Friday, 28 December 2012

Southern Comfort

Well here I am writing about Chennai, where I was three months ago and from which I wrote my last post.  Yes, the last three months have been rather full, though clearly not of blog posts.

I got very excited, in transit in Delhi, by all the shiny shops at the airport.  Perhaps my backpacking-on-a-shoestring karma is indeed expired, as all I wanted were mod-cons and a modest degree of luxury (probably an oxymoron), as I sat eating my Baskin Robbins ice-cream and slurping my Café Coffee Day cappuccino.

I’m still trying to work out the sensation of stepping off the plane at Chennai.  I don’t think the temperature was in fact any different to Rishikesh, but somehow the air felt hotter, clinging, as though it liked my skin. I definitely felt I was further south, nearer the Equator. I used to have the same sensation getting off planes in Port-Gentil (childhood African home, actually on the Equator, long story), hair suddenly curly in the humidity.  Well it might have been damper than usual, because the tail-end of the monsoon was still with us, but Chennai is not a humid tropical place.  More hot and very dry.  But somehow, southern India felt much more like home, despite the fact that I was in Tamil Nadu, a state I had only spent a week in during my last trip.

Apart from anything else, the base line of cleanliness is definitely higher in south India, which was a huge relief.  My rucksack had got even more filthy (something I had not thought possible) during my journey to Jolly Grant airport near Rishikesh, having been deposited in the boot of a taxi with what seemed to be a load of used motor oil.  I spent the next morning on the roof terrace scrubbing it with a hard brush and the harsh block of laundry soap that destroys my clothes so quickly in India. Doubtless that’s the end of its waterproof coating, but at least I can once again touch my rucksack without my hands coming away black.

Irene's mum Agnes, Dad Cyrilraj and Irene herself

I stayed with Irene and her lovely parents, as I did on my last visit to Chennai.  Many things had changed since then, not least the passing of Dennis, the lovely old dog.  But Irene’s mum is still a wonderful cook and both her parents are still fantastically sweet and welcoming.  Irene was very busy with work this time, but we did manage a few day-trips during my week, which I otherwise spent writing blogs, doing yoga and shopping – for things like shoes and leg-waxing.

So yes, I did replace my beloved stolen sandals in a swish Chennai shopping mall.  The replacement was perhaps more elegant than what had gone before, but nowhere near as comfortable or robust.  A month later, my feet beaten by the streets of Trivandrum and the earth of the kalari, I caved in and ordered the exact same ones as the stolen pair (bar a few cosmetic details) online, and had them shipped to a friend in Wales who then posted them on to me (I am sending daily blessings of gratitude to her for this). They arrived on the last day of Navaratri, so I really did feel blessed by the goddess.  Some attachments, I reflected, as I donned my new shoes, are actually quite useful.  Bar the occasional torn heel from the kalari floor, my feet haven’t hurt since.

The first big day-trip Irene and I embarked upon was to Pondicherry.  “I really associate that smell with Chennai,” I told her, as our bus passed through a particularly odorous street, “jasmine and rotting rubbish.”

Pondicherry is about a three-hour bus-journey from Chennai and was once a French enclave.  You can get very good almost-French food, croissants, coffee and seafront walks.  I particularly enjoyed the Tamil/French street signs.

After much eating and drinking, we commandeered an auto-rickshaw to Auroville, a sort of ashram-village place nearby.  I’ve heard many good things from people who’ve stayed in Auroville, but to a lowly day-tripper, it felt distinctly odd, centred around the personality of “the mother” a European woman with a particular vision of the world who I never quite figured out, beyond having this somewhat astonishing “Matrimandir” built:

Another bus journey a couple of days later took us to Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram, according to who’s speaking).  At one point, the bus conductor deposited a couple of large sacks on the side of a road populated by nothing but grass and trees.  I asked Irene what he was doing.  “Oh, people will come to pick them up,” she said nonchalantly, as though depositing sacks of cargo unattended was the most natural thing in the world.  “They’ll know what time the bus comes.”  I tried to imagine the fate of goods left unattended on the side of the road for their rightful owners to collect back in the UK.  If not nicked or vandalised, it’s quite likely they’d be blown up by the bomb squad, I reflected.

No, the bus isn't on fire. It's just undergoing its morning puja.

Mahabalipuram is a bit of a mystery, but parts of it at least seem to have been a sort of temple-carving laboratory 1500 or so years ago.  This was my second visit, and I was just as enchanted this time round (and just as outraged that my entrance fee was more than 10 times Irene’s. But that’s a whole other story and debate).

Hiding in the shade at the Shore Temple

The emaciated chap with the arms above his head is Arjuna, doing his penance to get that rather large weapon off Shiva.

And here's a cat, at the lower end of the bas relief, taking the mick.

Mahabalipuram is also a bit of a modern-carving centre, where you can buy huge statues that take two or three artisans over a year to carve (like this Hanuman they’re applying the finishing touches to) or more modest handbag-sized carvings of various sorts, many of them rather exquisite.  


“I’m Christian,” Irene would tell bemused shop-keepers trying to sell us their wares with stories in Tamil.  “You need to talk to her.  She’s the Hindu,” she’d say, pointing at me.

That evening, we went for a barbeque with some of her friends (also Christian, co-incidentally).  Our hostess wove three types of jasmine from her garden into a wreath for my hair (the flowers smelled completely beautiful, unlike me after my very long, hot and sweaty day) and presented me with a little box full of miniature oil lamps.  

Because I’m Hindu and it was Ganesha’s birthday the next day.

Ganesha, dressed up for his festival, on a street near Irene's in Chennai

Life is very surreal.

A couple of months later, observing in the clinic at the kalari (more on this anon), I met a “Mr. Ganesha”, appropriately enough, the remover of obstacles, who is the secretary to the Maharaja of Travancore.  He is responsible for processing the papers that say you have converted to Hinduism and can hence enter the temples in Kerala (and maybe Varanasi too) forbidden to non-Hindus.  The Hare Krishnas have to approve your application and I’m not sure how they’d take to me, but I did seriously consider converting.  It really bothers me that I can’t enter the big temple here in Trivandrum.  I’m not sure I’ll have time, looking at the way things have unfolded, but I'm still considering it.

My week in Chennai, in the care of Irene and her lovely parents, was soon over. 

Irene, eating (and drinking) a la française in Pondicherry

It was time for another plane journey, this time to Trivandrum.  My first month in India was up and I was finally about to start on what was supposed to be the point of my trip: training at CVN Kalari in Trivandrum in the south Indian martial art, Kalarippayattu and learning some Sanskrit.  It was time to bid farewell to friends and to juggle my belongings into their various bags for the last time before moving into my home among the coconut trees for the next four months.

From Lucy, with love x

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Rishikesh (You Can Never Step in the Same River Twice)

Feet in the Ganga - you can never step in the same river twice.

Hari Om!

I remember being charmed, on my last visit to Rishikesh, when a swami from the ashram I was staying in answered his mobile phone with this greeting.  “Om!  Hari Om!”

In Rishikesh, the salutation passing muster in the rest of north India, “Namaste” or “Namaste-ji” if you’re feeling polite, doesn’t seem to be considered adequate.  At its most basic, this means “I salute you,” or “I greet you.”  I have heard various teachers from various yoga traditions say it means “I bow to the Divinity within you,” appropriate enough, you might think, for Rishikesh, holy city of renunciates and seekers, where the goddess-river Ganga (I’ve yet to figure out why we call it the Ganges when I’ve not met a single English-speaking Indian who does so) flows out of Shiva’s mountains and onto India’s vast plains.

No, in Rishikesh “Hari Om” is the standard greeting.  Trying to work out precisely what this means challenges me.  I find “Om” (or “Aum”, if you’re going to be more accurate with your phonetic transliteration) boggling enough, however many years I’ve been chanting it.  The best I can manage is that “hari” refers to Vishnu, the preserver aspect of God (hence “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama,” chants you may have come across; both Krishna and Rama are avatars of Vishnu), while “Om” is the sound-essence of God, the first and universal vibration from which the universe manifested and the vibration of which the universe (and each of us and any and everything else) is made.  

Whichever way you look at it, God is in the greeting.

Ganga and sky

I was hoping to return to the Dayananda Ashram, set away from the craziness of Rishikesh’s ashram central, with its gently intellectual swamis teaching the nature of reality according to Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta.  I had enjoyed, back in 2009, being told that everything is Brahman (Om) and the nature of Brahman is saccidananda, pure existence, pure consciousness, pure bliss (sat: existence, cit: consciousness, ananda: bliss).  “We are all full of bliss,” lilted Swami Aparokshananda while unpicking the finer points of the Katho Upanishad. 

Alas, there was no room at the inn.  Or at the ashram, to be precise.

You can never step in the same river twice.

“Think of it as your Rishikesh gatekeeper’s fee,” consoled Susie over the phone from her Tibetan puja in Dehra Dun.  “You’re getting rid of your shoe-stealing karma.”

“Yes,” I replied, “from the life I had none and stole someone else's outside a temple.”

Well, it wasn’t outside a temple precisely, but outside the ashram aarthi (evening fire offering) on the river.  It was my first night, I was tired from travel and Tibetan pujas and I hadn’t seen the (free) place to leave shoes with a keeper and tag.  On my way back from the water, after the ceremony at Parmarth Niketan, the ashram that was to be my home for the week, I had seen my sandals where I left them.  I ignored the impulse to pick them up (always a foolish thing to do, in my experience) and when I returned from being dotted and blessed, they were gone.

I spent some considerable time forlornly meandering among the shoes, hoping they might re-appear.

I loved those sandals.  I had bought them in LA, around the three-quarter mark of my big travelling year.  They have scaled mountains and cliffs, waded rivers and seas, carried me through cities and mud.  They gave me the confidence to go anywhere, safe in their protection from foot and back pain, giving me all the shock-absorption my hyper-mobile joints don’t.

Here they are, a few short months after I bought them, in Ibiza in 2010.

 Spot the attachment?

So I trudged forlornly back to my room, my bare feet picking up monkey poo in the dark along the way.  I told myself to be grateful it wasn’t cow, the monkey variety being much easier to clean off.

Ah Rishikesh, city of Gods and shit.

Parmarth Niketan is a huge ashram occupying a prime spot on the river, near the Ramjulla suspension bridge.  This just happens to be the craziest part of Rishikesh, shops and restaurants and cows and street-vendors and people and motorbikes and barefoot porters crammed into the narrow road lining the river.  It reminded me a bit of living in Soho in London, which required a certain resolve to step out my front door and onto the bedlam of the street.

Bathing in the holy river by the Ramjulla Bridge

Perhaps it was this or perhaps it was the loss of my go-anywhere-deal-with-any-terrain sandals, but I didn’t venture too far afield during my week on the Ganga.  Upriver in the hot sun to Lakshmanjulla (home of the other bridge) to the wifi café in the trees and mosquitoes, or to the post-office to take advantage of India’s fantastic bookpost to despatch 2 kilos of them to Kerala.  Over to the juice bar for my daily ration of delicious freshly-pressed juice and huge fruit salad, sometimes accompanied by chai.  To the ATM when I was running low on cash. To the fantastic bookshops which line Ramjulla, filled with all sorts of yoga tomes (and much else) that are hard or impossible to find back home, or many times the price.

Street scene, Ramjulla

I didn’t even cross the bridge again once I’d made it through the afternoon crowd with my porter and rucksack the first time round and installed myself at the ashram.

I did laundry, cleaned the dirt of bus rides off my small rucksack and bag (I didn’t see the point in tackling my big rucksack yet), did a bit of yoga in my room, shopped a little, occasionally went to the prayers sung so beautifully by the swamini (woman swami) or the yoga asana class, where I reminded myself to be grateful for being led and not to get too worked up about the quality of the leading.

I went to the river, once, twice, three times a day, to stand with my feet in the rushing water and pour it three times over my head in silty blessing.

Parmarth Niketan's Shiva statue, Ganga emerging from his hair

One evening, I was ordered along to an impromptu meditation on the ghat (river platform) after dinner.  It turned out it was just me and a Korean singer, working in Japan, and her Japanese film crew who were making a music video / documentary.  I’m still not sure why the chap working in the ashram office sent me along, maybe for added ethnic variety.  The swamini’s singing was enchanting, as was the view of the Shiva statue on the Ganga.  I only found out the following day that the star of the video had pink hair under her demure white sari and head-covering.  We exchanged cards and she presented me to her manager, who would whisper a string of Japanese and then the word “dancer” whenever I walked by.

I was early for dinner one night and sat on the side of the dining hall next to a couple who were also waiting.  It turns out they were from the Punjab, Amritsar to be precise, one of the places I’d like to but have not yet managed to visit.

“You follow the Hindu rituals?” asked the husband.

How do I answer that one?  They feel very natural these days, simple and organic in maintaining an unselfconscious relationship with the sacred.  But Hinduism to me seems so bound up in the social, who you’re related to, who you marry, what rituals and traditions your family carry out, that I frequently find myself a bit lost in the defining.

“You were sitting by the Ganga,” he continued.  “We think you look like Barbie doll.”

It never ceases to amaze me how differently people perceive us when we travel.  Pushing forty, five foot two, in a kurti and Aladdin pants, feet that haven’t been near high heels in years, with legs half her length and twice her width, but Barbie nonetheless. 

“I have the wrong hair colour,” I said.  Come to think of it, they probably manufacture a black-haired Sari-Barbie for the Indian market.

They then proceeded to ask me lots of questions that were hard to answer.  Are you with a group?  You are alone?  Your husband allowed you to come?  Are you married?  Your parents allowed you to come?  Your grandmother allowed you to come?

I long ago learnt not to go into details over such questions and content myself with saying that it’s more common for people in Europe to travel alone.

Pilgrims on the river at dusk

India encompasses such a wide variation of viewpoints, from those that find it incomprehensible that an adult woman might even want to travel alone, let alone be allowed such a thing, to those that see it as perfectly normal (albeit more common among Westerners and Far East Asians).  I have been faintly surprised this time round, when it’s occurred to me to think about it, how familiar it all feels.  Delhi felt familiar, as I sat on the bus from the airport.  I’d never been through Delhi before and I was trying to work out whether it’s just that I’ve been on so many buses in so many cities that they all feel familiar now, or whether, as Carlos, my philosophy teacher from my yoga teacher training told me before my last trip, I “have Indian samskaras”.  I suspect it’s the latter.

The staring doesn’t bother me this time round. In fact, I hardly notice it.  I’m not self-conscious about being a Western woman alone, and hence about as invisible as the circus come to town.  In fact, small children stare at me far more than they do the monkeys and their antics.  The change in wardrobe feels familiar and I barely notice its Indian-Western hybridisation.  Negotiating cowpats and cows and monkeys and slow-moving crowds, dealing with the adrenaline rush of the hoot of motorbikes pushing through the throng, roads where anything, machine or human or beast, can come at any time from any direction, it all feels quite normal.  I find myself irritated with inadequacies the way I would by other perceived inadequacies where I live in Swansea.  I remember the sense of amused acceptance I carried with me last time and realise it has shifted.  I often think, as I watch the Ganga rushing past, extra full of monsoon water and silt, of the truism that you can never step in the same river twice.

Gathering on the Ganga at twilight

It seems to me that the role of the Ganges, more than any other river, is to illustrate the truth of this impermanence.  Before my conversation with the Punjabi couple who think I look like Barbie, I had indeed been sitting on her banks, a little removed from the evening aarti (fire ceremony; I never quite went back after the shoe incident).  The sunset was particularly beautiful in the clouds and hills above me.  I was last in Rishikesh in a November, when the Ganga was a bright beautiful turquoise and strong.  Now she is brown with silt and much fuller.  The terrace I sat on for the evening aarti then is now under the flowing water, moving faster than I have ever seen a river move.  “Even if you are good with swimming, do not swim,” I was warned as I arrived at the ashram.  I don’t see how it would be possible to avoid drowning if you tried.

I watched flower offerings speeding downstream before the fire at their centre was swallowed by eddies.  On the far bank, the lights from a whole phalanx of them was visible as they valiantly made their way through the water before one by one she winked them out.  The symbolism of millennia was very alive to me, dizzy as I watched the water speeding by.  Ganga, the goddess who came down to earth to fulfil her karma to purify and release, caught in Shiva’s hair in the high mountains and then guided out to the plains, so that her fury at being pulled down would not destroy the earth.  It is easy to feel her, see her here, purifying, washing clean, as she carries silt and rain from the mountains out to sea, so fast, extinguishing the last burning remnants of the dead, clearing their karma, carrying them through to their next birth or none, the bliss of enlightenment.

I have often thought that when I die I want to be cremated and scattered in flowing water, so there is nothing to stagnate, so that all can dissolve out to sea.

Sunset over Ganga

You can never step in the same river twice.

I spent most of my evenings watching the sunset on the Ganga.   On my last one, I plucked up the courage to ask the sadhus who seem to live on the ashram ghat (for now) whether I could take their picture.  I am a bit shy about such things, finding it inherently rude to stick my inadequate little camera in people’s faces without asking.  They were perfectly charming about it, asking to see the results on the display, apparently quite satisfied.  In return, I gave them the 20 Rupees they requested to buy the masala they wanted for the dinner they were cooking.

What preparing dinner looks like when you're a sadhu.

As I wandered down to sit by the river, an orange-robed swami came up behind me.  “Excuse me, may I give you a flyer?”

As is the nature of such beginnings, we ended up talking.  The flyer made some fairly extravagant claims, but he had a clear, joyful light in his eyes, so I figured somewhere along the line he must be onto something.  Once he worked out that I wasn’t totally ignorant, we had quite a nice conversation on Indian classical dance and music.

It’s the Maha Kumbh Mela next January in Allahbad, the world’s biggest gathering of sadhus, renunciates, yogis of all weird and wonderful descriptions.  According to Susie, it’s a special one this year, one that only comes around once every twelve by twelve (144) years.  It’s quite likely there weren’t as many people on the planet when the last one took place as will be gathered together in January, she pointed out to me.

“Come,” urged the swami, promising to email me some information.

I’d also thought of going up to Gangotri and then Gomukh, the source of the Ganga.  But having been stuck behind one landslide this monsoon, I’ve decided to put it off until a dryer time of year.

Unexpected visitors join the unexpected "special" yoga class.

Whatever esoteric adventures await me in future, my time in Rishikesh was up. The next day, me and my bags were headed for Jolly Grant Airport (what a fantastic name) halfway between Rishikesh and Dehra Dun.  Enough uncomfortable bus journeys for a while.  I was flying south.

From Lucy, with love. x