Dhanteras… the first day of Diwali!


Hindu festivals are mostly grounded in mythology. So is Deepavali. Diwali or Divali. Diwali is celebrated in the north over five days.

The first day of Diwali is called Dhanteras or Dhantryaodashi, (dhan- wealth and theras-thrayodashi-13). It is the thirteenth day of the waning lunar cycle in the month of Ashwin or Aippasi (Tamizh month). This day is important for businesses, traders and merchants in North India, Maharashtra and Gujerat.

The Story behind the festival

The legend associated with Dhanteras is about the sixteen-year-old son of King Hima who according to his horoscope, was doomed to die on the fourth day after his marriage by snakebite. On that day, his anxious young bride lit many lamps all over the place and did not allow her husband to sleep. She took out all her gold and precious  ornaments studded with precious gems, gold and silver coins and piled them in a heap at the entrance of her husband’s room. She told stories and sang songs throughout the night.

When Yama-the god of death, arrived as a serpent, the bright dazzle of the brilliant lights blinded his eyes and he could not enter the prince’s chamber. He climbed on to the heap of ornaments and coins and sat there the whole night listening to the melodious songs. In the morning he went away quietly and thus the intelligent wife had saved her husband from Yama’s noose. So Dhanteras is also known as ‘Yamadeepdaan’ day and lamps are left burning throughout the night as a form of reverence to Yama. It is also the night when people light lamps and float them down a river in

memory of their ancestors.

According to another legend, when the Gods and demons churned the milky ocean for Amrita or nectar that would give them immortality, Dhanvantari, the physician of the Gods and an

incarnation of Lord Vishnu emerged from the ocean carrying a kalash or pot of Amrith on the day of Dhanteras. Dhanvantarai is always depicted with the amrith kalash in his hand.

Getting ready

The day is celebrated by renovating and decorating houses and business premises. Entrances and doorways are decorated with colourful designs of Rangoli/kolams to welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Wellbeing, Wealth and Prosperity. To help her find her way into the premises and to show how eagerly the family is awaiting her arrival, small footprints are drawn with rice flour and vermilion powder. Lamps are kept burning all through the night.


Prayers are offered to Goddess Lakshmi on Dhanteras in her form as an owl to provide prosperity

and well being. According to custom, precious metals like gold and silver are bought on this day.

In modern times many people buy a new cooking vessel as well for Annam (food) is also Lakshmi

representing well-being. The metals are an augury of good luck.

Diwali purchases are often done only on this day. The first lamps are lit and paper lanterns with festoons are strung up to announce the arrival of Diwali. All family members arrive at ancestral homes.


Lakshmi Puja is performed in the evening. Tiny earthen diyas are lit to drive away shadows of evil spirits. Bhajans/devotional songs in praise of Goddess Lakshmi are sung in chorus to welcome her.

Naivedya of traditional sweets like kheer/payasam, laddus, jalebis and pedas are offered to the Goddess.

In Maharashtra, dry coriander seeds are lightly pounded and mixed with jaggery and offered to Lakshmi.

In villages, cattle is adorned and worshiped by farmers, their main source of income. In south India, cows, considered to be an incarnation of Lakshmi, are decorated and offered special prasadam. In Brahmin families, the son-in-law is invited for a special feast of onion sambhar and potato roast!

Crackers, candles, diyas, clay figures of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi, earthenware katoris and kulris (cups and tumblers), toys and other objects needed to celebrate Diwali are purchased on Dhanteras.

Business people buy and keep ready new account books for the Lakshmi puja that will be performed on Diwali, their New Year’s day. A girl child born on Dhanteras day is considered to be the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi into the home and considered very lucky in North India.

Dhanteras is not only about praying for material wealth and prosperity. It is a time to develop spiritual equanimity and family bonding.

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Diwali-Deepavali stories!!

A line of lamps


Diwali or Deepavali means a line of lamps. Throughout our history, many stories have become associoated with this greatest festival of the Hindu diaspora.

Most of us celebrate Diwali, but how many of us know the real reasons behind celebrating this festive time of year? It’s not only about having fun but there are mythical and historical reasons behind celebrating Diwali. Let us celebrate Diwali with a new understanding of wealth and prosperity.

Here is the line of events associated with the festival!

  1. Goddess Lakshmi’s Birthday: The Goddess of Wealth and wellbeing, Lakshmi incarnated on the new moon day (amaavasyaa) of the Kartik month during the churning of the ocean (samudra-manthan). Hence the association of Diwali with Lakshmi.
  1. Vishnu Rescued Lakshmi: On this very day (Diwali day), Lord Vishnu in his fifth incarnation as Vaman-avtaara rescued Lakshmi from the prison of King Bali. So, this is another reason for worshipping Ma Larkshmi on Diwali.
  1. Krishna Killed Narakaasur: On the day preceding Diwali, Lord Krishna killed the demon king Narakaasur and rescued 16,000 women from his captivity. The celebration of this freedom went on for two days including the Diwali day as a victory festival.
  1. The Return of the Pandavas: According to the great epic ‘Mahabharata’ , it was ‘Kartik Amavashya’ when the Pandavas came back from their 12 years of banishment that was a result of their defeat in the hands of the Kauravas at the game of dice (gambling). The subjects who loved the Pandavas celebrated the day by lighting the earthen lamps.
  1. The Victory of Rama: According to the epic ‘Ramayana’, it was the new moon day of Kartik when Lord Ram, Ma Sita and Lakshman returned to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana and conquering Lanka. The citizens of Ayodhya decorated the entire city with the earthen lamps and illuminated it like never before.
  1. Coronation of Vikramaditya: One of the greatest Hindu kings, Vikramaditya had his coronation on the Diwali day. This makes Diwali an important historical event as well.
  1. Special Day for Arya Samaj: It was the new moon day of Kartik (Diwali day) when Maharshi Dayananda, one of the greatest reformers of Hinduism and the founder of Arya Samaj attained his nirvana.
  1. Special Day for the Jains: Mahavir Tirthankar, considered to be the founder of modern Jainism also attained his nirvana on Diwali day.
  1. Special Day for the Sikhs: The third Sikh Guru Amar Das institutionalized Diwali as a Red-Letter Day when all Sikhs would gather to receive the Gurus blessings. In 1577, the foundation stone of the Golden Temple at Amritsar was laid on Diwali. In 1619, the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind, who was held by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir, was released from the Gwalior fort along with 52 kings.
  2. The Pope’s Diwali Speech: In 1999, Pope John Paul II performed a special Eucharist in an Indian church where the altar was decorated with Diwali lamps. The Pope had a ’tilak’ marked on his forehead and his speech was full of references to the festival of light.
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Coming into Chennai

The heart stopping feeling of coming into Chennai by road, train or by air is a fantastic sensation. As adults it was a thanksgiving for coming home, a celebration of belonging and an expectation of great events that would happen in the next few days—weddings, birthdays and bonding with family and the city. As kids it was playing, eating, movies and the Marina Beach.



Chennai Central (1)Whenever we travelled by train from Mumbai to Madras, as it was then called, we would eagerly look out of the window from Arakkonam onwards and identify all the stations one by one. This was the signal that we were one step closer to the Central Station where family would be waiting for us. Inevitably the train would grind to a halt just before Basin Bridge waiting for a signal and that was the most frustrating moment.Basin Bridge before the towers were destroyed

Many people would drag their innumerable pieces of luggage and bedding to the door convenient enough to get off first. This would create a huge corridor block as it were, and prevent any human being from budging out and also cause a lot of arguments and fights. Later on, when vestibule trains came into use, people with lighter pieces of luggage would go through the various coaches and reach the one next to the engine so that they would get out of the train closest to the exit of the platform. Once the whistle blew and the train began to move, we would eagerly look out for the platform and compete to be the first one to spot a familiar head of somebody who had come to receive us.

We were a family that got into a car and went off either to Pondicherry, Bangalore or deep south. Driving through the tunnel formed by tamarind trees was always a great pleasure. Sunguvarchatram, Eri kaatha Ramar, Chengelpet, Thirunindraoor were all plces that we looked forward to as it meant that we were soon going to be home. Today Sriperambadur is the spot where your nerves take over and you grit your teeth to navigate Porur! The never ending line of shops and more shops on the roads signal the fact that you have reached Chennai.

I have had the same feeling travelling on plane too. TouchdownFrom the gradually descending plane, first comes the comforting thud of the wheels getting ready for landing and then you can spot Poonamalle and Porur lake. If the plane is coming from Anna Nagar side, other famous landmarks like the Cathedral and Raj Bhavan complex appear. I always crane my neck to catch a glimpse of my apartment complex, but it is not easy as all buildings look the same unless they are the huge glass ones. The city looks lovely especially at night with the blazing lights, huge posters and travelling traffic. When you come in from the sea, that is a great experience..a kind of false feeling that you are coming back to my city from alien places. The final landmark to be spotted is St Thomas Mount and then it is the runway. The touch down is accompanied with a flip of the stomach (not caused by the food) saying, ‘Home’

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Chiming Chennai


The soft chant of the Suprabatham in the beautiful voice of MS Subbalakshmi awakens the city. In some neighbourhoods the peal of church bells and the call of the Muezzin wafts through the air.

Religion is a living breathing, integral part of this city. When there is a festival from Pongal to Varusha Pirappu, Thai Poosam and Adi Fridays, Krishna Janmashtami, Navaratri and the cold mornings of Margazhi, music too is a vital part of all these festivals.

DabaraChennai’s chimes begin with the clink of the dabbara tumbler–the two receptaclesin which coffee is served. The scraping sound of the long iron ladle on a deep iron wok placed on a iron stove and carted around in a push cart as the vendor roasts peanuts is a distinctive sound.


peanut seller





Another ting, ting, ting announces the presence of the Son papdi seller on his cart and cycle who plays a tune on the big glass jar in which he stores the precious white sweet sugar candy.son papdi seller


Music is a great integrating factor. Chennai is also the arena where the best performers—Carnatic and Hindustani classical music, popular numbers, folk arts, Western ensembles and quartets—all congregate from November to February.cutcheri A performance in one of the leading sabhas is the stamp of excellence on any performer. The sabhas and auditoriums, resound to the various notes, beats and rhythms of classical music.

English, French and German plays are staged regularly. The Tamizh drama scene is dominated by comedy. Serious drama in Tamizh is restricted to a handful of performers. The stalwarts of drama have all migrated to cinema and Kodambakkam-Vadapalani is the background for the most number of cinemas to be produced in India. Animation is a fledgling industry and along with IT is a great means of expressing creativity.

Chennai is the home of Bharathnatyam with Kalakshetra and many other excellent teachers with their schools imparting dance education and qualifying world class dancers. dancersA you walk on the streets of Mylapore or Gopalapuran, T Nagar or Adyar, you can hear the beat of the dance teachers stick as she does the Nattuvangam and the dancing bells of students going thaiyya thai! Dance is in the very graceful sway of the women of Chennai. Most of the girls from students, to vegetable sellers, housewives to IT pros wear the silver anklets on their feet and the tinkle of these bells add a great deal of life and colour to the streets of the city.

Religious discourses, study of Vedas and Sanskrit flourishes in this city giving it the spiritual ambience.taalam The sound of the cymbals accompanying the bhajan groups are an important part of the early morning scene in December. The drum beats accompany any procession be it political, weddings, ritual temple events and funerals.

The many radio, FM and TV channels reiterates how important the visual medium is in this city. There is a record number of newspapers and magazines in the regional and English language in the country.

Culture in this capital Chennai, is the very raison d’ etre of every citizen. The pulse of the people keeps perfect beat to the rhythm of life, of music, of tradition and modernity. Heritage is a respected word and even the cadences of the spoken language flow with a basic musical note.

The sound of reversing vehicles adds to the chimes of the city as do the double horns of taxi drivers and the pom pom of the klaxon by auto drivers. auto hornHorns can be deceptive for a deep bass sounding horn or a raucous blast can be from a teeny weeny two wheeler while the peep of a sophisticated horn could be a BMW! The sirens of ambulances punctuate the atmosphere day and night especially if you are in and around hospitals!

This is Chennai the city that chimes with different sounds!

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Tutuma and the Hamsam/Swan

ramanafatherwifeself-300 (2)Urmila my sister-in-love, or Tutuma as we all learned to call her, married our eldest brother and came home one morning. The marriage was a fait accompli and we soon got to know her and to love her.

She was a very warm person and had a special soft corner for me. I stayed with her for fairly long periods as she created a home or maike (maternal home) for me. She was an artist and introduced me to the concept of enjoying objets d’ art. My lifelong interest in collecting beautiful things was inspired by her.

She travelled with my brother to some interesting pockets in rural India. Her delight was enhanced when she discovered Karaikudi and the little shops that sold things discarded by the Chettiar community from their huge collections…this was the time when the community was moving away from the old ‘bangalas’ (bungalows) and cleared out their homes. Many interesting things found their way to these shops that had still not been discovered by city boutiques.

Tutuma picked up wonderful stuff. She brought back to Bombay a handful of gold foiled glass paintings that we mistook for Tanjore paintings. She gave me the choicest of he pieces and I still have four or five. Only later did I find out that they were painted back to front on glass and then framed.

Glass paintings

Tanjore painting is a classical South Indian painting style. It takes its name from the name of the town of Thanjavur (anglicized as Tanjore). The art form spread across the Tamil country and is said to go back to 1600 CE when the Nayakars of Thanjavur under the suzerainty of the Vijayanagara Rayas encouraged art—chiefly, classical dance and music—as well as literature, both in Telugu and Tamil and painting particularly in temples.

The style of Tanjore painting originated in the Maratha court of Thanjavur (1676 – 1855). Tanjore paintings are panel paintings done on wooden planks that gave the art form its Tamil name—‘palagai padam’ (palagai = wooden plank; padam = picture). The paintings are painted in rich and vivid colours and the subject matter is usually images of deities and other heavenly creatures with human beings also represented. What makes it unique is the use of glittering gold foil overlaid on gesso work, a white mixture of chalk, gypsum and pigment bound together with gum. The images are embellished with glass beads and precious and semi-precious gems.


Mysore paintings are a similar art form. Both Tanjore and Mysore originate from from the same style of Vijayanagara paintings. The same artists, Chitragars and Naidus migrated to various places including Thanjavur and Mysore. You can see the degree of similarity between the two styles while many differences make it two distinct styles.

The glass paintings are an improvisation of the traditional Tanjore Painting. These paintings are done on the back side of glass.

Glass painting

In Karaikudi Tutuma also picked up some beautiful wooden carvings. Knowing my penchant for Ganesha, she got me a beautiful one. Amongst her own collection was a magnificent Hamsam..the traditional and mythological bird associated with Goddess Saraswathi. The hamsa is depicted as the ‘vehicle’ or vahana of Saraswati, the goddess of learning. A white swan is often shown sitting at her feet. The sounds of the air that we inhale is called ‘ham’; the air that is breathed out is called ‘sah’. So Goddess Saraswati is supposed symbolically to ride the very essence of being: our breath.


The Hamsa is a familiar leitmotif in Indian art, literature, sculpture and textiles. It is an aquatic bird that resembles a goose or a swan. It is reputed to eat pearls and to be able to separate milk from water and drink only pure milk. The Hamsa represents the perfect harmony between spirituality and life. The Hamsa is seen as a symbol of purity, detachment, divine knowledge, cosmic breath (prana) and the highest spiritual accomplishment. It is supposed to transcend the limitations of creation for it can walk on the earth, fly in the sky and swim in the water.

I fell in love with this depiction of the bird and Tutuma promised me that she would get me one on her next visit. Sadly she could not find another oe nor did I when I visited the town Karaikudi and its shops a few years later. I had been on the lookout for one but never found a piece that said “take me home”.

Seven years ago, Tutuma passed away and left a great big void in our lives. Last year my brother Ramana decided to downsize his establishment and as giving away stuff that had accumulated in his home. I sent in my application for the hamsa and he immediately packed it and sent it with other stuff to my nephew’s place.

The tale does not end there as my nephew relocated to another city in a hurry and did not pen the parcel from Pune. It took another year before he came back to his apartment in Chennai and opened the parcel. I was away in Bangalore and he delivered it to my husband and finally, I opened the parcel and unpacked the exquisite carved wooden hamsam.

Today, it sits next to my chair where I chant my prayers, where I read and spend my time. It reminds me of the Goddess Saraswathi who has blessed me with many of her gifts and grace. It reminds me of the Tutuma, of her love and affection for me that anchored my being. It reminds me of my brother Ramana who brought Tutuma into our family and who shared this lovely piece of art work generously with me……and I share it with you all!

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Varusha Pirappu—Tamizh New Year and Panchangam or Almanac

An Indian New Year’s Day is an occasion when generations come together to give and receive blessings and best wishes. Children also look forward to this day as it brings gifts and money from the elders in the family.

T New YearCalled Varusha Pirappu (Tamil: varusham =year; pirappu = birth), the Tamil New Year is the day that marks the beginning of the New Year in the Tamizh calendar.

Varusham in Tamizh means ‘year’ and pirappu is ‘birth’, the beginning of the New Year in the Tamizh calendar. The Tamil New Year follows the vernal equinox and the first day and month of the year invariably occurs on April 14th. The Tamil calendar is based on the solar cycle. It has a sixty years cycle and each year has twelve months. After the completion of sixty years, considered to be the “Hindu century”, the calendar begins anew with the first year. The Vakya or Tirukannitha Panchangam (the traditional Tamil almanac) is referred to as the almanac for all auspicious and celebratory days.

The month of Chithirai (April-May) is an auspicious one. Tamizh New Year’s day is celebrated with festivity and prayer. An important event on this day is the reading of the  Panchankam or almanac in most temples and people visit it to hear what the year ahead will mean in terms of prosperity. The Tamizh New Year follows the vernal equinox and the first day and month of the year invariably occurs on April 13th or 14th.

The Tamil calendar is based on the solar cycle. It has a sixty years cycle and each year has twelve months. After the completion of sixty years, considered as the Hindu century, the calendar begins anew with the first year. Each year has a distinctive name. This new year is called JAYA!

The special meal cooked on this day has dishes reflecting six different tastes called shadruchi— sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.

The Tamil Panchangam or Almanac


The month of Chithirai (April-May) is an auspicious one. Tamizh New Year’s day is celebrated with festivity and prayer. An important event on this day is the reading of the Panchangam or almanac in most temples and people visit it to hear what the year ahead will mean in terms of prosperity.

The Tamil Panchangam is a solar and sidereal Hindu calendar. Panchangam means five parts and it records five important features of any given day:

  1. Thidhi—the particular day in a fortnight after the New and Full Moon
  2. Naal –the star or asterism that the moon occupies
  3. Karanam—is half of the part of Tithi
  4. Nithya Yoga—an auspicious moment
  5. Vaara –day of the week

These features are derived from the position of the Sun and Moon. The Panchangam is used to find out these five basic characteristics, for finding the exact dates of festivals, fasts, dates to perform shraadh for ancestors and for finding auspicious dates for family functions. Astrologers use the panchangam to prepare horoscopes and predictions.

There are many Panchangams that are used as a reference by householders and astrologers.

The Vakya or Tirukannitha Panchangam is the traditional Tamil almanac.

The Madathu Panchangam is issued by Kanchi Kamokotti Peetham.

The Manonmani Vilasam Press has been publishing the Asal No.28, Pambu Panchangam from Kondithope in North Madras. It is available not only throughout Tamil Nadu but also in many countries where the Tamil speaking population can be found.

Srirangam Vakya Panchangam is the almanac used by Vaishnavaites. The Gowri Panchangam is also issued from Srirangam.

The daily calendar that is a tear-off almanac is found in many homes in the south. Each day’s astrological details and the festivals including famous temple events are given in detail. These calendars are issued as free giveaways by shops and newspapers on January 1st every year.

Vishu kani

Vishu kani

Vishu is an important festival for Keralaites and for people near the Kerala border. In many families, the Vishu kani is placed before the deities in the puja room. Seasonal varieties of fruits and vegetables with coins, silver and gold are arranged beautifully. People wake up in the morning and open their eyes to this bounty and hope that the year ahead will be as rich and fruitful. It is a kind of thanksgiving festival.

In homes feasts are cooked, the deity of the family is worshipped and elders bless the children wishing them health, prosperity and good times. The Day’s menu includes six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. The combinations of these essences have a tremendous impact on our digestion, absorption and metabolic rejuvenation that is so very important for well being according to Ayurveda.

It must be remembered that festivals in the Hindu calendar are related to religious concepts. It is not partying like Western celebrations. It is about going to temples and meeting family and elders to ask for their blessings for a productive year.

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The Garuda Story

Yesterday, my friend Pavitra Srinivasan put up a photo of a religious icon on Facebook.

garudaThe picture was so good that I requested her to use it as my Cover Photo. I inadvertently called the picture Dwarapalaka, a figure that can be found at entrances to temples and the shrines inside temple complexes.

Dwarapalakas (literally dwara=door; palakka=guards) are fearsome looking figures who guard the presiding deity of that temple. They are the devotees as well as the protectors of their masters and are typically envisioned as huge and robust warriors. The figure will tell you which god can be found inside the garba graham or sanctum sanctorum. Each Hindu God has specified figures.

The figure in this picture is Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu from the Hindu Trinity who is the caretaker and preserver of the universe. Garuda is depicted as having the golden body of a strong man with a white face, red wings, and an eagle’s beak and with a crown on his head. This ancient deity was said to be massive, large enough to block out the sun. Garuda is also the Hindu name for the constellation Aquila. The Brahminy kite and Phoenix are considered to be the contemporary representations of Garuda.

Brahminy Kite

This bird has appeared in my life many times and I considered it as a great blessing. By the way, religiously speaking, I belong to the Iyer sect of Tamil Brahmins..we call ourselves Sanathanis or Smarthas as we worship all representations of the divine from the six agamas (ways) of worship—Saiva, Vaishnava, Sakta (Goddess), Saura (Sun), Ganapatya and Kaumara (Muruga). We are given the choice to worship any one primarily or all. These are not purely theological divisions but include spiritual philosophy and methods of sadhana. Vaishnavas restrict their worship to all forms of Vishnu.

It was the early 90’s and we had moved to Chennai from Mumbai. My husband was refurbishing, renovating and rebuilding ANZ Grindlay’s Bank premises all over India. He had moved specifically to Chennai to redevelop their property in Haddows Road into an international hub for the bank’s activities. There was a branch of the erstwhile Grindlay’s Bank in Eldorado building and we would visit it for our banking needs. I was attracted to the over 7 foot wood carving of a mythical creature that was polished in a dark varnish. I found out that it was a representation of Garuda and I would make it a point of walking up to where he was standing, in a corner of the basement and visit with him.

When the new branch was built and inaugurated in Grindlay’s Garden on Haddows Road, my husband saw to it that this magnificent Garuda was given pride of place at the entrance with a earthenware uruli (flat bottomed wide, mouthed pot) with flowers floating in it.. And that is where he was until my husband retired. His secretary, Penny Smith, continued to be on the premises and would give us updates. Whenever I visited the branch, I would search for him for you see, even though he was wingless, he led a peripatetic life and was moved around quite a bit.  Nowadays, with internet banking, I do not visit the branch at all. Penny too moved out to OMR Road and I have no news of the Garuda….but he lives on in my mind, majestic, benign and spreading his blessings and good will.

Eagles are not a common sight in urban environments. We used to see vultures hovering around Malabar Hills, especially on the days there was a funeral in the Tower of Silence.


A couple of years ago, we were house sitting for a friend in Koramangala, Bengaluru. There was a huge construction going on outside our living room window that we could watch and monitor. There were enough pigeons and the occasional crow that visited us. One day I had just finished reading my regular chant of Vishnu Sahasranamam when I spotted an eagle/kite soaring from that construction and then landing on a corner of a floor. I did not have a pair of binoculars nor am I qualified to identify the bird species, but I made up my mind that it was indeed Garuda who had come to bless me. I saw the bird and its partner for a couple of days or so and then they disappeared.

Pavithra Srinivasan ‘s comment in Facebook, “Padmini: Indeed it (garuda) can. And they’re vehicles that carry you too, to the past.” Her picture of a Garuda Vahanam, a kind of chariot shaped like the vehicle of Vishnu that is used to carry the processional image of Vishnu around the temple on festive days, has truly given wings to my memories. Thank you Pavithra!

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