Finding yourself amongst a crowd – A day spent at Shanti Mandir
The flower coming out of the bud signifies a new birth…as I saw this on the wall of a room here, I was assured that a stay at Shanti Mandir is the birth of a new paradigm in life… as we take the time to slow down, to find the stillness in quiet moments of reflection and contemplation, this is where we find the real yogi within.
As I walked past the wooden swing nestled among the lush green forests just past sunset, I was reminded of some rooted conversations, unending promises of love and laughter and some light-hearted moments that people might have shared here…it spoke to me in several ways!
Not too far off from here, powerful devotional chants filled up the air, in a temporary shed where a few young students sat peacefully and “performed a havan”. The perfectly synced sounds reverberated through the air like as if they had begun chanting the mantra of life, I thought.
From a little white signature door which said “Mujhe band rakhein” (Keep me closed) to the Gobar uplas (cow dung cakes) that lay on the ground to the small pots of sand that looked like blessings of positivity and adorned all the pathways, it’s the little things at Shanti Mandir that make a way straight to your heart.. you could actually say – “God lies in small things” here. It’s as if everything has life and everything speaks to you ..Ah well!! they are not things but life itself!
The Scenic Journey…
It was 7:30 am on a bright Sunday morning that I began my journey towards Shanti Mandir, an Ashram that lies about 200 km from Mumbai. It is situated in a village in Gujarat called Magodh and roughly takes about 3.5 hours to reach there by road. All through the journey I was reminded of what my mom taught me as a child ” The word ashram has actually been derived from a Sanskrit word “Srama” which means religious exertion”.
As we reached Shanti Mandir and I put my first foot down, I wasn’t surprised by what mom had taught me. Shanti Mandir is this and much more…like a heaven of blissful little things and a secluded dwelling of a Hindu sage waiting to be explored! I saw a bird’s nest cradled in a crook of a large, leafless bush about my height a few yards from the door. The whole scene, was unnervingly crisp. It was like watching a scene in Imax, every corner in laser focus. Few minutes of being here was already making a huge difference, I thought.
What adds to the mystified beauty is the 20-25 minutes way up to the Ashram as you enter the village Magodh. Neat and smooth roads and village folklore made up for such a delight. As we waited at the railway crossing, the Swaraj express (starting from and Mumbai and ending at Jammu) passed through the railway tracks…time came to a standstill as we started at the charms of the village life here!
The Welcome at Shanti Hastkala…
It was pleasant, and the outdoors seemed spring-loaded with potential: the buds on the trees were sharp little things, and hundreds of fuzzy fiddlehead ferns dotted the floor, curled snug.
A bright green tuktuk, a Ganesha statue made out of stone and several Ayurvedic medicinal plants line the pathway that leads to Shanti Hastkala – a voluntary organization made to enable and empower rural Indian women and started around 15 years back. It gives them the opportunity to hone their talent, showcase their skills and make them financially independent. Red and white brick walls, white windows with colorful folk art motifs and lights made of waste fabric fill up the space with kaleidoscopic colors and evokes nostalgic emotions. Decorative objects, ornaments, folk artworks blend different cultures with modern ideas returning people to the origins and connecting them to traditions here.
We were welcomed with the homegrown lemongrass and ginger tea and the extreme warmness of staff. The founder, Ms. Chideshwari Devi ji and the female and male staff all clad in their traditional best and a glorious smile on their faces gave us an introduction of the place and took us around.
Several enterprising and young women were engulfed in stitching clothes in one section. In the open verandah there were two women who made incense sticks and decorative handbags. As I interacted with all, I realized how much they loved being here each day and what a wonderful difference the place was making to them and their lives. Amongst the women who were stitching, there was a sweet gentleman too. Rambhuvan as he introduced himself to me and I got chatting with him. He told me how he started off as a security guard here and today he stitches yards of beautiful colorful fabrics every day. Perhaps the creative streak of the place couldn’t hold him at the gate for too long.
Adjacent to this room, is the store – the Hastkala store which houses the most incredible and fascinating stuff all portraying cultural heritage of our motherland. Everything here lands a personality to the room – traditional Indian suits, Long skirts, Lehengas, Kurtis, Dupattas, Bags, Key chains, Pouches, Natural incense sticks, Homemade pickles and Fruit pulp, Dried mangoes, bananas and other fruits, Tooth powders and 100% natural kumkum add to their long range of natural beauty products.
For everyone who recognizes the need of sustainability, and appreciates the fact that eco-friendly clothing and products are best for the skin and overall health, this is the place to be!
The rejuvenation at Punarnava…
It was a little into afternoon now. One of the staff members came with the most exciting message……yes! it was time for the massage, the full body massage at Punarnava. With a spring in my step, I found myself hurrying towards their holistic centre which is based on the principles of Ayurveda and the ancient science. There are 10 massage rooms all with unique names and the masseurs make you feel like a child out of their own womb during the entire massage.
Punarnava is a creeping perennial herb that is found growing as a weed throughout India. ‘Punarnava’ also means ‘to be born anew’ in Sanskrit. The center is one of those great examples of how nature can be used for optimizing our health forever……. An integrated center for wellbeing combining Panchakarma, Ayurveda, Naturopathy, Psychotherapy, it aims to provide the same rejuvenating experience and also provides customized plans and treatments to cure one’s diseases and ailments, all the natural way!
I was advised the “Reti sek” (warm sand bag) massage and thoroughly loved every minute of it, my mind and body literally felt a few kilos lighter. It was most relaxing and rejuvenating…exactly the way you should be feeling after a good massage. As I walked out of the massage room and began wandering and exploring the place, I found magic in almost every nook and corner! I also met Reena, a sweet and hardworking girl who was busy getting lunch for someone but was really delighted when I captured her in my lenses.
I could see the fuzz on the slowly unfurling fiddleheads from yards away. For the first time in my life, I heard the dead leaves on the forest floor settling on one another.
The satsang and the divinity…
As I was gladly wandering, I heard the Satsang somewhere in the distance and made my way towards it. A structured pedestal was where it was being held in the ashram. Guru Nityanand ji along with the attendees and the staff made it all so memorable. Satsang completes the celebration once our stress is removed – we sing and dance and reflect on the deeper questions that give meaning to life. From the perspective of contemporary western culture it combines normally separated activities – philosophy, discussion of key issues for successful living, and music and dance.
It was heartening to see foreigners imbibing everything that the ashram has to offer and finding answers to their quest. The main motive of this ashram that was founded in 1987,is self-inquiry as a path to liberation. It is a unique spiritual and value based educational institution. The ashram and the institutions created by it, aims at establishing a value based society.
With all the positivity and the peaceful energy being soaked in, it was 2:00 pm and now it was time for the simple satvik lunch that is the highlight of this highly inspirational place. Of course, this was my most awaited moment here! I find a good meal more fun than even a really high-quality bit of oxygen 🙂
The Lunch and the pure ideologies….
As we made our way to the eating hall, I realized this place was so surreal. It wore a certain calmness that is so contrasting to how we eat food in the urban setting. The wooden columns, with delicate carvings in its open hall, rather resemble the wooden carvings on columns in temples of the ancient India. With a low seating arrangement and colorful upholstery, the place was simple, peaceful, refined, well-formed and comely in nature. The bronze statue of Natraj caught my eye on my end while old and rustic looking study table and the golden urlis with flowers at the entrance transported me to another world-perhaps one where there is no place for any vice!
As we gathered here, Dr. Rakhee Thakar made her way. A radiant personality with a mesmerizing aura about her. She had a certain composure which is difficult to describe and as he welcomed us all, it was not difficult to ascertain that most of us were smitten by her. She is the medical expert at Punarnava and is dedicated to spreading the ancient wisdom of this science of life to the world, keeping it truly traditional and authentic.
We all sat down for the satvik lunch. As I gathered a long breath, the staff came in and started pouring one dish after the other in our steel thalis. My eyes lit up like as if I had found my little piece of heaven. There was papdi ki sabzi, toor dal, lauki ki sabzi, wheat rotis and ragi rotis. Dr. Rakhee’s plate had a certain toor daal with a special herb Agastya which is grown in their own garden there. She had everything in her plate that is served to everyone who stays at Punarnava and avails of any Ayurvedic treatments there. On prodding further she told us, how the herb helps in treating cough, cold, fever, weakness, indigestion, jaundice, excessive heat in body etc. Wow, what a healthy way to have meals, isn’t it? The lunch was indeed more therapeutic than I had thought.
Such is the sanctity of satvik food. It’s really minimalistic in texture and property, made with minimum oil, no hard masalas and without garlic or onion. At the end of it, there was a laddoo too made with jaggery, after all as Indians we have grown up in a scenario where Dessert was always what rounded out and finished a meal, so you feel like something is missing if you don’t have it. The jaggery laddoo indeed left me content and tickled me pink!
By now it was almost 3:00pm as the place had started to grow in us, it left us more inquisitive to know about the various concepts of Punarnava and how Ayurveda is the only traditional solution to modern health conditions. For around 1.5 hours, we had completely lost the track of time. Dr. Rakhee told us how principles of Ayurveda help to find balance through eating the right quantity and quality of food congenial to our constitution and in adopting some practices which help in attaining a happy and calm mind, intellect, free senses and a pleasant soul.
There is so much here…everything helps you to connect with yourself!
The walk around the Ashram..
And perhaps now as evening descended, and everyone got busy with the simple Chiwda and Chai being served as snacks, I quietly sneaked out to explore more of what still had to be explored. I found Agastya tree deep inside the woods somewhere, and then my eyes found another marvel…as the sun went down, the golden rays fell on the three jars kept on a wooden perch. As I went closer and tried to open one of them, Dr. Rakhee’s gentle voice spoke from behind “These are murabbas, and this one is Gulab ka murabba”. As I dug into each one, I could smell the freshness and the inherent flavor of each jar. There was Agastya ka murabba, Gulab ka murabba and Shalmali ka murabba. Agastya murabba is good for arthritis and joint pains while Shalmali ka murabba does wonders in pregnancy, excessive fluid build-up and bleeding. And as Dr. Rakhee made me savor each one, I realized how each one had a distinct flavor…no doubt, these recipes from our grandma’s kitchen are still so loved in an era of apple pies and chocolate éclairs.
As I was almost done with having a few spoonfuls of each murabba, I heard my folks call me out. Chideshwari ji with her evergreen smile and demeanor directed us all to have a long walk with her. Yes, it was time to see and explore more at Shanti Mandir. We walked through the mango trees around which the Ashram is built (every construction in the Ashram is done around the Mango tress and not the other way round) and the beautiful brick-laden pathways. All along I felt the cool evening breeze swaying my hair and the only sound I could hear was the sound of my own feet as you made way through the fallen leaves.
Shanti Mandir is even more than what I thought of. We came across the rooms where people can stay in. Neat, full of positivity and engulfed with charming surroundings, the stay facility is just what you would most need to experience this place in fullness. Ideal option for those looking for an enchanting recluse, the rooms cover about anything and everything you’d need to make your stay a perfect one!
As we wandered more, we came across the beautiful quaint temple beautifully lit up with evening lights, the school for children where Vedic education is the curriculum and learning the Vedas is a way of life, the dedicated Gowshala where cows and calves have found an endearing life, the open area where yoga classes are held every day and the dining area where people sit down on the floor and have meals with their gurus every single day. We also came across a group of students who conduct the Havan each day during the sunset, the experience was endearing. As the smoke of the fire blended with the mantras, it was almost like a magic spell. There’s also an open amphitheatre where movies are screened for children who are offered free education here at Shanti Mandir. It’s a Sanskrit school from class 8th to M.A here and next year it will be an English medium school with Sanskrit from nursery to class 10th.
Conversations flowed and it was already 7:30 pm now, it was time to leave, as my sister told me….we exchanged pleasantry notes and held our goodie bags close that Chideshwari ji had given us. It was dark and serene. The place had owned us by now. Learning to let go of negativity sounds Hallmark-level trite, but there it was. Shanti Mandir is a spiritual home in itself!
The simplicity and the difference it made….
As you stay here, you can slow down even more by taking a nap, simply spending time reading on the benches, or enjoying a massage – it’s all up to you! If you wish to add on extra nights as a guest, I am sure you won’t be disappointed. (It’s really affordable too with only Rs. 500 per night)
Set in a quiet village, Shanti Mandir is close to Tithal Beach and the Sai Baba Mandir and is set against a backdrop of flowers and verdant green. Landscaped gardens and lawns, a world of timeless beauty. Truly, at Shanti Mandir, you are one with nature’s beauty.
I could decouple, however briefly, my sense of self from the meat sack of mind and body. And that decoupling gave me the ability to actually control where that sack was headed next.
When I faced my morning commute, I was less filled with the sense of existential malaise that used to come when I was wedged between two sets of shoulders, my forehead knocking lightly against the backpack of the person ahead of me.
How to reach:
By road, Magodh is just 3.5 hours away. A road trip from Mumbai via bus or a car would take 3- 3.5 hours. One can opt for Neeta travels or any of the other travels and tour companies while opting for a bus travel. The ticket range is between Rs. 500-700.
If you plan to take a train then Surat Intercity Express is a good option. It is a super fast express train that runs between Bandra terminus and Surat and operates as a daily service. It takes about 3 hrs and is a good option for travelers who don’t prefer to travel via road.
Online bookings can be found for both.