Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bhoomi Puja

My first assignment upon arrival in Pune last November was “to do the needful” regarding our land project and prepare the site by 1 March for our inauguration ceremony, a “Bhoomi Puja.” That date had been set months before and plans were in motion for a hundred guests to arrive for a major weekend retreat. To get everything ready in time, we needed to get busy.

Biraj (Wayne Palmer), Tim Clark and I began to make the one hour drive most mornings to our land in Watunde Village to begin projects, using local village labor where needed. Accompanying us was Hari Sharma, a carpenter friend who moved with us from Gurgaon and who has become our labor supervisor. We cleared brush, smoothed roads and building sites, developed a preliminary water system, built a shade pavillion, fixed up the house already on the property and built a toilet/shower facility to serve visitors.

Most days found us in the town of Pirangut buying supplies and learning hard lessons in the art of business in India. Thank God for Hari. Without him, we stood little chance of negotiating fair prices and avoiding creative swindles. Doing business here is an education and I learned, “When going to school, you must pay tuition.” Counterfeit labels, phony products, bait and switch tactics, rigged scales, inflated prices, theft and broken promises are all par for the course. The school of hard knocks has taught me the ropes and things now go smoother, but those first months were hard.

While us guys were working on the land, Sadhana Devi, Lahari (Elizabeth Palmer) and Lisa Clark were coordinating logistics and organizing those parts of the Puja Weekend that were to take place within Pune. Most of the retreat activities would be held within the city and only a few hours of the weekend were scheduled to be on the land itself. For some mysterious reason, everything we planned seemed to go wrong at one time or another and we ended up scrambling until the last minute to plug the gaps.

Four times we changed venues for our Friday and Saturday events, the last time just one week before the retreat. Our helpmates at the Gurgaon ashram were pulling their hair in frustration because we changed plans so often. We had reserved a major hall for Swami’s presentation months prior to the retreat but were bumped hardly a week before our event. Because that day’s activities were Sadhana Devi’s responsibility, I’m pretty sure she was contemplating grave bodily harm to the venue’s manager. Madly she scrambled to find an alternate venue, finally getting the original hall to allow us to use their space for a few hours in the evening instead of all day as planned. That "secured", we then rented a pandal (big tent) and had it set up on the courtyard lawn of our apartment complex, booked a caterer and completely rearranged our schedule. The monks rented buses to ferry retreat guests between hotels to our ever-changing venues and in the end, it all turned out beautifully. I suspect the guests thought it was all planned that way.

Over one hundred and fifty came to the dedication of our land on Sunday, 1 March. Most were ferried from Pune by bus, arriving early to tour the property and join in kirtan while they awaited Swamiji’s arrival. Fortunately, the day was not too hot. The astrologers had set the time of the ceremony for 12:45pm and everything was scheduled accordingly. An altar was set up under a large mango tree in the vicinity of where our future temple is to be located. There we had leveled the ground, erected a shade tarp and created a spot for the fire ceremony.

Swami Kriyananda arrived at 12:30 and after a prayer and invocation of God and Gurus, he led the crowd in recitation of the Gayatri Mantra while offering ghee and rice into the fire before him. Many of the locals, on their own initiative, then began to chant the traditional mantras associated with a bhoomi puja. I found it very touching. Dharmadas used a “powda” (A small, local shovel. See photo) to turn a bit of earth after which Swami, he and I mortared into place a brick to symbolize the creation of our new community and the temple we hope to one day build. Swamiji followed with a short discourse to the local villagers, translated by Amol into Marathi, explaining our hopes for the community and ended with a final prayer and blessings of Aum to all. As usual, he was mobbed for darshan and kindly gave his blessings to those who came to him.

When it was all over, I was really, really exhausted and glad the day was done simply because so much effort had gone into preparing for the weekend. Underneath the physical tiredness, I felt greatly blessed to have been a part of something special. On the surface, this was but one of many dedications in which I have participated but somehow I felt this one as being extra special. It wasn’t just about starting a community in the little village of Watunde near Pune. I think something more was involved. Whether this particular venture succeeds or fails seemed to me to be immaterial. Rather, larger currents of energy were at play in the dedication, a putting into motion Master’s vision for communities in India and in a world that transcends Ananda and Pune. We are planting of seeds that will spring forth and bear fruit far into the future. I hope so, and pray that others be drawn to carry forward this vision.

With the Bhoomi Puja over, I'm asked, “Can we now get on with building something?” Maybe, but we’ve still a ways to go. We continue to buy, at ever escalating prices, small, itsy-bitsy parcels of land that comprise our community. We move forward with the appropriate legal steps to consolidate all these parcels into a whole and to receive proper permits. This is a process of many months. We forever try to raise money to make all this possible. We’ve begun to have programs on the land and last weekend the monks hosted our first “Youth Retreat” (“Youth” being defined as anyone willing to sleep in a tent. See photo.) for a dozen or so hardy souls. Our permaculture crew (Tim, Steve and Ramani) have started a test garden and are beginning to build swales and terraces on the hillsides for capturing monsoon runoff. We’re fixing up the existing house, the wind turbine is producing electricity and we are developing a site plan for housing Swami and his staff.

Swami Kriyananda leaves for Europe and America in mid-May. Starting now and while he is gone, we hope to build a simple house on our new land where he can reside when he returns. Under the best of circumstances, to finish this quickly will be a major challenge, but we’ll try. A complicating factor is that we also need to provide shelter for his staff because it’s not possible for Swamiji to live on the land by himself and much of this will have to be done during the monsoon, a not so minor obstacle. As you can imagine, I’m not saying anything when people ask the inevitable, “When will the houses be done?” It’s daunting, but we also have a saying here, “In India, everything is difficult but anything is possible.”

Tomorrow Biraj and I meet with our architect and then our lawyers to see what is possible. If all goes well, we hope to have a design for Swami’s house within a week and begin a foundation within a month. We've already cut the building pads (see photo at left). How this will all be done and how much it will cost is still up in the air. Maybe we’ll hire a contractor to do much of the work. Maybe not. Maybe we’ll buy a pre-fabricated house. Maybe not. That’s seems to be how life is here, one day at a time. I’ll let you know how it all turns out in my next letter.