Almora: Swami's heavenly abode
Attracting many tourists to its mountain calm, Almora shares a historic association with Swami Vivekananda – the monk who often visited this quaint hill town for spiritual rejuvenation
Thousands visit the hills of Almora every year, drawn magnetically to its scenic beauty. At a time when the contributions of Swami Vivekananda have received global commendation, with more enthusiasts flocking to his philosophy, it is not irrelevant to unearth the long association Swamiji shared with Almora. Some everyday objects used by him have been preserved in two houses here, and witnessing them evokes deep satisfaction. Swamiji had stayed in Almora across three phases between 1890 and 1898. A wandering monk, he came here for the first time as a young man of 30 when he reached Almora on August 30, 1890. Attired in an ordinary saffron garment, Swamiji's burning eyes and magnetic persona attracted people wherever he went. To quote Romain Rolland, "Among its flotsam and jetsam, he was nothing but a nameless sannyasin with a saffron robe among a thousand others. But the fires of genius burned in his eyes. He was a prince despite all disguise."
The young wandering monk attracted Lala Badri Shah, a local businessman who became his friend. Shah offered him a place at his residence. Shah was charmed by Swamiji's personality and would chat with him every day on a range of themes panning British rule and its ill effects, the education of the masses, and more. Vivekananda's favourite theme of discussion was always the education of masses. The discussions dragged for hours together. Swamiji stayed in Almora for a few days and left for his destination. Lala Badri Shah bade him farewell with a heavy heart.
Visiting Oakley House, now known as Nivedita House, is a strange experience. In 1898, Swamiji's western disciples had stayed in this house and Swamiji, who used to stay in the nearby residence of Lala Badri Shah, would visit every morning. He had breakfast with his disciples and friends, and Swamiji's favourite easy chair still stands here, though its cloth has been replaced. On the wall hangs a rare photograph of the saint. One finds his slippers and other mundane goods preserved carefully. The room is an abode of peace; on entering, the mind travels back to 1898 when Swamiji would sit on the easy chair and smoke his hukka. One finds the ornamental hukka pipe along with a flower vase brought by Sister Nivedita.
Swamiji used to stay on the top floor of the residence of Badri Shah. His cot has been kept along with a walking stick and some other goods. A photocopy of the letter written by Swamiji to Shah requesting him to find a place to set up an ashram has also been carefully kept. Almora had assisted Swamiji in regaining his health. In 1898, he would also often engage in horse riding, which he enjoyed.
After his triumphant success in the West, Vivekananda came back to India in January 1897. He founded the Ramakrishna Mission on May 1, 1897, with the motto 'Service to Man is Service to God'. Soon after, Swami Akhandananda, one of Swamiji's brother monks, set up an orphanage in Murshidabad.
On May 11, 1897, Vivekananda left for Almora. A large number of admirers including JJ Goodwin, Swamiji's friend and typist, came to receive him. Shortly before the party reached Almora, Swamiji had to mount a horse following people's demand.
The hill town was decorated with placards, festoons and banners as music played and the crowd cheered on. Pandit Jwala Dutta Joshi first read the reception committee's address of welcome in Hindi. This was followed by an address in Sanskrit. Swamiji's reply was brief. He was taken to the house of Lala Badri Shah situated in the heart of the city.
Hundreds of people came to see and listen to him every day. Swamiji discoursed on philosophy and religion as his health too gradually improved. Among the visitors were educated Indians and Europeans who requested Swamiji to formally address them. Finally, two lectures were arranged. One was for the general public and the other for members of the European Club. Swamiji addressed the public lecture in Hindi on July 27, and the topic was 'Vedic teaching in theory and practice'. On July 28, he delivered a lecture at the English Club. The members of the European community were present and the speech was deeply appreciated. It was from Almora that Swamiji wrote a letter to Margaret Elizabeth Noble on July 22, 1897, requesting her to come to India. "Let me tell you frankly that I am now convinced that you have a great future in the work for India. What was wanted was not a man, but a woman, a real lioness, to work for the Indians, women especially. India cannot yet produce great women, she must borrow from other nations. Your education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination and above all, the Celtic blood make you just the woman wanted." Noble responded and came to India in 1898.
Swamiji again visited Almora in the summer of 1898. He was accompanied by his western admirers, including Ole Sara Bull, Josephine MacLeod, Sister Nivedita and Mrs Patternson, wife of the American Consul General who stayed at Oakley House.
Swamiji would talk on Indian history and culture. At Oakley House, he blessed Nivedita under a tree as she had complained that she could not properly meditate due to distractions. With Swamiji's blessings, her concentration power increased. The stay in Almora became a pleasant experience for the western disciples as Swamiji trained them and helped them understand Indian society to intensify their love for India.
In Almora, Swamiji got two pieces of death news. His friend and typist JJ Goodwin had breathed his last in Ootacamund. The telegram reached Almora on June 3 but Josephine MacLeod broke the death news to Swamiji on June 6. Shocked and shattered, Swamiji wrote a little poem, Requiescat in Peace, and also penned a letter to Goodwin's mother. "The debt of gratitude I owe him can never be repaid," Swamiji wrote adding "In him I have lost a friend true as steel, a disciple of never failing devotion, a worker who knew not what tiring was, and the world is less rich by one of those few are born, as it were, to live only for others." The second death news was that of Pavhari Baba for whom Swamiji had profound respect.
Today, Almora has changed. It is a busy hill station with a lingering aura of silence. Taking a break from the hustle of day-to-day life, any visit to the Himalayas infuses a spirit of silence in the mind that is otherwise clouded by cacophony. This silence enriches us in realising the futility of our burdens.
Come to Almora and visit the houses where Swamiji lived to enjoy uninterrupted peace and gather new vigour to craft a more meaningful life.