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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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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Honey Valley

Extracted from a diary account of time spent in India. This piece was written during a short trip made to the Honey Valley Estate in the Coorg hills in Karnataka, not far from the town of Varajpet and region of Kakkabe. In certain parts it describes a flame vision which I had been experiencing in my meditation for a number of weeks and which was particularly noticeable up there in the hills. It turns the nature of this vision was resolved for me later in the trip when I went across to the Ramanasramam in the holy temple town of Tiruvannamalai which is in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India.

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Saraswathipuram III

The third of a three part account of a day trip to Mysore and the Saraswathipuram area of town in order to buy furniture.

After that second battery charge in Saraswathipuram our luck finally ran out on one of the main roads out of town, the Hunsur road, just opposite the offices of the Mysore Deputy Police Commissioner. The Mahindra simply died on us and we came to a complete halt on what was a very busy road, so busy in fact that it soon became apparent that it was quite a dangerous spot to have broken down. This was compounded by the fact it was now Mysore rush hour time and the traffic was heavy, full on relentless as a matter of fact. It was now dark and there were plenty of vehicles trying to move along at speed, shining their bright lights directly at us as we stood about feeling like sitting ducks on the roadside next to the Mahindra. After trying for quite a long time, Sonam Tashi somehow managed to get through to the Mahindra garage in Mysore which was still open despite the fact it was now gone 7 on a Saturday evening. The good news was they told him they would send round a Mahindra recovery truck, which would be painted a bright yellow and red, and that it would take about 45 minutes to reach us. There was then little else that we could do after Sonam Tashi’s phone call but continue to stand there by the side of the road, hoping like hell nothing crashed into the back of the Mahindra and took out a couple of us in the process.

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Saraswathipuram II

The second of a three part account of a day trip to Mysore and the Saraswathipuram area of town in order to buy furniture.

After the four of us had an enjoyed a leisurely and very tasty lunch at the Shree Devi Andhra Style restaurant in the middle of Mysore we were all back in the Mahindra Scorpio driving across town in the direction of Saraswathipuram to again hunt out some more furniture.

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The first of a three part account of a day trip to Mysore and the Saraswathipuram area of town in order to buy furniture.

Well it was it was the four of us who made the trip up to Mysore from the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe in South India. There was me, my wife Dawa Dolkar, her brother Sonam Tashi and his daughter Passang Dawa and we all set off together in Sonam Tashi’s black Mahindra Scorpio after breakfast one morning for the two hour car ride to the Sandalwood City. It was with the express purpose of buying furniture for the newly constructed first floor of our house in the settlement. Specifically we were looking for wardrobes and beds for the bedrooms, plus a sofa set for our new spacious living room.

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