Post by Carol Johnson
Richard turned 70 years old on December 28, and he decided that this milestone birthday deserved to be celebrated in grand style. In all the years I’ve known him, he has never made a big deal out of his birthday. But this year was special.
We know that here in India one celebrates one’s birthday not by receiving gifts, but by giving to others. So Richard’s plan was three-fold. First, he organized a “sadhu feast” for the neighborhood holy men. Second, he wanted to thank a very special group of friends, the autorickshaw drivers who have helped us out on so many occasions. So he planned a mutton biryani luncheon for the drivers and their families. And finally, he wanted to share the momentous day with all our Western friends, so we held an evening party that climaxed with a fireworks show. All of these events were coordinated by our dear friend Rajan, without whom none of this would have been possible.
It was an absolutely wonderful day for both Richard and me. We didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out that the celebration of a 70th birthday is a big deal in India. Our friend Dhanya wrote from California to let us know that this birthday celebration even has a special name: Sathabhishekam, in Tamil. She said “we celebrate 70th birthday grandly in India.” We had no idea that the day would be so eventful, but it was so big that I need to break it into two posts to capture everything that happened!
The Day Begins with Gifts and Breakfast
To start the day, some very special friends dropped by and surprised us with some new clothes for both of us. A beautiful set of silks: dhoti, shirt, and shawl for Richard. And, a gorgeous silk saree for me. This was the first indication that I would be celebrated along with Richard. (But the extent of my participation only became apparent as the morning progressed.)
Our first stop for the day was at the Dakshinamoorthi family’s Sathya’s Café, for a special breakfast. Richard is pictured below, sporting his new silks, talking to Dakshinamoorti’s daughter Sathya.
Sathya’s Café was very involved in all of Richard’s plans for today. It was they who would prepare the sadhu feast, to be served later in the morning to one hundred and eight invited holy men (and a few extra neighborhood women, too poor to eat regularly).
When we arrived for breakfast, we saw that the feast preparation was well underway. In the kitchen, the wood fire was blazing, and the vegetarian biryani was in the works.
Rice and sambar were also on the feast menu. Below is some of the rice.
I had a chance to model my beautiful new saree. Purple and gold with earth-green accents.
Dakshinamoorthi (“DM”) surprised us with a huge, fragrant flower mala for each of us. We were asked to garland each other. I’m getting the feeling that this 70th birthday has something to do with us as a couple.
DM poses with us.
And then we were served a scrumptious fruit salad with a side of ice cream. The day is already special!
On to Rajan’s House
Our next stop was to Rajan’s house. Rajan was the main organizer of the entire extravaganza for today. The auto drivers’ luncheon would be held at his house, as well as the evening party. It was a huge task for Rajan and his family.
As we arrived, Janaki, Rajan’s wife, met us at the gate with a few of her friends.
They offered us a camphor flame…
…and a spot of kumkum.
Across the lane, the temporary kitchen was set up and people were starting to prepare the drivers’ meal. The ladies created a beautiful kolam for today’s celebration.
Salutations at the Navagraha
Next on the agenda was a special pooja. Richard had wanted to mark his 70 years by paying homage to the Navagraha, or “Nine Planets.” There is a big Navagraha shrine on Pradakshina Road, right across from the Hanuman Temple, and just up the street from where the sadhus would gather for their special meal.
While we were waiting for the priest to arrive to set up the pooja, Richard took the time to circumambulate the Planets. Seven times for seventy years.
He was pretty conspicuous in his fancy silk duds and giant mala. Several sadhus stopped to wish him well.
The priest at the Nine Planets was just dressing them up for the day.
Some passers by stopped to wish Richard when they saw him.
OK, here, below, is the way a Westerner wears his dhoti.
Richard was calling to see where the Brahmin priest was, since he was due at the Nine Planets by now.
Bhima Ratha Shanthi Pooja
It turned out that the priest had already set up for the pooja, but it was to be performed at the Sri Raghavendra Swami Brindavana, the same place where the sadhu feast would take place. We ran over there.
Below is a photo of the Brahmin, Sri Dandabani, just beginning our ceremony. This priest works at Ramanasramam. He’s the go-to priest for all of Rajan’s family functions, so we’ve seen him many times over our years here.
We sat down for the pooja. Wait a minute! This was supposed to be a pooja for RICHARD’S birthday. What did they want with me?
The priest began by forming a symbolic Ganesh/Vinayaka out of turmeric.
We were seated facing east, toward Arunachala, next to a brick fire pit, (vedi or homa kunda). On the far side of the altar were two purna kumbas, (sometimes referred to as kalasas), coconuts on top of mango leaves, placed in turmeric water-filled pots, covered by special cloths. These represent the gods, here Shiva and Parvati, which are spiritually energized by the homa. The energy is stored in the tumeric water and makes the water sacred.
For the rest of the ceremony, I turned my camera over to our dear friend Lakshmi. The rest of the photos of the pooja are hers.
First we receive new malas, and again we are asked to put them on each other. Below, Lakshmi’s sister, our friend Vennila, looks on, with a few curious sadhus in the background.
Next, we scatter flower petals onto the newly lit fire (homa, or “fire sacrifice”).
Then we dip a leaf into a pot of ghee and drop the ghee into the fire to encourage it to burn. We dip-and-drop nine times each, first Carol then Richard.
Rajan’s family has now joined us, acting as our family. Below, Rajan’s son Raam Kumar (symbolically Richard’s grandson) is casting dried holy leaves into the fire as a sacrifice to the fire god, Agni.
The priest hands us other things to drop into the flames, more fire sacrifices that we offer to Agni.
Then the Brahmin forms a parcel from seeds and other woody materials, wrapping them in a yellow cloth. We all stand. He gives it to Rajan, who places it in our hands. We have both put our our right hands, and receive it. Then we place it into the fire. This is the end of the first part of the homa, the Ganapati (Ganesh) Homa.
The priest prepares for final tilaks that we place on each other. The key ingredient is black ash from the homa. I guess we bless each other with spiritual energy from the sacrificial fire.
Next comes the application of the tilaks. First I apply one to Richard’s forehead.
Then he applies one on me. He was told to use his right hand, of course, and go around my back to reach my forehead from behind.
It kept getting more and more amazing. The priest took the yellow cloth that covered one of the purna kumbas and tied it into a “crown” for Richard. Symbolically this cloth is charged with spiritual energy from the homa. I thought he looked pretty hilarious.
But the hilarity was on me, because it was my turn next.
Here we are, holding our purna kumbas filled with pooja-blessed holy turmeric water, surrounded by our Indian “family.”
Below is another shot of our “family,” this time including Vennila and Lakshmi, while Rajan took the photo. A couple of sadhus joined the group too.
Now it was time for us to exchange malas. And it finally dawned on me that this “birthday” celebration was also a re-consecration of our marriage. Wow! Who would have guessed that??
We exchange malas, three times, as you would at a wedding.
So here we are, newly re-married. The priest and guests shower us with flower petals. More and more sadhus gathered around us, and the priest gave them all some flowers to throw on us too.
Now the newly re-married couple walks pradakshina around the temple shrine. Three times around.
The next step was the feeding of bananas to each other. My goodness, I have seen this at numerous Indian weddings. I never thought I would be the bride!
My turn to feed my “new” husband.
Now we both hold the blessed prasad, given to us at the end of the pooja.
Like a lot of our experiences here, we learned more about this ceremony only afterward (when we try to write about it). There are several ceremonies done with aged parents in India, starting at the age of 60. Our Tamil friends say that today ours was like a Saptabishekam, a “Ceremony of Completion,” done for elders by their family when their family duties have been completed; all the children grown and on their own, maybe married with their own children.
As we researched this, technically the Saptabishekam seems to be offered at 80, after you have witnessed 1000 full moons. The name of the ritual at 70 is Bhima Ratha Shanthi, but our local Tamil friends do not seem to know this particular name.
This age is important. Especially now, young people should listen to us. Past 70, we are told (here):
The enthusiasm, encouragement and mental strength increase after a person crosses 70 years. It is only after 70 years that the mental faculties and Atmic strength express themselves in full measure. Prior to that, they also behave like other human beings. …
The mental faculties, divine force and the willpower in a person will manifest fully after 70 years and prompt him to set a new goal in life. As a result, such elderly persons will be contemplating upon and exploring the secrets of life.
So I started out this morning thinking I was celebrating Richard’s 70th birthday. But it turned out that we were given a much bigger celebration, the Bhima Ratha Shanthi, where, as “elders,” we were re-committing to our marriage and giving the blessings of our wisdom to our extended family.
The Feast Begins
And the pooja is finished. Just in time! DM arrives with the sadhu feast.
The sadhus have gathered and are waiting for the meal to begin. Banana leaves are placed first, of course.
Richard is asked to begin by offering the first servings to his guests.
Me, too. Lakshmi is helping me to put some biryani onto a leaf plate. I am left-handed, so it wasn’t easy to use my right hand for this task.
Some of our driver friends have come to help serve, too. Below is Purushothaman, a sweet guy who was involved in the preparations for today.
No one will eat until the meal is “officially” begun. The sadhu standing to the right in the photo below is the same beautiful soul who helped with our previous feast back in September. (See this post for the whole story.) He again led the others in chants until all the serving was complete.
Our new friend Dominica rode by with her son, Rama. They found us with the sadhus and wanted to join in.
Vennila dishes up more biryani.
For the last item “served,” Richard gives each sadhu some money, RS 20 each.
This Vishnu-marked fellow is the attendant for this shrine. He had the job of standing at the edge of the meal with a stick in his hand, to keep the monkeys away. He asked me to take his photo, so he’s not as grumpy as he looks.
A monkey sits on top of a stone pillar while the food is being served. He’s hard to see because he blends in with the pillar, but I wanted to show how close he is to the feasting sadhus.
Another monkey hanging around.
To begin the meal, we are asked to walk around and pranam our guests. We actually weren’t sure how we were supposed to behave, but we tried to comply.
Sometime after the meal began, a number of other sadhus arrived. There turned out to be over 150 people, eating at two “sittings”! DM and his helpers made the food stretch so everyone had some.
The Marriage Procession
While the sadhus were eating, unbeknownst to us, a horse-drawn carriage pulled up. Rajan had totally hidden this surprise from us! This day was getting more and more amazing!!
We got into the carriage for a ride down the road, just as any newly married couple would do.
Janani and Raam, Rajan’s daughter and son, rode with us. They are holding the sacred pots from the pooja filled with turmeric water, now sanctified by the homa. They handed them over to us. As we moved down the road, we were to use the mango leaves in the pots to bless the people on the road by sprinkling the holy water on them, a kind of abishekam, I guess.
Raam shot most of the following photos. I’m so proud of the job he did.
And here come Dominica and Rama riding up beside us. I was glad that at least a couple other Westerners witnessed this pageantry! Dominica is a professional photographer who has recently released a beautiful book with portraits of contemporary sages from all over the world. We were honored that she took a few photos of us on this journey. (Unfortunately, I don’t have them to show you right now.)
A view of the fancy horses and their driver.
People along the road didn’t know quite what to make of us, this old Western couple who were “just married.” But everyone had a smile and a wave, and most appreciated the holy water blessing.
Some even raced up to us to receive abishekam.
Passing vehicles slowed down to get their blessing.
These western ladies enjoyed seeing us.
We are so touched by the love we feel from the passers-by.
Ha ha. In the photo below it looks like Richard has a tiny sadhu in his hand to sprinkle the blessing.
Janani told us we weren’t supposed to bless sadhus, after one rode up behind us on a bicycle to let us know this. But some approached us, wanting to partake of the holy water.
We passed the Navagraha again. It’s much more quiet than before, when we were there earlier.
Our newlywed chariot ride comes to an end. Rajan and Janaki are waiting for us.
I never could have guessed that this “first act” of Richard’s birthday celebration would turn into this grand event.
When I look at these photos, and the ones coming in my next post, I think that they are the most beautiful testament to Richard’s and my incredible journey here in India. We truly have the sweetest, most fabulous life, and for that I am immensely grateful to be so blessed.
In my next post we’ll continue with the festivities….