Day Seven: Pondicherry. Starting your day with yoga on the rooftop of a beach resort has got to lead to only good things. Or at the very least, a good attitude.
Our first stop today is the home and ashram of Sri Aurobindo. There are no photos allowed anywhere so I am careful to note the many details in this beautiful and contrary place.
A little background on the man himself perhaps. A political dissident in India for supporting, with great fervor, the Free India effort while under British rule, he was imprisoned many times. The last time for one year in solitary confinement. It was during this time that he experienced a great many spiritual visions. While he was known to dismiss the term enlightenment with regard to is emergence as a changed man, he is widely thought to be just that.
This place we find ourselves then is a museum of his entire life as well as a sacred space.
As we stand before the arched entrance we are given a brief synopsis of the role Aurobindo played in Pondicherry.
Once we step through the gates we are greeted with a riot of color found in the lush flower garden planted along the walls and in the center of the entry way. The space opens up to various rooms with what appear to be altars. Hallways peek out from distant doorways, steps lead upstairs to our right.
There are people everywhere – some seated in meditation, some moving with purpose from place to place and others obvious tourists with their bookshop bags and the need to understand and absorb evident in their focused, curious eyes.
We are guided into one of the rooms with an altar or perhaps a tomb. It is protected from us by a velvet rope and vases of white flowers. We are asked to sit on either side of a long narrow yellow rug. This will be used by followers to pay their respects and make their offerings.
We sit in stillness until tapped on the shoulder to move on. From here we are led up the aforementioned stairs. The stairs themselves are significant in decoration. The steps are made of highly polished concrete stained in a dark warm sienna. They are rimmed along the front edge with a strip of rich mahogany. Where the riser meets the step the tiniest highly polished brass brackets sit about four inches in from either side of the wall. The walls are faced with matching concrete up to about five feet high. Above, white plaster smooth to the touch.
We are stalled, one of us on each step along the left hand side as we wait for a few people with flowers in their hands to make their way down the right. Once the last person makes it midway down we are free to ascend.
We are invited into the private quarters of Aurobindo to meditate. There is a small receiving room first. It is here we are greeted by six stuffed leopard heads, mouths open, teeth exposed, eyes shining. There is a single pelt draping them all. They rest atop a large mahogany trunk flanked by heavily carved chairs made of the same wood.
I was one of the last to enter the private room. Sitting just inside the door, I began to take in my surroundings. Front and center was a bed with what appeared to be a pillow, both draped in a cream colored sheet. I believe this is where Aurobindo lay in state for four days before his burial. To the left of the bed is his chair and to the right a large life-sized picture of him seated in that same chair. The room has a West Indies feel with white plaster walls and mahogany wood furniture.
There are mahogany built-in cabinets around the room with a desk and a book shelf on one side. The cabinet closest to me has a huge collection of ivory items; from toothpicks to money clips and everything in between. India is like this. Many great spiritual leaders, vegetarians all of them, are in possession of animal skins and products made of animals. Who is to say why? Nothing fits any sort of mold here, while somehow everything fits together. Acceptance is the key.
We sit silently in meditation with another velvet rope separating us from all that is precious. The room is filled with the scent of fresh flowers and incense. Just a few minutes later we are prompted to be on our way. As we exit we bow in appreciation to a man at a desk. I return he hands us a small envelop adorned with The Mother’s picture. Inside is a treasure to be discovered on another day.
We make our way back down the concrete, mahogany and brass stairs and are guided into an open area, shielded from the sky above by loosely strung tarps. In the center of this area is the raised tomb of Aurobindo. It seems much larger than it needs to be or perhaps the space is crowded or the room for it small. We are fed into a line that is paying respects. Each person kneels before the gray and white carerra marble tomb and places their forehead on the cool stone. Some of us do the same. In the center is a bed of freshly planted flowers, it is soft to the touch and gives under the weight of my hand.
We exit the ashram and reconvene. We will be walking two blocks to the gymnasium. There we are greeted by an ashramite. He is Indian, speaks impeccable English and is in top physical form for 50 something. He has been at the ashram since he was a child in school here, nearly 40 years. As an ashramite he works for the ashram but does not receive a salary. Everything he needs is provided for him; clothes, food, housing, medicine, etc. Liberating or limiting? I ponder what that might be like. It is complete surrender and in the west that is often equated with loss of control or weakness. In yoga we learn it is not giving up but simply allowing. Control is an illusion anyway. I let it go for now. He seems very content.
After he shares the gym policies and procedures with us, and there are many, we are bussed to the Aurobindo visitors bureau where we are treated to another movie. Make that two more movies on the philosophy of Aurobindo and The Mother. Jury is still out for me. So much good, just packaged a little uncomfortably.
Back to the shram for lunch. A might bit different from our previous ashram lunch but not much. It had a few western touches to accommodate the international community but the same rules applied and the food was still Indian. It is here I discovered the joys of goats milk curd (yogurt) with a small scoop of sugar and a tiny cut up sweet organic banana. I am grateful I am limited to one portion. Remember when bananas had seeds?! By the way, for this lunch we purchased a meal ticket that would have fed us all three meals today for 20 rupees. Or 35 cents.
It’s just past lunch and already the day feels very full. We take a poll on the bus to see who wants to go back to the resort and who wants to stay and shop for an hour or so. Swamiji secretly wants to shop I suspect. Out of 16 only 5 of us stay to grease the wheels of the Pondicherry economy. Swami Divyananda is one.
We divide and conquer. Sort of. In total we end up spreading our American wealth over only 2 stores.
I have come to the conclusion that maps are essentially useless here, much like traffic laws. Wanting to find a local market where women make and sell their crafts, we hand a map over to someone who works in the store we are currently supporting. Our question is simple: where are we on this map right now? He studies the map as if to get his bearings. He turns it this way and that. His fingernail traces one street and them another. And another. He places his pen at an intersection then turns the map again. More tracing then a decision is made. It didn’t really help. Now we know where we are but with no street signs we will surely end up right back here or in some welcoming persons home having chai far from anywhere. We stick to the road we’re on and do our best to find places that will separate us from our rupees.
Buoyed by the spending bug we head back. A quiet evening is ahead. We take to the beach. There is a guard at a gate that serves as the entrance to the beach. We must be back by 6:00 pm. The water is beautiful, the sand familiar. In the distance on the water we see brightly colored fishing boats. Their matching counter parts resting on the beach in front of us. This is a fishing village. Little thatched huts define the perimeter. There are two police officers seated on the edge of one boat. One is doing paperwork. I have never seen so much paper work as I have here. The other is standing. We want to take his photo but are not sure how to ask. We wave and say hello. He begins to walk toward us. We exchange pleasantries and he asks us to take his picture. We get his email address and promise to send it. All smiles we part and continue our exploration of the beach as the sun begins to set.
Back on the proper side of the gate we make plans once again for dinner at our same outdoor table under the arbor with people we feel we’ve been friends with forever.
Then off to the super high bed. As we recount our day, we realize too late that we had forgotten to find the Italian pizza place in Pondicherry. I guess there will have to be a next time.