Milk Man of Chiplun!

 

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When you think of Milk man one always thinks of  Mr Verghese Kurien who created Amul brand in Anand Gujarat, who brought a milk revolution in India. This milk man of whom I’am writing is of Chiplun  somebody unique. I have had milk from all over places I have travelled, but the cows milk from Nandu Sheth shop is something different so  pure in its content, the taste lingers on in the mouth after mixing it with coffee, tea, milkshake etc , purity  of milk enhances the taste of the base drink. He gets quality milk purely through his various connections owning cows, he doesn’t own a cow shed though! This Nandu sheth born and  and brought up in Chiplun,  is multigeneration settled , belonging to vysya community

Though not much educated he could have been an engineer, architect, a teacher, lawyer, a saint etc had he taken education in the stream. He started business with rupees 5000 in his pocket being a panwala  first, he moved his vocations, trades and success followed him everywhere. He was man with the golden arm , whatever  he touched the end result was golden success. One main reason for steady fast success was a sincerity in pursuit and great belief in himself.

 

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Nandu Sheth behind the counter, on left.

He cultivated friends in various walks of life like police, justice, municipal corporations, government offices etc. he  was everybody’s buddy and man of the hour. People in chiplun would run to him in difficulties to get solve their intricate situations and he did not disappoint them. Once he freed his brother caught in a blast case , wrongly implicated by his friends. His business soared and he bought several shops in the main Chiplun market for himself and near relatives. He ran a successful hotel with  many  helpers. With changing times he let go hotel business for  want of good hands. People also called him Nandu Halwai for he was famous for preparing different types of unique sweets. He also prepares icecream from his designed machineries. People from as far as Bombay place orders for jalebis. On National holidays  and festivals , he hardly gets time to sneeze!.

His famous shelf product is Appus extract which is cent percent pure  concentrate of mango pulp with no preservatives, no sugar too. He removes pulp with the help of machine, boils to 105 degrees and bottles them;  the bottles boiled in hot water at high temperature and  metal caped when filled. This product is in demand in US and Europe, all advertised by word of mouth. Nandu sheth also told me how this product is purchased by  unscrupulous business people who dilute mango pulp with papaya extract, add sugar to maintain taste and sell in markets at higher price!

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one of his worker in front of Ganesh Idol with bottled mango extracts in the shelf behind.

He is not  religious nor a God fearing person, though he has an idol of lord Ganesh in his shop, he believes in hard work and sincerity. For him nature is God, he told me of Himalayas as face of Shiva, mighty rivers like Ganga and tributaries as Shivas “jhata” or matted hair, I could not agree with him less. He has three daughters who are well settled in life , he gave them the lessons he learnt in life, absolute freedom to choose their path, to the extent their husbands too! though they didn’t,  they just  adore their father to the maximum.

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One of the tourist place visited this time was Velneshwar Shiva  temple at Velneshwar beach, 50 kms from Chiplun through winding countryside dotted with paddy fields, vegetable gardens and coconut trees. Fisher folks pray at this temple before embarking on their fishing trip. Velneshwar village is considered to be the root of the clans of Gokhale, Savarkar, Gadgil, Tulpule who participated in India’s freedom struggle and gone on to be great individuals of our Nation.

The temple visit ended with the capture of a beautiful setting Sun on Velneshwar beach.

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Ramanavi Jatra at Belapur Gaon!

Ramanavi Jatra at Belapur Gaon!

 

Giant ferry wheels, Sweets of all colours, Merry go round, sale of different types of wigs, plastic bangles, imitation ear and nose jewellery , incessant blowing of plastic horns and  the rustic kusthis are the trade mark of all the fairs but to expect them to appear at  Ram temple  Belapur  on Ramnavi  that too for just for a day is something unique to this place which has been happening since  hundred years!

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Ram Navami is one of India’s major Hindu festivals. It celebrates the arrival of the Hindu deity Vishnu’s seventh avatar, Ram, on earth. Ram Navami is the ninth and last day of the Chaitra Navaratri festival. The Ram Mandir, located inside the Belapur village, is more than 150 years old and one of the oldest in Thane and Navi Mumbai, celebrates the festival for a week with the keertans taking place every evening, the old peepal tree near the bank of the pond  Amruteshwar,  provides shade to the entire temple complex and stands  as a silent testimony of bygone days. This particular spot was also graced by Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba during the salt satyagraha time, Murli Sonthake one of the gaons earliest inhabitant’s  sister is the witness to the Gandhis appearance.”Keertan ” as is called is performing art of presenting sayings from  good books and mythological literature along with  music, dance, humor, etc. In the good old days due to scarce means of transport and communications, the performers called Keertankars use to travel a lot, town to town and place to place over long periods and offer performances  to enlighten the people. All over India this form of devotion is still live and prevalent in one form or another.

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Just the night before Ramnavami as I was passing through the lake area , I was attracted by the renderings of a divine voice which  I  could not ignore, I took a little detour and in trying to catch the mellifluous voice  I found myself in front of a man with stately look, his head turbaned in red cloth, and clothed in  white from shoulder to legs. He was not bothered by the crowd around him, with his arms  up with cymbals in tune with tabla , harmonium; his voice creating waves of sublime devotion ; the audience were moving their heads and claps in unison , it was  kirtans  being rendered by Vinod Bhuva Kond from Nagpur along with a table and harmonium players. The performance was taking place at the stage erected under the big banyan tree in front of Ram, Maruti and Shiva temple.

He started with hymns praising lord Vithal and Rakumai, interspersed with virtues of living a simple life and how a simple dal rice and Junka bhakar satiates a human being more than a many course meals! Similarly a bhakti is what that is desired by the divinity rather than empty talks and  alms giving with a malicious intention. In spiritual terms bhakti means intense  spiritual love and devotion to god, true devotion is a kind of divine madness and total indifference to worldly matters, it is intense yearning of soul to become free of phenomenal existence, it rises in a mind that is stabilized by one pointed intelligence and purified in the  fire of virtues and divine qualities. He gave the example of Sant Tukaram in  his devotion to Panduranga and Mirabai to lord Krishna!. Later he narrated the story of Raka kumbhar and Baka bai whose profession was making the earthen pots. They were pious devotees of Vittal- Rakumai. They never wasted any opportunity of taking panduranga’s name to the extent that even when smoothening the mixture of mud and water, a process before making of pots, they used to sing bajans in praise and uttering vittalas name with each pounding of their feet. As usual one day they prepared hundreds of pots and lined them over each other in readiness of baking them which would harden the pots to be of use later. Hence the fire was lit and in no time it engulfed the whole area of pots. In the meanwhile a mother cat which had given birth to couple of kittens, hid them in one of the mounds of pot protecting them from male cat, which sometime kills its own offspring as per the strange nature of all cat family which includes Lions and Tigers! may be due to stress and various other reasons. All this happened without the knowledge of Raka. When the mother cat saw a huge fire and smoke engulfing all the pots, it became very restless and out of motherly instincts was pacing up and down the area frantically and started meowing loudly near the legs of Raka as if to take some action in saving the kittens. Raka did not understand all this chaos initially; it came to his knowledge only after his little daughter suggested perhaps the cat has hidden her kittens somewhere. All of a sudden Raka realized the gravity of the situation and he was filled with remorse of killing the kittens; for a person who would not dare to kill a mosquito out of piety, this seemed too much and in anguish he prayed for vittala and understanding the pain of the mother cat, he said that he had committed a great sin by doing wrong to a mother cat. There was no way he could even remove those pots to check in which pot the kittens were there and take them out. He then cried to Vitthal as to why he didn’t caution him earlier about the kittens . Raka then thought that if god could save Prahalad when he was put in fire by his father, and when god could save Sita when she entered in to fire, why can’t he save these kittens. He then prayed to god and said that if the kittens are alive when the baking is over, he would leave everything in this materialistic world and go the forest and spend his time meditating, chanting and in the service of god. Thus for three days the fire was on in the process of baking the pots and during all these days not a morsel of food or water was taken by the family of Raka. After the fire subsided and when all the pots glistened in the sun , Raka reluctantly removed every pots and  look inside with bated breath , Suddenly he found one pot as it is, remaining wet and unbaked, his joy knew no bounds as the kittens suddenly ran towards their mother,  Looking at this, Raka was very happy and felt that his bhakthi was true and also realized how kind benevolent Vitthal was. So as promised by him earlier, he left everything and decided to go to the forest. His wife and daughter too wanted to accompany him and told him that like how Pandurangan is Raka’s god, Raka is their god and insisted that she will go with him to the forest. Raka finally agreed and  started their journey. They  were forever chanting and singing the praise of god. They would not even go to the villages to ask for food. They would live on fruits and leaves that they could get in the forest and get immersed in their bhajans and chanting’s.

Little did they know that there would be another round of faith test!, an outcome of argument between Vittala and Rakumai as to who is who is the greater and prime bhakt between Namdeo and Raka Kumbar; Rakumai  thought Namdeo, which Vittala disputed;to set aside the little disagreement among themselves, Vittala threw his Golden bracelet in the path of Raka. Raka noticed this shining bracelet  on their way. Though he was not interested in money or jewels, he thought that his wife being a lady may get interested in the jewel and try to take it. So he took some mud and covered it. Baka was looking at this and was wondering why her husband was covering something with mud. Baka then went there and tried to uncover what Raka had covered in the mud. She then found the glittering bracelet and threw it in a pond nearby. She then asked her husband why he had covered a stone under the mud. Seeing this Vitthal, Rakumai  and Namdev appeared before them. Even now Rukmani was saying that she knew some one who was better than Raka. Vitthal was surprised and asked who that was. Rakumai then replied that Raka at least knew that it was a golden bracelet and covered it under the mud, but when Baka looked at it, in spite of knowing the real worth of the bracelet, threw it in the water and so Baka was better than Raka. Raka then thanked Vitthal Rakumai  for having blessed them with their presence and also said that that Namdeo was a great  bhaktha and that he was in no way to be compared with Namdeo. Vitthal, Rakumai then left after blessing Raka, Baka and their daughter!.

Thus ended the evening keertan which I first thought would attend for a little while, but which ran into couple of hours!, I went home little lighter and wiser and eagerly looked forward to concluding keertans on Hanuman Jayanti, which would mark the end of Ram Navami’s week long celebrations

 

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On Ramnavami day the  area around Ram temple and the lake gave the appearance of rural settings with umpteen shops coming overnight , colourful festoons, flags, paper cutouts hanging from all corners and people coming in huge numbers to the temple. The local koli ladies young and old dressed in typical “nauvari” sarees added more colour to the atmosphere. The village women prayed to the golden idol, perched on a decorated cradle hung from the peepal tree in front of Ram Temple and at the precise hour the decorated swing holding the golden idol of the lord was carried forth by five married women from the village dressed in traditional attires to the sanctum santorium for elaborate poojas, what followed was further Keertans and bhajans by the locals and from outside Belapur.

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The evening was still magical with people coming from different places in Navi Mumbai and making token purchases from the umpteen stalls setup. Vendors from places like Delhi, Nasik, Sholapur and other places were trading their wares in gay abundance. There was a Kusthi programme too taking place in a corner adding more rustic touch. Giant merry-go rounds,and other gizmos were going full with local children riding. It was difficult to make a head count from a little distance as what appeared was a sea of humanity, participants being not only the Hindus, but Muslims and other religion people too joining the fun. This whole atmosphere gave a lesson of unity and communal harmony, and this place has hardly witnessed  any communal tensions. As the evening approached the whole area was looking magical with colorful lights making  appearance. With the late night approaching people were seen returning home happy and satisfied that they had their day; slowly hawkers were packing their unsold belongings, only to journey to their place from where they came ,   to come once again next year.

 

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Ramnavami celebrations would conclude at this Hanuman temple on Hanuman Jayanti

 

Sindh to Bombay- a timeless journey!

On  December 7th 2015 I got an opportunity to be a reader to Dr Nandlal Pribhdas Tolani who runs in his name a college in the suburbs of Mumbai, a Shipping company with decent number of ships sailing across the oceans and preparing the manpower to run his ships and other ships in the form of a well-known maritime Institute at Talegaon by the name of Tolani Maritime Institute , I did not know I would be associated with a Gentleman who was already a legend in his own way and come a long way from Sind ! and that I would be a mute observer to all his achievements. As  he was getting affected by acute macular degeneration, affecting the central part of retina, leaving him with only peripheral vision, an inherited condition from his father, he was dependent on somebody to read for him the newspapers, magazines and other reading materials. As days passed my reading hours increased, which I began to enjoy very much as his range of interests varied from reading newspapers to knowing more about astronomy, sailing, natural science, Geography , space, Galactic travel etc, I realized it was I who was getting lessons in finer aspects of gathering knowledge.

For him time was very important and I would arrive a couple of minutes earlier and wait for him outside his chamber, He would walk but needed the assistance of four legged walker for support. I saw his humbleness when courteously asking for “ Ek cup chai milega” on his desk phone to the pantry person pressing the dial buttons correctly and would immediately turn and ask me “ would you like to have too” very sincerely, it was then I realized how he made friends with all and spread warmth among diverse friends, it was difficult for anybody not to take his hand in friendship!

I never kept an eye on the clock in his company for I watched him minutely all through the day. He would quickly finish his lunch and call for me lest any time was wasted; such was his passion for reading and assimilating knowledge. Reading the books of Abhilash Tobby and  Dilip Donde on sailing around the world solo gave us the immense pleasure, as I felt I was doing the circumnavigation with them, and very humoursly and in jest   Dr NPT would say,”, they are sailing around and we are stuck at this place”, trying to turn his head towards the huge windows  and into the sea beyond, it was then I realized how much he is missing out on  outdoor activities, but he never showed any regret , for he was a very satisfied individual.

In the course of my reading I have journeyed to the various stars and planets of our universe, so too to the Cornel college where our Dr got his Masters and the PhD, and to Sind where he was born and brought up!.

He was very enthusiastic to my reading his book ‘Odyssey’, I must have read that book many a times and each time I read it, and he rejoiced it very much. His memory was sharp in spite of his age and as a repercussion of the serious fall he had on 10th November 1999, he had some difficulty in remembering but no sooner I would read a interesting passage, he would signal me to take a pause, his voice would sparkle and without an error he would repeat what I would have read, a tribute to his memory. He would re-live and recollect  his favourite childhood  past time of flying kites,  and  the pleasure in cutting other kites down, which showed a trait of leadership running in him and a great desire to be success in his field.

His father Pribhdas Tolani , who was called by everybody as Kaka , was a strict disciplinarian but a kind person. He instilled in the youngsters a very strong value that business has no place in society unless it contributed to the development of society. Kaka’s grandfather Awatrai Tolani though not being wealthy would set side, agricultural produce, distribute grain, clothes each year to the people in distress and need; it was a family tradition carried forward by kaka in Gandhidham where he set up Tolani Foundation a trust created with his personal funds, out of which bloomed many colleges offering different faculties ; all these began after he was deported from Sind unceremoniously like a common criminal after a false charge was hoisted on him by the locals and released on condition that he left the country, thus arriving in Bombay like thousands of other refugees from Sindh in early 1949.

Dr.NPT passed his matriculation exam in first attempt which was considered an achievement,  Studies was not given much importance in those days but his father saw the importance of education who got his BA degree from Wilson college, so much so that even NPT’s sisters became graduates after a big break in their studies. Since they had lot of lands and water  in plenty through the source of rivers, his father was keen that his son take up agriculture which would help them in their future. NPT got his Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture with first class honours and distinction and stood second in his university. It was during his college days that he was attracted to the game of bridge; soon he was so proficient that over the years he was participating in championship Bridge all over India and abroad. To him bridge was an intellectual game, he never played for money, He played for small stakes, in order to bring a sort of discipline into the game, any money he earned substantially would be left behind on the table for others to recover their losses. He was so immersed in the joys of the game that the rest of the world would be forgotten no sooner bridge lovers met and began dealing. Dr Tolani became a player of international repute representing India at tournaments in India and abroad!

In 1945 after after passing out of Agricultural college in  Sind, NPT was keen to go to America to do his Masters , he duly applied to the well-known universities of  America and in due course he received letters from all five universities, but his father wanted him to take care of their lands and the people who lived on them. He enjoyed his life at home with family and on lands, but still eager to pursue higher education in America. As their financial situation improved he was able to persuade his father to send him to America to study at Cornell Ithaca. His years at Cornell passed soon and he acquired Masters of Science in Agricultural Engineering. He was in US for a year and a half and during that time he saw India getting independence and he landed in Bombay a day after Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on 30th January 1948.

In-between the breaks of reading Dr Tolani sometimes related  incidences between his wife and him over the game of bridge. She despised the card game of bridge to the core. Only time she felt relieved of his game was when he started playing bridge after a two year period following his accident when his cognitive abilities started picking up  as a result of , which made her feel that NPT was returning to normalcy!

Being enterprising, NPT’s father and uncle prospered and their status and wealth grew doing the business of contractors, financier; weaving silk fabric also which found its way into the markets of Delhi and Calcutta. Eventually their construction work of different types grew into main activity which came to their rescue when they began to re-stitch their  lives in Mumbai, losing everything after the partition.

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NPT  settled down to a new situation in Bombay and being industrious and diligent he and his father prospered in their construction business and began to build immense wealth. After his marriage to Parvati,called pappu more by her pet name , he began to build earthen dams, first one being a dam project in Kutch which was successfully completed ; NPT went on to build about twenty dams in the state of Maharashtra and Gujarat with in the stipulated time . In the year of 1962 he went to his alma mater Cornell to do his doctorate. His PhD thesis was to develop an operational model to choose between fertilizer plant and an irrigation project in underdeveloped countries. His thesis was ready in one year and ten months a record of having completed his PhD, which still stands!. He came back to Bombay in 1964 with doctorate at the age of forty, which made his parents happy. He was back to building earthen dams. NPT was seriously involved in building Prabhu Kutir, his permanent home on the 10th and 11th floor which is connected internally, a sweeping view of Bombay with unobstructed  breath taking view of the Arabian sea and Hanging Gardens could be had from their terrace. A commanding view still persists in spite of the mushrooming of high-rise buildings.

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Ever since returning with  a PhD , he went  into shipping business as it seemed by and large trouble free and government was promoting shipping by giving tax incentives; He also met many stalwarts who encouraged him to take the plunge!, and among them was Vasant Sheth the then director of Great Eastern Shipping Company, thus entering into the Golden Age of Indian shipping period from 1968 to 1976. He flourished in his business thus making the adage true that floats around him that “ whatever NPT touched turned into gold” or “man with the Midas touch” what everybody forgets  in the process is, his determination,  hard work, meticulous planning, ability to take people along with him and other positive qualities.

His game of bridge, sailing and philanthropic work  continued side by side, in spite of all the business pressures; In retrospect  perhaps that was a  soothing balm for the hard work he was doing on business front!.

In 1996 the government opened up maritime education to the private sector and he thought owning maritime education institute which would supplement his work in shipping and contribute to the shipping industry. Thus was born Tolani Maritime Institute at Induri, Talegaon near Pune.  People like Dr S Venkateswaran, C P Srivastava and his dear friend Dale Corson from Cornell were always available for guidance in TMI becoming a reality.

A tragedy struck him  10th November 1999 the day of his wedding anniversary at Tolani Marine Institute Talegaon where he had gone to supervise the construction work, without any warning he slipped and fell head on,into a heap of broken rocks into a pit below, after treatment at a nearby hospital he was taken to Ruby clinic in Pune where his brain was operated upon; He survived, but it was a beginning of a long road to recovery and several months of rehabilitation followed under the supervision of his daughter Dr Sujata Naik , a  critical care specialist at Brooklyn Hospital New York, who flew down from US immediately  and took full charge of his rehabilitation programme, taking him to New York from where he returned better. His recovery was slow but spectacular. Due to which he persuaded his daughter Dr Sujata Naik to stay in Mumbai and also take care of his  business interests which ran into his Shipping company, Tolani Education Trust, Tolani Marine Institute, Tolani college of Commerce and various others.

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With daughter Dr Sujata Naik, Varuna award in the background

After his 92 birthday he began to feel weak, but his enthusiasm never wavered , his visits to office became less and I visited his residence to continue reading. During the monsoon months he would enjoy the rains and the sounds of water falling on the big window panes. He would enquiringly ask me “are the rains heavy? If so have your lunch and go home, come tomorrow  if the weather is ok”, so much for his humane qualities !

Whether the office or his residence the view out of the window is spectacular sea view during rains. Sometimes he would just ask me to stop reading and he would go into thinking session, those times I would wonder what is he thinking about, I would never disturb those precious silence of his for I knew something is brewing in his mind and it would be a good positive thought. Sometimes he would just hold my hand ask me about my family and place of stay and would ask me directly “ I hope you own the house and you have no loans on your head” he would be relieved to hear my positive reply. Very recently he was hospitalized for a longer duration but he has bounced back. When visiting him after a break, he would ask me “ srinivas why did’nt you come for so many days?” I was touched by this and had to reply him that he was slightly unwell, “ is it so? What happened” he would ask. Like a phoenix he is returning to his old self.

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There was a happy celebration of his 93rd birthday on 15th February 2017 , the day on which  he was like  his good old self, full of cheer and laughter, he acknowledged everybody on this day and told me to come regularly hence forth, which I  accepted.

Apart from the joy of reading to him I pray for his good health and mine too so that our association lasts for years to come!.

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On his 93rd birthday!

The Call of Arunachala

Sun rise over Arunachala

The call of Arunachala is always gentle, not a command, not a request, its like  call of a mother to a toddler who responds to the name; no sooner the call is whispered the toddler makes a turn and with all the energy runs into the direction of the call and into the arms of his mother!.

I had visited Tiruvannamalai about two decades ago to visit Sri Ramana Ashram, for I had read about it in a book “ A search in secret India” given to me by my neighbor about four decades ago. There in Mr Paul Brunton had written about his experiences with the holy sages, mendicants , living saints, magicians, yogis, snake charmers! Etc, of all his experiences in finding a true sage, he found solace in the company of Sri Ramana.

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Paul Brunton stayed in the vicinity of ashram after he underwent a lot of intense scrutiny by Ramana maharshi. In the beginning Paul Brunton found immense heat in the company of the master, who slowly through his glance and silence made Brunton understand the true  purpose of his journey which he came in search of. A telepathic current was passing between them, Sri  Ramana was transmitting his deep serenity to him, and  Paul began to  feel a sense of euphoria and lightness. He felt that his own being became one with Ramana’s, and that he had transcended all problems and desires. Very soon thereafter Paul Brunton resumed his journey through India in further search of self proclaimed gurus, magicians and miracle workers, eventually returning to Ramana ashram and wrestling further with his intellect and own thoughts experienced genuine enlightenment which changed him forever:

Enlightened people have this strange ability to generate spiritual experiences in others, this power to transmit their enlightenment to the people around them, is because of their aura. Their life giving energy is still, intensified and has powerful qualities, thus proving spiritual energy is also communicable if only the receiver is true seeker. This happens spontaneously in the natural surroundings full of rich vegetation, mountains, and river surroundings with call of various birds which give the effect of a symphony orchestra;  Arunachala is hill considered to be manifestation of Shiva himself. This was spoken and passed on as a message much before Sri Ramana Maharishi, thousands of years ago. Arunachala hill is full of herbal trees with medicinal values whose air inhaled gives a soothing balm to the tired mind and bodies. It is believed when Sri Rama told hanuman to bring the sanjeevani herbs to bring his brother Laxmana’s life; Hanuman during his flight from Himalayas passing through where present Tiruvannamalai is, dropped a small portion of the whole hill of herbs he was carrying unintentionally; thus spreading the further growth of herbs in giving cure to the seekers till date.

Almost half a dozen visits have been made in the past one year in search of the above experiences almost in all the seasons. But the circumambulation during the monsoon is divine and magical in barefoot. In the stillness of early dawn, with the air pure and scented with many trees and flowers, and invisible siddhas, and name of Arunachala Ya Namaha being repeated inwardly, the walk of fourteen kilometers is just not felt. Sri Ramana himself made innumerable pradakshinas during his life time, only stopping altogether when people began to visit him for his darshan and blessings and  with the growth of tumor in elbow. To sanctify this journey further the place is surrounded by the shivalingas in the eight magnetic corners of the area namely- Indira, Agni, Yama, Niruthi, Vayu, Varuna, Kubera and Esanya by the celestial beings, sages and seers and further places of shakti worship, Nandis ( in whose ears a prayer whispered is bound to reach his master Lord Shiva! in granting a favour ; all this to be done as a true believer and seeker).

One of the Ashta Lingas

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In variably I have stayed in Seshadri ashram always, whose founder Shri Seshadri was a true enlightenment seeker and who being a elder to Ramana,   sheltered him from all his early troubles he encountered during his search for further enlightenment.

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Also invariably I would call on Karuna, his wife Devi and three children during my visits to Tiruvannamalai whose existence came to be known accidentally through Richard Clarkes blog “Living in the embrace of Arunachala”. This accident became my permanent  call of visit. If not visiting them, a call would be made to Karuna who is a auto driver, or Devi who is a very good cook, who spreads a  good vegetarian  lunch to the tastes of westerners , who are their main customers, on prior booking. I had the privilege of having a good lunch very recently consisting of Salads , French fries, Bean curry, to go with mound of rice and dal. Karuna was busy rolling seemingly golden looking chicken in the woven to go along in a bed of French fries; he had a group of dozen westerners, some who made an appointment and some just dropped in.  I missed taking a photograph of the chicken which would have tempted you!, Nevertheless, I clicked a view of the Arunachala hill from their rooftop, where they host the visitors.

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In the setting sun I visited the Arunachala temple and spent a long time visiting all the corners of the temple and various gods, which is a perfect culmination of completing the Girivalam.

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Eagerly looking forward to another call from  Arunachala, Whose visits are always being eagerly looked forward to!.

Misty Morning in Mayiladuturai

I had embarked on a temple trail as I was crossing my 60th birthday on my day of visit and it was considered auspicious to visit the temple of Thirukkadaiyur for a healthy and long life!. I had planned my visit four months in advance by booking my rail tickets , as I was intent on a visit that day, but there where so many incidences in between that I wondered whether I could stick to the schedule as the days neared of my departure, more of it at the conclusion of this post. Just as the train was entering Egmore station for my change of train to take me to Mayiladuturai and further to Thirukkadaiyur, I got a flash on my mobile that my ticket has been upgraded to Three tier A/c .  I thought this as auspicious omen; in the comfort of coolness, the night was spent and the day was breaking stealthily as the hours passed. As I opened the door of my carriage and started peeping out, I was enveloped with the cool breeze and the train was piercing through and the engine whistling into a thick mist, an odd bulb and the tube was trying to break the stranglehold of mist with a muted glow, with huge trees and little huts lining the tracks mysterious shadows began to dance across the adjoining lands and paddy fields; it was beginning to be mystical and that sort of trance was broken with the  arrival of an elderly gentleman with a  thick  mop of white and black hair. He almost appeared to be a yogi in pant and shirt, our eyes met and with our minds giving approval, he began to ask me where I was getting down and with me replying he gave a smile of approval, when I told him that I would also be visiting Thirunallar abode of Shani temple and Vithisvaran kovil to get stitched the loose ends of my health by Thayil nayaki the goddess of health he further smiled and told me it is the home town of his wife. Shri TVS sir is an ex bank employee now retired and perhaps in his seventies was closely associated with early seer of Kanchi Kamakothi peetham   Shri Paramacharya,  who was widely considered as one of the greatest Indian sages of recent times. He was renowned for his saintly life, strict adherence to the sanyasa (asceticism) and unparalleled knowledge in a wide array of subjects. His foremost vision was the protection of Vedas, tradition, and dharma. My joy knew no bounds and in rapt attention I was listening to him. He covered lots of divine experiences of Jagadguru who has  had devotees from all walks of life, From the downtrodden to the affluent, from Hindus to Muslims, from Asians to Europeans, there were many who found solace from this man who lived in a small thatched hut in Kanchipuram. He was known throughout the world as a great jnani, in whose presence everyone found great peace and tranquil. I felt truly blessed meeting TVS sir, and as he got down at Sirkhazi a station before Mayiladuturai , I truly wished we could travel together for a longer duration as TVS sir appeared to be a remarkable  person; with the comfort of exchanging our mobile numbers for a future meeting and talks whenever I could, I got down with great anticipation for a big day at Mayiladuturai.

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After a quick bath at waiting hall and a change of fresh clothes I took a local bus to Amruthakadeshwar temple, which was planned many months in advance. The bus journey was no different from the rail journey, this time I was on road, with day still to break about, the mist was all around and with cold breeze continuing to blow I began to wonder how long this shield of mist was going to last. Early hours of the day break in south India is always special, especially in rural areas with paddy being grown in most fields, with absence of pollution and all the early birds making a dash out of their nests to get food for themselves and their young ones, it was a motion picture being revealed. The rising sun had enough of it and with all its might was trying to break the wrap of mist and I viewed the sun looking like a rising moon from the clouds!. In no time thereafter the rays of the sun was spreading itself to all corners as far as eyes could see and the bus was speeding at the beginning of the day and the conductor announced the stop I was waiting to get down for a long time; from the stop I could see the welcome arch of the temple in a little distance and I could feel my heart beating faster, the last of the mist was withdrawing from the welcome arch and truly I felt the day would belong to me. After depositing my sandals at the stall I entered the temple courtyard and I was surprised to see a good crowd trying to make an entry and exit, no wonder people of south India are early risers and keep the protocol of visiting the temple at the stroke of the temple door opening. As I entered the main temple, a temple management person named Bala was gracious enough to explain the history of the temple and I made a small gesture of thanks by offering him a tenner and suddenly he gestured me to stay aside and I began wondering whether he is trying to extract more money. In the meantime I offered obeisance to  shiva linga , Lord Shiva graces in the temple as swayambumurthi. Yama threw a thick rope to pull Markendeya ,   who was embracing the Linga   out of devotion and seeking  protection from death. This is exactly the place where a tussle ensured between Yama and Shiva where ultimately Shiva hit Yama the God of death with his legs , and a scar of rope is still visible during  abhishek times. After some time Bala gestured me to accompany him inside the main sanctorum after speaking a few words with the main priest, and I was shocked when I stood right in front of markendeya idol, and other idols where pooja was being offered and camphor being lit, I was still in shock when the first offer of lit camphor was made to me, I felt ashamed of myself for doubting Bala, for he had done a unthinkable for me, he took me on a small guided tour amidst the beating of mridangam and playing of nadaswaram as quite a lot of group had come to this place to perform pooja, homam etc to celebrate their landmark birthdays!. As I left the temple I began to wonder at the many wonderful moments, I felt truly blessed at this divine place.

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Amritkadeshwar

I got a bus immediately for my next visit was to Thirunallar Shani temple, there was a complete surprise when after going through a free lane winding queue path I found myself standing alone in front of Shanishwar idol, I could not have asked for a better viewing of the lord who is supposed to be  not very benevolent in his blessings, and I began to wonder whether the Shani god could be vindictive to his devotees?. And in all these temple hopping I was on empty stomach, I was more worried of not missing the temples I had planned and the last temple on the current visit was Vithiswaran, and this is the place where Danvantri Siddha attained Samadhi, people pray here for relief from various ailments. Jatayu Kundam-pit still exists in the temple surroundings as  Jatayu the eagle engaged in the service of Lord Rama was killed when he prevented Ravana from abducting Mother Sita.  As requested by him, Sri Rama performed the last rites for the bird in the Vibuthi Kundam here.

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Vithiswaran Temple

I have made umpteen visits to these temples and I have never felt enough of it, and I am longing to visit these places again and again. At last I had the first meal of the day in the temple in the form   of tamarind rice and shakara pongal as Prasad, I felt quite charged up to visit Tiruvannamalai by taking up train from the station about a kilometer and half from vithiswaran kovil. The coolness of early morning and the mist vanished and the noon sun was blazing, I thought I would walk the distance to the station and I took a few steps, suddenly a youth on a bike came across my path and offered me a lift, it was a difficult offer to refuse, sat on the pillion and made the journey to the station, there he refused a token money from me, he left me wondering whether such people exist today and off he went in the same speed he brought me here!. As I sat in the train I began to wonder at all the beautiful incidences since alighting at Mayiladuturai, was everything a coincidence or some unseen presence guiding me through?. I wasn’t exhausted and still yearned for more, I rested in the train only to circumbulate the Arunachala hills in the evening. From villupuram where the train left me I took a bus to last destination of the day Tiruvannamalai.

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Early Morning Mist covering up the peak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was raining throughout villupuram to tiruvannamalai a distance of Ninety kilometres and began wondering whether I could walk the distance of fourteen kilometers of circumambulation. Miraculously the rain stopped as I entered seshadri ashram my usual halting place since last three years; after putting my little luggage I started the circumambulation. I felt an immense satisfaction and peace enveloping me and I bowed at the Arunachala hills many a times during my walk, went past the usual landmark places and after completing the three hour walk around Arunachala, retired for a sleep; at last my birthday began to close in and left me wondering whether it was me who did all the hectic activities of visiting the temples, some divine blessings where with me all through the day. All the unsavory talks, incidences were left behind. The next early morning I visited Arunachala temple and was blessed with the divine looks of the deities, and with the reflections of the earlier day I began to walk around the huge precincts of the Annamalaiar temple, which finds a big mention in the puranas as the prime place of Lord Shiva and the Annamalai hills as shiva linga itself!. That evening went to Tirupattur and took the train to Mangalore for the last leg of my journey to Dharmasthala where I had worked for a year, a couple of years ago; again the journey was not without drama, as the train was a couple of hours into the journey, a big crowd of students began entering all the compartments at most of the stations starting a couple of hours  from Kerala border; students, office goers, business people of Kerala were let off as the news of  Tamil Nadu’s  CM Jayalalitha’s death  being announced over the media, anticipating a violent backlash the train was full of people, buses of the Tamilnadu state transport and the private services were halted fearing violence and the train was the only mode of transport for these people, there was strict security at all the intermediate stations, the fear of violence vanished and the train was speeding into Kerala leaving the partisan state politics and anticipated violence. That couple of hours of day time journey was an eye opener in to the psyche of people; there was some in the train who did not want to share their reserved seats to the frightened lady students, by putting up their berths up for sleeping, as a result students were left standing, which did not prick the conscience of these people who talked and discussed lofty ideals. I did a small act of accommodating maximum students on my lower berth , these students in the wee hours of morning began to get down at their destination and the last few who got down, thanked me for this act, and I felt immense pride in alleviating their fears during train journey for  I acted as their guardian; I’am sure I have had their goodwill and blessings which would comfort me at pressing times. The West coast express majestically entered Mangalore station albeit two hours late, but  it was a safe and thrilling journey in which anything could have happened but didn’t.

I reached Dharmasthala like a local man who was away from his home for a long time, no sooner I entered the temple town, familiar persons in the form of hotel owners, stalls, ordinary people, paper vendor etc began to acknowledge my greetings and few of them began asking my absence, I had to tell them I am now in Mumbai and working but my heart is in the temple complex!. After a gap of two years I met my friends at Suraksha office, who were happy to see me, just as I was.

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Manjunatha_Swamy

 

 

I visited Lord Manjunatha’s temple in considerable comfort and prayed in all humility and thanked him for his continuous goodwill and blessings. I was lucky enough to meet Shri Verendra Heggade in his meeting chamber and get his blessings, just a couple of days after my birthdate, I had his blessings on my birthday two years earlier, for he accidently visited my place of work!, I parted company not before having a photograph for which he gladly posed, wishing me once again, he went off in a waiting car for his umpteen  assignments;. again it was a matter of timing my visit, a couple of minutes late and I would have missed him.

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In late evening I entered  the train for the last time which would bring me home, after visiting the earlier mentioned places for which  I thank god for acting as my guardian and helping me in the guise of unknown persons and  with several incidences of kind acts,  for I had lost my mother just a week before, after being hospitalized for two weeks, my mother was keen on my visit. On her peaceful passing away I performed her last rites according to Arya Samaj which was conducted very solemnly and completed to my satisfaction; apart from the priest who gave me go ahead, my conscience was very clear for almighty does not penalize a person in mourning. There was a huge uproar from my relatives and friends who wanted to cancel my visit on account of gathered impurity as the mourning period was still not over.  It is not that I defied my relatives and friends, for my conscience was very clear and a belief that almighty does not desert his person in grief. All the happy incidences was a testimony that god was walking by my step, thus there were four steps in the beginning, there were only three steps sometimes when I hopped , leaning on him for guidance and sometimes there was only two steps, not mine but the almighty’s when he  carried me!

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Temple lit for kartikai deepam

Belapur a Jewel in the neck of Navi Mumbai

I passed by Navi Mumbai, a satellite town, many a times much before I settled in Belapur, and wondered how nice it would be to settle down, on the way to Uran or Pune. It was the sectors that had all the infrastructures, like broad roads, flyovers, houses constructed in a pattern and only the local inhabitants who lived, giving a appearance of a place to reside in  the near future; that future came and I started residing in Belapur after residing in briefly at nearby places in Navi Mumbai, little before the crowd started coming in  search of better residences and infrastructures when compared to the choking Mumbai city!

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very recently I came to know the why the city was named Belapur, by a local inhabitant, who revealed this place was abundant in Bela trees, the leaves very dear in worshipping lord shiva. The tri leaflets symbolise the Trishul of Lord Shiva. The trifoliate leaves also signify the Holy Trinity- Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva symbolising creation, preservation and destruction. The leaves signify the three syllabi of AUM. The leaves are used in many ayurvedic medicine preparation since ages. DSCN0081

The core Belapur village not  very far from where I reside  has a couple of old temples, among them a shiva temple and a lake; it found a way to express its history through the Powle’s, Sonthake’s, Mandlik’s the village priests for all occassion and functions, the early inhabitants and my evening friends!. Every evening without fail a small gathering would assemble and conduct a bhajjan  session at Pandurang temple on the banks of the lake, whose echo could be heard from the distance,  with the mixing of the “dholbeats” “cymbals” and the chiming bells of the temple, a nice symphony to hear even from a distance. All the areas near the temple complex would seem to be charged with the positive energy during the dusk. I would sit under a big Banyan tree sometimes and watch the scenes unfolding. After the bhajjan session sonthake would sometimes meet me and take me through the history with his dramatic gestures and seriousness . The shiva temple known as Amruteshwar,  when renovated  recently  revealed its existence since the Pandava era, by the religious brass symbols, and spiritual artifacts revealed under the temples main “kalash” which surprised many of its local residents, who happily revealed to others the historical finds after burying the finds under the “kalash” thus burying its history once again for a future revelation when another renovation would take place. Also revealed was the Shiv Lings true identity to his sincere follower in the presence of a pious sage. Thus a ”halo” prevails in the temple area and felt by its devotees.

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Very adjacent to this temple is a Hanuman temple in its old stone form greased by the vermillion mark. Long  ago when the temple needed a  renovation, a crane was summoned to lift the stone  idol structure which was found to be very heavy to be   lifted by bare hands of many. Even the chains of the crane could not dislodge the idol which was embedded in the earth, so strong it was grounded. After many trials wiser counsels prevailed and the Hanuman idol was  allowed to rest where it was, further implying the sanctity of the idol in its place. Ramnavami and Hanuman jayanti is celebrated with all the religious fervor with  a ‘fair’ opening for a couple of days only. This festival is eagerly looked forward even today!. Another tale which would not exist in our government chronicles is Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba making an appearance near the vicinity of temples where the salt pans existed, to launch salt satyagraha , the more documented being the “dandi” march taken by Bapu!. This was vouched by Mr Sonthake who said his sister was a witness to this event.

The area near Belapur was under Portuguese rule around 1560, before it was captured by the Siddis  of Janjira. In those days, the town was called Belawal by the locals, and Sambayo or Shabaz by the Portuguese. In 1682, the Portuguese recaptured Shabaz, only to lose it to the Marathas led by   Chimmanji Appa in 1733, who made a vow then that a garland of beli leaves would be placed in the Amrutheshwar temple!  and after the victory  the garland was placed and the fort nearby  was christened Belapur killa meaning fort. The Marathas ruled the area until June 1817, when it was captured by the British East India Co. The British partially destroyed the fort under their policy of razing any Maratha stronghold in the area.

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Belapur is also surrounded by lush greenery all around, and its much more organized than other parts of Navi Mumbai. There are a couple of waterfalls situated around, the more famous being “pandhavkhada” where people often come for treking and nature trails. DSCN1955 To lend culinary support we have “Babu wada wale’ who churns out delicious batatawada’s, and bhajia’s at very reasonable price, till date no complaints of any stomach ache has circulated in this area! DSCN1960

Very similarly we have a south Indian from Salem in Tamil Nadu who runs a shop in the name of ‘hotchips’, two persons run this shop and one is always sure of getting hot banana chips, potato chips and other south indian condiments. To cater to different pockets we have good restaurants and bars too! in an area I have named it as “Restaurant and Bar street” bang on the main Palm beach road.

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Topography around Belapur is mostly green with the panvel creek forming a big circle of back water area, with varieties of birds .  The mountains you see in the background is likely to disappear, and you are likely to see the control towers, watch towers and runways crisscrossing with Navi Mumbai Airport finally coming up after many hiccups.

It’s almost two decades since living  in Belapur and  the connection between Arunachala hills in Tiruvannamalai and Belapur which means  the place of ‘bel leaves’ an important plant in the worship of Lord Shiva has begun to sink in, but sadly I am yet to come across a “Bel tree” , as I have only heard about its existence somewhere in Belapur!.

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Nashik the bowl of Lord Rama’s tale

Ayodhyaya may be the place Lord Ram was born and awaiting a temple to be built in his place of birth but its Nashik, Panchavati, Tapovan the most revered names in the hearts of many Indians for Ram spent a decisive couple of years of the fourteen years of his period of exile, to complete a curse of his step mother Kaikeyi , influenced by the humpbacked maid Manthara!

  Trimbakeshwar

 Nashik is said to be the abode of Lord Ram during his  years in exile here. It is located on the banks of the river godavri which originates at Trimbakeshwar. It is one of the four places in the world where the kumbh mela is held making it one of the holiest Hindu cities. This  city just like many religious cities has more than 100 ancient temples including the most revered  Kalaram  and Trimbakeshwar Shiva Temple. Being a well-known holy place of India, this shrine is one among the 12 Jyotirlingas. It is just 30 km from Nashik. This  temple fully built in stone with intricate designs having a backdrop of the Brahmagiri mountains. The only Shivalinga where you will not find the linga but, the deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva at one place instead. Devotees believe that a person will attain salvation after visiting this temple. The sacred river Godavari originates here. The holy bath tank is known as Kushavarta at a little distance away from the main temple. This Kushvarta is having great importance in shahi snan. At Kushavarta this river Ganga named here as Godavari is at top of the Bramhagiri hill. This holy pond is always full with Godavari water, never dries up and nobody knows from where the water comes into the pond and forms the river!

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Myself and my travelling partner Ashok Shinde knew very well that Kumbh Mela at Nashik was due to take place shortly, unlike many religious persons we did not want to get trapped in the crowd and get jostled by the many including a large gathering of sadhus. The picture of chaos, the dust  and the din as a result of , made us to take a trip to Nashik on the First July, and be the guest of one    Mr Nagmote, colleague of shinde. The three hour journey as usual was very exciting for us as we stocked ourselves with food and drinks duly complemented by pleasant weather and the train after going through the dusty stations and populated places initially, broke freely into green valley, cascading water falls with the appearance of rural habitation making appearances at regular intervals. As the train passed Deolali , we knew Nashik was not very far away, as cool winds enveloped us. Nashik is blessed with good weather throughout the year, that’s the reason which makes Nashik the France of India, famous for the grape vineyards, which rolls out good quality wines comparable to famous places of Europe!. In the evening attended the retirement party of Shinde’s colleague Mr Shirapure , which turned out to be a very grand affair with the retiree and his wife decked up nicely on the stage ,huge cut outs eulogizing his working days were put up and speeches given in their honour which made me wonder whether he was really so. The audience comprising his huge family members, his colleagues working for MSEB, his friends and me as guest; my wedding paled into dimness when compared to his party!

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The next morning we decided to have a dip in Ram Kund, It is so called because Lord Rama is believed to have taken bath there. Mortal remains immersed in this kund, are immediately absorbed in the water. A dip in this sacred kund is considered very pious. Situated nearby is Gandhi Talav having a memorable monument made  of white marble, in memory of the Father of the Nation. The ashes were dropped in Ramkund after Gandhiji passed away on 30th January 1948. Mr. Nehru was also present on this occasion.

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River Godavari flows through Nashik and its Northern part is called as Panchavati. It is said that lord Shri Ram and Sita along with Laxman stayed at Panchavati for some time. Lord Rama’s wife,Sita dwelled at this place and King Ravan is supposed to have abducted sita from this place. The Shiv linga that she worshiped is still there in the gumpha. There are five Banyan trees in this area and thus called “Panchvati”.  Our next visit was Kala Ram Mandir, The temple derives its name from the statue of Lord Rama that is black.

Kalaram idols

The literal translation of kalaram means black Rama. The sanctum sanctorum also houses the statues of goddess Sita and god Laxman. This is the place where Ram, Laxman and Sita made their dwelling, when they arrived first, hence considered very sacred. When the trio arrived here, this was the place where pious munis and sages dwelled and where performing poojas , havans, prayers and they were constantly harassed by the rakshasas, people of demonic mind, hence these sages appealed to Ram to free them from their daily woes and troubles, Ram duly took the task of defeating the rakshas and the place regained the holiness.  The temple was funded by Sardar Rangarao Odhekar, and was built around 1788. It was said that Odhekar had a dream that the statue of Rama in black colour was in the Godavari river. Odhekar took the status from river and built the temple.

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Dalit movement in India started at this place where Dr. B R Ambedkar led a protest outside the temple on 2 March 1930, in order to allowing Dalits into the temple to offer prayers and worship the idols. The main entrance has a Lord Hanuman deity which is black. There is also a very old tree that has Lord Dattatreya’s footprint impressions marked on a stone.

  Next we visited the Kapaleshwar Mahadev temple near the Kalaram Temple. The most striking aspect regarding this temple is there is no idol of Nandi in front of Lord Mahadeva, as he did not believe in a guru. Lord Shiva had a fight with Brahma on discussing an issue and in anger he chopped one head of  brahma leading to a curse . To remove this curse of “ brahma hatya”, he was advised to have a bath at Ram kund by a nandi. No sooner shiva took a bath at Ram kund, he felt relieved and hence decided to have nandi as his guru thereafter. Our next visit was to Tapovan, which  literally means place of  meditation and penance.  The sages used to meditate in close proximity with the lush green nature. Laxmana – brother of Rama – used to stay here and had cut nose of Shurpanakha – sister of Ravana. This place has temples of Laxmana and Hanuman. Even today, this locale captivates mind because of Godavari’s silently gurgling stream, long stretch of green woods and closeness to jungle’s flora and fauna. As we were walking along one of  the narrow streets, I came across Karthik temple, which led me to little surprise as the panchavati area was full of Lord Rama, Sita, Laxmana,and Hanuman temple but suddenly realized it was the same place I visited about thirty years ago for my sisters marriage was soleminised; which made me enter the temple and the memories of that day flashed in my mind which comprised of nearby relatives and friends from both the sides comprising a small group.Countless temples were left to be seen for some other time!

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As the sun was setting, a  magical spell was cast over the area as we were walking into  the markets of old Nashik not very far from panchavati and Ramkund , strangely they resembled  days of yester years with no super markets,  malls or looking glitzy , people were happily purchasing their requirements, be it utensils, fruits, vegetables or things of daily needs.

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 We walked happy but with a little tired body into the house of our host Nagmote who stays in the old house  in the locality of Budhwarpeth – Naikwadapura , a hundred year old construction consisting mainly of wood and tiles, there was a room maintained for posterity, with the floor made out of cow dung, regularly redone with fresh dung when required maintenance;  on a high settlement area from where part of panchvati is seen.  Nearly fifty people used to reside some fifty years back. Slowly family was getting bigger and bigger ,  they parted ways due to work, schooling, marriage etc, but always came together whenever the occasion demanded like, festivals, marriages, and death ceremonies!.  Now just about a dozen people live there split into two families. Things learnt out of joint family living were very evident, with sincere welcoming as I was meeting them for the first time. Their hospitality very impeccable with sumptuous dinner and loads of talk of yester years of their family and how they survived the difficult years with cheerfulness, how they once even survived the Hindu Muslim riots of 1986 with petrol bombs thrown into their house, all the work of outsiders; the earlier riots took place after the demise of Mahatma Gandhi in the year 1948, but today the Hindus and Muslims live in perfect harmony with the sharing of sweets during their respective festivals. They seemed a perfect family, what with Nagmote the only earning member of the house synchronizing everything in the house. He performed marriages of Six girls in the family, has a son studying to be a civil engineer!. His wife a perfect house wife, who literally looks out for all the needs of the family, buying raw material for the family kitchen, doing all the pounding, chaffing, mixing etc by herself and dishing out tasty food for the family  and guests!.                                                                                                            I fell into a dreamless sleep thereafter that night only waking up the next day with a feeling of visiting this place again and again!

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