Two Roads Diverged in Lower Ahobilam
I hope that you will forgive the lateness of this newsletter when I tell you that in it we will take a journey to a far away, yet very sacred and special holy place known as Ahobilam. This place of pilgrimage is located in the southern Indian state known as Andhra Pradesh, which is also home to the world-famous temple of Tirupati. Unlike Tirupati, where the temple of Vishnu is surrounded by an entire spiritual city (Tirumala) and visited by millions of pilgrims every year, Ahobilam receives considerably fewer visitors. Although Ahobilam lies in the same state as Tirupati, it is worlds away. As you can see from the photo, the temples (there are actually 9 of them) of Ahobilam are undoubtedly ancient; they are also difficult to access, requiring much more determination, perseverance and downright bravery to access. Perhaps the difference lies in the worshipable Deities of the respective pilgrimage places. The temple in Tirupati is an extraordinarily opulent shrine to Sri Venkateswara, or Balaji, an incarnation of Vishnu, who in every way fits the standard expectations of God - possessed of unimaginable majesty, power and wealth, the bestower of blessings on the faithful. It is relatively easy to translate the experience of worshiping God in this mood to those accustomed to the Judeo-Christian paradigm. Lord Narasimha, the presiding Deity of all nine temples of Ahobilam, is a little more challenging to comprehend. First of all, He is as His name implies, half-man (nara) and half-lion (simha). Secondly, He is the personification of divine wrath, appearing specifically to protect His pure devotee, Prahlada, and to destroy the atheists, specifically the wicked king Hiranyakasipu. Hiranyakasipu happened to be Prahlada's father. He also happened to be so incensed by his son's saintly determination to worship Vishnu, instead of himself, that Hiranyakasipu tried numerous and inventive ways to kill his son (apparently the history of familial dysfunction is as old as time itself), to no avail. Enraged beyond belief at his son's incredible invincibility, Hiranyakasipu demanded that the boy produce this so-called God who was his son's protector.
The ever-faithful original avenger, Lord Vishnu burst out of a pillar in the King's assembly hall in a ferocious, never-before-seen half-man, half-lion form, now known and worshipped as Narasimha Swamy. Legend then recounts how King Hiranyakasipu was only momentarily stunned before grabbing his weapons and engaging in a cosmic, Star Wars worthy battle with the Lord. Since some of the definitions of God are "all-powerful" and "ever-victorious," you can imagine that it didn't end well for Hiranyakasipu. If you look closely enough at the above photo, you can see the supine form of Hiranyakasipu lying on the lap of Lord Narasimha, having just met his death at the Lord's hands. If you just said to yourself "Whoa. That's far-out." or any variation on that theme, let me assure you that it is simply the tip of the iceberg. There is enough material in the Vedic literatures to fascinate the entire sci-fi population for the next 100 years. So just as the story of Lord Narasimha requires a greater suspension of disbelief and simultaneous extension of faith than some of the other stories of Vishnu when He is behaving Himself as God should, by sitting quietly on a throne and blessing people, Lord Narasimha's town of Ahobilam is also difficult to access. I had the immense good fortune to travel there back in 2001 with my guru. I was part of an international group of about 16 people who traveled by bus (boy, did we turn heads in rural India) to several temples in the southeastern states of Orissa, Andhra, and Tamil Nadu. My teacher arranged the trip by following a book called Holy Places and Temples of India, which must be out of print, as I just noticed it is only available on Amazon in India. The roads to Ahobilam are much less traveled, not in a Robert Frost, metaphorical kind of way, but in a very real oh-look-there's-a-tree-across-the-road, better-move-it-before-a-band-of-thieves-ambushes-us kind of way. We arrived on those roads late in the afternoon (which did not allay my apprehension of meeting said thieves for which the area is known), checked in to a simple guest house, and prepared for for the next day's pilgrimage. Even back then I was somehow in the position of assistant cook for my guru. Another young woman did most of the cooking, while I was the vegetable shopper, chopper, and general gofer. I had learned to judge the affluence of a town based on the variety of fruits for sale in the markets. Much to my dismay, in Ahobilam the only fruits available were coconuts and green bananas (not unripe, just green in color). Hmm... this would definitely not be a leisure stay, even by Indian standards.
My guru had hoped to execute the difficult task of visiting all nine temples in one day. This is rarely accomplished, as there is a considerable distance between some of the temples, and half of them are in Upper Ahobilam, in a dense jungle area. We started out the day early, although not nearly early enough for my guru, who was up and ready before the crack of dawn. Us 20-somethings spent too much time sleeping and eating to be able to keep up with his enthusiastic pace. And even though we started the hike around 7 - 7:30 in the morning, it was already getting warm. My guru was right, we should have started hiking much closer to dawn, as to avoid the sweltering heat. (March in South India is the early summer season.) I believe we were able to tour most of the temples in Lower Ahobilam as a group. There is so much about this particular experience that I do not remember very clearly, yet a few key moments are etched in my memory like fine-chiseled stone. There came a point where the path turned steeply uphill. It was very hot by this time, and due to the heat and his blood pressure, my dear guru (who is very much like a father to me) became faint and realized he couldn't complete the trek. Several members of the party, including the guides had already gone on ahead. My guru decided to go back to the main temple (pictured above) to wait for those who continued on. I was literally at a cross-roads. Should I stay with my beloved teacher to make sure he would be all right and spend time peacefully hearing spiritual discourse (in the shade), or should I follow that well-built young man (who I secretly had the serious hots for), (cough) I mean the rest of the group, up the hill on an adventure into the unknown? Those of you who know me at all, know my penchant for the overly difficult, and you might guess that I chose to continue hiking with the others. I mean we came to visit all these temples, and in my mind I justified my decision to part ways with my guru by thinking that I would complete the pilgrimage on his behalf (and totally not in order to spend more time with the eye-candy. Um, yeah).
So I did carry on up the hill. The pilgrimage lasted several more hours, and I really do not remember much of it, except that I did not have nearly enough water with me for the heat of the day. There were more than a couple times where I wondered if we could really trust our guides or would we die out in the heat of the jungle wilderness, regretting my decision? Obviously I didn't die; the guides did indeed lead us safely back to the temple at Lower Ahobilam. I had a truly unique experience and an amazing story to tell. Yet I will always wonder about that moment at the crossroads, and if it was indicative of things to come in my life, how things might have been different if I had stayed behind...
What I can say with certainty is that Lord Narashimha, the form of Lord Vishnu manifested specifically to protect His devotee, has since then held a very special place in my life. I have felt His divine protection on many, many occasions.
At the top of the mountain in the above photo, is the Ugra Stambha, said to be the exact site where Lord Narasimha killed Hiranyakasipu. Hard to see it in this photo, but that rock the men are on juts out over the ravine with absolutely nothing beneath it. One thing I am afraid of is heights, so I opted not to scale down to the Stambha itself, but stayed with the guides on top of the overlook. I celebrated for my friends and traveling companions who went down there, but I was already close enough to death for one day.
As I reflect on this experience now, I am also struck with the thought that even when we come to a crossroads and pick path B (the independent path fraught with trials and regrets) over path A (the path chosen by wise teachers), if we continually come back to a central desire to take shelter of the Lord, He will offer us His protection and guidance. Path B is longer and harder than Path A, but if that is what you need to the point of Surrender, you must take it. Once you reach the top of the mountain, I suppose it is not as important how you got there, as the fact that you made it.
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