Narayana Gopala – A Special Day Dedicated to Vishnu in Tamil Nadu

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In Tamil Nadu, the month of Puratasi (Sept. – Oct.) is dedicated to Vishnu. Special observances are made throughout the month. Puratasi Sani is the name of the set of Saturday observances throughout the month. Sani Dev is the Lord of Saturday (Sani-kizhamai is the Tamil name for Saturday). Normally, in Tamil  Nadu, Saturdays are said to be a bad day, since Sani is known in Hindu scriptures as the greatest trouble maker (as well as the greatest well wisher). He is depicted as dark in color, clothed in black; holding a sword, arrows and two daggers and usually mounted on a black crow. During Puratasi, Lord Sani’s influence is diminished, thus the Saturday celebrations.

On these days, special prayers and poojas are offered, special meals are prepared, and there is a special kind of house-to-house contact made by the sons of each household. These observances are done in Puratasi, since in popular belief this is the month in which Lord Venkateswara (also known as Balaji) made his divine presence on the earth and returned to Vaikunata (the celestial home of Vishnu). Venkateswara means “the Lord who destroys the sins of the people.” This is said the be the foremost form of Vishnu during the Kali Yuga (the present period, the “age of vice”), the last of the four stages that the world goes through as part of the cycle of yugas described in the Indian scriptures. Venkateswara (or Balaji) moderates the negative effects of the Kali Yuga (to some extent). 

Balaji

Kali Yuga

Hindus believe that human civilization degenerates spiritually during the Kali Yuga, referred to as the “Dark Age” because in it people are as far removed as possible from God. ‘Kali’ means strife or discord. From wikipedia:

A discourse by Markandeya in the Mahabharata identifies some of the attributes of Kali Yuga:

In relation to rulers
  • Rulers will become unreasonable: they will levy taxes unfairly.
  • Rulers will no longer see it as their duty to promote spirituality, or to protect their subjects: they will become a danger to the world.
  • People will start migrating, seeking countries where wheat and barley form the staple food source. But then, they will also love their subjects so much that they will sacrifice their lives for them. This is what kali yuga says.
In human relationships
  • Avarice and wrath will be common. Humans will openly display animosity towards each other.
  • Ignorance of dharma will occur.
  • People will have thoughts of murder for no justification and they will see nothing wrong with that mind-set.
  • Lust will be viewed as socially acceptable, and sexual intercourse will be seen as the central requirement of life.
  • Sin will increase exponentially, whilst virtue will fade and cease to flourish.
  • People will take vows only to break them soon after.
  • People will become addicted to intoxicating drinks and drugs.
  • Men will find their jobs stressful and will go to retreats to escape their work.
  • Gurus will no longer be respected and their students will attempt to injure them. Their teachings will be insulted and followers of Kama (the God of desire) will wrest control of the mind from all human beings. Brahmins will not be learned and honored, Kshatriyas will not be brave, Vaishyas will not be just in dealings and Shudras will not be honest and humble to their duties and to the other castes.

Venkateswara Temple

Venkateswara Temple - Tirumala

The richest temple in the world is said to be the Venkateswara Temple in Tirumala, near Tirupati, Andra Pradesh (about 120 km North of Chennai).  Many visitors, 100,000 – 200,000, come each day, with up to 500,000 coming on special holy days. This temple is now the biggest attraction in India for tourists coming from other countries. The darshan lines take hours of waiting and slowly moving forward. When, at last, you get your chance to actually see the Balaji murti, you only have a moment while the attendants push you along.

The biggest celebration of the year, Brahmotsavam, occurs during Puratasi. Stories trace the origin of this celebration to Brahma, the creator god, who first conducted this festival to Sri Balaji at Tirupati. Brahma worshiped Sri Balaji on the banks of the holy Pushkarini river in Tirupati as a way to give thanks for the Lord’s protection of mankind. During this nine-day festival, millions of devotees come to be blessed by Balaji. The highlight happens on the ninth day (from wikipedia):

Chakra Snanam

On the ninth day morning, last day of the Brahmostavam, a special abhishekam (water bath) is held for utsava moorthy of Lord Venkateswara and his concerts Sri Devi and Bhoo Devi in the complex of Lord Varaha Swamy temple on the banks of Swamy Pushkarini. Later, the Sudarshana Chakra (Disc weapon of the Lord) is immersed in the waters of Swamy Pushkarini. We find large number of devotes simultaneously taking a dip in the Pushkarini waters at that time. It is believed and said that one will get absolved from sins by taking a dip in Swamy Pushkarini simultaneously along with the Sudarshana Chakra on this day.

Family Celebration of Narayana Gopala

In India, these celebrations become personal, with observances in the daily life of the people. There is not so much separation from the divine and daily life as there usually is in the West.

We were told by a local Tamil family that their observances include a kind of fasting for the first three weeks (only one meal a day on Saturday, no meat, etc.).  On the third Saturday, a special vegetarian meal is prepared, consisting of many different dishes. This meal is usually served just to family (many other Tamil celebratory meals are shared with friends and neighbors.) This day is called “Narayana Gopala.” Narayana is one of Vishnu’s names. Narayana refers to the “direction of a human,” the one that helps a human to his/her goal, i.e. towards moksha. After this meal, the special fasting is over.

Here are photos of one family’s observance of Narayana Gopala.

The special meal was served at the house of Rajan, our rickshaw  driver. Standing in front of his house is his brother, Karun, with his wife Devi, eight + months pregnant. They are standing near a pretty and colorful special kolam on the street in front of Rajan’s house. This kolam was made by Rajan’s wife, Janaki. Sitting on the stairs is Rajan’s mother, Selvi.

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Above the doorway to the house is a cloth with some special contents. I do not know what is wrapped up.

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In the house, Rajan’s wife Janaki is busy doing last minute cooking for the meal. I think she is frying vadas.

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The house is a three room house. One of the three rooms is the pooja room. In it, Rajan’s aunty (his deceased father’s sister), Shanthi, and his daughter, Jananee, are getting lamps ready for the pooja. Pictures of gods line the wall, and a number of small idols can be seen.

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Below is Rajan’s son, Ram Kumar. He is dressed in a new white dhoti and has a specially marked pot in his hands. On his forehead is a Vishnu tilak. Vishnu tilaks are less common in Tamil Nadu, since this area is mainly Saivite. Today, though, is dedicated to Vishnu.

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Here is an unusual sight in Tamil Nadu, a man cooking. Rajan is watching the frying vadas, while his wife does other things needed for the special day.

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Here she is adding turmeric and kum kum to the doorway …

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And to the entrance to the house from the street.

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Now Ram Kumar and his sister, Jananee, are going on a special outing for this day.

He has in his hand a pot with some uncooked rice in it. He is wearing a mala made of leaves, I think Tulsi leaves, Holy Basil.

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They take this rice pot to nearby houses. They say, at the door, “Narayana gopala govinda.”

Here a group of boys from the neighborhood stand and watch.

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At each house, rice will be taken from the pot …

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And new rice will be added to the pot. This way all share in the food.

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Meanwhile, Rajan is applying a Vishnu tilak to Richard’s forehead.

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Now Aunty is placing servings of food from the meal on the altar, for the gods.

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She then lights camphor and places it at the entrance to the pooja room.

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Here is an out-of-focus photo that I like. I think it shows the mood of the pooja room.

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Rajan is offering camphor flame to the gods in the pooja room.

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then Aunty places a dot of kum kum on the main god on the altar.

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Here is the altar with the plate of food and the camphor light. Notice that there are bananas and a broken coconut. You will always find these offerings at Tamil poojas.

During the pooja, people add coins and bills into the rice pot, adding money to the uncooked rice offering that has been collected from the neighbors.

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Rajan pranams to the altar.

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Everyone does this. Here is Carol.

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Then we sit to eat. We have banana leaf plates set before us. First served is prasad. Today this consists of all the food on the god’s plate, mixed together.

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Next we get Indian flat bread, papadum.

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These are crisp and very light, cooked with oil.

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Then vadas are served.

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Now we get a dish of greens, maybe spinach or kale.

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A potato dish has also been served.

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Next is a dish made (I think) of cooked white radishes, common in South Indian cooking.

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Added now (next to the bread) is a dish with a kind of flat green pea.

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Then another dish of beans is added, to the right of the plate.

I would note that the layout of the food on a banana  leaf plate is defined, so that a particular food always goes in the same place. For example, in the center front of the plate is a big open space, left for the rice to be added.

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Here comes the rice.

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Now sambar has been added to the rice.

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Other people in the house are eating. I am waiting, so I can photograph my plate when it is full.

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A sweet dish is added now.

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Here is the complete plate, ready for me to eat. Yum Yum

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After this rasam is served part of the way through the meal. Rasam is a kind of soup, with a sour tamarind base, and tomatoes and other vegetables. At the end of the meal another common dessert is served, made from noodles, cashews and cardamom seeds. I am unsure of the name of the dish, perhaps it is samya payasam.

After we eat, we leave quickly. This is so Rajan’s wife can eat. She cannot eat until the guests leave.

This mid-day meal was delicious. With all the different dishes, we were barely hungry later for the evening meal. We so appreciate that we are being allowed to join Rajan’s family on these occasions. We get to see and enjoy a bit of Indian family life. It is nice to see.  

Festival Season

The major festival season really starts in September, with Ganesh Chaturthi, this year on 11 Sept. Next are the Puratasi Sani observances, starting on 18 Sept. After this is Ayuda Pooja, on Saturday, 18 October, followed by Divali (“Deepavali” in Tamil Nadu), Friday, 11 November. The biggest celebration of the year in Tiruvannamalai, Karthigai Deepam, is from 9 Nov. to 21 Nov. Finally there is Pongal, 14 Jan. through 16 Jan., 2011.

For an idea of what these celebrations look like, below are links to previous postings:

Ganesh Celebration in Tiruvannamalai
Ayuda Pooja in Tiruvannamalai – 8 October 2008
Happy Diwali – Deepāvali Vartukal from Tiruvannamalai and Arunachala

Deepam 2009

Deepam 2009 – First Day Chariots
Deepam 2009 – Second Day’s Procession
Deepam 2009 – Getting ready for the big day
Deepam 2009 – Day of the Big Chariots
Deepam 2009 – The Night of the Silver Chariots
Deepam 2009 – Getting the Torch to the Top of Arunachala
Deepam Night in Tiruvannamalai
Deepam and the Day After

Deepam 2008

Processions of the Gods
Deepam Day, and Deepam Celebration

Deepam – Preparing the  Flame

Cow Pongal at Ramanasramam & Tiruvannamalai

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2 Responses to “Narayana Gopala – A Special Day Dedicated to Vishnu in Tamil Nadu”

  1. usha21 Says:

    Dear Richard

    Excellent article with beautiful snaps. Thank you so much. While reading your article about Arunachala in Jan this year, I felt a sense of deep peace. It was really strange. Then on Aug 10th I came to TVM and did my first Girivalam with my wife Yashoda. Again my second Girivalam on 5th Sept. I work in Oman and I’m just waiting for my annual leave again to come to Arunachala. Thank you once again.

    Warm regards & love

    Usha Kiran

  2. Embrace Each Day Wall Says:

    […] Narayana Gopala – A Special Day Dedicated to Vishnu in Tamil Nadu … Many visitors, – , come each day with up to coming on special holy days. This temple is now the biggest attraction in India for tourists coming from other countries. The darshan lines take hours of waiting and slowly . Pictures of gods line the wall and a number of small idols can be seen. DSC Below is Rajan's son, Ram Kumar. He is dressed in a new white dhoti and has a specially marked pot in his hands. On his forehead is a Vishnu tilak. […]

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