Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Magical Thinking

[slideshow]

Lakshmi Villas to Kumbakonam 61 km

We had a great ride into Kumbakonam (home to no less than 188 temples). We were happy to be on quiet roads (relatively speaking) and the rural landscape of rice fields and coconut palms was nicely broken up by some large villages where we bought oranges and other snacks (Indian peanut brittle and what I think were deep fried plantain chips with chilies).

As I rode along I couldn’t get Neil Young’s “When you Dance” out of my head. I think it was all the reading I’ve been doing about Shiva, one of Hinduism’s principal deities and a favourite of mine back in the day when I spent a year learning about Vedanta philosophy, meditating and playing Neil Young. Shiva, like all Hindu deities, manifests in many forms. One of the common ones is Shiva as Nataraja, where he is depicted as a dancer performing the cosmic victory dance (our Lonely Planet guide says in this dance Shiva is pacing out the creation and destruction of the cosmos).

I always liked Shiva because of his message that out of every ending there is a beginning. This idea has given me courage when it was time to leave a situation, and consolation when grieving an ending.

In earlier days I was smitten with things Indian, the chanting I heard at sat sang at the ashram I attended in Ottawa when I was 18, the taste of chai with cardamom, purple silk saris with silver threads and the smell of sandalwood incense. Learning that there was more than one way to understand God (I was an atheist by the time I was 12 or 13) was also liberating and heady. There I was at 18, wandering around in Indian cotton skirts, wearing bangles and bells and as I finished my last year of high school (at night as I’d left home), I pulled off 100% in my final economics exam and to this day I know it was partly due to the focus I’d achieved meditating. I stomped around in my small studio apartment doing a victory dance, and there was Neil all raunchy guitar and revolution, exhilarating. “When you dance, do your senses tingle and take a chance…when you dance, I can really love.”

After that I became disillusioned and a little afraid of the ashram as I watched people getting drawn deeper and deeper into a situation that felt cult-like. I talked to a psychologist at the time who warned me that westerners often have a hard time putting eastern religion into context.

His sentiment still rings true decades later. There is something so compelling about India for some of us westerners – there’s such a big romance about it. This is especially true for anyone with a religious yearning who has been left flat by Christianity. The yoga I studied through the ashram was a kind of intellectual practice with the goal of transcending your ego through practicing non-attachment and ultimately becoming enlightened, living in a state free of anxiety. This was so attractive after years of Catholicism where I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to believe in. Literal heaven or symbolic heaven? Literal resurrection or resurrection myth? But then the swami (head of the ashram) turned out to be sleeping with the devotees and on one hell of a big ego trip. So much for transcendence, sexy Sadie. And so I learned all power corrupts and there is a lot of confusion for westerners about how Vedanta philosophy is to be practiced and interpreted outside of Indian culture.

They mystery remains as I visit these wonderful temples. Today we walked through the Nageshwara Temple, the oldest temple in Kumbakonam, founded by the Cholas (an Indian dynasty) in 886. The priest followed us around discreetly blessing everything – I don’t know if we were auspicious or somehow polluting. I watched people making offerings and meditating in front of the statues of various deities. We were the only foreigners there (in fact I haven’t seen a foreigner since we left Lakshmi Villa three days ago). I wondered what people were praying for…enlightenment or perhaps a new pair of shoes.

I am a big fan of Karen Armstrong, the ex-Catholic nun who is a religious scholar, writer and winner of a TED award. In her “Case for God” she talks about how pre-modern people did not take their religious mythologies literally. The myths were understood in a manner similar to the way we (if we are lucky – my thought) understand art. Art is transformative – we learn important things about what it means to be human through metaphor that touches us emotionally, whether it be music, poetry, or visual art. Our religious myths are not meant to be taken literally.

To believe we are going to achieve a permanently altered state of consciousness – some blissed out trance-like devotional state of mind as we flit about in saris sniffing incense – is to engage in magical thinking. A more grown-up and romantic version of the magical thinking that allowed us to believe in Santa Claus, and certainly a lot more fun than the magical thinking that has us believing that we will be resurrected in physical form on Judgement Day.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any magic. There are magical moments, transformative experiences when we are struck dumb by a piece of music, or cry when we read a poem.

Or dance to Neil Young wearing bangles. Rock on :-0

(p.s. Paul – even if I have to learn bar chords I think I should learn how to play this song…)

Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Bom Shiva

[slideshow]

We’ve finally left our lovely little town of Lauzun to continue our bike trip and flew Paris to Chennai this week to begin a cycle trip we hope takes us to Goa.

Despite all the annoyances and stress of airline travel, I still love the fact that in a mere number of hours I can step from one world into another. One night I am sleeping in an airport hotel in Paris and the next I am standing on the balcony of my Pondicherry hotel, breathing in warm, waterlogged air, watching the crazy traffic on the street below, and falling asleep to the sound of motorcycle engines and horns.

Pondicherry is quite a soft landing as far as India goes. Having travelled a lot in the third world we are finding that we are adjusting very well to the chaos – traffic that obeys few rules and navigates by horns; shops that spill out onto sidewalks that are already crammed with parked motorcycles so that pedestrians share the street with moving traffic, cows, dogs, and other people; narrow tiny shops with big signs that compete with all the other big signs so that it all becomes one big sign; no street names; and bewildered and bemused traffic cops with ineffectual whistles.

We’ve given ourselves five days to get over the jet lag, plan our bike trip, and to buy the odds and sods we have forgotten. (Ian forgot his underwear and is quite amused to find that in India, the men wear underwear with pockets – we guess that this is for the men who wear dhotis and have no other place to put their keys and rupees).

As we have worked down the list (maps of India, mosquito repellant, shoe laces, hair dye, underwear, batteries for bike lights) we have ambled about both the French and Indian parts of town and admired the scenery. We liked the market for its colour and overpowering smells of fish and spice. We walked the boardwalk along the ocean and admired the Bay of Bengal while people watching and dodging the come ons from local sellers (drums, jewelry, wash off tattoos, scarves etc. etc.)

There are a fair number of tourists about, many French given that this was governed by the French until 1954. Many of the tourists are interested in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram right in Pondicherry and the commune, known as Auroville, 10 km outside of town. We were able to pick out a few of these travellers from the airport gate in Paris – girls with yoga mats and yoga pants and hair piled in top knots and wrapped in Indian cotton scarves.

We had thought about visiting the ashram and commune but a very unfortunate incident this week has the city tense and the ashram off limits. It seems that the locals resent the fact that the ashram is not governed by any local authority – it reports into the federal government — and there are all kinds of accusations of corruption and mis-management. This week there was a supreme court ruing against a family who had lived in an apartment in Pondicherry which was owned by the ashram. After a decade of fighting eviction for an infraction of ashram rules, they lost in the final ruling and the entire family walked into the ocean to commit suicide. Three of them drowned and four were rescued by local fishermen. This sparked a protest by Pondicherry citizens who want local governance for the ashram and today, a day-long general strike. Felt just like France…

We took the opportunity of a relatively quiet Pondicherry to take our bikes out for their first Indian spins. All was well with them and as soon as we were three kilometres out of town we hit the real India and I quit feeling sorrier for the mangy, hungry dogs than the people (my guilt-ridden reaction to our first few days here where I felt the opposite). Yes, it is still a very poor country for some people and the living conditions are appalling.

But we were both happy to be out on the bikes and meeting people not so used to tourists. Everyone was friendly and when we stopped at intersections more than one person asked if we needed directions, including two lovely children who giggled and charmed and eventually, unable to tell us what road we were on, pointed to the police across the street and very helpfully suggested we could get help there.

We passed loads of garland eating goats and sandy-coloured dogs and happy looking cows as we plotted our route out of town (we leave the day after tomorrow when the real journey begins.)

The extremes of India – the dirt and pollution, the amazing colour (of saris, and of spices in the market and painted temples), the noise, the chaos of traffic and no queuing and hordes of people, the piles of stuff for sale, the fabulous food, the amazing smells of fruit and curry – all the stimulation is what makes it both exciting and exhausting.

I first started thinking of going to India when I was in my late teens. I had become friends with a couple who had recently come back from a trip to India. Bill played guitar with my boyfriend of the time and I thought he was one of the coolest people I’d ever met – he was in the final stage of earning his PhD in biochemistry and liked to smoke hash – this contradiction in itself amazed me — and he was supplementing his student loans by dealing a little. He had a pipe he called a chillum and whenever he would spark up he’d say Bom Shiva. He talked a lot about India and in that small prayer he acknowledged the reality of the world – the bigger world that includes both light and dark, destruction and creation, the extremes of India and our relatively easier lives in the west. And although we westerners may be lucky in many ways I, like many of my kin, can become obsessed with having enough money, especially these days as I try to get advice on taxes as a non-resident, and lose track of the precious present. I like to come to India to be reminded of that.

So, yeah, Bom Shiva.