Namaste . . . and welcome back! This post details a little more about the Ganga Dasahara celebration and the amazing happenings I witnessed there. Some of it was challenging for my western mind, so I won’t be at all surprised if you, too, are a bit skeptical. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself!
Hundreds of people, mostly women from the Garwhali (the native population and their language) villages in the mountains surrounding Tapasyalayam joined in the celebration for three days, listening to Ammaji’s message.
Although she spoke in Hindi, the second language of these villagers that none of us Westerners understood, a friendly Hindi-speaking devotee from the UK translated for us. Throughout her speeches, Ammaji (Swamini Pramananda) honored the native people, acknowledging the many ways their lives are joined with the life of the sacred Ganges, reminding them, too, of the holy responsibility they were born into to keep the river safe. I was struck by the simple beauty of these village women.
From their simple native dress and colorful scarves, the strength of their faith in the river and the gods and goddesses they worship shone through their often toothless smiles and their sun-worn faces. Young and old, their numbers grew each day as word went out to others in the neighboring villages. They came daily for the ritual, honoring Ammaji as a teacher and guide, recognizing her as a holy presence in their midst. I’m sure these women, whose lives are devoted to serving others, truly appreciated the meals they received.
In villages and cities surrounding Ammaji’s ashram, the people worship deities called Naga Devatas — snake or serpent gods. These devatas are supernatural entities onto whom the villagers bestow great respect and faith, as they consider the devata to be the leader of their community. Thus, they take both personal and community issues to their devata and live in keeping with their decisions. Since the devatas communicate only through their movements, each village has one or two people who can translate these movements. The villagers offer their prayers in food faith, knowing that the health and abundance of their crops and their communities are gifts from the devatas.
Carried on wooden palanquins covered with red cloth and occupying small yet highly decorated ‘houses,’ four Naga Devatas graced the festivities at Tapasyalayam with their presence.
On the first day of the festival, we greeted each ‘Nag’ at the gate, as they and their carriers danced their way up the rock-strewn dirt road to the ashram. Their arrival was a sight to behold as the little houses that held them swayed from side to side, with a joy that was palpable. It was clear that their carriers, one man at each end of the long wooden handles, were not responsible for the movement of the devatas as they often took their hands off the handles and the palanquin continued its lively movements.
The presence of the devatas at this gathering created an especially auspicious air throughout the ashram. Their exuberant joy was infectious! On the last evening of the celebration, after the several hundred village women and children had left, 20 or so village men and boys performed a traditional Garwhali dance; a kind of hands-on-the-shoulders, circle dance reminiscent of traditional Greek dances I’ve seen. When their dance ended, Ammaji and another 20 or so of us, men, women and children formed another circle and did a kind of Indian flavored do-si-do. We were having such a great time . . . and then one of the devatas, on the shoulders of his carriers, came down from the temple terrace and joined us! Before we knew it, all four devatas were dancing on the makeshift dance floor where hundreds of villagers had sat just hours earlier. As soon as two of them came to the dance floor, we all gave way for fear of getting run over! You could see in everyones’ faces that they were thrilled beyond belief to be witnessing what I imagine would be, for many of us, a once-in-a-lifetime event! Recalling our amazement the next day and the days that followed, I knew then that trying to describe this experience to anyone who wasn’t there would be a real challenge! Hopefully, with a little imagination on your part, you will feel some of the wonder of this event!
Another noteworthy experience took us higher up into the Himalayan mountains. As you may know, until a few years ago, the Ganges River or Ganga, was largely fed by the waters of a melting glacier high up in the Western Himalayas in a place called Gangotri. The Gangotri Glacier has receded significantly enough that to find the rivers’ source now one must travel on foot over other glacial fields to Gomukh (a trip I was physically or psychically unprepared for).
Nonetheless, a visit to Gangotri and a toe-dip in the waters of Ganga flowing there is still considered auspicious. Several weeks before the festival at Tapasyalayam, Ammaji, myself, and three other women who had been visiting her rode in yet another jeep to what felt like the top of the world. The roads further up the mountain were nothing if not even more hair-raising than the ones that took us to Uttarkashi. Here, small streams from uphill creeks flowed over the roads, threatening to wash them out even as we drove over them!
Still, we were an adventurous and camera-happy crowd, taking snap after snap as each turn in the road revealed yet one more incredible sight. Now the snow-capped mountains were nearer, and set against the blue, blue Himalayan sky, were awe inspiring, to say the least.
Once in Gangotri, we climbed over rocks and boulders, making our way slowly down to the river’s edge and away from the crowds at the ancient Siva temple. Ammaji performed a brief yet beautiful puja (ceremony) as we offered flowers and prayers to the river, along with our fervent requests that our ancestors might be at peace.
After the puja, we walked down the main lane, stopping and shopping in some of the many stalls and shops that lined the narrow street. Since no cars, buses, taxis, cows or rickshaws were allowed in this lane, Gangotri offered one of the quietest and most pleasant shopping experiences I had in India.
At the end of our month at Tapasyalayam, Ammaji, Swami Siddhabodhananda and I headed back to their ashram in Coimbatore. This ashram, known as Purna Vidya Foundation, sits in a valley, ringed by mountains. Across the road, yet directly in front of the ashram is a large rocky outcropping, marked on one end by three large square-shaped rocks, stacked on top of each other, like so many Legos.
Behind the ashram is an entirely different looking yet even more impressive mountain that overwhelms the eye as its smooth-looking slope seems to reach for the sky. In some ways, this ashram felt a bit more remote than Tapasyalayam. The countryside here is dotted with small, somewhat isolated villages. One of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had occurred here, in this ashram.
While most of the ashram staff lived on the grounds, our driver, the receptionist/ accountant and the cleaning woman/dobi (laundress)/sometimes cook lived in the nearest village, about a mile away. Within a day or so of our return from the North, I was in ‘my’ room, working on my computer. Without knocking, a tall, slim, dark-skinned older woman walked in, sat on the adobe-colored floor, and simply stared at me. As she sat there, I tried to figure out what to do; how to respond to this strange situation. The native language in this part of India is Tamil — a language I do not speak. Nor, I determined pretty quickly, did she speak English. What to do?
One of the things I’ve learned about the Indian people over the years is that, no matter their age, they love to have their picture taken. So, I got out my camera and took her photo! Thanks to the digitization of cameras, she was able to see her own image captured right there in my little camera. Her smile spoke in a way that words could never convey! When I told my host swamis about this experience, I discovered that, coming from such a remote village, this woman had likely never seen anyone with such white skin before!
Through ongoing interactions with Lakshmi, the woman described above, and others at the ashram, I saw not only how different their lives are from ours, but that they exuded simplicity; a simple, uncomplicated way of being that I think many of us in the West long for. If I’m honest with you, some part of me envies that — although I doubt whether I could ever live that simply.
The people at this ashram, like those at Tapasyalayam, treated me with such loving care, that they began to feel like family, albeit one with whom communication often relied on charade-like gestures and lots of patience. Although we didn’t share much in the way of spoken language, we did keep trying. The ashram driver, Sringarvelu, as well as members of the office staff, took it upon themselves to teach me Tamil words of greeting: vanakkam (hello), kaalai vanakkam (good morning), madhiya vanakkam (good afternoon), mallai vannakam (good evening), which I practiced at the appropriate times, often leading to polite smiles or outright peals of laughter. Perhaps because I spent more time at the Coimbatore ashram, some of the formality with which the staff had initially greeted me began to fall away. In spite of our inability to share jokes, we found ways to have fun together, while maintaining a respectful perspective. Unaccustomed as I am to being waited on and being treated with so much formality, it was important to me that they see me as an equal, no better or more deserving of respect than they.
Parvathi, the ashram cook, became one of my favorite people, not just because she lovingly prepared my favorite South Indian foods (idli & dosa) once or even twice a week, but because her constant warmth and quiet confidence made me feel so at home.
I would occasionally wander into the kitchen in the afternoons just to watch her grind batter or string impossibly small flowers onto thread for the next mornings’ puja. Although she showed me how to thread the small white flowers that she picked each day from shrubs near the ashram’s temporary temple, I resisted her offer that I try it, doubtful that my fingers could ever do more than mangle the flowers!
Parvathi, the ashram cook
Because construction at the ashram was not yet complete when we arrived, Parvathi prepared three delicious meals a day in a small, dark makeshift ‘kitchen’ with no running water. Since the nearest source of water was a tap about 200’ feet from the ‘kitchen’, she had to make multiple trips to fetch water. Fortunately, the new modern kitchen was ready within a few more weeks, although when I saw it, I realized how much we/I take for granted here in the West.
Although this kitchen was brand new and would be considered first class in India, there was no stove or oven. Rather, the stovetop consisted of two sets of camp-style burners on a marble counter, giving her four burners. When the kitchen was declared ready for service, Ammaji, Swami Siddhabodhananda, Parvathi’s husband and I gathered there for a simple puja, praying to Annapurna, the Hindu Goddess of Nourishment that she might bless the kitchen and the food prepared there. As part of the ceremony, Parvathi boiled a pot of cow’s milk to overflowing. Milk signifies purity and long life, and allowed to overflow, signifies an overflow of wealth coming into the ashram or home.
There were places in the kitchen meant for a steam table and other methods of cooking, so I imagine that by the time all the equipment arrived (after I left), this kitchen would live up to its 4-star billing.
One of the reasons I was in India at this time was to help develop some new P.R. material for Ammaji , including the creation of a new website. Once we got to Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, much of my time was taken up with this work. My task was to help Westernize Ammaji’s material to appeal to a larger, more universal audience. As she is a beautiful, clear modern teacher of India’s profound spiritual teachings, I was delighted to do what I could to help others discover her.
To that end, I worked with a wonderful P.R. group in Coimbatore, (a city previously known for its textiles and now growing in IT), and in the process, discovered a newer, more hip face of India. Through the owner and employees at the P.R. firm, I saw a more modern country, where a younger group of Indian-born citizens are increasingly influenced by the west and masterfully using its technology. They are, in every sense, straddling the line between the ancient culture of India, where her mores and traditions still thrive in their homes and their lives, and an India that is rapidly moving into the 21st century.
Some of those traditions work while others may not. During a conversation one afternoon with the wife of P.R. firms owner, (she worked part time in the office) I asked her about the still-existent practice that requires a newly married Indian woman to move into her new husbands’ family home, i.e., to live with her in-laws. When I asked how that was for her, I discovered that she, like most modern young Indian women, went along with it although she would have preferred to have her own home. In India there is a certain level of acceptance and, like all things, carries with it both pros and cons. She told me that now that they have children, this situation is convenient while it is also a big price to pay in terms of privacy.
I hope that as these young people embrace modernity in cities across India, they will retain the traditions and customs that have made India the amazing, spiritually rich, colorful and fascinating country it is. I hope, too, that within India’s patriarchal culture, where Goddesses are worshipped and adored, some of that adoration and respect will filter into the lives of the women who live there now.
As you may recall, another reason I went to India was to see if I might want to live there. When I left there, I had every intention of returning in January. Without knowledge or intention, when I arrived in Australia, I breathed a sigh of relief, appreciating the clean streets, the fresh air and the ease of movement. As much as I love India for its daily expression of spirituality and the beauty of the people, I knew that, at least for the time being, India was not a good fit for me.
I also know that my heart has been touched so deeply by India, her beautiful people, and her teachings that she will forever remain there.