We’ve been in Chennai for a full day now. When we arrived Gunjen kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m in India.” Oddly enough, her statement was not made from a place of excitement. She was feeling unmoved, and what felt strange was that she thought she was supposed to feel different. I knew that she just needed to connect with her parents and leave the thoughts of ‘back home’ out of her mind. Then she would settle in and India would become her and she It. Now it was time for breakfast, and the reason I knew was that the air was filled with a mix of morning freshness, incense, and sambhar. I knew just what to have—uttapam, and idly vada, fresh pomegranate juice, and of course CHAI! If you can’t tell by now I love Indian food, especially South Indian. I also love Chennai. It is a crowded and polluted city, yes; however, it has this flavor that you can’t quite put your finger on – you are confused as to why you love it so much. I think really, it’s just because it has all of India in one place. Chennai is much like Bangalore in that it is an old Indian city with modern development. Not just buildings and malls and things, but ayurvedic clinics, schools, yoga centers, ashrams, temples, and yes, tons of shopping. These places still have both old India pulsing everywhere you look, yet evidence of the strides taken to be clean, and more conscious, which is a modern philosophy.
After we spent some time resting and having delightful conversation about the plans of our trip here, we went to purchase a sim card for Gunjen’s phone. Gunjen’s tension completely subsided when the call was made. It’s not that Gunjen has an attachment, more so that she knew that her mom would be worrying until she heard of our safe arrival. And yes, now we had finally ARRIVED.
First we had to shop. We packed lightly and knew we would purchase everything needed for the ashram before leaving. I had been to Chennai once before and knew where to go. I was even recognized by Anand and Raju the rascal. Now that I knew how much these guys straight robbed from us one my first trip, I had a bone to pick. Anand raised his hand and motioned to me, “Tyagaraj.” His massive forehead and eyebrow bones are the first thing I saw. You can’t see his eyes because of the dark shadow being cast by his orbital ridge. I walked slowly over to him like a well trained vet. “Yea, I’m not using you this time, you totally ripped me off without even thinking about it last time.” He said, “Oh, no Tyagaraj this is good price, waiting time.” They always have some stock selling point it’s so humorous. Clothing shop salesmen tell me, “Oh, very good quality, hand made, hand made.” Everything is hand made in India! Even the super express highway is made by hand! (Which is actually only a 3 lane highway, but still I saw with my own eyes, women in saris carrying bags of concrete on their heads.) We found a new driver, Mathi, that seemed an honest enough man, he hosted us around Chennai for the rest of our time there.
It is now our second day in Chennai. Gunjen is in the shower and I’m sitting on our 4 story balcony watching the parrots zip from tree to tree. We are all waiting the birth of this morning’s Sun. We have quite a few things left to gather before heading to the ashram tomorrow. Yesterday we started our day with the Kapala Iswara temple a beautiful Dravidian Siva Temple. I didn’t see the main deity on my last trip. This time Gunjen and I head straight for the center Gopuram. We walked into the main sanctorum with respect and as if we new what we were doing (and we do.) We took Darshan of the sacred Lingham in the center and began to circumambulate it when a priest spotted us. He was dirty and his white dhoti was gray with soot and use. I watched the pandit tell a temple employee to make us leave. He came straight to us and said, “No foreigners.” I said, “No, I’m Hindu and pointed to my tilak (third eye marking.) Gunjen said, “I’m from India,” with her best Indian accent. (which is good because she’s Indian) I said, “Bhagavan is for everyone.” He just kept repeating himself, and telling us to leave so I made the decision not to test the waters if we just stayed. Gunjen and I had fun scoffing at how ridiculous and hypocritical it was not to allow non-Hindus into the main shrine of the temple. (More on that subject in a later chapter about Sri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.)
We went on gathering the rest of our ashram needs. After two days of running around in Chennai I am ready for the tranquility of Amma’s ashram and temple. We tried to find many different sources of transportation to the ashram and eventually went with Gayatri’s long time driver. Even though he charged a bit more I convinced Gunjen that it was not just one of these places where you can pull off on the side of the road and ask someone where it is. It is a very remote place and there are horror stories of devotees getting lost going there. Kumar knew what he was doing and exactly how to get there. It would be a stress free trip, with the exception of the bumpy pot whole infested road that leads deep in the forest and to the lap of the Mother.
From earlier morning onward we are traveling to the ashram stopping along the way several times for breaks and photo ops. We even paused for a bit at Amma’s school and visited with some of the children that came running out to our car. So sweet.
I began to see the mountains off in the distance and told Gunjen, “See those mountains, that’s where we are going, we’re close.” A complete sense of silence began to cover my heart with It’s blanket. Gunjen and I naturally stopped talking to each other as we gaze at the country side and peek over the dashboard and out the window to get a better view of the approaching Garudadri Hills.
Gunjen was marveling at the giant Hanuman statue you can see from a great distance giving blessings to the forest and the surrounding villages. Our heads were shaken from the bumpy car ride, but we felt alive with energy and our eyes wide open. As we approach the gate, a temple worker comes running with some keys. Pilgrims dressed in all black stop to stare at us. I take some video of a monkey having its way with something on the side of the dirt road, and point it out to Gunjen. She laughs and can’t help but comment on the cuteness of our relative. The monkey’s eyes are present and totally aware. I watch her as we pull into the ashram and the gate closes behind. I’m sure we would see each other every morning for the next two weeks.
The first person I see when we arrive is Laure. She looks red in the face, sweaty and tired, just as we were about to become. I hadn’t even paid Kumar and we were already receiving our to-do list. We lugged the bags and all the things we bought for donations, like soaps and brooms and things, up to our rooms. Gunjen and I gave each other a final, but not so final kiss and hug and got right to work making beds and moving furniture. I had told Laure at the end of the last tour that I would be glad to come over to the ashram a few days early to help set the place up for the rest of the devotees, because I knew she was running the retreat with Lalita. Lovely Gunjen and I had a wonderful time joking and playing while we worked. We didn’t even come close to having it ready when the temple tour devotees arrived early, which meant Amma was on her way.
We went our separate ways to clean up and change clothes. I was ready for my first shower out of the bucket with cold water. I still take showers with cold water because of that experience. I took Gunjen on the roof for a moment as the sun went down. Now it was real, and you still can’t believe it. You look around at the trees, and the ancient space of it all, and you think to yourself, “Why me, why am I privileged enough to live this moment?” We spotted people lining up at the front entrance of the temple. There was a small assembly of students from Amma’s school, and some of the young pandits in training that are for the time being living at the ashram.
The youngest and most beautiful of the group sounds off in the chanting of the Saraswati Mantra after some introductory mantras. Everyone chimes in and repeats the Mantra over and over. A full hour goes by, and I was reminded of tour, just waiting and waiting to leave, and no end in sight as to when you might get dinner or bed-rest.
When Amma’s car finally arrived I could see the full moon leering overhead. I felt an instant surge of energy erupt in my chest and spread throughout my body as if the moon shot an ancient bolt of shakti directly into my heart. Even more silence and comfort began to rest within me. From the moment we arrived and within this moment and throughout the rest of my second stay here at the ashram, I felt right at home…
Amma told all the devotees to take rest and then meet in the Temple for Aarthi and our first greeting. This is where the real fire takes place. The Mangala Aarthi every night in the temple is so powerful and so intense. The pandits close the lights and add dramatics to the ceremony. It’s nice that way. Aarthi is a very special ceremony and should be given concentration and respect. (For those that don’t know Aarthi is simply waving flames and offering them to the deities. The idea is that the flame represents the universal consciousness of the highest state. When we offer this flame of consciousness to God, God then returns the energy. Also fire is one of the most ancient and sacred symbols, therefore with every flame we are connecting with our ancestors. There are many more details to this puja and when done with a pure heart can be a very moving experience.) When the lights close, the drums begin to pulse and rushes of sound vibrations penetrate your very being. The only lights are the hundreds of ghee lamps all around, and the main flame in the inner sanctum of the Lalita Parameswari Devi. Many rounds of flames are offered to Divine Mother.
Amma describes this temple is Tri Shakti Pitham—the Seat of Three Divine Mothers, or Divine Energies. Shakti—power, or energy or life source is always referred to as a Divine Mother quality. Finally they place all flames into one and offer them to each shrine individually in the temple. The drums and the clanging bells dance and become my heart. Even with all the intensity, you feel nothing but peace and contentment. The Sri Chakra at the feet of Divine Mother Lalita Parameswari is covered in kumkum (red vermillion powder) and flowers from a day of puja and Lalita Sahasranama (thousand names of Divine Mother). Amma’s concentration never wavers. She is totally absorbed in the Aarthi. The young pandit steps out of the main shrine and the drums stop. The rest of the pandits sound in the closing mantras as they offer the Aarthi flame to everyone in the temple.
Om Hiranya varnam harineem
Chandram hiranmayim lakshmim
Gunjen holds her hands out in front of her as if she is cupping the incoming of energy from the temple, and at the same time offering her prayers and surrender. This sight brings great peace and comfort to me—to know that my partner shares in the same love and admiration for these practices as I do. I fall in love with Gunjen all over again at that moment. My love for her matured and blossomed in that small fraction of a second.
I felt that this was the best possible situation for us to place ourselves. We had both just been through very difficult—life changing events and now we are in Sacred Mother India, in this amazing Shakti Pitham, offering our prayers and improving our inner beings. The mountain is strong and steep and we are climbing to glory! Amma gives a small talk after the Aarthi and then we have a late dinner. Tomorrow we will be initiated into our silence. I am ready.
(This next piece was taken from my notes on the first day of the meditation retreat.)
Sati Devi lives in the cosmos. Her body dispersed on Earth in 18 different places in India. These places glow with divine brilliance so that the ancient Rishis spot them. Once the Rishis found these Pithams they performed intense tapas (spiritual practice) and meditations. Later after these energy centers have been established by the Rishis they build temples over these “self born” energy centers according to the forms the Rishis experience there in their meditations. Most of these sacred temples still stand in India today. This particular place in Amma’s ashram is the only Lalita Parameswari Temple in India. This Lalita Parameswari temple is known as the jeweled eye of Mother where all the Vedas, and all the Divine Mother Energy is absorbed. When we are in the presence of Lalita in the Temple we absorb all the 18 shakti pithas. It is said to witness this Divine Energy is to have all samskaras (negative karma) of the past burned. We are immediately pulled into the energy field. (and let me tell you personally that when you are in that temple you feel all those things it’s an amazingly powerful place.)