Every time I come from a holiday in Mount Abu in Rajasthan, India, people can’t explain the “well-rested look” that isn’t attributed to cosmetic science.
We all need some breathing space in our lives, more so, in our minds. I always hie off to Madhuban (“forest of honey” in Hindi), a sanctuary for the soul.
Much has been written about the conventional tourist cities in Rajasthan, such as Udaipur, Jaipur and Jodhpur, and their glorious heritage. Under the radar for now, Mount Abu has its charms; it has cool weather, blue skies and mysticism.
According to legend, Mount Abu’s sacred vibes have lured sages to contemplate inside its caves.
During the British empire, rajahs astride elephants, royal servants and soldiers in tow, would escape the blistering summers in the lowlands and enjoy Abu, the only hill station in Rajasthan.
In Guru Shikhar, the highest peak in Mount Abu, you would get a bigger picture of Rajasthan as a rock-strewn, severe and tawny-colored land.
The state is split by the Aravallis, a range of bleak, jagged mountains that separates the parched desert and gritty uplands of the northwest from the abundant southeast part.
Yet, it is the austere terrain of the north that lends the most striking backdrop for ancient marble temples and palaces, red chillies drying under the sun, a band of monkeys ready to prey on tourists’ foods, or a gaggle of long-necked ethnic women clad in flashy saris gracefully balancing brass pots of water or bundles of firewood on their heads.
Temples and holy caves are Mount Abu’s major attractions. Built in the 11th century, the Dilwara Jain temple leaves one in awe of its perfection. Interlacing networks of deities and floral patterns are exquisitely carved in detail on the domed ceilings, columns, doorways and walls.
Erected on a high plateau, Achalgarh Fort, built in the 15th century, rises from the rocky barren hills that serve as protection against hostile enemies. Its looming granite walls look as if they emerged from the earth. The vantage point overlooks an arid desert broken up by patches of scrub vegetation. The sight is made more visceral as the wind provides a background chant.
The fort is surrounded by ruins and a temple of the sacred bull called Nandi, who was the vehicle of Lord Shiva in mythology.
The more adventurous travelers visit the temple of Gaumukh which means “mouth of the sacred cow.” Descending 700 steps—which is nothing compared to other temples which have over 1,000 steps—you will see the marble statue of Nandi and holy water sprouting from its mouth.
Depending on the time of day, Nakki Lake exudes romance. In the early morning, the silence is interrupted by the quacking of ducks, the ringing of temple bells and a haunting chant from the priests.
Toad Rock, a frog-shaped formation and the heritage hotel Jaipur Palace, both rise from the lake’s perimeter, their images reflected on the still waters.
Major tourist attraction
During the day, the road around the lake is a burst of color, lined with bougainvilleas in intense yellow, orange, fuchsia, crimson complemented by softer tones of lavender and white.
The Brahma Kumaris complex is a major tourist attraction. It is a learning center for values, and in the bigger picture, a nongovernment organization affiliated with the United Nations.
Every afternoon, legions of tourists visit Brahma Kumaris’ Om Shanti Bhavan, the pristine white auditorium with elevated dome-shaped pavilions. Tourists are overwhelmed by the atmosphere of purity and meditation so that many of them leave the place pledging to give up smoking, drinking and eating meat.
In Madhuban is the original Brahma Kumaris headquarters, where its visionary founder, Dada Lekhraj, once treaded.
When he turned 60 in 1936, Lekhraj, a renowned diamond merchant, had a series of visions. He saw the Supreme Being as a point of light that foretold world cataclysm followed by a Utopia where nature and man lived in harmony. He would become known as Prajapita Brahma (“Father of Humanity”), and would establish Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University in 1937.
One of the university’s main precepts is that man’s original nature is positive and pure. All teachings are aimed at restoring these qualities and exemplifying the attendant values.
Pandav Bhavan, the oldest campus of the BKWSU, feels more like home. It is the paragon of the institution’s teachings. Foreigners and locals take time off from work for a few days’ visit, attend classes and workshops, and also seek personal guidance.
Silent walks are part of the daily routine. There are no gurus there, just mentors or life coaches who have been meditating and teaching from 50 to 78 years.
One of the university’s tenets is not to preach but to melt people’s hearts with love and respect.
In October and November, the institution hosts Peace of Mind retreats for professionals who want to share their ideals. For three decades, the Philippines was represented by Celia Diaz Laurel, former Cabinet member Jose Antonio Gonzalez, the late advertising executive Bobby Caballero, comedienne Tessie Tomas, and author Nelson Navarro, who immersed themselves in its culture.
Before dawn, a chai wallah, or one whose duty is to prepare tea, rolls in the trolley filled with urns of hot tea.
The silence is interrupted by a song: “Hour of nectar/ the air is pure/ awaken, my beloved.”
Shortly, people swathed in thick white shawls walk to the meditation halls to be empowered for the day. They then welcome the day with hot chai.
The chai wallah pours three ladles of fresh cow’s milk into a pan and heats it up. He adds masala, a sprinkle of sugar crystals, fresh ground ginger and, finally, a tablespoon of black tea and brings the brew to a boil. He then strains the chai into a stainless steel glass and serves with a smile.
There is a general discourse in the morning class on such topics as confronting the challenges in relationships or improving one’s thinking patterns. The students keep nuggets of wisdom in their minds.
Customarily, after class, a piece of confection or fresh fruit is given to each student as he or she leaves the hall, to remind him or her of the sweetness of his/her nature.
Breakfast is freshly-baked bread, carrot jam, steaming potato soup or rice porridge, and a salad of sprouts, sweet tomatoes, cucumber and cilantro.
A Sunday breakfast is either idli, fermented rice cake, or dosa, fermented eggless crepes with spicy potatoes, chilli and cilantro and mint chutney.
Lunch is mixed dhal or bean soup, subji or a vegetable dish, flatbread, vegetarian koffta balls, paneer (cottage cheese) with spinach or green peas, and boiled vegetables for people who don’t like spices and oil.
Dinner is light—either curry soup, khichdi or comfort food made of rice and lentils, and a vegetable dish. Occasionally we’d have an Indian version of macaroni and pizza, everything made from scratch.
My free time is spent on walks to the mystical rock or to Sunset Point with like-minded friends to share meaningful conversations so unlike the banal exchanges back home. Some would shop at the government emporium where the prices of the Rajasthani crafts and fabrics are government-controlled.
In the late afternoon, the azure sky slowly becomes ablaze in burnished colors, heralding the end of the day.
Back in Madhuban, the spiritual travelers prepare to welcome an evening of reflection. The imperious marble Tower of Peace, said to be the most spiritually-charged icon on this earth, glistens in the dark.
They say that the endless chatter in their mind stops; they begin to understand the meaning of serenity. A few people sit in front of the tower to absorb its subtle vibrations and embark yet again on their inner journey.