A Pilgrimage to Babaji’s Cave (2015)

himalayas, kausani

A few weeks before my trip to Uttarakhand, I had the strangest of thoughts: ‘What if I never come back?’

Crazy ideas are nothing new to me and I mentally prepared for living in the mountains. Maybe I’ll work at the tea shop at Kukuchina. I decided to take with me some very important books having in mind that I may never come back: Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and of course, Autobiography of a Yogi. I take AY with me on all pilgrimages.  And as an afterthought, I also decided to add a copy of  Self Hindi Teacher  (a book that I had bought in 2013, but never got past the introduction) to this mix. After I packed my bags I realized that I did not have enough room for my big three-volume-in-one Lord of the Rings paperback. If travel has taught me anything, it is that 500+ page paperbacks are not good travelers (unless you have adequate space to secure them) and this one was a 1100+ page paperback. Reluctantly, I decided against bringing these JRR Tolkien gems as my luggage was already heavy, and also because I did not want any dog-ear or dent on my “precious” books.

This was my second trip to Babaji’s cave. I had previously visited the cave in November last year and the thought of revisiting the cave had occurred to me while I was still at Dronagiri mountain last year.

I hope Babaji would  permit me to visit his cave again sometime next year. Babaji is calling me back, and I have to go! Aum Babaji!

This was how I had ended the post that I wrote detailing my experiences there last year. Thank you, Babaji, for bestowing this great blessing upon me!

The Pilgrimage begins

The train journey from Delhi to Hardiwar in the morning was a bit dull. I meditated a few minutes, and thinking about it now, I can say that Babaji was with me right there on the train. Of course, he’s always with us, but I felt something that I hadn’t before. This pilgrimage to Babaji’s cave was more of a quest to me. I had a question in my mind and I was intent on getting the answer. During my last trip, I traveled with about 45 people and I was so excited and happy. Perhaps that excitement was a bit too much, considering the fact that it was a pilgrimage and not a sightseeing holiday tour. This time I traveled with just three people — Prem, my Ananda brother disciple and friend, and two of Prem’s friends and ex-colleagues — Satish and Balaji. Both were interesting personalities; Satish is an expert in the Israeli martial art “Krav Maga” and Balaji is a techie and a science-fiction aficionado. I was more inward than the last time and I think that this small company I was with helped me focus more on my “quest”.

At Haridwar, we were received by our Ananda friend, Mahavir and his driver Sanjay. As soon I got down from the train and saw the warm smiling face of Mahavir ji, I hugged him. He was the guide of our tour and he had organised everything for us. During my previous pilgrimage to the cave, Mahavir ji had told me of his divine experience of seeing Babaji himself! Throughout the trip, he took complete care of us. He made sure we had our food on time, if the geyser in our room worked, supplied us with “Hajmola” candies periodically to help us with motion sickness, took photographs for us, arranged pujas for us, made sure we meditated enough, and the list goes on. He was like our guardian angel.

We piled into his car, a Mahindra Xylo, which for the next five days took us to various scenic locations. Our first stop was at an area called Kankhal. Here we visited Anandamayi ma’s final resting place and we spent some time meditating there. This was followed by a quick visit to the Daksheswara Mahadev temple. It is said that this temple was built at the same spot where Goddess Sati jumped into the ritual fire to protest against her father, King Daksha Prajapati, for not inviting her consort, God Shiva, to the ritual. After this, we stopped at the ashram of Swami Keshavanda. Here we also found the samadhi of the great saint, Lahiri Mahasaya. Within the premises of the ashram is a rudraksha tree. We learnt that Swami Keshavananda himself had planted this tree with the ashes of Lahiri Mahasaya. Our last stop at Haridwar was at the main bathing ghat where we had our first sight of the holy Ganga river.

After travelling for about 25 km from Haridwar, we reached the holy town of Rishikesh and by 03:25 PM, we were in our hotel Tapovan. Mahavir ji gave us about two hours time to relax before we could leave to experience the beautiful view of river Ganga from the iconic suspension bridge, Lakshman Jhula,  and to witness the Ganga arti. Rishikesh is a picturesque, charming town with its shop-lined streets and sadhus. There were so many foreigners from all over the world and the local shops catered to their needs. I came across a small bookshop that sold books in many languages; I even saw a book on Mahavatar Babaji in the Russian language. Walking in these streets, absorbing the sights and sounds of Rishikesh was such a joy. Wouldn’t it be great if I could live here? I thought often. Judging by the various advertisements I saw there, it seems Rishikesh was also happy to teach one a lot of things — at a spa, you can also take a course on becoming a masseur; at a bakery, one can also learn to bake, and of course, there are innumerous centres to teach you yoga. We traveled alongside the banks of Ganga and finally reached the place of arti at about 6 PM. A large group of people, both local and foreign, had gathered on the steps that lead to Ganga and chanting had begun. The whole place was energetic as a black-bearded sadhu sang devotional songs. This was followed by songs from an Israeli band on the general theme of world peace. The crowd loved every minute of the wonderful performance. Mahavir ji said that we were really lucky as such bands don’t perform at the arti often. As I stood there taking photos of the blissful event, I saw people passing large lamps to one another and suddenly someone thrust a lamp onto my hands. As I stood there dumbfounded wondering if I should be rotating it in circles as I saw some priests do there or if only priests could do such a thing, a group of people gathered around me and started praying. Much to my relief, someone took the lamp out of my hands and it was passed on.

ganga arti

Ganga arti at the banks of Ganga

Towards Devpryag

The next morning, we vacated our rooms and drove towards Devpryag — the place where rivers Bhagirathi and Alaknanda meet to form the mighty Ganga. On the way we stopped to mediate in a cave called Vashista cave which is located on the banks of Ganga. As the name suggests, this is the cave where the great sage Vashistar meditated. It is now maintained by Swami Purshottamanand Trust. We meditated in this cave for about 40 minutes and then we went to the banks of Ganga. The sand on the banks was the softest that my bare soles have ever touched and I loved walking bare-footed on it. Soon the sand gave way to smooth rounded rocks of light grey colour of various sizes. Prem, Balaji and Satish were each sitting on a rock or standing alone enjoying the view of the vast expanse of the river when I went there.  The whole place was an island of peace and calmness without any other people in sight. The bluish-green expanse of water flowed smoothly and we were surrounded by green hills on all sides. We sat there for sometime letting in the serenity and meditated for a few minutes.

A disciple of Swami Purshottamanand, Swami Chaitanya Nanda, lives near the cave and I followed Mahavir ji into his room. He was bedridden due to a hip injury. I stood near the foot of his bed, hearing a flurry of Hindi words flying around me (I do not understand Hindi). Swami ji was talking with Mahavir ji and another person who was sitting at one corner of the room. Soon Prem, Satish and Balaji joined us. Swami ji then looked at me.

“Are you Tamil?” He said these words in Tamil

Gears whirred inside my head for a moment to adjust to this new language. “Yes!” I said looking at him with a big grin.

“I am a Malayali, so I can speak little Tamil,” he said looking at my quizzical face.

“Rajinikanth comes here every year,” he said.

It seems like one cannot visit Babaji’s cave or any other cave in the Himalayas without hearing Rajinikanth’s name. To quote myself from my last year’s post on Babaji’s cave:

It was amazing how Rajini’s name kept coming up throughout the trip.

But Rajinikanth wasn’t done yet.

I touched Swami ji’s feet in reverence and we left after receiving some chocolates from him.

At Devpryag, we walked down a flight of big stairs to reach the point of confluence without any idea that  Mahavir ji had arranged a puja for us. He took multiple photos of us as we performed the puja.

Our next stop was Kamleshwar Mahadev Mandir in Srinagar. It is said that Lord Vishnu received his Sudarshan chakra, a spinning disk-like weapon, from Lord Shiva here. Mahavir ji told us that married woman who wish to have babies come here to pray, and that he himself was born only after his mother had prayed at this temple many years ago.

We soon left this place and traveled alongside the Alaknanda river; the altitude of our path gradually became higher and higher. Towards the evening, Mahavir ji stopped the car and said that the view was good for photographs. Indeed!

sunset

River Alaknanda

He pointed to a distant structure that was close to the Alaknanda river and said that that was the place where the Dhari Devi temple was located. He said that the temple housed the head of Dhari Devi, a manifestation of Goddess Kali. In 2013, a hydel project was being constructed around this place, and with the required approval, the head of the Goddess was relocated on June 16, 2013. Shortly afterwards, the cloudburst happened. Dhari Devi is considered to be the guardian deity of Uttarakhand. The 330 MW hydel project now lies in ruins.

As per our original plan, we were to end the second day at Dwarahat and stay in a hotel there. But we had taken our time at Vashista cave and now we were travelling along valleys and mountains in the dark without knowing where to stay. “Babaji will show us,” Mahavir ji said raising his arms above.

He did and it was also a special place.

Shri Krishna Palace in Karanprayag (aka Karnaprayag) was our place of stay for the night. In walked the six of us (the four of us + Mahavir ji + Sanjay). There, at the reception desk, something caught our attention. We saw a photo of Rajinikanth standing with three other people and one of them was standing right in front of us; he was the owner of the hotel. Upon questioning, the landlord said that Rajinikanth usually stays in his hotel, for the past three years, before going to Babaji’s cave. He was all praise for Rajini’s humbleness and simplicity. Mahavir ji turned to us, “This was not part of our tour.”

The owner also added that he had received a phone call informing him that Rajini is coming to stay in the hotel sometime before Diwali. Suddenly we became excited. “Diwali is just four days away. What if he comes in tomorrow morning?” I asked the others. “Or we could stay here for a couple of days to see him!”

We decided to go for a walk outside. But Mahavir ji had a word of warning,” There’s a leopard on the prowl here. You have to be careful.”

“Yessss!!!!!!” I said out loud.

The thought of a leopard lurking nearby excited me to no end. What if I came face to face with one? I would do what any sane person in 2015 would do. Take out my camera and take a snap. But to my disappointment, Karanpryag seemed to be a safe town with lots of houses and shops nearby. There was no hint of any leopard.

After the walk and a sumptuous supper, the four of us were standing on a terrace that was adjacent to the dining hall of the hotel. From here we had a nice view of river Alaknanda that was running just beside our hotel. It was here that something strange happened. Three days prior to November 3, the day of our departure from Chennai, my mind played a little scene inside my head; my glasses breaking into two. This little scene annoyed me, but I decided to buy a pair of spare glasses anyway. But unfortunately I had to go to work on all those three days and I couldn’t order that extra pair as I came late from office on all those three days. But that image of glasses breaking kept playing in mind and all I could do was pray that we had a good trip. On November 5, at about 7 PM, as the four of us were standing on the terrace of our hotel, the glasses broke into two just as I had seen in my mind’s eye. But it wasn’t mine, it was Prem’s; and it happened right in front of my eyes. Luckily, Prem had an extra pair. I thanked our Guru and Babaji. The rest of the trip would have been a burden if those broken glasses were mine. This was more than intuition, it was premonition. I wish I have more control over that part of my mind. That night, we slept soundly listening to the river rush by.

The next morning, as promised, the hotel owner took us to the room where Rajinikant usually stays. The room had the best view of the river and the mountains beyond. I took the liberty of sitting on the bed there and Prem snapped a photo of me 🙂

We climb the Dronagiri Mountain

The day was the main part of the pilgrimage — Babaji’s cave! We packed our bags and set off from the hotel at about 8:45 AM after a light breakfast of toasted bread and tea. Unlike Tamil Nadu, one thing that I noted about Uttarakhand was that there is a food standard that is being maintained throughout the state. Whether it was roti or rice, or any kind of gravy or masala, it all tasted good and it almost tasted similar across all the places. The eatery might look small and even a bit dirty on the outside, and you may even think, “Do I have to eat here?” but as they say, it’s the inside that counts, and all the eateries, small or large, clean or dirty, gave us a satisfying meal. The people there know how to cook. I bet the people in Uttarakhand don’t waste time debating where food tastes good (like us in Chennai do) when they decide to eat out. Maybe they debate on which place has more varieties.

On the way to the cave we stopped at an ancient temple called Adhi Bhadri. The main deity there is Lord Vishnu. By 1:30 PM, we sped past the familiar tea shop at Kukuchina. Our car stopped in front of a path that wound up the Dronagiri mountain (aka Doonagiri or Dunagiri). This path looked different from last time and only after climbing down the mountain, I realized that there are two paths that takes us to the cave; the one that we took last year crosses a small rivulet and immediately divides into two and we have to take left. The path on the right, the path that Prem wrongly took last year, actually leads us down the mountain. It was this path that we chose for the ascent this time. We huffed and puffed up the narrow trail amidst the lush greenery all around us. By 02:15 PM, we had the cave in our sight. By this time, my mind had already played back the mistakes that I had committed last year a hundred times, and I was intent on avoiding those.

On the way to the cave, we played Ananda chants in our car and I chanted for almost two hours. I have never chanted like this in the last two years of my association with Ananda Sangha. Last year, I entered the cave wearing a green t-shirt and dark-blue jeans, but this time I wore a white shirt and light-brown pants. Last year, I had some trouble with the air-pillow that I used to sit on and meditate, but this time I folded my sweater and used it instead. Last year, I had a stiff back and I took some time to settle down after the heavy climbing; this time I took my time to climb and even did sasamgasana, a yogic posture that helps one calm the mind and breath,  inside the cave before I began meditation. Last year, I was on a vegetarian diet for almost two months before visiting the cave; I continued the diet even after the visit for more than a year before I visited the cave this time.

It worked. My meditation was deeper than last year’s. 30 minutes into the meditation, I heard the sound of snoring! Later when I came out of meditation, I found that it was an exhausted Balaji. He was happily snoring away lying on the floor of the cave. “You must be the first guy to do this here,” I told him later. But I thought that it was a very good thing to do and I myself attempted to sleep, but I wasn’t as lucky as Balaji and I got up a few minutes later. I left the cave and began to wander about the place alone. I left the track that leads to the cave, and followed a narrow trail that wound behind the cave and reached the cave’s backside. Here, I saw the remains of a ritual fire.

Mahavir ji told us that further up the mountain there was a place called Pandava Kholi. This is where the Pandavas meditated during their 12-year exile. At this spot now lies an ashram. I very much wanted to climb and visit this place, but couldn’t do so because of lack of time. As we descended from the cave, at one point, Mahavir ji pointed us to the droppings of a leopard.

After having tea at the tea shop at the base of the mountain, just like the last time, we piled into our car and started off to our hotel (or so I thought). Just 4.92 km (3.06 mi) from the Kukuchina tea shop (thanks, Google Maps), lies a hill of the Dronagiri range. Our car stopped in front of a flight of stairs that went up the hill. These concrete stairs, flanked by pine trees on both sides, are sheltered throughout its length uphill and rows upon rows of brass bells hung from the roof above.

“How long do we have to climb up?” asked Satish to Mahavir ji.

“It’s a one kilometre climb,” joked Mahavir ji. Only, it was not a joke. Minutes after climbing down from the cave, we were huffing and puffing up another hill. At the top, we were told, lies the Doonagiri temple. It is said that this is the spot were Babaji appeared under a tree before Lahari Mahasaya ji, prior to showing him his cave. The tree still exists. It was twilight by the time we reached the temple and the view from the top was marvelous. Far away from us, in an almost flat valley down below, we could see a village that was surrounded by six or seven mountains. We took some time standing there taking in this view.

It was twilight and we were in the middle of Himalayan mountains… 🙂

A view of the Greater Himalayas at last!

After traveling for more than 1.5 hours from Doonagiri temple, we reached a scenic town called Kausani. Mahavir ji told us that the view of the Greater Himalayas would be better than the one that we had in Ranikhet last year. It was already dark, and we could not see anything that night. Our rooms of our hotel Mystic Mountain had big windows and we guessed that we could see the snow-capped peaks right from the comfort of our beds.

Morning arrived, and just as we had expected, the magnificent Himalayas appeared before us. It was great to see the peaks Trishul and Nanda Devi after a gap of one year. I was so enchanted by these peaks last year that I even bought a book called The Nanda Devi affair by Bill Aitken which details the author’s Himalayan expedition (the book’s been sleeping on my bookshelf for over a year now). Needless to say, I took a number of photos of the mountain peaks from various angles as the morning sun slowly started to illuminate the peaks. By 10:24 AM, we departed from Kausani. Our destination was the Pathal Bhubaneswar cave (aka Patal Bhuvaneswar) at a village called Bhubaneswar. On the way we stopped at the Baijnath temple in a village called Baijnath and from there we passed through the towns of Bageshwar and Chaukori (2010 metre/6594 feet), climbing uphill all the time. I thought we were at the highest elevation of the entire trip so far and then Mahavir ji pointed something to us. High above us, towering the rest of the mountains, we saw the white, pyramid like peak of Nanda Devi floating above some clouds, all alone.  The rest of the peaks appeared invisible and even the rest of Nanda Devi, beneath its peak, appeared invisible. It created the illusion of a white, pyramidal peak floating in the sky.

Nanda Devi

The floating Nanda Devi

The mysterious Pathal Bhubaneswar

We finally reached the Bhubaneswar village by about 03:17 PM after traveling a distance of roughly about 85 km (52.8 mi) from Kausani. The sun was warmly shining as we got down from the car and walked towards the outer entrance of the cave. There were a few shops near this entrance and we walked past a government run hotel called KMVN Rest House. We were at an elevation of 1350 M (4429 F) and the path towards the cave curved downward a bit as it extended along the slope of a hill. Tall green coniferous trees greeted us on either side of the path and the slope of the hill cast a shadow upon as. As soon as we left the warm sunshine and entered the shadow, it started to become cold. It became colder and colder as we walked towards the cave, and I feared that it was going to be biting cold once we were inside. The immediate drop in temperature was surprising. There was a hint of mist around the trees and the place was very quiet. We had to pay to enter at the entrance of the cave and much to my disappointment,  our cameras and phones were taken away from us. There was an inscription about the cave that stated that the cave was as old as earth itself. One can read more about this ancient cave in the ancient scripture Kandha Puranam (Skandha Purana). It is said that the first human to enter this cave was King Rituparna of Surya Dynasty during the Treta yuga period and the great Serpent-god Adisesha himself guided him.

We removed our shoes and went towards the actual entrance of the cave. To our surprise, there was a very narrow tunnel like opening that went deep down somewhere.

“Pathal. Pathal is Bathalam in Tamil. It means underground,” said Balaji after the visit to the cave. “We should have realized this much earlier.”

Mahavir ji never gave us a hint of what was in store for us. All he told me the previous night at our hotel in Kausani was, “You should come and see how big Pathal Bhubaneswar is. It’s a completely natural cave and very big. Very big.”

I am glad that he didn’t spoil our surprise.

Balaji wasted no time in sliding down the narrow opening, Prem followed and I suddenly became excited. Scenes from Indiana Jones movies flashed in my mind as I crawled in feet first. “Babaji!” I shouted as I entered. I looked up and saw Satish coming in and getting out immediately. “I am claustrophobic; I can’t come”, he said.

“Satish is not coming!” I shouted down to the others. There was an iron chain running along the length of the tunnel for support. It was slippery and a small misstep could easily break a bone or two. I could see Prem’s head go around a bend and disappear. Mahavir ji was right above me and I felt safe. To be truthful, I would never dive into such a cave if I am to go alone. Suddenly it occurred to me and I voiced it aloud, “How are we supposed to go outside?”

“The same way we came in.” Balaji’s voice sounded somewhere from below with a hint of sarcasm. The thought mildly scared me as it was going to be a steep climb. The image of me getting stuck in this narrow cave and shouting for help haunted me for a few seconds. But I looked up and saw Mahavir ji.

The tunnel opened up and we soon found ourselves on even ground in a much larger space. The cave was cold and damp, but not as much as it was on the outside. The priest, who also acted as the guide of the cave, was waiting for us at the bottom of the tunnel. And to our surprise, Satish climbed down as well. He later told us that he had attempted to enter thrice and only on the third attempt he overcame his fear.

The cave was full of stalagmites and stalactites in strange shapes. To the left of the entrance there was a strange formation that resembled a five-headed serpent. Our guide explained that it was the Sheeshnag or Adishesha (the snake that is used by Lord Vishnu to rest). On one side of the cave’s wall, we saw what looked like fossilized snake-skin and throughout the length of the cave there was a marking that looked as though a giant snake had crawled right through. And then it dawned upon me — the whole place was like a giant snake’s lair! The thing is, I may not have claustrophobia, but I do have a little bit of “snakophobia”. And to make matters worse, right in the middle of the cave was an ant-hill (snakes, especially cobras, love to hang out in ant-hills). But my fear of snakes was not as bad as that of Indiana Jones or Rajinikanth. And so I marched into the slippery cave. There were curious objects and alcoves all around and each had a meaning and history associated with it. The cave further branches of into four other caves in four different directions and due to low oxygen levels, visitors are not allowed inside those narrow caves. The priest who accompanied us said that each of those caves would take us to four holy places — Badrinath, Manasarovar lake, Dwarka, and Rameswaram! The cave branches and subbranches a lot and it has not been completely explored. It is also believed that Pandavas meditated here and in the year 1191 AD Adi Shankaracharya had visited and sanctified this cave.

Towards the end of the tour, I asked the priest to allow us to meditate for five minutes. He didn’t understand English and Mahavir ji explained. But he gave us just two minutes. Mahavir ji, our guide and guardian angel, then spoke to him  and got us the five minutes that I asked for. As soon as I sat down and closed my eyes, I saw the image of a cobra hissing and pouncing towards my face to bite me. The human mind is capable of playing so many tricks.

Once we were outside, I wanted to take a photo with the kind earnest-looking priest who had patiently explained everything about the cave. I went to him and had a hilarious conversation with the little Hindi that I know. Tumhara naam kya hey? (What’s your name?) — this is what I wanted to say to him; but instead I confused the words and said something else.

Mera naam?” I asked him thinking that I was asking his name.

He looked at me expecting me to say my name and I looked at him expecting him to say his name. A few seconds passed as we deeply looked into each other’s eyes. And then it occurred to me.

“I mean…Tumhara naam?” I corrected myself.

“Kedar Singh Bhandari.”

Mera Nepolean.” I quickly recollected from the inscription that the cave was being taken care by the Bhandari family for the past 18 generations. “Oh you’re from that Bhandari family!”

He nodded smiling. He then asked me to enter the cave so that he could take a photo of me which was very sweet of him.

Satish, Balaji, and Prem, who were silently watching this conversation poked fun at me after the little photo session ended. Satish had a new name for me, “From now on your name is Baba. Mera-naam-baba!”

It was decided that that night we were to stay at the KMVN hotel which was just a few metres away from the cave. One could actually see the cave’s entrance from the entrance of this hotel. We had a lovely view of the Greater Himalayan peaks from there.

Wikipedia quotes the Skanda Purana as follows:

“He who wants to feel the presence of eternal power should come to the sacred Bhuvneshwar situated near the confluence of Ramganga, Sarayu and Gupt-Ganga.”
-Manaskhanda, Skandapuran

I felt the vibrations of this cave to be very powerful. If you decide to visit this cave, then I strongly advice you to stay in this hotel for the night and meditate to feel the cave’s powerful vibrations. I feel so blessed and lucky to have visited this wonderful place.

That night, Mahavir ji took us to an ancient Kali temple that was just a 2-minute walk from our hotel, and near to this hotel lives a monk in a hut. Smoke emanated from the embers of a dying fire in the middle of the single-room hut, as we entered and seated ourselves on the floor opposite to him. Mahavir ji asked the monk about the history of the cave and monk began to weave an ancient story in Hindi, that Mahavir ji and Balaji translated to me. Smoking a cigar, he said that he had given up his life as a trader and had chosen the life of a monk.

As we left the warmth of his hut and came out, the monk came out half-running to us. “You have forgotten this,” he said to me and gave me back my woolen cap.

“Shukriya (thank you),” I said.

“Thanyawadh (thank you),” the monk corrected me.

Although both the words mean the same and are used interchangeably, Balaji explained to me that “thanyawadh” is a proper Hindi word and “shukriya” is an Urdu word.

That night, I felt the powerful vibrations of the cave as I meditated deeply in my room. The sound of the Himalayan silence still reverberates in my ears.

The next morning, after seeing so many people take upon the ALS Ice bucket challenge, it was in this hotel that Prem and I finally accepted this challenge (in spite of no one challenging us) and bathed in icy cold water (because our room’s geyser did not work).

The final day of the pilgrimage

On the final day we were to reach the Kathgodam railway station and from there we were to travel to Delhi. On the way we stopped at the ancient Jageshwar temple at a town called Jageshwar Dham. Here I did a puja to the Shiva-lingam as the temple priest stood nearby chanting Sanskrit incantations. The last time I did something similar was when I was seven years old. I had a small Shiva-lingam that my father had bought me near the Thiruchendur temple in Tamil Nadu, and as a child I performed what I called “puja” to the Lingam by pouring water on top of it. After all these years this pilgrimage provided me the opportunity to do a Shiva puja. I found out that in North India people are allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum (garbhagreham) and are even allowed to touch the idols of Gods. I was ACTUALLY allowed to perform a puja as the priest chanted Sanskrit incantations standing nearby. In the South, needless to say, it’s a complete disgrace.

Later, we visited the Golu Devtha temple and also stopped at the Kainchi Dham Neem Karoli Baba ashram.

                                                              *************************

Pilgrimages are such beautiful journeys that each devotee should go on at least once a year. I feel that this pilgrimage has altered me in a different way than the previous ones. I feel more inward and spiritual after this trip. There are going to be some people who say stuff like “pilgrimages are useless as God is within each of us” or “Babaji himself said that he is with us always and there is no need to go and visit his cave” or something similar. But pay no attention to such advice as these are what I call “truthful useless advice”. You know, like the ones that we heard from our parents and our relatives growing up: “study hard to score good marks” or “good students are capable of studying regardless of any situation,”  and so on. Pilgrimages helps people to focus and one of the curses that we humans have is our tendency to lose focus. If all of us could focus and concentrate at will, we would all be Albert Einsteins or we would all have realized God by now.

In the beginning of this post I had stated that this pilgrimage was more of a quest to me as I was seeking an answer to a question. The question still lies unanswered, but what Babaji has given me now is new strength.

I would like to thank Mahavir ji for making this trip such a successful one. He is such a great soul. Thank you, Mahavir ji! Thank you Prem, for being my room-mate for the third time. I loved meditating with you and doing those energization exercises. Thank you, Satish and Balaji for being such wonderful companions and for travelling in the back-seat of the car for such a long time in spite of feeling nauseous. I feel grateful for that and even a bit guilty for not equally sharing your burden.

Thank you, my Guru and Mahavatar Babaji, for this wonderful pilgrimage and for your blessings! Aum Guru! Aum Babaji!

babaji cave

Babaji’s cave

My account of last year’s pilgrimage to Babaji’s cave can be read here.

A Short Gallery of our Trip (click to enlarge and cycle through the photos using the arrow keys)

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A Pilgrimage to Babaji’s Cave

A Pilgrimage to Babaji’s Cave

The Himalayas always held a special place in my mind since my childhood. The very first time that my mind’s eye roamed around those regions was when as a little kid I read in school about the Tamil King Imayavaramban Neduncheralathan’s [328-270 B.C] invasion of the North. This Chera dynasty king is said to have invaded the northern part of India, right up to the Himalayas, and inscribed his kingdom’s flag — a bow and arrow — on a Himalayan mountain. I was greatly fascinated by this story and I often day dreamed a lot of that invasion during my school days. In my mind, I always saw someone sculpting the bow and arrow on a rocky, snow clad mountain peak with snow all around. It wasn’t until 10th standard that I altered that imagination when I learnt in my Geography class that the Himalayan mountain range, is not just one range as I had imagined, but three major ranges – the Greater or Upper Himalayan range, the Middle Himalayas, and the Sivalik (or Shivalik) range. There is a good chance that the flag was sculpted at the base of a smaller mountain of the Sivalik range and not at the top of a Mt.Everest like peak. Maybe, that mountain stands on the state of the present day Uttarakhand. Maybe, I have that mountain in one of my many photos that I took in the last few days. And no, I don’t think I can set out on an archaeological expedition and dug through heaps and heaps of snow to uncover that emblem as my wild mind had envisioned back in school.

The Road to the Great Misty Mountains of the North

It was during the month of May that I received an email from Keshava ji (Spiritual Co-Director of Ananda Delhi) about a pilgrimage in November to Babaji’s cave in the Himalayas. I was thrilled. I filled up the application form, applied leave, paid the initial amount of money, marked the approval mail from manager in red and saved it for future reference, and decided firmly that I was going on this trip. Babaji’s cave! I googled these words and the first image that I saw was of Rajnikant smiling at the camera from a narrow opening of a cave. Although I had the thought of visiting the Himalayas at some point in my life, the thought was part of that dark region of the brain where one stores one’s To-Do list that always remains To-Do till the end. “Nainital? Darjeeling? Shimla? Tibet? Kashmir? yeah, some day…some day,” I told myself. Now everything seems possible.

I later learnt the names of some of my friends from Ananda Chennai who had planned to come on this trip. Sharmila, Mary, Agnel, Rajesh, Prasanna, Sundararajan, Sairam, Mahendran, Ashvini, Karthik…and the names went on and I was overjoyed to have all these wonderful people with me on the trip. But only days before the journey did I know that a total of 28 people from Chennai alone were coming on this trip. The more the merrier! We also had people from Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Kolkatta, and the US joining us, and totally we were a large group of 45 people. The plan was to take a flight from Chennai to Delhi, where we would meet up with all the others, and from there travel as a single group to Kathgodam via the Anand Vihar-Kathgodam Shatabdi train. At the Kathgodam railway station, we were to be picked up by two pre-booked buses that would take us to Ranikhet.

Babaji’s cave trip begins at Egmore, Chennai

November 6th was the day of the travel and I happily left home with my luggage to Sundararajan’s office at Egmore. He had graciously offered to pick me up in his car if I could come to his office and that is what I did. I reached his office by 1:40 PM and we talked for sometime about his office affairs. I sensed that the pilgrimage had already begun! I was starting to get excited. I had an urge to take a snap of him sitting on his chair with his hands clasped in front of a large world map. I controlled myself as my hand felt the camera in my belt pouch. “I am snapping one too many photos, I should control myself,” I told myself. But all that self-restraint or even the thought of self-restraint disappeared completely when I met with the others at the airport. Unlike the Pune trip, where I had only Sundararajan for company while snapping photos, this time there was Mary and Karthik who were only too happy to take photos and to pose for photos. Partners in crime! I was really pleased that Sharmila could come this time as she had narrowly missed out on the Pune trip. A lot of photos were taken from the moment we entered the airport, and throughout the boarding process, boarding the flight, in mid-air, and until everyone said “Bye, bye,” to each other at the Chennai airport on November 10th.

The flight to Delhi was lots of fun. At a height of 37,000 feet above the ground, we were flanked by the sun and the moon at the same time as we progressed towards the capital of India. By the time we reached the Delhi airport it was 8 PM. We boarded a small bus that took us to a Metro train station where more snaps followed and a warning from a security guard that my camera will be confiscated if I take any more photos inside the train. And since the warning was for only my camera, the others merrily took out theirs and snapped away in spite of the repeated cautioning by Prasanna. My camera lay sulking inside its pouch as we reached the final station. It was during this time that I first spoke to Sanjivi ji whom I had never met before.

“Are you a Kriyaban (practitioner of Kriya yoga)?” I asked him.
“What do you mean?” he retorted. “Can you not tell that by the glow in my eyes?”

During the course of the next few days I often wondered if he was deliberately being funny or if he doesn’t really know that he’s being funny. Either way, everybody loved it when he explained his point of view of things.

We were to stay at Ginger hotel which was located just opposite the station. We walked across the road, checked in, and directly dived into the dining area. It was a scene of total confusion as everyone thrusted Ruppee notes onto the face of a bewildered cashier and ordered food. The guy said something in Hindi and I didn’t understand a single word, but I did understand its overall meaning, “One at a time, please!”

After a heavy dinner I headed back to my room which I shared with our contingent’s captain Ilango. He was at a desk preparing battle plans for his troop movement the next day. Early next morning, I woke up at 3:10 AM after sleeping for just 3.5 hours. This was also the case with the others and we all piled into the cabs that Ilango and Karthik had booked for us the previous night. The cabs reached the Anand Vihar railway station and after a hot cup of coffee that tasted like tea, the rest of the pilgrims including Dharmarajan Sir, Dharmini Ma’am, Jyotish ji, Devi ji, Keshav ji and Daya ji joined us. The Anand Vihar-Kathgodam Shatabdi was boarded and the train left the station at 6:15 AM. The whole train ride was a joyous one. Everybody wanted to take a photo with Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi and they kindly obliged to all the requests. Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini Ma’am talked to us for sometime and they stressed the importance of the trip that we were part of and the blessings that were coming our way. “This is a magical moment,” said Dharmarajan ji with a twinkle in his eyes. I absorbed his words and replayed it in my mind. My heart was warm and I felt very happy to be in the company of such great people. The Ananda choir then came to the fore and they sung a few beautiful songs for Jyotish ji and Devi ji.

The train reached the Kathgodam railway station by 11:30 AM and as we got out of the station and turned right, a huge hill stood in front of us. The image excited me. Our buses were waiting for us and I made sure that I got into same bus as Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am. They sat at the front seats behind the driver and I occupied a window seat two rows behind them. Sharmila sat beside me.

“I’ve finally seen the Himalayan hills!” I kept saying to myself. “I am blessed! I am actually a lucky person and I know it!”

Located at the foothills of the Kumoan Himalayas, Kathgodam is 554 metres (1,483 feet) above the sea level. As our buses started toward Ranikhet I took out my camera and clicked many photos. We rode alongside the beautiful Gaula river and at times crossed over it. Our road twisted and turned through the towering mountains and the altitude kept increasing. After a short while, we came across a vast, green lake called the Naukluchiatal lake (lake of nine corners) and a lot of cameras worked overtime. We then passed the picturesque towns of Bhimtal, Bhowali of Nainital, and Kainchidham. We stopped at Kainchidham and Daya ji announced that we were to quickly have our lunch and visit the Baba Neem Karoli ashram and come back within a short span. I think she gave us 45 minutes. So we crowded around the two small shops that offered us hot pakoda, Chappati, Aloo Paratha, and tea.

The Baba Neem Karoli ashram is located on the banks of a stream called Uttara Vahini (or Uttara Vaani) and is surrounded by the Bhowali mountains.

After a heavy lunch I walked to the ashram which was located right next to these shops. I climbed down a small set of stairs, crossed a short bridge that ran across the Uttara Vahini and reached the ashram entrance. The climate was very cool and pleasant. Visitors were to remove their foot wear before entering the premises. As I, along with Agnel, Mahendran, and Indu were removing our shoes, Sanjivi, our fellow Ananda Chennai pilgrim who was already done with his ashram visit, suggested that we remove our socks as well to enjoy the coolness of the place. He was right. I loved every minute of walking on the cold ashram floor bare footed. I’ve had a similar experience on the cold floor of a temple located at Thalacauvery, Coorg, Karnataka. Along with the others, I meditated for a few minutes at the lovely ashram.

At Ranikhet

Later that evening, we bumped along all the hair-pin bends and finally reached Ranikhet, a military cantonment. This beautiful town is located at an altitude of 1869 metres above sea level and from here one gets a good view of some of the towering peaks of the Greater Himalayas. As our bus turned a corner, Dharmarajan sir pointed us towards these snow clad peaks. We were over joyed and excited. Snow! Snowy mountains! Never have I seen such a spectacle. The feeling of gratitude returned strongly. The only thing that remains now is to touch these mountains and play in the snow. Our buses stopped near our resort Woodsvilla after about four hours of travel from Kathgodam.

As we entered the fantastic resort with its magical view of the Himalayas, I was dazed for sometime and then excitement engulfed me.

“I am blessed! I am blessed” I repeatedly uttered these words and patted myself on my back. Meri from California, who was standing next to me chuckled at my antics. She had come all the way from the US to visit Babaji’s caves. Each of our rooms had a view of the Himalayan peaks. The highest of these peaks is the Nanda Devi West (7816 m), this is followed by Nanda Devi East (7434 m), and the beautiful three-pointed Trishul (7120 m). These peaks are flanked by other majestic peaks like the Nanda Ghunti, Mrigthuni, Maiktoli, etc.

I love hill stations and this was certainly not the first time that I was visiting one. In the last three years, I’ve visited three hill stations, all located on the Western Ghats, and every time I visited one I was overjoyed. But there was a remarkable difference in the way I enjoyed those Western Ghat hill stations and this Himalayan one. Along with joy, I felt gratitude and the feeling that I was blessed.

From the entrance of the resort, we walked downwards on a stone flagged path towards the resort’s front desk. From there, another small flight of stairs took us down to a terrace which was flanked by a beautiful dining hall complete with a fireplace that one rarely sees in India. From this terrace, and the balcony in front of the dining hall, we marveled at the majestic peaks. To sit on one of the tables on the balcony and sip a cup of tea with this view, is a blessing in itself. Behind the dining hall a sloping path led us further down to our various rooms.

After a while we assembled at a room, located directly beneath the dining hall, for a satsang. We sat in a large circle and every one of us shared our thoughts of the trip. Some of us from Chennai recounted how the Rajinikanth movie Baba was responsible for them to join this path. It was amazing how Rajini’s name kept coming up throughout the trip. Keshava ji and Daya ji then instructed us about the trip to the cave the next day. After a wonderful dinner we retired back to our rooms for the night. Prem was my room mate.

The next morning I woke up at 4:50 AM, bathed, and hurriedly got dressed as I wanted to enjoy the early morning time. I stepped outside my room and found no one about. It was a beautiful morning and a bright full moon welcomed me. I rushed upstairs to the terrace of our building and breathed in deeply the Himalayan air. Below me lay sprawled a vast valley and many many mountains. It was pitch black and the lights from the villages in the valley looked like little galaxies in the vast outer space. This was too much joy and I couldn’t contain myself. I raced downstairs and seeing that no one was about I started jumping and dancing in the darkness. But there was one witness and it was Meri. My dancing came to an abrupt end.

“Good morning, Meri!” I said to her.
“Good morning, Nepolean,” she said smiling and she mimicked my dance. “It’s a wonderful morning, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is!” I said.

She hugged me and said that I was her best friend. It was a very sweet moment.

We then walked upstairs to the terrace near the dining hall for our Energization exercises. At about 5:55 AM I saw something move in the dark sky. It looked like a star but it was moving in a straight line towards the greater Himalayan peaks. I started filming it and called Meri and pointed it to her. Thoughts of UFOs and aliens came to my mind.

“Is that an aircraft?” I asked Meri.
“Aircrafts have blinking lights, that could be a satellite,” said Meri sensibly.
“Or maybe a UFO,” I joked.
“Babaji!” whispered Meri.

If it was a UFO, then it’s only my second sighting. Maybe this was a satellite as Meri suggested. Even if it was, no one could dispel my first sighting. It was many, many years ago and I was at the terrace of my house in Chennai. As I sat there star gazing, as I sometimes do, I spotted a moving star. It moved much faster than the Himalayan one and it suddenly stopped and changed course completely. It did a sharp right turn and then a left turn. No man made aircraft/spacecraft or a heavenly body could do that. Within seconds, the star went hyperdrive and vanished completely.
I rushed downstairs to share my “UFO news” with someone and I ran into Jyotish ji and Devi ji.

“I spotted a UFO!” I blurted out. “It looked like a star, but it kept moving and it didn’t look like an aircraft or a comet.”
“It could have been a satellite,” said Jyotish ji.
“Or a UFO!” said Devi ji with a smile.
“Yes, it could be a UFO,” agreed Jyotish ji. “It’s interesting that way.”

Later, Dharmarajan ji led the Energization exercises and  after a delicious breakfast, we piled into our buses.

Trekking up towards the cave

Our buses wound further up through the mountains. We sped past small villages and saw school boys and girls trekking their way to school. They stopped and gazed at our two white buses and I looked at their faces thinking about the stories of Babaji in which he had appeared as a little boy. The sun was out in its full glory and warmed me up enough to remove my sweater. Our buses stopped at a point from which we had a good view of the Greater Himalayas. After a short break there, we further traveled and reached Kukuchina, the place from which we had to trek to Babaji’s cave located on the Dronagiri mountain.

Both Keshavaji and Jyotish ji climbed a small mound and the rest of us stood around them. Keshava ji gave us further instructions.

“Take your own time as you climb up,” he said. “We have all the time that we need.”
“You can rent walking sticks from a women who lives further up this path, but on the way back if she invites you for tea, do not accept. We’ve had problems in the past.”

Witches from Hansel and Gretel and other fairy stories flashed in my mind for a second. Did I just hear the classic dire warning of not to eat from a witch’s household? But I am sure that the past problems were nothing sinister of the kind that I imagined.

We prayed together before our departure to the cave. And then the most exciting part of pilgrimage started — the trek towards the cave! We took a dirt road that led us to the Dronagiri mountain. I saw the women and her hut as we began our ascent; she looked like a kind person and nothing like the witch that I had imagined (but isn’t that how witches lure you in? with a kind face that melts your heart?) She had a cute dog that followed us all the way to the top and then to the bottom.

We huffed and puffed upwards and I occasionally stopped to catch my breath and to let the beauty around me to sink in. I chanted Babaji’s name as I climbed higher and higher. On the way I came a across a rivulet from which I drank some water. At this point, the path split into two and I didn’t know which way to take. Ahead of me, I saw Prem taking the path on the right. As I stood there, Jyotish ji and Devi ji, along with Prasanna and a few others joined me. No one knew which was the right path.
“I’ll scout ahead and try to find the correct way,” I said to the others and ran on the path that Prem took to see if I can find the others who had traveled ahead of him. I saw him, but I was unable to find the others. I ran back to the others and I saw Keshava ji down below us. He pointed us to take the path on the left side. I shouted back to Prem and he came back to join us. All the running had me gasping for breath. From that point, I started to climb slowly. The winding path went up and up and after almost an hour of trekking we came across a locked cottage that had been built by the YSS (Yogoda Satsanga Society). The cave was just a few meters above this building and was out of view. Daya ji counted the people who had arrived to that point so far and said that I was part of the first batch of people to meditate inside the cave. I climbed up a set of concrete stairs and on the left I saw the cave. The entrance of the cave had been reinforced with concrete and was gated. The cave itself was small and could accommodate only about 10 or 11 people at a time. A brick wall that was part of the back side of the cave made me wonder if the wall cut us off from an extension of the cave that went deep down somewhere. I had brought with me to the cave, a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, the book that I had bought a year ago from the hands of my friend Mary, and also a small picture of my Guru Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda. This picture had been gifted to all of us at the Ananda Chennai center during last year’s Christmas celebrations by our beloved Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am.

I settled down to meditate with the others, but to my dismay, my meditation there wasn’t as deep as I had expected. My back was a bit stiff, and it took me some time to still random thoughts that were running amok. But I did keep still for an astonishing 45 minutes (my average meditation time is 25 minutes and once I meditated for an hour). I thought that it was just 10 minutes, but 45 minutes had passed without my knowledge. It made me question myself if I had meditated without me knowing it. But still, I felt a little disappointed. I wandered about and spent some time lying down on the sloping forest floor brooding about my experience or lack of it inside the cave. During my little wandering, I went out of the path and saw an interesting tree, beyond which the terrain sloped more steeply downwards. The base of the tree had been struck and split open by a lightning. The opening was large enough for a little kid to sit inside and above this the tree split into two large branches. One half of the tree was dead, with not a single leaf, and the other branch was full of leaves. It immediately reminded me of the 1960s Tamil movie Kandhan Karunai (starring Sivaji Ganesan). This movie revolves around the God of War, Lord Murugan (Lord Karthik), and his battle against the demon King Surapadman. In the climax of the movie, Surapadman’s army is crushed and the demon king runs for his life. In a final attempt to save himself, the king transforms himself into a tree. But Lord Murugan’s all seeing eye spots the tree and he throws his spear at it, ripping it into two. The tree splits evenly into two halves; one half transforms into a Peacock (like the the half of tree with all the green leaves), and the other into a Cockerel. I lay down completely at the base of this tree for sometime, and then wandered about before finding another spot to lie down again.

After about three hours, towards the evening, Jyotish ji and Devi ji blessed us all in front of the YSS cottage and then we started our descent. We had tea at a little tea shop near which our buses had been parked and by the time we reached our resort, it was time for dinner.

Heater Swami

Kriyaban Sanjivi ji had one huge question.

“How can people sleep at night in this biting cold? It only gets colder and colder at night and I kept wondering how everyone else is able to sleep.”
“Didn’t you use the heater in your room?” asked someone.
“There’s a heater in the room?”

And thus Sanjivi ji became Heater Swami from then on. We very much look forward to sharing our future pilgrimages and heaters with him.

The Last day of the pilgrimage

The next day, I woke up at about 6 AM. We had a wonderful round of  Energization exercises, led by Keshava ji, and this was followed by meditation. It was around this time that I had a chance to speak with our guide Mahavir ji, a long time member of Ananda Sangha. He recounted his tale of his meeting with Mahavatar Babaji and how he was about to begin a school for the local children there with Babaji’s blessings. It was a very touching story.

Afterwards, we had a lovely breakfast, a photo session, and finally it was time to leave. Reluctantly we bade goodbyes and left the beautiful resort. Our buses retraced its steps (or tire marks), and we stopped again at Kainchi Dham for hot pakodas and a visit to Baba Neem Karoli ashram. This time we were given a long time to meditate at the ashram and I meditated more deeply there. It was at a shop near the ashram that I surprised myself by speaking in Hindi. I had ordered for some food and as I gobbled up the tasty pakodas, I was joined by Sunderarajan ji and a few others and they ordered a few things. At the end of our meals the shop keeper approached us and sent across a flurry of Hindi words. He wasn’t sure if the items that I had ordered should be billed separately or if he had to combine everything. Some tried to explain that it was two bills, but the shop keeper did not understand. I got up and said, “Tho bills. Ek plate Chappati, ek plate pakoda, ek chai — mera bill. Kithna?”
“90 Rupees,” replied the shop keeper. With a great sense of accomplishment I left the shop after paying my bill 😉

Throughout the time that we were traveling, Dharmarajan ji and Dharmini ma’am kept us engrossed in their many stories and all the wonderful chants. Dharmarajan sir also told us about his meeting with Rajini. Later that day, we reached a hotel where we all shared our experiences, had dinner, and left to catch our train to Delhi. In the morning, the Chennai contingent parted ways with the rest of the pilgrims and reached the Delhi airport, and from there we flew back to Chennai with lots and lots of sweet memories that we would cherish for a lifetime!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Nayaswamis Dharamarajan, and Dharmini ji, Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi ji, and the Dynamic Duo Keshava ji, and Daya ji. The whole pilgrimage was a great blessing because of these great people. Thanks to each and every one of my fellow brother and sister disciples for making this tour so enjoyable. On the very same day that I visited the cave, the thought of revisiting the place occurred to me. I hope Babaji would  permit me to visit his cave again sometime next year. Babaji is calling me back, and I have to go! Aum Babaji!

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Notes and Extras

The route that we took: Delhi – Kathgodam – Bhimtal – Bhowali, Nainital – Kainchidham – Ranikhet – Kukuchina.

Babaji’s cave is located in a region called Kukuchina which is part of Kumaon. The Kumaon region comprises of both the Siwalik and Greater Himalayan mountains.

Update (26/11/2014): 

Our Captain Ilango ji has provided some useful information that he obtained using his Nokia Lumia application “Runtastic” (Runtastic is also available for Android, iOS, and Blackberry devices).

  • The total distance from the tea shop at Kukuchina to the base of the Dronagiri mountain is 1.6 km.
  • The uphill trek takes another 1.14 km. So totally one has to trek for about 2.24 km.
  • Babaji’s cave is located at an elevation of 2226 m (7303.15 feet).

A snapshot of the actual path that we took:

03 Trek-1-B

My UFO video

The little stream that flows down the Babaji-cave mountain

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A Short Gallery of our Trip (click to enlarge)

 

 

 

The Pilgrimage to Pune

More than a year ago, if someone had told me that I would go on a pilgrimage, the very notion of it would have been alien to me. Why would I go on a pilgrimage? My relationship with God always alternated between love and hate with me being very religious at one point, and then an atheist, an agnostic, a theist again…. and then there was this confusing period when I was a theist, but sided with my atheist grandfather whenever the atheism vs theism argument arose. Why did I do that? Let’s just say that my relationship status with God was complicated. But that was all in the past. We still have our differences, but we’re both working on it.

Fast forward, I am now writing this post after my first ever pilgrimage, with another one planned at the end of this year. How times change. Even this Pune trip was finalized at the very last-minute. I did not want to spend more money in addition to the large amount that I have spent on the trip planned at the year-end. But I am so glad that I went on this trip (thanks Sharmila, for helping me make my mind). I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I definitely feel that I am a more spiritual person than ever before. The chants and songs from the ashram still reverberate in my ears. I’ve been listening to the songs Dark Eyes, Life is a Dream, and others continuously  for the past few days. I’ve been sleeping and waking up to Swami Kriyananda’s “Aum”. I’ve even changed the wallpaper of my smartphone; the magnetic face of my Guru has replaced the wallpaper of Sachin Tendulkar (mostly my smartphone wallpapers alternate between Sachin Tendulkar and Superman). One certainly needs to go on pilgrimages at least twice in a year to keep the fire burning. Now I understand why people go on pilgrimages and what it means.

Day 1

On the 12th of September, Friday, I reached the Chennai International airport at about 9 AM. I waited for the rest of my friends from Ananda Sangha to join me. As I stood in front of the gates of the Domestic terminal, I scanned my thoughts. They were as dark as the clouds that hung high above me. Why? I asked myself. But I couldn’t come up with a reason. I am supposed to be happy, I am always extra happy when I go on tours. I received a call from my friend, Dr.Sharmila, and I came to know that she had to cancel her trip as her son was unwell. I did not know what to think. For a minute I even thought if I should turn back and head home.

“I did not sleep well. “

“What?”

“I did not sleep well the previous night, that is why I am not feeling good.”

My mind answered my question after a bit of a delay. “Yes, that is the reason why I am not feeling good, there is no other reason.” I tried to think happy thoughts. Shortly, Rajesh and Prasanna, followed by Manjula, Sathya Sai, Vani and her son Dr.Srinivasan joined us. Sharmila too came to send us off. Soon the others joined us and I was happy when I saw Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am getting down from a car. Sundararajan was the last to come and we went through the boarding process. I always enjoy talking to Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am and my spirits slowly rose as I talked to them. By the time I got into the plane I was excited. It was actually my first flight. Previously I’ve been to the airport only to send people off. I keenly observed each and everything and checked things off mentally to see if they matched with what I had read at first-time-flyers.com was correct. I loved it when Dharmini ma’am remarked if this could be the start of many firsts for me. The flight took off and I took umpteen number of snaps sitting next to the window. It just takes 1.5 hours to travel to Pune from Chennai and when I reached Pune it didn’t feel like I was so far away from home. I guess it was a big surprise to my time-taken-distance-covered sense or whatever they call it. I thought it would take some time to sink in, but it still hasn’t. And Pune resembling Chennai (or so it seemed to me) didn’t help either.  We waited for a few minutes and two cars arrived to pick us up. From there we went to the Ananda Sangha Center, located in an area called Bhosale Nagar. Another one of our Chennai friend, Thulasi, had already reached Pune by train and was waiting for us at the Center. The Pune Ananda Sangha Center was very different from the one that we have in Chennai. It was larger, and it looked very beautiful. Our kind host Blezy Philip took good care of us and made us some delicious sandwiches for lunch. Dharmarajan sir then told us the story of how the Ananda Pune community had come into existence.

 Sometime after 3 PM, we left the Pune Center and started towards the ashram which is located in a village called Watunde en route to Lavasa. The ashram is located at the foot hills of the Sahyadri hills, and is spread across an area of 33 acres. It was mildly drizzling as we made through beautiful hills and meadows. We were only a few minutes away from the ashram when Rajesh pointed me to a beautiful rainbow over a hill. It is said that a rainbow symbolizes a divine promise. At about 05:15 PM or so we reached  the ashram after travelling through scenic views of green hills and meadows.  We were greeted by a dynamic girl called Shamini who helped us settle down in our rooms. We were all given a print-out of our schedule that weekend. Thulasi, Rajesh, Prasanna, Dr.Srinivasan, and myself were allocated a beautiful three bedroom flat. Sundararajan and Sathya Sai were allocated another flat near us. The rest of the Chennai members stayed in another set of houses that were close to the office building, while ours was a bit out-of-the-way.  We were to join a group meditation at Swamiji’s house that began at 5:45 PM., and so we hurried to our flats in a car that was driven by the ever-helpful Bara, the monk from Uruguay. By the time the seven of us reached Swamiji’s house, it was almost 6 and most people had already settled down. Nayaswamis Jaya and Sadhana Devi were at the helm of things and there were others from the Pune and Mumbai centers as well. I meditated for about 45 minutes which was a first for me. The maximum time that I could hold myself was 30 minutes prior to this. As the meditation session ended, I took a good look around the room as everyone slowly departed. It was beautiful, to say the least. The altar was directly below a window which provided us with a lovely view of scenic hills and greenery. This view was flanked by a large portrait of Swamiji, his chair and his other belongings on one side and on the other side was a glass almirah with things that were used by Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Yukteshwar, and Swami Vivekananda. What a place to meditate!

7 PM was dinner time and we all eagerly hurried to the dining area. I shared my table with Nayaswamis Dharmarajan, Dharmini, Surendra, and Tushti, and with my brother disciples Prasanna, Rajesh, and Manoj. We all had a lovely time together. The food was delicious too. In fact, in all the six times that I ate there, I made sure that I ate as much as I could.

At about 8 PM, Nayaswami Surendra announced that we were to assemble at the office building to watch the movie Finding Happiness. I happily watched the movie for a second time and later retired to our flat for the night.

Day 2:

I woke up at 5:30 AM the next day, in my lovely room after sleeping for five hours. On one side of my head-stead was the picture of Swami Kriyananda and Swami Yukteshwar, and on the other side was a small statue of Jesus Christ. The only thing missing was a photo of our Master Paramahansa Yogananda. Curiously, there were about four to five paintings of Egyptian Gods and hieroglyphics around the room.

Prasanna, Rajesh, Thulasi, Dr.Srinivasan, and I, got ready as fast as we could, and hurried to Swamiji’s house for a long meditation session. Outside the house, I joined the others and performed Energization exercises before moving inside for meditation.

8:30 AM was time for breakfast in silence. I shared my table with Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am, and I wanted to talk. After breakfast, Jemal, the monk who lives there, took us on a tour around the ashram. He showed us a large man-made pond that supplies the ashram with water it harvests from rain; he told us how they are planning to connect the river, that was flowing a few miles away, to the pond. He then took us to the little garden where they grow rice and other vegetables. After a few other spots, we climbed uphill to get a glimpse of the monastery. It was a men’s monastery and women weren’t allowed after a certain point. Since our little party consisted of women, we stopped and peered through trees and shrubs and got a glimpse of the monastery. Jemal said that there was a man-made cave at the top for the monks and that it hasn’t been in use for the past one year. I requested him to take me up to the monastery and the cave afterwards and he said, “We’ll see.” And we did see the place after lunch.

At 11:30 AM, we all assembled at the office building for a talk on the topic “The role of the Guru in your spiritual practices.” I was all ears when Nayaswamis Sadhana Devi and Jaya spoke and I particularly liked one of Sadhana Devi ji’s story of how a photo of Paramahansa Yogananda, hanging on the inside of the front door of a women’s house, saved her life when she decided to commit suicide. The women wasn’t part of Ananda Sangha, nor did she consider Yogananda ji as her Guru. She had only bought his photo as she thought that she liked something about it. When she tried to open the door to go out with the thoughts of driving off a cliff, the photo expanded and expanded blocking the whole door. It’s a small story. But there’s something about it that I like very much.

After lunch, Jemal took a few of us to the monastery and the cave. The small group consisting of Prasanna, Thulasi, Anup, Suvir, and a couple of others and I, climbed uphill happily once again, following the lead of Jemal.  The monastery consisted of small, individual cabins, all painted in blue. There was a common bathroom and a small temple apart from the cabins. Jemal also took us to his cabin and there we were greeted by a large telescope sitting on a tripod. He said a few nights ago he was observing the moons of Jupiter. Oh, how I would love to do that! He then took us to a small cabin which served as a temple. There, we chanted for sometime with Thulasi at the Harmonium. It felt so good to be there, surrounded by such nice people, and a wonderful view of the hills around us. The climate was cool and cloudy, just to my liking. We then proceeded to the cave, which was rather small and very damp. I had thoughts of sitting in the cave and meditating for a few minutes, but those thoughts vanished as soon as I stepped in. What did I expect, the Ritz? I have no idea. The Ritz in a cave, the Ritz in a series of caves. Sounds interesting.

“What it means to be a disciple?” At 03:30 PM, we again assembled  at the office building and Nayaswamis Sadhana Devi, Jaya, Dharmini and Dharmarajan gave us a wonderful speech on this topic. Afterwards, as scheduled, Dharmarajan sir, and Dharmini ma’am started for Chennai. I very much wanted them to stay back with us.

At 5:45 PM, we were supposed to have a Yoga session with Tushti ji at the office building. But I had scheduled an appointment with Suvir, the Energy Healer, for a Raiki session at 6 PM. As I loitered around the Office, when everyone else was inside practicing yoga, I came across Bara.

“Aren’t you going for the yoga session?” he asked me.

“No, I am not,” I said.

“And why is that?” he asked me with a raised eye-brow.

“I am actually going to Suvir’s room for a Raiki session,” I said.

“Oh, for that,” said Bara and waved his hands like a magician.

 It started to drizzle and I took shelter near the Office and peeked in through the window and saw my fellow yogis doing yoga. Suvir came, and I went along with him to his room which was actually very close to where the Office was. He said that unlike a body massage, Raiki massages the soul. It did feel so relaxing and good.

At dinner I had the opportunity to chat with Dharana ji and he told me his experiences with Swami ji, how he had worked on the Index of the book The Essence of Bhagavat Gita and so on. Prior to coming on this path, he had worked on developing Satellite simulation software, and afterwards at a book shop called East West Book Shop.  After dinner, it was time for some chanting at the Office. The chanting was led by Bara and Narayani.

“You have two powerful instruments,” said Narayani in her sweet voice. “One is your voice and the other, your hands. Use them!”

We all did. But I had trouble clapping rhythmically and chanting at the same time. I tried to clap and chant, and chant and clap, gave up clapping and settled for chanting alone towards the end.

Day 3:

The next day started with Energization exercises and meditation at Swamiji’s house, just like the previous day. But this time, we also had the Discipleship ceremony, wherein people took a vow to be a disciple of our Master Paramahansa Yogananda. Some of us from the Pune and Mumbai Ananda Centers took the vow, and after that a small a photo-shoot took place.  The new disciples posed for a group photo and then there was a flurry of snaps as people scrambled (including me) to get hold of all the Nayaswamis present in the room. At one corner, I saw Anup taking a selfie with a cheerful Jaya ji and wondered if Jaya ji was the first Nayaswami to be part of a selfie! Anup, where is that selfie? I am not seeing it in the photos that you posted 🙂

After breakfast, Jaya ji took a class on “the Aum technique” of meditation. I had completely forgotten to take my Aum board on the trip and Narayani ji kindly lent me hers.

Later, Sadhana ji, Narayani ji, and Jaya ji spoke on the topic, “Swami Kriyananda: His role and mission as a Disciple.” As always, it was very nice to hear Jaya ji’s deep, warm voice. After lunch, it was time to leave. I so badly wanted to stay there with the others for a longer time. But my bail time had almost ended and I had to go back to jail.  A car had been arranged to drop us. But Thulasi alone was made to go on a different car, as there wasn’t enough space for him in ours and also because he had to catch his 6 O’ clock train. So the two cars departed, but in the middle of the way, we stopped. Thulasi and I were asked to swap cars as Thulasi’s car driver, for some reason, wasn’t going to go to the railway station. I reluctantly got down, went to the Tata Indica, and occupied the front seat. At the back were three people from Ananda Pune — Sheetal, Prathamesh, and another interesting lady called Maitreyi. We had a very interesting conversation and I was glad that the swap happened.

On the way, we stopped at the Pune Center once again to attend the evening satsang with Jaya ji and Sadhana ji and At 8 PM, it was time to leave.

And so the Chennai contingent left Pune with lots and lots of sweet memories, kindness, love, and a bit of reluctance. I would like to Thank each and everyone for making this pilgrimage such a memorable and joyful one. I felt so much love and kindness. Thank you, Dharmarajan sir, and Dharmini ma’am for giving me this opportunity!

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We Came, We  Saw, We fell in Love!

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In this file photo, Sundararajan could be seen in a state of samadhi at an altitude of about 20,000 feet.

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The sign on the wing says “Do not walk outside this area” — Superman, take note.

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 On the way to the Pune Center from the airport.

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At the Pune Center.

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“Can we not hand them each a cookie and send them back?” asks Bara, as we stand in front of the office building upon arrival.

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Thulasi!

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The Beautiful altar at Swamiji’s house.

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(From left to right) Vicky, Manjula, Aditi, Nayaswami Surendra, and an unidentifiable guy.

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The Cave

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Chanting at night

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The Discipleship ceremony

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The final satsang at the Pune Center

I revisited my past after 18 years

I revisited my past after 18 years

  It all began many years ago when I was a little kid – I am talking about my earliest memories, and also this inconsistent graph that is my life. I was born in Chennai, but I gained consciousness as a living entity in a place called Tuticorin.

Located on the eastern Coromandel coast of India, 590 kilometres (367 miles) down south of Chennai, Tuticorin ( most commonly known as Thoothukudi in Tamil,  AKA Pearl City), is a port city known for its various industries and of course its port. If you ask me, Tuticorin is just a town, not a city. But this place has its share of heavy weight industries – large-scale fertilizer industries, harbour, a shipbuilding company, a thermal power plant, salt companies and its very own airport which puts Tuticorin in the league of cities. Wikipedia mentions Pearl fishing as one of the occupations here, but that is totally wrong. Pearl fishing is a thing of the past and was stopped many years ago.

When I said large-scale, I mean like this –

thermal power plant

                  This is a photo of the Thermal power plant that I took there

My father worked in a fertilizer company called TAC, a subsidiary of another fertilizer company called SPIC. We lived in the quarters allotted to us in a huge area called TAC nagar, which is located near SPIC nagar. These are big private townships – they have their own private theatres, school, shops, swimming pool and so on, all owned by the parent SPIC company. Public entry is prohibited which means no congested traffic. The roads are always free and it is a great place for kids to grow up. This was were I grew up, where I spent the best part of my childhood, a place where all my classmates lived within the next few blocks, a place where my friends and I raced each other in BSA champs in the evening. It was heaven. Almost all the streets and roads were tree-lined avenues and so one could find a variety of birds around these parts. The most common bird here, apart from our unofficial national bird crow, is the peacock. Peacocks and peahens roam the streets like stray dogs. In fact, if you live here, you will wake up to the sounds of peacock every morning. Peacocks are the roosters in TAC/SPIC nagar.

This was also the time when India received Cable connection for the first time. After playing with my friends in the evening, I spent time watching GI Joe, Danger mouse, Ninja Turtles and other cartoons (Cartoon Network was yet to arrive on the scene). I even watched Hollywood movies on Star TV without understanding a single word (there was no Star Movies at that time, Star TV was a combination of both Star Movies and Star World). I never watched Cricket (a few years later it became my favourite sport), but the name Sachin Tendulkar would often reach my ears. Pamela Anderson’s ‘Bay watch’ was popular at that time and that was on my list too (what were my parents doing?).  This was also the time when my obsession with reading books started. It was all because of the kid next door. His name was Sukdev and he was also my close friend. One day he took out a heavy book from his house and came to me. It was some kind of an encyclopedia for kids with a lot of pictures. I sat with him and he showed me a picture of a white bear.

“What is this?” he asked.

“Bear,” I said.

“No,” he corrected me. “It’s a polar bear.”

At that age I had no idea what “polar” meant.

“What is this?” he asked again pointing to a white fox.

“It’s a fox,” I said.

“Polar fox”

Then a fluffy white rabbit and the same story. I was starting to get irritated. The fact that Sukdev was two years younger than me didn’t help either.

Sukdev wasn’t done. “What do you call a female peacock?”

“mmmmmmmm…..a peacock?”

“Wrong, you call it a peahen.”

That was the last straw. I stormed to my mother and demanded why they didn’t buy me any books like Sukdev’s parents did.

“That’s because he reads books,” she retorted.

The next day something magical happened. I went to school as usual and my class teacher asked a question.

“What do you call a female peacock?” she asked. “Can someone tell me?”

I looked around. Blank faces. I got up beaming and shouted “A peahen!!!”

“That’s correct! Clap hands everyone.”

And all the children clapped their hands. I was so happy. That evening I walked into the local library and took out a huge book and started reading it deeply without understanding what the book was even about.  I didn’t give up – I never do easily (my family call me a stubborn ass, I call it persistence). After that book I found another huge one. It was only big books because Sukdev’s book was a big one.  And as I was skipping through these big ones, something caught my attention in the magazine stand. It was Tinkle comics. It was love at first sight and my romance with Tinkle continued for many many years. I still have a huge collection collecting dust in my book shelf.

Everything was great until the graph took a dip and I came to Chennai. My life was changed forever. Something which I regret to this day. A part of me still lives in Tuticorin and I still roam around the streets of TAC and SPIC nagar in my mind.

Some of my relatives still live in TAC nagar and they invited me to their place a long time back. Strangely, I never budged. Finally more than three weeks back I booked tickets in Pearl City Express and traveled there last weekend. For a long time, I had imagined what I would feel like if I visited this place. I always concluded that I would either go crazy with happiness or suffer an emotional attack. But strangely neither happened. I was devoid of any emotions and even as I type this post I feel strange about the whole episode. I either wanted to be crazy-happy or very sad, but nothing happened. Is something wrong with me?

But I did everything right there. I did all the things that I had always imagined to do there if I ever visited TAC nagar again. Like a ghost that haunts its old whereabouts I haunted my old spots. I walked to the street where I once lived, stood there in the middle and slowly observed everything. I took a lot of photos – more than 300 photos in my three-day visit. My house was located at the second floor and luckily it was locked, otherwise its current inhabitants would have had a heart attack. I went there, stood in front of the door for a long time. I even tried opening the door even though it was padlocked. The door that welcomed me in hundreds of times didn’t budge this time. My mother wasn’t there to open it. This sounds emotional, but as I said I was devoid of all emotions. Maybe this is how ghosts feel. Without the necessary organs/sensors they don’t have the proper sense to feel anything and they feel trapped. I am still trapped in my past.

I even bought a little toy as a souvenir from the same toy shop that I had visited with my father 18 years ago to buy a “Dinosaur gun”.

I went to the terrace, then climbed down to the first floor where my friend and classmate Abinaya lived. After that, I visited the little garden that my father and I so lovingly tended. One look at the garden and I understood that its current owners weren’t that into gardening. My father used to work very hard to maintain our small garden. He even built a flagged stone path in it with his own hands. Those stones were missing, except a few that lay scattered somewhere.

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                               These stones once bore my father’s finger prints.

After this I walked on the same beautiful path that I had walked hundreds of times to reach my school – SPIC Nagar Higher Secondary School. It was just a 10 minute walk and I loved walking to my school everyday. The thing that I most enjoyed in my last trip was the fact that nothing had changed in the last 18 years. Everything was just the same. I walked in taking several photographs. I already knew from my Tuti cousin, who had studied in the same school, that most of my old teachers weren’t there anymore and even the Headmaster who had worked there for a long time had retired just a few years back.  I asked a teacher for directions to the Second standard classes, as I couldn’t recollect the exact location. I was pointed there, but I was asked to get permission from the current Headmistress Mrs.Daisy Paul to take photos. At that moment, the Headmistress was attending a meeting and so I waited for another 15 minutes outside the meeting room. Out she came bustling. Looking at me, she flashed a smile and entered into her room within seconds. I was permitted into her room after a couple of minutes.

She looked like a cheerful, warm person. As I opened my mouth to say something in Tamil, she cut in, “How are you?” She asked in English in a cheerful, firm voice.

I forgot that this school’s national language was always English.

“I am fine. How about you?” I switched my language mode.

After a few words she asked me if I remembered anything about my old teachers.

“I very well remember Meena ma’am, because she used to beat me a lot, “I said. “And also the Drawing teacher. I forgot her name, but I remember her because she used to like me very much.”

“So you remember one who punished you and one who loved you?” she chuckled, “Nice!”

“The drawing teacher must be Nimmy,” she continued. “She left only two years back.”

This Nimmy teacher really loved me. Sometimes she’ll take the class outside to the grounds  and wherever I played she’ll stand next to me. And whenever she gets a chance she’ll put her arm around my neck, pinching my cheeks.

After getting the permission from the Headmistress I went back to my old class and there I took some snaps after informing the teacher there. She was more than willing and asked me lot of questions.

“Shall I ask all the kids to sit in their places?” she asked me as some of them were standing in line near her desk with notebooks in hand.

“That’s fine,” I said. “Let them stand there. The snaps will be more natural this way”

I sat along with the kids in a desk and asked her to take a picture. The first snap didn’t come out good, so I asked her to do it again. The second snap was poorer than the first. I debated if I should ask her again.

“Did it come good? ” Teacher Shanthi asked me innocently.

I didn’t want to harass her anymore and said that it looked fine.

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On the second day, I again roamed around the streets a lot and went to my old street again. My uncle and aunt there (let me call them my Tuti uncle and Tuti aunt to avoid confusion as I have lots of aunts and uncles) took real good care of me and in the evening we visited the Hare Island beach there. Apart from this beach and a few temples and churches, there are absolutely no tourist spots in Tuticorin. No swanky malls nor multiplexes. But there are a few places some kilometres away from Tuti like King Kattabomman’s fort and Poet and freedom fighter Bharathiyar’s house in Ettayapuram.

The Hare Island beach is a beautiful beautiful beach. The sea there is more like a huge lake rather than a sea due to the absence of any waves. You do not get to hear the sound of a beach here (sound of waves, I mean). I didn’t explore the island completely as we were short on time. That night I went to a movie in the open-air theatre at SPIC. The movie was Titanic 3! What’s Titanic 3, you might wonder. I really don’t know the real name as I missed the first few minutes. It was a Hollywood movie dubbed in Tamil. Titanic 2 was actually the movie Poseidon! This is how Hollywood movies are named in Tamil. I generally don’t see movies dubbed in Tamil (except on TV sometimes), but my Tuti cousin wanted to see a movie, any movie, and So Titanic 3 it was. The story was set in the time of World War 2. A submarine and its crew try to escape a German ship to reach England. But their progress is always hampered by something – a ghost. The submarine’s haunted! The movie was dull and boring. It looked like a low-budget affair and I didn’t recognise a single actor except one guy whose name I don’t remember.

I had never visited this theatre before, as when I was a kid me and my family used to go to the open-air theatre at TAC. That was were I watched the Tamil movie ‘Thiruda Thiruda’ with my mother and later Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ with my father. I visited the TAC theatre this time and I was told that it was not functioning for the past few months; the screen was not in a good condition and the green lawn had dried up due to lack of maintenance. The great thing about these theatres are that they are totally free. You can go in and out whenever you want.

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On the third day, we visited the seaside Thiruchendur temple, located 40 kilometres from Tuticorin. This temple is considered to be one of the six houses of Lord Murugan (AKA Lord Karthik and countless other names), with all the remaining houses located in the state of Tamil Nadu itself.  I am not a religious person, but I do love history and good architecture.

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The whole experience was strange and surreal. Before I started from Chennai, I even thought that I was being setup for my end. I reckoned that it all started in Tuticorin, maybe it’s going to end there. It’s a crazy thought, but then I started to think way too deep and crazy from a young age.

TAC and SPIC Nagar – Gallery

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Hare Island Beach Gallery

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Spic Nagar Higher secondary school Gallery

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My House

Random snaps

My Tuti Aunty is really good at arts and crafts. All the works of art and the soft toys were made by her.

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It is a strange path that I have traveled. I wish that I had taken a different one – but the choice wasn’t mine, was it?

Chikmagalur – An unexpected Adventure

   About around two months back, the plan for visiting Chikmagalur started taking shape. Personally I never knew anything about this place, nor have I even heard  this name before, but now I know a lot – and Chikmagalur taught us all a lesson on how to dress and what footwear to use whilst visiting hill stations.

“You dare to visit me in bathroom flip-flops and flimsy T-shirts?” The spirit of the place seemed to ask us.

Some flip-flops were cruelly mutilated and some were horribly lost for an eternity, forcing their owners to walk barefooted through the forest. Oh, Chikmagalur, how cruel can you be? I almost lost my phone to the rain and the gushing streams, which made me think of  Katrina Kaif….eeeps…. I mean Sony Xperia Z, the waterproof phone.

Year by year, our yearly trip locations get harder and harder to traverse. But the point to note here is, the harder it gets the more fun we get out of it. So I am expecting the next trip to be even harder with more kilometres of trekking through dangerous, dense jungles. I did complain about the Wayanad trip in one of our tour meetings, but do I have any complaints now? No!

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On July 26th, at 11:45 AM, we set out from our office to the Central railway station. Some of my coworkers came to the station directly from their homes and I somehow ended up doing my usual Incident management work by making sure that these individual teams reached the spot without breaching the 1:50 PM SLA. As soon as the trail…I mean the train moved, people started getting busy with some games, and er….games. It began with the traditional dumb charades and I expected the ever so traditional Anthakshari to follow suit, but surprisingly that never happened and later some more games and a hilarious mimicry session by Vignesh.  The evening was warm and fun filled as we reached Bangalore at around 8 PM.

The Familiar MG Road

As planned beforehand, people got into their respective buses – Bus 1 and Bus 2. It was so much fun being in Bus 2 during the Coorg trip, less fun during the Wayanad trip, but absolutely fantastic during the Chikmagalore trip.  Hmmmm I am seeing a pattern here. Maybe the reason for these fluctuation in fun times is because of something or someone? Maybe it’s because of Ganesh!

He spent sometime in Bus 2 during Coorg = fun;

I barely remember him being in Bus 2 in Wayanad = less fun;

He spent most of the time in Bus 2 this time = more fun!

Add Vignesh to this equation and it’s a riot! But I did miss the companionship of the silent, but mischievous Partha.

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Bus 2 came to a halt in front of the now familiar Canara Bank ATM, near MG road. The exact same place where we stopped last year. We received the same set of instructions that we received during the past two tours. So, a small group of us parted from the rest and headed towards the same KFC where we had had dinner a year before. But some people didn’t want KFC and so Vignesh and I scouted ahead to find a vegetarian hotel. We did find one and had a hearty dinner with the rest of our group.

The buses started after the dinner break and it was time for dancing! The primarily girl dominated dance floor – the aisle of the bus – creaked and moaned as we reached a curious looking hotel at around 2 AM. Little did I know that the dancing was going to continue even outside the bus. It was Sreedhar. Ranging from Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk to Psy’s Gangnam Style,  to a slew of other dances of which I have no idea about, the guy danced to his heart’s content in front of a stunned audience.

The Last Resort

After sleeping for a few hours, I woke up early in the morning to find our buses standing in front of our resort where we were supposed to stay. It was a beautiful place. There was not a single house or a shop nearby and it was surrounded by farms and lush greenery. Glendale farms was the name of the farmland surrounding it. A very beautiful and apt name (Glen in Welsh means Mountain and Dale in English means Valley).  I was supposed to stay at room number 11 and I trudged slowly towards it. I got to work immediately – bathed and dressed up as soon as I can and came out to take more photos. In the distance I saw a huge mountain, with silvery falls cascading down with mist everywhere. I badly wanted to photograph it, but the distance was too much for my eight megapixel camera phone to cover.

The rest of the gang slowly got ready and the good folks at the resort meanwhile cooked us a lovely breakfast.

The Glendale farms

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Hebbe Falls

I’ve been to Abbi falls at Coorg and to Soochipura falls at Wayanad and a slew of other falls over the years. But this Hebbe falls, to quote Micromax, ‘ (It is) nothing like anything’ that I’ve ever seen!

‘It is not the destination, but the journey that matters in the end’

This has become a cliche now. You can hear this line in countless Hollywood movies, but I do have to quote this here. What makes Hebbe such a great place is the journey that takes you there. Yes, the falls itself is magnificent and stunningly beautiful, but the journey was so fun filled (and also leech filled) and thrilling.

Attack of the Leeches!

Do Leeches eat peaches? Apparently they don’t and we found his the hard way. We were warned of leeches during our Coorg and Wayand trips, but we never experienced any leech problem before and so we didn’t give much thought to it during this trip. But the impending leech attack became a reality this time.

Hebbe falls – what we knew already: We have to go there in jeeps and from a certain point we have to walk for three kilometres.

Hebbe falls – what we came to know: the three kilometre trail is not a walk in the park. It’s laden with leeches and a…………….. I’ll get there shortly.

After breakfast, we took turns to ride on some jeeps that were booked for us. Our driver’s name was Santosh and what a driver he was! The jeep turned and twisted, jumped and hooted, shook and shivered (this was us), and it blitzed through curvy, rutted, pothole filled pathways that were totally unfit for traffic finally reaching a gateway amid some lush greenery.  When asked about his driving ways, Santosh said, “There’s nothing to worry, I am a Mahindra driver and you’re in a Mahindra jeep!” I felt like I was part of some real life advertisement. ‘Suzuki Samurai! No problem!’ I thought as I left his jeep.

As I crossed the gate I saw a path that wounded out of sight some metres away and I thought that we were supposed to take that, but someone pointed to me another path on the left and said that we were to take that one. Hidden below a big clump of trees and other shrubs, was a small, narrow, dark, sinister looking path that disappeared downwards. The path seemed go downhill somewhere. It was drizzling and I was holding on to my ash-blue umbrella – the same umbrella that I’ve been carrying for the past three trips. Along with few others, we waited for about 30 minutes for the rest of the people to join us. Later, the huge group started walking along the narrow path. I was at the head of the group when I heard Kuppu shouting something from somewhere behind.  I stood and turned back to hear what he was saying as the rest slowly moved forward. He said that the path splits into two, a kilometre from here, and we were to stand there until a count is taken. He asked me and Thamil Vaanan to go ahead of the others, take the count and come back to him to give him the count. He said that he’ll be at the back of the group following us.

The path towards the first stream

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I always have this habit of being at the front in tours such as these, as it would give me some extra time to take photos and admire the scenery. I moved faster along with Thamil, but a group of our girls were even faster than us. Santosh and two others acted as our guide throughout the trip.  The point where the path diverged into two came and Thamil and I started to take the count. Precisely at that moment we heard a screaming sound. It was Poornima. “There is a leech in my foot!” She shouted. One of our guides there told me that he’ll take the count himself and asked us to carry on forward. More leeches and more shouts. Confusion prevailed. At some points, the path was narrow enough for just a single person to travel and adding to that it also sloped downwards. It turned and twisted, wounding through the dense forest – the result was I often found just one or two ahead or behind me. I’ve never handled leeches before, but I’ve heard that using a lighter or salt was the best method to remove them. I didn’t have either and so I employed the next best method – plucking them out with my hands. At first it was  just one or two clinging on to my foot and it didn’t bother me, but as time progressed it was frustrating when I had to dispose of three or more at the same time and there was blood all around. The smaller ones were easier to dispose off, but the bigger ones gave me a tough time.

As I moved along, I heard a piercing scream ahead. I thought someone was seriously injured and rushed forward. It was Saranya. She was jumping up and down, “Get this thing off my foot!!” I stooped down to remove the leech. “Nepolean, get it off!”

“How can I remove it if you are going to jump this way?” I asked. “Hold still.”

After walking for some more time we came across a shallow stream that carried along with it a brown dose of silt. I thought that we had reached the falls and looked around for it. “No, you have to cross this stream,” we were told. The stream was shallow and a bit slippery. We slowly and carefully waded through the water, feeling the way with our feet before actually moving forward.

The first stream

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With the stream behind us, we pressed onward. And in a few minutes and leeches later, we encountered another stream. It looked a bit deep and the water flowed faster than the previous one.

“What is this?” I thought to myself. I didn’t in the least expect to cross streams. At that moment, Thamil, holding Pavithra’s hand, was trying to help her cross the gushing stream. The water reached upto his thighs and in the middle, the force was just too much for them to handle alone. People shouted for them to come back. After their return, Santosh asked us to cross the stream by holding each other’s hands. Two or three people formed a chain and went ahead. Three more followed. Amar and I, holding each other’s hands, waded into the water. It was slippery. At the same time something happened. A few metres away, Bhagya, along with few others was trying to cross the forceful water body. Her foot slipped and the water dragged her a few paces when one of our guides lunged forward and caught her. For a second, I imagined Ganesh being in Jail. But the disaster had been averted.

Seconds later, Ganesh lost balance and fell. He managed to get up with some help. In the meantime, Amar was trying to move forward towards Ganesh and I thought I was holding his hands firmly. In a matter of seconds the tables turned and I realized that it was Amar who was holding me firmly. “Amar, I cannot hold on much longer,” I told him. I was trying to get a good foothold, but I was never able to place my foot firmly anywhere. The water dragged me down, and for a second I thought that I was going to drown completely, but that thought surprisingly angered me. I kicked the rock strewn bottom of the stream rapidly and seconds later I manged to reach the other side of the stream along with Ganesh, Thamil, Manthira, Amar, Nishanth, Pavithra, Bhagya, Chethana, Madhuri, Karthikeyan, Mohan, Vishal and two or three others. I don’t even remember seeing some of them cross the water. It was all a blur. The seriousness of the situation dawned on us. I looked back and saw that the rest of the team was on the other side. And then I realized, “Oh my God, we have to cross this stream again to reach the other side!”

Someone (I think that it was Pavithra) said, “We have come until this point. We cannot turn back now, we have to see the falls.” Encouraging words. 

The charge of the Light Brigade

So the small party of 14 or 15 people started towards the falls leaving the rest behind. Santosh was with us.

“Is this the only way to go to the falls? Isn’t there any other way?” I asked Santosh.

“There is a short cut. We’ll take it on our way back, “

‘Good,’ I thought.

After walking for a couple of minutes, came another sight – a third stream! Good Lord! Why weren’t we told about this? Someone ought to have warned us beforehand. But thinking about the whole episode now, I think that it was a good thing that no one warned us about this place. Otherwise, we would have skipped this falls for sure.

On the other side of the stream stood a group of solemn looking people, trying to cross the river just like us. When they saw us they shook their heads and signaled us to not to come.  They pointed to a particular place in the stream to make us understand that the water was forceful there.

“Hey, this is just like some horror movie!” I joked to someone.

This time we didn’t take any chances. We formed a big chain, holding each other’s hands and moved through the water slowly.  As they had said, the water was forceful at a particular point, but apart from that region the stream wasn’t as bad as the second one.

The path that followed was fit for only a single person to walk at a given time and it was slippery as well. In a single file, we marched ahead. Crawling on all fours over a rock, clinging on to some thick plants for support, ducking and weaving through thick shrubs we made our way, and all the while it was getting darker and darker. It was drizzling off and on until then, and later it started raining steadily. The sound of the thunderous falls reached our ears and as we turned a corner, lo and behold, there was the Hebbe falls that we had wanted to see! Water flowed from a height of 551 feet and the spray from the falls drenched us completely and there was no place to even take shelter from it. I was glad that I had given my phone to Sreedhar for safekeeping.  We stood there for some time admiring the powerful beauty when the rest of the gang joined us.

The journey back was as treacherous as before, and as we were about to reach the second stream, people started asking about the shortcut. But some people who had already taken that shortcut warned us that it was even more dangerous than crossing the stream. This time, the human chain was longer and stronger. Finally, after crossing all the hurdles we reached our resort with blood soaked feet. Talking about hurdles reminds me about my ash-blue umbrella. I was able to save it through all these obstacles, but ironically, I was not able to save it during a night’s stay at the resort!

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Sample leech-bite shot taken from the Internet

Some feet were even bloodier than this. I had to pluck out 20 to 25 of these blood sucking vermin from my feet alone.

Saturday night was marked by games, dancing and drinking.  The “Bun” game was ridiculously good and we all learnt that it takes a lot of man power to eliminate Kuppu from a game.

The Mulliangiri Saga

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Steps to Heaven!

I woke up at 5:30 AM the next day as our instructions were to check out of the resort at 9:30 AM “sharp.” Since I shared my room with five other people I thought that I had to wake up early so that the rest of my room mates could have enough time for their own needs. But it turned out that hot water was available only after 6:30. “There goes an hour of sleep,” I murmured to myself.

After a few hours, we checked out at 10:30 and started in our buses towards Mulliangiri peak (AKA Mullayanagiri or Mullainagiri).

Some of us left in jeeps and some in our buses. The buses could only travel to a certain point, after which we had to switch to the jeeps. It was a beautiful, uphill journey with twists and turns. It was foggy all around with glimpses of the steep valley below. Our jeep turned a corner and reached what appeared to be a small landing terrain below the main peak; for visitors, this was their parking lot. In the distance I saw a fleet of concrete stairs, built on the slope of the peak, going up somewhere. Some of our people had already reached the peak in other jeeps and were returning back. I couldn’t recognize the people who were coming down the stairs owing to poor visibility, except for Sreedhar as he was doing the Gangnam style.  The wind at that place was crazily forceful and it was also raining. In fact, the wind was so strong that it rained horizontally! Never in my life have I seen rain travel in that pattern. If one looks up at the slope above, one could see the rain travelling in horizontal waves.  I badly wanted to record a video of the rain traversing through the slopes, but I didn’t dare to take out my cellphone in that rain. Slowly, a small group of us started to climb up laboriously. The strong, cold wind combined with the rain, steep valleys and the thick fog surrounding us with the silhouettes of dark green hills in the distance – we were in heaven! On Monday, after coming back from the trip, I googled and found a picture of the same Mulliagiri peak in broad daylight, and that was beautiful too. The sunlight showcased the entire beauty of the whole place. I am not sure which is best – Mulliangiri under the sun’s glory, or Mullinagiri under the mercy of the rain gods.

Atop the peak was a small temple. The peace and serenity of that place was disturbed as we noisily entered and paraded around. Lord Shiva posed with us for a few snaps, and as he wasn’t too willing for more snaps with the angles that we had in  mind, we had him reincarnated in the form of Ganesh!

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 During the downhill journey, I thought, ‘Why did people complain that it was too cold here? The cold is pretty much bearable.’ But that perception changed shortly.

I, along with a few others had to wait for around 30 minutes for our jeep to comeback and pick us up. As long as we were walking the cold was bearable, but when we stopped to wait for the jeep, the cold caught up with us. We stood there frozen, in one big huddle.

Back to school through Bangalore!

The journey back to Bangalore was warm and pleasant just like how it was during Coorg and Wayanad. The time was spent talking, dancing and playing games. The dance floor was again dominated by the girls, but with some special guest appearances (cough, cough). It was a race against time to catch the train – just like during the Wayanad trip.

And so with happy memories and with sleepy heads we all reached Chennai as one large family the next morning.

Moral of the trip: Don’t act individually!!!

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I would like to Thank Ganesh and all our volunteers for making this trip such a memorable one. This was the most adventurous trip that I’ve ever been on. As I had stated before, I hope that our next trip gets even more adventurous.

Adventure, Ahoy!!!

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For those of you who weren’t part of the Coorg trip, Click here to read all about it.

I also wrote about the Wayanad trip, but I never published it. Let me know if you would like to read it as well, I’ll mail it to you.

The Coorg Photo Gallery – Thalacauvery

We huffed and puffed and conquered the summit!

Behold the misty magic!