A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: petalsong

Reflections from Home - 1.26.08 - CG

We arrived home a week ago, and we have pretty much re-adjusted to our lives here. But what I noticed from the moment we entered into the taxi returning from the airport, was how quiet the roads are! No honking! It was like being inside a silent film.

Another thing I noticed is how quiet the apt. is. I got used to people talking, laughing, and cooking around us. Now the dominant sound is the ocean (in Long Beach), or a distant car and dog barking (Queens). I miss the presence of more people close by, and I am feeling sad at the distance from the new, but deep friendships we have formed.

Friendships:

This trip has led to reflection on relationships. My concept of friendship has changed. I was struck by how loving, happy, open and relaxed the people we bonded with were. No judgement, no sarcasm, no need to burden the other with one's psychosis - only the sharing of joy and connection. I feel that people in the States have more internal complications - more neurosis, anger, depression and ego. I include my past self in this category as well. These complications prevent the sharing of simple joy and presence with another person. A relationship based upon these complications is one of feeding off each other and finding fractured support from another person who shares the same issues. When two people with anxiety issues form a friendship, they feel threatened when the other moves positively forward in life - at once they feel jealous and fearful of being abandoned.

I think that being in an environment so full of spirit, survival and love has healed some fracture in how I used to relate. I hope that the friendships I formed in India will be lifelong and healthy. And I hope that I will form new - and reform old friendships into deeper and more joyful ones.

Music:

A complete overhaul of how I listen and perform Indian Classical music is presently happening. I have tremendous motivation to take what I have experienced and listened to and apply it to my singing. Each session with local musicians and professors, has merged with the colors, scents and landscapes of the trip. A poetic marriage which is slowly seeping into my body.

Future:

Ron has written about the future of India as he sees it. I am writing about the future of our connection with India. It is clear that this was the first plunge. We have both been deeply moved on all levels of our mind, spirit and hearts. India has a presence that could demolish or fertilize your soul - maybe both simultaneously. I know that we have fallen in love, and we will return once we feel that our connections and spirit need to be regenerated. And I hope it will be soon.

Posted by petalsong 14:07 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

a retrospective on India 1-25-08 RPW

Now that we're back and readjusting to our "normal" hectic lives, I've been reflecting on our journey. Everyone has been asking "how was your trip?" and I've been finding it difficult to adequately convey the sights and emotions we experienced.
Yes, India is a land of contrasts and extremes, that is without question, but it is more than that. While our senses were assaulted and fatigued endlessly by the most beautiful and the most foul, there exists a larger extreme and divide, and that is between it's past, it's present and it's future.

The country still very much reflects the past and deeply spiritual ways where much of the population lives in what western societies consider a primitive lifestyle. Once you venture out from an urban area, you feel that you have gone back in time and get a sense of what life was like in much of America in the mid 1800"s. The spiritual depth of Varanasi, the oldest living city on the planet has left me with a deeper and more sensitive understanding of the spiritual connection between life and death that allows mankind to rationalize and accept the difficulties and absurdities of one's fragile existence.

The India of the present is pure chaos and confusion, which in some undefinable way actually works. Aside from the need for extensive upgrades of the infrastructure and the need for some serious solutions to it's traffic congestion and overwhelming population, the society seems to function on a daily basis. One merely needs patience and a sense of humor to get through the day.

I cannot fathom what the India of the future will be like. the vast development we saw in the Delhi/Gurgaon area is changing the landscape dramatically. The emergence of a real middle class will change the lifestyles of many in the urban centers, but what of those that do not have the education or opportunity to improve their plight. How will this country contend with such a huge divide between the have and the have nots? How will the concept of dharma, accepting one's station in life be sustained while the socioeconomic divide becomes so great? After so long a time of dealing with and then publicly denouncing a caste system, will this new economic divide merely be replacing the old system of rank? Only time will tell and I expect I will be visiting India again and will have the opportunity of seeing its transformation first hand.

The best part of our trip however, were the friendships that we made. In but a short period of time, we forged strong meaningful relationships that we expect will carry on through our lives. We cherish the time, the laughter, the warmth and the hospitality extended to Christine and I. The time spent with the Mahajan family of Greater Noida and the Tiwari family (and that includes Pappu) of Varanasi will always remain in our hearts.

And lastly, I want to thank Christine for the idea of doing this blog. I've never put my thoughts "to paper" before and have found it to be a thought provoking and rewarding experience. I look forward to our next journey and the opportunity to once again share our experiences with our friends and family.

RPW

Posted by petalsong 11:30 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

varanasi - reflections on the ganges 1-15-08 RPW

As I’ve written previously, there is little I have the ability to write effectively about Varanasi in terms of the city’s spiritual significance. This holy city has had a profound effect on both Christine and I both from an experiential perspective and from the friendships we have developed in just the few short days we were there.

What I decided to write about is the importance of the Ganges river, Mother Ganga, on the lives of the people that live there and the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that visit. As a westerner, it is an enigma to observe the activities that take place on and along its banks. The Ganges is the heart of Varanasi. To the religious and spiritual, it is the holiest of places and to the pickpockets and scammers, it is an opportunity to profit.

You see all aspects of life along the river. The rituals of prayer, cremation, meditation, shaving and bathing, yoga, clothes washing and sleeping all take place along the ghats - which line one bank of the river.

Intellectually it is difficult to understand the spiritual depth that urges people to perform many of the activities which in and of themselves have so polluted this holy river. In addition to people soaping up and washing in its cold water, ashes and unburned remains of cremations are strewn into the river every day. We were told by Pappu, our guide and now friend, that Sadhu’s, lepers, small children and pregnant women are not cremated, but weighted down with a rock and dropped into the Ganges to rest for eternity. The power of mother Ganga.

I don’t understand the paradoxes that I observed along the banks of the river and don’t feel a need to try. I can tell you however, that I purchased two small brass urns which Christine and I filled with the holy water of Mother Ganga to bring her power back to our home. Some things are better left a mystery…

The following photos will hopeully provide a glimpse into life on the ghats of Varanasi:1-16-08_RP..photo_1.jpg
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Posted by petalsong 09:54 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Culmination of Varanasi - 1.12.08 - CG

Today was the day I was waiting for – on a spiritual level. The Gods have taken us by the hand and lay precious gifts in our path. My heart has burst into the Ganges. Into the arms of Mother Ganga, with the guidance and force of Shiva.

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How do I put the events of this one day into words? How do I bring the spirit to the blank page? I will try here. The morning began with a walk along the Ganges. A stray mother dog with puppies, nursing along the bank. Two young girls trying to sell postcards. We recognize one of them from the first day. A sassy and sweet teenager. Street smart, but with a big smile – and paan stained teeth. Paan is the Indian version of chewing tobacco. Once we recognize her, we start talking. She is 15. I like her, and agree to look at her postcards and stickers of Hindu Gods. We buy a bunch, and then she asks me to buy a box of decorative tattoo powders and stamps. She begins stamping little flowers in silver powder on my hand. I do not mind at all. There is a gentle girlishness to her – underneath the premature toughness. I eventually buy the box from her, as a gesture of warmth. She understands. In the meantime, they ask if Ron is my father. When I tell them he is my “husband”, they are in disbelief. They ask how old he is and he asks them to guess… they start at 70! It was all actually very funny, with Ron making very funny statements and jokes, and all of us laughing very loud – while women lay out their Saris, pink and blue, in the morning sun – to dry from the morning ritual bath. People watched us with looks of curiosity as the young girl leaned comfortably and casually against my knee and her friend continued bantering with Ron.

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After some time, we returned to the hotel for breakfast. Mr. Tiwari, the owner of the hotel was standing outside. I immediately expressed how wonderful the musical evening was last night. And I mentioned that I was interested in the small tampura in his shop. He tells Papuu to open the shop. We go in and sit; eventually Mr. Tiwari comes in and Papuu leaves. He starts saying how it has been a special experience having us here, and that I sang in his store last night. He asks which tampura I played last night, when we showed him and I asked how much it is – he smiles.

He tells me that he wants to give the tampura to me as a gift. Because this way, I will always remember him and Benaras (Varanasi) when I play it. I will carry him and his city back home. At first I was stunned and didn’t quite understand the reality of his gift. I responded that I wanted to give him something in exchange. He again expressed how he would like me to carry him and this sacred place in my heart – this is what I could give in return, as well as a big hug. My head started spinning – I felt a wave of energy and love flowing over me. I looked over at Ron, and saw that he had tears in his eyes. He understood the immensity of this gift. The conversation then developed into a deep sharing of ideas of family, love and spirit.

Mr. Tiwari is an incredible man. He said that he considers himself the luckiest man in the world – he has a wonderful wife, two sons, successful businesses, a connection with his divinity. He does not need anything else, and he does not need more money. The gesture of giving me the tampura was one of claiming Ron and I as family. He is our brother in Varanasi and we are his sister/brother in NYC. After sitting together and talking for over an hour, he encouraged us to go eat breakfast. But he also told us that we were invited to his house at night to sing for his family, and an extra surprise – he made arrangements that a very close friend of his and a well known Indian Classical singer, Devashish Dey, was going to join us later to hear my singing!

We went to the restaurant and ordered breakfast. On the upper roof, his sons were flying kites in preparation of the kite festival tomorrow. The blue sky was dotted with diamond shaped, brightly colored paper kites. His older son, Aditya is very adept. He called out to us to come upstairs and fly kites. After eating, we joined him and he passed me the kite string. The last time I flew a kite was when I was a very small child on the beach in Shelter Island, with my parents and grandmother. The beauty of those moments came alive as I flew this paper kite over the Ganges. Ron also told me that he was quite a kite flyer years ago – which I didn’t know.

I was able to fly it for a few minutes, but then the wind dropped…and so did the kite. It plummeted. Luckily, Aditya’s younger brother and Papuu saved it from being demolished or drowned. After that, Papuu asked if we were ready to go to the ashram, and we were. The shawls were downstairs by the reception desk. I asked for Papuu to take us to a sweet shop so I could also give some sweets to the widows.

I remembered from the movie “Water”, the widows were dreaming about the taste of sweets – especially ladoos. Papuu led us to the most famous sweet shop in Varanasi. He suggested bringing the widows a box of ladoos. I did not tell him that this was what was depicted in the movie. We bought 40 ladoos – which made about 2 pieces for each widow (19 widows at the ashram).

At the ashram, we first greeted the head monk, who received our 101 rupees and wrote a donation receipt. He asked if we wanted the widows to come to the courtyard to receive the donation – or did I want to go to them. Immediately I responded that I wanted to take the gifts to them. The young monk then led us there, and the head monk came with us as well. Inside the Ashram, Ron and Papuu took the shawls out of their plastic bags and handed each one to me. I took each one, walked up to a widow, and gently wrapped the shawl around her. Then I took 2 ladoos and placed them in her wrinkled hands. Then I made the sign of Namaste. When I wrapped the shawls around them, I felt I was hugging and receiving hugs from each one. I spent enough time to wrap the shawl lovingly and gently squeeze their shoulders as a gesture of warmth. As I repeated this over and over, my heart filled up with tenderness, compassion and humility. I was careful not to approach forcefully. I was ready to be very present with each person – and to experience their humanity. Not to shield myself from their suffering – instead to share joy and connection. They responded with the same joy and warmth. They made gestures of blessing over our heads and many chanted blessings for us. I did not feel any sadness. Instead, there was an incredible feeling of being able to release the love and energy that I was carrying.

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Once we got to the top floor of the ashram, I had a chance to look around at Ron, Papuu and the head monk. We were all deeply moved by the experience, and each in a deeply emotional and self-reflective state. We looked out of the steel-grated windows. The monk pointed to his temple with the gold roof. Not the golden temple, but the Nepalese temple. It was beautiful. But even more beautiful was the Ganges unfolding and sparkling below, carrying the lives and prayers of millions of people towards the land of liberation.

On the way back to the hotel, Papuu took us to a house where they have been making natural perfumes and cooking spice mixes for generations. They had a courtyard with 2 beautiful clean cows and a baby cow. Ron and I pet a cream colored cow as she sniffed us for food…to make another long story short, I bought perfume oil – a rare flower oil called Noorh. As well as chai masala and cooking spice mixes.

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When we returned to the hotel, I was full of emotion, but exhausted. I took out my tampura and tuned it. It fits perfectly in my arms. Ron went for a walk to think and smoke his daily cigar. Eventually I fell asleep for an hour, which was very good. I needed to rest before the evening’s musical activities.

Around 5 PM, the door bell rang – actually it buzzed like a very large mosquito. Papuu brought me the sari I purchased yesterday. The store had sent it to the hotel, with the blouse and petticoat. He asked me to open the package and to make sure it was ok. As I scanned the red silk with gold-colored embroidery, I saw a large spot with a small hole in the center of it. I didn’t know what to do. I was tired and getting nervous about singing and meeting the famous singer. But off we all went, back to the sari shop. It was night. Paan stalls were brightly lit while goats ate garbage on the top of a demolished building. Dogs growled agitatedly at the people rushing through the winding lanes. Motorbikes honked loudly, Papuu gently took my hand as I started losing my sense of footing in the dark lanes – he was walking quite fast and I was disoriented. Ron stood guard against the crowd behind me and protected me from being groped – or hit by a motorbike.

At the sari shop, they exchanged the damaged sari with one that is the same shade of red – but with even more elaborate stitching. Apparently it is worth about $100 more than the one I purchased. The store owner was not happy about this – but Papuu made it very clear that he did not have a choice but to accept the exchange. This ended up being a very lucky thing. I now have a very unique, lush and gorgeous silk sari from Varanasi.

On the way back to the hotel, Papuu took us to a bookstore, where we bought 2 interesting books on Varanasi.

We ate a quick dinner at the restaurant, then met Mr. Tiwari and went to his house. His family and in laws were waiting for us. I was asked to immediately sing because the famous singer (I have to get the spelling of his name and I will edit the blog) was arriving shortly….

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I am now growing very tired. It is 1:30 AM... to make a long story short – the musical evening was just as beautiful and meaningful as the day. Devashish Dey came to our hotel room with Mr. Tiwari. He was a very kind and gentle man. I sang the Ganapati Bandana and Rag Bageshree (Alap and Chotta Khayal), and a Ghazal. He was very impressed and told me that I have an incredible voice, and that my family and my guru have taught me very well. I am a very fine singer. Then he began singing….and heaven came rushing into the room. What a voice. What technique and sound. I have not yet heard a live voice that sings so beautifully in Indian Classical music. And there he was, singing Rag Bageshree as well an evocative bhajan in our room as we listened awe struck from the bed – the scent of chai masala in the air and tears in our eyes from the impact of his music.

Ron responded very strongly, and I now think he has changed his mind about male Indian Classical singers. He used to think that female singers were much more expressive and interesting to listen to. But from Ron’s expressive eyes, I could tell that he was amazed and moved by this man.

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We exchanged contact info. He has many American and European students who come to Varanasi to study with him – for months, or a year. I would love to have the chance one day to spend an extended period studying music in Varanasi.

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It is now time to sleep for a few hours. It is 2 AM

I am dizzy with the love and caring I am receiving from this journey – from Ron, the Mahajan family, Mr. Tiwari and Papuu. It is life altering.

Posted by petalsong 20:27 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Ashrams, Lingams, Saris and Music - 1.12.08 - CG

sunny 18 °C

The photos for this blog will be posted tomorrow...but until then, please read below:

The day started with the early morning boat ride, which Ron wrote beautifully about. So I am going to jump to some other details. Yesterday, I told Papu that I would like to find a way to give a donation to the widows living in an ashram in Varanasi. If you saw the movie "Water" which was a depiction of widows living in Varanasi, then you will understand why. Papuu made all arrangements - we went to the Nepalese Ashram located next door to the widows ashram. Nepalese monks help take care of the widows and are apparently in charge of the finances. Papuu introduced us to the head monk, so I could get permission to make a donation. Intead of money, I wanted to give something that would be of individual use. Papuu suggested blankets/shawls. This is also what I had in mind as a useful and appropriate gift. Papuu told me that he was very pleased and moved that i wanted to give something to the people of Varanasi. I told him that I was very appreciative how he made it possible for me to do it.

We actually visited the ashrams. The Nepalese monk's building is a beautiful, ancient building with fantastic wood carvings of gods, goddesses and erotic kama sutra depictions. An old man/sadhu was sleeping outside, on a bamboo mat in the sun. Snoring and very comfortable. Young boy-monks (who escaped very difficult family llives), clustered together and watched us carefully, but with smiles.

One of the older monks (20 years?) took us into the Widow's Ashram. My heart was pounding. It looked almost identical to the "Water" ashram. Blue walls. Dark, wet walls and floors. Tattered clothes hanging on a string inside. Old women, bent with age and suffering - walking past us timidly. They responded warmly to our gestures of Namaste. Fresh, bountiful produce was being cooked by a very energetic and communicative old lady, who sat close to the floor while tending to a steel pot on a hot plate. It was dark, wet, with shafts of blue light penetrating the mist. But it was also clean, peaceful and very quiet. After briefly walking through, we were taken to see the head monk for permission to make the donations.

We found him wrapped in orange clothes, sitting in a courtyard of the Nepalese Ashram. He was somewhat detached, but quickly agreed to our request to give the shawls. We have to provide a receipt, as well as 101 rupees to him as a "processing fee". This is fine.

Then Papuu took us around the city. Thousands of Shiva Lingams everywhere. Ancient linghams sitting on street corners, inside house shrines, street shrines...everywhere. Dusted with marigold petals. Linghams are stones that are only found in the Ganges (near the Himalayas). They are phallic shaped, and often put together with a circular ring which represents the divine femininity of Shiva's wife, Parvati. Lingham and Yoni - divine union of male and female.

We stopped at a Sari shop...do I need to go further? I bought a red silk sari from a very jolly rotund man who kept trying to get us to buy more. His workers were literally throwing silk scarves at us until I demanded "Please stop throwing things at me!" and I tossed them back (except for 4 which we reluctantly but happily purchased). They will deliver the sari and the tailored petticoat/blouse to the hotel.

One of the main highlights of today though, was meeting the owner of the hotel, who comes from a long line of musicians and music shop owners. He still owns the small but lucrative music shop. We talked for sometime in the lobby, and then he took us to the store to meet a professional sitar player, who is also faculty at Benaras University. He was giving lessons to a man from Spain. We briefly sat in, during which tears were flowing constantly from my eyes - he played the most beautiful interpretation of Rag Yaman. and there we were - in Varanasi, close to the Ganges, listening to the music that inspired us to make this journey.

I made arrangements for him to return in the evening to play for us...he came with an incredible tabla player - his nephew? it is now impossible to describe any further. Except their playing was way beyond anything I expected. It was mesmerizing, riveting..and just like Varanasi -- sublime. I sang with them - Rag Yaman and Bageshree. Ron made jokes about mosquitos. They were entertained, I was deeply moved. It is an event I will always treasure. There is a small tampura in the shop that fits perfectly in my arms. I think I will have to claim it...

Posted by petalsong 10:16 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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