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The Mountain of The Sacred Eagles

For over 100 years a strange mid-day ritual – the feeding of two sacred eagles (kits) – has drawn pilgrims from all over India to this abscure place – Thirukalikundrum – (the abode of the sacred kites).

You travel south from Madras for 38 km to Covelong, a popular beach resort on the Coromandel Coast and, from there, another 30 km puts you in Thirukalikundrum. The road traverses salt-pans, vast tracks of water divided into squares like a chequerboard edged with pyramid shaped hillocks of dried salt, then cuts through Tamil villages that time has not touched for centuries.

Soon, in the purple distance, hills appear framed against the skyline – low-slung hazy hills rising to a peak and, on the peak, a diffused outline of a temple.

The driver and guide in the front seat of the car speak in Tamil and point to the hills. Watches are checked, the accelerator depressed; it is important to arrive with time to spare.

The area at the base of the mountain throbs with activity – crowded buses, postcard vendors, flower stalls, soft drink stands, bead sellers stuffed mongoose peddlers, cows, crows, chickens, dogs, goats, sadhus, fakirs, and a spectrum of other assorted humanity acting out their roles in a lush green, blossom-laden setting.

The path to the summit is steep and from early morning the ‘old ones’ have been groping their way up the tiers of granite steps. Others walk, pausing often to rest where the steps flatten out to become landings. Some who can pay are carried up in palanquins (a little carried on poles by two or four men). It is not a climb for the weak hearted, especially in the summer heat.

A temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, squats on the summit and nearby, just below the temple, is a partially enclosed rocky parapet with a sheer drop to the plains below. IT is on this ledge that the ancient ritual will take place.

11.30 A.M. The mountain-top is a cluster of multi-coloured saris and men in white. Part of the multitude cover the rocky ledge; some stand and others sit. The remainder carpet the temple area – waiting…

11.45 A.M. Two Brahmin priests emerge from the temple. A low rumble from a thousand voices floats on the still air. The priests move onto the rocky parapet and begin to clear the area of humanity. The crowd spills back into the temple area away from the ledge. Tension is high. Watches are studied. The priests on the rock begin to pray, gazing towards the sky.

11.50 A.M. Food and water vessels are brought in to the enclosure by attendants and placed in exact positions. One priests sits alongside the food. The other continues his silent prayer to the sky. All is quiet.

12 Noon. Two moving specks appear in the sky. The multitude becomes animated. The specks become bigger as they descend towards the temple. The forms of two eagles or kites hover for a moment then land on the high point of the rock not far from the squatting priest. Feathers fluff, wings settle, beaks are scratched on the rock. They gaze towards the watching, whispering crowd.

Moments pass. One bird moves slowly towards the priest and the food. It indulges itself from the dish to the right to the priest and then heads for the water container. Refreshed, the eagle wanders around. The second bird in turn repeats the procedure. The first takes off and hovers overhead as if protecting the other. Finally, they stand together at the point of their original landing. They look at each other and begin their ascent into a blue Indian sky. The time is 12.10 P.M.

The crowd intermingles. The food containers are brought from the rocky enclosure into the temple area and set down on a section of a low wall. The priests follow and begin the distribution of the remaining sacred food (prasad) to the pilgrims who clamour to receive a handful.

12.45 P.M. The area is now almost deserted, quiet again, save for the chatter of the birds and the call of hungry crows anxious to devour any remaining scattered morsels. The granite steps echo the fading footsteps of the last stragglers moving down the face of the mountain.

The legend of the sacred eagles tells that centuries ago, at this spot, two Brahmin priests of the Shiva temple blasphemed against God. As punishment, they were transformed into eagles, and every day their eternal destiny decrees that they fly from Varanasi, the holy city of the Hindus in the north of India to Rameshwaram, another holy spot in the south. They rest at the mountain, nourish themselves, then continue to their destination returning thence to Varanasi.

Realists will state that it is highly improbable, if not impossible that the birds fly the great distance from Varanasi to Rameshwaram (about 2000 kilometres) daily. It is impossible also, that the same two visitors are 1000 years old; consequently, a replacement must become necessary over the years.

The process by which this takes place in such a way that continuity is not disturbed, the birds always remaining two, challenges explanation. It is strange that other kites flying over the mountain, scouting for food, do not land. The species is quite common in the area. The birds have been followed several times by a helicopter team in an endeavour to trace their flight pattern. The kites, however, were lost each time somewhere in the skies over the face of India.

Traditional Hindu symbolism relates birds to human souls. Those of evil doers are incarnated in birds of prey. In general, birds in flight are symbols of the swiftness of thought, imagination and spiritual processes. They pertain to the element of air and if eagles, they denote ‘height’ and ‘loftiness’ of spirit. High flying birds imply spirtitual longing. The symbolic relationship between the eagles and the two Brahmin priests who blasphemed is apparent.

This 1000 year old ritual forms a living continuum of ancient symbolism. Is it somehow contrived and orchestrated by the keepers of the temple? Do eagles possess their own canny logic and behavioural patterns?

Or are the birds really the incarnated souls of the two Brahmin priests?

Note: Commonly known as kites or eagles, the birds are Egyptian Vultures (Neophron Percnopterus).

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¤ Bodhgaya ¤ Chidambaram ¤ Chitrakoot
¤ Dargahkaliyarsharif ¤ Dharamsala ¤ Dilwaratemples
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¤ Pilgrimagesofsikhs ¤ Rameshwaram ¤ Rishikesh
¤ Sabarimala ¤ Shatrunjayahill ¤ Shivapur
¤ Tawangmonastery ¤ Thirukalikundrum ¤ Tirupati
¤ Travelofgods ¤ Trichur ¤ Tripureshwari
¤ Tungnath ¤ Vaishnodevi ¤ Varanasi
¤ Vrindavan ¤ Yamnotri