Athithi Ashram: Middle Days

Part of a short series of pieces on a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. The resident teacher of Athithi Ashram is Swami Hamsananda, with whom it is possible to sit and meditate each morning as well as engage in conversation about the life of Bhagavan, meditation, and the spiritual paths of bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (self-enquiry) in the form of asking the question – Who Am I?

Outside of Athithi Ashram

Today it was possible for me to have another morning conversation with Swami and just like the day before it was just the two of us, one on one.

I began by asking him whether it was correct to think that whatever happened in one’s life – positive or negative – was the grace of the guru and that if supposedly bad things came along you just had to accept them. His reply was something along the lines that I didn’t have to worry about all that. The main gist was just to be fully and firmly convinced that the power which was in Bhagavan is also inside each of us. It is very important to strongly believe this is so. If we do then there is no need for sadhana, the individual quest for enlightenment, as that is the responsibility of the guru. If the conviction that you and Ramana – Arunachala are one and the same is firmly embedded deep within the heart, there is nothing else you need to do. He will take care of it. It is beyond our control – way beyond – and lies within the remit of a higher power.

What we have to do is cultivate inner satsang, to commune with The Self which lies at the very core of our being. Pray to Bhagavan. Prayer is very important. Both on a spiritual and mundane level he will take care of our needs and as the relationship is very open he will take you exactly as you are, so you only need to be yourself with him. Pray to him for the solution to problems, leave it aside in terms of trying to fix the problem yourself, as you will only make things worse, so let go, it is not your job. You have gone as far as you can with it and if you persist in trying to find a solution it will only be the ego seeking to gratify its own needs. Leave it, pray to Bhagavan and let him sort it out.

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Bob Dylan Live: Ten Never Ending Tour Shows from the 1990s

Yes, that’s right, there were no less than 10 Bob shows in the 90s that I went to – 4 at the Hammersmith Apollo, London in 1993, 1 at The Fleadh, Finsbury Park, London in 1993, 2 at the Brixton Academy, London in 1995, 1 in Hyde Park, London in 1996, 1 at Wembley Arena in 1997 and last but not least 1 at the Cardiff International Arena which was also in 1997. What you can read below is a brief description of all of them, prefaced by an account of how Bob came into my life, or if we wanna go Biblical, how I found Bob.

Now I first got into Bob towards the end of 1992 thanks to Good As I’ve Been to You which I bought from a CD shop just off Walthamstow market in North East London. Yes Good As I’ve Been to You was my first ever Bob Dylan album, which in some way is kind of ironic since it is a work of traditional folk and blues covers with not an original Bob Dylan song on it. Just saw it there in the CD racks of the shop and when I picked it up to take a closer look there was something about the photograph of Bob on the front which made me want to buy it there and then, immediately, on the spot. It is certainly the case that I hadn’t been intending to get it when I had walked in there but when I got to play it later that evening, after clocking off from another day of work at Wisdom Books, I was simply knocked out by it and from that point onwards never looked back.

Bob’s voice was ragged and dirty from having been around the world a million times over and done pretty much everything you could hope to do as a 20th century recording artist. When it came to popular music back then, there were a handful of names which immediately came to mind for the vast majority of people and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan would almost certainly have been among them. It was probably the case that in any given city throughout the Western world you would have been able to bet your bottom dollar the vast majority of buskers out on the streets and in the parks would have known at least one Bob Dylan song. Yet here he was on the cover of Good As I’ve Been to You looking pretty fed up, world weary and almost it seemed at the end of the line. Guess in some strange way it would be true to say my heart went out to him, it really did and pretty much from that moment onwards I was on his side, wanting to see him pick himself up again and get back to where he belonged.

It is also true to say that Bob came along at a time in my life when I might well have needed him as by late 1992 I was just over three years into what would turn out to be a 27 year stint working at Wise Words. It was a case of having stumbled into working there in the autumn of 1989 after returning in the June of that year from what had been an eight month trip to Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. My journey to the East had seen me do a number of Buddhist meditation courses as part of some kind of spiritual quest I was on, at least when that quest wasn’t interrupted by prolonged periods of dope smoking, playing those opium bongos and all the rest of it. Wise Words specialised in the distribution of books on Buddhism and it was through connections I’d made whilst I was out there that I was able to find casual work back in London, stuffing flyers into catalogues for sending out to people on the Wise Words mailing list. It was not long before I moved onto packing books for them in their small warehouse in Walthamstow, then after a year or so I had worked my way up to processing invoices, before a couple of years later becoming their office manager at the same location.

As you can see, I ended up staying at Wise Words a very long time and for a great number of those 27 years I was managing what in reality was a tiny book company which never employed more than 5 or 6 people. After 10 years trading in Walthamstow, Wise Words moved to larger premises in Ilford, East London, in late 1999, something which on reflection was probably the high point as far as the company was concerned. The further we progressed into the 21st century the tougher things became to stay in business, which meant that for a lot of the time trying to keep the whole show on the road was really quite stressful, whilst the salaries we paid ourselves were modest by anyone’s standards. Eventually in the autumn of 2015 we woke up to the inevitable and decided to pull the plug by way of Wise Words going into voluntary liquidation, something which finally happened in June 2016 after we’d spent six months trying to tidy things up as much as possible in relation to our creditors. Throughout those years from late 1992 onwards it was a great source of joy for me to have Bob in my life, his music for me to listen to and his shows to go along to. It is probably true to say it was a blessing and something which I felt lucky to have, still do as a matter of fact. Yet after all this time I consider myself to be just a fan, one of many, not an expert, not someone who would be able to discuss in any great depth the ins and outs of Bob’s words and music. The only thing I can say is that I love it all, even the bad stuff, of which there is actually quite a lot!

So anyway, as I have already mentioned, it was only at the back end of 1992 that I first got into Bob by way of Good As I’ve Been to You and yet by the middle of February 1993 I would be able to proudly tell anyone who would listen that I had already seen Bob Dylan play live! This was because he did a string of five shows at the Hammersmith Apollo in February 1993 out of which I went along to no less than four of them. The first two, Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th, I bought tickets for in advance whilst the latter two, Thursday 11th and Friday 12th, I went down and bought tickets off the touts lurking outside the venue. Guess that might give you some idea of what kind of impression seeing Bob Dylan play live had on me. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the first moment I saw him step on stage I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was a performer on a whole different level of magnitude when compared to anyone else I had previously seen. Those first two shows were so damn good that I just couldn’t resist going back down again and again, to buy tickets at inflated prices sold to me in the shadows, just so long as I would be able to see him.

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Athithi Ashram: First Days

Part of a short series of pieces on a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. The resident teacher of Athithi Ashram is Swami Hamsananda, with whom it is possible to sit and meditate each morning as well as engage in conversation about the life of Bhagavan, meditation, and the spiritual paths of bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (self-enquiry) in the form of asking the question – Who Am I?

Gates to Athithi Ashram

Flaked out last night after writing those notes above, being as it was the first night for me in Athithi Ashram. Noisy fan, too noisy for me to have it on during the night, too much damn rattlin’ in its fittin’ for me to rest easy, better to switch it off and lie back in the heat, lie there on my hard mattress with just a pair of boxer shorts on. Makes me think I’m gonna have to buy a desk fan if I want to keep cool, maybe an Usha, oldest makers of fans in India, and where a trip down the Big Bazaar Road in a rickshaw to splash out a couple of thousand rupees will do the trick for me. Just about got away with it last night but today already seems hotter so we’re just gonna have to see how it all pans out, I’ll make a decision after lunch time I think, as that is usually the crunchiest time of day as far as the heat goes. So what happened last night? Well I guess it must have been around 10 or so when I lay on my bed to listen to Blue Eyed Soul by Simply Red on Spotify and then the next thing I knew it was just gone 10.30. Crashed out in other words!

Think the first thing to say as I come to the end of my first full day in Tiruvannamalai this time around in the year 2020 is that it is all a bit lonely. Guess it sometimes feels like I am surrounded by people who all know each other whilst I don’t know anyone, solo traveller on the edges of whatever room he is in before disappearing again into the here an’ there. Got to keep my eye on the target in that regard, remember that the reason for my coming here was to strengthen my meditation and connection with Bhagavan. Nothing else! To get deflected from that intention is to miss the point somewhat, as the purpose of the trip was not come to sit around and have fantastic conversations, or make friends, but to deepen my meditation practice in regard to the teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, simple as that and I would be wise not to forget it, otherwise things get diluted and the mind goes astray, then all I’ll do is end up wandering around like another lost soul out in India.

Today was an early start, meditating by 5.15 am and more or less keeping it up until 6.30 when I left my room to walk down to the inner courtyard of the building in which the ashram dining hall was located, to pour myself some hot coffee into a small steel cup from a flask left on a bench which was for the use of ashram inmates at that time each morning.

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Tiruvannamalai to Bengaluru & Highgates Hotel

End part of a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Once my time at the ashram was done it was just a question of taking a taxi ride back to the city of Bengaluru in the state of Karnataka.

So the interstate swing back from 19/2 went something like this. First of all I knew that was it, my week in Tiruvannamalai at the Athithi Ashram was over and now there was to be no lookin’ back. I had done all that I could do and really in all honesty it had gone better than I could have ever expected – the meditation, the talks with Swami Hamsananda, the mesmeric shrine times at the end of the day in the dual temples of Ramanasramam, staying fit, staying healthy, no bad stomachs or stuff like that – which had meant that I was happy, more than happy as a matter of fact. Turned out to be a bit of a rush after my parting talk with Swami as my taxi was already waiting outside the ashram gates and I still had a bit of this and that to do with regards to packing my case and clearing up which meant I would have to get my skates on. Before going back up to my room I told my driver who was sitting in the car on the other side of the gates that I would be about 10 minutes or so and bounded back up the stairs to my room in order to get myself together.

The ride from Tiruvannamalai to Bangalore turned out to be a bit of a fast one as once we got to the town of Krishnagiri we joined the main highway which more or less runs the length of the country, with more than one or two pinch points in between, and where signs to Varanasi indicate it is over 1700 km away in a direction which was pretty much due north. So it was speedy, a Grand Prix shakedown on a four lane highway where weaving in and out of the traffic in front of you whilst travelling at high velocity was very much the order of the day. It was one of those rides where I sat in the car with the back windows wide open instead of in a nicely chilled a/c bubble, and the reason for this was that my driver had a stinkin’ cold which I most definitely wouldn’t have minded not picking up in any way whatsoever. In fact, although I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it, paranoid thoughts that he might have Coronavirus passed through my mind, making me wonder if it was worth asking him if he’d driven any or many people from the Chinese part of the world recently. Glad to say I managed to resist the temptation, mainly because I knew that with his very limited English and my non-existent Tamil, it would have been too damn complicated for me to break on through and get him to understand what the fuck I was talking about. So anyway, we rocked on through the Tamil countryside with the warm air blasting through the open windows of the car from any direction you might care to choose, no problem with that really, sure the air was warm but it wasn’t hot and within that lies a very big difference.

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Indian Ashram: Athithi Memories 2020

Memories of a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. The resident teacher of Athithi Ashram is Swami Hamsananda, with whom it is possible to sit and meditate with each morning as well as engage in conversation about the life of Bhagavan, the practice of meditation, and the spiritual paths of bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (self-enquiry) in the form of asking the question – Who Am I?

Entrance gate to Athithi Ashram

When I arrived at the Athithi Ashram after my taxi ride from Chennai I opened the gates, took off my shoes and put them on the shoe stand as no footwear was allowed to be worn in the ashram grounds. Then I went to the small ashram office on the left hand side within the ashram compound and which had a couple of desks and computers in it as well as some chairs for people to sit on. A gentle mannered man dressed in white cotton clothes checked me in after I’d filled out all the necessary forms, given him my passport details and taken a photograph of myself with my mobile phone which I then emailed to him on the spot. The room I was given was in the block above the office and I guess that block must have had nine or ten rooms which were spread over three floors. Mine was on the top floor where there were three other rooms, all of which seemed to be occupied. Stepping inside my room for the first time I saw it had a single bed with a very firm mattress and a pillow with a thin sheet on top of it, so I guess it was just as well the weather was hot and that I would not be needing a blanket. There was a table and chair in the corner of the room next to the window and some shelves built into the wall upon which I could put my clothes once I’d unpacked my case and stashed it under my bed. On the wall opposite to the side of the room my bed was on there was a framed and mounted colour portrait of Ramana Maharshi and also one of the holy hill Mount Arunachala. There was a door at the end of my bed which opened up into a bathroom where there was a toilet and shower along with a small basin and mirror. The window in my room had shutters rather than glass with a wire mesh tightly strung across it so as to keep the mosquitoes out, although with my room being on the top floor hopefully their presence would be minimal. I opened the shutters for some airflow and soon realised the street outside was quite noisy with plenty of sounds rising up from it, primarily sounds of auto rickshaws and honking motorbikes. Later on I was to discover the block my room was in overlooked the entrance to a much larger ashram close by, the ashram of Yogi Ramsuratkumar, which attracted large numbers of people each day from early morning onwards.

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Bob Dylan Live: London Docklands Arena Reloaded

This show is from 2002 when I went down the road in my home town to see Bob Dylan play another show at the now long defunct London Docklands Arena on May 12th when he was touring the UK on another leg of his Never Ending Tour. It was around nine months after his Love & Theft album which was released on September 11th 2001, and the show features a number of songs from it which I was hearing him perform live for the very first time.

At a certain point in proceedings that familiar smell of Nagchampa incense began to fill our nostrils as it rolled over the front rows of the crowd, having now been lit in the buckets at the back of the stage by the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail. There was a palpable rising of the energy levels of the crowd as the majority of people began to sense the time was soon about to descend upon us again when show time began. I stood there staring straight ahead at the huge black curtain behind the stage with the Bob Dylan Eye of Integrity stamped into the middle of it. I hadn’t seen it properly the night before due to fact that our seats had been to the side. The Eye of Integrity was Bob’s unofficial logo, or at least had been for the last few years and there were various pieces of merchandise you could buy with it on such tempting items as t-shirts, hoodies, baseball caps, key rings, coffee mugs and stuff like that.

Continue reading “Bob Dylan Live: London Docklands Arena Reloaded”

Bob Dylan Live: London Docklands Arena

This show is from 2002 when I went down the road in my home town to see Bob Dylan play a show at the now long defunct London Docklands Arena on May 11th when he was touring the UK on another leg of his Never Ending Tour. It was around nine months after his Love & Theft album which was released on September 11th 2001, and the show features a number of songs from it which I was hearing him perform live for the very first time.

It was now about 7.45, by my calculations show time would be 8pm without too much of a wait beyond that. The incense was already lit, Nagchampa incense I thought, if this was so it meant the incense came from India, the Sai Baba organisation no less, but it was at best an educated guess, probably a wrong one as Bob had never to my knowledge shown much of an interest in the whole Indian mystical guru scene. It was rolling over the first few rows of people on the floor in fragrant clouds with that oh so familiar sweet, heady smell. All part of the ritual for darshan, an audience with the master no less, all of which could apply as far as I was concerned when it came to me and Bob. This was always one of my favourite times. Waiting for the magic to begin, taking in through my nostrils that incense perfume, watching the rows of the arena fill up with people, looking down at the front where the diehard Dylan fans stood around in clusters excitedly talking with one another, heads held high in expectation, no doubt speculating on which selection of songs they were going to hear that night.

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Char Char Bull, Kings Park II & Freemantle

An account of our last few days in Freemantle & Perth before travelling across the Nullarbor Plain to Freemantle on the Indian – Pacific. This was part of a trip undertaken with my father in order to eventually meet up with our relatives in Adelaide, before that however we had a week of adventures in Western Australia where we got to know places such as Freemantle, Perth and Albany.

The Toyota Kluger which we’d hired from Hertz in Freemantle was still available for us to use for more one day after our return from Albany because it was not due back until the Tuesday morning. Before the trip down to Albany I had thought of going off again for another long ride on the Monday but now I knew that would be asking for trouble. To get to any place of any size, such as Bunbury which was further down the coast, would take at least 2-3 hours and then once I’d hung round there for a couple of hours I would have to drive back again. I had thought originally of even trying to get down as far as Margaret River but that would have been impossible, or at least exceedingly stupid to the point of being dumb. Basically it was too damn easy in Western Australia to bite off more than you could chew when it came to how far you thought you could go whilst behind the wheel of a vehicle. Even someone like me had now got to the stage of the game where I knew that although I could do it if I wanted to, it would have been incredibly tiring, possibly dangerous and really rather pointless. I would have had hardly any time at my place of destination before having to turn around and drive all the way back again. So instead of all that I listened to the advice of the friendly concierge girl at The Esplanade who recommended I take the Kluger north of Perth along coast, to the Hilary Boat Harbour which was no more that 20 km up the road from Freemantle. Along the way it would be possible to for me stop and view some of the beaches within Perth city limits, to get out of the Kluger at wherever I happened to pull up and take a few walks by the ocean. Sounded pretty good to me!

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Tinderbox, Porongurups & The Albany Highway

An account of a night in Albany, Western Australia where we stayed at the Dog Rocks Motel, followed by returning to Freemantle the next day back up the Albany Highway. This was part of a trip undertaken with my father in order to eventually meet up with our relatives in Adelaide, before that however we had a week of adventures in Western Australia where we got to know places such as Freemantle, Perth and Albany.

Our first port of call on our mission to find somewhere decent to eat in Albany was the place which I had thought was our best bet from my earlier reconnaissance, an Italian restaurant in which it was possible to order a drink rather than bring it in a bag. This choice soon turned out to be a bit of a disaster however, as when we went in and asked for a table the woman at the door with the menus wanted to know if we had made a booking. Dad immediately, and unfortunately with some degree of disbelieving exasperation, said that she must surely be joking as the place looked pretty empty. Turned out it was a big mistake for him to have said that to her, a very big mistake, as the woman soon made it clear to us that a reservation was most certainly needed if we wanted a table, even though the place was barely half full. It appeared that if we did not have a reservation there was going to be no chance of us getting a meal there, all of which seemed pretty absurd, but there we are, that was how it was. Dad’s outburst had rubbed the waitress up the wrong way and it was clear she was now going to make things as difficult as possible for us. She said if we sat down to eat our meal there and then, she could accommodate us, but we would have to be out within an hour. In other words she was cutting us an impossible deal as there was no way we would have been able to comfortably enjoy some pre-food drinks and then have our standard three courses in such a short space of time.

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Down the Albany Highway to the Dog Rocks Motel

An account of heading driving down the Albany Highway from Freemantle to Albany to spend a night at the Dog Rocks Motel. This was part of a trip undertaken with my father in order to eventually meet up with our relatives in Adelaide, before that however we had a week of adventures in Western Australia where we got to know places such as Freemantle, Perth and Albany.

Saturday morning saw me up nice and early ready to pick up the car after breakfast for the big drive down to Albany, me and dad! One of the deals we had made for our trip out to Australia was that I was the one in charge of the travel and booking arrangements along with all of the paperwork which went with it. Therefore after breakfast I jumped into a waiting taxi parked in front of our hotel, The Esplanade in Freemantle, with a folder under my arm containing our Hertz booking and my driving license which I would have to show in order to collect the car. I had already called the Hertz office the day before to see if where they were located was in walking distance of the hotel, but they had told me it wasn’t and that I would have to take a taxi. Actually the ride down to Albany had been my idea and as far covering the costs – car hire, gas and a night for two of us in the Dog Rocks Motel in Albany – that was on me as well. Guess it was my way of saying thanks to dad for footing the bill for everything else with regard to our coming out to Australia. My driver out to the Hertz was an Ethiopian who had been in Australia for the last 20 years or so, in fact he was an Australian as his accent most certainly proved, clearly his days of waiting for the rain in Addis Ababa whilst catching pieces of an archaic yet profound brand of Christianity were far behind him. He told me as he drove that it was possible to have a very good life in Australia, that he loved his job and he loved the weather. For some reason he was able to tell this to me in such a way that it was difficult for me not to feel that he was one lucky bastard. He certainly cut a very different impression than the Indian who’d took us in from the airport a couple of days before, who in the final analysis had been a real bundle of misery pining for the land of Bharat. Well, the Hertz place was certainly too far to walk to as my taxi ride lasted quite a while, the drive made me realize how spread out things could be in Australia, that having your own form of transport was vital if you wanted to live there in anything close to practical comfort.

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