Tuesday, July 23, 2013

First 2 Weeks in Tamil Nadu, India

Flooded Street in New Delhi

How to sum up everything I have done in the past two weeks? Has it really been that long? How time flies. I’ve never flown before, nor have I really left the Midwestern United States, so flying to India by myself was an adventure all its own. My first day in India, spent in New Delhi, was anything but pleasant thanks to the terrible airport services and staff. Fortunately, I made some friends during my 17 hour layover, so I had the opportunity to walk around Delhi and learn some conversational Hindi. Some of the streets were flooded due to heavy rains, and some small children tried robbing me. It was adorable!

One flight with a brief layover in Mumbai later and I was in Coimbatore, about an hour away from the ashram in Anaikatti where I am primarily residing. My driver was there waiting for me to take me on the four hour journey to the small (not even on Google maps) rural village of Mangala Puram, on the outskirts of Mangalamkombu Village in Tamil Nadu, where I would spend the next 10 days learning Taittiriya Upanishad Chapter II and Bhagavad Gita Chapter IX. I am grateful for this journey, as it allowed me to see parts of southern India I may otherwise have missed, although I was so exhausted from my flights that I ended up sleeping through the latter half of the drive. 
Tranquil Nests: My Daily View

I should probably mention for the record that this class was an optional expense paid for with my own money; fellowship funds were not used. I felt it was important to experience a traditional style of Vedic teaching, opposed to just relying on my own self study, before beginning my formal research. I am so glad that I opted to do this, as the teacher taught with great clarity and I learned and experienced far more than I had bargained for. 

Tranquil Nests: Dining Area at Night
The classes were initially to be held at the ashram in Anaikatti, but due to limited space, they were relocated one week before my departure to a beautiful inn called Tranquil Nests, tucked away in the mountains of Palani Hills on a small coffee plantation. No internet or cell phone connectivity made it difficult to keep in touch with family back home, but at the same time provided the perfect atmosphere for study and focus. The view of the misty mountains, the abundant variety of insects, animals, fruit trees and plant life, and the sounds of the jungle and the nearby village made this place the closest thing to “paradise” I have ever seen.
Tranquil Nests: Activity Area

The class size was small (about a dozen students) and I will never forget the people I met there. Each person brought an invaluable contribution to the group dynamic. I was sick and jetlagged my first few days, but everyone was extremely helpful and understanding during this time, even interrupting scheduled classes to make a visit to the local pharmacy with me, where we got to see Mangala Puram’s colorful atmosphere and visit a small roadside temple for prayer. 

Mangala Puram: Anti-Plastic Demonstration by Local School Children
Our days were divided between 3 delicious vegetarian meals, yoga, meditation, pranayama, tai chi, tea time, nature hikes, and of course, 2 intense lectures on Taittiriya, 1 on Bhagavad Gita, and a nightly satsang (a Q&A session). I was also given the opportunity to write and deliver 4 brief lectures during this time – one on special relativity, two on quantum mechanics, and a fourth describing how I plan to incorporate Vedanta into my research in the sciences, as well as discussions on various topics related to the relationship between these ideas. Each lecture was permeated and followed by Q&A. With no internet connection or other resources at my disposal, this was a good opportunity for me to discover how much I really know, and to practice lecturing/teaching/public speaking. 

View from the Bus en Route to Kodaikanal
View from Coaker's Villa
We took one day off from our usual schedule on 15-JUL-13 to visit Kodaikanal and a nearby temple in Poombarai. We traveled by bus through the mountains, seeing spectacular views along the way. One of our students made special arrangements for us to be guests of honor at Coaker’s Villa in Kodaikanal for the day, and I saw firsthand the immense difference between American and Indian hospitality. We were greeted with fresh flower malas, tea, and a drum and dance performance. A five-star chef prepared a custom-made meal of our favorite dishes (even some Italian food!) for us to enjoy on the edge of a cliff overlooking the scenic mountains and valley all around.

Poombarai, Tamil Nadu, India
As if this surprise weren’t enough, another of our students made special arrangements for us to visit the Kuzhanthai Velappar Temple, a small, discrete 3,000 year old Hindu temple nested at the center of the valley town of Poombarai. We were told that no cameras, technology, etc. had ever been allowed inside, and that unless you were destined to be there, you would never come. I believe it too, considering the fact that on the way there our bus avoided being crushed by a fallen tree by just less than 1 minute. (We were not held up by this obstruction for long, as local villagers quickly obtained an axe to chop through and move the tree, which was too large for the 20+ men at the scene to even budge.) We were given a special puja in which the priest of the temple prayed for us and our close family members by name, and then allowed us to chant in the temple for a solid 45 minutes – another miraculous thing, considering many people were said to be incapable of even speaking in this ancient place, let alone entering. The deity, Lord Murugan, was created over 3,000 years ago purely out of herbs, known as navabashanam (nine herbs), and still remains preserved to this day.
Tree in the Road

On the last day of our classes, the remaining students and I visited the Balamurugan Temple in nearby Thandikudi, again being given a puja and chanting for a while. It was situated on the top of a hill overlooking the village and the surrounding mountains. The shape of a peacock, which is known as the vehicle of Murugan, naturally formed on one of the nearby rocks on the hill.

Palani Hills Murugan Temple - Inside View
Palani Hills Temple (Source: www.palanimurugantemple.org)
The following day, 19-JUL-13, we left to return to the ashram in Anaikatti, but made a stop at the Hill Temple of Palani, one of India’s oldest and largest temples. A puja had been arranged for us here as well, and I was graced with additional vibhuti (ashes from the deity which are symbolic of the basis of life – carbon) from the head priest. We stopped for lunch and were served a full course South Indian meal on banana leaves. This easily would be a $20 meal in the US, but it cost only 100 rupees – less than $2 in US currency. Amazing! We dropped off the last remaining student besides me at the airport in Coimbatore, picked up some food and supplies, and made it to the ashram in Anaikatti, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (which means the place where one lives with the family of the guru to learn the knowledge passed down by the Rishis) late that night.

You will see by the date of this post that I have been at the ashram for a few days now. It is truly a remarkable place, but I will save my descriptions and stories for the next post. I will however mention that I am off to a great start in terms of research leads – I have 2 pages full of topics to research, people to interview and talk to, places to visit, books to read, etc. Needless to say I will be very busy in the next month. I owe a HUGE thank you to Surya and Neema for going above and beyond in terms of teaching me Vedanta, helping me navigate India, arranging my accommodations at the ashram, and providing a great abundance of resources for my research project.

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