On a tour of South India with Redback Travels
I am writing this post in the shadow of Mount Arunachala, a sacred mountain in Tamil Nadu, south India. I have long wanted to visit this mountain, which was the spiritual home of Sri Ramana Maharishi. He meditated in a cave on the side of this mountain for 17 years; and in another cave, higher up (to get a bit further away from the towns people who were flocking to his side) for another seven years. Finally, he came down to the foot of the mountain and resided in a simple dwelling, and here people gathered to experience his presence.
His dwelling grew into an ashram, and his caves are carefully preserved pilgrimage sites. Though Sri Ramana Maharishi passed from this mortal coil on April 14, 1950, his lingering presence continues to draw many people from India and around the globe. Like me, they want to meditate in his former room, and walk up the side of Mount Arunachala to feel the sacred energy of a mountain these people consider a Shiva temple.
So, here I am, staying in a peaceful retreat hotel called Arunai Anantha, on the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai, the town that spreads out from the foot of the mountain. I am about halfway through the Redback Travels tour of South India — and so far, staying here in Tiruvannamalai has been the highlight for me.
This tour got off to an uneasy start due to the onset of first Sandy, the devastating hurricane that hit the east coast of the USA; and then Nilam, the much-less powerful cyclone that hit the coast of Tamil Nadu. Though the cyclone turned out to be a non-event (the only damage we noticed was some downed tree branches), many of the Americans who were supposed to be on this tour cancelled — and in fact, only one hardy soul, named Tom, made the journey, which was a true leap of faith for him (as he didn’t even know if the tour would still take place when he got on the plane in Washington).
I only had to travel from Delhi, so after making a call to the airline, and a call to a friend from Chennai (who said there were virtually no problems in the city following Nilam), I boarded the plane, and met Tom, and our guide Lotus from Wilderness Expeditions in Chennai. I felt confident it would be a good trip and I was reassured by the continuous hard work, care and attention to detail that Redback Travels put into making the arrangements, and making sure we were comfortable.
In Chennai, we toured the city, making several fun and memorable stops. First, we went to Nalli’s the famous sari store, which feels like it is preserved in time. It was a Saturday, just before the festive season, so the place was packed. I bought a Kancheepuram silk sari in my colours (green and blue) in case I get invited to a wedding in India — and in fact, I was promptly invited to a wedding by a bride who was buying her wedding sari.
Then a late lunch at Saravana Bhavan (of course) and that was enough for Tom, who was obviously having a great time, but who was, after all, dealing with jet lag and culture shock. I was tired too from the hustle, noise and heat of Chennai. The next day we visited Kapalsheewarer Temple with a guide, who also took us to see the Chola bronzes at the museum (they are his specialty) and the peaceful Krishnamurti Foundation. It was fun to have a big car and excellent driver, Shekar, at the readiness; and to have an educated and knowledgeable city guide. I felt thoroughly spoiled.
Finally, on our last day in Chennai we stopped at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) before leaving the city. I studied there for a month in 2006, but since then, KYM has built a new building on the site so it seemed like a new place to me. This esteemed yoga centre has been the centre of scandal recently. I cannot comment on the scandal, however, my understanding is that the therapeutic yoga that is studied, practised and applied there is of great benefit to many people. Certainly, there is no reason to doubt the integrity or wisdom of T. Krishnamacharya or his son T.K.V. Desikachar. However, I left with the same feeling I had back in 2006: that I was highly overcharged because I am a foreigner. I paid $60 for a 1.5 hour consultation and I’m frankly not sure how much value it is to me.
I also have to say that I found Chennai to really grate on my nerves. I loved the places we visited and the experiences we had, but the city is so chaotic, hot and humid, I felt relieved to leave. We drove only a short distance (about 1.5 hours) to the Ideal Beach Resort on the coast, and it was delightful to be among nature, breathe fresh air and hear the ocean waves pounding the shore. Though it is a bit artificial for my tastes, I totally appreciate the Ideal Beach Resort because of the tremendous care and attention that is put into the place by a small army of staff. The grounds were perfectly manicured and the pool water sparkling clean. I’ve rarely seen such perfection in India at a less-than-five-star hotel. Kudos to the Ideal Beach Resort! So we walked on the beach, swam in the pool and ate tandoori lobster in the open-air restaurant and it was all very blissful (except I swam into the side of the pool and hit my head, doh!).
Lotus, Tom and I (and our driver Shekar) were falling into a rhythm and I felt the tour was going to be a success, though we had lost the other seven participants to cancellations. But then, the next morning, Lotus learned his father had suddenly passed away and he had to leave for his home, Ladakh, immediately. This tour seemed to be under a dark star! But, again, Redback Travels and Wilderness Expeditions came to our rescue by reassuring us they would make sure everything went forward according to plan and we carried on, now down to two people and a driver. We spent the morning in Mamallapuram touring the rock carvings, the highlight of which is the UNESCO designated Shore Temple. I’ve been here before, but it is still a treat to see these beautiful structures, caves and bas relief.
From there we drove about two hours to Pondicherry, the former French colony on the coast. I’ve been there before, too, and was looking forward to meditating at the Sri Aurobindo Samadhi. Pondicherry is a very special place, due in part to the very French-inspired architecture and culture, and also to the presence of the Aurobindo ashram, which is spread throughout the French part of town. Here is where Sri Aurobindo wrote, meditated and left his body; and also where his spiritual partner, The Mother (born Mirra Alfassa in Paris, France) lived and worked, and also left her body. The Aurobindo Samadhi is the place where their remains are interred; and it is the spiritual heart of the ashram. However, my plans were sidelined …
While we were staying at the solidly reliable Atithi Hotel, I decided it would be fun to venture into the French colony and eat at a French restaurant. I especially wanted Tom to have this experience as he has never been to Pondy before (in fact, he has never been to India before). I consulted my handy digital Lonely Planet and decided to try their TOP PICK restaurant, Satsanga. We ordered carefully, making sure to choose only cooked food; and I also ordered a sweet lassi. The lassi came with an ice cube and I tried to send it back, but the waiter talked me out of it. He said that a foreigner owned the restaurant, only foreigners ate there, and the ice was made with filtered water. For some reason, maybe because I was really hungry, I decided to drink it. Mistake. An hour later my stomach was churning and I spent most of the night running to the bathroom. A classic case of Delhi-belly. Only in this case, Pondy-belly. Tom was the last man standing!
Normally I wouldn’t worry about an episode of Delhi-belly — it is an occupational hazard, after all — but my head still ached from where I bumped it in the pool, and I wanted to rule out concussion. So, I called reception and asked for a doctor. The young doctor came within 15 minutes and within another half-hour the medicine he prescribed was delivered. Total time was 45 minutes and total cost was about 1,400 rupees (less than $30). I drank bottles and bottles of mineral water mixed with ORS (oral rehydration salts) and spent the next morning in my room, while Tom walked the town and meditated at the Sri Aurobindo Samadhi. By afternoon I felt a bit better, and we got in the car and drove about three hours inland to Tiruvannamalai. A special thank you to Atithi Hotel for taking good care of me.
I felt terribly unwell when I arrived due to Delhi-belly, the bump on my head, and the car drive. However, I knew that arriving in a spiritually charged place like Tiruvannamalai in such a vulnerable state was, in fact, a good thing. Feeling vulnerable can make you more receptive to spiritual energy. Also, I knew I was in good hands. I trusted the driver Shekar and the people in Delhi and the USA who were arranging the trip. It was a good feeling, and it turned out to be accurate. We pulled into the Arunai Anantha retreat hotel and I immediately felt the peace and quiet of this very special place. I was shown into my room and I lay down on the couch and fell sound asleep for about 30 minutes or so. When I awoke I felt absolutely well. All the tension, headache, tummy ache … it had all drained from my body. And I felt deeply rested.
More about Tiruvannamalai in the next post!
In the shadow of the sacred mountain
A note about the title of this blog. Several years ago I asked Swami Brahmdev, founder of Aurovalley Ashram, why India is considered to be such a spiritual place, especially as a destination for seekers. He said it was because it contained the extremes. The extremes of spirituality and sacredness; and the extremes of base materialism and ignorance. The sacred mountain and the shadow.
It is the presence of these extremes, I believe, that makes India so hard on foreign nerves and egos. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: India is not for everyone. You have to be ready. India is a generous guru, she gives you what you need; and teaches you what you need to progress. If your ego needs a bashing, for example, you will get it. So, if you’re afraid to travel in India, it might mean your ego is not up for the bashing. And that’s okay. It really is not the right path for everyone.
But if you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that I, too, was afraid to travel to India the first time, back in December 2005. A week before leaving, the person I was supposed to stay with in Delhi cancelled my stay, and about the same time I became very sick with bronchitis. I got on the plane anyway. I had just been through seven years of losses and was fighting to dig my way out of a deep depression. India gave me what I needed: a safety net and a big, warm, maternal embrace. The dark-night-of-the-soul, travel nightmares I expected never materialized. Instead, my six-month trip was more like a magic carpet ride. I learned to have faith.
[NOTE: I was a guest of Redback Travels on this tour. But as always … I tell it like I see it.]
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