startled to find two men on a motorbike knocking on the raised window panes. We did not roll down the window fearing they would mean harm.

The vehicle started rolling out of the toll plaza, but the men would not stop following us. In fact, the pillion rider was urging the driver to overtake our vehicle and ask us to stop. We were four women in the car and it was Holi Day, so we started getting worried. Since I was the only one among us who spoke Hindi, my friend asked me to instruct the driver to stop the vehicle to see what these men were up to. When we did just that, the pillion rider asked his friend too to stop the bike, and walked over to our car. He pulled out a visiting card and came to the window. Gingerly I rolled down the window a few centimetres. He put the visiting card inside and said " Behenji, aap mere Dookan mein aake pooja ka saman khareediye, address card pe hai" (Please come and buy the materials required for worship from my shop, the address is on the card).
One of the shops selling pooja materials
Goodness, Gracious! He almost had us screaming. We rolled the window up and went into the parking lot a few metres across to the temple. The parking lot also has several rows of shops all selling gingelly oil in all quantities and packaging, and various other pooja materials like flowers, betel leaves and so on. We started walking towards the temple. Again, there were several vendors inviting us to buy pooja materials from their shop. We stopped at one, and bought gingelly oil for pouring over the swayambu Shani Maharaj.

Several people were going towards the temple with wet saffron clothered clothes after taking a dip at Panasnala. The entrance to the temple, just like any other house in the village has no doors and is open 24 hours of the day. The huge temple complex is extremely clean and there are several facilities for devotees like a reception center, book stall, drinking water facilities etc.
The corridor that leads into the temple

One of the major features in this temple is that instructions and guidance for devotees is available in English, apart from Hindi and Marathi, which is not a common feature in other parts of Maharashtra. In fact in Nasik and Panchavati, when I tried to find literature on the history of the temples I could not find anything in English.

After checking in at the reception counter about the protocol for worship at the temple, we went inside and joined the queue. There were two seperate queues - one for those with wet clothes and the other for the others, which I thought made a lot of sense. Men with wet clothes were allowed to get on to the platform and pour the oil over the swayambu Shani Bhagavan themselves. As far as women are considered, we had to be satisfied with handing over the oil to the Panditji wearing black shirt and dhoti, who after pouring the oil we had brought on to the statue of Shani Maharaj, gave us a little oil from the shiny black stone which is considered as the Swayambu form of Shani Maharaj as prasad.
The magnificient Shani Maharaj in open air

I stood in awe watching the magnificient Shani Maharaj as he stood in open air. Buckets of oil were being poured on to him by hundreds of devotees who queue up throughout the day and he accepts all the offerings gracefully. At that exact moment, when I was in complete concentration, the harathi started. With the drums and bells going off, an old panditji sang
" Om Nilanjana Samabhasam, Raviputram Yamagrajam
   Chhaya Martand Sambhutam, Tam Namami Shanaishwaram"

The devotees chanted Jai Shani Deva as the harathi was performed and the air was electric with the fervour of devotion. How did Shani Maharaj come here in this form and what makes Shani Shingnapur so unique?

Arrival of Shani Maharaj at Shinganapur:
Shani Maharaj (Photo Courtesy: Shanaishwar Devasthan)

About 350 years ago, there was heavy rain in this area, and in the rain water this huge black slab (5 1/2 feet high and 1 1/2 feet wide) came floating. As the water flowed, the stone got stuck in the roots of a large berry tree. Once the water drained, some cattle grazers saw the stone, When they tried to dislodge it from the roots by prodding the stone, blood started oozing from it. The shocked cattle grazers ran away. That night Shanidev appeared in the dream of a villager and told him that he had decided to stay in that form in Shinganapur and that he could only be lifted out by those who were uncle and nephew in relation and carried in a bullock cart with black bullocks. When the villagers tried to get the stone idol out,they could not carry it any further and so decided to install it where it stood.

Unique Features of Shinganapur:

1. No shelter over Shani Maharaj - As per the instructions received from Shani Maharaj himself, there is no roof or temple built over his idol. 

2. No doors or locks in houses - The most unique feature in Shingnapur that differentiated this village from any other place in the world is that there are no doors or locks to houses. The villagers firmly believe that Shani Maharaj protects them from thieves and wrong doers and they only have door frames and curtains in the place of doors and locks. There are several stories narrated by local villagers about how nobody in the village would dare to make an attempt to steal other's property and also about how when some outsiders have made an attempt to steal they have been punished by Shani Maharaj.
Only curtains in place of doors in Shingnapur
Photo Courtesy: Travel Sulekha
3. No branches grow over the Moolasthan - There was a neem tree that grew near the Moolasthan but everytime a branch grew near Shani Maharaj it would automatically break and fall down. Few years ago, this tree fell and another fig tree has grown there. This too does not extend its branches upto the idol.

4. Water poured over the idol is cure for snakebite - In case of any incident of snakebite in the village, all that the villagers do is to bring the person in white clothes to the temple. A male relative in wet clothes performes abhishekam to the idol and the water is given to the person to drink. In a couple of hours, the person regains consciousness and is not affected by the poison.

5. Shani Maharaj's palanquin- Devotees worship Shani Maharaj's palanquin placed closed to the Moolasthan which has a huge wooden slipper in it. Several shops sell miniatures of this wooden slipper that people buy and take home as talisman.

6. Lamp that burns 24*7 - There is a lamp that burns through day and night in front of the moolasthan. 

The temple also has the Samadhi of Udasi Baba who stayed in Shingnapur for many years and worshipped Shani Maharaj.
An idol of Shivaji Maharaj in the temple complex
Maharashtra still shows a lot of love and respect for Chhatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj that can well be seen from the statues and idols found in several places. The temple too has a large idol of Shivaji Maharaj outside it.

Contact Details :

Shri Shanaishwar Devasthan
Shani Shinganapur, Sonai Post,
Newasa Taluk, Ahmednagar Dist
Maharashtra - 414105

Adequate accomodation and boarding facilities are available around the temple. For further information on route to Shani Shinganapur, the history of the temple, festivals, donations, pooja information etc. do check out the Official Website of the Temple.

After a divine experience at the Shani Maharaj Temple, we started on our way back to Shirdi. It was around noon then and what better way to quench our thirst than have fresh fresh Ganne ka Ras (Sugarcane Juice) extracted in an absolutely unique fashion. Check it out!
Bullocks being used to extract Sugarcane Juice in Shani Shingnapur

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bhikshalaya - A Tale of Everlasting Friendship & Devotion

The Beautiful Thungabadra River as seen in Bhikshalaya

One cannot narrate the Ramayana without mention of Shri Hanuman. Similarly, the life history of Sri Raghavendra swamy cannot be narrated without mention of his beloved friend and disciple, Appanacharya. Today millions of people in the world, offer prayers to Sri Raghavendra by chanting

"Poojyaya Raghavendraya Satyadharma Rathayacha Bhajathaam
Kalpavrukshaya Namathaam Kamadhena ve"

This sloka has been rendered by Appanacharya as part of the Guru Raghavendra Stothram that explains the greatness of the Guru and the benefits that one can get by worshipping him and , what better way to end the slokham than Sri Raghavendra himself completing the last line - "sākṣī hayāsyo’tra hi |" from inside the Moola Brindavanam.

There are several versions being narrated about how Appanacharya and Sri Raghavendra met. Some say that they knew each other from the time Appana had come to Kumbakonam to pursue his studies and some others say that they met only when Sri Raghavendra Swamy came to Maanchaalam Village (the present day Mantralayam). But there is no denying the fact that he spent several months and years at Bhikshalaya in close company of his dear friend Appanacharya.

A recent day addition - Statue of Sri Raghavendra Swamy with
Appanacharya at Bhikshalaya
Appanacharya was a great teacher those days and used to teach his students on the banks of the River Thungabadra under a huge peepal tree which has since fallen. His students used to go around the village to get Bhiksha (Rice). All the rice so received would be tied into a bundle with cloth and hung on the branch of the Peepal tree. At lunch time, the bundle would be opened and through the power of Appanacharya's knowledge and Bhakthi (Devotion) that emanated from him as he taught, the rice would have got completely cooked, ready to be consumed. This is why the place came to be called "Bhiksha - a - laya" (Laya means fire and a laya is without fire - Since rice got cooked without fire, this place came to be known as Bhikshalaya)

When Sri Raghavendra came to Maanchalam Village seeking his permanent abode there, he seems to have been drawn to Bhikshalaya for two reasons - One to worship the idols installed by his predecessors and the other, the true love and devotion of Appanacharya.

While Sri Raghavendra was in Bhikshalaya, he worshipped the Hanuman that had been installed by him in his previous birth - when he was Vyasaraja Theerthar, the Raja Guru of King Krishnadevaraya. The Hanuman still stands as part of the temple complex.
The Hanuman installed by Sri Vyasaraja and
worshipped by Sri Raghavendra Swamy
The other two noteable idols still preserved carefully and worshipped are Sri Narasimhaswamy installed by Sripadharaja Theerthar, the VidyaGuru of Sri Vyasaraja and Lakshmi Narayana Idol supposedly installed by Sri Raghavendra himself. Both these idols are beautiful and one can spend hours concentrating in front of them.
The Narasimha Idol is so realistic, with Hiranyakasipu on his lap.
Narasimha Swamy at Bhikshalaya
And so is the Lakshmi Narayana- A combination of Lakshmi and Narayana are found on the same stone and there are three anklets on the right leg and two on the left !
Lakshmi Narayana 
Sri Raghavendra Swamy stayed with his friend Appanacharya and taught the students under the Peepal tree. In fact, they say the base of the tree used to be like a Kurmasana where Sri Raghavendra Swamy would sit and teach the students while Appana sat near his feet, listening with devotion to the words of his Guru.
The Eka Shila Brindavana at Bhikshalaya now stands at the exact spot where Sri Raghavendra Swamy taught his students due to which the place was called Japadhakatte during his time.
The beautiful Eka Shila Brindavana at Bhikshalaya
Appanacharya used to accompany Sri Raghavendra Swamy wherever he went in that region. As the decision to enter Moola Brindavana was made, and the day grew near, Sri Raghavendra swamy sent Appanacharya away, since he felt that overwhelmed by devotion and love for his beloved master, Appana would not be able to bear to watch his Guru enter Jeeva Samadhi. Although Appana was in Bhikshalaya (which is across the river Thungabadra from Mantralaya and could be reached by ferry in those days) he was restless and wanted to be with his master.

When the news about his Guru attaining Jeeva Samadhi reached him, he was in a psychic state and ran on the banks of Tungabadra wanting to cross the river which was in spate at that time, chanting slokas in praise of his Master which is now known as the Guru Stothram. As he sang "śrīpūrṇabodhagurutīrthapayobdhipārā" weeping in devotion and love and desperate to be with his Master, the river Thungabadra parted giving way for Appanacharya to reach the other side.

He ran as fast as his legs could carry him across the river that had parted on either side and reached the site where his master was entering Jeeva Samadhi. As he reached, chanting the Guru Stothra, praising the glory of his master, he found that Sri Raghavendra had already sat inside the samadhi and the brindavana had been raised. In shock and grief, he stood frozen, the sloka stopping in mid-sentence. Sri Raghavendra Swamy completed the sloka from inside the Moola Brindavanam saying that "Lord Hayagreeva is witness for all that had been described in the Sloka".

The Guru asked Appanacharya not to feel sorry that His physical presence would no longer be available with him and asked him to continue his academic and spiritual contributions. Appanacharya built the Eka Shila Brindavana at the exact location where Sri Raghavendra taught the students and worshipped it for his life time. The Brindavana still stands there in open air, weathering the natural elements, testimony to the life and times of Sri Raghavendra and Appanacharya. The difference between this brindavana and the others in the world (probably with the exception of Thanjavur) is that usually brindavanas are constructed with the sacred sand (Mrithigai) from the Moola Brindavana placed inside them, so that they have the same divinity and sanctity.

However, the Brindavana at Bhikshalaya does not have any Mrithigai inside it. It was the first Brindavana to be constructed outside the Moola Brindavana at Mantralaya, and the mere fact that it was built at a place which was so close to Sri Raghavendra's heart gives it its divinity.

Sri Appanacharya's house is close to the temple complex. It was turned to rubble during the floods in 2009. In fact several buildings crumbled, and roads and trees were greatly damaged during the floods. The huge bridge over the Thungabadra lay scattered in pieces after the flood.

Picture of the remains of Thungabadra Bridge taken by me few days after
the flood in 2009. You can also partially see the temporary floor bridge
with sand bag bunks created for commute
While huge pieces of modern day infrastructure crumbled, the Eka Shila Brindavana standing right on the banks of the Thungabadra stood as it is, even the idols around it, absolutely untouched. My heart broke, when I saw Appanacharya's house crumble.
Remains of Appanacharya's house after the floods - Picture taken
by me in 2009
However, the house is since being reconstructed and will soon be as good as new. Surprisingly, when the whole house fell victim to the floods, there was one portion that remained as it was.
Inside Appanacharya's house - Watch carefully
Inside Appanacharya's house, there was a small Hanuman idol worshipped by him and Sri Raghavendra. A Krishna Sarbha (Serpent) used to live in a hole beneath the wall and roam around the house. It is believed that once Sri Raghavendra told the serpent not to move around and frighten the young children (students) and the serpent turned to stone below the hanuman idol and was worshipped by the inmates of the house with reverence. While the whole house fell, the wall containing the Hanuman Idol and the Krishna Sarbha stood intact. Please see the picture where the remains of original construction ( white stone structure), with the new portions that are being built (cemented portion), are seen !!!

Appanacharya's house now being reconstructed
The house is now being reconstructed with donations from devotees who visit Bhikshalaya. I would humbly request all those of you who happen to have the grace and opportunity to visit this divine place, to participate generously in the construction activities to be able to put back a piece of history for the generations to come.

The place where Raghavendra Swamy slept
inside Appanacharya's house
The descendants of Sri Appanacharya's family clean and maintain the premises - the place where Sri Raghavendra Swamy stayed and slept is cordoned off and people go around it and offer their prayers. Appanacharya used to make Dal Chutney with his own hands and offer to his Master with love and devotion. The grinding stone and pestle that was part of Appanacharya's house earlier (before the floods) has now been brought to the Brindavana Complex and placed there permanently for the devotees to see.

When I had posted this picture in my facebook profile some time ago, one of my friends from another religion, made a comment that anyone who was fond of food could not have been a saint. I would like to record the answer I gave that person here, so that any others who are reading with similar thoughts in mind, are able to change their opinion.

Sri Raghavendra Swamy accepted the offering made by Appanacharya understanding his love and devotion, in the same way as he accepted the meat offered by the Nawab of Adoni by converting it to a form  (flowers) acceptable to him. He does not have any aversions or favourites - he is beyond all that.

Sudhama took a humble offering of Poha (Aval) to Lord Krishna and He accepted it understanding the devotion and love that came with it. Similarly in the case of Appanacharya and Sri Raghavendra Swamy, the latter accepted the Dal chutney that Appana made so lovingly with his own hands understanding the emotions of his friend.
Several Naga Patterns found all over Bhikshalaya
To me, a visit to Mantralaya is seldom complete without visiting Bhikshalaya. Bhikshalaya is extremely special for me,  since it was here that I got a vision of Sri Raghavendra Swamy. It was way back in 2007 I think, probably the first time I was visiting Bhikshalaya with a camera in hand. As I shot pictures of the lovely Thungabadra in the setting sun, people bathing, sprinkling the water from the river on their heads etc. suddenly the vision I saw through the viewfinder, made me freeze.

In the middle of the rocks, I could see Sri Raghavendra Swamy sitting in saffron robes with his right hand raised, as if to bless me. I clicked a picture, and showed it to my dear friend and mentor, the person who first took me to Mantralaya, whom I call Chechi. She just froze in ecstasy with what she saw. Of course, when we downloaded the picture in its complete pixel size, it was a little difficult to get the complete image (probably it was a special moment with Him for just the two of us).

Nonetheless, I share the picture here with you. Please see the place where there is a triangle shaped rock is pointing towards the golden light. It was here, right here, that I had a vision of Sri Raghavendra Swamy. My eyes fill with tears of joy as I write this, and think of all his grace and the opportunity he has given me to share my experiences with all of you.

How to reach Bhikshalaya:

Bhikshalaya is about 20 kms from Mantralayam and can be reached by road or ferry from there. One can also reach Bhikshalaya from Raichur by road.

If you are going from Mantralayam, travel up the way to the railway station (Manthralayam Road). At the Madhavaram Junction, there are two roads one leading to Raichur and the other to Adoni. Take the road to Raichur. After crossing the Thungabadra Bridge (the new one) there will be another junction at Gile Sugur. Turning right will take you to Panchamukhi. Turn left and travel up the not-so-good road for 8 kms to reach Bhikshalaya. There are several share autos and private jeeps plying from Mantralayam to Bhikshalaya and one can easily reach there without spending a lot of money.

Sometimes, the road is cut off due to rains or floods and then the only way to reach Bhikshalaya or Bichale as it is commonly called in this part of the world, is by ferry. One has to walk for some distance after getting off the ferry at Bhikshalaya.

Contact Information:
Sri Ramachar,
Japadakatti Bikshalaya
Bichale Post, Raichur Distict - 584140
Ph: 08532 - 204108
Mobile : 098858 53864 or 098857 61787
The Eka Shila Brindavana with the Padukas
of Sri Raghavendra Swamy in front of it

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