Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Visiting the Samadhi

Visiting the Samadhi: Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
Pondicherry, South India, February 11, 2006

Today I am journeying to Tanjore, or Thanjavur as it is now called more correctly, where I will stay one night with friends from Madurai, before going on to LAFTI the next morning. Some parts of my journey have echoes of Amma and Appa and their work.

As I am going by car, I have invited Ananta and his wife Sushuma as well as John Clammer to join me for at least part of the journey. They are keen to see Pondicherry and the Samadhi resting place of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. We are joined by their son Sumanta Prakash, who is 12 and very curious indeed about the world around him!

Our first stop is Vedanthangal, one of the most famous bird sanctuaries in India, a large marshy wetlands filled with low trees in which nest numerous species of migratory birds, including storks, pelicans, cormorants, egrets, cranes, spoonbills, and others. There is a paved walkway with interpretive signs and a watch tower from which large groups of school students on excursions can see the birds. We are far enough away from the birds so as not to disturb them, even with the loud voices of the school children. It is an astonishing site, these thousands of nesting birds, by some counts as many as 30,000 during the peak of the nesting season from November through February.

Vedanthangal llustrates all too well the imminent ecological and social dangers to our planet and ourselves. How fragile we are, situated as societies and as humans living on this earth, something clearly indicated by the possibilities here of bird flu, of avian influenza, through these trans-continental vectors who journey between South India and Siberia or Central Asia. That pandemic, when it comes, will effectively halt numerous activities we now take for granted such as international travel and trade, these minglings and mobilities of human beings so essential to who we are in the 21st Century. I remember what someone has told me about those moving in the world today. Last year between 250 and 300 million people were on the move around the planet.

We leave Vedanthangal and after 10 or 15 minutes of driving my eye catches large, milling crowds around a railway station, all of them dressed in red saris or red kurtas. Ananta explains that this is a temple to another ‘Amma’. There are so many Ammas in India! So many Mothers! This temple is aimed at and maintained by women, who are the caretakers and administrators for a new religion centered around the preachings of a man who has had visions of the duality of human beings and of his own trans-sexuality. He is a She. She is a He.

The key mantra is Om Shakti Adi Parashakti Om: Behold the Spirit of Duality and the Power of Female Energy. We are taken deep into the temple, to the sanctum sanctorum, by a woman volunteer from Chennai, who explains to us the significance of what we are seeing and experiencing, given darshan, a look at the deity, and presented with Prasad, which is in the form of lingam, and blessed offerings of sacred ash, limes, neem leaves, sacred water, and flowers. We are told we have come on an auspicious day, Thaipusam, and that this evening there will be 100,000 devotees coming to the temple.

We then travel the remaining 70 kilometers to Pondicherry. There is a clear increase in trees and other green vegetation as we approach the city, passing through the utopian community of Auroville.

Pondi, as the locals call it, is a former French colony, the place where the French tried to compete, unsuccessfully, with the British for control of India in the 1700s and 1800s. The French presence is unmistakable as we enter the city, the broad avenues, the policemen in kepis, and the many signs in French signaling a different space and different place in India. We locate a restaurant by the sea serving “French food,” which means anything outside the main menu of South Indian and North Indian food. Dishes like fried idly, chili paratha, and other non-mainstream cuisine, being Other, come closest to being French, even for the people here in this former French colony.

The beach promenade on top of the breakwall, which prevented the tsunami from causing much damage to Pondicherry, provides us with a pleasant interlude after lunch as we walk to the large bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi after lunch. Sumanta and John have a great time chasing one another, with Sumanta trying to get John to catch him, running along the sea wall and promenade. We then look for a hotel room for John and Ananta, who are staying over to see friends at Auroville the next morning while Sushuma and Sumanta go back to Chennai. After we find a place for them to stay in the city proper we go back to the old town and to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Entering the Ashram garden we approach the Samadhi, the resting place of Aurobindo and the Mother, which is covered with a profusion of flowers of all kinds. A number of people have their hands resting on the Samadhi, touching the flowers with their outstretched arms as their heads are bowed in prayer towards the tomb. We, too, touch the spirit of the Mother and Aurobindo, whose writings, hope, and optimism for the future have inspired so many. A quiet time. We notice, too, the many people sitting in meditation surrounding the Samadhi in the garden, a luxuriant spread of foliage framing everyone, the fragrance of roses, frangipani, jasmine, and other flowers.

We leave the Garden and the Samadhi in peace, feeling the powerful vibrations of joy and love which the Mother and Aurobindo conveyed to so many people. So much like another Amma and Appa who are so close to the people and in different ways. We search for the car, and I say my goodbyes to Ananta, John, Sumanta, and Sushuma a little after 4 pm.

Muthu, my driver, has been a little impatient with all the stops, starts, and going around as he thought he had a simple up/down trip to Thanjavur, but I know he will be happy with the end result. He has been a pleasant enough driver, accommodating us, and will get his reward. He also knows, like all of us, that nothing happens as one might expect in India. We journey south from Pondicherry through the countryside of the lush Cauvery River delta, and through the towns of Cuddalore, Chidambaram (home to the Nataraj, the dancing Shiva), Sirkazhi, Mayiladthurai, Kumbakonam, and then Thanjavur, stopping only once, to get Muthu a tea to help him with the crazy driving. It is a distance of perhaps 200 kms and it takes us 5 1/2 hours, what with the state of the roads, the dodging of goats, cows, people, trucks, busses, rickshaws, on and on! We reach Thanjavur at around 9:30. I check in to the hotel, Hotel Gnaam, and pay Muthu.

Sekar, my brother the last 36 years, his wife Vidya and the University of Wisconsin students magically appear. Ah,timing. They have had their dinner, but I am starving, so they take me to the restaurant in the hotel, which is excellent. Ah, masala dosai, kootu paratha, and lime juice. And, after some searching by the staff, gulab jamun. The jamun was a mistake. I am revived enough to stay up until one am talking with my roommate Professor Venkataraman, Professor V, about the art of the Cholas, the Khmers, the Borobudur, and Angkor Wat. A special day. Om Shanti Om.


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