The first thing I had to do was find out where Chitrakoot was. It wasn’t on the junior Western yogi/backpacker/hippy trail. In fact, at that time at least, it wasn’t even a major Hindu pilgrimage spot. According to legend, Chitrakoot was a stop-off point for Hanuman on his way south to rescue Sita. At least, that’s how I remember the story. I looked it up just now and was told he stopped off at Hanuman Dhara to dowse the fire on his tail on his way back from Sri Lanka.
Actually, nothing about Chitrakoot I’ve found online is as I remember it, so I’ll just tell you what I remember without trying to make it fit in with what I’ve read online. The first thing I remember is that it wasn’t on a train line. I had to take a bus from Allahabad to get there. The second thing I remember is that there was little or no electricity there. The third thing I remember is that there were no hotels or if there were, nobody told me about them. I met a schoolteacher about 2 minutes after I got off the bus and he took me directly to an ashram overlooking the river and that’s where I stayed (for free) for the duration.
I was given a bowl of rice, a chapati and a bowl of dahl once a day at the ashram. Other than that, I was left to do as I pleased. My mornings started with a walk down to the river to bathe and that’s the last thing I did before the sun set. Most days I’d just go out exploring the town on my own, usually to buy some jalabis and a cup of chai. One day one of the teacher’s children brought his bicycle over and another bike he borrowed from a friend. He took me out to an amazing erotic temple much like Khajuraho but on a smaller scale. I swear it was there and, needless to say, I remember it vividly, but I just looked on Google maps for “erotic temples in India” and there’s nothing listed between Chitrakoot and Khajuraho, some 147 km away. Young and fit as I was then, there’s no way I could have ridden a bike there and back in a single day, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was there (or maybe it was an incredibly vivid dream?).
Another vivid recollection is of climbing a lot of stairs to the top of a mountain to visit one of the places Hanuman was supposed to have stopped at. Along the way, I passed a sadhu with dreadlocks far past his feet who had been standing with one leg tucked up against his opposite hip in a standing asana I used to do every day but whose name I’ve forgotten for so long his elevated leg had withered away. I just googled “yoga asana” to refresh my memory and almost puked when the recommended keyword extensions included stuff like “yoga asanas for weight loss” and “yoga asanas for a flat stomach.” God I’m glad I got out of the insipid world of American yoga.
Anyway, back to my story. Another pilgrimage was up a mountain I remember being very symmetrically shaped and the path wound up and around the mountain until it reached a big Hanuman temple at the top. I remember passing a few pilgrims who weren’t content with just walking up to the top. Instead, they prostrated themselves, marked the spot where their outstretched hands reached and then put their feet on that spot and prostrated themselves again. The idea was for their bodies to touch the ground from bottom to top.
I didn’t do that, but what happened that day arguably changed my life. I’d given up on getting a mantra from Maharaj-ji after I asked him for one and he scowled at me, but on that day, as soon as I started my ascent, one popped into my head and stayed with me all the way to the top, all the way back down and for about 10 years afterwards. It still pops into my mind uninvited and lingers for days and sometimes, when I feel lost or depressed, I consciously start chanting it and it never fails to help.
Like everything “miraculous” that happened that year in India with Maharaj-ji (and I always felt like he was there with me at that time — even when he sent me away), I can’t prove he gave me the mantra. More importantly, I don’t even care. I’ve had a huge problem with guru worship ever since Ram Dass sought solace from that fake psychic (read Egg on My Beard for the full story) after Neem Karoli Baba’s death. Nevertheless, I can’t prove he didn’t give me the mantra, either. He was and is an enigma to me and that’s the way I like it.
I’ve included a photo of Chitrakoot I pinched from Google images just for illustration. I would have included more, but the one above is the only one I could find that looks vaguely like the Chitrakoot I remember. Everything that happened that magical year in India felt like a dream even then. For all I know, it was all a dream, as this life we cling to probably is.
I really can’t remember at all how long I stayed in Chitrakoot. It could have been as little as a week or as long as a month. I do remember why I left, though. A Western woman from Maharaj-ji’s group turned up. I invited her into my room and although I left the door open, that was a big mistake in the eyes of the ashram monks and from that moment on, I didn’t feel welcome anymore. They may have even asked me to leave. Anyway, leave I did and I haven’t been back since except in my mind and my heart; but that’s all that really matters anyway, isn’t it?