Ramana Ashram in Thiruvannamalai takes you in. Is it because of the stories that you have already heard about it? Is it because of the histories that you have already read? Is it because of the people from different continents throng here? Is it because your mind is receptive? Or is there something with the place other than the divinity that we see in the life of Ramana Maharshi? The presence of Arunachala Mountain is strong and geologically it has proven that the mountains have some kind of an ability to pull people with similarly tuned minds towards them. Why do the people who have renounced their material lives and have become the seekers of truth, reality and beauty go to the forests and caves located at the mountain or hill sides? If not why do they go to the shore of seas or to the banyan tree groves? Most of the spiritually inclined people seek such places because they through their sensitivity identify the upward energy of those places. Ramana Maharshi had gone to Thiruvannamalai temple initially and later he moved to the Viroopaksha cave in the Arunachala hill and spent several years. Sree Narayana Guru had gone to the Kodithookki Malai at Aruvippuram to do his penance. You feel a strong ‘presence’ in these places. But it is not necessary that in all those places these great sages had been you get the same kind of spiritual pull. Sometimes (rather most often) Janmabhoomi (the place of birth) becomes almost irrelevant when compared to the Karmabhoomi (the place of action/work). Mahatma Gandhi was born in Porbandar; though the place has its own place in history, it is definitely not seen with the same reverence as Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmadabad. Aurobindo Ghosh was born in Bengal but his legacy is attached to Pondicherry. Similarly, Sree Narayana Guru’s birth place seems to be less attractive than the other places where Guru had travelled, stayed and worked towards the uplifting the souls of the human beings which in due course of time has been misinterpreted as the uplifting of a section of the society.
Gross interpretations of founding philosophies could happen depending on the caliber and intention of the interpreters. It has happened to Sree Narayana Guru in his life time itself. The same fate could fall on the places of birth of the sages. If the people in the area believe only in the spectacles related to the sage, not his or her philosophy and its social and spiritual uses, they would focus on the preservation and conservation of the materialistic remnants of the place than sustaining the spiritual ambience of the place in order to attract people who are spiritually and philosophically inclined. What happened to Vayalavarathu Veedu, a small hut like home in today’s standards, the home at Chempazhanthy near Trivandrum where Sree Narayana Guru was born as the son of Madan Asan and Kuttiyamma in 1856 August, Chathayam Nakshatram. It is an irony that myself born and brought up in Trivandrum district, I have never thought of visiting this place before till recently when I watched a movie on Guru’s life directed by P.A.Backer. The set where the initial years of Guru was depicted looked very soothing and worth a visit. Since then I have been thinking of visiting Vayalvarathu Veedu. There is another reason why I never thought of visiting this place before. Sivagiri is the final abode of Guru. This is the place where Guru went into Samadhi in 1928. I have a few connections with Sivagiri and always think that Sivagiri is the ultimate place as far as Guru’s life and philosophy is concerned.
Sivagiri is just ten kilometers away from home. Now there is a bridge, Panayil Kadavu Bridge that connects Vakkom Panchayat (which I consider as my birth place though I was born in Trivandrum city and was brought up till the age four only to be taken back to my parents’ native village to enroll in a village school. My parents had their reason to do this reverse process as they were government servants but instead of gaining urban education, I received a very rural education, which today I take in as a great blessing as it has helped me to keep some sort of rawness and rusticity in me to understand the pulse of nature and all the living beings on the face of the earth and beyond) to Cherunniyoor Panchayath and from there to Vettoor and Varkala. Sivagiri is located in Varkala which these days, is famous for the Papanasam Beach, Cliff and excellent beach accommodation and food. I did my pre-degree in Sree Narayana College, Varkala. In mid 1980s when I was a student there, the Panayil Kadavu Bridge was not built. So we used to take the ferry, a few meters away from my home, and go to Kayikkara, a sea shore village blessed with the birth of the great modern poet, Kumaranasan. I used to spend a lot of time in Sivagiri (which literally means the Shiva Hill) and without understanding what I was doing, used to meditate at the Sarada Madam (a temple propitiated by Guru to worship Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and education) for many long hours. With these associations I never thought of visiting Vayalavarathu Veedu in Chempazhanthy. (More about Sivagiri in another chapter. If you are interested to read about my days in and around Sivagiri please read the 15th chapter of my ‘To My Children Series’. The link is https://johnyml.blogspot.in/2011/05/first-kiss-to-my-children-15.html)
I get down at Sreekaryam and take an auto rickshaw to Chempazhanthy. I wear a white dhoti and a very fresh and new light green or ocean blue kurta. The conductor in the state transport that I took to Sreekaryam was particularly polite to me. May be my dress has given him a different idea about myself. In Kerala or all over India traditional clothes give you some kind of respect; first of all it is traditional and secondly it is closer to the roots. Wearing of traditional clothes is seen as a subconscious or conscious resistance to the western ways and modernity in general. Those people stick to traditional clothes do it out of two reasons these days; some are very lazy and shy to get a pair of trousers stitched or bought. Some are very conscious of their looks in the traditional clothes and prefer to wear them for a purpose. I try my best to wear dhoti and kurta not because I want to prove an anti-modern or closer to root person. I find that it is so natural to me; despite all these years of wearing denim trousers (jeans), I have not forgotten the way of wearing dhoti-kurta, the way I have not forgotten my southern accent despite living in the North for around quarter of a century. Some people claim that they are not used to wearing dhoti as they have not practicing it for a long time. I do not think that it is a real explanation. Only inconvenience caused by the wearing of dhoti-kurta is that you do not have enough pouches in you to push your mobile phone and purse in. In the modern world you cannot move without a mobile phone and purse. Trousers become useful in this way. So whenever I wear dhoti-kurta I have to carry a small bag additionally to put the mobile phone and purse. May be if you practice it well, you could do away with mobile phones and purses. To do away with mobile phone, one should considerably cut off from the world. To do that you have to think two things primarily; one, you are not in demand. Two, you are not going to be in touch with people unnecessarily. Also you should kill this irresistible itch to take photographs and selfies wherever you go. If you could overcome these desires you could live in this world without a mobile phone because there was a world that existed beautifully even before the mobile phones came. The second thing is about how to do away with the purse. First of all you should carry a limited amount of money in your kurta’s pocket. Just for the need; not more, not less. The perennial itch to buy things at any provocation could be avoided like that. However, these days, we have digital transaction for many things hence, it becomes important to carry the debit or credit cards. That means while wearing Dhoti-Kurta, you should have provisions to carry the debit card and an identity card. At this moment I remember how foolish I have been all this while. I am talking about a person who is travelling by buses or public transport system. If you have your own conveyance, you could wear dhoti-kurta easily for your car would have a lot of space to carry your purses, mobiles, camera and what not.
The auto driver who is not that reverent but impatient enough tells me that my ride costs fifty rupees. This is a standard rate; anything down that might look very cheap for them though it would enthuse the rider. For the rickshaw drivers, it is a round figure. They know that this person has come to visit the Guru’s home and he would go back. He is not going to come back again. He does not belong to us. So charging any amount is okay; it could be done without a prick in conscience. That’s what most of the people do in the cities and towns. They consider you as a perpetual tourist. You are here for the time being and you are not going to come back again. As you do not belong here, there is nothing wrong in looting you. The logic is this: we did not ask you to come here. You have come here on your own. Now, to be here, there are some expenses. Why don’t you meet it? Though this is the attitude of most of the people in a greedy world, there are some people who treat any stranger well. I am sure those people move fast towards happiness and deliverance though they comparatively suffer temporarily. Their happiness eternal; the happiness of the greedy ones with falcon eyes is temporary. India has produced the greatest philosophy on right kind of living. Do away with desire and greed. Buddhism says that desire is the cause of all sorrow. Curtail greed, it says. Hinduism tells us to detach the action from the result. Take what you deserve and leave the rest for the world. That’s what the animals and birds in an orchard or forest do. They do not over eat and over kill. They just take what they want and leave the rest for the others. But human beings are not like that. They want it now and here because the other person who is pilfered does not belong to them. He is a stranger at the worst and a tourist at the best.
The gate way to Guru’s nativity home is comparatively new. I feel a sense of dejection the moment I confront those letters that say it is ‘Sree Naryana Gurukulam’. I am interested but at the same time there is a quick comparison comes up in my mind. Years back, near my college in Sivagiri, there was a gurukulam (the House of Guru/Teacher) where young boys lodged and studied Sree Narayana Dharma, the philosophy of Narayana Guru. I had a friend boarding there and I used to visit him. Each time I went inside, I used to feel that I am an outsider. This happened not because of the sense of rejection that I felt there. Rather it was a very welcoming place with the young Sannyasis moving around slowly. There was a studious atmosphere and each tree in the campus was had one placard attached to it announcing the great teachings of Sree Narayana Guru- ‘One Caste, One Religion and One God for all Human Beings’, ‘Whatever you do for self satisfaction, let it be for the well being of others’, ‘Whatever be the religion, the human beings should live righteously,’ ‘Organize and Strengthen yourself, Educate and Enlighten Yourself.’ Except the inmates none was allowed to enter the Gurukulam rooms. So I used to wait for my friend, looking at the trees and reading the great words of Guru. But this Gurukulam in Chempazhanthy does not give me that vibe. It looks very dry and unwelcoming. The sun beats down with vengeance.
I walk into the campus and as it is one o clock sharp, nobody is seen at the reception desk. As a Malayali I am not surprised. That’s how the offices of any kind are in Kerala. Lunch break starts at least fifteen minutes before one pm and goes on for around two thirty in the afternoon. In Guru’s place though I do not expect such official lethargy, I could understand the general workplace ethos in Kerala. Religious places are not exceptional in this matter. The reason for this is that most of the officials who work in such places are not spiritually inclined or interested in the work that they do. I remember the attitude of the bookshop keeper at the Yogi Ram Surat Kumar Ashram in Thiruvannamalai. Yogi Ram Surat Kumar came to Thiruvannamalai after spiritually enlightened by Papa Ram Das, lived in the streets of Thiruvannamalai as a beggar for many years. He became another Baba in Thiruvannamalai and after his death his followers created a huge ashram. In that Ashram when I went to collect some books on the Yogi, I could not locate a particular book. The person at the desk, sitting hardly five feet away from the book shelf kept on saying that ‘there’. I looked at the shelf where he pointed and could not find it. ‘There’, he said again. The charade went on for some time. Finally I dropped my patience and told him, “Look, your Guru had wandered all those streets in this temple town. He never wanted to sit in one place for long. Can’t you just get up from there and pick up that book for me instead of saying ‘there..there’?” The person got up like a spring, gave me a very stupid smile and with apologies picked up the book and gave it to me. The book was lying in a corner which he could see from the desk and I could not see from where I stood. That’s how the people who work in spiritual centers behave.
As I stand there hesitantly someone approaches me from under a tree where he was relaxing in the shade with his friend. I ask where I could see Guru’s home and he shows me the direction. I walk up to that area and find that the hut, Vayalvarathu Veedu is down there and I have to climb down around fifteen steps to reach there. I remove the footwear as per the instruction and walk down. To be frank, my first impression is nothing but disappointment. Here is Guru’s home but now a large canopy is made over it reducing the hut into a small museum piece. The pristine simplicity that I had seen in photographs and the Backer’s movie is absolutely missing here. I take a deep breath and dispel all the negative thoughts about the place from my mind and go there. The canopy is huge and from a distance it looks like temple roof. Propped on huge concrete pillars with granite base, the central portion of the roof is made of transparent fiber glass to let natural light in. The roof as a whole is supported by an ugly armature made up of iron and painted over with white enamel paint. The signs of rusting are already seen. It was erected over the hut in order to protect it from the extreme climates and the contribution was done by a liquor baron whose name is written right in front of the canopy. The spirituality of the place is sucked out by this artificial structure. Of course, there should be some ways to protect the hut but it should have been done scientifically as well as aesthetically. On the left side of the large area now marked out by this structure, there is a hand cart/rickshaw propped up on a platform with a bronze of Guru in the seat. Wherever you go, you see this rickshaw and as if Guru had arranged a rickshaw for himself everywhere. Yes, in Sivagiri, in his last days he used to travel by a very modest hand pulled rickshaw. But this one here is made out of steel welded together; an emblematic representation of Guru’s vehicle. I feel sad.
Sitting on a bench like space along the base of the canopy, I try to concentrate on the small hut where Guru was born. Its outer surface is now given a neat finishing touch with cow dung paste. The thatch is new. Nothing of this hut except the front wooden grill and door and the two doors at the back side seems to be old from Guru’s time. One could understand that too. But giving some kind of permanency to the hut, they have made it ‘temporal’. The eternity that one could have felt had it been in the raw clay and not so finished cow dung paste, is much higher than what it is now. I focus on Guru again; what could have been his life style here. The name Vayalvarathu Veedu means House by the Brink of Paddy Fields. I look for the paddy fields. Once where the paddy fields stood are now converted into a play ground and a high school. On the other side of there is a hill and the famous Chempazhathy Sree Narayana College is located. I could hear the contemporary Tamil songs ripping through the air. The Youth Festival of the college is on. The sound waves from the college come and kill the possible tranquility of Guru’s home. People hardly come here. A family of old people comes, takes a look and goes back. Two young men come after an hour, go near the hut, fold their palms in salutation for some time and go back. I sit watching all these. I smell cow dung and I wonder whether it is from the hut. Training my attention and eyes I see just above where I sit there is a cow shed. Two women are seen tending the cow shed and the cows.
I go to the reception area there and after initial hesitation pull a chair out and sit there. One person appears from nowhere and asks my whereabouts. When he comes to know that I am a writer, he takes out some of his personal frustrations. According to him, this place has lost all its spiritual power; I agree. The whole campus was not a part of Vayalvarathu Veedu. This campus was initially a part of the land owned by the Travancore Kings. He points at a small temple and tells me that it is Manakkal Devi Temple. Once in a year, the King used to come and do rituals there. Then rest of the year it remained under lock. Guru, before he left the house to do penance, once stayed there inside the temple for fifteen days and nobody knew he was there. In fact he was lying sick. There was a sub temple next to it. Today that temple is at the farthest corner of the campus. The person tells me the funny story of that temple. It was there in its original place. Then some sannyasi came and took a portion of it to another side and started reading his newspapers there. Then another sannyasi came and took one portion of it to the present place and the local youth converted it into their recreation centre. Finally, someone brought a picture of Sarada Devi from Sivagiri and placed it inside the temple. Today they call it Sarada Madam. He adds that there no divine pull in any of these places. This place becomes active once in a year when the famous Sivagiri Pilgrimage takes place by the end of December and concludes on every New Year day. People who come from different places also come to Vayalvarathu Veedu. There is a weeklong festival in those days but it is not conducted by the trust. Local people make their own plans and celebrate the festival. I ask him about the Philosophy study centre as the name is Gurukulam. He laughs and says that it is just for the name’s sake. Nobody teaches anything here. He walks off. Suddenly the whole place seems deserted. I sit near an ancient jackfruit tree right in front of the reception area. I look at the glass like reflection of sunlight on the sands in the courtyard. Suddenly a person in saffron clothes comes in front of from nowhere. I have not seen him before anywhere in the campus. He looks at me and smiles. “Have you eaten lunch?” he asks me compassionately. I tell him that I would eat soon as I am waiting for someone. He smiles at me again and walks away. I look for him again and he is not seen anywhere. Who was he? I do not want to ask. I wait for the someone who is supposed to come and meet me.