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.