August 2, 2015
Two years ago, a few students, teachers, and parents attended the International Youth Conference organized by the RKM Vadodara and went on a pilgrimage to the places in Gujarat that were visited by Swami Vivekananda. It was then that a thought crossed our minds about the possibility of organizing a pilgrimage to Belur Math and to the places associated with Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother, and Swamiji.
In December of 2014, Uncle, Nalin Uncle, Anandhi Aunty, Mihir Uncle, Shilpa Aunty and Nisha Parikh began exploring this possibility. The initial discussions and research for the Belur Math Pilgrimage had begun and they were in full swing by the time Youth Day celebrations came to an end in January. The organizers met every Sunday to discuss the itinerary along with the hotel and transportation arrangements. There was also a constant flow of emails and phone calls to the different parties in India to coordinate the trip. Yet, during all of this planning, many questions arose – Would people want to travel to India during the hot monsoon season? Would they be comfortable knowing the challenges we may face while traveling at this time? Would students sign up? Much to people’s surprise, these fears were quickly dispelled. As word of the pilgrimage spread, devotees and their families eagerly signed up. The list of pilgrims grew to 91 people:
1 Uncle, 2 Rasendra Adhvaryu, 3 Jyoti Champanerkar, 4 Kabir Champanerkar, 5 Kartik Champanerkar, 6 Priya Dhar, 7 Sunil Dhar, 8 Sunita Dhar, 9 Naiya Gosai, 10 Chandrashekhar Jani, 11 Harsha Jani, 12 Nalin Johri, 13 Anandi Johri, 14 Arundhati Johri, 15 Krishnan Raghavan, 16 Lalitha Raghavan, 17 Rajan Krishnamurthy, 18 Usha Krishnamurthy, 19 Hina Mehta, 20 Sonali Mehta, 21 Arvind Mistry, 22 Rashmita Mistry, 23 Sridhar Nambi, 24 Sumathi Nambi, 25 Veda Nambi, 26 Veena Nambi, 27 Gopesh Pandya, 28 Anupa Pandya, 29 Stotra Pandya, 30 Shashin Parikh, 31 Nayana Parikh, 32 Nisha Parikh, 33 Ronak Parikh, 34 Vrunjal Parikh, 35 Trupti Parikh, 36 Priya Parikh, 37 Bindi Parikh, 38 Fenil Patel, 39 Linsy Patel, 40 Dhir Patel, 41 Keya Patel, 42 Manoj Patel, 43 Khushbu Patel, 44 Khush Patel, 45 Vironika Patel, 46 Ekalavya Patel, 47 Laxmi Pichappan, 48 Kanna Pichappan, 49 Siva Pichappan, 50 Lakshmi Pusuloori, 51 Shailee Pusuloori, 52 Brinda Pusuloori, 53 Sudhir Railkar, 54 Aruna Railkar, 55 Kanchan Railkar, 56 Jyoti Rajani, 57 Meera Rajani, 58 Kirit Rokad, 59 Hina Rokad, 60 Deba Saha, 61 Amita Saha, 62 Debamita Saha, 63 Ghanshyam Senjalia, 64 Varsha Senjalia, 65 Abhishek Senjalia, 66 Avni Senjalia, 67 Apurva Shah, 68 Jyoti Shah, 69 Chintal Shah, 70 Mihir Shah, 71 Shilpa Shah, 72 Nilesh Shukla, 73 Apexa Shukla, 74 Radhika Shukla, 75 Raghav Shukla, 76 Rajan Shukla, 77 Advait Suvarnakar, 78 Aastha Suvarnakar, 79 Aashka Suvarnakar, 80 Latha Tatapudy, 81 Bhavin Trivedi, 82 Kanan Trivedi, 83 Ishani Trivedi, 84 Priya Trivedi, 85 Jaymeen Trivedi, 86 Nixita Trivedi, 87 Neer Trivedi, 88 Anish Trivedi, 89 Kunal Trivedi, 90 Kiran Yagnamurthy, 91 Divya Yagnamurthy
Two meetings with all pilgrims were held at Vidyapith to discuss logistics and further preparations. Spring passed, summer began, and the excitement continued to build. Everyone started to purchase their airline tickets and finalize travel preparations.
Before we knew it, the much-awaited day arrived. On August 2nd, families began arriving in Kolkata from the United States and from different cities in India. Families arriving at the airport were received by Club 7 personnel holding signs that read “Vivekananda Vidyapith.” Throughout the day, Club 7 vehicles shuffled back and forth between the airport and hotel to pick up more pilgrims. As each of us approached the Hyatt Regency, we were amazed by the grand sight and its beautiful property. When we stepped out of our taxis, we saw many familiar faces and could not hold our joy in seeing one another!
Those of us who arrived early started the day with a delicious breakfast, which included a variety of dishes from upma, dosa, and pongul to waffles and croissants. For the rest of the day, many of us relaxed at the hotel in attempts to overcome jetlag, while others explored the city. Some families went shopping at the nearby mall and sari markets, while others ventured out for some fresh coconut water and fruits. All throughout, we would run into our fellow Vidyapithers both at the hotel and in the city. We were so far from Wayne, but we still felt the warmth of our Vidyapith family in Kolkata.
At 7 PM, we gathered in the “Topaz and Sapphire” banquet hall for our Welcome Meeting. The space had been specially reserved for our group. The room was buzzing with excitement. Uncle spoke at the podium and welcomed everyone.
Uncle began by reading an email he had received from Swami Sarvadevananda, the Spiritual Head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, LA, who had graciously sent his humble prayers and blessings for our trip:
“… I was overwhelmed to note that you have organized a pilgrimage trip for 90 Vidyapith associates and shall visit Belur Math, Jayrambati, Kamarpukur and other places connected with Thakur, Ma and Swamiji. It is probably for the first time that such a big number of devotees will be going in a group, from the West, for pilgrimage. May Mother keep everyone in good health and joy–is my prayer…”
Uncle then moved onto a topic that was on all of our minds. As he had warned earlier in the year, the weather can be quite unpredictable in Kolkata, especially during the monsoon season. In fact, in the days prior to our arrival, a cyclone passed through the region. Many areas were hit with heavy rains and flooding. Many of us had seen a few flooded streets on our way to the hotel. Naturally, some of us were nervous and we were all praying for better weather for the week ahead. Uncle said that we have to surrender to God’s wish and do what we have to do. He also shared with us Aunty’s thought on this. She said to think of Sri Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, and Swamiji. They had lived in this weather but nevertheless kept their minds on God. We would perhaps experience firsthand what they had faced. What a great thought! In the same way they didn’t let the spontaneous showers trouble them, we all resolved to keep a positive attitude and were ready to face the rain armed with our ponchos and umbrellas! The rains would not stop our Vidyapith pilgrims from making the most out of their trip!
Uncle moved on to introduce the staff of Club 7, the travel agency that has been assisting us with our tour, and asked the CEO, Aparna Didi, to address the group.
Aparna Didi heartedly welcomed the pilgrims and assured us that Club 7 would do everything to make our pilgrimage a memorable experience. She surprised us with a wonderful booklet they had made which outlined our itinerary and included important contact information.
Club 7 gave each one of us a gift bag that consisted of umbrellas and cross-bags. To top it all off, we were given a large bag full of snacks for the week.
Following this, Uncle explained that in order to make our transportation orderly, seven groups were formed. He announced the names of the group leaders, their responsibilities, and the members of the group. The group leaders were Krishnan Uncle & Lalitha Aunty, Rasendra Uncle & Ronak, Nalin Uncle & Anandhi Aunty, Sudhir Uncle and Aruna Aunty, Rajan Uncle & Usha Aunty, and Ghanshyam Uncle & Varsha Aunty.
Next, Uncle introduced the medical team of doctors: Dr. Anandhi Johri, Dr. Sridhar Nambi, Dr. Apexa Shukla, Dr. Nilesh Shukla. On behalf of the medical team, Dr. Nambi Uncle reviewed guidelines for our health and well being on the trip. We were so lucky to have four doctors on our trip!
Already carrying their large professional cameras around their necks, our enthusiastic photography volunteers, Mihir Uncle, Nalin Uncle, and Rasendra Uncle, waived to everyone. They were going to help us capture candid moments and record most of our trip.
Uncle then went over the agenda for the next day. We were going to visit Belur Math, the RKM Institute of Culture at Golpark, and Yogodhyan. We planned to wear our Vidyapith uniform so that we could take a group picture.
Soon it was time for dinner! There were so many different items. After dinner, all gathered according to their groups and exchanged contact information. We shared our thoughts about the places we were going to visit and reflected on what we were going to see the next day. We were also handed booklets about the Belur Math Pilgrimage Trip. A team of teachers (Nalin Uncle, Anandhi Aunty, Deba Uncle, Rasendra Uncle, Sunil Uncle, Sunita Aunty, Krishnan Uncle, and Lalitha Aunty) prepared researched summaries on each of the places of pilgrimage. Nalin Uncle compiled and organized the information by the day of visit. Nalin Uncle, Anandhi Aunty, and Arundhati printed and bound copies for each family on the trip!
Uncle also showed the Bhajan-Dhoon-Hymns booklet prepared by Trupti Aunty, Jyoti Shah Aunty, Priya Parikh, Bindi Parikh and Chintal Shah. These booklets would help us with our morning and evening prayers and when we sing during our travel in buses.
At the end of the meeting, Uncle let us know that we were asked to sing a couple of dhoon-bhajans at the Belur Math Cultural Hall. Deba Uncle brought out his harmonium and tabla, and some of our Vidyapith students and alumni practiced the Shanti Mantras and a few bhajans.
Energized about the week ahead, we headed to our rooms for full night of rest. We were going to have an early start the next day as breakfast would begin at 5:45 AM and our buses would leave at 6:45 AM.
(The original report was prepared by alumnus Vrunjal Parikh.)