Monday, December 2, 2013

Malanaadu final instalment - Balegaru Matha and back to Ponda

Balegaru is one of the few places which I was very keen to visit. I had heard a lot about the ‘Akshobhya matha’ of Balegaru and its ‘Swamiji’ Sri Raghubhushana teertha. (‘Matha’ meaning an establishment -Monastery?-  meant for propagating the philosophy of the founder and also guide a community of followers in their religious and spiritual activities. Swamiji is the head of a Matha).  It seemed to be a combination of an interesting place housing an even more interesting personality.

The Arya Akshobhya matha at Balegaru, as I understand, was established by Sri Akshobhya theertha, one of the direct desciples of Sri Madhwacharya, the proponent of Dwaita philosophy. His followers are the Madhwa Brahmins. Every Brahmin family, just as it belongs to a Gotra, (indicating the name of one of the ‘Rishis’ who is supposed to have been it’s ‘patrilinial forebearer’ - as Wikipedia puts it) also belongs to a ‘Matha’ of which the members of the family have been the followers, through the ages. Compared to the other very well known establishments like the Ashtamathas of Udupi  (‘Ashta’ meaning eight -  Pejaavara, Adamaaru, Phalimaaru, Kaaniyuru, Krishnapura, Shirooru, Puttige, Sode) and many other mathas established  by Sri Madhwacharya or his followers, (Raghavendra matha, Vyaasaraaja matha, Gokarna Paratagaali matha and Uttaraadi matha to name a few ) this Akshobhya matha of Balegaru is not very well known. I believe there are other similar establishments which are not well known but are historically and religiously significant.

Most of the Mathas named above, (and other equally famous ones) though they have their origins in small/remote places, now have  followers all over the country and almost all of them have branches everywhere and big establishments in metro cities. They have acquired wealth and fame and many of them own assets worth hundreds or even, thousands of crores of rupees. Over a period of time they have become more of social and commercial establishments than religious establishments. What we see everywhere in our day to day life - jealousy, infighting, backstabbing, fight for power and legal battles are also seen in the mathas which are supposed to be detached from all these and focus on religious, spiritual and moral aspects of life. Not just focus, but take a stand on these matters and guide their followers. Some of them have become family affairs like our political parties. There have been instances of usurping/misuse of the assets of the Mathas. Because of all this, followers like me have developed contempt towards them instead of respect, even as we continue to visit and support them in the course of fulfilling our religious practices/compulsions.

So, when I heard that there has been a Matha in a small and peaceful village near Shimoga, doing just what is expected of it and headed by a Swamiji who is not interested in earning name, fame and wealth, I was interested and now had arrived at Balegaru Matha.

The Arya Akshobhya Matha is situated on the Banks of river Tunga in the picturesque natural surroundings of the Sahyadri range. It is so very quiet and devoid of any visible activity around it, that you are at a loss as to what to do after you have arrived in front of the building. The main door is always closed to prevent monkeys from entering in. You hesitatingly push the door open and enter the front hall which again is empty and then proceed to step tentatively through the only other door you see. This leads to a pillared corridor open towards and running on two sides of a small square open quadrangle in which is located the sanctum sanctorum housing Lord Sri Rama and Narasimha, the deities, who are being worshipped in the matha over the centuries.

We found the Swamiji seated in a corner in the corridor on a chair, in conversation with another gentleman who had been visiting the place. As we went near, prostrated before the Swamiji to express our respects and were wondering about the right way to address and speak to the head of a Matha , he spoke,

“Please come in, how was your trip to Horanaadu?” 

I told him that it was Ok but for a bad stretch of road and he said
“If you have to reach a place you should accept the roads as they are, hope you did not have any difficulty reaching here!”

The Swamiji began talking to us like a friend and it went on for the next thirty minutes. For an ascetic living in a small village he seemed to be very well informed about everything around us in this world and was one of the few people out of Goa, who got the cities of Goa, its capital, the name of the chief minister and his party, right!

The dinner was ready by then and it was served for the three guests while the swamiji stood there watching us eat and urging us
“Take some more rice - this is not your city rice. It is unpolished and retains all the nutrients ”
“Taste that pickle. The mango is from our tree. Hope it is not too punjent for you” and so on.
We enjoyed the simple fare of  cooked rice, vegetables, curry, pickles and curds, most of them locally produced and the curds being exceptionally good - obviously made using the milk from contented cows reared by the swamiji.  

Contented Cows
I had a proper look of the surroundings the next morning. The early morning peace and quiet, which one can find almost anywhere in the world was multiplied manyfold around the Balegaru matha. I sat alone on the boulders in the middle of the river hearing the sound of the water falling over next to me and enjoying the serene atmosphere.

The river falls, just by about two feet but enough you make you panic if you lose your hold.

Early morning sun reflected in water

Design on the boulders. Do not know what they are. Algae or some river weeds?

Another view
I stayed there till the sun rose in the east when my wife and son joined me. After a bath in the river, we went into the matha and found the swamiji in the middle of his morning Pooja (worship).

The dieties. Rama Lakshmana Seeta at the top.  Second and third rows left to right are Srikara Naaraayana, Lakshmi Narasimha, Ugra Narasimha, Vedavyasa, Narasimha saligrama and Hayagreeva.  
His day begins at three in the morning with a bath in the river and he sits for meditation and prayers for about two hours (as he told me). It is followed by another bath and Pooja which usually ends by half past eight or quarter to nine, which we witnessed. He says that finishing the daily rituals early gives him and people around him enough time to pursue their other interests, which in his case is agriculture. He goes to work in the field and also attends to the cows in the cowshed. The matha owns about thirty acres of land out of which ten acres are under cultivation. Another bath at eleven and he is ready for the next stage of the ‘Pooja’ followed by lunch and a bit of rest.  He preaches/teaches for sometime if there are people to learn - sometimes there are - and spends some time attending to the day to day affairs of the matha. Then the evening bath followed by the evening ‘pooja’ and the swamiji retires early. Traditionally swamijis eat just once a day in the afternoon after the ritualistic offering of food -‘Naivedya’-to the lord.

View from the main door of the Matha
While the swamiji was engaged in his Pooja we went around the establishment and visited the river once again. Soon after the morning ‘Pooja’ we were offered breakfast and after that we requested the Swamiji to permit us to leave. He insisted that we stay for lunch but when I said that we were planning to visit another place called Honnali near Shimoga and then reach Hubli by evening, he relented. He came out to see us off and as we were getting into the car he said “I am happy that you could come here and stay for a while. What is your impression about our matha? ”

(During our conversation we had touched up on many topics and I had told him my impressions of our religious establishments. He had agreed and said that it was unfortunate)

I told him that the establishments like the Balegaru matha may help us change our opinion of our religious centres and that I would like to be there again.

“I am happy that you think so. Do come again and stay a bit longer. And tell others who are interested, to visit us.”  He went back into the building.

We were in Honnali by afternoon and visited one of my relatives whom I had not met for decades. We were persuaded to stay for lunch and it was almost four when we left. “You will reach Hubli in two hours.  No, don’t go to Harihar. Take this internal road through Tuminakatti and you will save twenty kilometers. It is good and there will be no traffic” said my relative. The road turned out to be a nightmare. Just  like Horanaadu road. With very little traffic. Yes. Just half a dozen large trucks carrying some earth moving equipment which it was impossible to overtake on the narrow road.  I received a call from my relative just as we were entering Hubli at eight in the night.  “I am so sorry that I asked you to take that route. I had travelled by that road six months back and was not aware that it had been damaged badly by the rains. Just now one of my friends told me about it. Did you reach Hubli safe?”

I assured him that we were fine but did not tell him that he now had a stock of curses to last his lifetime.

Our trip had almost ended. What remained was to proceed to Belgaum the next morning for a bit of shopping and reach Ponda by evening.

Back to our grind till my wife decides to go on another trip.

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