The utsava murthi of the Suttur Mutt founder begins a parade through the temple and out into the villages. It will return 10 hours later, having given darshan to those living in the rural neighborhood. There is frenzy and chanting, near danger and nearly impossible to believe devotion. That is Mahaswami below, who took care that we were at his side every moment and never trampled. Swamiji is so beloved here, and everyone you meet tells tales of his goodness, his quiet intelligence, his "elephantine memory. " Swamiji takes us to the chariot, as fire works (well, more like miniature bombs) shatter the sky above. We are asked to be among those who first tug on the giant ropes. Then Swami calls a devotee to take us through the parade, with its dozens of floats, all with a spiritual theme. Among it all, a Brahma bull being decorated with, yes, money. Note the Rudraksha halter. As we preside over the afternoon session and give a small talk, we can see Swamiji from the stage, sitting for five hours as devotees come to have his blessings and fall at his feet. On and on, the line moves quickly, but it never ends. Swami patiently sits, saying hardly a word, but not moving, just honoring each one, and offering sweets to the children. He will do this for days at a time, they say. It's a remarkable discipline, meaning so much to so many. After the amazing Sivalingam puja with Sri Shivaratree Desikendra we were off to the mela site, again fighting our way through crowds, if you can call 250,000 devotees a crowd. They are so well behaved and disciplined. Here is the entry gate to the main temple and gathering tents.
We arise early at Suttur Mutt, and head for the temple, through the rajagopuram doors
There is a flag raising. We have had to await the arrival of a chariot, and then the dvaja goes up with chanting, fanfare and a few speeches. The sanctum is marvelously decorated with tens of thousands of fresh flowers. A Nandi is there and behind him the murthi of the mutt's founder, Shivaratree Shivayogi Mahaswamiji, who founded it over a thousand years back. We dared not ask about photography, but one of the organizers invited us to grab our iPhone and shoot. The founder was a great yogi. In his left hand is the Ishtalinga which all Lingayats wear, and worship daily. God is within, they say, and that is where He is worshipped. The crowds gather, some 250,000 today. The streets are not large enough and there is a crush of humanity, and in the middle of it all a series of dances and musicians and performers. We are told this annual festival is all the entertainment many will have the rest of the year. It is their TV and Internet and movies all rolled into one. So they are eager and crush close for a view. Police on horseback aggressively push the crowds back as they press forward against the barriers. The horses get a lot of respect when they come near. It is a cacophony of sounds, to which are added portable loudspeakers on wheeled carts, each blaring a different tune.
Suddenly the 250 couples who will soon be married parade through the crush. Their every expense has been covered. There are some blind grooms and disabled brides, who may never have pondered marriage were it not for Swamiji's initiative. Brahmacharis chant at every event. Sitting here with a swami, who name is Sadasivanatha Swami.
Your name: I answer Sadasivanathaswami.
Yes, but your name is? Again, Sadasivanathaswami.
I know, but what is your own name? Swami, I too am Sadasivanathaswami.
Disbelief, followed by understanding. Oh, I see. Two of us! Swami whisks us into a car and off to a nearby temple, just three minutes by car. Tavil and nagasvaram greet us. It's a Chola temple, and was renovated by our own V. Ganapati Sthapati some 8 years back. It feels every bit a 1,000 year old sacred home for Siva. We are told the temple's story. Rajaraja Chola was feuding with a local king. Rajaraja came with his army, and before engaging the enemy saw Shivaratree Shivayogi, who was meditating on a rock in the middle of the nearby Kavari River. Instantly, Rajaraja heard the Aum, the high-eee in his head, and was transfixed by the mystical sound. The experience and Sivayogi's presence resolved the kingly dispute and in appreciation Rajaraja Chola asked the yogi to come with him, but Shivayogi refused. So Rajaraja Chola built this temple to express gratitude and to make sure he would stay here.
We meet later with renowned teacher and iconoclastic character, Vasudev, who later invited us to share lunch with him. Wonderful, odd, wide-ranging conversations ensued. Then off to the mass wedding. Held in a small Indian tent, about two acres. Hardly room for another person inside. We are taken to the stage and speeches ensue. I sit next to Sujita Ghandi Kulkarni, the lively granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi. A lovely child-like lady of great intelligence and insight. She gives me a fan to keep cool, and says she must give it because it's hard enough for an Indian to become a true Hindu, and she can't imagine how we did it!
I am the only one on stage with an iPad and iPhone, and the photographers love that little fact. I use my Dermandar app to capture this pano of the room from my seat on the stage. Afterwards we walk completely around the room, blessing each couple with a handful of rice. Then off to a place we can take a final group photo with the couples. This is about half of them. The day is yet young, so off we go. Vasu driving the car and telling little jokes along the way.
The room is white, its walls and floors smooth marble. In one corner sits a quiet saint, a devoted man who dedicates his life to serve Siva and help thousands. In front of him is a small table with countless precious utensils of gleaming silver and a tray of flowers; on his right, a statue of Adi Guruji, the founder of his lineage; on his left, three priests chant. The sound of prayers and mantras is melodious, full; it reverberates in the small room. A few guests attend his private worship. The sun has not yet risen.
Meticulously, purposefully, Sri Shivarathri Desikendra Swami offers diminutive flowers to his far-removed predecessor. Though his hands are large and his fingers long, he is remarkably adroit, arranging the offerings around the murti with perfection. Monks of all ages come and go continuously, helping him light camphor, fill lamps with ghee or dispose of empty trays. Not a word is spoken. A magician, or maybe a king, swami waves his fingers subtly, moves his eyes slightly, and what he needs appears out of thin air from the hands of his well-trained disciples. No flower petal stays on the floor, no spilled drop goes unnoticed. The room is still white.
After what could have been a long time had his guests not been entranced by the puja, after having expressed his gratitude to his guru, the swami turns his attention fully to God. From a large silver pendant hanging from his neck he produces a round, black Sivalingam, the form of formless God. It is a sight to behold, a personal artifact rarely exposed to those of another tradition.
With evident joy, he handles the stone as his personal temple, as his personal treasure, as God. He pours water on it using a silver container. Then, drawing from a tray with dozens of minuscule kumbhas filled with myriad substances, he pours liquids on the stone, one by one, rinsing it, anointing the artifact with vibhuti between each ablution. The chanting has never stopped; but every so often the priests voices lose enthusiasm and luster. Swami uses his strong, loud voice, awakening the priests from their feebleness by leading the chanting with unequivocal resolve.
Holding the murti on his left hand, he uses the right one for offerings. He sometimes hides his right hand under a simple cloth with elaborate mystical symbols, twisting his fingers in mudras which should not to be seen, for they are rahasya˝ˇa secret.
Some of the monks come and prostrate during the abhishekam. They, too, open the sacred capsules over their chests, revealing more Sivalingams, and sit in a circle around their guru. They hands, outstretched, reach under swami's hand, one above the other, forming a pillar of adoration. Water that is poured over swami's personal Sivalingam drips down, bathing in succession the all of their lingams with water many times blessed. The monks take turns, allowing others to also come and receive the grace. Swami holds his Sivalingam on his hand for a long time as his shishyas come and go, his seemingly untiring arm steady. With his fingers he holds a specially shaped silver kumbha with an orifice at the bottom, from which water slowly bathes the stone.
Monks finally bring him a silver lotus flower with a hole in the center, which he uses around the lingam to make his hand a tray for flowers. His palm still touches the stone, in intimate contact with divinity. Everyone in the room chants the 108 names of Siva with enraptured devotion. The guru invites his monks and his guests to also offer flowers to the altar that is his hand.
Seated close together, swami and the Hawaii mathavasis wave burning camphor and flaming ghee in circles. At the highest point of the ceremony, blessings seem to feel the air like infinite inner light. God is in all, all is God.
The sun has risen. The day may begin for the head of Suttur Mutt.