Friday, January 17, 2014

Pilgrims, Devotees, Retreatants and Spiritual Seekers

We spent three days, Sunday, January 12 to Wednesday January 15, at Ramana Ashram in Tiruvannamali.  There are people from all over the world here, and again mostly from India.  Not many of us are tourists.  We are pilgrims, devotees, retreatants, spiritual seekers.

The statue of Ramana Ashram sitting as he usually did.  This statue is in the center of the stage where most of the rituals are done.

Ramana Maharishi was an Indian sage, holy man, guru who was born in Madurai India in 1879.  At the age of 16, he had a life-changing experience during which he attained self-realization.  He dropped out of school and moved to Tiruvannamali to be close to Mount Arunachala.  He became a world-wide respected and much-revered spiritual guide, although he never left his home.   He taught that one can reach true liberation, a state of bliss, by self-inquiry, by constantly inquiring "Who am I?" He died here in 1950.

The ashram is composed of a number of buildings, most with the purpose of worship.  Shoes are removed as one enters the complex.  Vedic chanting begins at 5 AM for a special occasion these days, and continues off and on until late afternoon.  There are pujas (rituals) throughout the day for both Sri Ramana and his mother.  There are hundreds of people here, and constant coming and going.  Some people sit in meditation, while others walk around the shrine, others prostrate themselves, and others come and go.  There are other sadhus who gather outside the ashram begging for alms.  We saw one of them enter the ashram with some of his followers.  At 10:45 each morning, the poor, mostly the sadhus, are given food at the entrance of the ashram.

Guest accommodations are simple, comfortable and clean and given on a donation basis.  Meals are provided to all guests.  They are offered in the dining hall, where banana leaves are placed on the floor,  about 12 rows with 13 banana leaves in each row.   There is an overflow room where almost as many can be fed.  Each of us sits on the floor in front of a banana leaf, which we rinse off with the water that is provided in the stainless steel tumbler.  The food is served from buckets, with ladles full of rice, vegetables, millet, pickles - whatever might be on the menu - placed on the banana leaf in front of us.  We eat with our fingers, with our right hand only, unless one is left-handed.  When we are finished, we fold the banana leaf in half, get up and walk outside to wash our hands. 

The first night I sat in the dining hall on the floor with over a hundred other people eating my meal with my fingers from a banana leaf.... I knew then that I was really in India.

When I first arrived here at the ashram, I felt quite unsettled.  The noise, the chaos, the constant movement seemed counter to the kind of  spiritual setting I feel most comfortable with.  Nature, silence, sometimes solitude, sometimes a group sitting or walking in silence.  I think this is the kind of setting Sri Ramana Maharishi appreciated when he was alive.  It's something much different now.

As I've spent more time here, I think I am beginning to understand it a little more.  One woman told Barbara you have to be here at least 10 days before you even begin to get it; she's been coming to stay a month for many years now.  An Indian man we spoke with while in line waiting for lunch said he comes here with his family every chance he gets, at least two or three times a year, to recharge spiritually.  And as we've been here, we've found ourselves resting more, more willing to just sit and do nothing, to watch our thoughts swirl around.  And maybe that's what it's all about.

We took few pictures at the ashram, because it seemed disrespectful.  In fact, the first morning we walked in we saw a beautiful peacock perched on top of the cupola.  A grand sight to be sure.  We weren't sure cameras were allowed, so we didn't snap a picture.  Later we saw a few others taking pictures, so we did too, but cautiously and sometimes almost surreptitiously.

On the road from Pondicherry to Tiruvannamalai we drove through a very busy marketplace.  The care was surrounded by a sea of people, probably shopping for Pongal.

The road between Pondicherry and Tiruvannamalai was quite torn up.

Our accommodations at the ashram were outside of the complex, across the road and down a side road.  They were clean, comfortable and simple.  Nothing was supplied, not even toilet paper.

The poor line up under this beautiful tree every morning at 10:45 for free food.

There is a lovely view of Mount Arunachala from inside the ashram compound.

We drove around Mount Arunachala on Pongal.  We were planning on walking, something that most pilgrims do.  But the inner path was close due to fire danger.  The outer path involved walking 14 kms on a busy road. 

There were shrines all along the drive around the mountain.  This is the Simha Tirtam, the Lion Tank.  He stands in front of a water reservoir.

A quickly snapped photo of some of my fellow diners.

Another dining hall shot.  Our food was served from buckets, as you see in the lower right.  We walked through the kitchen one time, and it is extremely primitive.  In spite of all that, the food was quite delicious, and we never missed a meal!

Breakfast was served on a "plate" made of dried leaves hand sewn together.

This was the first place we saw monkeys.

And there were peacocks all around, although none so majestic as the one who was posing for us that first morning.

On the second day of Pongal, we were given bananas to feed the calves.  Who knew that calves ate bananas, peeling and all?

Many people used bicycles and mopeds to get to the ashram.

The puja (ritual) for Sri Ramana Maharishi.  The young men seated along the sides chanted during the ceremony.

One of the more organized chanting sessions was held on Pongal.  The women sat on one side of the hall and the men on the other.

There was also a shrine for Ramana's mother.  On Pongal, people brought all kinds of gifts for her, including gold necklaces.

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