The Shakti of Bhakti!

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“My feet are tired but my soul is rested”, beautiful words from Gandhi, described our state of being even as we struggled to walk that ‘last mile’ to reach the Nature Cure Ashram where friends from the Vinoba Ashram at Pavnar had invited us for staying over at night.  It was nothing short of a miracle for us to have just completed a 35-kilometer walking pilgrimage from Pune to Saswad in rather scorching heat as part of the annual Pandharpur waari.  Perhaps it was the Shakti of Bhakti (the power of faith) that kept us going through an incredible daylong journey.

 

Growing up in Maharashtra, one cannot miss the annual pilgrimage that takes place from Alandi to Pandharpur.  Popularly called as ‘waari’, it is a tradition that goes back to over 700 years and draws over a million people annually to walk a distance of about 250 kilometers spread over 18 days through villages, towns and cities.  This year, we felt a spontaneous call to join-in the pilgrimage even if for a short time, and to really understand the spirit of this walk that has just passed us by for so many years.  No definite plan, no particular agenda, not really knowing much, we just ‘took the plunge in the river’, and got completely soaked in its flow of amazing generosity, bhakti and the celebration of life.

 

Accompanied by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (warkaris), it truly felt like we were being part of a river—a river that would eventually dissolve in the ocean of faith and humanity when over a million pilgrims conclude their journey at the Vitthal temple in Pandharpur.  Innumerable tributaries representing various saints and their teachings come from the tiniest of villages scattered across the rural landscape of Maharashtra to join this river.  Every soul was welcome and the river simply embraced every pilgrim with open arms, washing away any apparent distinctions of socio-economic class, caste or gender.

 

 

We met with many elderly folks who have been coming on this waari for several decades.  One grandma in her eighties chuckled, “my family worries about me as they think that I cannot do this any longer. But, every year, I just can’t help it, as my whole being feels the call to walk!”. Another tiny grandma in her 80′s when asked how long she had been walking, kindly looked me in the eye and said, “Why bother with numbers. Just chant His name and walk His path”

 

It was very moving to see a physically-disabled man on a hand-operated bicycle as he cycled along with unknown fellow pilgrims offering help whenever he needed a push uphill.  There were small kids, families—large and small, women walking barefoot, doctor’s group, nature lovers’ group and even service groups like Rotarians taking a dip in the pilgrim’s river!

 

A sense of camaraderie and fellowship naturally flowed amongst people, as they greeted each other by calling each other ‘mauli’ (mother)— invoking their mutual respect and reverence for Saint Dnyaneshwara whom they regard as a motherly figure for having bestowed upon them the wisdom and knowledge of universal peace.  The boundaries of age and social standing disappeared as the pilgrims would touch other’s feet and seek blessings from one another.

 

Sant Dnyaneshwara the patron saint of this walk, was lovingly called Mauli (Mother) for having bestowed the wisdom and knowledge of universal peace upon the world. A beautiful tradition of this waari is that the pilgrims refer to each other as also Mauli, as a way of acknowledging and bowing down to the divine in each other. In a very touching moment, as we stood praying outside a temple, an old grandma coming out of the temple, bent down to touch my feet and before I could respond, she happily glided away to join her friends. Around the same time, a flowering tree overhead sent down a shower of flowers upon us as if saying “I honor the Divine in you”. Something melted in the heart space, as tears of gratitude flowed freely and the mind became still.

 

It was interesting to see how there was no authority or hierarchy that was trying to ‘control’ the flow of the river. Self-organizing and self-discipline seemed to prevail as pilgrims from all walks of life had showed up without anyone inviting them to be part of this sacred journey.  When asked what brings them to the this pilgrimage year after year, many expressed that they get tremendous ‘samaadhaan’ (sense of contentment) from joining the waari.   We were simply awestruck thinking of how powerful that seed of faith must have been, which has kept this tradition alive and thriving even several centuries after it must have originated.

 

As this endless stream of pilgrims passed through innumerable cities and villages, overwhelming generosity was offered to those walking the journey.  Unlimited amount of tea, water, bananas, sweets and food flowed freely from the locals to the pilgrims. It seemed as if everyone along the way wanted to contribute their own bit to this flow.  We enjoyed receiving simple warm breakfast cooked with love by a family that we had never met. Everywhere we saw people opening up their homes to pilgrims for food, bathing and resting.  All along the way, simple folks like barbers, cobblers and tailors offered their services as a gift to those in need. Keeping up with the modern times, some even offered free mobile phone charging service. Even local politicians, business people, government officials, police forces, social service organizations teamed up to be of service in various innovative ways.  Free medical service was made available all the time.

 

The forest department in Saswad had over 50,000 paper bags filled with seeds of various fruit trees and medicinal plants which were being handed out to the pilgrims—requesting them to plant those seeds along the journey.  There were groups performing street-plays and promoting awareness on organic farming.  Another group from the Pavnar Ashram was distributing copies of Geeta and offering public discourses on the topic.

 

After having just climbed up a long mountain stretch, our feet quite exhausted, we were pleasantly surprised to receive the gift of a foot massage from trained volunteers. About a 100 these volunteers had turned up from a nearby city to sit in the hot sun with a bottle of oil to lovingly massage the feet of the pilgrims. How healing and rejuvenating it felt to be at the receiving end of such love. Was reminded of a beautiful quote from The Prophet  as I saw these volunteers selflessly serve: “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself, that you truly give”. Grateful for this gift, I volunteered to press the feet of the next pilgrim in line, inspired to pass on the love I had just received.

 

Whenever we expressed interest in learning more about the bhakti tradition, seasoned warkaris very enthusiastically shared their songs, stories and experiences.  An old grandfather, ended up offering us his personal prayer book containing songs and hymns (bhajans and abhangas) of Saint Tukaram.

 

Thoughout the walk, spontaneous chants of “Gyanba, Tukaram”, “Vitthal, Vitthal” and “Jai Jai Ram Krishna Hari” resounded in the air. Singing and dancing to the tune of soulful bhakti songs eased our legs and brought alive a sense of collective celebration. It was amazing to see men and women pair up to a spontaneous phugadi dance or following rhythmic steps to the sound of drum-beats and cymbals. Flags, multi-colored outfits, sarees, Gandhi topis, dhotis, flowers, every little thing added its own charm and beauty to the multi-pronged gathering.

 

After experiencing ‘a day in the life of warkaris’, we returned home–our bodies completely exhausted, our clothes soiled yet our spirit feeling cleansed and calmed!

 

With deep humility and gratitude in our hearts for the countless pilgrims we encountered along the way, we would like to offer a collection of photographs (slideshow) and this week’s Maitri Tune dedicated to the spirit of kindness and Bhakti.  In the future, we wish to be able to walk the full length of the pilgrimage and would certainly welcome more like-hearted souls to join us on this walking university of life!

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Of pilgrim hearts, travellers and magicians!

It was a calling from within for both of us to visit this sacred land and walk with humility and faith into its heart full of love. As we prepared to board our flight, we were excited and completely clueless of the many magical experiences awaiting us in this land of thunder dragons.

Since we wished to travel as pilgrims, we did not do any prior bookings for accommodation and went with trust that we would be looked after by the universe. As if to affirm our faith, just before we reached Bhutan, we received an email from a young Mexican girl named Gaby, who has been volunteering in Thimphu for the last few months at The Gross National Happiness Centre. She received an email from a common friend connecting us and immediately invited us to stay with her throughout our trip in Bhutan. We were so humbled by this divine grace just at the beginning of our journey, and as each day unfolded with magic in its wake, we couldn’t help but bow down to all the serendipities of the universe.
Our angel Gaby connected us to so many wonderful souls in Bhutan, that by the end of our stay we were literally bumping into a dozen folks as we walked the streets and felt so much at home there.

Interestingly, we had many common ties with Gaby including a surprising dissertation she did on ‘Service Space’ as a project in college :) She was keen to know more about community and service and was raring to try out a few experiences. She had read about the Awakin gatherings and was curious to host one herself. Given her beautiful home and our enthusiasm just at the mention of a chance to sit in stillness with new friends was the spark to set off many beautiful moments with the kin in Bhutan.
As we prepared her home for a wednesday evening, both of us started feeling so full of joy at this wonderful opportunity to cook, decorate the home and serve our brothers and sisters there. Gaby invited many friends and after an hour of silence and some beautiful reflections, as we ate an Indian meal, many people came up and shared how unique and wonderful this experience was for them. Dr. Ha Vinh Tho, the director of the Gross National Happiness Centre and long time meditator shared from his experiences and his wife Lizzy recited a beautiful poem from her heart. We expressed gratitude towards Gaby for opening her heart and home to all of us. This first Awakin gathering, set the tone for many such circles of maitri and love that moved us beyond words.

As we sat for our third wednesday at Gaby’s home, at the end of the hour, the living room was jam packed with almost 25 people who had heard of the gathering and turned up to experience it themselves. We couldnt help but notice how beings just gravitate towards love and community so effortlessly. The circle had some wonderful sharings on love, loss and kindness. A young girl of 18, Choney shared her wonderful moments with her grandfather and how his loss had affected her and yet another shared the impact of a close friend’s suicide on her life and how she had shifted to viewing her life as a gift. A beautiful soul Sonam teared up at the memory of her father’s accident and immediately her 8 year old daughter Dezaad who had patiently sat through the silence wiped her tears and also sang a beautiful song for all of us. A reformed ex-convict and drug addict came with his mentor and shared his life story of transformation which touched all of us very deeply.

A beautiful lady, Kunzang, who was the G.M of an elite resort in Thimphu was so moved by the experience that she invited us to have a similar gathering for her managers at the resort. As we stepped into the beautiful premises and were taking in the beauty of the gardens, trees and the river flowing by the property, we were led to a serene room where cushions were arranged in a circle and candles lit all around. As we took our seat, with 15 of the hotel managers, our hearts were at home. An insightful passage by Satish Kumar, sparked many interesting sharings within the group. The first person to share burst into tears and spoke of her late father which moved everyone to tears, another spoke of how she would like to serve human beings instead of following rituals in a temple and yet another spoke of Gandhi and Buddha’s teachings which he is trying to apply in his daily life. Kunzang herself spoke of a bad phase in her life and how meditations at the local Deer Park Center had helped her overcome the situation. Over a mouthwatering traditional Bhutanese meal, some more stories of love and compassion were shared and we left the space a couple hours later with love in our hearts and deep joy within.
Another wonderful soul, Madam Deki, The founder of a very unique school in Thimphu called The Early Learning center invited us to do a circle of laughter, silence and sharing with her teachers at the school. As soon as Sheetal started the circle of sharing asking everyone to introduce themselves not by their official names, but by the first endearing name they were called by their parents or family while growing up, every individual in the room teared up as they recollected memories associated with their childhood names. As barriers thawed and the group started sharing, laughing, crying we realized the invisible powers of these circles as they allow relatively unknown beings to share from their deepest recesses and become family for life. Madam Deki called it mutual illumination and truly that’s what it was..

Our last day in Bhutan was once again a circle organized by all the wonderful people we spent time with there and it was beautiful to see everyone turn up, to once again sit together and share..share their love, share their smiles, share their sorrows, share their meals and share humanity..the link that binds us all..the link that makes us who we are..simple..profound..intense and magical all at once.

Before you enter the temple, forgive!

 

Having heard many legends of Drukpa Kunley, lovingly called the Divine Madman of the Himalayas, we were called to pay our respects at the Chimi La Khang temple also known as Temple of the Divine Madman. As we made our way towards the temple, we passed through a beautiful village full of vibrant scenes depicting the splendour of the rural Bhutan life.

Lush green fields of rice, traditionally designed simple homes, hardworking farmers, lazy cows grazing and innumerable prayer flags fluttering in the wind and spreading vibrations of peace throughout time and space all came together to transport us into another world.

After a good one hour of meandering through the village, we reached the welcoming entrance of the temple bedecked with colorful flowering trees in bloom. As I took in this sight, I felt a great peace descend in my being, along with a small, still inner voice that said, ‘Before you enter the temple, forgive’. Continue reading

Les and Mor: karma yogis on steroids

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As part of the process of the Gift Circle last week, we were asked to state a gift that we wish to receive from the Universe.

Khushmita asked that we find someone who can help us set up a simple, rodent free composting system at home. Chintan who was part of the circle, wrote to Leslie and Mayuree if they could help. And they enthusiastically responded “Yes!”

Yesterday, these two angels bussed down 4 hours from Mumbai to set up a kitchen and dry leave composting system for us. After working all day in the hot sun, we literally had to pull them inside for dinner at 7 30 pm as they were still in the backyard working in the dark.

Over some deep conversations, Karoona shared that she was deeply touched by the simple songs of love, peace and oneness that they were chanting as they worked.

Today morning as I dropped them off at 5 am to the bus stand, I felt deep gratitude for their spirit of service and consistent generosity. Actually, I was up last night wondering how can I ever repay such generosity, and a still voice within me said “just smile, receive gracefully, and play it forward joyfully.”

Dearest karma yogi’s, “Les and Mor”, thank you for this wonderful gesture.. It rekindled the flame of selfless kindness within me and I am grateful for it all..

Gift Circles

GIFT= Giving In Full Trust

“To live in the gift is to relinquish the compulsion to control, the program to label and number the world, the quest for reductionist certainty, the drive to convert the world into money and property.”

“You can’t make community without gifts. Community is woven from gifts and stories.” – Charles Eisenstein

The community at the Urban Ashram greatly enjoyed the opportunity to host a special guest for three days this month—Charles Eisenstein, the author of several books including ‘Sacred Economics’, ‘The Ascent of Humanity’ and ‘A More Beautiful World that Our Heart Knows is Possible’.

Charles has been a strong advocate for the (material) de-growth movement and a proponent of a more equitable, natural way of living and being based on the ideals of gift culture and spiritual oneness with all.  He shares deep respect for the traditional, indigenous societies of the East, especially India where such practices have been part of the culture for thousands of years.

Apart from an Spirited circle of sharing and some of the most insightful conversations shared with Charles, we had a taste of the ‘more beautiful world our heart knows is possible’ when he facilitated a ‘Gift Circle’ for an intimate gathering of 15 people on his last day in town.  The idea was simple—people started off with two minutes of silence and reflection upon what their genuine needs were at that point of time in their lives.  They also spent time thinking about the gifts they would like to offer to anyone  ready to receive them—material, or otherwise.

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The circle was then opened up for sharing.  It was amazing to see the range of needs from the immediate, simplest ones to long term, more complex ones emerge from the group. One of the participants in the circle simply asked for blessings for a new relationship with a man she loves.  Another young woman was looking for someone who could help her with writing her career profile.

The Ashram has been looking for people who can help set up a herbal garden and a rodent-free composting system in the surrounding premises as well as a ‘divine cook’ who simply enjoys cooking for the visiting pilgrims who pass through the Ashram everyday.  A friend from Canada, who has been a regular at the Ashram since the last four years, asked for specific help with ‘figuring out’ the Indian Railways website. There were young people looking for life-partners, a ‘home of their own’, contacts in publishing industry and work opportunities in educational settings, ideas around making their vision for sustainable living spaces possible, assistance with not-so-smooth relationships with parents etc.

Appreciating the scientific aspects of water as a ‘living organism’, Charles was very impressed with the round earthen matkaas that are commonly used in India for holding drinking water.  He expressed his wish to have them made accessible to his family and friends back in America.  Khushmita’s mother, having lived a very fulfilled life, had no major needs, except for her dentures to be fixed at the dentist that evening!

Being able to articulate and openly express our genuine needs to a group of people in a trusted space was in itself quite a healing experience.

The energy in the circle was one of gratitude and service.  People seemed eager to offer their heart-felt gifts. Immediate tangibles were spontaneously offered such as a pen with a quote by Gandhi and laminated pictures of Rumi’s poetry in breathtakingly beautiful calligraphy. Some of the other offerings came in the form of a farmland space to explore and experiment with alternative ideas, contacts in specific fields of interest and places or Yoga classes specific to certain ailments.  The intangible offerings such as receiving genuine smiles, blessings, and simply having someone to talk with as a trusted mentor seemed like the most invaluable gifts coming from the group.

The Ashram also received a volunteer stepping up to set-up a herbal garden and composting system for the sacred space.  Our Canadian friend was thrilled to find a tutor to walk her through the Indian Railways website.  People had this genuine feeling that everyone’s need should be met in the best possible way, almost as if your need is my need too!  This created a sense of oneness amongst the participants.  One of the participants could not control her tears as she broke down, overwhelmed with gratitude for the Urban Ashram space that has nurtured her journey.

Very spontaneously the participants gifted each other a hug at the close of the circle.  Smiles, stories, food and hugs…the evening turned out to be another magical one at the Ashram. Thanks to Charles for introducing Gift Circle to all of us…we pay it forward by sharing this with you all!

Here is a three-minute video that may offer more ideas around hosting a Gift Circle:

http://youtu.be/aUPZvU1y_v0

In gratitude,

Vipul, Chintan, Khushmita and Sheetal

ps: The next day, after the Gift Circle, one of the participants took Khushmita’s mother to her parent’s clinic, both renowned dentists and got her dentures fixed. The bill read “zero” and asked the recepient to pay-it-forward!

Spirited Circle with Charles Eisenstein

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Last Wednesday, the community at Urban Ashram had the good fortune to host an inspiring talk by Charles Eisenstein, renowned author, speaker and de-growth activist, as part of the Spirited Circle series of talks.

As part of the proceedings, we started the evening with an hour of silence, followed by Charles’ sharing and some Q&A. Over 50 pilgrim hearts had the opportunity to listen to Charles share his ideas, engage in conversation with him and participate in a group activity. Post that all the guests enjoyed a home-cooked meal that had been cooked by an enthusiastic team of volunteers who also found time to decorate the space with beautiful flower rangolis.

Charles

Our friends Vipul Shaha and Kathryn Scarfone who joined us that evening have jotted some of the special highlights from that talk and offer them here in the spirit of sharing.

Vipul shares:

* I loved the group process that Charles led us into wherein he divided the participants into two groups. One group was from the present times, and the other group was from the year 2114. He then paired one person from 2014 with another person from 2114, and that “future person” had to answer any questions we may have about the state of the world a century hence.  Interestingly, there was much optimism about the future. No need for money, for heartless jobs, competition, wars, hunger. The ‘artificially created scarcity’ would not exist and abundance would thrive once again, was the tone from some of the participants sharing their interactions.

* We heard Charles expressing regret in an almost apologetic sense about the effects of Western colonization and capitalism. He spoke about human arrogance in trying to control, manipulate and dominate the natural world; also the flip-side of science and technology with its linear, fragmentary, and reductionist approach accelerating the crisis of modern times. He offered this picture in contrast to Eastern philosophies of holistic living and perceiving interconnectedness, the oneness of all beings. He was also cautious of not being another white guy trying to profess what needs to be done in the developing world and yet again fall into the trap of the colonizing mindset. He simply confessed: “We do not know any better. I am in India to learn from this land.”

* Chalres was comfortable with ‘not knowing the answers’. He repeatedly said that he did not know the way out of the current mess. However, he said that we do know that we cannot continue to pretend that the same old ways of doing things will solve the problems. His analogies were interesting. One of them was about trying to run faster and faster in the maze, in the hope of trying to get out of it. Instead of that, slowing down and trying to hear the song of the heart might help one come out the maze.

*I was struck by the idea that when a rainforest is cut down, or species of birds and animals are being wiped out, a part of me is also dying because we’re made up of the same universal consciousness.

* Charles remarked that 90% of consumption in the West, and increasingly in the East, is unnecessary. We can be happy with less. Material de-growth is what is imminent but that’s just too radical, and is being laughed away in political, economic forums. He also mentioned a study in Boston wherein millionaires with an average of $77 million were still feeling insecure about their wealth and stating that they needed at least 25% more in order to feel secure!

*What also resonated with me was the emphasis on the need for healing from our deepest wounds by disrupting the old paradigm with the power of love, trust, generosity, and small acts of kindness.

* Charles mentioned that the old story is getting weaker by the day. In the West, people are realizing the futility/impossibility of pursuing the infinite growth paradigm, so they’ve begun looking eastwards in search of ancient philosophies, and spiritual laws. This is where hope is!

Kathryn offers the following reflection:

“Charles invited us to imagine the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. As I wake up and bow to the beauty that we are surrounded by – discovering a deep gratitude for all that is, Charles suggests that an even more beautiful world is possible. I wonder, is this greed? Is this an attachment to a world that does not exist? Are we not meant to practice accepting things are they truly are, and not impose how we want them to be?

With these questions circling in my mind, my heart calls out while I imagine the possibility of this world. My inner bodhisattva knows we are deeply connected to all that is, and for as long as there is suffering around us, our work here is not complete – we are called to serve. A grief sets in and a warrior spirit takes over, not one ready to fight for the future but one ready to defend the option that this world is possible.

My heart calls me to action – to devoting my life to making choices in the direction of this more beautiful world. How can we continue to create this world? Do we follow the spiritual path of going inward, and focusing all energy on changing ourselves - or do we react to the urgency of the global maladies at hand and take immediate action? In shifting our perspectives and understanding of the world from a view of separateness to one of inter being, we are reminded that neither this inner spiritual path, nor the activist path alone is sufficient to create this world.

Charles proposes a path where these two meet, blend, and our practice becomes one of responding to the present – with a readiness to walk whichever path presents itself as necessary in that moment. My heart knows that this world is possible – and I am in deep gratitude for all the co-creators – and to Charles for helping to set my heart’s desires free.

May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all. Om peace, peace, peace. ”

Sheetal shares:

I am more and more deeply convinced that our innate wisdom dawns when we receive words in silence. The quality of the space and the silence around the words plays a critical role in determining how we will “digest” and “assimilate” all this food for thought.

I feel grateful that we were collectively able to create that field of an empty space and a potent silence in which Charles could so he(art)fully pour his reflections and experiences from both his inner and outer journeys.

I have uploaded a recording of the talk. Here are the two parts.
Part 1 and Part 2.

And deeply grateful to the Universe for all the synchronicity that brought Charles, the beautiful pilgrim to our city. May his journeys be blessed.

Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu

Empty Hands Pilgrimage

” Khaali haath aayein hain…Khaali haath jayenge…”
“We come empty handed and we go empty handed.”
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These were the lines which Nimo heard many years ago while listening to a particular song and it stirred something within him. Who knew that these very lines would inspire him to create music from the heart, for so many other hearts.

Natural Building Workshop continues…

We just concluded an eventful workshop using games, dances and natural building materials with bio-architects Merve and Mukund who are visiting us from Turkey. It was a lot of fun and there is so much to learn about this “play with clay” that we decided to go ahead and continue to build more breathing and alive spaces with mud. This week we continue working with natural building techniques on an open air kitchen and a zen garden in The Urban Ashram.

Here is how Merve and Mukund introduce themselves:

Merve: “I came to planet earth in Cappadokia-Turkey, a magical landscape which was shaped by lava. I guess the energy of lava keeps me excited in life. I am playing with natural buildings, communities, hand craftings, happiness and beauty around of me. And I am seeking for the ancient knowledge of humankind and keep travelling, questioning and searching for this. Feel blessed for the gift to experience different ways of living, loving, praying, magic and beauty:)
 
Mukund: My name is Mukund, and I am a social artist and bio architect. I love travelling and mingling with different cultures. Learning, sharing and gathering knowledge from each and every part of the world is my passion and my dexterity is to translate these energies into my art work  and my buildings. I am living my dream, going to random places around the world and gathering people in dance and celebration. Mythology has played a deep role in my growth and i hold it very close to me. Gift culture has been my inner call for many years since i was young and I have made it a deep part of my way of life.

 

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Celebrating Shiva

 

On the occasion of Mahashivratri, artist Priya Krishnan Das is displaying 12 of her vibrant paintings titled “Celebrating Shiva” at The Urban Ashram. Drop in anytime between Feb 26th till March 2nd, 11 am to 7 pm and soak in the bliss of the “blue throated Mahadeva”.

 

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