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A Rollercoaster Ride of Religions!

The final weeks of our time in India...bringing the faiths together.

What a ride the last week and a half has been! We've witnessed the biggest Hindu festival, Kumbh Mela, in Haridwar; we've lived in Amritsar amongst the sharing Sikh's at their holiest temple; and we've been with the Buddhists in the mountains of McLeod Ganj. All in all, a rollercoaster ride of spirituality and faiths that has perfectly ended our magnificent four month stay in Mother India.

We arrived in hectic Haridwar a little shell shocked after our easy ride in Delhi with Dad and a little weakened from our simultaneous tummy bugs. Delhi belly had hit us hard! Haridwar roads were like a death trap - traffic of the vehicle and human kind whizzed, swerved and bumbled all around us, and we were continuously under watchful eyes of all people. Everywhere. It was like everyone was paying as much attention us as they were to the reason we were in Haridwar - the largest spiritual festival on earth, the Kumbh Mela. Female redheads and blondes obviously don't grace the Haridwar shores very often! The Kumbh Mela spans over three months and attracts millions of pilgrims, swamis and worshippers over the period, who all flock to dunk themselves in the holy Ganges water and absolve themselves of their sins. The Ganges is the holiest river for the Hindus and we had already come across it in Varnanasi - it is the container for the nectar of salvation (and also one of the most polluted and stinky!). According to Hindu Legend, once upon a time the Devas (the gods of heaven responsible for sun, wind, rain and fire) were weakened by a curse. They cooperated with the demons to stir the cosmic ocean of existence and from the milky depths of a pot, or kumbh, containing amrit, the nectar of immortality, emerged. The Devas decided they didn't want to share with the demons and a chase across the heavens began. During the battle (equivalent to twelve human years) four drops of nectar fell to earth and at each spot they landed, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated. And so, every twelve years Kumbh Mela (pot festival) is celebrated, and we were lucky enough to be in North India during that time. One of the main bathing dates (that I had discovered on the very 21st century Kumbh Mela website!) was the Magh Purnima Snan and on that auspicious day we headed down to the Ganges Canal, a fast flowing channel parallel to the main river which seemed to be the main worshipping location during the event. Walking through the swarming streets full of brightly coloured sari's, bundled-up tots, masses of women with bags atop their heads and orange-clothed swami's bearing long, noble staffs, I could feel the energy bursting from all angles. A sense of urgency filled the air, of people eager to reach the water and display dedication to their faith. The overwhelming level of sound reverberated through me as I imagined the noise to be the hubbub of the three hundred and thirty million gods of Hinduism chatting at a heavenly cocktail party. Hinduism is the most adhered-to religion in India by a vast majority and is a fascinating and confusing mixture of the idolisation of millions of varying gods, garish colours, fantastical and supernatural legends, caste systems, supplication to a masters and gurus, noisy vibrant festivals and feverish celebration. To me it is exotic and exciting and a world away from the comparatively dull religions that I have been brought up knowing and understanding. Hinduism has shaped Indian culture indubitably, in both positive and negative ways and this emanates in all aspects of Indian life. From the gargantuan tinsel-covered trucks blaring our Bangra music, to the lavish wedding celebrations held for Indian couples, to the lingering caste system that relates significantly back to the Hindu need to let go of ego for spiritual integrity (i.e. praising authority...ie. encouragement of obedience and passivity in the lower castes). One way that Hindus let go of ego is to worship gurus, whether that be one of the 330,000,000 gods, a baba, a sadhu or any other authoritative figure.

In Haridwar we met one such authority - a sadhu. Sadhu's are the holy saints of Hinduism, mourned as dead by their families, they abandon everything to devote their lives to God: reprogramming their body and mind through celibacy, renunciation, religious discipline, meditation, yoga, austerities and secret tantric practices. We first met our Sadhu, Shivaraj, the day we arrived in Haridwar. A crowd had gathered round his naked, ash-covered, dread-locked form and his band of babas, and we could immediately see why (as if you needed anymore reason to look!?). He had taken his three-foot long Shiva trident and had begun wrapping it around his man parts! The crowd eek'ed and ooh'ed in a mix of fascination and horror as the sight unfolding before our eyes. The really unnerving part about the experience though, was as while he was manipulating this piece of metal round his bits and pieces he beckoned Sally and I over to him! Our English sensibilities and prudishness have not been weathered by India enough to cope with that offer and we rapidly scuttled off in the opposite direction! The next day however, we were ready for Shivaraj and whatever tricks he had hidden up his non-existent sleeves. He was sat in the same spot, apparently his official Haridwar home (consisting of a makeshift tent and cooking pot) on the walkway at the side of the canal. This time we responded to his beck and call and sat with him, unfortunately becoming as much of a spectacle as the naked dude next to us, and pulling in a crowd of about thirty Indian men. They delightedly set up camp around us, suddenly endowed with free license to sit and gawp at us to their hearts' content. What a bizarre situation we found ourselves in! Shivaraj was a performer of the highest caliber and soaked up the attention. The Ganges was his stage, and we, his avid fans, ridding ourselves of sinful ego by praising and papping the mystical ashen man. While we were there with him he flung his floor-length dreadlocks about, exhibiting them like a peacock ruffling its' feathers; he washed and carried out his evening prayers in the freezing sacred waters, flicking and smoothing the liquid over his greying frame. During this process, for just a second he became just a regular, fallible human being, before he quickly removed his flimsy loincloth and began again covering himself with more white powder. It was entrancing to watch and the crowd around him grew in size as the procedure went on. He posed for photos as he whispered his mantra to the setting sun and held his infamous trident in his quivering hand. Returning to his homely spot, people clambered to touch his feet and be blessed with bright paint thumbed onto their adoring foreheads. He was a higher spiritual being, apparently, closer to god than these mere mortals surrounding him could ever be (hmmmm). We drank questionable Ganga chai with him and his gaggle of babas and looked on as they coughed and spluttered their way through an excessively strong chillum (hash pipe). We said our farewells to a bleary-eyed Shivaraj and left, still reeling from the extraordinary and exceptional situation we had just experienced! What a day at the Kumbh Mela!

Amristar was our next stop, the home of the Skih faith and the breathtaking Golden Temple. The Vatican of Sikhism, the pure gold structure sits in the centre of a pool of amrit, sacred nectar, that gives the town its' name. On our first day in Amritsar we made our home in the free dormitories that the Golden Temple offer for foreign visitors and began our exploration of the sizable complex. Before you enter the temple you must remove your shoes, wash your hands and cover your head. As we walked through the gulleys of warm water designed to clean the feet of those entering the temple, I caught my first glimpse of the golden beacon, bursting into eye line in rushes of reflective, radiant light. A long walkway leads from the surrounding white marble frameworks to the temple, packed full of people all eager to get into the temple and make their prayers, at all times of the day and night. We joined the crowds circling the pool, strolling along the gleaming white engraved marble and gazing up at the grandiose archways and buildings that all face the shimmering temple like adoring worshippers themselves, housing rows of adoring worshippers inside. Throughout the day and night, from the point when the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is placed ceremoniously inside the belly of the temple, to the point when it is put to bed in an adjacent building, the air is filled with the rich, resonating sounds of musicians singing and playing inside the belly of temple. And the music is divine! Sikh's seem to be the only Indians who understand that music sounds better if it's not making ears bleed! In shops, restaurants, movies, festivals, weddings, temples and train stations music is always distorted beyond all comprehension, but here the soothing voices and temperate tabla are soft and clear. It is designed to prompt a particular devotional mood or emotion and it really did bring about a feeling of serenity in me whilst I was there. We fortunately met a very informative, friendly, kind-hearted man who, in perfect English, became our guide for the afternoon. He was a proud Sikh and relayed the story of his faith with moist, twinkling eyes as we listened intently. At only 500 years old Sikhism is a young religion and was founded by a man called Guru Nanak. Nanak did not believe in the caste system imbued in the Hindu and Muslim faiths, and spiritual urge lead him to renounce the world in his very early days. His liberal outlook was intolerant of all current conventions and meaningless formalities and he believed that truth cannot be the monopoly of any individual sect or book, it lies within the person. Nanak stated that God is to be found not in holy texts (which seems odd as Sikh's have and praise a holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib) but that God reveals Himself and is present in our everyday lives. To Sikhs, God is not concerned with the caste of man, but with the doings of man. Nanak was against the superstitions and idol-worship of Hinduism and the intolerance of the Muslims. He tried hard to do away with all these things (although I'm not sure if he was successful as the nine gurus that followed him, and he himself, are worshipped like idols, with believers kneeling on all fours and touching their heads to the floor in the presence of paintings of said men).

The communal kitchen at the Golden Temple is a brilliant outcome of the Sikh ethic - all men are created equal and religious instruction sounds hollow and hypocritical to a hungry man. In the grounds of the Golden Temple a colossal operation of preparation, cooking, serving and washing occurs 24 hours a day, every day, 7 days a week. Everyone and anyone can come to the temple and get fed, anytime of the day, for free. The kitchen is funded by donation, is run by volunteers and will feed up to 10,000 people or more each day. You don't just get meager scraps either, but an endless supply of dahl, curries, chapatti and even rice pudding (sublime rice pudding may I add!) ladled out generously and methodically by rapidly passing servers. Everyone sits on the floor and eats with their hands. Everyone helps out to keep the enormous fodder factory running smoothly. Everyone is equal. Sheer amazement slapped across my face as our guide gave us exclusive access to all the cogs within the precisely ticking system. The grinding mechanical conveyor belts being fed billowing sacks of white flour and, in turn, churning and spitting out perfect little round chapattis. Women sat of the mouth of the machine, stacking and buttering the steaming bread as they chattered away in raucous Punjabi. The gigantic cauldrons full of spices, curries, dahl and rice pudding bubbling away over fierce flames like a giant witches' brew. Enormous poles dug into the mixtures and stirred round by equally enormous men in turbans and overalls. Huge vats of chai stood side by side steaming and puffing to cater for the incessant tea queue. A sea of people of all ages, sat cross-legged on the floor chopping carrots, potatoes, onions, spinach, peeling garlic and de-podding peas. Over the way, rows and rows of burgeoning troughs full of soapy water and silver plates, bowls and cups clattered and crashed as hundred of helpers wash the utensils six times. Yes, that's right - six times! It's a cleanly operation at the G.T.! We finished our tour with a meal in the dining room, the delicious grub tasting all the better having seen the unbelievable efforts expended to create it. Over the three days we stayed at the temple I improved my chapatti-rolling technique, my garlic peeling skills, and my de-podding peas flick! We were free to help wherever we desired and I certainly felt part of the system in doing so. What an inspiring place to be part of!

Last stop of this ride is chilly McLeod Ganj, up in the mountains of North-West India and surrounded by beautiful Buddhism and snow-capped peaks. McLeod Ganj is the spiritual centre of exiled Tibetans and their Buddhism and is home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and political leader. We had heard wonderful reports from friends and fellow travellers who had been there, the majority choosing to stay for a month or more. When we arrived I could see why it holds such a draw. Colourful gompas, beaming white monuments and intricately carved prayer wheels fill the small town, monks and nuns with shaved heads and mahogany robes wander the streets adding an inescapable calm to the atmosphere, the eerie and hypnotising sounds of chanting and slow drumming waft from the monasteries and dharmshalas, steaming silver pots of scrumptious momos are sold on narrow street corners, aside stunning turquoise jewels and conches. The serenity here is palpable and makes for a striking contrast to the boisterous and observed existence we were used to! On our first day in McLeod Ganj the sunshine was beaming and we set about finding out as much as we could about the place and most significantly the exiled Tibetan community and the story of their plight and ongoing struggle for independence inside and outside Tibet. The Tibetan museum was fascinating and helped to clearly illustrate the heart-wrenching Tibetan history. The Chinese invaded Tibet, an essentially peace-loving nation of Buddhists and rich culture, in 1943. The Chinese Communists barged their heavily loaded and substantially sized army into an unprepared and relatively unarmed Tibet, destroying religious monuments, scriptures, artefacts and people in their "Cultural Revolution" efforts. One million Tibetans are thought to have died as a result of the Chinese occupation, and the Tibetans that remain in their country are disenfranchised, bullied and silenced. Informers lurk everywhere and if someone is reported to be criticising China or stirring up patriotic feeling, they can be arrested and tortured in one of the many prisons. One statement from a Tibetan living in Tibet that really resonated was: "Even though your heart is burning and in flames, no smoke may flow from your mouth." The Dalai Lama works relentlessly to raise awareness about Tibet all over the world, and to fight fire with peaceful sentiment, but China is gaining power on the world stage and is greedily and unjustly keeping Tibet for itself with little sign of negotiation. Tibetans are in danger of losing their cultural identity altogether, and for such a beautiful and unique identity to be lost, belonging to such a peaceful and gentle nation of people, is a travesty. If you would like to find out more about the Tibetan struggle for freedom, or you would like to donate to the cause, follow this link: http://www.freetibet.org/. I am certainly returning one day to volunteer in McLeod Ganj.

Buddhism is manifest in all parts of Tibetan culture and all parts of life in McLeod. It is another religion that discards the age-old trappings of the Hindu caste system and treats everyone as equal. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is full of suffering and is ultimately unsatisfying; the only way to be happy is to want less and to train your mind to penetrate the ultimate reality. That Buddhist reality maintains that there is no God or soul - we're all just streams of consciousness that have existed since beginningless time in infinite bodies and six different realms (I can barely remember what I did last week, let along six realms ago!). We have all been demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell dwellers millions of times before. Hence why Buddhists will never intentionally hurt any living thing, as they consider everything a reincarnation of someone, usually they imagine the thing is their mother! Whereas we ordinary humans have no control over our reincarnations, the Dalai Lama is considered a tulku, or a reincarnated lama (someone who can direct their consciousness into another body when they're dying). His Holiness the Dalai Lama is considered to be the 74th reincarnation of the Buddah of Compassion, he was found in a small village in Tibet at the mere age of five and was proclaimed as the spiritual leader of Tibet. He was only nine years old when the Chinese invaded and he had to lead a nation through its' destruction. Absolutely incredible story. The second noble truth of Buddhism is the cause of suffering. Buddhists, like Hindus, believe that bad actions fester within our consciousness and are received back in kind in one of our millions of future lives. But purifying karma is hard work in this faith...Sally and I were treated to a little of this suffering in our remaining three days in McLeod, as the relentless rain fell, the freezing cold climes chilled our bones, and on the last day, the snow chased us well and truly out of town! The worst weather we had endured in our entire India trip brought us closer to Buddhism and the spirit of McLeod! That's what we keep telling ourselves anyway!

And so, India is over...the journey has come to an end. One last entry will follow this to summarise my time over the past four magical months. Thank you for reading!

Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Chilling with Shivaraj, our sadhu, for the afternoon at the Kumbh Mela.
- De-podding peas with a group of animated, hilarious, old Indian ladies at the Golden Temple. I didn't have a clue what they were saying but I loved it!
- Feeling the calm in McLeod (although it was a ruddy cold calm!)

Posted by Anna Rowl 01:44

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