June 29, 2010

Sharon Muench's Arunachala Memories

“I first came to Ramanashram in December 1973. In essence little has changed since then. On the surface, much has changed for better and for worse! The Hill, back then, was bare with no trees. It was covered, for most of the year, in feathery green lemon grass, as tall as a small child. Women and children would swarm over the lower hills, cut down the grass, bring it down in bundles on their heads, bigger than themselves. Even the smallest child who could walk carried a bundle. After the harvest they set fire to the Hill. It burned for a while, then turned black till the new grass grew. Now the Hill is tree-covered, delightfully green.

The Ashram has expanded. The dining-room has been extended, the office relocated to the forecourt. More traffic. More noise. More people. That winter season, there was only a handful of foreign visitors staying at the Ashram. They had all been coming for years, knew each other well. Ramana Maharshi back then, was the world’s best kept spiritual secret. Everyone stayed for months at the Ashram, but I was given only a few days. I was devastated. I’d come all the way from Guyana, South America, overland; this was my home, and I planned to stay forever. I couldn’t believe they’d throw me out that quickly; for what? Bhagavan was my Guru!

One of the Westerners stood out from all the others. He was tall, well-built, in his forties and carried himself with easy authority, and radiated a natural joy. I was shy and insecure; to me, he seemed a spiritual giant. I heard he was known as Doctor Hugo, and had lived many years at the Ashram. One morning, sitting on a large stone half-way up to Skandashram, I saw Hugo and four or five other foreign devotees walking slowly up towards me. Hugo was talking to Phillip, an Englishman with whom I’d spoken a few times. I had the uncanny feeling they were speaking of me. Indeed – when he reached me, Hugo stopped. “I hear you’re looking for a place to stay,” he said, “try so-and-so.” He mentioned a name and went on his way.

Sharon Muench at
Ramana Ashram, June 2010

A few days later I moved into Brunton’s Cottage in Palakottu. Back then there were three simple huts in Palakottu, grouped around the water tank. There was direct access to the Ashram through the back wall. None of the huts had plumbing. And we fetched water from the street taps and walked out to the Hill for our toilet.

Soon after that I joined this little group. Every morning we trooped up to Skandashram, sat beneath the Mango Tree at the top, and Hugo would talk. He was a brilliant speaker. Every word came from his heart. He spoke of the Path and the urgency of it. The pitfalls of meditation, the tricks of the ego, the beauty of God, and His Grace. He told stories. Hugo had been the personal doctor of Papa Ramdas for many years, and had many an anecdote. Often he laughed, a deep, rolling, infectious laugh that had us all laughing too. But most of all he infected us all with his deep, abiding devotion to Bhagavan.

In April 1975 I left India for Germany. I settled here, and embarked on a life in the West with all the ups and downs. That year, Hugo, with an Indian friend, bought a large plot of land on the giripradakshina roadway. It was scrubland, bare, uninviting, filled with stones and thorny bushes. A few years later it would be a paradise. They built two simple huts on it, and moved in. That was the start of what was to become The Shantimalai Trust, the most comprehensive charitable trust in the District.

It began with the early morning queues. Long before dawn they would form. By 6 a.m. there would be snakes of poor Indians squatting on the road outside, waiting for medical treatment. Hugo and his friend Kurt had been Homeopathetic Practitioners in Germany, and it was their seva now to treat the Indians. From those beginnings, big things grew: A full-blown Medical Centre offering free treatment. An English medium school offering a first-class primary and secondary education An orphanage. A child sponsorship programme. A farm. Cows were donated, sewing machines were donated, wells were dug. Women were trained in handicrafts. Young men found industrial training and jobs. Villages were restored.

Friends of Hugo, Westerners, donated whatever they could, money and time and expertise. They came in the winter, joined this project or that, helped in whichever way they could. Those were glorious days indeed. In recent years Shantimalai has scaled back its activities, passed on its projects to other sponsors.

Some of us have moved on; our lives have taken new turns. In my case, it’s been a bumpy road, with ups and downs. I’ve written novels, seen them published through Harper Collins. In recent years, my husband has become crippled by disease. As parkinsonism takes its toll, I look to the future. He now needs 24/7 care, and we’ve reached the point where it is physically impossible for me to continue. The idea of putting him in a home is unbearable, he is only 66 years old! – and more and more my thoughts turn to Arunachala.

Why not create my own facility? Not only for him but for others – Indian and Western devotees alike. A retirement home consisting of 8-10 double cottages set in a beautiful garden with day and night Indian carers. A haven and a home.”

For more information about this developing project, please contact Sharon at:

[Narrative by Sharon Muench]

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