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