October 8, 2012
Ananda Ashram, Kanhangad, Kerala
A knock on the door (or sometimes a loud buzzer!) at 6 a.m. signals the start of day. We quickly throw something on and grab our cups, making our way to the porch. There a small, quiet man waits in the dark with two stainless steel urns—one filled with coffee, the other with chai. We tell him our preference, and savor the first sips of the hot, sweet liquid. We spend a few quiet minutes on the porch with our tea and coffee, then hasten to dress. I walk with the other ladies over to the small shrine building where the men are just finishing the first half-hour Ram Nam round. At 6:30 precisely, the women begin the next round, chanting “Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram.”
The warm smell of incense greets us, wafting through the sound of gentle voices chanting, as feet pad softly on the cool, smooth marble floor. Outside, birds trill, tweet, and call as the day gradually awakens. A stream of color floats past my eyes in the form of sari-clad women circumambulating the marble shrine in the center of the small temple room.
The Indian women are impeccably groomed, their saris fresh and flowing, their long, lustrous hair neatly oiled and braided, with delicate flowers pinned at the back of the head.
For the next thirty minutes we sing “Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram” in call-and-response fashion, until the men show up again to begin the 7 o’clock round. This pattern continues all day: men, women, men, women, handing off the chant every half hour. The only accompaniment is a set of kartals (hand cymbals) used by the leader to keep time, and occasionally a small hand drum or tambourine if someone feels to play it. No harmonium, no tabla, no other instruments. Harmonium and tabla are used for other programs in the bhajan hall, but for this practice the focus is on the mantra, and the voices chanting it together.
Each round of chanting is led by an appointed person. Some of the older women have lived here, or have been coming here, for many, many years. Whether their voices are trained and beautiful, or raw and coarse, the depth of their practice is obvious when they chant. There are no performances here, no airs, no frills, no nonsense—and the mantra is understood intuitively and clearly. It seems to chant itself, floating upon a great silence, and peace permeates the room and all of its inhabitants.
LOVE’S THRONE, MY HEART
Love is with me and in me.
It sings into my ears
The music of the worlds.
Through my eyes Love observes,
And all I see is suffused
With light and beauty.
My heart is Love’s throne:
Love’s sweet will rules supreme.
On the wave of this grace
I ride in free transport
Of joy that knows no end.
— Swami Ramdas