Ayurvedic Studies in Vrindavan India
Part 1

This is the first installment of my trip to India for the month of January 2006, to study Ayurveda with Dr. Liladhar Gupta. This was compiled from emails and photos I took while I was on my trip. Dr. Gupta is a fourth generation Ayurvedic doctor and directs an Ayurvedic clinic (Dhanvantari Dham) in the Vrindavan in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He is on the board of advisors of the California College of Ayurveda where I studied in the United States. Vrindavan is 90 miles south of Delhi and 30 miles north of Agra (site of the Taj Mahal), just off the Delhi-Agra Road. Vrindavan has a small-town type atmosphere with narrow streets and not much motor traffic and about 50,000 people. There are said to be over 5,000 temples in Vrindavan. It is the land of forests where Krishna played as a child. It is surrounded by the sacred Yamuna river on three sides and has ruins of great palaces from the rajas (kings) of the 16th century. As a result of this it is a holy pilgrimage spot for Indians and Westerners alike.

Dec 28, 2005-
My flight from Orange County to Chicago O'Hare was delayed 2.5 hours so I missed the plane that evening to India. Stayed overnight at the Westin at O'Hare and had a whole day to kill before leaving the next night. I took a train to downtown Chicago. It was very cold in the city. I spent the day at the Art Institute of Chicago. I used to go there more than twenty years ago when I work in downtown as a computer operator for Stone container. Seems like another lifetime ago.

I left that evening for the 14 hour flight to Delhi. We flew over Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Moscow, and Afghanistan! Had a bulk head isle seat which was very nice but it came with India women with baby on her lap and 3 year old boy seated next to me. And no father in sight! She needed help, so soon I was getting warm water for the bottle and helping the boy with the entertainment system. Let say, I avoided flight boredom. The in flight seat entertainment system was better than the typical two movies. Yes, I watched two episodes of CSI and enjoyed them.

I had called Dr. Gupta when I knew my plane was delayed and told him to pick me up a day later than originally planned. I arrived in Delhi at 10pm. Luggage came through fine and there was Dr. G on the greeting ramp. These two things were perhaps my greatest concern. No luggage or no Dr. G would not be good. He came with his driver who then drove us to Vrindhavan about 3 hours away. It was 2am local time before I was in my room. Sleep came easy.

MVT Guesthouse


Dec 30-
I'm staying at the "ISKCON MVT & Bhaktivedanta Ashram" also know as the MVT Guesthouse or just MVT. It is where western Krishna devotees stay when they come to town. The main ISKCON temple is adjacent to the MVT property. The MVT compound consists of about 30 rooms in the guesthouse and about 50 apartments for people who what to stay for longer periods of time.

MVT gardens with apartment buildings in background

All the buildings around center around a well manicured garden with a pagoda. This became a real haven for relaxing from the stress of life on the street.

Room at MVT - restroom and kitchen are in the other direction

The room is simple with two twin beds, a desk and two chairs. Bath has shower with a hot water heater you have to turn on 1/2 hour before you want to bath. At US$15 per night it is the best place in town. He arranged to get a stove with LPG gas (bottled), pots and utensils and all the ingredients to make kitcheri (mung bean rice veggie stew) This guy really knows how to please and Ayurvedic student. He also suggested that I drink bottled water for the duration of my stay since my intestinal flora is not accustomed to the flora of India's water.


First day Dr. G suggested that I just rest. A good idea as the 13.5 hour difference was kicking in about lunch time.

MVT restaurant

On the third floor of the hotel is a restaurant that has great vegetarian food. Dr. G has suggested that I take lunch here every day or cook in my room to avoid digestive problems. It is run by a group of russian women who keep it "pucka" (very clean and proper in Hindi). I had the Talai (sampler) plate for lunch. They serve India fare (rice, dhal (beans soup), subji (vegetables), chapatti (flat bread), as well as pseudo western foods such as pizza, veggie burger, spaghetti and a host of desserts. Everything is vegetarian.

Walked the grounds at the hotel three times trying to stay wake but by 4 pm it was like I was pulling an "all-nighter" and it was time to crash. I woke at 3 am with eyes wide. It was now Jan 1. No celebration here last night as their New Year is in March.

Dhanvantari Dham staff
Front left to right :
Mula (garderner), Ayurvedic Dr that runs the free clinic, Vaidya Narottam Lal Gupta (Dr. Gupta's father in purple sweater), Dr Liladhar Gupta (my teacher in jeans)

Back left to right :
Vrindavan (driver), male massage therapist, Lakan (herbal preparation/ male massage therapist), dispensary bookkeeper,
dispensary workers / female massage therapists (2).

Jan 1-
I went to Dhanvantari Dham (Dr. G's clinic) for the first time. The property is quite large and has many buildings on it. The main building is the clinic which has two offices for Dr. G. and his father, a dispensary, herb store room, library, classroom, and many rooms for PK and massage. A second floor outdoor sun deck which is used for classes when it is cold inside. A separate guesthouse with kitchen is attached to the clinic for other Ayurvedic doctors to stay in when they run a "camp" (special free clinic week for a particular disease e.g. asthma).

Ayurvedic Garden - notice white signs that identify species in sanskrit and latin and have a hindi description of its primary usage

A large garden is behind the clinic where about 350 ayurvedic herbs are planted and many are labeled. There are four quadrants in the garden planted with herbs for different purposes: general complaint herbs, physician herbs, medha (mind building) herbs, and herbs for mantra therapy.

 

Inside the Lord Dhanvantari Temple

A temple to Lord Dhanvantari (The God of Ayurveda) and a Shiva temple is along one side of the garden. Each morning starts with a blessing at the temple of Lord Dhanvantari. Sanskrit prayers are said and offering of the five elements are made. A sahau (renunciant) who lives in the Himalayas in the summer comes back to Dhanvantari Dhan each winter to offer prayers twice a day at the temple.


Free Ayurvedic clinic

There is also a free clinic building with two guest rooms. The free clinic is the charitable side of Dhanvantari Dham's work and ayurvedic Dr. see the clients that come here. This serves the people who can only afford to pay for their herbs and the rest is subsidized by the government.

Another building on the land is a large kitchen which is part of future plans to have more lodging on the property of which a foundation has already been set in place. A barn, two pastures (summer and winter) for the six cows round out the property. Oh.. there are also three dogs.

My first day at Dhanvantari Dham started with a ceremony in the temple. I got a red sting wrist band to express my commitment to my ayurvedic studies. I'm part of the Gupta tribe so to speak. Dr. G has one female student who has been there for three month studying with him. Mostly she was studying the Gita (classical hindu text) and working on her own healing but she did have one year of Ayurvedic studies in New Zealand. Our first two sessions were good. I do know a significant amount about Ayurveda but there are always deeper levels. He spent a whole session with me just reviewing my past experience and what I was most interested in learning. Herbs and mantra therapies for the mind and Sanskrit which are the topic I suggested. These are all areas of his expertise. It is a good match. He went to lunch with me at MVT and then took me about town to show me the veggie stand, internet cafe, money changer. He took care of me very well. He is a most considerate man and we are off to a good start.

Weather is warmer at during the day but cooler at night. I have a small electric heater in my room to take the morning fog chill out the air. Second night was better but still waking at 4am with no chance to go back to bed. So I am meditating, doing Abhyanga (self massage with medicated oil), doing yoga, bathing, cooking kitcheri for breakfast and having breakfast in the room all before 8am when he picks me up to the clinic. Dr. Gupta suggested that I keep the schedule of going to bed by 8:30pm and rising at 5am so that I have plenty of time for my sadhana (spiritual practices, yoga, meditation) and ayurvedic practices in the morning. These are considered essential if you are going to be learing and practicing ayurveda. You must embody ayurveda not just have it in your mind.

Jan 2-
Today we had a new student who is thinking of studying with him for a year. So she sat in on class and we continued laying the groundwork. He covered many concepts that took many hours at the California College of Ayurveda (CCA) to cover. Sort of review and he would ask me to tell him what I knew about a topic to see what I knew. A CCA student was here last month so he has observed what CCA students know in general.

Lunch at MVT restaurant - Thali plate US$3

After lunch at MVT he took me to a spiritual/political meeting outside of a large government supported project for foster kids. I was a white boy in the sea of brown Indians. It is good to be a minority once in a while. We walked a bit to a construction site and found an Amalaki tree which is the main ingredient of chyavanprash (a herbal fruit jam). He sort of teaches all the time. A weed that looks like milkweed on the side of road turns into an entire discussion of using native plants vs. importing plants, allopathic medicine, the role of Ayurveda in India culture,... It all swims together.

Studying herbs in the garden

Classes are 2 or 3 sessions per day (1/5 hours each) 6 days a week. Thursday are off.
Morning classes are academic and after lunch are practical classes such as studying herbs in the garden learning herbs or other outings.

 

Jan 9- Tributaries

After a week of studies with Dr. Gupta, I realized that I have been learning a lot but not in the western outline kind of way. It is not how many topics you cover but how deeply is your understanding. Start anywhere and if you get a piece truly then you get it all in a flash. Many times of our discussions wander down small tributaries where we eventually uncover great temples full of jewels at the end of the stream.

We spent a few days on the Yugas (time ages) and how they relate to the history of Ayurveda. This involved exploring the origin of disease and where the knowledge of Ayurveda comes from. Finally leading up to the classic texts of Charaka and Sushruta. This was new material for me.

We then started a tread on the 13 natural urges which should not be suppresses.
Examples are thirst, hunger, vomiting, urination, flatus, defecation, etc. We got two items into the list and have been wandering ever since. This was initially frustrating as I felt that we were not making progress. Time passed, I let go, to see that much wisdom was given but often the pages of my note book would only have a few words on it. It was not something that you could read in a book or take notes on and then relive later. It was sort of heart to heart communication about the truth of nature and reality.

There are many herbs are in the garden but due to the seasonal nature of plants they all are not above ground at the moment. Some of the herbs that are available for study at this time are amalaki, ashwagandha, shatavari, haritaki, bibitaki, guduchi, arjuna, shank pushpi, vasa, bilva, tulsi, and hibiscus. Many of the plants in the garden I have know only as a dry powder. Having used these plants for years first to assist in my own healing and then working with clients, it was a real joy to finally meet my plant world assistants face to face. I've always been into identifying plants whether it was the the weeds near the railroad tracks where I grew up or the wildflowers of the High Sierra. To know a plant you sit with it and study the structure of the leave, stems, flowers and fruit. The plant's story is told by what type of community it makes, what soil it chooses and what is smells and tastes like. To be able to spend this time with the herbs of ayurveda was dream come true.



Amalaki (Emblic officinalis) tree and fruit.
One of the strongest rejuvenatives in Ayurvedic Medicine.

We also learned the Gupta chant to Lord Dhanvantari (the god of Ayurveda). This is said every day before class in the temple. We did one hour of proper pronunciation and repetition practice. Every syllable counts. If you could chant the Sanskrit sound for apple perfectly, the fruit would appear before you. I'll keep trying my best, it is said that to be a novice Sanskrit student you must study for 12 years. It is a path to enlightenment unto its self.

The Amalaki (Amla) crop is "in" so the Gutpa family “Pharmacy” is making chyavanprash in small batches of Chyavanprash for the two months of Dec and Jan. Chyavanprash is the supreme rejuvenating herbal jam. Often used to build strength after cleaning or illness. On my first visit to the “Pharmacy”, I realized that the word “Pharmacy” was a little to clean and neat for what was going on. Think of concrete barn with 3 stories. An open air room in the center goes from the first floor all the way to the roof. People live on the 2nd and 3rd stories.
Cows and Herb processing take place on the first floor. A wood fire and a gas fire are used in the open air room to cook and process the herbs.

Adding Shatavari and other herbs in the last step of making Chyavanprash (Herbal Fruit Jam)

Chyavanprash production involves 47 herbs and alma berries that look like a gooseberry.
There are 4 steps each taking one day of time with 3 or so workers. Process includes cold decoction of herbs and Amla overnight. Then the decoction is cooked for 5 hours the next morning. Everything is done with respect to the planets and the moon. Fire is lit in the early morning at the most auspicious time for maximum potency. The berries are then removed and mashed by hand and the pulp is extracted. No machinery is used as this “hurrying” of the process would introduce excess vata (motion) into the final product.

The amla paste is then mixed with ghee (clarified butter)to make amla grita (clarified butter cooked with amalaki berries). To this the strained decoction and raw sugar is added. Huge wok like kettles are employed over open fire. It is smoky dirty work. Lots of bubbles splashing hot paste on to the workers. They all are wearing flip-flops of course. No one has real shoes in India. Finally shatavari and other herbs that should not be heated are added last and the whole batch is cooked down to remove all the water. The final product is tested for texture to know when it is done. Dr. Gupta’s brother Vishnu runs the pharmacy.

As part of my tour of the pharmacy, most of the 47 herbs were placed in small plastic bowels so I could examine them. Many of the ayurvedic herbs I know only as a powder, so this was very educational to see the herbs in their whole form. Some most notable were ashwagnada, shatavari, jatamansi, gudduchi, gokshura, gudduchi, bala, etc. All the big herbs I had heard and studied in the west.

Dr. Gupta is actually quite a political guy. He is constantly pointing out how others are taking short cuts in preparations, using Ayurveda allopathically (treating the symptoms and not addressing cause), and going for the money and not really caring about the people who are effected along the way. Many stories are very sad and disheartening. He stresses how his path of traditional ways is not being compromised and mine should not be either. He does alot of teachings on ethics.

Continue to Part 2.... Space Mountain Revisited



   

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