Last night, the Saturday 26th, we were taken on a special trip. ‘We’ in this case are the ashramites staying at the Sivananda Ashram, Neyyar Dam, Kerala, which is a natural beauty spot and a haven away from anything urban. It lies on the edge of a dam surrounded by mountain peaks and a national wildlife sanctuary. They said it was ‘just a walk up a hill’ for a Puja. It turned out to be more like a hard core hike, that proved unforgettable. We gathered at the ashram gate did a four-step meditation walk, chanting ‘Om’ internally each four steps. We’d been specially invited to witness this Kali Puja and respect was due to the goddess and the holy rock. The youngish Canadian Swami lead around 100 people in a silent walk down leafy country lanes, at sun down so the trees and bushes were full of mosquitoes, the sound of cicadas and whooping birds, the smell of wood fires, frangipani scent wafted across from open wooden houses where locals lived. An enormous variety of trees grew everywhere, including banana, coconut palms and rubber trees – long grasses by the edge of the pathways reached out as though to touch us. As we passed through the Dam area, locals were curious and said ‘hello’. No one replied as we had vowed silence. Why were all these foreigners walking silently to Kalipara Rock? No answer- so the mystery deepened.
We were warned to bring torches as it soon got dark and the path was rocky and perilous. We had to take our shoes off on the upper rock because it was sacred, but no one expected the steepness of the climb with some treacherous rock face to clamber up. Parts of it were so sheer it could freak out the unwary. To look down was fatal. Intention alone impelled us upwards against the odds. No one fell or broke an ankle. We scaled the rock face without incident, although it involved some serious barefoot grip, not to mention rock climbing skills. All were sweating as they reached the top to regain breath.Going barefoot was nasty as the tiny rocks ripped into the soles of my feet and seemed to lodge there. Each step was tentative and painful, only easing off on the smoother rock surfaces.
On the top of the rock itself the puja had already begun. A ceremonial fire was kept alive in a small reed hut fed continuously by the Kali devotee. Everyone watched eager to know what was happening- he just fed the fire with offerings. Fellow ashramite, La La, didn’t come because he had been before, perhaps he knew how difficult the climb would be? Frederick said he suffers a little from vertigo and he found he was only able to get to the top because it was so dark, he just could not see how dangerous it was.
The Kali Puja devotees wore only clean white dhotis wrapped around their loins. A group of women huddled together watched eagerly. The men burned food offerings in a small woven hut where a candle in front of the sacred fire. Drummers beat out a primal rhythm interspersed monotonous bell ringing. The place wafted with incense and wood smoke. It inspired reverence and high expectancy. Then at the peak moment, the principle devotee removed the fire from the fire, and three others blew into conch shells, a bellowing primal sounds echoing across the dark hills, sounding just as it did centuries ago. It was energetically potent. The rock itself has a legend about a famous guru who favoured it as the counter balance the Himalayas of north India. The little bowl where a pool of water formed is said to be where this guru meditated and his lotus pose left an impression.
The top of the rock was small to cope with so many people at once. Luckily, it was too dark to see how sheer the cliff face was on one side. Also it was lucky no one broke their ankle or got lost in the dense undergrowth surrounding the rock. The human chain of people could be spotted by pinpoints of light between trees. Torches helping others see their way and avoid falling dark made it a communal experience. We were not alone under that night sky was rich with stars and so it was like plugging back into the socket of nature’s energy. People who live cocooned in cities can really appreciate. Just to be there on Kalipara Hill was a privilege, and to be invited personally from the ashram an honour. The view of the surrounding hill tops and valleys apparently is magnificent and some camp out there so they can witness dawn where the light changes would reveal this wonderful location in its glory.
It was a personal thrill to be part of the Kali Puja, and more than repaid the effort of the dangerous climb. I noted how the music can hypnotise people quickly, the sound of repetitive drumming, smoke and bell ringing, all part of the ‘dream time’. We all bathed in the sacred smoke, and anointed our foreheads with flower pods and felt special.
Kali is a serious goddess, not for the faint of heart. She is goddess of cyclical time and destruction and grants release from the binding emotions of anger, greed and lust. She is often depicted with a garland of skulls around her neck, dead hands around her waist, the sword of knowledge in hand, chopping of heads (the ego) her foot on the chest of Shiva, sticking out her tongue at the god’s unusual behaviour. She is known to love sucking the blood of demons, and can get carried away doing this. Shiva, her husband, threw himself under her feet in order to stop her raging madness against evil. The effect is like the calm after the storm. Doing Kali Puja aids one in fighting off enemies and freeing one from the chains of karma. It is a religious cleansing act done on this day to celebrate the power of Kalipara which means ‘rock of Kali’. Thus, she ‘rocks’.
The ‘cultish’ aspect of being with a group from an ashram didn’t escape me, but I was open to the experience of reconnecting to nature and an ancient rite as practised by Hindus for thousands of years. It was a high point – literal and metaphoric- of my trip to Kerala, a peak experience that is etched in my psyche.
© Kieron Devlin, 2011