It has taken me awhile to put words to paper (err, screen) following my recent trip to India, if for no other reason than I felt myself distinctly unqualified to write anything at all about this incredible country. Obviously I could just stick to my own travel anecdotes, but given my tendency to start delving into social matters, I felt I might be way out of my league in this case. While strongly interested in the spiritual pursuits of yoga, meditation and Ayurveda, I also felt I was nearly entirely ignorant about this country and its complexities prior to visiting. (Not that every country doesn’t have complexities, but for some reason, India strikes me as perhaps being especially so). Okay, I could probably go on and on with the caveats, but I think I’ll go ahead and just get down to the writing. 🙂
After a few weeks of research, my partner Sheila and I finally decided upon an itinerary of a week sightseeing in Delhi (including a day to go see the Taj Mahal in Agra), followed by a weeklong stay at an Ayurvedic center down south in Mysore, and two days visiting Mumbai. I would then head back to Japan, while Sheila’s continuing travels would take her onward to the Vipassana meditation center in Igatpuri for several days as a volunteer, followed by a monthlong yoga course in Rishikesh. LUCKY!!
Delhi was a whirlwind experience, including (in no particular order) visits to incredible religious sites (the awesome Qutb Minar complex, the Nizamuddin Dargah tomb of a Sufi saint (reached after a long and interesting maze of twisting alleyways), and the Baha’i Lotus Temple, among others), as well as exploring all sorts of markets–from the artisan crafts at Dilli Haat to the upscale boutiques at N Market to the amazing chaos of the Chandi Chowk street marketplace–and spending several hours in contemplation at the Gandhi Memorial museum, among many other highlights.
There were small disappointments, such as when the owner of the B&B where we stayed caught a cold and was unable to schedule our much anticipated cooking course; and other frustrations that turned into delightful experiences, such as when deep fog turned our four-hour train ride to Agra into an eight-hour one…and we ended up sharing snacks, playing board games, and studying Japanese and Hindi words with a fun-loving ten year-old Delhi girl and her lovely parents. There were also just purely amazing moments, such as happening upon a cozy looking organic restaurant when we were cold and hungry…and realizing it was none other than Navdanya Slow Food Cafe run by Vandana Shiva, the famous ecologist who runs a nonprofit seed-saving organization of the same name.
When we arrived, the city of Delhi was still reeling from the recent shocking rape and murder of a 23 year-old woman (as was the rest of the country, and much of the world). Although we would have loved to show our solidarity at one of the demonstrations for women’s rights, we did not know if or where any such events were taking place, nor how to go about accessing such information. The depth of the problem of violence against women in India was clear, however–even if only going by numerous revolting newspaper headlines that I saw during our stay regarding the rapes and murders of women, teenagers and little girls–many under age ten, and some as young as two years old. If there was any silver lining to be found after the Delhi case, it appeared to be in the national conversation that was generated regarding the need to address the matter of violence against women, including this thoughtful piece, which touches upon the fact that such crimes against lower class and caste women are systematic–and normally go both unpunished and unnoticed.
While exploring Delhi was fascinating, the city was experiencing its coldest winter in nearly 50 years, and our B&B was not exactly equipped to offer protective warmth from the chill…so we were definitely ready after a week to take our flight down south to Bangalore, where we couldn’t change fast enough into our T-shirts and sandals following our arrival. Ah, sun! And the gloriousness of its warmth upon our skin!! We were loving our three-hour drive down to Mysore, accompanied by funky Indipop tunes cranked up high courtesy of our taxi driver.
We arrived around dusk to the outskirts of Mysore, at our much-anticipated home for the next week–the Indus Valley Ayurvedic Center (IVAC)–and spent the first evening doing nothing more than drinking in the absolute tranquility of its atmosphere.
Our plan was to begin a seven-day panchakarma course, which is the Ayurvedic version of detoxing, involving a purge-induced cleansing of the system that is initiated by drinking large quantities of ghee (clarified butter), among other pretty hard-core treatments. It was a major frustration, then, when I was told by the doctor that I couldn’t complete the course because my period was likely to come within the next day or two, and I would be better off signing up for the “rejuvenation” course instead. Despite my extreme disappointment, I managed to bounce back because really, who can complain about a week’s worth of massages (as opposed to spending most of the week hovered over the toilet and sink)? 😉
Sheila also opted for the rejuvenation course, and truly, the next several days were some of the most relaxing of our lives. The treatments were many and varied, including, among others, shirodhara (where a warm sesame-based oil mixture is slowly dripped over your forehead, apparently to help open the third eye, among other health benefits); abhyanga (an amazing full-body massage using a similar oil mixture); and–my personal favorite–Patra Pinda Sweda (PPS), where an herbal concoction is grilled in oil, tied up in a cloth, dipped in the warm medicated oil, and then pounded (hard) over specific points of the body to help move toxins into the bloodstream for elimination.
Before each treatment, the practitioners (all very sweet twentysomethings, most of them from neighboring Mysore) would recite a Sanksrit prayer before offering me a Q-tip dipped in the warm oil mixture to clean my ears; and then follow up each treatment with a dab of medicinal powder on the head to help regulate body temperature (or at least I think that’s what I was told!), before serving me a cup of hot tea. Pure bliss…truly.
In between the treatments, the wonderful meals in the restaurant, the yoga and pranayama courses on offer, and the one-day detox that I was allowed to perform, I sat on the patio of our cottage–surrounded by beautiful banana trees and frangipani shrubs, among other flowering plants–and read for hours and hours on end. Days before we left, a friend had sent us a copy of a book titled The Path of Practice: A Woman’s Book of Ayurvedic Healing by Vedic monk Maya Tiwari, which was filled with wisdom about incorporating healing and grounding practices into everyday life. It was a a beautiful book, as well as an example of an amazing synchronicity, as the friend who sent it had no idea that Sheila and I were on our way to an Ayurvedic center in India.
I also found some fantastic reads from the center’s library, including God/Goddess the Astrologer: Soul, Karma and Reincarnation by Jeffrey Armstrong, a scholar who has introduced Vedic teachings to the west, and whose book makes the powerful point that the five Ayurvedic elements of earth, water, fire, air and space provide a far more clear and logical approach to organizing the world than Western science (whose convoluted formulas make no sense to the average layperson), and also outlines the insidious way that Ayurveda’s 5000 year-old teachings were suppressed during the era of British colonialism while being arrogantly (and wrongly) regarded as inferior — and later began to be targeted by pharmaceutical companies for blatant patenting and profiteering.
IVAC founder, Dr. Talavane Krishna, explaining Ayurveda as a “Science of Life”. In contrast to Armstrong, Krishna’s vision involves a harmonious blending of Ayurveda and Western science.
After a week at IVAC, both Sheila and I truly felt rejuvenated, and I can’t recommend Ayurveda highly enough for anyone looking to incorporate a more healthy regimen into their daily lives. Even if traveling to India is not an option (!), there are many, many resources out there for self-study. In addition to the books mentioned above, a great introduction to the Ayurvedic principles and lifestyle is Deepak Chopra’s Perfect Health, which gives an extremely clear and well-written explanation of the three different Ayurvedic body constitutions, as well as a quiz to help you figure out your own, and diet/exercise suggestions targeted to each one to help you feel more balanced and healthy. (His website is also a vast treasure trove of information, as is the IVAC website–a good place to start might be here).
Needless to say, it was extremely hard to leave the serenity of the center, but we were nevertheless pretty excited about visiting Mumbai. Our two days of sightseeing included visiting a Jain temple, watching a Bollywood movie, walking through different city neighborhoods while enjoying yummy treats at the street food stalls, and stocking up on goodies to take home.
We had decided to do our exploring via train, as Mumbai’s subway system is not scheduled for completion for another decade or so. (Delhi, by contrast, had an amazing metro system–definitely far more modern and convenient than most I have seen in U.S. cities).
We set out on the rail system, and were mildly surprised to see that the trains had no doors (at least, not the ones we were riding). Surprise turned to fear, however, when we also realized that a) the trains barely stopped when they approached the station, and then gave no warning when they took off again, and b) there was a whole lot of pushing and shoving going on. Indeed, a woman right behind us decided to try jumping on the train while it was in the midst of pulling off, and ended up half-in and half-out, with several of us having to drag her up to avoid her being pulled underneath. Quite honestly, one of the most frightening moments of my life (and undoubtedly hers).
As in Delhi, the extremes of pockets of ultra-rich living set against the backdrop of the deepest, most large-scale poverty that we had ever witnessed in our lives were once again in our face. Although Mumbai is India’s richest city, it also has one of the largest slums in Asia, where apparently there is one toilet for every 1000 residents (no, that’s not a typo), although it has about a $650 USD GDP yearly from the cottage industries found within it…what?! Our taxis were also continually approached by people begging for food or money, and while we tried to give something to everyone, it was clear that this was a tiny band-aid solution to a profoundly deep-rooted problem.
A friend commented on one of my Facebook posts that she felt like a complete hypocrite while traveling in India, and I totally knew what she meant. As a white westerner with money, I was clearly somehow implicated in the unfair structures I was witnessing around me…whether it was in the streets of Delhi and Mumbai, or at the Ayurveda center in Mysore, which is mostly patronized by foreigners (and well-off Indians), and whose therapists work six days a week from morning to night collecting and preparing herbs, giving treatments, and cleaning up–often with no days off at all during the high tourist seasons (such as when Sheila and I visited).
I also noticed that many Indians whom we encountered were apt to approach and speak with Sheila while ignoring me (often commenting that she looked like a local), and that it inevitably took twice as long for airport officials to scan my passport, often done with exaggerated scrutiny before it was finally tossed back to me. Given the humiliations suffered by the people in this country’s not-distant history, the point being made here was definitely taken.
All in all, it was an extremely meaningful two weeks, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have visited. Shortly after arriving back to Tokyo, I was also pleased to find that another powerful synchronicity had come knocking. I normally consult an astrological sort of website daily for tips on navigating energies (mkay, non-spiritual types, you can stop reading now! 😉 ), but I had stopped reading the site during our trip, assuming a complete separation between Western and Vedic (Hindu) astrology. I was most pleased, therefore, to find that the site had begun incorporating an element of Hindu mythology practically at the exact same moment that I was reading about such themes at the Ayurveda center in Mysore. The link is here, but the project is newly developing, so there isn’t much there yet. For anyone interested in delving deep into this sort of mind-expanding content, check this out and see where it leads you (or not…haha!)….the site is massive.
Although I hardly feel more knowledgeable about the country than before traveling there, I guess that’s part of the lesson: maybe it really is about the learning and the open-mindedness, and not so much about the “knowing”. In any case…even though the travel budget is more than blown, I am already secretly plotting our next visit back… 😉