The Ideal River Resort was the sister resort to the Ideal Beach Resort where we visited near Mahabalipuram. It was like a posh boutique resort on the Mexican Riviera but it was only $25 a night in 2003! I had my first private room. I went swimming and booked an Ayurvedic treatment. Ayurveda means the science of longevity or life. It is an ancient holistic health system originating in India. To learn about it go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayurveda. I eventually earned my Yoga and Ayurveda teacher training certification from the internationally renowned Dr. David Frawley in 2007.
Treatments can vary from a massage to a week of cleansing and strengthening practices. Ayurveda can include every aspect of a person’s life from the toothpaste they use to the mate they choose! My “treatment” began with Swedana (steam therapy) and a swim in the pool to begin the detox. Next came an oil massage with herbs to draw out toxins. I was lying on a table covered in plastic. I had to hold on for dear life so I would not fly off it due to the vigorous rubbing and kneading of the oil on my skin. This could have been a Seinfeld episode or a Woody Allen moment. I was trying not to laugh. Then I was covered in chickpea flour to absorb the toxins. Afterward, I stood under a power shower to clean up. Then I returned to the table for Shirodhara (streaming of warm oil over the forehead into the hairline). It is a key cleansing technique as it addresses mental and emotional ama (toxins). It was very relaxing. Afterward, I enjoyed a nap. It was heavenly!
The food was local and organic. The cuisine was Indian and international vegetarian or vegan. The next day we went looking for the “bench Swami”. I had read about him and our guide was open. He was said to have been in Samadhi (the eight limb of Raja Yoga meaning one with the Divine) sitting or lying on a bench for years. Like a fakir in the Sufi, a Sadhu in the Hindu or a mendicant in the Buddhist traditions, or a homeless person anywhere, he survived from food and money offerings. Unlike the homeless, the offerings are an exchange for prayers and blessings. This lifestyle could be my retirement plan! He was no longer on a bench but we found him lying in a bed. He was very old and was chanting softly and continuously. The room emitted a strong smell of urine and incense. Some of our group had to leave. I am not sure if he even knew we were there but his serene energy was palpable.
Next, we visited the large Brihadeeswarar Temple dedicated to Shiva. The temple tower of almost 200 feet is one of the tallest in the world. I rode an elephant through the main entrance! I discovered thigh muscles I did not know I had. The structure is an example of Dravidian architecture and it represents the ideology of the Chola Empire. The temple has a huge statue of Nandi (sacred bull) at the entrance. The statue is carved out of a single rock and weighs around 20 tons. The Lingam (a phallic shaped object made from stone that represents the generative power of creation) inside the temple is over 12 feet tall! We watched priests bathe and adorn it for an hour while chanting. They do this every morning.
It is one of the few temples that has Ashta-dikpaalakas (Guardians of the directions) idols. Frescoes adorn the wall of the temple and these frescoes depict Shiva in different poses. It is the first complete granite temple in the world and is over 1,000 years old and in immaculate condition. Around 60,000 tons of granite was used to build the temple.
Two hundred and fifty lingams are enshrined in the outer walls and there are many inscriptions on the walls of the names of dancers, artists, and musicians illustrating the importance of this city to the development of the arts. We left the temple feeling very energized.
I found a music store and needed an interpreter who could speak Tamil, Hindi, and English to buy a tamboura for me. It cost me $60. I had to take it to a shipping office in an auto-rickshaw. It stuck out at either end so I had to constantly move it from side to side to avoid a vehicle hitting it. It cost me $200 to ship it and it arrived without a scratch about two months after I did. One in the US might cost $500 or more.
The next day we were invited to a rice farm for breakfast to celebrate Pongal. Similar to an American Thanksgiving, except they decorate, instead of eat, the animals. This Tamil festival marks the end of the harvest season in January. The festivities last four days and include boiling a pot of Pongal, a mixture of rice, sugar, dhal and milk. Pongal symbolizes prosperity and abundance. It was like a delicious sweet porridge. On the third day, cattle and goats are washed, decorated and even painted, and then fed the Pongal. The farmers opened their hearts and home to us and it was a very sweet way to say goodbye to Thanjavur.
We headed for Madurai (1.4 million) and the Sri Meenakshi Temple, dedicated to the popular and powerful Goddess Meenakshi, an incarnation of Parvati, the consort of Shiva and the Gandhi Museum. Parvati represents the ideal devotional wife. It was designed in 1560 and built during the 17th century but its history is over 2,000 years old. The temple attracts up to 15,000 devotees a day. The temple is like a city within a city. It occupies about 30 acres and has fourteen gateway towers, the tallest is 170 feet. There are an estimated 33,000 sculptures inside it. Surrounding it are endless shops, stalls, stores, cafes and restaurants to accommodate the endless stream of pilgrims.
Inside, the commerce continues in the outer sections of the temple but as we moved closer to the main shrines and eventually the sanctum santorum, the materialistic world is shed replaced by the sounds, sights, and smells of devotional practices. There are endless shrines and halls including the 1,000-pillared hall. Like other temples, there are “tanks” or ponds for bathing prior to worship. We participated in a puja at one of the shrines.
I felt overwhelmed, inspired and exhausted by the immensity of it all. A large group of men dressed in black representing a sect flowed by making us hunker down off to the side as a protective group. Some of them looked menacing and others were intoxicated with devotion. There were many couples there drawn to the mythos of fertility that Meenakshi represents, hoping her grace would bestow upon them, healthy children. Some pilgrims save money for an entire lifetime to visit the temple before they die.
Joy and desperation were in the air fumigated by a hundred oil lamps, thousands of incense sticks and the smells of 15,000 people. I found a space outside where I could breathe. The Indian culture embraces crowds and togetherness. I was used to individuality, space, and boundaries. I loved the rush of being there but I was relieved when it was time to leave.
To learn more about Madurai and the temple go to
A fine meal with my friends helped me to feel more grounded and allowed us to process our experiences. For fun, we ordered a table dosa for lunch not to be confused with Ayurvedic doshas (bio-energetic body types). A dosa is a crepe made from rice and lentils accompanied with dips like chutneys or sambars. A table dosa is the length of the table! Imagine a wrap that’s six feet long and six inches wide and deep, stuffed with grains and veggies. You usually order a small one for breakfast, the South Indian equivalent to a pancake but on special group occasions, you get the epic one. We would break it apart and enjoy family style. Another type of dosa is the uttapam, a thicker dosa with chopped spiced vegetables. It was like a pizza. I love idli’s (dumpling) and it is available anytime in Madurai, unlike most towns.
Afterward, we went to the Gandhi Memorial Museum. I have been very inspired by his life and wrote a paper in college about him based on his autobiography, a biography, and his writings. His practice of Ahimsa (non-violence) the first of the Yamas in Raja Yoga; meditation and simplicity continue to motivate me to be a better person. The museum is in a former palace and provides a clear and comprehensive account of the Independence of India.
It was in Madurai in 1921 where Gandhi first wore a loincloth. He also led a group of Dalits or lower caste citizens into the Meenakshi Temple that had been forbidden to them. The bloodstained cloth he was wearing when assassinated is here and gave me a strong reminder of the power of his spiritual practices. Some Yoga Masters have said what we are thinking about when we die will determine our next birth. Gandhi was repeating his mantra Rama Rama (God, God) when he left his body.
The museum area is a peaceful and quiet place far from the wild energy of the temple. Our hotel outside of town was also quiet and a good place for contemplation and meditation. I remembered a teaching from Swami Vivekananda, the first Swami to come to America. He said too much devotion not tempered by knowledge and insight might lead to religious hysteria. However, intellectualism without devotion might lead to a cerebral and egotistical life. He recommended the union of mind, heart, and spirit. I have observed all in India and wherever else I have been.
The next day, guess what? We were headed to another temple in Palani, where devotion can be out of control. Palani, population 70,000 is home to one of the most sacred shrines of the Lord Muruga also known as Karttikeya, the Hindu Philosopher warrior God. In the mythos, he is the son of Parvati and Shiva and the brother of Ganesha. He is very popular in South India and his temple sits atop the Sivagiri hill with great views of the town, other hills, and the countryside. The temple is visited by more than 7 million pilgrims each year. I was grateful we were missing a festival by a few days when some 200,000 pilgrims converge on the town. Devotees will walk and dance around the hill waving peacock feathers and playing music. On the way, we saw many pilgrims walking there. This would be our last stop on the tour before going to Coimbatore, about 60 miles from Palani. To learn more about Palani go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palani.
Again, the area around the hill suggested the Wild West. There was a parade of colorful characters including Sadhus, Fakirs, Mendicants, dread locked dudes with tridents – their almost naked bodies smeared with ashes; mad men, magicians, soothsayers, touts (aggressive con artists), buskers and beggars. Pilgrims usually walk around the hill before climbing the 659 wide steps to the top. Along the way, there are shrines to honor Murugan and his wives and illustrate temple legends. There are also many salesmen sitting on the steps hawking their wares. We chose to take an electric winch-pulled car to the top then walk down.
At the top, I was relieved that it was not too crowded. We did wait in a long line for a puja in the sanctum. In front of us was an Indian family with a baby drinking from a bottle. A monkey suddenly appeared and grabbed a bag looking for goodies. The family leaned away. Not finding any, it tossed the bag and grabbed the bottle drinking the milk. Satisfied it tossed the bottle and scampered off. I kept an outlook for other temple monkeys. To visit the temple, go to:
Inside the sanctum, we watched a puja and meditated. I thought about the TS Eliot idea of being the still point in the turning world. We left the temple energized and shopped for gifts on the steps back to town. Another fine meal prepared us for the drive to Coimbatore, population 1.6 million. The IY Institute of India is here. The city is located on the banks of a river and near the long Western Ghats mountain range with an average elevation of about 5,000 feet.
We would settle in at the institute for a few days. Some of the tour group was leaving and the rest of us would be meeting the rest of the group for the three-week IY Hatha 2 training at a retreat facility outside of town surrounded by hills and a herd of elephants. I was delighted to have a small but private room off the rooftop deck.
As usual, we started our day early and participated in a Homa, a consecrated fire at 5 am followed by meditation and hatha yoga. I had picked up a cold from my roommate and was exhausted. I took it easy for a few days exploring the city and going with a group to visit Jain caves and Sikh Temples. I had been in India for only two weeks but felt I had absorbed a lifetime of experiences. I love writing this memoir because it is helping me to continue to process the effect being in India has had on me. I know I feel very grateful to have a context for the spiritual, psychological and philosophical roots of Yoga. When I share in classes, I sometimes feel the energy of India flowing through me.
I rested and prepared for the three-week training including a three-day silent retreat punctuated by visits to other amazing places. The adventures were just starting.