Today was the third of a six-day visit to Haridwar, a break from Hindi classes and the rains of Mussoorie. We decided to have a morning walk to the Ma Anandamayi Ashram in Khankal, just over four kilometers from our hotel.
There are, of course, many Anandamayi ashrams, including Ma’s ashram in Almora, where we spent a fair amount of time in July and August. The ashram in Kankhal is where Ma’s samadhi is located. For those of you not familiar with Indian terms, the samadhi is the place where a guru’s bodily remains are housed. Samadhi actually means the state of eternal bliss, the merging into oneness that takes place when a teacher’s work on this earth is complete, and the body is left behind.
The walk from our hotel to the ashram is about 4.5 kilometers. Despite being a center for Hindu religious practice, Haridwar is not a particularly peaceful or relaxed place. The roads are mostly quite narrow, at least for all the traffic they carry. Rickshaw, vikram (a larger type of rickshaw) and scooter drivers are constantly blaring their horns. It makes any trip along the streets exceedingly noisy, sometimes to the point of actual pain. I keep forgetting to tuck my earplugs into my bag, so I walk down the street with my hands by my head, one finger on each side firmly pressing the flesh of each ear across its opening.
This morning was different. We started early enough that the traffic hadn’t built up yet. Google Maps showed us a route going southwest on a narrow street that eventually ran right next to the Ganga canal. The British built this canal many years ago, and curiously, this is where Haridwar’s famous ghats and clocktower are located, rather than on the banks of the natural river channel.
As the street joined the edge of the canal, we noticed more and more large dharmashalas (pilgrims’ rest houses) and huge private homes along both sides of the street. It’s natural, of course; people have always come to Haridwar to bathe in the holy river, and bathing in the early morning is an especially good thing to do. Staying right on the river’s edge gets you as close as possible.
To our left, I looked into the big open entries of some dharmashalas and houses. Imagine huge open doors like the opening to a medieval castle, and you’ve got the picture. I expected to see courtyards, but to my surprise and delight, I found myself looking right through a hall to the fast-flowing waters of the Ganga itself, sunlight flickering on its surface. From these houses and dharmashalas, you can walk right down into the waters of the Ganga itself, and come back to a cup of tea. What luxury! Not to mention the beauty of the early morning light reflecting back from the water into a marble-floored hall. It was one of the most romantic sights I have ever seen, and coupled with the peeling paint on the outside walls of most of these buildings, gave the feeling of walking through ancient, timeless tradition.
It’s good I got to see such beauty, because much of the rest of the walk was noisy with morning commuters on scooters, and as we got closer to Kankhal, the horns of vikrams carrying visitors to the Daksh Mandir, a large temple complex just over 100 meters from the ashram.
We had another great find before reaching Daksh Mandir: an old, grand building with beautiful painted decorations, now fallen into disrepair, with what looked like many families living in it.
The two ladies chatting in front were friendly, but I certainly don’t have enough Hindi to ask them the history of this building. If we have time before we go back to Mussoorie, I’d like to walk past it again and see if I can figure out when it was built, and look for any lettering saying who its owner was.
By the time we reached Daksh Mahadev Prajapati Mandir, we’d been walking nearly an hour. We were tired from the noise and dust of the road, and the heat was building up towards 38° C (100° F). So we went into the temple grounds for a while to rest up. The complex is large, with a number of separate buildings for shrines to different gods and goddesses, including Sri Ganga, the mother goddess embodied in the river itself.
The temple atmosphere was peaceful, despite many visitors wandering through. There are several large old trees offering shade, and the priests at each shrine were friendly and welcoming.
We walked down some stairs to the Ganga where worshippers were already scooping up water, pouring some over their heads, taking some into their mouths and praying to the goddess. Instructed by the priest, we also scooped a little of Mother Ganga’s blessing onto our heads, and touched the marble carving of her feet. The cold fresh river water felt good on our own bare feet after the walk.
We spent a little more time visiting the various shrines, then put our shoes back on and walked the short distance to Ma Anandamayi’s ashram. We shuffled off our shoes as we entered the ashram office and asked if we could visit Ma’s samadhi. A gentle older man told us to put our shoes back on, then walked us back out the gate and up the road a short distance, to re-enter the ashram precincts through another gate.
Ma’s samadhi is housed in a large white marble mandir, beautifully made with well-tended plants all around. It is very different from the ashram in Almora, but like that ashram, it is filled with a feeling of serenity. Silence is required inside the samadhi, but I think one would want to be silent there in any case.
The stone tomb is enclosed by a metalwork screen, and is covered with flowers. Beyond the tomb, in a large alcove, is a white marble statue of Mother. A small, very old woman clad in a white cotton sari moved silently around the tomb, placing and rearranging flowers with care.
Both the tomb and the statue seemed to be at a great distance from where we seated ourselves, almost as if I were looking through a telescope toward a faraway mountain range. I watched the old woman for a while, and then another old woman emerged, and a tall man. Both women seemed to be instructing the man about some kind of maintenance that needed to be done to a ceiling beam. They were so far away, I could see only their gestures, not their facial expressions, like being in the top balcony of a large opera house, watching actors or dancers without the benefit of binoculars.
I watched the movements, heard the loud honking of car horns from the road, and looked at the white marble representation of Mother’s face before me, far away and gleaming like the full moon. My mind, as usual, was filled with thoughts when I entered the place – everyday minutiae, scattered and uninspiring, one thought crowding on another. As I gazed to Mother’s white face, there came a point when my eyes grew tired and stung. I closed them, and after a moment or two, everything went silent. I no longer heard the traffic, nor electric fans, nor whatever other sounds surrounded me. The thoughts were replaced with one phrase, heard not with my ears but with my mind: “The being that one is.”
I stayed that way for some time, then opened my eyes. Ma’s white marble face was before me, and I saw it had changed. It was still far away, but every feature had sharpened into fine detail, so I could see her face, her eyes looking towards me, her cheeks and forehead alive, her wide mouth relaxed into an almost-smile.
Her clear distinct presence lasted for some time. Then I became aware that Alan had stood up and was getting ready to leave. I held Ma’s gaze, then everything receded again into the distance. I stood, made my pranam and went out into the sunlight.
People who write about ashrams where the teacher has already left the body often talk about “the power of the presence.” Today I saw, in a new and different way, the endurance of that power, and the presence.