Book Review … may not interest punters!

A RANDOM WALK DOWN WALL STREET: The time-tested strategy for successful investing

by Barton G Malkiel- Emeritus Professor in Economics, Princeton University

(2020 Edition, first published in 1975)

I first heard of this author in one of Forbes podcasts earlier this year. I don’t follow Forbes nor the pastime of disc jockeys who are anti-Democrats. Never mind, fast forward to near the seven minute mark to hear the interview with Prof Malkeil.

It was featured in a blog in little known Australian investment firm- Stockspot. I liked what I heard and ordered the book, one that I would recommend to both working folks and retirees. As to whether you would use his recommendations is up to you and the usual disclaimers on not providing financial advice holds in these forums.

Prof Malkiel says: ‘Investors would be far better off buying and holding an index fund than attempting to buy and sell individual securities or actively managed mutual funds.”

Based on his experience in the US, he then goes on to say that buying and holding stocks in a broad stock market average was likely to outperform professionally managed funds whose high expense charges and large trading costs detract substantially from investment returns.

He questions whether ‘Beat the Market’ is consistently possible and is wary of charting and tricks of the trade to pick winners.

A random walk is one in which steps or directions cannot be predicted and when applied to the stock market, it means stock prices are unpredictable. Hence earnings forecasts and chart patterns are useless!

As if he has not upset readers enough, he goes on to say that a blind-folded monkey can select a portfolio throwing darts and makes a plea that we need to be clear if we are investors or speculators as therein lies the difference. He writes for investors and provides many examples from the 17th century to the mid 2015 where speculators drew naïve people into their orbit and eventually went downhill, often abetted by regulators and governments.

The academic in Malkiel does discuss in some detail Investment Theory:

– Firm Foundation and the theory of intrinsic value from future dividend streams that Warren Buffet initially leaned heavily on where 90/10 is the logic/psychology split

– Castle-in-the air’ theory of Keynes where it is 10/90 with the split reversed.

– Modern Behavioural Finance,  CAPM, Modern Portfolio Theory and Cryptocurrency

What I found particularly interesting is the story telling and revisiting the past that makes an enjoyable read with learnable lessons. We know that forgetting the lessons of history increases the risk of repeating the same mistakes!

The ‘madness of crowds’ – the 17th century Tulip industry in the Netherlands, the South Sea Bubble and East India Company in Britain, the 1970s Japanese land prices, the internet bubble of the 1990s, Enron, Cisco and Bubble.Com’s hype and GFC of 2007/08 are all discussed that makes the book all the more interesting from an investor perspective.

Malkiel pointedly says: ‘The lessons of market history are clear. Styles and fashions in investors’ valuation of securities can and often do play a critical role in the pricing of securities. The stock market at times conforms well to the ‘castle-in-the air’ theory. For this reason, the game of investing can be extremely dangerous. Beware of IPOs backed by Fund Managers who all have a vested interest.’

A company called Globe.com was listed at $9/- and rocketed to $97/- the same day and was backed by Credit Swisse First Boston. Boo.com on chic fashion caught my eye too. They did not last though their founders enjoyed Concorde flights and boutique fashion being on OPM- pronounced opium – Other Peoples’ Money!

Hence beware of institutional failures, fancy financial footwork like Enron and speculative manias that still abound where modern day incarnations of Tip Sheet writers and Pool Managers leverage social media and technology to peddle hallucinating success stories.

Lest we go into a depression of sorts, Malkiel reassures us that eventually every stock can only be worth the present value of its cash flow and that in the final analysis, true value will win out. There is no evidence he says that anyone can generate excess returns by consistently correct bets against the collective wisdom of the market.

Markets are not always or even usually correct but NO ONE PERSON OR INSTITUTION CONSISTENTLY KNOWS MORE THAN THE market.

Markiel is very clear on a few things throughout his book of some 400 pages.

  • Investment strategies must be age related (page 361 on Life Cycle Investment Guide)
  • Risk in many investments decreases with the length of time an investment can be held and hence optimal investment strategy must be age related
  • Buy only if expected to have above average earnings for five or more years
  • Technical analysis is often amusing, comforting but of no real value!
  • Random events have great influence, and are unpredictable
  • Even if stock prices move randomly, you should not.
  • Each individual has a sleep index- age, financial situation and income/earnings for chosen or desired lifestyle is a non-trivial matter (page 302)

What then are the key takeaways?

  1. Specific needs require specific dedicated assets
  2. Buy shares in broad based index funds and ETFs for different asset classes to build a diversified portfolio with CASH 5%, BONDS/SECURITIES 28%, REAL ESTATE 12%, STOCKS 55% – Local 27%, International 14% and Emerging 14%
  3. Rebalance your portfolio annually
  4. Where possible, consider dollar-cost averaging and invest regularly over time
  5. If indulging in a bit of DIY portfolio of individual stocks, above average earnings over five years, PEG ratio less than 1 and only buy ‘anticipated’ castles-in-the-air while keeping trade as little as possible.

It comes to me as no surprise that Warren Buffet has stipulated in his will that cash from his estate be invested solely in index funds!

But there is a vexed question: With Australia having a much smaller equity market and an active Australian Shareholders’ Association, how much of the advice from the Random Walk is really applicable in Australia?

Sri Avudai Akkal 2021 Program

It gives us much pleasure to announce that this year’s program is planned for Friday 17th September at Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Mylpaore- Chennai, Tamilnadu. We are grateful to Rasika Ranjani Sabha for their foresight to nurture and encourage the wider dissemination of Tamil saints and sages, particularly women of yester years.

Given the unpredictability of Covid-19, our plans may come unstuck with any semblance of a resurgence and/or a new incarnation of Covid-19. All we can do as both individuals and as a global community is pray that we have a yet to be defined post-Covid normalcy and that live performances can take place with at least partially filled auditoriums.

Our program features two very talented women known for both their passion and commitment to their respective classical traditions. They are much admired across the globe performing to packed audiences with a growing online following.

The program would commence at 5 PM with well known Carnatic vocalist, Vidushi Smt Nisha Rajagopalan. With her penchant for innovation and making a difference, she would be setting to tune and singing hitherto unsung songs of Sri Avudai Akkal in a Carnatic concert.

Vidushi Smt Nisha Rajagopalan

Following the vocal concert, Kalaimamani Smt Vishaka Hari will present a Harikatha on the blissful story and compositions of Sri Avudai Akkal at 6.30 PM. She will explore the range of Vedantic outpourings such as Vedanta Ammanai, Vedanta Pallu and Vedanta Kappal from Sri Avudai Akkal’s nectarine downpour.

Vishaka Hari | MDnD
Kalaimamani Smt Vishaka Hari

We are grateful and thank both Smt Nisha Rajagopalan and Kalaimamani Smt Vishaka Hari for accepting our invitation to present their programs. The program is free of charge for those attending. The only condition for their entry to the auditorium is that attendees abide by Covid-19 public health protocols.

We are well aware that the local authorities in Chennai would need to allow assembly of people within auditoriums and that for public health reasons, people attending have had their two jabs of Covid-19 vaccines, wear masks and maintain social distancing. This is the least the attending patrons can do for their welfare, the Sabha staff and importantly for those artistes performing and giving so much of their time and talent in these troubled times.

In the event that the public are not allowed to attend the program, we would work on alternative arrangements and have the concert and Harikatha recorded and streamed through online platforms, details of which would be announced through social media.

Sri Avudai Akkal .. from plans to programs!

Om Namo Bhagavate Shri Ramanaya

Namaskarams from Sydney, Australia

Over a year ago, I was deeply moved reading about the life and teachings of Tamizh Saint Senkottai Sri Avudai Akkal in Sri Ramanasramam’s Mountain Path. It made me wonder as to how many others across the globe were in the same situation as I was with only a passing awareness of Sri Avudai Ammal as Bhagawan Sri Ramana Maharirshi had referred to Sri Akkal and her songs.

In earnest, my wife Soumya and I wanted to explore how best to enable a wider dissemination of Sri Akkal’s songs. While a few publications including the Senkottai Sri Avudai Akkal Paadal Thiratu in Tamil of Sri Akkal’s songs (available from Sri Gnananda Niketan) and the book Transgressing Boundaries by Dr Kanchana Natarajan have been in print for many years as well as a recording of 10 songs by Bombay Sisters Smt C Saroja and Smt C Lalitha, knowledge of Sri Akkal’s songs have remained largely within families who to this day recite them in their daily Parayanam.

It is with the grace of Sri Bhagawan that our journey of exploration led to the recent Pravachanam on Sri Akkal by Sri Nochur Acharya. Sri Acharya’s discourse was launched on YouTube on Advent Day (1 September 2020) commemorating the arrival of Sri Bhagawan in Arunachala in 1896. Many of you would have heard and been moved by Sri Acharya’s discourse and no doubt as he alluded to, are eager to hear more over the coming years.

To Sri Nochur Acharya whom we approached late last year, our eternal thanks for agreeing to our request for a discourse on Sri Akkal. Our thanks also to Sri Chandramouli for all his help coordinating arrangements for the online posting of the discourse.

Today, I have much pleasure in announcing that our spiritual journey to imbibe the teachings and songs of Sri Avudai Akkal continues with a Carnatic Music recital by Smt Gayathri Venkataraghavan (GV) accompanied on the Violin by Sri Mysore V Srikanth and on the Mridangam by Sri B Ganapathyraman. Our gratitude to Smt GV and her fellow musicians for this concert. This concert will be released at 5.30 PM IST on Saturday 26th September on Smt GV’s YouTube and Facebook channels.

There are many who have accompanied us on this journey. Sri Robert Butler in the UK, a good friend of ours from our Sri Ramanasramam connections had yet again at short notice transcribed and translated the songs chosen by both Sri Nochur Acharya and Smt GV.  Earlier this year Sri Robert published Songs of Avudai Akkal that featured the 10 songs sung by Bombay Sisters.

Readers may also be interested in a Sri Akkal song titled ‘Rama Naam Pazham’ that was the favourite of my wife’s aunt (Athai), the late Smt Heimavathi Ammal, a staunch follower of Sri Akkal and her guru-shishya lineage. Athai’s own words as well as the song appear in Sri Robert Butler’s book. You can hear (and learn!) this piece beautifully sung by my friend Sri Ramkumar Chidambaram,

Sri Christopher Quilkey, a fellow Australian and resident of Arunachala helped us connect with Sri Nochur Acharya as did Sri KVS (Mani Mama) at Sri Ramanasramam.  Smt Nalini Venkateswaran in the UK has also been an integral member of our core team from the very beginning of this project.

We are grateful for the blessings of Swami Nityananda Giri whom we met in January this year at his Ashram at Gnananda Niketan outlining our plans on Sri Avudai Akkal. Our thanks to Sri Shivakumar and Sri Venkatesh at the Niketan for all their help over the last 12 months

The Pravachanam and concert were to have been a free public program in front of a live audience at Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore, Chennai on Sunday 27th September 2020. Our thanks for the foresight of Committee Members Sri R Nagarajan and Smt Aruna Ranganathan for agreeing to offer their auditorium and host this program at their Sabha. But with Covid-19 intervening across the globe, we had to leverage online media to reach out to you all as best we can.

Thank you all, family and friends who have joined us on this journey on Sri Avudai Akkal. It is our sincere wish and prayers that the Vedantic teachings of Sri Avudai Akkal reaches out to a global audience.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Sri Avudai Akkal Program: September 2020

It is nearly six months since my last update. The ongoing impact across the globe of Covid-19 pandemic is well known and it continues to wreck both health and economy. We can only pray and do things under our control to keep ourselves and our communities safe as best we can.

Our planned live talk of Sri Nochur Acharya and Carnatic music concert of Smt Gayathri Venkataraghavan at Rasika Ranjani Sabha on Sunday 27th September in Chennai is deferred indefinitely due to Covid-19.

In lieu of the two live performances, a pre-recorded Pravachanam on Sri Avudai Akkal by Sri Nochur Acharya will be available for viewing from 6.30 PM IST on Tuesday 1 September. It was on 1 September 1896 that the spiritual quest of a young lad by name Venketraman, later to be known as Bhagawan Sri Ramana Maharrishi, reached Arunachala and remained there for 54 years. Known as Advent Day, we feel blessed that this Pravachanam on the songs of Sri Avudai Akkal that Bhagawan Ramana Maharishi was fond of would be released on that auspicious day.

Click here to view Nochur Acharya’s Pravachanam on Sri Avudai Akkal on YouTube.

With Nochur Acharya’s discourse ringing fresh in your ears, you would also delight from a short Carnatic vocal concert of Sri Avudai Akkal songs by Smt Gayathri Venkataraghavan. The concert will be made available on many platforms by mid September.

On behalf of all our family, friends and well wishers across the globe, we offer our sincere pranaams to Sri Nochur Acharya and our thanks to Smt Gayathri Venkataraghavan for their respective contributions to the global community of spiritual seekers and rasikas of Carnatic music.

 

 

Key factors in a post-Covid 19 Scenario

Good old fashioned scenario planning is one useful tool-set to dust off and put to use today given the ramifications of Covid-19. Obviously, the scenario one constructs must relate to a major investment or life decision one plans to make and cover the time span of such a decision.

We tend to hide under the pretext that the future is uncertain and hence accept what comes our way largely unprepared. But not all of our future is uncertain as many factors are right before us that would play out over time and become key considerations in the story of our future.

A good scenario following Covid-19 in Australia would include the following:

– Predetermined events: These are factors that we can rely upon in our planning

  • Social distancing with consequential effects on many industries- Travel (All modes including Air, Sea and Land transportation including Uber, taxis), Tourism (regional, interstate and international), Hospitality (including hotels, Air BnN), Conventions and Conferences, Retail Centres and retail outlets including those at air/sea ports, Sports (including big name championships like Australian Open), Theatre and Performing Arts, Religious Conventions and attendance at places of worship, Weddings, Funerals and Family/Community programs;
  • Blurring of Private/Public Information Security with mobile phone Apps being pervasive despite the mistrust of governments;
  • Surge in mobile and home internet data demands for in-house entertainment such as Netflix, YouTube, Audible etc;
  • Reallocation of budgets by governments, companies, communities, families and individuals;
  • Increase in online retailing and local freight delivery services;
  • Disrupted schooling and higher education with consequential problems on families and teaching institutions with shifts to online courses; and
  • Other factors that we can categorise as pre-determined.

– Heavy Trends: These are factors we should not fail to include in our planning as they are most likely to become a ‘pre-determined’ factor within a sort time, say one to two years:

  • An accelerated decline of US global influence along with a mistrust of Peoples’ Republic of China;
  • Rising unemployment in aforementioned industries and consequential debt servicing with negative impact on the financial sector and dividends;
  • Falling real incomes from pension/superannuation funds, share market dividends and bank deposits;
  • Lower commuter traffic and environmental emissions;
  • Falling real estate prices with steeper decline in multi-rise housing complexes;
  • Pressures on mental health and well-being issues across all sections of the community;
  • Growth in holistic medicine, yoga and spiritual programs;
  • Increased public debt that ‘debt is good’ as against ‘greed is good’;
  • Reduction in travel leading to bankruptcy of airlines, holiday cruise liners and coach travel;
  • Organizations accepting of telecommuting and working from home;
  • Growth in video hosting platforms for meetings, concerts etc along with high fidelity acoustic devices for concert quality home hosting;
  • Increased private funding of pandemic related vaccines and fast tracking of approval processes;
  • Quantum leaps in tele-medicine;
  • Further erosion of rural communities given slow recovery from bush fires; and
  • Other factors that we discern as a heavy trend.

– Future Carrier: These are factors that are not yet a heavy trend but have a reasonably high potential to become a heavy trend in the next few years. These as we see today are:

  • Local point of sale manufacturing and ‘order to print’ product manufacture and assembly;
  • Co-opetition rather than mere competition becoming the framework for governments and corporations;
  • Realignment of geo-politics;
  • Move to greater self-sufficiency and reduction in manufactured imports;
  • Reallocation of defense funding with reduced emphasis on hardware and more on bio-security and related R&D; and
  • Other factors that are not yet a heavy trend but have the potential to become one.

– Impossibilities: While we have a reasonable idea on all of the above, we must rule out a few in developing our future scenario for the impending decision we plan to take. These would be:

  • Australia going for nuclear energy in the next 10 years;
  • Australia adopting the New Zealand model of reducing the size and budget of its defence forces;
  • China opening up and admitting its guilt for Covid-19; and
  • The International Court at The Hague trying the triumvirate of evil (Bush Jr, Blair and Howard) for war crimes for their part in the Iraq invasion.

Now that we have set the broad range of factors for our planning scenario, we must now identify what are truly those that we are uncertain about.

–  Core Uncertainties: This is what we really do not know but were we to factor in all of the above, we would be better able to address the following:

  • How long would it take for the free world to come back to a semblance of normalcy?
  • How would China act given that most major powers believe it is their Wuhan debacle?
  • Would China fragment under the pressure of political upheaval and with it impact Australian exports and critical manufactured imports?
  • How would the forthcoming US elections shape geopolitics and US-China relations?
  • What industries would seek to mend their supply-chain pressures and start local manufacturing in line with national strategic imperatives?
  • How would Australia-China relations play out over the next few years?

I would like this to be just a starting point for any of you to take up and post your comments so that we can have hopefully, a lively discussion!

Update on Sri Avudai Akkal Programs

The last few months have been momentous, and the last fortnight more so!

  • Robert Butler’s book on the ten songs of Sri Avudai Akkal sung by Bombay Sisters was published in early December 2019;
  • We bought several copies of Robert’s book to give them away as gifts to elders who attended my mother’s 90th birthday celebrations and to a number of music teachers and friends in Sydney as well as musicians in Chennai;
  • We met with Carnatic vocalist Smt Gayathri Venkataraghavan (GV) in Chennai on 29th January when she expressed her prayerful desire to sing Sri Akkal songs first at Sri Ramansramam if possible before the free public concert at Rasika Ranjani Sabha (Mylapore, Chennai- India) at 4.30 PM on Sunday 27th September;
  • We made our annual pilgrimage to Sri Ramanasramam on 30th January and met with Sri S Krishnan at the Ashram office, gave him a copy of Robert Butler’s book and took up my earlier request that Sri Ramansramam become the spiritual home for Sri Akkal songs on one day each year given that Mother Azhagammal would sing these songs in the presence of Sri Bhagawan;
  • Sri Ramanasramam have agreed to our request and we are all delighted. In my presence, Sri Krishnan formally invited Smt GV to sing at the annual Advent Day program at 8 PM on September 2 this year to which she readily consented;
  • At Sri Ramanasramam, my friend Christopher Quilkey introduced us to Sri KV Subramonyam who has been instrumental in helping us connect with Sri Nochur Venkataraman Acharya; Sri Nochur Acharya will present his Pravachanam on Sri Akkal’s songs from 6.30 PM after GK’s concert at Rasika Ranjani Sabha on Sunday 27th September;
  • We then sought the blessings of Swami Sri Nityananda Giri at Sri Ganananda Niketan. Swamiji was delighted to hear our update and advised us to focus on the spiritual teachings of Sri Avudai Akkal and not get caught up with commentaries on social conditions of past centuries;
  • On my return home, Smt Vishaka Hari Ji confirmed that she would be delighted to present a program on Sri Akkal in September 2021 at Rasika Ranjani Sabha.

We look forward to a house full program, both for the Carnatic Vocal concert at 4.30 PM  of Smt Gayathri Venkataraghavan and the Pravachanam of Sri Nochur Venkataraman Achary at 6.30 PM at Rasika Ranjani Sabha on Sunday 27th September in Mylapore, Chennai. Please note that both these programs are FREE to the public.

Surely, there will be a divine grace that is guiding us as we move forward. As Swami Nityananda Giri advised us ‘Leave it to HER grace, and it will all happen. Focus on the teachings and that alone is your work.’

How did Sri Avudai Akkal come into our lives?

There is an old saying that things happen for a reason. Others might contend that it is our ‘prarabdha’ karma that takes its course. One may well ask, how did Sri Avudai Akkal come into our lives? Let me set it out, as best I can, of what happened.

The July-September 2019 (Vol.56, No.3) issue of Mountain Path, a quarterly publication of Sri Ramanasramam contained an article featuring the lives of two Saints, St Teresa of Avila (Spain) and Sri Avudai Akkal (Shenkottai, India). Both these women lived some 350 years ago and though separated by geography, their spiritual outpourings, according to the author, Dr Kanchana Natarajan, had similar mystical trajectories.

I had heard and read about Tamil women Saints, Auvaiyar, Aandal and more recently Aandavan Pichai but not of Akkal. Dr Natarajan’s article made reference to an earlier article of hers on Akkal in the Jan-March 2010 issue of Mountain Path. Fortunately, this was available online from the website of Sri Ramanasramam.  That led me to consult, as we light heartedly say, Swami Googleananda and thence many weblinks on Akkal including articles in the newspaper The Hindu and references to the book Transgressing Boundaries- The Songs of Shenkottai Avudai Akkal (ISBN 978 93 81017 16 6).

I ordered and devoured these readings and thanks to Dr Natarajan advising people to contact her with any information on Akkal, I emailed her complimenting her on the book and asking for more details on the CD of Bombay Sisters featuring 10 songs of Akkal. Incidentally, it was these songs of Bombay Sisters and four pages (Avvadayakkal, pages 357-360) in the Lives of Saints (a publication of Sri Shivananda Ashram, ISBN 81-7052-095-9) that had set Dr Natarajan on her extensive field research on Akkal.

Much that I had googled and asked people here in Sydney and families well versed in Carnatic music whether they had this particular CD of Bombay Sisters, I was getting nowhere. To my utter surprise, none of the Carnatic music teachers I knew had heard of Akkal. I discovered later even our top tier musicians- male and female vocalists and accompanying artistes were all unaware of Akkal but were supportive of my enquiries and encouraged me to share with them whatever I had chanced to find of Akkal’s songs.

As a last desperate act, I wrote to Dr Natarajan asking her to send me a song or two copied on to WhatsApp (even if it meant breaching copyrights for a larger purpose!) and the cover of the CD to track down. While no audio was made available, Dr Natarajan had kindly sent me the cover of the CD and the address of Sri Gnanananda Niketan in Tirukoilur, Tamilnadu to make enquiries on their availability.

In parallel, I contacted my classmate Sri R Venkatraman whose brother Sri R Nagarajan, is the Secretary of Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore, Chennai. I called Sri Nagarajan and sought his help to get the phone number for Bombay Sisters and contacted them.  While polite with an international phone intrusion, their daughter took the call and asked that I send an email with the details I was looking for. Shortly thereafter, I was advised that the sisters would ask their recording company and come back to me about their CD of Akkal songs.

Luck was turning in my favour now as the Niketan had the CDs and copies of the Tamil book of Akkal’s teachings (Paadal Thiratu). These were promptly ordered and on arrival, I took to the Tamil book as a duck to water absorbed in the uplifting philosophy and lyrics of Akkal.

I took the liberty to again contact Bombay Sisters saying I had found their CD of Akkal songs as well as the book of Akkal songs and that they may now be able to get them from the Niketan should they so desire.

With the CD with me and the lyrics of all the Tamil songs from the Paadal Thriatu, I made a copy of the lyrics and sent them to Bombay Sisters to help me identify the raga of each of the songs in their CD as a few seemed uncommon to me. They were kind enough to send me the raga of each track and that helped close a significant missing link.

I must add here that Track 1 of the CD has a beautiful introduction of Akkal by Swami Nityananda Giri. Listening to him, it becomes abundantly clear of the special reverence we all owe Akkal, both for her Advaita teachings and songs. But for Swamiji’s introduction, we would not know that many people had worked hard leading to the production of the CD and that our musical delight hearing Akkal’s songs is entirely due to vocalists Smt C. Saroja and Smt C. Lalitha and Sri L Krishnan who set the music for the ten songs.

Readers may note that Akkal’s first song in the CD is Ethanai Naal Thedi Vandeno (How many days have I searched for Thee!). I can verily say, it is equally true of this search for Bombay Sisters’ music of Akkal’s songs!

I had not only approached several musicians referred earlier, but also learned scholars and Harikatha exponents. These people like the many musicians were also totally unaware of the teachings and songs of Sri Avudai Akkal.

By now it would be clear that Akkal’s songs were not known widely amongst Carnatic musicians barring Bombay Sisters Smt C. Saroja and Smt C. Lalitha, and a select few vocalists who were personally advised by Dr Natarajan to sing Akkal songs. I was therefore convinced that much work needs to be done to ‘mainstream’ both Akkal’s Vedantic work as well as her lyrics that were well suited for Carnatic music.

Knowing that my friend Sri Robert Butler in London would find the Tamil lyrics of Akkal uplifting as I did, I suggested that if his time permits, it would be wonderful if he could translate these verses into English, and perhaps have it published in Mountain Path. Robert was delighted and co-opted Smt Nalini Malarkan to work with us on this to which she readily consented.

Let me now take you aside on an important family connection with Akkal. My wife’s aunt (Athai), Smt Haimavathi Ammal (Haimavathi Ramanathan) is 95 years old and recalls sitting with the late Smt Gomathi Rajangam and writing a bound notebook full of Akkal songs in Varanasi. Some of those Akkal songs that Athai recollected and wrote down may well be in the Paadal Thiratu. We may never know unless the notebook is found somewhere, perhaps even in the Niketan archives!

You may well ask as to why I harbour hope that this Athai’s notebook could be amongst the collection of manuscripts at the Niketan? Well, in a private correspondence with Dr Natarajan, she says:

‘According to Swamiji, many years back when he went to Kashi, a big sack of texts was given to him by Gomathi. She wanted Swamiji to edit and the print the same. It was with Swamiji for many years. He finally edited and published the book.”  (the book is the Paadal Thiratu, our source document for Akkal’s Advaitic work and songs).

In the weeks prior to writing this note, we made a commitment, call it our ‘sankalpa’ to sponsor an Akkal program at Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore, Chennai in September 2020. We envisage a keynote address or two on Advaita and Akkal’s teachings and Carnatic music concerts of Akkal songs by both well-known and up-coming musicians.

Given the above family connection of Athai and her Akkal songs, it seemed fitting if only we could prevail upon Athai to pen a few words of her Akkal experience. We are all grateful that Athai has now done this for us, thanks largely to the untiring efforts of her daughter Smt Sankari Amrithakumar.  We have now heard first hand from Smt Sankari that she has vivid memories of school days in the late 1950s of her mother and a number of ladies visiting their home and singing song after song of Akkal while she and her siblings were trying to study!

Sri Robert Butler, Smt Nalini Malarkan and I, pray that this project is successful and that all readers and listeners of Akkal’s teachings and songs would benefit from it. That Akkal’s works are largely an unexplored treasure would indeed be an understatement. It would be truly wonderful to dedicate a day to Akkal’s teachings and songs beyond 2020. Towards this, we seek your support in joining us in this endeavour.

Swami Nityanandagiri of Sri Gnananda Nitetan has blessed that the grace of Satguru help us with this Akkal project and guide us all in our spiritual journey within.

Kailash Yatra is a Satsang with Truth

Over the past few months, and more recently, I have been asked as to what our Kailash Yatra meant for me and how would I describe it?  The second part was easy as I would refer people to my 14 Part blog where our Kailash Yatra is described including what I believe is an useful checklist in Part 5 for those wanting to take up this very special quest.

As for the first part of the question as to what it meant for me, there is no simple answer. At best I would say that it meant ‘EVERYTHING’ for me, and one where mere words can do no justice. And in that ‘EVERYTHING’, nothing is excluded!

Prior to our going on the Yatra, I had only read the very detailed blogs on the Kailash Yatra of my friend G Kameshwar and heard first hand of the experiences of those who went earlier. From all that I had concluded that the journey was arduous and not for the faint hearted and that one should be in a constant state of preparedness at what nature and circumstances may throw at you.

Just last week I had the good fortune to attend over three days a Satsang of Sri M in Hyderabad where his central theme was the practice of Kriya Yoga. Reconnecting with the Master and revising what I had learnt earlier and incorporating the fuller version in my practice was indeed a blessing.

The Satsang provided me the perfect answer to what I felt intuitively as to what the Kailash Yatra meant for me.

In his book ‘Kailash Yatra’, Sri M says:

‘Consider this pilgrimage to Kailash to be the same as our life’s journey towards the lofty heights of Truth. Mahadeva represents that Truth. When you go on this pilgrimage, reflect on this matter, that in everyday life too we are on a pilgrimage.’

All is Bliss in life’s pilgrimage.

 

Australian Kailash Yatra: Part 14 – Returning to Pasupathinath Temple, Kathmandu-(Final Part 14/14)

[To read the first part of this 14 Part blog series on our Kailash Yatra click here]

On the morning of Sunday 16th September, we took in one more lasting look of Mount Kailash at Darchen on our long drive to Saga. Tempting as it was to break journey at Lake Manasarovar, we decided that being on the road to reach Saga by sunset was prudent.

Given the good road in this stretch, there was little drama. We craned our necks for yet another distant peek of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. Our lunch stop was timed with a much needed bio-break coupled with the regulatory 20 minute stop. Saga was reached by sunset after driving past the now familiar sand dunes and the Brahmaputra river and its tributary. A routine dinner followed after settling down in our respective rooms. By now our logistics operations were honed to near perfection.

Our Tibetan guide worked his charm with his network of local Saga contacts and advised the group to be ready for an early morning departure at 6 AM the following morning (Monday 17th September). This was to avoid massive delays as the Chinese workers start work at 8 AM on the construction of a new highway parallel to the dirt track we had taken a few days earlier from Gyirong to Saga. Foregoing a little sleep if it meant we could reach Gyrirong early made sense to all of us.

If there was a Sherpa team who performed consistently above and beyond their assigned duties, our team of Sherpas were the ones who deserved our gratitude in spades. We cannot thank them enough. These men had risen early and even made ‘parathas and chutney’ for breakfast on the road!

With some well honed and safe driving, our Chinese driver reached the T-Junction heading to Gyirong in record time. The previous high altitude hillside of 5236m hardly excited any of us. ‘Yes, we have been to greater heights’ seemed to resonate in all of us!

Barring a minor delay nearing Gyirong (whispers had it that there was a local fight between the Chinese and local Tibetans!), we reached our destination safe and remarkably well. Relief was written all over our tired faces.

It was at one of our mandatory 20 min halts near Gyirong, I spoke to our leader that at lunch, we serve our Sherpas first before we have ours. Somewhat surprised but agreeing to my request, he wanted me to run this past the Nepali Sherpa leader, Wangchhu Sherpa. After explaining as to why I felt this was important for us 19 yatrikas to do this as a small act of saying thanks, Wangchhu Sherpa agreed. And with that perhaps for the first time in a Sherpa’s life, were they served food ahead of their Kailash Yatra paymasters!

Our team of yatrikas had all bought into my proposition and everyone did their part dispensing lemon juice and serving food to our Sherpas. The atmosphere within the Gyirong rest house was magic with beaming broad smiles and happiness writ large on one and all.

Post lunch, we had our formal thanks being said by our leader, gift monies given to each of the Sherpas, guides and Chinese driver. All that was now left to be done was to rest,  recover and finally say goodbye to Diamox!

Dinner that evening was a relatively tame fare. Some in our group set off to a nearby Nepali restaurant while the rest of us completed early our packing routines now that we had our two duffel bags returned to us.

Early on the morning of Tuesday 18th September, we set off for the 45 minute downhill drive to the Tibet-Nepali border of Rasuwagadi. Immigration processing went without a hitch with us lining up as 1-19 as at everyone of the Chinese check posts. Luckily for me, I was not hauled up for not leaving my backpack for X-ray checking on may way in!

It was time now to bid goodbye to our very dear Tibetan guide, Phung Tso and his mate Gamma. They were remarkable in their service and worked seamlessly with Wangchhu Sherpa and his men. Thanks gents, thanks for everything!

Crossing the so-called friendship bridge, we now re-entered the familiar world of utter chaos in Nepal. Trucks parked anywhere and everywhere, this was no ordinary place for pedestrians with no semblance of traffic control and order.

A pilgrimage such as ours does prepare us well in subtle ways, or so we might think. There was enough reason to be upset now as our minibus could not take us to the helipad on the road we had taken on our way out. No one seemed to know what needed to be done.

Some of us voiced possible options, including walking 20km to the helipad while others voted down every idea even before they were fully articulated. The idea of brain storming options sans evaluation was not for this mob! You could sense it was getting to us now having spent over two hours in limbo.

Situations such as the one we were in produce heroes. Ours that day was yet again the quiet ever smiling and calm Wangchhu Sherpa. He had managed to work his charm with the Nepali project manager on accessing the private road (project road of the Chinese construction site of a hydro-electric project in Nepal). Soon we were moving again, albeit at a snail’s pace through a maze of parked trucks on a narrow dirt track barely wide enough for a mini bus. At times, the vehicle was precariously close to one side slipping down a steep incline and into the river in full flight.

Another of our heroes that morning was no doubt the driver of the mini bus. Like his Nepali countryman Wangchhu Sherpa, this man remained calm and collected. His driving skills were truly exceptional with the ability to reverse against the slope between parked vehicles with hardly 10cm clearance on either side. Scary, but this man made it look so simple!

Lest I forget, once again our Sherpa team had anticipated that we would need a bite of lunch and at the right moment this seemed to land in our thankful hands. We may have expended our calories in those anxious hours of wait and hence this pack was all the more gratefully accepted.

After some two hours of dare devil driving that kept us on the edge of our seats, we arrived at the helipad. A collective relief for all and now the long wait for the chopper and as many as four sorties to take us to Kathmandu.

In many ways, the helipad wait was a welcome relief. I had prepared a little skit the previous night at Gyirong and had co-opted another of our yatrikas to be my partner to deliver at an appropriate time. My wife reminded me that the atmosphere was perfect for some light hearted relief and sure it was.

The copter wait meant that we now had an appetite for a few rounds of fresh organic potato chips and masala tea with a dash of ginger. While waiting, we had photos taken of the locals and of us men sporting our beards grown during the yatra.

The choppers arrived and soon we were all in Kathmandu for a final night together for dinner at a restaurant that boasted wholesome freshness of local produce and traditional dance. The food was excellent and a fittingly perfect way to celebrate that evening.

But there was something far more important for the morning of Wednesday 19th September. Our Kailash Yatra leader, Doctor Garu as we called him, had composed beautiful verses in Telugu invoking the grace of Lord Pasupathinath to help us on our pilgrimage. We had sought HIS divine grace and promised to return to have HIS darshan on completion of our Yatra. There could not been a better way than this temple visit to Lord Pasupathinath.

Thank you Lord Shiva, Lord Pasupathinath!

Om Nama Shivaya

Note: Those interested in a Yatra to Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash can contact Wangchhu Shgerpa at www.acrossthehimalayas.com

 

Australian Kailash Yatra: Part 13 – The Four Day Parikrama around Mount Kailash

Kora Day 1 Kora Day 2 – North Face

Kora Day 3- Crossing Dolma La Pass …

Kora Day 4 From Zutrulpuk to Darchen

Our four day Parikrama of the Outer Kora (some 52 km) commenced from Darchen on Wednesday 12 September and finished on Saturday 15 September. Successfully completing this Kora over four days was the very purpose of our Kailash Yatra.

On the night of Tuesday 11 September, we went about our now established travel and packing routines but with one major difference. Each of us had to repack all of our clothing and other essentials in such a way that we could only use half the volume in a duffel bag with the other half to be shared with your spouse (or rooming partner of those men and women traveling as ‘singles’ in our group). The other bag was repacked with used clothes. Both these duffel bags were now going to be the cargo for the sturdy Yaks on the Parikrama.

Driving a short distance from our Darchen guest house, we arrived at the Kora’s starting point called Yamadwar (Tibetans call this gateway ‘Tarboche’ ), the gateway of the God of Death through which one enters the abode of Lord Shiva. The wilderness of this place, the arid rough terrain, the many dry ravines and steep inclines and dancing shadows of low hanging clouds at times unleash colours that one cannot find in other places.

We spent over an hour waiting for our ponies (mules) to arrive with their handlers. Soon thereafter Yaks were sighted and a few men to herd them with their cargo of our luggage- duffel bags, groceries, gas cylinder, stoves, pots and pans.

It is worthwhile recalling here that from the very early planning stages of our Kailash Yatra, our leader had instructed us all to only carry our bare essentials in our backpack, trekking poles and at least a litre of water. He had also insisted that each of us should hire an animal (US$565/- cash!) as there is no way to fetch one at short notice should we sprain an ankle or feel too tired to walk some 15-20 km each day while on the Kora.

After what seemed a protracted discussion, the horsemen agreed to carry our backpacks and from a lottery system, we got an animal and its keeper assigned to each of us. Being number 19, I had no choice but given the last of the four legged one. A Tibetan name of the horseman was provided in the slip with instructions that we are to keep it safe and get acquainted with the size, colour and gear of the animal and its handler! This it turned out to be a tough call in my case with a difficult to pronounce Tibetan name while my wife got it easy to remember her three letter horseman, the lovely young man Uri.

The last time I had been on a horseback was in Alberta, Canada at a classmate’s farm. They were huge farm horses while these- ponies, mules in Tibet, were much smaller. I decided that I would conserve energy and not walk on Day 1 of the Kora. Having paid some significant cash, why not enjoy a slow ride is what I thought!.

Getting atop the animal and sliding our trekking shoes between the stirrups was a tough ask. The art of swinging your right leg over the saddle was one to master and stiff hamstrings did not help.There are no reigns as such and one holds on to a semicircular handle that sits in front of the saddle. To my discomfort and many others, we found that the handle was too small for our gloved hands to go under and that barely two fingers could be used from each hand to hold on to our dear life on these animals!

The ride though was pleasant despite people advising me to expect sore backs and bums. Perhaps my fitness was up to scratch that I experienced no such discomfort and even began to enjoy the slow pace. My only regret was that I could not take photos while riding but found a way out. Young Tsering Sherpa agreed to take pictures and was given a quick lesson on composing and shooting in the automatic mode.

This leg of the Kora on substantially long stretches of gentle climb and descents was very pleasant. The weather that day was kind to us and those who preferred to walk kept good pace while those of us on our ponies did well to avoid falls and keep our balance, both mental and physical.

A pre-packed lunch consumed and the animals having earned their feed and rest, we hobbled back on to our respective animals and went ahead. I realised that mounting the pony was a lot easier than getting off it! Thanks to large boulders along the way, these served well as stepping blocks where needed.

We reached Dirapuk around 5 PM and there was plenty of light before the sun disappeared behind the clouds. In front of our rest house (yes, freight containers making up our dorm accommodation), rose majestically Mount Kailash. We were just a few kilometers, perhaps 6-7km or so from the North Face of the mountain. The morning program would take us closer, really a lot closer.

A hard day’s trek does demand at a minimum sound rest overnight so that we are all well prepared for the steep climb to the North Face. For reasons inexplicable, a number of us were denied our booked accommodation as the Tibetan agent at Dirapuk had us double booked and hence our sleeping quarters remained with the previous night’s occupants!

While heated arguments and reasoning were not helpful, we resigned to our fate that we need to have our dinner and somehow manage that night clear in the knowledge that we would be better placed for the second night’s stay at Dirapuk. Despite our discomfort and cramped sleeping arrangements, we did manage to snatch some rest and accept it all as part of a divine play.

The morning of Thursday 13 September felt special as this was the day when many of us were going a lot closer to HIM. With the medical team advising who can go on the steep climb and who cannot, everyone of us knew his/her capacity to take it on and hence there was no real drama. A small group of men and five ladies walked varying distances towards a look out point while the remaining in the19 went ahead with a few Sherpas.

The climb towards the North Face presented many a challenge adjacent a gushing stream, large boulders, the odd Yak and here and there ice a few inches thick. With a steady, slow and measured step in full view of the holy mountain in front of us, we were all drawn towards HIM by an unknown and unknowable power. One felt HIS presence and guiding hand, step by step.

Some three hours into our climb, the majority of us stopped saying we should stop here, say our prayers for Shiva, prostrate and have a lunch break. Even to get to this vintage proximity to the North Face, we had dodged warning flags along the way and taken a chance as the Sherpa head was confident that we could push ahead.

Three men of mental resolve and physical capacity aged below the mid-forties had decided to venture further with the Sherpas, one of whom carrying an ice axe. The call of Lord Shiva must have been unstoppable for these men as they gingerly walked another 3.5km or so across frozen crevices beating the arrival of a potential snow storm to reach the North Face. These men along with their Sherpas were the chosen few to touch the mountain and return to base safely, some two hours after we had returned to base.

That evening we celebrated Ganesh Chathurthi much like how the puja would have been done at home. Our leader had planned every small detail and one can only say that it was a blessing indeed to witness first hand his ‘shraddha’ right through the two hour session that included offering of traditional ‘modakas’ for Ganesha and the Telugu custom of telling stories on Ganesha.

Timed to perfection, one of our young yatrikas who had braved it all to reach the North Face had returned to base and joined us at the puja. He gave us a first person account of his experience in Telugu (with a brief summary in English thereafter) on how he felt some kind of magnetic aura around the holy mountain and that he had totally surrendered to HIM in his quest to get to HIS proximity.

By any account what all heard was the most stirring and spiritually laden moment of our entire yatra. Moist eyes and visible tears of spiritual emotion were beyond anyone’s control. It was indeed the defining first person narration I had heard even if the finer points of an alien language had escaped me.

The puja completed and the prasad taken, it was time for our Ganesha to be sent off on his journey (visarjan) down the stream flowing down from the North Face. Dinner followed, our Diamox taken and a peaceful night’s rest summoned.

As for me, I too had HIS blessing, retiring on a bed where I could close my eyes seeing HIM to my left and wake up in the morning looking up again at HIS majestic presence. I could not have asked for more.

Friday 14 September, our third day on the Kora was by all accounts going to be a challenge taking on Dolma La Pass at 5630m. I had decided to ride the pony that morning and not to take any chance. Many of our more able men had decided to continue with their walk of the Kora.

Over many a steep climb and long stretches of sheer beauty and winds that suddenly roared and as quietly disappeared in silence, each of us had kept our focus, the walkers on the next step forward while the riders either leaning forward while climbing or leaning back while descending. Even the poor animal needed to pause every now and then.

Closing in on the Dolma La Pass, we dismounted and walked up taking in the little lake of Gowri Kund to our right. The many prayer flags there fluttered to wind swept music of their own while yatrikas from other groups slowly made their way through the Pass just like us after passing through the glaciers.

The descent from Dolma La Pass is not for the faint hearted and weak of limbs. It is very very steep with loose soil and gravel that easily gives way calling for extreme caution and attention to every step down the incline. Eventually one gets to substantially easier terrain and the sight of a campsite at a distance warms our hearts with the prospect of a well earned break for lunch, water and protein nibbles.

During the last stage of the climb, I had lost my horseman and with him my backpack, wallet tucked away at the bottom, water bottle and camera. I was a bit concerned that he may have bolted and anxiety got the better of me till being reassured by Tsering Sherpa that the backpack would be safe and I need not worry. On reaching the campsite, I sought out my lad and he seemed totally at ease as if nothing had happened!

Our lunch was a samosa, a piece of cheese, apple and fruit drink, all consumed gratefully while the chocolate bar was happily taken by my horseman alongside a few pieces of chewing gum and protein bars and nuts. The walkers were trickling in and soon the assembly of orange Down Jackets signaled the group’s safe crossing of Dolma La Pass.

After our lunch break, some of us were back on our ponies while a few took to walking along with those who walked all day. Our evening destination of Zutrulpuk was some three hours away with us now on substantially low gradient climbs and descents. Though somewhat tired, one could not afford to go to sleep while on a saddle.

I must mention that it was only at the lunch break my wife advised me that she had taken a couple of low degree falls prior to Dolma La Pass and that she was fine despite a severe headache. The fear of falling off the animal had its upside effect on me of banishing sleep of any duration off my mind. Safety first, safety always were the rules to be adhered to at all times on a Kailash Yatra.

Speaking of safety, our leader now on his fourth Kora had the benefit of prior experience and had insisted that we all wear a helmet while riding the pony. My wife unbeknown to me had removed her helmet as it was aggravating her persistent headache. I was none too pleased with her defense as you would expect protective spouses to be!

We arrived at Zutrulpuk a little after 4.30PM and our logistics folks had their task cut out, thankfully this time with adequate beds averaging four per room.  Of the two places with bare minimum overnight accommodation- Dirapuk and Zutrulpuk, this place came a distant second! Even the Tibetan public facilities were obnoxiously filthy and hence the call for our private toilet tents were made at the earliest.

The Yaks in their wisdom had decided to give our bags a rough treatment. Several of our duffel bags arrived with completely ripped sides and smeared with dung, dust and grime. Thankfully, most of us stuck to the discipline of packing our belongings in plastic storage bags which endured rather well their ride on Yaks. Finding replacement or spare duffel bags we were advised was not going to be a show stopper.

Dinner that evening saw the welcome return of our soup laced with garlic that we had missed earlier. With a few still enduring a relentless headache, the medical team advised that where possible, the spouses must be with each other. This no doubt was more of a well thought through recipe for recovery and it worked well.

My wife outlined her rationale now for not wearing a helmet saying her two falls took her sideways and that her head was not anywhere near the ground! Our rooming partner, calm and collected at all times offered just a few words: ‘I happen to know a little about head injuries as a neuro-surgeon’. You can bet your bottom dollar that my wife’s helmet was now going to be on her head for the last leg of the Kora!

The final day’s trek from Zutrulpuk to Darchen was relatively easy with the hills to our right and the river to our left with steep gorges at many places over the 14km stretch.The Kora path reduces significantly in width with sign posts urging people to dismount and walk.

I had decided to walk the entire distance given that I had had enough of riding. Besides, I wanted to take a few pictures now that we were on the home stretch back to our starting town of Darchen.

On arriving at our finishing point, we parted with the animals and handlers who had to return for their next Kora. With the four day trek now complete, our phone/cameras were on overdrive with pictures being snapped of the now successful 19 yatrikas and accompanying team of Sherpas.

A few in our group were not done yet and decided to walk back to the town of Darchen which was a few kilometers away while the rest of us were content with our mission accomplished and to get sooner into the relative luxury of a more acceptable place of overnight rest.

At Darchen we discovered that we needed to find alternative accommodation as the plumbing was a problem at the place we stayed earlier. Luckily, an alternative venue was found shortly after we had taken our packed lunch.

The evening saw us celebrate our leader’s birthday. It was only fitting that it also doubled up as as an evening to rejoice given  the successful completion of the four day Kailash Outer Kora.

(Continued .. Part 14 -Final Part ..https://turtledge.wordpress.com/2018/09/30/australian-kailash-yatra-part-14-returning-to-pasupathinath-temple-kathmandu-final-part-14-14/ )