A Travellerspoint blog

A hippies paradise

And the home of the only Brahma Temple

The great thing about travelling by car through India is that there is so much freedom to your schedule. You can make pitstops as you like and if an impromptu recommendation passes your way, you can do it with no issue. The bad thing about travelling by car, especially when you have a short period of time and many places to see, is that you are in the car for quite a long period of time! Fortunately, I can sleep anywhere, and when I wasn't playing charades with Nipo or busting a move to some Hindi tunes (I know so many of the hot hits now!), I was asleep. And luckily for me, I was travelling solo so had the whole back seat to myself!

Pushkar was about a six hour drive from Ranthambhore National Park. We arrived around 3pm. It is a small town just over some mountains from the city of Ajmer. Pushkar is a prominent Hindi pilgrimage town and is wrapped around a holy lake. It is the home of the only Brahama temple and has many bathing ghats that are found aroud the perimetre of the lake. Mountains surround the town and there are two temples that look over the city (the tallest of which, I climbed).

Despite being such a holy place, travellers still need to be wary of scams. Even the holy men will chase a Rupee! Nipo had warned me incessantly about the flower trick as he suspected I would be an easy victim as I'm "so nice and smile all the time" (clearly not an ideal quality to possess if you are trying to travel through India!). "Holy men" will try and give you flowers and then make a prayer with you for luck in life, give you something sweet to eat and then wrap a bracelet around your wrist and demand that you pay them 1000 Rupees or more otherwise you will be cursed (similar but not nearly as serious as the debacle I had on my first day in Mumbai! But that luckily only cost me 10 Rupees, which is less than 20 cents AUD). After my stern warning, I was well equipped to venture into the town and to deal with any scams that came my way. I was, however, slightly disappointed when I was only asked twice! I must no longer look as naive as I used to.

Even though Pushkar is very small, you definitely feel a presence in the town. I am not sure if it is the strong religious pull of the holy lake or the soft humming of people performing their pujas that permeates the town that creates its allurement. For me, this feeling was expected as visiting Pushkar came as a recommendation by one of the devotees at the ashram because of this draw. What really surprised me about the town was the type of tourists that were in Pushkar. This place is a serious hippie trap! For the first time ever, I found myself to be the only non-hippie in the crowd. I felt seriously out of place. Even the Asian's were hippies (I had never seen a hippie Asian before!). It seems that many people travel to Pushkar for a variety of reasons; some for the religious pilgrimage, others for the general experience (me), and for the vast majority it was to spend some quality time with Mary Jane (this could have just been timing too though!). Nipo later told me that many times some tourists will spend over a month in the town "relaxing". In my opinion, one night and a day is plenty!

I thoroughly enjoyed my brief time in Pushkar, it is an amazing town and well worth a look! Next stop is Udaipur...

Mel xx

The view from the Heritage Hotel balcony. Pushkar is surrounded by beautiful mountains.
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The entire town is built around a lake. Next to the lakes are about 52 bathing ghats. Hindus use these ghats as a form of religious ritual bathing or cleansing. The waters of Pushkar are considered to be sacred.
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The bather-less bathing ghats (if there were bathers, I would not have taken the photos out of respect). At the time, I didn't realise that you were not allowed to take photos here and was chased down by a man after I snapped a few quick ones. Luckily he didn't make me delete them. Surely they would have put up a sign if they were not allowed? Or maybe they did - in Hindi! No chance of me ever figuring that out though, ha!
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The bazaar! The entire perimetre of the lake is lined by bazaars and funky cafes.
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The Brahma Temple. This is the only photo that I have of the temple as camera, purses, etc are all forbidden (you leave all your items in a locker). It's a beautiful temple but much smaller than I was expecting.
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The best mango lassi! One of the few times that I have seen India be environmentally friendly, they sometimes serve lassies and coffee in clay pots. Once you are finished you can just throw them on the ground and because it is clay, it will just go back into the earth (everybody throws their rubbish on the ground here, it's awful! Rubbish bins are scarce but I will still walk around with trash in my hand until I find one!)
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The Laughing Buddha Cafe. Another required "CFM" (curry-free meal!)...Greek Salad! YUM! This was a funky cafe that was full of hippy Asians. In order to get to the cafe, you had to climb up some very steep and narrow stairs. I definitely wouldn't like to have tried after a few Kingfishers! It was hard enough for me to try and get in there without cracking my head sober!
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More bazaars.
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A temple in Pushkar. I am not sure which one this is though! Pushkar is a very holy town and there are over 400 temples here!
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Amazing view of Pushkar from the Saraswati Temple. I made Nipo climb to the top of this temple with me to watch the sunset as he had been several times with clients but had never been to the top! The climb was supposed to take an hour, but we did it in about half an hour. Poor Nipo was seriously struggling at one point (I don't think he was prepared for the "no-breaks" drill sergeant attempt!). I knew if I took too many breaks and went slowly, I would probably give up! It was definitely a challenging climb (but probably more so due to the fact that I haven't done any exercise!). The view was certainly worth the panting!
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Beautiful sunset at Saraswati Temple. Nipo told me that when the Camel Festival is on in Pushkar, there are markets and camel dancing shows as far as the eye can see. It is supposed to be a phenomenal time to visit Pushkar! Something else for the list...
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The concession stand at the top of the hill. There was some construction going on while we were at the top of the temple. Men were carrying wood and some kind of steel poles up and down the trail. I could hardly get myself up that mountain, let alone carrying building supplies! I would hate to think how many times they must have to go up and down that mountain a day!
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View from the ground to the top of the temple! We were so high!
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Posted by melpage 22:08 Archived in India Tagged pushkar Comments (0)

A tigerless safari

But at least I saw some monkeys!

I arrived in Jaipur at about 7.30am on Monday morning after yet another all nighter (I hope this isn't going to become a regular occurrence; my second of the week...I am definitely a girl who needs my sleep!). Nipo, my driver for the trip throughout Rajasthan, was waiting for me standing very proudly with a large sign saying "Melinda Mary" in large bold letters. Funny, I don't think that I could even count the times I have been called that on one hand (maybe a couple, when I was in trouble?!). It certainly got my attention and made me laugh.

From Jaipur, we immediately hit the road and drove about three hours to Ranthambhore National Park which is the famous tiger spotting wildlife park in Rajasthan about 10km out of a city called Sawai Madhopur. While I would have liked to have spent a bit more time in Jaipur exploring more of what is on offer, time was of the essence as I only had a week to get a taste of Rajasthan (and had already seen the highlights of Jaipur with the Grande Gringas). Nipo mentioned that in order to do all of Rajasthan, you need 25 days and I unfortunately did not have that! Next time...

After a quick power kip in the car, I was finally feeling human again and started chatting with Nipo. His English was decent enough for a general chat but it was definitely slightly challenging when you asked him pointed questions. Several times throughout our trip, I felt like we have been playing a talking version of charades; it was hilarious! Nipo is from the Himalayas (they pronounce as Him-al-lias) and had been a driver for the past 13 years. He loves the freedom that his job offers and the fact that he meets people from all over the world. Funnily enough, most of his clients come from Adelaide (he loves Australia). Small world! Not quite realising that while Adelaide is a smaller city, just listing off names of people you know "Lisa, Greg, David...", wasn't really going to help me see if I knew any other them! In his 13 years on the road, he has travelled every square inch of India and the length of his trips with his clients varies. He told me that he often has a couple from America come for six months at a time! I could not imagine being in a car for that long (let alone with the same people!). Nonetheless, it is certainly gives the tourist a great deal of freedom in their travel as you can come and go as you please.

The road from Jaipur to Ranthambhore was definitely not a smooth ride! Once you detour off the main highways, the roads are unfinished and very bumpy (another reason why I had a quick kip!). But the scenery was beautiful. I saw many people in the fields working and couldn't help but think about the ashram boys and how lucky they are to have gotten out of their farming fates. There is certainly nothing wrong with being a farmer, these people certainly appeared to be happy (they always waved at my car whenever we drove past), but being a farmer in the East looks tough. There is a great deal of manual labour for very little pay. I am so glad some of these boys were given the opportunity for something more.

We arrived at the hotel around lunchtime and I immediately went to my room for another sleep. The room was basic but I had a large plush king sized bed. Heaven! Oh how I had missed a comfortable bed. It might have been the best 2 hour snooze that I have ever taken! At about 3pm, we left for the safari. I sat next to a lovely lady from Sydney who was traveling with a group of her friends throughout India. It was her second (of three attempts) at seeing a tiger. There was certainly a lot of excitement among the group as they had met a man who had seen one at the same time slot and allotment that we were going to (not sure that guarantees a sighting?!). The park offers two safaris a day; one at 6am and one at 3pm and each lasts for about three hours.

Aside from showing the pictures, there isn't too much to say about Ranthambhore National Park. It is beautiful and we saw many animals but unfortunately no tigers. I had one night here and left early the next morning. Next stop is Pushkar! Pushkar came as a recommendation to me as a "must do" from one of the devotees at the ashram. Expectations are high!

I hope all is well with you!

Mel xx

The terrain is stunning! Such a beautiful national park. I have said this before, but often feels as though you could be anywhere in the world. India is so vast. Sometimes the scenery reminds me of Australia (or other places I have visited).
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The peacock is the national bird of India. I saw quite a few peacocks on the safari drive. This fella was standing very proudly waiting for his photo to be taken. Quite the poser indeed! It was very funny because he stood there so patiently as we all came up and took his picture.
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Monkeys! Like elephants, I also have a small obsession with monkeys too. So many monkey photos on my camera! They are so much fun to watch; very cheeky! I can't remember what everybody was looking at here, but thought it was cute.
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Our guide told us about three sacred trees in India, this is one of them. Unfortunately the name of it has slipped my mind.
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A kingfisher! Who knew they were so small?! I certainly didn't! Thought it was very appropriate to put this up as I have been a very loyal customer of one of India's finest exports, the Kingfisher lager!
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Our guide. I was definitely nervous driving around some of the "roads" in our jeep. They were often very steep and would cause our roofless jeep to sway from side to side (hanging on for dear life!). I kept having visions of me being thrown out and down a cliff! Morbid, I know!
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Posted by melpage 19:48 Archived in India Tagged ranthambhore_national_park Comments (0)

My first puja and a near incident of indecent exposure

Another lesson learned the hard way...bobby pins just don't cut it!

After reading the title of this blog, I am sure many of you have questions about what all this must mean! What on earth is a puja?! And more importantly, what were you doing that almost resulted in exposing yourself to the masses?! I assure you that it was all in good faith (and performing a puja is certainly not as illicit as it may sound!).

I have always been a firm believer in "everything happens for a reason" and in most cases, the 'reasoning' is unbeknownst to us until we reflect back later in life. It may be a lesson, or perhaps an action that forces us to take a different path. Regardless of why it occurred, I believe that while we think we are the masters of our own destiny, we are not, and are merely bumbling along a path that has already been predetermined for us. I am still not sure why I am at this ashram but am certain there is a very strong purpose behind it. It certainly wasn't an accident that mum happened to have some friends that went to this ashram. Regardless, I am very happy to be here in the present and am so grateful for the fantastic opportunities that I have been given thus far. I most certainly do not consider it to be luck that I am at this ashram during one of the most sacred nights in Hinduism. Maha Shivratri!

Maha Shivratri is a Hindu festival that happens once a year and is the celebration of the God Shiva. The date of the celebration is determined each year on a full moon in the month of Maagha in the Hindu calendar (the date is variable each year as the Hindu calendar follows lunar activity. I am not sure what that means for birthdays then?! I should ask!). During the day and night of Maha Shivratri, Hindus will fast and stay up all night in order to worship Shiva. It is believed that those who fast and offer prayers to Shiva will bring good-luck into their life (here's hoping!).

Fasting in Hinduism is not the same as in the West. Fasting means that no grains are consumed during the fasting period. I've never been one to particularly like missing a meal, but I can tell you that I was quite happy to take part in this type of fasting as I was able to have a break from all the wheat and rice that I had been consuming multiple times a day. It was certainly nice to have some variety! We ate lots of potatoes and tapioca (however not in the same way that the tapioca in the West is served) on Thursday...yum!

I woke up on Thursday morning not knowing anything more than that it was in fact Shivaratri. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen or what it even meant aside from knowing that I would have to pull an all-nighter (something that is certainly not new to me...well minus the key element of alcohol!). So when Swami Komalananda approached me at breakfast that morning as to whether I would like to be part of the ceremony and perform a puja, I eagerly obliged. No, I did not know what a puja was at that time, but before I commenced on this journey, I promised myself that the theme for my travels would be "to get amongst it". And in keeping that promise, I went ahead. There is always time to worry about the fine print later!

I later learned that this was a tremendous honour and also that I needed to wear a sari (excellent! Another wear!!!). Now comes the anxiety....let's hope I don't make a fool out of myself in front of the entire community on this most highly celebrated occasion...

A puja is a prayer ritual that Hindus perform in honouring deities or in order to celebrate a spiritual event. There are a variety of different types of pujas; some are performed daily, while others would occur less frequently, like Shivratri, where it only occurs once a year. Puja is Sanskrit for reverence. There are many different ways to perform a puja. The way that we performed ours was to offer our sacred object water, milk, cream, spices, honey, flowers, leaves, rose petals, a coconut, incense, and fruit. Each of the elements that are offered have an underlying meaning of why they are offered (I have been promised a cheat sheet so I understand the meanings). Our puja primarily revolved around using these elements to perform symbolic bathing. It is a lovely process (but lengthy!). In the early hours of the morning, my tolerance for repetition of the same action was at an all time low. At some points I remember thinking "how much more cleaning do these sandals need?! They've already been through four rounds of two hour bathing?!".

The night is divided into scheduled time slots with the rounds of abhisheks (or pujas) commencing at 6.36pm, 9.36pm, 12.36pm & 3.36pm, respectively. These times are certainly random, but are considered to be the most auspicious times to perform an offering. Funnily enough, Indian time struck again and we were certainly not running on time for all of it. I did, however, manage to start my puja right on time (I think this was due to the fact everyone was ready to get out of there!).

6pm dinner (about two hours earlier than usual! And we got home-made potato chips! Yipee!)
6.36pm abhishek (there were 5 options for the abhishek - 1) to Baba who was Muktananda's Guru, 2) Baba's sandals, 3) Muktananda's sandals, 4) the snake & 5) Shiva
9pm chai
9.36pm abhishek
12pm chai
12.36pm abhishek
3am - hot milk (I don't like milk but I LOVED this. They spice the milk with all kinds of yummy spices like cinnamon and cardamom, put heaps of sugar in it and also add some finely chopped pistachio nuts - delicious!)
3.36pm abhishek (here I go!!!)
6am chanting
7.30am breakfast

Overall, it was phenomenal to experience and I am very touched that I was even considered to take part. I look forward to the possibility of doing one again one day (and this time with a greater understanding and appreciation for what I am a part of). Even with the little knowledge that I did have, it was still an incredibly powerful experience.

The good news is that I am off to Rajasthan on Monday as I had hoped! Unfortunately the trains didn't work out. For anyone else that is considering to travel to India one day, you must book the trains at least 45 days in advance as they sell out very quickly. It is by far the most popular means of transport as much cheaper than flying and hiring a driver. They are supposed to be a lot of fun and a must do too, so will definitely be something that I will be on top in the future!

Hope all is well whereever this finds you!

Mel xx

All ready for the night! Each state has its own style of how to wear a sari. The style that I wore for Shivratri is the Gujurati style (which I actually prefer). I had one of the ladies put it on for me (they do it so quickly and effortlessly, quite amazing!). The only problem was that I didn't have any pins so everything was "tucked" in. Feeling a bit nervous about this (and considering that the first time I wore one I had millions of pins securing me; was like Fort Knox to get out of), I opted for the next best thing, and put bobby pins to help keep the pleats in place. That lasted for about an hour before it all went haywire. At one stage my pleats had completely come untucked from my waist and I was about to get up (and would have been fully exposed in the temple!) but one of the ladies nearby happened to notice and quickly tucked them in for me...phew!!!!! I wish I had taken a photo of what it looked head to toe so that you can see how nice the pleats were laying to start with....perils of travelling solo!
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Some of the boys chanting. Each "shift" of puja takes at least 2 hours and the boys took turns in chanting as each puja was commencing. Many of their chants have hand actions which help them keep time and rhythm. One thing I have not yet commented on in other posts is that the boys dress very traditionally at the school (not sure what they call their attire but I have been referring to them as man-robes - very technical!). They look so regal in their robes. I love it. For the most part, they also have buzzed hair cuts with a small ponytail at the back (you may be able to see a few in the pictures). I am not entirely sure of the significance as some wear the ponytails longer than others but will try and find out and let you know! The people I have asked haven't known why.
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My friend Jayashri got to complete the abhishek (interchangable with puja) with Baba who was Muktananda's Guru. It is a huge honour to be able to perform an abhishek on Shivratri.
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Jayashri in action!
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Uncle-ji and Auntie-ji performing puja to a snake (I was later told this was another form or related to Shiiva in some way). Uncle-ji is the cubed potato man! He is great value and has the most infectious laugh. Anytime he laughs, I start laughing which usually results in me getting some bewildered looks as they know that I don't speak Hindi! The boys absolutely adore Uncle-ji; he certainly is a character!
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Anasuya (and fellow Aussie - yeh!) performing abhishek to Baba also. I believe she is pouring some milk on him here.
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Me having a crack! I am performing puja to Muktananda's sandals which is an enormous privilege. All of the Westerners that I have met converted straight away after meeting this man. He was apparently absolutely amazing and had the most profound effect on people. I wish he was still alive; would have loved to have met him!
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The face of concentration! Dipanshu (Deo) was my puja instructor and did an excellent job of steering me straight (which was definitely not an easy task!). He speaks great English and was very patient with me as I was stammering my way through the Sanskrit reciting. He even kept his composure when I accidentally threw water all over myself after telling me to drink it out of my right hand, and for some reason i decided to throw it in my face?! It was almost 4am....I was a little delirious to say the least!
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This is the only photo that I have of me looking like I am somewhat enjoying myself! I promise I was smiling in quite a lot of the ceremony! I just look incredibly serious in all the photos. Part of it may have been because I was in pain. Who knew sitting down cross legged for 12 hours was so painful! My knees were killing me.
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Decorating the sandals with pretty flowers.
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Making an offering with a candle. The lady doing the offering next to me is Rahkee (the doctor for the ashram). In the background, you can see Swami Sundarandana who is Rahkee's mum. Swamiji (also called Amma, which means mother, has been so good to me!), became a swami after her husband passed. She told me a few nights ago that when you take the oath, you let go of all of your ties to your family so technically she is not Rahkee's mum anymore. Although in reality of course she still is but I guess there is a reproritisation of your family no longer being the top priority.
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This isn't a particularly flattering photo but I thought I would include it to give you an idea of how disheveled I became over the course of the night - ha! In the beginning, it was all very organised at the back with the pleats neatly in place. At the end of the night, I basically had the sari drapped around me and tucked into all sorts of unorthodox places! Thank goodness it was so early in the morning and there weren't too many people left (or if they were, they were tired anyway!)
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Posted by melpage 07:25 Archived in India Tagged ashram magod maha-shivratri Comments (1)

Day in the life of a devotee

Starting to feel "cleansed"

Surprisingly, the days absolutely fly by here in Magod. I thought I would have a great deal of time to sit and contemplate life, but no such luck! Oh well, I'm not sure I would have gotten very far anyway. An idle mind is the devils workshop...

Shanti Mandir is located in a small rural village called Magod in the state of Gujarat, which is about a 4 hour drive from Mumbai (two of which is trying to get out of Mumbai, insanity!). There isn't too much to Magod besides the ashram, a few houses and one general store that only sells the bare boned essentials. Valsad is about 7km away from Magod and is the closest metropolis (about 2 million people). I had the pleasure of heading in there for a visit a few days ago and I can tell you that place is an absolute zoo! I was certainly glad to seek refuge at the ashram again. But that is a story for another time...

The ashram is located on a gorgeous 20 acre property and is amongst hundreds of mango, coconut and chickoo trees. An ashram gives its devotees the opportunity to experience divinity through practice of Sanskrit chanting, silent meditation, study of sacred texts, offer services and to take part in sacred rituals. As well as being an ashram where you can come and stay and practice your devotion and Vedic rituals, etc., the ashram in Magod also has a Sanskrit School for Boys, Medical & Eye Clinic and a Women's handicraft centre.

The Sanskrit school currently has approximately 75 students in attendance. Free eduction, board and lodging are provided to the boys (they even receive a monthly stipend so that they can be financially independent of their parents). The school accepts them when they are eight years old and they are enrolled for ten years. They leave with a degree and would also be considered a Priest. These boys all come from families facing financial hardships, many of which, if they didn't come here, would not be educated and be in a field somewhere earning 50 Rupees a day in order to help support their family. What Guru Dev and the other Swamis (a Swami is essentially a monk) are doing for these kids is so admirable. These boys work unbelievably hard; they go to school 7 days a week and their day begins between 4.30 - 5.30am (depending if they are scheduled for yoga or not) and ends at 8pm for dinner. Despite the long hours and being taken from their families at such a young age, they have all turned out to be such lovely and well mannered boys (and so happy)! It amazes me that for people who have so little and have to work so hard for everything they have got (which is not much), they are so content. Makes you wonder really wonder about how we live our lives in the West and growing up getting everything we want...doesn't necessarily make you a happy kid, does it?!

The medical clinic is onsite is also a free service that is offered to the rural population of Valsad and is run by Rahkee (who also teaches the yoga class in the morning and is the resident doctor for the ashram). I believe Rahkee also has a mobile clinic that she uses to service those are too ill to be mobile.

The handicraft centre is also located on the premise and was set up in order to empower the local women by training them to offer them viable and fulfilling work opportunities in craft to support their families. They have a gift shop here at the ashram and the work is beautiful (some needs a little more practice, but most is lovely). There is an outlet for this crafts in Mumbai, as well as the US and Australia.

It is very hard to put into words the effect this place has had on me over the past two weeks. It is such a serene environment. A sanctuary from the craziness of India. I have not once felt any negative energy since I have arrived. Everyone exudes so much warmth and love towards one another and it is hard to not have that rub off on you. I don't think I have ever been amongst so many selfless people, they are truly beautiful souls and it is certainly making me want to strive to be more of a selfless person.

A typical day at the ashram looks like this:

4.30am - 6am yoga (I don't always get up for this, but it is offered everyday except Sunday. I have also been taking this class in Hindi which always results in a pretty interesting start to the day!!!)
5-7.30am chanting (I don't attend all of this, usually just the last hour but have been really enjoying it. I don't sing as my Hindi is pretty woeful but I definitely bop along to the tunes. The boys are amazing!)
8am - breakfast (usually some sort of spicy rice or some other carb...I should be in marathon training for how much carbs I have been consuming!)
8.30 - 1pm seva
1 - 1.30 lunch (rice, chapatties, dahl and another hot veggie dish. This is the biggest meal of the day)
1.30 - 2.15ish - seva
2.30 4 - seva
4-4.30pm - Chai
4.30 - 6pm seva (or a snooze)
6 - 7.30pm chanting
8pm Dinner (rice, chapatties, & dahl)
8.30 - 10pm free time
10pm lights out

Each devotee is expected to complete seva while they are here. Seva, I believe, is the Hindi term for service and basically is a chore that you do daily in order to help the ashram running functionally. The newbies are typically assigned the "full proof" duties, like cutting vegetables for the meals, drying dishes, washing windows, sweeping, etc. For the first couple of days they let me run solo until I got into the swing of things (and trust me, I needed it!). I then asked to be assigned some tasks and was given vegetable cutting (after breakfast), dish drying (after lunch) and window washing (usually after chai in the afternoons). The veggie cutting and dish drying jobs are intense! There are a lot of mouths to feed here, and growing boys for that matter, the amount of food we go through on a daily basis is obscene!

By far, vegetable cutting has been the toughest one to "get right". Who knew cutting veggies was so hard! Well, it is not, the problem is that Uncle-ji (a term of endearment for the older males here), is extremely particular with what shapes he likes the vegetables to be cut in. It is not easy trying to deciper what shape he is talking about when it is being told to you in broken English mixed with Hindi! Usually, he will take the knife out of my hands and show me, but that isn't always full proof either as there are two Uncles that are usually running the "chopping" show and quite a few times they have had contradicing ideas of what shapes should be cut. One seems to like more of a wedge for the potatoes, and the other a cube. On one particular morning, without realising, they both were telling me two different things. Not really knowing what to do and how to even begin to get them to understand what is happening in English, I decided to meet them both somewhere in the middle and made a cube-ish wedge (surely that will tick both boxes?!). Anyway, they never said anything to me about my final product but I certainly got a few perplexed looks (and laughter). I am sure they think I am completely incompetent!

Another veggie blunder has been around the peeling of potatoes (clearly potatoes are not my forte). Perhaps a re-assignment after my "cutting" skills didn't seem up to par? Feeling a bit industrious and determined to redeem myself from my cutting debacles, I went on a peeler hunt and found one (success!). I promptly began peeling my potatoes and then all of a sudden I hear "NO! NO! NO! Not that. You waste potato...see!". Uncle-ji grabs the peeler out of my hands and passes me a knife. Ok, so using a vegetable peeler is wrong? I later learned that we actually have to scrape the skin off with a knife (saves maybe a few millimetres of potato!). This took me a little while to get used to (and a few moments where I thought i was going to cut my hand open), but I can now proudly say that I skin a potato with a knife like no body's business (and pretty quick too!). I've also mastered carrots! Which, by the way, are red in India.

In addition to my chore seva duties, I've also been asked to help out with a business proposal on behalf of Guru Dev for Shanti Mandir. Without getting into the fine details of the project, we are trying to pull together a package that we can present to potential investors for a capital raise. This project is in an effort to expand the Sanskrit school at the ashram to now service 300 boys (from 75). In order to do this, Guru Dev would like to create a state of the art non-denominational International Baccalaureate school (from K to year 12) for the children of the high net worth individuals in India. And when I say state of the art, I mean state of the art! The facilities this school will have are amazing (I am considering doing high school all over again!)! Archery field, meditation centre, olympic pool, chess master....you name it....they got it! It is seriously impressive! The aim is to get the school up and running for 2017 and once it becomes profitable, the profits will be shifted into the ashram (and also proportionally to the investors) in order to fund the expansion. Schooling is an enormous priority in India. Parents are very focussed on the education of their children and will spare no expense in making sure that they get the best education that they can afford.

While it has been a great deal of work being involved in this business plan (primarily the reason why the days are flying!), I have been finding it to be incredibly fulfilling. It has been a long time (or maybe the first time?) since I have had the opportunity to contribute my expertise to something that I really believe in and am proud to be a part of. While in the grand scheme of the project, it is a very small contribution, it still feels great nonetheless. I'm so excited to see how the plan will progress and hope that they will be successful. I've even been offered a position at the new school if I want it...so who knows...maybe after this year is done I'll be living in India, ha!

I am still taking every day as it comes but have decided that I'd like to head to Rajasthan next week (if I can get the trains sorted!). In typical Mel fashion, I have left it to the last minute not realising the Indian trains often are at capacity up to a month out! And the website, as with most things in India, is an absolute nightmare to navigate. I'm having my mate Bahskar come by to help sort me out tonight so hopefully it all pans out! After Rajasthan, I will likely come back to the ashram for a week and celebrate Holi here (which is apparently supposed to be crazy!). Cannot wait!

Hope all is well with you all...keep in touch

Mel xx

This is the ashram from the main drag. The entire premise is enclosed by a wall.
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The second floor of my building. My room is the furthest door on the right.
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The landscape. The entire property is a giant orchard. It's so serene! It is also a complete labyrinth to navigate and I have been lost on several occasions. They really should hand out maps upon arrival...
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This is where all the washing up happens. I usually sit on a giant tarp with a towel for about an hour (sometimes more depending on how many people are around) drying everything up!
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The office! I've got my own desktop computer set up in here. You can see my partners in crime (Nandine & Raghu in the background). Nandine & Raghu are heading up the entire project as part of their seva which is an enormous feat! They are essentially dedicating 5 years of their life to this project, pro bono! Raghu is a fellow Aussie and is an absolute legend! He's got a great sense of humour and has kept me very entertained with his stories; what a character! Nandine is Indian and is so lovely; we have a lot of fun together!
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The outside of the main temple. I am not sure if I can take pictures of the inside so haven't done so yet. But will find out and if I can will certainly post some. It's lovely in there. That is where the chanting happens in the morning and evenings.
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The cows! Last week one of the cows gave birth and was not feeling too well for a few days. As you know, Hindus consider the cows to be sacred, so after the morning chants last week, we all went to the cows and sang to them and fed them bananas to cheer them up. It was pretty hilarious (well, they don't find it funny but I did!). Of course I happened to feed an absolute beast of a cow who tried to ingest my hand! Cow slobber everywhere! So gross!!!
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The gift shop
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This is the eatery where the Westerners and elderly Indians sit. You can't blame me for not considering this to be "inside" thus removing my shoes?!!!
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The other side of the eatery where the Indians sit. They sit cross legged on the floor.
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Washing!
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Posted by melpage 05:14 Archived in India Tagged ashram magod Comments (2)

First impressions of an ashram

Maybe I am a tad out of my depth here?

While I feel there is still so much about myself that I am yet to learn, there is one thing I do know with certainty in my almost thirty years of existence, I jump before I think (a typical Aries trait!). And deciding to go to an ashram is certainly no exception.

Sure I knew a little (I had seen Eat, Pray, Love afterall!); I knew they did yoga (love yoga!), meditated (something I have been trying to work on for a long time), ate Indian food (yum! FYI, I have now mastered non-poo hand eating!), worshipped various Hindu gods (thank you Sagey for introducing me to Ganesha, the elephant-like god that rides a mouse and signifies overcoming obstacles) and they perform services/chores (ok, so that is tolerable), so how bad could it possibly be? I knew I needed some down time to get grounded and back to basics. I needed a clear head and time to think and start pondering what it is that I really wanted out of life. And from the very high level understanding of what I thought an ashram was, it seemed like it is the perfect place to start this process (that will undoubtedly continue for the rest of the year and beyond!).

But on that first full day, when I caught my first glimpse of the other devotees, I would be lying if I didn't say that I began to question my sanity..."seriously Melinda, what the hell are you doing?!". In a sea of about 130+ Indians, most of which were made up of 75 young boys ranging from 8-mid/late twenties, there were about 8 westerners who were all at least twenty years my senior and were completely decked out in Indian attire (the seriously converted!). Talk about a fish out of water!

Well here goes nothing, I took a deep breathe and sat down at a large table of westerners (luckily there was one extra space) and introduced myself. They were all very nice and welcoming and took turns introducing themselves. Each of them were from various parts of the world, having vastly different stories of how they "got here", and were now all going by Indian names that I could hardly say, let alone try and spell (and to be honest even rememeber! I figure asking for a third time is just flat out rude so have been sneakily avoiding it or finding other ways of finding out). So feeling a little deflated and like a bit of an indiot for thinking I could even handle this (or even last more than a few days!), it dawned on me that we actually have quite a few things in common. For one, a love of India, an interest in the culture, and for me, I had a million questions about what really happens at an ashram (let alone even forming a basis for a general understanding of what it means to be a Hindu). And for these devotees, who are so in awe of Guru Dev, and love the religion, I couldn't have picked a better place to start. With anyone that has a passion for anything, when they speak about it, they light up and the conversation soon flowed effortlessly. So maybe I can do this? After the lunch hour, I left the table smiling, it was all going to be ok. It was going to be "interesting" as I am so far out of my depth and have so much to learn to even know the basics, but at least I was treading water now and maybe only swallowing a few gulps of water here and there.

While things seemed to be going as well as could be expected, there have been certainly some faux pas committed along the way (and still being committed!). My first was at about 9am on my first morning, I was tired as had only arrived at 1am that morning, when I completely forgot where I was and when there was a knock at my door, I opened it, forgetting that I was in my pjs. By western standards my pjamas are completely standard, just a pair of boxer shorts and a tanktop (luckily it was cold and I had a jumper on over the top, God forbid if I had the legs and shoulders out...would have been considered a seriously loose unit!). There I was the door wide open and two Indian men just gawking at me as though I was practically naked, they quickly looked away (and subsequently avoided all eye contact) and came inside. Crap, I had forgotten that I was expecting someone to come in and fix my hot water heater. I awkwardly sat down on my bed and covered my legs with a blanket while I had men in and out of my room trying to get the heater fixed. Cringe. Not exactly the best start to the day!

The second occurred about 30 minutes later (seriously, can't I catch a break here?!) when I was over an hour late for breakfast (everyone had gone), but there was one young man who was waiting for me to arrive. I immediately recognised him as one of the guys who was in my room earlier for the hot water heater. I walked in and he pointed to a table that I was to sit at; "sit there". Ok, so I am clearly eating alone and am I that repulsive that you won't sit with me? He then yelled something out in Hindi (not entirely sure to who) and out came another young boy with my food. Then he looked over at me with a horrified look. Great, what have I done now, I am just sitting here?!. "Shoes not inside" he scoffed. I'm sure he thought I was raised in a barn! But in my defense, the eating area is open aired and just covered with a roof with so hardly "inside" in my opinion, but I won't argue. There have been many "oooopsies" occurring since but the westerners have been correcting me where they can and the little boys have been looking after me.

The boys speak varying degrees of English and some are more keen to try and interact with me than others. I think part of it is also that I am a girl and in India, girls and boys don't fraternise like they do in the west so that is part of the reason for the separation or distance. For the first few days, they kept their distance and rarely made eye contact. If they did, and I caught them, I would usually smile, and they would look away. At first I thought it was quite strange, but now looking back of it, I can't really blame them. I was this young(ish) western girl who clearly didn't have a clue what I was doing (I am sure they all think I am a complete spaz), I don't dress in Indian attire and don't partake in any of the ritual worshipping in any of the ceremonies (just observe). So why am I here?

But they have now really seemed to open up to me. They smile, greet me in English (or in Hindi if they don't speak well), ask my name and where I come from, and they look out for me. At one ceremony, I accidentally took the sanskrit chanting book (duh!) and one of them noticed and brought me a copy of the English version. Quite often in the chanting sessions, as I am following along in the book, I often lose my place. They see that I have lost my place and one will come over (or one of my western friends) will help me find my place again. They're sweet and each day the interactions are becoming more frequent and friendlier.

I did make one Indian friend right off the bat, Anund, the communications manager for the ashram. He is probably about my age, maybe a bit younger (very hard to tell how old Indians are!), but has been so welcoming from the very beginning. In the first few days we had some pretty long conversations, and weren't particularly saying much but more taking a long time for either one of us to convey what we wanted to say to the other. But I appreciated the effort and quite enjoyed his company. He is also my saviour as he got me a connection to the internet (which is something that should be used sparingly here). Unfortunately, he is gone now as has followed Guru Dev to Dehli. I am not sure when he is back, but hopefully before I leave so that I can say bye.

So my first few days have been very interesting for a variety of reasons but mostly because it was all so new and foreign. Within one of the first minutes of meeting one of the westerners, a lovely French lady, she exclaimed how lucky I was because Guru Dev was here and I would have a couple of days with him before he moved on to Dehli and I should maybe consider following him to Dehli! What! He's here? Oh God, I have just gotten here, have no idea how to do anyting appropriately and the Guru is here (and I certainly can't follow him to Dehli!). Why couldn't he have come on my last few days when I was in the swing of it and not breaking every "rule"!

Because the Guru was here and leaving shortly, all of the ceremonies were significantly longer and much grander. People travelled for hours to come and bid him farewell (many people come here on the weekends from Mumbai, which is a 4 hour drive! They are so devoted). On my first full day, I got to take part in a 5 hour chanting session. And for the girl who can hardly make it through a Catholic Mass without falling alseep or passing out, I surprisingly made it through with flying colours! I have no idea why I found it so easy, perhaps it was the hypnotic melodies of the boys chanting or the boys going nuts on the bongo drums or maybe it was just that it was all so new and so lively so it kept me engaged.

On the eve of my first full day, I got to meet the Guru himself. This is apparenlty a pretty huge deal and when I did, I assure you I did it in the most awkward fashion possible. I was so hesitant about the thought of it but the westerners were so encouraging about it that I eventually decided that I should. So my next big question, how do you even go about interacting with a Guru? How do I greet him? A handshake? (I really wanted to give a high five but knew that would be seriously inappropriate). I was told that you could either fall to your knees and bow or do a simple Namaste with your hands together. Not one to bow or devote myself to anything that I do not fully understand (or 100% fully committed to for that matter), I opted with the Namaste and was comfortable with that as it is something that I have done thousands of times to my lovely yoga teachers over the years. My interaction was brief and full of awkward pauses (on my part) but all in all, it wasn't that bad. I am glad I had the opportunity.

The following day, after watching the Guru during the ceremonies and listening to other devotees speak about him and his work, I decided that he is a top bloke (not sure if that is appropriate to say, but it's the truth). He has an incredible sense of humour, no I don't speak Hindi (he does speak great English but mostly conducts ceremonies in Hindi and there is an ear piece the westerners listen to for the translation), he has everyone laughing in his services and all the little girls in the community love him and during the ceremonies will come up and sit on his lap. He also does some amazing work in the community and has some very inspirational visions for the ashram which will also affect the wider India (and also world) which left me in awe. I have grown a great sense of admiration for his workings and am beginning to see what the fuss is all about. But more on that in another post!

I've decided to take my time here day by day. What I love about being here is that for the first time in a long time, I am starting to live in the moment. I'm no longer wishing for the weekend or counting down the minutes (let's be honest, sometimes it was seconds), until home time. I don't know how long I will stay here and have been toying with the idea of going back to the state of Rajasthan (where Jaipur is) for a look but will see how I feel. All I know is that I need to be in the UK mid March (don't worry Hicksie, we will have our night out in London when you visit!). So will see what happens, but it is certainly nice to be taking each day as it comes and not worrying about the next.

Next post, I will give you a bit more of an overview about the ashram, where I am, what I am doing and maybe some more stories about the friends that I have made here. I've been loving all the texts, emails and comments, so keep 'em coming!

Jai Guru Dev (Victory to the Greatness in You)

Mel xx

PS And for those of you who think I've completely lost my marbles, don't worry, you won't be getting an invite to my "Mel's becoming a Hindu" ceremony anytime soon (if that is even such a thing?! But if I did have one, it would be epic and have loads of exquisite Indian food - so worth the visit - ha!). I am just finding all of this so fascinating so I thought I'd share...hopefully it is somewhat interesting for at least a few of you!

My new digs (next post will have the ashram grounds, etc). Oh how the mighty have fallen! The first night was definitely a shock to the system. The bed is hard as rocks. But now I am settled and a bit more comfortable (just needed to recalibrate the comfort barometre!). It is the bare bones, but has everything I need so I am happy enough!
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Shamefully, it took me at least 10minutes to figure out how to flush the loo! Not the typical western button. You need to twist a knob and then sharply pull and twist it out to stop the flush (my first try the toilet was flushing for a fair while before I figured that out, ha!)
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And this is how we do laundry on the road. I use a bucket and some woolite sachets that I brought over with me. I miss sending out my laundry like I did in the flash hotels I was staying at with the Grande Gringas! It is revolting to see how much dirt comes out of your clothes (even after a couple of wears and if they still look clean). The water is foul after! So dusty here.
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This is the swing in my apartment complex. I am sitting here writing this blog (and it's the closest proximity to the wireless room without being inside).
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Posted by melpage 22:05 Archived in India Tagged ashram shanti-madir Comments (3)

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