INDIA– I had been at Amritapuri [the ashram and birthplace of Amma, a spiritual leader, humanitarian and guru] in Kollum Kerala India for 3 nights when my friend Diana (Khalsa Kaur) showed up somewhat unexpectedly to Amma’s ashram. I knew she was in India and that we might join up somewhere at some point but had no idea yet how we’d find one another. She came from an ashram where she was staying at with this man she’s pictured with, Arinaya—Auroville [an intentional community devoted to an experiment in human unity] in Pondicherry. They had met for the first time in India just a few weeks prior after passionate email exchange about a community in Crestone, Colorado where he had been living and practicing.
When they arrived to see me at Amma’s, they conferenced after feeling the energy there that was admittedly a bit muddled. and decided to “kidnap” me. I had it in my head to go to Goa next, make my way up north along the coast, from one spot to the next without much preplanning. And thats how I approached my month long sojourn in India. I knew that I would head to Amritapuri first and be in the dual nature of ashram living, the simultaneous warmth and austerity it offered. I loved waking up to the loud speaker of recitations or fall asleep to ‘bhajans’ (devotional songs) at night.
The room was simple and I hardly spotted a mirror or any other reflective surface for those days. Such a freedom in that detail alone.
I was friends with two female ‘renunciates’ who were living there full time. I was sad to go but after a healing, love filled ‘darshan’ (the beholding of a revered person or sacred object) with Ammachi (Amma), the three of us took the overnight train to Goa. Above, the two lovers are looking out from the balcony of the ashram dormitory they were staying in, over the backwaters of Kerala.
We took a 14 hour sleeper train to Goa. Goa was not the Goa of the 70s. I mean I knew that it wouldn’t be frozen in impeccable time but I thought perhaps there would be some lingering vibes. There’s definitely a vibe there–a darker trance-y kind of energy now. The Israelis came in droves usually to rebound from their mandatory military service and the latest influx is from a less desirable crowd of resort seeking Russians. After many a conversation with a Goan taxi driver and witnessing the sights and sounds on the beach—this place was certifiably far from the little Osho enclave of yore. But you find your way and place in every spot and we did. After some missteps we found a great place, simple and beautifully decorated huts on the beach in Mandrem. I loved the conversations I had with the girls who sold their wares on the beach. They were relentless sellers and all of them seemed to be from Karnataka and not locals. They all spoke perfect English with much character. I threw down some rupees for beautiful old scarves and paid way too much from some anklets but it felt good to see their faces every day and see what new things they had to peddle. Above, Prem and little Kavali in their beautiful cotton sets. They taught me the Hindi words for all their garments.
Next stop was Jaipur. I took a plane from Goa to Mumbai stopping just in the airport for an hour layover, arriving in Jaipur at night. The hotel that was recommended by my friend Bailey (who’s spend a great deal of time in the city) was by far my favorite in India. Narayan Niwas was resplendent in its old colonial charm. There were artifacts of its crumbling elegance at every entrance way and every corner. Above, a glimpse of the pink city filtered through a beautiful blue green block print curtain and the purple glow of the stain glass arc.
Before heading out for the day I walked around the hotel grounds. Here’s a shot of an altar in a little alcove off the pool area. Carved out of marble, Shiva lingam and yoni in a circle with Ganesh and a Trimurti, a beautiful cooper Naga, all adorned with hot pink hibiscus.
I was so feed up and exhausted here in Agra. I could care less about the Taj Mahal at that pointl. I had a horrible nights sleep. You can stay in some hotels no matter how grim, if you’re with a friend or lover but a place like the one in Agra when you’re alone is unbearable. My mood improved after a Keralan massage at nearby hotel. Here I am greased up post massage and taking the requisite Taj photo. I am looking a the camera man who I convinced to use my point and shoot to take the shot in place of his harassing offer for the full service photograph. The tour guide that I never asked for but didn’t have the strength to shake took this shot. The Taj Mahal was beautiful, as can be expected. But also beyond expected. I would return at night during a full moon. The inlay work was particularly incredible. There’s something very feminine about the structure—for a monument. Being built to stave off the grief of Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, as was her pre-mortem request, it is fitting.
I took a rather scary overnight train to Varanasi from Agra. I think it ended up being about 20 hours. I remember being on the platform of the train before boarding and being surrounded by leering men and I started to pray, louder than I had before. Throughout my travels in India, I was always graced by a kind and English speaking girl at the right moment. The girl I met on the train was in the same bunk as I and studying to be a doctor. We discussed the benefits of arranged marriage and traveling solo as a woman. She was so kind I will never forget her lovely gestures. Arriving in Varanasi I felt more at home than in other cities. There was a chaotic and rich energy unlike any other place.
The air was literally thick with the dust of burning bodies and somehow that was comforting. The spiritual devotion was palpable, even loud, and I was missing that vibration ever since I left the ashram. I also had a friend of a friend to meet up with here. Vishnu took me around at night and I offered excitement filled motorcycle rides back home each evening on his bike. Even a few meters traveling that way is full of such adventure in a busy village style city like Varanasi. Driving in India is on the next level. Above is a capture of the steps down to the Ganges lit up for the ‘aarti’ (a Hindu ritual of worship, where wicks soaked in ghee or camphor are burned and offered to deities) during the ‘Nowas’ celebration.
Carnations from garlands spell out Sanskrit words on the the banks of the Ganges.
Next stop Rishikesh. I took a plane to Dehli and another to Dehradun. the mountain air was clean and the water a fresh and pale blue. I couldn’t believe I went into the waters in Varansi. In a brilliant moment, I left my Western mind behind and waded in the dark green polluted waters there. “It’s your mind that is clean or dirty, not the water”—they say. But it came back to haunt me as soon as I saw the clarity and beauty of the moving water here.
The first night I arrived and made my way across the Lakshman Jhula bridge and over to the Paramth Niketan Ashram. Here are the Rishi Kumaris who attend the aarti here every evening presided over by Swami Puja. This aarti the beautiful Gurbani Kirtan singers from Amritsar performed and it was incredible to experience the Sikh and Hindu sound current dancing together. As the “Wahe Guru Family” who performed the Sikh kirtan and who became friend and campions in their home city of Amritsar, were accompanying the meditation course by friend and respected teacher Guru Dharam and Siri Sat, I joined them all for a private receptions with the Swami after. I took this picture in particular for my friend because on of the boys looked like a lover of hers.
I did lots of wandering everywhere I went, map-less and with only some sketch of a destination. I decided to walk closer against the mountain and it was a lovely rambling path, in Rishikesh. There were Sadhus (holy men) everywhere and I always remembered to not make eye contact. There was something sad about them to me. The look in their eyes reminded me of every man I’ve ever really loved—
They were searching and somehow stuck, a bit lost and in attempts at shaking off all possessions and responsibilities, they all ended up fetishizing no attachment to the point of being more attached—to a concept.
Here is a little house painted freshly in bright colors. The laundry hanging there in perfect pantone. The wild weeds in front look like the wind is blowing threw them and I think you can see the movement in the image.
These women were quite a bit older than they appeared from the back. They were so inspiring in the way they were dressed and the way they moved so beautifully in their garments. I found old embroidered and mirrored backless shirts like the ones they were wearing, in Pushkar. This style of dress with the full skirt was said to be Rajasthani. First women I saw dressed like this, not in the sari or punjabi style. We exchanged warm smiles and I trailed them for some more steps.
Next stop was Amritsar. I took a 7 hour train form Haridwar Junction to Amritsar and arrived at night. I met the loveliest families on the train—two sets of them who
watched over me and shielded me from all the stares and endless questions. I was the only foreigner on this train ride, or at least on this un-airconditioned compartment. I arrived to my hotel, picked up by the owner and I knew it was near the temple but had no idea I could hear the music played all through the night.
There was nothing, will be nothing more incredible then walking into Harmandir Sahib and laying sight on the golden temple surrounded by the water—the Amrit Sarovar. It is so beautiful at all times of day and the water is charged with the endless chanting, carrying the sound current across the tank straight to the heart of all pilgrims. The long bridge-like promenade is a complete push and shove all the way into the small Gudwara with the Guru Granth Sahib. It’s simplifying to call it a holy book, but for lack of a better explanation…I have never bowed before anything that I felt so powerful vibration from. Maybe I will also be a humbled novice to these teachings, but in some respect they will always guide me.
I never got his given name but we called him Baba ji—a respectful designation for a man of his age. He is a Nihang warrior -I spotted him the first day I arrived and walked over to the Ber (or tree) Baba Buddha that i gravitated towards each day. Babaji spoke to me through a lovely new friend I made there named Avneet, and he insisted on bridging me around to the complex, to experience the langar lines and we walked barefoot to some nearby gudwaras outside the marble peripheries.
This is the sky view at Keshgar Sahib in Anandpur Sahib “the holy City of Bliss”—the home of the Khalsa, founded by the 9th guru, Guru Teg Bahadur. The following 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh made 5 forts on the border of the city to protect it from invasions. Dashmesh Sadan is also here– the Siri Singh Sahib’s (Yogi Bhajan) home here preserved as it was before his passing in 2004.
I was told to go to the Mata temple while in Amritsar, a Hindu temple to the “Mother” and one local woman in particular who was revered as a saint. There are winding plastic caves recreated to mimic the passage to the Vashno Devi pilgrimage. After surviving the winding cave passage way with dirty water underfoot, and lots of winding stairs and small enclaves with goddesses and gods until you get to the main temple, I encountered an amazing girl who spoke perfect English and took me by hand. She insisted on guiding me through the inner sanctum. She asked me if I was married and who my love was and instructed me on how to plead my case to the Mother. She wrapped her red prayer string around my left wrist, made sure I received prasad (food that is a religious offering, then consumed by worshipers), and afterwards a man took the garland off a Devi and placed it around my neck. Rows of women were sitting, swaying, eyes closed and a small group were dancing and pulled me to their group.
I may have never experienced such sustained joy and I will never forget that girl, who seemed to hold my prayer as sacredly as I would wish to.