New Delhi and Vrindavan
16 February – 2 March
I had always believed I should never go to India. I thought it would only provoke such intense anger (especially for the treatment of women) and sadness in me that I would be acutely miserable there. I believed I just wasn’t up to the challenge.
But I loved India.
After Myanmar, where I had tried to be so careful and respectful, feeling the need to protect the country from myself and the coming tourist onslaught, India was a breath of fresh air (if such a thing could ever be said about India). Everything was reversed: in India, I was the one who needed to be protected. But I could let my hair down, be myself – I couldn’t hurt India. It had already wrought upon itself far more than I could ever do to it. India, exploding with life and energy, able to able to absorb and assimilate whatever got thrown its way, made Myanmar seem like a prim, zipped-up great Aunt. Experiencing its exuberance was exactly what I needed. I had spent too much of my life being too careful and apologizing too much. In retrospect, Myanmar had exacerbated this tendency in a way that felt suffocating.
So in India, I just let loose and got swept along. Even more, I let myself be a privileged Westerner there without feeling guilty about it, perhaps the greatest indulgence of all.
However, even deciding to go was its own journey, and I very nearly missed out on what turned out to be the most profound part of my travels so far. Of course I had heard all the bad news; the rapes, the no-eye-contact with men, the bare shoulder taken as come-on, the poop, the crowds, the beggars, the filth. Yet, I longed to go.
As a devoted yogi, interested in not just asana, but the deeper teachings and the ancient stories, I could not resist the draw to the source of this wisdom. I wanted to see where Krishna was born, to walk streets where people greet each other with love. I wanted to see how the destructive power of Shiva was celebrated at Shivaratri. After five weeks of being practically next door in Myanmar, where I had seen Buddhism in practice on its home turf, I wanted to do the same for yoga. I had to go, and I already knew of a way to immerse myself safely.
“Is it too late to sign up for the trip? Oh and by the way, the internet is terrible and my Paypal account doesn’t work here in Myanmar, so I don’t know when I can pay you. Also, I still have to get a visa,” I wrote to my yoga teacher less than a month before her retreat to India.
“Yes there is still room. Be patient with the internet and I will be patient with you. You can pay me in India, as there are banks. Don’t stress, it isn’t yogic,” my teacher replied with a smile.
I was going.
Three weeks later, Indian visa (miraculously procured in Yangon, through the kind help of the ten locals and one Swede in line with me at the Embassy, despite unanticipated last minute requirements such as an exact payment of two USD $1 bills in pristine condition) and yoga mat in hand, alone for the first time since leaving the US, I boarded my plane to India.
Just like in my favorite expat book on India, “Holy Cow”, the flight attendants still sprayed the plane with disinfectant prior to landing, but unlike the rest of that story (now 14 years old), no mob scene greeted me at the Delhi airport. I was not surrounded by tragic-eyed begging children on exiting the baggage claim. In fact, everything was clean and bright and airy. A few men glanced at me when I greeted my driver and stepped outside, but when I was suddenly left to wait by myself as he went to get the car, I remained unmolested by man or beast (no cattle in sight, yet).
So far so good. I breathed.
The hotel we stayed in the first night was the nicest place I’d seen since leaving San Francisco, five months prior. I got a pedicure, from a man no less, in the salon next door with nary a sketchy moment.
Most mornings on our trip we had guided meditation and then Astrud, our teacher, offered vinyasa practice (delicious, flowing, a gift to my body, of the sort I could find nowhere else in the world except from my outstanding teachers at Laughing Lotus), incorporating a gorgeous mini-kirtan session each time, too, playing her harmonium. That first morning, we all rose early to meditate in the fitness center, amidst the whirring of treadmills. It was Sun-day and we were all to wear something orange.
According to my teacher, in Ayurveda, each day of the week corresponds to a different planet’s energy, and on the trip we honored that each day by wearing the corresponding color and meditating on the appropriate mantra. Sunday was orange, Monday (Moon day) was pastel blue or pink or white, Tuesday (Mars) was red, Wednesday (Mercury) was green, Thursday (Jupiter) was yellow, Friday (Venus) was purple, pink, or turquoise, and Saturday (Saturn) was black, dark blue.
I wasn’t sure what I thought about the whole planet energy idea, and I never wear red, orange, or yellow. Also, after traveling for months with a small bag, I had only a few clothes. However, I did have one dress that had every color in it (except red), and so I decided to go along and see what happened. I had learned enough from my travels so far to realize that my resistance to orange, yellow and red probably had something to teach me if I leaned into it.
In addition to our beloved Astrud, we had two Indian guides: Seema Johari, heir to to her father’s vast scholarly work in yogic philosophy and health, who possessed a quiet authority, and her daughter, the gorgeous, bubbly, and expert problem-solver Anu. They accompanied us everywhere: shopping, eating, movies. With their help explaining the menus and Anu’s ability to charm the waitstaff, every meal was exquisite, and always accompanied by spiced chai, my dream drink. My new favorite dishes were also the richest (of course): paneer butter masala and dal makhani. On my travels around the globe, I have given thanks for India over and over, as Indian restaurants have saved my vegetarian ass from starvation in cities from Kyoto to Bangkok. After eating with Seema and Anu at restaurants and then, later, at their mansion in Haridwar, I was catapulted into a new dimension of love for this cuisine.
After Delhi, our first stop was Agra and the Taj Mahal, a place I did not feel any need to see. But it was close to Vrindavan (where Krishna was born, another of our destinations). On the bus, which we referred to as our “cosmic caravan” (in honor of our teacher’s band of the same name), Astrud got out her harmonium, and we sang to Ganesh (to protect our voyage) as our stoic driver, Sanjay, who never spoke a single word to us during the entire trip, navigated choked freeways in the gray haze. Seema and Anu knew all the mantras better than we did, of course (although later I would pass my portable speaker to Anu and she would play us songs from Bollywood movies and Indian pop, too).
In Agra, we used a basement room of the hotel for our vinyasa practice. The staff were setting up for a wedding in an adjacent room, and Indian pop music intermittently broke into our practice, giving the class a spontaneous party vibe that Astrud incorporated beautifully (as she did with everything on our trip). Waitstaff wandered in and out of the room, carrying trays and staring at us in our tight-fitting yoga clothes. It was only the first of many asana adventures to come.
At the Taj, which I experienced as sharp and bright and aloof; beautiful, but in a way that left me unmoved, and which smelled horribly of feet inside (just like Sarah noted in “Holy Cow”), I fell in love anyway when I realized that it had been built to honor a woman, Mumtaz Majal. In country after country, I had seen piles of Buddhas and great monuments, but the rarest thing of all was any mention or representation of women. I had struggled with sadness at being a member of this hidden half of humanity, especially in Myanmar, where I had been faced with thousands of male Buddhas and not a single statue in my image.
And here was the Taj, one of the most revered buildings in the world, a mausoleum built for a woman. In India, no less, a country with a famously fraught relationship with women (to say the least).
“The emperor built this out of grief when his favorite wife died after giving birth to their 14th child,” our guide told us. “They were married for 17 years.”
Despite my joy, I found myself muttering under my breath. “Apparently he didn’t love her enough not to kill her through unending pregnancies.” I immediately wished I could take it back; in the 1600s, many many children was probably what both men and women wanted, for all I knew. However, my friend next to me had heard, and she whispered “They also say she had 3 miscarriages.”
I grimaced, feeling a wave of intense despair and sadness at the lot of women throughout history. I tried to imagine spending my entire adult life pregnant and then dying because my body had made too many new humans. I thought I might throw up.
I broke off from the group and went to sit down. Immediately, a cluster of young schoolgirls in pink and navy uniforms approached and asked to take pictures with me. I obliged with a smile – I was used to this, having been approached over and over by girls for this very reason in all the countries I had visited so far. Usually I was delighted, but that day I felt sad. Since the girls often asked my age when this happened, only to react in astonishment at my response, I realized they probably approached me because I seemed very young still myself, like someone they could relate to. At the Taj, though, I thought about the day when I would no longer seem young enough to be relatable, when I might no longer be approached by sweet children. I felt sad for myself and for all women who face the prospect of becoming invisible with age.
After a stop at an impressive marble shop, we left for the green pastures of Vrindavan.
Women in long skirts with shawls draped over their heads whisked by me, many carrying babies. The MVT Bhaktivedanta Ashram was an oasis of calm and cleanliness in the midst of Vrindavan, with its crumbling stone buildings and dirt roads. Walking the streets, a procession of men bearing a corpse exposed on a wooden plank passed right next to me. I scarcely noticed it amongst the chaos of women in rags with outstretched hands, dogs, cows, open sewer trenches, mud, and uneven footing.
Everyone, Indian and foreigner alike, even the porter who carried my suitcase to my humble ashram room, DID call out “hare krishna” to greet me. I had seen “hare krishnas,” with their oddly shaved heads (leaving only a ponytail), drums, and robes wandering around trying to hand out books at UC Berkeley years ago, and dismissed them as a fringe cult. Then one day, one of my yoga teachers, who clearly held a special place in her heart for them, explained that “hare krishna” means (among many other things), “yay, love.” In India, it didn’t feel scary to be curious about this group; instead, changing my greeting to be more consciously kind to others and hearing it reflected back at me felt all kinds of wonderful.
But I was taken aback by the seriousness of the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) adherents. For a group that was supposed to be all about love, they seemed strangely grim or, sometimes, vacuous. In the ashram restaurant, they looked at our colorful group with suspicion. It was hard to believe this was the community that held a 4:30 am “party” for Krishna every morning at their temple.
The day we arrived, we went straight to the temple, a five-minute walk from the ashram. It was mid-afternoon, and a kirtan was happening, led by Astrud’s friend Vijay (normally also accompanied by his wife, Saraswati, forming “the Kirtanias”. I think that women are not allowed to lead Kirtan in the ISKCON temple). Vijay seemed like a mythical creature, with his dark, almost Indian, skin, blue eyes and German accent. His wife, Saraswati (who I saw later outside), blonde like a white sand beach, seemed to float next to him, like a being made of pure light.
Around 50 people were gathered listening to Vijay sing, seated on the carpeted floor in front of the elaborate, life-sized, and revered Krishna statues, which were set back in roped-off alcoves. Some statues were blue, others were black, and of course, some featured Krishna and Radhe. The temple was open air and in the shape of a small square. One third of the space, the part next to the statues, was covered and carpeted. The rest had no roof. People were milling around the open square, as if in a trance. I sat with our group on the floor to sing, chanting the same words over and over, seemingly the only song ever sung there.
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Hare Rama Hare Rama
I love kirtan, and I sang my heart out in as many rounds as I could, trying to tap into some kind of loving feeling. But the vibe at the temple was disturbing. People seemed sunk into themselves, vaguely mouthing the words, or intently staring into space. I got up to wander around, passing an area strewn with flowers. Girls with long hair and long skirts were sitting making flower necklaces. As I passed by, a woman I thought was Indian turned her head to look up at me. As she did so, everything suddenly went into slow motion, and I wasn’t sure if I was in a movie or a dream. When I saw her face, I startled to see she was a young Western girl, perhaps 20 years old. Her eyes were vacant, focused on some other world. I walked on by, but the moment was burned into my mind.
We stayed at the ashram in Vrindavan for several days. There were monkeys everywhere; they waited, sometimes in what seemed like a menacing mood, in the hallway outside our rooms and would come right in the moment a door was left unlatched. Partly for this reason but also partly out of respect for the long-skirted community, we held our morning vinyasa practice in the small bedrooms: 8 or 9 of us, mat-to-mat, face-to-face. Those were some of the most precious practice times for us as a group. We cried and laughed together, Astrud softly singing mantras and playing harmonium, ending simply, sweetly, “Ma ma ma…”.
We visited the garden (Nidhivan) where Krishna is said to have had his fun with the gopis and where he and Radhe are still said to come each night; in a locked bedroom in the middle of the garden, sweets and clean sheets are left on a bed, but every morning the food has been eaten and the sheets are rumpled.
We visited a few other ashrams: the widows’ (the plight of widows in India was recently highlighted here), Ananda Ma’s (a rare female guru), and Neem Karoli Baba’s (the teacher of Bhagavan Das, Ram Dass, Krishna Das and Jai Uttal). The widows’ ashram was dirty, chaotic (with many demands for donations) and sobering. It was built to feed and shelter widows, who, left without a man, were treated by Indian society as disposable human beings.
The other two ashrams seemed mostly deserted, the founders having long since passed away, but we found a friendly man from Vermont at Neem Karoli Baba’s place who showed us around and told us stories. Two women sat in the front, playing a never-ending kirtan in honor of the guru, and we sat in his bedroom and meditated on the music he had passed on to the world, giant posters of the man himself staring down at us.
One day we went to spend time with the children at Sandipani Muni School, run by the charity, Food for Life Vrindavan (FFL). It was started in 2000 as a free, coed K-12 school for “the poorest of the poor” from the area, but the need for a school for girls was so great, they decided to start accepting only female students (boys can still attend kindergarten, I think). Most girls were married off and taken out of school by age 12 (when only a small dowry is needed for marriage), so the upper classes had as few as six girls. FFL had started a program to pay the parents of female students to keep them in school, in effect creating a dowry for them. Today there are 1500 students.
Like the school we had visited in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sandipani was in need of donations, volunteers, and Western teachers. Each year for one month, my SF yoga studio Laughing Lotus holds a donation-based class where all the proceeds are given to Sandipani.
We visited 8-year olds in the computer lab. Unlike the children in Myanmar, these kids weren’t shy at all: they grabbed our hands and asked insistently for help in making a drawing, opening a file, or playing a game. We played with the youngest kids in the schoolyard at recess for a long time, singing, showing yoga poses, dancing, and hugging. They all wore red sweaters, and the girls had their hair in two braids with blue bows. Later, we got to visit the most advanced classes, with 16-year old students. We sang a popular Indian pop song together and asked them what subjects they liked best. We were excited to learn they had a class on sustainability and the environment.
Visiting the school was sweet and sobering. I wished I might stay and get to know the girls better. I had thought seriously about spending more time at the school in Mandalay, chaotic and challenging as it was. Here I was inspired by the specific opportunity to contribute to a project that really was changing the world for women. The ways in which I could help the causes near and dear to my heart were starting to proliferate. As our cosmic caravan left the school after a visit that had stretched into many hours, I felt both pensive and elated.
At night we got to see what was by far my favorite place: Prem Mandir, aka “The Love Temple.” It’s basically straight outta Burning Man. Part temple, part devotional amusement park (it has its own Facebook page), this giant hand-carved marble castle, constructed in 2001, was lit by a rotating palette of contrasting colored lights (do yourself a favor and watch the YouTube video) and surrounded by bewildering animated scenes: some I assumed were famous moments from Krishna’s life, with actual-size villagers (or gopis, maybe) in colorful clothes; others included monster-size black cobras spitting blood, hissing, and moving back and forth and a projection of a man speaking from a balcony to an enormous, orange-clad audience. There were throngs of people, and Indian men kept asking to take pictures with me and the other women. I didn’t mind too much, but when more and more kept asking, I saw how it might turn into a mob, and luckily Anu chased them away.
Before leaving Vrindavan, I knew I had to check out the 4:30 am “party” at the ISKCON temple. So, as I had done so often in Myanmar, I rose in the chilly pre-dawn hours, foregoing food or tea to participate in a mysterious group ritual. For warm clothes, all I had were tight-ish jeans, a long-sleeved wool shirt, and a black hoodie. I worried I would stick out and get shoo’d away for being disrespectful. During the short walk there, the silent streets disloged long-skirted women on their way, but none so much as glanced at me.
At the temple, I took off my sandals, my bare feet waking up on the cold marble floor. The space was mostly full this time, and everyone was chanting. I joined in what seemed, to my tea- and sleep-deprived head, an interminable mantra. Some people were lying prostate in full pranam (face down) on the freezing marble floor where thousands of bare feet had tread. Others were rhythmically stepping forward and back as they chanted, like a spiritual line-dancing class.
Just as I realized that the alcoves containing the Krishna statutes were covered by curtains, a rope was pulled and the curtains fell away, revealed the statues. They were the same statues that had been there yesterday, the same ones that were there everyday, yet on their revelation, the crowd surged forward toward them, some crying out.
People fell in prayer or danced in ecstasy. I tried to dance around, but I was getting hungry. We all sat down after a while, and a man read a lengthy list of announcements about field trips, talks to attend, dinners being organized…the life of the devotees certainly seemed full.
My friends who had attended on other mornings told me that if you waited long enough, someone would give you a free mala and tell you how to use it. But after an hour, I was done: hungry, tired, and uncomfortable. I ducked out the back door and headed to my room to try to sleep.
When I relayed my experience at breakfast, it seemed fortuitous that I had left when I did. Some people in the group had had the experience of being whisked away in side rooms for “teachings”, and their requests to leave ignored (until the teachings were done).
I had been so ready for this love-town. But my experience of the people and the strange sequestration of newcomers had soured me on Krishna.
I wasn’t sad to leave when we boarded our cosmic caravan for the eight-hour bus ride north: we were headed for the mountains and the land of Shiva, where an entirely different kind of energy reigned.
[Note: I was in India without Jacob, his photography skills and our camera. I took some shots on my iphone, but many of the pictures posted here were taken by Mireia Yogimani. They are used with her permission. She has many more public photos of the trip on her Facebook page. Muchas gracias, Mireia!]