We were told to cross over a number of roads several times until eventually we found the general vicinity where we would allegedly find a bus going in our direction. Again, repetition of “Thanneerppalli” was required multiple times at varying volumes and intonations until one bus conductor gave me a look of recognition and motioned for us to stand there. It was very hot and there was no shade whatsoever on the street. I hoped this wouldn’t be an Indian wait that served no purpose other than to give us sunburn.
I saw what looked like an enquiry office so made my way over to enquire what bus we should take to reach Thanneerppalli. The same process began again – repeating the name numerous times whilst searching the faces looking at me for visual queues that what I had said was being understood. One bloke standing next to me spoke some English so he kindly stepped in to translate. A lengthy discussion ensued between him and the enquiry office worker. In India a long discussion can mean something, nothing and anything. I waited patiently. When they had finished I asked my translator for the result of the discussion. He replied:
“Please, vaat is the purpose of your visit?”
The heat, heaviness of my backpack and frustration at not being able to find out what we needed to know were causing my patience to wear thin:
“What difference does that make? Is there a bus going to Thanneerppalli?”
“He says you should not go to Thanneerppalli. It is not tourist.”
“You don’t understand. I’m not asking for guidance about tourist hot spots. I want to know if we can get a bus there.”
“Yes, but no Vesterners.”
“That’s fine. In fact, that’s more than fine. We’d be happy if there are no Westerners. Please, is there a bus or not?”
“Vhy are you going?”
I muttered some choice words under my breath before responding:
“ We are going to stay in an ashram called Shantivanam. Now, can we get please back to the bus timetable?”
“Ashram? Vaat is ashram?”
“Seriously? You’re Indian and you’re asking me what an ashram is? OK, it’s a holy place.”
“Vaat is holy place?”
“A place to pray.”
“Fray? Vaat is fray?”
“Never mind. Thanks very much for your help. We’ll take it from here.”
Eventually the conductor returned and told us to board a bus that had just pulled in. The conductor on the bus however refused to take us. This resulted in an argument with the conductor who was backing our corner. We had absolutely no idea what was going on. I stood there with a cheesy grin plastered on my face and Nix held her hands in prayer (sorry, frayer) and implored “Please, pleeeease!” to sway the bus conductor. After much to’ing and fro’ing the conductor on the bus agreed to take us. Jah be praised. An hour or so later we were dropped off on the main road about 10 minutes walk from Shantivanam. We’d made it.
Saccidananda Ashram, or Shantivanam as it’s also known, is a Christian ashram near the Kaveri River. To my knowledge there aren’t many Christian ashrams to the dozen. They present a very interesting fusion of Western ideology with Eastern mysticism. The Church is built in the style of a South Indian Temple . Metalwork in the windows show Jesus cross legged holding his hands in mudra, and statues of people seated in lotus position surround the building – quality. Challenging stereotypes and fixed ideas whilst staying open to learn from all.... I like this place already. The ashram was founded in 1950 by two French Fathers, Jules Monchanin (or Parama Arubi Ananda as he was otherwise known) and Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda). The name Saccidananda means “Being, Consciousness and Bliss”. From 1980 the ashram was led by Father Bede Griffiths of the Benedictine monastic order, until his death in 1993. I believe Brother John Martin was the Prior for some time thereafter, but he now lives separately from Shantivanam, and returns to give talks at the ashram once a day. Basic accommodation is offered to visitors which reminds me very much of the Vipassana quarters in Bodhgaya. The ashram runs on a donation basis with its aim being to provide a simple, quiet, contemplative environment for seekers to establish or deepen their practice – to grow closer to God, in whatever form God takes for them.
There is currently a group of 25 Americans observing silence who are staying in a sectioned off area of the ashram. The rest of us are encouraged to maintain silence whenever possible. All meals are eaten in silence. I enjoy silence during meals – it means there is no need for chit chat. Chit chat is best done over a cup of chai I reckon ;) Silence also allows for you to be mindful when eating instead of shovelling it down your face, as I mostly do. Michael, an affable Brit who is assisting at the ashram for 3 months, thoughtfully showed us around afterwards to help us settle in. It felt good to be made so welcome. It doesn’t always happen that way at ashrams and retreat centres....
The full-time ashram community is composed entirely of Indian members. The only photo I saw on the website was of Father Bede Griffiths, but there was no name associated with the picture, so I assumed the man to be Brother John Martin. Imagine my surprise when we were introduced to Brother John Martin from Tamil Nadu. As my surname is Martin, it seems I have an Indian brother from another mother. We attended one of his talks this afternoon. Our friend Viktor was right, he is an incredible man gifted with the ability to distill his understanding into the simplest of terms. I really enjoyed listening to what he had to say. Unfortunately the heat was causing me to nod off. It took all my effort and concentration not to fall asleep in the meditation hall. Perhaps the peaceful atmosphere of the ashram was at work. Or perhaps there was some other block arising in me. Either way I didn’t give into sleep since falling asleep in the day never does me any favours. I always feel worse afterwards....