Saturday, Day 7, February 22, 2014

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The morning was spent at a lovely leisurely breakfast at our hotel and then walking the French “White Town,” shopping, walking along the promenade in search of Paradise beach, and finally learning that we need to hire both a tuk-tuk and a boat to see it. (We discovered that you have to take a boat ride over to reach the beach, and since we had to check out of our room by noon, there wasn’t enough time. Not enough time to spend here at all! Next time…)

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I am on a mission to find the perfect gifts for friends and family. Time is running out. This is our last day in India.

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Breakfast is included at Villa Shanti: coffee, fresh fruit salad, freshly squeezed orange juice, croissants, eggs and bacon! Look at this basket full of French bakery items!

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The Bay of Bengal in the daytime- now we can see it.

                                              
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Incredible how we chose this hotel from the internet!

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It is so elegant!

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So many charming outdoor cafes…it reminds me of Montreal – it’s that French influence.

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Through this salmon colored archway is a beautifully tree-shaded outdoor preschool!

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An artist’s studio

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Look at those flowers.

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Many places have these open rooftop garden balconies atop the buildings.

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Charming French Colonial architecture

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Beautiful kolam in Pondicherry.

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Pondicherry is a college town, and a very international city.

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It’s so charming!

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So many coffee houses here.

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This reminds me of Montreal!



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Pizza Hut???

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Rooftop garden restaurant!

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The Bay of Bengal

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The statue of Ghandi by day

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The lighthouse

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Finally we see acknowledgement of the littering problem!

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This reminds me of the scenery from “Life of Pi,” which was filmed in Pondicherry.

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Our tuk-tuk had cobalt blue seats! This lovely man took us to the ferry which takes people to Paradise Beach and then back to our hotel.

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“granites and marbles”

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We returned to Villa Shanti and checked out. We have lunch plans to meet Jacqui and Charles for lunch. They are coming into Pondy today. We can’t wait to see them.

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This beautiful woman is going to clean our room in a sari! There are no “lowly” jobs in India. All work is good.

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They’re here! So good to see them!

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I did a bit of shopping for myself and got a new dress and scarf.

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More courtyard scenes at Villa Shanti. It’s so tranquil and soothing to the senses here.

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Waiting (with a delicious iced coffee) for Jacqui and Charles.

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Goodbye Pondicherry! We’ll be back to visit Auroville…next time…

The hotel arranged for a car to drive us to Chennai at 2:30. We say goodbye to our friends and Pondicherry, and with a heavy heart, we head to the Radisson Blu hotel for the 3 hour drive to Chennai.

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Our taxi driver was a sweet young man who honored our request to stop for coffee. This place along the side of the highway had coffee and a temple in the back room, and was a little mini-market. A lot of Indian people, especially men, were there – not just travellers.

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We enter Chennai at rush hour traffic time.

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Even the trucks are painted with beautiful designs.

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Scenes on the drive from Pondicherry to Chennai.

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Scenes on the drive from Pondicherry to Chennai.

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The Chennai Airport

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Everyone drives scooters!

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The coffee place along the side of the highway is very colorful.

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Many people were enjoying coffee here in this outdoor open area, including us.

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Chennai (formerly known as Madras)

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India loves its Bollywood moviestars!

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The whole family, often 2 or more children- all squeeze onto one scooter!

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Often in just one snapshot will be a mixture of the very old and the very modern.

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Even young women drive motorbikes.

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The Radisson Blu is fancy shmancy. Only in India can we afford these 5 star hotels*****

The Raddison Blu Hotel- Chennai
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We checked into The Radisson Blu-a five-star hotel, (after a looong drive stuck in rush-hour Chennai) traffic, where we enjoyed their buffet dinner, a shower, and a few hours sleep before we had to wake up at 1:30 for our return flight @ 4:00 AM.

I barely remember the flight home. I remember stopping at the last Indian store at the airport and finally finding that elusive little bird for Lyn, walking through Heathrow Airport and stopping for coffee and a Toblerone bar for Joe. Sol and I watched a Downton Abbey episode on the return flight to Boston. I slept, but always awoke with a crick in my neck. I remember arriving in Boston on time, Sunday (1:45 PM), going through a long security line, and feeling relieved that both our suitcases had arrived! We were able to get on the shuttle almost as soon as we walked out the door. It was cold, grayish brown, drab and dull -especially after the colors of India… (but clean!), and once we arrived at Braintree, we jumped into our car and went home. It feels bittersweet. I’m already missing India, but being home always feels wonderful.

Afterward…

“To write of this experience with Bhagavan, to recapture and record all that he said, or all that his silences implied, is like trying to put the Infinite into an egg cup. One small chapter cannot in any way do him justice or give an impression of his Enlightenment, and I do not think that I am far enough spiritually advanced–if at all–to try to interpret his Supreme Knowledge. On me he had, and still has, a profound influence. I feel it presumptuous to say he changed my life. My life was perhaps not so important as all this. But I definitely saw life differently after I had been in his presence, a presence that just by merely “being” was sufficient spiritual nourishment for a lifetime. It may have been that when I returned from India undiscerning people saw very little change in me. But there was a change–a transformation of my entire consciousness. And how could it have been otherwise? I had been in the atmosphere of an egoless, world-detached, and completely Pure Being.”  

– Mercedes de Acosta

Since being home from India, through emails and blogs, we’ve kept in touch with the new friends that we met along the way, and of course, I’ve written this blog. Now that Ramana Maharshi “knows me,” I’m reading many books about him. Sol and I talk a lot about going back to visit- but for a longer time, or even perhaps moving there someday? We still have our Joe attending college nearby who needs a home to return to, and I have an 85 year old mother.  We know that true liberation is within and has nothing to do with where we live, yet it somehow seemed easier to be in that state of grace in India! Yet we  know that our demons would follow us and soon reappear.  I’ve tried to keep that feeling of being free in my everyday life here in Massachusetts and follow my “practice,” which is to be present,  live my life in a state of acceptance, and to clear out my mind of my ‘thoughts’ and my ‘story.’ Yogaswami said, “Real meditation is none other than the silent discovery of oneself.”  Our spiritual practice has deepened. Sol finds it easier to meditate. I just close my eyes, whisper “Arunachala,” and I am there.

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Friday, Day 6, February 21, 2014

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Flowers in front of Hotel Ashreya.

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Some people do seem to be quite well off here…note the rooftop terrace!

Our last morning waking up in our sweet little hotel room where we have been so comfortable and happy. We are up early, excited to go out for what is by now our morning ritual of walking up to the Ashram- but stopping first at the Only Coffee stand to get our morning caffeine fix. It’s a beautiful morning. The walk up is lovely, filled with the beauty, the noise, the smells, the dust, and the colors that we’ve come to know and love. The air is still cool  from the evening, and the hot sun is still low in the sky.

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Such a beautiful kolam here.

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This place-right up the road from Hotel Ashreya is a colorful nursery that sells plants, bushes, and trees in the back. In front, a cute little European looking car. There are quite a few of these in India.

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These drivers get so loaded down, you wonder how they can drive.

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A Deep Connection …

We are back at the Ashram in the Old Hall. This day, perhaps because we are saying good bye, we are sitting right in front- maybe three feet from the couch where the life sized picture of Ramana Maharshi is placed.                                                                               (See below)

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I am once again filled with a great flood of emotion. I wonder where it’s coming from and why.  I know I have some sadness in my life: the loss of my older sister in 1990, my father’s passing two years ago (I’m only half-joking when I say he was the only one left in my family that liked me), the relationship with my mother and younger sister which, for all of my efforts, will probably never be what I want it to be, and this May (after 14 years), due to a change in management  {*since the writing of this article, the school was forced to close its doors forever}, I left a very rewarding and fulfilling teaching position. Teaching, for me, was never just “a job.” I loved being a teacher and I felt it was my calling.  And now that was gone, too. But the tears and emotions I was feeling didn’t really feel like sadness. I have come to the realization that people die when they’re supposed to die, and our lives unfold as they should. There are no mistakes in the Universe. I know with every cell of my being that there is no duality between “life” and “death.”  I began thinking about this trip, and how I came to be here, how blessed I felt, sitting in this very holy room where at one time, people sat before this Self-Realized being, had spoken to Him, had visits with Him, had even been enlightened from being near Him!  Many people have felt a calling, a pull to come here, and have felt a deep connection to Him that span years, decades, sometimes generations. I, on the other hand, was always more enamored of India. I had always wanted to visit, but not necessarily one particular place. Not one particular Ashram. Not anyone’s tomb. Since arriving in India, I had heard about people’s devotion to this Great Man, and when people asked me how I came to know Him, my answer was that I was here because Sol brought me. Sol was the one who had the special connection to Ramana Maharshi. I know through Sol (and some reading I have done) that Ramana Maharshi was an Enlightened Being, but he was Sol’s teacher, Sol’s guide. I was just along for the ride. Yet even so, everytime I’ve come into this old hall, I have felt his expansive love and joy.

On this last morning, sitting here, I feel so thankful to have been given the opportunity to be here. I stared up into Ramana Maharshi’s face very intently for a long time. He has the most beautiful smile and serene gaze, and everywhere you sit in the Old Hall, he appears to be gazing right at you. But this time, his gaze became ever so intense- almost so that I felt I must divert my eyes. His eyes were so bright and penetrating and seemed to burn right through me, but I didn’t look away and forced myself to keep my eyes upon him for fear of losing his gaze. And then something very strange happened. His face seemed to move. His face came alive as I looked upon him, and I saw him smile. He was already smiling, but I distinctly saw a shift and his smile widened. And then I heard (and I don’t know how to describe this, only that I read somewhere that if one is sensitive to it, the consciousness of a liberated being is so expansive that he/she is able to read the thoughts of others and communicate in a medium other than the spoken word-so it seemed telepathic, like when animals communicate with us – Ramana Maharshi spoke to me. Very gently, in the kindest of ways, I heard, “You think I don’t know you? I  know  you.” My heart filled with immense gratitude. Another resurgence of tears, but again not sadness. Complete joy. I now knew that Bhagavan had taken me in his embrace as he had done with hundreds of others. Before Ramana’s death, his devotees made a plea for him to will his recovery, for they asked, “What is to become of us without Bhagavan? We are too weak to look after ourselves; we depend upon his Grace for everything.” He replied, “I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here.” In that moment, I knew this to be true. Thank you, Bhagavan, for knowing me. I am ever so grateful.

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* (Upon returning home, I have been reading many first hand accounts of people’s experiences with the Maharshi. This prefatory note is from the book, Day by Day, by Sri Ramananda Saraswati: “Sincere aspirants felt the impact of the irresistible light of the Maharshi’s eyes which penetrated their inner being, and also how the peace and bliss got transmitted through celestial vibrations released by the Maharshi’s presence.”

This is an excerpt from Paul Brunton’s book, A Search in Secret India:

“I am not religious but I can no more resist the feeling of increasing 

awe which begins to grip my mind than a bee can resist a flower in all its 

luscious bloom. The [Maharshi’s] hall is becoming pervaded with a subtle, 

intangible and indefinable power which affects me deeply. I feel, without 

doubt and without hesitation, that the centre of this mysterious power is no other than the Maharshi himself. 

His eyes shine with astonishing brilliance. Strange sensation begins 

to arise in me. Those lustrous orbs seem to be peering into the inmost 

recesses of my soul. In a peculiar way, I feel aware of everything he can 

see in my heart. His mysterious glance penetrates my thoughts, my emotions and my desires; I am helpless before it. ” 

Saying Goodbye…

There was a group of schoolchildren that had been brought to the ashram that morning, and two by two they lined up to leave. I stood to wave and watch them go- each receiving a little sweet, two by two, their beautiful faces, both boys and girls alike. My favorite people in India so far have been the children. I repeatedly tell Sol that I want to come and teach here. I still have tears streaming down my face as we watch them file out to their waiting school bus. I am waving, smiling and saying goodbye to each and every child- about 80 boys and girls in their little uniforms holding hands as they leave the ashram. I am leaving too. Sol says, “Come, we must go,” but I must stay till the very last two have gone by. Every one of them have returned my smile with sweet and earnest faces, waving back to me and saying, “Bye-bye!”  Then we let Ravi drive us one last time back to the Hotel (and we are finally even!).   Dinesh is there waiting for us to serve breakfast, as planned: dosas (crepes) today with two wonderful chutneys: tomato and coconut. He makes his specialty- strawberry milkshakes for both of us, and we are now full in heart and body. We say our goodbyes to the staff, who have taken such good care of us, and get into our waiting taxi. It’s 9:45 am. We’re on our way to Pondicherry!

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Dinesh

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The staff at Hotel Ashreya

Our driver is taking a friend with him in the front seat. Our driver loves his horn, and he beeps it long, loud and often. There is a lot of construction, so the going is slow. I turn my head often and watch as the Mountain gets smaller and smaller, and I feel diminished somehow by it’s distance. (This was something I would continue to struggle with, especially upon returning to Massachusetts.)

But the drive is filled with wondrous sights, and this time we have daylight (unlike when we came in), so we can now fully see the landscape. There are villages, busy towns, cows and goats, schools, sugarcane fields, strange statues of unknown men, and rocks everywhere. One section we traveled through by the historic Gingee Fort (see info below) had hills made up entirely of boulders piled one on top of each other, as if a giant had been playing with stones and randomly piled them up. Both geologically, historically and aesthetically, this area was a gold mine for me. I would have loved to stop and wander.

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One of the three hillocks of the Gingee Fort

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The landscape from Tiruvannamalai on the way to Pondicherry.

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Hills made up of huge boulders piled one atop the other in interesting arrangements.

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A panorama of the Gingee fort with the Kalyana Mahal visible just right of centre. (Not my photo)

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We drove by the three hillocks of Gingee Fort. Some history on the Gingee Forts (as promised from page one) – from Wikipedia:

“Originally the site of a small fort built by the Chola dynasty during the 9th century AD, Gingee Fort was modified by Kurumbar during the 13th century. As per one account, the fort was built during the 15–16th century by the Nayaks, the lieutenants of the Vijayanagara Empire and who later became independent kings. The fort passed to the Marathas under the leadership of Shivaji in 1677 AD, Bijapur sultans, the Moghuls, Carnatic Nawabs, French and the British in 1761. The fort is closely associated with Raja Tej Singh, who unsuccessfully revolted against the Nawab of Arcot and eventually lost his life in a battle.

The Gingee Fort complex is on three hillocks: Krishnagiri to the north, Rajagiri to the west and Chandrayandurg to the southeast. The three hills together constitute a fort complex, each having a separate and self-contained citadel. The fort walls are 13 km (8.1 mi) and the three hills are connected by walls enclosing an area of 11 square kilometres (4.2 sq mi). It was built at a height of 800 feet (240 m) and protected by a 80 feet (24 m) wide moat. The complex has a seven-storeyed Kalyana Mahal (marriage hall), granaries, prison cells, and a temple dedicated to its presiding Hindu goddess called Chenjiamman. The fortifications contain a sacred pond known as Aanaikulam. On the top of the hillock, there are minor fortifications.”

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We passed through the town of Tindivanam. Our driver stopped and bought a paper cone filled with delightfully seasoned chickpeas, which he generously shared with us. Now that’s a great street food snack!

We finally arrived in Pondicherry after driving around the city for awhile. Our driver got lost (no GPS) and couldn’t find the hotel. Finally, after some urging from us as to which way to go, he found it…Villa Shanti. Although we were happy with Hotel Ashreya (especially coming from the Ashram accommodations), this hotel was several notches higher in the star * category. Immediately one notices the French Colonial architecture of the building and the very lovely street with overhanging trees. Upon entering through the doorway, one enters an open courtyard. We were told our room wasn’t quite ready, so we went to have lunch in their restaurant, which was is this inner courtyard – open to the sky with palm trees growing in the center. WOW! I am really blown away by its beauty and elegance!

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Sol having lunch at the Villa Shanti restaurant.

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The inner courtyard/restaurant at our hotel.

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Prawn salad with grapefruit-delicious!

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The shutter windows and our door look out toward the open courtyard.

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“Sorry, we have no ice today for your ice coffee. Will you accept this chocolate eclair instead?” Oh yes!

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Elegant, state-of-the-art bathroom!

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Mini bar, coffee, tea, and snacks!

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Separate shower stall! Yay! No more “wet-room!”

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Beautiful bar!

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Welcome to Villa Shanti!

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The most comfortable bed!

After lunch, settling into our room, and resting a bit, we went out to explore. Pondicherry is a charming lively town filled with history, spirituality, French heritage, beautiful beaches, and is divided into two sections: the quiet and tranquil “white town” and the active “Indian town” where the architecture and streetscapes completely differ. Pondicherry was the backdrop to many of the sequences in Life of Pi, one of my favorite movies. The French Quarter was a base of the French East India Company from 1675. Pondicherry then frequently changed hands between France and Britain between 1761-1815, after which it remained in French possession until 1954. On quiet, wide streets like rue de la Caserne, rue Suffren and rue Dumas one can see  French villas with trailing bougainvillea. It was so much fun to walk around on those streets.

Right next to our hotel was a very funky coffee shop called Nirvana.

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Beautiful French architecture

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People are welcome to peruse their bookshelves for a good book to read while relaxing in Nirvana. There’s even a book about Judaism on the shelf!

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Nirvana has a little outdoor area for kids to play in, just like this cute little boy was doing.

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One of the exquisite yellow French architectural buildings.

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The streets on the “White Town” are tree-lined, clean and quiet.

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We ended up on the Indian part of the town to buy some tylenol and an iphone case for Sol’s phone.

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Subway? What? We’re not in Tiru anymore!

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Beautiful French architecture

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In “Indian town”- Street food, and he’s making dosas (crepes)!

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The inner elegant open-air courtyard of Villa Shanti

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Goubert Avenue, promenade and pier: At sunset the rocky beach-fronted promenade along Goubert Avenue is lit up and full of “Pondicherians” out for a stroll. At the promenade’s centre stands a statue of Gandhi among pillars. The pillars are originally from a Hindu temple at Gingee, and one bears the inscription Place de la Republique. The street is closed off to all motorized vehicles at night, and it was cool with a wonderful sea breeze.

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This is the WWII memorial to the soldiers who died from India.

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Walking into the magical outdoor Maison Rose restaurant – a recommendation from Christopher Quilkey

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A beautiful evening on the promenade by the sea (Bay of Bengal).

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Outdoor dining at “The Maison Rose.” For the first time all week, I’m having steak and a glass of white wine with dinner!

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At the promenade’s centre stands a statue of Gandhi among pillars, originally from a Hindu temple at Gingee, one bearing the inscription Place de la Republique. The pillars celebrated a train track from an adjoining pier where French boats docked; the pier was destroyed by a cyclone in 1953 – just a year before Pondicherry was transferred to India.

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The lovely inner courtyard of the Maison Rose outdoor seating area.

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Charming little boutique shop by The Maison Rose. (I’m on a quest for Lyn’s bird gift!)

We notice there’s a different vibe here in Pondicherry- much more Continental/European – lots of French speaking people. But it’s not as spiritual, and we miss that. I’ve heard the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville are very special and worthwhile places to visit. Auroville (the ashram’s offshoot community) is six miles north of Pondicherry and easily reached by taxi. It is a cashless Utopian ‘universal city’ of 2,250 mostly Western idealists which hosts the Matrimandir, a giant golden lotus flower (which Jacqui and Charles were to later meditate in), outrageously creative architecture, a Bakery (Auroville Main Road) serving delicious croissants, and many of Auroville’s fine cheeses, soaps, paper, incense, jams, and crafts. I wish we had more time, as I’d love to spend some time at these two places. Next visit…

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After dinner, a tuk-tuk takes us back to our hotel. It’s not very far, but we can barely walk we are so tired. And we slept ever so well.

Although we love Pondicherry, we feel a sense of loss…maybe it’s because our trip is coming to a close, but we suspect it’s because of the distance  between us and Arunachala.

Thursday, Day 5, February 20th

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Another glorious morning waking up in India early and again we happily walk up to the Ashram.  IMG_0924

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Someone has painted a beautiful portrait of Ramana Maharshi on the side of this building. It’s really good.

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We stop at the “Only Coffee” stand across the street from the Ashram. This is the best coffee we’ve had by far. The owner brews it in a large copper pot and serves it in a copper cup under a bowl. You cool your coffee off by pouring it back and forth from cup to cup. There we met 2 young men, one was from upstate New York, a serious seeker (already looked like a young American sadhu with a light in his eyes) named Jaya. There are many stray dogs at this stand, and they all seemed to gather around me. Maybe it was my skin cream? Then this cow (see above) came meandering over and proceeded to lap up the coffee spillage from our platter! We accommodated her by lifting our cups so she could have a clean go of it.

IMG_0931Back at the Ashram, we walk around and breathe in the atmosphere. The monkey seems to feel the same way.

IMG_0932 IMG_0933    We are there for the Veda parayana. Veda collectively refers to a corpus of ancient religious literature that are considered by adherents of Hinduism to be revealed knowledge. Many Hindus believe the Vedas existed since the beginning of creation. Parayana means chanting. The young Brahmins come twice a day to chant the Vedas.  Many accounts have been written about how much Ramana Maharshi loved listening to the chanting. This is an account from Katya Osborne, who came to live at the ashram at five years old: “Although Bhagavan could be friendly and approachable, there were times, and usually one of them was when the Vedas were being chanted, when he would close his eyes and go away. To see him then was awe-inspiring. He looked exalted.”  She also writes that later, Major Chadwick was the one who inaugurated the Veda school at the Ashram.)

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In Sri Bhagavan’s lifetime Vedic chanting or Veda Parayana was held twice a day, morning and evening, lasting about forty minutes on each occasion, and this is still continued. This with the puja which follows it is the only ritual which was or is generally attended at the Ashram. Even for this there was and is no compulsion, although Bhagavan obviously approved of people attending it. It was an hour of tremendous silence when He sat immobile as though carved in rock. He never allowed anything to interrupt it. When asked whether people should learn the meaning, so as to follow it, he said no: it was sufficient that the chanting served as a support for meditation.

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Despite this, it is also true, however, that the portions used for chanting were carefully chosen and approved by Sri Bhagavan Himself. Technically the Vedas are a well-defined group of scriptures, but not all the passages chanted before Sri Bhagavan are technically Vedas. All of them have the sanctity infused by Sri Bhagavan’s presence. All of them are recited in Sanskrit. Nothing has been deleted from them since Sri Bhagavan’s lifetime and only one item added. That is Dakshinamurti Stotra which, mainly on the request of the late Major Chadwick (Sadhu Arunachala) is now used as the opening hymn before the evening chant.

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We finally called Chris Quilkey and set up a meeting at the ashram for 10:30am. We decided to go for breakfast. We started walking toward The Dreaming Tree, but on a whim decided to try another rooftop cafe. Great view up there, and we met a young couple that we had run into before at one of the little shops on that same street. He was from Ireland and she was from Vienna, and they  were traveling -had been traveling-quite awhile together but were running out of money. He was very charming and had a twinkle in his eyes.

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Great rooftop ambience, but not so great on service!

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But after sitting for awhile, we saw that they were greatly understaffed (there was a fairly large Spanish group having a satsang (satsang is a Sanskrit word which means  ‘gathering of seekers of the Truth.’ ‘Sat’ means ‘truth’. ‘Sang’ means ‘communion’.) We weren’t at all upset as people typically might feel from not being attended to at a restaurant. It was lovely up there on the rooftop with the treetops and flowers and a view of that mountain! We took a couple of nice pictures, and went to The Dreaming Tree, where I had their banana pancakes and a fruit salad…yum!

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Great rooftop ambience, and everything else is great about The Dreaming Tree, too!

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Finally, we meet the present-day editor of The Mountain Path, Christopher Quilkey. I would describe him as a soft spoken, intelligent man, a bit reserved with a quick wit and an eclectic taste. He has a gentle smile and displays a wry sense of humor. For example, he said that South India has two types of climate: hot and hotter.  He is originally from Australia and told us a little bit about how he ended up as editor of The Mountain Path (again, everyone has a story). At first he was asked by the president of the ashram to be the editor, as the magazine was struggling and in need of revitalizing, but he wasn’t ready. Soon it became obvious that he was the man for the job. He lived for some time in the Osborne (see below) house, and knew Mrs. Osborne and her daughter, Katya. Sol and Christopher had a nice visit together singing Bob Dylan’s, “John Wesley Harding.”

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Christopher Quilkey, editor of The Mountain Path

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Arthur Osborne small                                                                       Arthur Osborne (1906–1970)

A little information about Arthur Osborne: From reading some spiritual books, Arthur Osborne had already understood that all beings manifest the One Self or Pure Being and that he, in his essence, was identical with the Self. He knew it meant it was possible to realize this Supreme Being and become One in very fact and that the purpose of life is to do so. “I knew that this task was the great, heroic quest, the quest of the Sangrail and the Golden Fleece, and that it required constant effort on a prescribed path under the guidance of a Guru. I was making efforts to find and follow such a path, but people for whom I had the utmost respect had assured me that Bhagavan was not a Guru and that his teaching, however sublime, did not constitute practical guidance on a path that men could follow. “

During WWII, his wife and their three children stayed at Tiruvannamalai while he was arrested and interned at a Japanese Prison Camp until the Japanese surrendered, three and a half years later. Upon his arrival, he writes that Bhagavan, although he felt his kindness and graciousness, made no “great impression,” no “dynamic contact.”

He continues: “Until the evening of Karthikai when, each year, a beacon is lit on the summit of Arunachala, or it may have been Deepavali, I am not sure, there were huge crowds for the festival and we were sitting in the courtyard outside the hall. Bhagavan was reclining on his couch and I was sitting in the front row before it. He sat up, facing me, and his narrowed eyes pierced into me penetrating, intimate, with an intensity I cannot describe. It was as though they said: ‘You have been told; why have you not realized?’ And then quietness, a depth of peace, an indescribable lightness and happiness.”

Mountain Path

You should see how happy Sol is when The Mountain Path arrives in the mail! On the inside cover of all journals is written this mission statement: “The aim of The Mountain Path is to set forth the wisdom of all religions and all ages, especially as testified to by their saints and mystics, and to clarify the paths available to seekers in the conditions of our modern world.”

It does not escape us for one minute what an honor it is for Sol’s articles to be published in a journal – dedicated to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi- along with the likes of Arthur Osborne, Major Chadwick, Robert Adams, and Gary Weber- just to name a few. Our bookshelves are overflowing with back issues.

We return to freshen up and get ready for our trip to the Temple. Before leaving for our hotel we stopped in at the Ramana Market across the street (where oddly enough even there shoes are not allowed) to purchase a few essentials. This is a great store and we found a lot of wonderful little gifts which we can bring back for people such as Leo Coffee, incense from Auroville, stone incense holders, chai tea, and soaps.

Learning how to “tie” and wear my Sari… 

Carol calls and helps to rearrange some plans with Saran so that she can come earlier with the sari. Carol has picked up my blouse from the tailors. She arrives at our hotel and patiently gives me a lesson on how to “tie” a sari, which is not easy. She has me go through it twice, but I record her explaining the whole thing because I will never remember all the steps once I get home. I feel like a queen in my sari. It’s elegant. I can’t wait to go tour the Temple wearing it. As if they haven’t been generous enough, she presents us with a copy of her and Richard’s favorite book,  The Song of Ribhu, translated by Dr. H. Ramamoorthy  and Nome (their spiritual teacher) and also a flashdrive in which they have downloaded all their favorite satsangs with Nome. (Since returning, we have listened to Nome and know that he is a true Awakened Master.) I am very sad to say goodbye, as I feel a closeness with this couple that I just met and hardly know, yet there it is.

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All dressed for the Temple tour in my new sari! Thank you Carol!

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We finally meet Saran, and he gives us a tour of the Temple. The Annamalaiyar Temple is 25 acres and is one of the biggest temples in India. It has many shrines and halls and houses 4 towers. Shown above (the eastern tower) is the tallest in India. It is one of five Shiva temples-each a manifestation of a natural element: land, water, air, sky, or fire. Shiva, it is said, manifested himself as a massive column of fire at this Temple.

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Ramana Maharshi first arrived in Tiruvannamalai as a teenager. After taking up abode in the thousand-pillared hall for some weeks, schoolboys began throwing stones at him. He entered the Patala Lingam (shown above), an underground vault in the Thousand-pillared hall, where ants, mosquitoes, and vermin preyed upon him, along with the boys who continued to throw stones and broken pots at him. He remained unmoved.

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This temple tower is the tallest in India.

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There are many shrines and halls on the temple grounds.

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There is a 25 yr. old elephant there who, after you insert a coin in its trunk which she holds out to you, she deposits it in her owner’s cup and then taps you on the head with her trunk. The blessing of Ganesh!

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Here is our guide, Saran, (recommended by Richard and Carol) standing to the right. When he was a little boy, this temple was his “playground,” as it was virtually abandoned. He grew up in this area and has a strong connection to the mountain.

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This woman works at the Temple. She was quite a character, and greatly approved of my wearing the sari. In fact, everywhere I went, women remarked “beautiful,” and men nodded to me in a respectful and approving manner.

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Beautiful little Indian girl!

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Note the Star of David! The hexagram is a mandala symbol called “satkona yantra” or “sadkona yantra” found on ancient South Indian Hindu temples. It symbolizes the nara-narayana, or perfect meditative state of balance achieved between Man and God, and if maintained, results in “moksha,” or “nirvana” (release from the bounds of the earthly world and its material trappings).

Something I was to learn later was how common this star is! Although I think of it as “The Star of David,” I discovered that it is also used in historical, religious, and cultural contexts. Besides Judaism, this symbol is used by Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Rastafarians, and can be found in heraldry, mathematics, Raelism, Occultism, and Freemasonry. In fact, the main runways and taxiways of Heathrow Airport were arranged roughly in this shape.

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Aerial view of Heathrow Airport

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This is one of the few sadhus who does not appear malnourished!

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These beautiful girls work outside the main gate of the temple, where you have to leave your shoes. Similar to a coat check, they give you a ticket and watch your shoes for a few rupees. In the area we were, I never saw any starving begging children. They always looked happy, like these two.

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Within Indic lore, this shape is generally understood to consist of two triangles—one pointed up and the other down—locked in harmonious embrace. The two components are called “Om” and the “Hrim” in Sanskrit, and symbolize man’s position between earth and sky. The downward triangle symbolizes Shakti, the sacred embodiment of femininity, and the upward triangle symbolizes Shiva, or Agni Tattva, representing the focused aspects of masculinity. The mystical union of the two triangles represents Creation, occurring through the divine union of male and female. The two locked triangles are also known as ‘Shanmukha’—the six-faced, representing the six faces of Shiva & Shakti’s progeny Kartikeya. This symbol is also a part of several yantras and has deep significance in Hindu ritual worship and history.(Wikipedia)

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This smaller temple has pictures on the wall to tell the story about the gods for which is temple was built for. (I wish I could remember, but after 3 or 4 Hindu god stories, my eyes started to glaze over.)

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After the tour, we sat down and talked for a long time with Saran. He has such an interesting story, which you can read on his website. If you’re lucky and he has time, he’ll tell you the story about him and his guru up on the mountain:

At the age of 12, while climbing the mountain with friends, Saran had his first encounter with his Guru. When he and his friends were near the top of the mountain, Saran became quite thirsty, but he had no water. So, while his friends returned home, Saran went to look for water. At the top of Arunachala, Saran heard some noises.

He went to see where the sound was coming from, and that is when he discovered an older sadhu-type man. Saran asked the old man, “Swami, what are you doing here?” The holy man answered, “I know what I’m doing here. What are you doing here?” Saran explained that he was up there with friends and that he was on a break from school. The man then asked, “When are you coming to this school…spiritual school?”

After finishing up their talk, the man that would become Saran’s Guru directed him to a fresh water spring nearby that he could drink from. After quenching his thirst, Saran went down and nearly forgot about the man he had met on the mountain. He was reminded a couple of months later, when the old man came to him in his dreams, asking him, “Did you forget about me?”  The dream was very strong and Saran then felt the pull to make regular trips up the mountain to spend time with his new Guru. Saran’s Guru completed 16 years in meditation at the top of Arunachala, not taking food, not speaking and not moving from his meditation spot.  He has since left Arunachala and lives a very secluded life. He does not want to gather students, wealth, or anything else in this world.

By age 17, Saran had finished school and spent most of his time on Arunachala with his Guru, in service and meditation. After completing his intended purpose on Arunachala, Saran’s Guru came down and went back to his home village where he still lives today. Saran still spends much of his time on the mountain, working as a guide and giving service at Skandashram (Ramana’s original ashram that is situated above the newer ashram, partway up the mountain). Saran really feels that Arunachala is his energy source…and he is very enthusiastic about sharing it with others who are sincere.

Just after Saran’s Guru came down the mountain in 2007, Saran was at Skandashram in the early morning, as he was most mornings.  As he sat on the stone wall surrounding the ashram, something happened that would change Saran’s life path forever.  Saran’s plans to live as a monk were at best, delayed.  The Divine had another plan for his life.  In that moment, sitting on the wall, Saran looked up to see a woman walking up the steps to the ashram, and in the instant he saw her, the flower of his heart started to open, and the fragrance was ever so sweet, dynamic and powerful!  The feelings that came were foreign to Saran, as he had never experienced anything quite like this.  He was instantly magnetized to her, with a deep, psychic connection that obviously went back for many lifetimes, an electric pulse of aliveness, and a love that was spontaneous and complete in that first moment. Here, up the stairs, came Saran’s wife, an American woman named Jehan, who had a big smile stretched across her face.  It lit up his heart.  In that instant Shiva whispered in his ear, “She is your wife”.  So, Saran, speaking very little English, approached  her and asked to go up the mountain with her.  She agreed. After a mostly silent but exciting day on the mountain, on the walk down, Saran asked her if she would marry him. Jehan was very happy with him and knew that he was very special. After more than a year together they got married.  They now, 5 years later, have a beautiful daughter, who lights up their life and brings them joy every day.  Their life together with their daughter is truly a Divine Blessing.                                          (http://www.mountainsarantours.com/Arunachala.html)

We ended up seeing a woman there whom we had met at the Kali Das concert the night before; a Jewish woman originally from New York, a little bit nutty (she said that Ramana comes to her at night and talks to her all night long- keeping her from sleeping so that she had to go get some valium, which didn’t sound like Ramana at all since he teaches in silence)! The evening before, when Kali Das sang Avenu Shalom Alechem, we belted it out like a bunch of fraternity brothers- wherein all the Jews and non-Jews distinguished themselves immediately! She came over to us at the temple while we were absorbed in listening to Saran and interrupted by  talking talking talking, completely  unaware that we were having a tour with Saran. It was apparent that she wasn’t going anywhere, so we all got up to leave. Undeterred, she asked to share a tuk-tuk back to the ashram with us, where she paid her 1/3 share. Here is when I realize how far from my spiritual enlightenment I am when I make up a lie to her about our continued plans for the evening, and then  Sol and I slink off to have our last meal together at The Dreaming Tree. A call to Ravi was made, and he came to bring us back to our hotel (Sol is making him even up the score!), where we packed up for Pondicherry. We are leaving tomorrow. Danesh arranged a taxi for us at 10:00am. Unlike the states, hiring a taxi to travel is extremely reasonable here in India.  This is our last night here in Tiru living by the holy Arunachala Mountain and the sacredness that is felt here. I am sad, but also excited to see more of India (I’ve been reading about Auroville and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, etc.,) and what she has to offer.

PONDICHERRY…HERE WE COME!

Wednesday, 4th Day in India, February 19, 2014

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Early dawn pradakshina on the Inner path.

Walking the Inner Path…

We had arranged for our tuk-tuk driver to pick us up at 4:45am. He showed up right on time, and drove us up to the Ashram. Ganesh came to meet us in front of the ashram,  and we started walking on the main road (as if to begin pradakshina there). It was still fairly dark, but we had our trusty flashlight. Ganesh took us a little ways down the main road, and then we veered off into the dark woods. I couldn’t really see what I was stepping on, and it was a bit thick with underbrush for a little while, but Ganesh picked up the path, and soon we were in the most peaceful of landscapes. It always feels miraculous to witness the sunrise. But how much more so to be here- in India- at the base of this sacred Mountain in this beautiful land. Here there was no trash or sewage. Here there was only beautiful rocks, plants, trees, bushes, cactus, and as the dawn came upon us, we could hear some quietly chirping birds. There was only one time when I got scared (after all, what we were doing is illegal. Carol had told us to make sure we didn’t bring our passports because she knew of some people who got caught walking the inner path and they got their passports taken away. I thought I heard something behind me, and when I turned around, I saw someone coming with a flashlight. I alerted Ganesh, and we all stopped and turned, with hearts pounding, toward the on-comer. It turned out to be an Asian woman who was also doing pradakshina by herself. (Whew) They seemed to know each other, and Ganesh called her “sister.” (She had a little flashlight around her head to help her see as she walked.) They exchanged some Tamil conversation, she passed us, and went on her way.

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Here comes the sun.

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Arunachala is shrouded in an early morning haze.

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After hearing us talk about Joe, Ganesh yells out, “Hello, my brother!”

IMG_0905Ganesh took us on a little shortcut where the path cut through a mountain pass. It was very rocky and steep, and we did not have the correct footwear. One should wear good strong hiking shoes that have good soles and support for your ankles while climbing around on the mountain. It’s very rocky. Little pebbles kept getting into my sandals, and I was wearing the kind with a buckle strap, so it was a nuisance to stop all the time, unbuckle, empty them out, and strap them back on. And it was futile, because as soon as you emptied them out, the pebbles filled right back in again. Sol was wearing similar footwear. Also, it was a very warm and humid morning. This section was quite strenuous and we were “sweating bullets,” as they say. Sol did not enjoy being taken this way. He questioned Ganesh about this path, as it’s known that Ramana had said one should walk pradakshina “like a queen in her ninth month of pregnancy.” This did not seem possible on the path we were on. Ganesh insisted that this was the one and only Inner Path and that there was none other. I told Sol that whatever paths there were, this was apparently the one he was supposed to be taking.

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We came across a beautiful little pond and a what looked like the remains of an old temple with a very tall, silent and still sadhu wearing a cloak over his head. It was still a bit dark and I wondered if he was an apparition. There was a white heron that flew by a nearby tree when we disturbed the stillness.

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Ganesh told us this cactus was extremely poisonous.

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I loved walking the Inner Path and being so close to the mountain, even though the trek through the hill and over all the rocks was probably unnecessary. (Just a side note about India clothing: I bent over to pick up a rock and “ripppp!” The pants tore! They weren’t even tight!)

While we were sitting on a boulder taking a little break (we had that sweet corn snack  bought at the chai stand from Sunday morning), a woman passed us who didn’t make any eye contact with us and seemed to be silently mouthing a mantra. I noticed her footwear was a closed shoe. Later, at another break, that same Asian woman who had passed us earlier on came up from behind us again. It was then that my suspicions that Ganesh had not taken us on the true inner path during the rocky part was confirmed. Then he said something to her in Tamil, and she answered back in English, saying, “No, I don’t, I can’t  take that way.” I looked at her footwear. Flip flops. Which actually makes sense, too (especially if you’re not taking the rough shortcut), because that way you can more easily kick the little pebbles out from under your feet. She told us that she does shiatsu massage, and gave us her business card. (I guess there are very few places left these days where people aren’t trying to sell you something. Sol and I both thought it was ironic to be doing pradakshina- such a holy thing, and be giving out your business card to people.) ) As we started to come out towards the end point, we could hear more noise, honking of horns, etc. Ganesh called Ravi and we had to suffer through waiting for him to pick us up while we sat on the side of the road.

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This woman has a little cooking stand along the side of the road where she was selling breakfast “to go” which she poured into little plastic bags and a twist tie.IMG_0912

Ravi finally came, and we had him drop us off at the top of the Dreaming Tree road. He gave Sol a price for the ride that was quite high, and when Sol expressed surprise, he said,””I had to drive 14 kilometers.” Sol said, “Not with us!” He made some remark which neither of us remember about how he had to drive “very far” to come for us. So Sol paid him, and we starting walking down the road. Ganesh came running after us and said something about starting a new business and how it would be good luck to have a bill from our country, so Sol gave him a U.S one dollar bill.

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This is a kolam. They can be found all over in Tamil Nadu. It is a form of painting that is drawn by using rice powder/chalk/chalk powder/white rock powder often using naturally/synthetically colored powders. Kolams are thought to bring prosperity to homes. Every morning in Tamil Nadu, millions of women draw kolams on the ground with white rice powder. Through the day, the drawings get walked on, rained out, or blown around in the wind; new ones are made the next day. Every morning before sunrise, the floor of the owners house, or wherever the Kolam may be, is cleaned with water and the muddy floor swept well to create an even surface.

After breakfast, we started walking back up the little road, and we stopped in at Tariq’s shop where I bought some more gifts- this time for Adam, Zack, and Beth. I am taking my gift buying for my friends and family very seriously. In other words, it has to be the perfect match for the person I’m buying it for. It has to speak to me. Poor Sol. He sat outside on the front steps in the hot sun.  Thank goodness for Pamela, as she came by and entertained him while I got swallowed up in shopping and the decision making process.  Pamela is yet another interesting person whom we met a couple of days ago as we were walking up to the ashram and back on that little road (I think it’s called Ramana Nagar-Shiva Sakthi Road). It’s the same road where The Achalam Guest House and The Dreaming Tree Restaurant are on.  There are 2 nice shops very close together on that road that sell clothes, crafts, jewelry, and wondrous gifts. Pamela seems to be very good friends with both store owners, as we were to see her at one or the other of the stores all week. The whole street is very Bohemian and seems to be where all the westerners live.  Anyways, both owners are super nice guys. At the store where I first bought the scarves is where we first saw Pamela. She was having a very deep spiritual conversation with someone. It’s not often that one walks into a store and two ladies are deeply involved in a discussion about enlightenment! While she was having yet another deep discussion with Sol, talking to Sol, the other store owner from a few doors down came to tell her that their chai tea was ready. During the week, this same man (I wish I could remember his name) called out to us on one of our walks to The Dreaming Tree restaurant and invited us to come for tea. He said, “It has nothing to do with business. Business I can get anytime. Friends…that’s a different story. So drop in anytime for tea. I mean it. I mean it.”

When I had finally made up my mind and it was time to pay, I called Sol in to do the bickering. While haggling over prices, Tariq said he’d give us a “good deal” because he liked us and we were “friends of Pamela’s.” (Pamela is also a friend of Mooji’s and has some interesting stories to tell.) I noticed that this is how purchases were done in the area shops: after you finish choosing your gifts, the store owner places chairs in front of the counter for you to sit, and he sits opposite you. Then the haggling over prices begins. Once the deal has been struck, the store owners want you to stay and talk. They are genuinely interested in you. We talked with Tariq for quite awhile. One of our discussions was about the closeness and respect Indian families have for their aging parents and grandparents. I asked him why there were so many older men and women begging in the streets. In the area we were at, although I had prepared myself to see throngs of begging children, there weren’t any- but there were plenty of elderly people begging. He explained that they came from very poor families, and when an elderly person cannot do any work around the home anymore, they go out into the streets to beg. But he assured me that they all have families to go home to at night where they are loved and respected, and that Indians never put their aging parents into nursing homes. He also told me that the true sadhus, the real holy men will never be begging and asking for money.

 Our next stop was the ashram. We went into the new hall and meditated in the the old hall. I’m not a meditator. Maybe if I could sit in the perfect lotus position, maybe if I could quiet my mind and still my thoughts, maybe if time didn’t drag by…but it’s different in this old hall. First of all, many other people were sitting in an untraditional way also. But there’s such a strong vibration in the old hall. Again I felt a powerful surge of emotion at the old hall and tears began streaming down my cheeks.

We next went by the office and asked if they knew anything about Christopher Quilkey.

We ran into Jacqui and Charles at the Ashram, and we invited them to come have dinner with us at The Dreaming Tree and listen to Kali Das that evening, which they agreed to do. It’s a date!

Sol spotted Kali Das at the ashram, inside the New Hall where he was sitting on a window ledge meditatively, and then we saw him again outside by the shoe shed. Sol told him how excited he was to be seeing him in concert, and how he had downloaded and loved his music, in particular, “Ramana Sat-Guru,” and that he was hoping he would see him when he came to India, and there he was! He (Kali Das) seemed moved by Sol’s words, asked his name, and we parted.

Back at our hotel, I checked my correspondences, as I was trying to hire Saran as a guide, but every time we made plans with him, something happened in which I needed to change them. Richard and Carol had highly recommended Saran as a tour guide. He grew up in the area and had a strong connection to it. I visited his website and was enamored of his personal story- how he met his guru and his wife on the mountain. Since Ganesh seemed to have been placed in our path already for two of the tours we had wanted (visiting the caves and the Inner Path), the only thing left that I really wanted to see was visiting the Annamalaiyar, the large temple in Tiru where I knew there was an elephant who blesses you. So we made a Thursday evening plan with him to tour it.

We got a tuk-tuk back to Hotel Ashreya (It was Ravi, and Sol told him he had overcharged him and that Ravi now owed him money. I was so impressed with the way Sol handled him. He told him he was aware he had been grossly overcharged and it was wrong, and that he (Ravi) was going to make it right with him. So arrangements were made for Ravi to pick us up at 6:15 that evening (and many more times until he made it right)! We crashed for a 2 hour nap and then freshened up for our tuk-tuk drive.

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We had such a lovely evening with Jacqui and Charles.

We arrived at The Dreaming Tree and met Jacqui and Charles there. It was a lovely evening. No matter how hot it’s been during the day, the evenings are always perfect, being around 75 degrees. Being of a tropical climate, the breezes are gentle and the smell of gardenias are in the air. (Because of all of the temples in this area, I’ve heard there is a flower farm close by that provides all the strands of flowers that adorn the temples, shrines, cows, women and children.)  Kali Das and his back-up players arrive and begin performing. They were great. Something I remember that was funny was that every time Charles and I had a conversation about a particular subject, Kali Das broke out singing a song about that same topic. For example, when discussing gurus or teachers and how we don’t really have one ourselves but everyone else seemed to, Kali Das started to sing “My Guru’s better than Yours.” Charles was explaining his Jewish upbringing to me, and how very serious he was about Judaism at one time thinking of entering a Yeshiva, and Kali Das broke out in, “Avenu Shalom Alehem” (wherein all the Jews in the room, of which there were quite a few, all joined in!)

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Kali Das (center)

Charles told me that he was a big advocate and believer in something called Human Design. It’s an astrological method of calculating information about yourself based on your exact date of birth. It sounded interesting.

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Domenic was a very cool backup singer and instrumentalist for Kali Das (and a very sweet man). He was going to be performing on Friday evening and invited us to attend, but alas, we were leaving for Pondicherry that day. It was a really magical evening. Great food, music, and company. To us, we felt as though we were enjoying a summer evening (even though it was their winter season.) The party was over, time for goodnights,  and we shared a tuk-tuk with Charles and Jacqui back to our hotels where Sol and I slept the sleep of the dead. What a wonderful 4th day in India!

Tuesday – Third Day in India- 2/18/2014

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Dinesh cooks us breakfast: Idlis (left), dosas (right), coconut chutney and dahl.

It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do for a person! We awoke feeling refreshed, had a hot shower, and in comparison to previous mornings, we slept in fairly late. We decided to have breakfast at the hotel (we found out that breakfast was actually included with the room.) And I asked for silverware! Sweet Dinesh made idli for us served with coconut chutney and dahl. It was delicious. I’ve never had Indian food for breakfast before. I asked Dinesh if he was married or had a special girl in his life. He is working his way up in the hotel hospitality business. His English is quite good, but with his speed of talking along with the accent, I believe he said that he’s already spent several years working at different hotels – one at Pondicherry, here at Hotel Ashreya, and he was planning a year in Dubai. He also shared that he watched his cousin – I think he said she was getting water from a well (sounds very much like the Jacob and Rachel story of the Bible) and knew she was the one for him , so he asked his uncle if he could marry her next year. I guess it’s quite common for first cousins to marry in India. At any rate, he seems to have his life nicely planned out.

Dinesh made us a traditional Indian breakfast consisting of idlis, dosas (crepes), dahl (an Indian lentil soup), and coconut chutney. He also made us coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, and the best strawberry milkshake we have ever had! Sol ordered it, and it was even better than my freshly squeezed orange juice! Seriously, a trip out to Hotel Ashreya would be worth it just for this alone! Marvelous!

Idlis, I was to learn,  are a traditional breakfast in South Indian households. The cakes are usually two to three inches in diameter and are made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils (de-husked) and rice. Most often eaten at breakfast or as a snack, idlis are usually served in pairs with chutney, sambar (a spicy lentil soup with a variety of vegetables that accompanies many South Indian meals) or other accompaniments. There is quite an involved process to make idlis, which I wasn’t aware of until I looked it up on-line here at home. I post it here:

To make idli, place four parts uncooked rice to one part split black lentil (minapa pappu, urad dal) in a pan and soak separately for at least four hours. Optionally, to improve taste, add half a teaspoon of fenugreek seeds to the lentils at the time of soaking. Grind the lentils (with the fenugreek seeds) to a fine paste attaining the consistency of whipped cream. Grind the rice to a coarse paste separately in a heavy stone grinding vessel (rolu-rokali, rubbo-kallu, oralu kallu). Mix both the lentil and rice paste thoroughly. Leave the paste to ferment overnight, until it has expanded to about 2½ times its original volume. In the morning, put the idli batter into the moulds of an idli tray or “tree” for steaming.

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We then asked for a tuk-tuk to take us to the ashram. I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but one tuk-tuk driver named Ravi seemed to think we had a contract with him. He insisted every time we went anywhere that we call him for the return fare- even giving us his number. We had had a few tuk-tuk drivers already, and we felt great warmth from many of them. Not so with Ravi. Ravi had two qualities to him: serious and more serious. Yet it worked because we did end up using him and felt a sense of commitment to him. But in all honesty, being a tuk-tuk driver seems like a hard way to make a living, and so from a business point of view, he probably needs to be that way.

We did pradakshina in the New Hall and sat in the old hall again. This is a wonderful description about the Old Hall, written by one of Ramana’s disciples:

Passing through the door of the Samadhi Hall on the north side the visitor comes to the Old Hall. This is regarded as a spot particularly sanctified by the Maharshi’s presence. In this hall thousands of devotees had his darshan (seeing a holy person or an image). It was on the couch in this hall that he spent almost all his time until about a year before his passing. It was here that devotees experienced year after year the potent peace that emanated from his presence.

To this day the power of Sri Ramana has not diminished. Often visitors to the ashram have remarked, “But one can feel his presence very strongly.” Before Sri Ramana gave up his body, devotees went to him and begged him to remain for a while longer as they needed his help. He replied “Go! Where can I go? I shall always be here.”

There is a couch draped with a beautiful cloth, and a large painting or photograph of him. It still feels like he is there. You can truly feel his vast eternal love and devotion towards all. It moves me to tears whenever I am in there.

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This is the large, lifesize photo of Ramana Maharshi that sits atop the couch where he used to sit in this old hall. I had a very spiritual experience on my last morning sitting before him…my own personal connection with him which I will share later.

Sol had been checking in at the office to see if and when the editor of The Mountain Path magazine, Christopher Quilkey, would drop by, and we were told that he was coming at around 10:00, so we hung around the ashram waiting for him. Sol has written three articles for the Mountain Path (the third one should be coming out next month), and through their correspondences about the writings, have formed a connection. Sol had told him that we were coming, and he was willing to meet up with us.)

We again  ran into our England buddies from Leeds, Jacqui and her son, Charles. Charles was grappling with some tough questions. He had just purchased, “Be As You Are-The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi,” edited by David Godman. “If everything is an illusion, then why are we even bothering to make the trek to Arunchala? What’s the point?” he wanted to know. These are also the types of questions I grapple with, so even though I couldn’t answer him, I loved the fact that he was even asking. I’ve always been so surprised that more people don’t ask these same questions. And that was what was so refreshing about being here. Everyone is talking about the same things! Everyone is asking questions! Everyone is seeking the truth!  (Anyways, Sol attempted to answer his question by explaining that it’s true, but not really something that makes sense intellectually, and that one needs to accomplish the cessation of thinking to really get that. As you can see,  Sol is much wiser than I am!)

We walked as far as we felt we could go with no shoes…everyone kicks their shoes off as you enter the front on your left – it’s a holy temple, so shoes are not allowed (there’s actually a little shoe house with an Indian man who keeps watch over them if you are afraid they might get taken). I so wanted to explore the ashram and to feel a sense of intimacy with the sacred ashram grounds…especially after having felt a sense of sadness for not being able to be housed there, but our feet lacked that layer of calloused skin that all the Indian people seemed to have, so we went to the bookstore and also visited the library.

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It’s a beautiful building, round in shape and sits above the    ashram above what looks like an assembly hall beneath.

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Caught this unusual butterfly species up by the steps leading up to the library, as one is in the trees there.

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The ashram feeds sometimes hundreds of hungry sadhus everyday during the midday meal. This is a tradition that Ramana Maharshi started. He loved to feed people and was often in the kitchen helping to prepare the food himself.

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I love the color of the soil here… red, like in Utah or Arizona.

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Lines of orange-robed (the typical color denoting one is a sadhu) sadhus in line to be fed.

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The Ashram does this every single day. The hungry go through with their plates or buckets, eat their food and leave.

I found an old photograph album that someone had evidently put together with great regard for Sri Ramana Maharshi and the ashram. Some of the photos were quite old and interesting. I also came across a copy of the letter he had written to his mother after her entreaties to return back to his home.                                      IMG_0839 IMG_0841

I don’t know if it’s because it IMG_0843was a bit warm in the library, but I was feeling a bit sick, so we went back outside and watched the monkeys frolic together. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to watch and observe monkeys in their natural habitat and not at a zoo. This is certainly not something one can do in the states!

After waiting until close to 11:00, we were told that Christopher Quilkey was most likely not going to make it that day, but we were given his phone number to get in touch with him directly. Carol called and apologized about canceling our lunch date with her, but we made arrangement to meet her at the ashram grounds later that afternoon for some sari-shopping. I believe we decided to have lunch at the ashram, but we can’t remember.

Now comes the whole Inner Path story. There are two ways to circumambulate the mountain: the outer path is really the main road (which we had almost completed the day before) and the Inner Path, which is a much more remote path that circles the hill closer to its base – away from the traffic. I had read on Carol and Richard’s blog that the Forest Service had closed off the Inner Path due to some people smoking and consequently setting fires. It’s very upsetting. Sol had memories of the beauty of walking the Inner Path 34 years ago with his mother, and he had promised me we would do it too.  We decided to go toward the back gate of the mountain where we knew we could pick up the path, but knew we’d never get far without our shoes, so we went to get them. We picked them up and started walking with our shoes in our hands (NOT ON OUR FEET), when all of a sudden a guard who sometimes stands by the front of the Ashram started yelling at us to leave our shoes behind. I tried to explain to him that we weren’t going to put them on until we got to the other side of the ashram grounds, but he continued to yell at us AND he had a stick he was pointing at us, too! How very un-Ramana like, I couldn’t help but think! There was also a huge language barrier, and I could feel that this was not going anywhere. Earlier that morning we had been asked at the front gate if we wanted a tour by a young Indian man. We told him no thanks. Now the guard was calling this same young man over to intervene or perhaps get rid of us? And this was how Ganesh became our guide. “Come, come,”  he said, “What do you want to do?”

“We want to find the path that leads up the mountain, but we want to be able to take our shoes on the path up,” we told him.

“Okay, okay, I show you. Come! Come!”

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And that is how Ganesh came to be our guide!

The saying, “Go with the flow” must have originated in India. So Ganesh proceeded to be our tour guide. He showed us the burial places of the animals who were said to have reached samadhi  (the state of Divine Consciousness) out back: Lakshmi, a cow that Ramana loved, alongside a bird, a dog, and a deer. Here is some information about the relationship Ramana Maharshi had with this special cow from the blog of  (http://www.arunachalasamudra.org/ramana.html):

The most favoured of all the animal devotees was a cow named Lakshmi. She was brought along with her mother as a gift to Bhagavan. As he felt the Ashram could not properly care for the cows, they were taken to a farm in a neighboring village. After Lakshmi had been with the farmer for more than a year, the man went one evening to Ramanashram bringing Lakshmi and her mother with him for a visit. Lakshmi was irresistibly attracted to Ramana and must have noted carefully the way to the ashram. The next day she appeared on her own and from then on came every day and returned, by herself, to her own home in the evening. She soon became a permanent member of the ashram. During her life, Lakshmi bore several calves at least three of them on Bhagavan’s birthday. She was extremely devoted to Bhagavan and he showed her the utmost Grace and kindness. 

On June 17, 1948 Lakshmi became very ill and it was clear her time had come. Bhagavan went to her and said: ‘Amma (Mother), do you want me near you?’ He sat down and cradled her head in his lap putting one hand on her head and one over her heart just as he had done when his own human mother lay dying. He gazed into Lakshmi’s eyes for a long time and lay his cheek against hers stroking her gently. She focused all of her attention on Bhagavan and was conscious up to the end, her eyes bright and clear. On June 18th at 11:30 am she left her body peacefully. She was buried in the Ashram compound with full funeral rights. Her grave is next to those of a deer, crow and dog also buried by Bhagavan. A stone was placed over Lakshmi’s grave with her likeness carved into it. On the stone was also engraved the epitaph he had written for her stating she had attained (Mukti) final liberation. 

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It was common knowledge that Ramana Maharshi had a way to communicate with animals and that they loved him. This cow, a favorite “pet” of Ramana Maharshi’s which he named “Lakshmi” was said to have gained enlightenment through him. She is buried on the ashram grounds.

Here is wonderful information from a blogger who writes a blog called “Divine People and Places,” (http://www.divinetravel.info/search/label/Kanhangad%2FCoimbatore%2FTiruvanamalai). He shares wonderful information, pictures, and even videos about his trips all over India, but here is a little about what he wrote when visiting Arunachala.

Next morning the train reached Jolarpeth at 7 a.m. We got down and took auto to Tirupatur from where we took a bus to Tiruvanamalai. It was a 3 hour journey in the bus.  We finally reached Ramana Ashram at Tiruvanamalai by 11 a.m. and found all rooms full in the ashram and in the lodges around. We searched for places far from the Ramana Ashram and we got a small ashram right in front of Ramana Ashram. The owner was kind enough to give us two separate rooms for males and females and our room was on the terrace. When we went up to the terrace i was awed to see the Tiruvanamalai Hills. i sat on the terrace facing the hills and no sooner had i invoked the holy siddhas, there was a gush of energy. i realized that there would be no effort of any kind needed here to connect. The sadhana was deep and intense here and this was yet without going to the holy hills. (http://youtu.be/UdRZAndXb28)

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After a very very delicious meal in the ashram, we came back and spent some time in the room since the sun was very intense. i could not resist but to shoot a small video of the divine hills and share it with my friends on Facebook. After our tea at 3:30 p.m., we left for Ramana Ashram. As we moved in through the ashram, a sense of serenity took over. We moved through the entire huge ashram filled with people from all over the world. Peacocks, peahens, monkeys and dogs roamed all over freely with people there.

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Out of the five sacred places of the panchabhootas (refers to the five Shiva temples or five elements), Tiruvanamalai is identified with the fire element. 

This place looked like a huge joint family holding strongly people of all caste, creed and faith by Ramanaji like the love and protection of the head of the family holds all members of different tastes, temperaments and attitudes together.

The ashram even contained the samadhi mandir containing the earthly remains of the ashram’s four holy animals: Jackie the dog, Valli the deer, Lakshmi the cow, and a crow. These were not mere animals who lived with Ramanaji and they were much evolved than animals and birds and they lived such an evolved life with him. Squirrels used to run in and out of the Hall window, over his couch and even his body. 

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He would feed them with nuts and stroke them, some of them even had names. Snakes and scorpions were never allowed to be killed. Sick animals were brought to Bhagavan and kept by him on his couch or on the floor beside him until they were well. Many animals had died in his arms. Once a monkey tried to bring her new born baby through a window near Ramana’s couch. The attendants were preventing her. Ramana chided them as follows, “Don’t all of you bring your newborn babies to me? She also wants to do so. Why should you prevent her?” A very special crow used to accompany Ramanaji on his daily walks. The crow would not eat from anybody’s hand but the saint’s. Ramanaji used to say that he was actually a rishi (great sage) in a crow’s body.

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Ganesh also showed us the burial tombs of those who were great devotees or who were very close to Ramana. It was then that we shared with him that we secretly wanted to walk the Inner Path. We knew it was forbidden, but we had come so far and it was an important part of our spiritual journey. He told us that if we met him the next day at 5:00 am by the front gate, he would take us there and be our guide. And then up the mountain path he went, barefoot, spry, and calling us “mom” and “dad.” Apparently in India, this is the custom. “Come, mom. Come, dad,” he would call back to us.

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First “look-out” while on the climb. One can see there’s a lake in Tiru.

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It is the middle and HOTTEST part of the day (90 degrees)!

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Here is the well-known look-out for people who are climbing up to either the caves or the top.

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There’s a bit of a breeze up here!

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Below is the Annamalaiyar temple. It is a Hindu temple dedicated to the deity Shiva which dates back to the 9th century CE. In Hindu mythology, Parvati, wife of Shiva, once closed the eyes of her husband playfully in a flower garden at their abode atop Mount Kailash. Although only a moment for the gods, all light was taken from the universe, and the earth, in turn, was submerged in darkness for years. Parvati performed penance along with other devotees of Shiva. Then her husband appeared as a column of fire at the top of Annamalai hills, returning light to the world. He then merged with Parvati to form Ardhanarishvara, the half-female, half-male form of Shiva. The Annamalai, or red mountain, lies behind the Annamalaiyar temple, and is associated with the temple of its namesake. The hill is sacred and considered a lingam, or iconic representation of Shiva, in itself.

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This hill is of Igneous rock (connected with fire) which is one of the four kinds of mountains classified by geology. An American Geologist has stated about this mountain thus:- “Arunachala should have been thrown up by the earth under the stress of some violent volcanic eruption in the dim ages before even the coal-bearing strata were formed. This rocky mass of granite may be dated back to the earliest epoch of the history of our planet’s crust, that epoch which long preceded the vast sedimentary formation in which fossil records of plants and animals have been preserved. It existed long before the gigantic saurians of the pre-historic world moved their ungainly forms through the primeval forests that covered our early earth. It was contemporaneous with the formation of the very crust of earth itself. Arunachala was almost as hoary and as ancient as our planetary home itself”.” (Wikipedia)

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Skandashram Cave – where Ramana lived for 7 yrs with the Mother. Bhagavan remained in this Ashram with his devotees until his mother Alagammal died on 19th May, 1922 and it was at the end of that year that Sri Ramana permanently made his home at the bottom of the Hill in what is now Ramanashram.The Ashram was developed by Kandaswami who undertook to build the main part of what has become Skandashramam. In front of a natural cave two small rooms have been built lengthwise. There is also a terrace in front of the Ashram with coconut palms and foliage and a breathtaking panoramic view of Arunachaleswarar Temple and Tiruvannamalai. This cave is situated in a spot that has a perennial spring with good water.

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Sprawling town of Tiru below us

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We meditate in the Mother’s quarters, but it is incredibly warm in there, and I can’t do it. (I am still very much “the body!”)

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Steps seem carved into the rock.

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Boulders behind the cave by the spring.

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Sol stands in front of the terrace of Skandashram.

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Pictures of Ramana Maharshi align the walls.

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Virupaksha cave where Sri Ramana stayed for seventeen years from 1899 to 1916, arriving when he was 20, after his stay at Gurumurtam after he arrived in Tiruvannamalai. This cave is situated on the eastern slopes of Arunachala. It is a unique cave as it is in the shape of the syllable “Om”, with a vestibule with a reclining stone “couch” outside the main cave.

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The cave derives its name from Virupaksha Deva, a renowned 13th century saint. It is believed that Virupaksha spent most of his life in this cave and surroundings. Legends tell that his body turned into ashes just after his Samadhi. The sacred ash (vibhuti) is assumed to be preserved here on the altar.

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We head back down below on the Tiru side where we see this Temple and well.

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Beautiful Indian boy we meet on the path going down.

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Foliage growing in terra cotta pots at Virupaksha Cave.

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Temple below the Virupaksha cave.

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There is a small village clustered close together on the side of the mountain.

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There are different kinds of monkeys to see in India, and this is different from the kind at the Ashram.

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We flagged a tuk-tuk down who brought us back to the Ashram, where we met up with Carol to go into Tiru to buy the Sari!

Buying The Sari

As I had mentioned earlier, I had seen on Carol Johnson’s blog how much she loved wearing a sari. This is what she wrote:

My big change in the last month is that I’ve started wearing saris instead of western clothes. When we were visualizing this move, I was planning to go with salwar camise outfits. They’re Indian, so you fit in a little bit, but more comfortable than I thought a sari would be. But it turns out that 95% of Indian women wear saris, and the other 5% are way younger than I. The first time I wore a sari out, to a funeral, everyone was SO grateful that I had “honored” them in such a way. The reaction was astounding. Most Western women here will never experience such a reaction, because they don’t even consider learning how to wear a sari. So I’m having a blast now, choosing from the infinite variety of colors and fabrics, looking for the perfect garment.

Carol in a sari

 So off we go. (Coincidentally, Carol shared with me that she also got yelled at by a guard at the ashram that day. Hmm…someone doesn’t like westerners?) There’s Ravi waiting for us, as he had “interrogated” us earlier that day as to when and where our next drive would be (we run into a little uncomfortable situation here because Carol caught the eye of a driver, but we had already told Ravi that we would use him- oh the bonds that bind us!) to take us into Tiruvannamalai by what they call the Temple Road with Carol leading and guiding the way. We enter a store and she leads us up a flight of stairs to a room that has floor to ceiling saris along both sides- so many colors and patterns, so many fabrics (there’s silk, cotton, chiffon…). Carol suggests chiffon and I am grateful to have one less decision to make. Now the choice of color and pattern. The guys that are behind the counter start to bring boxes out and uncover the top lid so that we can see them. There are so many and I can see that this could take a few hours at least, so based on the TV show “House Hunters,” I narrow it down to three, and then from there, choose Sol’s favorite!

saris all spread out

Soon they are spread out in front of you.

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Floor to ceiling- so many to see!

Carol helps me pick the correct undergarment (which looks like a skirt) also. “No sari is complete until you bejewel yourself as all Indian women do,” says Carol. So we walk around the corner to the jewelry store -stopping for some freshly cut-up cups of fruit: watermelon, pineapple and papaya first. (P.S. There was a huge garbage bin right there for us to throw away our cups, which we apparently were the only ones who knew its use and that it was even there.) Once inside, there are a bazillion options because again, the store is stacked floor to ceiling with goods and commodities of all kinds.

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What’s a girl to do?

This store has make-up, men’s cologne, and everything you could possibly think of to beautify yourself in some way or another. Carol helped me choose bangles for my arm (I was so glad to have her help me communicate. Otherwise, I would have come home with a foot of bangles!), a gold necklace, earrings, and anklets (and you must purchase two, because wearing only one in India means you are a prostitute!) Then we head on over to the tailor (because underneath the sari, women wear a blouse that is tailor-made to their body). He has a tiny little hut quite a way off from the main road not too very far from our hotel. (As fascinating as the main roads are, the littler back roads are even more interesting,  a bit more rural and  “village-like.”) Carol knows him well, has been doing business with him through many saris,  and asks for a special favor.  Could we please  put a “rush” on this order and have it made and ready to be picked up by Thursday, since we are both leaving on Friday? We will pay extra money for this (which means we will pay $4.00 instead of $2.00). He winces with a smile, but yes, he will do it! We return to our hotel, and Richard joins us for a couple of beers in the outdoor garden area. (He had been asked to speak to a group of Yoga teachers from France at the German Restaurant, so had just come from there). We again enjoy talking with them as couples who seem to have so much in common.) They have a trip all planned to southern India which they are preparing for, so understandably want to leave early.

Sol and I call for our tuk-tuk driver, Ravi, and go have a nice dinner at The Dreaming Tree. There, Vijay tells us that Kali Das will be performing tomorrow night with live music. Sol is out-of-this-world happy about this! He had discovered Kali Das’s Arunachala chants and songs through Youtube and had downloaded a lot of his music, which he played often in his car. He knew Kali Das lived in Tiru for 6 months of the year (the other 6 months in Mount Shasta, CA) and was hoping he would run into him! The stars have aligned for us this week! We walk a bit further down the little Dreaming Tree road, turn and go back up. Our feet are killing us. We can walk no more. Our tuk-tuk arrives, we get in, and he takes us “home.”

We get to bed early because we are getting up at 4:15 am for our early and clandestine Wednesday morning pradakshina.

 

Monday – 2/17/2014 – Second Day in India

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Sri Bhagavan said, “In the end everyone must come to Arunachala.”

It was a bit of a rough night for sleeping, so we woke up very early. I believe it was around 3:00am, and by around 4:00 am we decided to get up, take cold showers and do our first Pradakshina around the mountain.  Out the door we went, into the early morning darkness. Here is some information that describes pradakshina around the mountain in more detail:

Girivalam is the path around Arunachala and the performance of Pradakshina, to go around the hill on this path, is one of the principle activities prescribed for devotees. Certain days are regarded as particularly auspicious for circumambulation. The fruit of a Monday pradakshina is a merger in Siva-form (live happily in a world free from senility and death). Whether undertaken as an act of devotion, duty, or to achieve boons or blessings, millions of people have made and continue to make this action a part of their spiritual experience. For those devotees seeking liberation through self-realization, Pradakshina is a meditative act of worship seeking oneness with Arunachala and the realization that the Self, being all pervasive, is experienced as this state of oneness and identity with the Hill. Sri Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi observed that Pradakshina is “All is within me”  (‘Talks #212). In these pursuits,  the Grace of Arunachala is sought by devotees on the Girivalam path.

This is a story from the Sri Ramanasraman website: “From all I had seen and heard, I felt there must be something really significant in this Pradakshina. So I often plied Bhagavan with questions as to whether it is important to take this trouble. …The following is the gist of what I was told as the result of my conversation with Bhagavan on this subject.

”For everybody it is good to make circuit of the hill. It does not even matter whether one has faith in this Pradakshina or not, just as fire will burn all who touch it whether they believe it will or not, so the hill will do good to all those who go round it.” Once he said to me : “Why are you so concerned with all these questions about the efficacy of going round the hill? Whatever else you may or may not get, you will at least have the benefit of the physical exercise.”-Ramana Maharshi

Bhagavan thought this at least would be clear to my dull intellect. On another occasion he said to me : “Go round the hill once. You will see that it will attract you. I had also seen that whoever came and told Bhagavan he was starting on Pradakshina, however old or infirm he might be, Bhagavan never even in a single case discouraged the idea, but at the most remarked : “You can go slowly”.

Siva Himself declared in an assembly of devas and others: “He who circumambulates with devotion the Arunachala Hill which is my form, attains a form like mine. He becomes the Lord of the entire world and reaches the highest state.”

So here we are. I had read the many proper ways to circumambulate the mountain: go in prayer, meditation or silence, do it clock-wise, be barefoot, feed the poor, always look toward the mountain, etc. and so on, but all was temporarily forgotten as we began our adventure. All was oohs and ahhhs- look at this, wow! What’s that? So we took our time and ambled on at our own speed and in our own unorthodox way. The morning was cool and pleasant. The darkness was illuminated by the occasional streetlights or passing headlights of a vehicle. As the dawn arrived, our eyes fell on many amazing sites: sleeping, bathing, begging or praying sadhus, colorful statues, temples and shrines, monkeys eating and chattering, women cleaning clothes or cooking breakfast, oxen-drawn carts and wagons, and Indian people with wares to sell. Time had stood still here. And this was the first, but certainly not the last time we were to encounter the very insistent, extremely pushy, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer Indian women!  We came across a woman selling necklaces-she tied pieces of turmeric onto red string. I always feel it’s my duty to buy, as I’m a wealthy westerner in comparison and  it’s the right thing to do, but this woman  insisted that Sol buy one too- or maybe she just wanted to give him one as a gift?  With the language barrier, we just weren’t sure- but she kept putting it on Sol’s head, and then you end up feeling guilty because they’re so poor and are asking for so little, and we are such wealthy Americans compared to them.

We see sadhus (renouncers who have chosen to live a life apart from or on the edges of society to focus on their own spiritual practice) everywhere. They appear to be quite old and many quite thin, yet sleep on the ground- sometimes on the cement sidewalk or temple floors with nary a blanket. (I have since learned from Richard and Carol’s blog that the situation for many of these old sadhus is very dire.) Some have a cup in front of them and put their hands up to their mouths to show that they want money for food.  But there are many that do not beg at all and give us the traditional Indian greeting.

We had many adventures that morning. The dawn broke, and we could begin to see everything ever so clearly now.

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We were so glad we packed a flashlight in our backpack carry-on! People are busy at all times of the day and night in India.

We see many sights along the way…IMG_0800

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Of all the sights that morning when the dawn broke, this was the most breath-taking!

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During the walk through this area, we hear piped in Indian music, maybe coming from an ashram nearby?

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Someone has put food out for the monkeys!

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One cannot help but look towards Arunachala at every possible moment.

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The Mountain – Arunachala…

Ramana Maharshi called Arunachala the spiritual Heart of the world. Aruna, which means ‘red, bright like fire’, does not signify the mere fire that gives off heat. Rather, it means Jnanagni, the Fire of Wisdom, which is neither hot nor cold. Achala signifies hill. Thus, Arunachala means ‘Hill of Wisdom’.

There is a Puranic (any of 18 collections of Hindu legends and religious instructions) story about the origin of the hill:

Once Vishnu and Brahma fell to disputing which of them was the greater. Their quarrel brought chaos on earth, so the Devas approached Siva and besought him to settle the dispute. Siva thereupon manifested himself as a column of light from which a voice issued declaring that whoever could find its upper or lower end was the greater. Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed down into the earth to find the base, while Brahma took the form of a swan and soared upwards to seek its summit. Vishnu failed to reach the base of the column but “beginning to see within himself the Supreme Light which dwells in the hearts of all, he became lost in meditation, oblivious to the physical body and even unaware of himself, the one who sought.” Brahma saw the flower of an alse plant falling through the air and, thinking to win by deception, returned with it and declared he had plucked it from the summit.

Vishnu admitted his failure and turned to the Lord in praise and prayer: “You are Self-knowledge. You are OM. You are the beginning and the middle and the end of everything. You are everything and illuminate everything.” He was pronounced great while Brahma was exposed and confessed his fault.

In this legend, Vishnu represents the intellect and Brahma the ego, while Siva is Atma, the spirit.

The story continues that, because the lingam or column of light was too dazzling to behold, Siva manifested himself instead as the Arunachala hill, declaring: “As the moon derives its light from the sun, so other holy places shall derive their sanctity from Arunachala. This is the only place where I have taken this form for the benefit of those who wish to worship me and obtain illumination. Arunachala is OM itself. I will appear on the summit of this hill every year at Kartigai in the form of a peace-giving beacon.” This refers not only to the sanctity of Arunachala itself but also to the pre-eminence of the doctrine of Advaita (non-duality) and the path of Self-enquiry of which Arunachala is the center. One can understand this meaning in Sri Bhagavan’s saying, “In the end everyone must come to Arunachala.”

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“Oh undefiled, abide Thou in my heart so that there may be everlasting joy, Oh Arunachala!”-Ramana Maharshi

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Here a woman washes clothes by hand.The women in India always seem to be squatting, bending, or hauling. (I don’t know how their backs hold up.)

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Palm trees- we are indeed in a tropical climate!

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Cows are considered sacred in India because they provide milk and ghee. (I just love the cobalt blue paint they use on the horns!)

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We stop for some coconut nourishment.

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The coconuts are served by cutting them in half-one quick chop- and then inserting a straw in it so you can drink the milk. Then it’s cut open again so you can scoop out the soft pulp.

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The Laughing Sadhu bestows his beads, tilaka, and ash on Sol.

The Laughing Sadhu…

We came across an old sadhu which I can only nickname as the “Laughing Sadhu.” He really took to Sol right away, seeming to enjoy looking into his eyes and laughing with joy. Pure joy. Sol bought him a coconut, too (I guess we did fulfill a couple of the pradakshina rules, after all). The sadhu took the beads off from around his neck and put them around Sol, and laughed again. He invited us into his little home/Temple (using no English, only gestures and Tamil), which was a very small room, but very holy. One couldn’t even stand up. We sat with him in his incense-filled room and he started to point to all the deities and pictures on the walls in sequence, one at a time, “Shiva, Ganesh…” telling us who they were (again using gestures and in sanskrit). Then he blessed us by waving his hands over us and placed the white ash and the red on both of our foreheads. He dropped yellow blossoms into my hands, we laughed some more, bowed to him with palms together (traditional Indian greeting), and continued on our way. These are the things that happen in India.

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Seems the red tilaka has sprinkled on down onto my nose, along with the sweat from my forehead!

Some info about the ash (from Wikipedia):

Vibhuti is the sacred ash used in religious worship in Hinduism. The main ingredient of Vibuthi is a special kind of wood. It is burned in a sacred fire (Homa) to form white ash. Vibhuti is placed on the forehead as it is considered sacred and holy.

The ash has several symbolic meanings:

  • It serves as a reminder to the believer to cast away selfish and worldly desires that wrap the self in maya, meaning worldly illusion and distractions, and calls to mind the legend of how Shiva burned Kama (the god of desire) to ashes when Kama attempted to break Shiva’s meditation. This incident is recorded in the contents of Shiva Purana which entails the cult of Shiva and his family.
  • Normally worn along with red tilaka (red dot). Vibhuti relates to Shiva and Red tilaka to Shakti (his consort Parvati). It is a constant reminder that Shiva and Shakti form the universe and everything is into being through, the union of Shiva and Parvati.

It is written in The Ribhu Gita (The Ribhu Gita forms the sixth section of the Sanskrit work known as Shiva Rahasya Purana, which is considered ‘Indian epic poetry.’ Its origins are acclaimed to be over 7000 years old. The book is dedicated to detailed explanation of Shaivite thoughts, rituals and religious myths. The manuscripts are found in various ancient literature. It is one of the first few works of the acclaimed Saint Ribhu, who was taught by Shiva himself. The book consists of twelve parts and has about one hundred thousand verses. It is the teachings of Lord Siva in Mount Kailas to His devotee Ribhu, from whom the Gita derives its name.):

111. Further, he should adorn his forehead and body with vibhuti (sacred ash) in the prescribed manner, as this use of vibhuti alone will entitle him to Lord Siva’s grace which removes all impediments to salvation. (Ch.43 v.12)112. The habitual smearing of the body with vibhuti is

called pasupatha vratham (austerity in devotion to Siva). This

practice quickens the attainment of Self-knowledge. O Lord

Sat Guru! By this practice I earned the merit for arriving at thy

holy feet which have led me to salvation. (Ch.43, v.13)

We met these boys along the way who were very friendly and didn’t seem to mind that I wanted to take their picture.

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You never see men and women touching each other in gestures of affection in public in India, but you will see boys with their arms draped around each other’s shoulders, and girls and women doing the same. It’s very sweet.

An Unexpected Breakfast…

Soon we came across a family who were eating breakfast, and they invited us to sit down and have breakfast with them, just like that- not even knowing who we are!  Plastic is a very big thing in India, probably because it’s so cheap, and all the chai and coffee stands, along with all the families we saw sitting together have plastic chairs and tables. This family invited us to sit down at their plastic table and chairs set out in front of their house on the side of the road. She served idli (more about idlis in the next post) with several different sauces. Of course there were no utensils, so again we were eating with our hands, but when in Rome…and so as not to insult our hosts, we broke up the little idlis with our fingers and ate it all up. It was delicious, and I really appreciated that the woman gave us glasses of water to wash our hands during and after the meal. They had 2 children, a girl and a boy- very cute. Her husband was working on something, repairing, busy, as everyone is in India. We paid them what actually is very little to us in American money, but substantial for them. Again, one of the many strange experiences we encountered that morning.

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We see a grove of cacti along the way.

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“To see Chidambaram, to be born at Tiruvarur, to die at Banaras or even to think of Arunachala is to be assured of Liberation.”

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A well thatched roof with nice brickwork along the sides.This house reminds me a bit of a Viking home.

We know we should be turning right, and are unsure of the path, but as we veer off, we pass through a tiny village off of the main road. Here we see thatched roofs and someone was cutting meat on the ground in the middle of the narrow roadway. There was a man standing on a little porch who called out to us. Sol gave him a few rupees, and he actually gave us his business card, laminated and all!  (I guess everyone has them these days!) Here is his “business card” below:

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This 103 year old sadhu has a laminated business card!

Need help? Call guru!!!

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More beautifully painted statues…this time they are horses.

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A little lean-to. (This may be a shelter for animals or humans.)

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Yes, that’s a goat on the back of his bike!

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Fields so green (rice?) under the shelter of Arunachala…enveloped in haze.

It’s getting on in the day, and as we begin to round the mountain, the road starts to become a very busy, main thoroughfare. It’s also very hot. As it no longer feels holy and spiritual, we decide to take a tuk-tuk back to the ashram area, and have a nice relaxing lunch at a place called “The German Restaurant.” I’m not sure why it’s called that, since the menu had a combination of Indian and Italian foods. (There is a very well-known bakery right down the street called The German Bakery, so maybe they’re connected.) Anyways, it was a bit hot inside (no AC), but I  had a delicious fruit salad- everything fresh-nothing needed to be imported: pineapple, papaya, bananas – so delicious! Sol had some type of tofu/rice dish, which he didn’t really care for.

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Here is the inside of The German Restaurant.

After lunch, we went back to the Ashram, and we were told that our luggage would arrive at 5:00 and to please be there so we can sign for it. We then bagged up our few belongings from the Achalam, and checked in to our new home at Hotel Ashreya. Things become a bit fuzzy here, but I think we blasted the AC and took a long nap.  Then we went back to the ashram, where we arrived to find 2 familiar suitcases waiting for us! Hey old friends! Good to see you!!! We were told that they arrived earlier than expected, so the driver decided to drop them off and leave. Sol told the people who run the ashram office that we were leaving, but he made the same donation as if we had stayed the scheduled week. We also picked up our passports. Then we got a tuk-tuk to Hotel Ashreya and settled in. What a pleasure to have belongings to unpack!

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We have a TV that only shows Indian style TV and Bollywood movies. I believe the bars on the windows are to keep the monkeys out!

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AC and a comfy bed!

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It’s twice the size and twice as soft as Achalam!

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The “Wet Room, because in typical India fashion, the shower head comes spraying out onto the entire room’s floor. The bucket and cup are provided because most Indians take a “bucket bath,” pouring the water over them from the bucket.

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The front lobby of Hotel Ashreya

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The hallway leading to our room (2nd door on the left) is strewn with either bowls of plants or beautifully arranged flower petals each day, which an older Indian woman attends to with such attention to detail.

We Meet the Bloggers/”Mensches” of Arunachala!

Before our trip, I had spent quite a bit of time simply mesmerized and immersed by a blog entitled “Living in the Embrace of Arunachala,” written by Richard Clarke and Carol Johnson, former expats from California who moved to India seven years ago, and who are living quite comfortably on their social security pension in India. I spoke briefly of them earlier. Their blog is basically an “everything you wanted to know about Tiru, but were afraid to ask” guide, and they give you information in everything from what guides to hire to reviews of restaurants (they wrote and posted pics of Hotel Ashreya) to detailed explanations of caves, lingams, temples, and paths in the area. I have spent countless hours reading about the very fulfilled lives they lead and all that they do, and I still haven’t even touched the surface! Every link is beautifully photographed and rich with details that elaborate on the richness of their lives. They have been witness to many life-cycle events of beloved friends that they have made, and this includes themselves also, as their recent “surprise wedding” shows:

Carol and Richard

Richard’s 70th birthday celebration also turned into an Indian re-commitment ceremony for the two of them, including a ride in the wedding cart!

I highly recommend this blog to anyone-whether you want to know what it’s like to live in Tiruvannamalai as a westerner or you just want to learn about India herself, for they have taken many sojourns to other far away places in India also.  Something you come away with- you can’t help it- it permeates throughout their site, is their sense of adventure, their spirituality, their love of the mountain, the area, the people, and the culture.

They are also serious mensches (Yiddish term meaning people who do Gemilut Chassadim  (acts of loving kindness)  and Hiddur Penei Zaken  (Honoring the Elderly), something near and dear to my heart. They extend themselves to do good for others and help out in the community. They’ve immersed themselves in the community and have organized several mass feedings for sadhus, including this one on Richard’s 70th birthday:

Richard's 70th bday

“Bhima Ratha Shanti” -In India one celebrates one’s birthday not by receiving gifts, but by giving to others. So Richard organized a “sadhu feast” for the neighborhood holy men.

There are several examples on their website that reflect how they involve themselves in acts of kindness, including their efforts to preserve the Inner path and surrounding land of Arunachala, and their involvement with an organization called the Quality of Life Trust, where Richard has stepped in as project manager for “EcoSan Toilets,” a plumbing-less composting toilet to help out in very poor villages that lack toilets and plumbing, along with their involvement in an Old Age Home for impoverished village elders who have been abandoned by their families. If you look on their blog, you will immediately see how enmeshed they are in their lives and community in Tiru (http://qualityoflifetrust.wordpress.com/). They have helped purchase school supplies and uniforms for children whose families can’t afford to buy them themselves.

Giving school suppliesCarol giving school supplies

Richard learned about a group of sadhus who were living and seemingly abandoned in a government building on Prakshina Road about 2 km from Bangalore Road. This is from Richard’s webpage:

“Sadhus give their lives to God. Renouncing family, home, and possessions, they live only on what is given to them. When they are healthy, this life has many hardships; when they are old, infirm, and disabled, it is nearly impossible.

A few months ago we were shown a group of sadhus who were old and disabled. Many are blind. Some live in a government-built shelter originally intended as a resting place for those walking Pradakshina around Arunachala. Others stay in a house made of palm-leaf thatch behind the government building.  It is easy to miss these sadhus when walking or driving past this point, since they mostly are unable to come out and be seen.

I  found out about these sadhus and  told our friends at Quality of Life Trust, who are already helping aged homeless elders in a nearby village adjacent to Tiruvannamalai. When I told Dhakshinamoorthy, who runs the Trust, he immediately wanted to help, even through he has no funds for this. He investigated and found out that there are 20 sadhus housed in these two buildings. They have only sporadic food, and little if any medical help. He was also told, when he investigated, that if he is able to start providing food, that it is vital that this help keep going. They have had some attempts to help before that started then stopped, and this was very bad for the old sadhus.

Starting in May 2012, with an emergency donation, the Quality of Life Trust started daily feeding of these sadhus.” -Richard Clarke sadhu in need of help

feeding old sadhu

When Carol learned during the cold season that many elders needed blankets to keep warm at night, and none of them had any, she decided to provide them. Carol blankets

carol gives blankets

For me, Richard and Carol perfectly embody this poem:

I slept and dreamt that life was happiness.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I served and found in service happiness is found.
– Rabindranath Tagore

They share how we can help:

Quality of Life Trust needs more funding. This is needed for the ongoing work with elders. Also, if there were money available, the Trust wants to create a home where these people could  live together and be cared for. Now, you can see from the photos, the conditions in which they live. One-time donations help. What is most helpful, though, are ongoing donations; this is what really sustains the Abandoned  Elders Program. More about Quality of Life Trust can be found at their web site. The Trust is now approved for donations within India. Here is a donation page. If you are outside India and can help (or in India and want help donating or more information), contact me at richard@infinitepie.net and I can work with you to see that the donations get to the trust.

They are also well known in the area. As soon as I mentioned how I recognized Hotel Ashreya’s backyard TV garden because of Richard’s blog, the young man named Dinesh who manages the hotel (more on him later), burst forth with, “Mr. Richard of course! Yes, we know Mr. Richard very well! Are you friends with Mr. Richard? He is my best friend” (I suddenly felt a bit of a “name dropper”).

In embracing the culture, Carol wrote in her blog about her love of saris and how she saw a change of attitude in the Indian people towards her when she dressed like them. And in the spirit of their generosity, Carol wrote: “AND, you must let me take you shopping for saris!” So I called her and we made plans for dinner that evening. We had just enough time to unpack and settle in, take a shower, change into new clothes, and nap, in that order!

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Richard Clarke and Carol Johnson

Carol and Richard came for dinner on their scooter! It was such a joy to meet them, although I felt as if I’d already known them from their blog! We went up to the rooftop terrace of Hotel Ashreya and had a couple of beers and some nice non-vegetarian appetizers, Indian style. It was a glorious night, with a large moon rising and the mountain towering above us. Richard is a gentle soul, thoughtful and kind. Carol is a little spitfire of a woman, full of life and vigor! They make a wonderful pair. We talked about our connection to the spiritual path and how it all began for us (Richard and I both share a birthday and started on the path through the book Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse). We also discovered our mutual love for Breaking Bad over Kingfisher beer and Indian appetizers. We so enjoyed their company, and planned on meeting for lunch the following day. These are people whom I felt it would be impossible to run out of topics of conversation, but if that ever were to happen, silence would be comfortable, too. I haven’t felt that way with very many people.

Read the rest of this entry

India Bound and Our Arrival on Sunday, 2/16

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February 14th…

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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!

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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.

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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!

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Sol enjoying our first India chai

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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.

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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.

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The best chai EVER! Frothy and all stirred up with milk and a little bit of sugar!

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It’s a great show!

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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.

These pictures are from Sol’s last trip to the Ashram.

Sol's ashram pics

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.)

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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!)

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We start seeing the cows everywhere.

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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…

The front gate - 1980

Sol is taking this pic of the front gate – 1980

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Sol is back at the Ashram, 2014-(this time with me) 34 years later!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dining Hall

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!

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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?

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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.

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You can see the mountain while you sit, talk, or have a mug of real hot chocolate or a lemon-soda!

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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!

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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.

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Lovely open-air dining

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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.

Shopping…

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?

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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.)

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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.”

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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:

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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                        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.”

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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

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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/

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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.

 

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The grounds of the Ashram remind me of a peaceful park.

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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!

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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!