We stop for a selfie before heading out the door!
…and “the trip” of my life begins. Everything went pretty smoothly…off to the Braintree shuttle feeling full of excitement and anticipation. We made the one that was ready to pull out @ 5:00 , then through security without a hitch (except I got it in my head that I absolutely must mail out my mother’s birthday card before I flew off. Her birthday was the day after we would be returning, so if not now, when? But here’s the rub: the stamps had to be bought in a shop after you pass through security, but you had to mail it out before security, so one had to go back through security, and then go back out, and through security all over AGAIN! Sol strongly urged that this was not a good idea, but I was willing to do it…for mom…finally after asking many questions about this procedure to one of the security guards, he left his post for us and took the card out of my hand to mail it himself! Thank you, kind sir, and mom…this was all because I love you so much!
We had a lovely dinner at Durgin-Park, a “landmark since 1827,” whose original location is in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, yet a branch of the restaurant was located right across from our British Airways gate!
We’re all set this time- we have our visas in tow!
British Airways only gave us an hour between flights. The boarding was a bit slower than we had expected, and then when we were ready to land, they kept us in a holding pattern for a good 30 minutes, so by the time we landed, we and several others on the same flight made a run for it, boarded, and took off just in time! A few things worth mentioning about the flight over to Heathrow is that I sat next to such a charming young (25?) girl named Charlotte who lives by Windsor Palace. She has this interesting job in which she travels all over the country, has a boyfriend in Africa who is a geologist for a copper mine, has a few dogs that she just adores, and takes care of her autistic brother. I found her to be beautiful, sweet, smart, funny, and incredibly mature. Also, at one time, all of a sudden it came on me, and I felt terribly sick. I broke out in a sweat and felt as if I was besieged by a flu. I asked Sol to get me a bag because I thought I would throw up. I slept for awhile and felt much better when I awoke. Phew! (I had been worried that I would get sick.)
On the trip to India, I took a sleeping pill and was out for about 6 of the 9 hours. I am convinced that’s the way to do it. The meals they served on the plane were Indian food, and the stewardesses were Indian and wearing saris. A taste of things to come. I sat next to a very sweet young man who lives and works in London, and was going back to India to see his parents. Finally, we land…Chennai, 1:30 am, Sunday morning, February 16th. I can’t believe I am finally in India! Everything was going so well, and we get a text telling us that “one or more of your luggage may not have traveled with you.” Both pieces were not on the belt, so next stop…going to British Airways for paperwork, along with quite a few other people, to give them information of where to deliver it. We were told it would be delivered the next day.
We regret to inform you that your luggage did not travel with you!
How ironic! Here we are, going off to India to get rid of our attachments, and the universe made it very easy for us. We went outside and there I see a man holding a sign that said “Sol Sandperl!” What was great is that we were to find out that he was the same guy, Murthi, who came to get us last July (when we were a no–show), so Sol got to pay him for that time, too. (It felt so good to make things right with him, as we had made many efforts to do so previously.) Immediately outside I felt the warmth of the climate, which felt so good after how cold it’s been this winter. I got to see a little bit of Chennai in the dark. My impression was “How strange everything looks.” Not a typical city with tall skyscrapers. Just many cramped light colored buildings, some that looked like village huts and others that looked like Israeli style buildings. Our driver stopped at a chai shop, and it was prepared like I had seen on some YouTube videos, as is the custom…holding the pot from high above and pouring it into another pot from below, which mixes and froths at the same time! It was served in a small glass cup, about 6 ounces, and then that glass was placed into another glass, so it’s not too hot to hold and easier to drink. Perfection!
Sol enjoying our first India chai
A group of about 5 or 6 young teenage boys came up to the window and said, “Hello, hello! You from America? You like our culture?” “Yes, very much,” I answered. “You do, ya , we are so happy!”
It is about 2:00 am, so it’s dark. But not many people seem to be sleeping…
We will be traveling southwest, out of the city and onto the highway. It was dark, but I noticed that all the trucks were decorated…each one was a work of art.
We drove past some hills, and our driver even took us to the top of Gingee Hill, which is a very historic place with a fort built on the top. I will write more info later, but unfortunately, it was too dark to see.
We started to see signs to Arunachala and Tiruvannamalai, and knew we were finally going to soon reach our destination. It was impossible to sleep, we were too excited! It was a good 3 and 1/2 hour drive, with the last 60 or so minutes being slow-going with dirt roads, bumps, detours, and construction. We passed through several villages or towns where, even though it was quite late, there were throngs of people out. Our driver told us that these were weddings. We also started to see many old sadhus either sleeping or just sitting by the side of the road. And where was the sun? I couldn’t wait for it to come up. We made one more stop for a chai tea. Although it was early, 3:50 am, there were several men sitting/standing about, along with a dog. The taxi driver put plastic chairs out in front for us to sit. Again, the chai was served the same way. Delicious! We were told that the president of the ashram likes to stop there also.
The best chai EVER! Frothy and all stirred up with milk and a little bit of sugar!
It’s a great show!
Whenever you see a big copper canister like this in India, it’s time to stop and have what’s in it!
There were also many strange packages of food being sold in bags. Sol, who seems to have a knack for purchasing good things at such places, ended up buying a bag of coconut corn crisps, very tasty and sweet. (This little package sure came in handy a few days later when we needed a snack while walking the Inner Path). Back in the car, driving, and then all of a sudden, it started to get a bit lighter, and we turned into the Ashram!
We Arrive at the Ashram…
I recognized it immediately from pictures and videos others had taken and posted, including Sol’s last trip with his mother.
These pictures are from Sol’s last trip to the Ashram.
From Sol’s last visit…this is how the front gate looked back in 1980.
Our driver went in to get our room key. It was very quiet, peaceful, but to my surprise he pulled out of the ashram, and drove on out. When I questioned him, he told us we were to stay at one of the guest houses a short distance (a quarter mile) away. He turned off onto a tiny narrow street going downhill with a few twists and turns, and stopped at a place called Achalam. It looked like a little 2-story motel, and our room was on the ground floor. I saw a little toad out front hopping away….hmmm, auspicious sign? I seem to remember reading somewhere it’s good luck to see a toad. But here’s where we really become aware of our missing luggage and become a bit downcast and disappointed. The room was stark and drab…with no towels, sheets, soap, (a reminder here to the reader that all these things were packed away in our luggage- of which we had none). There was a plaid coverlet on the small double bed with a hard mattress (and when I say hard, I really mean HARD), 2 pillows, and 2 rods made up the closet to hang clothes, of which we, of course, had none to hang. And from the ceiling was this awful fluorescent light strip that was an assault to the eyes – just god awful. The bathroom did have a western toilet, and let ‘s just say how glad I am that I packed my baby wipes with me, as of course there was no toilet paper. What I really wanted to do after the long trip (what most people want to do) was shower and change my clothes, but without our luggage, this was not possible.
I believe we tried to sleep a little bit, but we were too excited for the dawn to break and visit the ashram, and we knew we needed to go out and buy some essentials to get by until our luggage arrived, so sleep was impossible. But more than this pressing need for our physical comforts was our strong desire to be at the ashram.
6:30 am- We take our first walk up to the ashram… this is the first time we are out walking on India ground- and the senses are already bombarded with incredible and strange sights, sounds, smells heretofore unknown…
(From Richard Clarke’s blogpost: On the left side of the street is Mahakali Temple. Mahakali, literally translated as Great Kali, is a Hindu Goddess, considered by some to be the consort of Siva, and by others as the basis of Reality. Mahakali in Sanskrit is etymologically the feminized variant of Mahakala or Great Time (which is interpreted also as Death), an epithet of the God Siva in Hinduism. Mahakali is not another name of the dark Goddess Kali, who is the force of the anger of Durga but an aspect of the Mahashakti and therefore her color is light blue.
Mahakali’s mythology is contained in various Puranic and Tantric Hindu Scriptures (Shastra), where She is variously portrayed as the Adi-Shakti or Primeval Force of the Universe, identical with the Ultimate Reality or Brahman, the (female) Prakriti or World as opposed to the (male) Purusha or Consciousness, or as one of three manifestations of Mahadevi (The Great Goddess) that represent the three Gunas or attributes in Samkhya philosophy; in this interpretation Mahakali represents Tamas or the force of inertia.
Next to the temple there are vendors selling items with which to worship Mahakali: flower malas, camphor, and especially limes. You will see crushed limes littered on the ground near the temple, and impaled on the Trishul (Siva’s trident) in front of the temple.)
We walk up a little hill with a few twists and turns, and we are now on the main road just a short distance from the Ashram (the sign for The Dreaming Tree restaurant caught on the left here without any realization that we were to soon discover it as one of our favorite hang-outs in Tiru!)
We start seeing the cows everywhere.
We start seeing colorful shrines – statues of cows decorated with garlands of flowers and small bowls of camphor oil lit here and there.
Then we come to the front gate of the ashram…
Sol is taking this pic of the front gate – 1980
Sol is back at the Ashram, 2014-(this time with me) 34 years later!
After passing beneath the arch which announces the name of the Ashram, the visitor will cross a large open courtyard flanked by shady trees, one of which is this 400 year old Iluppai tree.
I’m standing in front of the 400 year old Iluppai tree, pressing my palms together. I learned this is the customary greeting when individuals meet and a farewell when they part here is India. It is “Namaste,” sometimes expressed as Namaskar or Namaskaram which means “I bow to the God within you”, or “The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you” – a knowing that we are all made from the same One Divine Consciousness.
This is the upper courtyard. Going up the stairs are where many of Ramana’s dear friends and animals said to have received enlightenment from his presence are buried. The left archway leads to the guest houses. Not seen: to the right is the dining hall, and below left is the entrance to the Old Hall.
As it gets later in the morning, the ashram gets quite busy.
Here is where my memories seem to get a bit jumbled together. I know it is Sunday, and I can remember walking around the ashram, entering all the holy holy buildings. Everything feels old, sacred…and I am in awe. I truly cannot believe I am here. Last summer, I came across a beautiful blog written by Michael Sowder called http://michaelsindiapilgrimage.wordpress.com/ who had recently visited the ashram of his guru in Pune, Ma Indira Devi. He writes:
“I looked around and saw all the pictures of Ma Indira Devi, and my eyes spontaneously filled with tears. Before long I settled into a meditative state, sometimes singing, sometimes closing my eyes and feeling the energy. The thought that kept coming to me was, ‘Here I am at the center of the universe.’ Of course, from a spiritual perspective, every place is the center of the universe. St. Augustine defined God as “a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” And yet, some places seem to have a palpable, powerful spiritual energy that’s undeniable. I’ve felt it at monasteries in Spain and the US, at Native American sacred places. The Celts called these “the thin places,” places where the veil between the material and spiritual worlds is thinner. Many of the great cathedrals of Europe are built over ancient, pagan “thin places.” There is a powerful energy here. very subtle, very bright, clear, clean . Like electricity in the air. ”
I felt I was definitely at one of the “thin places.”
We hear them ringing the bell for breakfast at 7:30, and we file in. I see how it looks inside from pictures I’ve seen and know I am about to embark on my first eating-on-the-floor-with-my-hands experience which I have been apprehensive about. There are a total of 3 challenges for me going on here: #1- I am sitting on the floor. #2- I am eating off of a leaf plate, and here comes the most difficult… I am going to be eating with my hands, but wait…in India, the left hand is used for personal hygiene only- so one hand (the right one) only! And I did it. Although I can’t say I enjoyed eating that way, it was an experience, and the food was really very good. Rice with a dahl sauce (lentils) and a pickled lime dish, which I didn’t care for, but Sol really liked.
We went to speak to the office and explained how our luggage had been delayed but would be delivered the following day. We signed in and gave them our passports. I was a bit afraid to ask about our rooming accommodations as I’d heard that the ashram does not take requests from anyone, but I decided to risk my embarrassment and ask if we could be moved so that we could stay on the grounds. I figured there wasn’t really anything to be ashamed of by wanting to be on the sacred grounds of the ashram. But we were told there wasn’t any room. Besides the luggage fiasco, it is my only disappointment of the trip.
It is now later in the morning, and outside the ashram gates there are quite a few old women who are begging (and some old men). They put their hands to their mouths to replicate eating. Sol gives to all of them. These same women-we were to soon see- are there every day, from morning till night, begging money from the westerners who visit the Ashram. Some look at the coins you give them with disdain and then continue with the hand-to-mouth sign. Sol and I think this is the definition of chutzpah! (We soon learn to give them the coins and then walk away quickly without looking back!) But I had been preparing myself to see begging children– and thankfully there were none.
First experience in a tuk-tuk through the city…
We then hired a little motorized rickshaw (which everyone here calls a tuk-tuk) to take us into town to get the things we needed. How can I possibly describe what it is like to sit in the tuk-tuk and drive around in the congestion of Tiruvannamalai traffic? Imagine scooters, bicycles, tuk-tuks, cars, busses, trucks, walkers, beggars, oxen pulling carts, cows lolling about everywhere, old saddus, school children going to school…en masse all maneuvering their way around very narrow streets and intersections with no streetlights, and the only rule is “yield to what’s bigger than you.” There seems to be an unspoken “survival of the fittest” theory on the streets starting with the larger vehicles and then on down to the smallest (which would be the pedestrians and animals.) I’ve been told that there are accidents, but we never saw any, and it was incredible to watch everyone navigate through what often looked like mass confusion. But it is heart stopping, sweaty palm horror when seeing it all for the first few times. There were many times when I thought we would crash, or that I would see someone else get run over, but it never happened.
My friend, Jacqui Brill (who I was soon to meet at the ashram) writes ““rickshaw drivers are blessed with magnificent spatial awareness and an unconcerned attitude to life and death which I try to emulate not altogether successfully!”
Something else worth noting about the drivers is that they are constantly using their horns, but nobody gets mad, there is never so much as a dirty look or shouting at each other, no ‘flipping the bird.’ Never did we see any “road rage” of any sort. It seems that the purpose of the honking horns are to warn people or let them know that “I am here” and not considered an angry outburst. We here in America could learn a lot from these Indian traffic manners!
So we came home with a pair of sandals for me (a must in India- as one needs footwear easy to kick off since all the places, including stores, expect you barefoot inside), 2 t-shirts, a facecloth, 2 towels, shaving cream and razors. Our driver took us to 3 different little stores, and I was quite surprised at the ease that we were able to find things.The stores in Tiru all look like dilapidated little dingy places from the outside, but then you enter (shoes off, please), and they are surprisingly bigger than expected because they extend further back.
We then headed back to our room at Ashalam for a cold shower. A word about the India showers: most aren’t a separate part of the bathroom, so it all just spills out onto the entire floor right by the sink or toilet, or both. There’s usually a large bucket (that you fill up) with a smaller cup attached (which you scoop the water out with to then pour over yourself.) Surprisingly, there are smaller water hoses along the side of the toilets (remember- there’s no toilet paper). Okay then.
We made our way down our little street, having decided not to do the ashram lunch, and we came across signs pointing to a place called, “The Dreaming Tree Cafe .” Up three flights of stairs and then you are up on a rooftop cafe covered in a big open air with thatched roofing – a Bohemian sort of cafe with a Greenwich Village vibe. There are hammocks and twinkling lights interwoven in amongst low seated tables with either colorful cushions or wicker seats. Immediately you think to yourself: what good fortune pointed me to this magical place?
Sri Ramana Maharshi’s presence can be seen everywhere, as is the towering Mountain, Arunachala. But the real heart and soul of this restaurant comes from the owner, Vijay (who is a lovely man) and his wife, Anna (equally lovely). It is their warmth and generosity that make this place a welcome haven for all.
You can see the mountain while you sit, talk, or have a mug of real hot chocolate or a lemon-soda!
Oftentimes when we came in, someone was relaxing in one of the hammocks. We always seemed to meet interesting people here, and everyone has a story to tell!
Artistic touches everywhere, and around this corner to the right is a big round low table and cushions for you to sit on. It’s where we first sat and met the big group of fellow seekers.
Lovely open-air dining
The Dreaming Tree is located atop this building.
The smell of real dark chocolate permeated the air (Vijay told me they make their famous chocolate truffle cake fresh everyday), mixed with the scent of incense- always a part of India. We found seats at a big round low table where we sat with brightly colored cushions placed all around, and these soon got filled up by a large group of westerners who were all together. Conversation started up…where are you from? How long are you staying, what brought you here? etc..(which would soon be the norm wherever we went.) One gentleman was from Watertown, Massachusetts and another gentleman (whom I am now friends with on Facebook, Carlos Gil Sobera), actually knew Soen Sa Nim! “Don’t know mind!” he remarked! Sol and I got such a kick out of that one! It was great hearing their stories and knowing there were others… people out there who were similar to us! Their guru, they told me, was Sri Sainathuni Sarath Babuji (1954-2010), who was a disciple of Sri Sai Baba of Shirdi (?-1918). He was also greatly influenced by Ramana Maharshi. They presented us with a little booklet about him (Babuji, by Yvonne Weier & Geoff Dowson), which I have been reading. According to the booklet: ” A major inspiration in the early years of Sri Babuji’s spiritual quest was the life of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, the renowned sage of Arunachala. His biography touched the young seeker deeply and awakened him to the possibility of realization in this human life. Sri Babuji spent various periods of time in blessed solitude at Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai, engrossed in the depths of spiritual enquiry.”
This was the beginning of what I was to discover was the very extensive web of saints, sages, holy and enlightened men who seem to be everywhere in India, (most of whom I had never even heard of but am excited to read and learn about each and every one) and yet at the same time, all somehow connected, such as: Sri Ramakrishna, Mother Anasuyadevi of Jillellamudi, Sri Ranganna Babu (a great Ramabhaktha of Guntur), the late Avadhuta Swami of Chirala, the guru of the Chinthapalli forests of Sileru area, Sri Swami Purnananda of Srisailam, his guru Sri Rakhadi Baba who stayed at Ganeshpuri, Sri Satya Sai Baba, the two Balayogis of Mummidivaram, the Senior Sankaracharyaji of Kanchi, Sri Ma Anandamayi, Sri Akhandananda Saraswati of Muthra, the recluse saints of Kalahasthi and Cuddapah, the recluse woman saint of Chivatam, Sri Samartha Narayana Maharaj of Harihar, Swami Ramdas, Ma Indira Devi, Yogaswami, and Sri Poondi Swami, the Saint of Poondi. I am learning that there are hundreds, no-thousands more. Once a young man speaking to Mooji (yet another great Enlightened Being) said, “People are always telling me to choose one way, one faith, one teacher,” and Mooji put it so beautifully when he said, “You don’t have to choose. You will find that the same thread runs through all the beads.”
We also learned that this group of westerners rent places and live in Tiru for several months of the year, and that they seem very happy. After lunch, we went back to our room and tried to lay down for a little while (but it was very hot in our room). We were then drawn to go back to the ashram, of which we could always feel its pull.
On the way up we stopped at a little shop (1 of 2 on that same little street) and I bought some pashmina (pashmina refers to a type of fine cashmere wool and first invented in India) scarves for gifts. The storekeeper was a very nice man who genuinely seemed to want to know who we were – besides wanting to sell us his wares. He had beautiful things. One thing I was to discover about India and shopping: there are not enough hours in the day to shop, buy, and bicker about the prices. I needed Sol with me to do the latter, being very uncomfortable with this ritual that everyone is supposed to do, but on our next trip, I will try to venture out myself and give shopping the time it rightfully deserves in these beautiful shops with their exquisite wares. I remember when the Pier I Import stores first came out. They were filled with mostly things from India and I loved being in there. So that is what almost every store in India was like, only now I was really in India being drawn to all the wonderful clothes and colorful textiles, pots, jewelry, scarves, elephants, buddhas, and everything India! My “shopping endorphins” kicked in full force, and I was greatly challenged to control my urges. Up on the busier Main Street, where the little stalls are, we found a little clothing/gift store where I bought a Salwar Kameez for myself, and Sol also bought a shirt (too small-we had to go back) and a pair of loose Indian style trousers. See us below in our Indian-style clothing?
We are in front of our room at the Achalam (off-site guest houses built by the ashram) after buying my new clothes from Fayaz @ the New Kashmir Boutique. Later, he told us that we brought him good luck as a customer came in after us and spent over $400.00!
We also stopped for a fruit smoothie. All fears of “The Dos and Don’ts” of what to eat & drink in India are now all but forgotten, and I’m just gonna go for it!
Back at the ashram, we visit, walk around, meditate in the old hall.
I am finally experiencing the ashram. Upon hearing about my going to Ramanasramam, many westerners had asked me what the expectations were at the Ashram, and I explained to them that there was really no prescribed schedule to follow. Here is an excerpt from the book, Guru Ramana, Memories and Notes, written by S.S. Cohen (a Jew from Iraq) which explains it perfectly.
“In Ramanashram, unlike in other Ashrams, there were no compulsions of any kind; no programme to be followed, no meetings, study-classes or bhajan (A Hindu devotional song) to be attended, so that the body was spared the additional strain of having to rise at an early hour every morning, or be in a certain place at a certain inconvenient time, and so on. Bhagavan was the most liberal of Gurus in that at no time did he consider the need to frame rules and regulations to control the lives of his disciples; nor did he believe in a common, enforced discipline, for he himself had attained the highest without them, and had discovered the self-evident truth, illustrated by his own experience, that at the right time Realisation surges up from within by a free impulse, like the budding and blossoming of a flower.” -S.S. Cohen
I don’t know what or why, but I am so overwhelmed with a strange and powerful feeling of love and devotion in the old hall that I am brought to tears- and this was to happen every time I sat in there. (Since this trip and upon returning, I have become interested in reading first hand impressions and observances from people who were fortunate to have met and sat in front of Ramana Maharshi in this old hall. Ramana Maharshi spent much time in this room, and many people have had life-altering moments in his presence.)
There is such a powerful feeling that still pervades in this room.
This was my first time coming to understand what “darshan” meant. In the preface to the book, “In Quest of God,” Sri Eknath Easwaran writes about his first visit to another sage, Swami Ramdas:
“So far as I remember, there was not much talk that afternoon. None of us had come to ask questions. We had come simply to absorb the peace and joy that radiates from one who is full of the awareness of God. In India this is called darshan, but it is customary in every religious tradition-or at least was customary until the industrial revolution. A sage or saint may talk a little to satisfy the needs of ordinary communication, but there is no need for them to use words. We simply look at them and draw inspiration from them; and afterwards, perhaps even without our knowledge, we are changed to some extent by that encounter. Even so secular an observer as Somerset Maugham perceived this after his visit to another great sage of South India, Sri Ramana Maharshi.”
Although Ramana Maharshi’s physical body is no longer here, his presence is still palpably felt. And there’s this photograph that I’ve found:
Here is a photo from a pic that was shot right in front of Ramanaji’s shrine from a fellow blogger. He writes: “i was trying to shoot this dog at close range and the cam caught up something very unusual. Golden globules are very rare on cam and very fortunately a huge golden one was caught… Though none believe it, some call it dust, some call it light reflection, etc, but with my experiences with handling cameras, i have never come across this one. http://www.divinetravel.info/search/label/Kanhangad%2FCoimbatore%2FTiruvanamalai
After breakfast, we also met a vivacious woman named Jacqui and her charming son, Charles, both Jewish and from Leeds, England whom we liked right away. We soon came to discover the instant bond one feels with other truth seekers here, especially the European/Westerners. Jacqui is a charming, intelligent, fearless woman with blonde hair and bright blue eyes and a wicked sense of humor. She has her own radio talk show back in Leeds called “Just Jacqui,” (radiojcom.com), and she also writes a blog called http://www.wisdomandgiggles.com. Wisdom and giggles is precisely what she offers! I love listening to her talk, so am not at all surprised that she has a talk show. Her accent is pure Leeds and sprinkled with quaint colloquialisms- many of which I don’t understand, but it sounds so charming, who cares? She travels mostly by herself around the world- this was her fourth time in India- and she has a fierce and intense love for Israel (where she also travels to often), even volunteering in the IDF Sarel program. This is a woman who loves her 5-star hotels but who’s also not afraid to sleep on a cot in a tiny room and give up the luxuries of life. She’s very spiritual, and I love how she justifies the dichotomy about being Jewish and a Buddhist:
“If you have read my bio you will know that I am a Jewish Buddhist, a JUBU they say in America! And there is no dichotomy there because Buddhism (and Hinduism too) don’t require one to give up whatever religion you were before. In fact Buddhism isn’t really a religion, in the sense that Buddha made it very clear that he isn’t a God. So for me it is a way of life that makes perfect sense and has deepened my spirituality and connection to the divine and to myself. I find it very comforting and beautiful and extremely sensible!” –Jacqui Brill
Jacqui epitomizes volunteerism, as she also volunteers every week at an old people’s home back in England.
Then there’s her 40 year old son, Charles, who is equally as charming, handsome, very funny (seems to run in the family) and is on the spiritual path too. He is single and successful, having a couple of children’s clothing stores back in Leeds which he has left in the hands of trusty managers so that he’s free to be a traveller and adventurer. He doesn’t usually travel with his “mum,” but decided to on this trip. This is something he recently wrote about the trip with her:
“Heading to Chennai airport shortly for our flight home after what has been my best travelling experience ever. Six months ago I booked this trip with my Mum partly inspired by guilt because I was doing so much travelling on my own and couldn’t bear to see Mums long face from on Skype whilst I was having the time of my life and partly because I knew we had some mutual special places we wanted to see here and I knew it would be precious experiencing them together. I must admit I was a bit self-conscious that people might think it odd a 40 year old travelling with his Mum but with hand on heart I can safely say that it’s been priceless and I’ve loved sharing it with her. Considering how little advanced planning went into the trip everything has fallen into place with divine perfection. I’ve done a fair amount of travelling in my life and for me India is the soul of the world. A rich cultural land vibrant with colours, smells, sounds, chaos, energy, suffering and genuine spirituality. There have been so many highlights but some moments that stand out are sitting under the Bodhi tree where the Buddha himself sat, standing side by side with the grieving families of the people being cremated by the side of the Ganges, the people we’ve met and struck up instant genuine and often comical friendships with, meditating in the cave where Ramana Maharshi spent 17 years of his life and finally experiencing the unique atmosphere of the experimental township Auroville. I know I am so so lucky and blessed and if you haven’t done much or any travelling.. DO IT!!! The world is too beautiful and interesting to be left un-seen.” –Charles Portugal
I’m sure glad he did…because then we got to meet them both!
Here’s Jacqui and Charles (a great mother & son team) who are both so funny, charming, intelligent, spiritual, and beautiful- both inside and out!
We then walked around the larger, bigger hall where Ramana Maharshi is entombed and where there is chanting and ceremonial observances by Brahmins. We do pradakshina (circumambulating around the tomb) along with others. Some are walking deliberately very slowly. People are all strewn about…some sitting in ledges along windows, walls, and corners, some with eyes open, some with eyes closed.
Here the body of Ramana was buried and a samadhi (tomb constructed as per scriptural guidelines) built. It is Hindu belief that where a Jivan Mukta’s (a liberated sage)samadhi exists, the saint’s vibrant spiritual presence remains there that can easily be felt by earnest believers and spiritual seekers. It can easily be felt at Ramanashramam.
Sri Maharshi’s tomb: this consists of a mantap (a large raised platform), with a vimana or tower surmounting it. Four large carved pillars of granite, polished to look like black marble, support this tower. The beams are similarly carved and polished. A lotus of white marble adorns the center of the mantap (commemorative structure) and over it is installed a sacred Shiva Linga (the sacred symbol of Lord Shiva). A large, marble-floored meditation hall encloses this shrine.
According to Hinduism, Lord Shiva is the undying soul seated in the chambers of your heart, is your in-dweller, your innermost self or ‘Atman,’ and is identical with the supreme ‘Brahman.’
I walk pradakshina (circumambulation of sacred places) around Ramana’s tomb.
From Shri Krishna Pranami Sampraday’s website, “Why do we do Pradakshina?: When we visit a temple, after offering prayers, we circumambulate the murti or the ALTAR. This is called Pradakshina. We cannot draw a circle without a centre point. The Lord is the centre, source and essence of our lives. Recognising Him as the focal point in our lives, we go about doing our daily chores. This is the significance of Pradakshina.
Also every point on the circumference of a circle is equidistant from the centre. This means that wherever or whoever we may be, we are equally close to the Lord. His grace flows towards us without partiality. Pradakshina is done only in a clockwise manner as we do pradakshina, the Lord is always on our right. In India, the right side symbolizes auspiciousness. It it called the ‘right’ side and not the wrong one! So as we circumambulate the Lord, we remind ourselves to lead a life of righteousness, with the Lord who is the indispensable source of help and strength, as our guide. We, thereby overcome our wrong tendencies and avoid repeating the follies of the past.”
The small “Nirvana room” (Hinduism uses the word nirvana to describe the state of moksha, roughly equivalent to heaven) situated to the east of the New Hall and north of the office is the room in which Sri Maharshi spent his last days and is thus a spot viewed with special reverence. It is kept as it was in his time. “Here are the various objects that Sri Bhagavan used or touched-his staff and water vessel, a peacock fan, the revolving bookcase, many little objects. And the couch now forever empty. There is something infinitely poignant, inexpressively gracious about the room.” Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge, by Arthur Osborne
This New Hall was specially built to accommodate the increasing number of devotees for whom the Old Hall was found to be too small. But Sri Maharshi used the New Hall and the couch for only the few months leading up to his Mahanirvana. The round symbol placed above the entrance is the Om symbol.
“The syllable OM, which is the imperishable Brahman (the divinity within the Self and everything else which is divine, including that which creates divinity), is the universe. Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, and whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is OM. And whatsoever transcends past, present, and future, that also is OM.” http://www.theyogacommunity.com/2011/04/the-meaning-of-om/
In the New Hall is a life-sized statue of Sri Maharshi and a large yogasana, or couch, beautifully carved from a single stone and polished to look like black marble.
The grounds of the Ashram remind me of a peaceful park.
The two towers in the traditional Dravidian style of temple architecture. The one on the left surmounts the Matrubhuteswara Shrine, erected over the tomb of Sri Maharshi’s mother, and the one on the right is over Sri Ramana’s tomb over the New Hall.
There is a feeling of holiness here that I can’t seem to describe…only that it feels like the type of holiness that is beyond religion. I have only felt this feeling a few times before. Once many years ago, while living in Utah surrounded by mostly Mormons and Baptists, I felt a strong longing to attend Judaic Temple services. I made arrangements to go during Yom Kippur. It was Kol Nidre, the evening service that begins the holiday (Jewish holidays always begin the night before), and hearing the familiar songs and melodies of this very beautiful and soulful prayer (as if for the first time) stirred up these same emotions of holiness and awe. I also felt this way when I first became a teacher at South Area Solomon Schechter Day School and I first heard the children praying and davening the morning T’fillot (service). I looked out at them and suddenly it occurred to me that these could be the very same children of the Holocaust- only now they are safe and happy…able to pray and live in safety without fear. And what beautiful melodies they sang! (These, of course, are my “Holocaust roots,” which come out so often and are always present within.) I have felt it out on the western deserts…where the wind comes around and whispers in your ear or where sometimes you can feel the vast and expansive stillness. And I have also felt it in Israel- almost everywhere.
Everything is a bit surreal and my senses are on overload…so memories, events, times, places, are going to get a bit jumbled together, but I think we asked a woman from France if they knew of a restaurant in the area that serves wine or beer (not so easy to find in the state of Tamil Nadu), and they gave us the name Hotel Ashreya, so after hiring a tuk-tuk driver, we arrive at what was to be our next adventure.
Quite accidentally, we stumble upon Hotel Ashreya…
As soon as we arrive, we are asked if we would like to sit outdoors (and of course we would… we have come from the Polar Vortex, so sitting outside tonight is akin to paradise) and we are soon escorted to their outdoor garden, where I immediately recognize that we have stumbled upon the new “hang-out” of my favorite bloggers, “Living in the Embrace ofArunachala (http://richardarunachala.wordpress.com), Richard Clarke and Carol Johnson! I came across his blog several months ago when doing some preliminary research to learn about the area. This blog is a fantastic resource for anyone traveling to the ashram, and they have also shared their many trips/excursions to other places where they’ve visited in India. (I have written more about them in Monday’s blog.) In one of their stories, they wrote about watching cricket on a huge TV screen outdoors (a game happened to be on right then and there) and discovering this place themselves after being disappointed with the service at another hotel which they had previously frequented and enjoyed. What luck! We were the only ones there, and wonderful little dishes of sliced up curried hard boiled eggs were brought to us along with ice cold beer and right around this time…with a near full moon and the mountain Arunachala looming above us in all her glory, we both decided, I think simultaneously, after knowing that air-conditioned rooms with a TV, hot water, and a soft king-sized bed and beer were available, that we would move to Hotel Ashreya the next day- attachments be damned!
A tuk-tuk takes us back to our very hot and uncomfortable room at Achalam, where we sleep a little, knowing that this is our last night here and that our rooming situation will improve tomorrow!