India 7: Ashrams and People

India 7: Ashrams and People

We  hung out at our comfortable Hotel in Varkala  for longer than we intended because we simply couldn’t decide what to do. I wanted to go visit the Hugging Mother, one of India’s living Saints, who is known simply as Amma. She gives Blessings by way of a hug which is called  giving Darshan, and sometimes there are as many as 20 thousand people at one time waiting. Presidents and Princes and many famous people have been hugged by Amma.  People claim to be filled with a vivid powerful feeling of pure love after their hug and she travels the world dispensing cuddles when she is not at home. So you can see why I was attracted to this experience!  Then the Yogi son read that many Westerners feel drained of energy after their hug, that Amma is a sort of spiritual Robin Hood, draining energy from those who have, (rich Westerners!) to give to the poverty stricken and needy Indians who go to her in their millions. So we had a very  small conflict of interest which was very easily solved by one phone call, Amma was abroad.
 
Another place that was attractive to us was a new city in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu called Auroville . I have since done some research and earmarked this for a longer visit when I have more time. It is a lovely concept of a spiritual community of many and any  people from forty different countries and every religion, living together harmoniously and all working just for the good of the community.  Sounds like a latter-day new age Kibbutz without the oranges! But more than anywhere I want to go to the ashram of Maharishi Ramana at the foot of the sacred mountain of Arunchala, alas we were running out of time. India is so vast and so rich in things to do and wonderful sights to see that any trip however long is never enough.
 
Meanwhile, we had been getting pally with the hotel manager which was  very easy as our room was all of five feet away from his desk.  We had our Lonely Planet but we were dithering a bit. Being friendly reaped rich rewards however as he directed us in the direction we wanted to go, namely scenery  and spirituality.  But even just hanging around a seaside resort, so long as one is open and conscious reaps unexpected little happenings with rich rewards in India.
 
 It is the small encounters with the  people of a country which  makes the difference and enriches the experience. One evening  I was shopping and stopped to admire a lovely baby held by a woman whose dress  and jewellery and make up was so extraordinary that it defies description!  She had nose rings (plural) and  long dangly earrings all the way to her shoulders. There were  toe rings on every toe and  rings on every finger. Her very fine hair was looped with heavy silver ornaments,  her dress was a massive clash of primary colours and bracelets jangled and clanked all the way from wrist to elbow and she even had bells on her ankles! Truly words fail me. She was as gaudy as a peacock  and twice as much fun!
 
535721_10151458278650731_1457512733_n
 
We got to talking,  and after that each time I went on the cliff to walk or shop or eat we exchanged some more smiles and  information. The more I travel and make connections with people seemingly so very different from me (a  woman in Peru with a bowler hat and 14 skirts I met whilst I was  sobbing on a boat  springs to mind!) the more I realise that we are all the same. Universal consciousness sounds like spiritual jargon but it just means that we are not separate, we are all connected  and women to each other especially,  I think so.  We all want the same things for ourselves and our loved ones,  just to be healthy and happy, it is only our culture and ideas that seem to divide us but there is great joy to be had in bridging the gap.
 
I  met an interesting looking guy in an Internet cafe/travel agent on another day. He had long hair and beard  with flashes of bright  red in the hair, egg yolk yellow clothing and just a look about him…..a little intense. He asked me if I could help him with some attachments of documents on the computer  ( he obviously wasn’t psychic!) so when Charles arrived I enlisted his help and then they had a little connection and somehow or other it seems he was some sort of guru….  where else but India!
 
557985_10151460793260731_1406598066_n
 
We took a little trip on one of the Varkala days to visit an Ashram in the hills  called Sivagari Mutt, founded by a famous philosopher  and poet, the  Saint   Sre Narayana Gerude  where his remains and a few of his possessions  are enshrined. Gandhi regarded him highly and came here, amongst other notable people, so now it was our turn and we timed it to be there for sundown  puja or the prayer time.  I really  like what this man stood for, his ethos was “one caste, one religion ” so anyone is welcome there, it is a very inclusive experience.  At the time he founded his ashrams, the caste system was very rigid, Untouchables were not allowed into any temples and low caste people were not allowed to travel the roads, women were not regarded too highly either unless they were high caste and he bucked the trend. I guess he was one of those rare people who really do walk the talk and BE the difference they want to see in the world.
 
 It was very quiet,  very  clean and mostly white, none of the brightly coloured effigies of most Hindu Temples. There were very few people around and the first Temple building was on top of a hill and  made  of white marble. Through the open door we could see a big effigy  of  the Swami (Saint ) Lots of candles flickered around him and he was adorned with garlands of marigolds  which one sees all over India. There was a young man sitting on the floor outside who quietly welcomed us, one of the devotees obviously. He was dressed all in white and making more garlands from his basket of flowers.
 
IMG_0941
 
 
A couple of people arrived and prostrated  full length then walked around the circular building….. so we did the circuit too, just not the  prostration. We then carried on down a lovely white stone  staircase with side walls painted bright yellow and came to temple two. This time inside,  atop a blue dais was  a huge portrait of the Swami, a big golden lantern in front of him and a couple of golden stupas either side.  A few more people arrived, clearly very devout.  Everyone was very accepting of us being there although we were the only Westerners. Yet more stairs and a third temple, this one circular  and with big glass panels and a gleaming white marble floor and  inside was a very old but immaculate yellow rickshaw with a hood like a babies pram,  fringed in bright orange to match the interior. Quite bizarre really to our Western eyes but lovely.  
 
gold
 
Inside the rickshaw was propped (have you guessed !) another portrait of the Swami .  Off we went again and at the last small temple we stood with a few local people and listened to the chanted prayers, gave a small offering and took a dab of the crimson powder to mark our foreheads before we left. It was lovely,  a very  sweet experience.
 
Outside, on  the walls which  surrounded the whole complex  were posters with pictures (him again !)   and underneath were  the words “Whatever be one’s religion it suffices if it makes him a good man” 
My sentiments exactly!
 
That evening after dinner we were walking home along the cliff as the shops and stalls were closing and I stopped at a tiny shop  and saw on the hard  floor,  three small sleeping children lying there in a row. They had no mattress or pillows or cover,  arms and legs flung out carelessly as babies do when they sleep. They looked so peaceful and beautiful  and I asked the sweet looking mother if I could take their picture. I said to her what a shame it was that  she had to wake them up now that she was closing….. but she told me she wasn’t going to awaken them, she was going to join them.  This is where she worked and lived and slept, on the hard floor in this tiny and  very hot shop.
 
photo-1
 
 
I’m really glad I made that remark to her because  it was a swift lesson for me. I had made an assumption based on my experience and culture, a very understandable assumption,  and it was completely wrong. In our world, small children don’t live, eat and sleep  on the floor of their parents work place. But in India and probably other  places it happens and far worse too. But these kids  did have  a roof over their heads. And we go there and bargain for a few rupees………
 
Travel broadens one’s horizons for sure, so long as you don’t seek to insulate yourself  too much  from the unfamiliar and strange. It is the encounters  and conversations and the participation too that bring insights and realisations and they bring wisdom and such  joy and for all of it I am so thankful and Blessed.