City Tour of Cochin with Global CHYK Campers

January 4, 2011

It was the third day of the tour in Kerala for the campers of third Global Chinmaya Yuva Kendra camp. I joined them along with Sidhu, Manisha, Prashant & Srudhi – the Yuva Veers at Chinmaya International Foundation. We started off in two cars and a Volvo bus at 9:45 am after breakfast to Hill Palace, the Palace of Cochin Royal Family now converted into a museum.

As we arrived at the Hill Palace, we got the entry tickets and went inside the Palace. Photography was not allowed and so we had to deposit our cameras & mobile phones at the counter. My role, along with the other Yuva Veers, was to ensure that nobody in the group of 44 is left behind and that everybody walks at a pretty good pace inside the museum.

The museum was filled with very old artifacts belonging to the Royal Family. We had hired a guide who was explaining the details about everything. We saw the Royal Throne (made up of Rose Wood and its weight was equal to 1500 silver coins), the the Ministers’chairs, wooden carvings on furniture, toys, handicrafts, old coin collections, magnificent paintings of the Royal family, the wonderful flooring (which was still intact and beautifully maintained), an awesome structure that was left of a temple which had carvings from various parts in the ancient Indian Epics, ancient Manuscripts written on palm leaves, the King’s Gold Crown (that weighed 1765 grams and was studded with hundreds of Diamonds, Emeralds, Rubies and many other precious stones), other gold ornaments of the Royal family, various types of Rudrakshas (worn by the priests), and many other relics. Needless to say, our NRI CHYKs were struck with awe and wonder at every step. They got so deep into discussions that it was very hard for us to ask them to break their conversation and move forward. We really had to do it or else we not could have completed our day tour as planned. Even while doing so, I could see myself staying glued to some places, especially the paintings which were done using natural colours of those times. The colours were so powerful and bright, that nobody could guess the painting was centuries old. Some huge paintings even had a 3D effect.

We finally pushed ourselves and others out of the Palace by noon. I could see the campers looking at many things with astonishment. For example, there was a puppy on the steps of the Palace and it was scratching itself due to fleas. In no time, there was a group of 10 – 15 campers around it passing dialogues like “So sweet…It’s so cute….Oh! Poor thing, its got fleas.” The puppy itself looked surprised and might have wondered why these people are staring at Me!

We left the place in no time and headed for The Taj Gateway Hotel near the Fort Kochi area. The hotel was quiet and we could see only corporate executives who had come for lunch. The calmness was broken by our vibrant group and we could see everybody’s eyes on us. A hall was booked for all of us and there was a buffet lunch with Indian and Chinese foods. As we settled inside the hall Br. Rishiji, who was guiding the tour, came up with an idea. He said, “Why don’t we chant Shanno Mitrassham Varunah (a prayer from Taittiriya Upanishad – the text that was covered for the campers a week back in their camp) before we proceed for lunch?” We all happily said, “Yeah! Sure! Why not?” We all chanted the whole prayer in the way it is did in Vedic way of chanting. It was as if time stood still. Everyone in the restaurant were totally zapped and wondering what’s going on? All the staff were stunned. This was something they never saw and never expected from a group of youth who looked more like foreigners. The whole atmosphere changed and we felt as if we were sitting for a Vedic Chanting class in the early morning hours. As the prayer concluded, there was an unusual smile on everyone’s face, as though, they had offered a sense of gratitude towards the great ancient Vedic tradition.

Some thoughts flew past my mind. I had been in the earlier Global Chinmaya Yuva Kendra camp for the first time and had a great experience with NRIs who looked like foreigners (in the way they dressed, ate, thought, spoke, etc) but were Indian that most of us in the way they thought of spirituality, the way they sang bhajans and played various instruments. I could see a lot of difference in those youngsters whose roots were Indians but way of living was Western. But somewhere, at one point, when it came to spiritual aspects, there was some thin thread that connected each and every one of us. And at that point, I could see no difference between any of us.

Anyways, the lunch was excellent which was followed with 10 – 12 different desserts. As we were chilling out in our seats, Rishiji took up a Mridangam that was kept in the hall along with some other classical instruments like Tabla, Veena, Tamburu, etc. He then started playing it. The instrument was not in the best of its condition but the way he played it was spectacular. There was no other sound or movement in the hall and everybody’s focus was just on Rishiji. Needless to say, the mini concert ended with a roar of applause.

We left the restaurant for the Madhavan Nair Cultural Centre. On our way, one of the CHYKs made an announcement in our bus that they were planning to gift a Blackberry to Rishiji. He was sharing one of his experience that he had while working with Rishiji. Anybody who has worked with Rishiji would know how differently he worked. Every other minute his mobile keeps ringing and no matter how busy he is, he answers the call. Even if the callers are school or college children who call for some guidance over some issue they are facing, Rishiji would handle the call with the most sincerity and keen interest. While he is walking, or rather running around, in the 90 acre campus of Chinmaya International Residential School, Coimbatore, he stops to talk with anybody who’s standing on the way to talk to him. I had seen this personally in the last camp at CIRS when he was rushing towards some place and saw the gardener. He immediately stopped and asked about the health condition of a relative of the gardener. Not that he just asked casually, but also suggested some alternative treatment that could be given. He spent 3-4 minutes listening to the grievances of the person. It was at such a point of time when he could not even spare a second. And the solace that a person gets after looking at his face and wonderful smile is something that can’t be explained. Coming back to the CHYKster’s experience. It was 4 am when he went inside Rishiji’s room where he saw Rishiji sitting in front of his laptop. He had been working overnight and fell asleep in the sitting posture as he was working. The CHYK woke him up and said, “Rishiji, probably you must rest now”. As he woke up, he started working again. Such was his dedication and sincerity towards work. Many a times during such camps, he barely sleeps; but we can see him in the best of his spirits for the early morning Vedic chanting class. So, the campers had planned to gift him something, as a sense of love and gratitude, which will be useful for him. And Blackberry could replace his ancient model mobile phone.

The Madhavan Nair Cultural Centre was not that exciting. It was a great place though. Great place in the sense, it explained the history of Kerala in a very elaborate way. But the A/C was not working and the presentation was not that dynamic. However, there was a lot of information on many things these CHYKs never knew about.

From there, we left to watch a Kathakali (the traditional dance form of Kerala) performance by Cochin Kathakali. We reached early and got our tickets. It was a small air-conditioned hall which could accommodate an audience of little over 100. There were few French already who had secured the front seats of one side of the row. We were followed by a Russian group and few locals. Soon the hall was houseful. The artists displayed how they decorated their faces with colours made of Natural herbs. We took snaps of the dressing and went upstairs where a couple of dancers were getting dressed up for a show. The campers were pretty excited about the show that was going to happen. The show began by 6:30pm. The Director himself hosted the show along with his background score by Chenda, a kind of drum used in various Classical Music, Dance & Art forms of Kerala. He explained how difficult it is to master this Classical Dance form and that it takes around 16 years or so with regular intense practice. A student’s day usually starts at 3 in the morning and practice goes on for 10 to 12 hours every day. The huge costume weighs anywhere between 30 to 50 kgs. A student’s body is given a thorough foot massage with various kinds of herbal oil for 3 hours. This makes the body muscles very flexible for movement. The first artist, Mr. Radhakrishnan, showed various expressions and Navarasas (the nine main emotions) and how quickly expressions changed. Kathakali is a peculiar art. There are very few instruments and a singer. The dancers have to convey the story, which is usually from some ancient Indian Epic, through their expressions and body movements. Every gesture had a different meaning. And the audience usually knows what each gesture meant. One of the most striking features of Kathakali is that, it begins usually by 8:30 at night and continuously goes on upto day break. Both the artists and the audience should have stamina to sit through the show without falling asleep. In olden days, such performances were given in open grounds. After Radhakrishnan left the stage, the Director explained the story of Narakasura Vadha from an Indian Epic so that the foreign audience can easily understand the story when the artists play it later on stage. There were two male artists to show this performance and one of them did the female role (which is quite usual in Kathakali). The performances of both the male and the female character were astonishing. As and when I looked around, I could see the jaws dropping of the audience at some point and bursts of laughter on other occasions. They all enjoyed the performance very much and were all praises for the artists. In the end, we all took a group photo with the male Kathakali artist.

With big smiles on the face, we proceeded to Bharat Tourist Home, popularly known as BTH hotel, for dinner. After the lip smacking buffet dinner on the roof top, the campers left for Thiruvananthapuram & Kanyakumari (the southernmost tip of India). After bidding them good bye, I & the Yuva Veers left for our place – Chinmaya International Foundation (CIF).

When I left CIF in the morning, I wasn’t very much excited about the trip. I was happy to go but didn’t feel any excitement may be because it was my own native place and usually we don’t feel much excited in our homeland as much as we are when we are in a new place. But as I came to the end of the day, my mind was filled with a sense of contentment for having seen and experienced the real taste of Kerala & its heritage.

The Arrival of Global CHYK campers at CIF

January 1, 2011

I had reached Chinmaya International Foundation (CIF) (at Piravom, near Ernakulam in Kerala) on New Year Eve and settled in by late afternoon. We were expecting a group of 45 NRI CHinmaya Yuva Kendra (CHYK) members from Coimbatore who were coming for a Kerala tour after a week-long residential camp in Chinmaya International Residential School (CIRS), Coimbatore. One of the Yuva Veers (trainees who are on a service period of one-year after they complete their 3 months Youth Empowerment Programme -YEP), Prashant, had gone to pick the campers from the famous Krishna temple at Guruvayoor. As usual, there was a big queue in Guruvayoor temple which made them late for leaving the place. They started off in a Volvo bus, 2 Tata Innovas & a Mercedes by 10:30 pm.

Meanwhile at CIF, Meera Amma had made all arrangements with the help of Yuva Veer Srudhi. Meera Amma is a man-machine combination kind of a person (some what like the one in Terminator 4) who just keeps on working on & on & on. I haven’t seen even youngsters working so efficiently and quickly as Meera Amma does even after crossing 60. Sidhu (a Yuva Veer and also the PRO of CIF) had returned that evening after a Tour with Swamiji Mitrananda (a Mentor for many youngsters in and out of India) from Mathura to Dwarka, which they called – ‘The Journey of Krishna’. Manisha (another Yuva Veer), who had also gone for that tour, followed Sidhu and reached CIF by 10:30 pm. Both of them were tired like hell, for they were driving almost 500 kms every day, for the last 10 days in their Tour. Taking no time to rest, they got into action for the final touch with on the arrangements of the Global CHYKsters.

To freshen herself up, Manisha thought of having tea. She went to the kitchen and kept a packet of milk for boiling. It was taken from one of those packets that were kept in the refrigerator to prepare the welcome drink (Drinking Chocolate) for the camper when they arrive late at night. It is then we all got the shock of our life. The milk got spoilt. We tried boiling half of the other packets and all of them got spoilt. It was 11:15 at night and our location was almost inside a village. Usually in Kerala, shops close latest by 8 pm. We decided to get Milk Powder from some where in Ernakulam, which is again an hour’s drive from CIF. We were sure we had time to go to Ernakulam and be back before the campers reach here. Sidhu & I dressed up to go. But how? Sidhu’s bike didn’t have much fuel and it wouldn’t start either. So we went to take another bike which is there at CIF. Sidhu searched the office but couldn’t get the keys. It was then we remembered that the bike keys were with another Yuva Veer who took it home that day by mistake. Lady luck seemed to go farther away when we tried calling that guy but could not get through. “What to do now?” – was the only thought we all had in our mind. Time was running out and on top of that we got a call from Prashant saying that they are traveling faster than expected since there is no traffic on the way. Sidhu rang up the driver at CIF and took the car at CIF. It was past mid night and we had no clue if we could find Milk Powder anywhere in Kerala at that time. Actually, the campers wouldn’t have felt anything even if there was no Drinking Chocolate. (In fact, they just wanted to go tot sleep after they arrived.) But, we as hosts would feel it as fall on our part in organizing a camp. It is here I remembered a few words of wisdom by a Great One – Have an ideal! A noble one! And don’t give yourself up at tempting moments by compromising on the ideal. We had decided on keeping Drinking Chocolate as the welcome drink, and we were in no way ready to compromise and look for an easier alternative.

Somehow, Sidhu got some packets of Milk Powder and was back before the campers reached CIF. The campers arrived around 2 in the morning. We welcomed them with Drinking Chocolate and showed them their rooms. Their eyes looked terrible and body was drooping due to tiredness. Before retiring to their rooms, we gave them the next morning’s schedule. In a few minutes, we could hear their snores. We retired to our rooms by 3 – 3:30 am.

Next morning breakfast time was kept flexible instead of the usual time of 8:15. We (I, Meera Amma & Yuva Veers) finished our breakfast on time. The campers woke up late, as expected, and had their Continental breakfast somewhere between 9:30 & 10:30. I got the opportunity of arranging breakfast for Swamiji Swaroopananda (the Director of CIRS, one of the Directors of CHYK, and also the camp Acharya who had come along with the campers to CIF) and Swamiji Advayananda (Acharya, CIF) and later escorting both of them for a walk around CIF. I took many candid photographs of both of them.

In the interim, Sidhu & Manisha took the campers for a CIF tour and explained the significance of the place and that it is the birth place of Adi Sankara, and how CIF has preserved the very home in which Adi Sankara was born. The campers were taken inside the Melpazhoor Mana (the Ancestral house of Adi Sankara’s mother). Like anybody else who visits the place for the first time, these CHYKs were also full of stuff like “Oh my God! Wow!! Awesome! Inspiring!”

It was 12:20 in the afternoon when both the Swamijis finished the walk. By that time, the campers also finished touring the place. The next session was mine – a demo on Vedic Mathematics. Everybody entered the hall at 12:50 and I could see them not ready for some session. They were in a picnic mood. I greeted them (and a few even greeted back) but most of them were hardly looking at me. They were merrily chatting amongst themselves. Usually, the biggest challenge for a demo is to get the audience attracted towards you in the first few minutes. If one succeeds here, half the battle is won. I started off with a small intro and saw that still few of them weren’t paying much attention. I quickly shifted to some practical problems. And in no time I got everybody’s eye balls on the board. Again the different words used for giving surprising emotions could be heard which was followed by an applause for doing some calculations in seconds on the board. I felt better when they all started looking at me. In a few minutes, both Swamijis and Rishiji came into the hall and sat in the front row. I continued my talk for 50 minutes and could see their eyes wide open with bewilderment (except 2 or 3 of them who were still in the hang over of the earlier day’s travel). I explained how the subject helps in discovering new techniques of calculation on our own. And how it can improve the way our brain functions. As soon as I finished my talk, they thanked me for the demo. Swaroopanandaji put in his few words as to how Spiritual Scientists of ancient India ‘discovered’ various streams of knowledge by Meditation & Contemplation. He also connected the text (‘Tattiriya Upanishad’ that was taken for the campers) to pattern observation that is said in Vedic Mathematics. The session concluded with Advayanandaji’s words on the vision that CIF had towards promoting such rare branches of knowledge like Vedic Mathematics.

After lunch, the campers were given resting time. I had good discussions with few of the campers on Vedic Maths and could throw some light on the subject. It’s a great feeling I get, that can’t be expressed, when perception of people towards Mathematics, as a dry & boring subject, is totally changed in a few minutes of demo on the Vedic Maths. If a demo can bring such a difference, just imagine how much difference will learning the subject bring about?

At 6:15 pm, the campers went to the Ayyappa temple at CIF in traditional dhoti (for guys) and Settu Mundu (traditional off-white Kerala Saris for girls). They weren’t comfortable in those clothes but they looked happy. Girls couldn’t walk fast and guys literally tied the dhotis to their waists. It was funny to see some girls wearing white T-shirts as blouse. There was a Chuttuvilakku (a pooja when all the lamps of the temple can be lit by us) which was followed by Shinkari Melam (a performance by Classical Instruments of Kerala). The campers loved the performance like anything and it is usually so for any spectator. I heard a few comments like, “Man! Those guys literally did sit-ups with those huge drums.”

Sinkari Melam was followed by a quick dinner after which we all proceeded to the Illam (maternal house of Adi Sankara) to watch Kalari payatu (the traditional form of warfare of Kerala). The performance was given by some youngsters and a few middle aged men from the academy called ‘Cochin Kalari’. It is said that a Chinese monk mastered this art and spread it across China with a few modifications. This modified form turned into Karate & Kung fu. The senior person among the artists explained many facts about the martial art. It usually takes atleast 6 years of sincere practice to master the art. The day of a student begins very early in the morning when he has to undergo extensive physical training (twice a day) supplemented with mental training techniques of Pranayama & Meditation.

They displayed the use of various weapons like knives, swords, daggers, long & short sticks, flexible swords (that could be rolled into a circle and hid under garments or in the long hairs of ancient warriors), wrestling, etc. The fights were so real that every time their metallic weapon scratched on the rock-floor of the Illam, sparks flew and we almost thought the weapon will injure one of the performers. The display lasted for almost an hour after which the valorous performers proceeded to have dinner.

I got an opportunity to serve them meals and it is then I saw something I didn’t expect. All these artists seemed so aggressive while they fought in the arena but, when we spoke to them in person, most of them were very shy & timid. It is so strange – a person’s behavior changes so significantly when he identifies himself with different ego-states and plays different roles in life.

I enjoyed every moment of the day. To some extent it is because of the atmosphere that was spread around. But more than that, I guess, I was totally in the present moment all the time during the day. As said towards the end of the movie ‘Peaceful Warrior’

Master: Where are you?
Student: Here.
Master: What time is it?
Student: Now.
Master: Who are you?
Student: The present moment.