Journey to Kashi
Updated: Aug 29, 2020
Valmiki and Vinuta recount a few memorable moments on their November 2019 visit to India.
Our Journey begins
This trip to India was certainly one of the most memorable, especially having my nephew, Shivam Sandeep Ramlal, with us to experience the true beauty of India for himself. We were fortunate to be a part of Devi Navaratri programs and as usual every day was a blessing, rushing down early every morning to witness the daily procession with both Sri Swamiji and Bala Swamiji. The chariot decorated like what heaven must be like, huge and tiny, colourful flower malas of all different varieties of flowers everywhere) with Sri Mata in all her divine beauty, in shining saris each day in the colour green, red, yellow etc. special to the Devi of the day! Swamiji, His Face serene and blissful often looked like He was in a trance oblivious to the movement of the dancers, or the sound of the music! He would be standing in the chariot also looking like a Devi in a special sari and jewels on His arms, special malas around His neck and His sacred Padas/Feet were adorned with kum kum and haldi! I was also fascinated looking at the thousands of people whose faces shone with love and happiness, each one vying with the next for a glimpse of Swamiji and Devi as the chariot passed by!
The festive yet deeply spiritual atmosphere would always stir my soul deeply, with the Nadaswaram and folk dancers dressed as Devis and also Shiva's attendants leading the procession, thavil devotees playing on their native drums while Swamiji entered the Prayer Hall and Nada Mantapam, the Devi pujas, Swamiji doing puja to the beautiful kumaris, Sri Swamiji’s bhajans on evenings-- all were indeed blessings of a lifetime to see and be a part of. Our extraordinary Swamiji performing puja for hours and still making time to specially bless devotees--- shows the love and patience He has for his devotees!
I was blessed to celebrate my birthday during Navaratri and on that day had Darshan from Sri Swamiji. I had brought three chocolates to offer to Him, and was happily surprised when He touched them and told me, “You keep.” Sri Swamiji blessed me, wishing me “Happy Birthday”, in a soft, sweet, gentle voice. This moment I will treasure always, thinking He was Devi blessing me!
Mysore during Navaratri
Mysore also celebrates Dasara (the victory of good over evil)during Navaratri. In the evenings the city, streets and buildings are beautifully lit with colourful lights, streamimg in intricate or fancy exotic patterns, indeed a sight to behold! We were thrilled, and could not help stopping and staring at Mysore Palace too, amazingly decorated with thousands of lights! The City, the energy of the people, the atmosphere is one of hope, pure joy and happiness!
Our journey continues after Navaratri
One morning while waiting to receive Darshan from Sri Swamiji, He asked us, “Are you all going to Kashi?” We said, “Yes Swamiji.” His eyes twinkled as He smiled and said, “Good, good.”
Needless to say, after that, we could hardly wait for our pilgrimage to Varanasi, known also as Banares or Kashi, one of the holiest and oldest living cities in the world, and known as the holiest inside India. Like ourselves, thousands of devotees from around the world made the journey to be a part of Sri Swamiji’s historic Ati Rudra Yaga there.
The big day finally came! We left Mysore at six in the morning, and we did not reach Varanasi until late that evening. Tired from travelling, we settled into the hotel.
Our first visit to Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Just being in Varanasi was a dream come true, more so being in the presence of both Sri
Swamiji and Bala Swamiji! That evening we were told Sri Swamiji was going to visit Kashi Vishwanath Temple, to me, the abode of the holiest of the twelve Shiva Lingams! Valmiki, Shivam and I desperately wanted to be there with Him, and, not knowing our whereabouts or location of temple decided to still go. Hurriedly and excitedly, we got a rickshaw and were on our way. Whilst going we met one devotee and we were fortunate to be with him as he knew his way around Varanasi.
There are strict rules to follow as we get closer to the Temple. The line to enter starts in the narrow street itself. Personal belongings are limited, you are not allowed to have cellphones, cameras, shoes, hand bags, and security guards use their discretion as to what you are allowed to have on you before entering the temple.
There were motorbikes passing one inch away from us, and it was often difficult to even walk with others going in the opposite direction. Vendors were selling colourful, yellow, orange and white malas, and small puja baskets, and tiny shops on both sides of the street sold saris, puja items, and various souvenirs. Lockers are provided along the narrow, pathway to the temple where one can pay a small amount to store one’s belongings safely. We four reached Kashi Vishwanath temple around 8pm. Many devotees were there and we were told that Sri Swamiji had left. Not knowing what to do, as there were thousands of people, just waiting to visit the temple, we stood in line for more than two hours, burning some karma, no doubt, before we finally got inside the temple, going through heavy security and a lot of pushing in the process!
Sadguru’s Grace comes in different ways
However, amongst that huge crowd, we somehow got the opportunity to offer flowers and milk on the scared lingam, and felt lucky to touch the Lingam! After missing Swamiji and going through all that waiting, we were still blessed with His Grace. We felt that Swamiji had ‘sent’ his devotee to be there with us, knowing we were in an unfamiliar place.
Ganges and the Ghats
Seeing the Ganges for us was a sight to behold, as it was clean, flowing gently and the sound of the water was soothing to our weary bodies, minds and souls! Having visited Haridwar and Rishikesh before, each with its unique beauty, somehow Varanasi seemed to me to be the ultimate, so steeped in history and spiritual wonders! From a small child I had seen movies of India, and the Ganges, and it moved me tremendously to know that I was actually here! It is said that Kashi is set on the trishul (trident) of Lord Shiva, and it is regarded as one of the holiest places in India. We enjoyed many a boat trip on the Ganges, admiring the sunrise or sunset as well as the ancient Ghats on the riverside.
No visit is complete without seeing the different Ghats, Manikarnika Ghat, Kedar Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat, Chet Singh Ghat, where Swamiji’s Ati Rudra Yagam was held, Assi Ghat, Harishchandra Ghat to name a few. Each Ghat has its own special, unique ancient history and beauty.
One of the most famous Ghats, Manikarnika Ghat is one of the oldest and most sacred Ghats where cremations take place on a daily basis at the same time. The burning pyres with their thick dark smoke we saw from the boat, reminded us that this life is so temporary, and we could even sometimes hear the words ‘Ram Nam Satya Hai’ being chanted every time a cremation was taking place. I remember few years ago, while watching a Netflix series by Morgan Freeman, titled, ‘The Story of God’ his very first episode, he visited Varanasi, and was captivated by its culture and history. I told myself then that one day I would reach there, and was very grateful and elated years later that my dream had come true, that too in the presence of both Sri Swamiji and Sri Bala Swamiji! All thanks to our Guru!
Our reverence for Ganga Maa increases
Another major event that takes place everyday, is the Ganga Aarti, a grand celebration thanking Mother Ganga for helping the City to flourish. Thousands gather to witness this remarkable celebration.
We lit deyas and when I remember that light from the deyas, it gives me a feeling of hope and comfort in these uncertain times.
While going on boat rides it was fun to feed the birds, putting snacks like pop corn and what looked like fried vermicelli in the river and seeing birds just flocking down to enjoy their feast before they gracefully flew away. Some even came so close to the boat if I stretched my hand I could touch them, so eager were they for the snack. I wondered if any were gods, so happy I felt while feeding them.
Two days into our trip, the Ghats along the river were beautifully lit with thousands of deyas as locals and non- locals celebrated Deepavali. Indeed it was a pure joy to witness. Our nightly walks along the banks of the river Ganga was another dream come true! There’s a calmness in looking at the water flowing, knowing it to be so pure and holy, and watching people enjoy every moment being there. We were more so blessed having some of our Trinidad Datta family with us.
On one occasion, Sri Swamiji and Sri Bala Swamiji both went on a boat ride, so we all sat waiting for their return. We sat enjoying the sights, the serenity of the beautiful river, the happiness on people’s faces. All this time I could not help thinking “This is the ultimate blessing for us, being by the Ganges, with our Guru, the ultimate dream come true! No words can begin to describe our feelings of being there. You have to experience it on your own, to truly understand the deep happiness of being there!
Taking bath in the ice cold water of the Ganges was a blessing. Swamiji instructed devotees to take bath as much as possible, somehow while immersing in the ice cold water it was refreshing. It is said that the holy waters of the Ganges purifies the soul. This mighty river, gave me hope and a sense of peace within . Our boat rides, seeing all the ancient picturesque, different Ghats on the River bank, visiting Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, the holiest of Shiva Temples was only possible because of our Sadguru!
Visit to Sankat Mochan Temple
Of course, one has to visit Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the beating heart of Varanasi, dedicated to Lord Shiva and the holiest of the 12 jyotilingas. Another memorable visit for me was to Sankat Mochan Temple. I remember seeing monkeys all over and felt Hanuman was definitely present there! We learnt that the temple was founded by Sri Goswami Tulsidas, the author of the famous Hindu epic, Ramacharitamanasa. I was sorry to leave soon after we did Pradakshina.
Sri Chintamani Ganapathi Temple and new Dattatreya Ashram
Shri Chintamani Ganapathi Temple, this simple yet powerful temple made us feel so peaceful and serene. There we sat a few times meditating and just feeling a sense of calmness and peace within. It was quite near our new Datta Ashram which was also very tranquil and beautiful, and definitely too small for all the devotees who flocked there, whenever Swamiji was giving Darshan. It was oddly placed in an ancient, tiny street that would be lined with Datta devotees eagerly waiting for a glimpse of our blissful Datta Swamiji before He entered. The atmosphere inside was cozy and His Darshan there always felt very special!
Kala Bhairav Temple
This fairly big temple is near the Vishwanath Temple . Without the permission of Kala Bhairava no one can stay in Kashi. Vishalakshi Temple is one of the most sacred Shakti Peethas in India, dedicated to an incarnation of Goddess Parvati. On our visit to Kala Bhairava temple, hundreds of people were waiting in queue to receive Darshan of Lord Kala Bhairav, and after we had Darshan we left and had an odd encounter with one priest outside the temple. It left my nephew and me feeling shocked. For awhile afterwards, during that same day we were thinking that the experience was, unexpectedly, not a nice one. Later that evening, while walking along the streets, one rickshaw(auto) was passing by, so as usual in the very narrow streets of Kashi, we stepped aside. Not thinking who might be passing by or paying much attention, we looked up and it was Sri Swamiji in the rickshaw. We were all blissfully surprised, that was so unexpected! Swamiji looked at us and said ‘Little Italy’ and smiled. He meant that as the streets were so narrow it reminded Him of the streets in Italy. That unexpected Darshan of Swamiji, coupled with His tender smile, erased any bad feelings that we had had. Days after, on thinking back, we realized that everything happens for a reason, both good and bad. We have to simply accept what we cannot change, and remain positive, believing that good always prevails or triumphs! Such is the blessing of having our Sadguru in our lives!
Our new Datta Kashi Ashram
On November 10th 2019, Sri Swamiji inaugurated His new Ashram before the start of the Yaga. It is very near the Kedar Ghat area of Varanasi. In Sri Swamiji’s speech He said ‘Kashi Ashram is a dream come true. Just to be in Kashi is a blessing. And to be in Kashi in the sacred month of Karthika Masa is extra blessing’. We all were indeed blessed beyond. All our thanks and appreciation to our beloved Sadguru.
Ati Rudra Yaga, Chet Singh Ghat
Ati Rudra Yaga program started November 13th 2019 and this commenced 11 days of homas, pujas, yoga, discourses and bhajans by both Sri Swamiji and Bala Swamiji. Thousands of people attended. It was an experience we would remember for the rest of our lives. Appaji sang beautiful bhajans, but our most favorite was when he sang ‘Kashi Kashi...’ all devotees were clapping and singing with devotion and love… such a powerful bhajan!
Our T’dad contingent was the largest amongst foreigners, and seeing our friends and how happy they were to be there was, to me, a miracle. I was wondering what we had done to reach here with Him now, and if we there in some previous life with Him. A feeling of contentment prevailed among us, sitting and watching Sri Swamiji perform Sri Chakra Puja, listening to the chanting of the mantras of the many Ati Rudra homas taking place simultaneously, and again feasting our eyes on Sri Swamiji taking His time to bless puja participants, and all who attended also! A lot of non-devotees also were somehow attracted and came everyday. No easy task to do, yet Swamiji personally blessed each one for 11 days without fail. It was amazing to see Sri Swamiji give ALL who were present malas,
Rudraksha malas to the men and Tulsi malas for the women. He personally, patiently garlanded each and every one with these malas, for days on end! And there was an estimated 10,000 devotees present! Hot, delicious food was served to all by smiling volunteers for breadfast, lunch and dinner every day. But only Sri Swamiji can accomplish such a task. This shows the love He has for all, not only His devotees! In one of Swamiji’s speeches He told if you sleep one night in Kashi it removes one’s life sins, sleeping 3 nights family’s sins and sleeping nine nights relieves one from the bond of life and death. All who were there were truly blessed. Appaji’s love for his devotees is unconditional and pure.
On one special cold night, after Swamiji’s program was over, we were walking on streets heading towards our hotel and right there on the street was Sri Bala Swamiji! He also was walking. We stopped, with our hands in Namaskar. He looked at us and asked ‘How is Kashi’ all we did was smile and I automatically replied, ‘Very nice Swamiji’ but my husband, Valmiki, said ‘Very hard!’ Smiling, Pujya Bala Swamiji told us to take care. Val said this because everyone was sick when it started to become colder, and the streets were also very dusty, which aggravated the coughing and fever.
Our last night in Varanasi.
Our last night looking at this mighty river before we left, we sat by the river to light deyas to Mother Ganga, thanking her for keeping us all safe. We sat there feeling somewhat sad that it came to an end. But forever grateful for the opportunity and memories we would now have. While sitting there looking at the water, I almost jumped out of my skin. There in the water was a big, black, snake. I had barely told Val and Shivam “ Look, look, a snake!” and they both saw it, before it slithered away, and we felt as if Lord Shiva Himself was present in that moment to remind us that he is the King of Kashi, and that He would still be with us when we leave.
To be in a City so etched in history and culture, and the Ati Rudra Yaga with Sri Swamiji--- the sights, sounds, smell of this beautiful ancient City will forever remain with all of us. A bustling, spiritual tourist City full of life and hope -- the Ganges, the lifeline of millions of people living along its course -- the narrow alleyways, with people living in tiny simple homes, along with cows, and dogs! Memories of eating street food, we ate aloo parotha what we know as aloo purie and kuchela, tasting just like our local kuchela here in Trinidad, are still in my mind, as it was a feeling of eating something local connecting me with Kashi, and we were so happy to have that! We also enjoyed the most delicious lassi ever served in a clay bowl, the bowl which returns to the earth after use.
Back in Mysore
After spending 15 nights in Kashi we returned to Mysore, where we spent sometime before returning home. I had one wish, to be given a name by Swamiji. For sometime I wanted to ask, so I told Valmiki that on this trip I would ask. The day I planned to ask, that previous night I dreamt Sri Swamiji had given me a name starting with the letter V.. that morning eagerly standing in Darshan line I felt this urge to ask. When we were in front of Sri Swamiji, I asked Him if I could have a name please. With such kindness and love in His eyes and voice He looked at me and after a few seconds He gave me a name starting with V. After a few more seconds He said again, “Vinuta….” At that moment, I felt a deep connection with Swamiji because of the look in His eyes! I thanked our Guru and left with tears in my eyes, feeling so blessed and happy. My dream came true!
The day came when we had to leave Mysore, with a heavy but happy heart we sat listening to Sri Swamiji singing bhajans. We really wanted to hear ‘Kashi Kashi’ bhajan sung by our Sadguru before we left, just one last time. Then Sri Swamiji asked one devotee which bhajan would he like to hear. To our joy he said ‘Kashi Kashi...’ Appaji sang this powerful and beautiful bhajan, to our great delight! Truly a fitting end to our ‘Kashi journey!’
Most times whenever we told Swamiji we were leaving His words would go and stay with us... “Come back soon” or “This is your Ashram, why leave?” We always leave a part of us in India, especially Mysore…. as Appaji said, “This is your home!”
We thank You Sri Swamiji and Bala Swamiji for everything.
For the good and not so good moments in life!
For every experience is a learning lesson, or blessing, and no words can express our gratitude to You.
For meeting dedicated, helpful friends along the way. Our journey to Kashi was only possible with our Guru’s Grace and the help of great friends.
We humbly thank you Appaji and Sri Bala Swamiji.
We exist because of our beloved Sad Guru
Memories are forever with us:
Jaya Guru Datta
Valmiki Ramnarine,Vinuta Ann Marie Sundar and Shivam Ramlal.
Photo Credit: Avadhoota Datta Peetham