ON A MORNING in mid-January, I stood outside the train station at Carmarthen, a county town in the United Kingdom, with a GPS-enabled phone in one hand, the handlebar of my bicycle in another. I entered my destination in the phone—‘Skanda Vale temple’. The map showed me a long, winding road uphill for the next 15 km.
Within the first 15 minutes, I had to get rid of my woollens. In the next thirty, I stopped admiring the lush green countryside and the countless sheep grazing on the farms, concentrating instead on gulping in as much oxygen as I could with every breath. Thankfully, my phone rang, giving me an excuse to stop.
It was a private number. “I am calling from Skanda Vale,” the person on the other side introduced himself. “When will you be reaching here?”
I squeaked an answer, the best I could in my state.
“We have a mahabhishekam at 1.30 pm. You might want to come by then,” said the caller.
I had timed my journey from Cardiff with every intention to be in time for the special Sunday ceremony. It is one of the only two days in the week that they unveil the Hindu deity Murugan, son of Shiva and Parvati, to the public. But it was already 12.20 pm and I had barely covered a fifth of the distance. A few minutes later, as I stopped yet again to wipe the sweat off my brow; a local resident had a few kind words to offer.
“You’ll make it,” he said. “You’re still half dry, mate.”
I was introduced to Skanda Vale at a weekly shakha of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh—an arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—I had attended about a month ago. Skanda Vale is one of the biggest temples in the UK and was run almost entirely by ‘goras’ (Whites), my informant added. Its website, however, identified itself as a ‘multi-faith temple’, home to the deities of Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims.
Skanda Vale was founded in the summer of 1973 when Sri Subramanium set up an ashram in the north of Carmarthenshire, a sleepy town on the west coast of Wales, for those seeking a spiritual intervention in their lives. Today, around 90,000 seekers visit the place every year to attend one of the six pujas conducted on a daily basis. Those looking to stay longer do so in the tiny cabins and caravans dotting the 115 acres of the ashram.
As the website had warned, I lost my cell phone network as I neared the temple. I entered the premises and was perplexed to find not a single person in sight. But the steady gurgles of a stream I had been hearing was now eclipsed by the sounds of a djembe, ghanti and a bhajan sung in an English accent. I checked my watch and hurried towards the source of the music. I was running about 20 minutes late.
From the far end of the foyer, I could see the head priest in the sanctum, ostentatiously worshipping a small idol of Murugan. He was surrounded by 20 monks and nuns, all dressed in brown cassocks. Together, along with some fifty devotees, they egged him on with their prayers and percussions, and watched as he bathed the idol and the spear—Murugan’s weapon of choice—in water, milk and honey. Finally, the idol was dusted with a cloud of vermillion and reinstalled in its alcove. The curtain was drawn and the iron grille, stretching along the width of the room, was drawn, hiding the idol, the alcove and the priests.
If attending an elaborate hour-long ritual isn’t your idea of relaxing, you’ll have little choice. ‘Meals are only available to pilgrims who have attended worship at the temple’, reads the temple literature. After the prayers, we broke for lunch. For the first time since I left India, I was in a place that expected you to remove your shoes before entering the dining room. As I untied the laces of my shoe, I got talking to an affectionate elderly woman, mother of one of the monks working at the ashram. She seemed scandalised to hear that I was there by myself.
“Why don’t you show this young man around?” she asked her son.
He grinned. “That’s all right, mum. I’m sure he has a perfectly good reason to come alone.” Clearly, he knew the dynamics of the place and the people it attracts. As I shared a meal—vegetarian fare of dal, a spicy chickpea curry and mixed salad, the authentic Indian flavours that I had been deprived of for several months—I got to know some of them better.
Most of the pilgrims were Hindus who traced their roots to parts of south and south-east Asia. But there were also those who came from the United Kingdom and Europe. The visitors cut across the demographics of age, profession and intentions. There were those who had been coming for years for religious reasons, those who came for spiritual cleansing and those attracted to the mysticism the place held. At some point, everyone I met spoke about the “vibrations” which seemingly eased their worldly sufferings.
While they were keen on sharing their experiences, they never imposed their views upon me. As for the temple management, in what was a liberal-minded setting, they still practised elements of Hinduism that often challenge the limits of reason. If you had consumed meat in the three days prior to your visit, you were supposed to attend the ceremonies from outside the chambers. ‘We ask ladies having menstrual periods to do the same,’ reads the website, although, as a female regular told me, this rule was seldom enforced.
I was escorted to my cabin: a small room with a bunk bed and just enough floor-space to accommodate a rucksack. There were a row of such cabins lined up on the edge of the pathway connecting the Murugan and Vishnu temples. As with the lunch, none of the rooms comes with a price tag. If you wished to pay for it, there was a donation box right outside the lunch room.
At 9 pm, we gathered in the Murugan temple for another round of prayers. This time, the centrepiece of the sanctum was a portrait of Jesus Christ, with smaller ones of Mother Mary and St Francis on either side. A curtain was raised in the middle, shielding the Christian deities from the Hindu one who was hosting them for the evening. Over the next hour, I witnessed an unusual Catholic mass: diyas, incense sticks and camphor aartis punctuating the distinct ambience set by piano, cymbals and lilting hymns. Held after dinner, it was a service meant for volunteers. I was only half-surprised to notice that the attendance, though enthusiastic, was thinner than the one before lunch
THE DAY BEGINS at 4.30 am. With hours to go before the winter sun rises, the first round of prayers begin at the Murugan temple at 5 am. Shortly after, you queue up to get into a minibus that takes you to Maha Shakti temple, located further up a hill. Four more pujas follow during the day, each of which you are expected to attend if you are staying at the monastery. For the rest of the time, you are expected to take part in community service. I was deputed to the yard housing the donkeys and ponies. Sister Ally, a young, friendly nun managing the barn, was impressed after hearing about my journey by bicycle, and pronounced me physically fit for the job of cleaning muck. I allowed myself to be swayed by the flattery but regretted it after an hour with the shovel and a wheelbarrow.
Lesson for the day: there’s ‘fit’ and then there’s ‘farm-fit’. Having learnt my lesson, I opted to polish wood in a workshop later in the afternoon.
Animals have always been an integral part of the Skanda Vale ecosystem. On the premises, one can find ducks, swans, deer, a peacock and Valli, the 35-year- old elephant sent as a gift by the Sri Lankan government when she was eight. In a bid to ensure comfort for what is essentially a tropical animal, the keepers have built a large room with heated walls. As per news reports, the management spends more than Rs 30 lakh a year to accommodate all the animals. While cited as an attraction, none of the other animals has managed to acquire the kind of fame as Shambo.
Shambo, the late 15-year-old jersey bullock.
In 2007, this bovine resident of the monastery was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The law mandated that he be slaughtered, in order to eliminate the threat to other animals from the incurable disease. Being from the cow family, an animal considered holy by Hindus, the management put up a fierce resistance but that didn’t hold up in court.
“There were around a hundred of us sitting outside his pen, praying and singing bhajans,” a long-time resident told me. Under the glare of journalists and TV cameras and with a webcam installed inside Shambo’s shed broadcasting live feed to the world, the cops managed to take the animal away after several attempts. In a statement released later, the monastery said, ‘The Welsh assembly government has finally desecrated our temple.’ The battle with the temple cost the Welsh government an equivalent of Rs 2 crore.
“It was one of the few times that we went to the media,” said Brother Elliot. It was my last evening at the place and we were speaking over dinner. He, along with other monks and nuns, usually eat in another room of the dining area. For the monks accustomed to a quiet life, the Shambo case was a time of immense scrutiny. Other encounters, usually with conservative Hindu visitors, are rare. “Someone had emailed about how what we do here isn’t the right way of worship,” he said. But that never prompted change, although as a regular told me, the priests are considering restarting celebrations of Guru Nanak Jayanti after having stopped it for the last few years.
Hours before my departure, in a display of classic British hospitality, I was invited to a cup of tea. We had finished the prayers after dinner and were back in the dining area, heating water in an electric kettle. My host was a middle-aged Bengali woman, born and raised in England. Having stayed at the monastery for the last few weeks, she, too, would be leaving the next morning. A chatty woman in the time I had known her, she was unusually quiet on the given evening.
“Don’t take it personally. It’s just that being here is difficult,” she said when I asked. The visit was a kind of detox for her in which she had “slowed time down” in order to heal. It’s a tradition she has been following for some years now, replenishing her spirits with every visit. “I might not be very successful,” she said, “but I am happy.”
(Omkar Khandekar is a freelance journalist currently based in the UK)