Anatomy of a pilgrimage (Sringeri edition)

[Editor’s Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of letters to her children. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past year, after she got comfortable with connectivity and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. This is email #3, the earlier ones were A marriage in the winter of 1962 and Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home.]

Foreword

A good friend and ex-colleague is a certified atheist with a problem. What is his problem, pray? When he travels to places involving religious excursions, he’s utterly fascinated by the devoutness of pilgrims. I suppose he’s not unique in his fascination (or curiosity) about what goes on in the mind and heart of a true believer on a pilgrimage. Since none of us are blessed with the powers of Asimov’s mentalists (circa Foundation Trilogy), all we have is a pilgrim’s body language and the look of piety and peace on her face. My mother’s letter below, where she writes in some detail about her pilgrimage to Sringeri and beyond, is the closest I’ve come to understanding that which I have not experienced. My comments/translations are within “[ ]” and her comments are within traditional “( )”. All Telugu/Sanskrit words are italicized.

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Dear ones,

This is about our Sringeri yatra. It was either in 2003 or 2006 [the year was confirmed to be 2003 because my parents only got a cell phone in 2004]. We originally planned to go to Srisailam and Mantralayam and return to Vijayawada in the month of September. On our way back we wanted to visit my cousin (Sarma bava) at Vinukonda.

Sringeri Temple

Temple in Sringeri

Srisailam is 5-6 hours bus journey from Vijayawada. Also known as dakshina Kashi (Kashi of the South), Srisailam is famous for the ancient temple of Siva (Bramarambha, Mallickarjuna) which is situated on a hill amidst Nallamalai forest. We started at 8 am and reached around 2 pm. We got decent accommodation. People are not permitted to travel in the night hours. All the vehicles are stopped at the foot of the hills for several reasons – the ghat road makes it unsafe, the dense Nallamalai forest is the abode of naxalites and wild animals.

We had a brief evening darshan the day we landed. Next morning we did abhishekam [a devotional activity/special worship usually performed by a priest] to the Lord and kumkum pooja [special worship] to the goddess.  In the evening we went around to see important places. Near devasthanam bus stand we visited Sakshi Ganapati who (as the legend goes) will take note of the devotees and report to his parents. We climbed up the tall sikharam (tower). The faithful believe that once you are there you will not have punarjanma [no more rebirths]. We climbed down the steep steps to see the patalaganga, the waterfall, and finally the Srisailam dam – the main water source to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Adi Sankaracharya did penance on this hill. They say even now saints perform tapas [penance] in the area. We of course didn’t come across any such saints.

Next morning we started for Mantralaya, home to the famous madhwa saint [saints from the sect started by Swami Madhwacharya who started one of three dominant Hindu belief systems – Visishta Advaita] Sri Raghavendra Swamy in the 15th-16th century. His samadhi [in Yoga, state of intense concentration achieved through meditation at which union with the divine is reached before/at death; tomb of Hindu saints] is on the bank of river Tungabhadra bordering Andhra and Karnataka. Annual birthday celebrations for the Swamy were underway and we stayed in Mantralaya that night. It is believed that one who stays there overnight will be blessed with good and positive vibrations.

It proved to be very true in our case. The long cherished desire to visit Sringeri was fulfilled by HIS grace – we were almost pushed to our dream place. It happened this way. We were waiting at the bus stand to return to Vijayawada as per our original plan. Nanna [my dad] was walking up and down and he learned that there was a direct bus to Sringeri at the same time. We were so happy. We checked for 2 M’s (money and medicines). They were sufficient so we called Srinivas [my older brother] and informed him about our changed programme.  We got into the bus to Sringeri. It was a 16 hour journey but we never thought about the strain.

As usual I occupied the window seat. The landscape was not interesting – dry land with no greenery.  I remember a few places that we passed through – Bellary, Chikmagaluru, and Shimoga. I was still wondering about our present trip – why this much urge and desire to visit this place?

Nanna wanted to go there since 1993 when Srinivas was in Bangalore. Since his health didn’t permit, we just went to Nandi hills and Mysore. His bent of mind is different. Frankly speaking I didn’t know anything about Sringeri till 1998. Some of my Chinmaya Mission friends had been there for 10 days sadhana camp [penance/devotional camp]. When I heard their experiences I was very much impressed and developed a strong desire.

Let me tell you some things about Sringeri which I know. Adi Sankaracharya established 4 spiritual peetams [spiritual seats] for the spiritual welfare of mankind. Four peetams in four directions: Badrinath in the north, Puri  in the east, Dwaraka in the west, and Sringeri in the south. Adi Shankara chose suitable gurus to head each peetam. The guru parampara [tradition] is continuing without any break till now.

Sri Bharati Tirtha maha swamiji is the present guru and head of the peetam which covers four south Indian states.

We reached Sringeri early in the morning. After much difficulty we could get  accommodation. After taking bath etc, we went to the temple (Sharada devi is the goddess). After that we went to see the Swamiji. His ashram is on the other side of Tungabhadra river and we crossed by a small bridge. The place was simply beautiful; we passed through an arbor of paan [betel leaf] creepers and finally we met guruji. Nanna introduced himself as Narasimha Yogi garu’s disciple [Narasimha Yogi was my father’s spiritual guru for over 30 years] and also mentioned his maternal uncle’s name. Since it was ekadasi, Swamiji was observing mounavratam [maintaining silence]. [Ekadasi is the 11th day after the full moon and is widely believed by Hindus to be cosmically favorable for spiritual rejuvenation. Fasting on that day is supposed to help spiritual seekers. Advanced souls like the swamiji apparently raise the penance a few notches higher.]

The temple area was reverberating with lalita sahsranamam [considered as one of the more powerful hymns to the feminine principle]. Homams [rituals involving offering to fire] were being performed by Vedic pundits on one side and suwasini poojas [special prayers] were being done on the other side. We both were feeling very good.

We came out of the temple to have lunch. Surprisingly all the hotels were closed – as it was ekadasi most of them were keeping fast. One couple in a house agreed to cook for us. They served simple delicious food on a banana leaf. After lunch we proceeded towards Udupi. It is an unique experience to travel in the Western Ghats. We had darshan [seeing God and.. God seeing you] of cute Udipi Krishna through a window.  I very much wanted to taste udipi food… unfortunately it was an odd time. We saw the big Geeta Bhavan where all the 700 slokas [verses] of Bhagawat Geeta were engraved with pictures. Our next halt was Kollur Mookambika. We passed through Manipal (little did we know that our grandson would be studying in that prestigious institute a decade later).

We stayed in Kollur (the town borders Kerala) that night. The water was cold! Sooo cold! It was ok for nanna though. I couldn’t get hot water – no amount of begging or bribing worked. Finally I closed my eyes and jumped with a cry “Jai mookambica!” I took bath. Till today I pour the first mug of water with jai mookambica’s name.

Dharmastala is the Siva temple. It was very peaceful and quiet. We were travelling towards Hornad (our last place in the list). It was the best! The landscape was so beautiful. Each one of you should visit. If you are not interested in temples you can devote less time to temples and more time to sightseeing. Nature also is God.

We passed through coffee plantations and paan [betel nut] creepers. I could see bunch of coffee seeds hanging. I enjoyed to the brim. We had comfortable and happy time in the temples. We could get decent accommodation for just 100 rupees per day with attached bath room, two beds and a fan. Actually they serve free food to all the pilgrims; there were big dining halls with marble floors and all well maintained. We didn’t take food because the timings were not suitable to us. We never used to have breakfast before temple darshan so by the time we were done we were too hungry to wait for temple food. Wherever we halted for the night we tied a rope to 2 windows and dried our clothes. There was no pushing in the temples. On the whole Karnataka people were soft, friendly and polite.

Let me conclude by relating the best and last experience – Annapoorna temple of Hornadu. The temple housed a beautiful four feet tall idol and we spent 6 hours from 4 pm to 10 pm. I wanted to eat dinner in the temple at any cost. Nanna waited outside. The food was simple yet it was such a thrilling experience I almost cried. I felt as if I was directly being fed by goddess Annapoorna. The concluding item for the day  was lighting the lamps followed by arati [Hindu worship in which light from wicks soaked in ghee or camphor is offered to deities]. The entire premises were full of lights. We were also allowed to light lamps. The whole town was present – shopkeepers, drivers and others. A lifetime memory.

We got into the Bangalore bus and were back to Vijayawada. Our Sringeri trip was memorable. That’s it.

Your loving amma,

 

Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home

{Editor’s Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of long letters to her children. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past year, after she got comfortable with connectivity and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. She’s harvesting from the oldest tendrils of her memory which is making the reading so so enjoyable. In this email (Sep 29, 2016), she’s relating a chance encounter with an art connoisseur rich lady during her Vijayawada walking years. The email has gone through a minor editing lens without changing my mom’s tone and voice. I’ve italicized the Telugu names – fewer references compared to the first story – A marriage in the winter of 1962. My mom’s sub-text/commentary is “italicized within quotes.” My comments are within “[ ]”}

Dear ones,
    Some time back I saw portraits of famous painters on TV. I thought about Ravi Varma’s paintings. By now you know that I take a long time to come to the actual point. I don’t do Précis writing.
    I started walking as a mere excercise, probably in 1992. Slowly it became enjoyable, a habit, and part of my daily routine. I needed no other entertainment or company. Walking along the Vizag beach from from our Kirlampudi house, 6 am to 7 am, was the best.  It was continued in Vijayawada. In those days Nannagaru [dad] was not tensed up, he started worrying after Lakshmi’s accident. [Years ago, my dad’s sister (Lakshmi attaya) died on her way to a neighborhood store when a rash auto rickshaw driver ran her over in Hyderabad.]
        Walking  was like eating gulab jamuns (an Indian dessert). I surveyed all the places. Once I walked to Kanakadurga temple [a distance of 5km that undertaken as a mokku (aka mannat in Hindi) – a sacred pledge]. Anandamayee and Siah garu moved to Abhilash in 1999 [retired couple who became our parents’ neighbor]. Both Anandamayee and I started walked together. She was not in favour of freelance walking [freelance as in, changing the route every day at will]. So Siddhartha college ground became our new walking venue. She was a good conversationist. They had lived in many places like us – Calcutta, Bombay, Jamshedpur and and even Srilanka. We knew a lot of common people – Seeta pinni, Rama of Calcutta Kasturi garu (Anand’s attaya) and KCP Reddy garu. Very strangely she knew my mavayya [uncle] when he was in Samalakota [a town in East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh] many years ago. Moreover their Susarla [a Telugu surname] family was very big and she had enough material to share with me [my marathon friends will relate to material]. It went on smoothly for quite some time. One day we decided to wear salwar kameez [North Indian dress that rivals the sari in popularity] as our new walking dress code. A latent desire previously expressed meant I already had Prashanti’s [mom’s niece] dress. Anandamayee had to buy.
Shakuntala in the forest - a famous Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala in the forest – a famous Ravi Varma painting

We stepped out in our new attire [you’ve got to imagine how big a deal this is for two South Indian women in their 50’s wearing a new outfit for the first time in their lives in public]. For the first 100 feet I concentrated on the road only. After crossing 2-3 buildings I could notice raised eye brows and slight smiles. We reached the ground. Some walked away without any expression [Indians can rival Jeeves’ stiff upper lip]. Lolla Sarma (my cousin) opened his mouth but immediately closed and walked away. We finished our walk, re-entered our building with a sigh of relief – first day was over. Next time when we visited  Lolla Sarma’s house he told his wife “Mythily Akkayya [i.e. the protagonist] and her friend vesham vesukuni [translates to costume or disguise] walking ki osthunaru.” [translates to coming.]

    Somehow our relationship got spoiled and we stopped walking together. She started walked on the terrace and I walked in the colony [back to freelance walking]. I walked up and down the street parallel to ours. It was a chukki walk – just like a bull goes round and round a chukki (ganuga) to crush til into oil, so was I walking. Now the topic story starts.
    A woman of my age stepped out from a palatial house. She was in walking shoes and all. She said she will join me in walking. [Note the use of “said she will join” as opposed to “may I join”] She introduced herself as Siris Rajugaru’s daughter, Annapurna. Siris Raju was one of the richest men of Vijayawada – sucessful industrialist, owner of Siris pharma company, Raju of Bhimavaram (which is the most fertile land of West Godavari). So my new walking companion was seriously rich lady.
Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest - another Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest – another Ravi Varma painting

In the first round of our walking, she told everything about herself and her family, then she narrated stories of the other bungalow owners. She suddenly stopped in front of a new apartment and said “I will show you something.” It was a 3 bedroom apartment on the 5th floor. When she opened the front door, I can’t express the sight that beheld me. An apartment with very minimal furniture but otherwise it was an absolute feast to my eyes. Room after room was filled with paintings – some original Ravi Varmas paintings bought by her from different places and exhibitions, portraits of Rama, Krishna, Yashoda Krishna, Nala Damayanti, Shakuntala Dushyant bought in various auctions. There were some statues as well. I was so happy, so happy, I wanted to share with others — Anandamayee, Udaka [my mother’s sister], and Seenu [my older brother]. She said I can bring anybody – to give them a similar tour. She gave me her phone number. I was so much thrilled. I took 2-3 rounds. She showed me the difference between original and others (as if I understood]. It was like drinking rasagulla juice [can you tell my mother has a sweet tooth?] It was an unplanned trip..  Nanna [my father] would be anxious as it was past my usual walking duration.. so I returned home. I thought to myself “will come again and do detailed survey” but opportunity comes only once.

    Next day she was waiting for me near her house. After one round of walking she invited to her house. She showed her well decorated and well kept house – turned out to be one more museum. However, I was not that much impressed… it was ok with all crystal and marble things, the kind one sees in airports and malls in USA. She had a separate studio where she paints and employs others to paint for her. After a cup of tea I left.
    Next day onwards she was not to be seen. When I asked her maid servant, she said she was sleeping. Later, when I happened to meet her she refused to recognize me. Anyway my childhood desire to see original Ravi Varma paintings was fulfilled.
    Rasagulla freelance walking came down to walking in the school ground then to chakki walk and finally to corridor and drawng room walking. Eventually I stopped it completely after I started and became regular with the Art of Living routine. Thank you for reading my thoughts.
    Yours loving Amma
[Closing note: the apparent amnesia displayed by the lady reminded me of a Vikramaditya/Raja Bhoja story. If your childhood reading involved a healthy diet of Amar Chitra Katha, you probably recall that story too?]

Changing Mobility of Four Generations of Kurugantis

One of Vizag's many beaches (Pic: courtesy indiashots.com)

If you haven’t inferred from my surname yet, my lineage is from the state of Andhra Pradesh. My great grandfather was a Sanskrit scholar and taught Sanskrit in Visakhapatnam (aka “Vizag”). He lived in Vizag his entire life. Mobility score: [1 state, 1 city].

My grandfather was schooled in Machilipatnam (a port town which dates back to at least 3rd century BC) and attended college in Calcutta. Attending an out-of-state college was a big deal in the early 1900’s. If you consider the fact that he was being raised by his mother (a widow at that time), a progressive and remarkable lady, it’s even more impressive. My grandfather completed his B.Comm degree and joined Andhra Bank and worked there until retirement. He proved his mettle as a branch manager and, as a consequence, was frequently transferred to new towns to open and stabilize branches. Partial list of towns he lived/worked in include Vijayawada, Guntur, and Kakinada. Mobility score: [2 states, 5 towns].

Machilipatnam beach at dawn (Pic: courtesy Wikipedia)

My father attended school in Vijayawada and engineering college in Kakinada. He worked for two Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) – SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited) and RIN (Rashtriya Ispat Nigam). He started his career in Bhilai (Madhya Pradesh->Chhattisgarh), then moved to Rourkela (Orissa), a long stint at Bokaro Steel City (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand) and finally retired in Vizag (Andhra Pradesh). Mobility score: [4 states, 7 towns].

Bokaro Steel Plant (India's 4th integrated steel plant, built with Soviet help)

I grew up in Bokaro Steel City, completed my high school from Vizag, attended college at Ranchi (Bihar->Jharkhand), worked for a few years in Jamshedpur (Bihar ->Jharkhand), 16 years in America (Houston->Chicago->San Francisco Bay Area), and presently in Bangalore (Karnataka). Mobility score: [2 countries, 3 states, 5 Indian towns, 3 American cities].

The fourth generation (our 2 boys) haven’t quite hit their 7th birthdays yet but their mobility score already reads: [2 countries, 2 cities]. I wonder what their score will be by the time they hit their 40’s. Me wonders if new mobility dimensions like planets and space stations need to be added by then…

Kuruganti Roots in Vijayawada

We are in Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh) at my parents’ house for the holidays. This is my fifth trip since my parents moved here in 1994 and is easily the most enjoyable trip to date. My grandfather’s (dad’s dad) banking career was spent at Andhra Bank and Central Bank. He was getting transferred to new towns every few years so my dad’s family moved a lot. Turns out a significant chunk of time was spent in Vijayawada. I pestered my dad to take me around town and show me important landmarks like the houses they lived in and the schools they went to. He obliged and we had a fun 2 hours zig-zagging through some old neighbourhoods of Vijayawada. Here is a pictorial view of the Kuruganti roots in Vijayawada:

Ram Mohan Reading Library Entrance:
Ram Mohan Library Entrance - Vijayawada

Ram Mohan Reading Library (my dad my dad was practically a fixture here from 1951 to 1953):
Ram Mohan Library Vijayawada - my dad's favorite corner

Ram Mohan Reading Library Missing Staircase (in Feb 1952, my dad met his spiritual guru on the top floor after a lecture):
Ram Mohan Library Vijayawada (there used to be staircase leading to the top floor)

Bala Krishna Bhavan in One Town Vijayawada (dad’s family rented a few rooms on the top floor right ~ early 1950’s):
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SKPVV Hindu High School Vijayawada – my dad studied Grade 5 at this school.
SKPVV Hindu High School Vijayawada

My dad in front of his old classroom location. The school had a rather ‘interesting’ tradition where the academic topper got to slap the rest of his classmates. My dad was on the right end of those slaps 🙂
SKPVV Hindu High School Vijayawada (My dad in front of his old classroom)

This used to be a single-storey rental building where my dad’s family lived for a year:
Commercial block in One Town Vijayawada (formerly a rental property where my dad's family lived in 1950's)

Renowned Ayurvedic practitioner Nori Rama Sastry’s Office was right next to the previous rental building. On an impulse, we went inside the office and met the Ayurvedic great’s grandson and his great-grandson who were very hospitable.
Renowned Ayurvedic practioner Nori Rama Sastry's Office in One Town Vijayawada

SRR & CRV Government Degree College (my dad did his Intermediate/+2 here):
SRR & CVR College Vijayawada Main Entrance

Anjaney Temple next to SRR College (this is where my dad & his friends would diligently come to before all their exams to seek divine intervention):
Anjaney Temple next to SRR College Vijayawada

The Last Temptation

Pic: courtesy contentmentyetdespair.blogspot.com

It started innocently enough. I was telling my friend (let’s call him “Joe”) at Company X about my decision to leave Graspr and move to India. Joe immediately asked me if I was interested in exploring Company X. If yes, he was eager to introduce me to a key executive for an exciting role. It was early days of our India decision and I had left the door open for exploring US-based careers too. So I told Joe to wait a few weeks before making the introduction. I fully expected to tell Joe soon that I was in fact serious about our India plans and hence not explore the role at Company X. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Either I had miscommunicated with Joe or he got overzealous. A few weeks after our conversation, I got that introduction email to the Company X executive (let’s call him “Peter”). One thing led to another and a phone conversation was scheduled  between Peter and me. Try and picture this. There I was in the LAX airport, jamming my cell phone against my left ear and attempting to block out the airport sounds with my right hand. Considering this backdrop, we ended up having a pretty good conversation. My intrigue about Company X turned into a genuine interest in the role.

Things moved rather quickly after that. Peter wanted me to come in for a full round of interviews before my trip to India. I had one foot in India already but I had a desire to see where the Company X exploration would lead. Little did I realize that this would become my Last Temptation. I made the overnight trip to Company X just a day before a scheduled family vacation. I thoroughly enjoyed my full day of interviews. My final two meetings were with Peter and his boss. The role was indeed very exciting, it played very well to my strengths and I had the potential to hit the ball out of the park. Apparently the interviews had gone well from Company X’s perspective too. I was about to hop into my cab when Peter caught up with me and made a verbal offer. The HR manager called me on my way to the airport and discussed the offer in detail. A few days later, the offer was formalized and the ball was in my court.

In most respects, this was a great role and a highly attractive offer. Since we had already made the psychological leap to move out of the Bay Area, moving to a different American city was not a show-stopper. The only problem was that the job wasn’t taking me to India… at least not just yet. Company X did have a presence in India and Peter was very supportive of my moving to their India operation in a few years.

I had plenty of time to think about this… sorta. I was getting on a long plane ride to India and was slated to make a decision before the end of my India trip. I thought about The Two Types of Indian Immigrants and asked myself whether I really was an active should-we. The answer was “yes” but I could feel the temptation to postpone our move by a year. The spirit was willing but was the flesh weak?

Something happened in Vijayawada that tipped the scales decisively. Since my whirlwind trip wasn’t touching Vijayawada (my parents live here), my mother had planned a short visit to Bangalore to see me. Just a few days before my Bangalore stint began, my father fell sick. It wasn’t something major but he needed care and attention so my mother cancelled her trip to Bangalore. The timing of this event provided that burst of clarity and I decided… to resist the last temptation.