September 27, 2011

Smashing Coconuts at Dawn.

Morning, Chidambaram Temple, by the Shivaganga Tank

When I was in South India this past summer, one of my favorite things to do was to smash coconuts on the stone steps of the Ganesha Temple. We were visiting the Shiva Nataraja Temple complex in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, which houses many smaller temples inside its thick walls and elaborate gopurams. We would go there several times each day to wander, meditate, and to participate in the rituals and events surrounding the 10-day seasonal Ani Festival.

Inside a Shiva temple complex, you can find what I’ll describe as a Shiva family gathering, meaning any Shiva-related deity may have its own shrine. The shrine might be a tiny nook in the wall, a little side corridor, or its own separate enclosure. In enormous complexes such as Chidambaram’s approx 40-acre temple-village, there are sizeable individual temples located throughout the extensive courtyards that range from the modest scale of my downtown New York City apartment to the size of a large city block.

Walking toward the Shivakamasundari Temple at night

Shiva’s beloved, Shivakamasundari, has the biggest private temple on the grounds, followed by Shiva’s sons, the much-adored elephant-headed Ganesha and the Tamil favorite, the sly warrior Subrahmanya, who majestically rides a peacock. These two are well represented in multiple small shrines throughout the complex in addition to having their own free-standing temples in the courtyards surrounding Nataraja.

One evening we went as a group to the small Ganesha temple, and after moving through the rituals of mantra, mudra, and arathi that had now become comfortable, we descended the slight staircase back outside, then took turns hurling coconuts at the stone steps of the temple. Slam – Crack! So satisfying.

As each coconut shattered, gushing water and scattering its shards across the courtyard, a few children and one woman ran around gathering up the pieces. It felt simultaneously like an act of aggression, an amusement park activity, and a physical form of prayer.

Temple Offerings

We were walking quietly back to the Hotel Sharadharam later that evening and my friend  Zhenja LaRosa suddenly said, I need to do that thing again with the coconut. We’re getting up really early tomorrow morning and doing it again. I agreed. There was something profoundly cathartic about the coconut smashing. Each of us had been dealing with a lot of change in our lives, which had been both challenging and exciting, and there was something in this act that felt like an acknowledgement of a real break with the old and an embrace of the new, which is at the heart of the Ganesha paradigm.

Ganesha is often described as the remover of obstacles, but he also happens to be the one who places obstacles before you so that you have to confront something in your life. He is heavy and sedentary, yet can balance while dancing on the back of his little mouse, Musaka. He is complex and contradictory, just like us. He is that part of us that invites us to dare to create change, to be audacious enough to step over known thresholds into new places within the temples of our lives.

Little niche Ganesha, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Is this level of change scary? Yes. Is it exhilarating? Yes.  Do we sometimes need to break one thing down in order to build up something new? Absolutely. This is why Zhenja and I found our selves back at the temple steps at dawn, smashing coconuts on the warm stones and stepping through pools of their sticky and satisfying water.

Do this: Set an intention this fall. Choose a specific aspect of your life that you wish to dramatically shift or transform and write it down. Commit to taking specific steps outside of your normal habits and comfort zone. And every single day this fall, have a chat with Ganesha, Lord of Thresholds, symbol of new beginnings and of infinite possibility.


As a final note, my July coconut smashing gave birth to Writing Your Practice, a writing course designed specifically for yogis through the Yoga Teacher Telesummit. It begins on Monday, October 2. For more information, click   Writing Your Practice


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