A Royal Treasure Chest On View

As we browsed the museum shop, the Maharani of Indore looked down at us from her perch on the wall. Around her neck was an emerald necklace studded with the Indore Pears, two diamonds weighing almost 47 carats each.

Under her gaze we waited for the docent-led tour to begin. The Legion of Honor’s “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection,”  is a visiting exhibition that features 150 precious stones, gold, jade and jewel-encrusted ceremonial objects from the treasure chests of  Mughals and Maharajas.


Source: godsandfoolishgrandeur

The Indore Pear diamonds that the Maharani wore have been set in many settings and adorned many before and after her.

  Baguette diamond necklace


They have borne witness to many a love story. Alas the love story for the Maharani was a short one. She died at the age of 23 in a hospital in Switzerland. Her daughter Usha lives in Mumbai. She is the heir to the name but not to the diamonds. More about the diamonds later as the tour starts.

The docent who has been leading tours for 45 years, equipped the group with headsets. We entered the hall and stared at the ruby bib necklace. The docent, too, seemed gobsmacked by the collection. What took her by surprise was the fact that in India it was the Maharajas, the male rulers and not the female rulers, who wore the fanciest jewels in the family.

She led us into the entrance of the exhibition hall which was dominated by the portrait of the Maharani of Indore’s husband, Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajeshwar Sawai Shri Yeshwant Rao II Holkar XIV Bahadur (Sept. 6, 1908, Indore – Dec. 5, 1961, Bombay.) He is seen wearing the very same diamonds but in a different setting. Peeping out from under a strand of pearls is the diamond necklace with the very same Indore Pears.


Source: godsandfoolishgrandeur

In 1946 an American jeweler, Harry Winston, bought the two pear-shaped diamonds. He enhanced their cut and sold and even resold them to families in Philadelphia and New York. The acclaimed pears also came to the auction table. Christies’ auctioned them in Geneva, in November 1980, and again in November 1987. Robert Mouawad is the present owner.

Drooling over the cases and dropping gems of information related to the jewels on display to others in the group is my friend Sulu Karnik. She soon becomes the docent’s newly-appointed assistant!

“Where did the Maharajas get all these jewels from?” “How did they safeguard the jewels?” These were questions answered with aplomb by the newly minted docent assistant.

The Mughal ornaments which very unfamiliar to the American museumgoer were very familiar to Sulu. Encrusted with rubies, emeralds, and pearls with a gold base, what appears to be a wine container to the American is correctly identified as a jeweled sprinkler for rosewater to the Indian eye.

The inkwells were gifts from Emperor Jahangir to his nobles. They were usually found tucked into their waistbands. I guessed they were the equivalent of the note taking $1200 Apple iPhones.

Photography by Gary Sexton. Images courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

As we swished past the Maharaja of Patiala’s legendary Cartier necklace with the diamond encrusted choker, the wonder of being able to see these jewels in San Francisco was not lost on us.

Photography by Gary Sexton. Images courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The opportunity to see this collection is brought to the public by the Legion’s new director Thomas P. Campbell. East Meets West” was organized by Martin Chapman, the curator in charge of European decorative arts and sculpture at FAMSF with Amin Jaffer, the senior curator of the Al Thani Collection.

The exhibition is open until Feb 24. The Legion of Honor museum is at Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco. 415.750.3600.  Hours: Tuesdays – Sundays 9:30 a.m. – 5:15 p.m.

Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author, chef, debate coach, and mother of two boys. She lives in the Bay Area and has deep experience in Silicon Valley start-ups as well as large corporations as a senior executive.

Should only Sumangalis be Involved in Weddings?

A few months ago, I saw the pictures of Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi which they were not allowed to do for many years. An organisation caring for these women brought this change to bring about larger shifts in people’s attitude towards widowhood in many parts of India and abroad.

I have been widowed for the past 22 years. I am from an educated, upper middle class South Indian Brahmin family where girls have been college-educated for the past two generations. Still, I find that widows are discriminated in subtle and overt ways during many auspicious occasions.

During weddings, widows are banned from performing many rituals, even if it happens to be for their own daughter, son or grand children! Widows are supposed to be inauspicious. To give you an example, there is a tradition in the Brahmin community to worship women who have died before their husbands, glorifying them by a ritual called Sumangali Prarthanai. This function is done before a marriage celebration or any happy occasion, remembering the dead. But why do we only worship women who died before their husbands? Is it their choice to die so?

When they perform this ritual, the daughters of the family are invited to join a feast. These women must be living with their husbands (sumangalis). They are invited, and given gifts for being sumangalis. Widowed daughters are not allowed to participate in this ritual, being considered amangali. They cannot sit together and eat with their sisters. They have to eat only after the sumangalis have eaten. Imagine that—they do this to their own daughters. I felt terrible when I attended a wedding where I was excluded from these ceremonies.

As generations change inter-community and intercaste marriages happen. The daughters of the family, who have married this way, even if they have their husbands alive, meaning they are sumangalis, are not allowed to participate. And, divorcees are definitely excluded.

Surprisingly, these taboos are perpetuated by educated women of the family. And, I see that the same customs are being followed in America as well. In the name of tradition, why do we allow this to continue?

Saroja Viswanathan lives with her children in the United States and is an active member of her community.

First published in August of 2017.

Date/Time Event
Nov 29, 2018 - Feb 16, 2019
11:00 am - 7:00 pm
Events Across the Globe
An Indo-U.S. Cultural Saga
DAG, Mumbai Maharashtra
Jan 25, 2019 - Jan 27, 2019
All Day
India Quilt Festival
India Quilt Festival
Sri Sankara Hall, Chennai TamilNadu
Jan 26, 2019
2:00 pm - 6:30 pm
Carnatic Concerts
Carnatic Concerts
Community Of Infinite Spirit, San Jose California
Jan 26, 2019
4:00 pm
"Kalpana" - Dancing through the Seasons.
"Kalpana" - Dancing through the Seasons.
Mission City Center of Performing Arts, Santa Clara CA

Two Governors Brown

From its American beginnings, in the 1840s, California has advertised a vein of gold in its spine.  Gold was luck. Most of the miners returning to San Francisco from the gold fields testified, however, that luck had abandoned them and their dreams were fool’s gold.  

The perennial question about California is whose version is truer?  The pessimist’s or the optimist’s? As Jerry Brown finishes his last days as governor, I have been thinking about his father, Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who was an unbridled optimist in the post-war years, in ways his son, Jerry, never was.  

As the son of immigrant parents, I loved California the way Pat Brown loved California.  I loved the energy building around me, as I was growing. Everyone interesting, from Willie Mays to Jonas Salk to Lucy and Desi, was arriving in California.  It was when I was in high school that California became the most populous state in the union, tipping the map of America in my direction. And it cheered me.

I remember standing in line with Jerry Lafferty at the Esquire Theater in Sacramento to see Albert Finney in “Tom Jones.”  Ticket holders for the next showing used to scrutinize the faces of people leaving the theater to determine their verdict on the film.  Governor Pat Brown and his wife exited the lobby onto K Street. He announced to us waiting in line: “Great movie!”

About that same time, I saw a photograph of Jerry Brown in the Sacramento Bee.  Jerry stood beside a Christmas tree, with his parents and sisters in the old governor’s mansion.  He was a Jesuit seminarian, in a black suit and Roman collar. Black browed, solemn as a Calvinist.

In 1955, Walt Disney affixed his signature on the state that I lived in!  Disney bought a parcel of land in Anaheim in order to construct a real imaginary place that he would call “the happiest place on earth.”  

Nowadays, many Californians incline to pessimism, remembering that Walt Disney’s dream entailed the destruction of miles of orange groves.  We notice that traffic on the 5 has slowed miles before the turnoff to Tomorrow Land. Walt Disney’s cartoonish signature now signifies a monstrous corporation that swallows up every rival for the imagination of children.

Pat Brown was as infatuated with movement as any boy in my high school.  His freeways raced for miles north and south, then clover-leafed east and west.  He even proposed extending the dark Embarcadero Freeway from the Ferry Building, circling the northern edge of the city, continuing over Marina Green, connecting to the Golden Gate Bridge.  He thought it a wonderful prospect to look out at the Bay, as one drove to the suburbs.

During his tenure, Pat Brown presided over marvels.  He channeled water from the Central Valley uphill into southern California.  He developed a three-tiered “master plan” for higher education—enlisting state colleges, community colleges, and the University of California into a single vision of possibility.

By the time Ronald Reagan, defeated Pat Brown for governor in 1968 the music on the car radio had changed from California Dreamin’ to acid rock.  Reagan would later run for the presidency as an affable optimist, invoking “morning in America.” As governor of California he called out the National Guard against the children of the suburbs, who were rioting on Sproul Plaza against war in Southeast Asia, racism, and a “multiversity” that reduced them to numbers.

We might imagine, in the manner of a Shakespearean history play, that when Jerry Brown succeeded Ronald Reagan as governor in 1975, the son was reclaiming his father’s fiefdom.  In truth, Jerry Brown was more like Ronald Reagan in his fiscal conservatism than he was like his father.

And the image Jerry Brown wanted to project from the start was of a man not given to materialism and the giantism of post-war California.  Young Brown announced himself an enthusiast of the British economist, E.F. Schumacher and his book, Small is Beautiful.  

Jerry Brown had been educated in a Jesuit seminary, was acquainted with the spiritual value of physical deprivations. We read in the newspaper that he slept on a mattress in an apartment building across from the capital.  He drove himself around the state in a compact Plymouth. Mike Royko, the Chicago columnist dubbed him, “Governor Moonbeam” and the name stuck.

For several weeks, after he was defeated in a run for the U.S. Senate, Jerry Brown worked with Mother Teresa in Kolkata. He was also, we heard or read, a student of Zen Buddhism.  Indeed, one of Brown’s “memorable quotes” as governor—remembered by Google if not by me deserves a Zen gong: “Inaction may be the biggest form of action.”

In the interim (between Brown’s early tenure as governor, from 1975 to 1983 and his re-election in 2011 to the present) another Zen Buddhist became the most influential Californian in the world.  Steve Jobs drove a Mercedes SL55 AMG between the two fantasy factories of his life—Pixar in Emeryville and Apple in Cupertino.

As a young man, Jobs had been dissuaded from becoming a monk by the Zen monastery to which he applied.  In the famous late years of his life, he proceeded to clothe himself in a monkish habit of mixed metaphor—an expensive black Miyake turtleneck and worn jeans.  He presented himself as a prophet of possibility. Thus, to my mind, Steve Jobs belongs to the optimistic California of Pat Brown, as does now the fascinating Elon Musk.

Even as Teslas burst into flame on freeway shoulders, Musk launched a red convertible into the stratosphere, mocking eternity.  He also bored a tunnel under L.A., to rescue commuters from gridlock.

By contrast to Musk’s tunnel, Jerry Brown’s contribution to the future of California is a high-speed train between L.A. and San Francisco.  The high speed train is as epic an ambition as anything his father conceived. But as he leaves office, Jerry Brown’s high speed train is grossly over budget.  The built portion stands on the landscape near Fresno like a remnant Roman aqueduct.

What makes Jerry run?   I don’t know. I don’t think it was Zen Buddhism or the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  He was elected governor for two terms. Then twice he was defeated for the U.S. Senate. Then he sought his party’s nomination for the presidency, three times.  He was the Mayor of Oakland. Then California Attorney General. Then Governor for another two terms.

He grew old as I grew old.  I saw him once of Fillmore Street; I saw him once at a party in one of canyons of L.A.  What do I think of Jerry Brown’s progress? I think he was solid. I think he was a worker.  But for many years I didn’t think of him at all because the California of flamboyant creativity had opened a vein in Silicon Valley.  Frat boys became billionaires selling the world games or apps or platforms or the promise of connection in exchange for privacy.

Under the guise of Silicon Valley, California is colonizing other parts of America, lately Austen and New York.  And governors are thrilled by their election. Many Californians, however, increasingly sound like Jerry Brown. We know that the new tech “campus” will raise our rents and slow traffic and otherwise render our lives as less than we remember.

After Jerry Brown, the argument will continue in California, between optimism and pessimism, gold and fool’s gold.  Jerry Brown predicts that, after his departure, the Democrats in Sacramento will again run up budgets that they can’t pay for.

Jerry Brown says he is retiring to a farm, as befits a long life in public service.  Now and for the future, Jerry Brown’s theme is global warming. He has positioned himself stoutly against the devastation wreaked by the orange-crested Tweetie Bird in Washington.  We will doubtless see Jerry Brown in coming years, at international conferences that consider melting snow.

As Brown departs, crowds of Central American peasants gather in Tijuana at the gates of California.  They believe the state of drought, perched on the edge of a rising sea remains a state of desire. Many Californians want nothing to do with the illegal dreams, expecting they will only bring more taxes—welfare, over-crowded schools, and traffic.

I am cheered, therefore, that Gavin Newsom has been talking about the California “dream” in recent interviews.

I remember Newsom fondly as the mayor of San Francisco, the man who looked like Disney’s Prince Charming, the man who sponsored gay marriage, years before the Supreme Court approved.  Couples lined up for blocks. I watched on television as Newsom officiated at the marriage of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who had been together for 51 years. In 2004, they were the first legally married same-sex couple in San Francisco.

I think of the boy that I was, with my queer sexual secret.  I think, if I were that boy watching the happiness of those old women, it would seem to me I could imagine the possibility of California as a band of gold.

This story was produced by Ethnic Media Services. Also published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Calling Off The Wedding

The Indian TV channel was playing Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK) when the phone call came to say that Aparna’s wedding had been called off. 

“Is the wedding postponed or canceled?” my mother was asking on the phone. When she hung up, she shook her head. A single word: “Dowry.”

On the screen, Arti Shahani, the new bride and daughter-in-law in HAHK, was cheerfully working in the kitchen, bidding the male executives adieu, peeling an improbably large number of apples in a demure sari with head covered. This cloyingly sweet scene suggested she had no ambitions of her own whatsoever, and was therefore the ideal gharelu (home-making) daughter-in-law. The one bright spot offering some diversity in this fantasy-land was the token professional woman, Razia, the Muslim “lady doctor,” who confirmed the good news that a child was on its way. In this Bollywood la la land, there was lots of aap and hum. No sign of class struggle. Servants were malleable and agreeable, harmony reigned with no sign of discord. And this is what it takes for a family to chug along, we are to understand.

Chalo, it’s good that we found out what kind of people they are before the wedding,” my mother was saying in a soothing voice. The wedding card had been on the refrigerator magnet for months. I took it down and tossed it into the recycling bin.

Photo Credit: Parekh Cards

I grew up with such happy memories of Delhi weddings. I remember when my uncle got married in the 1970s. I was a young girl, and had a particular fondness for softies, soft-served ice cream cones, being careful not to spill them on my made-for-the occasion frilly frock. Unlimited (free!) Coca-cola and Fanta outside of parental supervision. Espresso with sugar cubes. Spotting a hippie foreigner near a hotel pool, from a faraway land called America, and marveling that hair color came in a shade other than black. What fun.


And then another memory popped up in my mind, less sanguine. Hushed whispers. The unhappily married aunt who died in a blaze of kerosene fire. The demands from the groom’s family had been insatiable, unceasing, relentless. It seems every family has a story of a ‘dowry death.’ Was this the dark shadow of all the bright lights I remembered? What was the relation between my aunt’s death and all those sparkling weddings?


Those “5 star hotel” wedding parties from my childhood came swimming back to my memory. Who exactly had paid for my free wedding dinner?

Wedding costs are rising in India. In 2017, there were “over 12 million weddings in the South Asian nation every year estimated to cost over $25 billion and growing at 30 percent annually. In short, it is an obscene display of wealth,” according to Murali Krishnan.

“A person in India spends one fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on a wedding ceremony, sometimes pledging their land as collateral” said Ranjan, an MP in India trying to introduce moderation in weddings.

Some scary statistics cast a shadow: according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), dowry-related crimes are on the rise. In 2001, this number was 6,851 dowry deaths, in 2006, that number had risen to 7,618 and reached 8,233 in 2012. The conviction rate in these cases, however, remained at only 32 percent.

Dowry deaths continue to rise, according to 2012 NCRB figures. “On average, one Indian woman commits suicide every four hours over a dowry dispute notwithstanding existence of laws for their empowerment.” 

Things are particularly bad in the capital city of Delhi.

Photo credit: Parekh Cards

“Dowry cases in Delhi have been on a rise over the years. Though crimes such as murder and robbery have been either decreasing or seeing a marginal rise each year, dowry cases have doubled in the last five years.” On August 14, 2017 Hindustan Times published a special report about Delhi’s dowry-related cases. It analysed all the alleged dowry cases registered across Delhi in the first six months of 2017 and found that the tradition cuts across demographics. According to the statement of women in FIRs, their families were bullied for many types of dowry items — from an Audi to a buffalo, to a motorcycle or a house.” From 2,046 cases in 2012 to 3,877 in 2016, dowry cases in Delhi have almost doubled in that period.

Photo credit: Parekh Cards

On screen, HAHK,  the subject of dowry has come up, with the clownishly vampy Bindu gnashing her teeth at Arti Shahani’s lack of dowry. To his credit, the patriarch Alok Nath sticks up for this dowry-less girl.

Manjua Devak’s story popped up on my Facebook feed. Someone had posted it on a group, and I was saddened to read about this IIT scholar who killed herself after being harassed for dowry. I thought of the radiant smile in a photograph of my aunt, whom my mother had loved, and how my aunt had become one more statistic of a dowry death.

I turned to my mother. “I agree with you. There are worse things than calling off the wedding.”

Photo credit: Parekh Cards

This article is dedicated to my late Sunila Masi. I was too young to remember meeting her, but her story stayed with me.

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.

Cover photo credit: kevbabe

Say No to Dowry. Photo Credit: Tara Hunt.


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Vasundhara Gupta: From Kolkata To Boston


We’ve all heard the saying – music is truly universal. But, how many musicians can truly claim to “know” and “feel” the truth of this statement? Meet Vasundhara Gupta, young musician and sound designer from the Berklee School of Music in Boston – “ Every class that I took at Berklee had 9 out of 10 musicians drawn from different parts of the world,” she said in wonderment. She used that exposure and has moved forward in ways that truly demonstrate confidence and artistic leadership.

Growing up in Kolkata in a large joint family with cousins, uncles, and aunts, the musical influences in her life were varied and started when she was very young; some relatives listened to Western classical music, her father listened to the Beatles, her brother to Bryan Adams and her mother to Hindustani music. From this musical amalgam, emerged a keen student of Hindustani music groomed under the watchful eyes of her mother and grandmother. Both of them played the Hawaiian slide guitar and even when she went on vacations to her maternal grandmother;s house in Varanasi, lessons continued through the hot, summer months. This early discipline nurtured the young girl and soon she was singing and practicing on her own with true love and dedication.

In high school, unsure of what to do next, a friend’s suggestion to apply to the Berklee School of Music changed her life. She first went to Mumbai for 3 rounds of interviews with music professors from Berklee. The fact that her in-person interview with two professors turned out to be an impromptu jam session must have guaranteed her admission to the highly selective institution, I surmise, as she talks of how her mind opened to global musical influences on arrival in Boston. Sound producer, sound engineer, music orchestrator – when she heard these various paths to making and producing music, her first reaction as a student was to exclaim – “My God – you can do so much in music! “I was amazed that all of these pursuits originated from that same place within – a deep love for music,” she said with visible excitement.  

Apart from these various career paths that opened up in front of her, her musical sense resonated with an understanding of history, migration and acculturation. For instance, she was able to examine Indian music, the music that she was most familiar with, “in a different way.” The Middle Eastern Berklee ensembles, bore the same root as forms of Indian music since they originated in Persia centuries ago, she realized.  She described the Berklee environment as “an explosion” of music from all over the world that stimulated her fertile artistic mind in myriad ways.

As part of the Indian ensemble at Berklee, she took on leadership roles, and helped produce mega shows that involved multiple moving parts in terms of sound design, production and performance. “I gained a lot of confidence as a musician as well, since I was encouraged to sing solo sharing the stage with eminent musicians like Vijay Prakash.” AR Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan and Shreya Ghoshal were the other artists who worked with the students through their work with the Indian ensemble.

Given these multicultural musical influences, it is no surprise that her first collaboration in college was a multicultural one with Olivie Perez, a Spanish pianist.  “We didn’t know each other’s capabilities and slowly we learnt a lot about listening, and through musical sensitivity developed a piece together.” Here’s a clip of their performance together.

Live Performance of ‘Together’ at Berklee Performance Centre in 2015:


Song from an EP released in Dec. 2017:


The name she chose for her first EP – One – reveals the coming together of this growing international musical sensibility within her.  Fittingly, the journey for this EP started in Spain, moved to Kolkata and then came together at Boston. All the music was composed, produced, mixed and recorded by her. Using her ear for music, she has also been working in all aspects related to sound post-production at Slick Sounds in Southern California under David F. Van Slyke, a formidable name in the music business.

Talking of her dream of bringing artists on various paths – dancers, visual artists, writers and musicians within one physical space to create art, Vasundhara seems poised, confident of her unique musical abilities while articulating her vision – something that only artistic leaders can do at such a young age!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.

Rendezvous With A Renunciant: Conversation With Monk Om Swami


Om Swami is not your typical monk. Be it the flowing elegant robes, the crisp answers to questions – mundane or mystical, the sharp sense of humor that leaves you in splits, Om Swami undeniably makes spirituality look suave. But more importantly, he makes it all seem accessible and the elusive goal of enlightenment seem achievable.  

From renouncing a multi-million dollar global business (including a slick top-model Porsche) to spending months in solitude in the Himalayas to encountering the divine first-hand, Swami’s journey is indeed unique. It is a story of human fortitude and reminds us of the power that lies within each of us waiting to be unearthed. Below is a candid conversation with this contemporary mystic.

Q: The world has given you many labels. They call you a non-traditional monk, a renunciant, the monk who sold his Porsche. Who are you in your own eyes?

Om Swami : My official introduction is this. I’m a simple monk in a complex world. If I were to introduce myself, I won’t say who I am, I will say what I am. I am just the sum total of the values I am committed to in my life.

Q: What are those values?

Om Swami: Compassion, kindness, and truth. Foremost is truth, alongside this is compassion. But between truth and compassion I’ll still choose compassion. That’s really the core value.

Q:In your memoir – If Truth Be Told: A Monk’s Memoiryou speak of a very strong yearning for the divine from your childhood. Why then did you choose to enter the corporate world? What drew you in that direction?

 Om Swami: Couple of things. First, was the dream of my parents that I do something meaningful according to what the world calls “meaningful.” Secondly, it’s important to fulfill your desire to rise above it, as opposed to thinking constantly –  I wish I’d done that. Because, if you don’t succeed in one area, you are not going to succeed in the other either. The same principles of tenacity, of self-discipline, and of passion apply in all fields.

Secondly, since my childhood, I was so used to wealth and I’ve been financially independent since I was 12. And, the corporate world can also be spiritual. The greatest spirituality is to live in the world and be truthful at the same time. If I’m sitting in a cave, I’m not really dealing with anybody other than my own thoughts, so I don’t have any opportunity to lie or speak the truth. Where is the test? The test of any man is when it’s stretched to see how quickly he snaps.

Q: You had great success in your business. What lessons from this phase of your life fueled your growth, if any? Also, how did you carry these lessons with you when you renounced to walk the spiritual path full-time?

Om Swami: Persistence is something that stayed with me. And knowing that you are pretty much on your own because in the business world nobody is anybody’s friend. Two journeys are always done on your own, the journey to your death and the journey to enlightenment, nobody’s with you through these journeys. Lord Krishna says – “you are your own greatest friend and your own worst enemy.” We just have to conquer ourselves. Like playing golf, you’re not competing with others, you’re only competing with yourself.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of your life as a seeker?

Om Swami: Lack of guidance is what I faced. I had to figure out my own path. Living a life of hardships, whether it was sleeping on the floor or having a wild boar hitting against my rundown hut or hearing the roar of tigers outside – these were tiny challenges compared to the inner challenge. I was ready to die for what I set out for. Not having amenities was not even on my radar. I was really driven by what I wanted to do. Like a soldier who goes out into the battlefield with only a few choices – either they withdraw or they conquer or they die.

One thing I said to Mother Divine (the divine feminine principle that Swami sought to manifest), if I get convinced that you don’t exist, I will go to all the corners of this world and tell people – “don’t waste your time, there is no God.” But my realization of God was very different. The way I see God now is that heat in fire, that coolness in ice, that thirst quenching ability of water. All things of beauty.

Q:Can you put enlightenment in terms that can be easily grasped so that you can fuel the average individual to walk the path?

Om Swami: First of all, I read somewhere a long time ago and I fully agree now that , enlightenment by itself can be overrated. Many people have been using it just for their own agenda, promising things that are not real. If you look at some of the most famous movements in the last 100 years, how many followers of those movements have actually emerged enlightened?

Simply put, enlightenment is a state where you really don’t develop any negative feelings about any creature. Even if you want, you cannot feel any hatred for anybody in that pristine consciousness. You become increasingly aware of your own thoughts, feelings, actions and you overflow with compassion. If you were to squeeze an orange what will come out? It depends on the quality of the orange. When people are squeezed because of situations, what comes out? Imagine if you were in a state where only love and goodness comes out because that’s what you’re filled with. Really that’s enlightenment. Your behavior remains unaffected by the behavior of other people. You don’t react, you act thoughtfully.

Q:There have been many masters before you and each has had their own way of imparting this ancient wisdom. What is your way?

Om Swami: My way is to teach or speak only from experience. I don’t branch out to areas where I don’t have firsthand experience. My premise is very simple. If you do what I did, the way I did, for the duration I did, you will also get what I got. I don’t believe that you need to chant mantras or meditate, to be enlightened.

I think a mother working in a company and coming home to take care of her family, a son taking care of his parents or a nurse working with the intention of helping patients, I think all this is nothing short of enlightenment. It depends on the intention and what skill they develop to fulfill that intention. Skill has to be learned. Nobody is born with any skill except maybe crying. Crying comes naturally to human beings, every other skill we have to learn.

Q: There are two schools of thought on the need for a master on the spiritual path. On the path to freedom what if one’s reliance on a master becomes the biggest fetter? How do you differentiate between being devoted and becoming dependent?

Om Swami: I think that is where a master’s sincerity comes into play. If the master is good, he or she will not encourage the disciples to become dependent on him or her. That’s really where the key is. Because a good disciple has surrendered already. Surrender is necessary when we need help, but surrender does not mean that we let go of our own faculties of thought or consciousness. Or that we say – “now that I have a master/guru my job is done.” In fact, it has just started. So that’s where a master has to help the disciple.

But from my personal experience, it’s usually of little help. I keep telling people they need to be independent. They think I’m trying to push them away. If I tell people I’ve given you the truth, now go work it out yourself, they feel hurt. Dependency is, please master if you leave me, what will become of me?  I don’t care what you’re teaching, I need you. Devotion is, I would like to be like my master. In devotion, you have an ideal, in dependency, you have an idol.

To know more about Om Swami  please visit omswami.com

Surabhi Kaushik is an Indian writer, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Her works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and parenting essays have been published in various websites such as yourstoryclub, halfbakedbeans, herviewfromhome and India Currents. She is closely associated with “Write Like You Mean It,” a writer’s group in the Main library, Charlotte. She also leads a monthly Fiction Writing workshop and conducts writing workshops at various libraries across Charlotte, North Carolina. 

New Year’s Recipe For “Helper’s High”

Mahatma Gandhi said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Let’s think about that. People who willingly give their time to help always make a difference in the lives of others, in ways big and small. They help their neighbors, family and friends. They volunteer in their communities and answer requests for help, especially during holidays and in response to adverse events such as storms or floods. It’s a natural human response to go to the aid of another.

If you ask people why they reach out, you’ll get different replies.  They were needed. They wanted to do good. Make a difference, give back in some way. They felt obliged to help. They had time on their hands and were looking for something interesting to do. They felt good afterwards. In many of us it’s instinctive, and each of us is driven in our own way. I asked my niece Pavani – an artist, writer and mother – what her triggers driving volunteerism were. “Over the past few years I have seen loved ones suffer with mental and physical illnesses, and watched their families/caregivers suffer along with them. I watched, and felt their pain – and realized that this could be my tomorrow. My first step was to observe, and empathize.” Then one day, she felt it was time for her to act and participate to bring about positive change. At first, she wondered if it would be practical to commit to any effort, given her work and the reality of life raising an active 6-year old child. Then came the realization that even a couple of hours a week could make a difference, “both towards the cause and to the volunteer personally.”

You can ‘lose’ yourself in helping others and in the process perhaps ‘find’ yourself.  However, have you considered that by helping others you are improving your health and wellbeing as well?

In his book The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks, a recognized expert on volunteerism, describes research on the health and spiritual benefits of helping others. He coined the phrase “Helper’s High” for our body’s analogous response to exercise: it releases chemicals called endorphins that interact with receptors in our brains to trigger a positive feeling.  In addition, Luks pointed out that helping others focuses the individual on other activities instead on themselves. Brain imaging and other studies have documented an elevated mood in most people who volunteer even two or three hours a week. An article published by the Mayo Clinic describes several health benefits of volunteering – especially in older adults – including increased social interaction, trust in others, lowering stress, boosting self-confidence, decreased risk of depression, sense of purpose and skill learning. They also cite research showing that it helps you live longer.

Pavani continued by saying, “I realized that art is what I do best, and by including it as part of my volunteer hours to provide therapy for a patient and/or the caregivers, I could make a difference.” She added, “I felt sure I would benefit almost as much, or probably more than the person at the receiving end! And by offering what I truly enjoy, I was sure my commitment to volunteering would only grow.”

So, how about you?  Are you willing to help yourself while helping others?  If so, I have a secret-sauce recipe for successful, fulfilling and rewarding time in the service of others:

Pick something you are passionate about, something that excites you
Add in the time you can make available periodically to devote to the cause
Examine how these two ingredients fit into your service mission
Ask your fellow chefs for help as needed
Mix all the ingredients tenderly in a large bowl
Let the mixture marinate for a while
Serve alongside any other dish with love
Repeat regularly

It’s a lovely New Year recipe that each of us can use all year round!

Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.  

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community.  Sukham provides information, and access to resources on matters related to health, aging, life’s transitions including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death in the family and bereavement. If you feel overcome by a crisis and are overwhelmed by Google searches, Sukham can provide curated resource help. To find out more, visit https://sukham.org, or contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com.  


Girivalam: Experience at Tiruvannamalai

A view of Arunachala from Arunchaleswarar temple

A view of Arunachala from Arunchaleswarar temple

A sea of humanity, young and old surged through the streets. A trickle had started in the early afternoon and reached its peak as the moon rose and shone in bright and balmy glory. It was an auspicious full-moon (pournami in Tamil) night at Tiruvannamalai, the ancient temple town in Tamil Nadu, which nestles and thrives at the foot of the mountain Arunachala. The general mood was one of gaiety combined with a clear intention of reaching the goal; the goal being circumambulation of sacred Arunachala, or girivalam (In Tamil: “giri”-mountain, “valam”-to circle). This involved a brisk walk of about 14 kilometres, which had to be completed before moonlight faded into dawn. Although the devotees were walking in what looked like remarkably ordered chaos, officials were in evidence to maintain order, and traffic was restricted to the perimeter of the town. It was November 6, 2014.

My first visit to Tiruvannamalai was with my mother, about a decade earlier. When I lived in Vellore, a town that is about 80 kilometres away, I was fortunate to renew my relationship with this famous temple town. While earlier visits involved visiting for an afternoon, I gradually took to staying for a few nights, giving myself more time to enjoy the vibrant spiritual atmosphere and its organic bustle. The main draw of the town is its spiritual ambience and it attracts seekers from all walks of life. It is home to several ashrams, and temples to several gods of the Hindu pantheon abound.

The sound of the temple bells in the cool fresh mornings herald the activities of visitors and the life and commerce of the townspeople; this soon leads into the dusty drowsy heat of midday where inactivity prevails. Evenings find the town re-energized with townsfolk returning home, evening aarti and pujas in the temples, visitors congregating in the small restaurants for solitary or group dinners, and the bustle is extinguished again with an early night. The roads and lanes of the town are lined with large shady trees, and huge stacks of tender coconuts are readily available for the ever-thirsty visitors.

Intricate Temple pillars in Arunchaleswarar temple

Intricate Temple pillars in Arunchaleswarar temple

One may walk through the town to visit the ancient and extant temple dedicated to the Lord Arunachaleswarar (a manifestation of Shiva) and his consort, Goddess Apitakuchambal. This large perimetered complex was developed by various kings over a thousand years, including kings of the Chola and Sangama dynasties, as well as King Krishna Deva Raya. Its impressive gopurams, intricately carved walls, pillars, passageways, spacious halls, and several smaller shrines which are created in various degrees of ornateness, merit several visits to gain a true appreciation of the effort and artistry invested. They are all sculptured out of the local black rock. The ancient pipal and mango trees and two open-air water tanks seem to have a story of their own to tell, as they have borne witness to several generations of visitors and devotees all of whom probably sought their coolness in the blazing hot sun which bakes the stones underfoot to a sole-scorching temperature. And for some light relief, one may visit the shops along Chengam Road and inspect handicrafts, gems, old coins and silver jewellery from far-flung places such as Kashmir, Nepal, and Afghanistan. A strange fate indeed has brought these denizens of cooler climes to ply their trade in the heat of South India.

The unperturbable presence looming over all these human endeavours is the craggy Arunachala (Tamil: ‘aruna’- red, ‘achala’- immovable). Believed to be the living manifestation of Lord Shiva, Arunachala is a low rocky mountain of about 3000 feet high and has been mentioned in several ancient texts including the Puranas. Tamil literature dates it back to time immemorial, and the very earth and rock of the mountain is considered hallowed. Although parts of the mountain are not accessible, and even considered dangerous, one can obtain beautiful views of the Arunachaleswarar temple and the town below from mountain paths which are marked safe. Large and small caves which have historically housed exalted sages also provide a resting point, and a chance to imbibe the peace in a meditative mien. The peace however may be shattered in an instant by a mischievous monkey troop that spies on you!

Rajagopuram-Main East facing entrance of the Arunchaleswarar temple

Rajagopuram-Main East facing entrance of the Arunchaleswarar temple

With each visit to the temple town and its ashrams, I have made the acquaintance of several interesting people from diverse cultures who converge here for various reasons. A few interactions that stand out in my mind are meeting a scientist from Dublin, Ireland with whom I was pleasantly surprised to share common friends, an exuberant and extroverted long-standing devotee from Bangalore, and a comfortably retired couple from Melbourne, Australia. It is with one of these friends that I made my first girivalam, and even though I did not realise it at the time it was to be a unique experience.

Girivalam is believed to confer great benefit on the devotee. To paraphrase the realised Master Sri Ramana Maharshi who lived a portion of his life in one of the caves on Arunachala and never left its slopes and foothills for his entire adult life, girivalam has great associated benefits just as fire is indisputably associated with heat, and these will be realised irrespective of the beliefs of the person. There are two routes that one may take to complete girivalam. The inner path traverses the wilderness directly at the base of Arunachala. One walks through woods on narrow earthen paths which are marked with stones painted yellow or red, each demarcating a different path around the mountain. One comes across natural ponds at regular intervals, with ascetics and other monks living near them. Visitors are largely discouraged from taking these inner paths as they are secluded and others have been preyed upon by unsavory elements on occasion. However my companion on that day appeared to know the way and was very particular about taking this path, and I benefited from her confidence. It was a remarkable experience to walk through the rustling groves of ancient forest, and when we came out of the peaceful shade and joined the paved road for the last five kilometers of the girivalam which went through the town, we were completely refreshed.

The outer path is the more commonly traversed route. As mentioned, it is about 14 kilometers in length, and largely follows tree-lined roads that wind through the town of Tiruvnnamalai and surrounding villages, and even includes a part of the highway. Beautiful views of Arunachala can be enjoyed while taking this route as it circumambulates the mountain at a slight distance from the foot unlike the inner path which winds through wooded areas at the very base of Arunachala. There are several small temples and eight lingams which line the route. All but one of the lingams are present on the left of the road. Devotees performing girivalam walk along the left side of the road, and there is a broad paved sidewalk laid down for about half the distance to facilitate safe walking. I have traversed the outer path five times, at times in the early hours of the morning, or venturing out mid-morning to afternoon during the winter months. It has always been a good workout even if the immediate calming effect is elusive at times! I prefer walking alone and being with my own thoughts, or preferably being in a state without thoughts, resting periodically to take in the views of Arunchala to catch my breath and have a drink of water. The company of the monkeys and dogs in the streets and around the temples does keep one alert, and there is a constant presence of other fellow-walkers, renunciates seeking alms, and the residents of the towns going about their business. Another presence is the heavy traffic on parts of the route, the sounds of which I try to tune out. During pournami, these roads are transformed by the flow of devotees in hundreds, if not thousands, performing girivalam by moonlight, which brings about a unique and tangible spiritual energy. Obviously, traffic has to take a second place to this influx of visitors!

Peacocks at Ramansramam

Peacocks at Ramansramam

Perhaps the belief and acknowledgement of a power greater than one’s own ego and actions comes with life’s experiences, if one does not possess this as an inborn proclivity. That being said, in some cultural environments where spirituality pervades the everyday at a more elemental level, an intuitive knowledge of the existence of a higher principle is accepted as a tangible participant in the exalted and mundane events of a lifetime.

A scientist by training, the author has lived and worked in America and India. She enjoys imbibing diverse cultures and venues, and reads voraciously to vicariously experience those yet to be explored.

Practical travel tips:
Summer months are extremely hot (April to June). Winter months are pleasant and the best time to visit (October to February). Winter months may be wet and rainy. Light cotton clothing which covers entire torso and limbs is suggested to protect from sun and insects, and in keeping with religious sentiments. Pay attention to the Hindu religious and astrological calendar when making reservations and plans.
Closest Airport:
Chennai is the closest international airport (about 120 miles). Second closest international airport is Bangalore which is about 15 miles further than Chennai. Closest domestic airport is Puducherry.

Accommodation Options:
Ashrams which provide accommodation:
Sri Ramanasramam on Chengam Road. Very comfortable. Need to book several months in advance, and number of days of stay restricted. Vegetarian food provided for residents only. Voluntary donation.
Sri Seshadri Ashram on Chengam Road. Nominal charges, rooms clean. Small restaurant attached.
Sri SivaSannidhi. On an inner road close to Ramanasramam. Acceptable rooms, food provided. Longer term stays possible.
Regular, three and five star hotels are available around Chengam road and in Tiruvannamalai town.

Restaurant Options:
Sri Seshadri Ashram, Chengam Road. Traditional South Indian vegetarian food.
Auro Usha, Chengam Road. Run by Aurobindo ashram, vegetarian food, not restricted to South Indian fare. Food is toned down for an international clientele.
Santi Café in an inner road close to Ramanasramam. Limited choices, not restricted to Indian.

Things to Buy:
Handloom clothes, silver jewellery, semi-precious gems, religious items and artifacts. Excellent book shop in Ramanasramam which has interesting books and CDs.

First published in October 2017.



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