Athithi Ashram: Later Days

Final 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 Virupaksha Cave

So yesterday 18/2 finally saw me make the climb up the hill to Virupaksha Cave. Been to Skandasramam a couple of times before – more than a couple in fact – but so far never made it to Virupaksha. This was a trip I had been planning to do but I had been too locked into my daily morning routine at Athithi Ashram to so far make it happen. Yesterday was different however in that there was no 6.30 cup of sweet coffee in the ashram and no climb up the stairs to the meditation hall to join Swami Hamsananda for morning prayers. Instead I left the ashram at around 6.30 and headed for the Ramana Coffee & Juice Stand on the main road outside Ramanasramam where I had a glass of coffee for 40 rupees which was a little on the sweet side as they really ladled in the sugar, but then I guess I was a bit slow off the mark in tellin’ them when to stop.

After I’d drunk my glass of coffee I was ready for the walk up Arunachala which meant first crossing the main road and walking through the grounds of Ramanasramam so as to go through the gate at the back and take the path to Skandasramam and Virupaksha Cave which lay beyond. I put my New Balance trainers on after I’d got to the other side of the ashram and immediately saw a couple with a child, Russians by the sound of them, who were walking barefoot and then seriously wondered if I shouldn’t also be doing the same. Something made me keep my shoes on – laziness, reluctance, ignorance – but as I passed them and began the initial steep ascent it bugged me that I wasn’t doing the walk quite right, as Arunachala to the faithful is a temple in itself and in a temple you always walk barefoot.

So yes there I was, feeling bad for not goin’ barefoot like a pilgrim would, but I guess my pair of New Balance trainers felt so damn comfy and gave me so much spring that I couldn’t take them off. Funny thing is they were the same pair of New Balances I had used last year when I did the Giri Pradikshina – the walk around the holy hill – where again the vast majority of people doing the circuit with me on that night of the full moon, were walkin’ barefoot. Just like last year there was no intention on my part to cause offence, I’d just assumed it was done in shoes, simple ignorance more like, something which if truth be told I have in abundance. Well anyway, soon I was poundin’ up the path with my New Balances on and leaving those barefoot possible Russians with their little kid standin’ in the dust trails behind me.

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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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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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Bengaluru Touchdown

So here we are in India again, me and Dawa Dolkar my wife. Time switch on arrival at the Southern Star on Lavell Road in Bengaluru means 6.55 London becomes 10.35 India as we jump ahead 4 and a half hours in consequence. Sense of dislocation rolls over in waves as I’m sitting by the coffee table in our room with an Indian Railways advertisement flyer on the glass top in front of me – Food Journeys / Hubli Rice Bath – or to break that one down, take a train to Hubli and have a dish there called a rice bath and pretty tasty I’m sure it would be too, except of course we were not going to Hubli but later in the day instead to Mysore on the Tippu Express and from there to the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe by car. Hubli by the way is an eight or nine train journey north of Bengaluru into the heart of Karnataka and the nearest town of any size to the Tibetan settlement of Mungod which is just up the road from the sunshine state of Goa. Further on up the track from Hubli is a town called Hospet and if you get at Hospet you are then not too far from the magical ancient city of ruins called Hampi which is fast becoming one of the most popular tourist attractions in India. Need to find the time to get up to Hampi again, last visit I made that was back in ’89 in another life.

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Taxi from Chennai to Tiruvannamalai

By the time the taxi rolled up at the entrance to Woodlands in Mylapore it was just past 9.30 in the morning and the reception was relatively empty which ensured I was able to check in quickly after filling out all the usual forms and handing over my passport for it to be photocopied by the hotel staff. I then left my rucksack with the porters in the lobby and went straight to Vrindavan, the excellent vegetarian restaurant within the hotel, where I ordered a pretty good dish of dhal with a couple of fresh baked chapattis just before closing time. Satisfied that I had managed to get some good quality food inside me, more than happy that I had successfully managed get to Chennai on the day I intended, I went straight to my deluxe non-AC double room after I had eaten in order to rest. As luck would have it the room had been recently renovated and was therefore in sparkling condition with a big fan already whirring away in the centre of the ceiling. I was now pretty tired from my trials and tribulations from another day on the road in India, another one of quite a few I had taken over the years, over the decades.

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Flybus – Kempegowda to Mysore

By the time we got to Bangalore it was indeed just gone 7 and with the baggage claim scenario to go through we could both chill in the knowledge that the 7.15 Flybus was gonna be impossible to catch. We would just have to settle for the one at 9, take our time in gettin’ on through before the last stages of a journey which started early morning in the misty hill city of Gangtok capital of Sikkim. Of course it was barely an inconvenience, the extra wait that is, as we were able to have a little bit to eat an’ drink after sorting out our Flybus tickets by way of buying them at the Flybus kiosk, storing our luggage in the hold of the bus which was on the stand fully parked up, ready an’ waitin’ to take us west. Turned out to be a pleasant hour or two, sittin’ outside the airport enjoying the balmy evening weather, plenty of seats, plenty of tasty lookin’ food and drinks stands busy with people. It was fun to be chillin’ after the thrill of having made it outta the hills, back to the heat, back to the plains of the south. Back to Bangalore, Indian mega city with serious splashes of high tech around its edges, a city which was now an overwhelming experience to drive through in terms of size – highway chaos, endless crowds, a million high rise apartment blocks – as if every time you blink your eyes another ten new vistas of the inexplicable appear on the horizon.

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Gangtok to Bengaluru in a Day

Scrum bubble of a journey saw us take 19.5 hours to get back down to the settlement of Bylakuppe in the state of Karnataka from the city of Gangtok in the state of Sikkim. Day previous was the last day of our hill tour, a time of checking out a couple of sight-see places on the edge of town, Hanuman Tok and Ganesh Tok with its views of the city, along with the usual strollin’ down MG Marg, although we didn’t spend as much time down there as the day before because it was a Saturday, the day when the shops are shut on the MG Marg because they are open on Sunday instead. So it was an end of journey day, energies now runnin’ a little bit low after a week of roamin’ from here to there up the hills – Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Gangtok – taking in the views, rock n’ rollin’ rides and all that goes with those rides such as a bad stomach from food eaten the day before and an achin’ nut because of the altitude.

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Skandashramam

This piece was written during a trip made to Ramanasramam in the holy temple town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. It is specifically about a couple of walks made up to Skandasramam, the cave behind on the holy hill of Arunachala and where Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi stayed for 7 years from 1915 – 1922. Towards the end of the piece reference is made to the red flame vision described in my previous blog entry, Honey Valley.

First Walk

My early morning meditation began later than usual due to my late night struggles to get back on track, but I was in the meditation hall by 6 am where I had a solid hour of sitting whilst feeling in a good state of recovery. Concentration good, body pacified and back to the breath! Skipped breakfast as I wanted a couple more hours for my stomach to feel fully settled, instead I went and had a large glass of coffee from the tea bar across the road from the ashram entrance. Cost me 20 rupees which was a bit of a rip off price, but it was good to sit there for a while and watch the early morning street life pass on by outside the ashram. I realised the sound of the lorries had not bothered me half as much the night before, maybe that was because I had other things on my mind such as my guts. Probably would be the case that if I stayed round the ashram long enough I would not even notice those lorries were there as everything would eventually blend into one.

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