I was eager to meet my group on the third day. I was still feeling jet lag. It was a forty-hour journey and my body was catching up. The hotel had a restaurant and pool. It was 80-85 and clear most days in January. The biggest expense can be the flight. I knew some folks who were traveling quite comfortably on a one to two hundred dollars a week budget. Breakfast included idlis or dosas with sambar and chutney or vadas. Any of these could be accompanied with fresh green chilies, mango, and chai. Breakfast cost about $2.50 or 250 rupees.
Idli is a rice cake popular throughout South India and Sri Lanka. The savory light mounds are made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils, fenugreek, and rice. They are high in protein and dipped in sambar. It is a lentil-based vegetable stew or chowder based on a broth made with tamarind. It is fragrant and savory. Dosas are a type of pancake made from a fermented batter. It is somewhat like a crepe but its main ingredients are rice and black gram. Vada is a type of fried doughnut served with sambar and chutney. It is difficult to find South Indian restaurants in America outside of large cities. I hope this changes someday.
Very nice three star hotels might cost $25 at the time. Our hotel was a microcosm of India. People were friendly or trying to make money. Most spoke either heavily accented English or very clear British English. On the grounds was a small sweet temple where a priest was doing a puja (ritualistic offering of gratitude). I saw several employees starting their day with pujas including the pool boy who had a lovely altar by the towels. Ladies were creating kolams (drawings of curved loops and flowers made from rice flour, white rock powder or chalk powder) in front of doors to connect to the divine before starting their work. Devotion is a way of life here.
A busy street bordered the property. People were hanging from buses. A driver and a passenger holding a goat on a scooter whizzed by. A common car is a 1950’s Ambassador from England. They are beautiful and stand out in the steady stream of compact cars, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, carts pulled by oxen, wandering goats and cows. Track and field skills are necessary to cross the streets! Many intersections do not have traffic lights or stop signs. I discovered this later in Ethiopia too. There was a civility about who goes next. Honking your horn was not an expression of anger like in America but a greeting and a way to say, your turn. Pedestrians had to wait for the occasional break in traffic and go for it. It became jaywalking on amphetamines! It was fun.
The integration of commerce and devotion was new to me and I loved it. Every moment could be the worshipful attitude of Sunday church. I pushed the wrong button in my room that morning thinking it was for the lights. Instead a moment later there is a knocking at my door. A man is saying something in a thick accent I can’t understand. I was afraid to open the door but did. He gave me a paper and a chai and explained I had pushed the help alarm. He bowed to me and offered more assistance. Service par excellence!
After breakfast, I met my tour group. Americans, Europeans, a woman born in Hong Kong but living in NYC and two IY female Swami’s or Mataji’s or Ma’s. There was an owner of a yoga studio in South Carolina and a student who became my roommate for the tour. He had sleep apnea and a machine to help breathe at night which took some getting used to but we became good friends. He eventually moved to Yogaville and I enjoy our visits when I am there. We became known as the Dhoti brothers.
From Wikipedia: The dhoti, also known as Vesti, dhuti, mardani, dhoteé, chaadra, dhotra, and pancha, is a traditional men’s garment, worn in the Indian subcontinent mainly by Indian, Nepalese and Bangladeshi people. It is worn predominantly in the countries of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. It is the national dress of the Madhesh region of southern Nepal, worn mainly by Nepalis of Madhesi, Tharu, and Maithali ethnicity. It is a rectangular piece of unstitched cloth, usually around 4.5 meters (15 ft.) long, wrapped around the waist and the legs and knotted at the waist.
There are dhoti shops everywhere with literally hundreds of colors and designs to choose. You can tie them off above the knees or allow them to extend to the feet depending if you want to create a dress or skirt look. Typically, one is commando underneath! Our challenge was mastering the knot. We had many malfunctions.
We would be minding our business enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of Indian street and market life, when oops, the dhoti is on the feet and going commando has gone to a new level. We learned quickly to wear boxer shorts.
Anyway, our first big tour event was visiting the Krishnamacharya mandiram in Chennai (population now is 7 million plus) run by the legendary yogi’s son TKV Desikachar. The link to one of the most influential yogi’s in the west is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tirumalai_Krishnamacharya. To learn about his school, go to http://www.kym.org/Beta/. Any yoga student will have a better understanding of yoga by absorbing their teachings. They were the pioneers of adapting yoga to individual needs. If you have taken a class in Iyengar, Ashtanga, Viniyoga or Hatha, you have experienced the teachings of Krishnamacharya.
We met Desikachar and discussed the Viniyoga approach. He had wanted to call it Integral Yoga, but he said Swami Satchidananda chose it first. They were good friends. We observed their classes and private lessons. I went back by myself before I left India to take a class and receive a private lesson. Their approach to yoga therapy informed by Ayurvedic principles changed how I do private consults and lessons.
Today, yoga therapy can mean a sequence of asanas to address a specific challenge. Postures for PMS or low back pain or any other affliction are common. What can be missing is assessing the needs of the whole person. I observed Desikachar do a complete intake assessment like a social worker then, he would “prescribe” everything but asana! He might recommend marriage therapy, a new vocation or location, a mantra, a specific pranayama and meditation practice or a change in diet. He might include a specific asana sequence or only one. It was fascinating to watch and deepened my understanding of yoga therapy. They would change the pose for the person instead of changing the person to fit the pose.
I had a lot to think about as we continued to Mahabalipuram and a beach resort. Please go to this link for great photos of the site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabalipuram. It is an archeological wonder near the Bay of Bengal. It reminds me of the stunning setting of the Tulum ruins but with more historical and archeological importance. Most of the carvings and temples were completed by AD 728. Look for the picture of Arjuna’s penance. It looks like he is in tree pose doing uddiyana bandha (flying up lock). There are many hustlers here to ignore and many opportunities to buy small statues. I bought one through my window on the van that is on the chest in my studio bathroom of Vishnu and family.
There is an area called the five rathas or sculptured temples carved from solid rock in the form of chariots. They are dedicated to Durga, Shiva Vishnu, Surya, and others. Near one is a life-size image of an elephant that is regarded as the most perfectly sculptured elephant in India. The rathas were covered by sand until British excavators revealed them about 200 years ago. Thank goodness we had a good tour guide to explain the symbolism. There were many references to the epic Mahabharata. Remember my name Rhadeya comes from this story and this character was related to Arjuna.
There are many places nearby for massage, Ayurvedic treatments, and postural yoga. We watched craftsmen applying traditional carving techniques to various materials. Again, there were a lot of high pressure “salesmen” to ignore. The beach was nice but was busy and had its share of litter. We went down the coast for a short ride to a wonderful beach resort for a late lunch and swimming.
I missed Allison and my studio. I had left the studio with several teachers and forms for my students to evaluate their effectiveness. I hoped everything was okay. At the time, communication to home was not easy. Internet service was very slow and sporadic at best. Phone booths and phone cards worked well but the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference limited opportunities to connect and it was expensive.
After some R and R at the resort, we drove to Pondicherry (affectionately called Pondy), the former French colony. Oh, glorious Pondy, I could live here. Since my trip I usually recommend if you are going to India for the first time, go to South India which is considered less intense than North India. Fly to Chennai then go directly to a beach resort near Mahabalipuram and recover for a couple days from jet lag then go to Pondy. The French have not controlled it for over 50 years but the local police on the French side of the city wear red caps and belts and I often heard French spoken.
It is a charming city of over 200,000 separated by a canal on the coast. On the eastern side or French side, it is very relaxed and well kept, even gentrified. The neighborhoods here are a delight for strolling. One beautiful flower garden after the next feeds the soul. As in their other colonies, the French found a good source for mineral water and the bottled Pondy water is considered the best in India. Of course, the French influence is revealed in the food. A foodie’s paradise hugging the Bay of Bengal, Pondy offers traditional and contemporary French, French-Indian and Indian cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. The Rendezvous with its wicker chairs and gingham tablecloths and Satsanga with its garden were delightful.
On the west side of the canal is the “Indian” part of town and is wonderfully vibrant, lively, messy and noisy. If you want to ease into Indian culture Pondy is the place. It is like dipping your body in water until you get used to it before fully immersing yourself. I had extra time to explore so I visited the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a beautiful example of Gothic architecture and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, the cathedral mother church for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Pondicherry. Its medieval Jesuit style was finished in 1791. Both were inspiring and peaceful.
Our group visited the Aurobindo Ashram, the Vinayagar Temple, the Gandhi Statue and Pondy Museum and Promenade Beach. Sri Aurobindo was a pioneer of the independence movement and one of the world’s great philosophers. A prolific writer, he established this ashram in 1926 with help from a Frenchwoman known as The Mother. He developed a deep synthesis of philosophy and science he called Integral Yoga not to be confused with the Integral Yoga of Swami Satchidananda. His commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita are very illuminating. His masterworks The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga detail a comprehensive method for the soul’s evolution in this lifetime. Essential reading for yoga and spiritual teachers.
He died in 1950 and The Mother passed in 1973 at 97. We meditated at their Samadhi shrine (tomb) near a fragrant frangipani tree. Their vintage Humber sat rusting in the garage near the courtyard. We enjoyed a private Satsang with the spiritual director Sri G.S. Dev. He blessed our group then we visited the Sri Aurobindo Handmade Paper Factory and the Auroshikha Incense Company before heading off to the spiritual community of Auroville that The Mother started based on Aurobindo’s vision of evolution. Both Ashram enterprises are very successful. The handmade paper is exquisite and their incense and essential oils are available worldwide including Erie. I have never been in a company that smelled better! All their profits go to the ashram.
To learn about this small ashram, go to http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org/index.php.
Auroville, The City of Dawn was founded in 1968 and has a population of 2,400. It is a utopian spiritual community aspiring toward the principles of sustainable cottage industries and communal values. Read their charter at http://www.auroville.org/contents/1. The spiritual heart of Auroville is the Matrimandir, the most amazing meditation center I have ever had the joy of meditating in. There is a large crystal rock emitting pure energy in the center of the meditation room. The structure looks like a giant golden golf ball from a distant. Go to http://www.auroville.org/contents/252 to learn more and enjoy a video and pictures.
After meditation, we strolled the grounds, visited cottage industries in arts and crafts and sustainable energy companies. We chatted with residents from many different countries and enjoyed great food. The growth there has been much slower than anticipated and few residents stay there for a lifetime.
To be an Aurovillian The Mother says, “The first necessity is the inner discovery to know what one truly is behind social, moral, cultural, racial and hereditary appearances.
At the center, there is a being free, vast and knowing, who awaits our discovery and who ought to become the active center of our being and our life in Auroville.
The fulfillment of one’s desires bars the way to the inner discovery which can only be achieved in the peace and transparency of perfect disinterestedness.” To read her other tenants go to http://www.auroville.org/contents/526.
I have always been drawn to the utopian vision of privacy within the context of socialism, egalitarianism, ecumenism and communal values. Maybe Auroville will be my retirement plan! After another evening in Pondy, we left in the van the next morning after our daily routine of meditation and hatha yoga, for the place that had been on my bucket list for like 40 years: Sri Ramana Maharshi’s ashram and one of the largest temples in India in Tiruvannamalai.