A perfect Sunday

A perfect Sunday

Today, my usual Sunday routine was happily interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the office 4-wheeler, apparently absconded by several co-workers. They were determined I should finally see some of what this curious, spiritual, rural and distinctive little town called Deoghar has to offer. I  jumped aboard the capacity-busting jeep – which held no less than 7 adults and 10 children – and off we went, just as the sun was exiting its zenith of heat.

Our first stop was a slightly removed but not far away “park” called Nandan Pahar. As with so much of India, this park was an amusing – and sometimes confusing – blend of beauty, color and child-like fun. You initially climb a long series of broad, deep stone steps up to the park’s entrance, marked by a gargantuan god statue whose size would be frightening if his design weren’t so comical.

Then, just as you enter, you immediately appreciate that the park itself is strategically located at an elevation which becomes the only local opportunity to enjoy a panoramic view of the whole of Deoghar. This, in itself was an unexpected treat. It was wonderful to stretch my sights for miles and get my first real sense of Deoghar’s rugged boundaries. I must admit, though, I did smile as I looked about and think to myself (with some affection), “yup, you’re just as flat, brown and dusty as I thought you were”.

But of course, as the sun will do, it created a soft pink-blue light in its descent and cast a playful glow on the park and its rural backdrop. Nandan Pahar was full this afternoon of children playing on slides and turn-abouts, families sitting and strolling, friends chatting on benches, vendors selling cotton candy, and countless brightly colored sculptures, buildings and rides.

We played and took photos at the park for a while… the strategy seemed to be to tire the children so as to better prepare them for the rest of the evening. At one point Mamta dragged me into an absurd little “fun house” full of nothing but those crazy mirrors that make you alternately tall, short, skinny and fat. In the end, Nandan seemed more like a mini-fairground than a park to me, and I was sure that the children present would have agreed.

Eventually, when we gathered everyone together to leave, the winds picked up, the sun slipped to the horizon, and the sky darkened with perfect timing. By the time our vehicle snaked back into the heart of Deoghar, the atmosphere was perfectly set for our evening temple, ashram and mission stops.

Our first stop was the Ram Krishna Mission, where I explored a vast compound that includes a hospital, a school, prayer halls and a temple, all of which were built in 1922. This mission lies in the center of Deoghar, and despite its massive footprint, it is somehow a self-contained world within its own perimeter.

I had been looking forward to visiting this mission for weeks actually… it is devoted, in part, to one of India’s most famous spiritual leaders, Swami Vivekananda. Since I first learned about Swami a few months ago, I have already read two of his principal books and have been swept away by the simplicity, beauty and timeless spirituality of his message.

From Ram Krishna, where we enjoyed long moments of silence observing the worshipers in the temple, we drove a short distance to a beautiful, surreal temple known as Nowlakha. Although built in 1932, this temple had the aged stone exterior and architectural detail of a much earlier time. As I entered a massive, marble floored foyer, open on all sides with stone pillars, I stopped. Nowlakha is perched on a sudden, small hill, and as such is raised to provide vistas for several miles, above the dust and rubble of Deoghar.

In this moment, with the wind rushing through the beautiful, open foyer, the dusky colored sky, and the refreshing breeze of pending night air, I felt as though I were breathing clean, green air for the first time in so long. I remember saying to Mamta and Sujata (who twittered in excitement as a result), that Nowlakha was a perfect place to be married (which is remarkable for me, since I don’t think I’ve ever said this about any indoor place before).

Nowlakha’s peaceful beauty was rivaled by the Swami Balananda Ashram that we visited next. Here, the temple, a smaller, newer construction, glowed stark against the night sky, with intricately detailed doors of solid silver and endless expanses of sheer white marble flooring. Again, having abandoned our shoes at the entrance, we stayed barefoot and silent at the back of the temple, simply enjoying the quiet worship of those who live at the ashram and meditate daily in this place.

After some time, we made our way out of the temple and explored the ashram in its entirety… a fascinating experience for someone who’s only read about this kind of place before. As I walked through the endless maze of buildings, altars, and stone statues – and even an odd collection of ancient “museum’ed” cars used by the guru during his lifetime – I marveled at the passionate commitment of the worshipers. It struck me also that the Deoghar locals who were visiting the ashram this night were equally passionate, respectful, and genuinely interested in the simple, observed spiritual experience.

Finally, we made our way to the Satsang Ashram of Anagul Hakus, deeper still into (what had been to me until this night) an unknown side of Deoghar. Again, we circled worshipers, altars and stone statues. But most memorably, here we visited the tomb of Anagul Hakus, where a large, broad, flat stone marked his resting place. It was an open, outdoor courtyard, unlit except for the light cast by candles and a sea of orange-tipped incense, burning into the darkness.

Quietly, and with much affection, a large, unending procession of worshipers slowly circled the tomb stone, each with incense in hand. When they finished their rounds, they would deposit their incense in the growing, fragrant sea, and find a spot with countless others, sitting cross-legged and praying quietly. I was impressed by the calm, orderly and fluid motion of the ceremonial event, despite the numbers of people alternately beginning and completing the cycle.

And with this, our evening came to a perfect, restful and contemplative close. By the time I was home again, I felt a new appreciation and understanding of the very common refrain by the locals, “Deoghar is a very spiritual place.” It is true – there is a wordless, shapeless bond which ties families and neighbors together in Deoghar. And today, I had been privileged to witness and explore Deoghar’s spiritual heart, at last.

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[This is an excerpt from a journal I kept while working in India years ago. I lived and worked in a very remote, rural town called Deoghar, near the border of Bangladesh. This specific journal entry was written on April 13, 2008.]

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