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! }}

You Had Me at Hello – Yangon, Myanmar


October 31 – November 2, 2015

First let me just say, after a month alone in India, I’m terribly happy to have some company for the next three weeks. Lochan and I meet at the Bangkok airport and take the quick flight into Yangon together, and driving out of the Yangon airport and into the city we are both thinking the same thing: The city looks surprisingly pretty, well kept and clean, and this is in contrast to everything I’d heard about Yangon beforehand. Their version of ‘bad traffic’ conjures up a bit of a chuckle in comparison to India, and even upon arriving into the downtown area where we are staying, the chaos just doesn’t feel that chaotic… and all this is a very pleasant surprise.

City center.
City center.
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Blue skies!

The locals are incredibly friendly and the overall feel is very welcoming. I believe the booming tourism is partially responsible, as the locals seem happy and excited to show their hospitality to the rest of the world, but I believe the kindness is an inherent part of their culture as well. Shop and restaurant workers are quick with their smiles and service, and overall, the entire feel here is pretty easy going.

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This is not to say it doesn’t still feel like a bustling urban environment… it does. The sidewalks are tightly lined with vendors and street food carts, and the traffic is dense in areas, but it’s just so manageable. You can safely and easily cross the streets, the stop lights are actually observed and there is very little haggling over say, the price of a cab. In fact, several times we hopped in for a short ride without asking for a price beforehand, and the driver just took whatever we fairly offered them upon arrival. What?!

Kids and phones. Here, there, same same.
Kids and phones. Here, there, same same.

Our first dinner turns out to be a fantastic affair. We head to Chinatown (every city has one!) for their renowned BBQ and the one-block long street is packed to the gills with people, tables and carts full of pre-skewered food for you to choose from… every kind of meat, seafood and vegetable you can imagine.

So much food!
So much food!

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Music blares from large speakers being pushed on a cart through this delightful chaos and the only person approaching you to buy something is a cheerful man selling little garlands of the most fragrant freesia you’ve ever smelled, which mixes surprisingly well with all the delicious food smells drifting through the air. Every restaurant on the block is overflowing and children run in and out, unattended, banging on drums or expertly navigating little razor scooters through the crowd, happy as could be.

Bracelets for all.
Bracelets for all.

We pick a spot and sit at one of the outdoor tables tightly packed with other people, order beer and then go grab a plastic tray and start filling it up with countless skewers. The restaurant then cooks it all for us and delivers it to our table, and when it arrives we are not disappointed. In fact, we take our time, knowing seconds will be in order… and so along with more skewers and more beer, we also opt for a whole tilapia, blackened to absolute perfection. I think it’s pretty safe to say, this is not only one of the best meals of my trip so far, it’s also a whole lot of fun.

Tilapia blackened to perfection.
Tilapia blackened to perfection.

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After catching up on some much needed sleep and stopping in at the local travel agent to figure out logistics for getting through the rest of this developing country, we venture out for some sight-seeing. First stop is one of the beautiful parks, Kandawgyi, where a rickety, old wooden pathway guides us around the lake.

Kandawgyi Lake.
Kandawgyi Lake.

Next is the breathtaking Shwedagon Pagoda, a thousand year old pagoda said to house strands of the Buddha’s hair, which at the time of the pagodas construction purportedly instigated some mystical happenings. The main pagoda is surrounded by a large complex of beautiful temples, all in worship of the Buddha and this place is nothing short of a golden visual feast.

The stunning Shwedagon Pagoda
The stunning Shwedagon Pagoda
One of a thousand Buddha's
One of a thousand Buddhas.

The perimeter of this enormous centerpiece is surrounded by statues of Buddha in varying size and form and there are candles and incense to be lit by both tourists and locals alike. People sit, pray and snap photos, and while there is a general buzz of activity, the feel here is one of quiet reverence, partially facilitated by the occasional group of monks meandering by.

I leave here feeling as if I’ve just spent the last few hours inside a fairy tale… and I get to take that magic home with me.

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Pagodas at dusk.
Pagodas at dusk.
Shades of shimmering gold.
Shades of shimmering gold.
Goodnight gorgeous.
Goodnight gorgeous.

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Before leaving town I wander the street stalls and manage to find the perfect souvenir… a beautiful hand-crafted brass lantern from the flea market area… and then we have a delicious lunch with the best tea leaf salad to date.

Our final stop is the Chauk Htat Gyi, also known as the giant reclining Buddha.

Monks in prayer.
Monks in prayer.
Peacefully beautiful from all angles.
Peacefully beautiful from all angles.

And as seems to be the case at all of these temple sites, the ‘main attraction’ is surrounded by many other Buddhas in varying forms… all artistically lovely.

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Beautiful wall sketches for what looks like it will be a new mural.
Beautiful wall sketches for what looks like a new mural.

As we head out of town toward the bus station for our overnight ride to our next destination, we discover what the locals are talking about when they say ‘bad traffic’ and we nearly miss our bus.

This situation, however, was an excellent example of the Burmese kindness I spoke of earlier, as our taxi driver went above and beyond for us, calling the station several times to let them know we were on our way and ultimately arranging for the bus to stop on the side of the road to pick us up, since we’d never make it through the highly congested and complicated parking maze at the station in time. And it worked! We boarded roadside and were on our way.

Sadly, I also have to mention this bus ride turned out to be one of the worst nine hours of my life. This bumpy, swaying drive through the night time countryside was the moment my body finally chose to host some sort of nasty stomach bacteria… and it was a doozy (still is.) I suppose I’ll laugh about it some day, but definitely not today.

But it seems like a bad idea to end this chapter on that sour note, so instead I will end with a photo of cute kitties… because, cute kitties!

Resident kitties keeping the Buddha company.
Resident kitties keeping the Buddha company.
Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon, Myanmar

 

The One, The Only…

The incomparable Taj Mahal.

The image everyone knows...
The image everyone knows…
Looking very white in the early morning haze.
Looking very white in the early morning haze.

Most of these photos are the stereotypical shots everyone takes, and that is unavoidable… but I assure you there is not a single thing about this iconic structure that is typical.

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Prayer inscriptions bordering all the entrances. Written in embedded onyx.
Prayer inscriptions bordering all the entrances. Written with embedded onyx.

Forget all the facts and figures about how long it took to build the Taj Mahal, the number of people who were involved and the literal tons of different and precious materials that were brought in… you have google for all that. I will encapsulate, however, by saying these facts are staggering in and of themselves, but they are given poetic life when you feel the raised curves of marble flowers under your fingertips and see the multi-colored, inlaid gemstones up close.

Milky white flowers everywhere.
Milky white flowers everywhere.
Details, details.
Details, details.
One of the very few doors, used to restrict access up to the mausoleum.
One of the very few doors, used to restrict access up to the mausoleum, molded in beautiful bronze.

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When talking about the Taj Mahal you must also address the astounding symmetry… top to bottom, side to side. From the big-picture, consisting of the recognizable white mausoleum and all its surrounding structures (the mosque, guest quarters, perimeter walls, entrances and gates) and gardens (the lawns, pools, fountains and pedestals) to the small-picture details of patterns, inscriptions and artistry, the symmetrical perfection is blatantly apparent. It’s also beyond impressive considering it was built almost four centuries ago.

Angles.
Angles.
The Adjacent Mosque
The Adjacent Mosque. On the other side of the Taj are The Guest Quarters, a building mirror-image to this.

If I had to sum up my thoughts and feelings here, there is no doubt that the Taj Mahal is about pure aesthetic… not just visual aesthetic, but the sense of elevated spirit and grace that comes with something this inherently beautiful. Hard labor was a given for this endeavor, but the impetus and the inspiration: pure, deep, undying love… and you feel that from every angle.

Reflections, literally and metaphorically.
Reflections, literally and metaphorically.

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A couple of interesting things to note…

First, one of the corner towers had scaffolding around it, and I was told that they were doing routine maintenance… a cleaning, which consisted of bringing in a particular kind of mud, the same that has been used consistently over the last four centuries, which polishes the marble to highlight its natural beauty but will not scratch, tarnish or stain it in any way.

Sunrise
Morning.

Secondly, the different decorative colors used everywhere are all precious and semi-precious gemstones that have been carved and embedded into the marble with impressive precision.

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Most of the extremely intricate gem work was inside the inner mausoleum, where photos were unfortunately prohibited, however after leaving the Taj, I had the opportunity to visit a small factory of sorts, where I got to see the artistic process of fixing sliced gems into marble. The age-old technique is purposely kept esoteric and is practiced and preserved only through the lineage of descendants of the original workers… it is not taught to anyone else. Watching these artists craft their intricate work was just unbelievable.

Each skilled at a particular part of the process, one person carves detailed, precision ‘troughs’ into the marble (into marble!) using a sharp steel blade.

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The marble is lightly coated in henna so they can discern where they are carving. It is temporary and can be buffed off.

Meanwhile, the next person grinds small pieces of gemstone into even smaller, ornate shapes… each piece of stone becomes a leaf or a petal or some other small part of the overall design.

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The last person then lays these pieces in a beautiful, colorful pattern that fits perfectly into the pre-carved grooves, so that when you run your hand across the surface you’re barely able to perceive the countless different parts, but instead feel a smooth uniformity of the whole.

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Naturally, at the adjacent store I had to buy a small piece of work (which is why I was brought there, I’m aware) but I cannot tell you how impressive it was to watch this beautiful process happen. There was just no way I could forgo taking some of this home (I am a tourist, after all.)

A jewel box. Appropriately named.
A jewel box. Appropriately named.

But what moves this entire thing from the impressive category into the mind-blowing sphere, is thinking back on the vast (and in typical Taj Mahal grandeur, I do mean vast) amount of wall and ceiling space in the mausoleum that was covered with this artwork. I wouldn’t have believed how it all came to fruition if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes and felt it with my own hands.

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Some of the larger designs around the perimeter.

There is a reason the Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World… and to think, I had a moment in my planning stages where logistics were becoming tricky and overwhelming, and I contemplated skipping this majestic wonder altogether! Silly girl…

Taken through marble lattice-work.
Taken through marble lattice-work.

 

 

The Ajanta Caves

Tues, Oct 6

After such a wondrous experience at Ellora I wondered if the wow factor at Ajanta might be a little less so in comparison, but that was nowhere near the case. Gigantic monasteries hand-carved into a mountainside could never be anything less than breath-taking.

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The setting at Ajanta is, in many ways, more stunning because of how it works in complete harmony with its natural surroundings. This is, of course, not surprising as the caves are all Buddhist in origin and I’m sure this location was chosen specifically for its harmonic beauty.

The caves curve around in a horseshoe shape that follow the river below, making the setting quite striking and the surrounding area very lush and green.

The Kneeling Elephant... a symbol of welcoming.
The Kneeling Elephant… a symbol of welcoming.

The real appeal at Ajanta (aside from the obvious feat of carving into a mountain with tools akin to a hammer and chisel) are the paintings.


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One of the glorious ceilings.
One of the glorious ceilings.

The Ajanta caves are several centuries older than Ellora, dating back to about 200 BC. The caves and spaces are equally beautiful, but the prolific wall and ceiling paintings here are the real stars… and are in surprisingly good condition for being close to 2000 years old.

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2000 years. That fact alone should make one pause for reflection.

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I decided to get a guide for my time here and he effectively explained a lot of the history and detail I would have otherwise missed. Turns out he was a lot of fun and an excellent photographer too.

A little cave (and iPhone) magic.
A little cave (and iPhone) magic.

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I don’t have much more to say about Ajanta and will just let these photos speak for themselves.

The most famous painting at Ajanta, an enormous fresco of Padmapani.
The most famous painting at Ajanta, a large fresco of Padmapani.
An enormous reclining Buddha. Perspective was impossible to capture because of the surrounding pillars, but the beauty was not just in this carving of Buddha at the time of his death, but also in the multitude of carvings below him, depicting the mortals sorrowful at his departure, and the carvings above him, depicting the angles rejoicing at his arrival.
An enormous reclining Buddha. Perspective was impossible to capture because of the surrounding pillars, but the beauty was not just in this carving of Buddha at the time of his death, but also in the multitude of carvings below him, depicting the mortals sorrowful at his departure, and the carvings above him, depicting the angles rejoicing at his arrival.

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From here I go off the grid for ten days as I head to the Nashik Vipassana Meditation Center for my second 10-day silent retreat.

Visiting the two special places was an experience I will never forget, but getting here has had its price. I’m not going to lie… after the chaos of Bombay, Aurangabad and the ridiculously difficult logistics of getting around in rural India (not to mention the bone-wracking roads! Please, say a word of gratitude for the tax you pay to maintain yours!) I’m not only looking forward to vipassana but am craving and viscerally needing the silence and introspection.

More on that when I emerge.

For now, Namaste.

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Exquisite Ellora

Monday, Oct 5

Today, India redeemed itself to me in the form of the Ellora Caves. If I had to leave today, I would do so knowing I had the privilege of walking back through history and glimpsing something magical… and that is a very special gift indeed.

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Nothing can really prepare you for things like this. The Ellora caves (and the nearby Ajanta caves, where I will go tomorrow) are huge sanctuaries and temples carved into a mountain side, dating back to the 6th through 10th Centuries. To touch these magnificent stone figures, to walk deep into the cool cavernous and ornately carved spaces that served as places of worship so long ago… well the energy is still there. It emanates from the stone gods staring down upon you and you feel it in every minute detail of the carvings… and the carvings are endless.

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My pictures are no different than what shows up on all the google searches, but what I hope to convey here is some of the mystery that brought tears to my eyes more than once today. I should mention, I had a ridiculously difficult time narrowing down which photos to post. 32 ethereal caves and a photography freak make for a lot of options and admittedly, brevity is not one of my fortés… so I have chosen my favorites and the ones I feel depicted the overall ambience best.

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As the day begins, my driver urged that we get an early start and our 6:30am departure was not without reward. We arrived at the caves by about 7:15 and I started at the Jain caves to the North (the caves are divided into 3 separate areas spanning 2 kilometers, that correlate chronologically to the religious progression at the time… the Buddhist caves being the earliest, followed by the Hindus and finally the Jain.)

The Jain Cave Area
The Jain Cave Area

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In the early morning light with the mist slowly lifting off the surrounding hills, I walked in utter disbelief at my complete solitude here. To my delight I was the only person around and had these caves all to myself, although the energy of the souls that built them and resided here so long ago clearly surrounded me.

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The sun was coming up over the mountains letting light filter through the cave openings in a magnificent way, and I kept vacillating between wild bewilderment as to why no one else was here at this time of day and absolutely no thought whatsoever… just pure emotion. Completely alone, unbothered, uninterrupted, absorbing the beauty and the energy, touching earth turned art, turned sanctuary… well, words escape me.

As the sun rose higher I moved on to the far South end where the Buddhist monasteries were. These vast spaces and their huge carvings were in high contrast to the tight, detailed ornamentation of the Jains, but they had their own appeal for their magnificent size and their simplistic beauty.

Inside one of the large Buddhist monasteries.
Inside one of the large Buddhist monasteries.

Honestly, I was still reeling from my experience at the Jain caves when more magic bestowed itself upon me. Most of these Buddhist caves were used as monasteries, however Cave 10 (they are all numbered, 1-32) is a unique and beautiful shrine. You enter through the outer pillars into a courtyard and then must take your shoes off to enter the inner sanctuary.

The entrance to Cave 10, one of my favorites.
The entrance to Cave 10, one of my favorites.

The stone floor is cool and incredibly smooth from centuries of footfall, and there before you across the wide open room sits an enormous Buddha, perhaps 12 feet tall. Behind him, a towering stupa. The ceiling above is accented by arching stonework and lined with tiny dancing figures and you cannot help but marvel at the impossibility that all this was carved out of rock inside a mountain so long ago. It is truly mind-boggling.

Magnificence.
Magnificence.
Like cool marble under my feet...
Like cool marble under my feet…

Again, I was here alone in this breathtaking cavern, my heart racing from awe and disbelief. I wandered barefoot, taking in all the detail, circling this giant Buddha, running my hands over the sensuously shaped stone, feeling as if this could not possibly be real. After what seemed like an eternity, I wandered back outside into the courtyard area and heard someone sweeping. A man then appeared from around a pillar and I nodded hello. He pointed to where I had just come from and asked if I liked? Did I like?! All I could do was simultaneously laugh and cry with my hands held to my heart. Even if I had the words, I was unable to speak them. He smiled back at me and in his thick accent said “come.”

He led me through a small archway and up a steep, dark flight of stone stairs until we ended up on a balcony over looking the courtyard below. Then, he took out a key and unlocked a door (I had noticed a few of these in other caves… makeshift doorways made of wood and screen to keep people out of certain areas) and when we stepped inside, we were on a small indoor balcony and were now above the inner sanctuary looking down upon the immense Buddha below. I guess I was so mesmerized when I was down there I did not notice this tiny balcony from below… or perhaps it was not visible.

Big, beautiful Buddha from above.
Big, beautiful Buddha from above.

Either way, the perspective was unreal. As I stood looking down on the majestic scene, thinking it could not possibly get any better… it did. He started chanting, and the sound, the echo throughout the vast chamber, the resonation against all this stone sent chills down my spine and brought fresh tears to my eyes… and at that point, there was no holding back. I cried at the pure beauty of it… feeling, with my eyes closed for one long moment, that this sound, this sensation, this experience was identical to those who held this space over 1000 years ago. For that moment, that echo crossed through 10 centuries and time simply did not exist.

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We were silent then for many minutes, and when I was composed enough to talk with him, he used his flashlight to point out some of the details across the cavern before we headed back downstairs. We then re-entered the sanctuary and sat down on the cool floor in front of the Buddha for a final few moments. He showed me the specific hand mudras that are depicted in the carvings, after which he sang a final, glorious chant.

At this point I simply could not fathom that there had been no other people around and that I had this space and this experience to myself guided by someone who has probably spent the better part of his life maintaining these caves. I could have stayed here forever, but with the appropriate Buddhist acknowledgment of impermanence, it was time to let the moment go and move on. There were more caves to see and I knew the crowds could not be far away.

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I thanked Deepak with a heartfelt Namaste and headed off to my last stop… the grandest of all Ellora, the main Hindu temple. As in all the photo’s, scale is hard to grasp, but I found myself thankful to see a few other people around at this point, as they provided the necessary perspective.

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Perspective indeed.
Perspective indeed.

This place, this day will be forever engrained in my memory and eternally embedded in my heart. Thank you, Universe, for giving this experience to me.

Gratitude abound…

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