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Goenkaji First Steps Foot on the Land

By | 3/29/2024

December 16, 1973, was the last day of my first meditation course at the Bhatia Sanatorium, a resort in nearby Deolali. That day, we new students learned that Goenkaji was looking for land, not too far from Mumbai, for a Vipassana centre. After breakfast, Bhojraj Sancheti and I met with him and suggested that there were some properties in nearby Igatpuri that might be suitable. We requested Guruji to pause on his way to Mumbai and visit them for a few minutes later that day. At first he declined, but then gave in to our entreaties. We were happy to hear this and broke the news to our fellow students. Most were heading elsewhere, but after learning of Guruji's intention, one of them, Rangil Mehta, a friend of Bhojraj, revised his plans and offered to give us a lift to Igatpuri since he too was headed to Mumbai.

Ahead of Goenkaji, Bhojraj-ji and I departed Deolali with Rangilbhai, his son and his business manager. When we five reached Igatpuri, Bhojraj notified two other friends, Zumberlal and Hanumantram Navandar, both old students, who also brought their friend, Roopchand Sali. At Bhojraj's house we all awaited Guruji's arrival. His car soon appeared and he came inside for tea that the family had prepared. There, Guruji asked me, "Do you also live here?" “No,” I replied. “I live nearby.” Then, in front of everyone, and much to my embarrassment, he said, “He meditated seriously during the course and understands meditation well.”

After tea we left in the two cars to visit the prospective sites, with the Navandars and Mr. Sali following in a taxi. We drove first to a large, vacant plot where the Mahindra Auto Engine Plant was subsequently built. However the site did not meet with Guruji's approval, nor did the second one we visited. Then we went to check on a property on a hill on the western outskirts of town. As we approached, the road turned into a rough and bumpy track, and finally we could go no further. We got out of the cars and continued on foot until we came to where the Vipassana Research Institute bookstore stands today.

Access road to Dhamma Giri circa 1980. (Photo by Steve Griffin)

Guruji stopped and looked around. Further ahead we could see two old stone bungalows, a spacious but neglected godown (warehouse) and a small shed. The only vegetation consisted of 15 or so mature mango trees and some native shrubs. Someone asked, "Guruji, you are looking for a place for a centre, isn't it?" With full confidence Guruji replied, “No, the looking is over. This place has been waiting for us.”

From where we stood, we could clearly see that a cremation was under way at the foot of the hill. Questioned whether a centre should develop so close to a cremation ground, Guruji replied, “Actually, it's a good thing. When meditators see it they will be reminded of anicca, that this is where we are all going to end up.” Then Rangilbhai spoke: “Guruji, if you like this place, whatever it costs will be my donation.” Within those few minutes it was decided.

After a while Guruji and his driver drove away. A farmer named Tukaram was living with his family as caretakers on the adjacent property. In response to our inquiries, he sent us to Fazle Hussain, a local businessman who had a pharmacy in town. Mr. Hussain informed us that the seven-hectare property was owned by a trust in Mumbai. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers with him and Rangilbhai noted all the details.

After arriving in Mumbai, Rangilbhai met with the managers of the trust, discussed the Igatpuri site and asked for its price. After some discussion they settled on 70,000 rupees. To demonstrate his commitment, Rangilbhai straightaway wrote a cheque as a deposit towards the purchase. At that time, who could have imagined that in future this barren hilltop would become the main centre of Vipassana worldwide, a place that would help relieve the suffering of countless human beings.

Apparently, the property had originally been the office of a local government administrator, after that a mission school, and later a spectacles factory, but it had been deserted for the last two decades or so. When the land was acquired in 1973, the only source of water was a well at the bottom of the hill. There was no electricity, nor was there a telephone line.

Over the years, as student numbers continued to grow, adjoining properties were gradually added to the original 7 hectares until there are now 38. Within the academy, four separate facilities operate that can altogether accommodate 750 people: Dhamma Giri; the long-course centres, Tapovan-1 and Tapovan 2; and the short-course centre in the Vipassana Research Institute area. There are various offices and workshops, three state-of-the-art kitchens, six dining halls, 13 meditation halls of varying sizes, and three pagodas that contain a total of about 500 cells.

Looking back 50 years, how things have changed! For almost all of this journey, Dhamma Giri had the benefit of Guruji and Mataji's wise guidance and tireless energy, and received contributions, both financial and in service, from tens of thousands of dedicated meditators. Guruji used to say, "I have but two hands. All this has been accomplished because innumerable hands have contributed to our Dhamma mission."


Editor’s Note: This post is the first in an ongoing series, A Dhamma Giri Diary, comprised of remembrances that together offer a first-hand account of the initial few years that followed the 1974 purchase of the barren hilltop that became the first Indian Vipassana center, Dhamma Giri, in Igatpuri, Maharashtra. Narayan Dasarwar, who was there from day one, reflects on his association with S.N. Goenka, the principal teacher, the development of the center, and some of the individuals who helped make it possible. The Pariyatti Journal is grateful to Narayan for sharing his personal account of life at Dhamma Giri.

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