CORDES-SUR-CIEL, France — In the medieval southern French village, which sits in the clouds above the valley, is a temple — of sorts — dedicated to the mystic Ma Ananda Moyi. Cordes-sur-Ciel is a quaint tourist town and it is odd to discover this strange creation. If one doesn’t know it is there, the house on the corner of La Halle, could easily be overlooked as just one of the many old stone buildings on the winding cobbled streets.
But step inside and one is treated to a hand-made labyrinthian creation — part shrine, part art project — that occupies every room.
The house belongs to Jean-Jacques Enjalbert, a rally car racing driver who, on a trip to Paris, discovered a book and had a revelation which led him to buy a plane ticket to India where he discovered the teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi (also known as Sri Anandamayi Ma).
Born in Bengal, now Bangladesh, on April 30, 1896, she was an Indian spiritual leader. Anandamayi translates “joy-permeator,” a name given to her by her devotees in the 1920s to describe what they saw as her habitual state of divine joy and bliss.
The website of her teachings states, “The mysterious aloofness of her personality was totally beyond human understanding and yet it was so tempered by her compassionate love for all living creatures that she seemed closer than the most indulgent friend ever could be.”
As a child, religious chanting would cause Anandamayi to enter an ecstatic state, and she would claim to see figures leaving and reentering religious statues. At the age of 13 she married Ramani Mohan Cakravarti or Bholanath as he was known. It was a celibate marriage though not by her husband’s choice.
“When thoughts of sexuality occurred to Bholanath, Anandamayi’s body would take on the qualities of death and she would grow faint. He had to repeat mantras to bring her back to normal consciousness. Sometimes in such situations, her body would become distorted in various ways or it would stiffen. She later said that she had given her husband spontaneous electrical shocks when he touched her the wrong way. Bholanath thought the situation was temporary but it proved to be permanent. His relatives said he should remarry but he did not follow their advice. Later, Bholanath took initiation from her and accepted Anandamayi as his guru,” according to om.guru.com.
Anandamayi was a holy woman without formal religious training who emphasized the importance of detachment from the world and religious devotion. She also encouraged her devotees to serve others.
After his experience, Enjalbert returned to Cordes-sur-Ciel where bought, renovated and sold properties. However, in the house on La Halle, his renovation took a very different shape. The house is full of cedar sculptures that reflect the open circle, a mystical symbol. The house has an organic feel with the sculptures merging with concrete and other structures as one goes into a darkened grotto-like basement, and climbs to the upper floors of the house. Visitors may interact with the sculptures — the egg in which one can curl up, an armchair, even a coffin. And all around are photographs, writings and teachings of Anandamayi
As I wandered through the house, trying to take in the massive amount of visual stimuli, I could not help thinking of local artists Charlie Stagg and Herman Hugg, both now dead, who would have found kinship in the artistic installation.
To discover this installation among the medieval streets is both fascinating and slightly confusing. It is as though one steps through a portal into a timeless space on a journey to who knows where.
In “Le Grande Vide” (“The Great Void”), Enjelbert writes, “The relationship is eternal between the divine and the man, but in its game sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it is broken or rather seems broken. In this eternal relationship you can enter at any time.”
To enter his exploration of the relationship, simply step from the cobbled street into a mystical world of wonder.
All photos by Andy Coughlan