Amazing Amsterdam

12th September 1896.

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 10.49.26 pmSwami Vivekananda arrived at the Amsterdam Central Station with Dr Paul Deussen, a renowned German philosopher of those days, and the English couple, Captain and Mrs Sevier. The group booked two rooms at the Victoria Hotel This was where they stayed for the next three days. Swami Vivekananda visited several museums. Of them, the Rijksmuseum was one… Swamiji also visited the Tower of Tears (Schreierstoren) and the Royal Palace… Swamiji enjoyed seeing the canals in the city. The party left Amsterdam and Holland on 16th September for England. 

Courtesy :

Cycles, cycles, cycles galore


Swami Vimokshananda at the New Year deco in Schiphol airport

That was the evening of Sunday 31 December 2014. My Emirates flight A380 landed  at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The Christmas and New Year deco lights were bright and  twinkled like stars. As I stepped into the arrival hall I could immediately feel the festive mood, but there was a sense of quietness at the airport. It seemed that the  travellers were less. Perhaps celebrating the New Year’s eve with family and friends?

The airport shuttle bus took us through the town. The narrow, cobblestone streets somewhat reminded me of the old Howrah city of Kolkata. Hundreds of whirring bicycles almost flew past us. I saw a massive parking garage. To my astonishment it housed thousands of bicycles not cars!  The streets were lined with gabled houses, colourful markets occupying the fronts. A wonderful sight for tired eyes!

Support from a stranger!

The weather was extreme chilly. We had to adorn thick warm clothes. I thanked mentally the devotee-couple from Durban who equipped me with the right winter garments!  We travelled to the ashram by tram. We were sure that we were in the correct vicinity of the ashram. We however got off on the wrong platform! It was a desolate road in Amstelveen.

The address slip was in my hand. But whom to enquire? The road was empty. While standing for some time we saw a small car going past us and we all gestured the car to stop. To our surprise the driver offered to help us by asking us to ‘jump’ into the car. Happily we all squeezed into the small car and started searching for the ashram. All attempts to locate the ashram failed! The driver was almost tired and was about to give up; he saw one old man with his pet dog, walking on the pavement. On enquiry, lo! he could exactly specify where the house was. 

IMG_8263What a relief when we arrived at the right spot! Glad to see the monogram of the Ramakrishna Mission. To show our deep appreciation, we offered the driver a few Euros, to which he very politely refused and said in a friendly tone, nodding his head, “will not someone help me in case this happens to me somewhere? ” I was nonplussed and said “God bless!” We were standing on the road till that small car disappeared from our vision! Humane feeling lives. What more do we expect in a strange land from a stranger who understood the unspoken law of karma? Did not Holy Mother remind us that no one is ‘stranger’ in this world?

Munching the marshmallows

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My brother monk Swami Sunirmalanandaji is the Minister-incharge of this centre. He welcomed us cordially. The Amsterdam ashram is a three storey building. It looks like any other house in that locality. The shrine is on the ground floor. While kitchen is on the second, the monks’ quarters is on the 3rd with an office in the mezzanine floor. That was the 1st January, the most welcomed New Year Day. That was again the auspicious Kalpataru Day. The Swami in the morning had done worship with flower offerings. Bhajans and reading from the Gospel were over. We relished a sumptuous and most delicious lunch prasad prepared by himself. He didn’t forget to include the tasty Amsterdam marshmallow sweets.

Museum musings

The Swami prepared an itinerary for sightseeing. Our first tour was the well-kept Rijksmuseum which is a work of art in itself. Swami Vivekananda visited this museum in September 1896. The museum houses ancient artefacts of Nederlands and the world. I enjoyed viewing the part where Asian images are displayed. Especially of Hinduism and Buddhism. The image of Lord Shiva in the dancing pose of Nataraja was really captivating. Who could believe that we managed to get a few pictures thereof?

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Miniature marvels

Madurodam is another marvellous place that held our attention. Visit to this place is a must if one is interested in miniature objects.  I read one review about this : The models are beautifully constructed and very accurate, and the grounds are landscaped with lawns and gardens and hundreds of bonsai trees, many of them 6o years old but only 1/2 metre high! The models are exact replicas of real buildings in Holland. if you are having a trip to the Netherlands it is really worth checking out some of the interesting buildings you might see by going to see them in Madurodam first! Utrecht cathedral, the canals of Amsterdam,many historic houses, the Dutch houses of Parliament, palaces, castles… all accurately reproduced in landscapes. But also windmills, flower markets, industrial buildings, concert hall, all kinds of engineering projects, and some beautiful up to date trains, it has a massive train and transportation system. Many of the models move. You can even get the chocolate factory delivery truck to deliver you a sweet!

In the shivering cold I enjoyed seeing these miniature marvels.

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Viva Victoria!

Next day the Swami joined us for the breakfast at the hotel. He took us on a cruise through the Unesco World Heritage sights. We saw the oldest building which is a church. We passed by the famous  Anne Franks House.  We also saw the Royal Palace of King Willem and his family, the city centre of 17th century canal houses etc.. And it was charming to see many more ancient buildings in the evening. Among them to our great delight we reached a spot that is nothing less than a place of pilgrimage.


That was Victoria Hotel. Herein Swami Vivekananda stayed for three days in 1896. Standing at the Reception of the hotel I had a feeling of blessedness. Never did it occur to me that one day I would have the golden opportunity to visit the faraway land – the very place that Swamiji blessed! All by His grace!

Sunirmalanandaji handed over as our padkos some delicious sandwiches and aromatic coffee in a huge flask.  We thanked the Swami profusely. As the Swami bid farewell to us, we both uttering  “Durga Durga”, the train began to move on.


I settled on my comfortable seat. The soothing subdued sound of wheels clacking down acted as a musical lullaby. My mind went on floating to those olden days – who were those blessed people who saw Swamiji and his group of devotees off ?

|| Aum Shri Raamakrishnaarpanamastu ||

Can Farewell be joyful ?

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We have heard about many a tearful farewell.
Joyful farewell?
No. But it was so when people of different strata of society came in large numbers to many places to bid me farewell on the eve of my departure from South Africa.
Though the oft-repeated customary expression “miss you” – told or untold – was writ large on every face, yet what a joyful feeling that it unmistakably transmitted to me cannot be described. The reason was pure love. Where love is present joy must be there.
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Here are a few impressions:
Why sceptic about Farewell?
In any organisation, we find it common nowadays, that an office holder when transferred to another place is given a farewell. I was always sceptic about these farewell functions. So it was natural for me to simply decline any such farewell meeting that people of diverse temperaments offered just before my departure from South Africa. The reason was that those who hold onto microphone and so speak may not be truthful enough and speak a flowery language of praise while harbouring internally inimical thoughts. Whereas the silent majority who may have true feelings of friendliness may not get the chance to voice their feelings!
However I understood within a short time that such deeply devoted people cannot be put off so easily. They invited me on the pretext of a satsang which I am known to be fond of and organised incredible functions without even mentioning the term Farewell !
Mixed feelings
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Swami Vimokshananda received by Swami Saradaprabhananda at Phoenix sub-centre

When I first broke this news of my transfer to our monastic brother Swami Saradaprabhananda sometime in August 2014, I found him seated nonplussed. Slowly managing himself he uttered “I am full of mixed feelings”. He continued, “sad because I shall miss you; glad because Belur Math has decided. It’s Master’s wish. May it be so!”
I was the very first President after the Centre’s affiliation to Belur Math. And it was for me the very first posting in abroad. I came to this country absolutely not familiar with its culture, its people and their mental temperaments while not disconnected from my grooming for 35 long years in “India-Indian” manners.
In spite of my handicaps – real or perceived – brother Saradaprabhananda patiently guided me with utmost reverence on many an issue. I understood his loveable personality shielded completely from the purview of outside world. Only we both knew!
Love that knew no words
The first Satsang and what was innocuously called my last Gospel class, was organised by Pietermaritzburg Sub-centre. Once the Gospel class was over, I came out as usual from the shrine hall. By that time to my great surprise, all those devotees who attended just disappeared. While I was wondering what was happening, the Chairman and other officials led me slowly to upstairs.

Spontaneous Joyous dancing and singing the name of Sri Ramakrishna by the PMB devotees

There, in the hall, all the devotees and friends and admirers stood up in unison and welcomed me with the spiritual greetings Aum Namo Narayanaya ! Surprise after surprise! The hall was tastefully decorated. Round dining tables with chairs covered in bright white colour were occupied by the people. And lo! devotees unmindful of their age started dancing in joy around me. It was a pure, unsullied joy that I saw in every face. No lectures. No words. No tears. It was all one feeling of Love that touched my heart with joy and would remain so for ever.
The second such satsang was organised by Estcourt Satsang Group. The one distinct aspect of Estcourt satsangs that I noticed whenever I was there, was always the participation of all the sects of Hindu community. Hence it was not surprising to see everyone in their best from different faiths in Swami Sahajananda Cultural hall.
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Swami Vimokshananda reverentially accepting the blessings of children dressed up as Deities of Maha Gayatri Temple in Estcourt

The very entrance into that famous hall was heralded with girls standing in rows with diyas in their tiny hands. The Chairman with other officials and distinguished people from the Estcourt society led me in. I was glad to see Anil Bridgelal on the huge stage. He enthralled the audience by rendering soulfully five bhajans (devotional songs). The most surprising event was just to follow after my lecture. The cute children dressed up as the deities that are worshipped in the Maha Gayatri temple began to arrive one by one to the continuous applause of the audience and blessed me. I stood up reverentially to each one starting from Lord Ganesha and finally to Swami Vivekananda. 

Straight from the hearts
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Chatsworth children enjoying the fire-crackers and lighters

Another Satsang that stunned me was the farewell function organised by the devotees attached to Chatsworth Sub-centre. The entire program was almost one-to-one in the sense that each and every individual who attended there could come near me and talk to me. Each had the occasion to express himself/herself in no uncertain terms which flowed straight from the hearts. The event ended with of course dance recital from the vibrant youth and the bursting of fire-crackers!
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Gorgeously arranged function at Sree Veerabhoga Emperumal Temple in Tongaat

Other organisations too were not exempt from this farewell fever! Notable one was Sree Veerabhoga Emperumal temple in Tongaat that organised a function that struck me as most gorgeous. The devotees of the temple who were enthusiastic about my monthly Tirukkural Class were in the forefront. I couldn’t imagine that I deserved such a grand function. Take the case of reception, or the decoration or the dining or the crowd whatever one can imagine everything was organised so meticulously that it left me speechless.
A solemn meeting was arranged by the local Divine Life Society members who took me round the entire campus and I felt blessed seeing the holy Ganga teerth pond. It was an inspiring moment to think of the long journey that the Holy One Swami Sivananda made from Tamrabarani to Ganga.
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At the Divine Life Society I was presented with useful bags by the Rishi Kumars and Rishi Kumaris

Too Numerous to list
I have too numerous to list. But I have spoken here only about a handful few. The other Sub-centres like Phoenix, Ladysmith, Newcastle and also Dundee-Glencoe devotees with their own unique ways made an indelible mark in my heart. Outside KawZulu Natal, devotees from places like Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, Clarens, Stanger etc., did not lag behind. Not to mention the Sri Sarada Devi Ashram that welcomed me for a special occasion of Holy Mother’s birthday when Mataji and her devotees fed me sumptuously as a mother would do for her son! 
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The much familiar Shiva shrine place in Sri Sarada Devi Ashram at Asherville where after a sumptuous lunch prasad the close devotees would sit with me and have spiritual discussions for another two hours…

Besides these, I was invited to Home Satsangs by many, many devotees. The Chennai Ramakrishna Math has taken up a project recently to introduce the concept of Home Satsangs which I am proud to feel that the SA Centre has been doing for many years! These Home Satsangs cannot, – as a few misinformed are wont to do – be looked down upon condescendingly at any cost. I always have the presence of a group of devotees who sing and read from the Gospel followed by question-answer discussion. Spending two hours or so in such absorbing satsangs as everyone who has attended could vouchsafe, was indeed elevating. The residents of such homes felt blessed.
One such home was of a student of my Tirukkural class in Tongaat. A few Tamil speaking people came together to learn the meanings and explanations of the Tirukkural verses. It was enjoyable for me to take a class in English on a Tamil classic with overtones of Vedanta as I found during my study that there exists lots of similarities with Vedantic ideas. I met this group also before my departure.
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Ardent students of my Tirukkural class in Tongaat

I must confess that many and many more devotees who couldn’t meet me personally sent written encomiums that I went through when a flood of emails arrived. Here too the expression of pure, unalloyed love was quite evident though inextricably laced with the ubiquitous “miss you”. 
My heart is full with gratefulness to everyone in South Africa; I am still trying to find suitable words to express! I realise I woefully lack in vocabulary!
Did I ? 
In all these farewell fanfare – whether glaringly glittering or solemnly subdued – what did I see?
I did see the external paraphernalia in its best.
I did see the congregation converge with one purpose.
I did see the grace of our Holy Trio flowing through the wishes of devotees.
But more than these I did see and was moved by the genuine love of the people who without any inhibition acknowledged that in some way or other I really “touched” their lives.
“Did I ?”
“Did I ?” was the question that lingered on when I was seated on the plane that left Durban while my mind was savouring the cheerful chant of “Durga, Durga!” that reverberated all along till I fell asleep!

 May Sri Durga be with all of us !

|| Aum Shri Raamakrishnaarpanamastu ||