Hi, I’m Bettina. What I'm working on : Forget to slouch. Relaxing is freedom. Choose life.

Articles tagged “south india”

Terrified on top of a Sacred Mountain

Have you ever been terrified? And wondered how you ended up there?

During my two  months in South India I ended up at Tiruvannamalai, a middle-sized town, for the ten-day long Karthigai celebrations, which is the biggest holiday for Hindus in South India.

Arunachala Hill

Among other festivities, every day at sunset a pillar of flame is lit on top of the Arunachala hill. They say that you can see the flame for miles around.

The Hindu god Shiva is supposed to have appeared as a beacon of light on top of this mountain as well as be the mountain itself, so it’s a holy place even outside of Karthigai.

Tiruvannamalai Temple from Arunachala

In addition to walking around the mountain, hiking up the mountain is also one of the special things to do there. The hike up was surprisingly not easy, although the view of the town’s temple from high up is beautiful.

True believers walk up the hill barefoot. I kept my shoes on…until I got to the top.

Deepam Lighting on top of Arunachala

When I got up to the top of the mountain right after sunset, the pillar of flame had just been lit. Since it had already been lit a few days, the area all around the top was covered in gooey black tar from the spent ghee. It was so windy up there that the wind picked up sparks from the pillar and blew them on to the tar, lighting up small licks of flickering flames everywhere.

Pitchfork on top of Arunachala

I had to take off my shoes. I’m barefoot. It’s getting dark. We had planned to spend the night on top of the mountain, but I was no longer so sure. It was all men up here, and I’ve been having bad experiences with men in India. Many of them were leaving now that the pillar was lit.

I told my companion Josephine that I might go down now with the men who were leaving. She told me that I first had to pour my ghee onto the pillar. Yes, I agreed, but I was afraid to approach the pillar. I had no idea how I was going to even get close enough to pour the ghee. The black tar was slippery; I was afraid I’d fall.

At this moment I truly understood the word awe whose origins in Old English meant “immediate and active fear, terror, dread” inspired by god/s. I was scared into respect. Confronted with the smell of ghee burning for days and the sight of fire everywhere, I felt so small. What did I get myself into?

One of the fire tenders offered me his hand. He guided me to the pillar of fire and showed me that, from the back, I could safely pour my ghee in. And he held my hand as we poured the ghee in together.

Fire Tenders on top of Arunachala

I felt safe with him; he’s on the left-hand photo above. I no longer felt alone. I decided to spend the night up there with Josephine and the fire tenders. There were four of them. So I spent the night on top of the mountain with all of them, sharing tea and bread through the night. Josephine spoke some Tamil, and everyone taught me a few words. It’s completely different from Sanskrit.

Tiruvannamalai and Arunachala at Night

I visited the flame before going to sleep. A lot of the ghee had burned away by then, and the flame was no longer so fierce. The wind spookily whistled around me. And all of a sudden I felt alone but no longer scared.

We slept in a row on a mountain so that we were protected from the wind, but it was still so cold. I woke up about once every hour and watched the moon make its way across the night sky.

Feet and Sunrise at Arunachala

In the light of the sunrise the fire was dying down. Monkeys woke up and picked at offerings left behind for the gods. As I made my way down the mountain up came a chain of devotees with gallons of ghee to prepare for that night’s pillar of fire.

Monkeys on Arunachala



Nataraja Yoga Pose in South Indian Temples

Dancer Yoga Pose

The Dancer pose aka Natarajasana is one of the most emblematic yoga postures. The Sanskrit name literally means the posture of the king of the dance. The Lord of the Dance is an aspect of the Hindu god Shiva.

Nataraja Sculpture

Usually, Nataraja is seen in sculpture as dancing in a ring of fire, the left leg lifted in the air, the right foot stepping on a demon (the demon of ignorance and illusion). In his upper right hand is the the drum of creation; his upper left hand holds the fire that will destroy all of creation. No fear signals his lower right hand, held up in abhayamudra. His lower left hand, pointing towards his lifted left leg, signals refuge.

There are lots of temples in South India where Shiva is worshipped in his aspect of Nataraja. In Tamil Nadu, one of the southern Indian states, there are five main temples of Nataraja known as Pancha sabbas or the five halls where Shiva performed his cosmic dance. At these temples are stages / ambalams.

The most important temple for Nataraja among these five is the Kanaka Sabha or golden hall at Chidambaram, where on the temple gopurams (entrance towers) you can see sculptures of karana or dance movments.

Chidambaram Temple Sculpture


Another important Nataraja shrine is the Rajatha Sabha or silver hall at the Minakshi Sundareshwarar temple in Madurai. Here you can see a rare representation of the Natarajasana.

Shiva Navaraja at Meenakshi Temple

The Lord of the Dance  is shown raising his right leg and dancing on the demon with his left foot, reversing the usual posture of Nataraja. As a practicing yogi you might think it’s just to balance out the left and right sides. The reversal in posture here, however, is due to legend.

Once upon a time the king of Madurai was a devotee of Nataraja and tried to learn how to dance. Finding it very hard to dance only on his right leg all the time, as we usually see in the sculptures, the king prayed to Lord Nataraja to change his posture so that the king could also change his  posture. The Lord accepted his request and thus Nataraja is dancing on his left foot here in Madurai.

Another temple in Tamil Nadu dedicated to Nataraja is at Kanchipuram. Although not one of the five places where Nataraja performed his cosmic dance, the Kanchi Kailasanathar temple was built by a devotee to Nataraja, the Pallava King Raja Simha. The low sandstone campus shows Shiva as Nataraja in various postures on exterior panels.

thandava Roopam at Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram

Thandava at Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram


Finally, one of my favorite sculptures of Shiva is at the Muvar koil temple far off the tourist path at Kodumbalur in the Pudukkottai region. Built and carved by early Chola artisans in the 9th and 10 centuries, the architecture features lovingly detailed reliefs in the niches.

Here Shiva is shown as Kalari, dancing over the figure of Kala. The graceful smile on his face as well as the balanced positioning of his arms and legs make this scene quite lyrical. Instead of Shiva as the terrifying conqueror of Kala, here he is at ease, at play, dancing.

Shiva as Kalari at Muvar Koil in Kodumbalur

The Nataraja image has been partially destroyed at Kodumbalar, but it gives the same impression of grace and movement.

Nataraja at Muvar Koil in Kodumbalur

By showing this variety of images of Nataraja at Indian temples I mean to illustrate the different ways to take the dancer pose in yoga. Quite often we hear that there is only one right way to take a pose, but if we go back to the origins, you can see for yourself that Shiva himself danced in different ways over a period of time even in the same region.

What’s your favorite image of Nataraja? Let me know in the comments where to see your favorite representation of the dancer pose.

Images from the top : Elena Ray, Met Museum, Isabel Putinja, University of Washington Libraries, two photos from Sulekha.com, two photos from Saurabh

Reading Notes from The Poets of the Powers by Kamil V. Zvelebil

Brihadeeshwarar Temple, Thanjavur, India

I’ve been diving deep into yoga history by reading. One book I recently read, The Poets of the Powers: Magic, Freedom, and Renewal by Kamil V. Zvelebel, has translations of Tamil Siddha poetry. It’s a thin volume, only 144 pages with footnotes included, so it was a good introduction to this group of yoga practitioners I had only heard of in passing before.

Tamil is one of the languages in South India and refers also to the culture of the people who speak the language. The Tamil Siddha school of thought is a branch of tantric yoga, with a distinct character of social radicalism and an emphasis on magical powers. A distinction of tantric yoga is the belief that liberation is possible in your human body and not just at death, which lead to technique of yoga to ensure a healthy body. The body is the seat of the experience of liberation. If your body was weak, in pain, or unbalanced, how could you experience bliss or become liberated?

What is the sign of absolute and true liberation?

The physical body aglow with the Fire of Immortality.

(Uroma risi nanam 12) p. 58

Even though Zvelebel says that the first Tamil Siddha poet was active between the seventh and eleventh centuries, it would be a mistake to think Tamil Siddhas were only active in medieval India. Zvelebel claims that the Siddha doctrines are still a vital undercurrent in modern-day South India albeit hidden from public view.

Shiva Linga with Garland of Flowers

Written in an intentionally enigmatic language, where words embody multiple meanings, the Tamil Siddha poems can be mystical or vulgar and direct. For example, Civavakkiyar who was writing immediately before the tenth century wrote (p. 87):

Why, you fool,

do you utter mantras,

murmuring them, whispering,

going around the fixed stone

as if it were God,

putting garlands of flowers around it?

Will the fixed stone speak–

as if the Lord were within?

Will the cooking vessel,

or the wooden ladle,

know the taste of curry?

The misogynist language in some of the Siddha poems really bothered me. All of the poets translated in the book were men, and women, specifically the bodies of women, were temptations for them.

WARNING WARNING: Easily offended sensibilities, please stop reading now.

Loving Couple (Mithuna) Indian Sculpture

Pattinattar wrote (pp. 99-100):

Their mouth smells of flesh.

Their hairy mess is smelly.

The pus in the blackened eyes smells

and their limbs stink of their discharge.

The chasm of the vulva stinks.

Should my mind be attached

to these women

who smell of their


In the Appendix Zvelebil shares health tips from his Siddha informant in Madras in 1968 (pp. 126-127):

Hints regarding the physical and mental health


1. Eat only if hungry.

2. Never eat when tired; never eat when emotionally upset.

3. Chew your food thoroughly, well mixed with saliva.

4. Between meals, eat only fresh fruit, or fresh fruit juices.

5. Add to your daily diet great quantities of mor, i.e. yoghurt or buttermilk.

6. Always eat fresh fruits and raw vegetables, if possible.


7. Try to sleep at least eight hours daily. The best sleep is before midnight. Sleep with your window open, naked, head toward the North, the feet slightly raise.


8. Take frequent sun-baths; however, do not get too much sun at one stretch.


9. Breath deeply, rhythmically, slowly, regularly and relaxedly. Be conscious of the speed and rhythm of your breath.


10. Walk at least two hours daily.


11. Regular and frequent sexual intercourse is beneficial. However, be master, not slave of your sex-life. Oral-genital sex is not harmful; on the contrary, it is often desirable. Visualize yourself as the creative Siva, and your partner as your (i.e. Siva’s) sakti, energy. Let her lie on you, and drink your sperm; let you suck her discharge of pleasure (curatanir).

Mental attitudes

12. Never give up. Never be idle. Try to maintain always a cheerful and positive attitude. There is no harm in satisfying a desire, when the satisfaction destroys it. Do not suppress forcibly any desire. Liberation is always here and now with you. If you cannot believe in god, it does not matter. Believe in yourself, in your own existence. Find out the source from which you came.

Conclusion : The Poets of the Powers: Magic, Freedom, and Renewal is a strange little book that serves as a good introduction to the Tamil Siddhas. It’s definitely not Yoga Journal. Pick it up and connect to the roots of one subset of yoga before it became what it is today.

If you have read The Poets of the Powers, what do you think of it? Or what do my reading notes make you think? Let me know in the comment section below.

Photo credits, from top to bottom: swamysk, Natesh Ramasamy, wallyg