Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Girivalam - Walking the Arunachala circuit!!

                                      pic courtesy : google images ...Arunachala mountain

Alert: a very lengthy post but i would appreciate if you read this. Thanks.

In the past many months especially 4-5 months, It had been my wish to go for a marathon or more than running I wanted to speed walk for 10Km. I regularly walk and  practice yoga but other than that the last one year I wasn't  confident of my physical fitness thanks to a health setback.Now that I have almost recovered, I wanted to test my endurance in any walkathon  and was waiting for an opportunity.

As if my wish was heard, my little sis said she would  be walking around the circuit of Arunachala hill (14km) . This is actually a spiritual yogic walk  called Girivalam or Giri pradakshina and must be having some significance, I don’t know . I didn't even bother to google  its benefits , I immediately said I wanted to join her in the walk too.

Now continuing with my previous post where I said I got up at 3 in the morning with just 1.5 hours of sleep, My sis and I  after a bath and just a sip of water, set out for Girivalam at the stroke of 3.45 from ‘Achalam’ our guest house, we walked to Sri Ramana ashram which was  some 500 metres(  or may be less than a km) away.  Traditionally, the girivalam starts and ends from the Shiva temple (Annamalai) but ours started  from  ‘ Sri Ramana Ashram’.  Needless to say, it was pitch dark sky but the pathway was lighted with Sodium vapour lamps which was  laid or donated  a few years back by Filmactor Rajnikanth( another great devotee of Sri Ramana)  to facilitate the walkers.

There were a few people at that unearthly hour who were also doing the girivalam but we slowly walked past them  and after a few kms, the atmosphere was eerie with  herbal forest and cemetry  on either side . I chanted ‘Om nama Shivaya” and walked as fast as my legs could carry .  I tried to  match up my sister’s stamina at all stages.

Traditionally, one has to walk in and out of all the 17 or 18 temples on the circuit, but like I said, I was not conforming to the rules and so just bowed  my head to all the gods I could see on the circuit.  All along the road now, I could see many sadhus, god men in ochre robes sleeping on the foot path with their alm bowls and a water bottle. How difficult it must be for them to sleep in such humid weather but they know not of AC comforts. 

There was no morning nip in the air,  not even one leaf rustled,  the trees were stand still, even then the still air was redolent with herbal aroma emanating from the  forest around.  A few people ( men) walked past us and  a few we left behind  but we continued our walk with the same pace as we started.

6kms into the walk we had an husband and wife  couple who walked right in the middle of the road while we walked on the side of the road and just then when I glanced sidewards, I could see the Arunachala hill showing up since the forest cover had receded. At the very first look, it mesmerized me and I could absorb  the vibes of  Arunachala. It surely was not like the regular mountain or mounds that I often come across in the rocky terrain area where I live. Neither did I feel anything, when  I see the many rocky hills and mountains at KRishnagiri enroute Tiruvannamalai.  But, this mountain, surely oozed grace, divinity and  one sure could be cloaked in bliss.

Again, the forest cover hid the mountain and all along my walk  the mountain was playing hide and seek, and I enjoyed the game  and chanting “Arunachala Shiva”  and slowly when the twilight appeared, a beautiful cloud was hanging and it was a terrific sight to catch, A photo would have done justice but I was walking bare hands.

 pic courtesy: google images. this is close to how it looked to me at twilight with a cloud hanging across in haze

With all these hide and seek, The dawn had cracked and we reached the main road. I had clearly completed 11 kms and more , Somewhere near the main road, we lost track of the couple who were walking with us( we never talked though, not even me and my sis).  At the main road, I realized,only  I was sweating profusely all along and my sister was totally dry. 

The city traffic caught on and the stray dogs were plenty on the  very broad main road, I had to negotiate carefully on the side walk where there was garbage all along and traffic of buses, cyclists and motorists. My pace slowed down although I continued walking with out a break. I was sure, a slight knock by a cyclist would have brought me down to ground. my legs were wobbly yet they were walking.   I sensed cramps in my lower half of the body and was slowly losing my confidence to walk another 3 kms. I was wishing the temple tower was in sight atleast that way I knew how much more I had to walk but the temple tower was nowhere in sight. I glanced sideways now and  could catch a full vision of Arunachala. Now  my sister was more than 100 meters ahead of me and I was almost hoping I would fall down , the city traffic was totally chaotic, add to that the many stray dogs which were fighting and coming closer to me. 

 I once again glanced sidewords  to Arunachala for inspiration and decided I must push myself and start walking although I felt my legs were heavy and I felt my hands were swollen( but they were’nt) .
Suddenly, my sister realized I was not close to her and turned back, when I told her, I have cramps and I felt my hands were crampy too.  She realized I was dehydrated due to  excessive sweating ( she is a nutritionist) and so she  told me to drink juice or water. Actually, I did’nt want to drink anything but did’nt want to swoon  either so I walked to the nearest kiosk and had a Ginger tea.  It was an instant energizer or atleast mentally for me.   A few twists , turns and steps later, We were now close to the temple tower,  Now my pace had definitely slowed  to where I started but I was still moving in good pace. I walked steadily now till I reached the Ashram premises. And we had clocked 6.50 when we entered the Ashram right in time for the breakfast at 7 in the dining hall.

When I stood still there for 10 minutes till the dining bell rang, I realized my whole legs had jammed, I had to walk with heavy steps   the whole day.

That I had walked  14 kms did’nt sink into me that time. I had  Walked 14 kms of which 11 kms nonstop with uniform pace and the rest of the 3 kms again almost nonstop but with slow pace with a 2 minute break for tea - all in 3 hours and 5 minutes.  Honestly, though many walk bare foot effortlessly, I walked with my shoes on.  But nevertheless,  I felt  I had accomplished something very great only a day later. The whole effort was humbling in the end yet a sense of pride reigned.

After breakfast,  I spent some time in the Ashram library”Ramana Granthalayam” which is a beautiful new building  with an amazing collection of books.  Then later, I walked down the ramp towards the shrine slowly watching the monkey's antics  and as I was crossing over……. guess whom I crossed path with?

Music maestro Illayaraja !!!  with no bouncers or bodyguards, he was moving around all alone. He is a regular here and a great devotee. We came face to face in the Ashram twice but nobody bothered to hound him for autographs or selfies . I then went to the main shrine again drawn to the chants of Vedaparayanam and the Aksharamana malai  chant was simply soulful.

WE had lunch at 11.30 and retired to our guest house and I think I must have slept like a log catching on the  previous night’s sleep and my weary legs must have cried for rest.

But now a week later, slowly the moments are sinking in  and  I am rejoicing  and recollecting my girivalam moments and am also amazed at my inner strength.  That lovely Arunachala hill and the Ashram moments come alive and float like those clouds  when i close my eyes. One of the most fullfulling experience I have had in recent times. Absolutely fantabulous…or say.....  those words don't translate my feeling.....I am at loss of words to describe the experience.  Girivalam – I want to do it again.

“There are many things that seem impossible only so long as one does not attempt them.”
André Gide

P.S : I have walked more than 14 kms because we started off from our guest house  (more than 500 metres) and took a circuitious route after the tea near the temple to avoid traffic ( 200 plus steps) 14kms +500 metres and roughly 200 steps:)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Sri Ramanasram - A spiritual retreat

When I was given a choice to visit an organic homestay  “navadarsanam “or  “Sri  Ramanasram” spiritual retreat, I choose the former.  Although I am a spiritual seeker , I was’nt sure I would simply sit in disciplined sessions , listen to spiritual jargon of atma, soul , jnana , vasana, the veda chantings  etc which goes beyond my head. That certainly was not my idea of spirituality. For me spirituality is a way of life where I practice minimalism, try to keep things simple and try to silence my mind whenever possible and  try to keep away from the unnecessary(!)  material wants of life and try to keep away from competitivenesss( yes, all trying only) . That said, I still have a long way to go in spiritualism  and do buckle sometimes. Also “Ramanasram” was my second choice because I did not  want to travel from one hot weather to another.
So, I would say it was destiny that willed that I visit Ramanasram or else how would one explain the fact that one needs to pre-book a month before to stay there and it was my mom’s call to the office just a week before that got us an accommodation at” Achalam” the ashram guest house.

Sri Ramana's ashram- It was to this spiritual center in an unique location that we set out on a hot morning. Tiruvannamalai is an old temple town nestled at the base of a sacred mountain Arunachala or Arunagiri in southern Tamilnadu.The mountain has an history that dates back to thousands of years and home to many mythological legends. This is the place where countless rishis, sages and siddhas have lived and meditated in the past. Notable among them is Sri Ramana Maharishi, whose ashram I was visiting.

Although I was visiting this place after 18 years, I could see there was no change in the Archway, we went in got our keys to guest house, which was a 3 minute drive from the ashram on the opposite side of the road.

The guest house was spic and span and would put a 5 star hotel to shame.  Ofcourse, There was no show or pomp , no modern day  frills or necessity like net onnectivity, A/c, TV, but otherwise the basics like a wardrobe, clothes hanger, dresser table, mirror everything were all in place and the wash rooms were excellent despite the frequent usage.It felt like home.

After resting awhile, we came back to the ashram at 4 to have our tea and milk, as an ashram guest or invitee, we are allowed  to have food in the ashram dining hall. It was a huge glass of milk/ tea and the milk is directly from the goshaala of the ashram. 

After the tea/milk, I wandered into the open ground  beside the dining hall at the foot hills of  skandasram ( arunachala hill). I , my niece and little sis were so enamoured by the  peacocks and they were so close to us and I was watching its plumes in close range and clicking away to glory with my mobile( I was on digital detox with occasional cheats but to this ashram I bought the mobile only to click photos) . I turned around to see the  place where my great grandfather lived in one of the cottages and was one of his earliest disciples. I clicked the photo of that place again which was then a thatched roof.

I sat on  the  rough granite steps  in front of the Samadhi of Lakshmi , the cow( Ramanas favorite cow)  at the foot hills of skandasram and watching the peacocks wander, dance, call and hoot and watching the monkeys dance,  and do all the naughty pranks and dropping all the tasty mangoes of the tree.  It was one of the most wonderful experience sitting in  a natural wooded environment where nothing seemed to have changed since my last visit,  with  all brick, mortar, wood and thatched awnings like age old times, no glass or chrome, no landscaping.  The few moments were magical, I felt the place  which was clean and rustic was simply diffusing all that a peaceful mind could ask for and I was absorbing them with delight. I was also clicking photos only to realize that I was the only one clicking and hoarding a mobile. All the ashramites  ( many of them foreigners) were simply absorbed in a book or sitting still. I at once, decided I will not use the mobile any more in the ashram. The ashram does not have any restriction saying “no mobile”, but I think it goes without saying .

At 5, in the evening, the vedaparayanam( veda chanting) started at Ramana shrine, I thought, I would’nt sit though it and wander away into the ashram, but that was not to be. I sat through it like a person in trance, refused to move infact I was drawn closer to the shrine.   Ofcourse, many times, in between, my mind and eyes wandered and I saw so many foreigners in Indian attire ( men in veshti( dhoti) and women in white cotton sareees and kurtas) were so engrossed. It was delightful to see a Japanese women chant Aksharamana malai ( a hymn composed by sage ramana) . I was amazed to see this especially at a time, when many ridicule or denounce anything  eastern( read Indian), it was great to see west adopt eastern mysticism although in few numbers.

The oldest meditation hall again was full of westerners and they sat so simply, only my mind was wandering in awe. I had to work hard to bring my mind under control.
Even in the dining hall, the westerners sat down squatting on the floor and ate with their fingers eating the "vazhelai sappadu"( typical tamil vegetarian food served on plaintain leaf)and the food so yummy.( i should'nt be reviewing this)

After dinner at 7.30( we have to stick to the ashram timings), we went around the arunagiri mountain (giri pradakshinam) in the car and retired to our guest house and I had a sleepless night due to the heat. This is a very hot place in tamilnadu. I slept at 1.30 and got up at 3...... this post is getting lengthier .... more in  my next post…

My next post will be the highlight of my  visit.

                                        The 2nd cottage was where my great grand pa lived after retirement. He was one of the earliest followers of Sri Ramana and authored a book on Mahayoga culled from his talks with Sri Ramana which is on demand on Amazon..

                     They were all around roaming unafraid and dancing away to glory. A visual treat.
                                                To the left is the entrance to ths shrine while the below is the place where he attained Nirvana.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

An interesting rail sneham

Last week,  It was with a mixed feeling that I got into Garib rath. On one hand I was excited I was meeting  my parents and was also travelling down south to a spiritual retreat and on the other hand, I was travelling alone   after a long time ( my grown up kids now have staggered vacations and I have to be home before the elder one arrives )and was wondering who would be my co passengers and if they would strike interesting conversations or would they be plugged on to their phones. In any case, I decided if I have nothing to observe around I would bury myself in the book that I had taken for my journey “ the joy of less”.

When I reached my  seat twenty minutes to the departure time, I found there was nobody in my cabin. There was just one lady occupying the side berth of the next cabin. Close to departure and still nobody and then the train  chugged off from the station. The next station two young men  got into my cabin. They settled and were conversing amongst themselves in Telugu. One was dressed a typical city lad and the other looked simple. A little while later I went to get my rail  bedding for the night and when I came back there was some conversation in my cabin. Another lady arrived and she was seated opposite to my seat and guess what ? she was travelling with a dog hiding it from the TTE. When I told her I am scared of dogs, she said in a typical Bengali accent “Koch nohi karega”.  Candy was the doggies name and I was convinced when she said moreover  it was  a tiny dog chihuahua( a pocket dog) and she had carried it in her big handbag. The dog truly was a darling all through the journey. It never even whimpered or went to toilet or had a feed along the 13 hour journey. The dog even had a visa, passport, insurance and had travelled to USA. She said it was more like a kid for her and would simply listen to whatever she said.

Meanwhile the two young men, one of them volunteered to ask me if I knew how to go S Vyasa Unviersity. I said must be a new one and I am not aware. He told me it was one of the oldest and a famous one and even PM modi comes there regularly for yoga lessons. And it was in Anekal. I told him morning I would direct him to Anekal.  And  it was Yoga that initiated the conversation between the two of us.Amongst many things, He is  trained to be a traditional  yoga teacher although he doesnt teach  and I was a  power yoga practitioner and then on.....  the city lad  and I had a talkathon from around 9 in the night. At the risk of sounding pompous, generally,  It is I who do the informative talking with my friends ( that is what atleast my friends and family  say, that I know everything and am knowledgable ;) ) but for a change, here  I was the listener and my 29 year old friend was so informative  and knowledgable that we talked about yoga, politics ( Indian and American) , spirituality, holistic science, Indian culture, history, travel( he has travelled far and wide to  leh ladakh and kailash manasarovar next month) , cuisine and even law. Yes the 29 year old was a NLSUI  law graduate and had passed his judicial exam to be the youngest judge of the state. He said he would be travelling in two months  time to the USA for doing his masters in Calfornia.  We spoke so much that while the rest of the two passengers or make it 3 including the dog went to sleep,….we were still talking softly…the lady in the adjacent side berth was annoyed and asked us to switch off the light. We switched of the light and still continued to talk in hushed tones  till 11 in the night.

 I learnt so much from him for instance, he said, western concept was “ seeing is believing” while our Indian ancient concept was “ something were beyond science, it never needed proof. For instance, he said there is a shivling in Uttarakhand ( he mentioned the place, I forgot) which can be moved by any person but never lifted but  it can be lifted by 9 priests by just putting their little finger underneath. No science is able to offer explanation for this activity despite research. That  he said is ancient Indian  science and wisdom while many modern Indians refused to believe  such science and so they too adopted western culture  of “ seeing is believing” and started questioning our ancient  Indian wisdom and practices. I immediately connected our conversation to Krishna’s butter ball at Mahabalipuram(read about it here the first pic in the post). 

 We went to sleep at 11 and  got up again and continued our conversation in the morning till 9. In the morning, we talked about AYUSH(Ayurveda, unani, siddha and homeo)   Indian medical science believed in self healing through immunity while westerners believed in the concept of pill or medicine or surgery. He gave an example about Saliva. The saliva especially in the morning after waking up has many medicinal properties he said.  That is why even animals lick their wounds and even young kids lick their wounds as a natural instinct but we elders in the name of hygiene  stop them from doing this and so the immunity does not develop  he said. He went on to have his tea without even brushing his teeth, which I found it difficult to accept. Whatever, the whole journey was interesting and when it was time to get down we took the same auto and I directed him to to the anekal bus and I took to the hosur bus. A rail sneham after a long time, which started with the journey and ended there.
The young man made the journey interesting and  will  definitely remember his name because he told me  after his masters in the US and working there for 10 years he would come back to India and join politics because he wanted to serve the nation. 

I have a lot to say, about my spiritual retreat experience in my next post.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Some summer ramblings.......

Summer vacation time and another wave of nostalgia surfs up on the eve of puthandu (tamil new year) which were mostly spent in my Grand parents place 'Sri Ramana villa'.

 Almost  or always I am away from home on vacation since childhood .  During my childhood, When Bangalore was home , madras was my vacation spot and during my children’s childhood when Hyderabad was/is  home, Bangalore was/is my vacation spot.
And most of the time the vacation period is 2 months since my children too would have 2 months vacation and the husband too would be away on tours.  While it made sense to go from scorching Hyderabad to cooler Bangalore for vacation….i would always be made fun for travelling from Bangalore to the hot and humid Madras for summers during my childhood..
But did it matter to the  young me?

Not at all!   I have in fact played on the hot terrace of my grandparents home in the hot and humid weather with my cousins, aunts and uncles. What mattered was the company of my cousins,  and also the bonding shared with my aunts and uncles who had a  sense of belonging and  bonded with their nephews and neices  with a deep sense of responsibility.
Priceless lifetime memories and bondings were made over simple chores like filing thatha's papers, helping paati with churning butter or grinding batter with the traditional stone mortar, learning knitting, sewing,  helping mami put vaadam(fryums) on terrace, splashing water to cool the terrace, sleeping on the terrace listening to stories from perimma , gazing at the star spangled sky , jumping up to catch the beam of light from the lighthouse, eating ‘nila saapadu’ (moon light dinner), and then rushing from the terrace to the down floor at the stroke of ten when we heard the  soan papdi man ring his signature bell. When the saon papdi man  handed the wispy sweet  on a newspaper, we would longingly look at him for some more, the softy icecream and flavored milk  at aavin luz, the kaarasev rolled in lotus leaf from karpagambal sweet stall, the chocobar and sundal at beach…. , oh! so many such simple pleasures…the list is  endless.   or going to the nearby kapali temple, tagging along with chitti to her friends place and taking pride when she introduced us to her friends.  We had no instant digital cameras to capture the happenings and share, although a few of them have been shot by my mama in his sleek hotshot camera then. .Each task that I listed would make a lovely post especially the mottai madi happenings and the kapali koil tales.

Today when I think back, heat or humidity did not matter because life long bonds with cousins were made face to face and which are still remembered and reminisced by us . There was a communal sense of living with my aunts and uncles which has ofcourse now been replaced with “gated community” for kids. Today’s  kids rejoice in fancy hill stations or foreign trips and hop from one summer camp to another.  Cousins in most places have been replaced by friends and most of them are hooked on to fancy gizmos and gadgets.
Was I surprised when I recently saw a two year old comfortably seated on a sofa with one leg over another gazing at the digital screen.? No…. I am not surprised by the gizmo, gadget  and foreign vacation talk by the young kids any more and I am not surprised when teens handle DSLR with elan  or on highgrounds wrt elders when technology talks are on. After all from simple pleasure we have moved on to material pleasures and today’s parents too are indulging and pampering....... atleast most of the parents.

Today on eve of puthandu as I ramble about my summer memories,how much vacations have  changed and we have moved on… has moved on atleast digitally and materialistically. EVen I find myself connecting digitally with my cousins, aunts and uncle more than face to face. I realize it is time to digitally detox atleast for a week. 

Do you often recollect your childhood memories especially if you have spent summer vacation at your grand parents place.? If yes, what did you do? please share....

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Food matters!

“Annam parabhrama swaroopam” that is my relationship with food.  The quote from Upanishads   is ingrained into me since childhood, yes “Food is god”  for me.

The strongest and earliest food memory I have is of my parents kitchen where the kitchen was treated more like a pooja room. As a little girl, I would watch amma wash the kitchen platform, wipe it clean and then put kolam on the platform and a small pattern on the gas stove also. This was followed at  grandparents place  and in my in-laws’ place too.   Cooking is more like a sacred  ritual in our household.

My elders would step into kitchen  only after a bath, cook the food with prayers on their lips. Such prayers and vibrations would render the food healing it is believed. The food is then offered to God (neivedyam) following which the food is offered to ancestors who are supposed to be in the form of crows.  

This is another memory I remember. During my vacation time at Mylapore,  I and my cousins would be called to offer the first morsel to crows. Patti would scoop out rice in a ladle, add a little dal and ghee over and hand it over to us, we would run  over two flights of stairs and reach the terrace and place it over the concrete chimney. We would  sniff at the aroma emanating from the chimney and hmmm….the aroma still lingers  Wow! Just writing about this makes me feel good.  We would also fill a bowl of water for crows.Only then were we supposed to eat.

Eating was not just holding a plate on our hand or our lap. We ate properly squatting on floor or on the dining table. It was mindful eating of what went into the plate. It was considered unhealthy to eat with a plate on our hand and also disregard , afterall so much of hardwork has gone into growing, sourcing and making  that meal. Appa was very particular about not spilling grain from the plate that I ate.

There was no question of trashing food also. Each and every grain was used and even the leftovers went into making of a new dish or into “Pazhedu” . Wasting food was considered a disregard to “God of food” Annapoorani.

Thanks to my elders who have inculcated such healthy food habits, maybe that is why I am not very fussy when it comes to food, i eat anything healthy and vegetarian. Even today, I follow all those and as far as possible inherently be kind to food and nature. 

Written for "Explore your relationship with Food" on Indispire #foodfads