Sivananda Ashram (Trivandrum) – Auroville (Pondicherry)

Kerala&Tamil Nadu States / South India

May – June 2018

In this essay I am going to take you two different places in South India. First one is the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam near Trivandrum that is the capital of Kerala state. The second one is Auroville that is an experimental township and community in Pondicherry that is a seaside town by the Indian ocean in Tamil Nadu state in southeast India.

Sivananda Ashram is set in a big tropical land in the quiet foothills of west Kerala. The natural beauty of Neyyar Dam lake, the forested surroundings, the green coconut groves offer a beautiful atmosphere to abide in your practice and silence.

There are some tiny little villages so close to the ashram. I was going for walks by the lake, wandering around these villages, watching the men farming, fishing, the women washing cloths near the lake, the children joyfully playing, swimming in the water. I loved the words written on that rickshaw above; ‘The Gift of God’. It made me laugh and respect at the same time.

Sivananda Ashram offers two week yoga programmes that includes daily yoga and meditation sessions, inspiring and informative spiritual teachings on the path of yoga and delicious healthy vegetarian food. This was the programme I attended for two weeks.
The ashram also hosts one of the world-wide known yoga teachers training programmes. It also offers Ayurveda retreats and training programmes. I have met many people who had benefited from the personalised ayurvedic therapies and detoxification programmes called pancha karma.
Ayurveda is a traditional Indian medicine that is practiced to improve well-being, cure certain diseases and strengthen the body. This medicine is based on natural treatments that enable detoxification. Ayurveda originated in India around 5000 years ago and continued to thrive over the centuries especially in Kerala due to its climate and landscape that is home to many medicinal plants.

Sivananda Ashram is a spiritual organisation that follows the lineage of Swami Sivananda Saraswati. (we see him on the left) Swami Sivananda (1887-1963) as a Guru, set a supreme example to many spiritual seekers with his generosity, spirit of service, deep devotion and constant humour. His teachings combined all yoga paths into one which he summed up with ‘Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realise’. He has disciples around the world, of all nationalities, religions, creeds.
The founder of the ashram is Swami Vishnudevananda, disciple of Swami Sivanada Saraswati. (we see him on the right) Sivananda Centers are now in 26 countries and there are four ashrams in India.

I so much benefited from their particular way of yoga practice that was designed by Swami Visnudevananda. I loved the sequence of asanas (postures in yoga practice) that strengthened my body gradually. The daily programme was consisting of 2 yoga sessions, each lasted for 2 hours. They helped me to relax my body and mind.

Those days we were around 80 people in the ashram I guess. The days were starting with meditation and daily chantings. The programme does not require silence but the food was eaten in silence. Depending on your task you are also involved in karma yoga to help in daily works of the ashram like cleaning and serving the food. There were also afternoon lectures on the philosophy of Yogic Tradition which gave me ideas about it. My body and mind benefited from the daily routine here.
At the breaks after the breakfast it was nice to go out and enjoy the surrounding. We were also meeting with friends at the chai shop close by. The lady above who was running this little and humble chai shop was adorable. She was a typical Kerala woman with her beauty, kindness and warm heart.

One night I attended a religious ritual in the village with the whole group of people in the ashram. It was an extraordinary ceremony that takes place once in a year. First the cortege of hundreds of people walk through the village. All the young man are prepared in a special way with many metals pinned on their body. It was looking so bizarre. They looked like they were in trance.
Their Guru blesses the area first and starts the ceremony. Local musicians perform so high volume crazy upbeat music. Before this night the young men of the village go into fasting for 41 days. The man whose name comes from the sweepstake becomes that year’s lucky one to perform the ritual. His task is to show his devotion by dancing barefoot on the embers at the ritual area. What an unusual tradition it was.

This was also the place where I gave time to collect information about the Gods and Goddesses of Hindu mythology and belief. These deities have distinct and complex personalities, yet are often viewed as aspects of the same Ultimate Reality called Brahman. Vedic Era, Yoga school of Hinduism and Advaita school of Hinduism take each symbol differently but overall they represent both the forces of nature and the moral values, virtues and vices of human. Each deity controls a particular energy. These energies, present in the person as wild forces that must be controlled and canalized fruitfully to infuse a divine consciousness. In a person’s path of spiritual progress, he or she needs to develop the various attributes of these godheads in him or her to attain all-round spiritual perfection.
The Gods in the holy trinity are; Brahma the creator, Shiva the destoyer, Vishnu the preserver. The Goddesses in the holy trinity are: Lakshmi that represents abundance and fortune, Saraswati that represents knowledge, music, art, wisdom, and learning, Parvati that represents fertility, love, beauty, marriage, children, and devotion. Krishna is the God of compassion, tenderness and love, Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, Hanuman is the ideal combination of strength, heroism, overconfident excellence and devotion. Durga is the mother goddess that protects the power of good over evil. Khali is the mother of the universe that presents liberation.

Couple of weeks ago on my birthday I intended to make a ceremony soon to welcome the great opening in my life. The ones who had read my previous days in India would know about the inner transformative process I have gone through. Here was the perfect place to do this ceremony. On the full moon day I offered two trees –mango and papaya- to mother nature and planted them at the land of the ashram. This inner opening was a turning point that I honoured deeply in my heart.
A sudden unexpected staggering experience came into my life about 5 months ago. Since then I was so many times tested by my ego that kept on rising from the depths of my psyche. It was the phase of destruction of the old, of the lower self that eventually opened the space for the new to be borned or reborned. Rising realizations enabled a life that is more balanced, more conscious, intuitive, insightful, calm, humble, joyful, loving, compassionate and free. I was softening and strengthening at the same time. This was a state of being which I cherish, protect, intend to preserve and deepen with devotion. It is purely sacred.

“Never lose hope if the Beloved pushes you away, if He shuts the door on you. Don’t go, be patient and wait! It is your patience that will draw Him back. If He blocks all your roads, be sure He will show you a secret way unknown to others.”

Now I am going to take you to the southeast coast of India to Pondicherry which is a seaside town by the Indian ocean in Tamil Nadu state. After all the hustle and bustle of typical Indian towns and cities Pondicherry was way more different in terms of its cleanness and quietness. We see the old town in the picture up here (above) that has colonial-era vibe in its architecture style because Pondicherry was a French colony until 1954. Some people still speak French but Tamil is the official language used region wise. The internationally famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram is here.

On the other side newer town is typically South Indian. Visiting the colourful markets was a feast to the eye.

The reason that took me here was to visit Auroville that is 12 km northwest of Pondicherry. Auroville is an experimental township that has been declared as autonomous by Indian Government. It attracts large numbers of spiritually minded visitors from all over the world.
It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa (above), also known as ‘the Mother’. She was a spiritual guru who influenced and inspired many writers and spiritual personalities on the subject of Integral Yoga. Sri Aurobindo (above) was an Indian philosopher, yogi, guru and poet. He was the collaborator of Mirra Alfassa. It is known that they have influenced each other greatly.
Mirra Alfassa’s first public message tells clearly about the vision of Auroville: “Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”

I found this drawing of the Mother so meaningful. (above) She made this drawing to explain to a child the meaning of Yoga. Man is at the bottom, the Divine is at the top. The wavy line is the path of the ordinary life, the straight line is the path of Yoga.

The whole area of Auroville is located in 20km2 of barren wasteland. In its center it has Matrimandir. (I will tell about it down below) Radiating from this center are four zones: Residential Zone, Industrial Zone, Cultural & Educational Zone and International Zone. Around the city plan, lies a Green Belt which is an environmental research and resource area and includes farms and forestries, a botanical garden, seed bank, medicinal and herbal plants, water catchment bunds and some communities.

Dear Laura was my host here. She was living and volunteering here to be a Aurovillean soon. Building communities was one of my interests in my past so I asked her all I wanted to learn about the structure of the community. Auroville hosts around 3000 residents now. There is no personal ownership and it consists of many small communities that live on their unique structures. She took me to some little communities where I met some Aurovilleans. To go here and there with the motorcycle gave me the chance to see many parts of the whole settlement. The pioneers that came here in the beginning of 70s planted around 3 million trees here. It was amazing to see the forested areas that were once barren landscapes. What a dramatic change in 50 years. This jungle is now home to many animals. There are 22 known species of snakes living in the area. I also paid a visit to ‘Solitude Farm’ that is run by permaculture principles. The diversity they created here was impressive. We swoped heirloom seeds with Krishna that is the founder of the farm.

I also spent some time in the neighborhood and wandered around in the small humble villages where mainly Tamil people reside. As always children are adorable giving me an immense life energy.

Matrimandir is the heart of whole Auroville and it is a must visit place if you come here. It was envisioned by the Mother as “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection”. The entire area surrounding the Matrimandir is called the Peace area. Inside the complex, a spiraling ramp leads upwards to a chamber of polished white marble referred to as “the place to find one’s consciousness”. This is the place where you are invited to meditate. Silence is maintained inside to ensure the tranquility of the space. If you want to meditate inside, you must reserve one to six days ahead, in person, at Auroville’s Matrimandir Access Office.
Visiting this unique space offers a glimpse into an utopia. As being a former architect who was educated in the modernist perspective, I found the complex highly impressive. It is a great example of Brutalist architecture that is characterised by massive and monolithic appearance with rigid geometric style and large-scale use of poured concrete. Being in this environment I felt like I was in the movie of Kubrick, 2001 Space Odyssey.
After many years now I have totally a different taste in life, not modernist but naturalistic I can say. So I found the vibe inside Matrimandir quite dry and cold. Anyway this does not matter when you sit for meditation.
It was not allowed to take pictures inside so I took the photos above from a book.

After a few days in Auroville I was now ready to hit the road again for my next destination.

The Author