I need to do some catching up. No internet where I am, so I’m at an internet café. I’ll probably have to do longer, but fewer posts This one is long, but I hope you’ll like it!
This trip has generated some superlatives. So, here’s another: I just landed in the coolest place I’ve ever been! I feel like now I’m in ancient India! I’m at the ashram of Ramana Maharishi—the guru whose mediation practice I shared in my last posting, in the temple town of Tiruvannamalai. The name is fun to say once you get it down, accent on the very last syllable. Three hours inland from Pondicherry.
(For some reason, I’m having to load my photos blind, so they may not be in order!)
I was relieved to get out of Pondicherry. I didn’t do a good job participating in the ashram life there, living off-campus, and it somehow seemed more designed for tourist visits, though it was probably my own hesitancy about going over.
My driver came to the hotel and we left the city. I was advised to hire drivers to make trips like these. The cost is very reasonable. This one, a three-hour drive, cost $2000 rupees, or about $40. They are the only things that really cost any money. Otherwise I live on about $5.00 a day, after lodging.
What a relief to be out into the countryside! I’m a poet of the Romantic variety, so I much prefer the natural world and countryside to cities, away from the noise, motorcycles, exhaust, and crowds. To see the open fields, coconut palms, rice fields, sugar cane fields, mango orchards, cows in the road, monkeys on the side of the road! We passed one little village after another, all the houses thatched huts, or mud or concrete huts with thatched roofs. Modern schools built by the government stood out starkly, painted bright blue or orange. In the villages what was for sale was produce,
crafts, less of the cheap Western crap you see in the cities. My driver knew the area and spoke English fairly well, so he shared a lot with me. (The only problem is that he wants me to help him move to America. He wasn’t sure that London wasn’t in America, or where America was.)
He said in the countryside there are usually a couple of landowners in each village and the others work on his land. They work in the fields about four hours each day, from 6 to 10 and then stop when it gets too hot, go home and spend the rest of the day at home. Overall there seemed to be less poverty here in the countryside than in the city, but I’m just guessing. And the constant migration to the cities also suggests otherwise. We passed many beautiful temples.
After three hours, we reached Tiruvannamalai, a large temple town, busy and chaotic on the main roads, like any Indian town. As we arrived, I was sad to leave the open country and villages. But at the ashram, I was relieved. Unlike the Aurobindo ashram which is right in the middle of the city, this ashram is on the edge of town. Right at the foot of the sacred mountain, Arunachala, the peak where supposedly Lord Shiva first appeared on earth as a column of fire. Arunachala could be a small mountain in the Utah desert, around Cedar City, maybe. The ashram has beautiful grounds. It’s shaded by many, many trees, sort of like an open forest, and it has a national park kind of quiet atmosphere. Very peaceful and a bit cooler.
Scattered around the grounds around the main temple complex sit rectangular buildings, plastered on the outside, Spanish-like, with rooms for visitors. I have my own room with a bath! Well, no tub or shower (big buckets for bathing—I think the women get showers), but I thought I was going to be in shared dorm rooms. No AC, but a nice ceiling fan and a high gabled ceiling and good screens. I made a tiny improvement by covering the one hole in a screen with a piece of duct tape. Fours shelves in the wall make a little book-case, for my books and family photos, two tiny twin beds, a tiny desk and chair. It’s a writer’s, a meditator’s, dream-spot for a retreat.
After getting settled into my room, the first activity I joined was afternoon tea at four o’clock. Since the routine for tea is like that for dinner, I’ll wait until I describe dinner to give a sense of what this was like.
Near the temples people are scattered about, meditating under trees, on temple porches, in the temple halls. People talking in small groups. A lot of silence. It’s fine to stand still somewhere and not say anything to anyone or do anything. Like at any retreat. It seems you can participate in whatever ceremonies you want to, or meditate by yourself wherever you want.
After tea, I went in to the temple hall complex, as there was going to be chanting from the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, a kind of chanting that has been going on for thousands of years. It was about to begin in the Ramana Maharishi’s samadhi hall (obviously a pattern on this trip where I am visiting the ashrams of several dearly departed teachers). The samadhi hall is where the main rituals take place. It’s built of granite or marble, a huge meditation hall, and at the end of it, the samadhi tomb on a raised altar within an inner, open, columned chamber, that you can circumambulate. Many people were walking in meditation around it.
As the ceremony was getting ready, I saw about twenty priests and attendants, sitting down in two rows facing each other inside the open chamber. They wore dhotis, a white wrap that men wear, which covers you from the waist to the ankles. The priests were bare-chested with lines of white sandalwood paste drawn across their foreheads, across their arms, and chests. All the people here in the south are very dark-skinned, so the effect is dramatic. There are some teenage boy attendants whose heads are shaved, except for a knot of hair on the back. The monks and nuns, of whom there seem to be about 50 or so, wear saffron or orange. Most of the lay men wear white “ashram clothes,” a white kurta—a long-sleeved, long-tailed shirt, worn over white pants or a white dhoti. (I’m going to get two sets made for me today – 250 rupees, or about $5.00, each.) The women wear saris, the nuns orange or saffron saris, the lay women,every color you can imagine.
As the chanting had not yet begun, I went out through a doorway on the west wall and entered a much darker space, two shrine rooms, one for Ramana Maharishi and one for the Divine Mother. These rooms really gave me the feeling of being in ancient India. The interiors are dark, one of the rooms almost cave-like, the walls and ceilings of sculpted granite, intricately carved into many designs, one shrine lit by windows, the darker one by little oil lamps. The darker one is built around another central open chamber that you can circumambulate. Little shrines and statues carved in black stone are set in the walls with little lamps before them. The dark, hushed atmosphere felt very sacred, very ancient.
As the chanting began in the samadhi hall, I saw a couple of people mediating in Ramana Maharishi’s shrine room and so I sat down in there to meditate as well. The chanting was not weak-hearted! It was full-voiced, a wonderful mixture of deep baritones mixed with the high voices of the boys. It echoed through the stone halls, and then the peacocks of the ashram all gathered on the roof of the temple and joined in, with their loud, other-worldly cries! (Every time there is chanting this happens!)
So, sitting in a cave-like, granite-carved, temple-shrine among the powerful voices and peacocks crying, I sank into my mediation. It deepened and deepened as the chanting grew in volume. I was using Ramana Maharishi’s practice of just being with the feeling of “I”—without external predicates. Just the feeling of self. The energy of the place was very powerful. My mind became very quiet. And then, some kind of limit of my consciousness broke, and I felt myself opened out into a state of quiet but clear exhilaration. I felt great space around me. I had a feeling of just pure being, pure existence. I had the thought that all my life I’ve had a worrisome, anxious sense of not being really sure I was entitled to exist–that my tenure on earth was always at risk, at jeopardy. Anything could happen at any moment! But now I felt everything was perfectly okay. It was okay to exist! To be. That even death wouldn’t change anything. I felt completely released into this experience of perfect security, pure freedom.
Then bells rang for dinner. I had time to go back to my room and freshen up, as I was sweating profusely. On my garden walk back over to the dining hall, I passed a thin (most Indian women are tall and thin), beautiful, elderly woman in a radiant blue sari, silver hair pulled back (most Indian hair doesn’t to turn grey), sitting before a huge, ten-foot-long coconut palm branch. She was stripping the fronds from it, making one of the brooms that are ubiquitous here—bundles of straw or fronds, four feet long, tied at one end to make a one-handed broom that looks much easier to use than our two-handed varieties.
I made it to the dining hall, and we filed in, where about two hundred of us (15 or 20 Westerners) sat in rows on the floor, every two rows facing each other. When you sit down, on the stone-tile floor, before you is a plate made out of twenty or so absolutely flat, dry leaves, like poplar leaves, held together with little pieces of straw. (Who made these for us?) You have a silver cup of water. You sprinkle your leaf-plate with water and sort of wash it off. Then servers come down the line with big hot silver buckets and scoop your food onto your leaf-plate—rice, then a sauce over it, then a kind of cabbage dish, and a spicy relish, all served quickly. The efficiency is something to behold. Then, you eat off the leaf plate—with your fingers! Very fun!
I sat by a young woman from Britain, “Ally,” a religious studies graduate, and beside an older woman, Mary, who lived in Provo and had been a Mormon for twelve years! Small world. From Provo, Mary moved to Alaska and now, as far as I can tell, lives in India. Unfortunately, they’re leaving tomorrow.
I got back to my room at about 8:30. Big winds were rustling the trees, thunder rumbling, lightning lighting the sky behind the mountain. Arunachala! Wow! Big booms!
(View of the mountain from my cell building.) The monsoon must be coming! Accompanying the thunder was a lizard making clicking noises. (Another had gotten inside my room and seems to have made his home in my backpack.)
I slept well. It was hotter than I anticipated, given the threat of storm. No rain had materialized. I had one window shuttered, not having thought of duct-taping the hole in the screen yet. I did my bucket bath and went down for a very yummy breakfast. To drink, they served a kind of weak coffee and cocoa, I think, but I’m not sure.
I also discovered on waking that you can make perfectly nice tea without heating water. Just put a couple of tea bags in a water bottle with water and let it stand for a while, with a piece of ginger, and some honey, of course. Cool tea better in the heat, anyway!
I’ll be here for five days.
Thanks for reading this long post!
Love and Namaste from Tiruvannamalai!