During the August Bank Holiday, we made a short trip to a place called Skanda Vale. It is situated in a remote place in Carmarthen, a south west Welsh county. Due to engineering works the travel to Carmarthen was split into three parts. First was the Great Western Railway journey from London Paddington to New Port. From there the replacement bus journey to Cardiff Central. This took more than the allotted time because of the busy roads in Cardiff due to the Pride Parade. We got just in time for our Arriva train which departed from Cardiff Central to Carmarthen. It is a very small train (2/3 coaches only) and passes via a lot of Welsh places. So unless you are early you might not get any place to sit. Thankfully we got one close to the doors.
We had our cottage booked with Joy’s Cottage. She maintains more than two places and luckily we got the one much closer to the ashram. The other cottages are little further away and you might have to arrange for a transport to take you to the ashram. The entrance which is a minute or two walks from the cottage looks like this.
From here it is a 10-minute walk to the actual gates of the ashram. The path looks like this.
The ashram people own these properties. They own close to three farms and are self-sustained. We are not allowed to use the phones inside the ashram which involves the areas from the main gate. So I don’t have any photographs for you but there are loads on the website of theirs and I am sure lots of other people who chose to defy that request would have posted it too.
We stayed for three days there. Our schedule was like breakfast in the cottage at 7 am,
a) breakfast in the cottage at 7 am
b) walk to the ashram by 8.30 am
c) attend the Ranganatha Temple Pooja by 8.45 am. The pooja starts at 9.30 am. On Tuesdays, they have the maha abhisheka so the Pooja might be extended until 11.45 am
d) have a snack at the stall in the entrance.
e) get in the queue for the Subramanya Temple Pooja by 12.30 am. The pooja starts at 1.30 pm
f) Lunch at 2 / 3 pm (depending on the day and the pooja type. Sundays they have the maha abhisheka for Lord Subramanya)
g) Wait until 5.15 pm and start walking uphill (a 15-20 min walk) to the Maha Shakthi Temple.
h) Attend pooja at the Shakthi Temple at 6 pm
i) Come back down for Dinner by 7.30 pm/8.30 pm (Saturday evenings they have maha abhisheka for Shakthi)
j) Walk back to the cottage by 8.15/8.30 pm
This was our schedule for three days. It was intended to be a short pilgrimage in lieu of Mr M’s upcoming birthday. It felt like a spiritual cleansing.
The food is free in the temple. They expect you to attend the pooja and then get the free food as the prasad (God’s offerings). They don’t expect you to pay any money at all. But if you can provide any donations in the form of food or items that can be used in their day to day life (like toilet rolls, tissues, incense, etc…) they accept it gladly. This place is like a monastery for various forms of God but consists mainly of priests who follow Hinduism. The temple is run by priests who look like monks who are all Europen or English (none of them is of any Asian origin at all), wear clothes like the Christian Monks and pair it up with a Rudraksha chain.
Most of the visitors we saw were either of Asian-Indian or Asian-Srilankan origin. People come there to do volunteering like parking control, set up stalls and sell snacks at very less price and donate the proceedings to the temple or their hospice. All the visitors bring loads of food items like cooking oil, rice, wheat flour, fruits, dry fruits, vegetables etc, which are offered to God and then served as part of daily meals. The ashram has their own farm lands and a few animals (we didn’t get to meet the elephant though) and no additional people to carry out the day to day maintenance work. Every single ashram people do everything ranging from cleaning the place (including the toilets) to doing the pooja. It is their form of life. They have no place for money in their lives.
They also run a hospice care called Skanda Vale Hospice, which is again a free service that they do use the donations and offerings of the volunteers and devotees. This is the only place they take money as donations because it goes into building a better place to take care of inpatients.
Mr M had been here a couple of times but for me, this was my first visit. I loved the place, even though you do not get any mobile network in and around that area (may be some in the entrance, if you want to call a taxi, and some near the Shakthi temple). The cottage had some WiFi but no network. We had to arrange for the taxi (Chris’s Cars) when we got dropped off, just in case we couldn’t find any network later. Thankfully the taxi was on time for the pickup back to the Carmarthen station after three days of our R & R which was more spiritual in nature.
Photos and mobile phones are prohibited inside the ashram because they want everyone who visits this place to consider it as a pilgrimage and not as a tourist destination. But there were so many people who chose to disregard that (one even went to the extent of arguing with a volunteer who requested the visitor to turn the phone off) which was sad actually. Since it was a bank holiday there was a huge influx of visitors, which we hadn’t expected. Looks like there are many group tours which include this place as part of their attractions. It would have been nicer if they followed the concepts of queues and the restrictions of mobile phones. Otherwise, we had a very good time and the food prepared was so tasty and healthy that we came back a kilo or two heavier.
Since this place is at a higher altitude, it does get colder in the evenings. The weather was amazing during our visit, but I am not sure how it will be in winter. If you happen to visit, just keep a check on the cottages and the mode of travel, especially if you are arriving there by public transport. Also since the mobile network is very sketchy, you might want to check with the cottage for WiFi in case you want to check in later at night. Also, try and attend all the poojas.
This was my birthday gift to Mr M since he will be reaching his big 5 soon. As for me, it was a pleasant experience, even though I couldn’t take many photographs of the place. But I compensated it with the various bird photography at the cottage. It was a beautiful cottage and we were the only ones staying at that time. Imagine a 4 bedroom cottage with a properly maintained garden all to yourself in the middle of a farm land along with a stream running through it. It was heavenly. We will definitely be going there again when we expect the crowd to be minimal 😉