Journey to India, Part 3

Elaine & Vic in temple alley in morning light

Blurry from jet lag, we followed the desk clerk’s  vague directions and searched for the temple. Sari-clad women walked through dusty streets behind cows they were taking to pastures and ox carts lumbered along loaded with wood for restaurants. The morning darkness was scented with cooking fires, cow pies, and exhaust spewing trucks.

We’d come to receive the blessing of Sri Sankaracharya, the ninety-six-year-old Indian sage in a lineage of Sankaras that began before 1000 AD. He was world-known as a Hindu scholar and a beacon of spiritual light to prime ministers and peasants. Our teacher Paul Brunton told us he was the greatest living sage.

We approached the gate of a large walled pink stucco temple compound.

“Sankara Mutt?” we asked.

A thinly clad slender man nodded and pointed to our shoes. Shoes weren’t allowed inside out of respect, so I gave him my boots with wool socks stuffed inside. He put his hands together and bowed before placing Vic’s and my boots and Michael and Harriet’s sneakers on a shelf next to flip-flops and sandals. The air felt delicious on my sweating feet.

He waved us down a dark sandy alley, dimly lit by a few oil lamps. A barefoot man in a military shirt and hat stepped out of the shadows.

“What is your name, please?” he asked.

“We are students of Anthony Damiani and Paul Brunton from America and have written permission to visit,” we answered. He smiled.

“I am Powar,” he said in British-accented English. We’d heard good things about Powar from friends who had visited Sankara. “Please welcome to India.” He gave us a toothy grin and a Tamil nod. I knew I could trust him.

Powar led us down steps to a narrow concrete pad near a dusty floor to ceiling curtain. He handed us thin cushions and motioned that we should put the cushions on the concrete and sit down. The sun hadn’t risen, but it was already hot.

As dawn came, sari-clad women sang prayers and blessings in ancient Sanskrit. They lit smoking oil lamps and waved the smoke to the four directions with their hands. I tried not to choke. I sat without moving but my mind raced as we waited for whatever would happen next. A young shirtless man in a white wrap with Brahman beads across his chest pulled the heavy curtain open.



There he was, just ten feet in front of us. Sri Sankara, the one we’d come to see. A wisp of an ancient being, wrapped in a faded cotton saffron robe, sitting on a mat on the concrete floor. A few young men in white hovered around him.

The ancient sage lit an oil lamp and waved the smoke in the air as a blessing. He poured water from one bowl to another. He whispered prayers and draped a string of white jasmine flowers on his head. Everything was a blessing. I had stepped over a magic threshold and entered another realm.


Have you gone on journeys not knowing quite what you were after? A spiritual initiation, a cultural opening, a longing that needed a response? On our third trip, I learned an unforgettable lesson which I’ll write about soon.

If you haven’t read the first two parts of this series, see Out of Control: Pilgrimage to India 1. For the second part of the story, see Out of Control, Part 2 (Journey to India). We bought clothing to wear until our luggage came, but it was impossible to find ready-made clothing that fit the men, so they wore Indian-styled men’s wraps or dhotis. Vic loved his dhoti, especially for meditation, and camera and dhoti became part of every India trip.

  1. Well, you certainly know how to build up a story dear Elaine, I was riveted! My senses aflame with rich, pungent scent of India, earthy and fiery ones! How exciting those trips must’ve been for you and Vic all those years ago. I couldn’t help but notice that the sage was ninety six on this occasion, the same age our Queen Elizabeth was this week upon her death. Did this sage get to live until he reached 100 earthly years? What an experience.

    Please may I ask, is that some kind of barrier placed between you and the sage? If so, was this to keep admirers and students at a distance? I’m just curious. I’m looking forward to your next instalment. As for my own journeying to places I have no idea what I was looking for in, well, that happens often when I’m writing a new poem. I’m always deeply and pleasantly surprised as to where I’m taken within. Love and light, Deborah.

    • Deborah, Sri Sankara died at 99 and we were in India at that powerful time. We were brought in for a brief audience with his living but seemingly sleeping body the day before his death. After he died, we spent hours with the temple elephants, the most comforting of souls. Queen Frederika, Queen Mother of Greece, was one of Sankara’s devotees, but he didn’t meet Queen Elizabeth as far as I know. He met Gandhi, Ramana Maharshi, the Prime Minister of India, and many other luminaries of those years.

      Everything was modest in his living area behind the curtain (although his mausoleum was elaborate). He kept an ascetic life mixed with his studies and ritual obligations. Until his 90s, he walked through Southern India with an entourage, including elephants, to give blessings and rituals in various villages. He slept on a mat in a wooden palanquin. So, yes, that was a fence or barrier between the many visitors and His Holiness. There was another rough behind where we sat. People who came for a blessing walked behind us yelling their requests and passing up offerings. The temple elephants and cows came to be fed and blessed. It was a scene of outer commotion and inner peace! Sending you love and safety. May we all have peace.

  2. Elaine, you are so good at giving the “you-are-there-with-me” vibe to your readers. This time I notice the tactile references: “The air felt delicious on my sweating feet.” And “The sun hadn’t risen, but it was already hot.”

    You ask, “Have you gone on journeys not knowing quite what you were after?”
    My answer: My first writers’ retreat. All the invitees were published authors (or about to be), and I was the novice in 2015, having just begun a blog and muddling toward memoir. All the women became my helpers: beta readers, blurb writers, book reviewers. I was happy to reciprocate. The whole encounter felt providential to me, and it was. 😀

  3. When we went to India l hoped to have some great spiritual awakening that I couldn’t get here. What I came away with was a heightened sensory awareness, a deepening respect for the myriad differences in people and cultures, and awe and compassion for the dignity and resilience of those who are impoverished. When I came home I realized that this actually was a spiritual awakening of sorts, and that I didn’t need to go to India to find it! It was in me and around me everywhere I went. Thank you for this beautifully written reminder, Elaine.

    • I get it, Jeanie. We were drawn to Sankara’s peace like bees to nectar. The environment was noisy, but I became inwardly still. Going back to the real world of public transportation and planes after sitting with him for a few weeks was a shock. Poverty was everywhere and he managed to keep his ascetic principles in the midst of a temple environment. I was interested in being near the peace he emanated and didn’t involve myself with the difficulties of the Hindu caste system or try to copy the rituals. I feel the same with the Dalai Lama. He emanates peace and hope, but I’ll never be a Tibetan Buddhist.

  4. Yow, Elaine. You really know how to sweep someone up and into wherever you are going. I love these photos of such a sweet and messy and confusing and confirming part of your life.

    • It seems so long ago, Robin. Many photos from these trips are still slides and I haven’t had them digitalized after all this time since there are always other things I’d rather do than go through old slides. Maybe this winter? I remember your heroic trip to Australia with Marika’s ashes. May all be well as time keeps rolling on.

  5. Lovely post Elaine! How blessed you both were. I’ve been on a few retreats not knowing much beforehand. I like having no expectations and just seeing how it unfolds.
    Have a lovely week ahead . Love, susan

    • Thank you, Susan. It wasn’t a quiet retreat since there was constant commotion–ritual, elephants, cows, and humans–but my mind became still sitting with Sri Sankara. The constant flow of thoughts faded into the background despite lines of people yelling out their needs and asking for blessings mixed with the passing back and forth of sacred offerings. During the most chaotic moments of Vic’s illness, I remembered that quiet inner place was still available to me.

  6. I am stunned how you can remember so detailed this fascinating travel. It is worth writing down memories because it helps us to remember. And you are doing that so well. Thank you, dear Elaine, and sorry again for my belated comment. It is always an indescribable feeling to read your memories of this adventurous journey.

    • I agree it’s worth writing things down and I wrote and wrote during Vic’s illness. In India, my wordy mind grew quiet and I didn’t write as much, but we went to the same place three times so that helps with memory. Please never apologize for belated comments or no comments at all. We’re all juggling our lives the best we can. I’m grateful for the gift of traveling with a calm adventurer such as Vic. I’m glad you and your wife have memorable journeys together.

  7. Dear Elaine,

    Thank you for bringing your readers along with you on this journey. It feels a bit like being in a fairy tale, where, as you wrote, one steps over a magic threshold and enters another realm. It is remarkable how something that took place so long ago can still be so vivid in your memory — and your gift with words makes it come alive.

    When I first read your question, “Have you gone on journeys not knowing quite what you were after?,” nothing came to mind. However, as I was writing this reply, the experience of childbirth popped up. Of course I was expecting a baby, but I had no idea of the depths and heights to which it would bring me.

    Sending love and autumnal blessings your way, Anne

    • Anne, India was like being in a fairytale or in a dream and that feeling remained for all three visits with Sankara, including after his death. I’m taking a break from this series to post an article and interview I did with Patricia Martin of the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. This was a surprise invitation and the interview happened in July, but they just recently posted it at their website along with three other interviews about Marion Woodman. I’ll share an article and the interview as my blog this week.

      I agree completely about having children. I had a joyful first pregnancy and then there was the initiation of natural childbirth. I soon realized we’d invited a “stranger” to be in charge of our lives. Incredible love mixed with incredible exhaustion. My first child had a rough few colicky months which meant I had a rough few months learning about sleep-deprivation, dripping breasts, and patience. Yes to depths and heights. I’ve written a few blogs about learning to be a mother.

      We’re having an early autumn which may or may not hang on. October could turn warm. I still have 2 chrysalises in the Monarch nursery and will be glad to get them on their way. It will be warmer on Thursday and they’ll be frantic to leave, but now the coolness slows down their development and butterflies are still curled in their little chrysalises. I see the wings on one. Returning warm love and autumn bounty.

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