Fire that Turned into Water

Gerard found an interesting sounding place, 25 kms off the main road. The only information he could get from the Internet was that it was a Tibetan enclave. So we thought we’d go and spend a day or so. The bus ride from Mandi through the valley up the mountainside heightened our expectation. Rewalsar is a small town beside a lake, made up mostly of Tibetans, but there’s also a large Sikh gurdwara and a Shiva temple. Walking down the main street looking for a guesthouse, a friendly Tibetan merchant greeted us and recommended that we stay in one of the four monasteries that dominate the town. Taking his advice, we took a large clean room overlooking the monastery and lake – and a gigantic Buddhist statue on the hillside.

The typical Tibetan chanting with horns and gongs was sounding in the courtyard. Gerard commented, “This sounds like one of the avante-garde jazz bands I like!” In the late afternoon, we walked down to the lake as the sun disappeared behind the hills. We both agreed that maybe Reselwar deserved more than just a day or so.

After breakfast the merchant advised we go up to the statue of Guru Padmasambava Rinpoche, called Guru Rinpoche for short. It’s newly constructed and in the building beneath it elaborate tonga style painting is in progress on the walls and ceiling. A group of young Bhutanese men are painstakingly executing intricate scenes from the life, we believe, of Guru Rinpoche. It’s hard to get the full story because people speak very little English. It appears that one man draws the scenes (from memory) while others follow behind doing the inpainting (once again from memory). Gerard looked around for plans or photographs – anything that would guide the artists…but there was nothing. Later we were told that these artists have been highly trained from the age of eight, and they don’t need any reference material. There were neon colours of every description. We both felt that it was a rare opportunity to see this work being executed.

Guru Rinpoche came from Afghanistan to Nepal and then to Rewalsar in the district of Mandi. He’s mostly known for being the person responsible for bringing Buddhism to the Tibetans who were previously practicing a shaman practice called Bon. At the top of a steep hill above the town, Guru Rinpoche meditated for many years in a cave. Walking in the nearby forest one day, he met the King of Mandi’s daughter and they connected spiritually. The local people were jealous unable to believe it was a pure relationship and told the king.. Annoyed the king sent soldiers who pulled Guru Rinpoche down from his cave and set fire to the forest to burn him alive. The Guru stayed in meditation and turned into a lotus – and the fire turned into water.. It is now called the Lotus Lake. But the way the story goes depends on who you ask, and there’s little information on the Internet to verify.

One morning, we went up to the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated. Deep in its interior is a large Buddha statue. The silence in the cave was nearly deafening. And of course the whole hilltop was covered with fluttering prayer flags. From the hilltop we noticed an interesting looking building overlooking the lake that was clearly not Buddhist. So the next day we investigated. It turned out to be a large Sikh gurdwara. A young Sikh man told us that this was the spot where Guru Gobind Singh (the last Sikh Guru) met with the Hindus to strategize to fight the infamous Mogul emperor, Arjungazeb. The atmosphere was very peaceful as we sat drinking chai from the langar and conversing with the young Sikh in the late afternoon.

One evening we were trying to meditate with the sound of loud drums and horns right outside our window. Finally I got up and looked down into the courtyard where a large group of people were encircling a line of dancing women in full regalia. The story was that some people were visiting from Ladakh and the locals were so pleased to see the visitors that they danced for them. Later, after we’d gone to sleep, we were woken by them dancing again – as if they could not contain their joy.

Rewalsar is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. A number of westerners practicing Buddhism are here, dressed in the traditional red robes, but it is still largely undiscovered.

Among the very few tourists is a Frenchman from Provence called Frederic. He’s been here for the past six weeks and both of us enjoy talking with him. One evening he showed us a lovely walk through the green terraced countryside to a small Shiva temple. We sat for a long time taking in the view.

Reselwar is one of those places attractive in so many different ways that you wonder if it will exist after you leave…and if you were to return, would it have completely changed? Part of the charm is finding this place, and the rest is the people who mostly still seem rooted in the traditional life style and are not complicated by the stresses and strains of the west. The Tibetans walk up and down the street with their spinning prayer wheel in one hand and prayer beads in the other; their mantra on their lips. They don’t seem to be interrupted by our presence; at the same time they’ve very welcoming, and the women seem especially friendly toward me! The seeming ease between the three communities is also a welcome contrast from the communal rioting that delays our trains in India and the continued agitation in the Middle East

High Street in the Himalayas

Leaving Varanasi before 5 am, trailing our cases through streets still dark a quieter but not empty. Our rickshaw driver literally leaps across the equivalent of three lanes – a mass of vehicles, animals and pedestrians. He carries us at breakneck speed to the railway station, only for us to find the train is four hours late – a result of JAT agitation in Lucknow (a low caste demand for inclusion in the central backward classes) which is occurring in several states.)

You never know what to expect on a train journey in India. Across the corridor from our bunks is a family with two small rambunctious kids. I’d objected to being called Auntie, but now I have to endure Grandma. “Go and talk to Grandma”, the father instructs, trying to offload his kids. I’m happy when they get off the train. Indian parents teach their kids to be forceful personalities. This is fine, but loud voices calling “Papa, Papa” incessantly (not to mention “Grandma”), can get tedious for those of us who have never been schooled in parenthood. Towards evening this family is replaced with a newly married couple, honeymooning in Simla, who appear to have little need for sleep and sing love songs to each other late into the night.

With further delays, we arrive 8 hours late in Kalka, missing the connection to the toy train for Simla. So there’s no alternative but a taxi. Two other tourists appear – a couple of very tall young men from LA on Spring break. We all pile into a white Ambassador crammed in with bongo drums, guitar and hiking gear and head into the mountains.

At 2,200 meters Simla is built on two sides of a ridge…very steep sides. Practically what this means, there is no motor or any other vehicle traffic. Goods are delivered by porters, with large bundles strapped to their back. Learning that many of them end up dying of tuberculosis, I found the sight of these scrawny little men struggling up through the bazaar more painful than even the grossly deformed beggar sitting outside our hotel.

Back in the time of the Raj, Simla was a favorite hill station of the British and also the seat of government during the hot summer months.. Before the British put in the toy train, it took twenty days to bring everything up from Kalka below where the train terminated to outfit the government.

The Mall at the top of the bazaar even today reminds me of a British High Street. I’m horrified to learn Indians were not allowed up on the Mall unless they were serving the Imperialists. The most magnificent building is the ‘Viceregal Lodge”, the palatial summer home of the Viceroys, ending with Lord Mountbatten during the final days of the Raj.

Shimla is also significant for its green policy. Part of a broader Himachal Pradesh initiative, it is in the forefront of banning smoking in public places, limiting the use of plastic, and serious conservation of water.

Gerard deliberately left Varanasi before Holi, a festival of color, which involves pelting each other with day-glo colored powder. Tourists are prize targets and Varanasi is notorious for this. He thought we’d be safer in Simla.. I’d gotten tired of Gerard worrying about his already limited wardrobe being sacrificed to the resilient stains of Holi. But I was blasé: “It’ll never happen to us, we’re too old.” My mistake! We’d barely stepped out of our hotel in search of breakfast, when round the corner a band of “color snipers” advanced toward us.. .“No, no!” I pleaded with no where to run.. “Oh.. Shit! Shit!” as a cloud of pink dust enveloped me. I desperately tried to brush off the color from my white and blue windbreaker, much to the amusement of on looking locals. Not so blasé now!

After I’d finished venting, and some breakfast, I wore my pink hair with pride. And later, the boys from LA who had entered fully into the spirit of the festival, returned covered from head to foot in color, looking like a credit to Jackson Pollock.

Simultaneous with Holi was an Indian film festival where we escaped further pelting and also saw some excellent independent documentaries on India regional cultures and communal tensions. It was also interesting to once again come across a small group of people following the same spiritual practice as us – 50 people meditate together in a meeting hall every evening.

Varanasi is still as fascinating as ever. The narrow lanes pulsate with life (and death) marriage and funeral processions, cows, dogs, water buffalo, beggars with babies, all jostling along to and from the ghats. Wandering lines of pilgrims, trailed by guided tours of Asians, wearing face masks to protect them from the dreaded disease. At sunrise over the ghats – pilgrims in boats, sadhus begging, smoldering cremation fires, boys playing cricket along the narrow steps, children selling bowls of fresh flowers to offer to Mother Ganges.

The Sita Hotel staff is welcoming – remembering us from a year ago. Likewise, the amiable, paan chewing Shree Restaurant owner where we eat regularly – because the food is good but more because he plays Indian classical music. Few tourists are as serious about music as Gerard, and the boys in the three CD stores we frequent call out greetings as we pass. They know Gerard is a good customer and will purchase more CDs this year, but they also I believe enjoy talking with him, sharing their knowledge as they advise him on the best musicians and music. Still young, their knowledge of classical music is remarkable. The Muslim beggar, who Gerard favored last year, his right hand a disfigured stump, also seems to remember us: His face lights up, “Salam Alikoum!” “Alikoum Salam”, we reply.

Santosh of Shree is also a patron of art and his restaurant walls are covered with rich photographic impressions of India and its people. Since last year, he’s opened an art gallery next door with excellent pictures taken by a professional. Vivek Desai. Two portraits especially impressed me – one is of an old woman her grey hair in a tight bun, grimacing as she immerses herself in the cold water of the Ganges. The other is of a younger blind woman, also immersed above her waist, her vacant eyes uplifted as she holds her baby above the water, her yellow gold sari reflected in the rippling water surrounding her. I was moved by the conviction of both women in the sacred power of the Ganges. Gerard was particularly taken by a photo taken of the body of another old woman this time laid out on a funeral pyre, lifeless and mouth open. He commented, “No matter what our journey, this is the common end of all our travels.”

At dusk, tourists and pilgrims converge to watch the puja (religious performance) beside the Ganges. But this year, we have to walk through a security gate. Fears of terrorism were realized last December when a bomb exploded during the puja, killing at least two persons, possibly several more, and injuring many. People believe the police disposed of the bodies in the Ganges to minimize panic and scandal. The security seems ineffectual as a further deterrent. The police pay little attention, a cow wanders through the gate ahead of me, and when my bag sets off the alarm no one reacts! Despite the bombing, which was never attributed to any terrorist or religious group, there is still a crowd at the puja each night, extending out into crowded boats on the river – but maybe a little less crowded than last year.

CD stores in the lanes are a refuge for listening to music, good conversation and dinking tea from small clay cups. A stranger sitting across from us at dinner was amused overhearing our conversation. I upbraided Gerard for reaching his 11th CD purchase. But the last one’s a present, he protested. The man was reminded of similar conversations with his own wife. He’s a German humanitarian aid worker. “Keep buying more CDs,” he laughingly encouraged Gerard as we part. I was less amused!

At times, the dirt, noise, crowds all get to me – I don’t want to have to step over another cow flap, see another scrawny dog limping because a speeding motorbike ran over its leg, or have another beggar woman use her baby to evoke my sympathy. I cannot make these things go away. I don’t want to ignore them but in order to be here I have to live with all this harsh reality. Then I go through a letting go process and can handle it again – more to the point, actually enjoy the city.

But this time, neither of us can take the continual noise in the ashram below our window. The music starts promptly at 4 am, high pitched bhajan singing interspersed with what sounds like mournful laments rather than devotional rejoicing. Later, a devotee claps what sounds to be tin castanets at a slow regular beat to aid his concentration; after 30 minutes we’ve had it. He starts again in the evening, considerately timing it with our own meditation. It does not aid my easily distracted concentration.

So we move to a new guesthouse. We no longer hear the sounds of the ghat – the thump, thump from the washer men who begin their work before daylight, the muffled voices of bathing and boating pilgrims. Instead beginning at 3 am, faint chanting accompanied by a harmonium in the far distance; an hour later the temple bell tolls, followed by the mosque call from a different direction. And always the barking dogs. The monkeys don’t begin their screaming till after day light by which time the dogs have gone to sleep, exhausted by their nocturnal escapades.

While I struggle with the less salubrious aspects of Varanasi, others seem to have no problem. Even the most vulnerable have a higher tolerance level than me. A young Russian mother worries whether her three year old daughter is having a good time. “Don’t worry mummy, I love everything here,” the little girl reassures. She loves dressing up in bangles and sequined skirts and greets the cows in the lane outside her hotel with the names she’s given them. Another grey haired English woman is here with her thirty-something son. She has dreamt of coming to India ever since he began coming in his teens and is finally here having a “lovely time”. The way death is handled here in Varanasi especially impresses her. “Everything is in the open, so different to how in the west we try to deny and ignore it” As we talk, a procession passes in front of our restaurant. An old lady’s dead body is being carried on a rope bed covered with flowers through the lanes to the cremation ghat. The boy in the CD store off the music for a few minutes while the procession passes and raises his hands in prayer.

Indians also are very direct about age. “You are old”, they remind Gerard and I repeatedly. “Auntie! Auntie!” the young men call after me. But the ultimate injury is when they call out tauntingly, “A very young couple!” All harder for me than Gerard who is more accepting of his age.

The guesthouse is occupied predominantly by young Japanese and Koreans. I try unsuccessfully to analyze why…Do they come for spiritual reasons? Or with their dyed blond hair and dreadlocks are they escaping the restrictions of middle class life in Japan? I admire their individuality – the young girl who walks down the alley stepping around the garbage in very white, very high heeled shoes, holding her equally white skirt above her ankles…totally impractical and inappropriate. But hey! She felt like wearing them…so why not?

Whatever the reason they come, they are the largest tourist group in Varanasi. The restaurants cater to their tastes, cooking Asian food. This is a relatively new development although the restaurant owner tells us the Asians have been coming here en masse longer than the Europeans or Americans. They do not seem to react to the terrible news of the recent earthquake and tsunami. Asking those in the cafes if their family is safe? “Yes, everyone is ok” – but in the evening, they demonstrate their concern by performing a ceremony Hindu style, with candles in earthen pots on the edge of the Ganges in remembrance of all the suffering in Japan.

Varanasi exemplifies the choice that we have in life – do we focus on the negative – the trash beneath our feet? Or do we raise our head, and see the magic that is everywhere? Other than the visual and audio charms of the city, there’s something less obvious that keeps us coming back. The struggle for life and its conclusion death are so much more apparent here that hopefully we will leave with a better grip on reality.

Palaces upon a Plateau

Our first experience on the sleeper bus, but there was no alternative – the trains to Mumbai were all full. It was a relatively pleasant surprise. The Volvo bus was designed with beds instead of seats – two tiers of skinny flat bunks two across, either side of a very narrow aisle. My one concern was that there was no toilet – a twelve hour bus ride with no toilet? But three or four hours into the ride, the conductor came down the aisle yelling “Toilet! Toilet!” And the bus stopped by the roadside just long enough for the men to go on one side, the women on the other. Four hours later, at around 4 am, there was another stop, this time outside a dark restaurant, where a man was also serving glasses of hot tea.

Our stop in Mumbai was just long enough to have breakfast and buy Gerard a $4 pair of sunglasses before taking an eight hour train ride to our next destination. (his stolen Raybans we wanted to replace were more expensive in Mumbai than back in Boston). Mumbai is a city of contrasts. I took away two impressions: as we entered the city – the miles upon miles of slum dwellings I could see from the slit of a window on the two tier bus; and then leaving Mumbai – the Harijan family that boarded our train for a couple of stops. “Harijans” was the name given to the untouchables by Ghandi. A sweet, sad faced man with three children: the two ragged girls sank on to the seats and fell asleep in utter exhaustion; their little brother perched on the remaining seat edge between them in bewilderment. The ticket inspector tried to throw them off the train and then after the man’s pleading, moved them out to the corridor where the girls resumed their sleep on the floor, the little boy still emotionless, frozen between them. I wondered why they were on the move, where was their mother. In the despair of poverty, had she abandoned them? Or had she died? They were dependent upon the mercy of the ticket collector; I was moved by their helplessness.

We got down from the train in Khandwa, a nondescript town although it did have some military importance during the Raj. In fact, the guesthouse (the only suitable one in town) was an army barracks built in 1857. It’s now owned by a Rhada Soami family who have a spiritual practice the same as ours. We were all happy to meet each other.

This year we’ve had more problems booking trains than previously – hours spent at internet cafes trying to find trains with availability that fit our itinerary. In Khandwa we needed to book a train for Varanasi four days later. After observing us struggling for over an hour, a kind man trying to book his own train offered to help us. He works for GE in Hyderabad but had come home to Khandwa for the weekend to be with his wife and teenage daughter. He helped us find a train and then used his credit card to purchase the tickets when the Indian Rail site refused to accept our US Master Card. Without his help it would have been impossible for us to book. Then he insisted we come home with him on the back of his motorbike and meet the family. His wife and daughter were equally gracious, feeding us chai and sweets. He gave us his mobile number to call if we ever have a problem and even offered us his credit card! The trust Indians bestow on us often after a relatively brief meeting continues to be amazing.

Khandwa was a starting point for a trip to two more remote places of interest that involved a series of bus rides. Travel was slow – the crowded local buses moved leisurely from one small town to another. I had to curb my impatience…one bus crawled so slowly that trucks; bicycles…even cows were overtaking us! But no one else was impatient. Why was I in such a hurry? With or without a seat, wedged in beside each other, the local Indians just seemed to enjoy the bumpy ride through the countryside, accompanied by the high pitched singing of Hindu “filmy” music.

I felt as if I’d entered a Bollywood movie – the bus had plenty of colorful characters with the conductor, an agile young man, playing the lead – his long red scarf streaming behind him as he leaned into the wind from the open door of the bus, chanting the name of the next destination. Another bus actually had a TV planted on the wall behind the driver, and we watched a typical Bolllywood story of a boy courting a beautiful light skinned Indian girl and trying to win over her parents while making matters worse with each bumbling effort. This particular movie took him to Goa where he danced on the beach with barely clad girls. The passengers in this remote country area – from young boys to old crones- were all fixated on the screen.

Our first overnight stop was in Omkeshwar, so called because it sits on an Om shaped island in the Namada river. It is one of the five sites that host the Kumbha Mela every twelve years. The town was preparing for Shiva’s birthday the next day and pilgrims were arriving to take a sacred dip at one of the bathing ghats. Omkeshwar isVaranasi on a much smaller scale. One restaurant alone catered to the few western tourists that pass through. Set in a pretty garden beside the river, it is run by the Nepalese. Our waiter had been hanging around westerners so long he behaved and dressed in a way that would be more at home on Malibu beach. He moved trancelike until a monkey appeared in the garden. Leaping into action he chased the monkey brandishing a stick and yelling. Then he returned to his languid state until the next monkey arrived.

The next day we set off for Mandu , a small town up in the mountains– a trip that involved another three bus rides. We’ve traveled on buses with goats, but this was the first time our cases rode at the back of the bus in a luggage compartment with two goats!

Mandu today attracts Indian tourists but very few westerners. It is the best example of Afghan architecture in India. In the town and surrounding countryside are palaces and tombs built in the 1400s and early 1500s. Two of the most interesting places were inspired by passion for women. One was a palace Hoshang Shah built for his large harem of reportedly 15,000! It was reminiscent of a ship’s bridge – using a little imagination – sitting between two large tanks of water. Hoshang’s tomb nearby is the oldest marble building in India. The other remarkable site was a pavilion on a high plateau outside of town built by another Shah called Baz Bahadur to lure a beautiful renowned singer, Rupmati, from the plains below. The story had an unhappy ending. Emperor Akbar, lured by the tales of Rupmati’s beauty marched on the fort and the Shah fled, leaving his lover to poison herself.

But most fascinating was a mosque built over a Shiva temple, and now once again a functioning Hindu place of worship. Remarkably, the Hindus had not destroyed but repurposed the site – Islamic writing praising Allah is still evident on the walls. It was Shiva’s birthday, and the little temple was abuzz with activity. Pilgrims had flocked there to make offerings and receive blessings.

Another distinguishing feature of Mandu is the beobal tree, imported from Africa via Afghanistan. This is the only place in India where you can see the ancient tree. Huge and hollow inside, the branches are bare until just before the monsoon when the appearance of leaves signify the rain’s imminent arrival. The countryside is flat – dry leafed trees are scattered around mature wheat fields, golden in the sunlight. Farmers are harvesting, bundling and threshing the wheat.

At times the countryside is so dry it reminds us of the edge of the Moroccan desert south of the Atlas Mountains. Huge herds of goats pass through town. We even see camel trains – people from Rajasthan 400kms away; the migrant workers in red turbans, their wives in red and gold saris, with their rope beds strapped to the top of the camels. We rented bicycles and rode out through the countryside to more remote sites. The bikes were decidedly tinny and with no gears, the ride slow and bumpy. As we bicycled around the little hamlets people were generally friendly smiling and waving at us.

We picked a pleasant hotel made up of single room cottages built around a large lawn where we ate our meals and overlooking a valley with a good view of the sunrise. Again there were very few westerners – Susie and Cedric an upper crust couple in their seventies from Norfolk, acted as if they were left over from the Raj. They were traveling with a driver they affectionately called “Mommy”, and a good supply of Indian beer. Their trip had begun with skiing in Kashmir with their daughter married to a Dutch diplomat stationed in Delhi.

We traveled to Mandu in a semi circle, and now had to complete the circle returning to Khandwa to catch the train to Varanasi. Getting back from Mandu was no easier than going there. Strictly off the beaten track it involved a series of buses, with the guide book providing little to no help on the route. So we had to go by faith in the bus drivers’ advice with no idea if we were going in the right direction or not, and if we would indeed find a connecting bus at the destination they instructed. But they were more than helpful – leading us around to the correct bus, even saving us seats, and storing our bags – all done without asking for hand out. Madhya Pradesh does not get a lot of foreign tourists and they have not yet been jaded by us! Six hours later we arrived back in Khandwa.

Going to Mandu invoked one of Gerard’s favorite expressions: “What man has done, man can do”. If I complained about the arduousness of the travel, or the lack of conveniences, Gerard would quote, “What man has done, Mandu!”