Friday, December 26, 2008


Outside of TiruArunachaleswarar Temple - TiruvannamalaiTiruvannamalaiDeepam Lights - Tiruvannamalai
Meditating on the mountain - TiruvannamalaiNeighbor Lady - Tiruvannamalai
I've been living in Tiruvannamalai for about 3 weeks now. I wasn't expecting to stay so long, but liked it so much I extended my stay. I came here to visit my friend Devi who was on Gina's tour with me earlier in India. I knew nothing about Tiru, just happened to be in the area and stopped by. This has been the most intense and amazing place I've been so far. I've been having a great time here, as well as feeling at home and kind of moving in.

Jordi and Devi - Ramana's Cave - Mt. ArunchalaJordi and Mark
I met Devi and her friend Yordi (from Amsterdam) when I arrived, and we had a great time together. They were going to see this spiritual teacher, Mark Hans, and I also started attending. Meditation in the morning and teaching/discussion in the afternoon. I lucked out and found Mark to be an excellent guide. I really developed my meditation practice with his help.

Mt. Arunchala - TiruvannamalaiView from Mt. Arunchala
Tiru is next to a very holy mountain, Mt. Arunchala, which has immense spiritual power. You can literally feel the mountain when you are here, especially when you are meditating. There is a huge Western spiritual teaching community sprouting up here because of the energy of the mountain, and it's also an important site for Hindus as well.

Sri Ramana AshramRamana's Cave - Mt. Arunchala
Sri Ramana Maharishi - TiruvannamalaiSri Ramana Ashram
One of India's most famous holy men, Sri Ramana Maharshi, came here and is said to have experienced enlightenment on the mountain early in the 20th Century. He lived in a couple of different caves on the mountain for years, and these are now holy sites that you can visit and meditate in. He founded a huge ashram that continues to be an important spiritual center. Ramana's body is interred in a shrine in one of the ashram's rooms and people come from around the world to circle it and pray in front of it.

Deepam - TiruvannamalaiMt. Arunchala on fire for DeepamDeepam - TiruvannamalaiDeepam - Tiruvannamalai
Deepam Chariot - TiruvannamalaiDeepam - Tiruvannamalai
Mt. Arunchala is a major pilgrimage destination, and I was lucky enough to be here for the most holy day of the year here, Deepam. The mountain is the legendary site where the god Shiva showed his dominance over Vishnu and Brahma by turning into a tower of flame or something. So every year they set the top of the mountain on fire with huge vats of burning ghee, and over 1.5 million people come to walk the 10 km or so around the mountain. You wouldn't believe how many people there are. The road around the mountain is just a river of people, so thick that's is a big challenge just to cross it. We woke up at 2am and did the walk under the full moon. People were piled everywhere on the side of the road and around the main temple in town sleeping off their walk.

My house - TiruvannamalaiView from my house - in the countryMy new wheelsOutside of Tiru
Things just kind of happen in this town. I soon found myself with this sweet room in a big house for about $4/night, kind of out in the countryside. The houses are all painted these crazy bright colors and look a little bit like doll houses or something. Rented a scooter for a while to get around but got tired of that and moved up to a motorcycle, which is so nice! Getting used to driving on the crazy Indian streets and being part of this chaotic flow.

Christmas DinnerMe and Mark - Christmas Dinner
Paul and David - Christmas DinnerFlaming pudding for Christmas
We spent Christmas over at Mark's house, and had a surprisingly complete proper English dinner, including flaming pudding. Instead of turkey we cooked a chicken, as that was the biggest thing we could fit in the toaster-oven like cooker that Mark has. Mark's friends from England, David and Paul, showed up with a ton of decorations and supplies, so it was a bit like being home. Not what I envisioned for Christmas over here!

Well I'm off to Bangkok tomorrow night to meet my friend Cindy, and we'll continue directly on to Cambodia (I extended my stay here by a week and missed the elephant park volunteer work that we had been planning). I'll probably be less connected for a while and not post often for the next few weeks.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pondicherry and Auroville

PondicherryPondicherry, Tamil Nadu
A week of massive temples was enough for me, and I moved on to the more wordly pleasures of Pondicherry. When you first arrive in Pondicherry, it looks like a typical busy Indian city. But when you take a rickshaw out towards the beachfront area, suddenly it transforms into this cute little French seaside town. Pondicherry was a French colony up until the 1950s, and it still has an enormous French influence, with many French people living there and more importantly, excellent French food. I ate so well the few days I was in town - excellent croissants, chocolate mousse that almost made me pass out, and the first red meat I've had on the subcontinent (steak smothered in roquefort). Much as I love Indian food, it's nice to get a break once in a while.
My hotel is a bar - Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu
My hotel, Qualithe, was this super atmospheric 40's era place that was basically a large bar with rooms attached. You would literally go up to the bar and pay for your room to the guy who was busy pouring out dark rums to the Indian customers. Although I wasn't drinking I met some great bar flies who showed me where everything was in town (thank you, Babu!). Other than eating, there's not a ton to do in Pondicherry, but just hanging out soaking in the atmosphere is pretty good for a few days. The tailors are excellent there (big surprise) and I had a couple of shirts and inadvertantly a really nice pair of dress pants made (little communication difficulty).
Sri Aurobindo and The Mother - PondicherrySri Aurobindo and The Mother - Pondicherry
Sri Aurobindo Ashram - PondicherryPondicherry, Tamil Nadu
The town is dominated by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which was started by one of India's most famous gurus in the 1920s. Aurobindo's stamp (and image) is everywhere in town, with many businesses named "Auro" this or "Auro" that. Aurobindo's life companion, a Frenchwoman called simply "The Mother", is responsible for the creation of the ambitious Auroville community just outside of Pondicherry.
Auroville, Tamil NaduAuroville
I was excited to go visit Auroville and, overcoming my fear of driving on busy Indian roads, rented a scooter to get me out to there. Auroville is difficult to describe. It's a self-proclamed "universal" town, which aims to bring together people from all nations, religions, and creeds to live in a way that transcends these divisions. A mix of about 40% Indians and 60% foreigners, the town combines the traditional Indian village way of life with more modern Western housing and technology. No one owns anything in Auroville, Auroville owns it all. You can build a house in Auroville and live in it, but if you leave, it goes back to Auroville. There are plenty of different jobs that you can do in Auroville and people earn a fairly modest stipend for doing them (earning money is not one of the reasons people go there - my impression is that it contains a lot of people who have made money in some way before). There is quite a range of light industries in Auroville, as well as many traditional Indian crafts when are sold on site or in stores throughout India. Auroville is famous for producing healthy organic foods and some of the best chocolate I've had in a while. Also (near and dear to my heart), it places great importance on sustainable energy and generates about 30% of its needs from those sources. I'm considering going back to see if I can work in that area for a little while.
Matrimandir - Auroville
The most famous symbol of Auroville is the Matrimandir, a large golden sphere at the geographic center of the community, sitting right next to a beautiful old Banyan tree. The Matrimandir is a meticulously engineered meditation space that is just gorgeous inside and out. The outside is covered with huge discs whose surface is gold leaf encased on glass. The inside looks like a set from "Space 1999", except not cheesy, with orange light eminating through what looks like the inside of a geodesic dome. Everything is white marble - stairs, railways, benches. Inside of this is the inner meditation chamber, where you must put on little white socks so as not to disturb the absolute whiteness of it all - white carpet, white marble, white ceiling. In the center of the chamber is an enormous crystal sphere. An opening at the top of the Matrimandir, combined with some sort of computer controlled mirror, continually sends a pure beam of sunlight directly through the crystal (that is the only light during meditation). The light continues down through the entire building and ends up striking a smaller crystal sphere in a beautiful lotus-shaped pool underneath the structure. I extended my stay in the area for an extra day so that I could experience meditation in the Matrimandir. I don't think I could get my mind off of the amazing space long enough to go into a meditative state!

My barfly friend Babu got me in contact with an old-timer out at Auroville, who I had lunch with at the Solar Cafe. The first thing I noticed was the confusing sign "Money absolutely not accepted!" I found out that this meant you had to get an account # and pay for everything through your account (sort of like Disney Dollars). Or sweet talk some nice Frenchman with an account into ordering your food for you. The vibe was interesting in Auroville - definitely lots of smart people were staying there and it appeared that they were actually getting things done. One of the most impressive things I saw was how they transformed the natural environment in the space of 40 years. Evidently when the community was started, it was pretty much a dirt plain, with no trees or large vegetation due to bad land management. There had been a forest a couple hundred years ago but it was completely gone. Since then, the area has been replanted with millions of trees and now it is forested and green. The man I had lunch with, David, was one of the primary guys in charge of the replanting. It was an enormous job and something that they are looking at exporting to other areas in India.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple - Srirangam (Trichy)
Next up on the Tamil Nadu temple tour was the Sri Rnganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam, near the major city of Tiruchirapalli, or Trichy. I literally only had time to get a room, go to sleep, and then go see the temple the next day before my train, so I have no idea about the rest of the town. I thought the other temples were big but this one is enormous. Dedicated to Vishnu, it's the largest temple in India and one of the largest religious centers in the world. The temple has 7 concentric walls leading to a sacred inner gold temple (open only to Hindus). Each wall is capped by a large gopuram or tower.
Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple - Srirangam (Trichy), Tamil NaduGolden Temple - Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple - Srirangam
Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple - Srirangam (Trichy), Tamil NaduSri Ranganathaswamy Temple - Srirangam (Trichy), Tamil NaduSri Ranganathaswamy Temple - Srirangam (Trichy), Tamil Nadu
Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple - Srirangam (Trichy), Tamil NaduSri Ranganathaswamy Temple - Srirangam (Trichy), Tamil NaduSri Ranganathaswamy Temple - Srirangam (Trichy), Tamil Nadu
The temple did not have as many shrines and icons as the other temples that I'd been to but was full of amazing sculptures and paintings. It's famous for its "Hall of 1000 Pillars" (actually there are 900-something but who's counting) and the huge statue of a reclining Vishnu on top of a bed of cobras (so I've heard - that's in the inner temple).