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Arrival at Ananda Ashram, 2008 by Elbina Batala Rafizadeh

Updated: Jul 3

During June and July, I will post a section of my journal entries during my second visit to Sangha Shantivanam in January 2008, where I stayed at Sr. Mary Louise’s ashram. I hope you enjoy them.

First Day

After a sixteen-hour layover in Dubai, followed by another eight hours in Chennai, my fatigue transforms into anticipation as the taxi veers through the villages of Kulithalai and Thannirpali before turning onto the dirt road that leads to Shantivanam, the ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. We pass dangerously close to oxcarts and bicyclists, not before the driver swerves to avoid a collision while sending a blatant car horn warning. This time, I am calm, unlike the year before. I welcome the sight of barefoot men in dhotis, women in colorful saris, and children playing in the open canal. This third-world vibrancy reminds me why I have returned.


I arrive at Sr. Mary Louise’s ashram across the road from Shantivanam. She welcomed me with fresh-squeezed orange juice and showed me the hut where I would live for two weeks. It overlooks the Kavery, one of India’s sacred rivers, past scattered palm, banana, and coconut trees surrounding the ashram. There are a couple of egrets resting in the shallow waters. At dusk, when the temperature cools, villagers will gather at the bank of the river. When the founders of this ashram, Frs. Monchanin and Abhishiktananda first arrived over fifty years ago; the river had reached the edge of the ashram. As the years passed and due to climate change, the river has receded and now lies several hundred meters away.


Beneath the hut’s covered porch, cooling breezes sweep my face when I sit in the late evening with only fireflies igniting the darkness. I spend hours of contemplation in this hut, in desert-like solitude, alone with a few books and a writing pad, stripped from my scheduled life of internet, lunch, and office meetings. Like the year before, the emptiness of time envelops me. Yet this serenity is subject to an onslaught of suffocating heat and rampant mosquitoes, not to mention the constant caution towards what I eat and drink to stave off the dreaded traveler’s curse, which in Mexico is called “Montezuma’s revenge.” Daily, I pump water to wash my clothes and bathe at five a.m. This brief period when I live without amenities is purifying. I am suddenly intensely aware of how the have-nots hunger for what the haves take for granted. Yet, who is really missing out...


From our place of comfort, where sanitized water comes from a faucet with the turn of a handle and our environment can be controlled with bug sprays, what happens when we can transform our physical discomfort into a chosen path to meet the Divine? And what will this look like?  As I begin this prayer, stillness, and meditation journey, these are my questions. I sit at the desk overlooking one of Sr. Mary Louise’s gardens, already having much to write the morning after my arrival.


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