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 cafĂ© 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

Monday, 17 September 2012

Tantric Tibetans

We finally arrived in Dehra Dun after a particularly filthy series of bus journeys.  The worst was probably the overnight leg to Chandigarh, where Samuel, Susie’s son, had his orthodontist appointment.  It’s not long and uncomfortable journeys that especially bother me, I’ve decided.  It’s the managing of heavy luggage during the course of them.

We caught the bus in Patlikuhl at about 22:00 and arrived in Chandigarh about an hour and a half early, at around 7:00 the next morning.  This is not the boon it sounds.  Basically, it meant the driver sped along bumpy, winding and dusty roads, jerking everyone in the government bus with remarkable constancy so that even hardened bus-sleepers (which I am not) found it pretty impossible to nod off. I had been allocated the window seat, as I have a tendency to get a bit carsick on such journeys.  Unfortunately, the wedge to open it stuck out at just the place my head fell any time I was near dozing off, doing a splendid job of jabbing me back to alertness. I have arrived dirty and dusty at quite a few destinations in my time, but the prize for filthiness for both me and my luggage probably goes to this journey.

After a hazy if pleasant morning waiting in the hospital restaurant and lounge, Susie, Samuel and I made our way to Chandigarh’s bus station, via a detour to buy headphones for Samuel’s return journey.  Samuel was deposited on his homeward bus while Susie and I climbed on board one bound for Dehra Dun.  We arrived at our guesthouse near the Sakya Buddhist Centre in the early evening, exhausted but grateful.  Two thorough scrubs in the shower (initially thwarted by a broken tap but soon remedied by the hotel handyman) didn’t quite clean the dust and grime off me.  This might have had something to do with the state of the bathroom, which could have done with a decent scrub itself.

After a trip to the Sakya Buddhist Centre, we were relieved to discover that the puja didn’t begin the next morning at 5:00, as we had feared, but the positively lie-in friendly time of 6:00.
“It’s a very high Tantra,” Susie had said to me when trying to explain the Dorje Purbha.  That’s the Tibetan name.  In Sanskrit it’s known as the Vajrakilaya.

Those are cymbals, under the cloths on the desks.

The purbha is a kind of dagger, metaphorical of course.  I don’t remember all the details, but all things come to a point, symbolic of the mind which is able (with enough lifetimes of meditation) to pierce through illusion to perceive the true nature of reality.  There’s a lot of protection ritual involved and banishment of anything that might stand in the seeker’s way to following the path of Dharma and reaching enlightenment, or I guess in terms of Tibetan Buddhism, Buddha-hood.

Presiding over the whole thing is His Holiness the Sakya Trizen.  I was taught all of this during my course at Tushita (see the entry entitled Dharmic Dilettantes for more on that) in 2009 but some of the finer details now escape me.  After a bit of instruction from Susie and some perusing of the internet, I am now once again aware that there are four lineages of Tibetan Buddhism (the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug).  The Dalai Lama is head of the Gelug whereas the Sakya Trizen leads the Sakya (hence His Holiness).  So although he is less famous than the Dalai Lama, he’s in the same general sphere of spiritual attainment.  Rather surprisingly, although all the monks are celibate, the Sakya Trizen and a few of the senior lamas of the lineage are householders with families, and the Sakya Trizen’s position is passed down through the family.  So through the puja, he was flanked on his throne by his sons on theirs.

Susie counts the Sakya Trizen as one of her teachers, and various other senior lamas, also teachers of hers, were at the puja.  Apparently it’s a rare occurrence for them all to gather in this way, and the atmosphere was all the more charged for it.  “Such a blessing to have them all here,” Susie kept repeating.

I guestimated about a hundred monks took part in the puja.  Hardcore observers, those of us who sat cross-legged (or in my case, mostly up on my blocks in virasana) through hours of it, not counting the steady stream of people coming into the gompa for blessings throughout the day, numbered perhaps ten or fifteen.  Nearly all were Western, and most (yours truly excepted) seemed to be pretty serious students of Tibetan Buddhism.  “I haven’t been studying long”, said Michel, the lawyer from Saint Tropez who now has the time and resources to follow his guru around the world, “only ten years”.

As we waited, the monks started to file in and take their seats in rows perpendicular to the four thrones at the front of the gompa, backed by a wall of gold buddhas.  Soon after began a great blowing of trumpets and conches, and trembling of drums. Those of us who weren’t monks got to our feet and bowed towards the door with our hands pressed together in a prayer position.  In processed His Holiness and three other lamas to prostrate themselves three times (as had we all on entering the gompa; virtually everything I do seems to involve some version of bowing or prostration, so that the etiquette of them all is now a confused jumble in my mind and body) and take up the thrones at the front.

I am always a bit uneasy in the presence of figureheads, not quite sure where to put myself or how I view any institution.  A wave of something hit me when the Sakya Trizen came in, energetic and strong, that I have felt occasionally in the presence of some people with a strong spiritual practice or certain healers of various traditions.  At such times, I often want to cry, feeling a great pulling at my heart.  It happens sometimes in kirtan, and my instinctive reaction is to tamp it down.  I have no desire to break down in front of a room full of strangers (or even friends).  But it does make me think, after all these years, I must be carrying a lot of grief around and maybe I should have a bit more therapy.  Or perhaps allow myself to burst into tears in front of rooms full of people.

Sunday’s first hour and a half consisted entirely of horn blowing, cymbals, drums, conches, all pretty intense pre-dawn.  Our seats (cushions) were right at the mouth of the three metre trumpets, so soon my insides were vibrating as much as the drum skins.

This is what we sat in front of - loud!

Then the chanting began.  Tibetan chanting has a very different quality to the Sanskrit variety, differently beautiful.  I itched for a script to follow, to know when they were chanting in Tibetan, when in Sanskrit, if ever in Pali, to know what they were chanting, why.  But as the books the monks were following were of the Tibetan kind, unbound, the pages loosely wrapped in card and cloth (heaven help you if you drop one and scatter hundreds of pages everywhere), written in Tibetan script, it wouldn’t have helped me much even if I could get my hands on one.

Soon after the instrumental beginning, breakfast was brought round, timed to fit an appropriate part of the ritual, senior monks served first, then the more junior, finally us riff-raff lay-people.  First was salty tea made with butter. I don’t know if it was the traditional yak variety of butter or the home-grown Indian cow version, but it was extremely rich.  We were also given a flatbread, also cooked in butter.  The taste of either is not unpleasant, but that quantity of fat is pretty hard to swallow if you’re not used to it.  Nonetheless, my travelling policy is to eat what I’m given, providing it’s of the vegetarian variety, so down it went.

A monk cleans up after breakfast, as the puja continues.

A little later came the chai, sweet in the Indian style, also made with butter (Tibetan style).

Through all the serving, the chanting continued, punctuated with drums and cymbals and trumpets and conches.  Hats were put on and taken off.  At times the monks got up and moved around, at one point to go outside for a bit before filing back in, with appropriate bows to His Holiness and the senior lamas and prostrations – to the buddhas? To the practice?  To the Dharma?  I’m never entirely sure which, or even if it matters.  I am humble, I am humble, I am humble.  As if I need reminding of all the reasons I have cause to be.

Relaxing between 3-metre trumpet blows.

At noon we broke for lunch.  Susie and I joined the queue to present the Sakya Trizen with white cloths (which have a name I can’t remember) which were then given back to us so that we could deposit them in a pile by the hidden sand mandala after we’d passed around the front of the gompa by the wall of gold buddhas.  We kneeled down in front of His Holiness and were bopped on the head in blessing.  Being slightly confused and not fast enough for the monk policing the queue, I was shoved to send me on my way.  It reminded me of the policing of the deity at the Attakal Pongala temple (it probably has a totally different official name) in Kerala in 2010 before the festival of that name: no praying in front of God!  Move on!  So I collected my red thread, duly chastened, and wrapped it around my wrist.  I’m not likely to receive many blessed threads from a His Holiness, shoves or no shoves, so on my wrist it will stay for a while.

the outside part

At two o’clock, the puja resumed and continued until six that evening.  Considering how long I was sat there and how long I’d been sat on buses previously (albeit a completely different variety of sitting), the time passed remarkably quickly.

And something was definitely going on in that puja.  Both Susie and I had surprise, short and unexpected menstrual visitations that lunchtime.  “It’s the downward flowing winds,” said Susie.  Of course, we couldn’t check if this was a normal occurrence, as a roomful of largely celibate monks wasn’t likely to know.  My shushumna nadi started vibrating with the first instruments, ida and pingala joining the dance.  I had visions of them, a trembling caduceus through my seven principle chakras.  I’m not quite sure what attending a day and a half of that ten-day puja did to me, but it did something.

The end of the day involved more food being handed out.  “Be sure to keep some back to give the hungry ghosts” said Susie. But the monks on duty only collected back from the other monks, not from us riff-raff.  I only hope the monks’ offerings were enough to keep the hungry ghosts at bay.  I haven’t noticed any following me, so perhaps they were appeased.

The next morning we were back at our seats before six.

While the senior monks seemed to be the same (they sit in order of rank, nothing non-hierarchical about Tibetan Buddhism), the junior ones nearer us had changed.  Presumably they’re on a rota, perhaps yet too young to deal with ten hours of puja day in and day out.  Behind the main raised cushions were some lower ones, where sat a couple of very young monks.  It’s hard to pinpoint age, as children here tend to look younger than their equivalent in the West, but I would have given them somewhere between seven and ten years old.

A monk in charge of discipline (and reading occasional news bulletins at appropriate intervals) strode up and down the aisles.  At his approach, the teenage monk nearest me who was consistently late with his drum beats (maybe he just had a poor sense of rhythm but I suspect his head nodding forward in sleep had more to do with it) suddenly perked up.  His drum beats still weren’t in time, and he still missed the skin half the time, but he looked more alert.

Disciplinarian-monk took the two young boys away with him.  Maybe it was lesson-time.  Around breakfast time, one of them returned, flatbread and butter in hand, to sit down behind the monks nearest Susie and me.  Unfortunately, on the way there, his chunk of butter slipped off his warm bread, all over the stone floor of the gompa.  Looking a little sheepish, he salvaged what he could of the butter, took it on his bread to his cushion and ate what was salvageable of his breakfast.

I had visions of some elderly blessing-seeker or tea-bearing monk prat-falling on the remains of  the butter, so once I had eaten my bread and drunk my tea, I got out the wet wipes that go everywhere with me and mopped up the floor.

“That was a good idea,” said Susie on my return to our cushion.  “Perhaps we should give him one.”  She nodded at the young monk.  I hadn’t noticed, but he was in a sorry state, half his breakfast uneaten on the side of his cushion, trying to follow the puja with buttery hands on an increasingly buttery script.

“Psssst!” hissed Susie, throwing a wipe his way.  She missed, but the monk in front of him caught it and passed it back to him.  The young monk assiduously cleaned his fingers and book (I wonder if those scripts are antiques), where I could see the butter stains from my seat.  He then settled down to the real business in hand.

Note the wetwipe to the side of his book!

He was an extraordinarily alert young chap, asking his elders to point out where in his book the puja had reached, carefully following the Tibetan script, lifting his pages and chanting along enthusiastically.  He had his hat ready when hat-time approached, donning it with great pride, exactly on cue, not seeming to mind how large it sat on his small head.  His mudra-dancing was very accurate, as far as I could tell.  I watched entranced as the monks’ hands danced through a gestural language at various intervals in the ritual. 


I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if the little monk turns into a great lama one day.

But the guru-in-the-making was still very young.  An hour or so later, early risings, spilled breakfasts and the excitement of hats and chants all got too much, and he fell asleep.

adho mukha siddhasana

The boys blowing the conches were a little older than him, perhaps young teenagers.   During the standing part of Sunday’s rituals, they lined up in front of the doors to the gompa. There was something intensely poetic about them, bare brown feet, red velvet hats and young robed bodies bending in clockwise circles as they sounded the great shells.

I found it hard to tear myself away, but eventually I did, over an hour later than I had planned.  I said my goodbyes to Susie, and as she headed back into the gompa, I returned to our room at the guesthouse for the last time to pack and then find the bus for Rishikesh.

Through a series of unexpected events, I ended up on the local bus (rather than overpriced taxi) to the terminus for Rishikesh, where everyone was extremely helpful, curious and polite, in the manner I have come to know of Indians on buses with a lone foreigner and her overstuffed bags.

“I belong to Rishikesh,” said the nice chap squeezed onto the back seat next to me, after enquiring after my next destination.  His English was definitely better than my Hindi but conversation was limited. Nonetheless, I was charmed, as I often am, by the turns of phrase of Indian English.

“I belong to Rishikesh” said the friendly young guy at the fruit juice bar I grew so fond of in Rishikesh.

I wonder if I will ever belong to anywhere.

Perhaps just the sea.  Or running water.

So on, once again, to step my feet into the fast-flowing waters of the goddess-river Ganga, before both of us head out to sea.

From Lucy, with love. x