The sacred religious festival of Nag Panchami, devotedly celebrated by Kashmiri Pandits from hoary past, fell on August 1 this year. I happened to be vacationing in Srinagar when I received a telephonic call from my dear friend Brij Lal Bhat asking me to join him and others on this festival at Shri Ramakrishna Mahasamelan Ashram, Nagdandi, Anantnag. Nag Panchami has been traditionally celebrated by the community members ever since Naga worship became prevalent after the desiccation of Kashmir mandala caused by Varaha, the Unicorn shaped incarnation of Vishnu, who struck his horn at the mountain at a place now called after him Baramulla (Varaha-mulya) making an cleavage from where the water escaped down to join Krishna Ganga at present-day confluence of Domel.
To take the train to Anantnag, I boarded at Nowgam, the railway station for Srinagar. I had great curiosity to take a ride on Kashmir train, and to be honest, I thought I was just dreaming. It took me some time to co-relate railway running in the valley to thousands of years of the history of Kashmir’s inaccessibility. The station was not crowded as I had thought. But I was surprised and happy that passengers stood in a queue with no hassles or elbow pushing to buy the ticket. I got it at my turn. The platform and the rail track both were clean but the common toilet disappointed me. This is a chair car, comfortable with good leg space and under ceiling rack to deposit baggage. A few things were observable. The passengers were mostly rural people who sat in their seats silently without making any noise or loose conversation. No ticket checker appeared till the end of journey. But the floor of the train was dirty and unkempt showing that it lacked cleanliness. Some of the window panes were hanging loosely which showed that caretakers were not efficient enough to get things repaired. The train was miraculously on time for departure as well as arrival. Passengers boarded or disembarked without noise and uneasy haste.
What fascinated me most were the endless lush green fields of paddy and beautiful groves of trees and small stream of water crisscrossing on either side of the train, mile after mile, creating the imagery of paradise on earth. In my mind I compared this vast imagery of Maraz region with comparatively niggardly Kamraz, the region with which I have been associated all my life. South Kashmir is the heart of the valley.
My friend had sent a vehicle to pick me up at Anantnag railway station to Nagdandi Ashram, a distance of about ten kilometers. He was delighted to see me and immediately introduced me to his workers (karyakartas) at the ashram. It was past mid day and most of the pilgrims to Nagdandi Ashram had come the previous evening, joined the night-long prayers and recitation of Vedic hymns, kept night vigil, and left after lunch next day. About 1500 persons from various villages of district Anantnag and from other places had assembled and spent the night in the worship of the deity. Most of them were from among the beneficiaries of PM’s Package.
Soon after my arrival, my host took me on a round of the entire ashram complex and a couple of structures that dotted the complex. This is a very fascinating ashram extended over a hundred kanals of land located in the lap of dense forest of tall pine and fir trees and eye-catching verdure. I guess that here horticulturists will find large variety of shrubs and plants that could carry medicinal component.
77 years ago, in 1937, Swami Ashokananda ji Maharaj, an ardent devotee at Swami Ramakrishna Math, Belur (Kolkata) and a dedicated disciple of venerated Swami Satchidananda, established this ashram for meditation and prayers after the teachings of his guru, and gave it the name of Shri Ramakrishna Mahasamelan Ashram (SRMA) Nagdandi. It is situated at a distance of about 2 kilometers from Achhabal Mughal garden on Anantnag-Chhatragul road. He built a small Ramakrishna temple close to a beautiful spring of fresh water which the ancient Kashmiri Pandits used to visit on Nag Panchami for prayers and offerings. Gradually the site of the ashram expanded when more land was granted by the state and in addition, Swamiji purchased some more land that was contiguous to the ashram premises. The entire premises is now fenced with a stone wall. The local people, too, find it a place of peace and safety. I saw a free medical camp set up on the occasion and a number of local people, men and women, were present waiting for their turn to be attended by the doctors.
Swami ji stayed in the ashram all his life during mild summers and harsh winters when the ashram premises received over seven feet deep snow in winter. He offered prayers at the temple regularly and without a break.
A large number of Pandits of Anantnag district became devotees of Swami Ashokananda Maharaj and their frequent visits to the ashram spread a wave of quest for spiritual awareness among them. The devotees spared their time, money and labour to build the ashram from grass roots and made it a place wherefrom the message of inner peace and tranquility of Shri Ramakrishna would flow all over Kashmir and beyond. A couple of ramshackle huts came up where the pilgrims would overstay a night or two to momentarily escape the chores of material life and taste spiritual bliss from the sermons of the seer.
By the year 1971, when Swami Ashokananda ji Maharaj made his will, as many as 12 structures had come up, which included the temple, single storey shed grainer, kitchen building, a double storey building, shed, cowshed, lavatory and one hut. Thereafter more structures were added, and the current Administrative Committee that is entrusted with the management of the ashram has drawn a plan defining what projects it will be undertaking in small or big way to give improved shape to the ashram and make it more attractive for the pilgrims. Most importantly, it has retrieved the spring that had almost become dysfunctional owing to neglect. The very fact that nearly 1500 pilgrims visited the ashram on this Nag Panchami festival explains that the administrative body has taken great pains to improve the campus and motivate the pilgrims to revive the healthy ancient tradition and ethos.
On October 6, 1970, late Swamiji Ashokananda Maharaj executed a formally registered will saying that since he had come of age, the “management of the Ashram with all the properties moveable and immoveable of Bhagwan Shri Ramakrishna will rest in Shri Ramakrishna Mission Ashram, Belur Math, and Calcutta…” He nominated five persons to execute his will. At the same time, he also put down in the will that “if for any reason Shri Ramakrishna Mission Belur Math expresses its inability to take over the management of this ashram, the executors should approach Shri Eknath ji now the Organizing Secretary of Vivekananda Sheela Smarak for taking the management of this ashram for furtherance of the ideals for which it is founded.”
As it happened, Ramakrishna Mission Ashram, Belur Math excused itself from accepting the management of Shri Ramakrishna Mahasamelan Ashram properties (at Nagdandi and Chunur). As such, the five executors nominated by Swami Ashokananda ji in his will, carried out his instructions and approached the Vivekananda Sheela Smarak through Eknath ji. In this way, both of the two establishments and properties of Shri Ramakrishna Mahasamelan Ashrams passed into the management control of Shri Vivekananda Kanyakumari Kendra in Kanya Kumari in South India. Incidentally, four of the five executors, after they had fulfilled the role assigned to them by Swami Ashokananda Maharaj, departed at their time to their heavenly abode. Henceforth for Ramakrishna Mahasamelan Ashram Nagdandi, a new journey began with its overall management now in the hands of Kanyakumarri Kendra in accordance with the will of Swami Ashokananda ji Maharaj.
This is how a spiritual link between Kashmir and Kanyakumari was forged through the joint auspices of Ramakrishna Mission and Vivekananda Kendra. It was the vision of Shri Ashokananda ji Maharaj that gave the future direction to the ashram by not constituting any committee or creating a trust that would have hampered the development of the ashram and leaving it to the care of Kanyakumari Kendra.