Sunday, February 23, 2014

Saaquiya aaj mujhe neend nahi aayegi

Magha maasa or the month of Magha is here again. And I am fortunate, again, to find myself in the Velliangiri foothills spending the week leading up to Mahashivarathri at the Isha Yoga Center.

While I am here, I might as well be useful, so I help out with the live blog, where we follow the events at Yaksha, the annual festival of dance and music, culminating in the big night.

Last year, after this now-familiar sojourn, I had written about it for Outlook Traveller. The full version is here.

Holy Days

For thousands of spiritual seekers in India, particularly South India, it’s become something of a no-brainer. Whatever else they may do through the year, they know already that they’ll be spending Mahashivarathri – the 14th day of the lunar month of Magha – at Isha Yoga Center, at the Velliangiri Foothills in Tamil Nadu. The Isha Foundation is a spiritual organisation founded by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, and the Yoga Center – a green settlement surrounded by mist-kissed hills – is a truly beautiful place. It is the seat of the Dhyanalinga, a 14-ft structure that is a veritable powerhouse of spiritual energy, capable of transporting people into deeply meditative states.

This Mahashivarathri night is something of a wild party. There is heart-pumping music, some powerful guided meditations… everyone dances like this could be their last night on earth and no one sleeps a wink. Versatile Carnatic artiste Aruna Sairam came to sing this year, Sadhguru narrated stories from Shiva-lore interspersed by dance performances by Anita Ratnam and troupe, and in the small hours, when the eight-lakh-and-change people at the venue may have understandably drooped in their seats, The Raghu Dixit Project woke everyone up rather nicely. The events were also going out live via television to millions of people wishful of maintaining the tradition of keeping awake this moonless night.

But I, for one, was glad to actually be here. There is something very auspicious about this particular time–space combination. As it is, the planetary positions make it highly advisable to keep your spine erect through the night to benefit from a natural upsurge of energy. What makes it even more interesting is that Isha Yoga Center is located at 11°N, a band across the planet which, thanks to the centrifugal force created by the spinning earth, is particularly beneficial to those wanting that aforementioned energy pushed up. A double win, so to say.

However, I wasn’t here only for a day. Every year, the week leading up to Mahashivarathri is dedicated to Yaksha, a festival of classical music and dance. This year’s line-up included the Carnatic violinist TN Krishnan, Hindustani vocalist Ulhas Kashalkar and the towering Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna. Nothing – not even wild horses – were going to keep me away.

The performances typically take place in the Linga Bhairavi courtyard. This is a newly minted deity – a thoroughly feminine power who is both fierce and wonderfully kind. The walls that form the backdrop are lit with hundreds of lamps and concerts begin as soon as dusk falls. The seven recitals were all excellent but Odissi danseuse Madhavi Mudgal was a revelation to me. Deft footwork, skilled abhinaya and the capacity for stillness that marks a master. On the final day, TM Krishna held sway. Culling from the kritis of Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Bharatiyar and other Bhakti poets, he sang a fine blend of technique and devotion.

Just to pump up the spectacle quotient, every day of Yaksha has a Maha Arati. The Goddess is taken out in a procession around the complex, where the arati is offered to the Dhyanalinga. The pageant involves trumpets, cymbals and long flaming torches… attendants clear the way with aggressive, sweeping gestures as the Devi is brought into position. Then, lithe-bodied bramhacharis, holding large vessels of leaping fire, offer their dance of passionate submission. It is fabulous to watch!

Then, the week-long party was over. At six in the morning after Mahashivarathri, lakhs of people melted magically away. Bleary-eyed, I walked back from the grounds. The Dhyanalinga, which I expected to be besieged by long queues, was surprisingly empty. I dived in, and sat in one of the cubicles. I was deprived of sleep, and of course, the Dhyanalinga did its thing…. I was soon fathoms deep in an indescribable space beyond space.

A shorter version of this feature appeared here, in the April 2013 issue of Outlook Traveller.

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