New Internationalist

Close encounter of the human kind

Man praying [Related Image]
A haven of peace in the modern world Vinoth Chandar under a Creative Commons Licence

Poonthottam is an ayurvedic ashram in Kerala founded by a charismatic vaidyan or healer named Vaidya. P.M.S Raveendranath. People come here to be treated for serious ailments. It’s an oasis of peace and serenity. But most ashrams are. What’s different here is that it manages to retain the old world charm and values of a bygone era. And even more unbelievable is that this little haven exists in the middle of a driven, pushy, get-rich-quick, ostentatious, flashy, gold jewellery laden world which most of Kerala descended into after the great Gulf exodus began in the 1970s.

In Poonthottam, patients wake up to a melodious chanting of prayers and mantras from the little courtyard temple with a warm, calming, mind relaxing ambience. The woman responsible for this lovely daily awakening is always dressed in traditional Kerala white when she performs her morning puja or worship. Her face is serene. She radiates an aura I associate with an India of some decades ago, not easy to find these days.

We have a conversation with her. Or rather, we listen bemused. We ask her about her family.

She moved to Poonthottam after her husband died, as her daughter and son are now grown up and have flown the nest. Her face is neither young nor old. Yet she doesn’t seem middle-aged. Rather there’s a timeless quality about her, which I’ve sometimes seen in Catholic, Buddhist and Jain nuns. In the truly spiritual ones, not the institutionalized religious women who pursue money or power in different ways. Her daughter has a PhD, a doctorate in Sanskrit, one of the world’s most ancient languages. I’m impressed. It’s rare to find young people from middle class backgrounds who don’t rush to engineering, doctoring or lawyering. The average modern young Indian would think of Sanskrit as archaic. Not much money in it. Like an academic with Latin in the Western world.

‘So does your daughter teach in the university?’ we ask. ‘Oh no’, she says. ‘I’ve tried to inculcate in my children the love for knowledge. If you chase a university job, you do it for the money and you lose the quest, the desire for true knowledge. After all there is only so much money you can use or spend.

‘People here lock their valuables in an almirah [wardrobe] and keep the key under their pillow at night. But when you die you can’t take even a tiny fragment of your precious key with you. No matter how rich or famous or clever you are you cannot, no human being can take it with them. So why spend your life chasing wealth? I hope my children have imbibed this value and internalized it. The people who chase money and fame can never really be happy. Can they?’

Her philosophy seemed so rational and profound. Yet so simple. And one could see that she truly believed in it.

After she left, we looked at each other bereft of words. Life would be so much nicer, the world a much better place, if more people thought like this. Believed in something higher, something more important than the pursuit of wealth and power that most of us live for. Made me think of the 1970s. Of John Lennon. Of ‘Imagine’. And a time when many of us believed in a world of possibilities. Of visions and dreams. Another world does exist. In tiny pockets of this earth.

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  1. #1 chandrika sen sharma 29 Jul 13

    So true Mari. Such a wonderful article - true spirituality brings its own rewards.

  2. #2 Moni 29 Jul 13

    You are right! It is really such a nice place!

  3. #3 Ludwig Pesch 29 Jul 13

    Thanks for this pointer to a world and world view that's not going to go away; nor of the ’Lonely Planet’ or ’Wellness à la God's Own Country’ tourism version. I often wonder Whose god/God is it anyway?
    Watching Sunanda Bhat's award winning documentary on Kerala's highland ecology and the people (mostly women) who care about it made me think a lot on all these issues; worth watching (again):
    >“HAVE YOU SEEN THE ARANA?” seeks to throw fresh light on how places can be ‘imaged’ and ‘imagined’, while encouraging us to reflect on our attitudes to the environment.<
    http://www.cultureunplugged.com/storyteller/Sunanda_Bhat#/myFilms
    As you write, and Sunanda Bhat visualizes in a musical manner, many possibilities remain open, or can even get revived, wherever and as long as there are such people: individuals who care and share!
    Heartening to learn about your retreat. After all, values don't really need advertising as they are part of life. Civilized society can't even exist without.
    Spreading the word in the right words as you do – time and again – is the best way of moving forward. My compliments for keeping NewInt readers like me updated on both sides of the ’Indian Coin’. There's never a dull reading moment.

  4. #4 Aloke Surin 29 Jul 13

    In my many travels to remote parts of the Himalaya and to small isolated communities in the mountains, this self-evident truth has always confronted me in the guise of simple folk with no wealth or riches and no ambition to accumulate it or fame: shepherds herding their flocks in pastures thousands of feet up in the alpine zones, cut off from all human contact sometimes for months at a time; almost without exception I have found them to be the most contented humans that I have encountered. I also have a life long friend who does not own much but seems to me supremely contented with his few possessions. How many happy and contented billionaires do you know or have heard of?

  5. #5 Kalpana 30 Jul 13

    Refreshing and inspiring !

  6. #6 Claudia 31 Jul 13

    Loved reading this! This is so what I believe in.

    Be the change you want to see in the world. And that always starts within oneself.

    The world would truly be a better place if more people had the opportunity to deal with ill feeling not in destructive but constructive ways, such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, dance, music, theatre, etc.

    I am so happy to read of people who are pursuing an education of the mind in favour of the enlargement of their pockets. After all, the important things that make us happy can be had for free, companionship, love, etc. Humans are the only species that pay to live on the earth...

    Thank you for sharing your experience at Poonthottam with us.

  7. #7 Shoba Ramachandran 03 Aug 13

    Ideology which seems familiar - and quite we believe is lost and since you follow it, one feels lost and 'lonely'. Yes, that is the only time i do feel 'lonely' looking around for the few people we know who have the same principles and values we have. The right chords are touched in your write up. Check out the following: You've to be carefully taught - the controversial song but also read the accompanying articles - esp the address during the recent Congress session in the US.

  8. #8 alex da costa 09 Aug 13

    A beautiful piece. Congratulations. East meets West in peace.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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