Entering India: The Extraordinary World Part 2
As the cars stopped in front of the gate to Gokarn Dham we were all looking around wondering where we were. Clearly this was a destination of some sort, but we weren't sure if this was Shree Maharaj's ashram, or if this was where the group would be sleeping.
I stumbled out of the van happy to be standing after the long, jouncing drive being tossed to and fro for nearly 7 hours. My legs were wobbly and the sun was very bright. Even with sunglasses at 4pm, I was having a difficult time seeing clearly.
I walked over to the entrance and peered in through the gates from the road. It was a lot darker inside in comparison of the full sun and after a moment I began to make out a bunch of figures standing past the entryway in a large open room. A few seconds later I realized that these blurry figures were some kind of a welcoming group, so I turned away from the entrance back to the cars and told everyone,
"Hey it looks like there is a welcome reception inside and they are waiting for us, so lets all walk in together."
When everyone had crawled out of the vans we all walked back towards the entrance and I was the first to walk through the ruby red doors with golden ornamentation.
There was a cement slab much like a large patio, and on either side of the entrance were potted plants and flowers, as I walked closer to the wide open entry to the ground floor of this 4 story building, the cement stopped and I stepped onto a light grey marble floor, now that I was in the shade I could see clearly 3 figures standing in orange robes and immediately recognized two of them. A stunning, youthful tall blonde woman stood holding marigold garlands and just behind her was another tall blonde man dressed in saffron, and both with huge smiles.
"Savitri Puri Ji, I sang out in excitement, and Yogananda Puri Ji!" They nodded but did not move. Behind them I saw my dear friend Manoj whom had arrived earlier from Kenya, and next to him another exotically beautiful woman I recognized as Druvinka, an extremely well known and talented painter from Shri Lanka.
I was giddy. Savitri and Yogananda Puri JI were the two chelas (disciples) of Shri Maharaj (Baba Rampuri Ji/ Baba Ji) and I had been speaking to them here and there on Facebook threads over the last year and here they were standing there in all their magnificent, gentle glory. I could hardly contain myself as I felt a deep connection to both of them even though we had not "met" (in this lifetime anyway :))
Suddenly, I was immersed in beautiful sounds and I was confused as to where it was coming from, I heard what was distinctly mantras and as I turned my my head to the left I saw a Brahmin priest in white with a beautiful colored cloth draped over one shoulder walking right up to me holding a silver tray arrayed with a candle, flowers, water, kumkum, and incense. He stopped in front of me, all the time chanting mantras, and sprinkled water on me, then motioned for my right hand, which I lifted and turned my palm face up. He then proceeded to pour water (which I knew must be holy water from the Ganges) three times into my palm. At the third drop I knew exactly what to do, I popped the water into my mouth and with a sweeping motion, took my palm and moved it across the top of my head from front to back. Thankfully, I had been taught certain rituals by Baba Ji when I had darshan with him in New York City the previous year. Continuing to chant mantras, he then dipped his finger into a bright red powder and placed a tilak, a sacred gift marking my third eye, on my forehead. He then placed a few grains of rice on top of the red tilak. After that he asked for my left hand and began to wind a red thread three times around my wrist chanting Devi chants about Lakshmi. Lastly he motioned for my right hand again and he dropped a red rose into my palm.
He then repeated the entire 'welcoming' ceremony with every single person in our group, the only difference was that he tied the red string around the right wrist for the men in the group.
In that moment I felt we were entering into the Extraordinary world and we had just officially crossed the threshold.
Savtritri Puri then approached me and placed a very long flower garland made from marigolds and roses around my neck and greeted me with "Om Namo Narayan" and placed her hands in Namaste and bowed her head. Her face was glowing, her cheeks flushed a bit, and her big blue eyes were soft and radiant. I then greeted Yogananda Puri Ji, Druvinka and Manoj and a few others whom I didn't recognize and turned out to be the Guru of the family house and the two care takers who would be making sure that we had whatever we needed in terms of bottled water, chai, taking our laundry, and making us breakfast every morning.
The building was designed so that the center was a vast open space shaped like a square and all around the periphery were rooms, the kitchen was in the back. I stood in the center of the floor and gazed up to see the sun coming in from the roof top which was open around the sides but covered with a roof. At the back wall facing the entrance was a huge puja or altar that was very ornate. In the center was Ma Durga the beloved Goddess and Mother of protection. She was dressed in red and gold and there were flowers all over her. To the left of her was Krishna and Radha, Krishna being an incarnation of Vishnu the Diety of sustaining power of the universe and his consort and most beloved Bhagats(devotees), a cowherd from a local village where Krishna lived in in his youth. To the right was another couple, and it took only a moment to recognize who they were as there was a large Shiva lingam in front beautifully adorned with colored kumkum and flowers-it was Shiva and Parvati, the primordial Power of the Universe personified by Infinite potential (Shiva) and His 'kama bija' or seed of desire taking the form of infinite diversity in form represented by Parvati.
We were then escorted to the second floor were we were asked to choose out of 3 rooms to share. The boys were in one room and the girls in the others. The rooms were simple, fairly dark and lit with a fluorescent light. There was room for three girls in each room, and to my surprise, each room had it's own bathroom. I am not sure why I was so lucky, but the room I shared with my two roomates, Ashera and Anusuya, had a western toilet in it although the lid to the toilet was made of a flimsy plastic that looked like it was 60 years old...WOW, no squat pot in here!
The bathroom had one sink and on one wall there was a spigot with a hot and cold knob, a tiny plastic seat, and a bucket were on the floor, and there was a drain in the floor that all water would run down.
The rooms were very clean, in what came to be seen as local standards and I realized very quickly, the huge contrast in the comparatively extremely sterile environment I was accustomed to in the West.
In each room there was a beautiful puja set up with a picture of Lakshmi surrounded by an array of flowers, a box of incense, candles, a clay pot to burn incense and a plate of assorted prasad ( cookies and treats) under clear red cellophane. After we put our bags down, we went back into the hallway where Druvinka, Savitri and Yoganada Puri Ji were standing. They asked us if we were hungry, which we replied we were STARVING as we hadn't eaten since 7am, so Druvinka said she would have them prepare us some simple food to tide us over til dinner time.
Yogananda then proceeded to explain to us that the dharmsala we were staying in was the Puri and Giri family "home" and that we should feel as if this is our home as well. That this is the place open for many pilgrims and Naga Babas who come to the area when they are visiting Haridwar.
Savitri Puri then told us that we would be going to Hari Puri Ashram ( Shri Maharaj's ashram) at about 530pm and that there was talk about going to the Ghat at Harki Pauri on the Ganges in the center of Haridwar for evening Arati. This all sounded wonderful although I wasn't sure exactly what we were going to, I was familiar with Arati, a part puja or worship, in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) is offered to one or more personalities of Nature and the songs sung in praise of the deity, when lamps are being offered.
Savitri warned us that when plans are made they are not written in stone and time and plans change without much notice so we needed to let go of any ideas of "getting things done" and just flow with what arose in any moment. Our friend Manoj joked later that like "eastern standard time" is a familiar phrase in the West, here it is best to remember it is India STRETCHABLE time.
We were left then with the clear instructions to eat and rest. We were served sweet chai, plain curd (yogurt) fruit and Naan (round flat bread) We were all a little leery about eating fruit, besides the banana, but Savitri assured us that everything here was prepared with purified water and we would be fine.
"Bottoms up", I thought and enjoyed the meal.
I was too excited to rest and just spent time unpacking my bags and getting settled.
It wasn't long before Savitri reappeared to tell us that we were to be ready at 5:15 pm and would be leaving to Meet Shri Maharaj at the Hari Puri ashram.
The butterflies began to swirl at this point as we gathered downstairs and piled into the cars to leave. It was a short drive that led up through the local vedors and across a bridge of a dry riverbed dotted with cattle and trash, to the left I could see the Ganges river and I knew we were close. We took a tight hairpin turn to the left off the main road and stopped in front of a pathway where we were escorted out of the vans and down a long pathway sandwiched between buildings on either side.
There were troughs on either side of the path adjacent to the building walls were running water was moving and the strong smell of sewage caught my breath for a moment, but as we walked further the water and smell evaporated. To the right there was a black iron entryway we passed and I gazed into a courtyard with a mandir in the center. It was VERY old and looked a bit neglected, as there was tall grass and weeds growing alongside the buildings. Up ahead I could see a peek of Ma Ganga herself and immediately above the wall to the right I saw the entrance into the ashram and a beautiful pink building which I would later find out was the Great Naga Baba Bir Giri Ji Maharaj's Samadhi Shrine.
We walked through the archway into the courtyard of the ashram and were welcomed with a loud chorus of "Om Namo Narayan!!!" to the right was the samadhi shrine, then the outside dhuni or sacred fire pit that was enclosed with a bamboo frame and mosquito netting on the sides and a peaked thatched roof over head. To the left was a large building with steps going up to a main part of the ashram. The main room was where the inside dhuni was and an empty room otherwise besides oriental rugs on the floors, to the right and hidden was the kitchen, straight back through the main room was another room where hundreds of photographs of the family lineage hung on the wall. In the center was a puja and on either side and in front were two traditional wooden beds.
We were all guided into the inside dhuni in the ashram and asked to sit down on the oriental rugs, and there sitting by the dhuni was Shri Maharaj Ram Puri Ji (Baba Ji) with a large smile on his face. "OM NAMO NARAYAN!!!" He said and we all replied with the same greeting.
I placed my bag on the floor and took out 300 and10 rupees from my bag and approached Shri Maharaj. I kneeled in front of him, placed the rupees under his right knee, placed my hands in namaste and bowed my head to the floor. He tapped the back of my head and I sat up and he took some ash from the dhuni to give me. I placed my right palm face up and received the small sprinkle and proceeded to pop it into my mouth and the remaining I swept over my head. I then leaned in towards Shri Maharaj and received a third eye from sacred ash, this being the second third eye (tilak) of the day.
Everyone else followed suit and we then sat down and had a sweet chat and were served chai and water in tin cups. Baba Ji asked us how our trip was and laughed as he said the adventure has begun. I asked about some of the pictures on the wall particularly the one over his head and he explained that this was the great Naga Baba Bir Giri Ji Maharaj, one of the last great Naga Babas of the Giri line who had just recently taken samadhi (the great sleep of death) and was residing in the samadhi shrine in the court yard behind us. I recognized Pir Amar Puri Ji Maharaj and some others I had seen in baba Ji's book, 'Autobiography of a Sadhu', and here we were sitting in the great company of so many.
There was a weighty, potent and quiet presence in the room, I could feel the space was holding and filled with the resonance of mantras, many years of puja, and story telling.
Next to Baba Ji was Shri Mangalananda Puri Ji Maharaj, the co-successor of the Hari puri Ashram, and Baba Ji's greatest and longest time friend. They had met 43 years before on their travels around the globe. Also sitting there greeting us was Avantika Giri Ji who wore just an orange lungi (long skirt-like cloth around his waist) he had a permanent smile on his sweet face and the whites of his eyes and teeth sparkled in the evening light. He was the caretaker of the ashram and would be with us everyday.
After a short satsang, Baba Ji told us it was time to go, we were all going to go to join thousands of others for evening Arati on the Ghat. Ghat refers to a broad flight of steps leading down to the bank of a river in India, used especially by bathers. The specific ghat we were going to was the Harki Pauri ghat. The Ghat is lit up every evening at the time of Maha Arti.
A holy bath in the sacred water of the Ganga comes with a blessing from Ma who washes the burdens and weight of karmas ( those things we have done 'by our own hand' =KA) away and purifies all who enter her embrace.
In the Indian creation story during the churning of the sea of milk, there were many precious gifts that arose to the surface of the ocean, the most precious was Amrita or the nectar of immortality, and so there was a battle for the nectar between the Lords and Demons during which a few drops of nectar fell down on the Earth at four places. These sites are known as Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain. Since then it is the belief that during the 42 Days of the Kumbh Mela these rivers change into Amrit. (A= no, and mrit= death)
Baba Ji, Mangaland Puri Ji Maharaj, Saviti and Yogananda Puri Ji, and Druvinka followed by nine of us, piled into 3 cars and whisked away to the riverbanks of Ma Ganga. As we wove in and out of immense traffic, we were instructed to get out of the car promptly and to move as a tight knit group at all times making sure we kept up with Baba Ji. We passed the banks of the Ganga and saw again the immense Murti of Shiva, and also Lakshmi sitting in the river. There were hundreds of little vendors selling empty plastic containers to collect holy water in, among tobacco and other things. We drove into a parking lot and there were so many cars kicking up so much dust that it looked like we entered a sandstorm. The cars stopped abruptly and we all piled outof the vans onto the dry clay ground.
Stay tuned for part 3.....