Skanda Vale is a multi-faith ashram and home to a resident community of 25 monks and nuns. Every year they welcome over 90,000 pilgrims to their three temples. Their work involves worshiping the Lord in his many forms, caring for hundreds of animals, providing food aid to people in need, giving spiritual education and caring for the terminally ill at their hospice. The ashram was founded by Guru Subramaniam who was born in Sri Lanka. The ashram is set in over 100 acres of woodland and is located in South Wales, about 250 miles away from London.
One of the monks, Swami Govinda had travelled with the UK group to Kailash with Mohanji in 2014 and he had invited Mohanji and Biba to visit Skanda Vale whenever they came to the UK. A group of us travelled with Mohanji and Biba to Skanda Vale straight after the retreat. It was a long journey of nearly 5 hours but the time went in a flash as we reflected on the amazing retreat experiences. On his arrival, Mohanji was very warmly welcomed by all the Swamis who were eagerly awaiting his arrival, especially Swami Govinda.
We had arrived just in time for a special Maha-abhishekam to the main deity in the Maha Shakti temple. This puja is conducted once a month on the Saturday before every full moon. On this occasion, the temple was completely packed full of pilgrims. In the terrace outside sat about 80 pilgrims who could not get into the temple. Outside the terrace hundreds of people watched the puja on a large TV screen as they could not get into either the temple or the terrace. The Swamis had very kindly kept space in the temple for Mohanji, Biba, my wife Ranjana and I. As well as the magnificent main deity of mother Kali which is about 2 metres high, there are pictures and murtis of all the different manifestations of God from the different religious traditions. The atmosphere in the temple for the full moon puja was an intense and amazing experience. The energy in the temple was at fever pitch. The mantras were chanted by the Swamis with intense concentration. The vibrant bhajans sung with utmost devotion accompanied by the beats of the drum, the harmonium, cymbals, bells and conch, sent waves of bliss through the congregation. During the bhajans, Abhishek was performed to the Divine Mother with vibhuti (mixed with water), milk, yoghurt, honey and fruits. In between each offering she was offered frankincense and arathi. After the Abhishek she was bathed with water, oiled with fragrant perfume, offered arathi again and serenaded with more bhajans. She was offered the sacrificial offerings of coconuts, lime and kumkum. Finally she was beautifully adorned with jewellery, colourful sarees, a shining crown, garlands of limes and the most colourful fragrant flowers. At the climax of the ceremony when the 108 names of the Divine Mother were chanted, Mohanji was invited into the sanctum sanctorum to offer petals to Her together with the Swamis.
After the puja had concluded and all devotees had taken Arathi, Swami Brahmananda, the head of the ashram invited us into his private quarters to share a delicious meal that he himself had prepared. All the monks and sisters gathered together and we shared this meal in the room where Guru Subramaniam (who left his body in 2007) used to stay. We then had an insightful satsang with the monks and sisters where they got the opportunity to ask Mohanji many questions which were answered with clarity and purpose.
The following day was the biggest day of the year for Skanda Vale, the climax of the Subramanium festival. The Subramanium festival starts off with the separation of Subramanium from his wives, Valli and Devani. The 12 days in between are a period of intense pujas, prayers and sadhana. The culmination of the festival is the reunion of Lord Subramanium with Valli and Devani. The final ceremony was held in a large outside space called the yagayashala and Mohanji was invited to sit with the monks at the front of the congregation. During the ceremony the ladies went off in a procession to collect Devani and Valli from the Subramanium temple. After their arrival, the men then went to collect Lord Subramanium in a procession. Mohanji was given the honour of carrying Lord Subramanium on the final leg from the temple to the yagyashala to reunite the lord with his wives, the union of Shiva with Shakti. Mohanji had a nagging gout issue and he could hardly walk. But at no point in time anybody felt any discomfort from him. He was as normal. Obviously he could have been in expanded consciousness. He carried the idol Lord Subramaniya barefooted and also in the cold atmosphere of Skande Vale despite his swollen feet. Just a short while ago he was on a wheel chair and later on crutches. But ever since he came to Skande Vale he methodically participated in every function that the monks invited him for. This ceremony was a heavenly experience with grace and blessings flowing abundantly on all the pilgrims. The swamis told us later that this was the best festival yet. Despite the rain, this was a festival with a difference, a festival imbued with a unique and special vibration!
Swami Brahmananda gave a beautiful talk on the significance of the festival. He started the discourse by welcoming Mohanji saying:
‘Today is a particularly auspicious day… particularly special because we have a very revered guest with us. Mohanji has come to join us, to celebrate this festival. The first time I met him yesterday it was like meeting an old friend.
All of us in the community had the grace to spend many years with Guru Sri Subramanium, so we are able to discriminate what the word Guru really means. Nowadays it’s used very loosely, and misused very often. But I’m very privileged to know that Mohanji is a real Guru. And real gurus are a rare commodity. So we’re very blessed that the Lord has instructed him to come here, and he has brought a grace with him. I am very proud, and very happy that he’s able to come here and spend time with us in Skanda Vale.’
Mohanji attended all the pujas and services at all the temples including a very moving Christian prayer service. The Swami conducting the service commented that it was one of the most powerful services that he has ever had the experience of conducting during his stay in Skanda Vale (over 25 years).
During those blissful days the Swamis took Mohanji on a tour of Skanda Vale. We met the resident elephant Valli and fed her lots of fruit and bananas. She gave shaktipath to all of us by placing the tip of her trunk on our foreheads!
We saw birds, deer, cattle, peacocks, geese, dogs, donkeys, horses, all of who have taken shelter in Skanda Vale and are lovingly looked after by the monks and sisters.
The next day we attended the prayers in the Sri Ranganatha temple which is an open air temple of Vishnu lying on the serpent Vasuki surrounded by Lord Hanuman, Lord Brahma and Mother Lakshmi. Mohanji participated in the Poojas also at the reclining Lord Vishnu idol flanked by Lord Hanuman and Goddess Lakshmi despite the cold morning hours as well as the swollen feet. Swamiji himself held his hand and escorted him to the idol situated in the middle of a pool. Mohanji noted that Garuda (Lord Vishnu’s vehicle) should be there also and immediately made arrangements for an idol as per the approved standards of idols based on scriptures. (The idol of Garuda is getting ready and should be in Skande Vale by February 23rd, the 51st birthday of Mohanji). The temple is completely exposed to the elements and the deities are located in the middle of a small pond. The Swami’s have to walk across a plank to get to the deities for conducting the pujas. Mohanji was also invited to offer flowers at the culmination of the prayer. I was a little concerned as Mohanji was limping and had to walk on the plank. However Mohanji made it there and back with no trouble despite the pain in the leg and discomfort.
The Swamis showed Mohanji all the building work being done in Skanda Vale. A major project that Skanda Vale have embarked upon is the creation of a hospice to care for the terminally ill. The hospice is located about 20 miles away from the ashram in the small village of Saron. Mohanji was invited to visit the hospice and see the construction work going on there in Swami Brahmananda’s new pickup. The previous pickup had to be replaced due to an accident. Swami was keen that the car should be blessed by carrying Mohanji as the first passenger!
The unique open air environment, the peaceful location in woodland, the wonderful pujas and the welcome given by the swamis made the trip to Skanda Vale an unforgettable experience. We had many impromptu satsangs with the monks, sisters and visitors to Skanda Vale who all had a perfect opportunity to ask Mohanji questions on a range of spiritual topics. We spent three blissful days in Skanda Vale and left with some very special memories.