North India 2017
Kali's sixth trip to the Motherland includes stops in Mumbai, Jaipur, Dakshineshwar and Guwahati.
NO SLEEP TIL DAKSHINESHWAR
My last trip to India was in 2008 to see Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois at his center in Mysore one last time. (He died in May 2009.) Recently, people had been recommending that I visit the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple in Kolkata. When my old friend Pranava suggested the same—plus getting to meet his mother and guru—I jumped at the opportunity.
Nonetheless, I was worried that my ongoing digestive issues would be a problem—especially since this trip would entail a lot more travel than I'd done on my previous ones. Plus, I'd never been in the north before. In Mysore, there were lots of other Westerners. On this trip, I would end up being the only Westerner just about everywhere I would go.
Sunday, March 19, Mumbai, Maharashtra
Pranava greeted me at Mumbai's beautiful new airport with a hug and a mango lassi (yogurt smoothie). Then his family's driver whisked us through the quiet late-night streets to his mother's house, where everyone was already asleep.
Monday, March 20, Mumbai
It's thrilling to awaken in India—the palm trees, the birds, the scent, the feeling of being in the arms of the mother (no joke since we are staying with Pranava's elegant Mum). The feeling of being home.
After a leisurely breakfast while watching the India-Australia cricket match on TV, Pranava and I walked along the sea, had a cappuccino at an AC café, and then a sumptuous vegetarian feast at the Krishna Temple. Supper was at home, with local Alfonso mangoes for dessert—wow!
Tuesday, March 21, Mumbai
Today we went downtown for errands that had us driving over the breathtakingly graceful Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge. Then we stopped at Ban Ganga Tank, a large, rectangular stepped tank that is surrounded by temples and a villagelike neighborhood.
According to the Ramayana, Ban (arrow) Tank is where Lord Ram's army became thirsty on the way to Lanka to rescue Sita. Ram shot an arrow into the ground, which created a spring of fresh water that is considered as holy as the Ganges.
Nearby, we visited the Shiva Temple that sits on the site where Ram is said to have prayed to Shiva before heading to Lanka. A linga (phallus representative of the eternal, still Shiva or pure awareness) wasn't available, so Lord Ram made one out of sand. The incredibly powerful little temple was unattended, so after making my offering I sat for a little while, crying and praying. I also visited a quiet little Kali Temple, up a steep hill.
Wednesday, March 22, Mumbai
Yesterday we also meditated at the mahasamadhi (tomb) of saint and nondualist teacher Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj, who said, "That which is not perceived is Reality." He was the guru of Nisaragdatta Maharaj, whom he taught to focus on "I am" and nothing else; after three years, Nisaragdatta was also illumined.
Siddharameshwar's teachings are collected in the book Amrut Laya: The Stateless State, while Nisaragdatta's are in I Am That.
Thursday, March 23, Mumbai
It's hot, my jetlag continues, and the days run together. Lots of walks on the beach. The Astavakra Gita says, "Like bubbles in the sea, All the worlds arise in you. Know you are the Self. Know you are one. Let yourself dissolve." (It's funny; on this trip it feels like I can never get enough water.)
One evening we stopped at Mumbai's Ramakrishna Mission, named for modern-day saint Sri Ramakrishna (the guru of Swami Vivekananda, who brought yoga to the west in 1893). We were just in time for aarti (ceremony of light) and hymns, which were livelier than the ones I remember at the Ramakrishna center in Mysore. Sri Ramakrishna once said, "If you must be mad, be it not for the things of the world. Be mad with the love of God."
Then we went to the hip neighborhood of Bandra for pasta at the Pali Village Café, where they show silent movies on the front window.
Friday, March 24, Mumbai
Tonight we're flying to Jaipur, where Pranava's spiritual preceptor, Gurudev, is.
Saturday, March 25, Jaipur, Rajasthan
We got in late last night, and today I woke up to a view of the Pink City's incredible royal architecture (ornate archways, domes, etc.), plus a clear view of the guest house that Pranava, who's an architect, is building for Gurudev's international students. It has a ramp that winds up the outside of its four stories, evoking the kundalini (powerful energy that travels in a coil up the spine). I visited the construction site after breakfast; it's going to be stunning when it's finished.
Then I went to the opening ceremony of an astrology festival and waited for the guest of honor, Gurudev, to arrive. I was starting to wilt from the heat and overamplified speeches when I suddenly felt a surge of energy and saw a small, humble figure in orange. Exhaustion and irritation gave way to a calm, focused energy.
Later, we found ourselves at the stunning Kanak Vrindavan Valley Complex in the Nahargarh hills, where we saw Krishna temples, some adorable (not menacing) monkeys, and a peacock perched in a tree.
Gurudev's ashram is in a traditional Rajasthani courtyard building leased from the neighboring Krishna temple. After removing our shoes and washing our hands, we went to see Gurudev, who was sitting on a chair in a covered side porch. His face is pure compassion and awareness. Pranava bowed down to him out of reverence and I followed suit because it felt right, and then took a seat on the floor with the others. Tears slowly ran down my cheeks.
Sunday, March 26, Jaipur
Jaipur is hotter, larger, and more crowded and fast-paced than Mysore. So Pranava arranged for an autorickshaw to show me around at 6:30 a.m., when it was cool and quiet. I saw the sun rise over the Jal Mahal (Water Palace), the old gated city, the Lakshmi Narayana Temple, the Hawa (Wind) Palace, and the Albert Museum, where the adjacent road turns into a public park on Sundays.
Money is what I thought about today when I sat in Gurudev's presence at the ashram; I should have given the rickshaw driver more for taking me around the city, should have given a beggar boy a ten-note, should have paid the other driver more for taking me to the silversmith to repair my ankle bracelet (where they did it for nothing). And then Gurudev arranged for me to have a ride home from the ashram. I feel like others give freely and I like to hold on. Dhire dhire, which in Hindi means "slowly slowly."
Monday, March 27, Jaipur
Was headachy, weak, and nauseous when I woke up; I had some black tea and idly (rice and lentil dumpling) and saw it all again a short time later; I have never, ever enjoyed vomiting so much. After some antibacterial medication and rest, I was well enough to change hotels and visit the tombs of the royal queens of Jaipur. Then a long, hot, and dirty odyssey downtown to buy swimsuits—much harder to find than you'd imagine. Mine features polka dots, bike shorts, and a skirt all in one piece. It's really cute. And modest.
Tuesday, March 28, Jaipur
The ashram usually closes at 8:30, but tonight there was a lot of activity and then we were all served dinner at 9:00, sitting in rows on rugs. Turns out it's the first night of spring Navratri, a nine-night festival celebrating Durga's victory over the buffalo demon (who represents our ego or lower nature). Talk about timing!
Wednesday, March 29, Jaipur
I lost one of my silver ankle bracelets from Mysore somewhere in the hotel the other day; when I came back to our room tonight, it was on the dresser.
After visiting the ashram, I usually buy two large bottles of drinking water and lug them back to the hotel. My new nickname is Panni Rani (water queen).
Thursday, March 30, Jaipur
Pranava spends much of his day working at the construction site, while I go to the ashram. There is such a feeling of calm there—the feeling that everything is OK, was always OK, and will always be OK. How to bring it home? How to internalize it?
Friday, March 31, Jaipur
I was very weepy today seeing Gurudev; my heart felt like it was melting. Later the devotees, who work there all day and call me Kali Ma, invited me to have lunch with them.
Saturday, April 1, Jaipur
Today there was an animated Q&A in Hindi with Gurudev. Afterwards one of the devotees explained that the question was about how to become simple. The answer: Follow the guru; surrender to the guru. Later I said good-bye to Gurudev and thanked him before we headed to the airport.
Sunday, April 2, Kolkata, West Bengal
Got into hot, humid Kolkata late last night; the hotel I picked is not great, and I got up feeling sick. After some antibacterial meds we went downstairs to breakfast. On our way, Pranava noticed some writing on the bricks of a nearby building: Atma(inner Self) and Mukti (liberation). A good sign, plus the hotel had incredible food.
Later we headed to the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple, where Sri Ramakrishna, a great devotee of Kali, became illumined. I bought some items to offer to this fierce and protective form of the goddess, and the temple gates opened just as we arrived. As we waited in the hot sun, Pranava recited part of the Devi Mahatmyam, which is written in Devanagari on the side of the temple. Our darshan (viewing) was from the side; we saw Kali's profile and had a clear view of Lord Shiva lying under her feet. (He is blissfully smiling, as she emerges out of his heart.) Very powerful.
I went back for two frontal views, each more electrifying; it really feels like she is looking right through you, and it's difficult to turn away (until the guard pushes you away). At Pranava's suggestion I meditated in front of a Kali image under a purple light in the original temple site across the courtyard; it had an even more powerful vibration. Then we visited some of the dozen Shiva temples in the complex (also very potent), only entering the ones that called to us.
Then we boarded a boat to the nearby Belur Math (ten rupees for a sunset cruise), the world headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission and monastery. We arrived at the huge campus just as the evening aarti was about to begin. The meditation hall was sweltering, and the hymns were beautiful. More intense was going outside and meditating on the side, facing a profile of Sri Ramakrishna's image. This, it turns out, is where some of his remains are stored.
Monday, April 3, Guwahati, Assam
A trip to the Kamakhya Temple was not in our original plan, but here we are, at a temple devoted to the Divine Mother on the 20th anniversary of my mother's death. (I started practicing yoga right after that and met Pranava in class.) Today is also Pranava's father's death anniversary. Timing.
The hilltop temple is a powerful Shakti Peeth (seat of divine power) and Tantric pilgrimage site devoted to the goddess Sati's yoni (vulva or birthplace representing Shakti, the energy of Shiva) – which, according to myth, fell here. I bought some items to offer, and Pranava arranged for a red-robed priest to take us around. We wrote down our names and he performed various pujas (worship rituals) and chants for us in front of the deities; the walls (and everything else) are vermillion red, and there's a place for animal sacrifice. (Pranava jokingly asked the priest where my head could be sacrificed; the priest giggled nervously.) At one point we offered a candle and incense, which felt fitting.
The main temple features a sculpted image of the yoni. After a puja, we were allowed to pause and pray and meditate. The effect was initially subtle and then quite electrifying.
It started raining when we came out. I started to get my umbrella, but Pranava said, "Are you hiding from the shower of grace?" and I put it back. The Tripura Rahsaya says, "The entire universe is a reflection of pure consciousness. Consciousness is non-dual. Therefore, there is nothing superior or inferior."
Wednesday, April 5, Mumbai
A day of travel, now back in Mumbai. After some halfhearted shopping, I went to the Ramakrishna Math where the monks were just sitting down to chant the "Ramanama" to celebrate Lord Ram's birthday today. Timing. I leave for Chicago tonight; am looking forward to drinking as much tap water as I want.
Thursday, April 5, Chicago
Six airports in two days.
Friday, April 6, Chicago
Violently, violently ill today– much sicker than I was in India. I can't even keep water down. Oh, the irony!