Thursday, January 30, 2014

Auroville - a Universal Township

"Auroville wants to be a universal township where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and nationalities.  The purpose of Aurovile is to realize human unity."

Auroville ( was one of the places Barbara and I visited on our road trip, and is one of the places I plan to spend a week or so in April.  It is a beautiful and fascinating place.  We were fortunate to be able to spend time with Joss, an Aurovillian Barbara was in contact with.  Joss has been there since 1969 and was instrumental in creating the beautiful forest that grows there today.  Many of these pictures were taken as he gave us a tour of the forest that grows around his living quarters.

This land was officially described as being in an advanced state of desertification when Auroville was begun.  Many years of tree planting, mostly indigenous species, and organic farming have yielded amazing and beautiful results.

Whole books have been written about Auroville, so there is no way that I can begin to do it justice here.   A short summary will have to suffice.  Auroville's official inauguration was February 28,1968.  Representatives from 124 countries and 23 Indian states placed a handful of earth from their homelands into an urn at the center of the planned township.  Since that time, the desert has become lush and green, and the community has grown to include about 100 settlements with 2300 people from 50 different countries.  In 1988, the Indian government passed the Auroville Foundation Act, which basically allows Auroville to be self-governing.  All of the land, houses, infrastructure, etc. belong to Auroville.  To become an Aurovillian, one must agree to certain principles, to have the financial means to build and furnish a residence that they can live in but belongs to the community, and to go through a one year probation.

Residents work on many different projects, including making musical instruments and other handicrafts, organic farming, health care, and research into a wide variety of topics, including bamboo farming, cashless economies and renewable energy.  Aurovillians work closely with the surrounding communities, and are open to new ideas and technologies that are progressive from all over the world.  The feel of the place is peaceful yet vibrant.  In some ways it has become a tourist attraction, which has its pluses and minuses.  Visitors spread the word and contribute to the economy by buying Auroville products.  On the other hand, this is a serious, working community.  So people are friendly but also busy.

Two people inspired Auroville.  The first, Sri Aurobindo ( was born in Calcutta in 1879.  He was sent to England to be educated at the age of 8 and returned when he was 21.  He worked as an educator for many years, and in 1906 launched a newspaper where he declared openly for complete and absolute independence for India.  In 1908 he was arrested for terrorist activities.  He was acquitted after spending one year in jail, which he spent studying the Gita and the Upanishads, and in intensive meditation and Yoga.  Shortly after that, he withdrew from active politics and moved to Pondicherry, a French enclave in south India.  He went on to author and publish 35 books on his belief in the possibility for mankind to evolve  to a higher consciousness that will enable us to live a life perfectly harmonious, good, happy and fully conscious.  Sri Aurobindo "left his body" in 1950.

The Mother, ( born Mirra Alfassa in 1878 in Paris, is the person who had the vision of Auroville and also the person who launched the project in 1965.  Her written vision is very powerful, and she had to be a very charismatic person to have inspired so many people to work so hard to realize the vision.  She first met Sri Aurobindo in 1914, but it wasn't until 1920 that she moved to Pondicherry to support his work.  She authored and published 17 books.  She left her body in 1973.  Joss worked with the Mother when he first came to Auroville, and had nothing but the highest praise for her.

As those who know me will guess, Auroville fascinates me.  My host, Ravi, lived there for a couple of years before he and Sheela were married, and he has very positive things to say about it.  I am really looking forward to spending more time there in April.  I'm sure I will have a more in-depth report at that time.

The Matrimandir, ( the soul of Auroville and the symbol of the Universal Mother, is the primary tourist attraction at Auroville.  It is not meant to be a religious place, but rather "a place for concentration, for trying to find one's consciousness."  Only a limited number of tourists are permitted inside, and only during very limited times.

One has to walk about 15 minutes to get to the Matrimandir along a serene dirt path.

The Mother loved flowers.

There were twelve such plaques along the path.

This banyan tree, very close to the Matrimandir, is the geographical center of Auroville.  It is also an amazing presence.  I plan to spend some time there in silence when I go back.

Finding Joss's place was a challenge.  We felt like we were driving into the jungle.

The house where Joss lives and works is lovely.  Open, full of light, surrounded by tropical forest that he helped to plant!

Another of the buildings where Joss and his team work.

The reforestation work continues.

The forest is also used as a classroom.

And they make it fun for the school children who come here on field trips.

The centerpiece here is petrified wood.

More fun.

Saran, our driver, enjoyed feeding the cows at Joss's.

The people handcrafting musical instruments also enjoyed making people smile.

A lot of information is provided around the visitor's center.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Swirling Thoughts and Possible Future Topics

We returned from our road trip to home base in Chennai a week ago yesterday, and this last week has been busy.  We went to an opening session of a Yoga as Therapy class that Ravi is helping to mentor.  We went to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society.  We went shopping at the city center mall, at the local health food store, and at our favorite clothing store, FabIndia.  We went out to dinner at a very nice restaurant.  We had a presentation from an expert on Ayurvedic medicine.  Barbara and I had mehndi, henna paintings on our hands.   Dasa and I had facials at a lovely new local spa, and Dasa and Kelley had full body massages.  I intend to go back for one sometime this week. Ravi and I rented bikes and we went biking with one of his friends, and even joined an organized ride with about 50 other bikers.  Most mornings we've done yoga early in the morning.  We do it up on the roof, and most mornings the sun comes up just as are doing sun salutations.  Very powerful.

Ravi's Yoga Studio.  We start most days with Yoga at 6, after coffee at 5.  Most of the Shankar household is up at 5, which suits me very well.  The girls are often the first up, studying for exams.

When we are not busy doing, we often sit and talk about every topic you can imagine.  Our group is shrinking.  Barbara left mid-week, and Dasa and Kelley will leave mid-week this week.  Then it will just be me and the Shankar family for a while.  Feb.1 I will begin studying the Yoga Sutras with Ravi, so life will take on a different rhythm.  I'm looking forward to it.

I still find myself needing to spend time doing nothing.  I come back to my room with all good intentions to blog, do email, read, or write in my journal.  But more often than not, I just sit.  I need the empty time and space to begin to integrate some of what I'm learning.

I'm also suffering from writer's block because there are SO many things I want to blog about, and I don't know where to start.  The pictures below are teasers.  I intend to post a full entry on each of them over time.  Other topics I am considering are:  Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine, food, language, the Shankar family, suggested reading, fashion, trash and bathrooms.   I'm sure there are others.  Please let me know if there is a particular topic you'd like me to cover.

One of the artisans at Dakshinachitra Heritage Centre, a cross cultural living museum of art, architecture, lifestyles, crafts and performing arts of South India.

The Matrimandir at Auroville.  I plan to do at least one entry on Auroville, and perhaps another on Sri Aurobindo  and the Mother, the founders of Auroville.

Barbara and I at the Theosophical Society.  The tree behind us was grown from a sapling from the tree at Bodhigaya, where the Buddha became the Buddha!

My first autorickshaw ride!

We visited three temples on our road trip - Arunachala at Tiruvannamalai, the Rockfort temple at Trichey, and the temple at Srirangam, an island near Trichey.  Each experience merits a blog.

Mehndi, just for the fun of it.  It is usually done just for weddings.

136.1 Yoga Studio, where the Yoga as Therapy class is being taught.  A lovely space.

A delicious meal at the Shankar household.

The bike shop where we rented the bikes for our ride.  I wish I would have thought to take a picture of the young man who climbed up on top of Ravi's van, barefoot of course, to tie the bikes to the carrier on top.  I've since bought a bike to use while here.  Renting was a hassle.

Dasa snapped this picture of me riding with the group outing.

And while I loved the ride, I also managed to do something stupid.  I reached for a snack the ride organizers were holding out to us.  Unfortunately I was going a little too fast, so I lost control of my bike and collided with a cement post.  The good news is that I got immediate treatment from the ride organizers, and I rode the remaining 15 kms. of the ride!  It doesn't feel as bad as it looks, thank goodness!

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.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Happy Pongal!

Pongal is a major holiday in Tamil Nadu, the South Indian state where I am visiting.  It's kind of a combination of our Thanksgiving, our winter solstice and New Year.  It is the end of the harvest season, so people celebrate the harvest.  It is also is the beginning of Uttarayanathe six months of northward movement of the sun.  These six months are considered an auspicious time - out with the old, in with the new!

This kolam at the ashram was done in celebration of Lakshmi the cow, whose statue was right behind here.

Pongal is on January 14, but there are actually four days of festival.  The day before Pongal is called Bogi, and is the day when old things are thrown away.  In fact, people burn their old clothes, although this practice is being discouraged these days.  On Pongal itself, rice is boiled in milk in new clay pots until it boils over.  Special foods are prepared, new clothes are worn, people go to the temple for special rituals, and families and friends gather to celebrate.  Houses are decorated with beautiful kolams, which are made with brightly colored rice flour, which we saw being sold along the road.  Even the poorest hut has a bright new kolam for Pongal.

The day after Pongal is dedicated to the cows and buffalo which are used to plow the land, pull the bullock carts, and who provide the milk.  The cows horns are painted and decorated with bells.  The final day is a day of celebrating the sun and is traditionally a day for picnics.

We celebrated Pongal in the Ramana Ashram (more on that in a separate blog) and even went to the Arunachala temple, at the foot of the sacred mountain by the same name.  The crowds were overwhelming, and we were the only white people there.  There were a lot of families, and they were all dressed in new, festive clothes.  Everyone was friendly, and one little girl even asked to have her picture taken with us!  Too bad we didn't think to ask her dad to take one for us as well.

I have been away from internet access for several days, and am having a hard time getting my pictures  from my phone onto my iPad.  So I will include a few pictures now, and will do another blog with more sometime in the future.


Our last morning in Pondicherry, we walked out the hotel at 6:30 AM to find the street along the oceanfront full of festivities and people.  An early start to Pongal, which included a kolam competition.

All along both sides of the street, women were busy drawing kolam!

Although most were done with rice flower, some were made using something that had more texture to it.

Women of all ages, some alone and some in groups, were busy producing beautiful artwork on the sidewalk!  This picture of Ganesh is quite beautiful.

Some were floral designs, others were gods, and still others like this one were creatures.

The peacock is the national bird of India.  We saw them all over the Ramana ashram.

This woman was using flower petals in her design.  We weren't able to see who won the contest because we had an appointment at Auroville we had to keep.

What a beautiful Pongal dress!

And even some of the boys had colorful clothes, although for the most part they were more likely to be dressed in new western style attire.

She provides milk for the Ramana ashram, and also got pretty for Pongal!

I'm not sure the fresh blue paint on his horns and yoke lightened the load any for this bullock.  It isn't uncommon to see bullock carts today, sharing the road with trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles and bicycles.