Tuesday, January 6, 2009

in the forest of the tillai trees

We first met a long time ago when I was just twenty.  Somewhere I have photos of us both together in Madurai where he came to bless the marriage of my teacher's daughter and also, of course, in Cidambaram.  Ananda Kunchitapada Dikshitar is a hereditary priest of the Sabaranaya Nataraja Temple, the great Shiva temple of Cidambaram in south India, the temple as it is said in Tamil, the place devoted principally to the Dancer, the Lord of the Universe who brought with Him the three thousand of the Tillai forest, the clan called Dikshitars, the ones who still serve Him in this ancient place.  My south Indian family calls Ananda Kunchitapada "Dikshitar Mama," that's Uncle Dikshitar in Tamil, and while he is not much older than myself, perhaps only ten years, time has taken its toll on uncle's health.  Some years back he suffered a stroke leaving the right side of his body virtually paralyzed and forever changing his relationship to his beloved temple.  He can no longer manage the short walk across the road or perform the charges of a temple priest and so he stays at home, performing his rites in private and studying the lore of Cidambaram and the teachings of Rajanaka Sammelana.  Still he carries in the wrap of his dhoti that small familiar container of vibhuti, the holy ashes, the most precious blessing a priest can offer to those who come to see the Dancing Lord.   He will offer you some whenever you come to visit.

As my cousin Mani so aptly puts it, "It is very simple. If you love Nataraja then the Dikshitars surely love you."  This has always been my experience and how much more keenly I felt it in my heart this time in the company of my dear, old friend.  Kunchitapada is a gifted scholar, one of my own teacher's teachers, and it was his uncle Raja Ratna Dikshitar who enabled and empowered our further understanding of Rajanaka Sammelana, the Shrividya, and the very peculiar, distinctive teachings of the great Nataraja temple.  How many times did Ananda Kunchitapada care for me and my beloved Appa as we stood before Nataraja, receiving the blessings of darshan, and guiding our passage through the temple's labyrinth shrines?  I remember vividly Kunchitapada's lithe and supple form, seeing him slip invisibly into the inner sanctum of the golden shelter to recite the mantras of offering, pull aside the curtain to reveal the invisible god, the Secret called Cidambaram Rahasyam, and return from the lamp lit chamber with gifts of prasad and always more holy ashes, gifts that can only come from one born Dikshitar and gifts freely given to those who come to offer love to the Dancer.

When we stopped again this morning, December 26th, to see Dikshitar Mama at his home on the East Car Street not far from the temple's gate, all was much as it was during my last visit two years ago.  Many Dikshitar houses begin as virtually unseen doorways at the street, opening into long hallways to a warren of rooms where extended families share the close-knit traditions and customs that define the clan's unique claims of service to Nataraja's temple.  But ours was to be only the briefest of visits.  I had brought with me two dear friends, students of mine I should say, and while I would have liked to have brought all twenty-eight who had come on his pilgrimage to Cidambaram, I didn't want to overwhelm uncle Dikshitar.  Really I had come merely to pay my respects and to let him know that the teachings he had so graciously shared with me over these years continued to evolve in the hearts and minds of some born half a world away.

But no sooner had we sat for a moment together than he began to teach again.  I had mentioned to him that the previous day we'd been blessed with the performance of an elaborate Rudra Homa in the courtyard, the Cit Sabha of the great temple, performed by more than a dozen of his colleagues and other Brahmins, where I had been honored as the yajamana, the ritual protagonist representing our group.  He smiled, pleased that we'd made our offering and explained that at the very time we were in the temple, he was performing his own private rites, according to the very secret sources meant to complement and parallel those done in public.  He sorted out matters of canon, asked me if I understood his meaning, and if my two friends too were students of mantra, mudra, and yantra.  My eyes teared as I watched Uncle try to twist his paralyzed hand into the seal of the guru.  And then with a wide smile said in Tamil, "I should tell you?  You know all this!"  "Hardly so," I replied, "and so much of what I learned I gathered from you, Uncle."  "Ah yes.  But it was Sundaramoorthy, your Appa.  He was the one.  He knew like so few have ever known."  And so ended our interview.  I promised we would return.  My friends and I asked to peform our pranams, and made our prostrations before the great man.  And I felt again as I did those many years ago, privileged to know such a fine and gifted yogin, such a beautiful, profound soul, treated as his family and honored by him because, like so many thousands before me for generations and centuries, I had come to offer my love and respects to his Lord, the Dancer, the One clothed in the Sky of Infinite Consciousness, here in the forest of the tillai trees, in the ancient city of Cidambaram.