Impressions of an Ashram... and Final Images of India

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March 23rd 2013
Published: March 23rd 2013
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March 8… I headed to the ashram today, catching the train from Ernakalum Town (the station nearest to Kochi). It was an eventful ride to the station. Kochi is on an island connected to the mainland via another island – with only one set of bridges at the south end connecting both islands to the mainland. Traffic, even relatively early (before 8 am) was horrendous (I’m not sure why this still surprises me after nearly two months!) and it took the better part of an hour just to get off the islands. Once on the mainland, the driver nearly came to blows with a motorcyclist. I missed the infraction so I’m not sure who was at fault but there were a couple of angry drivers yelling and gesturing to each other as we drove up MG Road to the station – yikes! Not a calm and peaceful start to the morning’s journey.

The train was late leaving but we made up time as we headed south to Trivandrum. I wasn’t paying attention and nearly missed getting off, which would have been a nuisance. The ashram is located near the town of Neyyar Dam, about an hour’s drive inland from Trivandrum.
Ashram 4Ashram 4Ashram 4

my birthday dinner - lentils, sprouted peas, chappathi and herbal tea
It’s in a pretty spot, but man, the humidity was brutal. I had booked to share an air-conditioned twin room as I wasn’t up for sleeping in a dorm for a week. My roommate, who had been there a month already for the ashram’s yoga teacher training program, was Japanese. Turns out she didn’t like the air-con going very much so, so it wasn’t used much the first few days, until she left. What’s the point of paying for it if you’re not going to use it?

March 9-14… What made me decide to head to an ashram? Basically, (a) I was curious about the lifestyle (blame the book Eat, Pray, Love!); (b) I hoped to improve my basic yoga and meditation skills; and (c) I had the time.

Life at the ashram is very regimented, and I determined after a few days that too much structure is not really something I cope with too well (is anyone surprised by that??). Here’s how the typical day unfolded:

· 5:20 am - wake-up bell
· 6:00 am – morning satsang (silent meditation, prayers and chanting)
· 7:30 am – morning tea (just tea, no food)
· 8:00 am
Ashram 5Ashram 5Ashram 5

dining hall
– morning yoga and pranayama (breathing) exercises
· 10:00 am – brunch – main meal of the day
· 11:00 am – karma yoga (light duties around the ashram)
· 1:30 pm – tea (herbal)
· 2:00 pm - lectures – these included meditation, food, deities
· 3:30 pm – afternoon yoga and pranayama
· 6:00 pm – dinner
· 8:00 pm – evening satsang
· 10:30 pm – lights out

While they offered two levels of yoga (beginner and intermediate), the “beginner” really was much more advanced than I expected or was prepared for. I knew I was in trouble during the first session when, after breathing exercises and sun salutations were over, the leaders went directly into preparation for the headstand! Not going to happen, especially since I hadn’t done any yoga regularly for more than 18 months. It was at that point that I decided I was only going to do what I could and, if nothing else, it would be good for my stretching and flexibility. The first couple of days were painful (all those unused muscles I had forgotten about!) but nothing some ibuprofen couldn’t take care of. The instructors, bless them, were very patient and helpful.

Satsang, on the other hand, was difficult from day one. Not the meditation part – I quite enjoyed trying to settle my mind for 30 minutes twice a day, but I have to say, the prayers and chanting afterward was so not my thing! I’m sure this was due to ignorance on my part as to the deities and gods being celebrated but I found it long and painful to sit through. Honestly, it was a bit too "cultish" for my taste!

Meals were provided in a communal dining hall, sitting on the floor and eating with your right hand off metal plates (seriously!). The morning meal was the main meal of the day. The food was plentiful, prepared in the tradition of satvic, which meant using only ingredients from plants grown above the ground, no onions or garlic, or much spice. Rather bland for my taste buds after all of the flavours in the Indian food that I’d become accustomed to over the last two months. There was usually rice, a vegetable curry, maybe lentils or beans, yogurt and chapathi or roti as well as an herbal tea. After eating, you cleaned your plate and cup and left them to dry until the next time. At all mealtimes, silence was expected.

There were a couple of special occasions which occurred while I was at the ashram. The first was the graduation of the teacher training course on the Saturday evening. There were approximately 80 students there from all over the world who had spent the prior month studying and practicing at the ashram. Satsang that night was a celebration for them. The next day were special celebrations for Shiva, which happen only once per year at a certain date set by the lunar calendar. Chanting in the temple began at 4am and continued for the next 24 hours without stopping. There were special guest swamis on site and ceremonies in the evening, which were a sight to see.

My birthday was March 13. Unfortunately, I got food poisoning (or a flu bug) that made me quite ill for 36 hours or so. Not a fun way to spend this day or the next, and I had absolutely no energy to participate in any activities (which I was okay with, as I was having trouble getting excited about attending anyway by this point). Not the best note upon which to leave the ashram.

Belated birthday wishes this week to Diane N (March 8), Janet C (March 10, I think!) and Susan H (March 14).

March 15… Freedom from the ashram - a week, in retrospect, was a couple of days too long so I was happy to head back to Trivandrum to catch the train south to Kanyakumari. Kanyakumari's at the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, where the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea meet. The sole purpose of my visit was to see both sunset and sunrise over the oceans here. It felt good to wander around in the sunshine and feel the ocean breezes cooling things off. I said a prayer for my mom at the ocean - it was 12 years ago today that she died. I still miss her a lot.

Sunset was lovely, but not a lot of visual interest. Morning, and sunrise, was much more interesting, as the fishing boats were coming back into the harbour with their catch and the village was coming to life.

March 16 – 20… I headed north to Varkala on the mid-morning train. Varkala is one of the beach areas in south Kerala. The tourist season is nearly over, and some of the shops along the north cliff area had already closed. I stayed in a family homestay about a five minute walk to the main shops and restaurants. I had no purpose here, aside from rest and relaxation. It was an enjoyable way to spend a few days, nothing to do but sleep, go to the beach, get a massage, a pedicure, hang out and enjoy the sunsets while partaking in a beer on a rooftop patio. Pretty chilled few days!

Belated birthday wishes to my Aunt Maria!

March 21… Happy solstice! This date signals fall coming in the southern hemisphere, and monsoon season isn't too far away. I hope it signals spring's arrival in the northern hemisphere, but these snowstorms I'm reading about on the internet don't seem like a good sign!

I left Varkala and returned to Kochi by train. It was an uneventful few hours and allowed me to catch up on the blog and download photos to my computer. I returned to the same family guesthouse where I had previously stayed, so it was a bit like coming home - such a nice and hospitable family. I also managed to get some shopping done today - spices mainly, for my friends at home.

March 22... It was a full day's trip out to one of the backwater areas outside Kochi. I had purposefully not gone out on a houseboat trip from Kollam or Alleppy, which seemed to be the de rigeur thing to do in Kerala, as I had heard very mixed reviews about the quality of the experience and it was quite expensive to do alone. Six hours today was plenty! It was a great day though, as we spent a few hours out in canoes travelling in one of the smaller canals, stopping to see local women making coir (twine made from the fibers of coconut husks), a small spice plantation and a coconut drying operation. It was interesting to see all the uses that they locals make of the coconuts - who knew the meat and husks were so versatile.

After stopping for a traditional Keralan lunch, we transferred to a much larger boat which we used to ply some of the more open backwaters. The boat was operated by a single man using a bamboo pole to move us along the through the waters. During the 2+ hours we were with him, he never seemed to break a sweat or get tired, obviously used to the heat and humidity. It was a relaxing way to spend a few hours but I can't imagine spending 24 hours out on the water, like a houseboat would have entailed.

March 23... My last day in India. I'm not sorry that my stay is over, as I think I have just about had enough for this visit. The two months went by quickly, meeting the Intrepid group in Delhi seems like ages ago now! India is such a large and diverse country, though, that there are still places that warrant a visit at some future time, especially in the far north and east of the country. I would also love to finally see a tiger in its natural habitat!

Some final thoughts and observations…

Travel in India is not for the timid or faint of heart (frankly, most of my Canadian friends and family wouldn’t manage here very well), but it does generously reward those who make the effort to appreciate it for what it is, warts and all.

The people have been unfailing kind and helpful if I’ve needed assistance, and they are truly what makes the country so special. I do wish though, that they’d quit asking how old I am, why I’m not married and why I’m travelling by myself!

I love the food, but will be taking a break from rice and curries for a while! Three months (including my time in Sri Lanka) was long enough. I will be enjoying some great Alberta beef during the week I'm home in April.

Of course, there are also the many amazing temples and cultural artefacts that make India special. The Taj Mahal is a magnificent edifice and worth the journey alone. I also found the temples at Khajuraho exquisite, and the Dravidian temples in Tamil Nadu so over the top with their coloured pyramids and statues. There is such a rich cultural history and diversity here.

I’m still not a fan of the constant barrage of honking horns and drivers who are so aggressive! I will not miss the scent of urine emanating from all corners, as Indian men will use any available wall
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the dreaded bell!
to relieve themselves. And, stray dogs, stay away!

I took 6,144 photos in India, downloaded 3,149 to my computer and posted 503 on the blog!

I went and re-read the first blog I wrote on India and am happy to report that while the country may have pushed my limits occasionally, I persevered and didn’t let it defeat me!

Early tomorrow, I leave for the Maldives and two weeks of scuba diving with my friend from work, Shelley. We will spend the first week on a liveaboard dive boat named the Monsoon, cruising the northern atolls. The second week will be spent at the Kuredu Resort, on Lhaviyani Atoll. also in the north. I am so looking forward to the change of scenery and hearing nothing but my own breath underwater. Blessed quiet!

Additional photos below
Photos: 70, Displayed: 30


Kanyakumari 1Kanyakumari 1
Kanyakumari 1

Gandhi Memorial
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Kanyakumari 10

laying out the fish to dry

23rd March 2013

Marilyn; these are beautiful. You have a real eye for color and composition. Hope you will have met up with Shel and I want to hear all about diving Maldives
23rd March 2013

sun and snow
Wonderful photography. Love your blogs. You missed a 30 cm snowfall, Thursday in less than 24hrs. Enjoy the sunshine it will be gone before you get home. Hugs Auntie Barbara
23rd March 2013
Kerala Backwaters 22

Your pictures tell your stories...keep them coming
23rd March 2013

great pics
More great pics allowing me to travel through India with you and visit the Ashram!! Your birthday dinner - well i just can't find the words to share my reaction to that! lol! Have a terrific time driving - have fun - be safe!!
24th March 2013

All for nix
Hi Marilyn, Thanks for keeping us up with your travels. We are getting a repeat journey all for good can this get. Now approaching 80, We plan a bit of overlanding for us thru Malaysia soon, and I have to say that Dragoman are very good to us. So far 96 weeks on the world routes with them & we will continue. Do you still carry your polaroid camera with you, It was a neat system especially when we were avalached between Tibet and Nepal.Perhaps you and some of our other comrades could become a new international brigade which travelled only to bring peace, happiness, health and knowledge to the world. We have family in Patiala in the Punjab and India is a special part of our family. If you ever have a problem in India let us know as our people there have some influence. Cheers me & the Bride
25th March 2013

It has been a wonderful journey sharing your adventures as you have travelled Sri Lanka and India. The pictures have been outstanding. Enjoy your time in the Maldives Scuba Diving etc. Love and Best Wishes. Uncle Bill and Nicole
31st March 2013

I love your comments and especially the photos. What a wonderful journey you are on. It is something you will think about for years to come. I miss your mother as well, but did not realize it was so many years already. Time goes by and doesn't wait for anyone. Continue your journey, Marilyn,
27th December 2013

As has been said...Great photos!
I am just about to head to Kochi and to an Intrepid group journey. Enjoyed your blog and it has helped me prepare. cheers Greg (Catherine will join me a few days later)

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