Located in the calm, serene and picturesque outskirts of Bangalore, on the Kanakpura Road, the 65-acre campus is no lesser than a heaven on earth. Situated on the top of the Panchagiri Hills, 36 kms southwest of Bangalore, near Udipalya village, the campus is an ideal location for reflection and rejuvenation and positive energy. A little over 30 years ago, the area was a barren stone land but one man with a vision only saw nature at her best and harmony in a flourishing community. Today it is a lush green paradise where a lot of good things happen, initiated by a self-sufficient community of dedicated people; mostly volunteers who are making this vision come true. Founded in 1981 by the visionary and spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, The Art of Living is an educational and humanitarian movement engaged in stress-management and social service initiatives. The Art of Living International Centre also called the 'Bangalore Ashram' is the spiritual-cultural headquarters of the Art of Living Foundation.
The focus is on peace, health and bringing happiness and making life a celebration. It has its presence in 152 countries today striving to create a stress-free and violence-free world with its numerous initiatives. The campus has an abundance of flowering foliage spread along winding footpaths, a peaceful lake and an exquisitely beautiful 'mantap' - the central meditation hall. Through 'seva' or voluntary service one can experience the humble satisfaction of doing selfless work, from serving food in the kitchen to keeping the premises clean to working in the various departments that focus on various projects and the ashram's upkeep. And the best part? Everyone who eats there must wash their own plates and lay them out to dry. Leftover food is collected in a bin while extra food is distributed nearby. Even the water used to wash the utensils is filtered and used to water plants. Volunteers cut vegetables in groups, laughing and obviously having a good time. The ashram feeds around 18,000 to 20,000 people daily.
The Vishalakshi Mantap
There is a beautiful shrine set amid lawns where people enjoy peace and meditation. It is the VishalakshiMantap, named after 'Amma', Sri Sri's mother, the main meditation hall in the form of a fully blossomed 1000 petaled lotus. Its reflective dome that mirrors the sun during the day is lit up at night to a synchronized change of coloured lights. The dome and golden spire that can be viewed from all parts of the sprawling campus grounds play the role of a compass, lending a sense of navigation to the spiritual seeker. The top floor of the shrine is a great vantage point with a gorgeous view, where one can breathe in peace. The 'satsangs', held here every evening, enable different minds to unite through music, meditation and wisdom in order to experience an elevated state of consciousness.
The Sumeru Mantap
Built on a smaller scale, is the SumeruMantap in a more secluded, old ashram campus. When the campus was newly set up and there was a much smaller gathering of people, satsangswere held in this mantap. It is a circular three tiered gallery with a garden in the centre and the sky for a roof, dominated by a large densely foliaged banyan tree in the centre.
The RadhaKunj gardens recapture the mystical garden of Vrindavan and are an excellent place to observe various birds as they sweep over the lake and a good place to unwind, reflect and take stock of one's life. From the gardens one can hear the Sanskrit chants of the students at the Gurukul nearby. The seven year training programme at the Gurukul teaches students how to conduct temple rituals. The course syllabus also includes study of the Vedas, Agama, Sanskrit, astrology, yoga, music, sculpture, epics and scriptures.
The ashram has its own cowshed with cows and bulls. The Gaushala, a home to over 250 cows, is an important project undertaken to preserve the native breed of Indian cows. The cows enjoy human company and visitors receive great pleasure brushing and petting the cows. Music and slokas are played at the gaushala to keep the cows happy and helping, in a soothing and peaceful environment. The Ashram also runs schools and colleges of its own, offering free education to over 40,000 students in a huge campus. A beautiful Ayurveda hospital too stands in the middle of medicinal herb gardens which offers Ayurvedic treatment to people. The view from the hospital is awesome with stone seats from the wide vantage point. Patients are usually seen relaxing here, helping them to heal faster amidst the calm and soothing environment.
The Ashram life is complete with Sadhana, simple 'satvik' meals, Seva, Satsang and a serene environment. Staying for few days in the ashram is rejuvenating and refreshes the mind, body and soul. Just as we schedule our daily activities, the ashram, too, follows a certain schedule. Each day in the ashram is different and every moment spent here is filled with an ever-fresh, ever-new and an inexhaustible joy. Yoga, meditation, 'sudarshankriya' and 'seva' or voluntary service forms the bedrock of the ashram activities. There is a wide variety of other activities in the ashram like cooking, office work, cleaning, maintenance jobs, administrative work that one can take up. We learn important lessons in life only when we do something that is out of our routine existence and adopt a different style of living, even if it is for a short duration. The ashram life provides a wonderful opportunity to break our personal limitations and barriers and live a life without expectations. Lunch in the ashram includes grains, legumes and vegetables, most of which are grown in the ashram gardens. This is followed by some more 'seva' activity until the satsang begins in the evening, where everybody comes together to sing, dance, meditate and celebrate peace. The ashram is the hub of most of the activities of the Art of Living and is a beautiful place to be. It makes for a truly self-contained retreat - a home away from home.
For the second time, I visited the Ashram, yet again on a Sunday with my spouse and my mother, but trying to avoid those places which I had visited the last time along with both my parents. We had fond memories together spent at most of the locations just that we didn't want to replace them with some new ones. I longed for some apparition, if I could see my father somewhere near around. I felt he was with us all along. I was even about to return back before even starting our stroll round the Ashram. I couldn't hold back my tears and mom too. It was just that day, when we sauntered around together, by the grey roads along the meadows and the okra fields, quenching our winter thirst with the crystal clear coconut water, having our noon meal together at the ever bustling joint, the Akshay Annapurna i.e. the ashram dining hall and kitchen and then, clicking pictures at the Vishalakshmi shrine as we lazed down by the stairs of the beautiful mantap watching the scattered rays of the crimson sunset behind us. We planned not to visit the 'lotus shrine' this time, thinking that it will break us down more into tearful emotions. We didn't want to replace those few moments of our last visit with the new ones because, when someone exists in your life and forgets to say goodbye, you are just left waiting with moist eyes.
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar rightly says, "Let this place be a chance for miracles in the lives of millions of people - where tears turn into smiles, desperation turns into hope, dullness turns into creativity and hatred turns into love."