A personal view of the Baisakhi 1998 event by German travel writer Helge Timmerberg.
India is a place where nothing ever seems to happen in a hurry. Queues are commonplace and so too are promises. Politicians promise progress. Priests promise providence. Pundits promise prosperity. Much of it never comes, but still people keep on waiting. For unimaginable millions, patience is not so much "the only way of life" as the only way of coping with what life keeps failing to supply.
Here though, at a very special venue, close to the heart of Delhi, 3,656 people are waiting for something rather different; something they want with all their hearts, and something that they most definitely can have… this very day. It is an April dawn and soon there will be a chance to receive Knowledge.
The flowers near the path smell sweet just before sunset. At this time of day, when Maharaji is visiting India, he often takes a short walk around the event venue. Local women know this. In a time-honoured gesture of respect, they turn out to sweep the road. Naturally enough, they feel an urge to linger, in the hope that they may see him pass. Retiring to an unobtrusive distance, a few meters away, they will start to sweep the grass in the fields. As they patiently, quietly wait, they next turn their attention to those flowers, gently wiping them clean, blossom by blossom, leaf by leaf.
Here, such love and care are everywhere.
Delhi is a notoriously hot and crazy city. Cows, cars, carts, and mopeds - plus an endless array of people - crowd its dirty, busy roads. In the midst of all this mayhem is a haven of peace. The Shri Sant Yog Ashram nestles, like a fertile oasis in the dusty urban desert, in the suburb of Mehrauli, 15 miles south of central Delhi. Twenty years ago, this was wild wasteland. Now it is a thriving garden with a perimeter that will take you more than an hour to trace on foot. During the big events, it transforms yet again, like a beautiful plant producing a rare, precious bloom.
In the space of less than two short weeks, it turns, twice a year, into a temporary home for up to 85,000 people, complete with restaurants, bazaars, hospitals, even a post office. To witness this change is to be entranced. With deceptive ease, hundreds labour to erect an entire city of canvas. The finished result is captivatingly clean.
Is this India, or is it Switzerland?
It is a world beyond the world that any of us know. A world inspired by Knowledge. A world where the passionate heart of the East meets the cool head of the West.
It is also one of the few places, anywhere in Asia, where you can get a truly decent cup of coffee. The ashram's coffee shop serves the best cappuccino for at least a thousand miles. Even the international, five-star hotels in downtown Delhi can't offer you anything this good. Under the watchful eye of Pasquale, the coffee shop manager (an Italian, of course), the espresso never stops dripping while the milk froths to perfection.
Perfection is something you encounter frequently in this deeply magical location. Though people with an inner knowledge understand, all too well, that perfection is something you will never fully find in the 'outer world", it is a standard to aim for, especially when you want to honor a profound experience. All of those who come to participate in the preparation of this event arrive with a desire to be both deeply conscious and highly professional.
Invariably, it puts them on a steep learning curve. But then this is what we have come for. To learn something: about ourselves, about life, about Knowledge - and about how to do our honest, level best.
I have been a professional writer for 20 years yet it was not until I went to Delhi that I finally began to realise the secret of good journalism. The story is always right there: where you are! Bobby Hendry, the man in charge of feeding these people living on site, kept running away from me. "Tomorrow," he said, "I will show you round the central kitchen." Yet tomorrow never came. I found myself sitting in the smoking section, next to the coffee shop, feeling just a little annoyed. Until suddenly, I understood: here are the
1. At the edge of a rose garden stands the Knowledge tent; capable of accommodating up to 3,700 people
2. Volunteers work on the skeleton of the Knowledge tent
3. To erect "an entire city of canvas", hundreds of cloths must be sewn together
4. "In a time honoured gesture… they turn out to sweep the road"
5. "20 professional cooks and 200 dedicated assistants"
6. "A row of cooking pots for giants"
7. Aspirants meeting with an instructor
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little miracles you want to report - precisely where you're sitting.
On April 2, 1998, the smoking section contained one big ashtray made of red clay and two plastic chairs. On April 3, the number of chairs had increased. On April 4, someone erected a colorful tent around the ashtray. On April 5, the tent was filled with low tables and fresh flowers. On April 6, a visitor from Los Angeles, of all places, put an oriental statue in the middle of the flowers. Suddenly, this little group of hopeless nicotine addicts from all around the world found themselves sharing their cigarettes with a marble goddess.
Eventually, though, I did make it to the central kitchen, without the chief cook but still not alone. I was accompanied by Dominique, an enthusiastic photographer, who had been issued with a special "access all areas pass" by the people at Event News, the daily news sheet of the event. It had a picture of a camera printed on it.
"I can go anywhere with this," he said. And so, it seemed, he could. Anywhere, that is, except the kitchen. At the door, we met a large Indian gentleman with a moustache whose task was to redirect hungry queue jumpers to the serving area. The photographer presented his pass. The guard just smiled and said: "No." We explained that we were working for Event News. He replied that he was a member of the Indian Airforce. Finally, with the help of the area event manager, we got past him.
Little shafts of sunlight illuminated a row of cooking pots for giants: three meters in diameter and capable of holding 400 litres of curry - or rice. The stirring spoons were as big as oars from some ancient Viking ship. But everything was 100 per cent fly free. No accidental meat in the soup and not a single hair. Everyone wore a white cap and a long white coat; even those who were not actually cooking but just constantly scrubbing the floor. Now we understood the reticence of the guard. He was not protecting some great secret; he was just trying to keep two scruffy western journalists from tainting, with their presence, that scrupulously hygienic kitchen.
For the duration of the event many thousands have to be fed, three times a day. At one particular dinner time the kitchen served 26,549 meals. That boils down, quite literally, to 5,100 kilograms of lentils, 6,750 kilograms of vegetables, and 12,000 kilograms of rice a meal. On top of which, there are the chapatis for the day, 80,000 of them in total; each weighing 50 grams - a total of almost four tons of flour. A vast culinary task performed by 20 professional cooks and 200 dedicated assistants, aided and abetted by a further 150 women, dressed in colourful saris, smiling away in a separate tent where they scrub the carrots and peel the potatoes.
Such love and care are everywhere.
A visitor from Germany is standing at the customs desk of New Delhi's Indira Gandhi Airport, with a surfboard and a wild water canoe. Only, the surfboard is not a surfboard, it is a rescue stretcher. And the wild water canoe is a vacuum mattress for transporting broken bones. They are destined for one of the two on-site hospitals - essential facilities at any event with such a large attendance. They have been donated by people with Knowledge in the West for use by their less affluent cousins in the East. Each year, the medical centers are becoming better equipped and staffed. Fifteen doctors, three nurses, one chiropodist, one surgeon plus a number of homeopaths have all volunteered their services for the next few days. They naturally hope that their skills will not be required but they are ready to offer them. They are, of course, glad too for this chance to come and hear Maharaji speak. In this respect, all attendees at this event, be they from Madrid or Madras, are completely kindred spirits.
The thousand and more western visitors are almost entirely "people with Knowledge". They come from communities where there may, at most, be a few hundred other people who know about Maharaji and his work. Some live in areas where only a handful of people attend local video events. In the West, you won't encounter 7,000 people with Knowledge unless you attend a big, international event. Here in Delhi, this number represents the quantity of people to whom Maharaji is about to show the techniques of Knowledge. (On April 7, the largest ever Knowledge session was held for 3,656 people; and on the following day there was another session for 3,630.) A further 10,000 people at the event are "almost but not quite" ready to enjoy the same experience.
For many their turn will hopefully come in November, when Maharaji is next due to visit. Meanwhile, these people are happy to wait patiently. They are referred to as "aspirants".
8. Buses bring people great distances from all over India
9. "The Westerners need a sheltered retreat, just as they need bottled water"
10. During the big events,transforms, "like a beautiful plant producing a rare, precious bloom"
11. The daily crowd of 80,000 gathers in the huge open air auditorium
12. Taking care of the much needed water supply
13. This is how Baisakhi is written in Hindi
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For the more than 7,000 Indians who are about to receive Knowledge it is necessary to mount a complex logistical operation. Though Maharaji will be addressing them in Hindi, Indians do not all speak the same dialect - or even the same language. Some must have translation yet for reasons of privacy this cannot be supplied via the same FM radio system that will be used to carry 16 languages during the event proper.
To ensure personal attention for each individual in the Knowledge session, a group of specially trained instructors are going to be on hand. They cannot be wired up or they will not be free to move but nor can they be connected to the semi-public FM transmitter. An infrared system is being installed and tested for them. Technical challenges like this cannot possibly be overcome without a great deal of faith, effort - and coffee.
Back at the coffee shop, Pasquale is excited about the imminent arrival of a new machine. It will make six cappuccinos at a time - a 50 per cent efficiency improvement over the old device, which only made four. The coffee machine duly arrives. Within 24 hours, though, it has developed a fault. Blissfully unaware of this potentially devastating development, volunteers continue to set up the tents which will eventually comprise the westerners' Tent City area. There are to be video tents, practice tents, siesta tents - and information tents; all equipped with powerful fans to sweep away at least some portion of the relentless Delhi heat. It sounds like a lot of luxury until you consider that most of the westerners are only going to be there for a few short, precious days. They have not come for the "complete India experience".
They have come to hear Maharaji speak, to become inspired and to go home in a bright mood. Unlike their eastern cousins, who will be staying in large communal tents on the site itself, the majority of westerners will reside in air-conditioned hotels and be brought in by chartered motorcoach each morning. This is a health precaution. Even an afternoon in the open air is a long time for those who are not used to it. Westerners can suffer from sunstroke, heat exhaustion or dehydration. They need a sheltered retreat, just as they need bottled water.
If you are planning to stay in India for any length of time, you can allow your digestive system to adapt. You suffer your "Delhi belly" for a while and you consider this a rite of passage. If, though, you are only passing through, you must be careful about what passes through you. Suffice it to say, the westerners' snacks along with all the event food, is assembled under conditions that might put a surgical operating theater to shame.
Such love and care are everywhere.
The Knowledge sessions have taken place. The main, three-day event is about to begin. Westerners are starting to trickle in - and the road outside is packed with buses. The 80,000 people from all over India are all trying to get to the same place at the same time. They are carrying with them their bags and cases, their cushions and sleeping rolls and, in many instances, their children. Their destination is a forest of canvas at the far end of the site. They call it "The Sun City".
Many of these people come from tiny, remote villages where no foreigner has set foot. They are here to see Maharaji and to soak up his inspiration. They have no special desire to make contact with the westerners but many cannot help but feel fascinated by them. I use my pass to gain access to their crowded registration area and am accompanied by a member of the Indian ushering team. Seema is a slight, slender girl of 23 who comes from Jaipur and speaks English.
She sticks closely by my side; partly to translate and partly to tell hundreds of laughing, curious, friendly Indians to stand a little farther back. Despite her efforts, they keep touching me, gathering closely round to repeat the same simple questions: "Where do you come from? Do you have Knowledge too? When did you receive it? Why is your hair so long?" I meet one elderly man who has come, on foot, from a village in the Himalayas. I take a Polaroid picture of him and the world suddenly explodes. Nobody has ever seen magic like this. A picture is emerging from the camera like a tongue from out of a mouth. He is amazed. And so am I. For I am also seeing things I have never seen before.
Someone has painted a big beautiful mandala on the ground. For reasons that seem inexplicable, they have positioned this delicate work of art at the entrance to a large tent. It is almost impossible to walk into the tent without stepping on it yet a single footstep would destroy the mandala in an instant. A thousand feet a minute are threatening it. No problem. One little girl leaps to its protection; jumping back and forth in front of the mandala with swinging arms and shining eyes. She is successful. The stream of people simply surge round the side of the mandala like water round a rock.
They are ready now to settle into their temporary homes - little family-sized
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cubicles within this great array of dormitory tents. They can claim their corners, get their breath back and then head down to the "auditorium field" where the event is due to take place. There, they may sit all day, patiently waiting till Maharaji takes the stage at sundown; filling up the intervening time by singing songs or just waiting quietly.
Back in the area around the coffee shop, there is wonderful news. The hot water tank has been reconnected to the coffee machine. The new cappuccino generator is working.
For Claudia de Lima, a painter from Brazil, this is really exceptionally good news. Her flight from Rio to London took 10 hours. Her connecting flight to Delhi was hit by lightning as soon as it was up in the air. It had to limp back to London where she hung about the airport for a further 24 hours. Eventually they found a new plane and she journeyed for another nine hours. After all this, plus a shattering taxi ride through the streets of Delhi, she had made it. And here, in the westerners' Tent City area, she found precisely what she needed. A tent to rest in. A time and space to practice Knowledge in. Videos to watch. A picture gallery to wander through. To say nothing of a decent cup of cappuccino!
She, too, is now ready for the big event. As are we all: 1,236 people with Knowledge from Europe, Australia, America (north and south) plus a handful from Africa, 75,000 with Knowledge from India, 10,000 Indian aspirants. Plus one shining, smiling, beaming, brilliant Maharaji.
Such love and care are everywhere.
Master, I bow down at your feet.
Please reveal this Knowledge to me.
For lifetimes I have been fast asleep.
Awaken me with the arrow of your words.
Incredible darkness lies within me.
Enlighten me with your lamp of wisdom.
Inside of me flows a stream of poison.
Purify it with drops of your nectar.
My ignorance is deep and its current swift.
Ferry me across this river.
Dharamdas begs you, dear Master.
Please guide me now and always.
A highlight of April's Baisakhi event was the playing of Maharaji's rendition of this classical Indian poem, written by the 15th century poet, Dharamdas. Once a wealthy merchant, Dharamdas became a disciple of Kabir and is the author of many beautiful poems.
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