Meleah wrote a review about her experience as a volunteer at our ashram.
After a several months on the long and bumpy trail, Laura and I were ready to settle and perhaps do something more with our lives than wandering around looking at nice things. We poured over the lists of farms where we could WWOOF, and ended up at Anamay Ashram mostly by chance and a last minute cancellation at another farm. We ended up backtracking across the country over 3 days and around 45 hours on 5 different modes of transportation that dropped us off in the little town of Kausani in the state of Uttarakhand at the top of a small winding trail. We walked down through beautiful Himalayan countryside, not entirely sure we were even in the right place, and stumbled upon a man in orange robes who showed us into a sunny, wood paneled room full of several foreigners having tea. Exhausted and bewildered, we slowly found our place in the strange little world.
The ashram is primarily a Vedic school for Brahmin boys for religious training to be pundits, with around 30 students. They try to be as self sufficient as possible, with dairy cows and vegetable gardens on the property (which is where WWOOFers come in). It is headed by Ashutosh, the memorable and rather strong minded Swiss-born swami who was a main disciple and leader in the movement of the famous Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. There were lots of interesting people coming through; several other WWOOFers, spiritual seekers and old friends of Ashutosh. The work was simple the first few weeks, the (kinda unnecessary feeling) job of sorting large matter out of compost, but I had no complaint sitting in the sun watching worms and grubs in the mostly composted, beautifully rich cow shit.
All of the wishes we moaned for in our months of travelling were granted (I just want to drink tap water, I just want hot water, I just want a kitchen, I just want to not have to worry about being fed, I just want to work, I just want a salad) as well as a few other miracles we never dreamed of like a washing machine and olive oil.
The food was simple and delicious, brought up from the kitchen which served everyone on the ashram. It was all purely Ayurvedic, so we had no processed foods, refined sugar, non-vegetarian food- including eggs, caffeine, spicy food, peanuts, mushrooms, eggplant, among others. Dinner was always rice, chappati, and dahl. Lunch was the same with the addition of a vegetable dish which changed every few days, and on special occasions a green salad. Breakfast switched between a few porridge-like dishes. I managed to never get too tired of it, unlike some of the other WWOOFers. We combated the lack of variety by alternating combinations of herb salt, regular salt, no salt, olive oil or no, honey or no. We drank lots and lots of chicory coffee and herbal tea.The ashram was full of characters:
Mr. Grover, the elderly gentleman downstairs, kind old soldier spouting poetry and philosophy and stories in his slow, intentional, playful manner. He points out the world to us as we go about busily, not noticing if someone is trying to work or meditate, messing with people just enough to make them pause. “Oh!” he exclaims to Laura one day as she puts on her shoes, “You only have two feet.” She looks up confused. “Oh well, that’s okay,” he says reassuringly, “If you had more than two feet then it would not be okay.”
My hero, Deepaji, the only woman permanently on the ashram who holds the entirety of feminine energy there. She is mother, giving milk to all the boys, she takes orders and requests with a secret smile because she is all-powerful. The hardest working of anyone, occasionally taking breaks from her usual work cleaning and maintaining the place to carry the heaviest loads of anyone casually on her head. She is beautiful, smiles a little, laughs as Mr. Grover requests milk in flowery rhyming poetry, we are all a little in awe and fear of her.
Gandharva, one of the few purely good beings in the world I have come across. He left a successful job in the US for a more fulfilling path back where he was born. At the time he was working to find solutions to many of the problems facing local farmers, experimenting with new crops, land fertility, and new markets.Several Indians came to stay at the ashram to learn meditation during our time there, all in utter reverence and adoration of Swamiji, who utterly refuses to be adored. “More rice babaji, can I serve you?” No, he grunts, he doesn’t seem to notice except when it cannot be ignored. The man known to Laura and me as the Cheshire Cat for his rather unnerving and persistent full-toothed grin leads the pack. “Swamiji I am just so happy to be with you. I don’t know if the meditation is doing anything, but I am just so happy here when I am near to you.” Swamiji brushes him off saying that is entirely the wrong way to think, of course it is the meditation.
Ashutosh has a brusqueness, wisdom, and absolute certainty to him. He operates on a different level, oblivious entirely to some seemingly obvious things like movie plots and espresso makers. Swamiji doesn’t take much to empathy. He is matter of fact to the point of cynicism and taken to grand statements. He is a brilliant teacher and storyteller, eyes lighting up as he instructs meditation or recalls crazy stories from the era of Maharishi. Everything is absolute for Ashutosh; anything that goes against his view is the most ridiculous thing he’s heard in his life, nonsense. Every word of the Vedas, caste system, karma, is irrefutable natural law. Each building in the ashram is designed and constructed according to vastu, the architectural laws of nature, the food perfectly attuned to the prescribed optimal spiritual diet of ayurveda. He has voraciously studied all the ancient knowledge, he does not follow blindly.
When the Prince (as we call another guest) gallantly makes his own spiritual assertions in booming royal voice, “No, no, no,” he is interrupted, Sanskrit scripture quoted back to him in a rolling, heavily Swiss accent. The prince and the Swami spout back and forth, we start dinner without them, listening with amusement to two self assured voices thundering from the next room for hours. The prince however, as much as he loves the sound of his own voice, is not immune to idolizing. The ji’s and may I serve you’s come pouring out in equal measure with the couple from Delhi and the Cheshire Cat.
Laura and I have to work not to catch the others’ eye and burst out laughing as they trip over each other to agree wholeheartedly with and win the favor of the oblivious Swami. We are not from a culture of reverence or sometimes even respect. The system of devotion to a Guru, of listening to authority without question just does not come naturally, as much as I can see some of its benefits.
About two weeks in we were well settled into our daily routines, the charm of digging through dirt wearing thin, the other WWOOFers set to leave. Then it started raining one night and we woke up to the largest snowstorm the region had had in over 50 years. The roads were completely blocked off with trees and snow, all the greenhouses collapsed, the power went out for 13 days straight (after which it was still infrequent), the workers stopped coming, internet and phone lines out, cooking gas and ingredients dwindling.
We all stay in fairly good spirits, Ashutosh goes about the surveying the damage, looking incredibly like a stern father Christmas, robed and white bearded, walking in sandals though the snow. It is a complete disaster (and he seems rather delighted by its completeness). The WWOOFers are glumly stuck just as they had dreamed of freedom from rice and dahl. They leave as quickly as rumor of clear roads comes. The Cheshire cat on the other hand can barely contain his glee at being stranded there, and reminds us of his happiness many times a day. Luckily the last car coming to the ashram had brought a shipment of vegetables, and a band of around 10 of us set off on the icy, tree covered trail down to the road. We made quite a sight clambering up the steep slippery snow each laden with huge sacks of cabbages, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower on our shoulders and backs. I took a moment to sit in the snow watching Ashutosh, whose sack over the shoulder only added to his likeness to St. Nicolas, followed closely by the Cheshire Cat, panting passionately, “I will follow in your footsteps Swamiji!”
The new building had lots of furnishings but no roof, so we spent several days shoveling snow around construction, trying to stop more water damage. Days of sitting in the sun felt far far away, but it was satisfying work, exhausting and visibly productive. The disruption of the snow let me get to know the whole place better on errands to the kitchen and little projects around the whole place. During the storm, 17 trees fell on ashram and a neighboring property, so we spent the rest of the time carrying logs and stick bundles on our heads and shoulders down to the kitchens. We worked alongside the other full-time laborers who showed us the impressive amount a human can carry and how to take nice long breaks in the sun. There was a good sense of camaraderie and surprisingly no strangeness around us being foreign girls. We all did the same work (they carried heavier loads and rested more so it tended to even out), and cultural/language barriers don’t seem to matter much when you are carrying sticks from one point to another. There is a (usually unspoken) assumption that I as a foreigner will be more comfortable around the better educated classes, but this is rarely the case in practice. It was hard work (made harder by an ego that likes to prove that I can get the big logs too), but I couldn’t imagine a nicer place to carry sticks. The whole ashram had an incredible view of the Himalayas that never failed to make me stop for a moment in the morning. The land was covered with oak trees and tea bushes and rocky grass pastures. With my poor poor Hindi I managed to be invited to mid-work teatime with neighbors who were also clearing brush, Lovely hot milk tea, leaves at the bottom, nibble at a hunk of jaggery for sweetness. My shoulders and legs grew tougher, but Laura was the guardian angel of my knees and helped bring my loads down the last stretch of steep downhill stairs.
We carried on saving up hours for taking the day off on Christmas, with elaborate dreams for the holiday, which Ashutosh swiftly and unapologetically crushed as we were set to get a shipment for construction that day. Laura and I went into town and bought each other stocking stuffers (which ended up not actually getting stuffed for lack of clean socks). A toothbrush, a package of biscuits and peanuts (wonderfully un-ayurvedic) – were so exciting and a good break from the usual excess of the holidays.
Santa also remembered to send us a truck full of huge window panes, tiles, wood, mattresses, and other odds and ends for the new building. The whole ashram came to help carry everything down the half kilometer from the road, our usual route at that time for carrying wood. This time was a little more fun though, all the kids made hats of the cardboard protective mattress corners and came barreling down the hill, a mattress flopping around on four tiny legs, tile boxes on heads and shoulders. Some of the windows required 10 people and lots of resting and puzzling through the forested area, one only to be shattered as it was triumphantly set in its place at last. The charm of carrying heavy things however only goes so far, especially since we’d been doing the same thing for a week. Boxing Day was better, during the hours of generator electricity we managed to make surprisingly successful apple pie in the toaster oven, take our first showers in a few weeks- cleanliness is just not worth it when it’s that cold, and even see my family in that strange mixed blessing that is Skype.In the two weeks of darkness I got even more adept at the skill of doing nothing. At night, with candles saved for dinner, there were always a few hours where nothing could be done but talk in the dark or meditate. Dinners became much nicer though. The last WWOOFers had started a practice of watching a movie every night, which was fun for a short time, but it was good to have a forced stop. All the best stories came out over spilling candles and rice-dahl-chapati, and just after, with cups of tea or chicory coffee or just hot water. Hot food in the cold is always lovely, steam pouring out of tiffins from the kitchen. The rooms were freezing, and Laura and I huddled together in all our sweaters to sleep.
It was a lucky, twisty journey that brought us to the ashram, such a distinct and important place to have been. I keep one memory of the morning, sun lighting the mountains and the kitchen, brass cup of sweet tea, honeybees before it was too cold, sitting with Rajendra the visiting future saddhu who had kitchadi in his curly beard, the quietness and peace of the place. We were ready to go when we left, but it was right where I needed to be for this particular December of my life.
Jai Guru Dev
Published on March 5, 2015