Jodhpur: What a Joy

February 21-23, 2017

Turns out, despite the way my time here ended, Jodhpur is a love at first sight city. Beginning at the airport, where not a single soul clamors for my taxi dollar, and on the way into Old Town, where traffic is manageable and borderline polite, Jodhpur has a sense of order and civility to it that is surprising considering that it’s the 2nd biggest city in the state of Rajasthan, and that sense of civility extends even into the crowded, narrow streets of the old city itself.

During my research, I had grown somewhat enamored with Jodhpur… visually, she is a photographers dream. Logistically though, I almost gave up trying to get here as the location wasn’t synching well with my plans and timings, but somewhere deep down I had a pull to make it happen, and I’m very glad I did.

Mehrangarh Fort... the view from my window.
Mehrangarh Fort… the view from my window.
The Blue City
The Blue City

The charm here is instantaneous, due in large part to the city’s aesthetic. Known as the “blue city,” it’s predominant, cool-watercolor hue gives maximum appeal as juxtaposed onto the haphazard, timeworn construction of a city this age. Visually mesmerizing, there is so much detail to soak in, but most importantly, this city provides the personal space to enable full absorption.

The tight alleyway-like streets of the city are entirely reminiscent of Varanasi, except without any of the chaotic energy. There is a softness here that is absent in most of the other large Indian cities I’ve been to, and that dramatically alters the way one moves through the streets… particularly as a single, white, female tourist. Refreshingly, as I wander about, no one approaches me, bothers me or engages me in any way, save for the occasional “namaste!” as I walk past a shop or home, or the random smiling child, asking my name, wanting to practice their English. In the busier parts of town, tuk-tuk drivers offer out their services and vendors half-heartedly beckon me into their store, but it’s all very friendly and easy-going, enabling me to take my time, take tons of photographs and just absorb the details… and it is positively delightful.

Afternoon card game
Afternoon card game
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Color contrast
Keeping Shop
Keeping Shop
Lovely ladies on the stairs
Lovely ladies on the stairs

Mehrangarh Fort, as any guide book will tell you, is a Jodhpur must-visit, made easy since it’s situated in town. Luckily for me it’s a short walk from my guest house and an incredible way to spend a few hours learning about the rich history of the city.

The imposing Mehrangarh Fort as seen from its approach.
The imposing Mehrangarh Fort as seen from its approach.
The infamous Handprints of Sati, outside Mehrangarh Fort. Sati was the ancient custom where widowed wives (and concubines) cast themselves upon their deceased husbands funeral pyre out of love and devotion.
The infamous Handprints of Sati, outside Mehrangarh Fort. Sati was the ancient custom where widowed wives (and concubines) cast themselves upon their deceased husbands funeral pyre out of love and devotion. These are the purported prints of the queens who committed sati at this castle.
More handprints around town, although I can't seem to find the history or correlation to those at the Fort.
More handprints around town, although I can’t seem to find the history or correlation to those at the Fort.
Doorways and handprints.
Doorways and handprints.

One of the things I made a point to seek out was the local and rather large baoli, or step-well. These structures, like the ones I visited in Jaipur, are part of Rajasthan’s rich history and I find them to be mesmerizing artifacts of a bygone era. All of the step-wells in Rajasthan (there are reportedly thousands of them) and their historic importance (or lack thereof) vary greatly. Some, like the well known Chand Baori outside of Jaipur which was part of an important temple complex, have been protected by the Archeological Survey of India, a governing entity that oversees conservation of important historic structures, and as a result tourists are restricted on where they can walk and what they can see. Others, like the site outside of Amer Fort in Jaipur, are guarded, but half-heartedly so… we were able to walk down into the well and take photos for awhile before being shooed out.

This site in Jodhpur, Toorji Ka Jhalara, has no boundaries whatsoever, and as such, has become a hang out for the locals. The day I visited, a group of children frolicked and swam in the water below and teenagers hung out, taking selfies (the culture is positively obsessed!) and listening to music, while a few tourists such as myself wander around, taking photos and seeing how far down the steps we dare to go. It was an engaging way to spend a couple of hours.

Swimming
Swimming
Hanging out
Hanging out

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I don’t normally spend much time talking about accommodations, but I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about my guest house, as it had a direct effect on the authenticity and entire feel of my experience here. I am staying in what’s known as a haveli. Haveli’s are old mansions that were generally occupied by large, upper caste families, and this particular haveli, constructed approximately 500 years ago at the same time as the Mehrangarh Fort, was gifted to the Singhvi family by the Maharaja Royalty as a thank you to Shri Akheraj Sa Singhvi, Maharaja’s Commander in Chief.

The mansion-turned-guest house is still owned and operated by the Singhvi family today, and the antiquated charm of the property, from the fountained courtyard to the rooftop deck overlooking both city and fort, to the delightfully (and authentically) decorated rooms, is undeniable. The building keeps much of its original construction detail… heavy wooden doors at all the entryways, steep and narrow staircases, ornate archways and the tale-tell lattice-work type architecture that the Mughal Era influence of construction is famous for… all adding to the charm and making this beautifully quirky and historic place an absolute asset and integral part of my time here. As icing on the cake, the family that runs the place was incredibly kind and hospitable, making me feel as if I were an honored guest.

Singhvi's Haveli
Singhvi’s Haveli
Singhvi's Haveli
Singhvi’s Haveli

Evenings here were some of my favorite times. From my central locale, with the imposing fort situated just above me to the East, and the gentle slope of the city rising out in front of me to the West, I feel as if I’m in a lovely oasis amidst the heart of the city. At dusk, an echo of conch horns erupts all around, amplified by distant loudspeakers, commencing the beginning of evening prayers, and a short while later loud bells and chants ricochet off the surrounding hills and fill the city’s airspace with evening worship, giving an even more enchanted feel to the already beautiful dusk. As I sit on the rooftop deck, watching the sun set over this charming city, listening to a ritual that probably hasn’t altered much in the last thousand years, I feel as if I have been transported back to another time. Again, absolutely delightful.

Dusk, overlooking the city.
Dusk, overlooking the city.

This city was without question one of India’s highlights for me, so it’s a little bit ironic that it was here, on the morning of my departure, that I had the most unfortunate occurrence I’ve had to date in all of my travels! (You can read about the event here.) Regardless, this blue city gave me a couple of absolutely delightful days and for that I thank you, Jodhpur… you were a real joy!

Art decorating the walls wherever you look
Art decorating the walls wherever you look
Airing out
Airing out
Bangles for sale. Lot's of them.
Bangles for sale. Lot’s of them.
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Art everywhere
Two elephants at a little make-shift temple on a deserted path.
Discarded toys? Holy symbolism? Art? Hard to tell, at this little makeshift, roadside alter.

Interrupting Our Regularly Scheduled Program…

Moving out of chronological order for a moment, I had to write about my unfortunate experience leaving Jodhpur (a place I absolutely loved and will post about soon enough.)

I had a late morning flight to Delhi and with an extra couple hours to fill before departure, I decided to take a final walk around my picturesque neighborhood. The dogs in Jodhpur (more so than other places, it seems) create quite a ruckus every night, where from my hotel I could hear what sounded like territorial attacks upon one another… long episodes of loud, angry barks followed by the inevitable heart-wrenching yelps, whimpers and cries of defeat. Caution is always warranted with animals in this (or any foreign) country, and as much as the sweet ones tugged at my heart-strings to give affection, I have always steered very clear, even of them.

This morning, however, the unexpected happened and unprovoked, I got bit by an aggressive dog. I turned the corner onto a vacant lot-type of area, where a couple of dogs immediately perked up and started growling. This was clearly their territory and I was clearly intruding. I’ve actually been growled at before and, heeding their warning, have avoided any conflict… but today that was not the case. I immediately turned around and started walking away when I heard one of the dogs approach behind me and before I knew what happened, he bit me on the back of the calf/ankle area.

I turned and yelled at them and they briefly backed off, allowing me to quickly walk away, and it wasn’t until I got far enough away that I could stop and assess the damage. With adrenaline running high masking any pain, I wasn’t sure he had really injured me, until I looked down and saw all the blood… at which point I knew I was in trouble.

I doused the wound then and there with the hand sanitizer I had in my bag and then high-tailed it back to my hotel, where I promptly rinsed and cleaned it as best I could. The lovely people at he hotel offered to take me to the hospital but I had very little time before my flight and figured I had better deal with this in Delhi, which was my last stop and where I was flying home from.

The next 36 hours were a bit of a physical, emotional and logistical nightmare. I have to admit that after a month in India, I was a little worn out and dealing with a serious dog bite at this juncture has been scary, stressful and exhausting. The biggest concern is of course rabies, and it’s a safe assumption that the dog who bit me has it. The street dogs here are all sick looking, uncared for, eating and living in filth, and they carry all sorts of diseases, rabies included.

Upon landing in Delhi, I have a taxi take me and all my bags to the nearest private hospital, where I am able to get both a rabies and tetanus booster shot, and while the care there was adequate, as is the case no matter where you are or what you are doing in India, information is not forthcoming, even when you are specifically asking for it. Being alone, in a lot of pain and very rattled at the idea of contracting rabies, I do my best to get questions answered, but I end up back at my hotel realizing there were a few factors not addressed.

The biggest issue at hand was whether or not I’d had a rabies shot in the past, as that alters the course of treatment. With all the traveling I do, I assumed I had one before my travels last year, but I was able to get my immunization records emailed to me and there was no record of having it done. So… while I was able to get booster shots appropriate for having been previously immunized, I understood now that what I really needed was a shot of rabies-immunoglobulin, which is a targeted antibody for unvaccinated persons that will help the immune system fight the deadly virus while waiting for the booster shots to take effect.

The private hospital I went to yesterday did mention the possibility of needing this, but at the time it wasn’t deemed imperative since I thought I’d had the full immunizations prior. Regardless, they didn’t have that shot available because it’s very expensive, and since thousands of people die every year from dog bites, they only stock the antibody at the Government Hospital, which is where they referred me if I wanted it. And of course it’s hit or miss as to whether that hospital will actually have the antibody in stock because of all the bites they treat.

Despite the 12 hour time difference I was able to consult with my brother (who happens to be an infectious disease doctor) via online messenger, and we discern that because I don’t seem to have been previously immunized, it’s absolutely imperative I get the immunoglobulin shot… so at 6am, despite my reservations about public healthcare in India, I make my way to the Government Hospital.

I last about 15 minutes inside… making my way through tiny, filthy rooms filled with literally hundreds of bleeding, sick and injured people laying on the floor, on dirty stretchers etc, being ignored by virtually everyone despite my repeated attempts at trying to figure out the system. I even find and enter a room with a hand-scribbled sign on the door that says “dog bites” but despite my plea for help, they shoo me out and point to another room… a place, I assume, to somehow get in line (there is no “line” in a room packed to the gills,) but at this juncture I decide I have better chances of staying healthy with rabies than getting treatment here. The reality of this place was nothing short of tragic and frankly, pretty frightening.

Discouraged, I leave and decide to attempt another private hospital nearby, since I really need this shot… but unfortunately I get the same story as yesterday… they don’t keep immunoglobulin in stock, and they tell me to go to the place I just came from.

I have become a very strong woman and can roll with a lot of poor circumstance, but at this point, exhausted and in pain, knowing I wasn’t going to get the shot I needed, I pretty much lost all composure. Luckily, I was able to reach my brother via phone and he reassured me that as long as I seek medical attention the moment I get home, the treatment should be effective and I should be fine.

Meanwhile, no one at the initial hospital had mentioned antibiotics for the wound itself, which at this point wasn’t looking so good and had been lightly but steadily bleeding for the last 24 hours. My brother advised me to try and get some antibiotics right away, and at least that part was easy… pharmacies are everywhere, no prescription is needed and I was able to get a course of doxycycline for about $2, making me extremely grateful for small wins.

Travel in general, but my trip to an Indian public hospital in particular, makes me see with great clarity the abundant privilege I have now and have had for my entire life. While I have (understandably) complained about the sad state of our public healthcare system at home, this experience and subsequent shift in perspective suddenly fills me with extreme gratitude. Yes, I am upset and a little worried for my own health, but my heart aches deeply for the sick and infirm in countries like this. I will eventually get the treatment I need, but it’s safe to say that most of these people cannot say the same… and that fills me with deep sadness.

I had a busy 36 hours of things to see in Delhi as my final leg of the trip, but unfortunately I had to abandon all plans in lieu of seeking medical care and resting my painful leg. This has been a tragic end to an incredible month-long journey, but despite my exhaustion and the decline in my morale, I know this will in no way quell my overall adventurous spirit.

I leave for home very early tomorrow morning, and all I really want right now is to just get there safely and get the medical care I need. I am doing my best to remain positive though, and I am extremely grateful for all the people who have given me moral support across the wires. I know one day the pain and emotion will dissipate, and this will make a really great story.

Meanwhile, I do still have one final post on Jodhpur coming up, which despite how my time there ended, makes me very happy, as I loved that city very much. Stay tuned..

The Gift of Goa -Ashwem Beach, India

February 17-20, 2017

I arrived at the glorious Ashwem beach in North Goa late at night, and the very first thing that struck my senses was the sky. Far away from city lights, millions of stars hover overhead, shining bright against the pitch black backdrop of sky, and Venus, glowing bigger and brighter than I’ve ever seen her before, descends upon the horizon, nearing her collision with the ocean. There is a reason I fell in love with this particular patch of land-meets-sea last year, and I am elated to be back.

My humble hut
My humble hut

While none of my accommodations thus far have been particularly cumbersome, three weeks in India inevitably starts to produce a certain sort of wear and tear, particularly the in logistics of getting from place to place, and so the resort I chose (not by accident) is the exact dose of eco-chic I need at this juncture. Even the sweet little frogs that join me in my bathroom every night are a welcome reconnection to the natural flow of life away from the tourist hustle and bustle.

My roommate
My roommate
Reflecting on the situation
Reflecting on the situation

Before arriving, I had a small list of things I wanted to do and explore here in Goa, but by the end of my first day it became clear that what I really wanted was to just land. My body and soul, immediately resonating deeply with the sun and sand and sea, wanted get far away from doing, and revel in just being… and this beautiful beach was exactly the right place for such non-endeavor.

I only had three full days here, but right away I saw a meditative rhythm emerging. I greeted each morning with a powerful pranayama (breath) practice followed by a teapot of masala chai on the beach overlooking the early morning tide. While drinking tea may not seem like the most spiritual of activities, I found that the simplicity of being present with the ritual, intently listening to the sound of the ongoing wave breaks, and tuning into the breeze softly blowing against my skin to be as profound a meditation practice there is.

Ritual
Ritual
Yoga. Always.
Yoga. Always.

Tea has been followed each morning by a long and peaceful yoga practice in the resort’s delightfully cool yoga shala (a lovely reprieve, as the temperatures here climb quickly as soon as the morning sun crests the hillside behind the property) after which I’ve enjoyed a delightful breakfast in my own private, lush little garden area. I found myself wondering each day, without fail, how the hours so quietly slipped away.

I won’t lie and pretend that I didn’t fantasize for a brief minute about living out the rest of my days in blissful routine such as this, but I’ve come to realize that a large part of the pleasure in these kinds of affairs is learning how to remain fully present with the moment at hand while remaining cognizant of its impermanence. There is a certain experiential amplitude that happens when you surrender to being so in the moment that you automatically relinquish any future expectations from it… and that’s a practice worth cultivating.

Entrancing end of the day, every day.
Entrancing end of the day, every day.

My biggest pleasure so far has been the water. As a Northern California girl for the last 20 years, I enjoy one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world and that’s something that I never, ever take for granted. But when I travel to tropical regions I realize the small void that exists by not being able to regularly and comfortably immerse myself into the vast and powerful oceanic waters that comprise the majority of this planet.

Here, in the warmth of the Arabian Sea, I submit to the womb-like lull of the all-encompassing salt water that pulls me into her rhythmic dance, and I feel a sense of freedom and connectivity to something so beautiful that it’s hard to put into words… and in large part, it is this luxury of the senses that keeps me tethered to this beach, forgoing any desire to explore beyond my immediate vicinity.

Afternoons here have varied, albeit not greatly. I had the pleasure of sharing some food and drinks with new friends I made on the plane ride here, and I spent several of the glorious dusk hours watching the sun set, cold drink in hand, amused by the canine turf wars that inevitably erupted on the beach every evening. Dinner choices have been plentiful and delicious, and afterwards, walking home on the darkened shore I found myself drawn to lay in the sand and ponder the sublime beauty of the same wondrous sky that greeted me upon my arrival. It is an undeniable moment of heaven on earth.

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February, the time when temperatures start to creep up uncomfortably high, marks the tail end of high season here. As such, the busy weekend beach activity has segued into a blissfully quiet Monday and I am grateful that my last full day here is filled with calm and quiet before I venture on to my next locale. Thank you Goa, for this beautiful gift.

The Most Famous Ashram – Rishikesh, India

A trip to Rishikesh is not complete without a visit to the Ashram of Yogi Maharishi Mahesh, also known as the “Beatles Ashram.” The old, long-abandoned ashram was made famous after the Beatles stayed there in the late 60’s… a visit that ushered them into an era of prolific songwriting as a result of their time at the ashram.

Although there were reports of rampant drug use by the Beatles despite repeated requests by the Maharishi to uphold the rigid standards of ashram life (it was the 60’s, after all) the guru, best known for popularizing Transcendental Meditation, was reported to have a penchant toward giving into temptation himself, particularly the kind brought about by the fame, fortune and notoriety the Beatles unavoidably brought with them.

After a few months, the Beatles stay at the ashram ended amidst great upheaval and controversy over allegations of both financial and sexual impropriety by the Maharishi. The ashram (sans its original leader) continued to operate for decades after the controversy and closed its doors for good in 2003. It has been abandoned and decaying ever since.

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Annabell inside one of the individual meditation huts.
Annabell inside one of the individual meditation huts.
Old huts and painted trees
Old huts and painted trees

While the Maharishi’s original intentions were likely pure, and he did in fact bring the healing practice of meditation to light for millions, his story is but another example of the controversies surrounding spiritual gurus that invariably arise every few years, reminding us that even the most ‘advanced’ spiritual practitioners can fall prey to the exact ego which spiritual pursuit is meant to dismantle… an all too common pitfall along the path.

Today, the ashram continues to slowly crumble and has become a favored spot for graffiti artists and muralist to showcase their work. When I first visited in late 2015, the ashram was technically “off limits” to the public, a limitation easily removed by a hundred rupee note slipped to the guard. Since then, however, the place has been taken over by the government and is now considered a tiger reserve (?) which also enables them to charge us foreigners a hefty 600 rupee fee to enter. Regardless, it’s a worthwhile expenditure in order to spend a few hours here wandering about, absorbing the artwork, taking photographs (including gratuitous, self-promoting yoga photos!) and tuning into the history and energy of a bygone era.

Natarajasana - dancer pose
Natarajasana – dancer pose, on the painted platform of the mediation hall.
Posing with the boys
Posing with the boys
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Several new murals by the same artist have appeared… and I absolutely love their work.
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“Painting is Prohibited”
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Sacred cow sports sacred geometry.
Carrying her crown chakra with grace.
Carrying her crown chakra with grace.

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{{ I’d like to extend a special thanks to my dear friend Annabell, for not only accompanying me on this incredible journey, but for her artistic talent which produced all these beautiful photos of me! So grateful for you! }}

Coming Home – Rishikesh, India

February 6-17, 2017

Rishikesh is one of the very few places in all my travels that I made a pointed decision to revisit. I fell in love with this small Himalayan town on the Ganges just over a year ago and I admit that as I planned this trip, I had a moment of wondering if her glow would shine as bright the second time around. But Rishikesh is one of those places so unique and engaging at its essence, that disappointment simply isn’t an option. Her beauty and wisdom stand unwavering, and upon my arrival she only reaffirmed her deep connection to my heart.

Children overlooking the river
Children overlooking the river
Misty dusk
Misty dusk

If you’ve been to India you understand that the culture has a deep juxtapositional element to it. Initially, India is course and abrasive, and yet hidden under the rough exterior are deep pockets of human kindness, beauty and goodwill. Rishikesh, while remaining authentic to India’s overall cultural identity, is an anomaly in and of itself. It is a warm, nurturing bubble of mystical, magical woo situated in some of the most beautiful landscape on the planet. It is everything you love about India and very, very little of all that disagrees.

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A swarm of pinks and purples engaging us to photograph them.
Living an exemplary life of impermanence
Living an exemplary life of impermanence

Ultimately, Rishikesh is today, and has been for centuries, a place for seekers. People come here searching for their own version of life’s meaning, and Rishikesh provides countless paths, both literal and metaphorical, for you to explore your individual quest. No matter what deep, esoteric questions you arrive with, you will no doubt find elements of your answer embedded here, facilitated by the purity of intention that surrounds you.

You will find meaning in the serious, etched faces of the baba’s and gurus who have lived their lives here in authentic surrender to the divine, and you will find it in the humor and charade of the ones who’ve diverged paths and chosen to get high every single day on both marijuana and life. You will find it in the diversity of every meditation sitting and yoga class you attend, and you will find it when you remember to witness your breath in the middle of cow/monkey/motorbike/pedestrian rush hour on the swaying bridge that connects the east and west sides of town. You will find it on the rocky banks of the mystical river amongst the pinkish-lavender colored rocks that have supported the weight of a million seekers footsteps before you, and you will find it flowing in the glittering aqua-marine color rushing by in the river itself. Rishikesh will recalibrate your inner wavelength to a frequency of happiness and joy… and you’ll surrender to it wholly because at some point it will occur to you: that’s what you’re looking for in the first place.

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Elation on the riverbank
The evening prayer ritual on the Ganges, known as aarti
The evening prayer ritual on the Ganges, known as aarti.

The first half of my two week stay here (which still wasn’t enough time as far as I’m concerned) was spent at an incredible Kundalini Yoga retreat led by Deepak Gupta at Braham Yoga, which I will post about separately and in greater detail on my professional website. Here, I will suffice to say that it was one of the most powerful retreats I have been on, which is not surprising given that kundalini yoga is one of the most powerful practices there is.

Our teacher, Deepak, profusely enjoying his new selfie stick!
Our teacher, Deepak, amusing us with his new selfie stick!
We've not quite reached the enlightened yogi status yet, but we are meditating in a cave in the Himalayas
We’ve not quite reached the enlightened yogi status yet, but we are meditating in a cave in the Himalayas.

The rest of my time was spent doing what most people here do when not involved in an organized endeavor… wandering and exploring, people watching and meeting, shopping for trinkets of devotion, hanging out at all the neo-hippy cafes, sampling the endless supply of delicious food and drinks including fresh fruit juices to die for, masala chai’s galore and an array of local tea concoctions. Outside of the food and social culture are the obvious and endless options for yoga and meditation. Held in yoga studios, ashrams or temples, you can find any style of practice you favor at any time of day, and you can (and will) discover classes and experiences you didn’t even know existed.

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Can you say Namaste?
How many people can you fit in a teeny-tiny tuk-tuk? Turns out, a lot. 11 to be exact
How many people can you fit in a teeny-tiny tuk-tuk? Turns out, a lot – 11 to be exact.

One of the most profound and heart-opening experiences I had was a cacao ceremony and ecstatic dance. While I didn’t know much about cacao in the ceremonial context other than the fact that it’s revered in different cultures around the world as a healing, medicinal substance, I have been to ecstatic dances in the US, which are generally fun, freeing events where by the magic ear of a DJ (if you get a good one) you can express yourself through free-form, anything-goes dance. If you can learn to let go of any self-consciousness and connect to your inner guide, a good time is pretty much guaranteed. Dance, after all, has always been considered one of the fastest ways to connect yourself to the divine.

This event, however, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Created and led by couple Drow and Sophia, known by their collaborative entity as Shunya’s Couch, this ceremonial dance is a magical medley of practices that become a powerful, cathartic and transformative event. Elements of ancient cacao ritual, kundalini kriyas (repetitive and somewhat strenuous movements meant to raise the powerful kundalini energy in the body) and pranayama (targeted breath-work) continuously weave around pour-your-heart-out dancing (think tribal beats meets Michael Jackson) and soul-stirring chants. The energy in the room and in your body builds and builds, and you get entirely lost in the strong current until at select moments you are asked to just stop and feel what’s happening inside of you… and it is absolutely glorious.

This goes on for what seems like a simultaneous eternity and blink of an eye until both exhaustion and elation are tightly intertwined before we are finally released into the most beautiful savasana ever (savasana is the laying down, final relaxation pose that comes at the end of every yoga practice.) Any simple savasana would have felt like heaven at this juncture, but the immersion into sound comprised of powerful, shimmering gong vibrations alongside Tibetan singing bowls and tinkering chimes was without question, a indelible taste of nirvana.

Reflections at sunset
Reflections – another epic Indian sunset

Perhaps it was simply the space I was in, having just come out of a 6-day internal-energy raising retreat, or perhaps it was being surrounded by an entire enclave of like-minded souls (both in the room and in the city), or perhaps it was the mastery with which this deeply connected and aware duo led us through this process… or most probably it was the convergence of all of the above… but I departed this three hour event a different woman than I entered it, and that transformative energy stays with me still. If you ever get the opportunity to experience what Drow and Sophia have to offer, please take it – it’s an experience not to be missed.

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One of the other incredibly transformative things I did while I was here, was the age-old Ayurvedic cleanse known as ‘panchkarma’ (panch, meaning five, karma meaning action… five actions toward healing.) Ayurvedic medicine is the ancient sister practice to yoga… a holistic means of addressing all the physical and energetic aspects of the body through food, herbal remedies and treatments in such a way that is in alignment with the science and philosophy of yoga which addresses the entire mind, body, spirit realm. Panchkarma is a (minimum) 7 day cleanse meant to detoxify the physical body and clear the energetic body, bringing your entire being into harmony.

I have to admit that despite my desire to undergo the cleanse (the timing was perfect in conjunction with the kundalini yoga retreat) I had a bit of fear around some of the specifics. But I’ve come to recognize fear for what it is… a clear sign that I’m moving in the direction I’m meant to go, and so I put myself into the healing hands of a lovely practitioner named Siroji and surrendered to seven days of varying (and very enjoyable) massage techniques, reflexology, herbal steam baths and oil treatments on the body and head, including an incredibly soothing 30 minute warm oil drip on the forehead/third eye… as well as some (not so enjoyable) colon cleansing treatments, herbal detoxification supplements and dietary restrictions.

Drinking in the purifying waters of the Great Mother Ganges
Drinking in the purifying waters of the Great Mother Ganges

There were some undoubtedly rough moments but in the end I felt (and still feel) an incredibly strong connection to previously untapped energy and a beautifully calm sense of well being along with a clear awareness of all the physical and metaphysical changes happening inside me. The more experiences I have in consciously connecting the mind, body and spirit, the easier it is to understand why these practices have been around for centuries and have withstood the test of time. The evolution of the soul through the practices of the body is very precious and very real.

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I see with great clarity now, that India in general, but Rishikesh in particular, has much more to offer me. My first visit to this enlightened city gave me a strong sense of “arriving” some place I had meant to arrive, but didn’t quite know about yet, and this trip simply confirmed that it is a coming home of sorts. Rishikesh is a place of kindness and benevolence that patiently awaits your readiness to receive so she can bestow all the life-enriching, soul-awakening and awareness-inducing understanding you seek… perhaps even before you know you seek it.

And so, it is with an abundance of gratitude that I say goodbye to Rishikesh for now, knowing I will be back in her arms soon enough.

A poignant moment with a man named Devananda. I met him 15 months ago in a completely different part of the city and our encounter had touched me. I recognized him immediately, but was shocked that he too remembered me ( the woman from US California, yes?) Thank you universe, for crossing our paths again
A poignant moment with a man named Devananda. I met him 15 months ago in a completely different part of the city and our encounter had touched me deeply. Today, I recognized him immediately, but was shocked that he too remembered me (“the woman from US California, yes?”) Thank you universe, for crossing our paths again… it was incredibly special.
Morning ritual
Morning ritual
At the Beatles Ashram
At the Beatles Ashram

 

{{ For more on the Beatles Ashram… }}

Old Towns and Fire Rituals – Varanasi, India -Part 2

February 5, 2017

Old Town

One of the best ways to see any city is to walk it, and my favorite way to go about that is to just set off on my own and wander, exploring off the beaten track and discovering hidden gems. Varanasi, however, is not the place for such initiative. Even the locals here will tell you to be careful venturing through old town on your own, as your chances of getting extremely lost are virtually guaranteed.

The “streets” of Old Town are really just narrow footpaths, crammed with people, cows, dogs, motorbikes, chai carts and mobile food stalls, bookended on either side by a never-ending stream of shops, homes and temples that line the haphazardly laid out lanes. It is a literal labyrinth with zero symmetry or structure to it’s navigation, so the tall height of the buildings combined with the virtual ceiling of awnings, banners, decorative lights and streamers hanging over the narrow paths make it nearly impossible to get any sense of where the sun is. This makes tuning into your inner compass nearly impossible, even for someone like me who almost never loses direction. On the other hand, if you like adventure and discovery, these lanes give you plenty to work with.

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Flower vendors
Flower vendors

So for three dollars each, we decide to hire a guide to take us on a two hour walking tour, and I am immediately in love. Our guide, Vijay is an older man who has lived in Varanasi his entire life and knows these streets like the back of his hand. And while his knowledge of the city is an obvious asset, the best thing about him is his absolute, unshakable zen. He slowly and peacefully walks us around yelling vendors, large bulls, honking motorbikes, scrambling children, funeral processions, and more piles of dung than you could possible imagine, always looking back to insure we’re able to keep close proximity behind him… which given the virtual minefield of obstacles is a real challenge despite his leisurely gait.

A quiet moment with the zen master
A quiet moment with the zen master
One of the local snake charmers
One of the local snake charmers
The Hindu god Ganesha. He is the remover of obstacles and bringer of luck and as such, adorns the entryway to every home, temple and business.
The Hindu god Ganesha. He is the remover of obstacles and bringer of luck and as such, adorns the entryway to every home, temple and business.

We stop in several temples where no tourists go and he gives us tidbits of information on the city’s history, the people and the pervasive religion that defines the culture here, but the real point of the tour is to simply soak up the intense and unique Varanasi vibe and see how people live their daily lives here. I note that there seem to be very few tourists at this time of year (not just here, but in Jaipur as well) which I love. It makes me feel as if I am seeing the authentic side of the city and not simply a city that caters to tourists. He even takes us into the market area where the locals shop and helps us buy a few needed sundries, haggling the prices down on our behalf. Overall, it’s an incredible couple of hours spent in authentic Varanasi.

A fresh mural outside someone's home, signifying a recent marriage
A fresh mural outside someone’s home, signifying a recent marriage

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Fire Rituals

One of the most beautiful rituals found all along the Ganges is the fire ritual called ‘aarti,’ which is a blessing and offering to the holy river. On any given evening at dusk you will find several different variations of this prayer ceremony being performed. Sometimes it is a simple act of setting a small lit candle afloat on the water, other times, for the more devout, you will find small groups performing the intricate and detailed prayers or, as done by the large temples, it can be a huge production.

I became enamored with aarti on my last trip to India when I spent time in Rishikesh (where I’m headed after this) – a spiritual hub with a completely different and considerably calmer vibe, located on the upper part of the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas. So it was with a fair amount of excitement that I looked forward to enjoying this daily celebration again from the Varanasi perspective.

Remnants from morning prayers
Remnants of prayers

We had two evenings here to enjoy the spectacle, the first of which we did from the river itself. As the sky begins to darken on the way to our viewing destination, patches of fire begin to dot the water as people cast their individual offerings into the river. If you left shore without buying something to offer into the river, have no fear. Floating vendors are close at hand, selling these requisite offerings… beautiful bowls of ornate flowers, each with a small candle centerpiece to be lit before being set afloat with your prayer.

Our ride and faithful helper, Ashish
Our ride and faithful helper, Ashish
Candlelit offerings to Mother Ganges
Candlelit offerings to Mother Ganges
Giving thanks
Giving thanks

After a slow boat ride up and then back down a long stretch of the river, and after making our own offering to the Ganges, our boat along with what must have been a hundred others found a spot to moor in front of Dashaswamedh Ghat, which puts on one of the largest shows on the riverfront.

Pictures at night from afar don’t do any sort of justice so I’ll refrain from posting, but the experience was absolutely delightful. The ritual/show, which lasts about an hour, consists of music, chanting and loud blowing of the conch shell combined with the intricate and rhythmic offerings being thrown into a large contained fire on the platform. Things escalate into a dance of sorts, as the monks stand along the front edge of the platform facing the water, holding candelabras and large lanterns illuminated by hundreds of tiny fires. It is a spectacular sight.

Boats parked along the ghats, enjoying the show
Boats parked along the ghats, enjoying the show

The singing and chanting continues for quite some time, meanwhile vendors walk from boat to boat (the boats tie themselves together to stay moored) selling chai, souvenirs, and more beautiful little flower-candle bowls, should you decide more personal offerings are in order. Whether you identify with the Hindu religion or not, aarti is a beautiful ceremony to partake in and worth engaging in for the aesthetic alone.

The next evening we walk along the ghats and as dusk approaches, whatever tourist action was hidden during the day now becomes apparent. The activity along the ghats becomes somewhat frenetic as monks prepare for the evening show and people begin searching for a suitable space from which to watch.

Preparations
Preparations
Candelabras being readied
Candelabras being readied

This ghat, one of the the largest and the one we viewed from the water last night, is without question, a tourist trap of sorts. There are baba’s pulling you in to adorn you and give you blessings (for a small fee, of course), astrologers offering their services, makeshift food stalls selling delicious smelling fried snacks and of course souvenir stalls galore. It’s safe to say that much of the religious essence is lost in the Disneyland-esque feel here, but the visual feast is incredibly satisfying nonetheless.

Annabell receiving a blessing
Annabell receiving a blessing
I think they enjoy watching us as much as we enjoy watching them
I think they enjoy watching us as much as we enjoy watching them

All in all, I found Varanasi to be incredibly intense and not for the faint of heart, but as someone who is in love with aesthetic and intrigued by devout ritual so entirely different than what I grew up with, I found the sheer volume of visual stimulation inspiring… at least in small doses. Thank you, Varanasi, for a beautiful adventure.

A little boy and his father who live in a meager space along with several other family members just outside our hotel. Such simplicity and such happiness.
A little boy and his father who live in a meager space along with several other family members just outside our hotel. Such simplicity and such happiness.
Gatekeepers of this stairwell
Gatekeepers of this stairwell
Lords Shiva and Shakti meet urban art
Lords Shiva and Shakti meet urban art

Enticed by the Flames – Varanasi, India – Part 1


February 3, 2017

Varanasi will incite you. Coming here throws you into another universe and it seems an impossibility to visit this place and not be provoked on some level, which if you are paying attention is an excellent opportunity to expand your current perspective and  look at the world with greater objectivity. Varanasi is beyond intense and terribly chaotic, and yet the fervent religious practices and pervasive spirituality along with the vast array of visual stimulation here creates, for me at least, a strange sense of order and enticement amidst all the bedlam. Or at least there are moments.

From my hotel, the ancient Hindu temple.
From my hotel, the ancient Hindu temple and Manikurnika Ghat.
A peaceful moment at sunrise.
A peaceful moment at sunrise.

Varanasi can be broken down into two main parts: the incredibly complicated and haphazardly non-sensical maze of narrow alleyways that comprise Old Town, and the long string of ghats: individual large, wide river-front promenades and their connected stairs that lead down to the Ganges for the entire length of the city.

Morning prayers
Morning prayers in the ghat
Solitary contemplation
Solitary contemplation

Old Town is full of what feels like pure chaos… an overpopulated swell of endless human and animal bustle tucked inside claustrophobically tight and narrow passageways that go on for miles with absolutely no rhyme or reason to their construction. By contrast, the ghats, which are no less busy, at least open themselves up on to the wide river and have some vague sense of rhythm and order to their non-stop movement.

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But both areas will overstimulate each and every one of your senses and if I thought some of the other places I’ve been to in India were intense, I see now that they were just preparation for this extreme locale.

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India and THE holiest city for Hindus. People from all over the country come here to worship the sacred Ganga Mata, mother Ganges, but the most sacred pilgrimage is the journey made by Hindu families to cremate their loved ones on the banks of the holy river after their death.

Each ghat that lines the Western bank of the river has its own significance. Some are connected to temples, others are strictly for bathing or washing, some for prayers or peaceful contemplation, and the three most important ghats of the city are for the sacred ritual of burning deceased bodies in order to purify their souls so they can peacefully move on to the next realm.

Wood for sale
Wood for sale

Our hotel is situated near Manikurnika, the largest of the “burning ghats” and from our vantage point nearby, I watch the never ending activity that comes with the ritual of cremation. The connected ghat alongside Manikurnika, which is directly below us, sees continuous rites being performed by male family members which include chanting and bathing in the holy water to cleanse themselves before partaking in the burning ritual. Women do not participate in this particular ritual and I see them as they sit on the steps and watch from afar. While it is not part of the custom for them to participate here, I am guessing they have many a ritual of their own that goes on behind closed doors.

From the reprieve that is my hotel balcony several stories up, I take in the perpetual activity on the ghats below and contemplate the vast number of stories playing out before me at once. Boats come and go, offerings are made and vendors make sure you have all the accoutrements you need to pay homage to the great Mother Ganges. I take it all in with great fascination, however the only part I simply cannot rectify is the ritual drinking of what is literally one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth. Forgetting soaps, sewage and other forms of garbage that end up here, the ashes of cremation are ceremoniously deposited directly into the river and for the worst-case scenario of poor who cannot afford even partial cremation, to release your loved one into the river is the least you can do to insure their proper path toward enlightenment.

From the platform of the burning ghat itself, bells and chimes toll continuously as part of the actual cremation ceremony, and at any given time several different fires release smoke and flames into the air, feeding the thick mix of foggy mist and pollution, giving the entire scene an appropriately mystical feel.

Cremations take place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and it is estimated that about 200 bodies are burned per day. The bodies are wrapped off-site somewhere in bright and festive material and then marched with great ceremony to the waterfront of the ghat where they are placed for a brief time in the river for their final “cleansing” before being put to the fire.

Funeral procession toward Manikurnika
Funeral procession toward Manikurnika
Family members carrying the body toward the fire.
Family members carrying the body toward the fire.

Several platforms exist on the burning ghat and where you will be cremated depends upon the caste into which you were born. Meanwhile, as is the case everywhere in this country, the sacred cows wander at their leisure, taking up space as they deem necessary, so it should be no surprise to me when I see that here too, even amidst the burnt remains and hot ashes, they meander about with no agenda.

While the family members are very active in taking part in the rituals leading up to the actual cremation, it is considered sinful and unclean to touch the dead, therefore the task of handling the body and setting it up onto the pyre falls on the members of the lowest caste in India called “the untouchables.”

As with every culture around the world, death is big business and ironically many of the “untouchable” caste earn a very comfortable living doing this work no one else is allowed to do.

Offerings for sale.
Offerings for sale.
As seen from the river, several fires burning at once.
As seen from the river, several fires burning at once.

I realize that for many, this entire process seems very morbid, but personally I found a beautiful fascination in it as I do with most of the ancient rituals in this country. I am inexplicably drawn to the idea of purification through fire because of the transformation it represents, and it is with great reverence that I watch the complex Hindu process around dying. Death, after all,   is but an inevitable part of life and the biggest representation of impermanence, reminding us that ultimately, life is only what we choose to make of it.