I had barely walked 20 steps when my feet began to burn in protest. The natural heat of the Western Ghats was quite bearable compared to the pollution and heat of the cities. But my feet weren’t used to walking barefoot under the afternoon sun’s glare. I tip-toed past the tall and colourful gopuram and into the Sringeri Temple premises.
To the right stood the presiding deity Sharada Devi’s temple. In the middle stood the ornate Vidyashankara Temple in this otherwise humble place of worship. To the left was an open shelter for devotees. Way ahead of it all, I could see steps leading to the Tunga River. The entrance, where I stood, was a good hundred steps away from the staircase. I decided to go for it. My feet weren’t impressed.
Walking as fast as I could, I made it past the vast quadrangle, down the stairs to the river. The Tunga flowed gently past the temple, as big black fish created ripples in her shallow waters. Devotees seemed to pause by a space amidst the steps. I wondered what shrine would fit in an extended crevice between two steps. It was a stone sculpture of a snake using its hood to shelter a spawning frog from the sun–a story believed to be the founding factor behind the temple. The locals say that upon seeing such kindness from a natural predator, Adi Shankaracharya picked this site to teach his disciples. The story of the snake and the frog supports the Advaita Vedanta philosophy he propounded. So, it’s not really a surprise that the Acharya was inspired to choose this place for teaching his disciples.
The river bank reached out to the child in me, not only for its snake-and-frog story but also for the leaping fish in the water. They splash around in a huddle close to the bank, happily eating away the pilgrims’ offerings. It’s a custom here to feed puffed rice to the hungry fish. Needless to say, I did a thorough job of it. After I had overfed the fish, I made my way to the Sharadamba Temple, the main structure in the premises. The fragrance of camphor invited me in, and my feet felt relieved when I walked into the cool sanctum.
The Sharadamba Temple is like any other South Indian temple heavy with Dravidian architecture and heady with fragrant camphor. And like you’d picture a goddess, Sharada Devi was adorned with care; the deep red saree and shiny nose-ring looked magnificent on her. I knew this Hindu goddess was considered an embodiment of knowledge. But I didn’t yet know of her significance in the temple’s birth. Later, I was told that Shankaracharya chose Sharadamba as the presiding deity, for she is the female alternative for Dakshinamurthy–the male god of knowledge. As female deities in our culture are generally perceived to be more giving and kind, she was the Acharya’s natural choice. It follows, then, that Sharada Devi blesses a devotee not only with knowledge but also with motherly love.