This is the third year that Rimmi Singh, her sister Pammi, and I have taken a group of yogi travelers, yatri, to India. Each time the trip is to somewhat different places, and this time 22 of us had an amazing tour of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. South India is quite different from north India in terms of the food, spices, language, and landscape. Perhaps there is a slight difference in the people too, as a whole. In the whole of the subcontinent, there is just a mind-boggling amount of variety in everyday life as the sacred sits right next to the mundane which sits right next to riches which sits right next to poverty. It is all mixed up in a colorful stew. Quite often when one thinks of India, I believe it is common to first think of the third world and poverty, but what we experienced was a great depth of culture and progressive ideas.
This city has a heavily French influence as it was founded in 1674 by the French East India Company. It is home to Auroville of Sri Aurobindo fame and the famous flower market. All of India seems to be covered in flower petals; they seem to always be blossoming and are ever fragrant, and the flower market here begins early in the morning to avoid the midday heat. It is more like a wholesale place, where people come to buy in bulk and then sew the flowers up into beautiful garlands to wear or offer at the many temples. It stands in the midst of fish sellers and vegetable sellers and there is an amazing amount of activity even before 7am.
Sri Aurobindo is a famous guru at the turn of the 20th century who had a great influence on Indian and even American culture based on his teachings and the books that he wrote. The Mother was also quite prevalent as she was his spiritual equal who helped found the Auroville ashram. About Auroville:
Auroville (City of Dawn) is an ‘experimental’ township in Viluppuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India near Puducherry in South India. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Richard (since her definitive settling in India called ‘[The] Mother’) and designed by architect Roger Anger. Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.
Some words from the Mother:
Be courageous, enduring, and vigilant and above all, be sincere, with perfect honesty. Then you will be able to face all difficulties.
The Ganesha Temple in Pondi was our first elephant sighting, the first of several more. Here I am receiving a blessing from Lakshmi.
Our hotel was right on the Bay of Bengal and I swear people were up all night long walking the promenade, feeding the cows and dogs, and chanting by the sea.
I visited here with Douglas Brooks just a few weeks previous, and this is my third time to this temple. It is the Nataraja Temple, Shiva in his form as Lord of the Dance. Each time I arrive here, it feels like home. Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the temple, so memories will have to do, but I will say that this temple, like many in south India, is arranged in such a way so that when you step inside its walls, it is as though you are stepping into your own Self. The concentric circles of walls lead you through the layers, koshas, of your own mind until you get to the inner sanctum, where Nataraja resides, and where your innermost Self resides.
At most temples, there is a “flagpole” outside of the main sanctum, sometimes it is brass or wood, sometimes it is covered in gold. There is no flag on top, but the pole itself is often ornately carved. It rises higher than the roof or if indoors, usually goes through the ceiling. This post represents your spine and the spiritual energy, kundalini shakti, held within it. To me, just gazing at the pole brings a sense of power. It is taller than the ceiling to represent the fact that the kundalini energy or power rises up from the base of the spine to the crown of your head, which leads the yogi into a more expansive state of awareness.
We experienced a sacred abishekam ritual with the crystal lingam, “the formless form of Shiva,” in which the priests known as dikshitars would pour many substances like milk, yogurt, ghee, sandalwood paste, rice, honey, sometimes even flower petals, over the lingam, washing it clean after each substance. It is a strange practice, but when you observe it, it is quite evocative, you cannot help but feel something inside. This ritual is concluded with an aarti, the waving of light from a candle flame, around a ruby Nataraja statue. This little statue I’m guessing is about a foot high, and it is pure ruby, so when they shine the light behind it, it glows a brilliant red and takes my breath away.
As my friend Bharati, who assisted us at the temple, said: there are three main parts to Tamil culture, wearing a sari is sacred for women, also the bindi placed on the third eye, and jasmine flowers strung in one’s hair. There is nothing like the smell of jasmine in your hair in south India.
We had a brief stay at Svatma Hotel. This place is a must stay because it is a converted Brahmin home that is so elegant and completely welcoming. The staff meets your every need, and one may experience yogic rituals like morning chanting and yoga, even dance performances in the evenings. My good friends Michael and Karen Levin treated me to a sound immersion — in the spa, there is an entire room dedicated to creating different sounds and tones so that one might bathe in the vibrations of gongs, chimes, a thunder-making instrument, a table that has harp strings underneath the bed that one lies upon while someone plucks the strings and the vibrations move through your entire being. It is a complete vibrational experience that left me feeling refreshed and cleansed.
We saw a fascinating and beautiful traditional Indian dancer perform too.
In Madurai we visited the Meenakshi Temple. This little lady’s claim to fame is that she was born with three breasts. As a princess, her father the king was so very proud of her, and there was an oracle that said when she met her match, her mate for life, that the third breast would disappear. As luck would have it, the only match for her was the great lord himself, Shiva. This temple and the Chidambaram temple have some ethereal connection for this reason. A god is never far from a goddess.
As with many south Indian temples, this one owns an elephant. She greets pilgrims and offers blessings, and each morning, her keepers take her out for a walk around the town. Tamil people love their elephants, and for six weeks out of the year she goes on “vacation” to an elephant preserve. We all have to blow off a little stress once in a while.
At any temple, there is a daily schedule. The priests wake the gods in the morning, they bathe them, they clothe and feed them, and in the evening, they get put to bed. A few of us took part in this night ceremony. First, only Hindus are allowed in the main inner sanctum, so Bela was the only one of our small group to enter there to receive darshan. But when she emerged from the sight of Meenakshi, she was so radiant, we received her darshan by osmosis. As she rejoined us then we walked over to the Shiva shrine where the night ceremony begins. The priests take out a Shivalingam from this sanctum and carry it over to the opening of Meenakshi’s sanctum, where her shoes are brought out as a symbol of her whole self. The lingam and the shoes mingle side by side for a few moments as the priests chant, and then the lingam and shoes are put to bed. Again, such an odd thing to do, but at the same time there is a visceral sense that something deeper is happening. Inner spiritual structure is reorganizing somehow. As Douglas Brooks puts it, either grown men are playing with dolls here or something visceral and deep is going on. In reality, it is both.
Thekkady, Periyar National Park
Spice Village is a progressive property that does not allow any plastic on the premises. The hotel is a series of cottages spread out over many acres on a mountain in the Western Ghat range. Did I mention most of this trip has been in the 90-100° range? This was the coolest portion of our trip.
Naturalists provide nature and bird walks, they filter their own water and make paper here. The bags to hold receipts or souvenirs from the store are made of newsprint being reused. They compost in several different ways and have a beautiful garden from which they use the food in their restaurants. It is so close to nature, there are guinea fowl that roam freely on the property and only occasionally get eaten by the monkeys. And so many birds! After the busy-ness of the cities in Tamil Nadu, this was a great time to unwind.
Upon leaving Spice Village, we stopped at a tea plantation school. This may have been one of the most moving parts of our trip as the elementary age children were overjoyed to see us. We brought pencils, notepads, erasers, pens, stickers, and candy to the kids and everyone wanted to get their pictures taken. We sang songs together and treated the kids to ice cream dessert after lunch that day. It was truly precious. Being around the kids brought thoughts of my sister in North Carolina, who daily works with children facing great challenges regarding their ability to learn, homelife, and poverty. These children at least have homes, food, and schooling, but poverty is there, and they have unique challenges due to culture and climate too.
Kumarakom, Vembanad Lake
Here we stayed at the largest lake in Kerala, known as Vembanad and famous for its houseboats. Seeing these things on the water made me think of some creature from the 80s television program Fraggle Rock. We had a whole day tour on a house boat which was really wonderful. The crew fed us lunch and after lunch our guide, Raj, set up his playlist, which of course was American golden oldies type music and the main deck of the houseboat became a dance floor. His comment to me was unforgettable, “this is the true yoga, when people are happy and laughing and dancing.”
We stayed at Coconut Lagoon, which is another CGH Earth property like Spice Village, so no plastic anywhere. I haven’t mentioned the food yet — I will never tire of dosa or idly and sambar. Delicious. You have to take a boat to get to the property, and there are canals throughout the property to help manage the landscape, which is filled with flowers and fruit trees and butterflies. The canals gave me a strong memory of growing up with my grandparents in the summers in South Bethany Beach Delaware the way the canals were in the backyards of the beach houses and you could boat around and see people’s intimate backyard lives or head to the bay to enjoy nature. And waterskiing. These memories are some that seemed long gone and therefore gave me a greater sense of integration with my life, connecting past to present.
There is an Ayurvedic spa here with two doctors on hand to treat your every need based on your ayurvedic constitution and life habits. And plenty of swings for relaxing and watching the sunset over the lake. The meditation teacher here, Naveed, seemed to be trained in the Shivananda style, I never asked him but his practices leaned that way. Morning yoga and evening meditation daily was a real treat.
Finally, we landed at the Taj Malabar resort in Cochin or Kochi, two names for the same place. We were right on the water across from a huge port. Again, a memory of childhood and family, in particular my brother who I am so proud of as he is now Chief Engineer for the Virginia Port Authority and works at a location just like this one. Seeing the whale of a huge ship entering the inland waterway and docking at the port and watching the cranes add to or remove cargo was like a connection across the planet to family.
Some of our group attended a Kathakali Dance performance. This ancient technique involves only men, and lots of make-up. One of the dancers demonstrated the different emotions used in Indian cultural dances; the subtle control of his facial muscles is like I’ve never seen. Kathakali uses mudras, hand or even body gestures, to tell a story, in the same way Classical Indian Dance does, but it certainly has its unique south-Indian flavor.
Chinese fishing nets are an amazing sight at the waterside. Made of wood and hand-tied ropes, this ancient fishing practice stands side-by-side to modern buildings and technology of the city. Case in point: the Cochin airport is the first in the world to be 100% solar powered.
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Twenty two intrepid yoga yatri, travelers. Twenty two hearts and forty four eyes from which to experience this vast and rich culture and country. And each moment leads me back to my new family of these travelers, my lifetime family at home, and my own Self.