India: Wisdom from the tomb

In search of spiritual enlightenment in rural India
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The Independent Travel

As the sun began to rise, the hills stood stark against the lightening sky. The early morning mist lingered in the folds of the valleys so that the trees seemed to be green islands floating in a silver sea.

We were on our way to a small community called Meherabad, where a great spiritual teacher known as Meher Baba had lived and worked. By birth he was a Zoroastrian – the faith that was founded three millennia ago in eastern Persia, and is now practised by barely 100,000 Parsis in India – but he came to encapsulate all religions and showed a practical way forward for everyone, regardless of birth, sex or creed. He taught the idea that through millions of lifetimes everyone can gradually come to realise that they are part of God, and that all of our experiences are part of that awakening.

As we pulled up outside the Pilgrim Centre, the first thought that popped into my head was that it was like Rivendell, Tolkien's mythical "homely house" offering comfort and rest. It seemed an appropriate analogy for the beautiful place where we would spend the next week. Surrounded by green trees that grow improbably out of the dry earth, the centre is a long, brick bungalow with an ochre-tiled roof and high ceilings laced with wooden beams and lined with rushes. The dining hall divides the men's dormitories from the women's, and each side has courtyards filled with trees and flowers. In all it feels like a second home.

When he was in his fifties, Meher Baba began a period called "the New Life", during which he gave away virtually everything he owned and for several years lived a life of poverty with only a few close companions, while at the same time touring India tirelessly. He died in 1969.

The centre is a recent addition to the complex of buildings that make up Meherabad. Most of the others date back to Meher Baba's time and include a medical dispensary, a long hall that was used for welcoming followers and various simple rooms where Baba used to sleep. This is a very dry part of India – water is scarce and parched fields filled with dusty grass are the norm, except where trees and crops have been deliberately cultivated. Yet new sources of water have meant that many more trees have been able to be planted in the surrounding countryside, so that the arid moonscape of early photographs has been replaced by a land that, while not exactly lush, is starting to look fertile.

The focal point of Meherabad is the tomb that houses Meher Baba's body. This might seem slightly strange and morbid, but it's really rather beautiful once you understand the reasoning behind it. In India, there is the tradition of great teachers giving what is known as darshan, whereby ordinary people can have an audience with them and, simply by asking for help, receive a push forward spiritually. Before he dropped his body, Meher Baba had been in a long period of seclusion but he said that, despite ill health, he would find a way to give darshan to his followers. He died before he could carry out this promise in the flesh, but this really makes no difference and people now come from all over the world to receive Meher Baba's silent darshan from the tomb.

The walk from the centre is a short one. You cross a Tarmac road, which even 20 years ago was apparently so quiet that local villagers would hold bullock-cart races on it, but is now a busy thoroughfare for the ever-present trucks, as well as motorised rickshaws carrying people to and from Ahmadnagar. The path then rises and you come to the railway line used by the British when Meherabad was army property during the First World War. Some iron girders form a rough barrier for a couple of metres, but apart from that it is open to the land about. You can hear the roar of the diesel train long before it arrives and the sight of it chuntering through the empty land at dusk sends you right back in time to when these metal giants first blazed through India.

The path then begins to climb the slope of a gentle hill, shaded on either side by lines of trees. When the tomb was built it stood in marked contrast to the arid, stony plains around it, for it is a most singular building. It is a small, squat structure with a white domed roof, on each corner of which has been placed a symbol of one of the major world religions. Above the wooden doors is written "Mastery in servitude". Inside, the walls are painted with beautiful, brightly coloured murals depicting the peoples of the world and heaven above.

On a plaque near the tomb is written one of Meher Baba's sayings: "Things that are real are given and received in silence." He embodied this attitude for much of his life. Although capable of speech, he remained silent from the age of 31, communicating only by means of an alphabet board and later by sign language. In old films of Baba you can see how just a few simple gestures can convey a multitude of meanings and reach directly to the heart of the matter.

The centre also runs trips out to Meherazad, Meher Baba's home in later life and where the surviving mandali live. They were Baba's close companions, and you can meet them and listen to their stories.

At the back of the cluster of low bungalows that make up the community is a track leading to the fields outside. Here you find yourself immersed in rural India, silent and still.

If you carry on walking for about 10 minutes, you eventually come to a small grassy hill. The sides of the hill are steep, and the rocky path winds several times around it before ending at a long, narrow summit. This is Seclusion Hill, where Meher Baba worked for long periods in isolation, often fasting and sometimes barely drinking. The top is unadorned, save for the numerous rocks strewn across it. From here, the views stretch for miles and miles, taking in pastures and lakes until the plains meet a circling line of hills in the far distance. Here you feel you're on top of the world.

The Meher Baba Pilgrim Centre is open from 15 June to 15 March, and reservations can be made six weeks in advance by calling the Pilgrim Reservation Office in Ahmadnagar on 00 91 241 341 821.

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